Tabl Logo
Account LogoAccount Logo
Wishlist LogoWishlist Logo
Booking LogoBooking Logo


Though they ate their fair share of foods we would gape at today, plenty of the dishes of Ancient Rome remain recognisable to modern diners. The Roman Empire was vast and so too was the array of food and drink. In many ways, Ancient Roman dining and drinking customs created the first truly international cuisine. A visit to Rome today offers the opportunity to experience the culinary culture of modern Italy as it has grown from those ancient times.

While the wealthy classes of Ancient Rome enjoyed sumptuous feasts, reflecting quite literally the fruits of their conquests, the poorer people ate a simpler diet, typically consisting of bread, cereals and legumes with fish and meat when they could afford it.

Upper-class Romans employed slave cooks in their kitchens and dining was meant to be a showcase of their riches and status in society. Lower down the social scale, typical citizens of Rome would gather together for communal meals with several simple dishes offered that each person would dip into as they wished.

The cookbook of Ancient Rome

We know quite a bit about what the upper-echelons of Roman society ate and drank from De Re Coquinaria, the two volumes of cookbooks intended for high-class chefs attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius.

Apicius was not a cook himself but a member of the Roman elite during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE). Described by the later Christian author Tertullian as the ‘patron saint of cooks’, Apicius was noted for the extravagant dinner parties he hosted, often for visiting dignitaries on behalf of the Roman government. It is said that Apicius’ love of living the high life through gastronomic plenty eventually led to his demise. Having entirely drained his wealth to fund his culinary lifestyle, Apicius became distraught and committed suicide.

What we can learn from the two cookbooks are the importance placed on lavish and exotic ingredients, but also the Romans’ love of sauces. Indeed, one of the volumes is entirely devoted to cooking with sauces. Foreign ingredients, imported from every corner of the empire, demonstrated the success of overseas occupations. Multiple seasonings and spices combined to create many casserole-like dishes with flavoursome sauces. Disguising the true flavour and texture of the meats, even those of the wealthy, was probably wise. Ancient Romans had a penchant for the lavish (ostrich, peacock, boar and hare) and offal and organ meats, such as the brain, lungs and stomach.

The main meals of Ancient Rome

Much like today, the inhabitants of Rome in ancient times aimed to have three meals a day. Breakfast was a modest affair; bread, cheese, fruits and leftovers washed down with water. Lunch or dinner was often the main meal of the day and a far more dish-laden and leisurely pursuit. Cena typically consisted of three courses with no particular limit on the number of individual platters, portions and platefuls.

Much like their ancient counterparts, many modern-day Romans still take cena as the day’s primary meal. There is still a moderate lunchtime rush hour in Rome as locals dash home from school or work to eat at home. Back in ancient times, Roman merchants would alter when they partook of cena to match the routines of other civilisations they were trading with.

Main meals were typically accompanied by wine, though not while eating as we would today. Wine would be mixed with water and drunk after the meal. The wine was usually spiced, and because it wasn’t too potent, it would be common to drink it from lunchtime onwards and throughout the rest of the day. The poorer people drank a much watered-down variant called posca, which sometimes consisted of wine that had soured but was often just water mixed with vinegar, salt and herbs. Milk was rarely drunk.

As many Roman homes did not have a kitchen, those seeking a lighter lunch or dinner often headed for the thermopylae or popinae. Both were types of fast-food restaurants or cook shops where hot, ready-to-eat food could be purchased. Typically, these outlets would have counters with big vats of stew to ladle into bowls for people on the go, but they also had seated areas for dining. Such establishments were generally not frequented by the wealthy who would be derided for eating with the plebians.

The diet of Ancient Romans

Meat and fish were mainly the preserve of the wealthy of Ancient Rome. Pork was the main meat eaten and was generally stewed before being roasted. Cattle and sheep were also reared for their meat and it is thought that the British tradition of eating roast beef, particularly on a Sunday, was acquired from Roman soldiers during their occupation of the country.

Meat delicacies included dormice and Abbacchio - a form of milk-fed lamb. The latter can still be found in Italy today while the former has thankfully fallen from favour. Seafood, such as shellfish and morays, was common, as well as garum; a spicy fish-based sauce made from fermented entrails.

Ancient Roman diets were heavily supplemented by fruit and vegetables. Lettuce, cabbage and leeks were common in the homes of ordinary people while the well-off could afford mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus. Grapes, apples, pears and plums were eaten throughout the day but citrus fruits did not arrive in the Ancient Roman empire until the 4th century. Fruits were used to cook too. Quince was commonly used to make jam and apricots were a favourite for making a stewed pork dish.

Almost every meal in Ancient Rome was accompanied by some form of bread. The type of bread eaten depended much upon the household budget. In fact, there were three broad bread types that typically reflected a person’s class. Poorer folk tended to only be able to afford a black bread, panis rusticus, while those with a little more to spend could buy a white bread called panis secundaris. The wealthy could treat themselves to panis candidus, a luxury fine bread made from the best flour available.

Food and Drink Experiences in Rome

Book a food tour in order to experience the food and drink of Ancient Rome.

Experiencing the long-standing cuisine of a city is one of the finest ways to immerse yourself in the traditions, customs and local way of life. Not only that, but you can also combine your food tour with a trip to the Colosseum and the Ludus Magnu or take a walk along the Via Dei Fori Imperiali where the Ancient Romans once wined and dined.

Timeout LogoHuff Post LogoITV LogoFoodism LogoEvening Standard LogoStylist Logo