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The Romans were the first people in recorded history to devote considerable effort to the careful and practiced cultivation of luxury, throwing themselves with wild abandon into literature, music, alcohol, sex, and food. The author Apicius gives us the world's first cookbook, while Columella, Cato the Elder, Vergil, Pliny the Elder and the author of the later Geoponica provide us with lively discussions of the finer points of cooking and dining. So, for the casual reader or anyone planning on throwing a Roman dinner anytime soon, a survey of the most developed cuisine of the ancient world:

Mellitos verborum globulos et omnia dicta factaque quasi papavere et sesamo sparsa (Petronius I.3)

The greatest hallmark of Roman cooking is the excessive use of spices, leading the author Petronius to compare the turgid, stylistic excess of the oratory of his day with the common use of pepper and sesame. Almost all pork, beef, fish, and fowl was covered in a thickly spiced sauce, either hot or cold, meant just as much to cover as enhance the taste of meat quickly spoiled without refrigeration, leading one scholar to claim that the Romans despised any food's natural taste.

The most common spices were salt and black pepper, both imported in vast quantities from the east to cover demand. Natively grown mint, parsley, cumin, coriander, and oregano come next, followed by lovage, rue, thyme, and dill. The lower classes commonly ate garlic, often used by gladiators and soldiers under the belief that it aided their strength. Only the upper classes could generally afford asafoetida (silphium, laser, or laserpitium in Latin), imported from Libya and Syria, but it plays an important part in certain delicacies. The only sweetener available to the Roman table was honey. Most plantations, latifundia, in Italy maintained beehives, though writers from Columella to Vergil raved over the hives of Hybla in Sicily and the Attic region of Greece.

Almost every schoolboy's first introduction to Roman cooking are the vague and much-debated sauces garum and liquamen, made from fermented fish, various herbs, and salt. These were produced by both large households and factories, an indication of their wide-spread use and popularity. A tentative distinction between the two is that garum is comparable to a chutney, with solid chunks of fish and herbs still in the sauce, while liquamen is the clarified, liquid by-product of garum-production. This is far from certain, and is likely never to be settled, owing at least in part to the vaguery of ancient terminology and the likely change of meaning in sources ranging over 700 years. For the modern cook not quite willing to ferment his own fish, Thai fish sauce has been suggested as a suitable alternative. These were used as both bases for more complex sauces, and as stand-alone condiments, comparable to the modern catsups and Worcestireshire sauces.

Apicius gives us a fair idea of how these sauces might work:

Another heated sauce for roasted boar. Mix together pepper, lovage, parsley-seed, mint, thyme, roasted nuts, wine, vinegar, a bit of liquamen and oil. When the sauce begins to boil, throw in a bit of flour, add onion and a bunch of rue. If you want to make it more colourful, add, if you want, some egg white, then sprinkle it with pepper and serve. (Apicius #345)

Panes et Circenses

We don't need Suetonius to tell us that bread was the staple of the Roman diet, nor relate the power granted to a politician who could ensure the supply. Throughout the history of Rome, one of the city's greatest problems was the importation of enough grain to feed a population which the fields of Italy couldn't possibly support. Ships from all over the later empire, from Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor, braved the Mediterranean seas to bring grain to the port of Ostium at the mouth of the Tiber, which had to be constantly maintained and protected to prevent the river's silt from closing access.

Basic Roman bread was not too different from the bread of modern Italy and France. Leavened and unleavened, salted or unsalted varieties existed, made from a variety of grains and spiced with cumin, anise, and sesame. Bakeries were scattered throughout the city, though much was still made at home. The pseudo-Vergilian Moretum gives us a general idea of the basic ingredients. In that poem, a poor farmer wakes up, grinds a few handfuls of grain into flour, mixes it with salt, water, and a little oil, and bakes it in the glowing ashes of his hearth fire.

That same poem, together with another pseudo-Vergilian work, the Copa, give us a decent idea of what the lower class diet was like. The farmer of the Moretum makes his morning meal from the plants of his garden, from which "nil illi deerat quod pauperis exigit usus", "nothing used by the common man is missing". (Moretum 63) He grows leafy vegetables, unnamed herbs, lettuce, beets, sorrel, mallow, elecampane, spanish onions, gourds, and coriander, selling any surplus at the markets in Rome. At the end of the poem, he mixes some soft cheese, garlic, oil, vinegar, rue, and fragrant herbs to compliment his bread for breakfast. The Copa describes the garden belonging to a local pub, intending to entice the reader with the pub's home-grown menu: small cheeses, plums, cucumbers, chestnuts, grapes, blackberries and apples.

Any Roman's basic diet came from simple vegetables and grains. The ientaculum, breakfast, was usually just some bread or porridge served with a small chunk of cheese and perhaps some seasonable fruit. The midday meal, the prandium, wasn't much more complex, adding perhaps some cucumbers, stews and soups made from leeks, onions, peas, and beans; cold meats were added on the rare occasions when they were available, usually the leftovers from last night's supper. In their basic forms, these meals were alike for both rich and poor. Apicius again gives us a wealthy chef's attempt to break the monotony:

Another way to prepare lentils. You will cook them, and when they begin to foam, add leeks, coriander, and cumin. Stir in coriander seed, pennyroyal, the asafoetida root, the seeds of mint and rue, then pour in some wine-vinegar, add a little honey, and temper it with liquamen and vinegar, add some olive oil, and stir. If it's missing anything, add it. Thicken with a little starch, prepared beforehand with some oil, sprinkle with pepper, and serve. (Apicius #192)

ab ovo usque ad mala -Horace, Satires I.3,6

It was at the last meal of the day, the cena, that the Romans proved their culinary brilliance and careful cultivation of luxury. For all but the poorest Romans, this was a multi-course meal, leading Horace in his Satires to use the phrase "ab ovo usque ad mala", "from the egg all the way to the apple", as a metaphor for a task performed from beginning to end, referring to the pickled eggs and fish which commonly began a meal and the roasted, candied apples which usually ended it.

For the wealthiest Romans, however, the cena was a social event and a showcase of their chef's skills and budgets. Several times during the empire, the emperors instituted culinary laws meant to curb the maximum expenditures allowed for a single meal. Petronius, in the most famous scene from his Satyricon, the Cena Trimalchonis, describes the orgy of a wealthy freedman, who serves three courses of appetizers followed by a main course in which each dish is meant to symbolize a particular sign of the zodiac.

The featured dish of his first round of appetizers, the gustatio, is stuffed and roasted dormice, considered a delicacy in Rome. Petronius describes them as simply grilled and sprinkled with pepper and honey, served alongside Damson plums. Apicius suggests the following:

Dormice - Fill the mice with pork minced-meat, the flesh from every member of the mice, pepper, nuts, asafoetida, and liquamen, and place them stitched across the back onto the oven, and cook them in a large iron pot. (Apicius #410)

Mushrooms (I've served them sauteed in wine, a little liquamen, and cumin) follow, together with partridge eggs. Several dishes formed the main course, usually a fish (seasoned with a combination of spices and baked or roasted), lentils or beans cooked with leaks, and meat (pork, beef, wild boar, chicken, and sometimes even ostrich or other exotic animals imported from the borders of the empire, roasted, grilled, boiled, or fried). The sauces for meats are often much more complicated than those for fish. Another trend in Petronius somewhat supported by other sources is the desire to disguise the appearance as well as the taste of a meat; chickens were dressed and serve to appear as pheasants, whole pigs to look like dogs, and whatever else might prove the chef's ability to provide variety with a rather limited list of ingredients.

Of course, after the main course came dessert. Honey, as the only real sweetener (Sugar was imported through India since the first century or so B.C., but used mainly in medicine), was usually the main ingredient, added to candied nut-breads as well as omelettes, usually in combination with pepper. One of many recipes, again from Apicius:

Another sweet dessert. Sprinkle in pepper, nuts, honey, and rue in turn, and cook them with milk and pastry dough. Cook the mixture combined with a few eggs. Pour over with honey, and serve. (Apicius #311)

One of the few desserts that doesn't include honey, here paraphrased:

Take flour, mix in with a soft, sweet cheese, yeast, sweet wine or must, anise seed, cumin, coriander, and salt, and kneed it into a dough. Form into small, round biscuits, and place a bay leaf under each one, bake.

These mustea, or must-cakes, were quite famous, the best ones being made in the provinces of Northern Africa. Occasionally, ice was brought down from the mountains and mixed with wine and fruits; the world's first iced-cream.

Of course, no meal could be complete without wine, made throughout the empire. From the ancient hills of Greece to the conquered provincial fields of the Rhine valley, the empire produced vast quantities of wine, traded in huge amphorae along regular shipping lanes in great triremes. For most of the empire, this was the staple drink; pure water was hard to come by, and usually used at best to cut a particularly strong vintage. Each dinner had a magister bibendi, who decided when and by how much a wine should be cut with water, if at all, according to the demands of the conversation and the flow of the party. The wine could be heated and mixed with honey or even lead (!) as a sweetener, or mixed with bubbling spring water to make a carbonated drink.

Most importantly, however, wine became the symbol of all that was cultured and refined in the Greek and Roman peoples. In Plutarch's Symposium, the surest distinction between the civilized and barbarians was wine, which eased conversation, lead to intellectual discourse, and brought about diplomacy between men and nations. It was in a similar mindset that the Romans practiced their art of cookery, from the simplest leek and onion stew to the most complex, dressed roast, a sign of a thriving civilization with the resources to enjoy itself.


Bibliography

  • Apicius. Roman Cookery. Barbara Flower & Elizabeth Rosenbaum, trans. (London 1958). A parallel English/Latin text, accompanied by an excellent introductory discussion and a few adaptations for the modern kitchen. A bit out of date (I don't know of too many chemists that still sell packets of asafoetida), this is still the best introduction to Apicius available. Long since out of print, it appears occasionally on online book auctions.
  • Vehling, Joseph. Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome. (New York 1977). This is an attempt to make Roman cooking more palatable to modern tastes. A wretched excercise in translation (Mr. Vehling is a cook, not a Latinist), this is still an acceptable and readily available compilation.

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