Beyond the Mediterranean Triad: Reimagining a Middle-Class Roman Meal

Images of Imperial Rome

When someone mentions to you Ancient Rome, what do you picture? Do you think of the Colosseum? Or, perhaps, you think of the military victories? Others may think of the art (i.e., mosaics, frescoes, statues, etc.) or the engineering feats of the Romans (i.e., the roads, the aquaducts, the buildings, etc.) Still others think of the political intrigues and dramas of the Imperial and elite families of the Empire. Few people think of the food eaten by Romans, and fewer still ponder the food of the average Roman citizen.

Fresco of a bowl of fruit recovered from Pompeii
Part of a fresco, featuring a bowl of fruit, recovered from Pompeii

When I think of Ancient Rome, I wonder about what food they would have eaten. I am intensely curious about the diet and cuisine of the people of this era. To me, food plays a key role in the development of a people, both in terms of that society’s health and nutrition, but also in terms of cultural developments. Food plays a great part in celebrations, but also in religious practice and cultural practices. And, when looking at food from the past, it forms a connection between the modern and the ancient as food and food culture often has an emotional and memory component. We look for similarities between ourselves and those who came before us. It is for this reason that I have long possessed a curiosity regarding the food of the average Roman citizen.

Challenging Our Understanding

The Traditional View of the Roman Diet

When performing a Google search on the Roman diet, there is a vast array of search results. Careful reading will reveal that most people have the idea that the poorest Romans ate badly or even “like animals” (as the March 2013 livescience.com article by Stephanie Pappas states) while the rich dined lavishly on the best and most exotic things (e.g. the March 2015 article “Roman Food” from the History Learning website). Many of these articles also claim that the vast majority of the Roman population was living in abject poverty. (Pappas 2013; Schneidel and Friesen 2009)

So, where does this idea come from? It seems to be picked up from 20th Century historians. One such historian, Harold Johnston, stated in The Private Life of Romans that “Grain and grapes and olives furnished subsistence for all who did not live to eat. These gave ‘the wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread that strengtheneth man’s heart.’ On these three abundant products of the soil the mass of the people of Italy lived of old as they live today.” (Johnston 1932) For this idea that the average Roman ate a diet that consisted of nothing more than the Mediterranean Triad (i.e. grapes, grains, and olives), Johnston himself was relying on the works of earlier historians such as Joachim Marquardt (c. 1886) and Ludwig Friedländer (c. 1881). The works of these historians paint a picture of the diet of the average Roman citizen as one of mere subsistence. It implies that they had barely enough nutrition to survive on, and it depicts their lives as “short and full of pain”. (Grayson and Sheets 1979) Others, like Willem Jongman, “simply assumed we knew life…was brutish and short” for the Romans. (Jongman 2017)

But is the View Correct?

I’ll be honest…I never bought into the historical perspective of the average Roman diet. This idea that the average Roman was eating a subsistence diet just didn’t make sense based on what I knew about the accomplishments of Rome. We’ve all heard the adage “an army marches on its stomach”. If the Roman army was marching on a stomach that was one of mere subsistence, how could they possibly have so been phenomenally successful? Nor did it seem possible to me that Roman society and culture could have flourished as it it did if its’ citizens were struggling just to survive. I knew that I had to look deeper.

So I began looking at primary sources. There’s several from the period that were relevant to my query. Among these is Cato’s De Agri Cultura (Cato, M., & Dalby, A. 1998), the Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder (Pliny the Elder & Holland, P. 2012), and the De Re Rustica by Columella. (Columella, L.I.M, & Ash, H.B. 2007) These three works serve as primary textual evidence of the crops and livestock grown and available for the Roman table and also, some of the earliest known Roman recipes. Cato’s work is the earliest reference dating from 160 BCE while Pliny the Elder and Columella are contemporaries of each other, both having lived in the 1st Century CE. This also makes them a contemporary of Apicius from whom most of the modern knowledge of Roman cooking originates. The De Re Coquinaria is a cookbook containing nearly five hundred recipes, and it is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a 1st Century CE epicurean. (Apicius, M.G., & Vehling, J. D. 1977) The problem with these texts, however, is that they are written by members of the Roman elite. Their works reflect the dietary choices that were available to them, and so they are not necessarily a reliable witness to a non-elite diet.

So, where else could I look? I turned to the literature of the period. The works of the poets Horace, Martial, and Juvenal provide anecdotal evidence to a certain extent of the Roman diet, and the food described in their poems form what might be considered more “middle-class” diets. They describe meals that gourmands might have considered ‘humble’ (e.g., Martial’s meal consisting of lettuce, eggs, olives, smoked cheese, fish, and fowl). (Martial & Michie, J. 2002). This is in stark contrast to the lavish meals of the elite. One such elite meal described by Macrobius included more than 27 dishes. It was comprised of seven varieties of shellfish, five types of bird, hares, deer and even wild boar, just to name some of the dishes. (Macrobius, A.A.T. & Kaster, R.A. 2011). Despite the simple words and descriptions, the literary works suggest that even people living a more middle-class lifestyle still had “a real gastronomic tradition (that) exists all the time in the background.” (Dalby 2000) Their descriptions of dining focus more on locally available proteins, vegetables, and a variety of cheeses. (Dalby 2000) While these appear from the poems to be more humble than upper-class meals, there is still a commitment to flavorful foods. This is evidenced by the detailed descriptions of sauces to be served with certain dishes (e.g., the description of lamprey sauce in Horace’s Satires 2.8 43-53). (Dalby 2000)

Not only do these writings show some differences from the elite diet, but they speak to a wider variety of diet for the Roman middle and lower-classes than scholars have historically believed. The first clue that there is not a complete understanding of how the Roman diet worked can be found in this poetry. Looking more deeply, it is clear that the assumptions made and perpetuated about the average Roman diet, are not wholly accurate. In order to correct these assumptions, different data needed to be found that would open a window to the food and diet of this ancient society.

Digging Deeper…

While the written sources suggested to me that I was on the right track with my theory that the diet of the average Roman was not merely one of subsistence, I felt that I needed still more data, and I wanted physical evidence. So I turned to the archaeological record, but at first, this proved harder than it might seem. While Roman archaeology has been extensive, early diggers were seemingly more interested in scavenging material culture (i.e., mosaics, statues, etc.) from the ground. This is evidenced by the removal of mosaics and frescoes from places like the House of the Vestals in Pompeii. (Murphy et al. 2013) As a result, finds that spoke to things like food and diet were often not well documented or even overlooked entirely. They did make note of some finds related to the ancient diet but only when significant quantities of particular food items were found “for example a dolium of grain or an amphora filled with fish bones”, but often these finds were not recorded in the context of their surroundings which limits our understanding of who ate them. (Rowan 2017) It was not until the modern era that researchers began to specifically include environmental sampling and archaeobotanical analysis in their plans of excavation.

Enter the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The sudden and overwhelming eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE sealed these towns away, locking them in a time capsule. In that moment, what was created was essentially a frozen “day in the life”. While some people got away, all they took was what they could throw together in an hour or two perhaps, and that was it. Everything else stayed there, including all kinds of household objects, stored goods, and other things like food still cooking in ovens, and the contents of latrines and cesspits. Another critical piece of this puzzle is the human remains that were found in these cities. The ability to examine and study the human remains of those who did not escape the volcano’s wrath can provide vital evidence as to health and diet.

Carbonized bread found in a oven in Pompeii
Carbonized bread from Pompeii

What Can Refuse Tell Us About Diet?

It turns out that there is a lot that refuse can tell us actually. One such source of this comes from the sewer below the Insula Orientalis II. This is a residential block in Herculaneum that researchers believe housed lower and middle class citizens. Archaeologists have found that the sewer contained as they expected a diet rich in grain, fruits, nuts, and olive oil. To be precise, some “84 and 27 different mineralized and carbonized plant taxa respectively” were discovered in the sewer. (Robinson and Rowan 2015) This is what you might expect to find if early historians’ assumptions about a largely vegetarian diet are to be believed.

view into sewer below Herculaneum
View into sewer below Herculaneum (Camardo 2015)

However, they also found the remains of numerous egg shells. The majority of the shells came from chicken eggs, indicating a high consumption of this item. They also discovered several fragments of goose eggshell. (Rowan 2017) In addition to egg-shells, they found small animal bones belonging to birds, sheep, pig, and chicken. (Robinson and Rowan 2015) More surprising perhaps was the discovery of a variety of more rare food items including sea urchins and dormice, a type of plump rodent considered to be a delicacy to the Romans; as well as imported foods like dates, and spices such as peppercorns and mint seeds. (Robinson and Rowan 2015) The sewer contents also demonstrated that they ate a diet rich in seafood. They were able to identify approximately 70 species of fish and 48 marine shellfish species. This speaks to a wide variety of marine species being available for consumption. (Nicholson et al. 2018) What’s more interesting is that the evidence exhibits a great deal of similarity of food stuffs across socio-economic categories. In fact, “many of the same food items…even expensive items such as black pepper” appear in the strata of both the lower-class and upper middle-class residents, suggesting that residents ate largely the same diet regardless of their socio-economic standing.(Rowan 2017)

How does this compare with findings at Pompeii? The excavations there have uncovered at least ten cesspits in the neighborhood of the Porta Stabia, and researchers here also believe that the neighborhood they are examining housed lower and middle class citizens. What these finds have demonstrated is that Pompeii had perhaps a larger variety of food stuffs than Herculaneum, as supported by the discovery of a butchered giraffe leg. For the most part, however, the finds in Pompeii greatly resemble the finds of Herculaneum and show to a great extent the same level of diversity. Here too, there is a suggestion that the wealthier residents had greater access to slightly more rare food items, like dormice and giraffe, but to a large extent, the same food stuffs were eaten across socio-economic strata including imported spices like black pepper and caraway. (Ellis 2018) This would seem to suggest that the two cities were much alike in their diet, and that the diet available to the residents of both was nutritionally more diverse than the subsistence diet that they were previously thought to have consumed. (Rowan 2017)

What Can Bones Tell Us About Diet?

Bone pathology studies have been conducted of remains found at both Pompeii and Herculaneum. In both studies, researchers found that while prone to some diseases, especially in childhood, the residents were largely a healthy population regardless of socio-economic standing. (Bisel 1988a) Also, there is a frequency of healed injuries that “reflects a certain robusticity in the immune systems” of the population. (Lazer 2017) There is further evidence of certain pathologies of the bones that are indicative of osteophytic changes to the bone. These changes demonstrate the presence of conditions like arthritis that are more consistent with the bones of those who have survived in to later adulthood. (Lazer 2017) In other words, there was evidence of good health sustaining the population into old age.

skeletal remains stored in a "bone house"
Skeletal remains stored in a “bone house” in Pompeii (Lazer 2017)

Beyond the bone pathology, researchers have also examined the bones at an elemental level. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis reveals that the people of Pompeii ate a diet that was diverse. The food that they ate consisted of “a range of fruits and vegetables, grains, seafood, and meat of domesticated and wild animals”. (Pate et al. 2016) Estimates from the nitrogen levels suggest that marine proteins compromised on average between one-quarter and one-third of the diet. The carbon levels indicate that the remainder of their diet was compromised of plants and herbivores. (Pate et al. 2016)

This aligns with trace mineral analysis of the Herculaneum remains. This analysis examined the remains for traces of zinc, copper, and strontium. The results of this found that the remains contained high levels of strontium and zinc. The levels of these minerals indicate that the residents across economic categories ate “a diet high in marine fish, crustaceans, and legumes but low in red meat”. (Robinson & Rowan 2015)

So What Does All This Data Really Say?

Well, it begins to paint a different picture of the Roman diet than has been previously conceived. It can be said that, at least for the citizens of these two cities, their diet was more diverse and nutritional than originally believed. The overwhelming evidence indicates that the Roman population – including the lower and middle classes – had greater access to wider varieties of foods and also, was much healthier than had been previously thought. It is not the subsistence diet argued by Johnston, nor the extravagant banquets suggested by Macrobious, but rather it is something in between.

Translating This Into a Meal

Identifying Middle Class Food

Now that I have taken you on my journey of research, we can begin to talk about how this might help identify middle-class foods. We have dug into the archaeological record, and it has shown us greater health and nutritional diversity than we once believed. We have examined the literature of the age, and it has demonstrated to us that the people of the middle-class were just as interested in flavorful foods as the elites. But, what do these tidbits really tell us about what the meals eaten by the middle-class actually look like?

The truth is, they can only give us pieces to the puzzle. The evidence we have examined has told us that that the middle and lower-classes had access to a wider range of ingredients than previously speculated, but there are no recipes written for middle-class food. Everything written about culinary practice in this period comes from an elite perspective. So, like so much when it comes to culinary reconstruction, we are going to have to engage in some experimental archaeology to fill in the gaps if we are going to be able recreate something that might be a plausible middle-class meal.

Filling in the Gaps

So where do we look to fill the gaps in our knowledge? Food is a critical element to any society, and if you examine modern cultures, you will find that there are some common dishes that are eaten by all members of a society regardless of their social standing. This commonality creates a shared food tradition that unites people across socio-economic strata, and it binds together a people through a collective food culture. There must have been some shared food culture in the Roman world as well.

I turned to the only textual evidence we have for recipes which, of course, comes from the elites, and I began to ask myself questions about how these sources might inform my quest to recreate a middle class meal. Were there dishes that existed that might have been something both the elites and the middle-classes might have eaten? How can we take the recipes from these sources and make something that plausibly looks like a meal a middle-class Roman might have eaten? In answering these questions, I really focused on two main elements to identify recipes that might have been common to both the elites and the middle-classes: cooking method and ingredients.

Examining the Cooking Methods

In examining cooking methods, we must first ask if middle-class Romans cooked at home. This question is important as many scholars have long assumed that lower and middle-class citizens relied on the tabernae and publicas for the majority of their cooked meals. However, finds from the Insula Orientalis II are changing this perception. The remains of the food found in the sewer appear to have come from two distinct sources. The first, as might be suspected, “were items that had clearly passed through the human digestive tract…show(ing) signs of chewing and digestion”, but the second set of materials showed no such signs and appear to be the remains of “food preparation and table leftovers”. (Robinson and Rowan 2015) This evidence of food preparation waste would seem to suggest that not just dining, but cooking was also taking place even in the homes of lower and middle-class Romans. It is likely that middle-class households relied both on food that was cooked at home as well as food available for purchase from local establishments, much as modern households do today.

The other thing to be considered in this is the size of the cooking area available to the middle-class household. In the villas of the elites, the kitchen formed a separate space. It occupied a room to itself, and it had plenty of space in which to prepare and cook the food. According to Johnston, these kitchens were “supplied with an open fireplace for roasting and boiling, and with a stove”, and these were often made of masonry or stone. (Johnston 1932) The cooking was often done by a slave, or several, working on behalf of the family. The cooking space available to middle-class households would have been much more modest. As many middle-class homes were smaller, the space for cooking may have comprised only a small area in a room that served multiple purposes. Here cooking was done on a much smaller scale. Instead of the permanent cooking surface and oven available in an elite home, the middle-class home may have relied on small portable braziers that served as both a cooking stove and a method of heating the home in colder temperatures.

The partial remains of a brazier found in Pompeii
The partial remains of a brazier found in Pompeii.

Keeping in mind the constraints that these would have placed on cooking, I began narrowing my search to recipes that involved cooking methods that would have been readily available to the middle-class cook. With the lack of an oven, I eliminated any recipe that required baking or roasting, and instead focused on dishes that could be cooked on braziers via frying, boiling, or braising.

Frying pan found in Pompeii
Frying pan found in Pompeii.

Examining the Ingredients

The archaeological records of Pompeii and Herculaneum have a provided some idea as to the ingredients that a middle-class household might have had access to. Among these are fish, chicken, eggs, a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables, but also imported foods like spices and dates. In addition to these, I added to my possible list of ingredients certain ingredients that seemed to form an integral part of Roman food culture. These include things like liquamen, caroenum, vinegar, and wine. I also included the ingredient Laser (silphium). While laser was an expensive imported spice, it did come with a lower cost alternative called Parthian Laser (asafoetida). Parthian laser (asafoetida) was accepted as a suitable substitute for laser (silphium) in recipes, but it was definitely considered to be poorer in quality. (Pliny the Elder & Holland, P. 2012) Additionally, by the end of the 1st century CE, the plant from which laser (silphium) was derived had been eaten to the point of extinction, and all that remained was the poor man’s version, Parthian laser (asafoetida). (Grimm 2007)

Building the Meal

I took my search criteria to the cooking text De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius. (Apicius, M.G., & Vehling, J. D. 1977) I read through the text with an eye to pulling out recipes that contained ingredients that would be accessible to my theoretical middle-class family. Once I had that list, I further narrowed my list of possible recipes to those that could be cooked in a smaller cooking set up. When I had limited myself to just those recipes that fit the constraints I had chosen, I still had dozens of recipes from which to choose. What follows it just one possible permutation of what a middle-class meal might have looked like.

The Recipes

Aliter pisam sive fabam: Peas or Beans Another Way
Original Text:

Aliter pisam sive fabam: despumatam subtrito lasare Parthico, liquamen et caroeno condies. Oleum modice superfundis et inferes.

Translation:

Beans another way. When skimmed flavor them with crushed Parthian laser, some liquamen, and some caroenum. Pour a little olive oil over these, then serve.

Redaction:
  • Ingredients:
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • ½ tsp asafetida
  • 2 tbsp liquamen (fish sauce)
  • 1 1/3 tbsp caroenum (grape syrup)
  • Olive oil

Soak chickpeas overnight in cold water. Drain and place in pan. Cover with twice the amount of water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until tender. Drain. In separate bowl mix liquamen, caroenum, and asafoetida. Pour mixture over chickpeas in serving bowl and mix well. Drizzle with olive oil and mix well.  Serve.

A dish of chickpeas in sauce served in a replica Roman dish
A dish of chickpeas in sauce.
Caroetae Frictae: Fried Carrots
Original Text:

Caroetae frictae oenogara inferuntur.

Translation:

Carrots fried in oenogara.

Redaction:
  • Ingredients:
  • 4 carrots (or parsnips)
  • 3.5 oz white wine
  • 1.25 oz Liquamen (fish sauce)
  • 2 oz Olive oil

Peel and pare carrots into thin strips. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the carrots and fry until golden and cooked through. Combine the wine and liquamen in a separate container to make the oenogara. (This can be made well in advance of cooking.) Pour the oenogara over the carrots, and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Turn into a bowl and serve.

A dish of fried parsnips presented in a replica Roman dish
A dish of parsnips in oenagara.
Pullum Oxyzomum: Chicken with Piquant Sauce
Original Text:

Pullum oxyzomum: oleum acetabulum maiorem, laseris satis modice, liquaminis acetabulum minorem, aceti acetabulum perquam minorem, piperis scripulos sex, Petroselinum scripulum, porros fasiculum.

Translation:

Chicken (with) piquant (sauce). Take an acetabulum of olive oil, a small but sufficient quantity of laser, a little less than an acetabulum of liquamen, and the same amount of vinegar. Add six scripulos of pepper, a scripulum of parsley, and a bunch of leaks.

Redaction:
  • Ingredients:
  • 1 chicken, jointed (can also be made with chicken thighs)
  • 1 oz vinegar
  • 1 bunch of leeks, chopped
  • 1 tsp Pepper
  • 1.25 oz olive oil
  • 1 oz liquamen (fish sauce)
  • 1/4 tsp Parsley
  • Chicken stock

Brown chicken in oil. Add chicken stock to pan, and bring to a boil. Simmer in stock for 15 minutes. Turn chicken in the cooking fluid, and continue to simmer. After 20 minutes, turn the chicken again and add leeks to the cooking liquid. In separate bowl, mix liquamen, vinegar, pepper, and parsley.  Mix well.  Pour over chicken and leeks, and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes. Remove chicken to serving dish, and pour sauce over chicken.

A dish of chicken in sauce served in a replica Roman dish
A dish of chicken in sauce.
Dulcia Domestica: Home sweets
Original Text:

Dulcia domestica: palmulas vel dactilos except semine, nuce vel nucleis vel piper tritum infercies.  Sales foris contingis, frigis in melle cocto, et inferes.

Translation:

Home sweets are made thus: dates are stuffed, after seeds are removed, with a nut or with nuts and pepper, sprinkled with salt and candied in honey and served.

Redaction:
  • Ingredients:
  • Dates
  • Pine nuts
  • Pepper
  • Coarse ground salt
  • Honey

Mix pepper with pine nuts to taste. Stone dates and fill with nut and pepper mixture.  Roll stuffed dates in salt. Warm honey in pan until honey has become more fluid. Place dates in pan.  Cook, turning the dates occasionally, until the skin of dates begins to split (about 5-10 minutes).  Serve drizzled with remaining cooked honey from the pan.

A dish of candied dates stuffed with pine nuts and served in a replica Roman dish
The finished dates, stuffed with peppered pine nuts and candied in honey.

Final Thoughts

A replica pottery dish containing fried parsnips, chickpeas, chicken in sauce, and candied dates served with pine nuts.

The image above shows the finished dishes served together on a plate as it might have been eaten by a middle-class Roman. Can it be said with any degree of certainty that my imagined middle-class family ate all of these recipes, or even ate some combination of these dishes together? The short answer is no. I can’t say with certainty that this is what they ate, but is this set of dishes plausible based on the information that is currently available to us? The answer to that is yes. Looking at the archaeological evidence and the textual sources from this period, the cooking techniques used in these dishes are ones that a middle-class family could have used, even with a small cooking area, and the ingredients used in all of these dishes were things that were available to them to use.

Culinary recreation often requires us to turn to experimental archaeology to fill in the gaps in the record, and, sometimes, that means putting ourselves in the shoes of those whose food we wish to try and recreate. I have tried to do that here. The dishes that I recreated were flavorful, filling, and nutritious, but they are just one set of plausible dishes that might have been eaten by a middle-class Roman family. I plan on recreating more dishes to get a better idea as to what the day to day diet of the Roman middle-class might have looked like.

Additional Information

If you are interested in reading more about my research on the archaeology of the Roman diet, you can read my full research paper below. Also included is a paper that demonstrates the process I go through when I am redacting a recipe. The sample recipe featured in this paper also appears in this presentation. Finally, I have included a link to a a video of me cooking these dishes.

Fina Cooks Roman Food


Acknowledgments

I would like to close with some acknowledgements. No project or research can be done alone. There are always people behind the scenes who help with their support, encouragement, and especially their willingness to try my food experiments. I could not have completed this without the support and encouragement of my friends. Two in particular deserve particular thanks. First, Lady ‘Izza al-Dimashqiyya crafted for me replica Roman pottery in which to cook. The gift of her work helped me to be able to recreate Roman dishes in as period a way as possible. Second, the Honorable Lady Isobella Forbes opened her kitchen to me for the filming of the cooking video above, and she helped me by recording and editing the video. Both of these women are amazing friends, supporters, and encouragers/enablers who make this thing we do even more fun. Thank you both so much!!!!

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Mosaic of a bird recovered from Pompeii

3 Replies to “Beyond the Mediterranean Triad: Reimagining a Middle-Class Roman Meal”

  1. this was awesome. love the archaeology add in here. i am not a cook but found this presentation fascinating.

  2. This was a facinating read. I enjoyed learning about your journey to find out what middle class romans ate. In my trip to Pompeii I remembered seeing those communal kitchens with painted chickens and pigs on them, and spent time imaginging what foods were served there for citizens wandering about the town. With your research I now have a much clearer idea! Thank you. What a fun subject.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Roman food, both research and recreation, is kind of my pet project. I’m working on looking more into the tabernae and how they served their neighborhoods as well as Roman wine production to expand and further improve our understanding of Roman diet and culinary practices.

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