Reconstruction of a thermopolium, a shop where hot (and cold) drinks were sold, in Ostia. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)
The ordinary Roman was not a great eater of meat. The army diet was a balanced one of wheat (which the soldiers themselves ground and made into porridge, bread, or biscuits), some meat (usually bacon), fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruit, salt, olive oil, and raw wine. Officers did rather better. At home, porridge and bread were the staple food of most Romans, many of whom in the city had to rely on the corn dole for their needs.
Family meal. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)
In more well-to-do homes, jentaculum (breakfast), for those who wanted it, might be bread dipped in wine, or with cheese, dried fruits, or honey. The equivalent of lunch was prandium, again a light meal, often consisting of left-overs from the previous day.
Reconstruction drawing of slaves preparing food in a kitchen. (Saalburg Museum: Barbara McManus)
The main meal of the day, cena, was eaten in the middle of the afternoon, after work and the bath, and could, and often did, go on for hours. Dinner-parties were elaborate, and could be dignified or disgusting affairs, depending on the discrimination of the host and his choice of guests. Overindulgence was the rule rather than the exception. Dinner guests reclined on their left elbow at an angle of about 45 degrees to the table, on couches set against three sides of it, and ate with their fingers.
Couple reclining at dinner, served by slaves. (VRoma: Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Barbara McManus)
The meal consisted of three parts, within each of which there could be any number of courses served individually or together. Hors d’oeuvre might be eggs presented in a variety of ways, salads, cooked vegetables, shellfish, snails, and, occasionally, roast stuffed dormice.
Still life mosaic of food for cooking: two species of fish, two kinds of vegetable, seafood, and a plucked chicken. (VRoma: AICT: R. Scaife)
The main courses illustrate the varieties of meat, game, fish, and fowl that were available, or which were pressed into service in the form of exotic-sounding dishes: not just beef, lamb, pork, venison, hare, bream, hake, mackerel, mullet, oysters, sole, chicken, duck, goose, and partridge, but also veal, sucking-pig, boar, wild goat, kid, porpoise, crane, flamingo, ostrich, thrush, and turtle-dove. Most main dishes were served in sauce, the basic ingredient of which was a factory-made fish concoction called liquamen. The meal would finish with dessert: fruit, cakes, and puddings.
Dinner-party. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)
Juvenal provides a hypothetical guest with a simpler country meal: home-grown asparagus and farm eggs as starters; chicken and milk-fed kid for the main course; local pears, oranges, grapes, and apples to finish with.
First-century AD wall painting at Oplontis of glass bowl of figs. ( Barbara McManus)
Martial describes the menu for a dinner-party for seven that he gave in the country.
Strip-cartoon wall painting from inn of Salvus at Pompeii. Man on left, to barmaid: “Over here!” Man on right: “No, it’s mine!” Barmaid: “The one who ordered it shall have it. Oceanus, come here and drink it!” ( VRoma: Barbara McManus)
Wine was the national, and natural, drink, usually diluted with water: beer was for Britons and Gauls. Wine was also mixed with honey to make mulsum, a cooling aperitif which accompanied the first course at dinner. The best wine-producing region in Italy was around the border between Latium and Campania, from which came the excellent Caecuban, Setian, Falernian, and Massic vintages.
Interior of restaurant, Ostia, with original counters and wall paintings. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)
What the Romans ate and drank, how, and where.
The popular idea of a Roman orgy - where extravagant consumption of food and drink was accompanied by lurid sexual activity - seems to be a Hollywood invention: these two occupations were kept separate (for obvious practical and common-sense reasons!). Also apocryphal is the popupar notion that Romans had a special room attached to their dining rooms called a vomitorium, where they went to make themselves sick, so they could return to the banquet and eat more! This error arose from a misunderstanding of the word vomitorium - in Latin it's simply the word for the exit from an amphitheatre!
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