Our most important source on Roman gastronomy is the cookbook of Apicius, compiled in or around the late 4th century AD, and containing recipes for such delicacies as larks’ tongues, sterile sows’ wombs, and milk-fed snails. The Apicius in question is not to be confounded with Marcus Gavius Apicius, the gourmet extraordinaire of the 1st century AD, who fed dried figs to his pigs to make the porcine equivalent of foie gras. According to Pliny, Apicius was ‘born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived’ (ad omne luxus ingenium natus). It is said that he committed suicide after having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, and discovering that he had only 10 million sestertii left.

By the late Republic, Roman meals consisted of breakfast or ientaculum at dawn, a small lunch or prandium around noon, and a large dinner or cena in the evening. A simple dinner with the family normally took place in the atrium, and may have consisted of vegetable courses and salads accompanied by eggs, cheese, and beans, and rounded off with fruits and nuts. By the end of the Republic, the cena consisted of three distinct courses, and, in the presence of guests, could segue into a late-night drinking party or comissatio—the Roman equivalent of a Greek symposium.

On these more formal occasions, the feasting took place in a dining room called a triclinium (from the Greek τρικλίνιον, ‘three couches’), with couches arranged on three sides of a central table. The fourth, open side usually faced the entrance of the room, and afforded a space for slaves to service the table. Each couch admitted of at most three diners, reclining on their left elbow with their head pointing at the table; in some cases, a fourth diner—usually an intimate friend or a minor of high social standing—could also be seated. The required posture would have been uncomfortable had the couches not been covered in cushions and positively inclined towards the table. The various positions around the table were not all equal, with the host seating his guests according to social status and closeness or intimacy. Unlike in Greece, women could be present; in the Republic they usually sat on chairs, but in the Empire they could also recline on a couch. Grander houses often featured a second, summer triclinium in or overlooking the garden, and the grandest houses had three or four or even more triclinia.

Upon arrival, guests at a dinner party removed their sandals and washed their hands. The host did not provide any napkins, and each guest had to bring his own. Napkins served to wipe the hands and mouth, of course, but also to take home leftover tit bits and even, in some cases, a gift or souvenir from the host. During the meal, food was taken from plate to mouth with three fingers or with one of two spoons, the larger lugula for soups and pottages and the smaller, prong-like cochlear for eggs and shellfish. Between the three principal courses, diners rinsed their fingers in perfumed water whilst slaves washed the table and swept away the bones and shells that had been tossed onto the floor. After the second course, the host made an offering of something like meat, cake, and wine to the Lares of the house. Conversation made up the bulk of the evening’s entertainment, and could be supplemented with a recital of literature or poetry, and even with performances by acrobats, conjurers, musicians, singers, or dancers—although the diners themselves never got up to dance. At the end of the evening, guests called for their sandals (whence the expression, soleas poscere, ‘to ask for one’s sandals’—to prepare to leave) and maybe received a gift or souvenir to take home in their napkin.

The Roman dinner party is a popular and recurrent theme in Roman literature. In a letter, Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) chides his friend Septicius Clarus for not turning up to his dinner party,

All ready were a lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, porridge, with mulsum and snow … olives, beetroot, gourds, bulbs, and a thousand other things no less appreciated. You would have heard comic actors or a poetry reader or a lyrist, or, such is my generosity, all three. But you chose to go to someone else’s for oysters, sows’ wombs, sea urchins, and dancing girls from Cadiz.

The best if most lurid description of a Roman dinner party is Trimalchio’s Feast (Cena Trimalchionis) in the Satyricon, a rather salacious novel attributed to Petronius, a courtier in the time of Nero. Trimalchio’s Feast is arguably the most celebrated section of the Satyricon, even though—or perhaps because—it has done untold harm to the reputation of the Roman dinner party. Trimalchio, a freedman who has come into enormous wealth, entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance. For example, he brings out Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 180 years prior, and serves a course with a multitude of disparate ingredients each representing one of the signs of the zodiac: a lobster for Capricorn, the udder of a young sow for Virgo, testicles and kidneys (which come in pairs) for Gemini, and so on. The evening culminates with his entire household gratifying him with an enactment of his funeral.

The Romans ate all sorts of food. Rather than itemizing all the ingredients available to the Romans, it is simpler and easier to itemize all the ingredients not available at the height of the Empire. The principal items on this list of absentees are sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, butter, tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas, peanuts, and chili pepper. The Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great had brought back to Greece such delicacies as citrus fruits, peaches, pistachio nuts, and even the prized peacock. As they became increasingly rich and cosmopolitan, the Romans left behind their diet of emmer wheat gruel and adopted and adapted the sophisticated Greek cuisine. In time, Roman cuisine became even more exciting and exotic than the Greek—not entirely dissimilar, in fact, to modern Indian cuisine, with any one Roman dish enhanced by up to 15 different herbs and spices. The Romans had something of a sweet tooth, and many of their dishes involved balancing the sweetness of honey or concentrated grape juice (defrutum) with the acidity, sourness, or bitterness of vinegar, fish sauce (garum or liquamen), and a vast array of fresh and dried herbs and expensive spices—including even, from the first century AD, the pepper of south India and the cloves of the Spice Islands. Fish sauce, which was not dissimilar to Thai nam pla, was made from whole small fish such as anchovy, sardine, mackerel, sprat, and herring. The fish were macerated in salt and left to liquefy over a period of several weeks. This liquefaction resulted not from bacterial putrefaction, which the salt would have prevented, but from proteolysis by the enzymes contained in the viscera of the fish. Meat was relatively expensive. The cow was seen as a draught animal, and pork, rodents such as rabbit and hare, foul, and fish were much preferred to beef. Red mullet, which, upon dying, assumed a variety of colours and shades with which to entertain guests, was particularly sought after, as were dormice, which were typically stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and garum. Indeed, one of the many dishes to feature in Trimalchio’s Feast is ‘a row of dormice, glazed in honey and rolled in poppy seeds’.

Despite such extravagances, many Romans took great pride in the freshness and simplicity of their produce—and all the more if it has been sourced from their country farm. Of course, many people could not afford extravagant ingredients, and had to make do with a staple of wheat bread augmented with some fruit and vegetables and whatever else they could find or afford. In imperial times, many Romans lived in cramped apartments without access to a kitchen or open fire. Rather than cook at home, they bought food from street stalls and food shops, or else ate out in taverns and restaurants. In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger complains about the constant noise from the street outside his apartment, ‘the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation’. The poorest Romans could not even afford street food, and came to rely on the free bread ration issued to inhabitants of the city. After the suicide of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt, vast grain ships ploughed the route from Alexandria to Ostia to supply Rome with the immense quantities of wheat required for the bread ration. After being shipwrecked on Malta, it is on such a ship that St Paul reached Italy.