What did poor Romans eat? (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Banquets)

While the diets of the Roman upper class are quite well known the diets of the Roman lower class (the majority of Roman citizens) are almost completely unknown. In the following, I would like to give some insight into the diets of the Roman lower classes, not only on a day-to-day basis but also on special occasions.

A poor Roman ate his breakfast (= ientaculum) consisting of bread that was dipped in wine or honey between 8 and 10 AM. Lunch (=cena) was eaten between 12 and 1 PM and consisted of Puls, a pottage made of wheat while dinner (= vesperna) was eaten around 2 hours before sunset and consisted of bread, olive oil, olives, cheese, and possibly pickled vegetables and salted fish. Poor Romans would either drink wine that was diluted with water or (more common) Posca, a mixture of water and vinegar.

Let`s find out more!

What did poor Romans eat on a day-to-day basis

Just like today, the diets of ancient Romans consisted of Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats. And just like modern-day people, an ancient Roman would get most of his calorie intake from carbohydrates.

Let`s have a look at what were the typical sources of Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats for an ancient Roman diet.

Carbohydratesthe main source of calories in a roman dietmostly Bread and Puls (a pottage made from grains) vegetables and fruits
Proteinscheese & milk (especially from sheep and goats) legumesfresh and salted fish & meat
Fatsmostly olive oil (and smoked bacon, especially for soldiers)
Staples of a Roman diet

Now let`s look at how these nutrients were distributed on a day-to-day basis before we will later discover how the banquets of poor Romans differed from their day-to-day diet (and the occasions on which these banquets were held).

What did poor 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 small piece of pastry.

The Roman breakfast was called ientaculum and was eaten between 8 and 10 AM. It was a quick snack that was usually eaten while standing and consisted of bread that was dipped in either wine or honey. Sometimes it also included olives, salt, cheese, or the so-called moretum.

Here you can find out more about the production and price of salt in Rome.

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

What did poor Romans eat for lunch?

It would not be out of the ordinary 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.

The roman lunch, the Cena, traditionally consisted of Puls and was eaten between 12 and 1 PM. Like breakfast it was usually eaten while standing Puls is a pottage that is made from grains, usually wheat. The crushed wheat is boiled in water and flavored with salt. Vegetables, cheese, or honey could be added depending on the budget.

Puls was a staple of the Roman diet for centuries and was not only eaten by the poor but also by the rich. More on the diet of rich Romans in my article here.

The Puls was often enriched by adding vegetables that were easy and quick to prepare like beans, peas, lenses, beets, steamed leek, onions, or garlic. Fish and meat were normally not eaten for lunch.

By the way, there is a reason why I explicitly wrote that Puls was usually made of wheat. The reason is the Roman aversion for barley as a food for humans. And while Gladiators were often fed with barley, more on that here, Roman citizens were definitely not fans of a diet that consisted of barley. Rations made up of barley were even used as a punishment for roman soldiers for smaller offenses. Here you can find out more about the diets of Roman soldiers in general.

Recipe for ancient Roman Puls

Since we talked a lot about Puls 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 for more information on the duties of a censor and the political institutions of the Roman Republic in general.

Since Cato the Elder was a part of the upper class the following recipe is a more sophisticated version of the regular Puls that only consisted of water, wheat, and a little bit of salt.

  • 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.

But let`s now turn to dinner!

What did poor Romans eat for dinner?

In antiquity, just like in modern-day Italy, dinner was the main meal of the day. And as such, it consisted of a larger variety of different foods than lunch and breakfast although the ingredients obviously depended on the budget.

Here you can find more information on the extravagant dinner parties of rich Romans.

The Roman dinner, the vesperna, was usually eaten around 2 hours before sunset and consisted of bread, olive oil, olives, cheese, and possibly pickled vegetables or salted fish.

Both fish and meat were rarely eaten by poor Romans since both were rather expensive. Ony after Gladiator games large amounts of meat (harvested from the animals that were killed in the arena) would be distributed among the Roman lower class, more on that here.

What did poor Romans drink?

After we have talked about what poor Romans ate we now also have to talk about what Romans drank.

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.

Rome highly valued clean water, the aqueducts that can partially still be seen today are a good indicator for 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.

But since we are talking about the diet of poor Romans we can assume that most of the wine they consumed was rather inexpensive. One downside of inexpensive wine was that it could have a quite sour taste. Oftentimes the cheap wine was so sour that it had to be refined by the addition of different ingredients.

Popular ingredients to refine cheap wine were cypress branches, spruce needles, seawater, or plaster (plaster would bind some of the acids). Another option was to sweeten the wine by adding honey. The so-called mulsum (=Honey-wine) was a popular appetizer and could be mixed in the ratio of 1:10 or 1:4.

Especially mulsum, the honey wine, was extremely popular and would also be offered at the dinner parties of the upper class. More on these elaborate dinner parties that were so much more than just a dinner in my article here.

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 a popular Roman dessert 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 kind of meats did Romans eat

While Romans didn`t really like beef they highly valued pork. Pork was used both fresh and conserved. Additionally, different types of poultry were popular. But most poor Romans could not afford meat regularly. Their only regular source of meat was usually the meat that was distributed after the Gladiator fights, more on that here.

What did poor Romans eat on special occasions?

So now we have covered the day-to-day diet of Poor Romans. But what about special occasions?

There were certain occasions when even poor Romans would participate at banquets. These occasions could be annual celebrations of clubs or funeral associations. But also occasions like the birthday of the emperor were celebrated.

Especially funeral associations were extremely common in Rome, not only among poor Romans but also among soldiers and Gladiators. For more information on why it was so important to Romans to have a proper burial and what role the funeral associations played I would like to recommend you my article here.

Luckily for us a few statutes of funeral associations survived and give us a good insight into the procedure of a banquet.

Before the banquet started the members would attend a sacrifice to the gods that was usually performed by the president of the club or of the funeral association. After that, they would visit a bathhouse from where they would then go to the location where the banquet was held. In the case of a funeral association that the place of the banquet was often the grave monument of the association.

But the statues don`t only tell us about the procedure but also give us a good insight into the food that was served.

On a tablet that was found in 1885 and that was basically a shopping list the following is listed for the banquet of a club:

  • 5 lambs
  • 1 piglet
  • Pure wine (= high-quality wine) plus a lot of regular cheaper wine
  • White bread
  • Salad, Vinegar, salt, onions, and so on

When we compare that with the normal day-to-day diet then we see some massive differences, especially in the amount of meat that was bought for the banquet. But the white bread is also interesting since poor Romans ate normal bread in their daily lives.

By the way. White bread in antiquity was still a lot darker than modern-day white bread.

How special the consumption of meat during such a banquet was can be seen by the fact that, according to the statutes of the club, every member got the exact same amount of meat no matter if he was the president or just a normal member. In comparison to that wine was distributed differently as statutes from 136 AD show.

The amount of wine at that banquet is distributed according to the rank of the member. While the president of the club got 1,3 gallons (5 liters) of wine the lower club officials only got 0,9 Gallons (3,5 Liters) and the average member only got 0,4 Gallons (1,65 liters) of wine.

These kinds of banquets were obviously rather expensive. A banquet with 50-80 attendees could easily cost 400 sesterces!

Here you can find out more about the buying power the sesterce had.

But these expenses paled in comparison with the dinner parties of the Roman upper class. But that is a story for another time. Please feel free to check out my article here where I go into more detail about the dinner parties of the Roman Upper class and how these parties were more like a business dinner than a regular meal.

I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Rome. You don`t have enough off history yet? Check out our article here where I talk about the question of the Roman welfare state. Did such a thing exist? And if so in what shape? Here you can find out more!

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

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer

Sources

U. Fellmeth; Brot und Spiele: Ernährung: Tafelluxus und Hunger im antiken Rom

R. Knapp: Invisible Romans (London 2011).