Roman slaves are largely an invisible part of history, according to Professor Lauren Hackworth Petersen of the University of Delaware, but they played an important role in ancient Roman civilizations. In terms of food, Roman slaves were responsible for preparing and serving food to the richer Roman people, but they were relegated to eating far less extravagant fare themselves.
A slave's daily diet was guaranteed, according to Kyle Harper, author of "Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425," but it wasn't very exciting. At meal time in ancient Rome, two levels of food were served with the rich slave owners getting the best food and wine. The slaves got common foods, which usually included bread and cheap wine. Vegetable soup or porridge might have been on a Roman slave's daily menu, as well. Fruit, such as apples, figs and raisins, were common, too. Gladiators, who were forced to fight in public arenas, ate a high-carbohydrate diet that included vegetables, legumes and grains, according to the Archeology Archive.
Meat Was Scarce
Ancient Roman slaves didn't receive meat on a daily basis, partly because it was expensive and partly because such delicacies were reserved for the rich slave owners. Horse and donkey meat were occasionally eaten by slaves, but only because these meats were considered unworthy of rich Roman citizens, according to Harper. Hens and eggs were offered to slaves, as well. Some slaves were allowed to go hunting on their own and eat what they caught. Gladiators ate a vegetarian diet, not because their owners refused to feed them meat, but because their high-carb diet helped keep them heavy enough to put on a good fighting show, Archeology Archive notes.
The Occasional Treat
Many slaves went hungry, though not starved, on a fairly regular basis because slave owners didn't want the help becoming gluttonous. Many slave owners, however, offered their slaves the occasional treat, such as olives and real wine. Rarely, a slave was invited to eat the same foods as his master, notes Harper. Some slaves would sneak into a tavern or bake shop for a treat while they were out running errands for their masters, says Petersen.
Purpose of A Slave Diet
One advantage to being a slave rather than a poor free citizen was that food was usually guaranteed, even if it was in small quantities. This food security was because masters understood that when their slaves were fed, they were more productive and got more things done for their masters, according to Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari, authors of "Slave Systems: Ancient and Modern." Slaves still relied on their masters for food, but they could rest assured that they would get something because even though they were treated as low-class Romans, they were still an essential part of the master's home.