Some Italian culinary traditions can be traced back to practices and customs of the Roman Empire; but what did the Romans eat? What was on the table during their lavish banquets, and what did they drink on special occasions?
It is somewhat sad to think that no one in the Roman empire ever enjoyed a good plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce: although some sort of fresh pasta was already a part of Etruscan cuisine, tomatoes are obviously not native to Europe and arrived in Italy only after the Columbian exchange.
But there were many other delicacies that the people in the Roman empire could enjoy during their meals. Fish was an important source of proteins; the Mediterranean Sea was providing amongst many others sardines, anchovies, sea bream, sole, cuttlefish and squid. Meat was instead more expensive and usually reserved for rich feasts and banquets; whilst pork, chicken, deer and game in general were more common, butcher’s meat was eaten less frequently – in part because the cows were destined to produce milk, and the bulls were used for the field work.
Bread was always fundamental to the Roman diet – although until the introduction of wheat, bread looked very different from what we think of today. Before wheat became commonplace, Roman bread was made with emmer, and it was unleavened and generally very hard. Once wheat bread started to replace emmer bread, the dough became fluffier and new attention was devoted to finely grinding the flour; the Cibarius, an inexpensive dark breadthe darker, less refined bread was for the slaves and the poor, whilst white and highly refined bread like the Panis Siligeneo Flore was considered to be the best and was reserved for the elites, who could afford it. A kind of very dry cracker called Panis Nauticus was the sailors’ substitute for bread during the long months at sea.
And it was in that era of prosperity in which bread played a fundamental role throughout the Roman Empire – the expression ‘Panem et Circenses‘ by Giovenale (Latin poet, 50 BC) was coined indicating an instrument of power in the hands of the Emperors to quell the popular discontent, giving the people the two most desirable things, i.e. ‘Bread and Games’. The Games took place at the Fori Imperiali area, in the Anfiteatro Flavio, better known as Colosseo.
Another staple food of Roman cuisine was the Puls, a sort of porridge prepared boiling a mixture of spelt, millet and barley. It was often eaten with honey, cheese and vegetables.
- The Importance of Honey
Refined sugar as we use it today was not available to the Roman chefs (Marco Gavio Apicio, the most famous) – so what did they use to sweeten their dishes? The answer is simple: honey was easy to source, widespread, and great to preserve food, as well. Although ice was used as a way to keep some foods fresh, fridges were of course yet to be invented, and being able to store food successfully was of key importance. Salting, smoking, preserving in vinegar or in brine were the most common ways to preserve food.
Honey also played an important role when it came to the drinks of the Roman empire. There was no control on how the wine was fermenting, and for this reason it often didn’t taste very good; water, honey and other spices like pepper, cumin and fennel were addedd to change the wine’s flavour and texture. Interestingly, the tradition of making wine from raisins is alive even today in Italy: the Passito wine (famous the one from Pantelleria, Sicily) is nothing else but a modern day Passum, usually served with desserts.
Mead was also a common drink for the people of the Roman empire: it was called acqua mulsa and prepared with rainwater and honey.
The lower strata of the population, and in particular the farmers, were drinking watered down sheep’s and goat’s milk.
- What about Beer?
Beer was called Cervisia; due to the influence of ancient Greek culture, the elites considered it to be a plebeian drink. At the same time, it was drank by soldiers, who usually were themselves part of that same elite. As it was made from wheat and barley, without hops, beer had a shorter conservation time than today.
Last, but not least, let us mention the most famous ingredient of Roman cuisine: the Garum, a sauce made with fermented fish. Flesh and entrails were left in the sun to ferment for months at end, and then filtered to be used as a seasoning for many different dishes. The most expensive Garum was made exclusively with tuna, and it had a distinclty reddish colour due to the high amount of blood found in tuna.
Garum is perhaps the best example of those Roman practices and customs that are still surviving today in many different forms: the Colatura di Alici di Cetara, a prized delicacy of the southern region of Campania, is a fermented fish sauce that closely resembles what we assume could be the taste of Garum.
At the end of a lavish meal, the Romans did not refrain from burping – it was considered as a sign of appreciation for the cook, and an edict by the Emperor Claudius authorized guests to freely burp after tasting the dishes they were presented with.
We’re grateful to the Cerealia Festival for having supported our research for this article and having invited My Pinch of Italy to participate at the Festival’s event for the “European Days of Archeology” at the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum, in Rome.
The images were taken in the “taberna” of Cerealia Festival in the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum.