Food in Ancient Rome. What did the Romans eat?

How did the Romans eat?

Our ancestors were not only soldiers engaged in grueling wars, but also ordinary people with the basic needs of any human being.

And nutrition represented one of their most interesting features to know.

In order to understand how the Romans fed themselves in a complete way it is good to divide the concept according to the economic availability categorizing in poor, well off and rich.


Diet of the poor Roman

The poor Roman citizen, the one who belonged to the weaker segment of the population, followed a diet based on vegetables and legumes consumed in large quantities.

And of any kind: both these elements allowed the less wealthy citizens to be able to support themselves in a fairly complete way without spending too much.

Vegetables and legumes were so important for the weaker Roman population.

Another very important element was spelt (farro): in particular in the first part of Roman history, this cereal absolutely dominated the diet of the inhabitants: spelt soup was eaten almost every day.

And not only: spelt was also milled in order to obtain a flour from which was made polenta, to which was then added any available seasoning, such as small residues of fish, meat or foods capable of adding flavor.

Some changes arrived when Rome began to expand: with the conquest of new territories such as Sicily, known as the “granary of Rome” together with Egypt, spelt was slowly replaced by wheat.

They even came to be a whole series of laws “frumentarie” to distribute the grain to the lowest and poorest part of the population with regularity.

In this way it became possible to make bread which, although poor, was of a higher quality than that made with spelt.

A “rusticus bread”, black and not really exceptional flavor that nevertheless served to vary the diet.

Every now and then, those belonging to the less well-off could afford a few small pieces of pork or small fish from the second catch, such as sardines or anchovies.

As for drinking, the choice was pretty limited: a drink made of water and vinegar or wine of very poor quality, almost sour, was the best they could hope for, between a breakfast made of leftovers of the day before and the occasional good meal of the holidays.


The diet of the wealthy Roman

How did the well-off eat?

Those who could count on a more prosperous economy, even though they were not yet rich, were able to afford more treats than the poorer segment of the population.

The structure of meals was generally the same, but characterized by a different quality: for what concerned fruits and vegetables the well-to-do could afford foods such as apricots and cherries that sometimes he could grow and other times he found in the market.

Being able to spend more, he could eat more varied vegetables with a more appetizing taste.

And if spelt was a food generally present among the Romans, as far as bread was concerned, this part of the population could consume a bread made of white flour called “pane secundus”, with a more interesting and refined taste because the flour was ground several times.

Even for what concerns fish and meat, the well-to-do could afford better quality foods: they could often eat meat not only pork but also beef and rabbit enjoying more pleasant and delicious tastes thanks to a greater possibility of choice.

He consumed small fishes as well as sea basses: foods having a better structure and taste.

One of the differences between the poor and the well-to-do in matters of food was the presence of sauces and condiments other than honey.

The most used sauce was garum: a compound with a strong taste that few would dare to eat nowadays but it was considered a delicacy which was used everywhere at the time of Romans.

It is an “ancient” version of today’s tasty colatura di alici (anchovy sauce): it was in fact made from fish entrails which were mixed with a little salt and dried in the sun in large containers. In this way was obtained a liquid or semi-liquid substance – gelatinous and very strong from an organoleptic point of view, which was combined with everything, as it happens today with mayonnaise.

Another very interesting condiment was muria: intestines and blood of tuna put to macerate until they became a sauce.

As much as it sounds like nothing, these compounds were able to help the Roman class of the well-to-do to expand their diet in matters of tastes.

The most consumed beverage was wine, of better quality, which could be watered down or added with honey in order to make the taste more pleasing.

Mead represented an excellent alternative to wine: a mixture of water and fermented honey, which was also given to children.


Diet of the Rich Roman

The rich Roman could obviously eat any food consumed by the two previous population groups, from spelt to garum, being able to afford, however, a whole series of foods of incredible taste and rarity, for the times, concluded.

An example?

Porcini mushrooms: they were considered a delicacy and were worth much more than a truffle is worth today.

Obviously bread was of the highest quality, made with wheat flour sifted several times to form the “pane candidus”, which tasted very good and was closer in appearance and quality to today’s bread.

The rich could afford meat every day, choosing among the best cuts of beef or any other animal.

The same was true for fish: sea bass and sea bream were the custom, but also eels and sturgeon: fish that in most Roman families were something that they could afford after making sacrifices.

The food of rich Romans was varied in tastes, quality and consistency.

Wine brought to the table was of high quality and did not need to be watered down or flavored with honey: the latter was used only according to the discretion of the taste of the person.

The most consumed wine in the tables of the richest people was Falerno together with the ones coming from Sorrento.

Food, in the houses of rich people also conquered a choreographic value and often were presented still alive to the guests before proceeding with the cooking: the meals of Lucullian memory are an example of this.


How people ate in Rome: meals

Meals in ancient Rome were three and were organized in a crescendo of quantity that started in the morning and ended in the evening.

Breakfast was very frugal and often based on the leftovers of the day before, lunch was more complete but always very quick: the real satisfying meal was served in the evening where eating was reserved attention, pleasure and enjoyment.

People took their time and ate with more calm, in the company of the family.

Certainly in terms of taste it was particular and it would be unsustainable for many current palates, but in its composition,

Roman food was to be considered healthy, in a certain sense, thanks to the almost total lack of sugars in it.

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