Frugality and abundance. Stoicism and Epicureanism. It is between these two poles that the question of food in Rome would oscillate throughout the entire classical period. Yet forever mindful of conviviality.
Frugality, commoners and slaves
Next to the less frequent and festive coena the usual meal, the prandium, would take place in Rome. It probably comes closest to the today’s brunch or snack - consisting of bread mainly, olives, onions, wine, cooked vegetables seasoned with olive oil, mixed salad and figs. The Metamorphoses of Ovid offers the declaration of a priest on the island of Delos: "Everything my daughters touch turns to grain, or pure wine, or olives," which says a lot about the symbolic significance of these foods.
Literature offers examples of humility when it comes to food, citing the simplicity of Horace, the frugality of Virgil, the thoroughly Etruscan composure of Maecenas, the admiration for Martial’s simple cuisine, and the ingenuity of Catullus.
The prandium of peasants was based primarily on vegetables, the staple food of a soldier's bread, convenient to carry and highly energetic. Subsequently, among the more affluent classes, meat and cheese appear, and legumes become staples of plebeian dining. On a lamp found in an excavation near Aquileia, in the region surrounding Venice, there is a basket garnished with bread, wine and black radishes with the words: "The meal of the poor: bread, wine and radishes."
Cato the Elder repeatedly evoked in detail the meals allowed to slaves, consisting of bread and pulmentarium, a generic term for condiments. These varied according to the seasons, but always included oil, salt and vinegar and olives, or, when such stocks were used up, hallec, was used, the liquefied residue of the preparation of garum, a fish-based pressed condiment typical of Roman cuisine, which is prepared in three qualities, flos, castimoniale, sociorum. After the harvest, slaves were given a little wine, but for the rest of the year, they had to settle for a substitute made with the leftovers of presses or vinegar diluted with water.
Abundance and splendor
Towards the end of the first century AD - when the most important cookbook in Latin, De Re Coquinaria, is believed to have been written - frugality and modesty at the table seem to eclipse the Roman Republic. The original author is Apicius, a great cook, but the many expansions of the original recipe made in the three centuries that followed, now offer an exceptionally broad view of the tastes of the Roman world of antiquity. Wine flavored with fruits and spices, sauces made from seeds crushed with herbs and chicken meat, imaginative dishes doused in sophisticated sauces, inviting and exotic wild game such as ostriches, cranes, grouse and the warbler, fine fish, and vegetable blends. The desire to satisfy the greed of the participants brought Apicio towards the magnificence and completeness of a table fit for the newly wealthy, new nobles and the powerful novi equites.
Lucullus and Petronius offered fascinating testimonials of the new glitz. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who died at age 57 after the birth of Christ, having taken part in the Mithridatic War with Silla and having shown himself a skillful and courageous general on the River Tigris and in the conquest of the Armenian cities of Cabira and Amisos. He retired to Rome to live in private splendor all over Eastern Europe, growing cherry trees brought from Pontus. The memory of his dinners are perpetuated by the adjective "lavish". Petronius, arbiter elegantiae, was one of Nero’s courtiers and the author of the Supper of Trimalchio, where playing the role of Eumolpo - refined in judgment and expert in the art of cooking – he admonishes the uncouth Enobarbus. As proconsul in Bithynia, Petronius was also acquainted with Asia Minor.
The common rule, eat together
In the scale of greek-roman values which went on to influence all civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, it is clear that civilized man distinguished himself from barbarians and animals by how he ate in a social way. In the words of Plutarch, "We do not sit at the table to eat, but to eat together."
From the history of food to the future of food, a long trip can be undertaken at Expo Milano 2015. In particular, at Pavilion Zero
the history of man on Earth can be seen through his relationship with nature and food.