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Unveiling the Cost of Food in Ancient Roman Empire: A Glimpse into Culinary Affordability

When we think of the ancient Roman Empire, grand architectural marvels and extravagant banquet scenes immediately come to mind. But have you ever wondered about the cost of food in such a vast and diverse civilization? Peering into the annals of history, let us uncover the economic realities of sustenance in the ancient Roman Empire and delve into the culinary practices that shaped its society.

A Multifaceted Economy:

The ancient Roman Empire boasted a dynamic economy, with major factors heavily influencing the cost of food. Geographical diversity, military expansions, and slave labour all played pivotal roles in shaping the prices and availability of various food staples.

  1. Geographical Diversity: The Roman Empire stretched across three continents, encompassing vast terrains where agricultural products thrived. Wheat, barley, wine, olives, figs, and vegetables were cultivated in abundance throughout Italy, North Africa, Spain, and Asia Minor – thus, their respective costs varied depending on regional availability and distance.

  2. Military Expansion: The Roman Empire's military expeditions cultivated trade networks that enriched the empire. This expansion allowed for diverse cuisines and luxury goods to flow into Rome, with spices, fruits, and exotic meats making their way to the elite's dinner tables, albeit at a higher price.

  3. Slave Labour: Slavery was an essential element of the Roman economy. Slaves operated as agricultural workers and could significantly influence the food prices. Large-scale farming established by wealthy landowners yielded vast harvests, controlling supply and stabilizing the cost of available staples.

Cost of Essential Foodstuffs:

  1. Grain: Grain was the backbone of the Roman diet, particularly wheat and barley. In times of good harvest, a modius (approximately 8.5 litres) of wheat would cost around 1 As, while barley, often considered food for the less fortunate, was cheaper at around 1/2 As.

  1. Meat: Meat was a luxury item largely reserved for the wealthier classes, with prices varying depending on the type and rarity of the animal. Pork, being a staple, was relatively affordable, priced at around 5 As per kilogram. However, delicacies like lamb and beef could fetch higher prices, sometimes reaching 20 As per kilogram.

  1. Fish: With Rome's proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, seafood was a significant part of the culinary delights. Prices varied based on the catch, with cheaper options such as sardines available for 4 As per kilogram, while exotic varieties like oysters could range up to 20 As per kilogram.

  1. Fruits and Vegetables: The cost of fruits and vegetables naturally fluctuated seasonally, with low prices during seasonal abundance. However, fruits requiring expensive transportation, such as lemons and dates, were reserved for the affluent, while more modest options like apples and pears were accessible to all classes.


In the ancient Roman Empire, the cost of food varied according to regional availability and society's class divide. Grain, the staple of the empire, remained relatively affordable, ensuring most citizens would have access to sustenance. However, luxury items such as exotic meats, seafood, and imported fruits came at a relatively higher price, primarily appealing to the elite.

While our exploration into the cost of food highlights the economic dynamics of ancient Rome, it also offers a glimpse into the culinary world that shaped the empire's identity. From the grand banquets of the wealthy to the simpler meals of the everyday Roman, the availability and affordability of food played an integral role in defining the cultural and social fabric of this majestic civilization.

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