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Dining in Ancient Rome




It is commonly accepted that western society and culture has its roots in the society and culture of ancient Rome. For many centuries, Latin was the common language of the highly educated in all the western nations, and was often used to overcome language barriers.  Our tradition of wearing wedding rings on the traditional ring finger dates back to the ancient Romans who believed that there is a nerve directly connecting that finger and the heart.(1)

One of the easiest ways to begin understanding the culture of the ancient Romans is to look at their eating habits. There are fascinating differences, and amazing similarities between dining in ancient Rome and dining today

The Differences between then and now

One of the most important differneces between dining in ancient Rome and today is the fact that  following foods were not known to the ancient Romans: Cocoa, Coffee, Corn, Eggplant, Oranges, Hot Peppers, Sweet Peppers, Potato, Sugar, Tea, Tomato, Turkey.  Sugar, tea, and oranges did not arrive in Rome until after the fall of the Roman empire.  Cocoa, Coffee, Corn, Eggplant, Peppers, Potatoes, Tomatos and Turkey originated in the New World, and so did not arrive in Europe until after the time of Columbus.(2)

Unusual ingredients

Another distinct difference is the fact that the ancient Romans used ingredients that today we would find unusual or even distasteful. The following are listed in Apicus(2):

1. Garum is a sauce made from fish and/or fish by products, layered with salt and herbs, in a container, and left in the sun to ferment until liquefied. This is the sauce most commonly misidentified as being made of rotten fish entrails. There was a variety of garum to fit every budget and social status, from the Emperor to the lowliest slave.  The most expensive garum was made exclusively from mackerel. Garum for slaves was made from scraps and entrails left over after the preparation of the household meals.  There was even a kosher garum for Jews living on the Italian peninsula. (2)

2 Dormice were a kind of rodent, most often served stuffed and roasted. They are listed as the main ingredient in Apicius recipe # 397 (Click here to view a recent article on dormice in England - includes pictures!!!

3. Figpeckers were a kind of thin-beaked songbird that was considered to be quite delicious.

4. Other unusual birds are also listed, including, Flamingo or Parrot, the main ingredient in Apicius recipe #232

Beverages

The only beverages available were water, milk, wine, beer and a few herbal teas.  Beer was considered to be extremely vulgar. The only ones who routinely drank it were the common soldiers in outlying garrisons.  Wine was served diluted. To drink it undiluted was the act of an uncivilized barbarian.  Although both adults and children in the countryside drank milk, it was not an important element in the urban adult diet.

Pasta

Although, contrary to popular myth, the ancient Romans did have dried pasta, it lacked the variety and sophistication of today's pasta.  It consisted of sheets of dried dough, most closely resembling our dried lasagna, which was usually cooked with the boiled vegetables that were the standard fare of the poor especially when wheat-meal porridge was not available.(5)
 
 

The Similarities between then and now

There are also some strong similarities between dining in ancient Rome and now. Many of today's favorite foods were also popular among the ancient Romans. As can easily be seen in the list of Common Roman Foods and Food Plants used by the ancient Romans  it was possible to have just about anything you want on your pizza, except, of course for the tomato sauce or peppers.
 

Surprisingly Ancient Romans had fast food.

'Get up, already the baker is selling boys their breakfast, and the crested fouls of dawn are crowing all around.' -- Martial (6)

This picture shows the ruins of a Pompeiian thermopolium, or wine shop selling warmed beverages and food. Notice the serving counter facing the street and the recesses in the counter in which food was kept in terra cotta pots.  The food could be eaten at the shop or taken out.(7).
 

Most people ate while seated, just as we do today

Contrary to popular myth, most people ate while seated, just as we do today, although the wealthy reclined on dining couches while eating.  I would best equate Roman dining couchs to our modern formal dining room.  The rich and status conscious made a big deal about having and using them.  The majority of people had neither the time, nor finances to be bothered.(8)

breakfast, lunch and dinner

 Their breakfast, lunch and dinner were very similar to ours in size and time. Many ancient Romans skipped breakfast  Those who did have breakfast ate very lightly  During the early republic, the main, heavy meal was during early afternoon, with a lighter meal in the evening. By the dawn of the Empire, the main meal was in the evening, with the lighter one around midday.(9)
 
 


Footnotes

(1) Moses Hadas and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Imperial Rome. Time-Life. 1980
(2)Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa. A Tastes of Ancient Rome. University of Chicago Press 1992
(3) Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Trans. Joseph Dommers Vehling. Dover Press. 1977
(4) Giacosa.
(5) Milioni, Stefano. "THE HISTORY OF PASTA IN ITALY: Caesar's grub to Garibaldi's gourmet." www.cucina.italynet.com October 7, 1999
(6) Martial as quoted - F.R. Cowell. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. B.T Batsford LTD. 1966
(7) Hugh Lester. www.tulane.edu. Tulane University. October 8, 1999
(8) Adkins, Lesley & Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press. 1994.
(9)  Cowell, F. R. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. B.T Batsford LTD. 1966


Works Cited

Website:

Milioni, Stefano. "THE HISTORY OF PASTA IN ITALY: Caesar's grub to Garibaldi's gourmet." "ITALIAN COOKING IN HISTORY AND ON THE TABLE - A Lecture Series." February 21, 1996. Italian Cultural Institute of New York. October 9, 1999. .

Lester, Hugh. "Food and Wine Shop". "PERIOD AND STYLE FOR DESIGNERS". Tulane University. October 8, 1999.

Book:

Hadas, Moses, and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Imperial Rome. Time-Life. 1980

Giacosa,Ilaria Gozzini. A Taste of Ancient Rome. Trans. Anna Herklotz. University of Chicago Press. 1992.

Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Trans. Joseph Dommers Vehling. Dover Press. 1977

Pliny. Natural History. Trans. W.H.S. Jones. Harvard University Press 1992

Cowell, F. R. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. B.T Batsford LTD. 1966

Adkins, Lesley & Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press. 1994