Food and dining in Ancient Rome
The food of the early Romans resembled to a great extent that of the Greek heroes (their national dish was pulmentarium, a porridge made of pulse), but to avoid repetitions we will pass over the first centuries of Roman history, choosing as our subject Rome in the days of prosperity.
It should, however, be mentioned that Greece never attained such enormous wealth as Rome, and that even in her greatest recklessness she was more refined. Goethe said that in the days of their highest civilization the Romans remained parvenus; that they did not know how to live, that they wasted their riches in tasteless extravagance and vulgar ostentation—but it must be remembered that, whereas the civilization of the nineteenth century is industrial, that of Rome was militant, and to that should be attributed the fact that some of the simplest means of comfort were then unknown.
Many moderns are inclined to doubt the assertions made concerning the countless riches and marvellous expenditures of those days. They read with skepticism the writings of Juvenal, Seneca and the elder Pliny. But, though in some cases exaggeration was doubtless resorted to, sufficient proof remains to convince the observing mind that the wealth of the Roman far surpassed the wildest dreams of the richest man of the present day. The ruins of the Colosseum and of the baths of Caracalla, two structures raised solely for pleasure, impress us with their stupendous magnificence, and even the twentieth century has failed to equal the palaces of the nobles.
Moreover, it must be remembered that the wealthy Roman owned many mansions. Each of the larger ones[Pg 40] was a miniature city, sheltering a small army of slaves. The buildings were surrounded by parks, vineyards, woods and artificial lakes. The atria and peristyles were embellished with valuable paintings and statues. The walls and ceilings of the chambers were decorated with gold and precious stones. Nowhere else, recorded in the history of the world, with the possible exception of the palaces of the Incas, has gold ever been so lavishly used. On the furniture and ornaments alone, millions were expended. A single cup of murra brought 1,000,000 sesterces ($40,000). A small citrus wood table cost a similar sum—yet Seneca owned 500 of them, an outlay on that class of furniture alone of $20,000,000.
All Italy was covered with the country residences of the patricians. They were found in numbers on the coast of Campania, the Sabine hills and the lakes of the North.
The most esteemed members of the household staff were the coqui (cooks) and the pistores (fancy bakers). They often amassed large fortunes from their salaries and the many presents they received. All the other servants (who were usually slaves) were under the jurisdiction of a headman, an atriensis.
The first meal (ientaculum) was light, consisting ordinarily of bread and wine with honey, dates, olives or cheese. At the prandium (their déjeuner à la fourchette, which took the place of their noon dinner of former days), meats, vegetables, fruits, bread and wine were provided. After the second meal, the meridiato (or in modern language, the siesta) was enjoyed, as it is in the Italy of this century—although, unlike the sleepy town we know, business Rome then never slept.
After the short midday rest came games and exercises. The youth betook themselves to Campus Martius. The older members of the family made use of the sphaeristerium, a private gymnasium and ball room, which was found in every house. With it were connected the private baths.
The cena, the principal meal, commenced at 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Seldom less than four hours[Pg 41] were spent at table. Pliny, the elder, who was considered a very abstemious man, sat down to his meal at 4 o'clock, and remained there "until it began to grow dark in summer and soon after night in winter," at least three hours. The amount of food consumed would be incredible were it not for the explanation recorded by Seneca, "Edunt ut vomant; vomant ut edunt."
The dinner menu given below was of a very ordinary affair:
|Pickled Cabbage and Gherkins|
|Radishes, Mushrooms, etc.||Oysters|
|Conger Eels||Oysters||Two kinds of Mussels|
|Thrushes on Asparagus||Fat Fowls|
|Ragout of Oysters and other Shellfish with black and white|
|Shellfish and other Marine Products|
|Beccaficos||Haunches of Venison||Wild Boar|
|Pastry of Beccaficos and other Birds.|
|Sow's Udder||Boar's Head|
|Fricassee of Fish||Fricassee of Sow's Udders|
|Various kinds of ducks||Roast Fowl|
|Pastry in wonderfully elaborate forms and colors|
|Fruits and wines.|
The "gustus," or appetizer, was also variously known as the "gustatio." A favorite drink served with it was a mulsum of Hymetian honey and Falernian wine.
Toothpicks made from the leaves of the mastich pistachio were in common use.
All the dishes were carved at the sideboards by expert carvers who were trained in schools by practice on jointed wooden models.
Salt was much used in the flavoring of dishes and also to mingle with sacrifices.
A Roman bakery.
Fowls were fattened in the dark. Ducks and geese were fed on figs and dates. Pigs were cooked in fifty different ways. Boars were cooked whole; peacocks with their tails. Sausages were imported from Gaul.
Vitellius and Apicius feasted on the tongues of flamingoes, and Elagabalus on their brains.
The greater the waste at a dinner, the more absurd the extravagance, the more successful it was deemed. This idea was carried out in every department. A [Pg 43]mullet of ordinary size was cheap—one that was rather heavy easily brought 6,000 sesterces ($240.00).
Frame work of a Roman dining couch.
In order to lengthen the time, jugglers, rope-dancers, buffoons and actors were introduced between courses. Beautiful Andalusian girls charmed the dinners with their voluptuous dances. Even gladiators were engaged. Games of chance concluded the entertainment when the condition of the revellers permitted.
At any large affair, an archon, or toastmaster, was selected by ballot or acclamation. His duty it was to regulate the proportions of water and wine and the size of the cups in which it was served. It was usual to commence with the smallest and end with the largest.
At the table, the somber togas were exchanged for gay-colored garments (syntheses), and the shoes for[Pg 44] sandals. Some of the more ostentatious changed their costumes several times during the progress of a meal. The head and breast were sometimes wreathed with flowers and ornaments.
The tables first used were of quadrangular shape—three sides being decorated for the guests and the fourth left vacant to facilitate the movements of the attendants. They, however, were soon supplanted by small tables of marble, bronze or citrus. These and a large sideboard supported an amount of heavy gold and silver utensils.
The diners reclined on costly sofas, inlaid with tortoise shells and jewels, and the lower parts decked with embroidered gold. The pillows were stuffed with wool and covered with gorgeous purple. The cushions which supported the elbows were covered with silk stuffs, often marked to designate the places of the various guests.
Three people occupied each sofa. The lowest place on the middle sofa was the seat of honor.
The room or hall was illuminated by lamps and candles, set on individual and very expensive stands or massed in candelabras of great magnificence. The oils and fats used for illumination were diluted with substances which under the influence of heat gave forth odors of great fragrance.
Each guest brought his own napkin.
Ivory-handled knives were manufactured, but seldom used, as the reclining position rendered the spoons (ligulae) more convenient.
The dessert was arranged on the sideboards under the supervision of the pistor and structor before the meal commenced.
A nomenclator was the regular employe of every patrician. His sole office was to prompt his master on the names of his guests and clients, or hangers-on.
Much care was devoted by the wealthy to their private stores of wines. They were sealed in jars or bottles of baked clay, with labels attached bearing the year of the consulship during which they were made. Some old wines were very expensive. That of Campania was considered the best. The Caecuban Falernian was very[Pg 46] good. He was pitied who was forced to drink the Vatican!
A banquet in the days of ancient Rome (original taken from a stone carving
excavated from the site of Pompeii).
excavated from the site of Pompeii).
Greek wines were popular and were found in many Roman cellars.
In winter, wine was heated with water, honey and spices in a caldarium, a vessel fitted with a small charcoal furnace, closely resembling the Russian samovar.
Being unable to sensibly decrease their riches by ordinary methods, many novel ideas were put in use, often at great expense.
Nero constructed in his golden house a vaulted ceiling which turned continuously on its axis.
At a banquet given by Otho, tubes of gold and silver suddenly protruded from various parts of the hall and sprinkled perfumes on the assembly.
Petronius describes a rather fanciful affair given by Trimalchio.
After the company had taken their places and young Egyptian slave girls had bathed their hands and feet in scented snow water, there was placed on the table a gold salver, inlaid with tortoise shell, in the middle of which stood an ass of bronze bearing silver panniers, one filled with white and the other with black olives. On his back sat a Silenus pouring from a wineskin the favorite sauce the garum; at one side were sausages on a silver gridiron, under which were plums and red pomegranate kernels to represent glowing coals, and placed around were trays bearing vegetables, snails, oysters and other appetizers.
When that course had been removed, another dish was brought in, of which the central feature was a hen of carved citrus wood with expanded wings, brooding over a nest of peafowls' eggs. These eggs were handed around on silver egg-spoons weighing each more than half a pound. When the shells were broken, some of the guests were horrified to find within them half-hatched chicks; but on closer inspection these proved to be beccaficos cooked in egg sauce.
As the plates were being removed, a chorus of Oriental beauties chanted their strange songs. A slave by [Pg 47]accident let fall a silver dish; he stooped to pick it up—the atriensis boxed his ears and bade him sweep it out with the other fragments.
Wine of rare virtue and great age was then brought in and distributed with almost obtrusive extravagance.
The first heavy course again surprised many of those who were present. It consisted apparently of the most ordinary dishes and joints. But these proved to be merely cleverly designed covers, which on being lifted, disclosed roasted pigs, field fares, capons, noble bartels and turbots. In the centre was a plump hare which, by the addition of a pair of wings, had been made to resemble a Pegasus. The carving was done in the presence of the diners and to the strains of slow music.
Next came a huge boar roasted whole, with two palm twig baskets filled with dates, hanging from his tusks. By his side were eight small pigs, cleverly molded in paste, which were presented to guests as remembrances of the occasion.
Following the boar was a large swine, also cooked whole. After much acclamation, the carver was about to do his work, when with a look of disgust he announced that it had not been disemboweled. The cook was called and severely chided. He feigned regret and made many excuses; then seizing a heavy knife, ripped the animal open, letting fall into the dish a mass of sausages and rich puddings.
After the pig had been carried away and while the dessert was being placed on the table, the ceiling opened and a silver hoop descended bearing gold, silver and alabaster phials of essences, silver and jewel coronets and many other things of similar character.
The pastry had been made to resemble shellfish, field fares, etc. Quinces were stuck full of almonds to imitate sea urchins.
Surrounded by flowers was a figure of Vertumnus, with its bosom piled with fruits. The guests were invited to help themselves, and the pressure of their hands on the fruit caused a shower of the daintiest perfume.
When all had partaken to repletion of the goods[Pg 48] served, the spirit of Bacchus was given full sway, half nude dancers and singers threw off all restraint, and there were enacted scenes of riotous carousing for which Rome in its decadence became notorious.
A weird dinner was once given by the Emperor Domitian. He invited a number of senators and knights to dine with him at a late hour. When they arrived they found that the banquet room had been draped in somber black. At each seat had been placed a tombstone bearing the inscription of a diner and naked black slaves danced weird dances and served up funeral viands on black dishes. When the company had been dismissed, its members found that all their slaves had disappeared and unknown bearers carried them to their homes. Each found on his return a message and a souvenir awaiting him—a silver tombstone bearing his name.