What the Romans ate and drank, how, and where.




Reconstruction of a thermopolium, a shop where hot (and cold) drinks were sold, in Ostia. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

The ordinary Roman was not a great eater of meat. The army diet was a balanced one of wheat (which the soldiers themselves ground and made into porridge, bread, or biscuits), some meat (usually bacon), fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruit, salt, olive oil, and raw wine. Officers did rather better. At home, porridge and bread were the staple food of most Romans, many of whom in the city had to rely on the corn dole for their needs.

family meal

Family meal. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

In more well-to-do homes, jentaculum (breakfast), for those who wanted it, might be bread dipped in wine, or with cheese, dried fruits, or honey. The equivalent of lunch was prandium, again a light meal, often consisting of left-overs from the previous day.

slaves in the kitchen

Reconstruction drawing of slaves preparing food in a kitchen. (Saalburg Museum: Barbara McManus)

The main meal of the day, cena, was eaten in the middle of the afternoon, after work and the bath, and could, and often did, go on for hours. Dinner-parties were elaborate, and could be dignified or disgusting affairs, depending on the discrimination of the host and his choice of guests. Overindulgence was the rule rather than the exception. Dinner guests reclined on their left elbow at an angle of about 45 degrees to the table, on couches set against three sides of it, and ate with their fingers.

reclining at dinner

Couple reclining at dinner, served by slaves. (VRoma: Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Barbara McManus)

The meal consisted of three parts, within each of which there could be any number of courses served individually or together. Hors d’oeuvre might be eggs presented in a variety of ways, salads, cooked vegetables, shellfish, snails, and, occasionally, roast stuffed dormice.

in the larder

Still life mosaic of food for cooking: two species of fish, two kinds of vegetable, seafood, and a plucked chicken. (VRoma: AICT: R. Scaife)

The main courses illustrate the varieties of meat, game, fish, and fowl that were available, or which were pressed into service in the form of exotic-sounding dishes: not just beef, lamb, pork, venison, hare, bream, hake, mackerel, mullet, oysters, sole, chicken, duck, goose, and partridge, but also veal, sucking-pig, boar, wild goat, kid, porpoise, crane, flamingo, ostrich, thrush, and turtle-dove. Most main dishes were served in sauce, the basic ingredient of which was a factory-made fish concoction called liquamen. The meal would finish with dessert: fruit, cakes, and puddings.

Dinner party

Dinner-party. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Juvenal provides a hypothetical guest with a simpler country meal: home-grown asparagus and farm eggs as starters; chicken and milk-fed kid for the main course; local pears, oranges, grapes, and apples to finish with.


First-century AD wall painting at Oplontis of glass bowl of figs. ( Barbara McManus)

Martial describes the menu for a dinner-party for seven that he gave in the country.

  • Hors d’oeuvre: mallow leaves, lettuce, chopped leeks, mint, rocket, mackerel garnished with rue and sliced egg, sow’s udder marinated in tuna-fish brine.
  • Main course, all served together: tender cuts of lamb with beans and spring greens, and a chicken and a ham left over from previous dinners.
  • Dessert: fresh fruit, washed down with vintage wine from Nomentum.

Pompeian cartoon

Strip-cartoon wall painting from inn of Salvus at Pompeii. Man on left, to barmaid: “Over here!” Man on right: “No, it’s mine!” Barmaid: “The one who ordered it shall have it. Oceanus, come here and drink it!” ( VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Wine was the national, and natural, drink, usually diluted with water: beer was for Britons and Gauls. Wine was also mixed with honey to make mulsum, a cooling aperitif which accompanied the first course at dinner. The best wine-producing region in Italy was around the border between Latium and Campania, from which came the excellent Caecuban, Setian, Falernian, and Massic vintages.


Interior of restaurant, Ostia, with original counters and wall paintings. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)



The popular idea of a Roman orgy - where extravagant consumption of food and drink was accompanied by lurid sexual activity - seems to be a Hollywood invention: these two occupations were kept separate (for obvious practical and common-sense reasons!). Also apocryphal is the popupar notion that Romans had a special room attached to their dining rooms called a vomitorium, where they went to make themselves sick, so they could return to the banquet and eat more! This error arose from a misunderstanding of the word vomitorium - in Latin it's simply the word for the exit from an amphitheatre!

Believe it or not:

The diet of the Roman garrison at Bearsden, on the Antonine Wall in Scotland, in the second century AD has been analysed from deposits in the main latrine. Cholesterol levels were low, suggesting a largely vegetarian diet. Two kinds of wheat were identified, one of them not grown in Scotland. Other discoveries included traces of lentils, beans, figs, hazel nuts, and wild fruits -- bilberry, blackberry, raspberry, and wild strawberry.

Romans in Britain devoured huge quantities of oysters, which may have been transported alive in tanks from the beds off the coasts in the south. Some of them certainly reached those manning Hadrian’s and the Antonine walls.

Julius Caesar was notoriously abstemious. Cicero records, however, that when Caesar came to one of his country houses to dinner in 45 BC, accompanied by his entourage, who had to be entertained in three additional dining-rooms, the dictator was able to “eat and drink to excess”, since he was taking emetics.

The only surviving Roman cookery book is attributed to Apicius. It is said that, having spent nine-tenths of his fortune on high living, which still left him with ten million sesterces, he killed himself rather than risk dying of hunger!