03 September 2012

Feasts: The Roman Banquet

By Heather Domin

When most people think of a Roman banquet, they probably imagine one of those smoky slow-motion orgies with the History Channel Players eating piles of dormice and puking in the vomitorium between courses. That makes for nice TV, but it's just not very accurate. When people talk about what the Romans did, what they usually mean is what wealthy Romans did, since the rich people are the ones in the history books—the vast majority of Romans did not hold wild parties every night spent sprawled across each other eating grapes off the fingers of dancers. But they didn’t need to, because your average everyday Roman banquet was still a pretty impressive feast.
Reproduction of a small triclinium; Source: Wiki Commons

The customary dining-room setup in ancient Rome was the triclinium, communal benches or couches arranged in a three-sided bracket around an open center. Diners sat on cushions and leaned back on one elbow while eating; each person might have their own table, or there could be several mid-size tables or one low platform for everyone. (Conservative Romans might segregate men and women in separate dining rooms, but by the time of Augustus this convention was dying out.) A social banquet would begin just after the bath hour, around 5pm, so that guests would be freshly primped and have plenty of time to socialize after dinner while they enjoyed their mulled wine and digestives.

So what did they eat? As a wise man once said: there is too much, let me sum up. Starters might involve cheese, olives, eggs, mushrooms, sausages, and other finger foods; after that would come a selection of legumes, boiled or pickled vegetables, stewed greens, or salads (which were quite dense and mushy, not a side salad). The main course was where you brought out your big guns. The principal meat was pork, boiled or roasted and served with a dizzying array of sauces; and as for seafood, the Romans ate just about anything they could pull out of the ocean. They also ate poultry and fowl, game like deer and rabbits, and goats or sheep if they were plentiful (if not, they'd be saved for non-food purposes, which is why the Romans almost never ate beef). Bread was present throughout the meal, and all courses included a variety of condiments, the most popular being olive oil, vinegar, and the infamous fish sauce garum. Romans were enormously fond of sauces and seasonings, as well as chutneys, relishes, dips, and spreads. The beverage of choice was wine diluted with water or fruit juice; flavored wines were popular, as were mixed punches and herbal tisanes. Desserts were based on fruits, nuts, cheese, honey, and baked goods, all served with warm spiced wine.

Historical reenactors stage a Roman banquet;
Source: Wiki Commons
And now the moment I know you’ve been waiting for: what about those dormice? Yes, it’s true; roast dormouse is an actual Roman recipe. (They were even bred for this very purpose!) When you wanted to impress your guests, you splurged on the kind of extravagant dishes that would ensure your feast would be talked about. Among the list of recorded delicacies: stuffed sow’s uterus, rabbit fetuses, peacock tongues, milk-fed snails, pickled sea urchins, and dormouse-on-a-stick. But really, none of these should be considered part of a typical Roman banquet—think of them as the escapades of the Roman 1% trying to keep up with the Julians. Oh, and those between-course barfing rooms? They didn't exist. A vomitorium is the hallway you use to exit a coliseum. Recreational bulimia as a Roman pastime is a figment of historical imagination.

Below are five banquet-worthy recipes taken straight from ancient Roman writers. Any of these dishes would be worthy of gracing the table at your next Roman feast. (If you try any of them, try the globi. Trust me.) Enjoy!

Boiled Egg Appetizer [Apicius 328]
Sauce for boiled eggs: pepper, lovage, and soaked nuts; add honey and vinegar, mix with garum. Serve with the eggs.

Mixed Salad [Columella 12]
Put savory in a mortar with mint, rue, cilantro, parsley, leeks, lettuce, arugula, thyme, catnip, pennyroyal, and salted cheese. Crush everything together and add peppered vinegar. Serve on a plate and pour oil over it.

Boiled Parsnips [Apicius 117]
Cook parsnips in this sauce: celery seed, rue, honey, pepper, sweet wine, garum, and oil; thicken with flour, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.

Scallop Fritters [Apicius 46]
Cook some scallops and remove the undesirable parts; mince these very fine and mix with spelt flour and eggs. Season with pepper, shape in caul, fry them and serve with garum.

Cheese Dumplings (Globi) [Cato 79]
Make globi this way: mix cheese and spelt flour, enough to make the desired amount. Put lard in a hot copper vessel. Fry one or two at a time, turning with two rods, remove when done, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy seeds, serve.

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia,set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1920s Dublin. She is currently up to her eyeballs in revisions on the sequel to The Soldier of Raetia, in which Drusus Germanicus plays a major role. You can usually find her procrastinating on Twitter, procrastinating on Livejournal, or procrastinating staring at pictures of Tom Hiddleston on Tumblr.