Food during the hunt. Mosaic of the Villa del Tellaro. Sicily
Food during the hunt. Mosaic of the Villa del Tellaro. Sicily

It is possible to be affirmed that the Roman culture and its kitchen would be fruit of a conjunction of other cultures, like the Etruscan, the Phoenician, the Egyptian and, mainly, the Greek. As in any ancient town, its diet was based on agriculture, cattle raising and fishing.

Before exotic food appeared on the tables of the powerful from places as diverse as Guinea (pheasants), Persia (roosters), India (turkeys), Hispania (rabbits), Ambracia (roe deers), Chalcedon (tunas), Taranto (oysters and clams), Attica (mussels) or Daphne (thrushes), the Romans did not know more than basic food provided by the earth: cereals, vegetables, milk or eggs.

The most common food was the puls for more than 300 years. It was a kind of porridge of wheat flour and other cereals, to which butter was sometimes added. It was a very poor dish, which in times of greater abundance, led to the puls iuliano, which contained boiled oysters, brains and spiced wine. Polenta was also common, made with barley flour.

The Roman cuisine of this time was healthy, but frugal and monotonous.

Reproduction of triclinies. Museum of Zaragoza
Reproduction of triclinies. Museum of Zaragoza

The staple food of Roman society was wheat. In the time of Julius Caesar, some 230,000 Romans benefited from the distribution of this cereal, with which flour was made and with it the bread.

Another prominent food was wine, although the difficulty was in conservation, whose science was poorly developed. As it soured easily in the amphorae where it was stored, it was drank with spices, and it was served hot and watery.

The Romans cultivated their lands by drawing concentric circles around the urban area, placing the orchards and vineyards on the first level, in the next circle were the cereal fields and in the further away the cattle ranch, which meant a constant supply of main source of food: the vegetables, olives, onions, figs and oil that were the main ingredients of their diet, since the common people did not eat meat or bread that was reserved for the soldiers.

In the upper echelons this diet so poor changes radically. They love the pork they fattened with figs and beer. They ate everything, they were very fond of the viscera, but their favorite part was the udders and vulvas of the sows. They also ate roe deer and wild boar that were much appreciated, also rabbits, birds and snails.

They were experts in the production of sausages and black pudding, which they sold in stalls. They also made goat and sheep cheeses that curdled with fig tree shoots and put them in hazel baskets.

The Romans loved fish above all things, they had fish farms near the coast and they cared for and fed their specimens with great dedication and care. They also had oyster beds (one of the favorite delicacies) on Lucrine Lake.

It can be said that the culinary revolution came at the end of the 3rd century BC as a consequence of the territorial expansion, and atrong and well-seasoned dishes became fashionable. So remarkable was the change from austerity to excess that the amount of food that could be served at banquets was legislated in 95 BC (Lex Licina).

Pompeii street
Pompeii street


There are two writers who have documentated more and better the food and culinary traditions in Roman times:

Marcus Gavius Apicius, born in 25 BC, author of the recipe book “De re coquinaria libri decem” (the 10 cookbooks), which constituted a manual of obligatory reference for several centuries and is considered the first in its kind of history, at least the first to reach us. Many of the recipes are Roman but others are of Greek origin. Others contain words of unknown origin and Indo-European roots, which we can deduce come from the Etruscans, Carthaginians, Syrians and Egyptians. This together with collecting recipes from the end of the Republic to the division of the Empire, allows us to consider this work as a great collection of ancient Mediterranean cuisine. It was conceived as a practical manual for the chef and as such he used illustrations, technicalities typical of his field and diverse tricks.

The titles, written in Greek, of the 10 Apicius books, are the following:

1.- EPIMELES. Culinary rules, home remedies. Spices.

2.- ARTOPUS. Stews, chopped, etc.

3.- CEPUROS. Herbs that are used to cook.

4.- PANDECTER. Generalities of gastronomy.

5.- OSPRION. About vegetables.

6.- TROPHERTER. About birds.

7.- POLYTELES. Excesses and delicacies.

8.- TETRAPUS. About quadrupeds.

9.- THALASSA. About sea.

10.- HALIEUS VEL HALIEUTICON. About fish and its varieties.

Apicius was considered a refined connoisseur and also a great wasteful man. He became famous for his extravagances and expensive tastes. 478 recipes have arrived to us. He invented the procedure of priming trout with dried figs, to fatten his liver. Athenaeus relates that he chartered a ship to see if Libya’s shrimps were as big as were said. Disappointed, he did not even go ashore. It is also said that his love for food was so great that he committed suicide with poison for fear of starving someday.

Petronius, called by the historian Tacitus as arbiter elegantiae or arbiter of elegance, who lived in the time of Nero. His work “Satyricon“, is the most objective expression of Roman life at that time. It is considered as the first example of picaresque novel in history. The most important episode describes us extensively a ridiculous feast in the home of a rich freeman: Trimalchio.

This novel has served to let us know exactly how a table was arranged. The triclinium or dining room is of great importance in the Satyricon. It was a room with three beds, around a table that everyone was served. Diners reclined on the left arm. In each of the beds three people were installed in their respective places from right to left.

Fruit and wine. Fresco of Pompeii
Fruit and wine. Fresco of Pompeii

The Roman houses of the patricians and lords of the high aristocracy possessed at least two triclinia (plural of triclinium), one of summer and another of winter. The summa dinner or dinner, consisted of 4 dishes and was watered with plentiful wine. It ended with the secundae mensae or dessert, consisting of dry spiced delicacies to favor the drink, which in the end was very copious.

The Roman dinner unfolds within a ceremonial formed by ancient customs, such as meditating on death, offering gifts and small sums of money, libations to the Lares gods, etc. During the desserts, philosophical or literary themes were discussed and verses were recited. The guests were perfumed, crowned with flowers, and sang.

The Romans ate three or four times a day: breakfast (ientaculum), lunch (prandium), afternoon snack (merenda) and dinner (cena). The last one was the most important. It was done with the family at the end of the day. One of their greatest pleasures was a good conversation around the table.

From the daily dinner based on lettuce, boiled eggs, leeks, porridge and beans with bacon, we went to a sophisticated dinner party with guests divided into three parts:

1-The gustus or appetizer, to open the appetite (melon, tuna, truffles, oysters…)

2-The prima mesa (goatling, chicken, ham, seafood…) that was the main dish.

3-The secunda mesa: desserts.

The Romans took from the Greeks the habit of eating recumbent on couches, in a room called triclinium owing to the three lectus (beds) of up to three seats: medius (center), summus (right) and imus (left), leaving free one of its sides to access it and serve the food. Men always occupied the places closest to the presidency and women the most distant extremes.

The guests, before going to the dining room, were taken to a dressing room where they changed their street clothes for another much more comfortable and light (vestis cenatoria), usually white, without ornaments or folds or knots, which could disrupt the circulation of that magic current that, according to the voice of their ancestors, crossed the universe and of which all of them participated during the banquet. Also for the same reason they changed their knotted shoes for sandals and removed the bracelets and rings. Each guest could take with him a slave (servus ad pedes), who stayed with him, usually seated at his feet, ready at all times to attend to his lord.

There was tablecloth and napkin (mappa), but not forks. As cutlery they used teaspoons and saucepans to serve. The solid foods were served cut up, the commensals taking the portions with the tips of their fingers. Then they washed their hands in bowls and jugs that the slaves brought to them. The tableware consisted mainly of plates, serving dishes, golbets, glasses, and there was no lack of the saltcellar, the oil bottle and the vinegar bottle.

Pompeii Tavern
Pompeii Tavern


It was almost reduced to a flour porridge, a piece of salted fish and poor quality fruit, almost always a handful of dried or fresh figs in the corresponding season. This feeble diet was sometimes complemented with some cooked vegetables, especially cabbage. They also frequently ate nettles, chestnuts, chards, all in the form of potages .


It was totally different. They ate a lot, with such excess that today would be disgusting, and the moderation in the drink simply did not exist. The master chefs rivaled in presenting numerous dishes which were more elaborated and expensive, so much that it was often not possible to guess which delicacy was hidden under the appearance of another.

The huge sums that were supposed to be spent on some banquets were not entirely spent on food but also on the preparation and decoration of the premises.

At a banquet offered by one of Nero’s friends only the roses cost more than four million sesterces.

The emetics that were then used after copious meals, can not be considered as a proof of incontinence and gluttony, they were considered then as a dietary resource. However, it is possible that some gluttons, as Seneca writes, “vomited to eat and ate to vomit”, because they did not even want to waste time digesting the food brought to them from the most distant parts of the empire. When they felt full, they could use a turkey feather to the throat to vomit thoroughly. After this they could rinse their throats with wine and they could continue enjoying the delicacies.

As for the manners, we must highlight some curiosities: belching was well considered, and according to an edict of Emperor Claudius, the guests were authorized to expel their intestinal gas.

Mosaic representing a banquet
Mosaic representing a banquet


A separate mention deserves this sauce, which was made with fish macerated in salt. Despite opinions like that of Pliny the Elder, who defined it as rotten fish, it was the quintessential condiment of Roman cuisine for centuries.

It is known that they salted the fish without eviscerating (without removing the viscera) during two months, seasoning them with no less than 16 different spices, provoking a pleasant and powerful flavour.

In Hispania there was an important garum industry, with factories in Cartagena, Murcia and Baelo Claudia.

Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez

Collaborator: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina