Patinas, Pots, and Pestles: Roman Cookware

Roman cooks used a wide variety of utensils and appliances to prepare their meals. Here is an introduction to some of the items you would have seen in a kitchen during the republic.

A well-preserved Roman focus from the site of Augusta Raurica, Switzerland.

Much like how the contents of meals varied based on wealth and location, so too did the way food was prepared, namely the complexity of utensils used. Despite certain differences, there were significant similarities in all Roman kitchens.

The most essential mode of cooking food for everyone was by fire. Roasting, baking, and boiling could all take place on a flame, which was contained in a hearth called the focus. Because of the central role of fire in Roman cooking, it makes sense that the name given to the fireplace in Latin has shifted to refer to anything central or vital in English.

Within the focus, the types of flames and amounts of heat could be altered in different areas if it was large enough. For example, one part could be reserved for intense, searing flames to roast meat, while another could hold ashes that would be used to cover and cook eggs and vegetables. Over the focus, cooks often would have set a veru (spit) and several craticulae (griddles). The veru would have undoubtedly been used for meat, while the craticulae could have held a variety of items, elevating them above the flames to avoid burning.

In addition to the focus, many kitchens had an oven called a fornax or a furnus (the names are interchangeable). From what I found, this would’ve been like a modern pizza oven: made of either brick or clay, foods were inserted from the side and were cooked by wood or coals. This was probably used for baked goods like bread.

An illustration of a collection of cooking implements collected from Pompeii.

As I mentioned above, the utensils and wares used in Roman kitchens varied. Earlier in history, and also for poorer families, too, there were fewer utensils used. However, for simplicity’s sake (also because it’s difficult to determine whether many of these utensils were used by the rich or the poor), I’ve compiled a list of just some of the many Roman kitchen utilities you could expect to find being used by an ancient cook:

sartago (frying pan)
olla* (earthen pot or jar)
cacabus (cooking pot)
situla (kettle, bucket, or vessel for water)
patina (broad, shallow dish or stewpan)
catinus (large bowl, dish, or plate for serving food)
patella (small, shallow dish or pan)
cratera (mixing bowl)
poculum (drinking cup)
colum** (colander/strainer)
cyathus (small ladle)
harpago*** (meat hook)
mortarium (mortar)
pistillum (pestle)
culter (knife)
furca (fork)
cochlear (spoon)

This list is by no means exhaustive, but offers a bit of a glimpse into the past. To say the least, Roman cooks had access to a wide variety of implements to use, many of which were used to prepare the dishes I plan to recreate and write about later.

*The olla is the quintessential Roman cooking dish. Martial referred to it as the rubra testa, or red pot (Epigrams XIII). It was one of the earliest recorded dishes and was used by nearly all cooks, including peasants, as Juvenal attests (Satires XIV).

**Ostensibly, cheap varieties of the colum could be made from linen.

***Interestingly, the word harpago translates directly from Latin as “grappling hook,” and the purpose of the utensil itself is contested. The utensil looks like a spoon with metal hooks (somewhat like a grappling hook) and was most likely used to pull meat from boiling water.

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