Weird History

What Were Foodies Eating At The Peak Of The Roman Empire?  

Melissa Sartore
2.6k views 13 items

In the Roman world, there was eating, and then there was fine dining. For members of the lower and middle classes, Roman food consisted of standard fare - bread, vegetables, and the occasional meat - and while traditional Roman food may have featured some weird food items, elite dishes stood out still further for their complexity and exotic elements. 

Romans held banquets to honor important religious days, to demonstrate wealth, and to celebrate personal achievements, and all of these occasions brought together people for lavish eating and drinking parties. A Roman dinner party featured three parts: appetizers, a main course, and dessert, each with elaborate dishes presented in exuberant fashion.

Most Romans never dined on the types of meals enjoyed by foodies in ancient Rome, nor had the pleasure of feasting on finely prepared flamingo or ostrich brought back from far-off locations within the ever-expanding Roman Empire.

Braised Flamingo is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What Were Foodies Eating At The Peak Of The Roman Empire?
Photo:  Bukvoed/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Braised Flamingo

According to Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes and cooking practices dating back to the first century AD, flamingo was one of the rare birds enjoyed by the Roman elite. The book, also known as De Re Coquinaria, is thought to have been the work of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman foodie who lived during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 AD)

Apicius describes how flamingo was to be prepared:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice or wine] to give it color. In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, rue, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fond [drippings] of the braised bird, thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve.

An alternative recipe involved roasting the bird with pepper, herbs, "dates, honey, wine, broth, vinegar, and oil," reducing the mixture to taste. 

Described by Pliny the Elder as a special flavor, flamingo was served similarly to parrot, and may have tasted very much like duck

Soft-Boiled Eggs In Pine Nut S... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Were Foodies Eating At The Peak Of The Roman Empire?
Photo: Roberto Bompiani/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Soft-Boiled Eggs In Pine Nut Sauce

Romans very much enjoyed eggs, and they were often featured as appetizers. Eggs could be fried and served with wine sauce or boiled and seasoned with "broth, oil, pure wine, or... broth, pepper, and laser (a popular herb)." 

Another common egg dish was a soft-boiled or poached egg with a sauce made out of pepper, soaked pine nuts, honey, vinegar, and garum (fish paste). 

Preparing the pine nuts for the dish would have required soaking them overnight, draining them, and using a mortar to pound them. Once they were mixed with pepper, honey, and fish paste, the sauce was heated while the eggs were boiled. When served, the sauce was poured over whole peeled eggs in a bowl. 


Ostrich Ragout is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list What Were Foodies Eating At The Peak Of The Roman Empire?
Photo: from Le Musée absolu, Phaidon/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Ostrich Ragout

Much like flamingo, ostrich was another exotic meat enjoyed by Romans, albeit only on unique occasions. Galen, a second-century Greek physician and scholar, described ostrich meat as "excrementitious and much more difficult to digest than the meat of [other birds]... although their wings are no worse than others."

This didn't stop people from eating it, however. Emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222) was said to have "served ostriches" at banquets, insisting "the Jews had been commanded to eat them" as a joke mocking Jews within the Roman world.

Apicius has two recipes for ostrich, both dishes that included vegetables, herbs, and chunks of meat in stew-like fashion. One boiled ostrich ragout was seasoned with "pepper, mint, cumin, leeks... dates, honey, vinegar, raisin wine, and broth." Oil was added, as well, and the stock was brought to a boil to cook the ostrich meat. Once the meat was drained, the mixture was thickened before putting the meat back in and serving to taste.

The second ostrich stew featured flavors like "pepper, thyme, honey, mustard," and vinegar.

Ostrich eggs were desirable, as well, with one egg feeding as many as eight people. 

Lobster Croquettes is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Were Foodies Eating At The Peak Of The Roman Empire?
Photo: Peter Paul Rubens/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Lobster Croquettes

According to Apicius, lobster was the third highest-ranking dish, falling behind peacock and rabbit. Lobster was often boiled but was also featured in croquettes - small, breaded balls of meat or vegetables. 

Romans enjoyed cuttlefish, lobster, and crab meat croquettes, all of which required extracting meat from the respective creature, mincing it, and adding pepper and fish broth. To bind the meat together in a small cake, they added flour, egg, or potato, then they fried the croquette or braised it in an ancient Roman fish sauce called liquamen.