ANCIENT ROMAN FOOD, SPICES AND BANQUETS
House of Julia Felix still life
of wine and fruit from Pompeii Rome was praised by Virgil in 29 B.C. for its grain, wine, olives and "prosperous herds." Food was never a problem in Rome. The land around the city was productive and as the empire expanded it was fed by fertile land in Tunis and Algeria.
Among other things Romans ate doves, chickens, figs, dates, olives, grapes, white almonds, truffles and foi gras and cooked fowl in clay pots. There were no tomatoes, potatoes, spaghetti, rissoto, or corn. Romans often turned up their noses at the food from outside Rome. On the food in Greece a character in a satire commented: “They give weeds to their guests, as though they were cattle. And they flavor their weeds with other weeds.”
People were given daily grain rations. Many people in Rome got their dinners from street vendors. Silverware sets of the wealthy unearthed in Pompeii and other places indicate that fancy meals consisted of many dishes, which in turn often consisted of fish, game, fruit and nuts.
Ancient people largely ate with their hands. Sometimes they used knives and spoons. Romans had spoons, knives and drinking cups but no forks. Sometimes they ate holding a plate in their left hand and used their right hand to take food. Polite Romans lifted their food with three fingers so as not to dirty their ring finger and pinkie.
Major crops included grapes, olives, peaches, cherries, plums and walnuts. Romans grafted apple trees and spread apple cultivation throughout their empire. The main farm machinery were olive oil presses. Rabbits are believed to have been domesticated from wild rabbits from Iberia about in the Roman Era.
Book: Around the Roman Table by Patrick Faas (Macmillan, 2003)
Grain and Bread in Ancient Rome
Female baker and oven Grain was the main commodity. It was used to make bread and porridge, the staples of the Roman diet. Poor people subsisted on a gruel-like soup of mush made from grain. The Roman grain god Ceres gave birth to the word "cereal." Chickpeas, emmer wheat and lentils were all eaten. Rice was imported from India and used as a medicine.
Romans ate a lot of bread and snacks that were similar to sandwiches. Round loaves of bread were baked in circular brick ovens. The bread was light and airy and made with grain and yeast. A typical loaf of bread was about a foot across and five inches thick and weighed about a pound. There were two main kinds of bread: panis artopicius ("pan bread") cooked on top of a stove, and panis testustis ("pot bread"), baked in an earthenware vessel. Upper class women didn’t like making bread. They usually left the work to their slaves. Bakeries in Pompeii are identified by the presence of ovens and grinding stones.
Fruits and Vegetables in Greco-Roman Times
Roman bread The Greco-Romans grew cabbage, olives tangerines, oranges and lemons often in poor soils. They ate olives, leeks, barley, figs, grapes, turnips, pears, apples, chickpeas, irises, and lamb. Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Lemons, apricots and cherries were introduced to Rome around the A.D. 1st century.
Apples were mentioned in the Bible, Greek myths and the Viking sagas. The earliest apples were versions of crab apples. Pictures of apples have been found in caves used by prehistoric men. All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the Malu sieversii tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples.” Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]
Scientists believe that Malu sieversii was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids not Malu sieversii itself became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were common place around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.
Melons are one the earliest crops along with wheat, barley, grapes, and dates. Native to Iran, Turkey and western Asia, they are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting dated to 2400 B.C. Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. refer to them. Pliny the Elder described them in the 1st century A.D.
Watermelon originated in Africa. Domesticated watermelon seeds dated to 4000 B.C. were found in the 1980s in southern Libya. Dorian Fuller of University College London told the New York Times, “The wild watermelon is a horrible, dry little gourd that grows in wadis of the northern savannahs but it has seeds you can roast up and eat.” The watermelon we eat was not developed until Roman times.
Pomegranates are ancient fruit. They are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Odyssey . According to one of the most famous Greek legends, Persephone was condemned to the underworld for eating a seed from a pomegranate. The Assyrians made necklaces of gold pomegranates. Pomegranates are thought have originated in Southeast Asia. They were found in much of the ancient world and are thought to have introduced to several places by the Phoenicians. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used the fruit in their medicines.
Figs have been around since ancient times, when they were associated with magic and medicine. The Egyptians buried entire basketfuls with dead and valued them as a digestive aid. The Greeks called them “the most useful of all the fruits which grows on trees.” In the Middle Age, fig syrup was a popular sweetener.
Cabbage is the world's most widely consumed vegetable and one of the first to be harvested. Native to the Mediterranean, it was eaten by Achilles in the Iliad and is believed to have introduced it to Europe and other parts of the world by the Romans. Asparagus was a favorite of the Romans. It was used mostly as a medicine in the Middle Ages before it became a popular food in the 17th century.
Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions like a modern-time Bible. Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions, and garlic by workers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt. Ovid wrote that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Martial said onions were. In a popular epigram he wrote, "If you wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty."
Olives and olive oil were staples in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were used as food. fuel and a trade commodity. Sophocles called olives "our sweet silvered wet nurse.” Olives were valued more as a source of fuel for oil lamps than as a food. They were also used to make soap. Olives were regarded as so precious that killing an olive tree was sometimes punished by death.
Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and even eat on bread. They come in host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black; oily and green; and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]
Through the ages, olives and olive oil have been used as food, fuel, light source, lubricant, soap, mediation, weapon and sacred oil. Among the historical figures who ate olives were Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Christ, the Apostles, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Columbus and Galileo.
A food critic who divided Europe into regions of butter, lard and olive oil and discovered the most passionate people lived in regions dominated by olive oil. It also the lifeblood for regions have difficulty producing other crops. "The olive tree looks like death, but to countries where it grows, it sometimes literally means life. The olive is as much a savior of man in semi-arid areas of poor soil as the date of the oases in the desert."
Olive press The olive is a drupe, or stone fruit, like a plum or cherry. Olives start out green and very bitter and turn black when they mature. A bitter olive eaten raw off a tree is like eating "a unplucked chicken or a an uncooked potato." Different varieties of olives are usually picked at different points in the development of the fruit. Green olives generally have more Vitamin E and less oil than black olives, which have a stronger flavor and more oil. Most green olives are eaten whole rather than made into oil. Only 10 percent the olive crop is eaten as olives. Most is made into oil.
Olive Agriculture and Olive Oil Production. See Agriculture
if " alt=""class="pmark"/> Websites and Resources: Olive Oil Source oliveoilsource.com ; Olive Oil articles in Global Gourmet globalgourmet.com/ ; Wikipedia article on Olive Oil Wikipedia ; An Ode to Olives: emeraldworld.net ; Making Olive Oil oliveoilsource ; Type of Olives foodsubs.com/Olivpick ;
Book: Olives, the Life and Love of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum (North Point/ Farrar Straus Giroux).
History of Olives
Greek vase with
olive gathering scene Olives were one of the first processed foods. At a Stone Age site in Spain 8000-year-old olive seeds were found and archeologist speculate that the olives had to have been processed somehow, otherwise they would have been too bitter to eat.
The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and Greece and the Greeks took them to Italy, southern Spain, and Sicily. The Romans brought them to southern France.
The Greeks and Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and fragrances, as a base for perfumes and treatment for heart ailments, hair loss, stomach aches and excessive perspiration. The Greeks rubbed cult statues with olive oil. Romans burned it in the alter of their gods. Greek athletes anointed their bodies with olive oil scented with flowers and roots when they worked out and competed.
Greeks believed that olive oil was a gift to humanity from Athena and Olympic champions were rewarded with a crown of olives. Zeus decreed that the city that would become Athens would given to the god who produced the most useful thing for mankind. Poseidon gave them a horse. Athena stamped on the ground with a spear: an olive tree sprung up. The people liked olives so much that Zeus gave the city that became named after her. The olive branch became a symbol of peace.
In the Roman Empire olive oil was a major cash crop. Consumption by individuals rose to as much as 50 liters a year and some families grew quite rich trading it. In many ways olive oil was valued as much in ancient times as petroleum is today, with governments going to great lengths to make sure there was a steady supply. Some emperors gave it out free to the masses as part of their bread and circuses policy.
Jesus was anointed with olive oil (Christ means the "anointed one") and olive trees that date back to Christian times can still be found on Israel. Olives were also important to Muslims. Islam's oldest university, in Tunisia is named al-Zitouna —the Olive Tree.
Attica fell to Sparta after the Spartans uprooted their rivals olive trees.
Roman releif with
olive gathering scene Olive oil is a fruit juice (the only edible oil made from a fruit). It is prized for its rich flavor, purity and lack of greasiness. The oil content of an olive varies from 8 percent to more than 20 percent of the olive's weight, including the pit. Oil-rich varieties are generally used for making oil while less-rich strains are used for eating.
Most olives are made into olive oil. Oil-grade olives are usually 20 to 40 percent oil, not including the pit. The best grades of olive oil—virgin, sublime or 1st expressed oil—come from the pulp of olives picked in the brief time after they are ripened but before they turn black.
Olive oil is used to make salad dressings or to dip bread and can even be consumed by itself. Olive oil changes little at high temperatures, which makes ideal for cooking. It also an excellent preservative, used for keeping fish, cheese and even wine for years. Olive oil soaps don't produce much lather but they leave the skin feeling luxuriously smooth. Olive oil is also used in cosmetics; as a lubricant; to comb wool; and to polish diamonds.
Nuts and Spices in Ancient Greece and Rome
mushrooms Almonds are one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. The ancient Mesopatamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Almonds have been in the found in Minoan place in Knossos and were a favorite dessert food of the Greeks. They and pistachios are the only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.
Salt was highly valued. Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifices before their throats were cut and salt was so valuable Roman soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt and productive workers were said to be "worth their salt."
Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians. The pyramid builders ate lot of it along with onions. . One of the first recorded strikes occurred when their garlic ration was reduced. A slave could be bought for seven kilograms of it. Garlic was also consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. Roman legions wore it on their bodies to ward off colds.
The Romans and Greeks regarded garlic and leeks as aphrodisiacs. Truffles, artichokes and oysters were also associated with sexuality. Anise-tasting fennel was popular with Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.
Ginger was a popular spice in ancient Greece and Rome. Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with ones for salt and pepper. The word "ginger" came to mean spices in general. Pliny believed that pepper was a stimulant. Ginger is one of the earliest spices known in Western Europe. It imported from India as far back as Greek times.
The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a teeth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used as perfume. Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and was mentioned a number of times in Arabian Nights .
Cloves and nutmeg were seen by Romans as appetite stimulants. The ancient Greeks grew sage and used cumin, thyme, coriander and poppy seeds in their cooking. They considered parsley to be too sacred to eat and the Romans set the precedent of using it as garnish, so it could be used over and over. Cloves were delivered to the Romans from present-day Indonesia by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times.
There were few sweets however. Things like sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate were not introduced to Europe until much later. Nor was there any coffee or tea. Honey was the primary sweetener.
Meat and Seafood in Ancient Rome
snails The Romans ate chicken, wild boar, suckling pig, beef, veal, lamb, goat, kid, deer, hare, pheasant, duck, goose, capon (a castrated rooster) and game birds such as thrush, starling and woodcock. They were particularly fond of goose, which was prepared a number of ways with several different sauces.
The forest around Roman cities were filled with game. Small birds and mammals were caught in nets. The Romans used dove cities to raise birds for eggs and meat and produced three-story-high towers to raise dormice, which were a fixture of Roman meals. Cats, rabbits and peacocks were introduced to Rome and eaten by around the A.D. 1st century.
Romans were very fond of fish sausage. Sausages made by stuffing spiced meat in animal intestines were made by the Babylonians around 1500 B.C. The Greeks also ate such foods. The Romans called them salsus , the source of the word sausage.
Romans ate lobster, crab, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, mullet, sea urchins, scallops, clams, mussels, sea snails, tuna, sea bream, sea bass and scorpion fish. They liked to cook fish live at the table and the Senate once debated the proper way to serve the first turbot. Hadrian was fond of salmon rolled with caviar. Fresh oysters were very popular. They were brought to Rome from Breton from by runners in around 24 hours.
The Romans made popular fish soup in huge vats. The upper classes ate peppered fish. The Romans were so fond of fish they badly overfished the Mediterranean. The Romans practiced fish farming and raised eels in tanks. Pliny described one aristocrat who occasionally fed his slaves to the eels.
Ancient Roman Dishes, Exotic Food and Desserts
Romans liked putrid fish sauces and ate sweet-and-sour, spicy and curry-like dishes. Appetizers included salted fish, pigs feet, hard boiled eggs, and stuffed artichokes.The Romans regarded honey as a medicine and drank coriander mixed with honey as a remedy for childbirth fever.
Among the desserts consumed by Romans were fruit and custard on honey-sweetened goodies. Chilled fruit juices, milk and honey were enjoyed in the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). Nero (1st century A.D.) ate desserts made from snow brought in from the mountains. The earliest known cookies were made in Rome in the third century B.C. They were unleavened, bland, hard wafers. The word cookie and biscuit are derived from the Latin word bis coctum , which means "twice baked." Roman cookies were often dipped in wine to soften them up.
Romans hosted elaborate dinner parties with hosts trying to top one another with the most elaborate dishes. They ate ostrich brains, unfeathered peacocks, dolphin meatballs, herons, goat feet, peacock brains, boiled parrot, flamingo tongues and orioles. They liked watching birds fly out of featured dishes and ate an electric fish because “it was fascinating.” Sometimes a calf was cooked up with a pig inside it and inside the pig were a lamb, a chicken, a rabbit and a mouse. The Roman Emperor Elagabalus once ordered 600 ostriches killed so his cooks could make him ostrich-brain pies.
The Roman elite indulged themselves on unusual foods such as nightingales tongues, parrots heads, camels heels and elephants trunks. One of the greatest delicacy was foie gras made by force feeding geese with figs to enlarge their livers. The Roman are sometimes credited with invented foie gras but the Greeks also ate it.
The Romans also ate insects. Pliny wrote they were particular fond of grubs called cossus, which he said could be made into “the most delicate dishes.” They didn’t eat horsemeat.
Salt and Pepper in Ancient Rome
Winter food Wealthy Romans sometimes ate their food with elaborate sauces and spices. They called this “city eating." By the 1st century B.C., Romans were obtaining spices from India.
"The best Roman cookbooks required pepper for nearly every recipe." In the A.D. first century, the satirist Persius wrote: The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear. Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware...
Salt was very valuable to the ancients. Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifices before their throats were cut. The Roman empire's major highway was the Via Salaria (Salt Road), on which salt was carried from the salt pans of Ostia to Rome. The expression "worth their salt" comes from Rome where soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt.
A number of other words come from salt. The word salad is derived from the fact that Romans liked to salt with their vegetables. Salacious comes from the Latin word salax, which means a man in love or literally “in the salted state.”
Salt from the Dead Sea was shipped all over the Mediterranean. Meat was preserved by "salting," a process that require large quantities of pepper in addition to salt to counteract the "unpalatable effects of the salt itself."
Ancient Roman Spices and Sauces
food table (imitation) Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes and legionnaires rubbed it on their bodies to ward off colds. The Romans gave garlic to laborers who did dangerous jobs to give them courage.
Romans spiced their food with pine kernels, leeks, celery seeds, parsley, lovage, capons, dried mint, safflower, coriander, dates, honey, vinegar, raison wine and broth. Several towns were famous for the or condiment factories. Roman were especially fond of liquamen , a sauce made from rotting fish guts, vinegar, oil, and pepper. Variants of the sauce were used on fish and fowl as far back as 300 B.C. It was said to be an aphrodisiac. Among the recipes discovered at Pompeii were mushrooms with honey-and-liquamen sauce, soft-boiled eggs with pine kernels and liquamen sauce, and venison with caraway seeds, honey and liquamen sauce.
The stems of laserpithium, an herb from North Africa, was incredibly popular. It was roasted as a vegetable and squeezed to get juices used as a flavoring. It was the chief export from Libya and one of the primary spoils of the Punic wars. Within two centuries it was consumed to extinction.
The Romans were nuts about honey. It was added to all sorts of things. Cloves and sugar arrived in Europe during the Roman era. Sugar was used mainly as a sweetener for medicine.
Ancient Roman Recipes
Moretum Horace, Pliny, Seneca, Juvenal, Cato and others all gave cooking tips and suggested recipes. One recipes for ham in pastry with fig sauce used cumin seed, fish sauce imported from Portugal, beer, sour wine, pork lard, young pig ham, roe deer and venison.
Marcus Gabius Apicus— a rich first century Roman gourmet, merchant and cookbook writer— reportedly invented foie gras and made "green cheesecake" made from lettuce. His recipe for roast duck and hazelnuts and other fowl goes: 1) mix pepper, parsley, lovage, dried mint, safflower, moisten with wine; 2) add roasted hazelnuts or almonds, a little honey; 3) blend with wine and vinegar and fish sauce; 4) add oil to the mixture in the saucepan; 5) heat, stir with fresh celery and calamint; 6) make incisions [in the birds] and pour the sauce over them.”
Apicus’s recipe for boiled ostrich is as follows: “1) blend pepper, leeks, celery seeds, dates, honey, vinegar, raison wine, broth and a little oil; 2) boil this in a stock kettle with ostrich, removing the bird when done and straining the liquid; 3) thicken with roux; 4) add the ostrich meat cut in convenient pieces, sprinkle with pepper. If you wish it more seasoned or tasty add garlic.” [Source: Apicus, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome by Joseph Vehling]
Book: Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996)
Emperor’s Banquet in Ancient Rome
Roman banquets sometimes lasted for 10 hours. They were held in dining rooms decorated with frescos of Helen of Troy and Castor and Pollex. Slaves cooked the meal and beautiful women served the dishes. Prostitutes, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, actors and fire-eaters entertained guests between courses. Masseuses washed their feet with perfumed water. Some banquet halls housed a vomitorium where guests could go to throw up so they could enjoy more delicacies.
Banquets were regarded as demonstrations of wealth and position. Spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars was not uncommon. Feasting was so popular that satires were written about it and laws were passed outlawing the consumption of particularly rare delicacies and hosting especially large banquets. Police had stake outs set up in the markets to prevents extravagant purchases. Menus had to be approved by local officials. In some places dining rooms were required to have windows so inspectors could check the proceedings
Herculaneum fresco of a banquet Describing a feast in Satyricon , Petronius wrote: “Spread around a circular tray were the twelve signs of the zodiac, and over each sign the chef had put the most suitable food, Thus, over the sign of Aries were chickpeas, over Taurus a slice of beef, a pair of testicles and kidneys over Gemini, a wreath of flowers over Cancer, over Leo an African fig, virgin sowbelly on Virgo, over Libra a pair of scales with tartlet in one pan and cheesecake in her other, over Scorpio a crawfish, a lobster on Capricorn, on Aquarius a goose, and two mullets over Pisces. The centerpiece was a clod of turf with gras still green surmounted by a fat honeycomb. With some reluctance we began attacking this wretched fare.” Petronius slit his own throat and bled to death while eating a feast with friends.
Pliny described the gourmet Marcus Gabius Apicus as "the greatest spendthrift of all." He said he squandered most of his large fortune on feasts and then, anticipating a need to economize, committed suicide with poison. In A.D. 20 Apicus hosted a legendary banquet that cost between 60 million and 100 million sesterces ($15 million). There is no record of what was eaten but he was left with only 10 million sesterces afterwards. It was after this feast he committed suicide. According to a 16th century manuscript: "Six hundred thousand spend, and but/ Ten thousand left to feed his gutt./ Fearing for want of food and dye,/ Despairing, he did poyson buy:/ Never was known such gluttonye."
Ancient Roman Banquets
The teenage emperor Elagabulus hosted a famous feast which featured camels feet; honeyed dormice; the brains of 600 ostriches; conger eels fattened on Christian slaves; and caviar from fish caught with emperor's private fishing fleet. Guest were also given a dish with a sauce made by a chef who had to eat nothing but that sauce if the emperor didn't like it.
Elagabulus reportedly came to the banquet on a chariot pulled by naked women and is said to have liked to mix gold and pearls with peas and rice. He ate and drank from bejeweled gold plates and goblets. Guests to his banquets were given free slaves and homes and live versions of the animals they had just eaten. His idea of practical jokes was to play a game and give the winner a prize of dead flies and drug guests wine and have them wake in a room filled with lions and leopards. These excesses exhausted Rome's treasury and Elagabulus met his end, assassinated in a latrine.
Romans drank cider as early as 55 B.C. Beer was available but it was regarded as “not for the sophisticated.” There was no whiskey or brandy. The distillation of alcohol had not been invented. There was no coffee or tea either.
Anise-tasting fennel was popular with the Greeks who thought it made a man strong. The Romans thought it improved eyesight.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [µ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2012