The people of ancient Rome may have lived thousands of years ago, but their diets were anything but old-fashioned. In fact, they chowed down on many foods we would shudder to even consider consuming today. The rich and famous, ranging from studs like Caesar and Antony to leading ladies like Livia, loved nothing more than sampling the oddest dishes our modern brains can imagine.
Even ancient writers loved to parody the weird things Romans ate. In his Satyricon, comic writer Petronius joked about the insanely lavish meal hosted by the freedman Trimalchio. So gauche it was gross, Trimalchio’s feast shows Roman foodies - and the nouveau riche - at their worst.
So what did ancient Romans eat? Gourmands like the gluttonous Emperor Elagabalus might have served up parrot heads or dolphin meatballs; guests might have seasoned their dishes, no matter how fancy, with garum, a sauce made out of fermented fish guts. Romans consumed the flesh of animals that came straight outta the arena, turned sacrificial blood into pudding and stuffed sausages, and cooked pests, making them into both yummy treats and remedies for serious medical conditions.
Vote up the weird foods from ancient Roman cuisine you wouldn't dare eat.
Weasels weren't regularly served up at Roman feasts, but they were sure handy if someone was suffering from epilepsy. Pliny the Elder wrote, as a treatment for epilepsy, "The brains of a weasel are also considered very good, dried and taken in drink; the liver, too, of that animal, or the testes, uterus, or paunch, dried and taken with coriander, in manner already mentioned."
Also, weasel flesh, when combined with salt, supposedly helped heal people stung by snakes.
Just as he did with respect to camel brains, Caelius Aurelianus, writing in the fifth century AD, challenged the idea that weasel was a curative for epilepsy.
Brains are a common food mentioned in Apicius, with those of young cows and sheep featured throughout the cookbook. One of the recipes includes such bizarre ingredients as lamb brains, eggs, pepper, and rose petals. Brains were used to stuff sausages or other meat dishes, essentially featured as stuffing.
Apicius's recipe for Apician jelly incorporates either the sweetbreads of lamb or calf with a host of ingredients including raisins, honey, mint, nuts, and cheese. Once the concoction was prepared, it was covered and buried in the snow or chilled in some other fashion until firm.
Instead of ketchup, the ancient Romans used another tasty condiment: garum.
Sold in large and small quantities alike, garum (also called liquamen) was “prepared from the intestines of fish and various parts which would otherwise be thrown away, macerated in salt; so that it is, in fact, the result of their putrefaction.” Garum was often mixed with honey, vinegar, or other additives and even came in kosher varieties.
According to first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder, garum could be expensive. He described how "a garum of mackerel from the fisheries of Carthage is the most highly prized... hardly any other liquid commands such prices, apart from perfume." Because it could be cost-prohibitive, lower-class Romans often opted to replace garum with allec. Originally made from anchovies, allec was essentially the remnants of a good garum or was made out of smaller, cheaper fish.
The Romans loved seafood, even dining on dolphin on occasion. Although not actually a fish, dolphin was a potential candidate for salt fish balls in wine sauce. The recipe called for a mixture of sea creature flesh with spices like mint, parsley, and pepper. After all of the ingredients were blended and formed into balls, they were poached in "wine, broth, and oil."
Dolphin was an excessive culinary treat prohibited by sumptuary legislation. Wealthy Romans like Rutilius Rufus found ways around these laws, however, buying "his fish from fishermen who used to be his slaves... including delicacies like dolphin and swordfish."
Much like dolphin, jellyfish wasn't the most common item on a Roman menu. When it did appear, however, jellyfish was part of a salad.
Slightly more present in Roman cuisine was sea urchin. During the same Pompeii excavation in which scientists uncovered a giraffe bone, they also found the remains of a sea urchin. Apicius advocated using sea urchins on top of a mega-casserole that featured everything from brains to cheese, or on their own. Sea urchins were boiled or eaten raw, stuffed with egg and honey, or simply sprinkled with salt and pepper.