When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Bread and Circuses - The Staples of Ancient Roman Meals
For ancient Romans, bread and circuses really were the staples that held society together. Bread, or panis in Latin, was a dietary essential across all social classes. Unlike the finely milled modern loaf, Roman bread was coarse and gritty. Still, it was a filling base for meals. The classic Roman bread was panis rusticus, a hearty country-style loaf leavened with sourdough. Panis militaris was another common variety, a flat crackerbread made from wheat that Roman soldiers could carry on campaigns. Even the poorest citizens got a monthly grain dole to make their own bread. The "Bread and Circuses" phrase came from Juvenal, describing how Roman rulers appeased the masses with cheap food and entertainment.
Bread was so fundamental to life that disturbing the grain supply could cause riots. Aurelian, an emperor in the 3rd century AD, famously quipped "let them hate me, so long as they fear me" when cutting Rome's bread dole. Bread even held ritual meaning. Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies involved breaking and sharing a loaf. In religious rites, bread represented the bounty of mother earth and wheat goddess Ceres. Vestal virgins made special sacrificial loaves using sacred utensils.
Unlike bread, the "circuses" part of the phrase referred to entertainment rather than food. But public games still involved mass feasting. At events like the Roman Circus, vendors hawked sausages, pastries stuffed dormice, and other snack foods. Attendees washed down copious amounts of wine. Since games were free, patrons had spare cash for concessions. The Colosseum alone could seat 50,000 hungry spectators.
During the gladiatorial Ludi games, plays based on Roman history were performed between bouts. These Ludi shows involved even more culinary excess, with sponsors hosting public banquets. One late 2nd century BCE politician staged an event with 22,000 tables of food and amphorae of wine. While the upper classes enjoyed exotic dishes like stuffed flamingo tongues, even the plebs could indulge in a meaty porridge called pulmentum.
What else is in this post?
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Bread and Circuses - The Staples of Ancient Roman Meals
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Garum - The Fishy Secret to Roman Flavor
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Sweet Treats from Honey to Mustacei
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Messy Pleasures of the Thermopolium
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - From Popina to Domus - Where Romans Ate Out and Dined In
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Surprising Role of the Vinegar in Roman Cooking
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Slaves in the Kitchen - Who Cooked in Ancient Rome
- When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Influence of Trade on Roman Ingredients and Recipes
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Garum - The Fishy Secret to Roman Flavor
No discussion of ancient Roman cuisine is complete without mentioning garum, the quintessential fermented fish sauce that added an umami kick to so many dishes. Though it may sound unappealing to modern palates, garum was as essential to Roman cooking as salt and pepper are today.
This pungent condiment was made from fish intestines and other parts leftover from processing seafood. The innards were layered with salt in a container and left to ferment in the sun for several weeks. As the mixture broke down, a smelly golden-brown liquid separated out. This was the desired garum, strained and bottled for use. Lesser grades of garum were also produced, along with a thicker paste called allec.
Garum quickly spread across the Roman world and became a culinary sensation. Factories churned it out in industrial quantities to meet demand. Amphorae marked with names like “Old Patron’s Garum Factory” indicate large-scale production. Ruins of garum facilities can still be seen today in ancient Roman port cities.
So what made this fish sauce so popular? For one, it added a savory meatiness that balanced the monotonous taste of grains and vegetables in the Roman diet. Garum also introduced glutamates that enhanced other flavors, much like MSG does. In a time before refrigeration, the fermentation acted as a preservative too.
Roman writings are sprinkled with references to garum and its uses. The playwright Plautus joked about servants swiping leftover fish bits to secretly make garum to sell. Food recipes indicate that garum was mixed into everything from eggs to desserts. The most lavish garum was made from premium fish like mackerel and tuna.
There’s no precise modern equivalent of Roman garum. The closest comparison might be nuoc mam, the fish sauce integral to Southeast Asian cooking today. Garum also resembles Worcestershire sauce, which similarly has a long fermented base. It makes sense that ancient fish sauces would develop in cultures before refrigeration.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Sweet Treats from Honey to Mustacei
While bread and circuses captured ancient Rome's savory cravings, the Empire had a sweet tooth too. Honey and dates satisfied the city's desire for nectared confections and natural sugars. But Roman chefs also concocted elaborate desserts and pastries. From simple fruit tarts to multi-layered cakes, these indulgent treats reveal both Roman culinary innovation and foreign influences.
Honey was the most ubiquitous Roman sweetener. Beekeeping had a long history throughout Italy and the Roman Empire. Virgil's Georgics contains entire sections dedicated to the art of beekeeping. Honey flavored puddings, cakes, and even garum. Mustacei were small honey cakes, often formed in shapes representing pagan gods like Diana. Another baked good called libum mixed honey, eggs, flour, and ricotta cheese. Versatile honey balanced savory dishes too, pairing nicely with pork or drizzled over fritters.
While honey came from local apiaries, cane sugar first arrived from trade with the Far East. This exotic import was rare and costly, reserved for the wealthy. Persicus sal, or "Persian salt", was an early precursor to refined sugar. Once Indian sources made sugar more accessible, it appeared more in upper-class recipes. The court of Marcus Aurelius concocted elaborate, sugar-coated fruit sculptures for state banquets.
Dates were another key sweetener, with palm groves flourishing across North Africa and the Levant. The Judean date was especially prized. Pliny claimed this variety could surpass honey. Dates worked into many dishes, including a date and nut stuffed chicken recipe from Apicius. Chopped dates sweetened yet another Roman pork dish flavored with laser root.
Milk was not a staple beverage, but the Romans enjoyed dairy treats like custards and cheesecakes. Baked custards included tyropatinam, enriched with cheese and eggs. Libum, essentially an early cheesecake, was lightened with pastry flour and oven-baked or fried. Nut custards called patina utilized almond milk, thickened with eggs and baked firmly.
The Roman version of doughnuts called Scriblita sported both sweet and savory variations. They encapsulate the propensity to incorporate contrasting flavors that hallmarks so much Roman cuisine. Sweet scriblita twisted raw honey and pepper into dough fried in garum and oil.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Messy Pleasures of the Thermopolium
If ancient Rome had fast food joints, they would be called thermopolia. These ubiquitous street food stalls plied hungry citizens with convenient to-go meals and casual seating, not unlike a modern food court. Patrons from across Roman society gathered at thermopolia to gossip over snacks and affordable wine. Though rough around the edges, these eateries formed the beating heart of neighborhood social life.
Thermopolia took their name from the large earthenware jars, called dolia, kept heated over counters. These vessels held ready-made stews, soups, and other hot foods for quick service. But thermopolia also sold a variety of other grub like bread, cheese, olives, salted fish, and small cakes. The legendary Roman periwinkle snails were likely hawked at these stalls too. Customers could sit at counters on stools and high tables or take their food to go.
These establishments stayed open late and attracted a diverse clientele, though some had seedier reputations as hangouts for thieves and prostitutes. Others catered to different ethnic groups like Syrians. The numerous clay dolia embedded in counters reveal how abundant thermopolia were. They lined city streets and plazas and even cropped up around venues like the Colosseum.
Their popularity speaks to the on-the-go dining culture of urban Ancient Rome. The archaeologist Steven Ellis notes these stalls were the "Roman equivalent of a lunch counter or fast food restaurant." But thermopolia served more than just quick bites and cheap drinks. They functioned as informal gathering places and communicated local identity. Regulars formed bonds and lingered in familiar spots. Thermopolia anchored city blocks.
Though small in scale, thermopolia made an outsized imprint as grassroots social institutions. Unlike wealthy patricians feasting on decadent delicacies in luxurious triclinia, average Romans forged community at their gritty local thermopolium over modest libum flatbreads or fish stew. The warm, yeasty smells wafting from dolia ovens beckoned. Shared meals unified Romans across class lines.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - From Popina to Domus - Where Romans Ate Out and Dined In
The ancient Romans loved to eat out. From humble popina to lavish triclinium, dining spanned a spectrum in Roman society. Yet private meal rituals also revealed class divides. However Romans took their repast, food brought people together.
Popina were taverns where lower classes ate simple fare. Think students guzzling beer and gobbling pizza. Men conversed loudly between bites. Disreputable popina catered to gamblers and prostitutes. Respectable ones served merchants or off-duty soldiers bread sopped with wine.
Thermopolia functioned like fast food stalls. These mom-and-pop shops ladled hot stews from large jars into containers for passersby. Patrons perched on stools, noshing quickly. But thermopolia meant more than just takeaway. They fostered neighborhood ties, as familiar faces gathered routinely. Friendships ripened over shared meals.
Cauponae combined eateries with lodging. Travelers bunked above tabernae shops or taverns. Downstairs, vinegared wine flowed and flatbreads baked. Upstairs, road-weary guests slept communally. Cauponae nourished bodies and connected strangers.
For middle classes, a popina sine aere meant an inn without garish entertainment. Real popina preyed on indulgence and vice through dice, drink and sex. Sine aere ones emphasized affordable sustenance. Local tabernae served better quality wine and takeaway foods. Respectability sold.
Elites enjoyed lavish cuisine like gourmet dishes and exotic spices. But the dining experience mattered as much as the fare. The triclinium, a formal dining room in wealthier homes, was part banquet hall, part theater. Couches formed a U shape for feasting and entertainment. Fine foods like roasted swan demonstrated affluence and taste.
In a domus, the triclinium lay near the atrium entrance to impress guests. Aristocrats invited select clients, flaunting status through culinary excess. Invitations to dine signaled privilege and prestige. The best seats went to the host's inner circle. Diners lounged sideways and ate with their hands, sometimes donning garlands. BETWEEN courses, perfume spritzers cleansed palates. This was power dining, Roman style.
Women and children ate separately, even in elite homes. They took meals sitting upright in a more casual cubiculum. Segregation reflected patriarchal mores. The triclinium was for men of means to bond, plot politics, and flaunt opulence among peers. Wives might host female company in their cubiculum but remained excluded from male discourse and dining rituals.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Surprising Role of the Vinegar in Roman Cooking
Vinegar was an unexpected keystone of ancient Roman cuisine. Beyond livening up greens, this ubiquitous fermented staple added zing to meats, balanced rich dishes, and even sweetened desserts. Versatile condiment, preservative, and health tonic - vinegar left its mark across the culinary spectrum.
Wine formed the base for Roman vinegar. With amphorae of the stuff arriving from vineyards abroad, vintners could convert excess into long-lasting sour wine. Fermenting a second time produced acetic acid, transforming ordinary juice into coveted condiment. Vinegar derived from higher quality wines resulted in superior nuance. Romans prized delicate white wine vinegars alongside more robust red wine varieties aged in clay, lending smoky notes. Complex fruit vinegars were elaborated from apricots, figs, and cherries.
A splash of vinegar brightened up lettuces and bitter herbs like chicory. The Roman appetizer lettuce salad with onions, cucumber, and saffron dressing received a bracing kiss of vinegar. Cooks also added it to oil-based concoctions like Caesar's aphrodisiac, combining romaine lettuce with vinegar, coddled eggs, oil, and spices. Vinegar cut through the rich yolks.
Beyond greens, vinegar complemented meats. Apicius' famous honey-baked ham dish, recognizable today as something like prosciutto, balanced sweetness with deft vinegar accents. A roast lamprey recipe incorporated reduced vinegar into the sauce. Vinegar even gave oomph to offal like stuffed sow's womb, providing acidity to temper gaminess. Fattier meats like pork gained relief with vinegar's bright edge.
Surprisingly, vinegar made appearances in Roman desserts as well. The cake catillus crystallinus combined sweet cheese, eggs, honey, and a dash of vinegar. Contrasting flavors were embraced. Vinegar also surfaced as an ingredient in custards and puddings.
But vinegar transcended cuisine. As a preservative, vinegar extended the life of foods like cucumber, cabbage, and eggs. When stored in vinegar, perishables from fish to fruit lasted far longer. Vinegar's antibacterial power worked millennia before refrigeration.
Medicinally, vinegar found use as an all-purpose elixir and health tonic. Roman doctors prescribed it for ailments like nausea and hiccups. Emperor Augustus touted it as a cure-all, and many believed vinegar held rejuvenating properties. Its lusty kick was thought to counteract aging. Vinegar's versatility made it popular at all levels of society.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - Slaves in the Kitchen - Who Cooked in Ancient Rome
Slavery was widespread throughout ancient Rome and bonded servants carried out most manual labor, including food preparation. The aristocratic lifestyle of lavish banquets and exotic ingredients depended entirely upon an enslaved workforce. While elites dined in decadence, invisible hands stirred pots, kneaded dough, and managed hearths below stairs.
Cooking was traditionally low-status work, relegated to servants and women. Male citizens were actively discouraged from culinary activity, seen as beneath their dignity. Cato the Elder, an influential Roman senator, admonished readers of his agricultural guide to make wives oversee the kitchen. Cooking signaled either servitude or womanhood.
For slaves in elite urban homes, the culina was a busy work zone ministering to the family's needs. At the apex stood the master chef, an educated Greek or Egyptian slave valued for culinary expertise. Under him labored kitchen assistants and scullions tasked with menial jobs like washing dishes. Female slaves tended ovens and did grinding of grains. Kitchens bustled all day to put elaborate meals on the table.
Rural estates had their own staff under an overseer slave. Produce from farms and livestock went straight to estate kitchens. Urban homes obtained ingredients from markets worked by slaves and freedmen. Delivery boys ferried fish on ice or caged birds to kitchens. Supply chains utilizing slavery allowed the rich access to out-of-season produce.
Large banquets required extra temporary help. Catering contractors staffed with slave labor were enlisted for big events. The largest feasts might utilize hundreds of slaves working in shifts. Slave number became a barometer of wealth. Those without personal cooks could hire slave caterers as needed.
Middling households employed a modest domestic staff, perhaps just a couple slaves. The stereotypical "cookie jar” slave helped with shopping and preparing daily meals. While the elite enjoyed exotic delicacies, average Romans subsisted on gruels and grains prepared at home. Uniquely Roman fast foods from thermopolia stalls offered affordable snacks for non-slaves.
Manumission brought opportunity for talented cooks to open tabernae food shops or thermopolia. Freedman status allowed entrepreneurship. But even these businesses relied on slave helpers doing the hot, heavy work of cooking. The concept of free labor in food service simply did not exist.
When in Rome: Digging into the Delectable Dishes of the Ancient Empire - The Influence of Trade on Roman Ingredients and Recipes
The Roman Empire depended on trade to source exotic ingredients that made their cuisine legendary. Ships supplied the Eternal City with foreign foods to satisfy patrician appetites. From black pepper to lemons, goods traveled immense distances along trade routes. This global connectivity shaped Rome's cosmopolitan food culture.
The major Roman port of Ostia bustled with merchant vessels importing edibles from abroad. Huge grain fleets sailed from Egypt and Sicily to feed the city's masses. Olive oil arrived in amphorae from Spain and Tunisia. Pomegranates came all the way from Carthage, almonds from Greece. Trade transformed local diets.
Yet the far reaches of empire proved most bountiful. From Syria came prized pistachios and walnuts. Figs and dates traveled from Judea and Arabia. Citrons, a citrus resembling lumpy lemons, were shipped from Persia long before oranges. Their rind flavored a fish sauce called oenogarum.
Most exotic were spices lighting up Roman cuisine with flavor fireworks. Black pepper from India's Malabar coast made appearances across Apicius' recipes. Frankincense and myrrh scented dishes too. Roman food was rich but also brightly spiced.
Less familiar seasonings like laser root (silphium) were now extinct. But laser was once faddishly popular, used even in perfumes. Over-harvesting apparently wiped out wild laser, which grew only in coastal Libya. Loss of this coveted seasoning remains an ecological cautionary tale.
Ingredients entered Rome largely via Alexandria, Egypt. This bustling trade hub funneled Asian commodities westward. The city even had a special pepper warehouse for Indian goods. Alexandria's markets dazzled visitors with fruits, spices, and aromatics. Exotic delicacies found their way onto elite Roman tables thanks to this key commercial crossroads.
Trade expanded the possible, fueling culinary ambition. Apicius includes recipes for Parthian chicken, a fricassee incorporating thirteen spices and flavors from abroad. His book lists Eastern touches like rice, sesame oil, and garam masala-like cardamom. Outlandish recipes feature sows' bellies stuffed with live birds. Roman chefs reveled in novelty.
Of course, most ordinary Romans subsisted on simple grains. But elites craved novelty, and empire facilitated access to rarities like flamingo tongues or boiled parrot. Banquets displayed power through food exoticism.
Some scholars argue trade also transmitted culinary knowledge and technique. Contact with advanced Eastern cultures may have upgraded rustic Roman cooking methods. Mesopotamia had sophisticated cuisine centuries before Rome's founding.
Foreign goods were status symbols, but also shared Mediterranean tastes. Fish sauces and wheat appeared across cultures, as did fritters and flatbreads. Trade disseminated foodways more than radically altering them. Yeast and olive oil were common culinary foundations.