Let’s take a look at what ancient Romans ate in times when there were no antibiotics and pesticides, when everything was natural and was no separations for “organic” and “regular” food.
In ancient Rome, farm owners were well respected. Cicero considered farming the best of all Roman occupations. The best farm was a vineyard, followed by an irrigated garden, olive orchard, meadow, grain land, forest trees, and lastly acorn woodlands. Among the aristocracy land ownership was very important: the more land a Roman owned, the higher position in the society he had. Soldiers were often rewarded with land from the commander they served. Though farms depended on slave labor, free men and citizens were hired at farms to oversee the slaves and ensure that the farms ran smoothly.
Cows provided milk. Mules did the heavy work on the farm. Sheep and goats were cheese producers. Sugar production centered on beekeeping. Some Romans raised snails as luxury food. Horses were not widely used in farming, but were raised by the rich for racing or war.
In the beginning, food habits between Roman social classes were not very great, but the enormous expansion of Roman Empire opened the dietary horizons and exposed Romans to many new culinary traditions and cooking methods. Romans were focused on food which played a major role in communal religion and political life. The food itself and food supply were the main ways the emperor showcased his power, established his role as a ruler, and expressed his relationship to the Roman people. Roman food vendors and farmers sold meats, fish, cheeses, produce, olive oil and spices. There was a wide network of eateries, pubs, and inns that sold prepared meals.
- a breakfast at dawn that consisted of bread or pancakes eaten with dates and honey
- a lunch in the late morning – a light meal of fish, cold meat, bread and vegetables (often the meal consisted of the leftovers from the previous day)
- the main meal of the day (called “cena”) in the evening
The ancient Roman diet included many items from all food groups.
The “daily bread”
The staple crop was spelt – Triticum spelta, also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat, is a species of wheat cultivated since 5000 BC, from the Bronze Age to medieval times. Bread from it was the mainstay of every Roman table.
The “daily bread” was essential food: most people consumed over 70% of their daily calories in the form of cereals and legumes. Often, the bread was dipped in wine and eaten with olives, cheese, and grapes.
Spelt was an important staple for ancient Romans. In a 100 gram serving, uncooked spelt provides 338 calories and contains about 70% total carbohydrates, including 11% as dietary fiber. It is an excellent source (20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, several B vitamins and numerous dietary minerals: richest nutrient contents include manganese (143% DV), phosphorus (57% DV) and niacin (46% DV).
Spelt now survives as a relict crop in Central Europe and northern Spain and has found a new market as a healthy food.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables: about 30 varieties of olive; 40 kinds of pear and figs; few citrus fruits; a wide variety of vegetables – over 50 cultivated and 40 wild vegetables. Some foods that we now consider characteristic of modern Italian cuisine, such as spinach, tomatoes and bell peppers, were not used (they appeared in Europe following the discovery of the New World).
Meat and Fish
Meat and fish: Beef was seldom consumed in ancient Rome; but pork, sausages, lamb, duck, goose, chickens were present in the menu. But butcher’s meat was an uncommon luxury. On his triumph, Caesar gave a great feast to 260,000 people that included seafood, poultry and hunted animals but no butcher’s meat. Fish was more common than meat.
Milk and cheese
Milk and cheese: The goat or sheep milk considered superior to the cow milk. Cheese was part of people’s ordinary diet and a standard ingredient for Roman soldiers.
Olive oil was fundamental to Roman cooking.
Drinking good wine was a widely spread tradition among upper classes, but it was normally mixed with water just before drinking, since the fermentation was not controlled and the alcohol level was high. The lower classes and soldiers consumed sour wine mixed with water and herbs. Beer was known but considered vulgar.
Because salt in its pure form was an expensive commodity in Rome, people used a fermented fish sauce, which was the fundamental seasoning distinctive in ancient Roman cuisine. It could be used as a seasoning during cooking, used in place of salt; as a table condiment; or as a sauce.
Pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, bits of meat or fish – was considered the most popular food of the Romans. The basic grain pottage reminded dishes similar to polenta or risotto. The simplest kind of pottage would be made from emmer, water, salt and fat. The more sophisticated kind was made with olive oil and assorted vegetables when available. The richer classes ate their stew with eggs, cheese, and honey and it was also occasionally served with meat or fish. Made from spelt and containing two kinds of ground meat, “Julian stew” was a “quintessential Roman dish” that was traditionally eaten by the soldiers.
A hearth – the heart of the home
The heart of the home was a hearth – a fireplace made out of brick or stone with or without an oven. It was a central and most important feature of a home that was called “focus” (could not be a better name). This concept has been generalized to refer to a home, as “hearth and home” and “keep the home fires burning”. For centuries, focus was used for cooking food and also for heating. The hearth was usually placed in front of the lararium – the home altar. Portable and moveable stoves and ovens with stone or bronze feet were also commonly used by the Romans.
The thermopolium (eatery) of Pompeii, Italy, 1st century AD. So, “restaurant” food was widely sold at pubs and bars, inns and food stalls, and considered dining for the lower classes.