Term Paper: Cuisine Knowledge of Romans' Diet

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Knowledge of Romans' diet comes from literary references, archeological evidence, and paintings. The only true literary source ever devoted to Roman food was a cookbook attributed to Apicus (Davis 1961, 102). However, it was established that Roman cuisine and diet was largely influenced by the Greek, therefore in order to paint a complete picture of Ancient Roman cuisine, it is important to make a few considerations regarding the culinary habits and customs of the Greeks. The Greek civilization is considered the first great European culture. It began to develop about 2000 B.C.; by the 700s B.C., the Greek world consisted of many small independent city-states, and reached its peak during the period commonly referred to as the Golden Age, i.e. The 5th century B.C., in Athens. It was during this time that the Greeks achieved considerable developments in several fields such as the arts, philosophy, and politics with the creation of the democratic government. The impact of ancient Greece was enormous and far exceeded its geographical borders; in fact, Greece is regarded as the birthplace of Western civilization.

The Athenians were skillful people who produced everything by hand, including armor, clothing and pottery. Also, Corinth was famous for its jewelry and metal goods (McIntosh 1995: 46). They were also famous for their architecture whose best representative is the Acropolis built during in the 5th century B.C. However, as far as agriculture, the Greeks were behind Mesopotamia and Egypt. Much of the Greek land was covered by rocky, light soil which did not produce any crops. The fertile land was located in several small villages and along the coast. The food supplies were sufficient because the population was rather small. The early Greek diet was quite simple. It consisted of mainly porridge and bread which was made from wheat and barley. Also, the Greek diet relied on olives and olive oil which was produced just about everywhere the land allowed it. Furthermore, the Greeks were fishermen so fish was an important component of their daily meals along with figs and honey. It is important to note here that the Greeks planted grapevines hence wine was part of their diet. Due to the arid soil of Greece, stock raising was almost impossible; in fact, only the richer farmers had sheep or pigs. This is why meat was not consumed on a regular basis; in fact, meat was mainly eaten at feasts or during religious sacrifices to the gods. Greek wines, especially those from Lesbos and Chios were imported by other Mediterranean countries. The Greeks, as well as the Romans diluted wine with water - a tradition started by the Egyptians (McIntosh 1995, 47). The main reason was the fact that in those days, wine contained a high amount of salt which was used as a preservative.

Roman culture was to a great extent a reinterpretation of classical Greece culture and civilization in the sense that Rome became the bearer of the Greek heritage. Examples of the influence of Greek culture are the writings of Thucydides that served as model for Tacitus, and Herodotus for the historian Livy. As far as sculpture and architecture, classical Greece was also the model for Roman creations such as the Pantheon which was the embodiment of new Roman spiritual values but also of the great Greek legacy in the area of architecture. Roman cuisine and dietary habits made no exception in the sense that they were largely influenced by the Greek culture. However, they were also influenced by politics in the sense that by changing from republic to empire, Rome was able to incorporate many new culinary habits, recipes, ingredients from the provinces. Generally speaking, in Ancient Rome, the common people's meals were centered on the consumption of corn, oil and wine. The wealthy also enjoyed different kinds of exotic foods imported from the provinces of the empire. Bread was the single most often eaten food in Ancient Rome, and was sometimes sweetened with honey and eaten with sausage, eggs, cheese, fish, or shellfish.

Any discussion on the dietary habits of the Romans must include a clear distinction between the period of the Republic and that of the empire. During the Republic, Romans ate frugally. Similarly to most Greeks, they were vegetarians and served their food cold. They did not use any utensils; instead of plates, they used bread which was a staple in the Roman diet. At this point in the history of Rome there were very few differences among social classes as far as food. However, when Rome defeated Carthage in North Africa in the 2nd century B.C., it seized control over the wheat plantations in North Africa, Egypt and Sicily. And this was not their only successful conquest. Others followed, and over the following two centuries, the life of the Republic was greatly improved especially for the rich. They started to import food from Mesopotamia and other provinces of the Republic which allowed the upper classes to increase their dietary options; meat and fish became an integrant part of the rich classes' meals. As far as the beverages, the Romans also drank wine. Similarly to the Greeks, they diluted it to reduce the salt content used to preserve it. In time, their wines became more appreciated and famous than those of the Greeks. However, good wine was not available to all social classes. The poor Romans drank 'pasca' which was made from low quality wine mixed with water. The drink that resulted was sour, and tasted somewhat like vinegar. Beer was also drunk but mostly in the northern provinces of the empire. Similarly to the Greeks, the Romans did not drink milk which they considered barbaric; they only used milk to make cheese or medicines. The expansion of the Roman Empire brought about several significant changes as far as dietary habits. In 27 B.C., Roman rule began to spread slowly and by 9 a.D., the Romans had conquered Germany and were planting grapevines on the Rhine Valley. At its peak which was reached in the 100s a.D., the Roman Empire stretched as far north as the British Isles and as far east as the Persian Gulf. This impressive degree of geographical expansion meant not only economic prosperity, but also a huge variety of foods. Nevertheless, the new foods were being introduced only to the rich citizens whereas the poor did not change their dietary habits in any way. They mainly ate porridge made from coarse bread, millet, olive oil and water. Their diet also included olives, beans, figs and cheese which were also part of the Greek culinary culture. The poor Romans ate the olives green, ripened or preserved in great quantities with salt or pickle, but their greatest value comes from their oil (Davis 1961, 107). To Rome as to Athens olive oil is not merely food; it largely takes the place of toilet soap, and it supplies also the most common illuminant (Ibid). Olive oil successfully substituted butter in the average diet, and made dry bread edible. Also, it represented the basis for most ointments and perfumery available in Ancient Rome. For the lower classes meat was scarce as it was reduced to an occasional pig or some fish in the case of the Romans who lived close to water, and were able to fish as the price of fish was rather high. It was around this time that the tradition of eating and drinking heavily developed. Rich Romans spent much time and money on banquets and feasts. Early Roman vegetables included onions - which were later excluded from their diet, beans and cabbage. Cress, lettuce and mallows were also common vegetables eaten by most Romans. The wealthy often imported vegetables from the Roman provinces. An important aspect to consider is that although fruit and vegetables were central to the Roman cuisine, they did not have tomatoes, potatoes, oranges and lemons until around the 3rd century. However, these were substituted by cabbage and turnips (Davis 1961, 104). Garlic was also used quite frequently in Roman meals. Around Rome, for many miles, were long stretches of profitable gardens which provided important supplies of artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cucumbers, lentils, melons, onions, peas, and pumpkins into the city. Their food was seasoned using poppy seeds, anise, fennel, mint, and pepper which they imported from the Orient. As far as sweeteners, they mostly used honey. Fish and oysters were very popular. In addition, the rich Romans enjoyed different types of delicacies, such as snails, which were specially bred throughout the empire (Hitchner 1999, 375). The dietary habits of most Romans included nuts and fruits. Early fruits were apples, pears, and plums mostly because they were easy to grow and cheap. New types of fruits, such as peaches, cherries, apricots and pomegranates were introduced later. The poor ate simple meals based on cheap foods such as bread or porridge often accompanied by vegetables and fruits that they grew in their gardens: carrots, asparagus, onions, beans, artichokes, cucumbers, peas, beets, garlic, cabbage, lentils, radishes, melons, etc.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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