An Exploration of Ancient Roman Dining Rituals and Indulgent Palates
In ancient Rome, excess and luxury prevailed as the wealthy flaunted their status through lavish banquets that surpassed our modern notions of a resplendent meal. The opulent house of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, dating back to around 80 B.C., is a testament to the extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by prominent Romans. Immortalized in history, this era of pomp and splendor continues to captivate scholars and enthusiasts alike.
A Window into Roman Society
Gaius Petronius Arbiter’s literary masterpiece, "The Satyricon," vividly depicts the social dynamics of mid-first-century Roman society. Protagonist Trimalchio, a wealthy character, unabashedly commands his slaves to bring him a "piss pot" for his convenience. This anecdote reveals the fascinating reality that the bathroom often came to revelers, rather than the other way around, showcasing the prevalence of slave labor during those times.
Moreover, bodily functions that we consider taboo today were regarded as normal in Roman society. Breaking wind during meals, for example, was customary, as it was believed that trapping gas inside the bowels could lead to death. Emperor Claudius even issued an edict encouraging flatulence at the table, further highlighting the extraordinary customs of the time.
The Privileges of the Affluent
Wealthy Romans sought out ultimate comfort while indulging in their gastronomic excesses. They reclined on cushioned chaise longues, adopting a horizontal position during meals. It may seem incompatible with modern etiquette, but it allowed them to embrace the concept of "otium" — a leisurely pursuit of pleasure without any constraints. Giorgio Franchetti, a notable food historian, notes that this practice included unusual aspects such as eating while lying down and even vomiting between courses.
A fascinating discovery of a 2,300-year-old mosaic made of shells and coral has recently been unearthed in Rome, shedding further light on the indulgences of the ancient Romans.
"Given that banquets were the epitome of social status and often lasted for hours into the night, occasional episodes of vomiting were not unusual. These acts aimed to create space in the stomach for more food, as the ancient Romans wholeheartedly embraced a hedonistic pursuit of life’s pleasures," explains Alberto Jori, esteemed professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Ferrara and a published author on Rome's culinary culture.
In fact, vomiting was so customary that guests would leave the dining hall to regurgitate in a nearby room. Using feathers to stimulate the urge to vomit, they would then return to the banquet, leaving the ensuing cleanup to their slaves.
A Culinary Exploration of Ancient Rome
David Artuso, an archaeologist with a passion for gastronomy, has embarked on a fascinating journey to uncover lost recipes from these ancient repasts. Collaborating with "archaeo-cook" Cristina Conte, Artuso has recovered culinary secrets from the Romans and shared them in their book, "Dining With the Ancient Romans." Their work not only unveils the tantalizing flavors of bygone eras but also provides immersive dining experiences for those seeking a taste of life as a Roman aristocrat.
Cristina Conte, pioneering "archaeo-cook," has recreated unique recipes from ancient Rome. Among her creations is "salsum sine salso," a dish invented by renowned Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius. This culinary marvel was a delicious prank played on guests, completely fooling and astonishing them. Containing a surprise filling of cow liver, this dish brilliantly combined deception and shock, captivating the demanding palates of the elite.
Indulgence and Unconventional Gastronomy
Ancient Roman banquets were characterized by a never-ending feast, accommodating the extravagant appetites of the elite. Venison, wild boar, rabbit, and pheasant graced their tables alongside sumptuous displays of seafood, including raw oysters, shellfish, and lobster. To outdo each other, hosts served exotic dishes such as parrot tongue stew and stuffed dormouse. The latter delicacy involved farmers fattening rodents in pots for several months before selling them at bustling markets. Parrots, on the other hand, were hunted in large numbers to acquire enough tongues for a prized fricassee.
Unearthing the historical records, it becomes evident that Roman dining was intertwined with superstitions and peculiar table customs. Spilled salt was considered an ill omen, and anything that fell from the table was believed to belong to the afterworld, deterring guests from retrieving it for fear of invoking the wrath of the dead. Roosters serenading at unusual hours were promptly dispatched, slaughtered, and served to ward off any potential misfortune.
Dining as a Celebration of Life
Feasting served a dual purpose for the ancient Romans — it was a means of indulgence and, paradoxically, a reminder of mortality. Banquets concluded with a ritual known as the "symposium," during which diners contemplated death to reaffirm their commitment to fully living and embracing life's pleasures.
Professor Giorgio Franchetti observes, "Table objects, such as salt and pepper holders shaped as skulls, adornments that represented mortality, created an atmosphere where beloved dead ones were invited to join the feast. Sculpted depictions of the deceased sat side by side with the living."
This symbolic confrontation with mortality further intensified the significance of dining in Roman society.
An Eccentric Culinary Legacy
The Roman love of excess occasionally led individuals to ruin. Apicius, a renowned epicure, allegedly committed suicide after squandering his fortune on extravagant banquets. Though the excesses of his era may have been his downfall, Apicius left behind a gastronomic legacy. His eponymous pie, a fusion of diverse meats and fish, was a cunning composition that might struggle to entice modern palates.
While we marvel at these extraordinary customs and delicacies today, we must also acknowledge the significance of the Roman banquet in fueling our fascination with history's greatest feasts.
This article was first published in November 2020.