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I'm always amazed at how similar yet different the Romans of the Late Republic are to us. Despite a 2000 year difference, their food, drink, and meal habits almost seem modern . . . but not quite.

What follows is mostly a tabular synopsis of what kinds of bread, vegetables, fruit, and drink the Romans of the Late Roman Republic were accustomed to as well as a couple of short tables showing how everyday meals and fancy dinner parties were different from one another.

We'll start with food first . . .

Only the rich could afford a steady diet of meat. So wheat (known to the Romans as "corn" [frumentum]) was the staple food of most Romans. They mostly ate it as a boiled porridge, sometimes adding flavorings or relishes to it. They had desserts too. And, of course, bread was a staple.


TYPES OF BREAD

Bread varied in quality depending on the flour, which varied with the kind of grain, the setting of the millstones and the fineness of the sieves. The very best bread was made from wheat flour; the very worst from bran alone. Loaves were circular and somewhat flat, like a coffee cake.

NAME WHAT IT WAS OTHER NOTES
libae smaller rolls
panis primus cheap, coarse grain bread
panis secundus bread one step above Panis Primus
panis plebeius bread of coarse wheat flour "common bread"
panis castrensis ? "army bread"
panis sordidus ? "dark bread"
panis rusticus bread of bran alone "country bread"
Picenian bread fine biscuits
siligineus white bread
Notes:

  • Legumes (beans, green peas, chick peas, lentils, etc.) were sometimes added to bread

I'm not sure whether panis primus and secundus equate to one or more of the next four types of bread in the table. Nor am I sure of what panis castrensis and sordidus consisted of. And, as yet, I haven't run across a Latin term for Picenian bread. So if any one as a source you can direct me to for answers to these questions, please contact me.

Ever wonder what kinds of fruits the Romans ate? Well here's some of the more common ones:


COMMON FRUITS

almonds plums
apples pomegranates
figs quinces
filberts walnuts
grapes chestnuts
pears
Notes:

  • Apricots, cherries, dates, lemons, and oranges weren't grown in Italy until the Prinicipate
  • Berries were rarely eaten
  • Fruits were eaten raw, dried, preserved, and cooked; fruits were dried or preserved for winter use

What vegetables did the Romans eat? Here they are:


COMMON VEGETABLES

artichokes garlic mushrooms turnips
asparagus leeks olives
beans lentils onions
beets lettuce parsnips
broccoli mallow leaves peas
cabbages marrows pumpkins
cucumbers melons radishes
Notes:

  • Beans, olives, and peas were grown in Italy
  • Broccoli, leeks, artichokes and asparagus were imported
  • Beans and peas were an important part of lower class diets and were sold either dried or–in tabernae or by street vendors–hot
  • Cabbage was believed to prevent drunkenness, cure paralysis, and protect people from the plague
  • Garlic was believed to give soldiers courage
  • Legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) were also used as cattle feed
  • Lettuce was considered a laxative by the Romans
  • Mallow leaves were considered good for the digestion
  • Olives were eaten plain as well as with other food
  • Olive oil were used both as fuel for lamps and for use in the public baths

What did the Romans drink? What follows is a list of the more commonly imbibed drinks:


COMMON DRINKS

LATIN NAME WHAT IT WAS NOTES
calda warm water and wine laced with spices typically a winter drink
mulsum honeyed wine
posca vinegar mixed with enough water to make it drinkable typically a soldier, slave drink
"wine" watered down wine the Romans never drank wine straight
Notes:

  • Beer was regarded as a barbarian drink (the Celts drank it)
  • Wines were described as black, red, white, or yellow.
  • The best wine producing region in Italy was near the border between Latium and Campania. Vintages produced were: Caecuban, Setian, Falernian, and Massic
  • Sheep or goats' milk were considered uncivilized drinks; they were used mainly for making cheese and for medicinal purposes
  • In every great house, the wine cellar contained glass jars carefully sealed with gypsum, with labels showing when they were laid away.

When they did eat meats, poultry, and fish, what specifically did the Romans eat? Here's a list:


COMMON MEAT AND FISH

MEATS FISH POULTRY
beef & veal lamb carp mackerel rays chicken goose
boar mutton catfish mullet sardines crane ostrich
dormice sausage clams mussels shark dove partridge
goat snails crab octopus sole duck peacock
hare sucking pig eel oysters swordfish  fig-peckers pheasant
kid venison flounder perch trout flamingo pigeon
hake porpoise tuna thrushes
lobster prawns turbot
Notes:

  • The poor could seldom afford to buy meat
  • Meat was more often boiled than roasted with spicy sauces
  • Pork was considered a great delicacy.
  • Stuffed dormice were considered a delicacy too. Usually the dormice were stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and liquamen.

Sugar was unknown to the Romans; honey was their main sweetener. They also used other sauces and spices to add flavor to the food they ate:


SAUCES/SPICES

NAME WHAT IT WAS OTHER NOTES
defrutum concentrated wine was used in cooking.
liquamen (aka garum) made from salted fish and fish insides may have been the ancestor of Worcestershire Sauce
pepper imported from the East; used a lot in all sorts of foods including some sweet baked biscuits
salt harvested from beds at Ostia
 

Here's a partial list of foods that the Romans never used:


FRUITS, VEGETABLES, AND OTHER FOODS
UNKNOWN TO THE ROMANS

bananas corn (as we know it) sugar
chili pepper peanuts tea
chocolate potatoes tomatoes
coffee rice
 

The ordinary Roman was not a great eater of meats. The table below shows their typical meals:


MEALS

LATIN NAME MODERN U.S. COUNTERPART TIME TYPICAL FOOD SERVED OTHER NOTES
jentaculum breakfast at sunrise or the first hour Wheat pancake biscuit; bread dipped in wine; bread flavored with a little cheese, dried fruits or honey; or bread with salt, honey, dates, or olives Not all Romans began their day with breakfast. Often breakfast was no more than a cup of water
prandium lunch around the sixth hour Eggs, with bread and cheese or leftovers from the previous day
cena dinner around the ninth or tenth hour  Wheat meal porridge (puls) Meat (pork, mutton, beef) was scarce except at sacrifices and dinner parties of the rich. Fish was more common.
 

Roman Legionaries followed a carefully supervised diet. Their diet was a balanced one of wheat, some meat (usually bacon), fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruit, salt, olive oil, and wine.


ANATOMY OF A ROMAN DINNER PARTY

Roman dinner parties were similar but more sumptuous than those of today. Hors d'oeuvres were served, followed by six or seven main courses, then several kinds of dessert, with a lot of drinking underscoring the whole affair before, during and after the actual dinner. A small army of slaves usually dealt with the whims of the guests as well as serving watered down wine throughout the proceedings. Some hosts served their best wine to start with and then lesser vintages as guests became more intoxicated. In the early days of Rome, women were discouraged from drinking wine altogether, unless it was well watered down, but this stricture was dropped during the empire. At any dinner party it was considered polite to belch.

PHASE OF THE DINNER PARTY LATIN NAME TYPICAL FOOD SERVED OTHER NOTES
Hors d'oeuvres gustatio or promulsio Salads, radishes, mushrooms, eggs, oysters, sardines followed an initial drink of wine sweetened with honey
Main Course prima mensa Fish included eel, turbot, mackerel, tunny, mullet, eels, prawns, oysters, other shellfish. Poultry dishes included: chicken, goose, ostrich, crane, duck, partridge, pheasant, pigeon, dove, thrushes, fig-peckers, and–for the rich–peacock. Meat included boar, venison, wild goat, mutton, lamb, kid, sucking pig, hare, dormice, and sausage
Offerring to the Household Gods ? None Involved a short silence while an offering of wheat, salt, and wine was made to the household gods on the family altar
Dessert secunda mensa every kind of honey-sweetened cakes and fruit. Two favorite desserts were stuffed dates and honeyed bread; another was poppy-seeds mixed with honey.
After Dinner Drinking and Entertainment ? Wine mixed with water During the rest of the party, music, song, dancing girls, conjurors, dwarfs, and acrobats were sometimes provided as entertainment