What did the slaves eat in Ancient Rome?

The slave market, painting by Jean Leon Gerome

Slaves in Ancient Rome represented an important part of the population, which according to various historians would vary between 15 and even 30 percent of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Despite this, less is known about them and their lives often tend to get confused.

Although they are generally considered par excellence people without rights, slaves in Ancient Rome represented an important economic force for the Empire, also given the large portion of the population they represented, and for this reason they also had precise legal frameworks.

Although it has often happened in the history of the Empire that the treatments they endured were inhuman and brutal, it was in the interest of their owners to make sure that they could perform at their best. So let's go see what the slaves of Ancient Rome ate.

For the reasons we have said, starving slaves to the utmost as one might apparently think (and most likely happened, as the Ancient Romans were known for their particularly cruel punishments), since this was against their interest.

On the other hand, if the Roman slaves had to prepare their masters' food, what ended up on their table was certainly less cared for.

Unlike a poor citizen, a Roman slave had a guaranteed daily food. It was, however, made from cheap foods, such as fairly common quality bread and wine, vegetable soups, eggs and fruit. On the other hand, the diet of the gladiators was different, who needed to maintain a physique suitable for combat in arenas and who, contrary to what one might apparently think, needed to develop a layer of fat in order to be able to undergo a greater number of wounds.

One thing that slaves certainly ate less frequently - and especially less frequently than their owners - was meat, which was more expensive and considered more delicious. The meats that were mostly consumed by slaves were those of horses and donkeys, considered less valuable.

Roman slavegirl in an Oscar Pereira da Silva's paint (1894)

The treatment of the slaves, who as we have seen were a very high number, could be very different according to the attitude of the owners. Some, for example, could go hunting alone and consume what they could get. Furthermore, many could go out and use the money they eventually received to consume food in the thermopolium and taverns.

In general, the slaves were not starved to the limit because this risked becoming counterproductive for their masters, but it could happen frequently that the owners starved them on a regular basis, in order to avoid them becoming greedy and over-indulging.

We can however say that from the point of view of nutrition a slave probably ate more and more regularly than a poor Roman citizen, since it was in the interests of the masters to feed them properly in order to guarantee a certain productivity on their part.

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