Since food and drink are essential to human survival, they play an important role in the everyday life of all cultures. In few societies, however, have food and drink been as highly valued as in ancient Greece and Rome. Eating and drinking at banquets, feasts, and festivals were, at least for the wealthy, a major focus of social life. Many of these activities still influence the traditions of the Mediterranean region.
KINDS OF FOODS
Knowledge about the foods that were eaten in Greece and Rome comes both from archaeology* and from the writings of the ancients. Excavations have uncovered seeds and bones, providing insights into the types of foodstuffs available in a particular location. The works of Pliny the Elder,the Roman gourmet Apicius, and many others provide eyewitness accounts of the foods that were eaten and the manner in which they were prepared.
These sources reveal that the diet of ancient Greece and Rome consisted mainly of grains, legumes such as beans and peas, and olive oil, and that the most important drink was wine. In part, this reflects the fact that the climate, soil, and terrain of the region were especially good for growing grain, olive trees, and grapevines. Other foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and spices, mainly provided variety to the diet.
* archaeology study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
Grains. Grains, especially wheat and barley, supplied most of the carbohydrates and calories for people in ancient Greece and Rome. So important were these plants that the Greek word for food, sitos, literally means “grain.” Our word cereal comes from the name for the Roman goddess of grain, Ceres.
Marcus Apicius was a Roman gourmet who lived around A.D. 100. Known in his day as an inventor of tasty recipes, his cookbook On the An of Cooking is our only authority on Roman cooking from this period. It provides an interesting insight into how wealthy people dined. Apicius's cookbook includes redpes for cooking an amazing variety of foods, including the tiny rodent called the dormouse. Dormice, Apicius suggests, should be stuffed with minced pork and other minced dormice, pounded with pepper, pine kernels, and a few other exotic ingredients, and then cooked in the oven.
Grain was ground into flour, which was then used to make many varieties of bread, porridge, and other foods. Biscuits and cakes were prepared by adding honey, fruit, eggs, or cheese to the flour. The bakers of Athens had the reputation as the finest breadmakers in Greece. In Rome, bread production became a major industry. However, even the best breads available at the time were coarse compared to bread today.
Although grains were important in both Greece and Rome, the Romans grew and ate more wheat, whereas the Greeks preferred barley. This reflected differences in soils and farming methods as well as personal tastes. As the population of Rome and Athens grew, both cities came to depend on imported grain, eventually from as far away as Africa.
Legumes. Another mainstay of the diet in ancient Greece and Rome was legumes, which are vegetables such as broad beans, green peas, chickpeas, and lentils. Rich in protein, legumes were added to bread as well as eaten with vegetables or other foods. Despite their nutritional value and their versatility, beans and peas were considered the “poor man’s food.” Legumes were also fed to cattle. During the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula, legumes were even used as packing material in shipping large monuments overseas.
Olive Oil. Olives have been one of the most significant crops in the Mediterranean area for thousands of years, and there are still more than 500 million olive trees in the region. Because of their great importance, the growing, gathering, and processing of olives and olive oil became a fine art in ancient Greece and Rome.
Olives were eaten plain as well as combined with other foods, but it was the oil of the olive that was particularly valuable, providing the main source of fat in the diet. Grains and other foods were prepared with olive oil to make them more appetizing. Not only was olive oil an essential food, it was also used in religious rituals and as an ingredient in perfume and body lotion. People used the remains of the olive after the oil was extracted as a fuel, a fertilizer, and a weed killer.
Other Foods. The Greeks and Romans ate many other foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, birds, and fish. Because they were typically eaten in small quantities, however, these other foods usually added variety and taste more than nutrition to the diet.
Everyone consumed cultivated fruits, such as apples, pears, dates, and figs, as well as several different species of wild fruits. Berries were rarely eaten, however, and tomatoes, bananas, and most citrus fruits were not available. Fruits were eaten raw, dried, preserved, and cooked, and such fruits as dates and figs were used to sweeten other foods and to help ferment* grapes in the production of wine.
For most people living in the Mediterranean world, eating wild or cultivated vegetables provided the greatest variety in their diets. Lettuce, cabbage, beets, onions, garlic, and radishes were common. Some vegetables were noted for their medicinal value. For example, the Greeks and Romans believed that eating cabbage prevented drunkenness, cured paralysis, and protected people from the plague*. The Romans fed garlic to their soldiers, believing that it made them courageous. Nuts, such as walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds, contributed both protein and fat to the diet. Almonds were so popular in Greece that they were called the “Greek nut.” Nuts were often used in sauces or cooked with legumes.
* ferment to undergo gradual chemical change in which yeast and bacteria convert sugars into alcohol
Although the Greeks and Romans raised cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, most people ate very little meat. Furthermore, they rarely drank milk and did not make butter, though they did eat cheese made from goat’s milk. For those Romans who could afford it, beef was the preferred meat, while mutton was the favorite in Greece. Since peasants raised pigs, they were likely to eat pork. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats were all used for religious sacrifices*, and sacrificial animals were the main source of meat for the poor.
In addition to these domesticated species, various species of wild mammals were used for food, especially deer and rabbits. The Greeks and Romans ate numerous species of birds, including swans, ducks, owls, pigeons, and nightingales, as well as their eggs. Many species of fish and shellfish were eaten, including tuna, mackerel, sturgeon, mussels, and oysters. Fresh fish were fried, grilled, baked, broiled, or added to sauces. Fish were also preserved by salting, drying, or pickling. The internal organs of fish were fermented to make the famous Roman fish sauce garum.
* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
Wine. Grapevines have been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. Ideally suited to the Mediterranean climate, at least at lower altitudes, grapes were grown extensively in ancient Greece and Rome. The juiciness of grapes makes them ideal for beverages, and they ferment naturally to produce wine. Both the Greeks and the Romans produced and drank large quantities of wine, and Greek wine was prized for its high quality.
To improve its taste, wine was often diluted with water or flavored with honey, spices, rose leaves, salt water, or other additives. Occasionally, wine was consumed before a meal, but most often it was drunk after the meal was finished. Everyone, including young children, regularly consumed wine.
Wine drinking also played a significant role in Greek and Roman festivals and religious rituals in honor of the god of wine, known in Greek as Dionysus or Bacchus and in Latin as Liber. Literature provides considerable evidence for the importance of wine in Greek society. For example, Homer refers to wine repeatedly in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the symposium, or drinking party, was a frequent theme in both Greek and Latin poetry. The large variety of wine jugs, bowls, cups, and glasses produced also indicates how significant wine was for the people of the time.
Food Preparation. For the majority of people in ancient Greece and Rome, food preparation was plain and simple. Food was baked in a stone or earthen oven or boiled or roasted over an open fire. Some foods were eaten raw. The flavor of food was often enhanced by adding honey or salt, which were also used as preservatives.
Different types and sizes of pots, pans, bowls, and platters were used to prepare foods. People also used utensils, such as pestles* and strainers, in food preparation. Knives and spoons—but not forks—were used at the table, and many foods were eaten with the fingers.
Later food preparation became more elaborate, especially for wealthier members of society. Birds were stuffed before roasting, and flavored dressings and sauces were added to other foods. The Romans, in particular, were fond of strongly flavored sauces, such as garum, which they added to meats and vegetables. Through time, increasingly exotic ingredients were used, including such items as minced oysters, jellyfish, and cinnamon and other rare imported spices.
FOOD AND SOCIETY
In many societies, the types of food consumed and the way they are prepared vary by social class. This was certainly true of ancient Greece and Rome. As time progressed, the diets of rich and poor differed more and more. In addition, drinking and dinner parties were important social activities for wealthy Greeks and Romans.
Food and Social Class. At first, the major difference in eating habits between rich and poor was the amount of animal protein in the diet. Meat was expensive and consumed in large quantities only by the wealthy. Starting in the 400s B.C., however, the diets of rich and poor
* pestle a tool with a blunt end used to crush substances
Greeks differed in other ways as well. For example, although everyone still ate large amounts of grain, wealthy people could afford a finer and wider assortment of grain products, such as white bread, cakes, and pastries, while the poor ate their grain mostly as coarse bread or porridge. Later still, meals for the rich became more extravagant and exotic and focused less on grain. The Roman dinner of about A.D. 100, for example, consisted of three courses. First, there was an appetizer—often an egg, seafood, or snail dish, or perhaps pumpkins, asparagus, or other vegetables. The main course, which followed, consisted of meat or poultry. Finally, there was a dessert of fruit or other sweet food. Wine always followed the meal.
Although poor people generally had a less varied and exotic diet, they usually had access to grain, since free grain was frequently distributed to the poor during shortages. Starting in the 300s B.C., for example, the poor in Greece received large amounts of grain. Thereafter, wealthy individuals handed out grain on a regular basis. In the first century B.C. in Rome, almost a third of a million people were collecting free rations of grain. Oil became part of the ration in the A.D. 300s, while, later still, small amounts of pork and wine were added.
Remember: Words in small capital letters have separate entries, and the index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more Information on many topics.
Feasts, Symposia, and Dinner Parties. Wealthy families often held feasts for one another to promote their relationships. The more elaborate the display of wealth and the more generous the host, the more obligated guests were to return the favor in the future. Although it was mainly the wealthy who enjoyed such feasts, some feasts held to celebrate a harvest or encourage a bountiful crop involved the entire community. Some Roman emperors held huge public banquets to celebrate festivals.
Food and drink were so important in ancient Greece that symposia were a major social activity for wealthy Greek men. At these occasions, men reclined on couches around tables laden with food and wine. With their heads propped up on pillows, they ate and drank—occasionally to excess—while discussing literature, politics, or philosophy. Music and dance performances entertained the participants. Many major writers wrote extensive accounts of symposia, including Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch.
Through much of Roman history, Romans held dinner parties, or cenae, that provided entertainment as well as large amounts of exotic food and wine. Much like the Greek symposia, these dinner parties were the central social activity of wealthy Romans. The Romans, however, placed a greater importance on food than did the Greeks, and wives and other women were usually included at dinner parties. Some Roman houses included separate dining rooms for people of different social classes. The dinner parties of the wealthy became so excessive that some Roman rulers passed laws to limit the amount of food and drink that could be served, although some emperors, such as Nero, became famous for the extravagance of their dinners. The poet Horace and the novelist Petronius made the Roman cena as famous as its Greek counterpart, the symposium. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Gardens; Hunting; Ritual and Sacrifice; Social Clubs and Professional Associations.)