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Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD, and until 410 AD Britain was a province of the Roman Empire. Almost immediately native Britons started to be Romanized. One of the major influences of the Roman Empire on the ancient Britain was introduction of new eating habits.
If not for the Romans, modern British diet wouldn’t be the same. Such important products as garlic, onions, leeks, peas, walnuts, cabbages, shallots, turnips, celery, cherries, asparagus and apples were first introduced by them. Also new ways of farming and new types of meat became an integral part of life in Britain after the Roman invasion.
We can get information about Roman food from art and archaeological findings. Other important source materials are ancient prose, poetry and even cookbooks.
Usually a Roman living in Britain would have 3 meals a day. A breakfast (ientaculum) was a light snack of bread and fruit that many did not trouble to take at all. Only the greedy wanted a heavy lunch called prandium. It would consist of eggs, fish and vegetables. A full evening meal, cena, was often turned into a real feast.
An ideal Roman dinner party would comprise nine guests, which symbolized the nine Muses, goddesses of arts and sciences.
When guests arrived at the house of the party, they would take off their sandals and washed their feet before entering. Before the meal everyone washed their hands with perfumed water carried by the slaves.
The host would invocate household gods (Lares) and make an offering for them.
Roman dining room was called triclinium. There were three couches in it. They were arranged around three sides of a square, and the fourth side was left open for serving. Medius couch was the upper/main one. The couch called Summus was the “middle” one (of medium importance) . Imus couch was the lower couch. The host showed his respect for the guests by occupying the minor, lower table, usually together with his wife and another member of the family. While eating, the Romans propped themselves on their left forearms and used their right hands for stretching for food and drinks.
Dinner usually consisted of three courses. The meal began with hors d'oevre, often an egg dish, including vegetables, salt fish, oysters, mussels.
The second phase of the meal was called Fercula. While preparing it, a Roman cook might use such unusual things as pike livers, peacock brains, lark tongues, cock crests, bear, and lion.
The third part of cena was called Mensae secundae. It was a dessert, and it consisted of dried or fresh fruit, nuts, cheese, sweetmeats, pastries, cakes and apples.
Along with the meals Romans drank wine mixed with some water. Beer, the native drink in Britain was despised by sophisticated Romans, since it was considered Barbarian. So as to avoid the effects of drinking too much wine, the Romans would wear garlands of rose petals on their heads.
No dish was complete without its highly flavored and seasoned sauce. Contrary to present day preference, the main object seemed to be to disguise the natural taste of food – either to conceal doubtful freshness, or to demonstrate the variety of costly spices available to the host.
We should keep in mind that forks were still unknown at that time. Moreover, knives and spoons were used only occasionally. Therefore, most people just ate with their fingers, making an awful mess as many dishes contained sticky sauces. Napkins were used to protect the couches. Guests would also bring along their own napkins, and sometimes they could even steal their neighbours’ napkins!
Spitting or throwing food was a Roman tradition. Also sometimes there were rooms called vomitoriums, and probably you can guess the purpose of having one.
Dinner parties included not only extravagant meals and delicacies but also different forms of entertainment for the guests, such as music, singing or reciting, clowns, gambling, acrobats, dancers, chorus girls, men doing seductive dances, etc . Sometimes there were even gladiatorial fights during the dinner.
City dwellers in the Roman Empire, many of whom lived in the apartment blocks, had little opportunity to cook. However, street food was always available to the city dweller. Street stalls and cook shops sold cakes and sweets, mulled wine, hot sausages, hot chickpea soup, and porridge.
The daily diet varied significantly between the rich and the poor in the Roman society. Of course, poor peasants could not participate in the extravagant dinners the rich villa dwellers would have. Very often they just ate cereal grain as porridge at all meals.
In a conclusion I’d like to say that studying Roman food is very relevant, since in our age of globalization it is very important to preserve national historical heritage and local traditions. On the other hand, looking into the Roman influence on Celtic Britain helps us understand the benefits that can be brought by globalization.
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