DINING WITH THE ANCIENT ROMANS
Alimentation is one of the aspects of a culture, whether living or extinct, which cannot be ignored whilst studying the habits of ancient cultures. It reflects daily life so therefore the knowledge of the Roman customs and traditions, as well as their tastes enable us to have a deeper understanding of the Roman civilization which is part of our heritage.
PLACES TO EAT
Just like today, there was an excited hustle and bustle around the stalls of street vendors.
This is a funny description from an exasperated Seneca:
“Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So, picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roister or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, for purposes of advertisement, continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausage-man, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation…” .
These vendors sold everything from biscuits, sweets, dried and fresh fruit, to drinks. You could buy something with just a few coins to stop your stomach from growling and then continue your day with various jobs or political activities. Those who sold hot food were called lixae and one painting in particular, in Pompeii, at Julia Felix’s estate, portrays a young man receiving a portion of food. These stalls consisted of tables that had drapes or curtains which provided shade from the sun (does this remind you of something?), called tentoria. They could also have wooden structures, tabernacula. These peddlers literally invaded the streets, occupying squares, streets, and arcades. They had storerooms, called cellae, which were very small caverns, on the ground floor of buildings, no larger than a few square metres, where they could store their goods for the night. Just like nowadays, in order to run this type of activity you would require a license issued by construction magistrates, called permissu aedilium. An interesting description of the frenetic activity of the hawkers in the Flavian period is given to us once again by Martial:
“The audacious shopkeepers had appropriated to themselves the whole city, and a man’s own threshold was not his own. You, Germanicus, bade the narrow streets grow wide; and what but just before was a pathway became a highway. No column is now girt at the bottom with chained wine-flagons; nor is the Praetor compelled to walk in the midst of the mud. Nor, again, is the barber’s razor drawn blindly in the middle of a crowd, nor does the smutty cookshop project over every street. The barber, the vintner, the cook, the butcher, keep their own places. The city is now Rome; recently it was a great shop” .
Once again, I cannot help myself from asking you if this reminds you of something…
156 pics and illustrations
Edizioni Efesto, 2018
“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”. Nothing could be truer. In fact, this famous quote by the great chef Jean Anthelme Savarin in “The Physiology of Taste”, in 1825, is still just as pertinent today. For example, think of all the trips we take around the world and the importance that we, as tourists, give to tasting the local dishes which are often mentioned in various tourist brochures and local guides, precisely because of the extreme transformation of flavours into a cultural and social identity. Of course, cuisine needs to be included in the particularities of the inhabitants, among its characteristics, as a sociological reality in all respects, considering that at times it is used by a population as a distinctive emblem. Therefore, whoever truly wishes to know about a society, or understand a culture, cannot do so without asking himself what those people eat, examining not only the variety of food and flavours but also their table customs and manners…
Whilst on the subject of spelt, Pliny wrote: “…primus antiqui Latii cibus magno argumento in adoriae donis sicuti diximus. Pulte autem non pane vixisse longo tempore romanos manifestum…”
Pliny the Elder, N.H., XVIII, 83-84
Some cauponae, such as tabernae vinariae, had a characteristic bar-counter to pour the wine from²⁴, however, the food which was sold there and the accommodation were definitely of poor quality and everything was shadowed by a bad reputation.
Chapter 4 – Places to eat
On a wall, written by an unknown author is: "talia te fallant utinam me (n) dacia copo tu ve (n) des acuam et bibes ipse merum", i.e. “May such lies cost you dearly, innkeeper! You sell water and drink pure wine yourself”
Chapter 4 – Places to eat
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