When we think of Ancient Rome, we think of shield-clad legions marching through Europe, gladiators fighting to the death in the coliseum, and egotistical emperors murdering anyone they wished. However, whether you were a soldier, prisoner, or emperor, you still had to eat. Customs surrounding Roman food were strikingly similar to our society today; the rich ate flamingos, truffles, or whatever else they pleased at ritualistic, multi-course feasts while the poor ate porridge, bread, or whatever else they found at simple, informal gatherings. Roman cuisine and the customs surrounding it were very similar to modern society as the meal took on a deeper, sacred meaning, there were large differences in the way the rich and poor ate, and food was adapted to and borrowed from the areas they conquered.
In scientific terms, food is merely a basic human need. Why is it, then, that Ancient Romans ate honey-coated dormice stuffed with plums, sausages, and pomegranate seeds? They surely wouldn’t have died if they had eaten these murine delights. It’s the same reason we eat puffed wheat rolls stuffed with pulverized cow, lettuce, and onions topped off with a tomato and sugar puree and pickled cucumbers; we enjoy it. Rome was a complex society, just like almost everywhere in our world today. In a complex society, food is assigned a meaning greater than just being a tool for survival. Therefore, some people in Rome were able to eat dormice, just as we are able to eat hamburgers. However, complex societies not only led to an increased variety of food, they also resulted in a increased sacrality of it. This is largely due to the belief systems that arise with complex societies. As the foremost complex society of its time, Rome had a correspondingly complex belief system, that involved a sacrifice of food to the gods.
For example, mola salsa, a baked salt cake not unlike a communion wafer, was sacrificed to the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta. These practices were so important that a group of priestesses called the vestal virgins dedicated their lives to sprinkling of these salt cakes on sacrificed animals in order to honor the goddess. Although most Romans were unable to spend their lives as vestal virgins, their houses usually contained shrines to the gods, called lararia, where sacrifices were made on a daily basis, especially to domestic gods such as Lares, the namesake of lararia. Not only did the Romans sacrifice salt cakes and plant-based foods, they also offered up whole animals to different gods a steer for Jupiter, a goat for Mercury, a calf and a boar for Vulcan. These sacrifices were complicated affairs, music was played, prayers were said, and the animal’s blood was spread around the altar.
Only then, some of the time, could it be eaten. In addition to sacrifices, Roman gods were celebrated with meals and festivals in their honor. For example, Cerealia was an April harvest festival rather like Thanksgiving dedicated to the goddess of agriculture, Ceres. Cerealia was characterized by the eating and sacrifice of grains, in hope of a good harvest. In fact, the word cereal comes from this goddess. The festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the god of plenty, was focused on snacking on cheese plates, nuts, cookies, and other sweet, and usually unhealthy foods. Especially with the winter fare and decoration involved, Saturnalia was strikingly similar to Christmas. Romans ate dormice like we eat hamburgers, sacrificed anything and everything to the gods, and had festivals similar to Thanksgiving and Christmas. In Rome, food was much, much more than a tool for survival, just as it is in our society today.
The classic image of Roman food is a large banquet containing an insanely wide variety of foods. You might see peacock brains, dolphin meatballs, camel heels, or even boars stuffed with live thrushes. However, this striking image of Roman cuisine is not the one most Romans knew. Poorer Romans ate a far more modest diet, including a lot of wheat, bread, and porridge, discarded delicacies, such as olive culls, and maybe even bird seed. This disparity between social classes still exists in our world today; the rich eat well and never really have to think too deeply about food, while for the poor, finding enough to eat can be a constant struggle. Because of this gulph in quality, to study what Romans ate, it is necessary to divide cuisine by social class. First consider the upper class, of the nobility and elite; which has the wildest, grandest, and most ritualistic cuisine. Following a light breakfast, usually with bread and a light lunch, often containing eggs or cheese, dinner was the largest, longest, and most formal meal. Multi-course dinner parties were very common and could have dozens of people, often eating in a garden, and supplemented by pillows, but interestingly, not utensils. Many recipes for these extravagant meals are found in Apicius’s Cookbook, one of the first of its kind. According to the cookbook, the first course would consist of seafood and salad, with dishes such as cuttlefish stuffed with brains, pepper, and raw eggs, with a fish sauce containing seeds, herbs, and honey.
The second course was the meat or fish course and could have contained a dish such as boiled flamingo (or parrot) with leeks, dates, and spices. Finally, the meal would be capped off with fruits such as apricots, peaches, pinecones, or even quinces dressed as sea urchins and of course, wine. The commoners and slaves of Rome ate less formally, their food was of a much lower quality, and their health suffered accordingly. Foods that were most prevalent among the lower classes included millet, seen as a grain of farm animals, porridges, and vegetable soups. Meat was very rare, unlike in the upper classes. However, one of the most impactful aspects of Roman food culture was the subsidy system. From the early days of the empire, many poor Romans received a set amount of grain and corn at a set fee from the government. Eventually, the subsidies became free, and by the 3rd century CE, included oil, pork, and even wine. Systems like this still exist today, and many can trace their roots back to Rome. The Roman system, like modern ones, was extremely controversial. Although critics say that poorer Romans relied on and took advantage of this system, the rations provided were not enough to feed a family and still had to be supplemented from the free market. But if some people are eating a mouse stuffed inside a rabbit, inside a chicken, inside a lamb, inside a pig, inside a cow, basically an entire food chain, why are others eating bird seed? Just as in our society today, the question is not whether there is enough food but why some people have all of it and others are starving.
Food is merely a reflection of the physical and cultural environment, so in a large, diverse empire like Rome, food varied significantly based on location. Rome had access to resources from seas, forests, and farms, as well as a complex trading network with other civilizations. Provinces with access to the Mediterranean were able to tap into a climate with perfect agricultural conditions for a variety of crops, such as olives, dates, and grapes (and therefore, wine), and this area became the heart of the Roman Empire. Not only could they grow fresh fruit, but Romans were also able to domesticate many crops and animals around the Sea, such as rabbits in Iberia and grains in Egypt. Just with those ingredients, one could have a pretty delicious cuisine; I would love a rabbit, olive, and date burger right now. However, the greatest empire of its day didn’t stop at the Mediterranean; food from the peripheral provinces was also integrated. Belgium provided ham, Brittany provided oysters, and Anatolia provided lettuce. Now, I can add lettuce to my burger and have ham-stuffed oysters on the side. The Romans not only created the most advanced cuisine to date with the food they found within their boundaries, they supplemented it with goods from civilizations to the East.
By trading cereals and wine, as well as gold coins and precious metals, they were able to acquire eggplant and spinach in Arabia, and peaches in Persia. Now, I can have a healthy salad with my burger and candied peaches with honey (interestingly, the Romans never had access to sugar) for desert. However, there was still something the rich craved, something that required travelling all the way to India to acquire. No good Roman dish was complete without spices, including pepper, ginger, and tumeric. Although food was quite different depending on location, the interconnectivity of the empire led to some foods becoming some of the earliest national dishes. Perhaps the most quintessential of these foods, is garum, a fish sauce originating in Mauretania. The Geoponica describes it as the entrails of tunny fish and its gills, juice, and blood left in a vessel to sit for up to two months. Like any good national dish, garum varied in quality had legendary makers, such as Umbricius Scaurus in Pompeii, and was applied to almost everything. Rome was truly a melting pot of cultures, and its food reflected that, just like our country today.
Roman food was given meaning by religion, unequal based on social class, and adapted from all areas and cultures of the empire and beyond. Food had a meaning and level of complexity in Rome that can stand with the most advanced societies in history, maybe even on top of that podium. Customs surrounding Roman food have persisted up to modern times, and have left a lasting impact on our society. Clearly, the biggest thing our society has been missing for two thousand years is a stuffed dormouse.
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