Roman Feasts

When you sit at the table to eat a meal, are you expected to sit up properly, stop playing with your food and use a knife and fork? Do you occasionally get told off for eating with your fingers, or even burping out loud? Then you might like to know that the Roman idea of polite table manners differed quite drastically from today. 

The rich ancient Roman’s dining table was a noisy, unruly place. Perhaps you’d fit right in, or, on the other hand, perhaps not.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire covered approximately 500 years (27 BCE – 476 CE) and during that time dining customs changed along with kinds of food eaten – especially with the growing influence of Greek culture. In the early years, wealthy women were not allowed to sit at the table with the men, but as Roman culture changed it became normal for them to join their male relatives and guests. While everyday meals were quite ordinary, dinner parties or feasts were much more lively and overindulgent. Important Romans tried to outdo each other in the extravagance of food and entertainment, to show off their wealth and status. Poorer citizens neither had the room, the money, nor the slaves to compete.


The Romans were not big meat eaters. Pork was more common than beef, although when it became available, wild boar and game were also eaten. Fish was very popular, oysters were farmed, and snails and grubs, peacocks, poultry and ostrich were all consumed. The edible dormouse (larger and fatter than the common dormouse) was seen as a delicacy that only the wealthiest Romans could afford to offer their guests. They were eaten either as a roasted savoury or dipped in honey with nuts as a dessert. But above all, the Romans were great fruit and vegetable eaters. They often ate far more than the five-a-day quota recommended now!!

Illustration: Camilla Perkins

Fruit and vegetables

Fruits included apples, pears, figs, grapes, quinces, and pomegranates, and in the later years of the empire more exotic fruits were grown in Italy, such as cherries, apricots, oranges, lemons and dates. Vegetables could include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, French beans, onions, courgettes, artichokes, lettuce, cucumber and radishes. Cheese and eggs were also available. As the Roman Empire expanded, taking in different countries with different foodstuffs, the richest people were able to enjoy a wonderfully varied diet.

Stinky fish sauce

The ancient Romans were famous for their fish sauce, which was used as both seasoning in cooking and in place of salt at the table. The highest quality fish sauce was made from the intestines of mackerel and cost a fortune. It also stank out the neighbourhood where it was being produced.

Sloppy dining habits

Men would typically conduct their business in the morning, followed by a trip to the communal baths and then, at about 3 pm, take their place with their fortunate guests in the triclinium (dining room) found in the wealthier domus (town houses).

Here, three couches were placed on the three sides of a central table, where up to nine important people could lounge – other guests and children sat upright at other tables. Sometimes they would be provided with special loose dining clothes, and dined barefoot. They would have to take care where they walked at the end of the feasting, because anything that couldn’t be eaten ­– such as fruit stones, shells and bones – was simply thrown on the floor for the slaves to sweep up.

Illustration: Camilla Perkins

Did you know?

Some people recommended that a sick person should eat vast amounts of cabbage and bathe in their own wee to make them well!

Fingers or forks?

Some historians believe the fork was invented during the Roman Empire, but other records seem to suggest that only a knife and spoon were used, with most diners just using their fingers. Even plates were not always used – the dinner guests would take the food straight from a serving dish to their mouths. Often they used slices of bread to wipe their fingers on; although in rich houses the slaves would wash the hands of the diners between courses.

There could be up to seven courses, and, before the guests started eating, slaves might give information on the various dishes on offer. This later gave rise to the use of the menus we see in restaurants today. Sometimes, during the course of the meal, meat, cake and wine were offered to various gods, especially the Lares, the household guardian spirits.

No one leaves the table!

The feasting might go on for hours. These long hours could be quite a struggle for some guests, especially as it was considered bad manners to leave the table for the bathroom! Burping at the table was not considered bad behaviour, in fact, quite the opposite. Burping was a sign that you really appreciated the food you were being given, and the host saw it as a compliment! Conversation was important but in the really wealthy houses musicians, acrobats, poets or dancers entertained the diners.   

While beer was thought vulgar by some of the wealthy hosts, wine – often diluted – was common. Mulsum ­– a wine sweetened with honey, was a particular favourite.

Ancient doggy bags

But, apart from all the belching, how did you know if your dinner party had been a success? One sign would be guests asking for a mappae (a kind of napkin), in which to wrap up food to take home. It was considered ill manners if you forgot to ask your host for the ancient form of the modern-day ‘doggy bag’.

Illustration: Camilla Perkins

So, do you think you’d enjoy dining with the ancient Romans? Write in and let us know your thoughts.

If you enjoyed this interesting blog, then you will love the articles in our Romans issue. 

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Words: Aquila Team. Illustration: Camilla Perkins