Food and nutrition in ancient Rome

The wine of the vine smells like the nectar, The barley wine smells like a goat. The grape wine comes from Bacchus, son of the goddess Semele, The barley wine come from the bread ” (Giulianho l’Apostata, 361-363 AD) After get up, the Roman had a full breakfast (called ientaculum) that he consumed standing. Adults usually ate the leftovers from the night before (like olives, capers, eggs, some cheese, bread, honey), while children ate milk and flat loaves of bread, sweet or savory. Thus began a long day of work, for both citizen and farmer, which went from dawn to dusk. At noon was general rule to have a break, and the inhabitants of the city center used to eat in a public place  (such as in simple taverns popinae thermopolia, or  cauponae) or to buy anything from street vendors (one of the products must sold was the chickpea cake). Lunch (prandium) was still a very small meal. When Baths spread, it was customary to go there and grab a bite after a bath. The Baths opened at noon and then, from the reign of Hadrian, at two in the afternoon. At sunset the work day ended and the family gathered for dinner (cena or coena), the main meal of the day. In archaic times people settle for grains or legumes, soups, milk, cheese, fresh or dried fruit, olives, sometimes fat, with the refinement of manners soon bread replaced soup and primitive porridge, while meat appeared on the table of the richest. The evening meal was also an occasion to welcome guests and friends (Convivium or banquet).  Among the Latin authors who have handed in their written recipes or information on eating habits at the time of the ancient Romans, we remember: Catone and Columella (both wrote a treatise on agriculture: De Agricultura the first, De re rustica the second), Apicius and Petronius, Martial and Juvenal (in his Satirae). Petronius and Apicius are the main source on Roman cuisine: Petronius in The Dinner of Trimalchio, described in his novel Satyricon, offers detailed information about how it was organized a sumptuous banquet, in Apicius’s De re coquinaria he included about five hundred recipes, many under his name. Martial’s Epigrams give us indications of menus and food often appreciated, especially during the Saturnalia, the most popular feast of the year. What we could found on Roman tables? We know that there were many foods common also today. Among the citrus were lemon and lime. The Mediterranean was rich in fish: sardines, anchovies, mackerel, sea bream, sea bream, torpedoes, sole and tuna, snapper and mullet, redfish, mullet, flounder and lampreys, oysters, lobsters, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, mussels, etc.. . The meat was not missing from the table of the Romans, except for the cattle – that were used almost exclusively for work in the fields – the Romans eat: pigs, lambs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons and doves, game (hare, wild boars, partridges, pheasants, deer, roe deer, warblers and thrushes). Frogs and snails were also a specialty. Bacon, sausages of all kinds (especially Lucanica sausage) and ham enriched diet, often eaten with polenta (puls) emmer wheat. The vegetables were often the appetizer: asparagus, artichokes, beets, cabbage, turnips, carrots, chard, turnips, onions, leeks, pumpkins and cucumbers, as well as various salads, cooked or raw vegetables: lettuce, watercress, chicory, endive , mauve. Then followed the legumes: beans, lupins, lentils, chickpeas, peas. Mushrooms and truffles were finally delicacies, as well as Romans’ tables were rich of cheeses (mainly from sheep and goat), fresh fruit (apples, pears, pomegranates, lazzeruole, quinces, plums, blackberries and mulberries, cherries , peaches, apricots, figs and grapes, melons, melons, watermelons) and nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts, dates) and of course, olives. Cheeses, in particular, were a food staple in Romans’ diet in a large variety from different regions of the empire. Columella’s recipes give us news on how should be made Romans’ cheeses distinguished in soft and hard cheeses, the latter at longer shelf life and made of fresh milk without adding water. They were then curdled sometimes with flowers of thistle or artichoke with saffron seeds or sap of fig leaves. Columella then recalls a smoked cheese cured in brine, flavored with smoke alloy apple. But the picture of the food available in Roman times would not be complete if we do not remember grains. For centuries they were a staple food. The Romans were indeed tasty soups and porridge using all the available grain, and they ate bread and buns made by grain with nutritional value far exceeds from ours. Barley, durum wheat (emmer or spelled), rye, oats, millet and panic were cultivated since ancient times. Just barley, because of its adaptability and resistance, was possibly the first grain to be cultivated and was the staple food of the soldiers, besides being the most widely used grain in the Republican period. Spelt or spelled, too hard to be ground into fine flour, was crushed and cooked in meal or porridge; in the fifth century. B.C. the introduction of the naked wheat or Triticum allowed to produce flour and knead the bread and buns. The oats was intended mainly for animal feed, while millet and panic were used for porridge or puls (millet was also staple food for the poor in the Middle Ages). Rye, finally, was little regarded, and often mixed with barley to make the puls. The rice was imported from the East (India) and used as a luxury product in the form of starch as a binder for food and medicine. In Europe the cultivation of rice for food arrived for the first time in Spain thank to the Arabs in the eighth century … The bread of the Romans was of infinite types: white, black, raised, dry biscuit (for sailors), refined bread with poppy seeds, anise, fennel, celery, cumin, etc.. (with infinite names and forms). The baker (or pistor triticarius, or if he makes cakes placentarius) could use three types flours depending on the level of sieving: fine flour (siligo or pollen), the intermediate type (simila os similago) and a integral flour (cibarium), not sieved. There was then the yeast (fermentum) to be used depending on if you wanted to make a leavened or unleavened bread. A yeast was produced in Spain and Gaul from the foam formed during the fermentation of beer, making a bread soft and delicate. But the most estimated yeast was obtained by the mile. Sauces were one of the specialties of Roman cuisine (see Apicius). There are more different, for  meat, fish, vegetables and eggs. Spices, herbs and berries were among the main ingredients (ginger, cloves, saffron, mustard, cardamom, poppy seeds, fennel, cumin, anise, celery and sesame, myrtle berries, bay leaves, juniper, mint, savory, oregano, parsley, lovage, chervil, dill, coriander, lavender and lavender). As liquid ingredients were used: wine, cott must, fish sauce (garum), sweet wine (passum), oil, vinegar and water. The starch was used as a thickener, but were also used eggs and bread crumbs. Sometimes it was added chopped walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, dates, prunes. In some cases, to thicken the sauce was resorted amulum (wheat starch) and Pliny tells us how it was prepared, saying that was extracted from each type of wheat, but the best was the three months wheat and that this practice had arrived in Rome from the island of Chios (Aegean Sea). There was also the amulum made from the most mature wheat, which placed in large wooden tubs, was covered with fresh water, then changed five times a day. Before the soft wheat soured, it went to the casting, using linen cloths or wicker baskets, then it was placed on large tiled open spaces, sprinkling it with yeast and left to dry. The appetizer was a much richer and varied meal. The banquets were started from eggs, vegetables, salads, mushrooms and truffles, oysters, seafood, cheese with herbs, olives, sausages, soufflés, soups and meat pies … Soup (with vegetables, cereals and legumes) were the basis of nutrition of the poorest classes and were the main meal of the evening for the master’s table when he had not guests. Meat and game abounded on the tables of nobles especially in the first century. AD, were the privileged inhabitants of the city, eating lots of meat. Salting and smoking was used, preparing also hams and sausages of various kinds. The pig was the animal whose meat was the most appreciated. All different types of meat were roasted in the oven or cooked on a spit, in stews, on the grill, etc. .. But the Romans had always a great passion for fish, both freshwater to the sea. Despite being plentiful the fish was always very expensive, so the rich who could afford it, had in their villas fish ponds (piscinae). Besides eaten fresh, the fish were put in salt, canned and smoked, it was cooked grilled or boiled, fried and stuffed. The banquets of the rich, then topped with a rich range of pastries, fresh and dried fruit, savory focaccia and, sometimes, sausages and cheeses. The desserts had as basic ingredients flour, cheese and honey. But they were also fruit souffles, omelets and sweet cream of eggs. From nuts to legumes, it tried to prepare canned foods to keep long as much as possible. In ancient sources have been found tips and recipes on how to preserve beets, figs and truffles, to improve honey and fix the too salty garum. Brine, salt, spices, oil, vinegar and honey mustard are the basic ingredients to preserve food longer. What the Romans drank? From hot drinks to cold ones (wine, milk, water, beer, tea, etc..). In the countryside, drinking water and milk (from goat and sheep). Much appreciated was also camel milk. That mare and donkey were mostly used in cosmetics. Another common drink was beer (cervisia): already produced in large quantities since the time of the Egyptians (considered its inventors), was brewed from wheat and barley, but without the hops and then kept for a short time. It was mass-produced and consumed from Spain and Egypt to the northern provinces of the empire, but was considered only a drink tonic for sick and drunk mostly by soldiers, no landlord would offer it to his guests in a banquet.

Instead wine was a divine product, given to men by Bacchus and was the most popular and consumed beverage in the ancient world. No dinner or banquet was unthinkable without wine. The production areas most famous was Campania (for Falernian and Massico), Gaul (for aromatic wines and smoked like Marseille), Spain, Greece (for the Knossos, Chios, Kos, Rhodes). In Roman times, even in England was cultivated vine and wine specialties also came from the regions of the Mosel and Rhine, however, the Roman wine could not be kept long, and stabilizers and preservatives were added (in Greece seawater, but also resin, tar, orris root and iris, calcium and lead salts). Wine was traveling throughout the empire in amphorae, it was very strong and was never drunk pure (filtered and watered down it was usually with three parts water). Then there was the posca, a refreshing drink made ​​of wine vinegar (or sour wine) in use in the army. There was still a Passum raisin, it goes well with desserts, wine carenum (mulled wine), the seasoned (vinum conditum) with spices (especially pepper), herbs (wormwood – vinum absinthiatum -, cumin), with essences of flowers (roses and violets) or roots of plants (iris, roses), with seeds (fennel, cumin, etc..), or with honey and cinnamon (mulsum). The Romans also ricavavano then drinks from fruits, fermenting pears, quinces, pomegranates and dates. A refreshing drink was mead or aqua mulsa (made with one part honey and two of water).
In Roman houses space for cooking was generally small (exceptions in the villas of wealthy patricians). There was a small oven for baking bread and cakes, a sink, stove and some inserted in a socket occupied a brick wall. The cooking was done on a wood or coal stoves. Were used for cooking knives, spatulas, spoons (wooden, metal or bone), whisks, sieves, spits, grills, mortars and containers of various shapes and sizes the most of terracotta, clay or bronze. The groceries were kept in storerooms and warehouses. The earthenware jars usually contained wine, oil, juice, fish sauce, jars and jugs containing olives, dried fruits, dried vegetables, but also vegetables and fruit. Slaves cooked, while the rich had also cooks who were paid, sometimes the cooks were hired specifically for the banquet (the chef was named supreme archimagirus).
People usually dined in the triclinium, a large room – in stately homes – furnished and decorated with fountains and ponds with fish (piscinae), plants, beds and tables of marble and inlaid (triclinic outdoors), frescoes and mosaics , wooden tables and beds covered with pillows (triclinic indoors). Flowers in large quantities smelled environments. The guests arrived at sunset, after a bath at the Terms and settled down on the beds (triclinic) arranged three on each side in a horseshoe around the table. On each triclinium took place three people eating so lying on the left side, according to the custom imported from Greece (but only for the bourgeoisie, because the people ate sitting). During the banquet of the rich, the landlord offered entertainment to his guests: music, dancing, performances by jugglers and acrobats, recitations of poets. At the end of these banquets or feasts, which sometimes went on until late at night, the landlord the most lavish and generous, greeted guests with small gifts.

  

For further information and to experiment the recipes of ancient Rome:
  • At dinner with Lucullus. How to cook today dishes of Rome ” by Ilaria Giacosa Gozzini, editors Piemme, Casale Monferrato (AL), I. 1986.
  • The Cuisine of Ancient Rome” by Marcus Apicius Gavius​​, publisher Marvel, Milan 2000. Edition with multilingual text, printed on straw paper (the traditional butcher’s paper, made ​​using corn leaves).