One of the silliest falsehoods about the classical world – one much relished by younger students – is that of the vomitorium. This is supposed to have been part of a Roman dining-room set aside for gluttonous guests to empty their stomachs so as to fill them again at the table. Vomitorium is indeed a Latin word, but it has nothing to do with food: it was the name of the exit from the theatre and amphitheatre, which ‘spewed out’ the crowds at the end of a show. Other fragments of popular lore about ancient eating habits are no doubt less fictitious but also quite untypical: only a tiny minority, for example, would ever have tasted larks’ tongues, peacocks’ brains, dormice, lampreys and the like.
It is worth noting that most of these tales of exotic and gluttonous eating are told about the Romans. Very little of such extravagance is reported of the Greeks – for the good reason that the normal diet of the classical Greek world was commonly frugal and unadventurous, and above all wonderfully healthy. It was a proverb among the Greeks that ‘hunger is the best sauce’. The staple of all their meals was bread, wheaten or barley, leavened or unleavened. For them it was indeed ‘the staff of life’. Bread at a meal (and we are talking of real, solid, home-baked bread, not today’s mass-produced ‘sandwich loaves’ and the like) was not the bits and pieces on a side-plate that we fiddle with in restaurants while waiting for the next course. It virtually was the main course. If it was accompanied by some fish, meat, olives, cheese, and so on, all the better. But these were garnishes rather than main dishes; they were called opson, which was defined as ‘what you eat with bread’. The bread itself might be spread with olive oil or honey, but never with butter. Butter is actually a Greek word – bouturon (‘cow-cheese’), but it was regarded in Greece as a barbarous confection from northern Europe.
Homer describes his heroes as great eaters of beef but rarely of fish. Menelaus in the Odyssey, recalling his journey home after the fall of Troy, complains that he and his men were once so short of food that they had to go fishing. But this attitude is no guide to the eating habits of historical times: it belongs, like kingship, war-chariots, funeral games and so on, to the archaic tradition preserved by the epic poets. In the classical Greek world the opposite was the case: Greece has an enormous coast line – longer than that of Spain and Portugal put together, though they are six times its size – and few cities were out of sight of the sea. Fish, both fresh and salted, was one of the commonest forms of opson, while meat was far less favoured, and that mostly pork and small game. The other usual accompaniments to bread were vegetables, olives, cheese, salads and fruit. For cooking, olive oil was always used where we use fat, and honey where we use sugar.
It is clear, then, that the normal diet of the Greeks was eminently healthy; it consisted entirely of those simple ‘Mediterranean’ foods that dieticians are tardily recommending to us all, and must surely have played a great part in the remarkable achievements of their race. Of course there were always some Greek communities where more elaborate cooking might be found; Sybaris, for example, has given the word ‘sybaritic’ to our language as a result of its delicate eating habits. There was even room for the occasional ‘foodie’. The best known of these was a certain Archestratus, also from southern Italy, where life was considerably less frugal than in mainland Greece. He was a well-travelled gourmet, who wrote a kind of precursor of The Good Food Guide, entitled Hedupatheia, roughly ‘Good Living’, in which he lists the places in the Mediterranean where the best dishes, and especially fish dishes, are to be found, along with advice on the best ways of cooking them.
Greek drinking habits were as restrained as the rest of their diet. Drunkenness was comparatively rare, and never a matter for boasting, as it tiresomely is with us. Only wine was used (beer and spirits were seen, like butter, as barbarous) and was regularly diluted with water. To drink neat wine was considered sottish, and between two and three measures of water were normally added to each one of wine. The large bowls used for this purpose were called ‘craters’, literally ‘mixers’, and their broad shape gave a name to the mouth of a volcano. Most visitors to Greece, or merely to Greek restaurants, will have come across ‘retsina’ – wine to which pine-resin has been added. It is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste, and has been unkindly described as ‘the unholy wedlock of vine and pine’. Be that as it may, it is probably the oldest surviving relic of ancient life to be found in Greece – much older than the alphabet, for example. From very early times the devotees of the wine-god Dionysus carried the ‘thyrsus’, a wand surmounted by a pine-cone. Perhaps these thoughts may persuade the unconverted holiday-maker or diner-out to give ‘drinking turpentine’ a second chance: at least it should prove a more satisfactory beverage than modern Greek beer. Why the Greeks first resinated their wine is not clear: it may have been a means of reducing its acidity, or of preserving it for longer, or perhaps simply of ‘improving’ its flavour. In any case, it is surely no more obviously an oddity than, say, mixing port and lemon or rum and coca-cola.
Coming back to the Romans with their lampreys and flamingos, one can safely say that in earlier times their normal food and drink was as simple and healthy as that of the Greeks. They may have eaten more meat and less fish, but in general they followed the natural diet of a rural society in the Mediterranean. For them as for their Greek neighbours, hunger was the best sauce. But before long this race of Italian husbandmen faced problems which had never tested the Greeks: the acquisition of a huge empire and the plethoric wealth that it gave to the ruling class and their hangers-on. At the height of the Roman empire it makes little sense to talk of ‘Roman’ food and drink: what was Roman in York or Tangier might be unheard of in Luxor or Bucharest. Italian peasants, and peasants everywhere else in the empire, continued to live on the different simple diets that they had always known; but the rich, and especially the newly-rich, were apt to fall into unseemly and often competitive extravagance at the table. These were the targets of the famous satirists of the period. There is Petronius and his ‘Banquet of Trimalchio’, at which the vulgarian ex-slave serves dishes such as dormice with poppy-seeds and wild boar stuffed with live thrushes. There is Juvenal with a fantasy about the emperor Domitian summoning an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss how best to cook a huge turbot, and a scene from a dinner-party at which the grand host eats delicately at the top table and deliberately serves wretched food to the lesser guests in order to humiliate them. The equivalent of Archestratus for these Roman gourmets and gourmands was Apicius, author of the best-known of Latin cookery books, which includes recipes for jelly-fish, ostrich and sterile sow’s womb.
Finally, and in complete contrast, a suggested dish to try at home – the Spartan ‘black broth’ which was the daily fare of the Spartan military élite, and to which they ascribed many of their soldierly qualities. Take medium-sized cuts of pork, place in a large cooking-pot, add pig’s blood and wine vinegar, and seethe until tender. Serve with loaves of barley-bread. A story is told of the Athenian Themistocles when he was a guest of one of the Spartan kings in the royal mess-hall. After one mouthful of the black broth, he turned to his host and said: ‘No wonder you Spartans are not afraid of death’.
P.O'R. Smiley, former schoolmaster and author, and regular contributor to The Good Food Guide