Explore the Exhibition!

The kitchen and the everyday eating habits of the Greeks and Romans are, to a certain extent, not well understood. Most of the written references refer to the eating habits of the wealthy upper classes at banquets. Also, especially in the Greek period, the kitchen was not always a distinct room. Most households bought bread from a communal bakery and did not have their own ovens. Other instruments used in the kitchen were largely portable, and could be used in the courtyard, vestibule, or any one of the interior rooms, so the archaeological record does not always allow us to recognize a Greek kitchen. In Roman houses, kitchens usually had a chimney and can be identified because no other rooms had a permanent heating apparatus. In Roman homes where the location was more likely to be fixed, rooms used as kitchens were usually located on the ground floor of ancient houses, and they are generally far from the public parts of the house. Ancient dietary and cooking habits were similar in both Greek and Roman societies, and archaeological finds such as cooking implements were essentially the same in both cultures.

Ancient cooking was similar to campfire cooking of today. Ingenuity was required so that as few objects as possible were needed to prepare meals. Cooking utensils did not exist in any household in large quantities. A simple brazier, a skillet, a pot, a ladle, and a knife could be used to prepare any number of different dishes. Yet the range of foods and the types of spices used was indeed astonishing when one considers the difficulties of transporting various types of food and spices, especially perishable ones that we take for granted today.

The eating habits of the Greeks and Romans differed from those common today. Men of the household often took the main meal of the day at banquets and symposia in the homes of others. Rarely did they dine at home with their families, while women and children would dine only in the most intimate of family circles.

Meat was eaten rarely, and then generally at religious festivals when animals were sacrificed to the gods and then roasted. A wide variety of poultry, includ- ing fowl, duck, geese, quail, wild birds, partridges, and wood pigeons were, however, commonly consumed. Thrushes were a particular favorite. An important Mediterranean staple then and now, is fish, which was plentiful. Seawater fish was preferred over fresh water fish. Sardines and herrings were both plentiful and cheap. Fish were both salted and smoked, and were imported from places as far away as Spain. Delicacies, which were obviously more expensive and consumed by those individuals who possessed more wealth, included eels, fish sauces, caviar, oysters, and turtles.

Bread was also an important staple. The most common grains were wheat and barley, although wheat was preferred for bread. The poor ate a barley cake called maza, which was a mix- ture moistened with water. Different flavors could be created with the addition of various ingredients. Green vegetables, salads, asparagus, radishes, mushrooms, lentils, and peas were also consumed. Leguminous vegetables also provided nourishing fare for the poor. Street cooks sold them at a low price, hot from the fire. Onions and garlic, eaten raw with bread, were popular. Many spices were used as well, including not only the staple spices of salt, pepper, and vinegar, but also sesame, coriander, caraway and mustard. And, of course, olive oil, still a main Mediterranean staple, was plentiful.

Second courses included cheese, fruits, and cakes. Honey was an important sweetener. Cakes were often an outlet for creativity, and could be produced in the shapes of animals, human beings, and other objects. In his Satyricon, Petronius described a Roman banquet featuring little cakes in the shape of piglets. Wine drinking during dinner was generally of a more moderate amount than the unrestrained drinking of the symposium, mainly for the purpose of quenching thirst.

Cooking utensils could be made of terracotta or bronze, both of which could be heated to high temperatures. They were generally plain in appearance. Many of the objects displayed here would have been used in wealthy homes, and feature fine workmanship and decorative flourishes.

Bonnie Rock


Items Exhibited:

Strainer
Roman, 1st century A.D.
Bronze
The Art Museum, Princeton University. Museum purchase.

Rectangular Brazier
Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Water heater
Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Saucepan
Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Kettle
Loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Amphora
Cyprus, Late Roman
Clay
Collection of The Newark Museum, Gift of Louis Bamberger 1928

Plate
Roman, 3rd century 4th century
Pottery
Collection of The Newark Museum, Eugene Schaefer Collection

Jug
Rome, 100 B.C.-400 A.D.
Pottery
Collection of The Newark Museum, Gift of Louis Bamberger 1928

Plate
Rome, 2nd Century
Pottery
Collection of The Newark Museum, Eugene Schaefer Collection