Kinds of Food in Ancient Rome: Meat, Bread, Seafood, Fruits, Olives, Cereals, Sauces and Spices

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20120227-Food bread Karlsruhe_(244).JPG
Roman bread
Among other things Romans ate doves, chickens, figs, dates, olives, grapes, white almonds, truffles and fois gras and cooked fowl in clay pots. There were no tomatoes, potatoes, spaghetti, risotto, or corn. Romans often turned up their noses at the food from outside Rome. On the food in Greece a character in a satire commented: “They give weeds to their guests, as though they were cattle. And they flavor their weeds with other weeds."

Major crops included grapes, olives, peaches, cherries, plums and walnuts.Romans grafted apple trees and spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. The main pieces of farm machinery were olive oil presses. Rabbits are believed to have been domesticated using wild rabbits from Iberia in the Roman Era.

The Romans consumed dairy products such as milk, cream, curds, whey, and cheese. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ They drank the milk of sheep and goats as well as that of cows, and made cheese of the three kinds of milk. The cheese from ewes’ milk was thought more digestible, though less palatable, than that made from cows’ milk, while cheese from goats’ milk was more palatable but less digestible. It is remarkable that they had no knowledge of butter except as a plaster for wounds. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Honey took the place of sugar on the table and in cooking, for the Romans had only a botanical knowledge of the sugar cane. Salt was at first obtained by the evaporation of sea water, but was afterwards mined, Its manufacture was a monopoly of the government, and care was taken always to keep the price low. It was used not only for seasoning, but also as a preservative agent. Vinegar was made from grapes. Among the articles of food unknown to the Romans were tea and coffee, along with the orange, tomato, potato, butter, and sugar.” |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Grains and Cereals in Ancient Rome

Grain was the main commodity in ancient Rome. It was used to make bread and porridge, the staples of the Roman diet. Poor people subsisted on a gruel-like soup of mush made from grain. The Roman grain goddess Ceres gave birth to the word "cereal." Chickpeas, emmer wheat and lentils were all eaten. Rice was imported from India and used as a medicine. Rice arrived in Egypt in the 4th century B.C. and around that time India was already exporting it to Greece. It was not widely consumed in the Roman Empire.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The word frumentum was a general term applied to any of the many sorts of grain that were grown for food. The word frumentum occurs fifty-five times in Caesar’s Gallic War, meaning any kind of grain that happened to be grown for food in the country in which Caesar was campaigning at the time. Of those now in use barley, oats, rye, and wheat were known to the Romans, though rye was not cultivated, and oats served only as feed for cattle. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

wheat field

"Barley was not much used, for it was thought to lack nutriment, and therefore to be unfit for laborers. In very ancient times another grain, spelt (far), a very hardy kind of wheat, had been grown extensively, but it had gradually gone out of use except for the sacrificial cake that had given its name to the confarreate ceremony of marriage. In classical times wheat was the staple grain grown for food, not differing much from that which we have today. It was usually planted in the fall, though on some soils it would mature as a spring wheat. After grain ceased to be much grown in Central Italy and the land was diverted to other purposes, wheat had to be imported from the provinces, first from Sicily, then from Africa and Egypt, as the home supply became inadequate to the needs of the teeming population. |+|

“Preparation of the Grain. In the earliest times the grain (far) had not been ground, but had been merely pounded in a mortar. The meal was then mixed with water and made into a sort of porridge (puls, whence our word “poultice”), which long remained the national dish something like the oatmeal of Scotland. Plautus (died 184 B.C.) jestingly refers to his countrymen as “pulse-eaters.” The persons who crushed the grain were called pinsitores, or pistores, whence the cognomen Piso, as was said above, was derived; in later times the bakers were also called pistores, because they ground the grain as well as baked the bread. In the ruins of bakeries we find mills as regularly as ovens. |+|

“In such mills the grain was ground into regular flour. The mill (mola) consisted of three parts, the lower millstone (meta), the upper stone (catillus), and the framework that surrounded and supported the latter and furnished the means to turn it upon the meta. The meta was, as the name suggests, a cone shaped stone (A) resting on a bed of masonry (B) with a raised rim, between which and the lower edge of the meta the flour was collected. In the upper part of the meta a beam (C) was mortised, ending above in an iron pin or pivot (D), on which hung and turned the framework that supported the catillus. The catillus (E) itself was shaped something like an hourglass, or two funnels joined at their necks. The upper funnel served as a hopper into which the grain was poured; the lower funnel fitted closely over the meta. From a relief in the Vatican Museum, Rome.The distance between the lower funnel and the meta was regulated by the length of the pin, mentioned above, according to the fineness of the flour desired. |+|

“The framework was very strong and massive on account of the heavy weight that was suspended from it. The beams used for turning the mill were fitted into holes in the narrow part of the catillus. The power required to do the grinding was furnished by horses or mules pulling the beams, or by slaves pushing against them. This last method was often used as a punishment, as we have seen. Of the same form but much smaller were the hand mills used by soldiers for grinding the frumentum furnished them as rations. Under the Empire, water mils were introduced, but they are rarely mentioned in literature.” |+|

Bread in Ancient Rome

Romans ate a lot of bread and snacks that were similar to sandwiches. Round loaves of bread were baked in circular brick ovens. The bread was light and airy and made with grain and yeast. A typical loaf of bread was about a foot across and five inches thick and weighed about a pound. There were two main kinds of bread: panis artopicius ("pan bread") cooked on top of a stove, and panis testustis ("pot bread"), baked in an earthenware vessel. Upper class women didn't like making bread. They usually left such work to their slaves. Bakeries in Pompeii are identified by by the presence of ovens and grinding stones.

Charles King wrote in his website “A History of Bread”: “The Greeks and Romans liked their bread white; colour was one of the main tests for quality at the time of Pliny (A.D. 70). Those who think the craze for white bread is a modern fad should note this. Pliny wrote: ‘The wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces a dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with the white wheat of Alexandria’. [Source: Charles King, “A History of Bread” |~|]

“The Romans enjoyed several kinds of bread, with interesting names. There was oyster bread (to be eaten with oysters); ‘artolaganus’ or cakebread; ‘speusticus’ or ‘hurry bread’. There was oven bread, tin bread, Parthian bread. There were rich breads made with milk, eggs and butter, but these of course, were only for the wealthy and privileged people. The Egyptian grammarian and philosopher Athenaeus, who lived in the third century A.D., has handed down to us considerable knowledge about bread and baking in those days. |~|

“He wrote that the best bakers were from Phoenicia or Lydia, and the best bread-makers from Cappadocia. He gives us a list of the sorts of bread common in his time-leavened and unleavened loaves; loaves made from the best wheat flour; loaves made from groats, or rye, and some from acorns and millet. There were lovely crusty loaves too, and loaves baked on a hearth. Bakers made a bread mixed with cheese, but the favourite of the rich was always white bread made from wheat.” |~|

Bakeries and Bread-Sellers in Ancient Rome

Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: A wall-painting from Pompeii “depicts the sale of bread - loaves of bread are stacked on the shop counter, and the vendor can be seen handing them to customers. It is thought that the inhabitants of Pompeii bought their daily bread from bakeries rather than baked it themselves at home, since ovens rarely are found in the houses of the town.” The high “number of bakeries that have so far been excavated tends to support this belief. Bakeries are identified by the presence of stone mills to grind grain, and large wood-burning ovens for baking. [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

ancient Roman bread seller

“Bread may have been bought directly from the bakery, but it is likely that it was also sold from temporary stalls set up at different parts of the town. Two graffiti discovered on the precinct wall of the Temple of Apollo are an indication of this. They read Verecunnus libarius hic and Pudens libarius, which can be roughly translated as 'Verecunnus and Pudens sell sacrificial bread here'. |::|

Lava mills and the large wood-burning oven identify” a building “as a bakery. Each mill consists of two mill-stones, one stationary and one hollow and shaped like a funnel. The funnel-shaped stone had slots, into which wooden levers could be inserted so that the stone could be rotated. Each mill would have been operated either by manpower or with the help of a donkey or horse (in one bakery, the skeletons of several donkeys were discovered). In order to make flour, grain was poured from above into the hollow stone and then was ground between the two stones. In total, 33 bakeries have so far been found in Pompeii. The carbonised remains of loaves of bread were found in one, demonstrating that the oven was in use at the time of the eruption in A.D. 79.” |::|

Charles King wrote in his website “A History of Bread”: “A Bakers’ Guild was formed in Rome round about the year 168 B.C. From then on the industry began as a separate profession. The Guild or College, called Collegium Pistorim. did not allow the bakers or their children to withdraw from it and take up other trades. The bakers in Rome at this period enjoyed special privileges: they were the only craftsmen who were freemen of the city, all other trades being conducted by slaves. [Source: Charles King, “A History of Bread” |~|]

“The members of the Guild were forbidden to mix with ‘comedians and gladiators’ and from attending performances at the amphitheatre, so that they might not be contaminated by the vices of the ordinary people. We suppose that the bakers, instead of being honoured by the strict regulations, must have felt deprived by them.” |~|

Fruits in the Roman Empire

The Greco-Romans grew and ate tangerines, oranges, lemons, olives, figs, grapes, pears, apples, often in poor soils. Romans grafted apple trees and spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The apple, pear, plum, and quince were either native to Italy or, like the olive and the grape, were introduced into Italy long before history begins. Careful attention had long been given to their cultivation, and by Cicero’s time Italy was covered with orchards. All these fruits were abundant and cheap in their seasons, and were used by all sorts and conditions of men. By Cicero’s time, too, had begun the introduction of new fruits from foreign lands and the improvement of native varieties. Great statesmen and generals gave their names to new and better sorts of apples and pears, and vied with one another in producing fruits out of season by hothouse culture. Every fresh extension of Roman territory brought new fruits and nuts into Italy. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

20120227-Food FrescosCasa_dei_Cervi.jpg Among the fruits the peach (malum Persicum), the apricot (malum Armeniacum), the pomegranate (malum Punicum or granatum), the cherry (cerasus, brought by Lucullus from the town Cerasus in Pontus), and the lemon (citrus, not grown in Italy until the third century of our era). Similarly, the fruits, grains, and vegetables known at home were carried out through the provinces wherever the Romans established themselves. Cherries, for instance, are said to have been grown in Britain in 47 A.D., four years after its conquest. Besides the introduction of fruits for culture, large quantities, either dried or otherwise preserved, were imported for food. The orange, however, strange as this seems to us, was not grown by the Romans. Fresh vegetables, and fresh fruits could not be brought from great distances.” |+|

Apples were mentioned in the Bible, Greek myths and the Viking sagas. The earliest apples were versions of crab apples. Pictures of apples have been found in caves used by prehistoric men. All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the Malus sieversii tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples." Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]

Scientists believe that Malus sieversii was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids, not Malus sieversii itself, became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were commonplace around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.

Melons are one the earliest cultivated crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and dates. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D. in his multi-volume Natural History.

strawberries in a Pompeii fresco

Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of the University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannas, but it has seeds you can roast up and eat." The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.

Pomegranates are ancient fruit. They are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Odyssey. According to one of the most famous Greek myths, Persephone spends six months in the underworld because she ate six pomegranate seeds while held there by Hades. The Assyrians made necklaces of gold pomegranates. Pomegranates are thought have originated in Southeast Asia. They were found in much of the ancient world and are thought to have been introduced to several places by the Phoenicians. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used the fruit in their medicines.

Figs have been around since ancient times, when they were associated with magic and medicine. The Egyptians buried entire basketfuls with the dead and valued them as a digestive aid. The Greeks called them “the most useful of all the fruits which grow on trees." In the Middle Ages, fig syrup was a popular sweetener.

Lemons and citron — the first cirtris fruits- introduced to Rome — were highly valued and only enjoyed by the rich in Ancient Rome: “Laura Geggel wrote in Live Science: “Lemons were the acai bowls of the ancient Romans — prized by the privileged because they were rare, and treasured for their healing powers. The upper crust of society likely viewed the citron and the lemon as prized commodities, likely “due to [their] healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor and its rarity,” as well as their culinary qualities, Langgut said. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, July 21, 2017]

Spread of Citrus Fruits from Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean

Lemons and the citron were the only citrus fruits known in the ancient Mediterranean. Other fruits in the same group, oranges, limes and pomelos, arrived centuries later from their native Southeast Asia, a study led by Dafna Langgut, an archaeobotanist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, revealed. “All other citrus fruits most probably spread more than a millennium later, and for economic reasons,” Langgut, told Live Science. The study was published in the June 2017 issue of the journal HortScience. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, July 21, 2017 ~]

Laura Geggel of Live Science wrote: “Studying the ancient citrus trade took a lot of work. Langgut examined ancient texts, art and artifacts, such as murals and coins. She also dug into previous studies to learn about the identities and locations of fossil pollen grains, charcoals, seeds and other fruit remains. “Gathering this information “enabled me to reveal the spread of citrus from Southeast Asia into the Mediterranean,” Langgut said. ~

“The citron (Citrus medica)was the first citrus fruit to reach the Mediterranean, “which is why the whole group of fruits is named after one of its less economically important members,” she said. The citron spread west, likely through Persia (remains of a citron were found in a 2,500-year-old Persian garden near Jerusalem)and the Southern Levant, which today includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, southern Syria and Cyprus. Later, during the third and second centuries B.C., it spread to the western Mediterranean, Langgut found. The earliest lemon remains found in Rome were discovered in the Roman Forum, and date to between the late first century B.C. and the early first century A.D., she said. Citron seeds and pollen were also found in gardens owned by the wealthy in the Mount Vesuvius area and Rome, she added. ~

“It took another 400 years for the lemon (Citruslimon) to reach the Mediterranean area. Lemons, too, were owned by the elite class. “This means that for more than a millennium, citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean basin,” Langgut said. The citrus fruits that followed were more likely grown as cash crops, she said. At the beginning of the 10th century A.D., the sour orange (Citrus aurantium), lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and pomelo (Citrus maxima) made it to the Mediterranean. These fruits were likely spread by Muslims through Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, Langgut said. ~

““The Muslims played a crucial role in the dispersal of cultivated citrus in Northern Africa and Southern Europe, as evident also from the common names of many of the citrus types which were derived from Arabic,” she said. “This was possible because they controlled extensive territory and commerce routes reaching from India to the Mediterranean.” The sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) traveled west even later — during the 15th century A.D. — likely via a trade route established by people from Genoa, Italy; the Portuguese established such a route during the 16th century, Langgut said. Lastly, the mandarin (Citrus reticulata) made it to the Mediterranean in the 19th century, about 2,200 years after the citron first spread west, she said.” ~

Vegetables and Nuts in the Roman Era

The Greco-Romans grew and ate cabbage, leeks, onions, chick peas, beans and turnips, often in poor soils. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The garden did not yield to the orchard in the abundance and variety of its contributions to the supply of food. We read of artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, chicory, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, melons, onions, peas, the poppy, pumpkins, radishes, and turnips, to mention only those whose names are familiar to us all. It will be noticed, however, that the vegetables perhaps most prized by us, the potato and the tomato, were not known to the Romans. Of those mentioned the oldest seem to have been the bean and the onion, as shown by the names Fabius and Caepio already mentioned, but the latter came gradually to be looked upon as unrefined and the former to be considered too heavy a food except for persons engaged in the hardest toil. Cato pronounced the cabbage the finest vegetable known, and the turnip figures in the well-known anecdote of Manius Curius. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

20120227-Food FrescosCasa_dei_Cervi Herculaneum_(before_79_CE).jpg Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Lemons, apricots and cherries were introduced to Rome around the A.D. 1st century.

Cabbage is the world's most widely consumed vegetable and one of the first to be harvested. Native to the Mediterranean, it was eaten by Achilles in the Iliad and is believed to have been introduced to Europe and other parts of the world by the Romans. Asparagus was a favorite of the Romans. It was used mostly as a medicine in the Middle Ages before it became a popular food in the 17th century.

Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions the way oaths are sworn on the Bible in modern times. Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions and garlic by laborers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs, and Ovid wrote of them in the same way. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt. In a popular epigram the poet Martial wrote, "If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."

Among the nuts were the walnut, hazelnut, filbert, almond (after Cato’s time), and the pistachio (not introduced until the time of Tiberius). Almonds are one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. The ancient Mesopotamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Almonds have been found in the Minoan palace in Knossos and were a favorite dessert food of the Greeks. Almonds and pistachios are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.


Olives and olive oil were staples in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were used as food and fuel as well as a trade commodity. Sophocles called olives "our sweet silvered wet nurse." Olives were valued more as a source of fuel for oil lamps than as a food. They were also used to make soap. Olives were regarded as so precious that killing an olive tree was sometimes punished by death.

Roman relief with
olive gathering scene
Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are still a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and to dip bread in. Olives come in a host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black, oily and green, and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]

Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain, 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archaeologists speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C., spread to Syria and Turkey and reached ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptians were using olives purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.

The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and as a base for perfumes and treatments for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it on the altars of their gods. When they worked out and competed, Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots.

Olives and Olive Oil in the Roman Era

olive oil storage

In the Roman Empire olive oil was a major cash crop. Consumption by individuals rose to as much as 50 liters a year and some families grew quite rich trading it. In many ways olive oil was valued as much in ancient times as petroleum is today, with governments going to great lengths to make sure there was a steady supply. Some emperors gave it out free to the masses as part of their bread and circuses policy. The main pieces of farm machinery were olive oil presses.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Olive. Next in importance to the wheat came the olive. From a fresco in the Museo Nazionale, NaplesIt was introduced into Italy from Greece, and from Italy has spread through all the Mediterranean countries; but in ancient times the best olives were those of Italy, even as today the best olives come from Italy. The olive was an important article of food merely as a fruit. It was eaten both fresh and preserved in various ways, but it found its significant place in the domestic economy of the Romans in the form of the olive oil with which we are familiar. It is the value of the oil that has caused the cultivation of the olive to become so general in southern Europe. Many varieties of the olive were known to the Romans; they required different climates and soils and to were adapted to different uses. In general it may be said that the larger fruit were better suited for eating than for oil. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The olive was eaten fresh as it ripened and was also preserved in various ways. The ripe olives were sprinkled with salt and left untouched for five days; the salt was then shaken off, and the olives dried in the sun. They were also preserve sweet without salt in boiled must. Half-ripe olives were picked with their stems and covered over in jars with the best quality of oil; in this way they are said to have retained for more than a year the flavor of the fresh fruit. Green olives were preserved whole in strong brine, the form in which we know them now, or were beaten into a mass and preserved with spices and vinegar. The preparation called epityrum was made by taking the fruit in any of the three stages, removing the stones, chopping up the pulp, seasoning it with vinegar, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, and mint, and covering the mixture in jars with oil enough to exclude the air. The result was a salad that was eaten with cheese.” |+|

“Olive oil was used for several purposes. It was employed at first to anoint the body after bathing, especially by athletes; it was used as a vehicle for perfumes (the Romans knew nothing of distillation by means of alcohol); it was burned in lamps; it was an indispensable article of food. As a food it was employed in its natural state as butter is now in cooking, or in relishes, or dressings. The olive when subjected to pressure yields two fluids. The first to flow (amurca) is dark and bitter, having the consistency of water. It was largely used as a fertilizer, but not as a food. The second, which flows after greater pressure, is the oil (oleum, oleum olivum). The best oil was made from olives not fully ripe, but the largest quantities was yielded by the ripened fruit.”

Meat in Ancient Rome

The Romans ate chicken, wild boar, suckling pig, beef, veal, lamb, goat, kid, deer, hare, pheasant, duck, goose, capon (a castrated rooster) and game birds such as thrush, starling and woodcock. They were particularly fond of goose, which was prepared a number of ways with several different sauces. Rabbits are believed to have been domesticated using wild rabbits from Iberia in the Roman Era.

20120227-Food Sousse_museum_mosaic_kitchen.jpg The forests around Roman cities were filled with game. Small birds and mammals were caught in nets. The Romans used dove cotes to raise birds for eggs and meat and produced three-story-high towers to raise dormice, which were a fixture of Roman meals. Cats, rabbits and peacocks were introduced to Rome and eaten by around the A.D. 1st century.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Besides the pork, beef, and mutton that we still use the Roman farmer had goat’s flesh at his disposal; all of these meats were sold in the towns. Goat’s flesh was considered the poorest of all and was used by the lower classes only. Beef had been eaten by the Romans from the earliest times, but its use was a mark of luxury until very late in the Empire. Under the Republic the ordinary citizen ate beef only on great occasions when he had offered a steer or a cow to the gods in sacrifice. The flesh then furnished a banquet for his family and friends; the heart, liver, and lungs (called collectively the exta) were the share of the priest, while certain portions were consumed on the altar. Probably the great size of the carcass had something to do with the rarity of its use at a time when meat could be kept fresh only in the coldest weather; at any rate we must think of the Romans as using cattle for draft and dairy purposes, rather than for food. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Pork was widely used by rich and poor alike, and was considered the choicest of all domestic meats. The very language testifies to the important place the pig occupied in the economy of the larder, for no other animal has so many words to describe it in its different functions. Besides the general term sus we find porcus, porca, verres, aper, scrofa, maialis, and nefrens. In the religious ceremony of the suovetaurilia (sus + ovis + taurus), the swine, it will be noticed, has the first place, coming before the sheep and the bull. The vocabulary describing the parts of the pig used for food is equally rich; there are words for no less than half a dozen kinds of sausages, for example, with pork as their basis. We read, too, of fifty different ways of cooking pork. |+| “Fowl and Game. The common domestic fowls—chickens, ducks, geese, as well as pigeons—were eaten by the Romans, and, besides these, the wealthy raised various sorts of wild fowl for the table, in the game preserves that have been mentioned. Among these were cranes, grouse, partridges, snipe, thrushes, and woodcock. In Cicero’s time the peacock was most highly esteemed, having at the feast much the same place of honor as the turkey has with us; the birds cost as much as ten dollars each. Wild animals also were bred for food in similar preserves; the hare and the wild boar were the favorite. The latter was served whole upon the table, as in feudal times. As a contrast in size the dormouse (glis) may be mentioned; it was thought a great delicacy.” |+|

Development of the Roman Meat Diet

Joel N. Shurkin wrote in insidescience: “Archaeologists studying the eating habits of ancient Etruscans and Romans have found that pork was the staple of Italian cuisine before and during the Roman Empire. Both the poor and the rich ate pig as the meat of choice, although the rich got better cuts, ate meat more often and likely in larger quantities. They had pork chops and a form of bacon. They even served sausages and prosciutto Angela Trentacoste of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom specializes in the Etruscan civilization that preceded Rome in Italy. Much of her digging was in the tombs of rich Etruscans who often were buried with food and utensils. On some sites, she found 20,000 animal bones amid the rubbish. [Source: Joel N. Shurkin, insidescience, February 3, 2015 +/]

“As the hegemony of Rome grew so did the city and what was a largely rural Etruscan society became a more urban Roman one, she said. That changed the food supply. Most food, as now, came from farms outside the city. But, the city dwellers still raised pigs. They take up little room, can be easily bred and transported, Trentacoste said, and are easy to raise. +/

“They also had chickens roaming the yards that looked much like the chickens of today, MacKinnon said, and they were close to the same size. Modern farmers use breeding and nutrition to make the chickens grow faster, but eventually Roman chickens would catch up. Cattle take up too much room but rich Romans had beef occasionally, and sometimes goat. Low-fat food was not in vogue because the fat would protect meat from spoilage in a world without refrigerators.” +/

fried veal

Seafood in Ancient Rome

Romans were very fond of fish sausage. Sausages made by stuffing spiced meat into animal intestines were made by the Babylonians around 1500 B.C. The Greeks also ate such foods. The Romans called them salsus, the source of the word sausage.

Romans ate lobster, crab, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, mullet, sea urchins, scallops, clams, mussels, sea snails, tuna, sea bream, sea bass and scorpion fish. They liked to cook fish live at the table and the Senate once debated the proper way to serve the first turbot. Hadrian was fond of salmon rolled with caviar. Fresh oysters were very popular. They were brought to Rome from Breton in modern-day France by runners in around 24 hours.

The Romans made popular fish soup in huge vats. The upper classes ate peppered fish. The Romans were so fond of fish they badly overfished the Mediterranean. The Romans practiced fish farming and raised eels in tanks. Pliny described one aristocrat who occasionally fed his slaves to the eels.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The rivers of Italy and the surrounding seas must have furnished always a great variety of fish, but in early times fish were not much used as food by the Romans. By the end of the Republic, however, matters had changed, and no article of food brought higher prices than the rarer sorts of fresh fish. Salt fish was exceedingly cheap and was imported in many forms from almost all the Mediterranean harbors. One dish especially, tyrotarichus, made of salt fish, eggs, and cheese, and therefore something like our codfish balls, is mentioned by Cicero in about the same way as we speak of hash. Fresh fish were all the more expensive because they could be transported only while alive. Hence the rich constructed fish ponds on their estates—Lucius Licinius Crassus setting the example in 92 B.C: and both fresh-water and salt-water fish were raised for the table. The names of the favorite sorts mean little to us, but we find the mullet (mullus) and a kind of turbot (rhombus) bringing high prices, while oysters (ostreae) were as popular as they are now.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

Roman Ship Had On-Board Fish Tank

Jo Marchant wrote in “A Roman ship found with a lead pipe piercing its hull has mystified archaeologists. Italian researchers now suggest that the pipe was part of an ingenious pumping system, designed to feed on-board fish tanks with a continuous supply of oxygenated water. Their analysis has been published online in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Historians have assumed that in ancient times fresh fish were eaten close to where they were caught, because without refrigeration they would have rotted during transportation. But if the latest theory is correct, Roman ships could have carried live fish to buyers across the Mediterranean Sea. [Source: Jo Marchant,, May 31, 2011 \=]

“The wrecked ship, which dates from the second century AD, was discovered six miles off the coast of Grado in northeastern Italy, in 1986. It was recovered in pieces in 1999 and is now held in the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Grado. A small trade ship around 16.5 metres long, the vessel was carrying hundreds of vase-like containers that held processed fish, including sardines and salted mackerel. Carlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, and his colleagues have been trying to make sense of one bizarre feature of the wreck: a lead pipe near the stern that ends in a hole through the hull. The surviving pipe is 1.3 metres long, and 7–10 centimetres in diameter. \=\

“The team concludes that the pipe must have been connected to a piston pump, in which a hand-operated lever moves pistons up and down inside a pair of pipes. One-way valves ensure that water is pushed from one reservoir into another. The Romans had access to such technology, although it hasn’t been seen before on their ships, and the pump itself hasn’t been recovered from the Grado wreck. Archaeologists have previously suggested that a piston pump could have collected bilge water from the bottom of the boat, emptying it through the hole in the hull. But Beltrame points out that chain pumps — in which buckets attached to a looped chain scooped up bilge water and tipped it over the side — were much safer and commonly used for this purpose in ancient times. “No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so,” he writes. \=\

“Another possible use is to pump sea water into the boat, to wash the decks or fight fires. A similar system was used on Horatio Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But Beltrame and his colleagues argue that the Grado wreck wasn’t big enough to make this worthwhile. They say that the ship’s involvement in the fish trade suggests a very different purpose for the pump — to supply a fish tank.” \=\

Roman Fish Tank Ship Used to Bring Fresh Fish to the Market?

Jo Marchant wrote in ““The researchers calculate that a ship the size of the Grado wreck could have held a tank containing around 4 cubic metres of water. This could have housed 200 kilograms of live fish, such as sea bass or sea bream. To keep the fish alive with a constant oxygen supply, the water in the tank would need to be replaced once every half an hour. The researchers estimate that the piston pump could have supported a flow of 252 litres per minute, allowing the water to be replaced in just 16 minutes. [Source: Jo Marchant,, May 31, 2011 \=]

“Tracey Rihll, a historian of ancient Greek and Roman technology at Swansea University, UK, cautions that there is no direct evidence for a fish tank. The researchers “dismiss fire-extinguisher and deck-washing functions too easily in my view”, she says. But although no trace of the tank itself remains, Rihll says the pipe could have been used for such a purpose in the ship’s younger days. Literary and archaeological evidence suggests that live fish were indeed transported by the Greeks and Romans “on a small but significant scale”, she adds. \=\

“The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that parrotfish taken from the Black Sea were transported to the Neopolitan coast, where they were introduced into the sea. And the second- and third-century Greek writer Athenaeus described an enormous ship called the Syracousia, which supposedly had a lead-lined saltwater tank to carry fish for use by the cook. However, a fish tank on board a small cargo ship such as the Grado wreck might mean that transport of live fish was a routine part of Roman trade, allowing the rich to feast on fish from remote locations or carrying fish shorter distances from farms to local markets. It would change completely our idea of the fish market in antiquity,” says Beltrame. “We thought that fish must have been eaten near the harbours where the fishing boats arrived. With this system it could be transported everywhere.” \=\

Ancient Mosaics Reveal Changing Fish Size

Rossella Lorenzi wrote in “The dusky grouper, one of the major predators in the Mediterranean sea, used to be so large in antiquity that it was portrayed as a “sea monster,” a new study into ancient depictions of the endangered fish has revealed. “Amazingly, ancient mosaic art has provided important information to reconstruct this fish’s historical baseline,” Paolo Guidetti of the University of Salento in Italy, told Discovery News. [Source: Rossella Lorenzi,, September 13, 2011 -]

“Considered one of the most flavorful species among the Mediterranean fish, the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) is a large, long-lived, slow-growing, protogynous hermaphrodite fish (with sex reversal from female to male). It can be found mainly in the Mediterranean, the African west coast and the coast of Brazil. Having faced harvesting for millennia — grouper bones have been found in human settlements dating back more than 100,000 years — this species has been decimated in recent decades by commercial and recreational fishing. It is now categorized as endangered.-

20120227-Food Fish_ducks_MAN_Napoli_Inv109371.jpg“To look farther back into the grouper’s history, the researchers examined hundreds of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman paintings and mosaics depicting fishing scenes and fish. At the end, they focused on 23 mosaics which represented groupers. In 10 of the 23 mosaics, dating from the 1st to 5th centuries, groupers were portrayed as being very large. Indeed, the ancient Romans might have considered groupers some sort of “sea monsters” able to eat a fisherman whole, as shown in a 2nd century mosaic from the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. -

“The mosaics also indicated that groupers lived in shallow waters much closer to shore, and were caught by fishermen using poles or harpoons from boats at the water’s surface. It’s a technique that would surely yield no grouper catch today,” said the researchers. Although there are no known instances of dusky groupers attacking human swimmers, the art depictions are very “informative,” said the researchers. These representations suggest that groupers were, in ancient times, so large as to be portrayed as sea monsters and that their habitat use and depth distribution have shifted in historical times,” Guidetti and Micheli wrote. -

“Ancient Roman authors such Ovid (43 B.C. – 18 A.D.) and Pliny the Elder ((23 A.D. – 79 A.D.) reported that groupers were fished by anglers in shallow waters, where they are now rare if not completely absent. According to their accounts, fish were so strong they could break fishing lines. Ancient art provides a link between prehistorical and modern evidence and suggests that shallow near shore Mediterranean ecosystems have lost large, top predators and their corresponding ecological roles,” the researchers concluded.” -

Spices in Ancient Rome

Romans spiced their food with pine kernels, leeks, celery seeds, parsley, lovage, dried mint, safflower, coriander, dates, honey, raisin wine and broth. Several towns were famous for their condiment factories. Perhaps the most common flavoring additive was vinegar. Spoiled wine was used as vinegar (acetum), and vinegar that became insipid and tasteless was called vappa. This latter word was used also as a term of reproach for shiftless and worthless men. Wealthy Romans sometimes ate their food with elaborate sauces and spices. They called this “city eating." By the 1st century B.C., Romans were obtaining spices from India.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Roman gardener gave great attention, too, to the raising of green stuffs that could be used for salads. Among these the sorts most often mentioned are cress and lettuce, with which we are familiar, and the mallow, no longer used for food. Plants in great variety were cultivated for seasoning. Poppy seed was eaten with honey as a dessert, or was sprinkled over bread before baking. Anise, cumin, fennel, mint, and mustard were raised everywhere. Besides these seasonings that were found in every kitchen garden, spices were brought in large quantities from the East, and rich men imported vegetables of large sizes or finer quality than could be raised at home. Honey took the place of sugar on the table and in cooking, for the Romans had only a botanical knowledge of the sugar cane. Vinegar was made from grapes. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

The stems of laserpithium, an herb from North Africa, were incredibly popular. Laserpithium was roasted as a vegetable and squeezed to get juices used as a flavoring. It was the chief export from Libya and one of the primary spoils of the Punic wars. Within two centuries it was consumed to extinction.

Common Spices in Antiquity

Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians. The pyramid builders ate lot of it, along with onions. One of the first recorded strikes occurred when laborers’ garlic ration was reduced. A slave could be bought for seven kilograms of it. Garlic was also consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans., although the Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. Roman legions wore garlic on their bodies to ward off colds. The Romans gave garlic to laborers who did dangerous jobs to give them courage.

The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.

Ginger was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome. Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with those for salt and pepper. The word "ginger" came to mean spices in general. Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It was imported from India as far back as Greek times.

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a tooth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used it as perfume. Vikings who traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and cardamon is mentioned a number of times in the Arabian Nights.

Cloves and nutmeg were considered appetite stimulants by the Romans. The ancient Greeks grew sage and used cumin, thyme, coriander and poppy seeds in their cooking. They considered parsley to be too sacred to eat and the Romans set the precedent of using it as garnish, so it could be used over and over. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. Cloves were delivered to the Romans from present-day Indonesia by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times.

The Romans were nuts about honey. It was added to all sorts of things. Sugar arrived in Europe during the medieval era. It was initially used mainly as a sweetener for medicine. Honey was the primary sweetener in Roman times.

Salt and Pepper in Ancient Rome

garum fish sauce container

Salt was highly valued. Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrificial animals before their throats were cut. The Roman empire's major highway was the Via Salaria (Salt Road), on which salt was carried from the salt pans of Ostia to Rome. Salt was at first obtained by the evaporation of sea water, but was afterwards mined, Its manufacture was a monopoly of the government, and care was taken always to keep the price low. It was used not only for seasoning, but also as a preservative agent.

The expression "worth their salt" comes from Rome where soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt. A number of other words come from the Latin word for salt. The word “salad” is derived from the fact that Romans liked salt with their vegetables. “Salacious” comes from the Latin word salax, which means a man in love or literally “in the salted state."

Salt from the Dead Sea was shipped all over the Mediterranean. Meat was preserved by "salting," a process that required large quantities of pepper in addition to salt to counteract the "unpalatable effects of the salt itself."

Pepper was also widely used and quite valuable as it originated from India. The best Roman cookbooks required pepper for nearly every recipe. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. In the first century A.D, the satirist Persius wrote:
“The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run
To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun;
From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear,
Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware . . ."

Fermented Fish Sauces in Ancient Rome

Romans were especially fond of garum – a sauce made by fermenting salted fish intestines. A a mainstay of banqueting tables and street food stands across the Roman empire, the sauce was highly prized for its nutritional qualities and was also a rich source of monosodium glutamate – a compound widely used in the food industry today as a flavour enhancer.Liquamen, a similar sauce, was made from rotting fish guts, vinegar, oil, and pepper. Variants of the sauce were used on fish and fowl as far back as 300 B.C. It was said to be an aphrodisiac. Among the recipes discovered at Pompeii were mushrooms with honey-and-liquamen sauce, soft-boiled eggs with pine kernels and liquamen sauce, and venison with caraway seeds, honey and liquamen sauce.

In 2015, archaeologists announced that they had discovered a 25-meter-long ancient Roman vessel laden with 3000 jars garum – on the seabed off the coast of Alassio, in the northeastern Liguria region of Italy. “It’s an exceptional find that dates to the first or second century AD,” Dr. Simon Luca Trigona, who led the team, told The Local. “It’s one of just five ‘deep sea’ Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria. We know it was carrying a large cargo of garum when it sank.” [Source: AFP, December 11, 2015]

model of a garum factory

“In spite of the mystery that usually surrounds ancient shipwrecks, it is almost certain that the ship was sailing a route between Italy, Spain and Portugal in order to transport a precious cargo of Roman garum. The clue lies in the shape of the clay jars, as the sauce itself has all since seeped into the sea. “After we filmed the wreck and analyzed an amphora [clay jar] and some fragments that a robotic craft brought back to the surface, we realized the ship was carrying a huge quantity of fish sauce when it sank,” said Trigona. “The amphora are almost all of a certain type, which was used exclusively for garum.”

“In addition to the fish sauce, archaeologists also identified two types of jar which were only manufactured in the area around the river Tiber in Rome. It is thought they were probably being used to transport some of the area’s excellent regional wines to the Iberian peninsular. “It’s a nice find because it means we are almost sure about the route this ship was on,” Trugona said. “She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce.”

Sally Grainger, a British chef and an experimental archeologist, has attempted to recreate Roman-style fish sauce. Peter Smith wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Using various studies “and a recipe from Geoponica, a 10th century collection of agricultural lore, as a guide, Grainger added salted sardines (Pilchardus sardines) and sprats (Sprattus sprattus) to barrels, put the barrels in a greenhouse, and covered the tops with cardboard. Then she waited two months. What’s surprising, Grainger found, was that the recreated ancient fish sauce appeared to be a lot less salty than its modern Southeast Asian counterparts, with just as much protein. Salt slows down the enzymatic process, so industrial-scale fish sauces today—what you might otherwise think of cheaply made “fast” food—actually take longer to make than the ancient brews. In other words, this old, “slow food” fermented faster.” [Source: Peter Smith, Smithsonian magazine, March 1,2012]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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