The chief meal of the Romans took place in the evening, and was the last meal of the day.
In early morning, before going out, it was the custom to break the fast on bread and salt, eaten with fruit, cheese or olives; about noon followed the luncheon, or prandium; and then about midway between noon and sunset, though often much later, the coena, which might be prolonged far into the night. The prandium was sometimes more substantial, and comprised fish, eggs, shell-fish and wine; but the proper art of the kitchen was reserved for the coena. This consisted usually of a variety of entrees, provocative of appetite, followed by two very substantial courses and a dessert.
But the Romans were not at first thus luxurious. In the early time a kind of porridge of pulse formed their principal food, and this, with the addition of vegetables and leguminous fruits, especially beans, remained the diet of the lower classes at all times. Down to the year 174 B. C, there were neither cooks nor bakers in the city who regularly followed their trades.
The Asiatic wars first made the Romans acquainted with the luxuries of the table, and furnished them with cooks, bakers and confectioners in the persons of slaves who were sold at high prices. Thenceforth gastronomy became a study, and the ordering and preparation of a dinner a science and an art. The Republic had already had a Lucullus, whose name ever after was associated with sumptuous repasts; but the gastronomic art, for which he was so renowned, did not attain its perfection and glory until imperial times. Then, when Rome had extended her sway over the whole world, the expansion of trade and intercourse brought the dainties of all lands to the capital; the farthest East, and the farthest West, the delicacies of India, the spices of Arabia, the fish and shell-fish of the Atlantic, the game of Gaul and Germany, and the dates of the oases, all met in the Roman kitchen. The Emperor Vitellius, perhaps the most enormous eater that the Empire ever knew, sent out his legions to hunt game where it was found in the highest perfection, and employed his fleets in furnishing his table with fresh fish. So many arms were set in motion by a single stomach! At this time it was that all the breeding and fattening establishments were erected. Remarkably large or fine fish were bought by wealthy gourmands at fabulous prices, as many anecdotes tell us, but probably more for the sake of notoriety than anything else.
Fish, oysters, snails, mussels and other shell-fish, of which the Roman kitchen boasted a greater variety than our own, were supplied from all parts of the Empire, and the epicures knew well where the choicest were to be found, and the most delicate modes of preparing them. The mullet or sea-barbel, a fish highly esteemed, was often brought alive to the table that the guests might have visible proof of its freshness. When the favorite Italian oysters began to pall on the appetite, recourse was had to the "natives" of Britain.
The villa furnished fowls, which were fattened in the dark, and ducks and geese fed with figs and dates; the volarium or aviary: fieldfares, snipes, quails, pheasants, and smaller birds.
Storks, cranes, flamingos, and especially peacocks, were also often served at Roman tables. Vitellius and Apicius - that gourmand who devoured his whole large fortune and, when reduced to his last million, killed himself because life was no longer worth having - prepared a dish of the tongues of flamingoes, and Elaga-balus of their brains. Among quadrupeds the pig was in highest favor, and more than fifty ways were known of dressing its flesh.
Wild boars were often served whole, and epicures could tell by the flavor from what region the animal came. Sausages of various kinds were a favorite dish, both hot and cold; and hucksters on the streets served them to customers from small, portable stoves. The best sausages, as well as the best hams, came from Gaul. There was an abundant supply of salads and vegetables; asparagus was cultivated to a large size; many kinds of cabbages were grown, with turnips, artichokes, pumpkins and cucumbers, peas and beans, mushrooms and truffles, and many plants and herbs used for flavoring.
Nor did the Roman table lack rare and choice wines, kept in jars or bottles of baked clay. They were prized in proportion to their age; and each jar bore a label, showing in whose consulship the wine had been made. Campania furnished the best Italian wines, of which the Caecuban held the first rank, the Falernian the next, while the third place was claimed by several vintages; but whoever was forced to drink the Vatican was an object of general commiseration. Greek wines, too, had their place in the Roman cellars. As, with the increasing luxury the customs at the table were more and more fashioned after those of the Greeks, though incomparably more luxurious, so, like the Greek, the Roman rarely drank wine undiluted. He mingled it with water, and cooled it with snow; while for the winter he had a warm drink - the calda, made of wine, water, honey, and spice, for preparing which there was a special vessel, the caldarium, with a small furnace of charcoal in the interior, on the principle of the Russian samovar.
Still another beverage, called mulsum, which was drunk at breakfast, was prepared of must, honey, and spices.
The Roman table was thus liberally provided, and though many dishes seem to us of questionable taste, still, the achievements of Romans in the culinary line do them high credit. Even in Caesar's time, at a pontifical banquet, attended by six priests and as many priestesses, the following was the menu: First course (intended merely as a whet to appetite): conger eels, oysters, two kinds of mussels, thrushes on asparagus, fat fowls, a ragout of oysters and other shell-fish, with black and white marrons. Second course: a variety of shell-fish and other marine animals, becaficos, haunches of venison, a wild boar, a pasty of becaficos and other birds. Third and principal course: the udders of swine, boar's head, fricassee of fish, fricassee of sow's udder, ducks of various kinds, hares, roast fowls with pastry, and Picentine bread.
This by no means meagre bill of fare was far surpassed in later times, especially in the pastry and confectionery; and this part of the repast was distinguished by the originality and artistic forms of its devices, in which the confectioner rivaled the statuary.