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.
Meat was a delicacy for people of the ancient Roman world, and oftentimes it was almost exclusively consumed by the rich. Even so, exotic meats like peacock were even more of a rarity. Peacock was mostly served as cooks tried to impress guests of the rich, and while not common, it ended up on the table enough in all forms - including peacock tongue.
According to Apicius, a collection of recipes and food facts dating back to the first century AD, peacock was among "first rank" dishes, outranking rabbit, lobster, chicken, and pork in luxury. Alongside the flesh and tongues of peacocks - parts of the animal that had to be tenderized properly - Roman elites also ate peacock eggs, again considered the top among their counterparts.
The ancient Romans really loved sterile sow's womb. Romans spayed their pigs before slaughtering them (or didn't let them have piglets), ideally keeping the womb pristine in both texture and taste. The most famous cookbook from antiquity, Apicius, detailed numerous recipes featuring this delicacy, often accompanied by udders and belly flesh.
One way to prepare a sow's womb was by cooking it in "pepper, celery seed, dry mint, laser root [similar to fennel], honey, vinegar and broth." Romans also grilled sow's womb, coating it in "bran, afterwards put in brine" and cooked.
One of ancient Rome's most famous gourmands was the third-century emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222 AD), who loved hosting extravagant parties more than pretty much anything else. Ancient gossip in the Historia Augusta reports that he was a true glutton who enjoyed serving even his attendants the greatest delicacies. The text reports, "He served to the palace-attendants, moreover, huge platters heaped up with... heads of parrots, pheasants, and peacocks."
The Roman affinity for exotic birds similarly extended to flamingo. Both parrot and flamingo were cooked by boiling the meat in salt, dill, and vinegar, later adding leeks and coriander. Apicius reports the birds were then infused with pepper, cumin, and other herbs, sweetened with dates, and braised. Some recipes included additional flavors like celery seed, mint, and shallots.
Romans were also interested in parrots as conversationalists. According to Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), the parrot was interesting due to its ability to "imitate the human voice... [and] converse." He noted, parrots "will duly salute an emperor, and pronounce the words it has heard spoken; it is rendered especially frolicsome under the influence of wine."
While digging in Pompeii, archaeologists discovered the remains of a giraffe bone in the drain system of an ancient restaurant. Butchering marks were found on the leg joint, indicating that the animal was eaten; how it got there from the arena remains a bit of a mystery, especially since it's apparently the only giraffe bone ever recovered from an Italian excavation.
Camels were another occasional delicacy that Romans enjoyed. An excavation of a midden (an ancient dump) from Rome yielded camel bones, indicative of Elagabalus's (r. 218-222 AD) predilection for eating the animals' heels. According to Elagabalus's biography, the emperor, "In imitation of Apicius... frequently ate camels-heels and also cocks-combs taken from the living birds, and the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, because he was told that one who ate them was immune from the plague."
Writing in the fifth century AD, Roman physician Caelius Aurelianus criticizes the use of "camel's brain" as a remedy for epilepsy by his predecessors, attesting to beliefs surrounding the medicinal properties of camels.