Feasting in Ancient Rome


Fragment of a Fresco Panel with a Meal Preparation, A.D. 1–79, Roman. Fresco, 27 3/8 × 50 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, 79.AG.112. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

Ancient Roman cuisine enthusiasts answer your burning questions.


By Erin Migdol
Associate Editor
J. Paul Getty Trust


If you were to sit down for a meal with ancient Romans, some of the food on your plate might leave you scratching your head. Dormouse and flamingo, anyone? Other dishes may appear surprisingly familiar, like bread, cheese, and wine—still the cornerstones of many a Mediterranean-inspired lunch today. Ancient Romans didn’t have many of the modern cooking technologies we take for granted, like electric stoves and refrigerators, but they were resourceful and creative with the produce, grains, meat, and fish that were available, resulting in some seriously fascinating recipes. Dietary evidence from gladiator bones, food remnants in the sewers at archaeological sites like Herculaneum, and representations of food in art provide clues to what Romans ate.

We asked what questions you have about food in ancient Rome on our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages, and you responded with dozens of insightful queries about cooking techniques, spices, common meals, and more. We sent your questions to Judith Barr and Nicole Budrovich, curatorial assistants at the Getty Museum and ancient Roman cuisine enthusiasts, to find out exactly what encompassed a typical Roman diet. Check out their answers below to travel back in time and discover what you might have eaten for dinner tonight if you were a citizen of ancient Rome.

What was the basic daily ancient Roman breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

A common meal for ancient Romans probably included bread, made with spelt, wheat or barley, likely purchased from a bakery by those who could afford it (here’s how to bake bread the Roman way). It was often eaten with cheese and watered-down wine. It could feature in almost every Roman meal: breakfast, lunch (with cheese, and cold-cuts from the night before), and dinner (with sides like dried peas or lentils). Wealthy dinners also included eggs, fresh poultry or fish, and vegetables.

What did poor people typically eat?

Those who couldn’t afford bread mostly ate a simple porridge known as puls, made from boiled grains (spelt, millet, or wheat), which could be livened up with herbs and vegetables.

Did Romans have a sweet tooth? What were some common desserts?

Roman cuisine included many sweeteners! Honey plays a starring role in a lot of Roman dessert recipes, but other ingredients might include raisin wine (passum) or grape musts (defructum). Cato writes about cheese and sesame “globi,” or sweetmeats, and Galen about pancakes fried with honey and sesame seeds. For a sweet end to a meal, consider Apicius’ stuffed dates fried in honey. Check out a recipe for Roman honey spiced wine, and stepping into the Byzantine world, a take on rice pudding.

Are there any Roman foods that are similar to today’s fast food?

Totally! Snack counters, called thermopolia, were common, and offered mulled wine, baked cheeses, lentils, nuts, and meats. Large jars built into the counters held dried cold foods that could be heated up for customers. These places usually served food “to go” though fancier spots had dining areas. There is an ancient recipe for a hamburger-like sausage (Isicia Omentata), but this delicacy probably wasn’t served at a snack shop.

Did the Romans have dine-in restaurants?

Not quite the same way we think of them—along with the snack counters, there were slightly nicer establishments like bars or taverns. But formal dining would have taken place in private domestic spheres, not in a public eatery.

What were the most commonly used condiments/spices, if any?

Garum, and its cousin, liquamen, are kinds of fish sauce made from fermented fish guts, and featured in a lot of dishes—both sweet and savory! Fresh herbs and imported spices like pepper could have made an appearance, too.

Why has garum not retained its popularity to the present day?

Garum was produced in different sites across the Mediterranean, and ancient authors describe different grades of garum, some extremely luxurious. Garum may have fallen out of fashion in the last millennia, but fish sauce is still an important part of many Southeast Asian cuisines, and condiments like Worcestershire sauce still get their bite from fermented anchovies.

Why was fish a delicacy when Rome was right on a river?

People across the Roman world would have had access to many different kinds of fish, both fresh and saltwater, along with preserved options like salted fish and garum. But different species could have signified social status at different times—a whole fishy spectrum. Learn more about fish and fishing in the Roman world.

Green Fish-Shaped Flask with Pinched Decoration, A.D. third century, Roman. Glass, 3 1/8 x 8 1/16 x 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.439. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

I’ve always known Romans ate dormice, but how did they prepare them? I think they roasted them and ate them whole, innards and all but teeth and the fur are not generally digestible. Were those removed?

The recipe for dormouse in De re coquinaria suggests an intensive preparation: stuffing the dormouse with minced pork and the minced meat of the whole dormouse, together with spices (and liquamen, for our fish sauce fans.) That would be sewn up and then roasted.

What’s the weirdest thing the Romans ate?

We don’t want to call anything weird, but exotic birds, like parrots, peacocks, flamingos, and ostriches, were considered extravagant delicacies.

Wall Fragment with a Peacock, A.D. 1–79, Roman. Fresco, 15 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 68.AG.13. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program.

Are there cookbooks or recipes from this time period?

Yes, we have several sources, from the relatively late De re coquinaria often associated with Apicius to food references in Latin poetry, prose, and nonfiction writing. There’s also a Greek fragmentary cookery book preserved on a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. But these don’t necessarily reflect the tastes and dining choices of the entire Roman world.

Does modern Italian food resemble in any way Roman food? Or is it completely different?

There are similarities, but some key Italian ingredients and dishes were not found in ancient Roman cuisine—no pasta (introduced later) and no foods from the Americas, including tomatoes! Italian pizza might have its origins in Roman flatbreads and focaccia, which could be topped with olives and cheese. Fresh seafood (fish, mussels, and oysters), seasoned meats (sausages, poultry, and pork), sides of veggies (beans, mushrooms, artichokes, and lentils), olive oil, and of course wine have been popular in Italy since antiquity.

Is Roman cuisine basically the modern Mediterranean diet?

Yep! Minus foods introduced later—like eggplant and spinach from Asia and tomatoes, squash, peppers, potatoes, and corn from the Americas. Access to certain foods depended on your region and economic status, but for the most part ancient Romans enjoyed whole grains, veggies, fruits, and olive oil, with some dairy and lean protein.

Did the fall of the Roman Empire have anything to do with the fact the pans they used were made of lead, and thus poisoned their brains?

Questions about the extent of lead poisoning and any potential impacts during the Roman Empire are important ones, and recent studies have shown different avenues for understanding how lead may have been an issue across the Roman world. Read more about lead poisoning in ancient Rome.

Were there vegetarians or vegans back then?

Many Romans would have eaten a largely vegetarian diet by default, since meat and dairy products would have been relatively expensive, although this could vary a lot depending on the region! Recent osteological research into a gladiatorial cemetery in Ephesus shows that these gladiators largely ate grains and pulses (pulses are edible seeds of plants in the legume family, such as chickpeas, dry beans, and lentils). Some religions or philosophies were also associated with vegetarianism, like followers of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras.

Did the Romans have any foods which were “forbidden” for any reason?

It seems there were no strict food taboos for followers of Roman state religion. Almost everything was fair game! But during the Republican period there were sumptuary laws against extravagant dining—delicacies like swordfish and dolphin were prohibited. That said, ancient Romans were a diverse bunch, and some religious groups had their own dietary restrictions. There is evidence for the production of kosher garum, the popular fish sauce, for Jewish consumers since variant recipes might mix in oysters, sea urchins, and jellyfish.


Originally published by The Iris, 11.20.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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