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Meals of the Day

Simple Fare

During the Republic,the Romans ate frugally and sparingly. Their diet consisted of strictly vegetables and cold food. It was simple cooking and table service. The meals were usually prepared by the mother or slaves directed under her. There dishes were made from common crockery/wood and only spoons and fingers were used. During the Republic, EVERYONE of ALL CLASSES ate the same food. Family members sat around a table in the atrium on stools/benches. Dependents ate the same food, but apart from the family. There were no trained cooks. Even in the later times, when an extraordinary dinner was given, professional cooks were hired.

Luxurious living

Wars and travel led to the development of luxurious living to Romans.

The poor ate:

  • dark bread
  • vegetables
  • occasionally meat
  • cheap, diluted wine

On the other hand, some of the very rich overdid imitations of Greek living; they searched far and wide for exotic/costly food(i.e. Petronius Millionaire's Dinner Party) There was a separate dining room with dining couches and slaves served the food. In every rich household, there was a high-priced chef and assistants.

Hours for Meals

The Romans usually ate three meals a day. Some considered two meals more healthy, while others indulged in four, based on the time period, occupation and tastes of the individual.

In early times... In classical times
jentaculum - breakfast jentaculum - breakfast
cena - lunch prandium - lunch
vesperna - dinner cena - dinner

**merenda - in the early times, it referred to dinner, but later it referred to snack.

Formal Dinners

As Rome expanded, it became the norm to have late dinners. This was a social function because there was no other entertainment. A wealthy Roman would be either host or guest at dinner. In the country estates, dinners were less formal but were a "wholesome expression of genuine hospitality".

Dining Couches

Dining couches were lower and broader than common one. It was sloped from front to rear, with cushions at one end of the couch. Refer to diagrams.

Seating Guests

Usually a dining couch would seat three people, although a fourth person could be seated if he/she was a child or an intimate friend. There was often a space reserved for unexpected guests. Uninvited persons were called umbrae, meaning shadows.

Places of Honour

A guest approached the dining couch from the rear, and lie on the left elbow. Diners reclining on the middle couch had the highest couch on his/her left, and the lowest couch on his/her right. The lowest would usually be reserved for the host. If the host alone of the family was present, the two least important guests reclined beside him. If the consul was present, the place designated C on the middle couch was assigned to him. Refer to diagrams.

The Curved Couch

In the early Empire, there were couches for a round table. These couches were called sigma, after the Greek alphabet. The places of honour would be at the ends. The one at the right end of the couch would be the place of the consul.

Furniture and Tableware

In the dining room, other than the table and the couches, there was a sideboard. It varied from a simple shelf to tables of various dimensions to open wall cabinets. Its purpose was to show off silverware. The tables held serving dishes and certain formal articles (i.e. silver salt shaker and offering to gods.) There were no indications of dates. In Augustus' time, ordinary dishes were made of Arretine ware, which were inexpensive and unattractive. Later, graceful glassware and silver services became common. The costs and beauty of tableware were reflective of an individual's means and taste.

From Eggs to Apples

Dinner was often divided into three parts:

  • gustus - appetizers
  • cena - dinner proper
  • secunda mensa - dessert

Late Dinner

The dinner hour signalled the end of the day's work. This varied with the season and the social position of the family. It usually started in the middle of the afternoon(between the ninth and the tenth hour) and would at least last for three to four hours. Banquets starting before the ninth hour were called tempestiva convivia, or early dinners. Guests usually conversed through the dinner, although in some houses a trained slave read aloud. In wealthy families, entertainment such as music, dancing and juggling would be provided by hired professionals. At an elaborate dinner, souvenirs were sometimes given.

Serving the dinner

Guests were ushered into the dining room, where the gods were solemnly invoked. This was the equivalent of saying grace. The sandals were taken off and water with towels were carried around for hand-washing. Each guest brought his/her own napkin.

How food was served:

  1. dishes of food came on tray
  2. dishes removed from tray and removed from table
  3. dishes placed on tray and passed in regular order
  4. once the dishes have been passed all the way around, they were placed on tray and removed from table

Between the chief parts of the dinner, the table was cleared and wiped with a cloth or sponge. Water and towels were passed to guests. Between dinner and dessert, there was a lengthy silence while offering to the lares were made with wine, salt, meal, and other ordinary articles of food.

Some etiquette observed with secunda mensa:

  • when ready to leave, guests called for their sandals
  • thus, soleas poscere, meaning "to ask for one's sandals", refers to preparing to leave


Comissatio refers to conversations with drinking in the late hours. The Latin word convivium refers to "living together", which Cato the Elder declared the better choice than the Greek work symposium, meaning "drinking together." Younger men inclined to the Greek view, where dinner proper was followed with a drinking revel. This was referred to as comissatio or compotatio. These gatherings were disapproved due to the amount of wine consumed, lower tone of occasion, questionable amusements, and adoption of certain Greek customs. Such customs included the use of perfumes and flowers, selection of a master of the revels, and a different method of drinking. Perfumes and flowers were used in belief that they delayed intoxication. After dessert and wine, diners annointed themselves with perfumes and put on crowns of flowers. Roses were most popular, thus, it became associated with wine-drinking.

Master of the Revels

The "Master" was chosen by the highest dice tossed. He usually called on some god or sweetheart for luck when throwing the dice. He was then declared the REX BIBENDI - master of the revels (magister, arbiter).

This person determined the water:wine ratio, the drinking rules(dubbed "leges insanae" by Horace), entertainment by the guests, and the penalties/forfeits for rule-breaking.

Drinking Healths

The rex bibendi ordered wine to be mixrd in a large bowl and served in goblets. The ladle would hold approx. a twelfth of a pint. All had to drink the same amount at the comissatio. Wine was drunk in "healths" to an individual. Often the number of letters in a persons' name would be equal to the number of twelfths pints to be drunk in one swallow. Gambling was common at these gatherings. Sometimes, guests spent the evening wandering from house to house, staggering, disrupting the night.

Banquets of the Vulgar Rich

These banquets occurred in the alst century of the Republic and the time of the early emperors. Vulgar nobles and newly rich alike would give ostentatious display of furniture, tableware and food. In present day, these would be considered grotesque and revolting. Examples include: 22 courses to a single cena, wine for hand-washing. Lucullus was reported to have spent $10 000 dollars for a dinner.