Trevor Bloom – Author

website of Trevor Bloom, author of The Half-Slave

What did the Romans eat?

Researching Roman food at the moment for my second novel. It’s fascinating stuff. Most Romans ate simply. Bread or porridge (puls) made from ground wheat was the staple food, flavoured with salt or olive oil and eaten with cheese, eggs, home grown vegetables and whatever cooked meat, fish or shellfish could be afforded. Food varied across the empire, depending on local produce and custom, distance from the sea, and ease of transportation.

A typical Roman’s day:

Breakfast (ientaculum) if eaten at all would be taken very early and would probably be bread or wheat pancake, with salt, dried fruit, honey, eggs or cheese.

Lunch (prandium) was a light meal eaten around noon, usually salted bread. A more elaborate meal might include meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, eggs or salad, or perhaps the left-overs from the previous day.

The main meal of the day (cena) was eaten in the late afternoon after work. This varied between classes. The poor might eat a simple meal of porridge or bread flavoured with meat and vegetables. The rich could afford to eat more meat or fish and more exotic food.

An appetizer (gustatio) could be salad or egg dishes. Sea food (sea urchins, clams, raw oysters or mussels), stuffed dormice and snails might also be served. Petronius mentions eating dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed.

An upper class dinner could be a simple affair. Martial described a dinner party where he served sow’s udder marinated in tuna fish brine as a starter, lamb with beans and spring greens and a left-over chicken and ham as a main course, followed by fresh fruit and vintage wine. The poet Horace ate a meal of onions, porridge and pancake.

But the rich could also afford to hold elaborate dinner parties with a variety of courses that lasted for hours. Meat dishes included beef, poultry, wild boar, venison, mutton, lamb and sausage. Hares and newborn rabbits were a delicacy. Poultry and wildfowl dishes were also common: crane, thrush, pigeons, doves, geese, swan and duck. Fish was more expensive than meat and included bream, hake, mackerel, mullet and sole. Vegetables included cabbage, parsnips, lentils, marrows, asparagus, onions, marrows , radishes and beans.

On special occasions, exotic dishes such as flamingos, porpoise and peacocks might be served. Goatfish (mullus), considered a delicacy because its scales change to a bright red colour as it dies, was served alive at table and allowed to die slowly. Trimalchio’s feast, described by Petronius, featured a roasted whole boar, suckled by cake piglets, and stuffed with live thrushes.

Dessert could be fruit, cakes and puddings, or nuts. Grapes were the most popular fruit, followed by figs, dates, pomegranates, apples, peaches, cherries, berries, pears, plums, strawberries and melons. A wide variety of breads, cakes, pastries and fruit tarts were consumed.

Spices, especially pepper, were imported on a large scale. Garum, a fermented fish sauce made from decomposed salted fish, was added to almost everything. More than 400 recipes attributed to Apicius required fish sauce.

What did they drink?

Wine was consumed by all classes and was usually drunk watered down. It was also drunk spiced, flavoured with honey, or heated. The poor drank watered sour wine mixed with herbs (posca). Beer and mead were drunk in the northern provinces of Britannia and Gallia. At Saturnalia, the December festival, copious amounts of wine were drunk by all social classes, including slaves.

How did they eat?

On formal occasions during the Roman Republic, high-status males ate reclining on their left elbow on three couches (lecti) drawn up in a horse-shoe around a table, either in the Triclinium or outside. Women and lesser guests ate sitting on chairs. By imperial times, high-status women had joined the men on the couches. During dinner entertainment (musicians, acrobats, poets) would be provided.

Romans ate with their fingers, except for soup which they ate with a spoon, and shellfish which they ate with a long-pronged spoon (cochlear). Slaves washed the guests’ fingers after each course. Bones and shells were thrown on the floor for the slaves to clear away.

What did soldiers eat?

Roman Foodphoto © 2006 Erich Ferdinand | more info (via: Wylio)
As with civilians, the basic foodstuffs for the Roman army were bread, bacon and cheese, supplemented by vegetables, meat, fish, shellfish, salt and olive oil, together with beer or a thin wine, normally mixed with water. Officers ate better than the men, legionaries ate better than auxiliaries. Bread was baked by the soldiers themselves in ovens built into the fortress walls. Bacon and ham were popular with troops because salt meat could be preserved and easily carried. From remains found at Caerwent and Vindolanda, soldiers also ate lots of broiled chicken, sausages and oysters. In garrison towns, food and wine or beer could be bought from bathhouses, taverns, shops and street vendors. Soldiers were permitted to cultivate the land around their forts. Supplying the army was a massive undertaking that required a complex organization of food collection and delivery. Amphoras for transporting wine, olive oil and fish sauce are common at military sites.

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