The diet of rich Romans (Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner parties)

When we think about the eating habits of the Roman upper class we immediately think about extravagant banquets with ingredients from all parts of the ancient world. But did rich Romans really eat like that? And what did rich Romans eat on a regular day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

The breakfast (= ientaculum) was eaten between 8 and 10 AM and consisted of either bread or of Puls (a pottage). Lunch (= prandium) was eaten between 12 and 1 PM and consisted of either Puls or bread, cold meats, vegetables, fruits, and wine that was diluted with water. Dinner was usually eaten at a dinner party that was used to forge political and economical alliances and that was attended by 3-9 guests. Such a dinner consisted of 7 courses and could vary from modest to extravagant depending on the host.

Let`s find out more!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links that are identifiable by the *. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a small commission without additional cost for you. Thanks.

What did rich Romans eat on a day-to-day basis?

When we think of the diet of Roman senators or emperors then we often equate that with extensive banquets with exotic ingredients. But what did rich Romans eat on a day-to-day basis? In the following, we will take a look at the breakfast and lunch of rich Romans before we will then talk about the dinner parties of Rome’s upper class.

So let`s start with the first meal of the day!

What did rich Romans eat for breakfast?

When thinking about an American (or English) breakfast I usually think of bacon, hash potatoes, scrambled eggs, and a lot of other tasty and highly caloric foods.

Now one could think that the ancient Romans, who in general did more physical labor than most of us would also indulge in a breakfast that was high in calories. But that was not the case! The ancient roman breakfast is quite similar to the kind of modern-day meager and quick Italian breakfast that usually consists of a cup of coffee and a croissant or some other kind of pastry.

The breakfast (=ientaculum) of a rich Roman consisted of either bread (dipped in wine or honey) or of Puls. Puls was a pottage made out of wheat that was salted and served warm. Breakfast was usually quickly eaten between 8 and 10 Am. Unlike for dinner Romans would not sit down for breakfast but eat it while standing.

Ancient Roman Puls

Since we talked a lot about Puls as a staple of the Roman diet I think it might be a good time to present a quick recipe for Puls. Please note that the following is a recipe from Cato the Elder, one of the more famous Censors of the Roman Republic. Click here more information on the duties of a censor and the political institutions of the Roman Republic in general.

He gave the following instructions on how to prepare Puls:

  • Let 1 pound of crushed wheat swell in water until the grains are soft
  • Give it into a pot
  • Add 3 pounds of cheese, half a pound of honey, and 1 egg
  • Let it cook

As you see, Cato was not overly generous with details about temperature or time. But it should give you some idea of what Puls actually is and how fast it could be prepared.

By the way, the ingredients like cheese and honey show that this was one of the more expensive recipes for Puls. Here you can find out more about the price of honey in Rome. Poor Romans would obviously have to do without expensive ingredients, more on that here.

Now one could expect that such a meager meal would be followed up by a larger lunch.

What did rich Romans eat for lunch?

It would not be erroneous to think that the lunch that was eaten after such a meager breakfast would be rather large. But that was not exactly the case for the ancient Romans. Just like for breakfast some rich Romans would fall back on Puls as their lunch. Others like Plinius the Elder had a more elaborate lunch that we would probably rate as a nice snack.

The lunch (=prandium) of rich Romans like Plinius the Elder consisted of either Puls or bread, cold meat, vegetables, fruits, and wine that was diluted with water. It was usually eaten between 12 and 1 PM.

By the way, Romans usually drank wine that was diluted with water. Only extremely good and expensive wines were drunk pure. More on that later.

So after having talked about breakfast and lunch it is safe to say that these two meals were rather meager, even rich Romans. The meals of poor Romans would be even more limited in the variety of ingredients, more on that here.

But some Romans, both rich and poor, would only eat breakfast or lunch. Even the famous physician Galen recommended only 2 meals per day for a healthy man.

And Roman soldiers would often also eat their first meal around lunchtime. More on the diets of Roman Soldiers in my article here.

But let`s now turn to dinner!

What did rich Romans eat for dinner?

Just like for poor Romans the dinner (=vesperna/Cena) was the main meal of the day for rich Romans. But while the dinner of poor Romans was rather meager and was usually eaten as a family, more on that here, the dinners of rich Romans did not only differ in the ingredients that were used but also in their social significance.

Rich male Romans either hosted or attended dinner parties. These dinner parties were not purely to enjoy food but were meetings of wealthy men with equally high social status. Because of that, they should be seen as a Business dinner at which political alliances were forged and business deals were made.

And that function as a business dinner made the whole procedure much more complicated and lengthy.

What did rich Romans eat at their dinner parties?

Since the dinner parties of rich Romans were mainly used to connect and to create alliances the procedure started long before the actual dinner.

In the afternoon the attendees of such a dinner party would visit a bathhouse from where they would then walk to the house of the host of the dinner. At the door of the house, each guest would be welcomed by a doorman, the so-called nomenclator, who would guide the guest into the triclinium (the dining room) and assign him a place at the table.

Now one might ask why it was so important that every guest would be at his assigned spot. Well, that is connected with the function of the dinner party as a business dinner.

A roman dinner party was attended by 3-9 guests, usually of high social status. That meant that men who held political offices of different ranks would often meet at such a dinner. Customs had it that the politically highest-ranking man would get the most prestigious place at the table. Any mistake in the placing of the guests could have been interpreted as a political insult and would`ve caused massive irritations.

Let`s take a closer look at the triclinium and the Roman custom of eating while lying to get a better idea of how such a dinner party would go.

The Triclinium (= the dining room)

The triclinium was the rectangular dining room within the house of a rich Roman. There was a square table, the so-called mensa, in the middle of the room with 3 chaise lounges, so-called triclinae) around it. Originally only men were allowed to eat while lying on a chaise lounge and women had to eat while sitting in chairs. But that rule was softened over time until women could also lie down while eating.

As already mentioned above: The right order in which the guests were placed on the couches was crucial to not upset a higher ranking man by denying him a place with high prestige.

Because of that, we can organize the couches into different levels of prestige:

A.   Lectus medius: The chaise longue with the highest prestige; the spot on the head (1) was the locus consularis and was reserved for the guest with the highest social prestige
B.    Lectus summus: The chaise longue with the second-highest prestige; the place on the head had the highest prestige of the 3 places
C.    Lectus imus: The chaise longue with the lowest prestige; the place on the head had the highest prestige of the 3 places

The one side of the table in the middle of the 3 chaise longues was open to allow servants to serve the meals. The table (=mensa) in the Triclinium usually had a surface made of wood or marble and would be cleaned after each course. Tablecloths were not used until the end of the 1st century AD.

Before each guest would lay down a servant would wash his feet. When all guests were at their place the banquet would begin. But before we talk about the courses I would like to give a quick overview of the cutlery that was used at these dinner parties.

The cutlery

Each guest at a Roman dinner party would have the following utils…

  • Knife
  • Ladle (=trulla)
  • Tablespoon (=ligula)
  • Small spoon (cochlear)
  • Toothpick
  • Cup
  • But no forks! During Antiquity and the Middle Ages forks were unknown

Since forks were unknown Romans ate with their hands. Because of that slaves had to wash the hands of each guest after each course with perfumed water.

The custom of using the hands to eat also made napkins necessary. But these napkins had another purpose. It was pretty normal that every guest would take a few leftovers home. These leftovers were transported in the napkins. By the way, that was not seen as indecent. Only guests who took far too many leftovers were mocked in pretty unambiguous poems.

So now we have learned about the tools Romans used to eat. But what would be eaten at such a dinner party?

Let`s find out!

Courses of a Roman dinner party

When we talk about the dinner parties of the Roman high society we have to realize that there were different levels of wealth. While Equites and Senators, more on both social groups and what differentiated them here, could afford to eat really well their banquets paled in comparison to the feasts that Roman emperors indulged in.

A proper Roman dinner party had at least 7 courses consisting of 1 appetizer (Musum, that`s wine that was sweetened with honey was popular), 3 starters, 2 roasts, and dessert. Additionally, a lot of wine was consumed.

Now that sounds like a lot of food. And yes, these dinner parties could last for hours. Once again it is important to note that these dinners were not pure enjoyment but were also used to form business relations or political alliances! Because of that, these dinners did not only consist of eating and (heavy) drinking but also of more or less serious debates about philosophy and politics although these debates probably lost their seriousness throughout the evening and the amount of consumed wine.

But there was usually also lighter entertainment like clowns or dancers at hand.

And in case an attendee was completely unable to continue eating the Romans had come up with a somewhat clever and somewhat distasteful solution. Next to the triclinium, there was a small room called Vomitorium (from the word „vomere“ that means as much as „throwing up“). I think I can leave it up to your imagination what happened in that room…

What did rich Romans eat at their dinner parties?

When it comes to the actual types of food that were eaten at such a dinner party we have to differentiate. We know from some Emperors that they indulged in such decadent delicacies as the livers of Parrotfishes or the brains of peacocks.

And then we have the much more reasonable descriptions of dinner parties where things like a young fawn, fresh eggs, and different types of vegetables were served.

Do you want to find out more about the truly decadent dinner parties that not only the roman emperors but also the extremely rich held? I would highly recommend you to read the „dinner of Trimalchio“, you can find it here* on Amazon.

The dinner of Trimalchio is a part of the Satyricon that was written by the ancient Roman writer Caius Petronius Arbister (who died 66 AD). It describes a dinner party at the house of the extremely rich freed slave Trimalchio. During the dinner Trimalchio tries his best to impress his guests with all kinds of delicacies but as the evening progresses the guests notice more and more shocking behaviors in their host… Feel free to check it out. You can find an english edition here* on Amazon.

In my opinion, it is one of the best insights into the truly decadent eating habits and I still remember it lively how I first read that book in school.

And Trimalchio did not only serve exquisite delicacies but also expensive (and old) wine. I remember one passage where he talks about how the wine that he serves is much older than any of the guests…which brings us to the question of what Rich Romans drank.

What did rich Romans drink?

Generally, the drinks that rich Romans consumed didn`t really differ from the drinks that poor Romans consumed. More on that here.

The only difference was obviously the quality and the price of drinks like wine. But when it came to water the roman upper class got its water from the same sources as the normal Romans. And just like normal Romans the upper class of Rome also liked to mix its water with vinegar or wine.

Romans drank either wine that was (heavily) diluted with water or Posca, a mixture of water and vinegar that had a refreshingly sour taste. Beer was not popular and pure wine was rarely consumed since the consumption of pure wine was seen as barbaric. Only extremely good wine was drunk pure and only in small quantities.

Water

We all know that water is essential for life. And in the hot temperatures of the Mediterraneum, a Roman would have to drink quite a lot, especially when doing physical labor. Romans highly valued clean water, the aqueducts that can partially still be seen today are a good indicator of that.

But the water was usually not drunk pure but in the shape of Posca.

Posca was a mixture of drinking water and either wine or (far more often) vinegar that was a widespread Roman drink. The mixture of water and vinegar did not only have a refreshing sour taste but was also believed to kill germs in the water.

By the way. Posca, the mixture of water and vinegar, was also given to the crucified Jesus when he asked for a drink. But since Posca was extremely popular among Romans, it was basically a kind of lemonade, giving Jesus that mixture of water and vinegar must not be seen as an act of maliciousness!

Wine

Apart from water, there was also a rather high consumption of wine (more on the amount of wine that was bought for each guest at a banquet later).

It is important to emphasize that Romans mixed their wine with water. The practice of drinking pure wine that was not diluted with water was seen as barbaric. Only extremely good wine and only in small quantities was drunk pure by the Romans!

The degree to which the wine was diluted with water depended on the daytime and the occasion but also on the quality of the wine. There was a wide variety in the price and quality of wine that Romans consumed.

While poor Romans could often only afford cheap, sour wine that had to be refined by the addition of different ingredients (like plaster, more on that here) rich Romans would usually be able to afford better wine.

But even better wine that was not overly sour was often artificially sweetened by adding Honey either in a ratio of 1:10 or 1:4. The result was mulsum, a honey wine that was a popular appetizer.

Beer

While wine was popular and could be afforded by all Romans beer was a different story. Unlike the inhabitants of the western Provinces (Gaul and its Cervesia) or Egypt and Mesopotamia with its beer, the Romans never liked beer.

It must have been quite the culture shock for the Roman Legionaries when they first got in touch with beer during the expansion of the Roman Republic. Please feel free to check out my article here for more information on the different stages of the Roman expansion from a local to global power.

What fruits did Romans eat?

Fruits were not only eaten fresh but were also dried. Cato the Elder and other authors who wrote about agriculture granted the preservation of fruits a lot of attention. Fruits were not only popular Roman desserts but were also used in different recipes, especially since Romans really liked dished with a sweet-sour taste.

Popular fruits were…

  • Grapes (uvae)
  • Apples (malum)
  • Cherries (cerasia)
  • Plums (pruna)
  • Peach (malum persicum)
  • Pear (pirum)
  • Pomegranate (malum punicum)
  • Fig (ficus)
  • Date (palmula)
  • Apricot (malum praecox)
  • Quince (cydoneum)
  • Citrus fruits only played a minor role
  • Nuts (nuces)
  • Pine nuts (nuclei pinei)

What vegetables did Romans eat?

  • Peas (pisa)
  • Lenses (lens)
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Radish
  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Brocolli
  • Different salads like endive
  • Chard
  • Asparagus
  • Olives

Especially beans, Lenses, and Peas were a valuable source of Protein.

What meats did rich Romans eat?

When it came to meat Romans valued pork much higher than beef. That shows in different sources about the diet of Roman soldiers, more on that here. Since hunting was a popular leisure activity for the Roman upper-class different types of game were eaten as well as different types of poultry like ducks, doves, geese, or chickens.

Cheese was also quite popular in ancient Rome, especially cheese from sheep- or goat milk. Cheese made out of cow milk was (just like beef) a lot less popular.

By the way, cheese was also a staple in the diet of Roman soldiers. Do you want to find out more about what Roman soldiers ate during their campaigns and during peace times? You can find the answer in my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer

Source

U. Fellmeth; Brot und Spiele: Ernährung: Tafelluxus und Hunger im antiken Rom (London 2011).