Daisy Dunn on the meaning of what you ate in Classical times
To know the measure of a man, look at his dinner plate” ought to have been a popular ancient maxim. The Greeks and Romans made a habit of judging people by what, how and even why they ate. Zealous carnivores were considered bellicose. Vegetarians were ascetic and repressed. Small eaters were deemed trustworthy rulers.
Today we’re hardly less guilty of drawing conclusions about new acquaintances by what they choose from the dinner menu. Steak-and-kidney pudding: clubbable man with good memories of boarding school. Cauliflower “burger”: zen yogi. Potted shrimps: secret drinker.
Stereotypes often proved to be well founded in antiquity. Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, ate modestly and blandly – fish, fruit, bread, cheese – and went down in history as one of the better rulers. His great-grandson, Caligula, drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and served bread baked in gold, and earned a reputation for ruthless despotism and cupidity. “A man should be frugal or be Caesar,” the callous emperor allegedly declared, “Caesar” referring to his family name. Power and wealth were naturally expected to buy a man an extravagant and envy-inducing diet. But the prudent realised that self-denial and frugality were key to earning the respect of not only the common people, but also the well-born Romans who would be writing the emperors’ biographies.
From at least the time of Homer, the way someone shared their food and drink with others was thought to be the first sign of the sort of person they were. In the Odyssey, the Cyclops Polyphemus was notorious for overturning the Greek rituals of xenia, or hospitality, in which hosts were expected to offer strangers sustenance before even beginning to question them as to who they were or what they were seeking. A formulaic passage in the epic poem detailed the correct protocol. A guest was to be provided with a basin and jug of water to wash their hands. A table was laid, and bread and meat placed on it. Everyone would eat and drink. Only then would the conversation and questions ensue.
Polyphemus’s apparent ignorance of these rules of etiquette (when Odysseus and his men arrive at his cave, instead of making dinner for them, the Cyclops makes several of them his dinner) revealed him as an outsider, a heathen, a monster. The Greeks were taken by surprise: before coming face to face with Polyphemus himself, they had happened upon the little baskets of fresh cheeses he had pressed from the milk of his flock. Thus they might reasonably have supposed they were in the home of a civilised being. Surely anyone who took such care of his lambs and kids and produced such labour-intensive food was capable of kindness to strangers.
Odysseus’s mistake was not simply to assume the best, but to join his men in gobbling up the Cyclops’s cheese before they’d even been invited in. Polyphemus may have trampled on the laws of hospitality well before he munched the first of Odysseus’s companions, but the Greeks erred too in helping themselves to what was not theirs. Those of them who survived Polyphemus’s unforgiving jaws were slow to learn their lesson. Later in their journey they ate something that was strictly forbidden to them: the Cattle of the Sun. As a result all perished, leaving Odysseus to complete his long nostos, his homecoming, to Ithaca alone.
Hundreds of years later, in Rome, the Cyclops became the paradigmatic carnivore. Ovid, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, likened humans who ate meat to that fearsome one-eyed brute. How disgusting, he wrote, that men should pile another creature’s innards into their own and chomp on bits of gristle when they could just as well satisfy their needs with herbs and honey! Ovid’s issue was with the vegetarian followers of Pythagoras, allegedly the first man in Greece to condemn the consumption of flesh as a habit for savages and sinners. Poor sacrificial animals, the poet continued, innocent beasts, forced to hear prayers they cannot understand, and to spill their blood over religious altars!
Meat was man’s treat on religious days. After the sacrifice was made and the smoke sent up to tantalise the nostrils of the Olympians above, the mortals made off with their share. Barbecued meat was considered the food of gods and heroes. The warriors of Homer’s Iliad feasted on comforting portions of goat, pork and mutton roasted on spits, and had enough strength to heave large boulders onto their shoulders and defeat their enormous enemies. Meat-eaters were strong, mighty, godlike. It was little wonder that the Spartans were raised on “black soup” – a kind of liquid black pudding made with pigs’ blood.
Wine was naturally the drink of celebration as well as of daily life. Teetotallers were odd. However, if you drank your wine undiluted you were viewed as a barbarian. Gauls typically fell into this category. The civilised watered their drink down and served it in beautifully painted terracotta cups with two handles. Swirl the mixed wine around the cup and a picture might appear at the vessel’s base. Hail Dionysus, god of wine, to drink you on your way. Surviving kylix cups, kraters and amphorae give a flavour of the bawdy humour that characterised Greek drinking parties or symposia. It’s not rare to encounter ones showing intoxicated satyrs balancing wine cups on erect penises.
Extracted from Daisy Dunn’s piece on Roman eating habits in Idler 77, Mar/Apr 2021