What Time Did Ancient Romans Eat Dinner

The ancient Romans ate dinner at the end of the workday, usually around 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00 p.m. It was the last meal of the day, and the most substantial. Because many Romans worked until sundown, their meal time was often the time of day when all socializing was done, as well as some business dealings and gossiping.

Modern Roman meals are based on the traditional meals of Ancient Rome, which were laid down in the ‘Digest of Justinian’. This is a collection of ancient laws and regulations, many of which related to food. According to the Digest, Roman meals were divided into two sections: the ‘mensae primae’ – the first course – and the ‘mensae secundae’ – the second course. The first course consisted of three dishes – typically starchy foods such as breads, pasta, and grains – and the second course comprised four dishes: two cold dishes, one hot dish, and a roasted fowl.

Meals for the Roman elite were highly elaborate affairs. Food and wine were plentiful, with a wide variety of dishes from which to choose. The Roman elite had access to a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, and sauces. They also had access to luxuries such as rare spices, oysters, and shellfish, which were served as accompaniments to their meals. Desserts were also a Roman treat, usually consisting of honey cakes, tarts, and confections.

The typical Roman meal was a no-fuss affair, especially for the non-elite. A simple Roman breakfast consisted of bread that was often dipped in olive oil, and cheese, dates, figs, or nuts. Lunch was a light meal that consisted of bread and fruit, as well as salted fish or eggs. The Roman dinner, or cena, was a heartier meal and often the favored meal of the day.

There was some variation in when the cena was eaten; it could range from sundown to late in the evening. Aurelian, the Roman emperor, was known to dine at around 9 pm. The cena usually began with a light snack known as the gustatio, followed by the main course. This main course would usually be a soup like dish known as ‘isicia omentata’, vegetables and olives, as well as other side dishes like eggs and pickles.

The cena would then end with a dessert such as honey cakes or fruit. Roman banquets were an extravagant affair, but these types of feasts were only enjoyed by the wealthy. The poorer people of ancient Rome, such as slaves and peasants, might get a simple meal of broth or porridge. Whatever the meal, the timing was usually around the same, between 3-5 pm.

Nutrition and Health Benefits of Ancient Roman Meals

Ancient Roman meals were designed to bring health, vitality, and strength to the body. Many historians have suggested that ancient Roman meals were designed with health in mind and provided lots of beneficial nutrients. Roman meals consisted of mostly plant-based foods, such as vegetables and fruits, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They also incorporated eggs, cheese, and fish, providing a balanced diet that supplied essential proteins and healthy fats.

Ancient Roman meals also had an emphasis on moderation and balance. They believed that overeating could be detrimental to health, and so portions were kept small. Ancient Roman meals were also prepared using herbs and spices, which added flavor and medicinal properties to the dishes.


The Ancient Romans ate dinner at the end of the workday, usually around 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00 p.m. It was the last and most substantial meal of the day and was eaten by both the wealthy and the poor alike. Ancient Roman meals were designed with health in mind, providing a balanced diet made up of mostly plant-based foods, and incorporating eggs, cheese, and fish. Ancient Roman meals also had an emphasis on moderation and balance, and portions were kept small. Herbs and spices were also used to give the dishes medicinal as well as flavor properties.

Nutrition and Preparation Facts

Ancient Roman meals relied upon a variety of foods for nutrition, including fruits, grains, vegetables, and meats. Ancient Roman meals would be slowly simmered in oil, either in a cast-iron pot called a ‘patella’ or a ‘testudo’ which was a pot covered with a clay lid. Herbs and spices were also used to help season the food, while garlic was used to help preserve it. Ancient Romans also had access to sugar and honey, which were used to sweeten food and wine.

Grains such as wheat, rye, oats and barley were staples of the Ancient Roman diet. Bread was a part of almost every meal and was often accompanied by porridge, porridge-like dishes such as polenta, or pilaf. Vegetables, including peas, beans, lentils, and onions, were also commonly eaten in Ancient Rome, usually boiled or roasted. Many vegetables were also pickled for preservation, such as cucumbers and olives.

Meat was also a frequent component of Roman meals. Chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and goat were all used, either roasted, grilled, or boiled. Fish was also popular, especially saltwater fish, which was abundant in the Mediterranean. Cheese was also a popular component of Ancient Roman meals, usually served as an appetizer. Fruit, nuts, and desserts such as puddings and cakes were also part of the Roman diet.

Medical Practices and Dietary Habits

Ancient Romans had an interest in medicine and health, and were aware of the importance of a balanced diet. The Ancient Romans believed in eating natural, wholesome foods, exercising, and controlling portions. They had access to a wide variety of herbs and spices, which they used to both season food, and to cure ailments. Roman doctors also prescribed certain foods and drinks to their patients, depending on the ailment.

The Ancient Romans also developed the concept of ‘Fomentum’, which was designed to aid in the healing of older wounds and infections. Fomentum was a type of mashed food made from rye, barley, and oats, and was usually eaten with wine. This type of nutrition was believed to help the healing process. Ancient Roman physicians also employed the use of alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and herbal remedies.

Hospitium and Dining Etiquette

The concept of ‘hospitium’ was an unwritten law of Ancient Rome, which required the host to provide enough food and drink to their guests, as well as entertainment and conversation. Ancient Romans were very particular when it came to establishing the ‘rules of hospitality’. It was seen as impolite to drink too much wine or display bad behaviour, so in order to maintain an acceptable level of decency, the host was expected to provide food and entertainment of a suitable quality.

The Romans had a complex set of dining etiquette guidelines, which included things like where to sit, how to serve food, and how to behave at the table. The guests would be served in ‘triclinia’, three couches arranged in a circular pattern, and the host of the meal would be served last. The guests would be expected to demonstrate proper manners, such as washing their hands before the meal and not eating with their hands. It was also considered rude to talk at all during a meal, and the host was expected to ensure that the conversation was kept to a relevant topic.

Influence on Modern Cuisine

Ancient Roman cuisine has had a lasting influence on modern food. Many of the dishes and ingredients used in modern Italian cuisine have their origins in Ancient Rome, such as pasta, pizza, and olives. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Roman cuisine was adopted and adapted by the ruling classes of Italy, resulting in the development of regional cuisines. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian migrants introduced Roman dishes to the Americas, influencing the development of American Italian cuisine.

The influence of Ancient Roman cuisine can also be seen in modern restaurant and fine dining establishments. Many high-end restaurants feature dishes that have been inspired by the ancient Roman way of eating. Similarly, many modern cookbooks feature modern adaptations of Roman recipes. Even today, the legacy of Ancient Roman cuisine is alive and well, evident in the flavours and ingredients found in modern Italian and Roman cooking.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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