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Roman Meals - What the Romans Ate

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Roman Banquet

Roman Banquet

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Concern About Overdoing It at Roman Meals:

In the U.S. today, the government issues dietary guidelines, with an ever-increasing number of fruits to be added to the meal plan. During the Roman Republic, the government's concern wasn't so much an ever-expanding waistline or other health issues. There were Sumtuariae Leges ('sumptuary laws') designed to limit extravagance, including the amount spent on a given meal, which directly impacted how much wealthy Romans could eat at their meals. By the Imperial period such laws were no longer in force.

What Poor Romans Ate:

Regardless of sumptuary laws, poor Romans would eat mostly cereal grain, at all meals, as porridge or bread, for which the women engaged in a daily grain-to-flour grinding. They placed the hard kernels between a concave stone and a smaller one serving as a roller. This was called called a "thrusting mill." Later, they sometimes used a mortar and pestle. Grinding was unnecessary for quicker-cooking porridge, according to Cowell [see references].

Here are two ancient recipes for porridge from the On Agriculture, written by Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) [from Lacus Curtius]. Note that the first porridge recipe (#85) is Phoenician and involves the fancier extra ingredients honey, eggs, and cheese than the simple Roman (#86) one involving grain, water, and milk.

85 Pultem Punicam sic coquito. Libram alicae in aquam indito, facito uti bene madeat. Id infundito in alveum purum, eo casei recentis P. III, mellis P. S, ovum unum, omnia una permisceto bene. Ita insipito in aulam novam.

85 Recipe for Punic porridge: Soak a pound of groats in water until it is quite soft. Pour it into a clean bowl, add 3 pounds of fresh cheese, 1/2 pound of honey, and 1 egg, and mix the whole thoroughly; turn into a new pot.

86 Graneam triticeam sic facito. Selibram tritici puri in mortarium purum indat, lavet bene corticemque deterat bene eluatque bene. Postea in aulam indat et aquam puram cocatque. Ubi coctum erit, lacte addat paulatim usque adeo, donec cremor crassus erit factus.

86 Recipe for wheat pap: Pour 1/2 pound of clean wheat into a clean bowl, wash well, remove the husk thoroughly, and clean well. Pour into a pot with pure water and boil. When done, add milk slowly until it makes a thick cream.

By the late Republic period, it is believed that most people bought their bread from commerical bakeries.

How We Know About Their Meals:

Food, like the weather, seems to be a universal topic of conversation, endlessly fascinating and a constant part of our lives. In addition to art and archaeology, we have information on Roman food from a variety of written sources, including Latin material on agriculture, like the passages above from Cato, a Roman cookbook (Apicius), letters, and satire, e.g., the well-known banquet of Trimalchio from the Satyricon. Some of this might lead one to believe the Romans lived to eat or followed the motto eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die, but most couldn't eat like that -- ever, and even most rich Romans would have eaten more modestly.

Breakfast and Lunch Roman Style:

For those who could afford it, breakfast (jentaculum), eaten very early, would consist of salted bread, milk or wine, and perhaps dried fruit, eggs or cheese. It was not always eaten. The Roman lunch (cibus meridianus or prandium), a quick meal, eaten around noon could include salted bread or be more elaborate with fruit, salad, eggs, meat or fish, vegetable, and cheese.

The Dinner Meal:

The dinner (cena), the main meal of the day, would be accompanied by wine, usually well-watered. The Latin poet Horace ate a meal of onions, porridge, and pancake. An ordinary upper class dinner would include meat, vegetable, egg, and fruit. Comissatio was a final wine course at dinner's end.

Courses - From Eggs to Apple at Dinner:

Just as today the salad course may appear in different parts of the meal, so in ancient Rome the lettuce and the egg courses could be served first as the appetizer (gustatio or promulsis or antecoena) or later. Not all eggs were hens' eggs -- they could be smaller or sometimes larger, but they were a standard part of the dinner. The list of possible items for the gustatio is long. It includes exotic items like sea urchins, raw oysters, and mussels. Apples when in season were a popular dessert (bellaria) item. Other Roman dessert items were figs, dates, nuts, pears, grapes, cakes, cheese, and honey.

Latin Names of the Meals:

The names of meals change over time and in various locations. In the U.S. dinner, lunch, and supper have meant different meals to different groups. The supper meal in the evening was known as vesperna in early Rome. The main meal of the day was known as the cena in the country and in early times in the city. Cena was eaten around midday and was followed by the lighter supper meal. Over time in the city, the heavy meal was pushed later and later, and so the vesperna was omitted. Instead a light lunch or prandium was introduced between jentaculum and cena. The cena was eaten around sunset.
Source: Adkins and Adkins.

Diners and Dining Etiquette:

It is believed that during the Roman Republic most women and the poor ate sitting on chairs, while upper class males reclined on their sides on couches along three sides of a cloth-covered table (mensa). The 3-sided arrangement is called the triclinium. Banquets might last for hours, eating and watching or listening to entertainers, so being able to stretch out without shoes, and relax must have enhanced the experience. Since there were no forks, diners would not have had to worry about coordinating eating utensils in each hand.

References:

Sumptuary Laws

For information on one of the Sumptuary Laws, the Oppian Law, see Editor's Notes to the Satyricon of Petronius.

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