20120227-Food house of Julia Pompei.jpg
Food House of Julia in Pompeii
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 held 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.

Joel N. Shurkin wrote in insidescience: “Dinner parties were the way the Roman aristocracy showed off their wealth and prestige, according to Michael MacKinnon, professor of archaeology at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Status in the upper class was declared with the presentation of the meal, the rare spices, the dinnerware, he explained. “The wealthier you are the more you want to invest in display and advertising to your guests. Flash was perhaps more important than substance,” said MacKinnon. “Whole animals showed great wealth.” [Source: Joel N. Shurkin, insidescience, February 3, 2015 +/]

“The lower classes ate to stay alive. Some historians believed the lower class was mostly vegetarian but that is not true, MacKinnon and Angela Trentacoste of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom said. The generally ate the same things the upper class did, but not the same cuts (think mutton versus lamp chops) and probably not in the same quantities. The rich reclined as they ate. Lower class Romans did not have fancy flatware, instead they used crude utensils. +/

“Because only the upper class had kitchens at home, other Romans bought food from street vendors, something like the lunch wagons of today. Mostly, MacKinnon said, they would put the food in large pots and make stews or a porridge. They might also boil the meat. Only the wealthy were able to broil or barbecue. +/

“Despite legend, most Romans or Etruscans did not often eat exotic animals regularly, although upper class diners might enjoy songbirds swallowed whole and one midden in Rome contained the bones of a slaughtered camel. Trentacoste said songbirds are still eaten in some parts of Italy. One legend is true, MacKinnon said: Vomitoriums. There might be so much food and everyone would want to indulge. To make room, they would excuse themselves from the table and purge.” +/

Jamie Frater wrote for Listverse: “A very persistent myth about the Romans is that they would feast until they were full, then visit a room called a vomitorium to “vomit” the food out so they could start over again. This is a myth – the vomitoria were actually passages that enabled people to move quickly to and from their seats in an amphitheater. These vomitoria made it possible for thousands of Roman citizens to be seated within minutes. In the photograph above [source] we see a real vomitorium. [Source: Jamie Frater, Listverse, May 5, 2008]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Book: “Around the Roman Table” by Patrick Faas (Macmillan, 2003).

Eating Customs in Ancient Rome

spoons from Pompeii

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Social position determined how a family ate. Lower classes mostly had simple fare while the wealthy often used elaborate feasts to showcase their status. Bread featured heavily at both breakfast and lunch. While the lower classes added olives, cheese, and wine, the upper class enjoyed a better variety of meat, feast leftovers, and fresh produce. The very poor sometimes just ate porridge or handouts. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

“Meals were prepared by the women or slaves of the household, and the children served them. Nobody had forks, so food was consumed using their hands, spoons, and knives. Dinner parties of the Roman rich were legendary for their decadence and delicacies. Lasting hours, guests reclined on dining couches while slaves cleaned up the discarded scraps around them. All classes relished a stomach-churning sauce called garum. Basically the fermented guts of fish, it reeked so bad that it was forbidden to make it within city limits.”

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The table supplies of a given people vary from age to age with the development of civilization and refinement, and in the same age with the means and tastes of classes and individuals. Of the Romans it may be said that during the early Republic, perhaps almost through the second century B.C., they cared little for the pleasures of the table. They lived frugally and ate sparingly. They were almost strictly vegetarians, much of their food was eaten cold, and the utmost simplicity characterized the cooking and the service of their meals. During this period there was little to choose between the fare of the proudest patrician and the humblest client. The Samnite envoys found Manius Curius, the conqueror of Pyrrhus (275 B.C,), eating his dinner of vegetables from an earthen bowl. A century later the poet Plautus calls his countrymen a race of porridge-eaters (pultiphagonidae), and gives us to understand that in his time even the wealthiest Romans had in their households no specially trained cooks. When a dinner out of the ordinary was given, a professional cook was hired, who brought with him to the house of the host his own utensils and his own helpers, just as a caterer does nowadays. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The last two centuries of the Republic saw all this changed. The conquest of Greece and the wars in Asia Minor gave the Romans a taste of Eastern luxury and altered their simple table customs, as other customs had been altered by like contact with the outside world. From this time the poor and the rich no longer fared alike. The former, constrained by poverty, lived frugally as of old; students of Caesar know that the soldiers who won Caesar’s battles for him lived on grain, which they ground in their handmills and baked at their campfires. Some of the very rich, on the other hand, aping the luxury of the Greeks but lacking their refinement, became gluttons instead of gourmets. They ransacked the world for articles of food, preferring the rare and the costly to what was really palatable and delicate. Of course, there were always wealthy men (Atticus, the friend of Cicero, for example) who clung to the simpler customs of the earlier days, but these could make little headway against the current of senseless dissipation and extravagance. Over against these must be set the fawning poor, who preferred the fleshpots of the rich patron to the bread of honest independence. Between the two extremes was a numerous middle class of the well-to-do, with whose ordinary meals we are most concerned. These meals were the ientaculum, the prandium, and the cena. |+|

Table Manners Customs in Ancient Rome

eating on a couch

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 held 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.

In the early days of the Roman Republic, Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ Everything was prepared by the mater familias or by the women slaves under her supervision. The table was set in the atrium; the father, mother, and the children sat around it on stools or benches, waiting on one another and on their guests. Dependents ate of the same food, but apart from the family. The dishes were of the plainest sort, of earthenware or even of wood, though a silver saltcellar was often the cherished ornament of the humblest board. Table knives and forks were unknown; the food was cut into convenient portions before it was served, and spoons were used to convey to the mouth what the fingers could not manage. “ [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Later: “The separate dining room (triclinium) was introduced, the great houses having two or more, and the oeci were, perhaps, pressed into service for banquet halls. The dining couch took the place of the bench or stool, slaves served the food to the reclining guests, a dinner dress was devised, and every familia urbana included a high-priced chef with a staff of trained assistants.” |+|

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: Some upper-class “Romans took excess to new levels. According to Seneca, Romans at banquets would eat until they couldn’t anymore—and then vomit so that they could keep eating. Some people threw up into bowls that they kept around the table, but others didn’t let themselves get so caught up in the formalities. In some homes, people would just throw up right there on the floor and go back to eating. The slaves are the people you really need to feel sorry for, though. Their jobs were terrible. In the words of Seneca: “When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle; another, situated beneath, collects the leavings [vomit] of the drunks.” [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

Meals in Ancient Rome

Globi (cheese) and sesame sweetmeats

There were usually three daily meals: the breakfast (ientaculum), soon after rising; the luncheon, or midday meal (prandium); and the chief meal, or dinner (cena), in the afternoon. The food of the poorer classes consisted of a kind of porridge, or breakfast food (farina), made of a coarse species of wheat (far), together with ordinary vegetables, such as turnips and onions, with milk and olives. The wealthy classes vied with one another in procuring the rarest delicacies from Italy and other parts of the world. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

According to Listverse: Breakfast (the Romans called this jentaculum) was taken in the master’s bedroom and usually consisted of a slice of bread or a wheat pancake eaten with dates and honey. Wine was also drunk. Lunch (the Romans called this prandium) was eaten at about 11.00 a.m. and consisted of a light meal of bread, cheese and possibly some meat. In many senses, everything was geared up towards the main meal of the day – cena. This was eaten in the late afternoon or early evening. If the master of the house had no guests, cena might take about one hour. If he did have guests, then this meal might take as long as four hours. A light supper was usually eaten just before the Romans went to bed, consisting of bread and fruit. The Romans were usually not big meat eaters and a lot of their normal meals involved vegetables, herbs and spices together with a wheat meal that looked like porridge. [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Custom fixed more or less rigorously the hours for meals, though these varied with the period, and to a less extent with the occupations and even with the inclinations of individuals. In early times in the city and in all periods in the country the chief meal (cena) was eaten in the middle of the day, preceded by a breakfast (ientaculum) in the early morning and followed in the evening by a supper (vesperna). In classical times the hours for meals in Rome were about as they are now in our large cities, that is, the cena was postponed until the work of the day was finished, thus crowding out the vesperna, and a luncheon (prandium) took the place of the old-fashioned “noon dinner.” The late dinner came to be more or less of a social function, as guests were present and the food and service were the best the house could afford. The ientaculum and prandium were in comparison very simple and informal meals. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Breakfast and Lunch. The breakfast (ientaculum or iantaculum) was eaten immediately after rising, the hour varying, of course, with the occupation and social position of the individual. Usually it consisted merely of bread, eaten dry or dipped in wine or sprinkled over with salt, though raisins, olives, and cheese were sometimes added. Workmen pressed for time seem to have taken their breakfast in their hands to eat as they went to the place of their labor, and schoolboys often stopped on their way to school at a public bakery to buy a sort of shortcake or pancake on which they made a hurried breakfast. More rarely the breakfast became a regular meal: eggs were served in addition to the things just mentioned, and mulsum and milk were drunk with them. It is likely that such a breakfast was taken at a later hour and by persons who dispensed with the noon meal. |+|

moretum, bread and olives, typical light meal

"The luncheon (prandium) came about eleven o’clock. It, too, consisted usually of cold food: bread, salads, olives, cheese, fruits, nuts, and cold meats from the dinner of the day before. Occasionally, however, warm meat and vegetables were added, but the meal was never an elaborate one. It is sometimes spoken of as a morning meal, but in this case it must have followed at about the regular interval an extremely early breakfast, or it must itself have formed the breakfast, taken later than usual, when the ientaculum for some reason had been omitted. After the prandium came the midday rest or siesta (meridiatio), when all work was laid aside until the eighth hour, except in the law courts and in the senate. In the summer, at least, everybody went to sleep, and even in the capital the streets were almost as deserted as at midnight. The vesperna, entirely unknown in city life, closed the day on the farm. It was an early supper which consisted largely of the leavings of the noonday dinner with the addition of such uncooked food as a farm would naturally supply. The word merenda seems to have been applied in early times to this evening meal, and then to refreshments taken at any time (cf. English “lunch”). |+|

“The Formal Meal. The busy life of the city had early crowded the dinner out of its original place in the middle of the day and fixed it in mid-afternoon. The fashion soon spread to the towns and was carried by city people to their country estates, so that in classical times the late dinner (cena) was the regular practice for all persons of any social standing throughout the length and breadth of Italy. It was even more of a function than it is with us, because the Romans knew no other form of purely social intercourse. They had no receptions, balls, musicales, or theater parties, no other opportunities to entertain their friends or be entertained by them. It is safe to say, therefore, that, when the Roman was in town he was, every evening, host or guest at dinner as elaborate as his means or those of his friends permitted, unless, of course, urgent business claimed his attention or some unusual circumstances had withdrawn him temporarily from society. On the country estates the same custom prevailed: the guests came from neighboring estates or were friends who stopped unexpectedly, perhaps, to claim entertainment for a night as they passed on a journey to or from the city. These dinners, formal as they were, are to be distinguished carefully from the extravagant banquets of the ostentatious rich. They were in themselves thoroughly wholesome, the expression of genuine hospitality. The guests were friends, their number was limited, the wife and children of the host were present, and social enjoyment was the end in view.” |+|

Augustus’s Eating Habits

On the eating habits of the Roman Emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C. – A.D. 14), Suetonius wrote: “He was a light eater (for I would not omit even this detail) and as a rule ate of plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, handmade moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop; and he would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry. I quote word for word from some of his letters: "I ate a little bread and some dates in my carriage." And again: "As I was on my homeward way from the Regia in my litter, I devoured an ounce of bread and a few berries from a cluster of hard-fleshed grapes." Once more: "Not even a Jew, my dear Tiberius, fasts so scrupulously on his sabbaths as I have today; for it was not until after the first hour of the night that I ate two mouthfuls of bread in the bath before I began to be anointed." Because of this irregularity he sometimes ate alone either before a dinner party began or after it was over, touching nothing while it was in progress. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum--Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars--The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]


“He was by nature most sparing also in his use of wine. Cornelius Nepos writes that in camp before Mutina it was his habit to drink not more than three times at dinner. Afterwards, when he indulged most freely he never exceeded a pint; or if he did, he used to throw it up. He liked Raetian wine best, but rarely drank before dinner. Instead he would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour, either fresh or dried.

“After his midday meal he used to rest for a while just as he was, without taking off his clothes or his shoes, with his feet uncovered and his hand to his eyes. After dinner he went to a couch in his study, where he remained till late at night, until he had attended to what was left of the day's business, either wholly or in great part. Then he went to bed and slept not more than seven hours at most, and not even that length of time without a break, but waking three or four times. If he could not resume his sleep when it was interrupted, as would happen, he sent for readers or story-tellers, and when sleep came to him he often prolonged it until after daylight. He would never lie awake in the dark without having someone sit by his side. He detested early rising and when he had to get up earlier than usual because of some official or religious duty, to avoid inconveniencing himself he spent the night in the room of one of his friends near the appointed place. Even so, he often suffered from want of sleep, and he would drop off while he was being carried through the streets and when his litter was set down because of some delay.”

Dining Couch in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The position of the dining-room (triclinium) in the Roman house has been described already, and it has been remarked that in classical times the stool or bench had given place to the couch. This couch (lectus tricliniaris) was constructed much as the common lecti were, except that it was made broader and lower, had an arm at one end only, was without a back, and sloped from the front to the rear. At the end where the arm was, a cushion or bolster was placed, and parallel with it two others were arranged in such a way as to divide the couch into three parts. Each part was for one person, and a single couch would, therefore, accommodate three persons. The dining-room received its name (triclinium) from the fact that it was planned to hold three of these, set on three sides of a table, the fourth side of which was open. The arrangement varied a little with the size of the room. In a large room the couches were set further apart but if economy of space was necessary they were placed closer together, the latter was, probably, the more common arrangement of the two. Nine may be taken, therefore, as the normal upper limit of the number at an ordinary table. On unusual occasions, a larger room would be used where two or more tables could be arranged in the same way, each accommodating nine guests. In the case of members of the same family, especially if one was a child, or when the guests were very intimate friends, a fourth person might find room on a couch, but this was certainly unusual; probably when a guest unexpectedly presented himself, some member of the family would surrender his place to him. Often the host reserved a place or places for friends that his guests might bring without notice. Such uninvited persons were called umbrae. When guests were present, the wife sat on the edge of the couch instead of reclining, and children were usually accommodated on seats. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Places of Honor. The guest approached the couch from the rear and took his place upon it, lying on his left side, with his face to the table, and supported by his left elbow, which rested on the cushion or bolster mentioned above. Each couch and each place on the couch had its own name according to its position with reference to the others, The couches were called respectively lectus summus, lectus medius, and lectus imus; it will be noticed that persons reclining on the lectus medius had the lectus summus on the left and the lectus imus on the right. Etiquette assigned the lectus summus and the lectus medius to guests, while the lectus imus was reserved for the host, his wife, and one other family member, if the host alone represented the family, the two places beside him on the lectus imus were given to the humblest of the guests. |+|

“The places on each couch were named in the same way, (locus) summus, medius, and imus. The person who occupied the place numbered 1 was said to be above (super, supra) the person to his right, while the person occupying the middle place was above the person on his right and below (infra) the one on his left. The place of honor on the lectus summus and the corresponding place on the lectus imus was taken by the host. To the most distinguished guest, however, was given a special place on the lectus medius; this place was called by the special name locus consularis, because if a consul was present, it was always assigned to him. It was next to the place of the host, and, besides, was especially convenient for a public official; if he found it necessary to receive or send a message during the dinner, he could communicate with the messenger without so much as turning on his elbow. In the early years of the Empire a new type of couch was made to be used with the round table. From its semicircular shape it was called sigma, from one form of the Greek letter. The cushion curved around the inner side of the couch, which apparently served for all. The number accommodated seems to have varied. The places of honor were at the ends; the place at the right end of the couch was called the locus consularis. |+|

room with dining couches

“Other Furniture. In comparison with the lecti the rest of the furniture of the dining-room played an insignificant part. In fact, the only other absolutely necessary article was the table (mensa), placedbetween the three couches in such a way that all were equally distant from it and free access to it was left on the fourth side. The space between the table and the couches was so little that the guests could help themselves. The guests had no individual plates to be kept upon the table; it was used merely to receive the large dishes in which the food was served, and certain formal articles, such as the saltcellar and the things necessary for the offering to the gods. The table, therefore, was never very large, but it was often exceedingly beautiful and costly. At first its beauties were not hidden by any cloth or covering; the tablecloth did not come into use until about the end of the first century of our era. The usual tableware in the time of Augustus was the Arretine ware, a red glazed pottery with designs in relief; the cost and the beauty of the dishes were limited only by the means and taste of the owner. Besides the couches and the table, sideboards (abaci) were the only articles of furniture usually found in the triclinium. They varied from a simple shelf to tables of different forms and sizes such as are shown in Figures 183 and 184, and open cabinets. They were set out of the way against the walls and served as do ours to display plate and porcelain when such articles were not in use on the table.” |+|

Courses and Bill of Fare in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “In classical times even the simplest dinner was divided into three parts, the gustus (“appetizer”), the cena (“dinner proper”), and the secunda mensa6 (“dessert”); the dinner was made elaborate by having each part served in several courses. The gustus consisted only of things that were believed to excite the appetite or aid the digestion: oysters and other shell-fish fresh, sea-fish salted or pickled, certain vegetables that could be eaten uncooked, especially onions, and almost invariably lettuce and eggs, all with piquant sauces. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

With these appetizers mulsum was drunk, as wine was thought too heavy for an empty stomach. From this drink the gustus was also called the promulsis; another and more significant name for it was antecena. Then followed the real dinner, the cena, which consisted of the more substantial viands, fish, flesh, fowl, and vegetables. With this part of the meal wine was drunk, but in moderation, for it was thought to dull the sense of taste; the real drinking began only when the cena was over. The cena almost always consisted of several courses (mensa prima, altera, tertia, etc.). Three were thought neither niggardly nor extravagant; we are told that Augustus often dined on three courses and never went beyond six. The secunda mensa closed the meal with all sorts of pastry, sweets, nuts, and fruits, fresh and preserved, with which wine was freely drunk. From the fact that eggs were eaten at the beginning of the meal and apples at the close came the proverbial expression, ab ovo A.D. mala (compare our expression “from soup to nuts”). |+|

“Bills of Fare. We have preserved to us in literature the bills of fare of a few meals, probably actually served, which may be taken as typical at least of the homely, the generous, and the sumptuous dinner. The simplest is given by Juvenal (60-140 A.D.): for the gustus, asparagus and eggs; for the cena, young kid and chicken; for the secunda mensa, fruits. Two other menus are given by Martial (43-101 A.D,). The first has lettuce, onions, tunny-fish, and eggs cut in slices; sausages with porridge, fresh cauliflower, bacon, and beans; pears and chestnuts, and, with the wine, olives, parched peas, and lupines. The second has mallows, onions, mint, elecampane, anchovies with sliced eggs, and sow’s udder in tunny sauce; the cena was served in a single course (una mensa), kid, chicken, cold ham, haricot beans, young cabbage sprouts, and fresh fruits, with wine, inevitably. The last menu we owe to Macrobius (fifth century A.D.), who assigns it to a feast of the pontifices during the Republic, feasts proverbial for their splendor. The antecena was served in two courses: first, sea-urchins, raw oysters, three kinds of sea-mussels, thrush on asparagus, a fat hen, panned oysters, and mussels; second, mussels again, shell-fish, sea-nettles, figpeckers, loin of goat, loin of pork, fricasseed chicken, figpeckers again, two kinds of sea-snails. The number of courses in which the cena was served is not given: sow’s udder, head of wild boar, panned fish, panned sow’s udder, domestic ducks, wild ducks, hares, roast chicken, starch pudding, bread. Neither vegetables nor dessert is mentioned by Macrobius, but we may take it for granted that they corresponded to the rest of the feast, and the wine that the pontifices drank was famed as the best.” |+|

slaves serving food

Serving Dinner in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The dinner hour marked the close of the day’s work, as has been said, and varied, therefore, with the season of the year and the social position of the family. In general the time may be said to have been not before the ninth and rarely after the tenth hour. The dinner lasted usually until bedtime, that is, three or four hours at least, though the Romans went to bed early because they rose early. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Sometimes even the ordinary dinner lasted until midnight, but, when a banquet was expected to be unusually protracted, it was the custom to begin earlier in order that there might be time after it for the needed repose. Such banquets, beginning before the ninth hour, were called tempestiva convivia; the word “early” here carried with it about the same reproach as the word “late” in “late suppers.” At the ordinary family dinners the time was spent in conversation, though in some good houses (notably that of Atticus) a trained slave read aloud to the guests. At “gentlemen’s dinners” other forms of entertainment were provided, music, dancing, juggling, etc., by professional performers. At elaborate dinners souvenirs were sometimes distributed. |+|

“When the guests had been ushered into the dining-room the gods were solemnly invoked, a custom to which our “grace before meat” corresponds. Then the guests took their places on the couches (accumbere, discumbere) as these were assigned them, their sandals were removed, to be cared for by their own attendants, and water and towels were carried around for washing the hands. If napkins were used each guest brought his own. The meal then began, and each course was placed upon the table on a tray (ferculum), from which the various dishes were passed in regular order to the guests. As each course was finished the dishes were replaced on the ferculum, and removed, and water and towels were again passed to the guests, a custom all the more necessary because the fingers were used for forks. Between the chief parts of the meal, too, the table was cleared and carefully wiped with a cloth or soft sponge. Between the cena proper and the secunda mensa a longer pause was made, and silence was preserved while wine, salt, and meal—perhaps also ordinary articles of food—were offered to the Lares. The dessert was then brought on in the same way as the other parts of the meal. When the diners were ready to leave the couches, the guests called for their sandals and immediately took their departure.” |+|


Comissatio: Convivial Roman Wine Supper

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Cicero tells us of Cato the Elder and his Sabine neighbors lingering over their dessert and wine until late at night and makes them find the chief charm of the long evening in the conversation. For this reason Cato is said to have declared the Latin word convivium, “a living together,” a better word for such social intercourse than the one the Greeks used, symposium, “a drinking together.” The younger men in the gayer circles of the capital inclined rather to the Greek view and followed the cena proper with a drinking bout, or wine supper, called comissatio or compotatio. This differed from the form that Cato approved, not merely in the amount of wine consumed, in the lower tone, and in the questionable amusements, but also in the following of certain Greek customs unknown among the Romans until after the Second Punic War and never adopted in the regular dinner parties that have been described. These were the use of perfumes and flowers at the feast, the selection of a Master of the Revels, and the method of drinking. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The perfumes and flowers were used not entirely on account of the sweetness of their scent, much as the Romans enjoyed it, but because the Romans believed that the scent prevented, or at least retarded, intoxication. This is shown by the fact that they did not use the unguents and the flowers throughout the whole meal, but waited to anoint the head with perfumes and crown it with flowers until the dessert and the wine were brought on. Various leaves and flowers were used for the garlands (coronae convivales) according to individual tastes, but the rose was the most popular and came to be generally associated with the comissatio. After the guests had assumed their crowns (sometimes garlands were worn also around the neck), each threw the dice, usually calling as he did so upon his sweetheart or upon some deity to help his throw. The one whose throw was the highest was forthwith declared the rex (magister, arbiter) bibendi. Just what his duties and privileges were we are nowhere expressly told, but it can hardly be doubted that it was his province to determine the proportion of water to be added to the wine, to lay down the rules for the drinking (leges insanae, Horace calls them), to decide what each guest should do for the entertainment of his fellows, and to impose penalties and forfeits for breaking the rules. |+|

“The wine was mixed under the direction of the magister in a large bowl (crater), the proportions of the wine and water being apparently constant for the evening, and from the crater, placed on the table in view of all, the wine was ladled by the slaves into the goblets (pocula) of the guests. The ladle (cyathus) held about one-twelfth of a pint, or, more probably, was graduated by twelfths. The method of drinking seems to have differed from that of the regular dinner chiefly in this: at the ordinary dinner each guest mixed his wine and water to suit his own taste and drank as little or as much as he pleased, while at the comissatio all had to drink alike, regardless of differences in taste and capacity. The wine seems to have been drunk chiefly in “healths,” but an odd custom regulated the size of the bumpers. Any guest might propose the health of any person he pleased to name; immediately slaves ladled into the goblet of each guest as many cyathi as there were letters in the name mentioned, and the goblets had to be drained at a draft. The rest of the entertainment was undoubtedly wild enough; gambling seems to have been common, and Cicero, in his speeches against Catiline, speaks of more disgraceful practices. Sometimes the guests spent the evening roaming from house to house, playing host in turn, and, wearing their crowns and garlands, they staggered through the streets and made night hideous.” |+|

20120227-Food -Ancient_Bar_Pompeii.jpg
Bar in Pompeii

Thermopoliums: Roman Fast Food Restaurants?

Pompeii was filled with thermopolia — small shops or 'bars' that are thought to have sold food. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ They consist of terracotta containers (dolia) sunk into a masonry counter (sometimes covered with polychrome marble) that are believed to have contained hot food that was sold to customers. Some thermopolia have decorated back rooms, which may have functioned as dining-rooms. [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“In one thermopolium, the remains of a cloth bag were discovered in one of the dolia, along with over a thousand coins; these are thought to represent the day's takings and demonstrate the popularity of the establishment. Lararia (domestic shrines) are a fairly common feature of thermopolia, and sometimes depict Mercury and Dionysus, the gods of commerce and wine respectively. |::|

Stephen Dyson, one of the world’s leading authorities on ancient Rome and a professor of classics at the University of Buffalo, likened Roman thermopolium to a cross between “Burger King and a British pub or a Spanish tapas bar.” Open to the street, each had a large counter with a receptacle in the middle from which food or drink would have been served. “Dyson said, “Italy’s vibrant street and bar scenes today, along with the often multipurpose design of homes with bedsteads stacked in a corner, or kitchenettes in surprising places, reflect the wonderful, slightly chaotic, aspects of early Roman life.” [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, June 20, 2007]

Vetutius Placidus's thermopolium in Pompeii is perhaps the most famous ancient Roman restaurant. Named after its owner, it was best known for its house-speciality – baked cheese smothered in honey and the L-shaped counter in its triclinium, or dining area. Michael Day wrote in TribuneNews: “Inside, as in many modern cafés and bars, visitors are greeted with a large, L-shaped, decorated counter where customers stood to enjoy a quick lunch. Cylindrical holes in the bar contained glass dolia, or jars, displaying food. Archaeologists working at the site also found a jar full of coins, amounting to about two days’ income. They speculate that the owner may have left them in a last-ditch attempt to save his wealth as he fled the doomed city. [Source: Michael Day, TribuneNews March 21, 2010]

“The thermopolium used to open directly on to a main street, the Via dell’Abbondanza. All sections of Pompeii society would call by for snacks or a light Mediterranean lunch...Sweet, calorie-filled desserts were the real stars of the snack bar. Its creations — named mostaccioli and globe — were filled with sticky honey and ricotta cheese have direct descendants in the cafés of nearby Naples today. Dr Annamaria Ciarallo, an environmental biologist and researcher at Pompeii, said: many of the snack bar’s customers would have grabbed snacks and light meals as takeaways: “There wasn’t a lot of ceremony. Often people, especially the busy ones, would have eaten outside.” “But for customers who preferred to sit, the thermopolium had a triclinium, or dining area, with couches. The house of the owner and his family adjoined the premises.” [Ibid]

Ancient Romans Loved Fast Food

Taverne in Ostia

Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, who has excavated an entire neighborhood block in Pompeii, says the majority of people in her excavation area consumed food “on the run,” a finding which could perhaps be extrapolated for the rest of the Roman Empire. “In many parts of the western world today, a popular belief exists that family members should sit down and dine together and, if they don’t, this may represent a breakdown of the family structure, but that idea did not originate in ancient Rome,” she told Discovery News. Allison describes her findings in the Oxford University Press book, “The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii Volume III.” [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, June 20, 2007 /=]

Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “”Her claims are based both on what she did not find during the excavation, and what she did. Allison noticed an unusual lack of tableware and formal dining or kitchen areas within the Pompeii homes. Instead she found isolated plates here and there, such as in sleeping quarters. “Similar to how children today bring a plate of food to their rooms before watching TV or playing on the computer, my guess is that Roman youths would tote food to certain areas where they possibly engaged in other activities,” she said, adding that kids might also have dined with slaves in nanny or caretaker roles. /=\

“What she did find in the homes were multiple mini barbecue-type fire boxes, suggesting that “BBQ or fondue-style dining” often took place.“Stephen Dyson, one of the world’s leading authorities on ancient Rome and a professor of classics at the University of Buffalo, told Discovery News, “We’ve also found numerous fast food restaurants in Pompeii and other parts of ancient Rome.” “Most Romans lived in apartments or rather confined spaces, and there is not much evidence for stoves and other cooking equipment in them,” he said. /=\

“Dyson thinks “fast food” restaurants became popular because they were plentiful, the same way modern New Yorkers often eat out due to the panoply of affordable choices. Additionally, many of Rome’s and Pompeii’s residents, who worked as artisans, shopkeepers, weavers and such, made enough money to support these places. “Grabbing food to go, either in a house or on the street, also seems to match the energy and flexibility of the Italian mindset.” /=\

Cultic Dining in the Roman Era

Mithraism banquet

L. Michael White of the University of Texas at Austin told PBS: The “communal meal was an important ritual that bonded the members of the community together. Dining itself, though, was nothing uncommon as a religious performance among members of the Roman world. Dinner parties were given all time. Private dinner parties as well as public festivals, but one of the most interesting aspects of dining that we find is what we might call religious or cultic dining, or club banquets; in these club banquets more often than not there's a kind of patron deity who could be expected to oversee the proceedings. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The Mithras cult is known for its dining practices but one of the most popular form of cultic dining that we hear about is found in the Egyptian cults. The cult of Serapis, the god from Egypt, the consort of Isis. We have papyrus invitations from the Roman world which say the god Serapis invites you to dinner at his couch. Meaning his dinner table, his dinner party at eight o'clock on Tuesday evening ... So it's interesting that the Christians do something that looks very much like these religious practices, and at times they actually have to work very hard to distinguish themselves from what the pagans do.

“The Christian writer Tertullian from North Africa around the year 197 really goes way out on a limb to try to make some distinctions. He says, "We Christians hold meals, sure, but we really don't do anything all that extraordinary. In fact, they're very tame. It's not at all like those people who follow the god Serapis. Why when they throw a dinner party you have to call out the fire brigades. We're nothing like that." But indeed the very point that he has to make suggests that in the eyes of a lot of people that's exactly how they looked.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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