The Rocky spine that runs the length of Italy and the hard ground and kind of soil it produces ensured that as much as two-thirds of its land is uncultivable and as a result Rome was reliant upon overseas imports to sustain itself and for many centuries the breadbasket of the Empire was Egypt upon whom it was dependent for its grain supply.
If the grain supply from Egypt reduced then food became scarce and the people of Rome volatile, if the grain supply ceased altogether then Rome would starve and the people rise in revolt. Securing Egypt for Rome then, was the priority of the Republic and Empire alike and so it could be said that food really did permeate every aspect of Roman life.
Grain, or corn, was the staple diet of the common people which they made into a porridge called Pulsa and flavoured with a variety of vegetables such as cabbage, parsnip, asparagus, peas, and of course garlic could be served either hot or cold. Indeed, garlic was used to flavour most things in Ancient Rome giving the common people a distinctive and much remarked upon odour and Pulsa eaten with a thick-bread sweetened with honey and often accompanied with a side dish of cheese was eaten most days.
Eggs, fish, and particularly shellfish, were readily available in the local markets but there were no tomatoes, a product now so closely associated with Italy. It wasn’t an indigenous fruit and only became available as an import following Spain’s conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century.
Being able to dine on meat was a rare treat for the poor and would invariably have been the more readily available either chicken or pork, all cooked in olive oil.
Many Romans ate from commercial outlets that sold ready-made cakes and pastries, and these early takeaways were common throughout most the cities.
Dining out was a popular pastime and Rome was a city of many restaurants though not perhaps as we would recognise them now being also places of raucous entertainment with gambling tables, dancing girls, and often as much sex on the menu as there was food.
Romans had a great love of wine which the better-off would drink throughout the day, though rarely taken neat but mixed with water. For most Romans wine however remained a luxury and they instead placed great emphasis on the quality of their water which they would flavour with honey and fruits though a cheap wine made from acetum, similar to vinegar and known as Pasca was available.
Bear and mead were commonly consumed in the northern provinces of the Empire but rarely in Rome, neither did they drink milk believing it unclean deriving as it did from the procreative organs of animals.
The majority of Romans lived in tenement blocks sometimes five storeys high and the cooking arrangements would be communal and often situated in the entrance to the building.
Most food was cooked on an open hearth either by means of cauldrons suspended from chains or cooking vessels set on a gridiron with a circular domed oven used for the cooking of bread and pastries. That the cooking was done al fresco was also a safety measure with fire being a constant fear of those living cheek-by-jowl in cramped often wooden tenements.
Food preservation especially in the hot summer months was almost impossible, though they tried, meat and fish would be subjected to smoking, salting, and pickling but it was a delicate process and food poisoning was commonplace.
Romans whether rich or poor generally ate only one proper meal a day, the Cena, which for the common people would be around midday and for the more affluent in the evening, a time when they could dine at their leisure.
Unlike the poor who would eat sitting down or even on their feet the rich ate lying upon sofas and comfortable cushions, and to be able to do was a sign of their status.
Traditionally there were three courses the first of which would have been of eggs, shellfish, and raw vegetables followed by the main course, the Prima Mensa, of cooked meats and vegetables in particular mushrooms. The Secunda Mensa would consist of fruits – pears, apples, dates, and sweet pastries. Oysters were considered a great luxury, and would be served as affirmation of one’s wealth and standing. Dormice stuffed with herbs were also very popular and considered an end of evening treat.
As they had no knives and forks they would eat with their fingers though they had spoons for the eating of soup often with a pointed end to extract shellfish and snails.
In Rome what you ate was indicative of your households status and an always a sociable people the quality of your food and dining arrangements needed to be shared and made known to one’s peers. But the richer you were the more vulnerable you became and anyone of prominence would out of fear of poisoning, either natural or otherwise, have a slave to taste both their food and their wine.
It is perhaps ironic that a perfunctory act of necessity needing to be shared for reasons of social advancement should have been fraught with such danger.