Food and Drink


The ancient Roman diet resembles a classic Mediterranean diet, but without several familiar foods common in Italian cuisine today. The ancient Romans did not consume spinach or eggplant (which later became common from the Arab world) and tomatoes or capsicum peppers (which only appeared in Europe following the discovery of the New World and the Columbian Exchange). There were also few citrus fruits.

However, other items that are staples of modern Italian cooking were present in ancient Rome; Pliny the Elder discussed more than 30 varieties of olive, 40 kinds of pear, figs (native and imported from Africa and the eastern provinces), and a wide variety of vegetables (Jacques AndrĂ© listed 54 cultivated and 43 wild vegetables in ancient Rome). Some of these vegetables are no longer present in the modern world, while others have undergone significant changes; carrots of different colors were consumed, but not in orange. 

Butcher's meat was an uncommon luxury, and seafood, game, and poultry were more common; on his triumph, Caesar gave a public feast to 260,000 humiliores which featured all three of these foods, but no butcher's meat. John E. Stambaugh writes that meat "was scarce except at sacrifices and the dinner parties of the rich." The most popular meat was pork. Beef was uncommon in ancient Rome, being more common in ancient Greece; it is not mentioned by Juvenal or Horace.

Fish were more common than meat. Aquaculture was sophisticated; there were large-scale industries devoted to oyster farming. The Romans also engaged in snail farming and oak grub farming. Some fish were greatly esteemed and fetched high prices, such as mullet raised in the fishery at Cosa, and "elaborate means were invented to assure its freshness."

Dormice were consumed; the fattest of these rodents were considered to be a delicacy. A status symbol among wealthy Romans, some even had dormice weighed in front of dinner guests. A sumptuary law enacted under Marcus Aemilius Scaurus forbade the consumption of dormice, but they continued to be consumed.

Fruit was eaten fresh when in season, and dried or preserved over winter. Popular fruits include apples, pears, figs, grapes, quinces, and pomegranates. Less common fruits were the more exotic cherries, apricots, oranges, lemons, and dates; although known to the ancient Romans, these were not cultivated in Italy until the Principate. The lemon was known and was accurately distinguished from the citron. At least 35 cultivars of pear were grown in Rome, along with three types of apples; Cato described pear culture methods similar to modern techniques.

Many kinds of vegetables were cultivated and consumed. These included cabbage and other brassicas (such as kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli); lettuce, endive, onion, leek, asparagus, French beans, zucchini (courgettes), artichoke, radishes, and cucumber. Some vegetables were illustrated in reliefs. Cabbage was eaten both raw (sometimes dipped in vinegar) and cooked. Cato greatly esteemed cabbage, believing it to be good for the digestion, and believing that if a sick person ate a great deal of cabbage and bathed in his urine, he would recover.

The Roman colonies provided many foods to Rome; the city received ham from Belgium, oysters from Brittany, garum from Mauritania, wild game from Tunisia, silphium (laser) from Cyrenaica, flowers from Egypt, lettuce from Cappadocia, and fish from Pontus.

Cheese was eaten and its manufacture was well-established by the Roman Empire period. It was part of the standard rations for Roman soldiers and was popular among civilians as well; the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) fixed maximum prices for cheese. The manufacture of cheese and its quality and culinary uses are mentioned by a number of Roman authors: Pliny the Elder described cheese's dietary and medicinal uses in Book 28 of Historia Naturalis, and Varro in De Agricultura described the Roman cheesemaking season (spring and summer) and compared soft, new cheeses with drier, aged cheeses. The most extensive description of Roman cheesemaking comes from Columella, from his treatise on Roman agriculture, De Re Rustica.


I Wine was normally mixed with water immediately before drinking, since the fermentation was not controlled and the alcohol grade was high. Wine was sometimes adjusted and "improved" by its makers: instructions survive for making white wine from red and vice versa, as well as for rescuing wine that is turning to vinegar.

Wine was also variously flavored. For example, there was passum, a strong and sweet raisin wine, for which the earliest known recipe is of Carthaginian origin; mulsum, a freshly made mixture of wine and honey; and conditum, a mixture of wine, hod matured. One specific recipe, Conditum Paradoxum, is for a mixture of wine, honey, pepper, laurel, dates, mastic, and saffron, cooked and stored for later use. Another recipe called for the addition of seawater, pitch and rosin to the wine. A Greek traveler reported that the beverage was apparently an acquired taste. Sour wine mixed with water and herbs (posca) was a popular drink for the lower classes and a staple part of the Roman soldier's ration.
Beer (cervisia) was known but considered vulgar by the upper classes, and was associated with barbarians. It was drunk by Germanians, Thracians and soldiers, among others.