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
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 André 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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.