Food in the Roman World

Food in the Roman World


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The ancient Mediterranean diet revolved around four staples, which, even today, continue to dominate restaurant menus and kitchen tables: cereals, vegetables, olive oil and wine. Seafood, cheese, eggs, meat and many types of fruit were also available to those who could afford it. The Romans were also adept at processing and conserving their food using techniques from pickling to storage in honey. Flavouring food with sauces, herbs and exotic spices was another important element of Roman food preparation. Our knowledge of just what the Romans ate and how has been gathered from texts, wall-paintings and mosaics, and even the remains of the food itself from sites such as Pompeii.

Cereals

Cereals made up the bulk of most people's diet with wheat and barley being the most common and used especially to make bread and porridge. Bread was generally coarse and dark in colour, the better quality loaves being less dark and finer in texture. Innovations in grinding mills and finer sieves helped improve the fineness of flour over time but it remained much coarser than modern standards. Besides wheat and barley, oats, rye, and millets were also available.

Fruit & Vegetables

The most commonly available fruits were apples, figs and grapes (fresh and as raisins and unfermented juice known as defrutum) but there were also pears, plums, dates, cherries, and peaches. Several of these could also be dried to increase their shelf-life. Vegetables were typically, but not exclusively, legumes and included beans, lentils, and peas. As an excellent source of protein, they were often mixed into bread. Other vegetables included asparagus, mushrooms, onions, turnip, radishes, cabbage, lettuce, leek, celery, cucumbers, artichokes and garlic. Romans also ate wild plants when available. Olives and olive oil were, of course, as today, a staple food and an important source of fats. Both fruit and vegetables could also be pickled in either brine or vinegar or preserved in wine, grape juice, or honey, again to conserve them for out-of-season consumption.

Meat

Meat could be an expensive commodity for most Romans and so was commonly prepared as small cuts or sausages. Poultry and wild game were important sources of meat, but pork, veal, mutton, and goat were also available. Game such as rabbit, hare, boar, and deer could also be farmed in large enclosed areas of forest. An astonishing variety of birds such as partridges, pheasants, geese, ducks, blackbirds, doves, magpies, plovers, woodcocks, and quails were also valued for their meat (caught wild or farmed), and just about any sizeable exotic bird, from flamingo to peacock, ostrich to parrot could find itself in the cooking pot of an aristocrat's chef, eager to impress his master's honoured dinner guests. Meat could also be conserved by salting, drying, smoking, curing, pickling, and preservation in honey.

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Seafood

Fish, most of which are still found in the Mediterranean today, could be eaten fresh, dried, salted, smoked or pickled. As supply was irregular, the preservation of fish ensured a useful protein addition to the Roman diet. Fish and shellfish were also farmed in artificial salt and fresh-water ponds. Fish sauce (garum) made from matured whole small fish or the interior of larger fish was an extremely popular method of flavouring. Crayfish and crabs were also eaten and shellfish available included mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters.

Supply

As the city of Rome grew, the demand for a regular food supply increased. Private enterprises largely met the needs of the citizens and foodstuffs mostly came from the Italian mainland and the larger islands such as Sicily and Sardinia. In the Republic, magistrates did strive to win public favour by securing foodstuffs from subject provinces and allied states. Gracchus took the popular step of establishing a monthly quota (frumentatio) of grain set at a reasonable fixed price for citizens. Augustus appointed a praefectus annonae whose job was to specifically oversee the regular supply of foodstuffs, especially grain. Grain was controlled by the state, as it was a form of tax in Italy and Africa. From the 2nd century CE, olive oil was also given out to the people; in the 3rd century pork and wine were given out, too, as part of the frumentatio for poorer citizens. In the later empire, as the state apparatus weakened, richer private individuals and the Church took over some of the responsibilities of maintaining a regular food supply.

Citizens, if they did not grow their own supplies, bought their food at a private market (macellum). These were held in the public forums of Roman towns, either in the open air or in dedicated market halls. In Rome the food market was daily from the 2nd century BCE, one of the most famous and biggest locations being Trajan's Market, a sort of ancient shopping mall. In provincial towns, a weekly market was the norm. Private estates in the countryside could also hold their own markets, directly selling their produce to the surrounding populace.

Cooking

Roman towns had inns (cauponae) and taverns (popinae) where patrons could buy prepared meals and enjoy a drink of cheap wine (beer was only consumed in the northern provinces of the empire), but they seldom had a good reputation, thanks to their association with a lack of cleanliness and prostitution, and so they were generally avoided by the more well-to-do citizens. Bakeries could provide the sufficiently hot ovens needed for bread-making, where often customers brought their own bread dough and used only the bakery's oven to bake it. Aside from these establishments, though, cooking was still very much a household activity. Using a brazier, food was roasted, broiled, and boiled. The art of good cooking was particularly associated with mixing condiments well to create tasty and unique sauces using wine, oils, vinegar, herbs, spices, and meat or fish juices. There were even writers who offered helpful cooking advice, such as Apicius who wrote On the Art of Cookery, a collection of 4th century CE recipes.

Spices (species - meaning any valuable exotic commodity), in particular, offered an infinite variety of taste combinations and no fewer than 142 different types have been identified in ancient sources. They often came from Asia, and the possibilities only increased from the 1st century CE when direct sea routes were opened up to Egypt and India. These exotic spices included ginger, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, cassia, mace, cinnamon, and, most popular of all, pepper. Tasty additives produced closer to home included basil, rosemary, sage, chive, bay, dill, fennel, thyme, and mustard.

Meals

In the early Republic the main meal of the day was at lunchtime and called cena, with a lighter meal being eaten in the evening (vesperna). Over time, cena slowly moved later and later in the day until it eventually became the evening meal. The lunchtime meal then became known as prandium. A typical lunch was light, consisting of fish or eggs with vegetables. To start the day, breakfast or ientaculum, was also light, sometimes merely bread and salt but occasionally with fruit and cheese.

Saving themselves up for cena, then, the Romans, or at least those who could afford to, made it a big meal, typically with three parts. First came gustatio with eggs, shellfish, dormice, and olives, all washed down with a cup of wine which was diluted with water and sweetened with honey (mulsum). Following these starters, cena moved into top gear with a series of courses (fecula), sometimes up to seven, and including the star dish, the caput cenae. Meat or fish were the obvious main dish; sometimes even a whole roast pig was prepared. Naturally, richer households would try to wow their guests with exotic dishes such as ostriches and peacocks. The final stage was dessert (mensae secundae) which could include nuts, fruit, or even snails and more shellfish.

Conclusion

Just who exactly ate what and when in Roman times continues to be a fertile area of scholarship, but the archaeological record provides ample evidence of the variety of foodstuffs available to at least some of the Roman populace. We can also see that the Romans were skilled at ensuring a continuous supply of those foodstuffs through diverse agricultural practices, artificial farming techniques, and food preservation methods. Indeed, their relative success is indicated by the fact that such a scale of food production would not be seen again in Europe until the 18th century CE.


Ancient Rome

People in Ancient Rome ate a wide variety of foods. What a person ate depended on both their wealth and where they lived in the Roman Empire. Food was imported from all around the empire to feed the large populations in the capital city of Rome.

How many meals did they eat?

The Romans ate three meals during a typical day. The first meal (breakfast) was called the "ientaculum." It was usually eaten around sunrise and consisted of bread and maybe some fruit. The next meal (lunch) was called the "prandium". The prandium was a very small meal eaten around 11 AM. The main meal of the day was the "cena." It was eaten in the afternoon.

Typical Food of the Poor

As you might expect, the poor people in Rome did not eat the same food as the wealthy. The main food of the poor was a porridge call "puls." Puls was made by mixing ground wheat and water. Sometimes they might get some vegetables or fruit to eat with their puls. The poor ate very little meat.

The wealthy ate much better than the poor. They would often have fancy dinner parties that lasted for hours and had several courses. They would have a variety of foods including fruit, eggs, vegetables, meats, fish, and cakes.

Did they sit around a table?

At formal dinner parties, the Romans reclined on couches around a low table. They would lay on their left arm and then eat from the center table using their right hand. For less formal meals, the Romans would sit on a stool or stand while eating.

Did they use forks and spoons?

The main utensil used by the Romans for eating was the spoon. They also used their hands a lot. They sometimes used a knife or a fork like utensil for cutting or spearing a piece of food.

Did they eat any strange foods?

Some of the foods that the Ancient Romans ate would seem strange to us today. At fancy banquets they sometimes ate things like flamingo's tongues, roast peacock, and stewed snails. Perhaps the strangest thing they ate was dormice. Dormice were considered a delicacy and were sometimes eaten as appetizers. One Roman recipe called for the dormice to be dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seeds.

The main drink of the Romans was wine. It was often watered down for daily consumption.


Recently Uncovered Thermopolium Reminds Us That Romans Loved Fast Food as Much as We Do

Recently on Instagram Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of excavations at Pompeii, posted an image of an elaborately painted thermopolium.

If you aren’t familiar with the name, it’s essentially the Roman equivalent of a fast-food restaurant.

The Guardian’s Rome correspondent Angela Giuffrida reports that the snack stand Osanna highlighted was found in Regio V, a 54-acre site north of the archaeological park that is currently being excavated. It is far from the first thermopolium to be discovered in Pompeii over two centuries of excavation, more than 80 of the counters have been unearthed in the ruins of the city buried by the ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

While contemporary Americans with our food trucks, vending machines and fast food chains may think we pioneered the concept of the quick meal, the Romans were masters of going out for a bite over 2,000 years ago.

Thermopolia were found throughout the Roman world, frequented by many in the empire looking for a quick lunch. While they didn’t have a drive-thru lane for chariots, they were pretty ingenious. The snack spots were usually designed as long counters with earthware jars, called dolia, embedded in them to help hot foods and drinks stay warm.

Though some of the snack stands had a small room in the back for dining in, Áine Cain at Business Insider reports that the fare was primarily designed to be eaten on the go. Essentially, as Roman expert Stephen Dyson of the University of Buffalo tells Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News, think of them as a cross between a “Burger King and a British pub or a Spanish tapas bar.”

A significant portion of the Pompeii’s population—which experts estimate could have been as large as 20,000—frequented such places, a trend that Stephanie Butler at History.com reports is not dissimilar to the behavior of Americans consumers eating out today. Recent estimates suggest that over a quarter of the U.S. population eats fast food on any given day.

Despite or perhaps because of their ubiquity, the thermopolia had a bad reputation, Butler writes. Criminals and heavy drinkers often hung out there. It was enough of a problem that Emperor Claudius once commanded that the establishments be closed to cut down on crime.

According to a press release, the recently discovered snack counter is decorated with the figure of a Nereid, or sea nymph, on horseback in the ocean. Another image depicts business taking place at the little restaurant, and may have served as a shop sign.

“Even if structures like these are well known at Pompeii,” says Alfonsina Russo, interim director of the archaeological park, “discovering more of them, along with objects which went hand in hand with commercial and thus daily life, continue to transmit powerful emotions that transport us to those tragic moments of the eruption, which nonetheless left us unique insights into Roman civilization.”

The big question is what types of things the Romans were snacking on when they grabbed their fast food. Cain of Business Insider reports that the shops likely sold spiced wine, meats and cheese, fish, lentils, nuts as well as garum, the sauce made of fish guts that was as ubiquitous as ketchup in the ancient world. Which is to say, most Romans likely weren’t wringing their hands about how bad fast food was for them like modern burger lovers are wont to do—they were eating the Mediterranean diet even when they got takeout.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.


Tattoos on legionaries’ hands?

It is possible that tattoos also appeared in the Roman army. For example, probably all legionaries and some auxiliary troops (auxilia) who served on the Hadrian’s wall had tattoos. Such an thesis was made by the antiquity expert Lindsay Allason-Jones. Confirmation of this state of affairs is the work of Vegetius – writer and Roman historian living in the second half of the fourth century CE. In his treatise Epitoma Rei militaris he mentions that the recruitment to a Roman army should begin with testing the strength, then assignment to the unit and later tattooing with a unit sign 2 . We do not know what official sign was placed on the legionary’s body however, we can guess that it was an eagle or a symbol of a legion or a unit. According to Lindsay, the tattoo was placed on the hand. Aëtius of Amida, a Byzantine VI-century medic, mentions this fact in his notes in the work Medicae artis principes. First, the place where the tattoo was to be done (stigma) was carefully washed with leek juice, which was known for its antiseptic properties. The tattooing ink consisted of Egyptian pinewood (mainly bark), corroded bronze and more juice from the leek.

As in Greece, Roman slaves and criminals were tattooed in order to control them better and find it easy to escape. Interestingly, in the early Roman Empire, for example, exported to Asia slaves were labeled with the term ‘tax paid’, as the goods. Their bodies were also covered with the initials of the patron and all information according to the will of the master. Often a slave also had a tattoo on his forehead: “Stop me, I am running away”. It was extremely disgraceful, but it must be remembered that the life of a slave had the same value as the object.


Around the Roman Table

In addition to a wealth of material about culinary customs and techniques in ancient Rome, Patrick Faas translated more than 150 Roman recipes and reconstructed them for the modern cook. Here are eight recipes from from the book&mdashfrom salad to dessert.

Columella Salad

Columella's writings suggest that Roman salads were a match for our own in richness and imagination:

Addito in mortarium satureiam, mentam, rutam, coriandrum, apium, porrum sectivum, aut si non erit viridem cepam, folia latucae, folia erucae, thymum viride, vel nepetam, tum etiam viride puleium, et caseum recentem et salsum: ea omnia partier conterito, acetique piperati exiguum, permisceto. Hanc mixturam cum in catillo composurris, oleum superfundito.

Put savory in the mortar with mint, rue, coriander, parsley, sliced leek, or, if it is not available, onion, lettuce and rocket leaves, green thyme, or catmint. Also pennyroyal and salted fresh cheese. This is all crushed together. Stir in a little peppered vinegar. Put this mixture on a plate and pour oil over it. (Columella, Re Rustica, XII-lix)

A wonderful salad, unusual for the lack of salt (perhaps the cheese was salty enough), and that Columella crushes the ingredients in the mortar.

100g fresh mint (and/or pennyroyal)
50g fresh coriander
50g fresh parsley
1 small leek
a sprig of fresh thyme
200g salted fresh cheese
vinegar
pepper
olive oil

Follow Columella's method for this salad using the ingredients listed.

In other salad recipes Columella adds nuts, which might not be a bad idea with this one.

Apart from lettuce and rocket many plants were eaten raw&mdashwatercress, mallow, sorrel, goosefoot, purslane, chicory, chervil, beet greens, celery, basil and many other herbs.

Soft-Boiled Eggs in Pine-Nut Sauce

In ovis hapalis: piper, ligustcum, nucleos infusos. Suffundes mel, acetum liquamine temperabis.

For soft-boiled eggs: pepper, soaked pine nuts. Add honey and vinegar and mix with garum. (Apicius, 329)

200g pine nuts
2 teaspoons ground pepper
1 teaspoon honey
4 tablespoons garum or anchovy paste

Soak the pine nuts overnight in water. Then drain and grind them finely in the blender or pound them in a large mortar. Add the pepper, honey and garum. Heat the sauce in a bain-marie. Meanwhile put the eggs into a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Let them cook for 3½ minutes, then take them off the heat, plunge them into cold water and peel them carefully. The outer edge of the egg white must be firm, but it must be soft inside. Put the eggs, left whole, into a deep serving bowl and pour over the sauce. Serve.

This recipe can be adapted easily to other eggs, such as quail's eggs. In that case keep an eye on the cooking-time: a quail's egg will be firm in 1 minute.

Lentils with Coriander

Aliter lenticulam: coquis. Cum despumaverit porrum et coriandrum viride supermittis. (Teres) coriandri semen, puleium, laseris radicem, semen mentae et rutae, suffundis acetum, adicies mel, liquamine, aceto, defrito temperabis, adicies oleum, agitabis, si quid opus fuerit, mittis. Amulo obligas, insuper oleum viride mittis, piper aspargis et inferes.

Another lentil recipe. Boil them. When they have foamed, add leeks and green coriander. [Crush] coriander seed, pennyroyal, laser root, mint seed and rue seed. Moisten with vinegar, add honey, garum, vinegar, mix in a little defrutum, add oil and stir. Add extra as required. Bind with amulum, drizzle with green oil and sprinkle with pepper. Serve. (Apicius, 192)

250g lentils
2 litres water
1 leek, trimmed, washed and finely chopped
75g fresh coriander
5g coriander seed
3g peppercorns, plus extra for finishing the dish
3g mint seed
3g rue seed
75g fresh pennyroyal, or mint
10ml garum
10ml vinegar
5ml honey
olive oil

Wash the lentils and put them into a saucepan with 2 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, and skim off the scum. When the water has cleared, add the leek and half of the fresh coriander. Grind the spices and the other herbs, and add them with the garum, vinegar and defrutum to the pan. Let the lentils simmer until they are almost cooked. Check the pan every now and then to ensure that the water has not evaporated. At the last minute add the olive oil, the freshly ground pepper and the remainder of the chopped coriander.

Roast Wild Boar

Aper ita conditur: spogiatur, et sic aspergitur ei sal et cuminum frictum, et sic manet. Alia die mittitur in furnum. Cum coctus fuerit perfundutur piper tritum, condimentum aprunum, mel, liquamen, caroenum et passum.

Boar is cooked like this: sponge it clean and sprinkle with salt and roast cumin. Leave to stand. The following day, roast it in the oven. When it is done, scatter with ground pepper and pour on the juice of the boar, honey, liquamen, caroenum, and passum. (Apicius, 330)

For this you would need a very large oven, or a very small boar, but the recipe is equally successful with the boar jointed. Remove the bristles and skin, then scatter over it plenty of sea salt, crushed pepper and coarsely ground roasted cumin. Leave it in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, turning it occasionally.

Wild boar can be dry, so wrap it in slices of bacon before you roast it. At the very least wrap it in pork caul. Then put it into the oven at its highest setting and allow it to brown for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4, and continue to roast for 2 hours per kg, basting regularly.

Meanwhile prepare the sauce. To make caroenum, reduce 500ml wine to 200ml. Add 2 tablespoons of honey, 100ml passum, or dessert wine, and salt or garum to taste. Take the meat out of the oven and leave it to rest while you finish the sauce. Pour off the fat from the roasting tin, then deglaze it with the wine and the honey mixture. Pour this into a saucepan, add the roasting juices, and fat to taste.

Carve the boar into thin slices at the table, and serve the sweet sauce separately.

Ostrich Ragoût

Until the 1980s the ostrich was considered as exotic as an elephant, but since then it has become available in supermarkets. Cooking a whole ostrich is an enormous task, but Apicius provides a recipe for ostrich:

In struthione elixo: piper, mentam, cuminum assume, apii semen, dactylos vel caryotas, mel, acetum, passum, liquamen, et oleum modice et in caccabo facies ut bulliat. Amulo obligas, et sic partes struthionis in lance perfundis, ete desuper piper aspargis. Si autem in condituram coquere volueris, alicam addis.

For boiled ostrich: pepper, mint, roast cumin, celery seed, dates or Jericho dates, honey, vinegar, passum, garum, a little oil. Put these in the pot and bring to the boil. Bind with amulum, pour over the pieces of ostrich in a serving dish and sprinkle with pepper. If you wish to cook the ostrich in the sauce, add alica. (Apicius, 212)

You may prefer to roast or fry your ostrich, rather than boil it. Whichever method you choose, this sauce goes with it well. For 500g ostrich pieces, fried or boiled, you will need:

2 teaspoon flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
300ml passum (dessert wine)
1 tablespoon roast cumin seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
3 pitted candied dates
3 tablespoons garum or a 50g tin of anchovies
1 teaspoon peppercorns
2 tablespoons fresh chopped mint
1 teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons strong vinegar

Make a roux with the flour and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, add the passum, and continue to stir until the sauce is smooth. Pound together in the following order: the cumin, celery seeds, dates, garum or anchovies, peppercorns, chopped mint, the remaining olive oil, the honey, and vinegar. Add this to the thickened wine sauce. Then stir in the ostrich pieces and let them heat through in the sauce.

Roast Tuna

Ius in cordula assa: piper, ligustcum, mentam, cepam, aceti modicum et oleum.

Sauce for roast tuna: pepper, lovage, mint, onion, a little vinegar, and oil. (Apicius, 435)

3 tablespoons strong vinegar
2 tablespoons garum, or vinegar with anchovy paste
9 tablespoons olive oil
4 finely chopped shallots
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon lovage seeds
25g fresh mint

Put all of the vinaigrette ingredients into a jar and shake well to blend them together.

Brush your tuna fillets with oil, pepper and salt, then grill them on one side over a hot barbecue. Turn them and brush the roasted side with the vinaigrette. Repeat. The tuna flesh should be pink inside so don't let it overcook. Serve with the remains of the vinaigrette.

Fried Veal Escalope with Raisins

Vitella fricta: piper, ligusticum, apii semen, cuminum, origanum, cepam siccam, uvam passam, mel, acetum, vinum, liquamen, oleum, defritum.

Fried veal: pepper, lovage, celery seed, cumin, oregano, dried onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, wine garum, oil, defrutum. (Apicius, 335)

¼ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon peppercorns
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon lovage
1 tablespoon dried onion
1 teaspoon defrutum
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons white raisins
300ml dry white wine
1 dash vinegar
1 dash garum

Pound the cumin and the celery seed in powder, then grind the peppercorns. Mix all the ingredients together and leave the raisins to macerate for at least a few hours and up to a day. Beat the veal fillets with a rolling-pin or meat-tenderizer, until they are flattened. For Roman authenticity, the escalopes should be cut into small pieces or strips after frying&mdashthey didn't use knives at table. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then fry briefly on both sides in a hot pan with a little olive oil. Remove the veal from the pan. Put the sauce mixture, let it reduce, then pour it over veal and serve immediately.

Nut Tart

Patina versatilis vice dulcis: nucleos pineos, nuces fractas et purgatas, attorrebis eas, teres cum melle, pipere, liquamine, lacte, ovis, modico mero et oleo, versas in discum.

Try patina as dessert: roast pine nuts, peeled and chopped nuts. Add honey, pepper, garum, milk, eggs, a little undiluted wine, and oil. Pour on to a plate. (Apicius, 136)

400g crushed nuts&mdashalmonds, walnuts or pistachios
200g pine nuts
100g honey
100ml dessert wine
4 eggs
100ml full-fat sheep's milk
1 teaspoon salt or garum
pepper

Preheat the oven to 240°C/475°F/Gas 9.

Place the chopped nuts and the whole pine nuts in an oven dish and roast until they have turned golden. Reduce the oven temperature to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Mix the honey and the wine in a pan and bring to the boil, then cook until the wine has evaporated. Add the nuts and pine nuts to the honey and leave it to cool. Beat the eggs with the milk, salt or garum and pepper. Then stir the honey and nut mixture into the eggs. Oil an oven dish and pour in the nut mixture. Seal the tin with silver foil and place it in roasting tin filled about a third deep with water. Bake for about 25 minutes until the pudding is firm. Take it out and when it is cold put it into the fridge to chill. To serve, tip the tart on to a plate and pour over some boiled honey.


Ancient Romans had no need for dentists, because of one food they didn’t eat

Modern dental hygiene would have been quite unnecessary for ancient Romans living in Pompeii, as research has revealed that they had impressively healthy teeth.

Scientists appointed by the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii have used CAT scans to examine 30 Pompeii inhabitants who were preserved in hardened ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. The group, headed by radiologist Giovanni Babino, released photos of their work on Sept. 29, and revealed in a press conference that the ancient Romans had perfect teeth and “no immediate discernible need for dentists,” according news agency Agenzia Giornalistica Italia.

Though Pompeii citizens never used toothbrushes or toothpaste, they had healthy teeth thanks to their low-sugar diet. Massimo Osanna, superintendent of the World Heritage-listed site, said their diet was “balanced and healthy, similar to what we now call the Mediterranean diet,” according to The Telegraph.

“The inhabitants of Pompeii ate a lot of fruit and vegetables but very little sugar,” said orthodontist Elisa Vanacore, who oversaw the examination of the teeth. “They ate better than we did and have really good teeth.”

Vanacore added that Pompeii citizens’ teeth would have benefitted from high levels of fluorine in the air and water near the volcano.

Studying teeth could help determine the age of the bodies examined and reveal more details about life in Pompeii. The scientists are hoping to analyze 86 plaster casts in total from Pompeii, and the research should ultimately uncover the age, sex, diet, diseases and social classes of the preserved Pompeii citizens.

But though the ancient Romans’ healthy teeth may come as a surprise, they aren’t the only historical group who are believed to have had better teeth than people today.

Despite the popular belief that the Tudors had poor dental hygiene (a stereotype largely owed to Queen Elizabeth I, who indeed had rotting teeth), most early Tudors had remarkably healthy teeth—once again because of the lack of sugar in their diet. When sugar production became common in Spain, France and Holland during the 1600s, the price dropped and sugar became a common feature of many Europeans’ diets.


Food in the Roman World

A view of the millstones and oven of a bakery (Pistrinium) in the Roman town of Pompeii which was buried in volcanic ash following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The millstones have square sockets in which wooden beams would have been placed and harnessed to mules in order to turn the stones and so grind the grain for flour. Grain was poured into the top of the funnel shaped top stone which rotated around the fixed lower stone. The flour was collected at the base on lead sheets. The arched brick oven had a capacity for 80 loaves of bread. / Photo by Penn State Libraries Collection, Flickr, Creative Commons

The ancient Mediterranean diet revolved around four staples, which, even today, continue to dominate restaurant menus and kitchen tables.

By Mark Cartwright / 05.06.2014
Historian

The ancient Mediterranean diet revolved around four staples, which, even today, continue to dominate restaurant menus and kitchen tables: cereals, vegetables, olive oil and wine. Seafood, cheese, eggs, meat and many types of fruit were also available to those who could afford it. The Romans were also adept at processing and conserving their food using techniques from pickling to storage in honey. Flavouring food with sauces, herbs and exotic spices was another important element of Roman food preparation. Our knowledge of just what the Romans ate and how has been gathered from texts, wall-paintings and mosaics, and even the remains of the food itself from sites such as Pompeii.

CEREALS

Cereals made up the bulk of most people’s diet with wheat and barley being the most common and used especially to make bread and porridge. Bread was generally coarse and dark in colour, the better quality loaves being less dark and finer in texture. Innovations in grinding mills and finer sieves helped improve the fineness of flour over time but it remained much coarser than modern standards. Besides wheat and barley, oats, rye, and millets were also available.

FRUIT & VEGETABLES

A Roman floor mosaic dating to between 350 and 375 CE and depicting asparagus. Food was a popular subject in mosaics throughout the Roman period. Provenance: Toragnola, Rome. (Vatican Museums, Rome). / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

The most commonly available fruits were apples, figs and grapes (fresh and as raisins and unfermented juice known as defrutum) but there were also pears, plums, dates, cherries, and peaches. Several of these could also be dried to increase their shelf-life. Vegetables were typically, but not exclusively, legumes and included beans, lentils, and peas. As an excellent source of protein, they were often mixed into bread. Other vegetables included asparagus, mushrooms, onions, turnip, radishes, cabbage, lettuce, leek, celery, cucumbers, artichokes and garlic. Romans also ate wild plants when available. Olives and olive oil were, of course, as today, a staple food and an important source of fats. Both fruit and vegetables could also be pickled in either brine or vinegar or preserved in wine, grape juice, or honey, again to conserve them for out-of-season consumption.

MEAT

A Roman floor mosaic dating to between 350 and 375 CE and depicting a wild boar and mushrooms. Food was a popular subject in mosaics throughout the Roman period. Provenance: Toragnola, Rome. (Vatican Museums, Rome). / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Meat could be an expensive commodity for most Romans and so was commonly prepared as small cuts or sausages. Poultry and wild game were important sources of meat, but pork, veal, mutton, and goat were also available. Game such as rabbit, hare, boar, and deer could also be farmed in large enclosed areas of forest. An astonishing variety of birds such as partridges, pheasants, geese, ducks, blackbirds, doves, magpies, plovers, woodcocks, and quails were also valued for their meat (caught wild or farmed), and just about any sizeable exotic bird, from flamingo to peacock, ostrich to parrot could find itself in the cooking pot of an aristocrat’s chef, eager to impress his master’s honoured dinner guests. Meat could also be conserved by salting, drying, smoking, curing, pickling, and preservation in honey.

SEAFOOD

Fish, most of which are still found in the Mediterranean today, could be eaten fresh, dried, salted, smoked or pickled. As supply was irregular, the preservation of fish ensured a useful protein addition to the Roman diet. Fish and shellfish were also farmed in artificial salt and fresh-water ponds. Fish sauce (garum) made from matured whole small fish or the interior of larger fish was an extremely popular method of flavouring. Crayfish and crabs were also eaten and shellfish available included mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters.

SUPPLY

As the city of Rome grew, the demand for a regular food supply increased. Private enterprises largely met the needs of the citizens and foodstuffs mostly came from the Italian mainland and the larger islands such as Sicily and Sardinia. In the Republic, magistrates did strive to win public favour by securing foodstuffs from subject provinces and allied states. Gracchus took the popular step of establishing a monthly quota (frumentatio) of grain set at a reasonable fixed price for citizens. Augustus appointed a praefectus annonae whose job was to specifically oversee the regular supply of foodstuffs, especially grain. Grain was controlled by the state, as it was a form of tax in Italy and Africa. From the 2nd century CE, olive oil was also given out to the people in the 3rd century pork and wine were given out, too, as part of the frumentatio for poorer citizens. In the later empire, as the state apparatus weakened, richer private individuals and the Church took over some of the responsibilities of maintaining a regular food supply.

Trajan’s Market in Rome, 107-110 CE. The complex was originally on three street levels and only a part was devoted to commercial purposes. The upper level included a covered shopping arcade whilst the lowest level alcoves set in the semicircular front were also used as shops. / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Citizens, if they did not grow their own supplies, bought their food at a private market (macellum). These were held in the public forums of Roman towns, either in the open air or in dedicated market halls. In Rome the food market was daily from the 2nd century BCE, one of the most famous and biggest locations being Trajan’s Market, a sort of ancient shopping mall. In provincial towns, a weekly market was the norm. Private estates in the countryside could also hold their own markets, directly selling their produce to the surrounding populace.

COOKING

Roman towns had inns (cauponae) and taverns (popinae) where patrons could buy prepared meals and enjoy a drink of cheap wine (beer was only consumed in the northern provinces of the empire), but they seldom had a good reputation, thanks to their association with a lack of cleanliness and prostitution, and so they were generally avoided by the more well-to-do citizens. Bakeries could provide the sufficiently hot ovens needed for bread-making, where often customers brought their own bread dough and used only the bakery’s oven to bake it. Aside from these establishments, though, cooking was still very much a household activity. Using a brazier, food was roasted, broiled, and boiled. The art of good cooking was particularly associated with mixing condiments well to create tasty and unique sauces using wine, oils, vinegar, herbs, spices, and meat or fish juices. There were even writers who offered helpful cooking advice, such as Apicius who wrote On the Art of Cookery, a collection of 4th century CE recipes.

A reconstruction of a Roman thermopolio or hot food and drink shop. (Archaeological Museum, Aosta) / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Spices (species – meaning any valuable exotic commodity), in particular, offered an infinite variety of taste combinations and no fewer than 142 different types have been identified in ancient sources. They often came from Asia, and the possibilities only increased from the 1st century CE when direct sea routes were opened up to Egypt and India. These exotic spices included ginger, cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, cassia, mace, cinnamon, and, most popular of all, pepper. Tasty additives produced closer to home included basil, rosemary, sage, chive, bay, dill, fennel, thyme, and mustard.

MEALS

In the early Republic the main meal of the day was at lunchtime and called cena, with a lighter meal being eaten in the evening (vesperna). Over time, cena slowly moved later and later in the day until it eventually became the evening meal. The lunchtime meal then became known as prandium. A typical lunch was light, consisting of fish or eggs with vegetables. To start the day, breakfast or ientaculum, was also light, sometimes merely bread and salt but occasionally with fruit and cheese.

A Roman floor mosaic dating to between 350 and 375 CE and depicting fruit. Food was a popular subject in mosaics throughout the Roman period. Provenance: Toragnola, Rome. (Vatican Museums, Rome). / Photo by Mark Cartwright, Creative Commons

Saving themselves up for cena, then, the Romans, or at least those who could afford to, made it a big meal, typically with three parts. First came gustatio with eggs, shellfish, dormice, and olives, all washed down with a cup of wine which was diluted with water and sweetened with honey (mulsum). Following these starters, cena moved into top gear with a series of courses (fecula), sometimes up to seven, and including the star dish, the caput cenae. Meat or fish were the obvious main dish sometimes even a whole roast pig was prepared. Naturally, richer households would try to wow their guests with exotic dishes such as ostriches and peacocks. The final stage was dessert (mensae secundae) which could include nuts, fruit, or even snails and more shellfish.

CONCLUSION

Just who exactly ate what and when in Roman times continues to be a fertile area of scholarship, but the archaeological record provides ample evidence of the variety of foodstuffs available to at least some of the Roman populace. We can also see that the Romans were skilled at ensuring a continuous supply of those foodstuffs through diverse agricultural practices, artificial farming techniques, and food preservation methods. Indeed, their relative success is indicated by the fact that such a scale of food production would not be seen again in Europe until the 18th century CE.


Travel by road

Unlike today, travel by road was quite slow and. exhausting! For example, going from Rome to Naples would take over six days in Roman times according to ORBIS, the Google Maps for the ancient world developed by Stanford University. By comparison, it takes about two hours and 20 minutes to drive from Rome to Naples today.

Funeral relief (2nd century ) depicting an Ancient Roman carriage. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Romans would travel in a raeda, a carriage with four noisy iron-shod wheels, many wooden benches inside for the passengers, a clothed top (or no top at all) and drawn by up to four horses or mules. The raeda was the equivalent of the bus today and Roman law limited the amount of luggage it could carry to 1,000 libra (or approximately 300 kilograms).

Rich Romans traveled in the carpentum which was the limousine of wealthy Romans. The carpentum was pulled by many horses, it had four wheels, a wooden arched rooftop, comfortable cushy seats, and even some form a suspension to make the ride more comfortable. Romans also had what would be the equivalent of our trucks today: the plaustrum. The plaustrum could carry heavy loads, it had a wooden board with four thick wheels and was drawn by two oxen. It was very slow and could travel only about 10-15 miles (approximately 15 to 25 kilometers) per day.

Carpentum replica at the Cologne Museum . ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The fastest way to travel from Rome to Naples was by horse relay or the cursus publicus , which was like a state-run postal service and a service used to transport officials (such as magistrates or people from the military). A certificate issued by the emperor was required in order for the service to be used. A series of stations with fresh and rapid horses were built at short regular intervals (approximately eight miles or 12 kilometers) along the major road systems. Estimates of how fast one could travel using the cursus publicus vary. A study by A.M. Ramsey in "The speed of the Roman Imperial Post" (Journal of Roman Studies) estimates that a typical trip was made at a rate of 41 to 64 miles per day (66 - 103 kilometers per day). Therefore, the trip from Rome to Naples would take approximately two days using this service.

Because of their iron-shod wheels, Roman carriages made of a lot of noise. That's why they were forbidden from big Roman cities and their vicinity during the day. They were also quite uncomfortable due to their lack of suspension, making the ride from Rome to Naples quite bumpy. Fortunately, Roman roads had way stations called mansiones (meaning "staying places" in Latin) where ancient Romans could rest. Mansiones were the equivalent of our highway rest areas today. They sometimes had restaurants and pensions where Romans could drink, eat and sleep. They were built by the government at regular intervals usually 15 to 20 miles apart (around 25 to 30 kilometers). These mansiones were often badly frequented, with prostitutes and thieves roaming around. Major Roman roads also had tolls just like our modern highways. These tolls were often situated at bridges (just like today) or at city gates.


Outcomes of the Patronage System

The idea of client/patron relationships had significant implications for the later Roman Empire and even medieval society. As Rome expanded throughout the Republic and Empire, it took over smaller states which had its own customs and rules of law. Rather than attempting to remove the states' leaders and governments and replace them with Roman rulers, Rome created "client states." Leaders of these states were less powerful than Roman leaders and were required to turn to Rome as their patron state.

The concept of clients and patrons lived on in the Middle Ages. Rulers of small city/states acted as patrons to poorer serfs. The serfs claimed protection and support from the upper classes who, in turn, required their serfs to produce food, provide services, and act as loyal supporters.



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