Frescoes from the Roman period regularly show us people lying down and relaxing for dinner. The people seem to have more interest in each other than they have for the actual food on the tiny tables in front of them. The stereotypical frescoes only show us men, but there are several paintings that also show women who take part in these dinners. What were women doing there exactly?
Sources that mention women at the dining table in roman times are very rare. Slowly but surely, we get to know more and more about their role in the culinary world by combining all kinds of sources, like writing, paintings and archaeological finds.
The lady of the home was the one who made sure her household ran impeccably. She commanded the personnel and the slaves, managed and checked stocks and took care of the shopping.
She went to local markets and shops to buy products like meat, fish and vegetables. Her slaves carried the wares she bought and paid for them. Dry goods like grains, legumes and dried fruits were bought in bulk, which was kept in big storage jars she checked daily.
In less well-off family’s, women ran and took care of the household all by themselves. Buying ingredients and cooking dinner were all done by her. She enjoyed take-away food or the occasional home-made dinner together with her family.
In the kitchen
The lady of the house was usually the one who decided about daily meals, what was served when there were guests and what was served during parties and banquets. She did not prepare meals herself but let her slaves do this, who were often a mix of men and women. Unfortunately, nothing is known about which task was done by whom. The only thing we know for sure is that whenever there were huge banquets, extra cooks were hired, who were men 99% of the time.
To the table!
The women in Ancient Greece were not supposed to be present at dinner or at parties. The women in Roman times, however, took place alongside their husband, sons or the other ladies at the triclinium, dinner couch. It was expected of them that they were impeccable hosts. These ladies probably commanded the entirety of the servants with just a nod or the blink of an eye and made sure that nobody lacked anything. All while they kept the conversation going, seize political gossip with a seductive glance and proudly explaining what was being served. You could wonder if women had time to eat at all!