How do we know what the Romans ate?

The main source of recipes from Classical Roman times is De Re Coquinaria, by Marcus Gavius Apicius. This contains around 500 recipes. There are several modern editions of this, three of which are in print in English translation. These are:

The consensus, however, is that the best edition is

which is out of print.

Flower and Rosenbaum provided the original Latin, which neither Vehling nor Edwards does, though Vehling does supply the Latin in cases where the interpretation of the original manuscripts is disputed. The main body of both books consists of an annotated translation of each recipe. Edwards also provides his own version of the recipe, which uses substitutes (some unacceptable in my view) for hard to find ingredients, and provides a few authentic Roman menus. The Roman Cookery of Apicius is the more suitable text for a less experienced cook, and it is supposed to contain a more accurate translation. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome is better if you intend to experiment with the recipes, incuding attempts to recreate them exactly, though to do that you need to be aware of Vehling's assumptions and errors (e.g. being unaware that pumpkin was unknown to the Romans). The best bet if you cannot get a second-hand copy of Flower & Rosenbaum is to get Giacosa plus either Vehling (and where Vehling disagrees with Giacosa, disregard Vehling) or Edwards (but disregard Edward's adaptation of the recipes and just use his translations).

A comparative review of Vehling vs. Flower and Rosenbaum is available at Review of Apicius Translations.

In addition to De Re Coquinaria, there are a number of other sources containing Classical Roman recipes, the most important being De Agricultura by Marcus Porcius Cato. Some of these can be found, along with recipes of Apicius and reconstructions of Ancient Greek recipes, in

This provides fewer recipes but plenty of background reading.

What the Romans did not eat

All except aubergines and durum wheat are from the New World, unknown in Europe before the discovery of the Americas. As can be seen from the above list, many of the staples of Italian cuisine were unknown to the Romans.

What the Romans did eat

One recipe which has survived virtually intact since Roman times is French toast (7.11.3), served with honey on top. The Romans principal source of starch was bread, though they did import rice, which they used to thicken sauces. They had a form of pasta called tractum which seems to have been a primitive form of lasagne. (See also The History of Pasta in Italy.) They used herbs (especially lovage, oregano and rue) and spices (especially pepper, cumin, coriander and asafoetida) in their cooking.

Yes, they did eat edible dormice (Glis glis) (as Magnus Pyke was fond of telling us), for which two recipes have survived. One involves glazing them with honey and then rolling them in poppy seeds (Petronius), while the other involves stuffing them with a mixture of pork mince, dormouse meat trimmings, pepper, nuts, asafoetida and nuoc mam and then roasting or boiling them (Apicius 8.9.1). You might want to try combining the two recipes if you can find an edible dormouse supplier.

Below are some more recipes, as I cook them. I have provided a literal (sometimes poor) translation of it, followed by some notes for guidance.

3.4.1 Gustum de cucurbitas: cucurbitas coctas expressas in patinam compones. Adicies in mortarium piper, cuminum, silfi modice, rutam: modicum, liquamine et aceto temperabis, mittes defrito: modicum, ut coloretur, ius exinanies in patinam. Cum fervuerit iterum ac tertio, depones et piper minutum asparges.

A starter of bottle gourds: you arrange cooked, squeezed out, bottle gourds in a pan. You throw into a mortar pepper, cumin, a moderate amount of asafoetida, a moderate amount of rue, blend with nuoc mam and vinegar, you throw a little new wine boiled down, so that it is coloured, you empty the broth into the pan. When it will have boiled a second and then for the third time, you set aside and sprinkle a little pepper.

Notes: slice the gourd (or marrow) before boiling, squeeze the water out after boiling. Grind the herbs and spices in the mortar before adding the nuoc mam, vinegar and just enough reduced red grape juice to colour it. Put the pan back on the heat until the liquid is absorbed.

4.2.1: Patina quotidiana: Cerebella elixata teres cum pipere. Cuminum, laser cum liquamine, caroeno, lacte et ovis. Ad ignem lenem vel ad aquam calidam coques.

Everyday dish: You crush boiled brains with pepper. [Add] Cumin, asafoetida with nuoc mam, new wine boiled down to 2/3 of its volume, milk and eggs. You cook at a gentle fire or at hot water.

Notes: Substitute corned beef for brain, which is unsafe to eat, and omit nuoc mam as corned beef is salty enough. Cook on a low heat in a greased baking dish until it solidifies.

4.2.5: Aliter patina de asparagis frigida: accipies asparagos purgatos, in mortario fricabis, aquam suffundes, perfricabis, per colum colabis, et mittes ficetulas curtas. Teres in mortario piperis scripulos sex, adicies liquamen, fricabis, vini cyathum unum, vini passi cyathum unum, mittes in caccabum olei uncias III. Illic ferveant. Perunges patinam, in ea ova VI cum oenogaro misces, cum suco asparagi impones cineri calido, mittes impensam supra scriptam. Tunc ficetulas compones. Coques, piper asperges et inferes.

Differently, a cold dish of asparagus: you take cleaned asparagus, you will rub it in the mortar, you pour in water, you will rub all over, you filter through a strainer and throw incomplete figpeckers. You grind in a mortar six scruples of pepper, you throw in nuoc mam, you will rub, one ladle of wine, one ladle of raisin wine, you throw into a stock-pot 3 ounces of oil. Those boil. You smear a dish all over, in it you mix 6 eggs with the mixture of nuoc mam and wine, with the sap of the asparagus, you lay on hot ashes, you throw the outlay written above. Next you arrange the figpeckers. You cook, sprinkle pepper and serve.

Notes: One whole roast poussin, boned and chopped into pieces, can be used instead of the figpeckers, in which case halve the quantities mentioned above. Cook the asparagus, by boiling it in water with the heads protruding (3.3.1), before pureeing it. Add the pepper, nuoc mam, wine, raisin wine, olive oil and eggs to the asparagus puree. Thicken this by heating it. Put the poussin pieces into a greased baking dish, pour the asparagus puree on top, and bake in the oven until the top is starting to go brown. Let it cool, then put it in the fridge. Unmould it, sprinkle it with pepper and serve.

5.3.7: Aliter pisam sive fabam: despumatam subtrito lasare Parthico, liquamen et caroeno condies. Oleum modice superfundis et inferes.

Differently, peas or beans: you season skimmed-off (peas or beans) with crushed Parthian asafoetida, nuoc mam and new wine boiled down to 2/3 of its volume. You pour over a moderate amount of oil and serve.

Notes: Some varieties of beans are from the new world.

6.2.5: Aliter gruem vel anatem assas: eas de hoc iure perfundes: teres piper, ligusticum, origanum, liquamen, mel, aceti modicum et olei. Ferveat bene. Mittis amulum et supra ius rotulas cucurbitae elixae vel colocasiae ut bulliant. Si sunt, et ungellas coques et iecinera pullorum. In boletari piper minutum aspargis et inferes.

Differently, roast crane or duck: you pour over those of this sauce: you crush pepper, lovage, oregano, nuoc mam, honey, a moderate amount of vinegar and of oil. Let it boil well. Throw starch and above sauce rings of boiled bottle gourds or lotus roots as they bubble (??). If they are, also cook chickens' claws and livers. Sprinkle a little pepper and serve in a mushroom dish.

I'm not satisfied with the above translation. 'rings' is OK -- these are made by removing the seeds from the middle of the gourd slices.

6.8.5: Pullum numidicum: Pullum curas, elixas, leuas (sic), laser ac piper <aspergis> et assas. Teres piper, cuminum, coriandri semen, laseris radicem, rutam, careotam, nucleos, suffundis acetum, mel, liquamen et oleum, temperabis. Cum ferbuerit, amulo obligas, pullum perfundis, piper aspergis et inferes.

Numidian chicken: You treat, boil, clean the chicken, <sprinkle> asafoetida and pepper and roast. You grind pepper, cumin, coriander seed, root of asafoetida, rue, date wine (?), nuts, you pour in vinegar, honey, nuoc mam and oil, you will blend. When it will have boiled, you bind with starch, you pour over the chicken, sprinkle pepper and serve.

Notes: Vehling and Edwards agree that pullus numidicus is guinea fowl, which (to coin a phrase) tastes like chicken so you can use ordinary chicken instead. Vehling fries instead of roasts (he's wrong). Levas means lighten. Vehling presumably reads this as lavas, and Edwards as elevas. Either could be correct. You should use wheat flour mixed with a little water as starch. This recipe is the Ancient Roman equivalent of satay chicken, but use pine nuts or almonds, or some other kind of nuts that the Romans had, and not the peanuts used in satay sauce which are from the New World.

7.19.3: In ovis hapalis: Piper, ligusticum, nucleos infusos. Suffundes mel, acetum, liquamine temperabis.

Soft-boiled eggs: Pepper, lovage, soaked nuts. You pour in honey, vinegar, you will blend with nuoc mam.

Notes: Crush pepper, lovage and pine nuts previously soaked in water. Add honey, vinegar and broth. Pour this dressing over the eggs. If you want to be spectacularly lazy, use pesto instead. Vehling translates hapalus as poached rather than soft-boiled.

9.6.1: In ostreis: Piper, ligusticum, ovi vitellum, acetum, liquamen, oleum et vinum. Si volueris, et mel addes.

Oysters: pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, nuoc mam, oil and wine. If you wish, also add honey.

Notes: Crush pepper and lovage, add vinegar, nuoc mam, oil and wine (and, optionally, honey). Cook the oysters in this. Add egg yolk to thicken the sauce.Discard any oysters which are open and which don't close if you tap them. Open the rest by turning them flatter side up, and pointy end away from you, inserting a strong knife into the shell on your right and twisting.

10.1.1: Ius diabotanon in pisce frixo: piscem quemlibet curas, <salias>, friges. Teres piper, cuminum, coriandri semen, laseris radicem, origanum, rutam, fricabis, suffundes acetum, adicies careotam, mel, defritum, oleum, liquamen, temperabis, refundes in caccabum, facies ut ferveat. Cum fervuerit, piscem frictum perfundes, piper asperges et inferes.

A herb sauce for fried fish: You treat, <salt>, fry a fish as much as you like. You grind pepper, cumin, seed of coriander, root of asafoetida, oregano, rue, you will rub, you will pour in vinegar, you throw in date wine (?), honey, new wine boiled down to 1/3 of its volume, oil, nuoc mam, you will blend, you pour out into the stock-pot, you cause it to boil. When it will have boiled, you pour over the fried fish, sprinkle pepper and serve.

Notes: <salias> appears in some texts but not others. Vehling translates careota as date wine, others translate it as dates. Date syrup is acceptable. This sauce goes well with fried salmon steaks.

Recipes for Garum/Liquamen

From A Taste of Ancient Rome, p. 27:

Ancient sources contain countless recipes for the preparation of garum, also known as muria or liquamen. The most complete is provided by Gargilius Martialis, a writer from the third century A.D.

Use fatty fish, for example sardines, and a well-sealed (pitched) container with a 26-35 quart/liter capacity. Add dried aromatic herbs possessing a strong flavor, such as dill, coriander, fennel, celery, mint, oregano, and others making a layer on the bottom of the container; then put down a layer of fish (if small leave them whole, if large use pieces); and over this add a layer of salt two fingers high. Repeat these three layers until the container is filled. Let it rest for seven days in the sun. Then mix the sauce daily for twenty days. After that time it becomes a liquid (garum).

-- Gargilius Martialis, De medicina et de virtute herbarum

From "Geoponica" (20.46.1-6), as cited by Robert I. Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (New York: E. J. Brill, 1991):

  1. The so-called liquamen is made in this manner: the intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel and salted. Small fish, either the best smelt, or small mullet, or sprats, or wolffish, or whatever is deemed to be small, are all salted together and, shaken frequently, are fermented in the sun.
  2. After it has been reduced in the heat, garum is obtained from it in this way: a large, strong basket is placed into the vessel of the aforementioned fish, and the garum streams into the basket. In this way the so-called liquamen is strained through the basket when it is taken up. The remaining refuse is alex.
  3. The Bithynians prepare it in this manner: It is best if you take small or large sprats, but if not, wolffish, or horse-mackerel, or mackerel, or even alica, and a mixture of all, and throw these into a baker's kneading trough, in which the are accustomed to knead meal. Tossing into the modius of fish two Italian sextarii of salt, mix up thoroughly in order to strengthen it with salt. After leaving it alone for one night throw it into a vessel and place it without a lid in the sun for two or three months, agitating it with a shaft at intervals. Next take it, cover it, and store it away.
  4. Some add to one sextarius of fish, two sextarii of old wine.

  5. Next, if you wish to use the garum immediately, that is to say not ferment it in the sun, but to boil it, you do it this way. When the brine has been tested, so that an egg having been thrown in floats (if it sinks, it is not sufficiently salt), and throwing the fish into the brine in a newly-made earthenware pot and adding in some oregano, you place it on a sufficient fire until it is boiled, that is until it begins to reduce a little. Some throw in boiled-down must. Next, throwing the cooled liquid into a filter you toss it a second, and a third time through the filter until it turns out clear. After having covered it, store it away.
  6. The best garum, the so-called haimation, is made in this way: the intestines of tunny along with the gills, juice and blood are taken and sufficient salt is sprinkled on. After having left it alone in the vessel for two months at most, pierce the vessel and the garum, called haimation, is withdrawn.[12-13]

Is Laser (Silphium) Extinct?

Laser (here translated as asafoetida) was obtained by the Romans from Cyrene (a province in Africa) and Parthia (or Persia).

Vehling writes: "Parthia, Asiatic country, still supplying asa foetida. The African root furnishing laser was exterminated by the demand for it."

Edwards writes: "This seasoning was probably derived from the Ferula tingitana plant, a species of giant fennel which flourished, but only in a wild state, in North Africa. It was gathered with such zeal by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans that by the first century A.D. the plant was exinct on the southern coast of the Mediterranean and had to be imported from what are now known as Syria, Iraq and Iran. Apicius did mention Cyrenaic laser Libyan assafoetida), but I believe this was based on an earlier Greek or Egyptian version of a recipe for laser relish. In modern times, the Ferula tingitana has returned to North Africa where it grows to heights of between six and eight feet."

Dalby and Grainger write: "The Roman encyclopaedist Pliny (AD 24-79) explains that silphium was no longer to be found:

For many years now it has not been seen in Libya: the agents who lease grazing land, scenting higher profits, had allowed sheep to overgraze the silphium stands. The single stem found within living memory was sent to the Emperor Nero. If an animal should ever come upon a promising shoot, the signs will be that a sheep after eating it rapidly goes to sleep, whereas a goat sneezes rather loudly. For a long time now, however, the only silphium brought to us in Rome has be that originating in Iran and Armenia, which is plentiful enough, but not nearly as good as Cyrenaic.

Scholars have found it hard to believe that the silphium of Libya could really have become extinct, and you sometimes read of its rediscovery. But the goat never sneezes: the rediscovered 'silphium' never has the flavour or the power of its legendary forebear. (How can they tell? -- Hibou) Nero really did eat the last of it.

Luckily the substitute that was used from Pliny's time onwards, the 'silphium' of Central Asia, is still easily available, although it is hardly ever used by Western cooks. It is asafoetida, the resin of the plant Ferula asafoetida, a relative of fennel."

Giacosa writes: Silphium was a precious herb that often appears in ancient recipes. It belonged to the fennel family, and its stem, roots and resinous liquid were used. Only the smallest amount was sufficient to flavor food.

This plant was the first exotic spice to arrive in Rome. It came from Cyrene (in Libya), where it was so important for the economy that its image was stamped on all coins of the region from the 6th century BC. This was undoubtedly effective as a form of publicity, since money enjoyed such wide circulation and its imagery was consequently a powerful message. Thus the cultivation of silphium was a measure of the wealth of Cyrene and its territory. But already by the time of Nero the plant had become mysteriously extinct. An inferior quality was still imported from Persia and Armenia; ...

Botanists think that laser parthicum, which replaced silphium when it disappeared, is Ferula asafoetida; the gum resin, extract of asafetida, was present for many years in European pharmacology and is still used in the middle east. If you are unsuccessful in procuring it, try using a few drops of garlic juice instead...

Where to eat out

There's a place that serves Roman food on the Via Appia Antica.

More info

There are some more recipes at Antique Roman Dishes - Collection. These are English translations of German translations of the original Latin. In many of the recipes, the ingredient quantities provided appear to be wide of the mark. The recipe for Sarda Ita Fit is quite inedible: this is supposed to be a recipe for stuffed sardines. The recipe for Isicia Omentata is edible but wrong: it is supposed to be a recipe for sausage, not hamburger. Note that some ingredients are named only in German. The English translations are: liebstoeckl = lovage, poleiminze = pennyroyal (must be dried), saturei = summer savory, silphium = asafoetida, liquamen = nuok mam.

Other online recipes of Apicius are at:

Substitute ingredients

Some of the recipes of Apicius use brain and sweetbreads. In view of the risk of variant CJD, these recipes should not be attempted without substituting other ingredients. Dishes containing rue should not be eaten by pregnant women, though for other people it is safe (discounting allergic reactions, which are rare).

Some hard to get ingredients

Latin Common name (Scientific name) Where to find it Substitute
LIGVSTICVM Lovage (not the same thing as Ajwain) (Levisticum officinale) Garden centres Celery seed, celery
RVTA Rue (Ruta graveolens) Garden centres Rosemary (use sparingly)
LASER,SILPHIVM Asafoetida, Hing (Ferula assa-foetida) Indian grocers Garlic powder
LIQVAMEN, GARVM Nuoc mam, Nam pla Oriental supermarkets Salt
COLOCASIVM Lotus root (Nelumbo nucifera) Chinese supermarkets Taro, potato
CVCVRBITA Bottle gourds / Hu Lu Gua (Lagenaria siceraria) Chinese supermarkets Marrow, courgette
ALICA Spelt Wholefood shops Cracked wheat
STRVTHIO Ostrich Supermarkets (e.g. Tesco) Beef (not British unless organic), venison or kangaroo

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