Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Etiquette of Roman Empire Dining

Some foods which we take for granted today such as potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate, were unknown to the Romans. Likewise, many Roman dishes are unheard of now. The menu at a Roman banquet could include sows' udders and larks' tongues, though most people never ate such extravagant meals.
An 1882 print titled, “A Roman Bakery, Restored from the excavations at Pompeii”
Poorer Romans and slaves had to live on basic food, such as bread, porridge and stew, but wealthier people had a more varied diet. For breakfast, they ate a snack of bread or wheat biscuits with honey, and lunch was a simple meal of eggs, cheese, cold meat and fruit.

Many people hardly ate at all during the day, waiting instead for the evening meal. For average Romans, this was roast poultry or fish, but the wealthy often enjoyed lavish dinner parties.

The Romans drank lots of wine, and people in Rome could choose from around 200 types which were made all over the Empire. Wine was often spiced, or sweetened with honey, and it was usually diluted with water -- drinking it undiluted wasn't considered respectable.

In the early days of the Republic, women were forbidden to drink wine, but during the Empire this rule was dropped. Other popular drinks included grape juice and goat's milk, and people could also drink water from public fountains.

Depiction of cooking in an ancient Roman kitchen
A Roman kitchen was equipped with many of the same utensils that we use today; saucepans, cheese graters, and strainers to drain water away. These items were usually made of bronze, which could make food taste strange, so some pans were coated with silver.

Food was boiled, fried, grilled, stewed, or roasted on a spit. With no freezers or cans to keep food fresh, it had to be smoked, pickled or salted to preserve it. Rich Romans loved spicy food, and most of their meals were highly seasoned or eaten with a strong sauce. One of the most popular sauces was a thick, salty concoction called liquamen, made from pickled fish.

In town, very few people did their own cooking. Most people lived in apartment blocks with wooden beams and floors, and it was forbidden to light cooking fires inside, in case the building burned down. Instead of cooking at home, people usually bought hot foods, such as pie, sausages and stews, from snack bars in street.

Depiction of a Roman Banquet ~ “Menus written on tablets were known in ancient Greece and Rome, but far more common at feasts was the custom of someone -- either the host or a specially instructed slave -- pointing out the different dishes, explaining on occasion what each contained and how it had been made, and informing guests of the provenance, the freshness, the age of the foods and wines. The need for written menus at modern feasts is the result of an important change in the way for more formal meals were constructed, which spread to Europe and America from about the mid-nineteenth century.” From Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner
A Roman Dinner Party

Ancient Roman dinner guests, depicted lounging on a triclinium... “If they were too full to finish their food, they could wrap the leftovers in a napkin to take home.”— “The first napkin was a lump of dough the Spartans called ‘apomagdalie,’ a mixture cut into small pieces and rolled and kneeded at the table, a custom that led to using sliced bread to wipe the hands. In Roman antiquity, napkins known as sudaria and mappae were made in both small and large lengths. The sudarium, Latin for 'handkerchief,' was a pocket-size fabric earned to blot the brow during meals taken in the warm Mediterranean climate. The mappa was a larger cloth spread over the edge of the couch as protection from food taken in a reclining position. The fabric was also used to blot the lips. Although each guest supplied his own mappa, on departure mappae were filled with delicacies leftover from the feast, a custom that continues today in restaurant ‘doggy bags’.”

Wealthy Romans loved to eat extravagant and fancy foods. They threw lavish dinner parties to show off their great power and wealth. Important Romans tried to outdo each other by making their banquets more and more extravagant.

A dinner party would usually begin in the early evening. The guests would remove their sandals at the door and have their feet washed by a slave. They were then announced by an usher and shown to their places. Their hands were then washed with perfumed water. Washing their hands was an important ritual as Romans usually ate with their fingers.

Wealthy Romans reclined on three cushioned couches, or a triclinium, while dining. In the Roman Empire, only slaves and children sat on chairs while eating. Women and men ate together, with up to nine people lounging around a table. Romans didn't have forks, but were known to sometimes use knives and spoons. People ate straight from serving dishes as opposed to using plates, and between courses slaves washed the guests' hands with more perfumed water.

A full Roman banquet was made up of seven courses and could last as long as ten hours. Starting with a couple of cold courses, such as sardines, mushrooms, and eggs, they then moved on to more exciting dishes. They could include flamingoes' tongues, doormice in honey, or even elephants' trunks. How the food looked was just as important as how it tasted and chefs took great enjoyment in disguising one type of food to make it look like another. The writer Petronius boasted that his chef could make a pig's belly look exactly like a fish. Between courses, guests were entertained by poets, conjurers, clowns, or musicians. After dinner, there would often be games. For example the host would pick a number and everyone would have to swallow that number of drinks.

To show that they had enjoyed the meal, guests would belch loudly. If they were too full to finish their food, they could wrap the leftovers in a napkin to take home. Very greedy guests would tickle their throats with a feather until they became sick and then would start eating all over again. The writer Seneca was disgusted by guests who indulged in this habit, and wrote scornfully, "They vomit to eat and eat to vomit."
Elagabalus's guests being smothered when the petals were released from a large net above the table.

Emperor's spies were everywhere, so guests had to be careful about what they talked about at dinner parties. If someone was heard criticizing the Emperor, he might suddenly be tied up in chains and dragged away. Some dinner parties were even more dangerous. 

The crazy emperor Elagabalus smothered his guests to death with thousands of rose petals falling from the ceiling. A nineteenth-century painting depicts Elagabalus's guests being smothered when the petals were released from a large net above the table.

Sources include the "Usborne Encyclopedia of the Roman World" and Margaret Visser's "The Rituals of Dinner" and "The Art of the Table"

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia


  1. Anyone have a source on why Elagabalus murdered his guests? Or whether it wasn't something they said, but rather him not realizing that they would be killed by the petals?

    1. There is no real proof he did it, and the actual Latin is violets, not roses. Probably a fantastical invented story by later writer


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