Catherine Tarasoff

May 7, 2000

HI Research Paper


Food in Ancient Rome

"Non amplitur sed munditer convivium plus salis quam sumptus." This was said by Cornelus Nepos, describing the simple characteristics of typical dinners of his time in ancient Rome. "A feast not profuse, but elegant; more of salt (wit) than of expense." The meals of ancient Romans changed greatly over time from extremely simplistic dining to extravagant rich banquets. In the early times when dining was very simple, the Romans were said to have almost starved themselves with their lack of desire to eat. Later however, the banquets of the rich and ostentatious showed a great appreciation for the culinary arts.


Changes in Eating Habits Over Time

During the early Republic, there was little difference between patrician and a poor citizenís food. Romans did not care about meals and ate sparingly. They were mainly vegetarians and ate their food cold. Their diets included many grains and they rarely ate meat. The mother or children of the family usually did all the cooking and served the rest of the family at the table. Even the wealthiest Romans did not have specially trained cooks at the time.

In the last two centuries of the Republic however, the Romans came into contact with Greece, Asia Minor and other areas during the Punic Wars. They observed the cultures of these foreign places, and adopted many of their ways at the dining table. The rich Romans wanted to emulate Greek luxury and searched the world for rare expensive food. After these changes, the poor and the rich no longer had the same table customs.

The poor citizens continued to eat mostly vegetables and bread with cheap wine diluted with water, upright on stools or benches. For the rich however, slaves served the diners reclined on couches. Occasionally they had special dinners for which a professional cook was hired and who brought his own utensils.

The Meals of the Day

Like today, there were primarily three main meals of the day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast, (jentaculum, meaning early morning), was a simple and informal meal. It was usually bread, dry or dipped in wine, or sprinkled with salt, raisins, olives, or cheese. Workmen ate their breakfast on the go while walking to work and schoolboys often stopped at bakeries (as shown to the left) for a pancake on their way to school. The few who actually sat down to eat breakfast however were usually those who did not eat lunch. They would have a larger meal usually consisting of eggs with mulsum to drink.

Lunch, usually eaten around eleven in the morning, was another cold, simple meal. It consisted of bread, salad, olives, cheese, fruit, nuts, and cold meat leftovers from previous dinners. Occasionally, although rarely, the Romans would eat hot meat and vegetables for lunch. After lunch, there was a midday resting time when schoolchildren and workers napped or rested for two to three hours before returning to finish the day.


After the work and school day, Romans returned home for the most important meal of the day, dinner. Dinner was the longest meal of the day, in which the finest food was served. Even the simplest dinner was divided into three parts, a gustus (appetizers), cena (dinner proper), and secunda mensa (dessert). The gustus consisted of fresh oysters and other shellfish, salted or picked salt water fish, uncooked vegetables (especially onions and lettuce), and eggs. During this course, mulsum was drunk, as wine was thought to be too heavy for an empty stomach. Cena, the next part of the meal, was served in several courses, usually three to six. This part of dinner consisted of fish, meat, fowls, and vegetables served with wine mixed with water as not to dull the sense of taste. The secunda mensa consisted of pastries, sweets, nuts, and fruit. It closed the meal and in this course, wine was freely drunk.

In the early Republic, a family would sit on benches or stools around a table set up in the atrium while eating. Towards the end of the Republic however, a separate dining room was introduced and rich citizensí houses had two to three such dining rooms. With the addition of a dining room into a house, rich citizens oftentimes hosted formal dinners in which they would invite other families to attend. The number of guests at such formal dinners varied, but usually no more than nine people sat around the table.

The stools and benches were replaced with dining couches on three sides of each table. The set up of three couches arranged in a U-shape around a table was called a triclinium. Diners lay on their left side supported by their left elbow. Each couch sat about three people and had its own name according to its place of honor. The highest couch was on the left of the middle couch, and the lowest couch on the right. Each seat on the couch was arranged in the same order of honor ranking. One was always above the person sitting to his or her right. As etiquette dictated, the highest and middle couches were reserved for guests while the lowest was reserved for the host and his family. The most distinguished guest at the table sat in the middle couch on the last seat. This seat was convenient for a consul or other government official, for if he was to sit there and send or receive a message during dinner, he could do so without turning on his elbow.

Banquets of the Extremely Rich

These formal dinners were the only purely social intercourses that the Romans had, as there were no receptions, balls, theater parties, or other social events. Patricians hired entertainment for their dinners that included dancing girls, acrobats, play productions, and mime shows. By the last century of the Republic, banquets of the vulgarly rich nobles began to become extremely fancy and ostentatious. The banquet was called a convivium, which means living together. Such ostentatious banquets were characterized by silver couches, a twenty-two course cena, among other unnecessary expenses. Diners were even given wine instead of water with which to wash their hands.


From the beginning of the Republic to the end, dining in Rome had come a very long way. Eating meals went from a minimal part of a Roman citizenís day to one of the most important. Meals added to the separation of the rich and the poor citizens because their eating styles by the end of the Republic were very different. The changes in eating styles reflects their advancement and modernization over time as the Romans grew to know other cultures around them.











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