A New Study Sheds Light on What Ancient Romans Ate

A New Study Sheds Light on What Ancient Romans Ate
Panoramic view of ancient Roman city of Herculaneum where the skeletons were found, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

New analysis of bones of those killed in Mt Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD reveal surprising dietary preferences

Uttara Gangopadhyay
September 25 , 2021
06 Min Read

Excavated progressively and made accessible to the public since the mid-18th century, the flourishing Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, along with many wealthy countryside villas in the area – part of UNESCO World Heritage Site – today provide a lot of insight into the lifestyle of ancient Romans. What’s more interesting is that new studies still throw up surprising findings or corroborate what earlier researchers had inferred.

A recent study of skeletons of 17 people of the many discovered in Herculaneum, has brought up interesting facts which not only vindicated earlier findings about food habits but also threw light on the differing food habits of men and women of that time.

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Earlier studies had revealed that the people of Herculaneum ate wheat and millet, lentils, beans, cherries, peaches, and olives, plus a variety of fish and shellfish. But the latest study not only confirmed what the people ate but also the dietary divide between men and women.

Through a new approach involving analysis of amino acids, the building block of proteins, researchers – led by the University of York’s BioArCh team – have been able to reconstruct the diet of those 17 hapless victims whose skeletons were preserved under the pyroclastic material.

The study revealed that women ate fewer grains and cereals compared to men but included more fruits and vegetables. One of the key observations was that there was ‘significant differences in the proportions of marine and terrestrial foods consumed’ by males and females, ‘implying that access to food was differentiated according to gender’. One of the reasons why men consumed fish and shellfish could be they would be out fishing in the bay. Or, it was likely that the superior standing of men in society allowed them to enjoy dishes made from rare or pricey ingredients compared to what women ate. Olive oil was used to great extent, not only as a condiment but as a major constituent of many dishes.

While scientists delve deeper into the study of what the ancient Romans ate and exactly how much calorie they derived from what kind of food, did you know you may be able to partake of some of the old Roman dishes at a restaurant not far from the Colosseum at Rome. Called Hostaria Antica Roma, it is located on the famous Appian’s Way, said to be the oldest road in Rome (built between 312 BC and 264 BC) and dotted with many historical landmarks.

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Apart from serving contemporary Italian cuisine, the restaurant also offers a slew of dishes, faithful recreations of the ‘original’ cuisine dating back to ancient Rome. Diners on popular review sites not only write highly about the food served here but also how owner Paolo Magnanimi, also a chef and historian who had studied in detail about food habits of ancient Rome, finds time to entertain guests with tales and history of the dish.

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One of the popular dishes on the menu is ‘pullum oxizomum’. This chicken-based entrée dish also includes leeks and a condiment of fermented anchovies (a substitute for a special fish sauce used in ancient Rome). Another signature dish is the ‘patina cotidiana’, made from flat bread (lagana). While the original recipe called for layers of meat, fish and cheese, the restaurant serves it with ground pork, fennel and pecorino cheese. Many of the recipes are inspired by a first century AD Roman cookbook called De Re Coquinaria, attributed to a wealthy epicure Apicius. For dessert, there is ‘tiropatina’, a custard spiced with pepper.


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