The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Despite Rome’s glorious architecture, only the richest citizens enjoyed the good life – most lived in dangerous, cramped and smelly housing.

Despite these differences, almost all citizens carefully observed the same rituals at dinner time – the rituals that made them Roman.

The ancient Rome that remains today is one of fabulous marble buildings, built with superb skill to enormous scale. It is impressive now – it would have been even more impressive 2,000 years ago.

Sitting next to the grandeur of imperial Rome, however, would have been the tiny, rickety homes of normal people, whose lives were far less fabulous. In truth, daily life in Rome would have been far more like that in modern day Cairo or Delhi than Paris or London.


Most citizens living in Rome and other cities were housed in "insulae." These were small, street-front shops and workshops, whose owners lived above and behind the working area. Several insulae would surround an open courtyard and would, together, form one city block.

The insulae were usually badly built and few had any running water, sanitation or heating. Constructed from wood and brick, they were dangerously vulnerable to fire or collapse.

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Life was very different for the upper classes. Wealthier Romans – including those who lived in the countryside – lived in a domus. This was a house built around an unroofed courtyard, or atrium.

The atrium acted as the reception and living area, while the house around it contained the kitchen, lavatory, bedrooms (cubuculi) and dining room, or triclinium. The rooms and furnishings would reflect the wealth of the family and, for some, would be incredibly luxurious. The wealthiest Romans might have a private bath or library, while others kept two homes – one in the city, the other in the clean air and quiet surroundings of the countryside.

Dinner time

Although they led very different lives, citizens generally observed the same mealtime rituals, whatever their wealth or rank. Breakfast and lunch were usually light meals, often eaten with colleagues or friends in the noisy cafes and taverns that lined Rome’s streets.

Dinner was a different matter altogether and was taken very seriously. The triclinium, or dining room, held three couches, arranged around a square table.

Finger food

Wealthy Romans might have several dining rooms so they could entertain more guests – or they might eat outside in warm weather.

Diners would lie on their sides – leaning on their left elbows – facing the table. Their servants or slaves would serve the food from the empty fourth side of the table. Diners would then eat the food with their fingers or, if necessary, with a small knife.

Wealthy families would usually have three courses. The appetizers, or gustatio, would include eggs, shellfish or vegetables. The entrees, called prima mensa, would usually be cooked vegetables and meat. The dessert, or mensa secunda, would be sweet dishes, such as fruit or pastry.

Dinner parties

Dinners became fancier affairs when guests were invited. These dinner parties would involve many elaborate courses. Hosts would put on enormous, extravagant meals to impress their guests, often seeking out novelty dishes like ostrich or flamingo. There would often be entertainment between each course, with a literary performance after dinner.

Guests were seated according to their status – the best seat was on the middle couch, to the immediate right of the host. The status-conscious Romans would examine seating plans carefully to discover their rank relative to the other guests.

Bread and porridge

For most Romans, however, dinner was much simpler. The poorest families would usually only eat porridge and bread, buying meat and vegetables only when they had enough money.

Although the menu varied according to the family income, dinnertime was an integral part of being a Roman. As a result, most families, rich or poor, observed the same traditions, day after day.

Where to next:
Religion in Ancient Rome – Roman Worship
Life in Roman Times - Baths
Writers - Petronius

Related Links:

Women   Women
Family Life   Family Life
The Roman Empire

Republic to Empire

Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


Social Order

Life in Roman Times
- Family Life
- Weddings, Marriages and   Divorce
- Home Life
- Baths
- Gladiators
- Chariot Races


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century