Museum Crush

The 1,500-year-old recipe that shows how Romans invented the beef burger

A Roman Burger made from a 1,500-year-old recipe © Photo: Dave Thompson / Route OnePhotography / English Heritage

Did Romans really invent the burger?

Rightly or wrongly, the Romans have been credited with bringing many things to Britain: from roads and pavements to heated baths and indoor plumbing. But a new discovery is giving them credit for a quintessentially American invention – the beef burger.

A recipe from the ancient Roman cookbook, Apicius, written by an unknown author during the late 4th or 5th centuries AD, details a dish called ‘Isicia Omentata’ made of minced meat, pepper, wine, pine nuts and a rich fish-based sauce (Garum), all formed into a patty.

The Roman delicacy, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the modern day burger, will be served up at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall this weekend so that visitors can make up their own mind – and taste the ‘Roman Burger’ for the first time in 1,000 years.

It has long been known that the Romans brought ‘fast food joints’ – or thermopolia as they called them – to Britain. In large towns people wanted access to quick food during their lunch break and vendors selling chicken legs, lamb chops and shellfish became commonplace.

Joe Jackson, dressed as a Roman Centurion, makes a Roman Burger at Birdoswald Roman Fort in Cumbria © Picture by Dave Thompson / Route OnePhotography / English Heritage

© Picture by Dave Thompson / Route OnePhotography / English Heritage

“We all know that the Romans left a huge mark on Britain, fundamentally altering the British diet forever,” says Food Historian Dr Annie Gray. “Street food became available en masse, and many of our favourite foods were introduced, including Isicia Omentata, what can be seen as the Roman forefather to today’s burger.”

According to Dr Gray, the Roman burger was “decidedly more upmarket” than many of today’s offerings, with a “richer and more complex” recipe than the plain beef version most common today.

“Since our ‘Roman Burger’, other similar recipes can be seen throughout history,” she adds. “There were the more flat or meatball-like Medieval ‘Pompeys’ or ‘Rissoles’, Georgian ‘Patties’ which popularised fried mince meat, and, by the end of the Victorian era, we see the first proper Hamburger. Burgers aren’t a modern invention – rather, a staple throughout the centuries that has evolved.”

More than 10,000 soldiers would have been based at forts such as Birdoswald at the peak of Roman occupation along Hadrian’s Wall. Having access to tasty, convenient food was vitally important as they patrolled the frontier and vendors serving fast food would have been commonplace in large towns.


Birdoswald Roman Fort stands high above a meander in the River Irthing, in one of the most picturesque settings on Hadrian's Wall. A Roman fort, turret and milecastle can all be seen on this excellent stretch of the Wall.