Heritage > The Romans

The Roman Diet

Very poor Romans, who lived in the insulae, had no cooking facilities. They had to eat cold food, or else buy hot food from the thermopolia in the streets. Poor Romans probably ate bread, beans, lentils and a little meat; some people ate just porridge made from bread boiled in water, day after day.

In most houses the kitchen was a small room. There was a raised hearth with a fire on top, and wood or charcoal fuel would be stored underneath. They boiled food in a bronze pot on a metal stand. A lot of kitchen utensils were made out of bronze because it could be precisely worked, and food cooked evenly in a bronze pot. Unfortunately, bronze is made mostly out of copper, which can chemically react with some foods, and sometimes even poison it. Some pans were coated with silver to keep them safe.

A lot of Roman utensils are similar to the ones we use today, because once the best design is found for a simple tool, there is no need to improve it. They made strainers out of bronze, and used them the same way we do today. There were wooden spoons, bronze graters, and sharp knives. One utensil we have improved upon is the mortar and pestle, which the Romans used where we would use an electric mixer or blender. The mortarium was made of thick, tough pottery with coarse grit in the surface. The cook would use the pestle to grind food down. This was very hard work, and eventually the mortar wore down and the grit got into the food.

One utensil we do not understand is a flat pan with six cup-shaped depressions in it, with a long handle at one end. Perhaps it was for baking buns, or poaching eggs, or for a variety of similar purposes.

The Romans did not use forks, but ate with their fingers or used bronze spoons to eat from the large bowls. They had to wash their hands often during a meal.

Wine and water was served in jugs made from pottery, glass, bronze or silver, depending on what the owner could afford. Glass was for the rich, and was popular because it was easier to wash than pottery, which was usually not glazed. In the first and second centuries AD, however, glossy red pottery called Samian ware came into fashion. It was mostly used to make platters, bowls, and drinking cups, though we are not sure exactly what each type was used for. Large numbers of them were made in factories in Italy and Gaul, and they were exported by the millions throughout the empire and beyond. They were elegant, easier to keep clean than unglazed pottery, and designed for easy stacking. A crate of Samian ware was found at Pompeii, newly arrived from Gaul and not even unpacked.

Even wealthy Romans, including emperors, ate little during the day; the main meal was in the evening. Sometimes a family would breakfast on bread and cheese, but not every day. A rich man would start the day at dawn, work for seven or eight hours, and then at midday have a light prandium (lunch) of bread, cheese, olives, figs and nuts.

Wealthy Romans have a reputation for eating huge quantities of obscenely elaborate foods, and of making themselves sick to make room for more food than they could actually digest. Some of them did, but not all, and not every cena (supper) was a feast. A typical meal might be of vegetables, sausage in semolina, bacon and beans. The meal was held in the triclinium, an upstairs room furnished with couches where people reclined to eat.

However, at a smart social cena, the reputation for extravagance might be fulfilled. There would be appetizers such as raw vegetables, eggs and fish, and then a main course. Dormice were considered a delicacy, and might be served stuffed; other fancy dishes included teats from a sow’s udder, or lamb’s womb stuffed with sausage meat. A recipe survives for a platter of small songbirds in asparagus sauce, with quails’ eggs, carefully arranged to impress the guests. Songbirds have very little meat on them, but many other dishes would have been served, to extravagant effect. The less well-off guests would wrap leftovers in their napkins and sell them the next day.

For dessert, there was fresh or dried fruit, with pepper added to bring out its coolness. Wine was watered down, because it was considered vulgar to drink it neat. It was polite to belch, but in general the guests were not known for good manners, and would drink too much and misbehave. In Pompeii, a disgruntled host wrote the rules on the triclinium wall: ‘Be friendly and don’t quarrel. If you can’t, go home.’ A good host would provide live entertainment by hiring performers - singers, dancing girls or comedians. Unlucky guests had to listen to the host’s homecooked poetry.

At Silchester, archaeologists made detailed lists of plant remains. From this we know a few things about vegetables they ate in Roman Britain. Carrots, parsnips and celery grew wild, but might have been eaten often enough. One single edible pea was found and listed. Herbs included opium poppy, dill, coriander and chervil, which seem to have been cultivated for seasoning. It also appears that they ate a lot of wild fruits, such as blackberry, raspberry, wild strawberry, sloe, crabapple, elder, hazelnuts and possibly walnut. Besides wild fruits, they cultivated small medlars, bullace, damson, a kind of plum, and the mulberry. Grape and fig seeds were found, but they may have come from imported dried fruit, even though they can easily be grown in Britain. Olives must have been imported, and they only appear rarely in Britain. Dates were found in Colchester and they too must have been imported, as were cucumbers and vines. Wine, oil and garum fish sauce came to London in amphorae. Garum was popular all over Europe, probably as a way of disguising the smell of fish which was often not very fresh. Its use spread as far as India and there it continued to be used until the nineteenth century. British government officials discovered it there, and it is still sold here as Worcester sauce.

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