1. The Family
  2. Roman Names
  3. Marriage and Women
  4. Children and Education
  5. Slaves and Dependents
  6. The House and Furniture
  7. Dress and Ornaments
  8. Food and Meals
  9. Amusements
  10. Travel and Correspondence
  11. Sources of Income
  12. Farming and Country Life
  13. Town Life
  14. Funeral Customs
  15. The Roman Religion
  16. The Water Supply of Rome

The Private Life of the Romans
by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)


Table of contents



REFERENCES: Marquardt, 264-268, 300-340, 414-465; Becker-Göll, III, 311-454; Blümner, 160-209, 385-419; Sandys, Companion, 71-82, 205-207; Friedländer, II, 146-173; Pauly-Wissowa, under cēna, cōmissātiō; Smith, Harper’s, Walters, under cēna, cōmissātiō, olea, or oleum, or olīva, vīnum; Rich, under coena, cōmissātiō; Daremberg-Saglio, under cibāria; Baumeister, 845-846, 2086-2088; Mau-Kelsey, 262-268, 273-276; Fowler, Social Life, 270-284; Cagnat-Chapot, II, 229-251, 426-438; McDaniel, 120-135; Showerman, 124-136.

Natural Conditions (§272-273)

Fruits (§274)

Garden Produce (§275-276)

Meats (§277-278)

Fowl and Game (§279)

Fish (§280-281)

Cereals (§282)

Preparation of the Grain (§283-286)

Breadmaking (§287-288)

The Olive (§289-290)

Olive Oil (§291-292)

Grapes (§293)

Viticulture (§294)

Vineyards (§295)

Wine Making (§296-297)

Beverages (§298)

Style of Living (§299-300)

Hours for Meals (§301)

Breakfast and Luncheon (§302)

The Formal Meal (§303)

The Dining Couch (§304)

Places of Honor (§305-306)

Other Furniture (§307)

Courses (§308)

Bills of Fare (§309)

Serving and Dinner (§310-311)

The Cōmissātiō (§312-314)

The Banquets of the Vulgar Rich (§315)

   272. Natural Conditions. Italy is blessed above all the other countries of central Europe with the natural conditions that go to yield an abundant and varied supply of food. The soil is rich and composed of different elements in different parts of the country. The rainfall is abundant, and rivers and smaller streams are numerous. The line of greatest length runs northwest to southeast, but the climate depends little upon latitude, as it is modified by surrounding bodies of water, by mountain ranges, and by prevailing winds. These agencies in connection with the varying elevations of the land itself produce such widely different conditions that somewhere within the confines of Italy almost all the grains and fruits of the temperate and subtropic zones find the soil and climate most favorable to their growth.

   273. The earliest inhabitants of the peninsula, the Italian peoples, seem to have left for the Romans the task of developing and improving these means of subsistence. Wild fruits, nuts, and flesh have always been the support of uncivilized peoples, and must have been so for the shepherds who laid the foundations of Rome. The very word pecūnia (from pecū; cf. pecūlium, §§22, 162-163) shows that herds of domestic animals were the first source of Roman wealth. But other words show just as clearly that the cultivation of the soil was understood by the Romans in very early times: the names Fabius, Cicero, Piso, and Caepio are no lessancient than Porcius, Asinius, Vitellius, and Ovidius.1 Cicero puts into the mouth of the Elder Cato the statement that to the farmer the garden was a second meat supply, but long before Cato’s time meat had ceased to be the chief article of food. Grain and grapes and olives furnished subsistence for all who did not live to eat. These gave “the wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread that strengtheneth man’s heart.” On these three abundant products of the soil the mass of the people of Italy lived of old as they live today. Something will be said of each, after less important products have been considered.

   274. Fruits. The apple, pear, plum, and quince were either native to Italy or, like the olive and the grape, were introduced into Italy long before history begins. Careful attention had long been given to their cultivation, and by Cicero’s time Italy was covered with orchards. All these fruits were abundant and cheap in their seasons, and were used by all sorts and conditions of men. By Cicero’s time, too, had begun the introduction of new fruits from foreign lands and the improvement of native varieties. Great statesmen and generals gave their names to new and better sorts of apples and pears, and vied with one another in producing fruits out of season by hothouse culture (§ 145). Every fresh extension of Roman territory brought new fruits and nuts into Italy. Among the nuts were the walnut, hazelnut, filbert, almond (after Cato’s time), and the pistachio (not introduced until the time of Tiberius). Among the fruits the peach (mālum Persicum), the apricot (mālum Armeniacum), the pomegranate (mālum Punicum or grānātum), the cherry (cerasus, brought by Lucullus from the town Cerasus in Pontus), and the lemon (citrus, not grown in Italy until the third century of our era). Similarly, the fruits, grains, and vegetables known at home were carried out through the provinces wherever the Romans established themselves. Cherries, for instance, are said to have been grown in Britain in 47 A.D., four years after its conquest. Besides the introduction of fruits for culture, large quantities, either dried or otherwise preserved, were imported for food. The orange, however, strange as this seems to us, was not grown by the Romans.

   275. Garden Produce. The garden did not yield to the orchard in the abundance and variety of its contributions to the supply of food. We read of artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, chicory, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, melons, onions, peas, the poppy, pumpkins, radishes, and turnips, to mention only those whose names are familiar to us all. It will be noticed, however, that the vegetables perhaps most prized by us, the potato and the tomato, were not known to the Romans. Of those mentioned the oldest seem to have been the bean and the onion, as shown by the names Fabius and Caepio already mentioned (§ 273), but the latter came gradually to be looked upon as unrefined and the former to be considered too heavy a food except for persons engaged in the hardest toil. Cato pronounced the cabbage the finest vegetable known, and the turnip figures in the well-known anecdote of Manius Curius. (§ 299).

   276. The Roman gardener gave great attention, too, to the raising of green stuffs that could be used for salads. Among these the sorts most often mentioned are cress and lettuce, with which we are familiar, and the mallow, no longer used for food. Plants in great variety were cultivated for seasoning. Poppy seed was eaten with honey as a dessert, or was sprinkled over bread before baking. Anise, cumin, fennel, mint, and mustard were raised everywhere. Besides these seasonings that were found in every kitchen garden, spices were brought in large quantities from the East, and rich men imported vegetables of large sizes or finer quality than could be raised at home. Fresh vegetables, like fresh fruits, could not be brought from great distances.

   277. Meats. Besides the pork, beef, and mutton that we still use the Roman farmer had goat’s flesh at his disposal; all of these meats were sold in the towns. Goat’s flesh was considered the poorest of all and was used by the lower classes only. Beef had been eaten by the Romans from the earliest times, but its use was a mark of luxury until very late in the Empire. Under the Republic the ordinary citizen ate beef only on great occasions when he had offered a steer or a cow to the gods in sacrifice. The flesh then furnished a banquet for his family and friends; the heart, liver, and lungs (called collectively the exta) were the share of the priest, while certain portions were consumed on the altar. Probably the great size of the carcass had something to do with the rarity of its use at a time when meat could be kept fresh only in the coldest weather; at any rate we must think of the Romans as using cattle for draft and dairy purposes (§ 281), rather than for food.

   278. Pork was widely used by rich and poor alike, and was considered the choicest of all domestic meats. The very language testifies to the important place the pig occupied in the economy of the larder, for no other animal has so many words to describe it in its different functions. Besides the general term sūs we find porcus, porca, verrēs, aper, scrōfa, maiālis, and nefrēns. In the religious ceremony of the suovetaurīlia (sūs + ovis + taurus), the swine, it will be noticed, has the first place, coming before the sheep and the bull. The vocabulary describing the parts of the pig used for food is equally rich; there are words for no less than half a dozen kinds of sausages, for example, with pork as their basis. We read, too, of fifty different ways of cooking pork.

   279. Fowl and Game. The common domestic fowls—chickens, ducks, geese, as well as pigeons—were eaten by the Romans, and, besides these, the wealthy raised various sorts of wild fowl for the table, in the game preserves that have been mentioned (§ 145). Among these were cranes, grouse, partridges, snipe, thrushes, and woodcock. In Cicero’s time the peacock was most highly esteemed, having at the feast much the same place of honor as the turkey has with us; the birds cost as much as ten dollars each. Wild animals also were bred for food in similar preserves; the hare and the wild boar were the favorite. The latter was served whole upon the table, as in feudal times. As a contrast in size the dormouse (glīs) may be mentioned; it was thought a great delicacy.

   280. Fish. The rivers of Italy and the surrounding seas must have furnished always a great variety of fish, but in early times fish were not much used as food by the Romans. FIG. 162: MOSAIC FROM POMPEII SHOWING SEA FISH. Now in the Museo Nazionale, NaplesBy the end of the Republic, however, matters had changed, and no article of food brought higher prices than the rarer sorts of fresh fish. Salt fish was exceedingly cheap and was imported in many forms from almost all the Mediterranean harbors. One dish especially, tyrotarīchus, made of salt fish, eggs, and cheese, and therefore something like our codfish balls, is mentioned by Cicero in about the same way as we speak of hash. Fresh fish were all the more expensive because they could be transported only while alive. Hence the rich constructed fish ponds on their estates—Lucius Licinius Crassus setting the example in 92 B.C.—and both fresh-water and salt-water fish were raised for the table. The names of the favorite sorts mean little to us, but we find the mullet (mullus) and a kind of turbot (rhombus) bringing high prices, while oysters (ostreae) were as popular as they are now.

   281. Before passing to the more important matters of bread, wine, and oil, it may be well to mention a few articles that are still in general use. The Romans used freely the products of the dairy—milk, cream, curds, whey, and cheese. They drank the milk of sheep and goats as well as that of cows, and made cheese of the three kinds of milk. The cheese from ewes’ milk was thought more digestible, though less palatable, than that made from cows’ milk, while cheese from goats’ milk was more palatable but less digestible. It is remarkable that they had no knowledge of butter except as a plaster for wounds. Honey took the place of sugar on the table and in cooking, for the Romans had only a botanical knowledge of the sugar cane. Salt was at first obtained by the evaporation of sea water, but was afterwards mined, Its manufacture was a monopoly of the government, and care was taken always to keep the price low. It was used not only for seasoning, but also as a preservative agent. Vinegar was made from grapes (§ 297). Among the articles of food unknown to the Romans were tea and coffee, along with the orange, tomato, potato, butter, and sugar.

   282. Cereals. The word frūmentum2 was a general term applied to any of the many sorts of grain that were grown for food. Of those now in use barley, oats, rye, and wheat were known to the Romans, though rye was not cultivated, and oats served only as feed for cattle. Barley was not much used, for it was thought to lack nutriment, and therefore to be unfit for laborers. In very ancient times another grain, spelt (far), a very hardy kind of wheat, had been grown extensively, but it had gradually gone out of use except for the sacrificial cake that had given its name to the confarreate ceremony of marriage (§ 82). In classical times wheat was the staple grain grown for food, not differing much from that which we have today. It was usually planted in the fall, though on some soils it would mature as a spring wheat. After grain ceased to be much grown in Central Italy and the land was diverted to other purposes (§§ 146, 442), wheat had to be imported from the provinces, first from Sicily, then from Africa and Egypt, as the home supply became inadequate to the needs of the teeming population.

   283. Preparation of the Grain. In the earliest times the grain (far) had not been ground, but had been merely pounded in a mortar. FIG. 163: A POMPEIAN MILL WITHOUT ITS FRAMEWORKThe meal was then mixed with water and made into a sort of porridge (puls, whence our word “poultice”), which long remained the national dish something like the oatmeal of Scotland. Plautus (died 184 B.C.) jestingly refers to his countrymen as “pulse-eaters.” The persons who crushed the grain were called pīnsitōrēs, or pīstōrēs, whence the cognomen Pīsō, as was said above (§ 273), was derived; in later times the bakers were also called pīstōrēs, because they ground the grain as well as baked the bread. In the ruins of bakeries we find mills as regularly as ovens. Figure 166 shows a bakery with mills.

   284. In such mills the grain was ground into regular flour. The mill (mola) consisted of three parts, the lower millstone (mēta), the upper stone (catīllus), and the framework that surrounded and supported the latter and furnished the means to turn it upon the mēta. FIG. 164: SECTION OF A MILLAll these parts are shown distinctly in Figure 164, and hence require little explanation. The mēta was, as the name suggests, a cone shaped stone (A) resting on a bed of masonry (B) with a raised rim, between which and the lower edge of the mēta the flour was collected. In the upper part of the mēta a beam (C) was mortised, ending above in an iron pin or pivot (D), on which hung and turned the framework that supported the catīllus. The catīllus (E) itself was shaped something like an hourglass, or two funnels joined at their necks. The upper funnel served as a hopper into which the grain was poured; the lower funnel fitted closely over the mēta. FIG. 165: HORSES TURNING A MILL. From a relief in the Vatican Museum, Rome.The distance between the lower funnel and the mēta was regulated by the length of the pin, mentioned above, according to the fineness of the flour desired. A mill without framework is shown in Figure 163.

   285. The framework was very strong and massive on account of the heavy weight that was suspended from it. The beams used for turning the mill were fitted into holes in the narrow part of the catīllus, as shown in Figure 164. The power required to do the grinding was furnished by horses or mules pulling the beams (Fig. 165), or by slaves pushing against them. This last method was often used as a punishment, as we have seen (§§ 148, 170). Of the same form but much smaller were the hand mills used by soldiers for grinding the frūmentum furnished them as rations. Under the Empire, water mils were introduced, but they are rarely mentioned in literature.

   286. The transition from the ancient porridge (§ 283) to bread baked in the modern fashion must have been through the medium of thin cakes baked in or over the fire. We do not know when bread baked in ovens came into use. Bakers (§ 283) as representatives of a trade do not go back beyond 171 B.C., but long before this time, of course, the family bread had been made by the māter familiās, or by a slave under her supervision.

FIG. 166

After public bakeries were once established, it became less and less usual for bread to be made in private houses in the towns. Only the most pretentious of the city mansions had ovens attached, as shown by the ruins. In the country, on the other hand, the older custom was always retained (§ 148). Under Trajan (98-118 A.D.) it became the custom to distribute bread to the people daily, instead of grain once a month, and the bakers were organized into a guild (corpus, collēgium), and as a corporation enjoyed certain privileges and immunities. In Figure 166 are shown the ruins of a Pompeian bakery with several mills which were, of course, turned by hand.

   287. Breadmaking. After the flour collected about the edge of the mēta (§ 284) had been sifted, FIG. 167: AN OVEN FOR BAKING BREADwater and salt were added and the dough was kneaded in a trough by hand or by a simple machine shown in the illustration in Schreiber, Plate LXVII. Yeast was added as nowadays, and the bread was baked in an oven much like those still found in parts of Europe. One preserved in the ruins of Pompeii is well shown in Figure 167: at the point marked a is the oven proper, in which a fire was built; the draft was furnished by the opening at d. The surrounding chamber (b) is intended to retain the heat after the fire (usually of charcoal) had been raked out into the ashpit (e) and the vent closed. The letter f marks a receptacle for water, which seems to have been used for moistening the bread while it was baking. After the oven had been heated to the proper temperature and the fire raked out, the loaves were put in, the vents closed, and the bread left to bake. The principle is the same as that of the modem fireless cooker, which uses heated soapstone disks.

   288. There were several qualities of bread, varying with the sort of grain, the setting of the millstones (§ 284), and the fineness of the sieves (§ 287). The very best, made of pure wheat flour, was called pānis silīgineus; that made of coarse flour, of flour and bran, or of bran alone was called pānis plēbēius, castrēnsis, sordidus, rūsticus, etc, In the first century A.D. people preferred the fine white bread even though as now the whole wheat bread was thought to be more nutritious. The loaves were circular and rather flat—some have been found in the ruins of Pompeii and had their surfaces marked off by lines drawn from the center, into four or more parts (Fig. 168). The wall painting (Fig. 169) of a salesroom of a bakery, also found in Pompeii gives a good idea of the appearance of the bread. Various kinds of cakes and confections also were sold at these shops.

   289. The Olive. Next in importance to the wheat came the olive. FIG. 169: THE SALESROOM OF A BAKERY. From a fresco in the Museo Nazionale, NaplesIt was introduced into Italy from Greece, and from Italy has spread through all the Mediterranean countries; but in ancient times the best olives were those of Italy, even as today the best olives come from Italy. The olive was an important article of food merely as a fruit. It was eaten both fresh and preserved in various ways, but it found its significant place in the domestic economy of the Romans in the form of the olive oil with which we are familiar. It is the value of the oil that has caused the cultivation of the olive to become so general in southern Europe. Many varieties of the olive were known to the Romans; they required different climates and soils and to were adapted to different uses. In general it may be said that the larger fruit were better suited for eating than for oil.

   290. The olive was eaten fresh as it ripened and was also preserved in various ways. FIG. 170: PICKING OLIVESThe ripe olives were sprinkled with salt and left untouched for five days; the salt was then shaken off, and the olives dried in the sun. They were also preserve sweet without salt in boiled must (§ 296). Half-ripe olives were picked (Fig. 170) with their stems and covered over in jars with the best quality of oil; in this way they are said to have retained for more than a year the flavor of the fresh fruit. Green olives were preserved whole in strong brine, the form in which we know them now, or were beaten into a mass and preserved with spices and vinegar. The preparation called epityrum was made by taking the fruit in any of the three stages, removing the stones, chopping up the pulp, seasoning it with vinegar, coriander seeds, cumin, fennel, and mint, and covering the mixture in jars with oil enough to exclude the air. The result was a salad that was eaten with cheese.

   291. Olive Oil. Olive oil was used for several purposes. It was employed at first to anoint the body after bathing, especially by athletes; it was used as a vehicle for perfumes (the Romans knew nothing of distillation by means of alcohol); it was burned in lamps (§ 228); it was an indispensable article of food. As a food it was employed in its natural state as butter is now in cooking, or in relishes, or dressings. The olive when subjected to pressure yields two fluids. The first to flow (amurca) is dark and bitter, having the consistency of water. It was largely used as a fertilizer, but not as a food. The second, which flows after greater pressure, is the oil (oleum, oleum olīvum). The best oil was made from olives not fully ripe, but the largest quantities was yielded by the ripened fruit.

   292. The olives were picked from the tree; those that fell of their own accord were thought inferior (§ 160), FIG. 171: AN OLIVE CRUSHER FOUND AT POMPEIIand were spread upon sloping platforms in order that a part of the amurca might flow away by itself. Here the fruit remained until a slight fermentation took place. It was then subjected to the action of a machine (Fig. 171) that bruised and pressed it to separate the pulp from the stones. The pulp was then crushed in a press. The oil that flowed out was caught in a jar and from it ladled into a receptacle (lābrum fictile), where it was allowed to settle; the amurca and other impurities went to the bottom. The oil was then skimmed off into another like receptacle and again allowed to settle; the process was repeated (as often as thirty times if necessary) until all impurities had been left behind. The best oil was made by subjecting the olives at first to a gentle pressure only. The bruised pulp was then taken out, separated from the stones or pits, and pressed a second or even a third time, the quality becoming poorer each time. The oil was kept in jars which were glazed on the inside with wax or gum to prevent absorption; the covers were carefully secured and the jars stored away in vaults (Fig. 172).

FIG. 172

   293. Grapes. Grapes were eaten fresh from the vines and were also dried in the sun and kept as raisins, but they owed their real importance in Italy as elsewhere to the wine made from them. It is believed that the grapevine was not native to Italy, but was introduced, probably from Greece, in very early times. The first name for Italy known to the Greeks was Oenōtria, a name which may mean “the land of the vine”; very ancient legends ascribe to Numa restrictions upon the use of wine. It is probable that up to the time of the Gracchi wine was rare and expensive. The quantity produced gradually increased as the cultivation of cereals declined (§ 146), but the quality long remained inferior; all the choice wines were imported from Greece and the East. By Cicero’s time, however, attention was being given to viticulture and to the scientific making of wines, and by the time of Augustus vintages were produced that vied with the best brought from abroad. Pliny the Elder says that of the eighty really choice wines then known to the Romans two-thirds were produced in Italy; and Arrian, about the same time, says that Italian wines were famous as far away as India.

   294. Viticulture. Grapes could be grown almost anywhere in Italy, but the best wines were made south of Rome within the confines of Latium and Campania. The cities of Praeneste, Velitrae, and Formiae were famous for the wine grown on the sunny slopes of the Alban hills. A little farther south, near Terracina, was the ager Caecubus, where was produced the Caecuban wine, pronounced by Augustus the noblest of all. Then came Mt. Massicus with the ager Falernus on its southern side, producing the Falernian wines, even more famous than the Caecuban. Upon and around Vesuvius, too, fine wines were grown, especially near Naples, Pompeii, Cumae, and Surrentum. Good wines, but less noted than these, were produced in the extreme south, near Beneventum, Aulon, and Tarentum. Of like quality were those grown east and north of Rome, near Spoletium, Caesena, Ravenna, Hadria, and Ancona. Those of the north and west, in Etruria and Gaul, were not so good.

   295. Vineyards. The sunny side of a hill was the best place for a vineyard. The vines were supported by poles or trellises in the modern fashion, or were planted at the foot of trees up which they were allowed to climb. For this purpose the elm (ulmus) was preferred, because it flourished everywhere, could be closely trimmed without endangering its life, and had leaves that made good food for cattle when they were plucked off to admit the sunshine to the vines. Vergil speaks of “marrying the vine to the elm,” and Horace calls the plane tree a bachelor (platanus caelebs), because its dense foliage made it unfit for the vineyard. Before the gathering of the grapes the chief work lay in keeping the ground clear; it was spaded over once each month in the year. One man could properly care for about four acres.

   296. Wine Making. The making of the wine took place usually in September; the season varied with the soil and the climate. FIG. 173: MAKING WINEIt was anticipated by a festival, the vīnālia rūstica, celebrated on the nineteenth of August. Precisely what the festival meant the Romans themselves did not fully understand, perhaps, but it was probably intended to secure a favorable season for the gathering of the grapes. The general process of making the wine differed little from that familiar to us in Bible stories and still practiced in modern times. After the grapes were gathered, they were first trodden with the bare feet (Fig. 173) and then pressed in the prēlum or torcular. The juice as it came from the press was called mustum (vīnum), “new (wine),” and was often drunk unfermented, as sweet cider is now. It could be kept sweet from vintage to vintage by being sealed in a jar smeared within and without with pitch and immersed for several weeks in cold water or buried in moist sand. It was also preserved by evaporation over a fire; when it was reduced one-half in this way, it became a grape jelly (dēfrutum) and was used as a basis for various beverages and for other purposes (§ 290).

   297. Fermented wine (vīnum) was made by collecting the mustum in huge vat-like jars (dōlia: Fig. 172). One of these was large enough to hide a man and held a hundred gallons or more. These were covered with pitch within and without and partially buried in the ground in cellars or vaults (vīnāriae cellae), in which they remained permanently. After they were nearly filled with the mustum, they were left uncovered during the process of fermentation, which lasted under ordinary circumstances about nine days. They were often tightly sealed, and opened only when the wine required attention3 or was to be removed. The cheaper wines were used directly from the dōlia; but the choicer kinds were drawn off after a year into smaller jars (amphorae), clarified and even “doctored” in various ways, and finally stored in depositories often entirely distinct from the cellars (Fig. 174). A favorite place was a room in the upper story of the house, where the wine was aged by the heat rising from a furnace or even by the smoke from the hearth. The amphorae were often marked with the name of the wine, and the names of the consuls for the year in which they were filled.

FIG. 174

   298. Beverages. After water and milk, wine was the ordinary drink of the Romans of all classes. It must be distinctly understood, however, that they always mixed it with water and used more water than wine. Pliny the Elder mentions one wine that would stand being mixed with eight times its own bulk of water. To drink wine unmixed was thought typical of barbarism; wine was so drunk only by the dissipated at their wildest revels. Under the Empire the ordinary qualities of wine were cheap enough to be sold at three or four cents a quart (§ 388); the choicer kinds were very costly, entirely beyond the reach, Horace gives us to understand, of a man in his circumstances. More rarely used than wine were other beverages that are mentioned in literature. A favorite drink was mulsum, made of four measures of wine and one of honey. A mixture of water and honey allowed to ferment together was called mulsa. Cider was made by the Romans, and wines from mulberries and dates. They also made various cordials from aromatic plants, but they had no knowledge of tea or coffee.

   299. Style of Living. The table supplies of a given people vary from age to age with the development of civilization and refinement, and in the same age with the means and tastes of classes and individuals. Of the Romans it may be said that during the early Republic, perhaps almost through the second century B.C., they cared little for the pleasures of the table. They lived frugally and ate sparingly. They were almost strictly vegetarians (§ 273), much of their food was eaten cold, and the utmost simplicity characterized the cooking and the service of their meals. Everything was prepared by the māter familiās or by the women slaves under her supervision (§ 90). The table was set in the ātrium (§ 188); the father, mother, and the children sat around it on stools or benches (§ 225), waiting on one another and on their guests (§ 104). Dependents ate of the same food, but apart from the family. The dishes were of the plainest sort, of earthenware or even of wood, though a silver saltcellar was often the cherished ornament of the humblest board. Table knives and forks were unknown; the food was cut into convenient portions before it was served, and spoons were used to convey to the mouth what the fingers could not manage. During this period there was little to choose between the fare of the proudest patrician and the humblest client. The Samnite envoys found Manius Curius, the conqueror of Pyrrhus (275 B.C,), eating his dinner of vegetables (§ 275) from an earthen bowl. A century later the poet Plautus calls his countrymen a race of porridge-eaters (pultiphagōnidae: § 283), and gives us to understand that in his time even the wealthiest Romans had in their households no specially trained cooks. When a dinner out of the ordinary was given, a professional cook was hired, who brought with him to the house of the host his own utensils and his own helpers, just as a caterer does nowadays.

   300. The last two centuries of the Republic saw all this changed. The conquest of Greece and the wars in Asia Minor gave the Romans a taste of Eastern luxury and altered their simple table customs, as other customs had been altered by like contact with the outside world (§§ 6, 101, 112, 192). From this time the poor and the rich no longer fared alike. The former, constrained by poverty, lived frugally as of old; students of Caesar know that the soldiers who won Caesar’s battles for him lived on grain (§ 282, and note), which they ground in their handmills and baked at their campfires. Some of the very rich, on the other hand, aping the luxury of the Greeks but lacking their refinement, became gluttons instead of gourmets. They ransacked the world for articles of food,4 preferring the rare and the costly to what was really palatable and delicate. The separate dining room (trīclīnium) was introduced, the great houses having two or more (§ 204), and the oecī (§ 207) were, perhaps, pressed into service for banquet halls. The dining couch (§§ 224, 304) took the place of the bench or stool, slaves served the food to the reclining guests, a dinner dress (§ 249) was devised, and every familia urbāna (§ 149) included a high-priced chef with a staff of trained assistants. Of course, there were always wealthy men (Atticus, the friend of Cicero [§ 155], for example) who clung to the simpler customs of the earlier days, but these could make little headway against the current of senseless dissipation and extravagance. Over against these must be set the fawning poor, who preferred the fleshpots of the rich patron (§§ 181-182) to the bread of honest independence. Between the two extremes was a numerous middle class of the well-to-do, with whose ordinary meals we are most concerned. These meals were the ientāculum, the prandium, and the cēna.

   301. Hours for Meals. Three meals a day were the regular number with the Romans as with us, though hygienists were found then, as they may be found nowadays, who believed two meals more healthful than three, and then as now high livers often indulged in an extra meal taken late at night. Custom fixed more or less rigorously the hours for meals, though these varied with the period, and to a less extent with the occupations and even with the inclinations of individuals. In early times in the city and in all periods in the country the chief meal (cēna) was eaten in the middle of the day, preceded by a breakfast (ientāculum) in the early morning and followed in the evening by a supper (vesperna). In classical times the hours for meals in Rome were about as they are now in our large cities, that is, the cēna was postponed until the work of the day was finished, thus crowding out the vesperna, and a luncheon (prandium) took the place of the old-fashioned “noon dinner.” The late dinner came to be more or less of a social function, as guests were present and the food and service were the best the house could afford. The ientāculum and prandium were in comparison very simple and informal meals.

   302. Breakfast and Luncheon. The breakfast (ientāculum or iantāculum) was eaten immediately after rising, the hour varying, of course, with the occupation and social position of the individual. Usually it consisted merely of bread, eaten dry or dipped in wine or sprinkled over with salt, though raisins, olives, and cheese were sometimes added. Workmen pressed for time seem to have taken their breakfast in their hands to eat as they went to the place of their labor, and schoolboys often stopped on their way to school (§ 122) at a public bakery (§ 286) to buy a sort of shortcake or pancake on which they made a hurried breakfast. More rarely the breakfast became a regular meal: eggs were served in addition to the things just mentioned, and mulsum (§ 298) and milk were drunk with them. It is likely that such a breakfast was taken at a later hour and by persons who dispensed with the noon meal. The luncheon (prandium) came about eleven o’clock. It, too, consisted usually of cold food: bread, salads (§ 276), olives, cheese, fruits, nuts, and cold meats from the dinner of the day before. Occasionally, however, warm meat and vegetables were added, but the meal was never an elaborate one. It is sometimes spoken of as a morning meal, but in this case it must have followed at about the regular interval an extremely early breakfast, or it must itself have formed the breakfast, taken later than usual, when the ientāculum for some reason had been omitted. After the prandium came the midday rest or siesta (merīdiātiō), when all work was laid aside until the eighth hour, except in the law courts and in the senate. In the summer, at least, everybody went to sleep, and even in the capital the streets were almost as deserted as at midnight. The vesperna, entirely unknown in city life, closed the day on the farm. It was an early supper which consisted largely of the leavings of the noonday dinner with the addition of such uncooked food as a farm would naturally supply. The word merenda seems to have been applied in early times to this evening meal, and then to refreshments taken at any time (cf. English “lunch”).

   303. The Formal Meal. The busy life of the city had early crowded the dinner out of its original place in the middle of the day and fixed it in mid-afternoon. FIG. 179: DINING TABLE AND COUCHESThe fashion soon spread to the towns and was carried by city people to their country estates (§ 145), so that in classical times the late dinner (cēna) was the regular practice for all persons of any social standing throughout the length and breadth of Italy. It was even more of a function than it is with us, because the Romans knew no other form of purely social intercourse. They had no receptions, balls, musicales, or theater parties, no other opportunities to entertain their friends or be entertained by them. It is safe to say, therefore, that, when the Roman was in town he was, every evening, host or guest at dinner as elaborate as his means or those of his friends permitted, unless, of course, urgent business claimed his attention or some unusual circumstances had withdrawn him temporarily from society. On the country estates the same custom prevailed: the guests came from neighboring estates or were friends who stopped unexpectedly, perhaps, to claim entertainment for a night as they passed on a journey to or from the city (§ 388). These dinners, formal as they were, are to be distinguished carefully from the extravagant banquets of the ostentatious rich. They were in themselves thoroughly wholesome, the expression of genuine hospitality. The guests were friends, their number was limited, the wife and children of the host were present, and social enjoyment was the end in view.

   304. The Dining Couch. The position of the dining-room (trīclīnium) in the Roman house has been described already (§ 204), and it has been remarked (§ 300) that in classical times the stool or bench had given place to the couch. FIG. 180: DINING TABLE AND COUCHESThis couch (lectus trīclīniāris) was constructed much as the common lectī were (§ 224), except that it was made broader and lower, had an arm at one end only, was without a back, and sloped from the front to the rear. At the end where the arm was, a cushion or bolster was placed, and parallel with it two others were arranged in such a way as to divide the couch into three parts. Each part was for one person, and a single couch would, therefore, accommodate three persons. The dining-room received its name (trīclīnium) from the fact that it was planned to hold three of these (κλίναι in Greek), set on three sides of a table, the fourth side of which was open. The arrangement varied a little with the size of the room. In a large room the couches were set as in Figure 180, but if economy of space was necessary they were placed as in Figure 179; the latter was, probably, the more common arrangement of the two. FIG. 181: WOMAN SITTING ON A DINING COUCHNine may be taken, therefore, as the normal upper limit of the number at an ordinary table. On unusual occasions, a larger room would be used where two or more tables could be arranged in the same way, each accommodating nine guests. In the case of members of the same family, especially if one was a child, or when the guests were very intimate friends, a fourth person might find room on a couch, but this was certainly unusual; probably when a guest unexpectedly presented himself, some member of the family would surrender his place to him. Often the host reserved a place or places for friends that his guests might bring without notice. Such uninvited persons were called umbrae. When guests were present, the wife sat on the edge of the couch (Fig. 181) instead of reclining, and children were usually accommodated on seats.

   305. Places of Honor. The guest approached the couch from the rear and took his place upon it, lying on his left side, with his face to the table, and supported by his left elbow, which rested on the cushion or bolster mentioned above. The position of his body is indicated by the arrows in Figures 179 and 180. Each couch and each place on the couch had its own name according to its position with reference to the others, The couches were called respectively lectus summus, lectus medius, and lectus īmus; it will be noticed that persons reclining on the lectus medius had the lectus summus on the left and the lectus īmus on the right. Etiquette assigned the lectus summus and the lectus medius to guests, while the lectus imus was reserved for the host, his wife, and one other family member, if the host alone represented the family, the two places beside him on the lectus īmus were given to the humblest of the guests.

   306. The places on each couch were named in the same way, (locus) summus, medius, and īmus, denoted respectively by the figures 1, 2, and 3 in Figure 179. The person who occupied the place numbered 1 was said to be above (super, suprā) the person to his right, while the person occupying the middle place (2) was above the person on his right and below (īnfrā) the one on his left. The place of honor on the lectus summus was that numbered 1, and the corresponding place (1) on the lectus īmus was taken by the host. To the most distinguished guest, however, was given the place on the lectus medius marked 3; this place was called by the special name locus cōnsulāris, because if a consul was present, it was always assigned to him. It was next to the place of the host, and, besides, was especially convenient for a public official; if he found it necessary to receive or send a message during the dinner, he could communicate with the messenger without so much as turning on his elbow. In the early years of the Empire a new type of couch was made to be used with the round table. From its semicircular shape it was called sigma, from one form of the Greek letter. The cushion curved around the inner side of the couch, which apparently served for all. FIG. 183: ROMAN SIDEBOARDThe number accommodated seems to have varied. The places of honor were at the ends; the place at the right5 end of the couch was called the locus cōnsulāris.

   307. Other Furniture. In comparison with the lectī the rest of the furniture of the dining-room played an insignificant part. In fact, the only other absolutely necessary article was the table (mēnsa), placed, as shown in Figures 179 and 180, between the three couches in such a way that all were equally distant from it and free access to it was left on the fourth side. The space between the table and the couches was so little that the guests could help themselves. The guests had no individual plates to be kept upon the table; it was used merely to receive the large dishes in which the food was served, and certain formal articles, such as the saltcellar (§ 299) and the things necessary for the offering to the gods. FIG. 184: ROMAN SIDEBOARDThe table, therefore, was never very large, but it was often exceedingly beautiful and costly (§ 227). At first its beauties were not hidden by any cloth or covering; the tablecloth did not come into use until about the end of the first century of our era. The usual tableware in the time of Augustus was the Arretine ware, a red glazed pottery with designs in relief; the cost and the beauty of the dishes were limited only by the means and taste of the owner. Besides the couches and the table, sideboards (abacī) were the only articles of furniture usually found in the trīclīnium. They varied from a simple shelf to tables of different forms and sizes such as are shown in Figures 183 and 184, and open cabinets. They were set out of the way against the walls and served as do ours to display plate and porcelain when such articles were not in use on the table.

   308. Courses. In classical times even the simplest dinner was divided into three parts, the gustus (“appetizer”), the cēna (“dinner proper”), and the secunda mēnsa6 (“dessert”); the dinner was made elaborate by having each part served in several courses. The gustus consisted only of things that were believed to excite the appetite or aid the digestion: oysters and other shell-fish fresh, sea-fish salted or pickled, certain vegetables that could be eaten uncooked, especially onions, and almost invariably lettuce and eggs, all with piquant sauces. With these appetizers mulsum (§ 298) was drunk, as wine was thought too heavy for an empty stomach. From this drink the gustus was also called the prōmulsis; another and more significant name for it was antecēna. Then followed the real dinner, the cēna, which consisted of the more substantial viands, fish, flesh, fowl, and vegetables. With this part of the meal wine was drunk, but in moderation, for it was thought to dull the sense of taste; the real drinking began only when the cēna was over. The cēna almost always consisted of several courses (mēnsa prīma, altera, tertia, etc.). Three were thought neither niggardly nor extravagant; we are told that Augustus often dined on three courses and never went beyond six. The secunda mēnsa closed the meal with all sorts of pastry, sweets, nuts, and fruits, fresh and preserved, with which wine was freely drunk. From the fact that eggs were eaten at the beginning of the meal and apples at the close came the proverbial expression, ab ōvō ad māla (compare our expression “from soup to nuts”).

   309. Bills of Fare. We have preserved to us in literature the bills of fare of a few meals, probably actually served, which may be taken as typical at least of the homely, the generous, and the sumptuous dinner. The simplest is given by Juvenal (60-140 A.D.): for the gustus, asparagus and eggs; for the cēna, young kid and chicken; for the secunda mēnsa, fruits. Two other menus are given by Martial (43-101 A.D,). The first has lettuce, onions, tunny-fish, and eggs cut in slices; sausages with porridge, fresh cauliflower, bacon, and beans; pears and chestnuts, and, with the wine, olives, parched peas, and lupines. The second has mallows, onions, mint, elecampane, anchovies with sliced eggs, and sow’s udder in tunny sauce; the cēna was served in a single course (ūna mēnsa), kid, chicken, cold ham, haricot beans, young cabbage sprouts, and fresh fruits, with wine, inevitably. The last menu we owe to Macrobius (fifth century A.D.), who assigns it to a feast of the pontifices during the Republic, feasts proverbial for their splendor. The antecēna was served in two courses: first, sea-urchins, raw oysters, three kinds of sea-mussels, thrush on asparagus, a fat hen, panned oysters, and mussels; second, mussels again, shell-fish, sea-nettles, figpeckers, loin of goat, loin of pork, fricasseed chicken, figpeckers again, two kinds of sea-snails. The number of courses in which the cēna was served is not given: sow’s udder, head of wild boar, panned fish, panned sow’s udder, domestic ducks, wild ducks, hares, roast chicken, starch pudding, bread. Neither vegetables nor dessert is mentioned by Macrobius, but we may take it for granted that they corresponded to the rest of the feast, and the wine that the pontifices drank was famed as the best.

   310. Serving the Dinner. The dinner hour marked the close of the day’s work, as has been said (§ 301), and varied, therefore, with the season of the year and the social position of the family. In general the time may be said to have been not before the ninth and rarely after the tenth hour (§ 428). The dinner lasted usually until bedtime, that is, three or four hours at least, though the Romans went to bed early because they rose early (§§ 79, 122). Sometimes even the ordinary dinner lasted until midnight, but, when a banquet was expected to be unusually protracted, it was the custom to begin earlier in order that there might be time after it for the needed repose. Such banquets, beginning before the ninth hour, were called tempestīva convīvia; the word “early” here carried with it about the same reproach as the word “late” in “late suppers.” At the ordinary family dinners the time was spent in conversation, though in some good houses (notably that of Atticus: § 155) a trained slave read aloud to the guests. At “gentlemen’s dinners” other forms of entertainment were provided, music, dancing, juggling, etc., by professional performers (§ 153). At elaborate dinners souvenirs were sometimes distributed.

   311. When the guests had been ushered into the dining-room the gods were solemnly invoked, a custom to which our “grace before meat” corresponds. Then the guests took their places on the couches (accumbere, discumbere) as these were assigned them (§§ 305-306), their sandals were removed (§ 250), to be cared for by their own attendants (§ 152), and water and towels were carried around for washing the hands. If napkins were used each guest brought his own. The meal then began, and each course was placed upon the table on a tray (ferculum), from which the various dishes were passed in regular order to the guests. As each course was finished the dishes were replaced on the ferculum, and removed, and water and towels were again passed to the guests, a custom all the more necessary because the fingers were used for forks (§ 299). Between the chief parts of the meal, too, the table was cleared and carefully wiped with a cloth or soft sponge. Between the cēna proper and the secunda mēnsa a longer pause was made, and silence was preserved while wine, salt, and meal—perhaps also ordinary articles of food—were offered to the Larēs. The dessert was then brought on in the same way as the other parts of the meal. When the diners were ready to leave the couches, the guests called for their sandals (§ 250) and immediately took their departure.

   312. The Cōmissātiō. Cicero tells us of Cato the Elder and his Sabine neighbors lingering over their dessert and wine until late at night and makes them find the chief charm of the long evening in the conversation. For this reason Cato is said to have declared the Latin word convīvium, “a living together,” a better word for such social intercourse than the one the Greeks used, symposium, “a drinking together.” The younger men in the gayer circles of the capital inclined rather to the Greek view and followed the cēna proper with a drinking bout, or wine supper, called cōmissātiō or compōtātiō. This differed from the form that Cato approved, not merely in the amount of wine consumed, in the lower tone, and in the questionable amusements, but also in the following of certain Greek customs unknown among the Romans until after the Second Punic War and never adopted in the regular dinner parties that have been described. These were the use of perfumes and flowers at the feast, the selection of a Master of the Revels, and the method of drinking.

   313. The perfumes and flowers were used not entirely on account of the sweetness of their scent, much as the Romans enjoyed it, but because the Romans believed that the scent prevented, or at least retarded, intoxication. This is shown by the fact that they did not use the unguents and the flowers throughout the whole meal, but waited to anoint the head with perfumes and crown it with flowers until the dessert and the wine were brought on. Various leaves and flowers were used for the garlands (corōnae convīvālēs) according to individual tastes, but the rose was the most popular and came to be generally associated with the cōmissātiō. After the guests had assumed their crowns (sometimes garlands were worn also around the neck), each threw the dice, usually calling as he did so upon his sweetheart or upon some deity to help his throw. The one whose throw was the highest (§ 320) was forthwith declared the rēx (magister, arbiter) bibendī. Just what his duties and privileges were we are nowhere expressly told, but it can hardly be doubted that it was his province to determine the proportion of water to be added to the wine (§ 298), to lay down the rules for the drinking (lēgēs īnsānae, Horace calls them), to decide what each guest should do for the entertainment of his fellows, and to impose penalties and forfeits for breaking the rules.

   314. The wine was mixed under the direction of the magister in a large bowl (crātēr), the proportions of the wine and water being apparently constant for the evening, and from the crātēr (Fig. 191), placed on the table in view of all, the wine was ladled by the slaves into the goblets (pōcula: Fig. 192) of the guests. The ladle (cyathus) held about one-twelfth of a pint, or, more probably, was graduated by twelfths. The method of drinking seems to have differed from that of the regular dinner chiefly in this: FIG. 191: MIXING BOWL FROM POMPEIIat the ordinary dinner each guest mixed his wine and water to suit his own taste and drank as little or as much as he pleased, while at the cōmissātiō all had to drink alike, regardless of differences in taste and capacity. The wine seems to have been drunk chiefly in “healths,” but an odd custom regulated the size of the bumpers. Any guest might propose the health of any person he pleased to name; immediately slaves ladled into the goblet of each guest as many cyathī as there were letters in the name mentioned, and the goblets had to be drained at a draft. The rest of the entertainment was undoubtedly wild enough (§ 310); gambling seems to have been common, and Cicero, in his speeches against Catiline, speaks of more disgraceful practices. Sometimes the guests spent the evening roaming from house to house, playing host in turn, and, wearing their crowns and garlands, they staggered through the streets and made night hideous.

   315. The Banquets of the Vulgar Rich. Little need be said of the banquets of the vulgar nobles in the last century of the Republic and of the rich parvenus (§ 181) who thronged the courts of the earlier emperors. They were arranged on the same plan as the dinners we have described, differing from them only in the ostentatious display of furniture, plate, and food. So far as particulars have reached us they were, judged by the canons of today, grotesque and revolting rather than magnificent. Couches made of silver, wine instead of water for the hands, twenty-two courses to a single cēna, seven thousand birds served at another, a dish of livers of fish, tongues of flamingoes, brains of peacocks and pheasants mixed up together, strike us as vulgarity run mad. The sums spent upon these feasts do not seem so fabulous now as they did then. Every season in our great capitals sees social functions that surpass the feasts of Lucullus in cost as far as they do in taste and refinement. As signs of the times, however, as indications of changed ideals, of degeneracy and decay, they deserved the notice that the Roman historians and satirists gave them.

1 The names are connected respectively with faba, a bean, cicer, a chick-pea, pistor, a miller, caepe, an onion, porcus, a pig, asinus, an ass, vitellus, a calf, and ovis, sheep.

2 The word frūmentum occurs fifty-five times in
Caesar’s Gallic War, meaning any kind of grain that happened to be grown for food in the country in which Caesar was campaigning at the time. The word “corn” used to translate it in many of our books of reference is the worst possible for the young American student, because to him the word “corn” means a particular kind of grain, a kind which was unknown to the Romans. The general word “grain” is much better for translation purposes.

3 Spoiled wine was used as vinegar (acētum), and vinegar that became insipid and tasteless was called vappa. This latter word was used also as a term of reproach for shiftless and worthless men.

Gellius (6.16.5) gives a list from a satirical poem of Cicero’s contemporary, Varro: peacock from Samos, heath-cock from Phrygia, crane from Media, kid from Ambracia, young tunny-fish from Chalcedon, mūrēna from Tartessus, cod (?) from Pessinus, oysters from Tarentum, scallops (?) from Chios, sturgeon (?) from Rhodes, scarus from Cilicia, nuts from Thasos, dates from Egypt, chestnuts (?) from Spain.

5 “Right” here means right as one stood behind the couch and faced the table.

6 This is the most common form of the term for “dessert,” but the plural also occurs, and the adjective may follow the noun.


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