Ancient Roman food pervaded a wide range of aspects of Roman life, as indeed it does with almost any society. The earliest foods were poor and simple, generally based on vegetables and in rare occasions meat also. This tradition continued particularly within the military.
Wealth increased as Rome’s dominions stretched further and further. Increasing numbers of cheap slaves provided the menial labour required to run extensive farms so that the range of produce available to Roman citizens was increasingly wide. The Romans themselves were not against the influence of foreign cultures and as such readily accepted new and exotic ideas for their increasingly rich tables. This lead to the development of extravagant recipes, some of which were collected in proper recipe books.
The story is somewhat different as far as the poor plebeians were concerned and this soon lead to social struggle. Age old laws and tradition were such that the rich Patricians would invest their war gains in farming whilst the plebeians themselves were often without land or off at war and not in a position to work that land. The increasing influx of foreign produce, such as grain from Sicily and Africa meant that local small-scale produce lost value and as such the common folk suffered a great deal.
The social struggles, notoriously led by the Gracchi brothers eventually lead to a slight shift in balance as the people were granted representatives of their own but it wasn’t until the time of Julius Caesar and later that land and food initiatives, the agrarian laws, in favour of the poor were put into practice. Eventually these initiatives, including free bread and grain (a specific quota per poor person) were being taken advantage of by almost half the population of Rome.