Rome and The Roman Empire (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
ROME AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Roman gastronomy, or gluttony, impresses all who read the Latin and Greek literature composed under the great Mediterranean empire of the first four centuries C.E. Feasting was a central feature of Roman society. The cuisine of Rome, much influenced by ancient Greece and the Near East, is the direct ancestor of the national cuisines of most of western Europe.
Ancient texts form one of the source materials for reconstructing Roman food behavior. These texts include scientific and technical writings (such as the earliest surviving recipe book, Apicius, probably compiled in the fourth century C.E.) as well as lively depictions of food, wine, and banquets in classical Latin prose and poetry. Archaeology is is an equally important source of information on this topic. Notable in this context are the finds at Pompeii, the Italian city buried in 79 C.E. by the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Rome was said to have been founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C.E. on the banks of the Tiber in central Italy. It was a country town whose power gradually grew until it was the center of a world empire. In the third and second centuries B.C.E., Rome fought and defeated the Carthaginians of north Africa, a victory that opened the way to Roman domination of the whole western Mediterranean; in the second and first centuries B.C.E., successive victories in Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), Syria, and Egypt extended Rome's power and wealth eastward.
The rule of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.E.4 C.E.), marks the beginning of a four-hundred-year period, unique in history, during which a single political power governed the whole Mediterranean. Travel and trade were relatively free throughout the region and there was intensive cultural interaction. Travel was slow, however: it was a five-month voyage from the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) to Antioch at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Only foods that were dried, pickled, or salted, and only special wines (see below), would withstand the rigors of such a journey.
Crises in the third and fourth centuries C.E. led to the division of the empire into two parts, which had quite different fates. The Eastern Roman Empire was directly continued in the Byzantine Empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed, finally disappearing in 476 C.E. However, the "barbarian" kingdoms that took its place inherited Roman dietary ideas and developed a way of life that had many Roman features.
Even before those eastern conquests, Romans had become rich enough to spend their wealth enthusiastically on imported luxuries. Lavish banquets became fashionable, and the price of slave cooks rose steeply. Moralists inveighed against these developments, but they did so in vain. Meanwhile, other changes had affected the Roman diet. The acquisition of new territories provided the opportunity for experimentation in agriculture and food production. Romanization in the provinces encouraged people to demand that what was available in the capital should also be available more widely, especially to Roman legionaries and provincial administrators. The province of Britain, whose conquest began in 43 C.E., provides an example: vines, peaches, walnuts, celery, coriander (cilantro), carrots, and several other important foods were first transplanted to that province in Roman times. Wine, olive oil, olives, figs, lentils, chickpeas, and rice were among the commodities that Roman traders first exported to Britain in response to the popularity of Roman fashions in that region.
Many special features of Roman administrative and economic life left their marks on the food and cuisine of the vast region that was once the Roman Empire. Great frontier armies, whose zones of recruitment ensured movement and mixture of populations, required the delivery of reliable, standardized supplies on well-built roads. Inscriptions show that periodic markets existed: they were held every eight days in Italian towns, twice a month in North Africa, and three times a month in Asia Minor.
The Literature of Food
The oldest Latin prose text, written about 175 B.C.E., is De Agri Cultura (On farming) by the statesman Cato. This work focuses on the two great cash crops of Italyine and olive oilnd also includes recipes for cakes and flavored and medicinal wines suitable for farmhouse production. The tradition of Roman agricultural texts culminated in Columella's detailed manual On Agriculture, written about 50 C.E. Columella provides much information on food throughout the manual, as well as a long section (Book 12) full of recipes for household preserves and other food products. Written at about the same date, the Latin encyclopaedia Historia Naturalis (Natural history) by Pliny the Elder contains eight books (129) on plants and their uses, with special attention to fruits and vegetables. Book 14 is devoted entirely to grapes and wine. Although Latin was the native language of Rome, many medical and scientific texts of the Roman Empire were written in Greek: examples are a dietary manual, On the Properties of Foods, by the imperial physician Galen (12999 C.E.), and a medical and dietary textbook by one of his successors, Oribasius (c. 32500 C.E.). These dietary manuals list foods in great detail, which allowed the reader to work out suitable diets. The manuals also make allowances for seasonal factors and each individual's constitution, lifestyle, and current state of health, in accordance with ancient medical theories. (For English translations of all the texts named in this paragraph see the bibliography.)
Poetry and literary prose give a different perspective on food from that of the technical texts. The personal poetry from the period of Augustus is full of insights on food and dining among the elite, demonstrating the growth of gastronomy and the ways in which food articulated social relations. Authors of this period include Propertius, Horace, and Ovid. Written about one hundred years after the time of Augustus, the picaresque novel Satyrica by Petronius mocks the luxurious lifestyle of the new rich. The series of biographies of emperors by the imperial archivist Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, written about 115 C.E.) provides a glimpse into palace lifestyles, in which feasts sometimes turned into Roman orgies. Lives of poorer people are depicted in the fictional Metamorphoses (often translated under the title The Golden Ass) by Apuleius (born 125 C.E.), and later in the biographies of Christian hermits and saints.
It was common in Roman writing to despise complicated dishes designed for show rather than for taste. Yet, in practice, Romans reveled in the spices and delicacies
It was also a commonplace to boast of the freshness and simplicity of the farm produce that one was offering to one's guests. There is a tradition of poetic "invitations to dinner" that demonstrate changes in style as well as individual responses to food fashion, extending from about 50 B.C.E. to 110 C.E.: authors of this genre include Catullus (Poems 13), Horace (Epistles 1.5; Odes 3.29, 4.12), Martial (Epigrams 5.78, 10.48, 11.52), Juvenal (Satires 11), and Pliny the Younger (Letters 1.15).
Staple Foods and Major Flavorings
Rome's status as an overgrown city-state was signaled in one of the special privileges enjoyed by inhabitants of the city: the free bread ration. Interruptions in the wheat supply led to riots. Rome's annexation of Egypt, after Cleopatra's suicide in 30 B.C.E., ensured the continuity of the supply. Thereafter, huge grain ships left Alexandria regularly throughout the sailing season, bringing wheat to Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. It was on such a ship that St. Paul reached Italy after having been shipwrecked on Malta. Roman bakers baked leavened bread, both white and wholemeal. Small-scale baking required a dome-shaped baking-crock (testum and clibanus). Archaeologists often find fragments of these. A commercial bakery, complete with fossilized loaves, has been excavated at Pompeii.
The traditional staple food of early Italy had been not wheat bread but puls (porridge made from emmer wheat). The staple diet of the Roman provinces varied considerably, depending on climate and local custom. Barley, although widely considered a respectable, even desirable, staple food in ancient Greece and Italy, was viewed by Roman soldiers as punishment rations. This increased the demand for wheat wherever Roman armies were stationed.
Always in use in the Roman kitchen were olive oil, fish sauce, and wine. All three were manufactured and distributed on a large scale. Garum was the major source of dietary salt: scarcely any Apicius recipes call for pure salt. Grape syrup was also much used in flavoring, as were honey and dates. Many recipes begin with the instruction, "Pound pepper and lovage," a reminder that both exotic spices and local herbs were appreciated (lovage, native to Liguria in northern Italy, is a bitter culinary herb resembling parsley). Other commonly used flavorings were onion, mustard, dill, fennel, rue, savory, thyme, mint, pine kernels, caraway, cumin, ginger, and asafoetida, the central Asian substitute for the silphium that the Greeks had appreciated so much.
Pliny the Elder and Galenoth of whom were wine enthusiasts, judging from their writingsrovide full information on the wines that Romans drank with their meals. Italy had many fine wines to boast of. The famous Caecuban vineyards in Latium (modern Lazio) succumbed to urbanization, but Falernian wine, from hillsides in northern Campania, maintained its reputation throughout the empire. In the world's oldest recorded tradition of wine vintage years, fine wines were labelled with the name of one of the consuls elected for the year. The Opimian vintage (121 B.C.E.) was legendary: Opimian wines were served, already 160 years old, at a banquet given for the emperor Caligula in 39 C.E. Horace addressed an amusing poem to a jar of wine: "born, as I was, when Manlius was consul," (that year was 65 B.C.E.). It was in Roman times that the wine-growing regions of Spain and southern Gaul (France) first came to real economic importance. Long-distance transport of wines was less risky if they were "cooked" and sweetened with honey or grape syrup; it was in this form that Greek wines were enjoyed in Rome. Roman territory eventually extended northward far beyond the latitude at which grapes ripen to full sweetness. In these regions, including northern Gaul and Britain, Roman legionaries developed a taste for local beer, which was usually brewed from malted barley.
Food in Roman Society
City dwellers in imperial Rome, many of whom lived in apartment blocks, had little opportunity to cook: cooking required an open fire, often an unacceptable risk. However. street food was always available to the city dweller. Street stalls and cookshops sold cakes and sweets, mulled wine, hot sausages, hot chickpea soup, and porridge. "In the tavern all are equally free," wrote Juvenal (born 67 C.E.) with an undertone of disapproval. He continues, "all drink from a common cup, the couch is barred to no man, the table is no closer to one than it is to another," (Satires 8.177-8). The philosopher Seneca the Younger (died 65 C.E.) gives us the sounds of the busy street just outside his apartment window: "pancakesellers and a sausage-vendor and a confectioner and all the proprietors of cookshops selling their wares, each in his distinctive accent" (Letters to Lucilius, 56).
Poor countryfolk had to depend largely on food from their own fields and gardens, supplemented by herbs and fruits gathered from the wild. Meat and fish were uncommon in their diets. For a sense of the flavors of a Roman peasant diet, see the poem "Moretum" (c. first century B.C.E.).
For the peasant population of the ancient countryside, food preparation was a shared task, but in general it was the special responsibility of women. Large house-holds had kitchens staffed with slaves, the skilled cook himself often being an expensive and carefully-chosen acquisition.
Romans tended to eat little during the first part of the day: a breakfast (ientaculum) was a snack that many did not trouble to take at all, and only the greedy wanted a heavy lunch (prandium). There was no better preparation for a full evening meal, (cena) the one big meal of the day, than a couple of hours at the baths. These were fashionable meeting places, ideal locations for informal business discussions. One could easily spend a whole evening there, for food and wine were available at bars and restaurants.
Typical larger Roman houses had a special dining room, the triclinium. Three couches arranged in a U-shape, each large enough for three diners, surrounded a central table. A house with a big enough garden might have had a garden dining area, as well, which was shaded by vines and creepers, with three stone couches sloping gently upwards to the middle (cushions and pillows made these comfortable). The open side of the square was for waiters to come and go.
Servants took off guests' sandals as they reclined and brought water to wash their hands. A sequence of dishes began with the appetizer or hors d'oeuvre (gustus), followed by an aperitif such as honeyed wine (mulsum) or spiced wine (conditum). The appetizers were generally more varied and more costly than the main course, though not as bulky. At one religious dinner attended by Julius Caesar, sixteen hors d'oeuvres awaited the priestly celebrants. The appetizers ranged from sea urchin and clams to slices of venison and wild boar.
The main courses were accompanied by bread and wine. Diners ate with their hands, with the occasional help of a knife. Waiters were constantly coming and going, bringing new courses, clearing away dishes, and supplying perfumed water for finger-rinsing. Music and dance from hired performers, usually slaves, often accompanied the drinking, which tended to continue long after the meal itself was over. The emperor Augustus preferred to entertain his guests by employing traditional storytellers.
A napkin, which lay in front of the diners as they reclined, might serve as a knapsack to take home the little gifts (apophoreta) with which a host would regale his friends as they departed. Similar gifts were given to dependents not lucky enough to be invited to a real dinner. Martial (c. 100 C.E.) wrote a collection of short poems intended to accompany such gifts. They are the most obvious sign that hospitality helped to articulate the patron/client relations that permeated Roman society. The Greek satirist Lucian (second century C.E.) wrote a convincing sketch of daily life in a rich Roman household and addressed it to a friend who had been offered a post as private tutor. Placed at the lowest table, Lucian warned, the friend would be sneered at by slaves and would taste little of the fine cuisine except the mallow leaves that garnished the serving dishes (On Salaried Posts in Great Houses, 26).
Among upper-class Romans, unlike Greeks, the sexes were not segregated at meals. It was said that Roman women once sat demurely at the feet of their husbands' dining couches, but by imperial times the women also reclined. It was said, too, that in the old days women did not drink wine, and that the kiss a Roman husband gave his wife when returning home was a way of assuring himself that this rule had been kept.
See also Ancient Kitchen, The; Ancient Mediterranean Religions; Apicius; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Greece, Ancient; Greece and Crete; Italy; Luxury; Petronius; Wine in the Ancient World.
The standard modern survey of Roman food and the most detailed study of Roman wine are both in French: André, Jacques. L'alimentation et la cuisine à Rome [Food and cuisine in Rome]. 2d ed. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981. Tchernia, André. Le Vin de l'Italie romaine [The wine of Roman Italy]. (Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, 1986). Plenty of useful information in English will be found in: Alcock, Joan P. Food in Roman Britain. (Brimscombe Port, Gloucestershire, U.K.: Tempus, 2001); Fleming, Stuart J. Vinum: the Story of Roman Wine. (Glen Mills, Pa.: Art Flair, 2001); Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Slater, William J., ed. Dining in a Classical Context. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991); White, K. D. Roman Farming. (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970); Wilkins, John, David Harvey, and Mike Dobson, eds. Food in Antiquity. (Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 1995).
Modern translations of most of the Roman literary texts cited in this article are easily found in libraries. For examples of Christian biographies see Russell, Norman, trans. The Lives of the Desert Fathers. (Oxford: Mowbray; Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1981). The following is a list of specialized Roman sources on food that are available in English: Dalby, Andrew, trans. Cato, On farming. (Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1998); Ash, Harrison Boyd, E. S. Forster, and Edward H. Heffner, trans. Columella, On Agriculture. 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941955); Rackham, H., et al., trans. Pliny, Natural History. 10 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938963); Grant, Mark. Galen on Food and Diet. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); Grant, Mark. Dieting for an Emperor: A Translation of Books 1 and 4 of Oribasius' Medical Compilations. (Leiden: Brill, 1997).
For Roman recipes with modern adaptations see: Grant, Mark. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. (London: Serif, 1999); Dalby, Andrew, and Sally Grainger. The Classical Cookbook. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum; London: British Museum Press, 1996. See also under Apicius).
For information on the spice trade see: Miller, J. Innes. The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969); Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: the Story of Spices. (London: British Museum Press; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). For works on country people and their food see: Frayn, Joan M. Subsistence Farming in Roman Italy. (London: Centaur Press, 1979); Kenny. E. J., ed. Moretum: the Ploughman's Lunch, A Poem Ascribed to Virgil (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1986). For information on markets see: Frayn, Joan M. Markets and Fairs in Roman Italy. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); de Ligt, L. Fairs and Markets in the Roman Empire. (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1993).
Emily Gowers, in The Loaded Table (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) explores the hidden meanings of food in Latin poetry: she makes a special study of the poetic invitations to dinner. Andrew Dalby's Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman Empire (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) is a survey of the empire's foods and other luxuries, showing their use in constructing Roman imperial identity. The best outline of Roman daily life, dated in some ways, but well documented and not superseded, is: Carcopino, Jérôme. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940; London: Routledge, 1941).