Some ancient diners held multiple-course feasts and gorged on flamingo tongues and fish livers! Here is a description of the extravagant dinners (and regular meals) of the Romans.
A photo of a fully recreated Roman dinner, or cena.
Similar to the standard meal pattern now, the Romans generally ate three times during the day. During the monarchy and at least the early republic, breakfast was called the ientaculum, lunch the cena, and dinner the vesperna.
However, as time passed, the cena moved later and later, eventually replacing the vesperna, and lunch was called the prandium. Though the names and contents of these meals changed over the course of Rome’s long history, their purposes remained essentially the same.
The first meal for many Romans was called ientaculum (coming from the word ientare or jentare, literally meaning “to break fast”). I found that this meal mostly stayed the same for all periods of Rome’s history. Martial notes that the ientaculum was not usually taken after the fourth hour, or around 10 o’clock (Epigrams 8.67). Schoolboys, as Martial adds in another epigram, ate their ientacula earlier than this, at cockcrow (14.223).
That being so, the Roman breakfast was light and portable. Roman authors like Galen and Apuleius mention that these meals consisted of bread, cheese, and fruit. In some cases, ancient folks would pick up their ientacula from bakeries or roadside vendors as they set out to start the day’s work.
The second meal by around the end of the republic was prandium. This meal, like ientaculum, was fairly light: for the playwright Seneca, it was only a bit of dry bread (Epistles 83). Normally, it seems, this Roman lunch included bread, indeed, with vegetables and cold meats, fish, or eggs. Following a morning at work or school, Romans would typically go home to eat their prandium.
Workmen who ground through the middle of the day and missed lunchtime would eat merenda, essentially a later prandium. Calpurnius Siculus, a poet writing sometime after Virgil, noted in his Eclogues that shepherds would take this meal around the ninth hour – 3 o’clock – before returning to graze their flocks (5.60).
Early in Rome’s existence, the third meal of the day was called the vesperna, and consisted of a single, probably meatless course. I wasn’t able to find too much information on this meal because, for some reason or another, the vesperna was replaced by the cena. The author Livy claims in his book Ab Urbe Condita that Roman cuisine began to grow more complex and take on a life of its own as a result of conquest and expansion, an explanation that could account for a later cena.
During Rome’s early history, common cena fare for all Romans, regardless of class, likely would have been porridge. Referred to as puls or graneam in Latin, it was made of one of the most fundamental ingredients in all of Roman cooking: wheat. Cooks would mix wheat with water, salt, and usually some form of fat like lard, butter, or oil.
Depending on the time of year, different vegetables could be eaten with the porridge, adding some variety to an otherwise monotonous dish. Wealthier diners would also add extra ingredients like eggs, honey, cheese, and, every now and then, meat or fish.
As Rome grew and prospered, it became customary for businessmen to schedule their responsibilities in the morning, allowing them to be finished with work soon after the prandium. After taking care of their obligations, they would flock to one of the many thermae, or baths, in the city — by the time of Augustus, there were apparently around 170!
Bathing was not only hygienic but also a social activity: Romans would congregate and discuss business news, politics, and gossip while cleaning. Upon leaving the thermae, they would return home and begin to prepare for the cena.
Often beginning in the middle of the afternoon, the cena could last for many hours, drawing on late into the night. A proper late Republican cena consisted of three courses, or mensae (named for the small tables they were served on). The first, called the gustatio, acted as an appetizer and typically included a salad or herbs of some sort, and sometimes eggs or fish. Classical diners believed minimally prepared dishes at the beginning of the cena would help aid digestion as the night grew on.
The second course, called the prima mensa, was the main one. It consisted of meats, like pork, chicken, or veal, and vegetables, and was accompanied by wine. The third and final course for most dinners, the secunda mensa, was full of pastries, fruits, and nuts, sort of like a dessert.
Though the three-course dinner was relatively standard, some showy hosts decided to add more dishes and expensive ingredients. Because of this, in literature and legend, the cena came to be seen as a meal of mythic proportions.
One of the most remarkable examples comes from the Satyricon, a first-century-AD book attributed to Gaius Petronius. The protagonist of the story travels to a dinner party of grotesque luxury: a whopping twelve courses are served, all on the finest bronze and silver dishes, and are washed down with century-old wine that, according to ancient sources, certainly wasn’t cheap.
Among the many courses were an arrangement of themed appetizers for each zodiac sign, buckets of oysters and scallops, a boiled calf, and a whole wild boar stuffed with live thrushes! This tale is a work of satire, after all, so the proportions and dishes are definitely exaggerations. However, some real cenae were on par with this fictional one with regards to extravagance and excess.
In his book De vita Caesarum, the author Suetonius describes the emperor Vitellius as being especially fond of hosting lavish dinner parties. At one such feast, he apparently served two thousand fish and seven thousand birds. Suetonius also tells of an unusual dish Vitellius particularly liked called the “Shield of Minerva,” named for the goddess of wisdom.
It consisted of pike livers, the brains of peacocks and pheasants, lamprey innards, and flamingo tongues, and was probably arranged into the shape of Minerva’s shield, the aegis. Suetonius seemed to think Vitellius’s tastes were much too excessive, even for the emperor.
However, for most Romans, even affluent ones, dinners were relatively small and invited few guests, if any at all. Though the names and cuisine may seem strikingly different from our practices today, the central purpose of mealtime has remained largely the same: to eat, of course, but more importantly to share friendship and conversation.