What the Romans ate #PompeiJunior

pompei junior Cosa mangiavano i romani
Written by Elio

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Elio tells the story of Pompeii to kids and children! Every two weeks a comic strip and in-depth analysis will take you to discover Pompeii: an exciting and illustrated journey through time to increase the knowledge of our wonderful city. Are you ready to learn E L I O and his special friends? This week Elio and Gaia speak of ….

What did the Romans eat?

What were the eating habits of the Romans? What time did they eat? Did you know that the “Coca Cola” and the cheesburger already existed in Ancient Pompeii? ELIO tells us this and more in this new episode of Pompeiitaly Junior Happy reading!

What the romans eat?

The diet of the ancient Romans: What did they eat and what time did they eat? 

We have inherited from the ancient Romans two commonly used words such as lunch and dinner. However their habits in terms of food were quite different from ours.
Those who could afford (not everyone could!), had a breakfast in the early morning called jentaculum, which was consumed in the bedroom; it usually consisted of a slice of bread or a cake served with wine (or milk) and accompanied by dates, honey, eggs or cheese.

Lunch, for the Romans prandium was consumed at approximately 11am. It was a rather light and fast meal (today we would call it “snack”): it consisted mostly in bread, cheese and rarely a little meat. The most important meal of the day was the dinner, which began in the late afternoon (or early evening) and could last an average of one hour or even four hours when the hosts were quite wealthy and had guests.
Wealthy people loved endless dinners in which, in addition to the most common foods such as meat, vegetables, eggs and fruit, were served all sorts of exotic dishes and sumptuous foods, such as roasted peacock and ostrich. Many served meals were spicy or with sauces. One of the hottest sauces was garum (a modern version of garum is called anchovy) obtained by mixing remains of fish with salt water (don’t turn up your nose, the Romans loved it!).

Very popular were the sauces made with vinegar, honey, pepper, herbs and spices of various kinds. The Coke of the ancient Romans was a sweet drink called mulsum, not really suitable for young people, because it was prepared by boiling wine with honey. One of the delights that the ancient Romans loved to cook, was the isicia omentata, a kind of hamburger made with chopoped meat, bread soaked in wine, myrtle berries, pine nuts, pepper, omentum and must.

Eating out in ancient Pompeii: the “street food”

The summer was a good opportunity to eat outside: many home in the ancient Pompeii had stone seats in the gardens which were used for this purpose.
Not only! In what remains of ancient Pompeii were discovered many places where it was possible to eat out. They were dining places halfway between a modern fast food and an English pub: in these places you could not only eat but also drink alcohol (usually it was watered wine: the Romans drank it so).

The food could be eaten on the spot but also took away to be consumed at home. Street food was widely used by the poorest urban residents who could not afford a oven or a kitchen at home , but also wealthy people fancied a snack at these fast food ancestors!
These places were much frequented because Pompei was a populous city and hosted many travelers and tourists. The most common and cheapest street food was the pea soup, and of course bread and buns. For the most refined palates there were also foods like sausages -with cheese! -.
It seems that the ancient Romans, when they didn’t meet up for the most important meal of the day, preferred to eat on the road or sitting next to one of the ancient “McDonald’s” enjoying a nice cheeseburger (er: actually, it was not the same thing but it gives the idea!). The business of fast food was so prosperous that in Pompeii some entrepreneurs possessed more than a local; an ancient inscription testifies that a citizen of Pompeii owned no less than 10 stores !!!

Pompeii locals and rooms in Roman times

In ancient Rome, not everyone could afford to cook food at home, but in every city there were eateries where the Romans could order and consume food and beverages. The wine-tavern was a kind of pub or rather a true wine bar where you went primarily to buy or drink wine, but you could also make a light meal made of chickpeas, turnips or brining. The popinae instead were the McDonald’s of ancient Rome: you could eat on the spot or buy take-away food – usually warm stews – and hot drinks. In addition, the customers could spend their time playing dice, dancing and listening to music. The popinae were not normally frequented by local “patrizi” (the rich and the nobles of the time) although some of them did not disdain going out for fun. Cauponae were small hotels, also equipped with stables for horses, where you could stay, eat and drink wine. Finally there was the “thermopolium”. In this type of venue you could consume hot and cold foods as sweet buns, eggs, cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables; foods were cheap and even wine was cheaper than elsewhere but it was really bad quality ! Thermopolium were generally frequented by common people, as well as merchants and businessmen; going to the thermopolium was often a good opportunity to meet and conclude business agreements of various kinds.

Equipment, environments and furnishings dedicated to food and meals of the ancient Romans

The ancient Romans, especially those of the upper classes, ate their main meal, dinner, in a particular room called triclinium. In this room the guests took their seats reclined on a bed called lectus triclinaris. Around a table called the mensa, the couches were arranged in a horseshoe to allow slaves to serve the food more easily. The poor ate at normal tables seated on common chairs. Before dinner, the guests had to wash their feet and hands. The food was served in dishes and eaten using fingers (YES! You ate with your hands!) or using two types of spoons: a larger one said ligule and a smaller one said cochlear which was equipped with a small hook and was used as a species of modern fork especially with shellfish. Romans washed their fingers at the end of every course, drying them with little handkerchiefs called mappae that were also used to wipe the mouth. Anything that could not be eaten – such as shells, bones and kernels – was thrown on the floor and picked by slaves. The mappae were also used to allow guests to collect dinner remains and take them home; this was not considered impolite. The hosts were very pleased when their guests took away the leftovers from dinner, because it testified they really liked the food the success of the dinner.

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About the author


Elio è il protagonista di PompeiItaly Junior! la rubrica per raccontare la storia di Pompei ai ragazzi. Segui le avventure di Elio e dei suoi amici, ogni due settimane un nuovo fumetto ti porterà indietro nel tempo..

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