You may have heard about the bulimic practices of sybaritic Roman gluttons and the over-cited symbol of Roman culinary excess, the dormouse. Did you know the Romans thought certain foods made you healthy or that those lacking time or cooking facilities could buy fast food?
Information on Roman food comes from a variety of sources. Mosaics and other art work show food and people eating [click on the images]. Archaeological finds attest to street food-vendors. You can get hints about Roman food from Latin poetry, including the satirists, Ovid (Ars Amatoria "The Art of Love"), Seneca (Apocolocyntosis "Pumpkinification of Claudius") and Martial's epigrams. The naturalist who died observing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pliny the Elder, describes plants eaten as food, and his nephew, Pliny the Younger, writes about food in his letters. Medical writers could be pretty specific about which foods one should eat when suffering various ailments. The Antonine-Plague-era physician Galen advocated barley water for gout and noted that fish from the areas of rivers where human refuse is most concentrated are cheap, but bad for you. Oats are fit for livestock, but not very nourishing for humans -- suitable to avoid starvation [Galen: On the Properties of Foodstuffs, by O. W. Powell, John Wilkins; 2003)]. The historian Cassius Dio describes a feast of the Roman Emperor Domitian. That most famous Roman statesman and contemporary of Julius and Augustus Caesar, Cicero, writes about meals. Here are some important ancient Roman writers on Roman food and recipes. (Linked texts are in English translations unless otherwise noted.)
Dates: A.D. Perhaps 1st or 4th Century
If there is one name to remember for information on Roman food, it should be Apicius. Although we don't know anything about him, including his name and dates, he is thought to have been contemporary with Petronius or, perhaps, from the 4th century. When people talk about Roman recipes, they are probably referring to information from what is referred to as the De re coquinaria [Latin text] of a man whose name may have been Apicius.
"Philology and Cuisine in De Re Coquinaria," by John Edwards; The American Journal of Philology, (Summer, 2001), pp. 255-263.
"Testa and Clibani: The Baking Covers of Classical Italy," by A. L. Cubberley, J. A. Lloyd, P. C. Roberts; Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 56, (1988), pp. 98-119.
"Apicius, Marcus Gavius" The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Dates: d. A.D. 66
When people talk about the excesses of Roman meals, they probably have a section of the Menippean satirist Petronius' Satyricon in mind -- the Cena Trimalchionis "Trimalchio's Dinner." This is a justly famous passage about a completely over-the-top banquet held by Trimalchio, a gluttonous former slave who became nouveau riche. Petronius died in A.D. 66.
Martin Stirling Smith, Miriam T. Griffin "Petronius" Who's Who in the Classical World. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Read more about Petronius
Cato the Elder
Dates: 234-149 B.C.
Cato wrote about farming, sacrifices, food, etc. in his De agri cultura [annotated Latin].
- Read more about Cato the Elder
Dates: fl. A.D. 50
Columella wrote a De re rustica [Latin text] with recipes. He also included instructions on preserving and pickling fruits and vegetables.
"'Tracta': A Versatile Roman Pastry," by Jon Solomon; Hermes, (1978), pp. 539-556.
Athenaeus of Naukratis (Egypt)
Dates: Early 3rd Century A.D.
Athenaeus, a Greek, wrote about a banquet that is known as the Deipnosophists that describes the talk while feasting at the home of a man named Larensis from the turn of the third century A.D.
"Deipnosophists in the Desert," by Albert Leonard, Jr.; Near Eastern Archaeology, (Jun., 2004), pp. 123-124.
- "Land and Sea: Italy and the Mediterranean in the Roman Discourse of Dining," by John Wilkins; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, Special Issue: Roman Dining (Autumn, 2003), pp. 359-375.