Food in ancient Rome gained increasing social importance within ancient Roman homes, particularly amongst the rich and Patrician aristocracy. This development went largely in line with that of Roman society as a whole and with that of its wealth, entertainment, education, fashion and clothing.
During the days of the early Republic the food was as simple and austere as the Roman people and their houses. Meat was not eaten often and the diet was generally based on vegetables and agricultural produce such as onions, peas and wheat. As Cato informs us, vegetables should be eaten with vinegar when raw and with Olive oil when cooked.
Leguminous foods (“legumina“) were particularly frequent and even loved, especially when they were mixed with cereals (“frumenta“) and boiled into something like Scottish porridge or Italian polenta. It was cooked in an earthenware pot hanging over the fire and could be rendered a little more interesting by adding lard, cheese, vegetables or possibly meat. There are records of legions complaining because they had had to rely on rations of meat rather than their beloved dish of “Puls” or “Polenta“.
Wheat, bread and bakery in ancient Rome
The earliest wheat used for bread was still of the wild, unselected variety known as “far” which we would know as “Spelt”. The Potatoes, Wheat and Corn from the Americas weren’t known yet! This bread had traditional meanings so much so that it was used as part of the marriage ceremonies. The bride and groom would both eat a piece of this unleavened bread previously prepared by the bride for the occasion. In fact the simple foods of antiquity came to be directly associated with the good austere traditions of early Rome.
It was with the advent of soft wheat that the industry around bread making really took off: being easier to process (it doesn’t require breaking the pod to extract the useful part) is soon transformed farming methods and the volumes which could be usefully produced and traded. It was also more suited to making leavened breads and cakes which per se stimulated demand and as a consequence the trading infrastructure, including bakeries. The bakeries and indeed the public fortune of bakers is visible at sites such as Pompeii. The consumption of wine grew in line with that of bread – clearly bread creates thirst and as such created a new need for increasing volumes and varieties of Ancient Roman wine.
Whilst remaining on the theme of bread I once saw an interesting comparison between a fossilised bread from Pompeii and a modern traditional loaf from the same area. They were identical in shape: A circular loaf with an asterisk cut into the top to allow the dough to open during cooking. Although the shape was the same I expect they weren’t equally digestible.
Eating for pleasure in ancient Rome
As Roman civilisation increased in wealth, eating and food was an increasingly popular pass-time rather than just a necessity. The culture of eating consequently developed, for example in Roman paintings and literature.
One of the most popular eater’s mottoes which made it down to us was attributed to Cicero. He happened to live just about the time that Rome really began to get rich on an international scale:
“Esse oportet ut vivas, non vivere ut edas“
Eat in order to live, don’t live in order to eat.
The writer Petronius agreed with him in his “Satyricon”:
“Oportet etiam inter cenandum philologiam nosse“
You must know how to use the principles of science even in order to dine. Modern nutritionists would agree I’m sure!
In spite of all the good advice, feasts and banqueting were driven to the extreme, not only by gluttony but also by the heavily ingrained class structure, not to mention the politics. Class structure allowed slaves to become rich and to pay for their freedom, as liberti they could gain further freedom to win further riches and their sons and their son’s sons could aspire to the Equestrian and even Senatorial ranks. Everyone could move up (or down) the social ladder and everyone did their best to be upwardly mobile “yuppies”. During the height of the empire even marriage suffered, just like nowadays.
The Yuppies’ problem was that there was little to actually distinguish your wealth and social rank other than perhaps a specially coloured stripe on your toga, a half moon on your shoes or a signet ring, all of which were easily forged and copied. Ostentatious hairdos and expensive jewellery were good means of distinguishing your superiority if you were a woman but by and large what could prove better than lavish feasts surrounded by servants and your rich and powerful “friends”?
The name which has made it down for the sake of posterity is that of the rich Apicius who collected up a renowned book of recipes called “De Re Coquinaria” (a link is shown below). Apicius happened to be rich enough to delve into the deepest culinary secrets and delicacies of the time. He finally committed suicide when he realised he had reduced his vast estate to a “humble” million. This is the most extant proof that the love for luxury, exotic foods and the cook that went with them literally ate up, or at least digested and redistributed small fortunes.
Cookery and dining in imperial Rome;: A bibliography, critical review and translation of the ancient book known as Apicius’ “de re coquinaria“,
Surprise surprise, as the wealth of Rome and its citizens grew so did the belly size of the citizens themselves. Just take a quick look at their statues for proof. The wealthy Romans of the golden age of the empire forgot the austerity of their forefathers and preferred to laden the table with every sort of delicacy. To be correct they never forgot the austerity – they often preached it and even tried to enforce a degree of it by law – but as a society they simply never managed to abide by its principles.
Taking food and entertainment to excess most aptly describes what ancient Romans would have regarded as an Ancient Roman Orgy. The vegetable based meal of the olden days was enriched with fish, fowl, wild boars, pastries and fruits cooked into well elaborate recipes. Favourite sauces included Garum which was made out of fish entrails (I think Sardines) fermented for a long time under the sun. Archaeologists have found plenty of remnants of the stuff in the bottom of market jars and urns all over the empire. A little like we might resort to mustard or ketchup. Yum yum!!!
A growing appetite for the exotic meant that the more foreign a recipe the more it was sought after. Petronius, the master of Roman Satire tells us of “…stuffed game accompanied by the teats of young sows and knowledgeably prepared hares onto which dense spicy sauces poured from small dishes which also flowed onto fish which looked as though they were swimming in a pond…”. Dinners of six or more courses were accompanied with wine and water whilst guests would be entertained by dancers, singers and other performers.
The most famous host of ancient Rome was Lucullus. He was an extremely able commander, who won some of the greatest and memorable battles of Roman history returned to Rome to live a life of leisure and plentiful food of the most extravagant and exotic variety. An invitation to one of his dinners was everyone’s desire and no one forgot the dinner invitation he extended to the whole of Rome on occasion of his Triumphal procession of 66BC. A contemporary of Lucullus was the great generally Silla, who also left his mark on the history of Roman food: Plutarch in his biography of Silla says (ch.35)
“On consecrating the tenth of all his substance to Hercules, Sulla feasted the people sumptuously, and his provision for them was so much beyond what was needed that great quantities of meats were daily cast into the river, and wine was drunk that was forty years old and upwards.
In the midst of the feasting, which lasted many days, Metella lay sick and dying. And since the priests forbade Sulla to go near her, or to have his house polluted by her funeral, he sent her a bill of divorce, and ordered her to be carried to another house while she was still living. In doing this, he observed the strict letter of the law, out of superstition; but the law limiting the expense of the funeral, which law he had himself introduced, he transgressed, and spared no outlays.
He transgressed also his own ordinances limiting the cost of banquets, when he tried to assuage his sorrow by drinking parties and convivial banquets, where extravagance and ribaldry prevailed.”
Roman laws to limit the parties
As hinted above, the love for these feasts grew to such an extent that Roman laws had to be made in order to limit the allowable budgets. The first of these laws dates back to the Republican period. For example the Fannia Lex and Didia Lex posed limitations on festive spending to all people of Italy. The Orchia lex (year 566 of the city) placed a maximum on the number of dinner guests you might have. Even Julius Caesar put his pen to a similar set of laws (Julia Lex) posing new limits of 300 Sestertii on common feasts and a thousand Sestertii on marriage feasts. As time went by the limits were shifted through new laws, which in itself is interesting because you would have thought that they were simply ignoring the law and making the issue of new ones totally useless. Perhaps the law was followed after all? Perhaps not.
My favourite of all these is the attempt made with the Antia Lex written by Antius Restio posing limitations on luxury. It was never respected by anyone except, according to Macrobius, by the author himself who in order to avoid being regarded a bigot in contempt of his own laws was never seen going out to dinner again.