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When Gluttony Ruled! Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Deborah Ruscillo

Bones recovered from a Roman villa attest an age of culinary hedonism

Alas and alack! What a nothing is man! We all shall be bones at the end of life's span, so let us be jolly for as long as we can.
--Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio

Roman decadence is vividly portrayed in ancient literary sources and in depictions on vessels, frescoes, and mosaics. Feasting was a significant part of Roman society, so much so that satires were written mocking the frivolity of such affairs. Augustus (r. 27 B.C.-A.D. 14) attempted to control public and private gluttony by enforcing severe laws against extravagant menus or exorbitant spending for such events. But mere laws could not stifle the desire for delicacies and extravagant eating, especially among the elite of Roman society. The very people who established these laws were the first ones to break them!

The best known Roman author on cuisine is Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). His recipes include dishes such as camel heels, flamingo tongues, and roasted ostrich. But the most famous Roman feast is the lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, an ex-slave accepted into high society because of his affluence and eccentricity, in Petronius' novel Satyricon. The extravagant feast included such delicacies as dormice, sausages, peahen eggs, orioles, hares, capons, and fish.

Recent excavations of an Augustan era Roman villa at Epano Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos, attest the wide variety of foods served at a Roman banquet, like that described by Petronius. Bones recovered from the villa include wild boar, suckling pig, sheep, lamb, goat, kid, deer, hare, pheasant, goose, capon, and game birds such as thrush, starling, and woodcock. Remains of lobster, crab, urchin, scallops, clams, mussels, sea snails, eel, red mullet, tuna, sea bream, sea bass, and scorpion fish were also found in the villa's dump.

Eating well was not just a daily ritual, it was a philosophy and a way of life in Imperial Rome. Your reputation and acceptance in the upper echelons of society was often determined by your abilities as a generous host and as a connoisseur. When you sit down to dinner with friends this holiday season, remember that you should always consider doing a little extra for the comfort and enjoyment of your guests. After all, your reputation can only improve with attention to details! Consider also that a zooarchaeologist may be wading through your garbage 2,000 years from now.

Deborah Ruscillo, a lecturer in the department of anthropology at the University of Winnipeg, has analyzed faunal remains from the Athenian Agora, Kommos, Mytilene, and other Greek sites. Excavation of the Epano Skala site was a joint effort directed by professor Hector Williams of the University of British Columbia and A. Archontidhou-Argyri of the 20th Ephory of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities.

Cook like a Roman

Modern chefs can take the advice of many Roman authors, especially Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37). But using Apicius' recipes can be difficult, because they sometimes call for costly or unusual ingredients and are often abbreviated in terms of quantities and directions. Take his recipe for boiled ostrich: Pepper, mint, cumin, leeks, celery seed, dates, honey, vinegar, raisin wine, broth, a little oil. Boil this in the stock kettle [with the ostrich, removing the bird when done and straining the liquid]. Thicken with roux. Add [to the sauce] the ostrich meat cut in convenient pieces, sprinkle with pepper. If you wish it more seasoned or tasty, add garlic [during cooking]. Without the interpolated instructions, your attempt to re-create this Apician classic might go horribly wrong. With the price of ostrich what it is, you don't want your bird's success to depend on trial and error.

Fortunately there are now several guides to classical cuisine that will be of more use in your own kitchen than the original Greek or Latin recipes. Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger's The Classical Cookbook (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996) is a handsome, user-friendly volume. Ilaria Giacosa's A Taste of Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992; translated by Anna Herklotz) also provides some history of ancient dining and delicious recipes. A pocket book, Jane Renfrew's Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes (London: English Heritage, 1985) offers basic but interesting recipes. If you want to try Apicius, there is Joseph Vehling's Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (New York: Dover Publications, 1977).

Prepare yourself for a cooking and eating experience you will always remember. But, if you are planning to find recipes for delicious Italian favorites, put away your pasta! Many of our beloved "Italian" ingredients did not exist in the Roman period. Tomatoes, potatoes, coffee, corn, risotto, and spaghetti did not arrive in the region until considerably later! Classical cuisine is not what you would expect, and this makes the art of ancient cooking even more intriguing.

* For more Roman recipes, see "Dining with Martial."

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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