First Century Rome - Appetizers

by LiamBean

The Latin for small courses was "gustatio" or "promulsis." As today these "courses" were served before the main meal.

Roman dinners typically consisted of a number of courses. These were usually begun with a "starter" or course of Hor d'œuvre (French for "apart from the main work"). Romans actually called these starters.

Gustatus means "to taste" and is related to the word gusto which means "to relish." Therefore gustatio is a great word for appetizers.

Promulsis can have a two meanings; "publication of law" is one, but the most likely meaning in this context is "arranged beforehand," after all, these small servings were intended to whet the appetite of guests before the main meal.

Roman Pate


Moretum was a pesto or type of thick patè. We aren't sure if it was scooped up with bread, spread on something else or just eaten as is. The following recipe serves eight. By the way, the device the pesto is in is called a mortaria.


  • 5 small bulbs of fresh garlic
  • 2 1/4 pounds of feta (or other crumbly savory) cheese
  • 10 celery stalks
  • 5 bunches of coriander (cilantro [Mexican parsley] may be substituted) leaves
  • 5 bunches of rue leaves (celery leaves may be substituted)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cups white wine vinegar


Depending on how strongly of garlic you want this to taste, do one of the following. Either roast the garlic bulbs until soft or peel and loosely chop the uncooked garlic. Roasting garlic first will reduce the strength of the garlic and make it sweeter.

* To roast garlic bulbs, cut the top of the bulb to expose the clove. Roast for ten to fifteen minutes or until the cloves become soft.

Add all of the above ingredients, except the cheese to the food processor. Pulse until a creamy consistency is reached. Add this to a mixing bowl and add the cheese. The cheese does not have to be feta, but for an authentic taste it should be made from goats milk and be a hard crumbly cheese. Ricotta can also be used, but this changes the taste substantially.

This stuff is great with toasted pita chips or other flat bread.

Roasting the garlic first will give this "pesto" a much less pungent and milder flavor. The fresh garlic version is for true (die-hard) garlic lovers.

Experiment, if you wish, by cutting this recipe in half and preparing it both ways.

Roman Mortaria
Roman Mortaria

Olive Patè

Olive Paste (or Patè)


  • 4 oz. black olives
  • 4 oz. green olives
  • 4 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 heaping teaspoon chopped fennel leaf or finely diced fennel root
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons dried or chopped fresh rue (use celery leaves if you can't find this)
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

This is really simple. Combine everything in a food processor and pulse until you get a rough paste. You don't want want a puree. This is great on crackers, flat-bread, or as a garnish on other dishes.


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Apricot Gustatio


  • 1kg (2 pounds) firm just-ripe apricots or nectarines
  • 200ml (1 Cup) white wine
  • 15ml (1 Tablespoon) honey
  • 250ml (1 1/4 Cup) sweet grape reduced juice, reduction is to half original volume before measuring
  • dried mint to taste, a few sprigs should do it
  • 1 teaspoon pepper or allspice or nutmeg (ground of course)
  • 1 Tablespoon quarum (use Nam Pla fish sauce)


It is important to use just-ripe or barely ripe fruit. You do not want fully ripened or soft fruit for this recipe since the process of cooking will soften it considerably.

Cut in half and pit the fruit. Set the fruit aside, in cold water, until ready to cook.

In a mortar or food processor grind the pepper (see note below) and mint, add the fish sauce, honey, reduced grape juice, wine and vinegar. Pour blended ingredients into a skillet along with the fruit. Add a little bit of oil and cook at medium until the mixture just comes to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for roughly twenty (20m) minutes.

Remove to a serving dish and sprinkle with pepper (or allspice or nutmeg) just before serving.

Note that Roman "pepper" was likely nutmeg, allspice, or ground cloves. These three spices were common and often referred to as "pepper" before black pepper came into use.

Strawberry Promulsis

This is a very simple recipe, but quite good. The addition of thyme, typically used in fowl dishes, makes for refreshing flavor.


  • 500 ml (2 cups) fresh strawberries
  • Juice of one-half a lemon (1/2 Tablespoon)
  • Fresh thyme, leaves from 2 sprigs (use slightly more if dried thyme)
  • Reduced grape juice (or sugar) to taste


After washing and removing the the stems of the strawberry, cut into bite sized pieces and add to a medium sized mixing bowl. Mince the thyme and add to the bowl along with the citrus juice. Toss well. Taste and add sugar or grape juice reduction to the desired sweetness.


Ingredient Substitutions

Because so many of the ingredients are either hard to find or no longer exist this section deals with substitutions.


This is the fish sauce Romans put on nearly everything. A good substitute is a Thai fish sauce called Nam Pla. Thai fish sauce is nearly identical to the ancient roman condiment.

There is also a substitute that I found on the PBS site that is quite easy to make. I think that the oregano is optional.

Cook a quart of grape juice, reducing it to one-tenth its original volume. Dilute two tablespoons of anchovy paste in the concentrated juice and mix in a pinch of oregano.


This is a sweet wine that was often used as an ingredient in fruit dishes. I suggest a cheap Chardonnay for the wine.

Warm 1/2 cup clear honey and add it to a bottle of medium-dry white wine.

Roman Pepper

In a food processor or coffee chopper combine equal parts clove, allspice and nutmeg. I suggest roughly pulverizing the cloves first then adding the allspice berries and finally grating in the nutmeg. Powdered nutmeg can also be added after the other ingredients are pulverized.

If you don't want to go to all this trouble, simply use ground allspice or nutmeg in the same quantities you'd use with black-pepper.


Not only is Rue hard to find, it is known to speed up the menstrual cycle. For that reason it could be a dangerous ingredient for some of your guests. Rue is a bitter herb, for that reason you can use any bitter leafy substitute. I find that celery leaves make a good substitute.


This is also a difficult herb to find. Mexican cilantro is an excellent substitute.


This list of recipes is necessarily limited. Attempting to translate the recipes attributed to Apicius is difficult at best due to the lack of quantities, methods, or times being mentioned.

In short what is written here has been tried with mixed results at best.


The author was not compensated monetarily, with discounts, or freebies by any of the companies mentioned.

The author stands to make a small profit from advertising attached to this article.  The author has no control over the advertisers or the content of those ads.

Updated: 01/24/2013, LiamBean
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LiamBean on 01/29/2013

This is it for my Roman series. To do the main courses justice I'd need to call for dormouse, rabbit and other less than common ingredients.

katiem2 on 01/29/2013

I'm going to try the Roman Pate, I love feta and olives. Sounds amazing. Great appetizers. :)K

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