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Ancient Roman cuisine was varied, international and accessible to all social classes

Banquets for the rich, porridge for the poor and a standard diet of bread, olive oil and wine. Just a few assumptions about the Roman diet. PhD candidate Guido Sala has shown that these assumptions are incorrect and that Romans of all social classes ate a varied diet.

It’s a hackneyed image that could come straight out of the Asterix and Obelix comics: rich Romans feasting on lavish banquets, even throwing up between courses to be able to carry on eating. And the poorer Romans? They could only afford bread and porridge. Guido Sala’s PhD research shows that little of this picture is true.

‘Richer Romans were aware that eating excessively was not healthy’, says Sala. ‘The Roman philosopher Cicero, for example, consciously ate very little on the day after a banquet. And the idea that poorer Romans only ate bread and porridge is also incorrect: some sausage and tripe were almost as cheap as bread, so it must have been accessible to them too.’

Basket of food

Sala can also see other similarities between the meals of richer and poorer Romans. Both groups ate bread with cheese and leftovers for breakfast and had the same type of food products in their diets. There were differences, though, quality of these products and people’s access to them. ‘Richer Romans, for example, were able to bake bread in their own villas and participate in banquets more often than poorer Romans, who incidentally thanks to their relationship with a patron – a patronus – were sometimes also invited to such social occasions’, says Sala. ‘As clients – clientes – they did receive different food from their patron: at the morning greeting ritual, for example, the clientes were given a sportula, a basket of food in keeping with their social status.’

‘The Romans didn’t really invent anything new in terms of cooking and eating.’

Varied diet

The idea that the Romans mainly ate bread, olive oil and wine is incorrect too says Sala. They ate lots of wild herbs and plants, such as nettles and dandelions, and their cuisine was heavily influenced by that of the Etruscans and Greeks. ‘The Romans didn’t really invent anything new in terms of cooking and eating’, says Sala. ‘But they did adapt things. The Romans didn’t like barley, for instance, which the Greeks ate a lot of, and only gave it to soldiers who were being punished.’

Funnily enough, when asked about strange meals that he came across in his sources, the first thing Sala thinks of are the lavish banquets. All the courses consisted of copious quantities of meat and fish, he says, and unusual dishes such as crane’s tongue were also served. ‘But there were also dishes that we still eat today. For instance, I came across a recipe in the cookbook of Roman gastronome Apicius for a kind of crème brûlee.’

Numbers matter

One of the most important aspects of Sala’s research is his interdisciplinary, quantifiable approach. For example, he used socioeconomic sources to assess common academic assumptions about the Roman economy. His analyses of, among others, food prices and food parcels for farmers and soldiers, led him to discover that many of these assumptions no longer apply.

‘One of my research questions was: Could the average Roman afford these food parcels?’ he says. ‘The answer is no. They were too expensive. You can conclude from this that either the contents of these food parcels are incorrect or our ideas about the average Roman income. I would argue that the latter is true and that the Roman economy was much larger than was previously thought.’

Guido Sala will receive his PhD on 14 December for his dissertation ‘Feeding Rome. Food supply, trade and consumption in an ancient metropolis.’ Watch the livestream.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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