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The meals of the Ancient Romans – part I

Just like ours, the day of an ancient Roman was punctuated by three main meals: breakfast (ientaculum), midday breakfast (prantium) and evening dinner (dinner). As in the Greek world, it was the latter that actually represented the authentic meal, the very moment when Romans met with family or friends at the end of a hard day’s work. The abundance of individual meals varied depending on the historical period, the status of the family, the fact of living in the city rather than in the countryside. If a Roman of the archaic period was content with a frugal dinner in the evening (vesperna), starting from the 2nd century. B.C. it was necessary to enact special laws to limit spending on convivial meals. The jentaculum took place between eight and nine in the morning, and ranged from bread dipped in wine – in the Greek custom, to the remains of the previous evening dinner, as olives, eggs or cheese. Children were given milk (sheep or goat’s milk, cow’s milk was not very widespread and donkey’s milk was considered more of a beauty product for skin care than an actual food), accompanied by fresh buns, salted or sweetened with honey, probably purchased in the street from pistor dulciarius, the equivalent of today’s pastry chef. Prantium was consumed around noon, and it usually consisted of a snack during the work break, home-made or, for the more fortunate and well-off ones, purchased by street vendors and public places. It was easy to find a good meal especially in the vicinity of popular places such as the Forum or the Baths, where it was a swarm of dining places (thermopolia or popinae, the equivalents of today’s fast foods and canteens); it was not even necessary to go too far to look for one, as wise owners shipped their garzons through the streets of the center and inside the factories, to sell hot or cold food, according to the needs of the season. For those who ate at home there were always leftovers of the previous day.

The libum was the typical bread used for the offerings (libationes) to the various deities. It was available in two versions, one sweet and one salty. Below you can find the savoury salty recipe, as reported by Cato in De Agriculture:

Prepare a two-pound mince of cheese combined with a pound of soft wheat flour. Mix carefully, add an egg, stir and, working the dough, make some loaf. Take a baking tray, line the base with a layer of previously well washed and dried bay leaves, place the dough on top of the leaves and cook in the oven.

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