Eating Like a Roman

A few posts back, I posted some recent news about the discovery of a great deal of composted Roman sewerage at Herculaneum. The archeologists have been as eager to dive in as the contestants in The Magic Christian, because such a large … sample (180 bags) … gives us a pretty good idea what the citizens of (at least this block) of Herculaneum were eating and so then also tells us something about food production, health, and other matters.

Mary Beard, the Classicist from whose blog I got this information, says that — not surprisingly — preliminary results indicate that they ate a lot of eggs, nuts, and dates, which were common elements of the general Mediterranean diet in antiquity. Perhaps a bit more interesting is the discovery that they also ate a lot of sea urchins, a tasty treat (if you like caviar) still eaten throughout the Mediterranean but not so easy to harvest.

The banquet in Fellini's Satyricon.

How much do we know about how Romans ate?

Quite a lot, actually. The Romans loved their food and meals and left us many descriptions of them in literature and in art. There are, of course, the over-the-top descriptions of over-the-top banquets carried on by the Roman emperors and elite (some are a bit suspect since their authors have a tendency to exaggerate for effect). Among those is a banquet put on by one Trimalchio (a very wealthy tool) in Petronius’ Satyricon (made particularly famous by Fellini’s Satyricon). But we also have descriptions of more humble fare, both urban and rural. And we also have Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia, opulent villas such as the Villa Stabia (perhaps belonging to Nero’s wife Poppea Sabina) and Villa dei Papyri (with it’s own wine press), army camps such as Vindolana along Hadrian’s Wall, and many other archeological finds which, when put together with other literary evidence, gives us a pretty good picture of Roman eating habits at practically every level.

What did they eat?

The short answer is – pretty much anything they could get their hands on. In the country, Romans ate whatever they could raise, harvest, hunt, and forage. As the size of one’s landholdings and access to water and forest increased, so did access to food. But most of what we know about the Romans eating habits comes from cities and towns.

Poor urbanites scraped by on a steady diet of subsidized grain, which they boiled into puls (porridge) or baked into panis (bread) if they had access to an oven. In the second and third centuries CE, the emperors set up huge mills (driven by water from the aqueducts) and bakeries so that you could take your sack of government grain to one of these places and turn it in for bread. The popularity–and necessity–of low-cost grain and entertainment for the urban masses led to the Roman satirist Juvenal to famously sneer that all the Romans of his day wanted was “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses).

Roman (slave) street food hawkers.

In addition to whatever they did with their state grain, urban Roman ate (just as our modern urbanites do) out a lot. Finding fuel for, and firing up a cooking vessel and cooking a small meal was expensive, hot, smoky, time-consuming, and dangerous (fire being one of the major perils of ancient cities). It was much easier to grab a  bite of something from one of the many taverns (tabernae) or deli-pubs (popinae). If you visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Ostia, you’ll be amazed at how many of these places there were; you can’t walk a hundred feet in the downtown core without running into something like an ancient  Starbucks, Pizzeria, Subway, or lunch counter. These places provided, just as ours do, more than just food and drink: they gave the gregarious Romans places to enjoy board games, conversation, hooking up, and just getting away from their mostly noisy, cramped, and dangerous living quarters. And if they were busy (as Romans often were), they could always grab something on the go from one of the many street venders and hawkers.

Romans loved a good dinner party.

Romans loved, however, to have dinner parties and to entertain at home. These times called for special preparations and special meals, and for those who could afford them, Rome’s broad conquests gave access to foods from Britain to the Black Sea. At special banquets the courses and items could reach fabulous proportions and the evening could be expected to contain entertainment, party favors, and convivial conversation. Although they sat when eating out, Romans dined at home for special meals reclining on couches with family, friends, and clients in their triclinium (dining room). But even for these kinds of events, Romans of  even relatively moderate means often either had their slaves buy prepared food for the event, or might have them cater the dinner party out to cooks (other slaves) who brought their own cooking utensils and were famous for leaving with more than they came with (count the silver carefully, you know).  Doing the cooking, or being a good cook in the way that modern-day foodies want to demonstrate their celebrity chef-ness to their friends, was not something a Roman host aspired to. There were people for that.

The Romans and the Greeks, especially the upper class, had a different social sensibility for meals than we do, and guest list or open invitation for all kinds of meals at the house were much more open than we might have today. Taking advantage of this in order to maintain their standard of eating well above what they could afford, some people became virtually professional dinner-guests and party-goers. Such a leech became known as a “Parasitus” — a Parasite — from the Greek word for “One who eats beside you (every time you eat)” and a familiar character in comic plays.

Next time, a few Roman menus.