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Roman gluttony

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 9 September 2017

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This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.

Nero, picture, image, illustration

A feast at the court of Emperor Nero by Roger Payne

Ancient Rome grew powerful and wealthy because her great men and soldiers put their country first and were prepared to make many sacrifices. It was a hard life, and when power and wealth were won, it was as if Rome breathed a sigh of relief and began to enjoy herself. Many of Imperial Rome’s troubles stemmed from the fact that rich and important families got the taste for life at its most comfortable and well-fed. In fact, what went on at some banquets has brought the whole Roman way of life into disrepute.

Not all Romans were greedy, but if you happened to dine with one who was, he did not do things by half. What is more, it was the Emperors who led the field in the provision of grotesque feasts. The Emperor Nero is well known for his many vices, and gluttony was one of them. Suetonius, the Roman biographer, tells us that “his feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water.” And the Emperor Caligula had a talent for inventing the most peculiar delicacies, his best-known being a draught of priceless pearls dissolved in vinegar.

Many Romans were neither extravagant nor wasteful, in fact it was customary for them to have nothing but a cold snack during the day, waiting until evening for their one substantial meal. The Emperor Tiberius made a half-hearted effort to cut down on public expenditure and wastefulness; and to set a good example, he took to serving at banquets the half-eaten remains of the meals of the day before, or he served only one side of a wild boar “which,” he said, “contained everything the other side did.”

Whether the feast was to be a simple or a gargantuan affair, the first essential was that the guests should be able to recline in comfort: to have sat down as we do would have been to class oneself with the slaves. Normally, two or three people shared a couch which was arranged with others around a table, but there were some extravagantly luxurious couches, which could accommodate up to eight people.

Guests, wearing loose gowns, were announced by an usher and shown to their couches. Then slaves brought perfumed water to bathe their hands and feet. The most handsome and skilful slaves, with their long curling hair falling about their shoulders, served the wine and cut up the food and served it. The guests, lying across their couches, held plates in their left hands, and ate with their fingers. Other uglier slaves, whose heads were shaved, collected the empty dishes and cleared away the unwanted food which guests had thrown under the table.

Besides all the slaves of the host’s household, each guest brought his own slaves who made sure that he wanted for nothing. He also sometimes brought his own napkin so that titbits he could not consume at the time could be taken away and enjoyed later.

The Roman host had an even wider range of meats and vegetables to serve at his feast than we have today (although potatoes were unknown). Besides the meats we eat, the Roman banqueting table might sport the flesh of wild asses or stuffed song thrushes. And the Romans had a weakness for dormice, which they bred with great care on factory farms and which might be stuffed, according to a recipe of the Roman cook, Apicius, with “minced pork and the minced meat of whole dormice,” or be dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seeds. The most fantastic dish that Rome ever created must surely be the one that the Emperor Vitellius dedicated to the goddess Minerva. According to Suetonius, “the recipe called for pikes’ livers, pheasants’ brains, peacocks’ brains, the tongues of flamingoes and lamprey roes.” The ingredients were brought to Rome from every corner of the Empire by naval triremes (warships).

The banquet would start with the host offering his guests a variety of little snacks to whet their appetites, and they would have a mixture of wine and honey to drink. The main course came next and was composed of a multitude of different dishes served with wine. For the sophisticated gourmet, Apicius, the cook, recommended Stuffed Pig’s Stomach, the ingredients for the stuffing including minced pork, “into which you mix three brains, skinned and freed of stringy matter, raw eggs, pine kernels and pepper corns.”

Great importance was attached to how the courses were presented. When Petronius, the Roman author, described the banquet of his fictional character, Trimalchio, every course was designed to amaze. The cook brought in a huge tray bearing a hog. He cut its belly and “a load of blood puddings and sausages tumbled out.”

The third part of the banquet was the dessert, and, as well as eating sweet delicacies and ripe fruits, the guests placed garlands in their hair, threw perfume over themselves, and drank many toasts to the health of their friends. To drink a toast in the best Roman circles, you drained your cup of wine in a single swig, then had it replenished and passed to the person whose health you were toasting.

Banquets lasted for hour after hour and the courses were broken up by entertainments, which ranged from poetry reading and the playing of the lyre to watching dancing girls. More than once, at the Emperor’s command, gladiators were brought into the banqueting hall, and fought before the very eyes of the gorging revellers.

Suetonius reflected sadly on the decline of the Roman Empire, which he was convinced was partly due to the gluttony of the Romans. For if fashionable people behaved in such a fashion, who could blame the others for following suit?

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