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A Crash Course on Food&Wine in Ancient Rome

Please turn on captions for subtitles! Enjoy!

  Author's own work, Taken with iPhone 7 on 14th April 2018    A close up of all the dishes, from top left: porridge eaten by the poor Romans, millet pancakes, porridge eaten by the rich Romans, fried mackerel and luncheon meat, wine. 

Author's own work, Taken with iPhone 7 on 14th April 2018

A close up of all the dishes, from top left: porridge eaten by the poor Romans, millet pancakes, porridge eaten by the rich Romans, fried mackerel and luncheon meat, wine. 


Start of script:

Introduction

Ed: Hey did you hear about the Chicken Rendang scandal over on Masterchef UK? Apparently one of the contestants was eliminated because the judges felt that her chicken skin needed to be crispy!

Zhenna: Ya omg, how can they be so ignorant of Malaysian food? Food is such an important part of their identity as a people.

Ed: Now that you mentioned that, I do agree that food is an integral part of every culture. When I go overseas and think of home, I usually think of chilli crab and chicken rice.

YX: What about somewhere like ancient Rome around 500BCE? While we were learning about their history, we rarely considered how food played a role in their identity.

Ed: That’s true. I think that when considering a civilization or culture, it is worthwhile to consider the various types of food that they consumed. The Ancient Romans ate different food among the different classes and we should discuss how food differed not just in terms of variety, but also in terms of “who ate what”.

Zhenna: So today we’re gonna be talking about various food groups which include staples, meat, vegetables, and wine. We will be taking a closer look at how these differences in food consumption between the rich and poor in the Roman Republic reflects their status in society and how it played a role in shaping their identity.

Consumption of Staples in Ancient Rome

Ed: To begin with, let’s talk about staples. Have you guys ever tried millet rice?

Zhenna: Ya actually I have, but it was quite expensive. I’ve been to a couple of places that charge extra for changing regular white rice to millet rice.

Ed: I’ve actually had similar experiences where I had to pay extra for millet. So check this out, In the Ancient Roman Republic, the rich considered millet to be inferior to regular wheat and therefore thought of millet to be “only fit for livestock”.

Zhenna: Oh yeah, now that you’ve said that,  I heard the same thing about how lobster was originally meant for the poor and prisoners.

Ed: So although the average Roman diet consisted of olives, wheat, and wine, the impoverished or “LOW-SES” Romans had little variety in terms of food choice. I'm sure you guys can imagine a similar phenomenon in our current day, where the poor simply eat whatever they can get their hands on.

Ed: The reason as to why millet was favored by the poor was because it was relatively simple to grow, with up to three harvests per year due to Italy’s suitable climate. Unfortunately, this also meant that millet was commonly associated with famines and food shortage. For this reason, I would assume that foods that were cheap due to it being produced in bulk, as well as food that could be stored for long periods of time would be common among the poor.

Zhenna: Was Millet really the only staple that the poor Romans ate? I always thought Romans were famous for their grand feasts!

Ed: Ok, so not really. Around 100 CE, the poor Romans started consuming oat as well. However, this was not simply due to poor Romans wanting a change in diet. Oat become the choice of the poor because, like millet, it could be planted and harvested more than once a year. On top of being eaten raw, it could also be consumed in a variety of ways such as being made into oatmeal, boiled into porridge, ground into flour and baked.

YX: What about bread though? I heard ALL Romans ate bread. I happen to love my bread with olive oil!

Ed:  The strangest part about bread was that much like the members in roman society, bread had its own hierarchy. As I mentioned earlier, wheat was the most sought after grain, with other type of grain such as barley, rye, and, oat being considered “second grade”. 

Ed: Not to sound lazy here but there are just too many varieties of bread and flour to get into right now. But, the most important takeaway I feel is to know that one item “bread” had numerous names in ancient Rome based on what it was made of and for whom it was made for. This really reminded me of Joey’s blog post on Roman Baths, where she informs us that the different kinds of baths and rooms were called different things.

Ed: I actually made you guys some Millet pancakes, although I'm PRETTY sure pancakes were not common to Ancient Rome, I wouldn't want to torture you guys to eat the bland raw millet that the poor frequently consumed. These pancakes were made with millet flour.

(*EDWARD TAKES OUT PANCAKES TO SHARE WITH EVERYONE*)

Consumption of Meat in Ancient Rome

Zhenna: The Romans seem to really love their carbs but what about meat?

YX: Well, first off the poor ate little meat as it was pricey. The exceptions were during religious festivals which required animals to be sacrificed. If in luck, they might manage to obtain a minute portion or sausages.

YX: Unsurprisingly, the rich organised fancy feasts which served plenty of various types of meat like venison, goat and mutton. Birds that are commonly eaten today like chicken, geese and ducks were part of their diets too. Some surprising things the rich ate would be exotic birds like flamingos, ostriches and even peacocks.

Neeharika: Hey peacocks aren’t the most fascinating thing the Romans ate. One meal was believed to have a chicken, duck, goose, pig and cow all simultaneously stuffed inside each other and cooked as a whole! Even Gordon Ramsay would be impressed by that!

YX: Well yes I think Gordon Ramsay would very likely be surprised that fish sauce, which is widely used to elevate the flavours of a dish especially in Southeast Asian cuisines, has origins that leads back to the Roman Empire! Garum, AKA fish sauce, was like the MSG of their time, making food more tasty!

Ed: How was fish sauce made?

YX: Well similar to the fish sauce that we Asians use, the Roman version also involved fermentation of fish and salt after they were layered. Some utilised the entire fish, others involved the use of internal organs and blood of the fish. 

YX: The rich who had more access to other ingredients like honey, wine and herbs, could mix it with fish sauce to make variants of sauces.

Zhenna: Wow, what kind of fish did they eat?

YX: The rich owned private fish ponds where they could rear their own fishes from mackerel to eels. On the other hand, the poor would usually go for freshwater fish. Since the Romans were adept at preserving food, they could use it on fishes to ensure they consumed enough protein especially when supply was scarce.

YX: Here I have some fried mackerel with Asian fish sauce, for an Asian twist on the fish which the rich Romans ate and a couple of luncheon meat to represent the small portions of meat if the poor were able to obtain any meat for their meal.

(*YIXUAN TAKES OUT FISH AND MEAT TO SHARE WITH EVERYONE*)

 

Zhenna: I have heard that the just like the greeks, the romans also enjoyed eating porridge as their source of wheat, is it true?

Neeharika: Yes, porridge was a staple for all Romans

Zhenna: Hmm, but porridge tastes extremely bland, how did they manage to eat it everyday?

 Consumption of Vegetables in Ancient Rome

Neeharika: In order to get variety to their food, the Romans added  different kinds of fruits and vegetables to their food.

Zhenna: Hmm, What kind of vegetables did they eat then?

Neeharika: The Romans consumed a variety of vegetables like cucumbers, lentils, beans, legumes and peas, which were their staples. They occasionally even consumed vegetables like asparagus, turnips and celery. They sometimes even mixed these vegetables into bread because it served as a good way of getting protein.

Edward: Ohh so you mean something like the Italian focaccia which is topped with herbs!

Neeharika: Yes that's correct!

Zhenna: So was there a difference in the vegetables that the rich and the poor ate?

Neeharika: Not quite, there was no class difference between the vegetables that were consumed by the rich and the poor. The only difference was that the rich Romans could afford spices which they imported from all over Southeast asia like India etc. So these spices included cloves, nutmeg  cinnamon etc. The rich would also enjoy a lot of meat along with these vegetables, so they would not eat the vegetables alone.

Zhenna: Oh, I see so were the vegetables consumed on their own or they were only consumed when added to food?

Neeharika: In daily life, vegetables could be consumed along with something or on their own as well. But during lavish dinner parties these vegetables were actually served as appetizers. Only certain vegetables like asparagus, carrots, cabbage and beetroot were served as starters to the rich Romans.

Zhenna: Oh, that sounds amazing, how did they prepare these dishes?

Neeharika: The Romans used loads of garlic, olive oil, olives and herbs when cooking their food. The olive oil was an essential ingredient as it served as their main source of fat.

Edward: The Romans were extremely healthy then, and probably the reason why olive oil is so popular today, especially for its health benefits. You mentioned they also enjoyed eating fruits, which sort of fruit do they like to eat?

Neeharika: They loved eating peaches, pears, apples, plums, cherries, dates and figs, which they dried in order to increase the shelf life of these fruits, in order to keep them fresh for longer.

Zhenna: Wow, but what about vegetables? How did the Romans preserve that?

Neeharika: In order to preserve the fruits and vegetables that they ate, the Romans would marinate them in vinegar or brine or simply conserve them in grape juice, wine or honey .

Zhenna: That sounds pretty clever and interesting as to how methods of preservation are today!

Neeharika: Yes, except nowadays everything is mechanized! Anyway, Here I have two different types of porridge. They are actually the same but they are served in different styles, so this is for the rich, it is seasoned with lot of spices which are imported from all over the world and the one for the poor has fewer vegetables and does not have any spices. If this is really bad i am really sorry HAHH.

(*NEEHARIKA TAKES OUT PORRIDGE TO SHARE WITH EVERYONE*)


Consumption of Wine in Ancient Rome

Zhenna: Hmmm, well, now we know so much about their food, how about their drinks? I’ve heard that Romans are crazy for wine! If Milo was the national drink of Singapore, can wine be considered the national drink of Rome?

YX: Yes! Wine can actually be considered the national drink of Rome. I think there are a few fun facts you might be interested to know!

Zhenna: Oh really! Tell me all about it!

YX: The Romans drank Mulsum which is a type of wine sweetened with honey. The honey is only added in right before they drink the wine. Sounds yucky but mulsum is often served at the beginning of a meal as an aperitif to stimulate one's’ appetite. It is like an appetizer in today’s context just that it is in liquid form. Also, the rich Romans actually drank their wine diluted. It was said that drinking undiluted wine called merum was actually considered the habit of barbarians. So, they would mix wine with warm water or sometimes even seawater at a ratio of 1:2.

Neeharika: That’s right! The intention of diluting the wine was for them to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of the wine, to be just slightly intoxicated to allow one to be free and let them speak their mind.

Zhenna: Oh! I thought diluting the wine was actually to save up cost… you know like adding water makes a bigger quantity. So, they can drink it for a longer time.

All 3: HAHA

Neeharika: Even slaves get to enjoy wine! But of course, the quality of the wine the slaves consumed cannot be compared to what the rich drink. Also, women were actually not allowed to consume wine at all! Women in ancient Rome drank barley instead as an alternative to wine.

Zhenna: Thankfully, this does not apply to us today and we can enjoy a glass of wine every now and then, regardless of our gender and not be considered barbaric. Since we learnt so much about the different kinds of wine the Ancient Romans drank, let’s try it for ourselves. We can try diluting the wine with water and also add some honey to it.  

 (*everyone cheers & tastes the diluted wine*)

Zhenna: Oh hmmm, it's definitely interesting to know all about the different food that the rich and the poor ate. Thank you all for sharing! I have gained so much insights on the types of food the different classes in ancient Rome ate! Now I feel like I am an expert in the food and drinks aspect of Ancient Rome. Cheers!

-END-


 

What went on behind the scenes......

 

References:

 

  1. Adhikari, S. Top 10 ancient Roman foods and drinks.2017  

  2. Carr, K.E. Roman food – rich and poor. 2017.

  3. Cartwright, Mark. Food in The Roman World. 2014.

  4. Cowell, Frank Richard. Life in Ancient Rome. 1976.

  5. Dove's Farm, The History of Bread. 2018.

  6. Dunlap, Matthew. Lobster. 2007.

  7. Hays, Jeffery. Wine in Ancient Rome. 2012. 

  8. James W. Ermatinger. The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia2015.

  9. Killgroce, Kristina, Tykot, Robert H. Food for Rome: A stable isotope investigation of diet in the Imperial period (1st–3rd centuries2013.

  10. Mason, Moya K. Ancient Roman Women: A Look at Their Lives. 2018.

  11. Pappas, Stephanie. Most Ancient Romans Ate Like Animals2013

  12. Prichep, Deena. Fish Sauce: An Ancient Roman Condiment Rises Again. 2013.

  13. Stilo, Aelius. Wine and Rome. N.d.