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COOKERY AND DINING IN IMPERIAL ROME
By JOSEPH DOMMERS VEHLING
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1977 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE BOOK OF APICIUS
POMPE II: CASA DI FORNO — HOUSE OF THE OVEN
Ancien bakery and flour mill of the year A. D. 79. Four grain grinders to the right. The method of operating these mills is shown in the sketch of the slaves operating a hand-mill. These mills were larger and were driven by donkeys attached to beams stuck in the square holes. The bake house is to the left, with running water to the right of the entrance to the oven. The oven itself was constructed ingeniously with a view of saving fuel and greatest efficiency.
Found in Pompeii. Each end of the long handle takes the form of a bird's head. The one close to the bowl holds in its bill a stout wire which is loosely fastened around the neck of the bowl, the two ends being interlocked. This allows the bowl to tilt sufficiently to hold its full contents when retired from the narrow opening of the amphora. The ancients also had dippers with extension handles to reach down to the bottom of the deep amphora. Ntl. Mus., Naples, 73822; Field M. 24181.
THE BOOK OF APICIUS
A STUDY OF ITS TIMES, ITS AUTHORS AND THEIR SOURCES, ITS AUTHENTICITY AND ITS PRACTICAL USEFULNESS IN MODERN TIMES
ANYONE who would know something worth while about the private and public lives of the ancients should be well acquainted with their table. Then as now the oft quoted maxim stands that man is what he eats.
Much of the ancient life is still shrouded and will forever be hidden by envious forces that have covered up bygone glory and grandeur. Ground into mealy dust under the hoofs of barbarian armies! Re-modeled, re-used a hundred times! Discarded as of no value by clumsy hands! The "Crime of Ignorance" is a factor in league with the forces of destruction. Much is destroyed by blind strokes of fate — fate, eternally pounding this earth in its everlasting enigmatic efforts to shape life into something, the purpose of which we do not understand, the meaning of which we may not even venture to dream of or hope to know.
Whatever there has been preserved by "Providence," by freaks of chance, by virtue of its own inherent strength — whatever has been buried by misers, fondled, treasured by loving hands of collectors and connoisseurs during all these centuries — every speck of ancient dust, every scrap of parchment or papyrus, a corroded piece of metal, a broken piece of stone or glass, so eagerly sought by the archaeologists and historians of the last few generations — all these fragmentary messages from out of the past emphasize the greatness of their time. They show its modernity, its nearness to our own days. They are now hazy reminiscences, as it were, by a middle-aged man of the hopes and the joys of his own youth. These furtive fragments — whatever they are — now tell us a story so full and so rich, they wield so marvelous a power, no man laying claim to possessing any intelligence may pass them without intensely feeling the eternal pathetic appeal to our hearts of these bygone ages that hold us down in an envious manner, begrudging us the warm life-blood of the present, weaving invisible ties around us to make our hearts heavy.
However, we are not here to be impeded by any sentimental considerations. Thinking of the past, we are not so much concerned with the picture that dead men have placed in our path like ever so many bill boards and posters! We do not care for their "ideals" expounded in contemporary histories and eulogies. We are hardly moved by the "facts" such as they would have loved to see them happen, nor do we cherish the figments of their human, very human, subconsciousness.
To gain a correct picture of the Roman table we will therefore set aside for a while the fragments culled from ancient literature and history that have been misused so indiscriminately and so profusely during the last two thousand years — for various reasons. They have become fixed ideas, making reconstruction difficult for anyone who would gain a picture along rational lines. Barring two exceptions, there is no trustworthy detailed description of the ancient table by an objective contemporary observer. To be sure, there are some sporadic efforts, mere reiterations. The majority of the ancient word pictures are distorted views on our subject by partisan writers, contemporary moralists on the one side, satirists on the other. Neither of them, we venture to say, knew the subject professionally. They were not specialists in the sense of modern writers like Reynière, Rumohr, Vaerst; nor did they approach in technical knowledge medieval writers like Martino, Platina, Torinus.
True there were exceptions. Athenaeus, a most prolific and voluble magiric commentator, quoting many writers and specialists whose names but for him would have never reached posterity. Athenaeus tells about these gastronomers, the greatest of them, Archestratos, men who might have contributed so much to our knowledge of the ancient world, but to us these names remain silent, for the works of these men have perished with the rest of the great library at the disposal of this genial host of Alexandria.
Too, there are Anacharsis and Petronius. They and Athenaeus cannot be overlooked. These three form the bulk of our evidence.
Take on the other hand Plutarch, Seneca, Tertullian, even Pliny, writers who have chiefly contributed to our defective knowledge of the ancient table. They were no gourmets. They were biased, unreliable at best, as regards culinary matters. They deserve our attention merely because they are above the ever present mob of antique reformers and politicians of whom there was legion in Rome alone, under the pagan regime. Their state of mind and their intolerance towards civilized dining did not improve with the advent of Christianity.
The moralists' testimony is substantiated and supplemented rather than refuted by their very antipodes, the satirists, a group headed by Martial, Juvenal and the incomparable Petronius, who really is in a class by himself.
There is one more man worthy of mention in our particular study, Horace, a true poet, the most objective of all writers, man-about-town, pet of society, mundane genius, gifted to look calmly into the innermost heart of his time. His eyes fastened a correct picture on the sensitive diaphragm of a good memory, leaving an impression neither distorted nor "out of focus." His eye did not "pick up," for sundry reasons, the defects of the objects of observation, nor did it work with the uncanny joy of subconscious exaggeration met with so frequently in modern writing, nor did he indulge in that predeliction for ugly detail sported by modern art.
So much for Horatius, poet. Still, he was not a specialist in our line. We cannot enroll him among the gifted gourmets no matter how many meals he enjoyed at the houses of his society friends. We are rather inclined to place him among the host of writers, ancient and modern, who have treated the subject of food with a sort of sovereign contempt, or at least with indifference, because its study presented unsurmountable difficulties, and the subject, per se, was a menial one. With this attitude of our potential chief witnesses defined, we have no occasion to further appeal to them here, and we might proceed to real business, to the sifting of the trustworthy material at hand. It is really a relief to know that we have no array of formidable authorities to be considered in our study. We have virgin field before us — i.e., the ruins of ancient greatness grown over by a jungle of two thousand years of hostile posterity.
Pompeii was destroyed in A.D. 79. From its ruins we have obtained in the last half century more information about the intimate domestic and public life of the ancients than from any other single source. What is more important, this vast wealth of information is first hand, unspoiled, undiluted, unabridged, unbiased, uncensored; — in short, untouched by meddlesome human hands.
Though only a provincial town, Pompeii was a prosperous mercantile place, a representative market-place, a favorite resort for fashionable people. The town had hardly recuperated from a preliminary attack by that treacherous mountain, Vesuvius, when a second onslaught succeeded in complete destruction. Suddenly, without warning, this lumbering force majeur visited the ill-fated towns in its vicinity with merciless annihilation. The population, just then enjoying the games in the amphitheatre outside of the "downtown" district, had had hardly time to save their belongings. They escaped with their bare lives. Only the aged, the infirm, the prisoners and some faithful dogs were left behind. Today their bodies in plaster casts may be seen, mute witnesses to a frightful disaster. The town was covered with an airtight blanket of ashes, lava and fine pumice stone. There was no prolonged death struggle, no perceivable decay extended over centuries as was the cruel lot of Pompeii's mistress, Rome. There were no agonies to speak of. The great event was consummated within a few hours. The peace of death settled down to reign supreme after the dust had been driven away by the gentle breezes coming in from the bay of Naples. Some courageous citizens returned, searching in the hot ashes for the crashed-in roofs of their villas, to recover this or that. Perhaps they hoped to salvage the strong box in the atrium, or a heirloom from the triclinium. But soon they gave up. Despairing, or hoping for better days to come, they vanished in the mist of time. Pompeii, the fair, the hospitable, the gay city, just like any individual out of luck, was and stayed forgotten. The Pompeians, their joys, sorrows, their work and play, their virtues and vices — everything was arrested with one single stroke, stopped, even as a camera clicks, taking a snapshot.
The city's destruction, it appears, was a formidable opening blow dealt the Roman empire in the prime of its life, in a war of extermination waged by hostile invisible forces. Pompeii makes one believe in "Providence." A great disaster actually moulding, casting a perfect image of the time for future generations! To be exact, it took these generations eighteen centuries to discover and to appreciate the heritage that was theirs, buried at the foot of Vesuvius. During these long dark and dusky centuries charming goat herds had rested unctuous shocks of hair upon mysterious columns that, like young giant asparagus, stuck their magnificent heads out of the ground. Blinking drowsily at yonder villainous mountain, the summit of which is eternally crowned with a halo of thin white smoke, such as we are accustomed to see arising from the stacks of chemical factories, the confident shepherd would lazily implore his patron saint to enjoin that unreliable devilish force within lest the dolce far niente of the afternoon be disturbed, for siestas are among the most important functions in the life of that region. Occasionally the more enterprising would arm themselves with pick-axe and shovel, made bold by whispered stories of fabulous wealth, and, defying the evil spirits protecting it, they would set out on an expedition of loot and desecration of the tomb of ancient splendor.
Only about a century and a half ago the archaeological conscience awoke. Only seventy- five years ago energetic moves made possible a fruitful pilgrimage to this shrine of humanity, while today not more than two-thirds but perhaps the most important parts of the city have been opened to our astonished eyes by men who know.
And now: we may see that loaf of bread baked nineteen centuries ago, as found in the bake shop. We may inspect the ingenious bake oven where it was baked. We may see the mills that ground the flour for the bread, and, indeed find unground wheat kernels. We see the oil still preserved in the jugs, the residue of wine still in the amphorae, the figs preserved in jars, the lentils, the barley, the spices in the cupboard; everything awaits our pleasure: the taverns with their "bars"; the ancient guests' opinion of Mine Host scribbled on the wall, the kitchens with their implements, the boudoirs of milady's with the cosmetics and perfumes in the compacts. There are the advertisements on the walls, the foods praised with all the eclat of modern advertising, the election notices, the love missives, the bank deposits, the theatre tickets, law records, bills of sale.
Phantom-like yet real there are the good citizens of a good town, parading, hustling, loafing — sturdy patricians, wretched plebeians, stern centurios, boastful soldiers, scheming politicians, crafty law-clerks, timid scribes, chattering barbers, bullying gladiators, haughty actors, dusty travelers, making for Albinus', the famous host at the Via della Abbondanza or, would he give preference to Sarinus, the son of Publius, who advertised so cleverly? Or, perhaps, could he afford to stop at the "Fortunata" Hotel, centrally located?
There are, too, the boorish hayseeds from out of town trying to sell their produce, unaccustomed to the fashionable Latin-Greek speech of the city folks, gaping with their mouths wide open, greedily at the steaks of sacrificial meat displayed behind enlarging glasses in the cheap cook shop windows. There they giggle and chuckle, those wily landlords with their blase habitués and their underlings, the greasy cooks, the roguish "good mixers" at the bar and the winsome if resolute copæ — waitresses — all ready to go, to do business. So slippery are the cooks that Plautus calls one Congrio — sea eel — so black that another deserves the title Anthrax — coal.
There they are, one and all, the characters necessary to make up what we call civilization, chattering agitatedly in a lingo of Latin-Greek-Oscan — as if life were a continuous market day.
It takes no particular scholarship, only a little imagination and human sympathy to see and to hear the ghosts of Pompeii.
There is no pose about this town, no mise-en-scène, no stage-setting. No heroic gesture. No theatricals, in short, no lies. There is to be found no shred of that vainglorious cloak which humans will deftly drape about their shoulders whenever they happen to be aware of the camera. There is no "registering" of any kind here.
Pompeii's natural and pleasant disposition, therefore, is ever so much more in evidence. Not a single one of this charming city's movements was intended for posterity. Her life stands before our eyes in clear reality, in naked, unadorned truth. Indeed, there were many things that the good folks would have loved to point to with pride. You have to search for these now. There are, alas and alack, a few things they would have hidden, had they only known what was in store for them. But all these things, good, indifferent and bad, remained in their places; and here they are, unsuspecting, real, natural, charming like Diana and her wood nymphs.
Were it not quite superfluous, we would urgently recommend the study of Pompeii to the students of life in general and to those of Antiquity in particular. Those who would know something about the ancient table cannot do without Pompeii.
THREE ANCIENT WRITERS: ANACHARSIS, APICIUS, PETRONIUS
To those who lay stress upon documentary evidence or literary testimony, to those trusting implicitly in the honesty and reliability of writers of fiction, we would recommend Petronius Arbiter.
His cena Trimalchionis, Trimalchio's dinner, is the sole surviving piece from the pen of a Roman contemporary, giving detailed information on our subject. It is, too, the work of a great writer moving in the best circles, and, therefore, so much more desirable as an expert. Petronius deserves to be quoted in full but his work is too well-known, and our space too short. However, right here we wish to warn the student to bear in mind in perusing Petronius that this writer, in his cena, is not depicting a meal but that he is satirizing a man — that makes all the difference in the world as far as we are concerned. Petronius' cena is plainly an exaggeration, but even from its distorted contours the student may recognize the true lines of an ancient meal.
There is, not so well-known a beautiful picture of an Athenian dinner party which must not be overlooked, for it contains a wealth of information. Although Greek, we learn from it much of the Roman conditions. Anacharsis' description of a banquet at Athens, dating back to the fourth century B.C. about the time when the Periclean regime flourished, is worth your perusal. A particularly good version of this tale is rendered by Baron Vaerst in his book "Gastrosophie," Leipzig, 1854, who has based his version on the original translation from the Greek, entitled, Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce vers le milieu du quatrième siècle avant l'ère vulgaire par J. J. Barthélemy, Paris, 1824. Vaerst has amplified the excerpts from the young traveler's observations by quotations from other ancient Greek writers upon the subject, thus giving us a most beautiful and authentic ideal description of Greek table manners and habits when Athens had reached the height in culture, refinement and political greatness.
Excerpted from APICIUS by JOSEPH DOMMERS VEHLING. Copyright © 1977 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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