The Roman Empire was a wealthy empire that lasted for over a millennium. But the empire began from simple settlements to form a rich source of history. Some of the major aspects of Ancient Rome were its fondness for class systems and festival seasons. These were aspects that were largely defined by food and drink. Food and drink had a huge significance in Ancient Rome. A high social importance was attached to food within Roman homes especially amongst the wealthy and Patrician aristocracy. The relevance of food and drink was largely consistent and part of the Roman society. Numerous historical reports have determined that Rome started as an agglomeration of small settlements on hills nearing the Tibet River at around 753 BC (Adkins & Adkins, 2014). This location provided numerous advantages to the Ancient Romans. One of the major benefits of the location of Rome was the favorable climate that made it possible for the Romans to develop and sustain a strong agricultural base. It was a climate that enabled Ancient Romans to grow a wide range of agricultural products that supported the Roman culture. The abundance of food such as olives, grapes, wheat and many other products supported Ancient Rome. With the support of the Tibet River, ancient Rome had a wealth of resources to advance its food culture. Food and drink represented a way of distinguishing between the rich and the poor due to the accessibility of resources. It also had a big impact on the social life of Romans.
Types of Food and Drinks
According to Brandt and Iddeng (2012), what ancient Romans cooked ate and drank was determined by their social class. The food they ate depended on how one wealthy or poor they were. It is only the wealthy who had the luxury of a kitchen while the poor used to cook on small grills and largely relied on “fast food” outlets known commonly as thermopolia. However, it is still noted that the wealthy could also buy their daytime food at the outlets for convenience. As mentioned earlier, ancient Rome could afford to sustain the food demand of the population due to the climate and water resources. The trade on food products was also sustained by the rich supply of agricultural products.
Ancient Rome had a wide source of food variety. But the main foods in Rome included beans, spices, vegetables, meat, bread, cheese, and olives. In the morning, the typical breakfast included bread, porridge, and a bowlful of beans. The lunch mostly consisted of a combination of either bread and cheese or olives. In Ancient Rome, bread from wheat was held in high regard as being nutritious and superior to that made of barley. It must be noted that the poor mostly ate the bread from barley. The wealthy only used it as plates. As mentioned earlier, the poor mostly depended on the thermopolia for a large proportion of their meals as they lacked kitchens back at home. However, the available drinks for the ancient Romans included wine and honey water. The beverage of choice for the Romans was wine, and it was considered more than a drink. It was a symbol of civilization. Although there was beer, it was seen as a drink for barbarians. Sometimes the Romans mixed wine with honey to make a mulsum that was considered refreshing. These were some of the favorite drinks that were available to the ancient Romans.
Wine formed a large part of ancient Romans’ drinking culture. It was the popular choice among the Romans and more than a beverage. It was not uncommon for the wealthy people to begin the day by drinking wine. According to McGovern (2013), wine was sometimes used in place of water in Rome when drinking water was not safe. It would become an alternative during these periods and still double up as an effective mouthwash for the Romans. Wine was, therefore, a common beverage in the Roman culture and this trend could be observed in how it was used in cooking and religion. Its prominence in religious setting was evident because it played a crucial role in the worship of Bacchus. Wine would also be offered as a libation to other Roman gods. Even when Christianity was made exclusive during the 4th centuries A.D., wine continued to be used during the Eucharist session. This was a ritual that was borrowed from Bacchic ritual. Apart from religious activities, wine was used as a beverage for unwinding after a busy day just like it is doe in the modern day. However, its daily use was set for dinner and on special days when the Romans would celebrate different festivals by consuming it heavily. A common party where wine was used extensively was the convivium. The dinner party would be held at the end of a business day. Different people would be invited to the patron’s table to eat and drink. This was an opportunity for everyone to build connections with people on different heights of the social ladder. The immediate impact of feasting and drinking at the dinner party was improved inclusion as well as intimacy. Toasts would be made to ensure people got drunk during the dinner party. However, the arrangement at the table was still distinct to ensure there was a difference between people of different social groups.
When it was time for dinner, the Romans took it to a higher level of seriousness. According to Killgrove and Tykot (2013), supper was taken as the most important meal although there were still distinctions between the wealthy and the poor. The poor would turn to the thermopolia as usual where they would buy segments of meat with asparagus. This meal is what the poor would depend on as their most important meal of the day. Sometimes they would alternate meat with fish still from the outlets. In contrast, the wealthy Romans would prepare their dinner in their homes. Their dinner could not be defined by a single meal. They would shop at the trading centers for the best food ingredients for the course from a wide variety of ingredients. They could afford an extended list of food that consisted of fruits, chicken, geese, snails, and quality fish. They could also add on a quality dessert that included sweetened treats such as honey. At other times, they could shop for a wide variety of meat from different bird varieties such as flamingos.
The ancient Romans had a common seasoning that they incorporated in every dish. The Roman gardeners would grow onions, garlic, beans, beets, and radishes that would be used as seasoning for every meal. During dinner, the Romans used to take the chance to impress their guests. This is why elaborate feats were made during the evenings with the maximum number of diners being nine. Slaves used to serve the guests with special meals such as calf brains, milk-fed snails, and sow udders. They were also fed with plates made from glass and silver.
It has to be noted that the wealthy could afford to eat and drink a wide variety of the listed food because they owned country estates where they would rear livestock and plant crops on a large scale for commercial purposes. These were large farms that used to supply Rome adequately. It is on these large farms that the wealthy farmers would produce grain, grapes, and olives. They would also rear animals such as pigs, sheep, and goats mostly for their meat. The honey sold by merchants at the trading centers was also provided by the rich who could afford to keep bees.
Wheat was the staple of the Romans during the first century. It was more important within the Roman Empire. The use of yeast by the 1st century A.D. made barley lose its popularity. Although it was still being used to feed the poor, wheat was more important especially in Rome. This is because large amounts were required to sustain the demand of the Empire. It was used politically in the Republic because every adult who needed it would be given. When it was not provided, there would be unrest. This may not be a reflection of the situation during the ancient Roman period; it shows how food and drink were significant throughout the culture of the Romans. Perhaps a look at the roles of food and drink should reveal more about the key aspects of the ancient Roman culture.
Impact of Food and Drink on Social Life
The study of food and drink among the ancient Romans has attracted a lot of attention in the past. What has come out strongly is that the ancient Romans attached huge significance to key Roman feasts such as cena (formal dinner) and epulum (public banquet). The public banquet was associated more with public feasts in ancient Rome. The deep social function linked with food and drink would be brought out more by the public feasts and the formal dinner. According to Donahue (2015), group eating in the Roman culture facilitated the public feasts. It was also an avenue for celebrating ritual ceremonies such as funerals and marriages. The ancient Romans frequently highlighted the public theme to various feasts that were consistent with the larger context of Roman social interactions. For example, marriages were marked by a public feast known as cena nuptialis. This is when the public would be invited to partake in eating and drinking freely. Later, emperors would also include birthday ceremonies referred to as dies natalis where sacrifices and feasts were conducted. Food and drinks would bring people together to create stronger social bonds. During funerals, the occasion would be marked by a public feast and games. However, most of these public feasts were held for the wealthy because they could afford the luxuries. Garnsey, Saller, and Elsner (2014) state that feasts underscored the status of the benefactors and beneficiaries, whether in the interaction between the wealthy and the poor or the emperor with the urban populous. Food and drink, however, was not entertained in ancient Rome as a charitable event, but as a chance to emphasize the public status of some people in the society. This is a trend that was monopolized by those who were in power and the wealthy in surrounding regions.
Food and drink also brought the ancient Romans together because they were associated with religious events. According to Donahue (2003), ancient Roman religion was more focused on adopting, integrating, and practicing rituals within the broader patterns of social life. This is evident in the numerous celebrations within their calendar that offer remarkable insight into food and drink intersected with the rituals in ancient Roman society. There were at least eight festivals in ancient Rome that involved feasts. Some of the festivals were open to the participation of the public while others were not. Most of the festivals involved processions and offering of sacrifices which culminated into public feasts that involved both eating and drinking. Several other religious festivals such as the epulum Iovis that were meant to celebrate the feast of Jupiter involved the practice of offering sacrifices such as oxen. This was a feast that was overseen by priests but was restricted to leaders who shared virtues of possessing the right to dine at the expense of the public.
Public feasts in the ancient Roman rituals were accompanied by drinking. Food and drinking could not be entirely separated because both events were aimed at fulfilling the need for camaraderie. During the feast of Anna Perenna, when the Romans would celebrate their new year, there would be a lot of singing and drinking near Tiber. People from all social groups would drink wine as many cups as they wished to live. It is a celebration that would be marked by high levels of socialization. Such feasts allowed for group drinking. Some like the festival of Fors Fortuna was dedicated to slaves in the ancient Roman society. But they drank on riverboats to signify their social status. The drinking was largely a distinct part of a festival in Rome because wine was in plenty. Some festivals were set aside for wine sampling, thereby creating more opportunities for eating and drinking. It can be seen that eating and drinking took place in the name of divinities at various times. Carcopino (2013) notes that some beverages in ancient Rome had a high level of social differentiation. He notes that wine was not simply a beverage for the wealthy; its variety enabled it to be used as a differentiator. It was largely related to eloquence. At other times, wine was used to facilitate inclusion and intimacy among people of similar social groups, especially when it was offered to dinner parties. Despite the occasion, the festivals emphasized the importance of eating and drinking.
In ancient Rome, hospitality was an important virtue. Eating and drinking together had a special place in the culture of Romans. Alfoldy (2014) states that food and drink strengthened political groups and alliances, improved friendships, and increased solidarity among peer groups. The impact of feasting and drinking could be felt days after a banquet has ended. Most of the banquets held in Rome had a huge cultural significance because they provided an enabling and positive environment where political interactions could be held. They also provided a stage where music and dance could be experienced between different social groups. In most cases, a feast would end with a drinking party referred to as comissatio. Women of higher social class could take part in these banquets. However, most of the drinking and eating that involved the public was associated with religious festivals that were funded by private benefactors, local leaders, priests, and other religious communities. One of the most popular religious festivals that were accompanied by a lot of feasting and drinking was the Saturnalia. This was the greatest festivals that lasted for week. It was celebrated in honor of Saturn who was regarded as the father of gods. This was a time when the social life of ancient Romans took on a different turn. All grudges were forgotten, businesses were halted, and any other gatherings were postponed. The slaves, who were considered lower in the social hierarchy, were served food and drinks by their masters. The slaves would also be given some time off by their masters until dinner time. Upon returning, they would be fed with lots of wine. It was also a tradition to share food widely, offer gifts, and make merry uninterrupted. This period of seven days was a time when people from different social groups would mingle freely. This was one of the annual holidays that hospitality could be practiced with abundance to any person in the populace.
Food and drink may have been used to get people to interact, but there were times when they were symbols of differentiating social groups. These were times when the opposition between different social groups would be largely visible. The feasts that facilitated drinking and eating could allow borders between social groups to be crossed temporarily. This provided an opportunity for different social groups to exchange. In ancient Rome, feasts that were of this nature were designed in the form of a formal dinner. The formal dinner would include an assortment of lavish meals and a social mix of guests. There was an arrangement that was created to emphasize the distance between guests socially and physically. The social distance was reinforced by differences. The rich would sometimes deny the populous some of what their social superiors enjoyed (Wilkins & Nadeau, 2015). This was a trend that was common in ancient Rome during some feasts.
Feasting and drinking were a culture that was practiced in ancient Rome. The numerous festivals that were celebrated by the Romans were defined by feasting and drinking. The culture played a huge role in the social life of the Romans. Food and wine, specifically, played a prominent role in the social process because they allowed different people to participate and remain separate socially. The Romans were able to gather and plan feasts over a wide array of activities that helped to bring out what an ancient Roman meant. The rigid class structure of the ancient Roman society still played a unique role in what different people could afford to eat and drink. However, religion united people of different social hierarchies to celebrate unique holidays where there was a lot of eating and drinking. From the hospitality of ancient Romans, food and drink acted as a medium of strengthening political alliances, improving friendships, and increasing solidarity among peer groups.
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