Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti in Pompeii, 1st century BC
If you were kid or sick during Roman times, you had pretty good chances to get breakfast. Otherwise you needed to wait until later to be fed.
The Roman breakfast was called "jentaculum" and was taken immediately after the sun rising. It consisted of bread, sometimes with garlic or olive spread, cheese, olives, different types of porridge and water for drinking. In the more wealthy families some eggs, honey, milk and fruits were added too.
The lunch’s name "prandium" suggests that it was taken early in the day. For the majority of the people, that was the first meal of the day. It consisted of bread, cheese, some vegetables. The bread could be mixed with wine and eaten altogether. Later, during the time of the Empire, many people would eat outside, in different bars and small restaurants (termopolia and tabernae). They would have fried fish, or kind of omelets (patinae) with vegetables and wine.
The Romans called their dinner "cena" and it was considered as the main meal of the day. It was taken at late afternoon or when the sun started going down. In the earlier times, the "cena" consisted mainly of different kind of pottage with a bit of olive oil, taken with vegetables, or eggs, cheese or honey. At the end of the Republican period (around 1st century BC), it became much more sophisticated, especially for the elite. A typical "cena" had three separated servings:
First was called "gustatio" where some hors-d’œuvres (for example oysters or snails) were served, accompanied by a sweet wine mixed with honey (mulsum).
Second was named "prima mensa" and consisted of boiled or roasted meat, poultry, different dishes with sauces, and fish.
The last was "secunda mensa", and different types of sweets and treats were served along with fruits and some more wine to drink.
Way of eating and sitting on table
The normal meals were taken quickly and with modesty. Romans ate either on chairs or sitting upright for those who ate outside in bars and open thermopolia. The "cena" was performed in a special room called "triclinium". Here the guests would lie down on a special coach (lectus triclinaris) usually rested on their left elbow and their feet projected out of the coach. All would be faced toward the central table (mensa). The Romans used two types of spoons on the table – a large one called "ligula" and a small one "cochlear", with a sharp end used instead of a fork. The fork appeared relatively late at the Roman table, around the period of the late Antiquity, circa 3rd century BC. After every meal, hands were washed and wiped in napkins. Guests usually brought their own spoons and napkins. All bones and shells were swept straight on the floor.
Roman cochlear type of spoon, 3th century AD
Remember the Roman poet Juvenal deploring Romans who were interested only in “bread and circuses”? Well, it might have been true for his life time (end of 1st - beginning of the 2nd century AD), but certainly not for the earlier periods. And this was not just because Romans were supposedly braver and wiser in the past. They simply did not know the bread. This commodity came relatively late in Rome, around 3rd century BC. Until then, cereals were mainly consumed. The most popular were wheat, esp. bread wheat (a.k.a. foment) and barley. Romans ate them usually in a form of a porridge.
When the bread was introduced, Romans learned how to make it from different flours. Very often the dough was mixed with oil or fat from bacon to improve the flavor. Spices such as cumin, pepper, sesame, and poppy seed were often added. Depending on the way flour was sifted, Romans prepared different types - "panis cibarius", "panis secundarius", "panis rusticus". The bread was usually baked in ovens at home, but many public shops were selling it outside too.
Fruits and vegetables
As it was already said in part 1, no spinach or eggplant, no tomatoes or capsicum and certainly no potatoes were part of the Roman menu, as they entered Europe after discovering the New World.
The Romans ate almost the same vegetables and fruits as Greeks. A part of cabbage and leeks, very popular were cucumber, carrots (although not the popular today orange carrots), beets, asparagus, and lettuce. Also, chicory and celery. A big change came after the conquests of the late Republic. Romans discovered other cuisines and adopted the use of different herbs and spices.
Fruits were eaten again fresh and dried. Popular fruits included apples, pears, pomegranates, grapes, dates, quinces, strawberries, plums, and melon. Later (around 1st century BC) were introduced apricots, oranges, and lemons but were considered as exotic. Although known to the Romans, the lemon wasn’t cultivated in Rome until the first century AD.
Meat and fish
According to the archeological findings, the most popular meat in Rome was pork. It was eaten both by the poor and the rich. From the other meats, beef was consumed very seldom. Instead lamb, game, and poultry were part of the regular Roman diet of more wealthy families.
In a preserved menu of one Pompeii’s taberna we know that meat was predominantly advertised. The owner of an inn offered chicken, fish, ham and peacock. Not bad for a fast-food restaurant!
Fish was consumed on a daily basis from all layers of the Roman society.
A fish sauce - "garum", made of different type small fish (and sometimes their intestines) was even more popular than in Greece. It was used not only in daily life cooking, but also as indispensable supply for the army.
Cooking boar. Ancient Roman statuette from the Farnese Collection, Naples Museum, Italy
Eggs and Dairy products
Eggs were a common part of the Roman diet and even eaten more often than in Greece. Different types of eggs were consumed during the three main meals in the day. There are quite sophisticated recipes (in Apicius for instance) for preparing eggs as a hors-d’oeuvre for a dinner banquet with nuts or in different types of omelets.
Romans considered cheese and cheese production of a great importance. Cheese was eaten by everyone at any of the daily meals and was part of the Roman army diet too. Authors like Columella and Varro have written extensive descriptions of Roman cheese making.
A broad range of white and red wines existed in ancient Rome. The wine was used not only for drinking, but very often for cooking. Many mixtures of wine were known, such as "mulsum" - wine and honey, "passum" - with raisins, "conditum" - hot with herbs mixture.
An interesting mixture was "posca" known as the drink of the soldiers. It consisted of sour wine or vinegar, mixed with water (sometimes with honey or herbs added). Romans too drank their wines diluted with water as, like Greeks, they believed that pure wine caused madness.
Roman mosaic, bottle protected by a sheath of straw and a glass cup, 3rd century AD