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Ancient Roman Cuisine

Ancient Rome played an important role in the development of Italian cuisine, such as pasta techniques, olive oil use and grape cultivation for wine making. It cannot be considered the sole birthplace of Italian cuisine. As an overview, Italian cuisine is the result of a rich and diverse culinary heritage that has evolved over centuries, with great influence from the oldest surviving cookbook in Roman history.

Ancient Roman cuisine was diverse and heavily influenced by their very own conquests and trade relations with other regions. To a certain extent it is often considered that the period from 1AD was the birthplace of Italian cuisine.

Nevertheless, whilst Ancient Rome had a significant influence on the development of Italian cuisine, it cannot be considered the birthplace of Italian cuisine. The cuisine of Italy as we know it today is the result of a longer timeline in history of cultural exchange and regional diversity. 

Roman Empire Map

The various regions of Italy have their own unique culinary traditions that have been shaped by geography, history, and cultural exchange. For example, Northern Italian cuisine is heavily influenced by the neighbouring countries of Austria, Switzerland, and France, while Southern Italian cuisine has been shaped by the Mediterranean and North African cultures because of the Italian colonies throughout history. Italy had several colonies, including Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia in Africa, and they also had territories in the Balkans, Asia, and the Americas. These colonies and territories had their own unique culinary traditions, which in turn influenced Italian cuisine.

Pasta with bacon lardons

For example, Italian dishes such as spaghetti with tomato sauce, pizza, and gelato are believed to have originated in Naples, which was a major port city and had close ties with Italy's colonies in the Mediterranean. Spaghetti and tomato sauce likely came from Libyan cuisine, while pizza may have been influenced by Turkish or Greek cuisine. 

Italian cuisine has also been influenced by the cuisine of Ethiopia, particularly in the use of spices such as cinnamon, cumin, and coriander.  This is considered to have happened much later after the demise of the Roman Empire. 

Mitmita Spice Blend

Our spice blend MITMITA only has cumin as one of the above suggested spices.

As it is well known, coffee has had an immense impact on Italian culture. However it is said that it didn’t reach Italy until 16th century. The Romans never discovered caffeine. Nevertheless, Ethiopian is said to be the birthplace of coffee where folklore suggests that a goat herder “Kaldi” discovered coffee beans on the higher grounds of Ethiopian forests. 

In addition, Italian cuisine has been influenced by Italian immigrants who settled in various parts of the world, particularly in the United States and Argentina. Italian immigrants adapted their recipes to the ingredients available in their new homes, resulting in dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs and Argentine-style pizza.

Overall, Italian cuisine has been shaped by a variety of cultural and historical influences, including those of Italy's colonies and territories.

If we go back to the Roman period, the Ancient Romans did contribute several key elements to Italian cuisine, including the widespread use of olive oil, the cultivation of grapes for wine production, and the development of techniques for making pasta. The Romans also introduced new ingredients to Italy, such as chickpeas, lentils, and spices, which became staples of Italian cuisine.

The Romans believed that herbs and spices had medicinal properties and were important for flavouring and preserving food in the same way that Indians considered spices and herbs to play a pivotal role in ayurvedic medicine, as is still the case.  

In summary, while Ancient Rome played an important role in the development of Italian cuisine, it cannot be considered the sole birthplace of Italian cuisine. As an overview, Italian cuisine is the result of a rich and diverse culinary heritage that has evolved over centuries.

Examples of foods that were commonly eaten by ancient Romans:

Bread was a staple food in ancient Rome, and various types of bread were made from different grains. In our blog “Bread History – Bread Science” you can read about Panis Candidu and Panis quadratus and the cultural nuances between black bread and white bread.  

Man baking ancient roman bread

Meat was a luxury item for most Romans, but the wealthy enjoyed a variety of meats including pork, beef, and wild game including some taboo exotic wildlife.

Romans were great consumers of fish and seafood, and they often imported exotic seafood from the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

Vegetables such as beans, lentils, cabbage, and asparagus were commonly eaten by both rich and poor. The Romans did have a tendency for a heavy pant-based diet.

Fruits such as apples, figs, dates, and grapes were popular, and the wealthy enjoyed imported fruits such as peaches and apricots.

Olive oil was used in almost every dish, and the Romans believed that it had medicinal properties.

Wine was a popular drink among the ancient Romans, and they produced it in large quantities.

Spices and herbs: Pepper was highly prized by the Romans and was used to add flavour and spice to many dishes. Cumin was used to add a warm, earthy flavour to dishes. Coriander was used to add a citrusy, floral flavour to dishes. Mint was used to add a fresh, cooling flavour to dishes and was often used in sauces and dressings. Oregano was used to add a pungent, slightly bitter flavour to dishes. Bay leaves were used to add a subtle, earthy flavour to soups and stews and sage was used to add a slightly bitter, savoury flavour to dishes.

Honey was used as a sweetener, and the Romans also used it to make desserts and it was very much considered as an aphrodisiac.

Garum was a fermented fish sauce that was used as a seasoning in many dishes.

It's worth noting that the diet of ancient Romans varied greatly depending on their social status, with the wealthy enjoying a much wider range of foods than the poor.

Several Roman emperors were known for their love of food and lavish banquets. Here are a few examples: 

Roman Plate for Banquet

Nero is perhaps the most famous food-loving emperor of Ancient Rome. He was known for his extravagant banquets and his love of rare and exotic foods, such as peacock tongues and flamingo meat.

Vitellius was another emperor who was known for his love of food. He reportedly spent enormous sums of money on banquets and feasts, and his gluttony was legendary.

Claudius was an emperor who was said to have enjoyed simple, rustic food, such as snails and sausages. He was also known for his fondness for mushrooms, which may have ultimately contributed to his untimely death.

Elagabalus was a controversial emperor who was known for his wild and decadent lifestyle. He was said to have enjoyed elaborate feasts that included exotic dishes such as camel heels and brains.

These are just a few examples of Roman emperors who were known for their love of food. However, it's worth noting that many emperors and other wealthy Romans enjoyed lavish banquets and were passionate about food and dining.

 

Our heritage blend VEGETŌ which was developed by our co-founder Halle has taken elements and inspiration from the oldest surviving cook book in Roman history.  

Vegeto Ancient Roman Spice Mix

Vegetō which has a smoky base and mild peppery heat, incorporates some of the Romans' favourite herbs and spices from our ingredients index. Basil, black pepper, chilli, cumin, garlic, paprika, parsley and celery salt. We often refer to this ancient blend as our natural vegetable salts. Just a pinch makes a world of difference to smashed avocado on sourdough or a sliced tomato sandwich with cream cheese. Full list of recipes here.

There is a popular belief that Marcus Gavius Apicius was a famous chef who cooked for Roman emperors, but the truth is not entirely clear.

Apicius was considered a wealthy Roman aristocrat who lived during the 1st century AD and was renowned for his culinary expertise. He is often credited with writing the first cookbook in recorded history, "De Re Coquinaria" (On the Subject of Cooking). The birthplace and inspiration to our heritage blend Vegetō. Further information here.  It is not entirely clear whether the "Apicius" who authored the cookbook was actually Marcus Gavius Apicius or someone else. It's possible that the name "Apicius" was simply used as a pseudonym to lend the book an air of sophistication and prestige. However, although the book itself is considered to come from 1 A.C.E. the oldest surviving copy comes from the 5th century. The book contains recipes for a wide range of dishes, from simple soups and stews to elaborate and expensive delicacies, and it is attributed to "Apicius".

There is no concrete evidence to suggest that Marcus Gavius Apicius was a chef who cooked for Roman emperors. However, it is entirely plausible that he was a wealthy and influential individual who enjoyed fine dining and was passionate about food and cooking. The true identity of "Apicius" remains a mystery, but his cookbook is considered one of the most important historical documents that offers a glimpse into the culinary traditions of Ancient Rome.

As historical records are unclear on the matter, one popular theory about Apicius' death is that he committed suicide due to financial difficulties. According to this theory, Apicius had spent all of his wealth on extravagant culinary endeavours, leaving him in debt and unable to maintain his lavish lifestyle. In order to avoid the shame of financial ruin, he supposedly took his own life. As we often sentimentalise Ancient Roman history, we can’t help but think that there is no smoke without fire.

Like most of the aforementioned, there is little solid evidence to support this theory, and other accounts suggest that Apicius may have died of natural causes or from illness. Without clear historical records or direct evidence, the true cause of Apicius' death remains a mystery.

The Ancient Romans believed that certain foods had aphrodisiac properties. To a certain extent, many cultures still have the same beliefs today albeit there is characteristically no scientific evidence. 

For various reasons, the Ancient Romans believed that Asparagus on barbecue asparagus, oysters, honey, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg and ginger to name but a few were considered for their fertility, energy, and stimulants’ benefits. 

 

For most cooks, chefs and food historians, the culinary creations of the ancient Romans don’t sound very appetising. Comical and sometimes engrossing scenes from the work of fiction that is “Satyricon” is a rather good example. A work of fiction that is attributed to the writer Petronius. It is a satirical novel that is often described as a mixture of comedy, erotica, and social commentary.

The Satyricon tells the story of two young men, Encolpius and his friend Giton, as they journey through the Roman Empire in search of pleasure and adventure. Along the way, they encounter a colourful cast of characters, including a wealthy freedman named Trimalchio, who throws an extravagant dinner party, and a priestess who claims to possess magical powers.

Pretentious and lavish parties had them eating a hare that was decorated with wings to resemble Pegasus, a sow’s udders and bulls’ testicles.

The novel is known for its vivid descriptions of Roman society and culture, including its food, drink, and sexual practices. It also contains elements of parody and satire, as Petronius pokes fun at the pretensions and excesses of the upper classes.

Although the Satyricon is a work of fiction, it is often cited as a valuable source of information about life in ancient Rome, particularly with regard to social customs, fashion, and cuisine. It is fair to say that although this fiction may have had a significant influence on literature and art throughout the centuries, we are all probably very glad that we were not invited to the banquets with peacock tongues, flamingos, pigs udders and bulls testicles. Taking the best parts of the Ancient Romans, Cameler Spice Co would rather you get inspired by our take on 21st Century Heritage blends from the Mediterranean region to inspire your culinary delights.