Ancient Roman Meals
The ancient Romans were similar to todays generations in their eating
habits but never ate three hearty meals a day. Ientaculum and prandium were
merely appetizers that filled their stomachs unitl the large cena, the event
they look forward to since awakening. They had names for their meals similar to
ours, breakfast (ientaculum), lunch (prandium), and dinner (cena).
Breakfast, ientaculum was usually taken about nine o’clock and consisted
of merely a few pieces of bread sprinkled in salt or dipped in wine, and with a
few raisins and olives, and a little cheese added. The poorest Romans ate
little other than wheat either crushed to make a porridge or ground into flour
Lunch, or prandium was usually taken at noon. It was usually nothing
more than a piece of bread accompanied by cold meat, vegetables, and fruit
washed down with a glass of wine. Both ientaculum and prandium were so short
there was no need to set the table or wash ones hands.
The only serious meal was the evening dinner or cena. Dinner time was
practically the same for all Romans due to the lack of artificial light. Dinner
was after the bath at the end of the eigth hour in winter and at the ninth in
summer. The food is mostly cold,-breads, salads, olives, cheeses, and meats
remaing from last nights dinner. Occasionally, hot dishes such as ham and pig’s
heads are feasted upon. Some wealthy Romans would have as many as seven courses
to feed on.
Trimalchio, a wealthy Roman would have a bronzed donkey with appetizer
dishes of olives, stuffed dormice rolled in honey and poppy seed, hot sausages
were laid on a silver grill next to pomegranate and damson seeds. The guests
were still busy with the hors d’oeuvres when a tray would be brought in with a
basket on it, in which there was a wooden hen spreading her wings. Under the
straw were Peahen eggs that would base passed out. Each egg contained a fat
becafico rolled up in spiced egg yolkf. There were plates with the twelve signs
of Zodiac on them that had food matas ching the symbol, ram, bull, crab, figs,
lion, etc. Some hosts would heat a wfshole pig and then entertain his guests by
having skilled swordmen carve the pa fig like he was killing it. After eating,
many guests would entertain each othed sfr in belching. It was considered
polite to belch and release wind after a ni sce meal. Guests would simply snap
their fingers and servants would come running with vases to contain urine.
Spitting was also allowed on the floors of the triclinium.
It is hard to imagine eating after a large dinner but dessert was next.
In rich homes, dessert would be served after a bath and then led into a second
dining room where wine flowed like water. Dessert consisted of every kind of
fruit imaginable. Poppy-seed mixed with honey is a standard dish for dessert
The majority of the common Romans baked bread in public bakeries. The
standard loaves are made very flat, about two inches thick, and marked with
notches on the top. There were three kinds of grains used to make bread.
Coarse grain (panis sordidus) for the common people. Panis secundus for the
higher class and the very white and sweet siligincus for the rich. At feasts
there will be wonderful pastry castles and sweet cakes truly amazing with the
use of honey, chopped fruits, and nuts.
Vegetables and fruits were plenitful in Rome. For many miles one could
see gardens that send artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cucumber, lentils,
melons, onions, peas, and pumpkins into the city. Garlic is also very popular
in Roman dishes. Italy was an excellent fruit country and apples, pears, plums,
grapes, and quinces were common in the markets. A wide selection of nuts
including walnuts, filberts, and almonds were used in cooking and jsut plain
eating. Peaches, apricots, cherries, and pomegranates were found in Rome but
were not as abundant. Salad greens were in great demand in Rome.
The demand for meat in Rome was constantly increasing as the years went
by. Butcher shops became more popular which allowed poor people the opportunity
to get meat. The poor people would buy goat’s flesh which was competely ignored
by finniky eaters. Beef was never really popular in Rome. Common people never
tasted beef unless it was presented at a sacrifice or great public festival.
Even for the rich, beef was no real treat. Pork was always popular. Pork in
all forms especially bacon and sausage was a treat to all Romans. Poultry was
in greater demand than meat. Coops full of common fowl, ducks, and geese were
on sale on every street corner. Hares, rabbits, venison, and wild boar were
also available. The butcher shops were far less important than the fish dealer
shops. Poor people would eat salt fish of pickled fish, from little sardines to
slices of the big fish. Fresh fish was very hard to get in Rome. There are few
eels and good pike available in Rome. The majority of the fish supply must be
brought from afar. Some sea-food would be transported still alive in small
Olive oil was not only food but also served the purpose of bathroom soap.
It was a complete substitute for butter and made dry and moldy bread edible.
It also was the basis for most perfumes and ointments. Practically every Roman
household had wine available. Beer and other drinks made from wheat and barley
were available and so were distilled liquors but they would never apear at
Italian banquets like wine. Enormours vineyards were common in Rome.
Guests were invited for dinner parties by the master during baths or by
slave messenger. Out of pride, the master of the house would invite as many as
possible to dine with him and plenty of distinguished Roman citizens would have
been happy to join in a family meal. Some hosts would invite many people but
only serve utensils and fine dishes to a select few. Some hosts would serve
wine to individuals based upon ones social status. This kind of discrimination
made some feel cheap and paltry. The standard size for a dinner party ws nine.
Three couches, three guests to a coach meant for a single set of serving tables
and easy conversation. For larger parties, one must have more triclinia
(couches). Rich Romans always served cena in a special room called a triclinium
whose length was twice its width. Before the guests arrived, the master cook
was ordering his slaves in the kitched and a chamberlain (upper slave) would
shout cleaning orders to lower slaves and whip them if they weren’t cleaning
fast enough. A few signs of dirt before a party was a sign of disrespect to
ones guests. The Romans ate lying down resting on the left elbow. The eating
couches had three reclining places. The reclining postition was considered
indispensible to dining comfort. The Roman women took their place next to their
man on the triclinia. The children ate sitting on stools in front of their
parents couches. Slaves reclined like their masters only on holidays and would
usually eat in another room.
Three sloping couches were placed around a square table with one side
left open for serving. Blankets and pillows were arranged also on the couches.
The couch of honor was that opposite the empty side of the table, (lectus
medius) and on it the most honorable position was the right hand one called the
consular. Next in honor came the couch to the left of the central couch called
the lectus summus and the last couch on the right lectus imus. The guest
reclined crosswise on their left elbow, their feet, which were without shoes had
been washed upon entrance.
An usher (nomenclator) announced the guests and pointed them to their
assigned couch. Waiters (ministratores) brought in the dishes and the bowls and
placed them on the tables. The tables were very plain. No tableclothes but
very shiny surfaces. A preliminary course of gustatio was served to stimulate
the appetite. On silver dishes came eggs, crabs, salads, and mushrooms. Wine
was served in embossed silver cups. Depending on how many courses were served
the dinner would come out to the sweet sounds of a live flute band and a slave
would cut meat off the whole boar and serve it to the guests. Between each
course, water was passed and the guests washed their hands and put on a light
scented perfume on their hands. It was customary for guests to take a large
napkin and fill it with scraps for later. Finally, dessert came and the guests
were treated to beautiful pastrys, artificali oysters, dried grapes and almonds,
After the conclusion of the regular dinner, the guests would stay and
share stories around the drinking bowl. The guests would customarily take a
bath and then mix water with pure wine to dilute it. Spanish dancing girls
would then perform acrobatics, tumbling, and act out plays. The male guests
also have the option of having orgy with the dancers. Drinking is done to allow
the tongue to loosen and give wisdom and advice. An offering was also given to
the gods. While servants were distribtuing wine, other servants were passing
out flowered wreaths and perfume. The fragrant flowers were supposed to ward
off drunkeness. During all this talk and excitement, flute and harp players
played behind a curtain.
Many banquets lasted eight or ten hours. They were divided into acts.
After each main course, dancers and musicians performed while riddles were told,
lotteries held, and tricks performed. Roman cooks spent much time and effort
cooking for banquets and would even disguise one food as another. Cooks showed
their skill by trying to fool the eye by making fish out of a sows belly,
chicken out of pork, cakes made to look like boiled eggs, and doves out of ham.
The presentation and display of the food was just as important as the taste.