Roman Meals

Sarah Weise

Miami University

Typically, the Romans ate three meals a day. Originally, the Romans had a small breakfast called the ientaculum in the morning and then a huge meal called the cena around two in the afternoon, then another small meal called the vesperna later on in the night. However, in the empire this meal schedule was slightly modified. The cena was now held at a later time, closer to when we eat dinner. This caused the vesperna to disappear. However, to fill the gap between their breakfast and dinner, the prandium emerged.

The Ientaculum is the equivalent of what we call breakfast today. This was usually a light meal which consisted primarily of bread. Sometimes the bread would be dipped in wine or olive oil or even honey. Cheese and olives may have been eaten along with the bread as well. For the most part, this was a small meal which was usually eaten early in the morning right before the men would leave for work.

The Prandium is the Roman meal which is comparable to our lunch. Often, it just consisted of leftovers from the night before or cold meat and bread, similar to modern sandwiches. Basically, this was a small meal which we might even refer to as a snack. This meal did not come into being until the Cena was eaten at a later hour.

The Cena was the main meal and in earlier times it was even taken as early as two in the afternoon. Primarily for the rich, it consisted of three parts.

The Gustatio or a Promulsio was the first part which we would associate with a modern appetizer. This course included things like salads, radishes, mushrooms, eggs, shellfish, etc. It was followed by a drink of mulsum or wine sweetened with honey.

The Prima Mensa was the main course of the meal. However, there were even up to six or seven main dishes in this course. Guests would have to choose from a variety of fish, poultry and meat. After this part of the meal was finished, an offering of wheat, salt and wine would be made for the household gods on the family altar.

The Secunda Mensa was the final part of the meal and was made up of desserts. Cakes sweetened with honey as well as apples, pears, grapes, nuts and figs might be served. This part of the meal would also be accompanied with a wine/water mixture.

The Vesperna was a light supper that existed in the earlier years because often the cena was eaten so early that people were hungry again by night fall. This meal disappeared because it was no longer needed as the Romans began to have their cena at a later time.

Common Meals

Most poor Romans were lucky to have more than a piece of bread, if they had breakfast (ientaculum) at all. We also know that many could not afford to leave work to go eat lunch (prandium) like the wealthy could, so they had to continue to work. As far as dinners were concerned, it is most likely that poor and lower class Romans did not dine reclining on the couches for which the rich are famous. There probably wasn't room in their tiny apartments for such large and elaborate couches, rather they most likely sat on chairs or stools.

The Romans of the lower class ate meals that were very simple and economical. For instance, wheat comprised the greatest part of their diet, mostly because it was so cheap. They would usually boil the wheat to make some type of porridge. Sometimes the wheat would be baked, but that was only if they could afford to have an oven. This wheatmeal was the main course of the cena for most Romans. This porridge could be very bland and dull, so they often added flavorings and relishes to enliven the flavor. Other things such as vegetables, herbs, olives, mushrooms, fish, wild birds, and a little meat would be added if it could be found. However, in general, the poor Romans ate very little meat and mostly uncooked food.

*Click Here to see a recipe to make Roman Bread! (


Meals of the Upper Class

The wealthy Romans were able to buy rich cheeses and meats to accompany the usual breads for their breakfast (ientaculum). However, this meal was still very small in comparison to their other meals. The rich could also afford to come home from work for lunch (prandium), while the poor had to keep working. Nevertheless, both of these two small meals were usually eaten alone. We never hear of any gatherings for their ientaculum or cena, unless they are traveling; the cena was usually enjoyed with a gathering of family and friends after a day of work was completed.

(Picture of Triclinium-if possible!)

The extravagant dinner parties of the wealthy Romans for which they are notorious usually began right after the bath. These dinners were held in a triclinium which had three sloping couches situated around a square table. One side of the table was left open for the food service. The lectus medius was the couch reserved for the special guest; it was situated directly across from the open end of the table. The other two couches were called the lectus imus and the lectus summus. Typically, nine people would attend, thus there would be three people reclining on each couch. The Romans usually positioned themselves so that they were leaning on their left elbow. Only small children or slaves were permitted to eat sitting. Spoons were used to eat soups and stews, but for the most part, since there were no knives and forks, the Romans would eat with their fingers. Therefore, the food would be cut into bite size pieces and there would be slaves who would continually wash the guests' hands throughout the dinner.


***Click on the web site below to see a detailed reproduction of a triclinium:


What make the Roman banquets so impressive are the elaborate dishes that were served. "Meat dishes included boar, venison, wild goat, mutton, lamb, kid, sucking pig, hare and dormice. Poultry dishes were of almost every known bird: chicken, geese, ostriches, cranes, duck partridges, pheasants, pigeons, doves, thrushes, fig-peckers, and- for the rich- peacocks"(Cowell, 1961: 78). The amount of food and length of the dinner would depend on who was having the banquet. Indeed, it was not uncommon for people to stuff themselves until they were sick. Many banquets even lasted eight to ten hours. The expense and luxury of such food served could make a man go bankrupt. Petronius, in The Satyricon gives a detailed narrative of what would happen at one of these banquets. Below are just a few descriptions of exquisite dishes that were served at Trimalchio's dinner:


"On the hors d'oeuvres tray stood a donkey of Corinthian bronze bearing saddlebags stuffed with olives, white in one side, black in the other. Two platters flanked the animal; their weight in silver and Trimalchio's name were engraved along their edges. Little bridges welded to the plate supported dormice sprinkled with honey and poppyseeds. There were even sausages sizzling on a silver gridiron, which arched over some Syrian plums and pomegranate seeds" (Satyricon 32 tr. Branham).


"On a round serving tray the twelve signs of the zodiac were arranged in a circle. Over each sign the specialty chef had placed the kind of food that fit its character: over Aries the ram, a ramifying pea; on Taurus the bull, a slice of rump roast; over Gemini the twins, testicles and kidneys; on the Crab, a crown of flowers; over the Lion, a virile African fig; on Virgo, the womb of a barren sow; over Libra, a set of scales with a cheesetart on one side, balanced by a pancake on the other; on Scorpio, (the scorpion fish); on Sagittarius, a seahorse; on Capricorn, a lobster; on Aquarius, a goose; on Pisces, a pair of snapper. In the middle of all this was a piece of turf, torn out roots and all, with a honeycomb sitting on it. An Egyptian slave boy was bringing bread around in a silver chafing dish..."(Satyricon 35 tr. Branham).




"A dessert tray loaded with little cakes had already been served. In the middle the baker had made a Priapus with all kinds of apples and grapes heaped in his ample lap in the popular fashion" (Satyricon 60 tr. Branham).

In Plautus' Aulularia, we hear about preparations being made for a wedding feast. With the financial support of wealthy Megadorus, it is likely that an elaborate banquet would follow the wedding of Lycondides and Phaedria. Below is a hypothetical menu of the food that might be prepared for such an occasion! *Click on the starred items to see an authentic recipe from Apicius's The Art of Cooking!






Caseus et Panis (Cheese & Bread)

*In Ovis Apalis Olivae (Boiled Eggs)

*Gustum de Praecoquis (starter with apricots)

Mulsum (wine sweetened with honey



*In Vitulinam Elixam (Boiled Veal)

*Pullus Fusilis (Chicken with liquid filling)

*Aliter Baedinam sive Agnimam Excaldatam (Steamed Lamb)

*Minutal Marinum

Vinum Falsum (Water/ Wine mixture)



Uvae (Grapes)

*****Pepones et Melones (Water and honey melons)

*****Dulcia Domestica (Housemade Dessert)

******Patina de Piris (Pear Souffle)


Visual resources:

Model of a Roman Culina

Summer Triclinium

A Model of a Roman Room (London reconstruction)

Another Model of a Roman Room (London reconstruction)

Floor plan (House of Pansa)- look at where the triclinium is



Balsdon, J.P.V.D. Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York, 1969.

Branham, R. Bracht and Kinney, Daniel. Petronius's Satyrica. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1996.

Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd: London, 1941.

Cowell, F.R. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London,1961.

Flower, Barbara and Rosenbaum, Elisabeth. The Roman Cookery Book: The Art of Cooking by Apicius. Peter Nevill Limited: London, 1958.

Fowler, W. Warde. Social Life At Rome in the Age of Cicero. St Martin's Press: London, 1965.

Liversidge, Joan. Everyday Life in the Roman Empire. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London, 1976.


Useful Web Sites:

Ancient Rome (Links to Comprehensive Roman Sites)

Antique Roman Dishes- Collection

Age, Gender, and Status divisions at mealtime in the Roman House (diagram of triclinium)

Recipe for Roman Bread

How do we know what the Romans ate?

Roman Dinners

Social recipes in the Roman house

CC 452: Food in the Ancient World (Univ. of Michigan course on food)

Investigating the Romans (BBC educational resources)