What did the Romans eat? Catering for the crowds at London’s Roman Amphitheatre

Andrew Lane

Strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, a burger at the football, or a beer at the rugby – food and drink has always gone hand in hand with sport. But what about London’s oldest sporting venue – the Roman Amphitheatre? What happened when large crowds gathered to watch the gladiators fight almost 2,000 years ago? Where did they eat and what was available?

A reconstruction of London's Roman Amphitheatre
© MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)

One thing is for certain, the Romans introduced a range of new foods to a diet traditionally based on the production of cereals and the rearing of sheep and cattle. Cherries, apples, plums and a range of vegetables were all cultivated locally. Oysters and mussels were harvested from around the south coast, whilst the introduction of fish farms marked an intensification of production. Other foods were imported from around the Mediterranean: dates, figs, wine, olives and olive oil, and a pungent condiment called Garum Sauce made of fermented fish guts. There was even black pepper from India, a costly ingredient whose use is attested on Hadrian’s Wall.

Literary sources provide an insight into the eating habits of an urban elite based in Rome, but archaeology provides a more localised picture of the food and drink being consumed. Evidence ranges from large clay amphorae used to transport foodstuffs overlong distances to the distinctive red, glossy pottery called Samian ware, a popular tableware. Assemblages of bone hint at the different meats being consumed with cattle, sheep/goat, pig, and small quantities of red deer, chicken, duck and fish bones, all found during the excavation of London’s Roman Amphitheatre. Microscopic analysis of soil samples adds to the picture with information on the plants grown or consumed on a site.

For many Londoners the principal component of their diet was grain in the form of bread, porridge or stews, supplemented with locally grown fruit and vegetables and limited servings of meat and fish. Consumption of more expensive, imported ingredients was probably rarer and largely the preserve of a wealthy elite.  

Culinary temptation must have lurked around every corner in Roman London. At the centre of the city the imposing Forum offered a range of shops and stalls. The streets were also lined with shops and businesses, typically with a narrow shop fronts and workshops/ accommodation behind. Many of these would have specialised in selling food and drink, the modern equivalent to a bar or takeaway. The well-preserved Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum illustrate just how prolific these establishments were. At Pompeii, a town smaller than Roman London, archaeologists have identified around 600 tabernae or shops, of which around 160 were equipped to sell food and drink.

An advertisement outside a shop in Herculaneum
© Andrew Lane
Shops in Herculaneum
© Andrew Lane

Other food related businesses were more ephemeral and have left virtually no trace on the archaeological record. A fresco from the walls of Pompeii shows a crowded amphitheatre with market stalls outside. The open space surrounding London’s Amphitheatre was almost certainly used in a similar fashion, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

In a city founded on trade enterprising Romans would have catered to every need of an amphitheatre audience.  A wide range of food would be available from cheap snacks such as oysters or bread, to something more luxurious for those with deeper pockets. The streets would have thronged with people, with the sound of tradespeople hawking their goods and the smell of cooking lingering in the air. In some respects, it would not have been so very different to many large sporting venues today.

A bar in Herculaneaum
© Andrew Lane

London's Roman Amphitheatre, which can be usually be visited through Guildhall Art Gallery, is currently closed the public. Guildhall Art Gallery will reopen on 1 August for weekends only. Though it will not be possible to enter inside the Amphitheatre until further notice, visitors will be able to view the remains of the Amphitheatre through a viewing window at Guildhall Art Gallery from 1 August.

Fancy a virtual tour around Roman London? Join the tour here.