Non ut edam vivo, sed ut vivam edo (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus)


Cosa mangiavano gli antichi romani e come dividevano i pasti?

Which was the food and how were the meals of the ancient Romans?

La sobrietà alimentare era una caratteristica della virtus romana tipica del periodo originario che derivava dalle leggende in cui Enea durante la sua travagliata navigazione durata sette anni si era potuto alimentare con i suoi marinai quasi esclusivamente della polenta di farro accompagnata dai pesci pescati durante il viaggio e dalla poca carne acquistata nei porti.

L’alimentazione antica era fatta soprattutto di vegetali, come era abitudine degli etruschi dai quali nei periodi di carestia provenivano a Roma lungo il Tevere i rifornimenti di grano («ex Tuscis frumentum Tiberi uenit») che permisero dal II secolo a.C. la produzione del pane di cui  esistevano tre qualità: quello candidus, fatto di farina bianca finissima, secundarius sempre bianco ma con farina miscelata ed infine quello plebeius o rusticus una specie di pane integrale.

Dagli stessi etruschi che erano all’epoca commercianti molto più agiati, giunse a Roma l’abitudine di nutrirsi di un cibo più variato e ricco di proteine costituito sia da selvaggina che da animali di allevamento. Successivamente quando Roma entrò in contatto con i Greci che erano stanziati in Magna Grecia, si cominciarono ad apprezzare i frutti dell’olivo e della vite che i romani avevano usato fino a quel momento soprattutto per i riti religiosi. A partire dall’età di Augusto, con la conquista dell’Oriente e gli intensi rapporti commerciali con l’Asia arrivò a Roma «tutto quanto la terra produce di bello e di buono». e l’alimentazione romana si raffinò: al cibo inteso come puro sostentamento cominciò in epoca imperiale a sostituirsi, anche con l’uso delle spezie e dei profumi, si specializzò la cultura del cibo, passando dalla pura alimentazione alla cura dei sapori.

The food soberness was a characteristics of the Roman virtus of the  legendary ages, in which Aeneas during his seven-year-old navigation fed himself together with his crew only with wheat polenta, fish and small quantities meat bought in harbors.

The ancient food consisted primarily of vegetables, as it was used by their neighbour  Etruscans, from whom came to Rome along the Tiber, during shortages wheat, «ex Tuscis frumentum Tiberi uenit», and which allowed  the Romans, from the II century B.C., to produce bread of three different qualities: the candidus of white and selected flour, the secundarius white bread of a mixture of flours and the plebeius or rusticus a whole grain bread.

Here you have the majority of what made up an ancient Roman’s diet. Wheat, barley, oats, rye, and millets were all strong staples in a Roman diet, especially wheat and barley. As it is commonly known, wheat and barley are the ingredients needed to make bread and porridge, which was the most common food found in a Roman home. It is best, however, to remember, bread during the time of the ancient Romans was much coarser and dark in color. The richer you were the finer in texture and lighter in color the bread would be, but compared to today’s standards, it would still be quite coarse and dark.

From the merchants and wealthy Etruscans, derived the habit of eating more proteins coming from venison and farm animals. And when the Romans came in contact with the Greeks of the Magna Greece they were affected by the influence of them and, people started to utilize also olives and grapes, which before were only used for religious rituals. Then, with the conquest of the Eastern countries and the Age of Augustus, during an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana, when the commerce with the East was very intense, came to Rome everyhing good and beautiful the earth is able to produce, and the Romans became more sophisticated when choosing what to eat in their meals. The food was not only intended as a mean of survival, and, with the use of the spices and goods coming from the other countries, it became a culture for food and a research  for the taste.


Fruit was also grown or harvested from wild trees and often preserved for out-of-season eating. Apples, pears, grapes, quince and pomegranate were common. Cherries, oranges, dates, lemons and oranges were exotic imports. Honey was the only sweetener. Eggs seem to have been available to all classes, but larger goose eggs were a luxury.

The Romans were cheese-making pioneers, producing both hard and soft cheeses. Soldiers’ rations included cheese and it was important enough for Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) to pass laws fixing its price. Pliny the Elder wrote on its medicinal properties. Much of the Roman diet, at least the privileged Roman diet, would be familiar to a modern Italian. They ate meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, cheese, grains (also as bread) and legumes.

Meat included animals like dormice (an expensive delicacy), hare, snails and boar. Smaller birds like thrushes were eaten as well as chickens and pheasants. Beef was not popular with the Romans and any farmed meat was a luxury, game was much more common. Meat was usually boiled or fried – ovens were rare.

A type of clam called “telline” that is still popular in Italy today was a common part of a rich seafood mix that included oysters (often farmed), octopus and most sea fish.

The Romans grew beans, olives, peas, salads, onions, and brassicas (cabbage was considered particularly healthy, good for digestion and curing hangovers) for the table. Dried peas were a mainstay of poorer diets. As the empire expanded new fruits and vegetables were added to the menu. The Romans had no aubergines, peppers, courgettes, green beans, or tomatoes, staples of modern Italian cooking.


For the ordinary Roman, ientaculum was breakfast, served at day break. A small lunch, prandium, was eaten at around 12 am. The coena was the main meal of the day. They may have eaten a late supper called vesperna. Richer citizens in time, freed from the rhythms of manual labour, ate a bigger cena from late afternoon, abandoning the final supper.

The coena could be a grand social affair lasting several hours. It would be eaten in the triclinium, the dining room, at low tables with couches on three sides. The fourth side was always left open to allow servants to serve the dishes.

Diners were seated to reflect their status. The triclinium would be richly decorated, it was a place to show off wealth and status. Some homes had a second smaller dining room for less important meals and family meals were taken in a plainer oikos.


While all Roman’s would eat similar diets with ranges in quality depending on wealth and status, they did not eat in similar styles. Basically, Romans of lower status lived in small homes that did not have a kitchen so they would often take food to a baker and have it cooked there or use an ancient form of take-out while the Romans of higher status would eat at home with food cooked by their slaves.

After all, they are the ancestors of some of the most delicious food creators our world currently has. It only makes sense that Italians’ ancestors also ate a variety of amazing food too. If you live near the water, it’s a guarantee that seafood is probably a common part of your diet. That’s definitely the case with ancient Romans. Fish and shellfish were a common and useful source of protein in the Roman diet, however, supply was rather irregular and not dependable. But clever Romans being clever Romans found ways to work around this by preserving fish and farming them in artificial salt and fresh-water ponds. This allowed fish to be eaten either fresh, dried, salted, smoked, or pickled on regular occasions.

For most Romans, meat was pretty darn pricey, so meat (either poultry, wild game, pork, veal, mutton, or goat) was often prepared in small cuts or sausages. But for the wealthier Romans, meat was a decadent way to show off their riches. They did eat the same type of meat as other Romans, but they also ate a much larger variety. For example, the variety of birds eaten is astonishing. They ate anything from partridges to pheasants, doves to quails, flamingos to peacocks, ostriches to parrots.

If there was something ancient Romans did not lack in their diets it was fruits and vegetables. Of course, the most popular fruits include grapes and olives. A Roman diet would not be complete without the inclusion of wine and olive oil. Roman life would arguably not have been the same without those essentials. Now, what may be surprising is a number of fruits and vegetables Romans did eat; apples, figs, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, beans, lentils, and peas. And Romans being their typical genius selves were able to preserve fruits and vegetables for significant amounts of time by pickling them in either brine or vinegar or preserved them in wine, grape juice, or honey.



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Former National Triathlon athlete, now ancient and forgotten sites hunter, mountain biker and open waters swimmer. Love ancient Romans and Etruscan civilizations. Follow my discoveries!


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