Mastication and machination

August 15, 1997

Continuing the THES's series on food, Emily Gowers explains how the Romans used it as a political and social tool

Roman food seems to excite an almost morbid interest. Every few years a new book of recipes comes out, and a handful of European restaurants recreate dishes like patina of fried anchovies or boiled goose a la Apicius, as if eating provided authentic contact with antiquity.

Curiosity usually mingles with a kind of titillating disgust. Modern eaters are alienated but intrigued by the Romans' bizarre table manners and their less palatable ingredients: stuffed Trojan pigs, sows' wombs, dormice, the feather down the throat.

These days it also attracts more sophisticated attention, thanks partly to a glut of foodie novels and films. Audiences who warmed to the quail sarcophagi of Babette's Feast or the metamorphosis recipes of Like Water for Chocolate will relish the emperor Domitian's black dinner for his senators (funeral food as the theme and an individual tombstone at each place-setting), or Apuleius's juicy serving-girl gyrating over the sausage in her cooking-pot. The Romans, with their highly ritualised meals, sense of the power of food to influence people and taste for the macabre are ready for deeper scrutiny.

Archaeology provides tangible but enigmatic remains such as the bowls of broken eggs, charred walnuts and long-stale flatbreads fossilised in the fast-food shops of Pompeii. But for the tang and bite of ancient food, we are inescapably thrown back on the written legacy. The surviving literature is full of gaps and biases. It represents a minority, the literate elite. Most Roman writers had anti-materialist prejudices, and food was considered such a trivial subject that they apologised before discussing topics such as vegetables or pig farming. Nowhere is there a full-length description of a typical meal or straightforward description of the pleasure of Roman eating.

This is not just because handbooks on etiquette and entertaining have been lost. The literary record reflects the cultural restraints that governed consumption: it seems that the Romans tried to compensate for the grosser aspects of eating through ritual purification, "levitating" on couches, reading at the table and forbidding anyone to pick up food that had been dropped on the floor.

Yet descriptions of abnormal meals survive in abundance, split between rustic escapism and hysterically exaggerated orgies, with not much in between. There is enough material to suggest that the Romans were extremely vocal about food, but vocal in a most selective way. Pleasure in consumption was always the preserve of other people, the kind who lacked control over their bodies. Gastroporn - reading recipe books in bed, or watching rainbow-coloured mullets die at the dinner-table - was for emperors or outrageous gourmets. Drooling cooks, slaves and parasites are confined to comedies set in Greece, though the food they eat is the juicy offal the Romans fetishised. One account of a toddler masticating a grape is uniquely indulgent.

There are two possible attitudes to the gaps and biases of literature. Among modern historians and archaeologists, the trend has been to resist the biases and fill the gaps, to peel away the exaggerations and uncover the eating habits of the average Roman family. A sober picture has emerged: larks' tongues were a one-off gastronomic hyperbole, and only the emperor Claudius is reported to have stuck a feather down his throat. Most ordinary people experienced famine and subsisted on a diet more continuous with the rest of Mediterranean history. This usually involved a cereal base with something piquant added, occasionally meat - dishes such as beans and bacon, sausage and porridge, bread and olives. This food may not be central to the surviving literature, but the balance of staple and relish remained a model of good eating from which dangerous deviations could be measured.

However, to learn anything about the cultural significance of ancient food, we are still dependent on the voices of the literate and affluent. They do not just give us the "Proustian" element of individual tastes and associations. Often, recurring themes reveal shared cultural preoccupations as well. The deeper one probes into the Roman language of food, the more one can see how the categories used bring in other worlds beyond the stomach or the dining room. Writers could not disregard the power of food to impress, deceive, mark boundaries, set up barriers or express allegiances. Food became a focus for Roman self-definition, socially, and also in relation to other nations and the course of history.

Much of what the Romans wrote involves feelings of discomfort with their own surplus: the vast wealth that poured into an already fertile land as a result of imperial conquest. Originally it was controlled by the patrician elite, who dispensed bounty from their estates and cemented their social networks with gestures of hospitality. Increasingly, however, this elite was eroded and infiltrated by outsiders, who used new material resources to win away the old dependants. Finally, the emperors emerged at the top of the pyramid, undermining everyone with their public largesse and infinite powers of consumption.

"The man with whom I do not dine is a barbarian in my eyes," reads a Pompeian graffito. Yet a dinner invitation did not guarantee equal treatment: often food was distributed according to social rank. Roman debates about food are bound up with matters of power, hierarchy and distinction. This led to a moral righteousness and interference in what people ate: individuals were free with their criticism, and the state intervened with sumptuary laws designed to stem the conspicuous consumption of luxury foods and restore the proper boundaries between everyday and celebratory eating. Many Roman writers stood on the margins socially: they were touchy interlopers, displaced aristocrats or quizzical foreigners. Their hostile commentary on social eating was a backlash. The satirist Juvenal, a bona fide Roman displaced by foreign "scum", uses a variety of tactics: outrage at social divisiveness or egalitarianism and proud defiance.

Literary language also reveals links between the city of Rome, the Roman meal and the individual citizen's bodily capacity, all thought to have expanded dangerously from their original compact form. The city was anthropomorphised as a giant maw (Cato called it "a belly without ears"), with its gates as gullets engulfing the products of the world; vomitoria in its amphitheatres spewing out citizens; and sewers for bowels. Similarly, histories of the Roman meal worked on a model of continual expansion: the basic three-course meal became bloated with more courses, more choice, more fringe apparatus. Moderation survived only in the innocent countryside or among uncorrupted tribes, like Tacitus's Germans.

Finally, the human body seemed to follow the same lines of progressive corruption and degeneration. The vocabulary of gluttony, dyspepsia and overflow was used to draw analogies between the badly functioning digestion and all kinds of social threat and disruption: political ambition, legacy-hunting, adultery, racial mixing, and so on. Tyranny was connected with uncontrolled appetite: potential dynasts like Antony who vomited in public and dined first thing in the morning, and later the emperors, who were accused of all kinds of transgressive eating. Fast-food shops and roadside inns were linked with dangerous egalitarian tendencies which undermined formal eating, and with dishonest marketing.

Moralists and satirists had an interest in exposing all the barbarities that polite table manners suppressed (butchery, funerals, decay, poison, indelibility, perverted sacrifice, snatching, brawling and social knifing), as well as the hollowness of display and gastronomic ambition. Here they played on the suspicions and hypochondria that clouded their readers' approach to all external substances. It was not just a reasonable fear of gritty bread or rancid meat. It was also the imaginative ability to see how the same food could be regarded as delicate and enticing in one context, corrupt and abominable in another.

Gourmandise became food on the edge, associated with boundary-crossing and social anarchy: mushrooms with poison, fermented fish sauce with putrefaction, sows' wombs (tastier after a miscarriage) with abortion, pastry confections with adulterous reshaping, animals containing spurious offspring with adoption and mixed marriage. The joke-shop marginal "food" celebrated at the Saturnalia, the Roman carnival - painted or made of mud or excrement - might crop up at a sadistic emperor's table.

Cannibalism, in a society in touch with famine, was a deep-seated fear: in remote country inns, human bones floated in the pork soup; the Christians served up human babies in pastry turnovers ("to deceive the incautious"). The ex-slave Trimalchio's dinner, satirised by Petronius, is exposed as a mixture of mutton dressed as lamb (in this case pork and pastry posing as rare delicacies) and gastronomic jokes touching on the margins of edibility.

All this, it is true, says more about Roman psychology than about Roman food. Hysterical rants were just one side of the coin. Food was still the instrument of display and honouring, a carefully-pitched compliment to the prestige of the guests. You could not risk hearing your guest leave muttering "I didn't know we were such good friends", as the emperor Augustus once did after a rather inadequate meal. Martial serves a shabby chic dinner to his best friend, but compromises by adding sow's udder when entertaining his patron.

Perhaps it is bet-hedging and anxiety to please, as much as pretension and deceit, that characterise Roman cuisine. Apician patina, made of sows' udders, fish, chicken, figpeckers or thrushes, eggs, pine-nuts "and anything else that is good" contained something for everyone - like paella or vincisgrassi an image of fussy, all-inclusive hospitality.

Similarly, the iconography of the formal meal drew on other spheres of display and social control - the theatre, the circus and the triumphal procession - but these also provided the obvious images of festivity and celebration. The emperor Vitellius's "Shield of Minerva", a preposterous dish of pikes' livers, pheasant and peacocks' brains, flamingoes' tongues and lampreys' roe, collected from the empire, sounds like blatant imperialism on a plate.

It would be difficult to write a history of Roman pleasure (as could be done for Greece), given the gaps in the sources and Roman inhibitions about consumption. But much more could be discovered about the history of Roman taste, if not in the same detail as, for example, for 17th-century France. Were culinary fashions linked to other kinds of aesthetic decision-making, in rhetoric, architecture, dress? Much more, too, might be learned from the way in which different foods were categorised, or about how hierarchies of foods reflected social rank: vegetables as country bumpkins, joints of meat as senatorial, snacks as plebeian, mixed and marginal food for the bottom of the heap. Even so, the Roman dinner party, unlike the Greek symposium, took place behind closed doors; all we are allowed to see is yesterday's scraps. We can follow our noses into the kitchen, as Roman foodies did, squawking like excited peacocks and craning over piles of meat, but there will always be meanings that we cannot fathom.

Emily Gowers is honorary research fellow in the department of Greek and Latin, University College London.

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