Ancient Roman cuisine: what they ate and where the ancient Romans ate throughout the day.
The ancient Romans had three main meals: jentaculum, prandium and coena. The first meal corresponded, more or less, to our breakfast. It was bread, cheese, milk, honey, wine and dried fruit and was consumed very quickly. Late in the morning they’d have another quick and cold snack of fish, bread, fruit, vegetables and wine called prandium. It corresponded, roughly, to our lunch but it was so spartan, they didn’t even set the table and or wash their hands after the meal.
The important meal took place, however, in the afternoon after a bath at the spa and, at times, continued until the dawn of the following day.
The coena (dinner), initially, was consumed in the atrium but when houses became wider and more articulated and above all, wealthy, it took place in the “triclinio” (dining room) where owner arranged for “triclinari” (beds/sofas) where the guests could lie down. The ancient Romans ate lying on the “triclinari”, leaning sideways on their left arm and keeping the right free to grab food from the low tables.
The guest of honour had a place of honour called the “consular” on the right of the central “triclinium”, placed in front of the door so that a messenger could easily communicate an urgent message to him. The owner sat to the left of the guest of honour.
The richest dwellings had more than one dining room: the summer “triclinium”, oriented to the north, and the winter one oriented to the west so as to exploit the last ray of sunshine. The oldest cuisine was very simple, based around cereals, legumes, cheeses and fruit. With the conquest of the East, it acquired special flavours and aromas that seem to be a mix between oriental and medieval. The new conquests came, of course, only to the tables of the rich.
What we know today comes mainly from the recipe book of Apicius, a well-known gastronome of the Imperial Age, who wrote “De Re Coquinaria” where we can get the most information about the ancient Roman cuisine.
The main ingredient in the Roman cuisine was garum, a brine used, probably, instead of salt, which was very expensive and difficult to find. Pepper, cumin and lovage were the top spices and the “main dishes” were meat based, mainly pork.
A characteristic of ancient Roman cuisine was the combination of contrasting flavours such as sweet with spicy or sweet with spiced. These days, the recipes of the famous chef would not have much success. But for the Romans of the time, they were extremely refined and appetising.
Most of the population, which was not rich, consumed much simpler meals, mainly made with cereals, legumes and fruit, with a little meat. They certainly could not afford to have dinner in the “triclinia”, nor lying on comfortable beds/sofas. The disadvantage was that they ate less. However, the advantage was that they were much healthier since they didn’t use condiments like “garum” and didn’t excessively consume meat, so they avoided the affliction of the rich – gout.