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Eating habits of Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fruits and animals on the Roman mosaic
Fruits and animals on the Roman mosaic

The achievements of the Romans in the matter of cooking in the early Roman statehood, and even in an advanced republic, was extremely modest. There are hardly any references to the occurrence of culinary records in the now-defunct works of Cato of the Elder, and these were rather devoted to the relationship between nutrition and agriculture, than feasting and enjoying.

Still life showing a basket of fruit and a vase. Fresco from Pompeii, dated about 70 CE.

It was not until the first century BCE and the Greek culinary knowledge that took over, that resulted in increased interest in food and nutrition in Roman culture, while the expansion and innovation typical of the Roman Empire enriched the existing content with recommendations on bakery and food preservation. It is worth mentioning at this point that, for example, the term garum comes from the Greek language, because in Latin the “product” was called liquamen. However, the Greek term was commonly used.

Undoubtedly, the most important Roman writer engaged in culinary literature was a certain Marcus Gavius, commonly known as Apicius. He is the author of the cookbook ‘On the cook’s art of books 10’ (De re coquinaria libri X). The book contains a number of Greek-language terms, and its provisions include both demanding and less demanding gourmets, which may indicate a compilation of the work. Thanks to this priceless work, we learn the richness of ancient dishes and diet, whose influence we find in the late Middle Ages. It is worth quoting the mention of his death by Seneca:

After he had squandered a hundred million sesterces upon his kitchen, after he had drunk up at every one of his revels the equivalent of the many largesses of the emperors and the huge revenue of the Capitol, then for the first time, when overwhelmed with debt and actually forced, he began to examine his accounts. He calculated that he would have ten million sesterces left, and considering that he would be living in extreme starvation if he lived on ten million sesterces, he ended his life by poison.

Seneca, On Consolation to Helvia, X

Apicius and garum

Apicius was an excellent cook and party organizer (at least that’s how he was remembered). His concern for the quality of his services meant that he personally supervised what, how and when the farm animals intended for the knife in his kitchen were fed. It was second to none in sauces, which was phenomenal, given the poor quality of the meat. From his name throughout the Empire, small rolls, cakes and other baked goods were called apikia or apikania. Culinary fantasy gave him ideas for dishes from rooster combs, camel heels, and languages ​​of various birds. Among other things, Apicius invented a new way of preparing goose liver: the birds were first fed with dried figs, and wine with honey was added to the dish.

Mosaic showing a basket of fish intended for making garum.

Sauces were extremely important in Roman cuisine, especially one called Greek garum. Garum was a necessary addition in exquisite Roman cuisine. It appears in most recipes preserved in the work De Re Culinaria by Apicius. It was prepared this way: small fish or fish guts (e.g. mackerel, anchovies, sardines, sprat, dye, anchovies or tuna blood) were thrown into the dish. All this was salted and mixed in a large dish with herbs (like dill, fennel, coriander, celery, savoury, sage, rue, mint, lovage, thyme, marjoram) and exposed to the sun for up to a month. During this time, the fermentation process took place in the vessel, during which juice was released from the fish. The contents of the vessel were drained and the resulting liquamen liquid was used as a spice. But why was garum used if the smell was disgusting? This substance is responsible for the umami taste. This is the fifth taste, along with salty, sweet, sour and bitter (spicy taste is not a taste, it is irritation of nerves by irritants). The umami flavour, whose receptors are mainly found on the inside of the cheeks, is responsible for detecting protein-containing foods such as broad beans, meat, cheese and more. Very large amounts of glutamate are found in seaweed, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, soy sauce, mushrooms or tomatoes. It is artificially added to broth cubes, “dishes from the bag” or “maggi” type spices. These products significantly enrich the taste of dishes because a man instinctively looks for three flavours: sweet which means energy, sour which means vitamins and umami which means protein. A small addition of garum enriched the bland taste of barley porridge or lentil soup. Garum was not produced in homes but in specialized factories located near ports. Probably each used its own recipe, hence the ingredients for the sauce may have been different.

Amanita caesarea is commonly found in southern Europe, including Italy. It owes its name to the fact that it was known in ancient times and was particularly valued on the tables of Roman Emperors. This delicious mushroom was the favourite dish of Emperor Nero, which, as a gift to the donor, supposedly showered it with gold dust.

Roman doctors used garum for indigestion, ulceration, sciatica, tuberculosis and migraine. Garum was even used as an ingredient in cosmetics and to remove unwanted hair and freckles.

Garum was produced in various varieties, e.g. the most-valued Spanish garum sociorum was made only from mackerel, and garum called bloody – from the blood and guts of tuna. The producers also took into account the requirements of Judea occupied by Rome – the garum castimoniale consisted only of husked fish according to Jewish religious regulations. A variant of garum could be a sauce called muria.
Garum sauce also had various admixtures. Diluted with water it was called hydrogarum, and with wine – oenogarum (popular in Byzantium). After adding hot spices and vinegar, oxygarum was obtained, while oils – oleogarum.

Garum trade and production were very profitable enterprises. The price of this sauce at the time of Julius Caesar in the first century BCE reached up to 500 silver sestertii for congius (3,27 litres). Archaeological findings from the Gulf of Lions indicate that maritime garum trade was already carried out in the fifth century BCE
Sauce factories were probably located all over the Mediterranean coast: in Italy, Gaul, Iberia, Asia Minor, and Libya. The most valued was garum sociorum from Cartagena and Cádiz in the province of Hispania Baetica, where it was the main export commodity to Rome. The sauce produced in Louisiana (present-day Portugal), sent directly from the port of Lacobriga (present-day Lagos) was also highly valued. The former Garum Sauce Factory can be visited in the Baixa district, in the centre of Lisbon. Pompeii was also a famous garum production site. Other ports where labels were located include Leptis Magna and Claomenae. The Roman ruins of the fish factory where garum was made are also found in Morocco, including in Lixus.

About culinary art

The above-mentioned culinary work of Apicius – De re coquinaria libri decem contains about 450 recipes, grouped in ten books, bearing the titles:

  • Epimeles – Prudent host
  • Sarcoptes – About chopped meat dishes
  • Cepuros – Gardener (On vegetable dishes)
  • Pandecter – About various dishes
  • Ospreon – About legume dishes
  • Tropetes – Fowl (On poultry dishes)
  • Polyteles – Gourmet (On gourmet dishes)
  • Tetrapus – Tetrapods (About quadrupeds)
  • Thalassa – Sea (On dishes of marine fauna)
  • Halieus – Fisherman (About fish sauces)

Food

The basic ingredient of a Roman dinner was bread made of various types of flour: black bread (panis rusticus, plebeius), white bread (panis secundaris) and the most delicate luxury bread (panis candidus, uniform). There were vegetables, lettuce, cabbage, leeks, chickpeas, broad beans (boiled, roasted), goat cheese and olives. Beef and various types of venison were valued (including deer and wild donkey meat), but fish dishes were the most popular.
Typical for Roman cuisine was the custom of combining sweet and salty flavours, mixing vinegar and mint, honey and cooked must puree in one dish. In the basements in small terracotta amphoras, a valuable and almost legendary (previously mentioned) fish sauce, garum, was used to season dishes. At the table, there was never a shortage of fruit (apples, pears, grapes) and mushrooms. The Romans also made simple pies made of flour, which resembled flatbreads. Wealthy citizens began every official meal with eggs (hence the Latin proverb ab ovo – from eggs, meaning that the thing needs to be clarified from the beginning).

Moretum

Lower Romans ate a breakfast of bread, cheese, and olives; people liked to dip bread in, for example, wine. They tried to eat enough to be able to work all day. Usually, there was no time or money for dinner. So the next meal was at bedtime and was usually rather modest. If you ate at home, a stool/chair and table were used. Usually, wheat was cooked to make some kind of porridge. The oatmeal was very bland, so extra ingredients were often added to add variety to the taste. Sometimes wheat was made into bread if they could afford an oven. However, overall, poor Romans ate very little meat and often uncooked food. Due to the lack of kitchen, public pubs were used.

The rich Romans usually ate three meals a day. In the morning a light breakfast: bread, wine, sometimes cheese, eggs, fruit and honey. A light lunch dinner: based on eggs, fruit and greens. The main meal was dinner. It could start late in the afternoon and stretch out all night. After hearty appetizers (gustationes), numerous dishes were served (ferculae), watered with plum, a marinade of wine and honey.

The Romans started dinner with snacks, among which the first were eggs. They served fruit for dessert. Hence the saying: “from egg to apples (fruit)” (ab ovo usque ad mala). The main meal was meat or fish dishes with vegetables. All this was abundantly sprinkled with wine and honey. The Romans were kind to women, they allowed them to attend parties. Before laying down on banquet beds, guests took off their shoes and slaves washed their legs. The pomp and splendour of Roman feasts have gone down in history. To curb wastefulness, laws were introduced to curb luxury. We know about seventeen such legal acts setting the maximum number of invited guests, as well as presenting long lists of dishes banned or released for consumption only on selected days of the year. Most laws, beginning with Lex Fannia (161 BCE), also set an upper limit to the costs that could be incurred to organize a feast. Fannius’ act was about a total of 100 aces. The authors of some of these laws (e.g. Lex Didia from 143 BCE) even went so far as to punish guests who receive an invitation to a too lavish feast or order to organize parties with the door open (Lex Orchia 182 BCE). Of course, each subsequent act only provoked smarter patricians to find ways to get around it. So, since the Fanniusa Act prohibits serving dishes from birds, except poultry, with the proviso that chickens must not be fattened, clever Romans began to fatten cocks, at the same time discovering that they taste more deliciously than female representatives of this species.

Roman nobles in their kitchens had huge numbers of servants and chefs who served during organized feasts. Seneca the Younger mentions this fact:

To say nothing of our trains of calqueys, and our troops of caterers and sewers: Good God! that ever one belly should employ so many people, how nauseus and fulsome are the surfeits that follow these excesses?

Seneca the Younger, Letters, 95, 23

Roman scales

  • sextarii – a bit more than half a litre;
  • pound – a bit less than 1/3 kilogram;
  • ounce – a bit more than 25 grams;
  • scipulus – a bit more than a gram (the smallest unit of Roman weight);
  • dram – something about 4.5 grams.

The vegetable that was very popular in Rome was garlic (allium). The Romans cultivated garlic in special gardens called Alliotum. Hippocrates recommended the plant as a medicine for digestive and respiratory diseases. Other medical practitioners have recommended using allium as a panacea for leprosy, mental illness, poisoning, bad charms and spells. It strengthened the combat efficiency of soldiers on the battlefield (the soldiers’ daily food was the so-called moretum, made of grated garlic with vinegar, olive oil and nuts. From Roman legionaries the dish was later taken over by the Iber and Gallians), strengthened the vigour of both men as well as women in domestic chores.

The Romans sacrificed garlic to the goddess of fertility Ceres. They made preparations for it to act as aphrodisiacs. For example, the use of allium in crushed form, mixed with white wine and truffles or thyme was advocated. A garlic love drink with coriander was also popular. The beds of ancient Rome were steeped in the smell of garlic, it was to add love to fire and desire. Even Ovid in “The Art of Love” mentions his intimate activity.

According ancient broadcasts emperor Claudius once gave a feast at which one of the invited senators not wanting to offend the ruler he was holding gas, what led him to become seriously ill. The ruler felt touched by the senator’s tragic fate. Apparently, benevolent Claudius issued an edict that allowed winds to blow at the table and during meetings of the Senate1.

Various heartburn, bloating, and diarrhoea, alternating with constipation, were real anguish for the Romans of the high society, who ate power during feasts. In addition, it is believed that during Caesar’s war expeditions, it was also the case that as a result of tormenting food poisoning and diarrhoea camps, more soldiers were living in latrines than on the battlefield.

As many as 49 types of meat were distinguished among food products. Numerous dairy products and cheese were also known. An interesting fact is that the Romans did not like butter, which was thought to be barbarian2. They used butter to lubricate the wheels. In addition, the barbarians used butter as a hair balm, which could disgust the Romans.

Cena

The Romans’ main meal, cena (“feast”), was usually eaten late in the evening. Often, those evening meals, to which friends or important personalities were invited, were varied with all kinds of entertainment, and their splendour and pomp went down in history, such as the feast of Lucullus.

The feast was eaten in the dining room (triclinium), and revellers ate and talked, reclining on the sofas. On three sides, the sofas surrounded the main table with dishes and drinks, which slaves spread to individual guests. Placing specific people on individual sofas was associated with their social status, or the desire to be distinguished by the host. According to the old custom – the invited guest could be accompanied by two uninvited guests, called “shadows” (umbrae).

A painting by Roberto Bompiani showing a Roman feast.

The proper feast was preceded by the choice of a kind of feast king (rex bibendi), unless it was the host himself or a person known and recognized by his fellow guests. The selection was made by rolling the dice: the best throw – called Venus – determined the master of ceremonies from other guests trying to be happy. Rex bibiendi managed social games, performances of invited artists, sacrifices to Gods, proposed conversation topics, and also determined the relationship in which wine was to be mixed with water. In addition, he had to ensure that none of the revellers did not run out of wine in the cup.

The feast itself consisted of three main parts:

  • snacks (gustatio – among them eggs – ova);
  • the right mealprice (primae mensae) – (many times with lots of dishes of sophisticated taste, shape and variety – baked fish, meat, vegetables, vegetables);
  • finally – from dessert (secundae mensae or “second table”) consisting primarily of fresh fruit e.g. apples (mala), dried fruit, figs, nuts.

Desserts were followed by a legalized binge drinking – commisatio. One of the guests then gave the password (Prosit!!!) for raising toasts and specified the amount of wine needed to meet them.

Beds made of cement, on which mattresses were laid. The room visible in the photo is triclinium, an extremely important room in every patrician home. It was intended for a banquet room, in which the seats were arranged on three sides of the table.
Author: Ministro per la Coesione Territoriale | Creative license Commons Attribution - Under the same conditions 2.0.

Cutlery other than knives were not used, which were mainly used for cutting meat. It is the order of eating dishes – from egg to apple – that is the source of the well-known saying “Ab ovo usque ad mala”, which has the meaning today in saying “(do something) from beginning to end”. In conclusion, let us add that citrus fruits so popular nowadays in southern Europe did not constitute a “menu” of feasts – they came to Europe from Asia long before the discovery of the Americas. The Romans did not know them, although in the second century CE fruit from this family – citron – was already grown.

Wine

In the medicine cabinet and pantry, every self-respecting Roman could not run out of wine. Wines of all kinds, colours and additions. Of course, not only the Romans valued this “life-giving” drink. Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, and Israelites – they were also able to appreciate its wonderful properties.

Mosaic showing the production of wine, more precisely, squeezing juice from grapes by stepping on them.

Already thousands of years ago, the Egyptians added herbs to wine to turn an alcoholic drink into a remedy. In addition, the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures, like the Egyptians, considered wine a magical drink that allowed them to get closer to the gods. Priests played the role of medics, so medicine was closely related to religion. At the same time, the distinction between medicine and intoxicants was quite vague and it is difficult to rule out that sometimes it was the doctor, not the patient, who took them. It is a pity that none of the surviving sources mentions a word about how the Babylonians viewed the effect of wine on the liver, which they thought was the hotbed of mind and soul.

Ancient Greeks treated wine as a veritable panacea. In medicine, they were often used white or pink as red. White and “yellow” wines were used for syncope. Sweet red wines “most suited for the production of blood”, white were to cleanse the blood. Large amounts of wine were to act as an antidote to vegetable poisons, even opium, aconitine or poisonous mushrooms. Most often, very young wines were drunk because of storage problems and their acidity. Usually seasoned to mask the flaws. Wine additives were often more important than the medium itself, whose quality was sometimes not the best. They were almost always diluted with water in a ratio of 2:3 or 3:5. The exceptions were feasts in honour of Dionisos and special medical recommendations. In general, drinking wine without water was considered barbaric.

Ancient Greek medical texts abound in a whole lot of recipes for flavoured wines, some of them must be admitted, quite surprising. Examples are:

  • wine with milk, beetroot and boiled cucumbers recommended by Hippocrates for diarrhoea;
  • wine sorrel extract recommended Dioskurides against diarrhoea, various gastrointestinal diseases and even scorpion bites;
  • salty wines with laxative properties (with the addition – considerable – of seawater);
  • honey wines, usually with the addition of rue;
  • resin wines used as an antitussive, against catarrh, inflammation, diarrhoea and haemorrhage. Today’s Greek “retsina” wine is the only continuation of this tradition;
  • tarred wines – warming, digestive, humorous, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, helpful in cases of internal ulcers, fractures, cramps, vomiting, winds, coughing and asthma;
  • wine with turnip and juniper, which was to help soldiers regain strength after the battle;
  • wine with myrtle used in reproductive and intestinal diseases (Roman myrtydenum);
  • wine with wormwood used for centuries afterwards as digestion;
  • wine containing oman was supposed to increase bile secretion and coughing up (Roman nectaule);
  • finally, aromatised wines containing fruit extracts e.g. pears, cherries, quinces – used as a general strengthening.
Contemporary wine Conditum Paradoxum
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On these same conditions 3.0.

Another work of Hippocrates is an aromatic wine seasoned with cinnamon and sweetened with honey – this drink called the “hypocras” was to warm up, disinfect and treat various diseases.
One of the most colourful figures in the history of ancient medicine was Asclepiades of Bithynia. The first Greek doctor who made a career in Rome in the 2nd century BCE. It is not easy, because before the conquest of Greece the function of a medic did not exist there at all, and the first Greek doctors – slaves – were treated with understandable reserve. His main and best remedy for all diseases was drinking wine. In different doses and different types. He even recommended getting drunk for insomnia. In acute diseases, he was not allowed to lie down and did not recommend a diet. He was also a supporter of hydrotherapy. He recommended regular walks, horse riding, massages and “passive movements” – a walk in a litter, a swing or a swing in hanging beds. Apparently, however, it had to somehow help because Asklepiades enjoyed enormous popularity and respect of patients for the rest of his life.

Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” wine is also praised. As usual, our learned traveller begins his lecture with observations that are as correct as of the obvious: “[…]wine in moderation strengthens the sinews; excess is injurious to them […]. Then he gives some valuable practical tips: if we want to gain weight or remove constipation, let’s drink wine during meals; if you want to lose weight or stop diarrhoea, drink after eating. “There is no topic more difficult to handle, or more full in detail, seeing that it is hard to say whether wine does good to more people or harms them. Besides, a draught is fraught with great risk, it being uncertain whether it will immediately turn out to be a help or a poison”.

Wall painting from Pompeii showing the purchase of bread.

The Romans, as soon as they destroyed Carthage in the middle of the second century BCE, began to study the work of local specialists in the field of viticulture. The Senate ordered to translate it into Latin, and Cato the Elder using them wrote his work De Agri Cultura, giving it to the Romans themselves the first work on the basics of farming. Viticulture in Italy and Africa multiplied, and wine exports to Gaul and Iberia became the basis for trade with these countries. Which later brought significant political effects. Let’s quote the earliest source: “Laws” Plato. This is how the great Greek philosopher writes: “[…] I am now referring not to the drinking or non-drinking of wine generally, but to drunkenness pure and simple, and the question is—ought we to deal with it as the Scythians and Persians do and the Carthaginians also, and Celts, Iberians and Thracians, who are all warlike races, or as you Spartans do; for you, as you say, abstain from it altogether, whereas the Scythians and Thracians.” Diodorus Siculus mentions refusing to consume this drink, drinking it in large quantities without diluting it, and describing the wild frenzy that engulfs the Celts after such drunkenness. The huge demand for wine in the Celtic countries can be illustrated by the conversion factor used in transactions with this commodity: one amphora of wine for one slave.

The Roman historian Titus Livy depicted the people of Gaul this way, saying that they have drunk the wine in a hurry and when the night came, they lied in a row like wild animals on the banks of the waters, without fortifications, posts and guards. As early as the Punic Wars, when Hannibal’s brother in 251 CE, Hazdrubal camped at Panormos, the Romans secretly provided his Celtic allies with huge amounts of wine. The next day legions hit the sleeping camp. The unconscious Celts were unable to resist. This was not an isolated case. During the Second Punic War, the Roman army in the battle of Metaur (207 BCE) once again destroyed the army commanded by Hasdrubal. There was no honour from the Celts who were too drunk and stayed in the camp. It ended tragically for them. As Polybius recalls, the victorious soldiers found them in the camp and many of them drunk and sleeping, were killed as if they were sacrificial animals. Later, after the conquest of Gaul and Iberia, new vineyards were established there to meet the growing demand for wine in the Empire, including Italy. As Pliny writes, at that time Iberia became the most important wine exporter to Rome. The first export of wines from Gaul Narbonensis also began. Newly grown biturica, the progenitor of today’s Cabernet, began to be planted in Gaul.

A mosaic showing a boy holding a plate of fruit and (probably) a bucket of crabs. The kitchen has fish and squid. On the back of the wall, there is the name of the month – June with mosaic (3rd century CE).

Pliny wrote: “[…] vines, whose branches wind upwards in a serpentine form to the part where the boughs finally divide, and then, throwing out their tendrils, disperse them in every direction among the straight and finger-like twigs which project from the branches. There are vines also, about as tall as a man of moderate height, which are supported by props, and, as they throw out their bristling tendrils, form whole vineyards: while others, again, in their inordinate love for climbing, combined with skill on the part of the proprietor, will cover even the very centre of the court-yard with their shoots and foliage”. The Romans drank above all aminaea, because of the power of wine, which solidified with age. Surcula flips gently and stores well. Lympa is a red wine, ordinary, pure colour and without sediment, while confusum is a mix of dry and sweet wines. Rome’s most famous wine was falern, which covers species produced from the southern border of Lazio to the Volturnus River, or more precisely from the seventeenth mile Via Appia; from Capua to the sixth mile of this road to Sinuessa. Horace and Cato the Elder they loved each other in a falernian wine, and Pliny the Elder considered it a natural remedy. Virgil in “Georgics” wrote: “Don’t try to outdo Falernum” (Nec cellis ideo contende Falernis). Its white variety is vinum album phalanginum. The first mention of wines from Ancona comes from the “Natural History” of Pliny the Elder. He stated in his work that the best wines from the Adriatic come from Ancona. He was quoted by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, in his “Letters”. Pliny the Elder also praised the caecuban wine from Lazio.

An interesting fact is that aromatized wines, aromatites and mirris were most valued. These wines were mixed with myrrh or nard, as well as with cane and resin threw into the must in the form of balls. In the same way, ginger, cinnamon, pod, saffron, palm tree and asarum europaeum were also mixed with wine. By boiling the must, defritum, caraenum or sagra was obtained, which is brewed wine, used to strengthen weaker wines through its higher sugar content. Gustaticum is an aperitif, drunk before eating, like all Roman medicinal wines consisting of a wine mixed with thyme honey. This melthyminum was golden and stretched with thin threads. The poorer drank passum or raisin wine. The wines of that time often had a taste of resin, used to seal amphoras and added for greater durability.

Honey wines were extremely popular in Rome. An example of such a wine was Massilitanum, a strong wine that Emperor Gallienus loved and appreciated for its taste and beneficial effect on health. Another opinion was poet Martial, who claimed that it was so bad that it should be given to the homeless as poison. Sometimes wine was served with the addition of euphrosynum or hiera botane – mysterious divine plants.

Turricuar – was also drunk white dry wine, which the Romans gladly consumed with fish or oysters. The wine was yellowish and had some seawater. It tasted like plums, and today we can prepare them ourselves using the preserved recipe of a Roman agronomist Lucius Columella.

Another type of wine was Falernum, which was made from grapes grown on the southern slopes of Falernus Mountain. It was particularly valued and considered extravagant. It was amber and was white wine. The drink was stored for 15 to 20 years in clay amphoras and the older it was, the more perfect it was. Emperors valued him, who ordered him to serve him in crystal jugs.

Silver containers (piperatoria) for serving pepper as spices on the table. The objects come from Roman Britain.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On these same conditions 3.0.

Everywhere the Romans went, they set up vineyards because they loved wine. During the autumn, ripe fruits were collected in baskets.

What was the production of wine like? Usually, grape juice was squeezed by slaves with bare feet in huge vats. Often during the tread on balance, they held hands and propped themselves with sticks. The extracted juice flowed into the pool. During fermentation, it was selected and poured into 400-litre clay pots. Honey, thyme, pepper and other spices were added to the juice. Workers were mixing the mixture with sticks wrapped in dill. After six days to three weeks, the mixture fermented and turned into a red 12 per cent alcoholic beverage. The wine was safe to drink for ten days. The Romans drank wine warm and diluted with water. Special presses were also used to squeeze the juice.

The wines were not stored in the basements, but on the upper floors of the houses, near the chimney flues, so that the wine could soak up with the smell of smoke, a taste that was highly appreciated. According to Pliny the Elder: the next day after drinking, up to six hours a headache. Fortunately, the same author gives us the antidote for this ailment – owl eggs. Effective, as modern research has confirmed. Apparently, garum (liquamen) was also used, a sauce of rotten fish along with guts macerated in salt, which is also supposedly an aphrodisiac. In addition, Pliny the Elder claimed: “If you think about it, you can see that nothing in human life is more preoccupied than wine; as if nature did not give us the most salutary drink, giving us water that all other animals drink!”

After fermentation, Roman wine was stored in clay amphorae, in which it acquired taste.

For the Romans, the water supply was more a problem than wine. In some cities, water was rationed, while for every soldier there were about 2.5 litres of wine per day. In taverns, it was better to consume wine than poor quality water. According to the Romans, the wine was generally seen as a medicine. Acids and alcohol contained in wine inhibited the growth of pathogens and bacteria, which also guaranteed better health; therefore Roman legionaries were required to drink a litre of wine a day. It is worth mentioning, however, that antique wines were much stronger than our contemporaries. Grape juice quickly became wine due to a lack of cooling or preservatives. For this purpose, in order not to get drunk on the power, an appropriate proportion of water was added to the wine – it was acceptable to use a 3:1 ratio. The custom of thinning wine Romans took over from the Greeks. It should be noted, however, that moderation should be maintained. Roman graffiti has been preserved, showing the dissatisfaction of former customers because of too much water in the drink.

To improve the taste of wine, various ideas appeared, sometimes quite bizarre. And so Pliny the Elder recommends adding seawater to the wine to make the wine milder and more refined. Cato the Elder, in turn, liked wine with a drop of pig’s blood and a pinch of marble dust.

Wine in the Roman world was drunk by everyone: from rich to poor, from soldiers to sailors. According to the archaeologist and winemaker Herve Durad, legionaries did not care when the wine tasted of vinegar after a long time of maturing. The drink reportedly added energy. We also know that the Romans played the so-called “alcohol games”. One of the houses in Pompeii showed a person still drinking wine when his companion had already slumped on the sofa.

Some wine producers appreciated their liquor so much that they had an engraving like “nectar – sweet grapes” or “Bacchus gift” on their wine presses. In addition, they placed the wine list and prices on their production buildings.

Below, a recipe from the work of Apicius – De re coquinaria for delicious spiced wine.

The composition of this excellent spiced wine is as follows. Into a copper bowl put 6 sextarii of honey and 2 sextarii of wine; heat on a slow fire, constantly stirring the mixture with a whip. At the boiling point add a dash of cold wine, retire from stove and skim. Repeat this twice or three times, let it rest till the next day, and skim again. Then add 4 ounces of crushed pepper, 3 scruples of mastich, a drachm each of nard or laurel leaves and saffron, 5 drachms of roasted date stones crushed and previously soaked in wine to soften them. When this is properly done add 18 sextarii of light wine. To clarify it perfectly, add crushed charcoal twice or as often as necessary which will draw the residue together and carefully strain or filter through the charcoal.

Apicius, De re coquinaria, I

Beer

In those days, it was commonly drunk beer, which was present from Egypt to the land of barbarians. Sami Romans rather despised with this drink, as a barbaric invention and de facto spoiling good grain for stupid purposes (they had wine after all). But both Tacitus and Pliny the Elder mention the common custom of Gauls and Germans to enjoy “intoxication […] with soaked grains”3. The Romans did not like this drink because (in those days) it was tart (sometimes honey, dates, herbs were added for taste) in taste. In addition, it was produced on-site for consumption immediately and was not suitable for storage. Interestingly, however, in the first century BCE, Julius Caesar wrote about Gallic beer in his work “Gallic Wars”. Because Caesar did not like Roman wine, he and his soldiers drank that beer, which they really liked. Caesar even attributed the Gaul’s extraordinary bravery and courage to the properties of beer. Thanks to him, beer gained many followers in Rome, although it never took the same position as wine.

Defrutum and lead problems

Defrutum (or carenum or sapa) is a grape juice (so-called must), which is boiled with spices until it thickens and acquires a sweet taste. The substance prepared in this way served in ancient Rome as a sweetener. Normal wine for the Romans was too bitter and tart, so they decided to sweeten it defrutum. The must was boiled until the dish reduced its volume to 2/3 of its capacity (carenum), to half (defrutum), or to 1/3 (sapa). This sweetener was also added to fruits and meat, thereby preserving them in the event of a long journey. In this way, quinces, melons or honey were stored for the winter. Defrutum was also mixed with garum and the extremely popular spice oenogarum was obtained in this way.

Interestingly, when the juice was boiled in lead dishes, lead sugar (lead acetate II), a highly toxic and toxic substance, was released. However, these poisonings are not immediate and always have a chronic course.

Lead from the human body is removed very slowly, accumulates primarily in bones and blood (and with it goes to all organs). The effects of its long-term use can be many diseases: cardiac arrhythmia, kidney disease, anaemia, circulatory failure, which almost always leads to death.

It is a modern myth that women in ancient Rome could not drink wine.

When the remains of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were examined, archaeologists found very high levels of lead. Lead also affects our nervous system, so it can intensify and even cause mental illness. A great example of this fact can be Caesars like Caligula or Nero. By drinking a lot of this type of wine from lead goblets, they introduced into their body lethal amounts of a dangerous substance that negatively affected their behaviour and psyche. This can also be partly explained, for example, by a sudden change in the behaviour of Caligula from a nice and sympathetic boyfriend, into a tyrant who is greedy for torture and rapes4.

Nutrition facts of the Romans

  • Rich Romans were having wonderful feasts. A certain Trimalchio gave a feast at which he offered guests centuries-old wine. At the party, a boar was also served at the table, whose belly swelled live, singing mockingbirds.
  • During feasts, guests gobbled so much that they vomited.
  • Emperor Maximian was a monstrous glutton. He once ate supposedly 20 kilos of meat in one day. Maksymian also drank 34 litres of wine every day. Such gluttony and drunkenness eventually led him to death. However, he reigned for twenty years.
  • In the kitchen of the wealthy Romans, there was a special container for fattening meatballs. They were fattened with nuts, acorns, chestnuts. Stuffed baskets (mouse-like rodents – glis, gliris) were a real treat. The stuffing for the filling was usually made of pork sausages seasoned with pepper and nuts. The dormouse was fried in honey. Apparently, their ears tended to burn too much.
  • A favourite delicacy was also snails fattened with milk. They were put all day on a flat plate filled with milk and salt. Snails like milk, so they drink it, and salt makes poor creatures thirsty. They were then placed in a bowl of milk for several days. They drank so much and became so greasy that they no longer fit in the shells. Fattened snails were fried in oil and served drizzled with wine vinegar.
  • Snails were also fattened on raw meat. It gives them a special aroma.
  • The Romans loved stuffed thrush. The thrush in Roman was stuffed through the throat without gutting. The Romans also consumed other birds that we could not think of seagulls, jackdaws, crows, crows, swans, coots, peacocks and others.
  • The Romans did not waste anything. A certain Apicius gives a recipe for chopped pig udder. The Romans also ate cerebellum and goat or sheep lungs.
  • King Mithridates from Asian Pont was afraid of being poisoned. So he was taking poison himself. Of course, in tiny doses. He did this so that his body became resistant to poisons. The ruler once learned that the Romans wanted to take him captive, and because he did not have enough courage to resist them, he swallowed the poison. Of course, it didn’t work. Mithridates had to break through with his sword.
  • The Romans also had their nasty drinks. One of them was made from the guts of the fish. Fish tripe was salted and set in the sun to overdrive. After a few days, the liquid was drained. The drink was either drunk or used as a sauce.
  • The Romans, like us, ate chickens, ducks and geese. They were served to the table without heads, but with paws.
  • In Roman times, storks lived in Britain, which was eaten by the Romans.
  • Horse bones found in Verulamium prove that the Romans ate horse sausage.
  • From greens The Romans ate dandelion leaves, nettles were consumed with egg cream. Stewed seaweed was also eaten.
  • Sometimes guests of Roman feasts would give themselves wine with rose petals.
  • Once upon a time, Heliogabal had guests give 600 ostrich brains to guests. He also served peas with gold flakes and lentils behind precious stones. The Romans liked to eat lavishly.
  • Favourite fun of Roman chefs was to prepare dishes so that they looked something completely different. During the feast it turned out, for example, that roasted piglets were made of dough.
Footnotes
  1. Suetonius, Claudius, 32
  2. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XIV.29
  3. Ed Lion, Caligula and Nero -- victims of lead poisoning?, "UPI"
Sources
  • Bardel Michał, Wielkie żarcie w oczach Petroniusza, czyli o rzymskich zbytkach w dziedzinie jedzenia i picia, "Misięcznik ZNAK", October 2007
  • Berdowski Piotr, Garum - przysmak Rzymian, "Mówią Wieki", 2006, z. 12
  • Hays Jeffrey, Wine in Ancient Rome
  • Piszczek Zdzisław (red.), Mała encyklopedia kultury antycznej, Warszawa 1983
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XIV and XXIII
  • Winniczuk Lidia, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983

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