Ancient Roman cost of living

I was watching a show about ancient Rome from a commoner’s perspective hosted by Terry Jones. They were discussing the cost of a sandwich purchased at a “restaurant” and said that the price would be about a morning’s work for a cobbler. That seemed awfully high to me. Is that accurate? What did the Romans dine on?


Bread, mostly. Augmented with some meat, cheese, wine, etc.

I imagine that the point of the show was that only the upper classes could afford to eat out.

“Eating out” is very much a development of the Middle Ages and later. It requires a cash economy and the Roman peasants didn’t have much of one, if any. That’s one of the reasons prices always seem so high when you look back at them. Most people never ate a meal in a tavern in their lives.

Every Roman town seems to have had scores of taverns and food stalls. Most of the urbanites lived in tenements without much in the way of cooking facilities; they may very well have gotten most of their food from stalls (many of which did sell hot food). Rich Romans lived in homes with kitchens and plenty of slaves. They would have ate in or at a dinner party not at a tavern.

That’s the price list we should be looking at. What did the average Roman laborer have for breakfast, and where did he eat it? Time to dig out the reference books.

What shelf did I put that on…?

In the Appendix Vergiliana is a poem entitled Moretum. The incomplete poem describes a farmer making his breakfast–a salad of garlic, parsley, bitter rue, and onions from his garden, topped with cheese and vinegar dressing–and starting his day’s work. The phrase e pluribus unum–used to describe the blending of colors in the mixed salad–comes from this poem.

Nah, as far as I’m aware there was very little meat in the average Roman’s diet. Even the upper classes were much more into fish and poultry than mammal meat.

A coffee at Starbucks (hardly an upscale place) costs an hour’s work of a minimum-wage employee.

I don’t think that’s much different from today.

Of course, my definition of “upper classes” is “anyone richer than me”, which is most people.

They got a grain dole. They’d take the dole to a local communal baker, who’d bake it into bread, taking a small amount as his share.

Whole grain bread, olives, olive oil, onions were stables.

Now, in order to decide whether silenus or alphaboi867 is correct, we have to know what the Op means by an ancient Roman commoner. If by that you mean a man working in a city, then yes, he’d eat out fairly often at a food stall. Many crossroads inside the City had little clubs/shrines/commoity places where the “members” would gather after a days work (or perhaps for lunch) for a snack and a few beakers of wine. But in the country, few dues “ate out”.

However, even if a semi-skilled worker “blew” a mornings wages on a meal- so what of it? He had no cable tv, phone, electric, cell phone, credit card or car payments to make. He had a grain dole which kept him from hunger. All he had to pay was cheap rent in a tenement house. So, he works a 12 hour day and blows 1/4 of that on a meal. That still leaves him with 1/3 a days wages for rent and another 1/4 for wine and light snacks. He’s OK.

I have easily “blown” half a days *take home * on a meal for two. So why shoudl we be shocked when a worker blows 1/4 of his on a meal? When was the last nice sit/down meal you dudes have had? As a % of that days *take home, * wasn’t it close to a 1/4?

Yeah, I have to agree with Dog80, **Rigamarole **and DrDeth. It sounds to me like the point they were making is that eating out WAS common, and it was affordable even for the working classes.

And they may also have been making a distinction between a “restaurant” - which today would connote service of some kind, and a full meal - and food stands, which were ubiquitous in the marketplaces and on the streets, but cheaper.

In the time-travel novel Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove, the protragonist runs a tavern. The author describes a simple meal sold to one of her customers (which I am paraphrasing for brevity):

“An as for the bread, an as for the oil, two asses for the nuts and onions and two asses for the wine.”

For a slice of pork, bread and two cups of wine, the bill came to a sestertius.

The author says that you could buy a couple of gallons of raisins for six sesterces and a leg of mutton was high-priced at fifteen.

Four sesterces to a denarius
Two asses to a dupondius
Two dupondii to a sestertius

Of course, this is a novel, but it seems like the authors put a bit of research into it.

Didn’t they give out giant snails to the poor to eat? I seem to recall archaeologists finding giant (a foot or larger) snail shells in their excavations?

I haven’t been able to find mention of the studies I recalled, but maybe someone else remembers and can find it online? As I remember it they were digging in a poor section of a Roman town, and found giant snail shells in the garbage heaps. I am not sure, but I think they pointed at some mention in records that snails like that were propagated in order to feed the poor. The documentary I am thinking of also examined tenemants/apartment living for the poor as well. Does anyone else get a glimmer of recollection at this? Am I remembering correctly at all? :confused:

From whence we get the phrase “Happy as a Roman housewife”.

I’m so sorry

Right- common in a big city, and yes- at a street stand, not a “full service restaurant” per se.

I am not surprised that the ancient Romans mostly ate cooked food from vendors. cooking at home (for the working class) is a recent innovation-in Victorian England, the poor boght their meals from fish and chip shops-even the middle class (see “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”) would have the Christmas goose cooked at the bakers. Ovens were expensive, and it was easier to cook food in large quantities.

I can’t speak to Rome in particular but what else were people working for if it weren’t for that meal. Ok, that still seems expensive but it wasn’t like he was trying to max out his 401K plan, buy braces for little Tiberius, and save up for a vacation home. Even though Rome was pretty prosperous at times, most people just worked to survive. We aren’t far away from that concept even today. “Putting food on the table” was meant as a literal expression because food took up so much a family budget. Milk was a necessity for most households in 1950. A gallon costs about .85 while average household income was only about $3000 a year. A family with kids that used a gallon a day would spend about 10% of their income on milk alone. That is but one example but you get the point. I have no idea if they even had restaurants in Rome or how much they cost.

I realize that the typical Roman artisan probably lived a pretty hand-to-mouth existence, but working all morning just to feed yourself seems like a lot. You would still need to feed your wife, your children and your slave(s).

Thanks for your help,

No it doesn’t. The minimum wage is $5.15. A cup of coffe at starbucks is about $1.50 or $2.00. A cup of fancy coffee is $3.00 or $4.00.