Did the Romans Have Pasta?


Rome had a varied cuisine that received influences from all parts of the world. However, it didn’t truly have a close equivalent to pasta. It would be natural to think that they had their own version of it, but the truth seems to be different.

The Romans didn’t have pasta as people know it today. However, they had some similar dishes like lagana and tracta. Pasta became common much later, around the 12th century. Romans didn’t have modern pizza either, since tomatoes didn’t exist in Europe back then.

The history of pasta is less clear-cut than it may seem at first glance. Pasta is such a general term that it’s easy to give that name to many ancient plates. But how did pasta truly figure in the Roman diet?

Also see Did the Romans Have a Flag? to learn more.

Romans pasta
What kind of meals did the Romans have with pasta? See below

What Kind of Pasta Did the Ancient Romans Have?

Although the Ancient Romans didn’t actually have pasta, they did have a couple of foods that were similar. The Roman dish closest to pasta is lagana, a dish resembling lasagna. Tracta was also popular and – on the surface – somewhat pasta-like.

Evidence isn’t clear on when and where pasta originated, but it seems like the pasta that exists today didn’t in ancient Rome. The reason it’s so difficult to give a straight answer is that noodles have existed for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years in other parts of the world.

Chinese noodles date back to as fat as 3,000 B.C., and there’s a common myth that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy when he returned from his travels to the far East. However, this story is very unlikely to be true.

Historians have noted there were plenty of references to pasta during the 13th century, several decades before Marco Polo made his journey. [1]

By this time, pasta was starting to become a popular food. In earlier centuries, it was likely a luxurious food reserved only for the wealthy.

We know that pasta has existed at least since the middle ages. There are some possible references to pasta from the time of Ancient Rome, but they’re far from conclusive.

Some Etruscan tombs from the 4th century B.C. show paintings of what seems to be a machine for making pasta. However, many historians question this interpretation. [2]

Horace, one of the great Latin poets, describes on one occasion thin layers of wheat-based dough that he calls lagana. Lagana resembled lasagna and was perhaps its predecessor. It’s arguably the closest thing to pasta that the Romans had.

As mass-producing pasta became possible in the 19th century, it became a staple food of Italy. Dried pasta can be stored more or less indefinitely, and the new industrial methods allowed it to create a variety of shapes.

Also see Did the Romans Like Julius Caesar? to learn more.

pasta
Did the ancient Romans have pizza? See below

What Kind of Meals Did the Romans Have With Pasta?

The pasta-like meals the Romans enjoyed – tracta and lagana – were usually served with cheese, butter, pork, and a variety of herbs. Diners usually drank wine with their meals, as well. 

As explained earlier, the Romans didn’t eat modern-day pasta. However, they did have a couple of similar dishes: tracta and lagana.

It’s tempting to think that lagana is a predecessor to lasagna, but there isn’t a proven link between the two words. [3] Lagana consisted of thin sheets layered with crushed lettuce or other vegetables, spices, and possibly cheese. It was then deep-fried in oil. The preparation is very different from lasagna, but there are some similarities.

Tracta was a thin dough made of wheat and water. It may have been rolled and then boiled or served like a pancake. Its shape might be loosely similar to today’s long pasta, but there’s not much more to go on.

A brief look at the Roman diet shows us that they didn’t have many of the ingredients often associated with pasta. [4]

Ancient Romans ate mostly legumes — lentils, chickpeas, dried peas — vegetables, and dairy products —especially cheese. There was also meat, fish, nuts, and fruits, but these were mostly reserved for the wealthy classes. Roman sauces were usually made with vinegar, fermented fish, honey, and spices.

The cuisine of the higher classes had much more variety. Because of the sprawling size of the Empire, Romans were exposed to cuisines from all over the world. Some of their recipes included ingredients from India, like lemon and pepper.

Also see Did the Romans Discover America? to learn more.

pasta shells
When was modern pizza invented? See below

Did the Ancient Romans Have Pizza?

The Ancient Romans didn’t have pizza as it exists today. Tomato, a key pizza ingredient, didn’t exist in Europe before the 16th century. However, Ancient Romans did have more basic versions of pizza made of flatbread and other toppings.

Pizza is a relatively recent food. Unlike pasta, which could be grouped with noodles from other parts of the world, pizza is an entirely Italian invention.

But what is pizza, exactly? Defined simply as flatbread with toppings, pizza becomes much more ancient.

Egyptians were eating flatbread spread with “dukka” in 2200 B.C. [5] Virgil, the great Latin poet, describes food served on top of a flatbread. There’s also a conserved flatbread under the ashes of the Vesuvius. It was sliced into eight pieces, just as restaurants do with pizza today.

So, in a way, the Romans did have pizza. However, if defining pizza as a flat dough topped with at least tomato sauce and cheese, then the answer is no. To start, the Romans didn’t have tomatoes.

Tomatoes are originally a food from the American continent. The Spanish brought them to Europe in the 16th century. [6] However, they weren’t appreciated as edible fruits for another two centuries.

Some cooks in Naples started to experiment with tomatoes and pizza-like plates in the 1760s. A century later, modern pizza appeared in the city.

The story goes that when the King of Naples and Queen Margarita visited the city, they asked for the best pizza maker in Naples to cook a sample of the local cuisine. One of the pizzas served by the cook had tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil. The Queen loved this plate, which gave it great fame. It later became the standard for modern pizza.

Conclusion

It’s hard to imagine Rome without pasta or pizza, but as far as history knows, Romans didn’t have either of them in their modern forms.

Also see Did the Romans Know About America? to learn more.

References:
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