Read an Excerpt
Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times
Alexis Soyer's Pantropheon
By Alexis Soyer
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
EVERY nation has attributed the origin of agriculture to some beneficent Deity. The Egyptians bestowed this honour on Osiris, the Greeks on Ceres and Triptolemus, the Latins on Saturn, or on their king Janus, whom, in gratitude, they placed among the gods. All nations, however, agree that, whoever introduced among them this happy and beneficial discovery, has been most useful to man by elevating his mind to a state of sociability and civilization.
Many learned men have made laborious researches in order to discover, not only the name of the inventor of agriculture, but the country and the century in which he lived; some, however, have failed in their inquiry. And why? Because they have forgotten, in their investigation, the only book which could give them positive information on the birth of society, and the first development of human industry. We read in the Book of Genesis that: "The Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden, to dress it and to keep it" And, after having related his fatal disobedience, the sacred historian adds: "Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken."
Would it be possible to adduce a more ancient and sublime authority?
If it be asked why we take Moses as our guide, instead of dating the origin of human society from those remote periods which are lost in the, night of ages, we invoke one of the most worthy masters of human science—the illustrious Cuvier—who says:—
"No western nation can produce an uninterrupted chronology of more than three thousand years. Not one of them has any record of connected facts which bears the stamp of probability anterior to that time, nor even for two or three centuries after. The Greeks acknowledge that they learned the art of writing from the Phnicians thirty or thirty-four centuries ago; and for a long time after that period their history is filled with fables, in which they only go back three hundred years to establish the cradle of their existence as a nation. Of the history of western Asia we have only a few contradictory extracts, which embrace, in an unconnected form, about twenty centuries. The first profane historian with whom we are acquainted by works extant is Herodotus, and his antiquity does not reach two thousand three hundred years. The historians consulted by him had written less than a century previous; and we are enabled to judge what kind of historians they were by the extravagances handed down to us as extracts from Aristæus, Proco-nesus, and some others. Before them they had only poets; and Homer, the master and eternal model of the west, lived only two thousand seven hundred, or two thousand eight hundred, years ago. One single nation has transmitted to us annals, written in prose, before the time of Cyrus: it is the Jewish nation. That part of the Old Testament called the Pentateuch has existed in its present form at least ever since the schism of Jeroboam, as the Samaritans receive it equally with the Jews, that is to say, that it has assuredly existed more than two thousand eight hundred years. There is no reason for not attributing the Book of Genesis to Moses, which would carry us back five hundred years more, or thirty-three centuries; and it is only necessary to read it in order to perceive that it is, in part, a compilation of fragments from antecedent works: wherefore, no one can have the least doubt of its being the oldest book now possessed by the western nations."
The descendants of our first parents—and, first of all, the Hebrew people, who, as a nation historically considered, must occupy our foremost attention—devoted all their energy to agricultural labour.
The chief of the tribe of Judah as well as the youngest son of the tribe of Benjamin followed the plough, and gathered corn in the fields. Gideon was thrashing and winnowing his corn, when an angel revealed to him that he should be the deliverer of Israel; Ruth was gleaning when Boaz saw her for the first time; King Saul was driving his team of oxen in the ploughed field, when some of his court came and apprized him that the city of Jabesh was in danger; and Elisha was called away to prophesy while at work with one of his father's ploughs. We could multiply these incidents without end, to prove what extraordinary interest the Jews took in agricultural occupations.
Moses regarded agriculture as the first of all arts, and he enjoined the Hebrews to apply themselves to it in preference to any other: it was to the free and pure air of the fields, to the strengthening, healthy, and laborious country life, that he called their first attention. The sages of Greece and Rome held the same opinion: in those republics the tradesman was but an obscure individual, while the tiller of the soil was considered as a distinguished citizen. The urban tribes yielded precedence to the rustics, and this latter class supplied the nation with its generals and its magistrates. Our present ideas on this point have materially changed with the times, and our modern Cincinnati very seldom return to the field to terminate the furrow they have commenced. The Israelites did not possess this excessive delicacy: they preserved the taste for agriculture with which their great legislator, Moses, had inspired them, and which the distribution of land naturally tended to strengthen. No one, in fact, was allowed to possess enough ground to tempt him to neglect the smallest portion; nor had any one the right to dispossess the Hebrew of his father's field,—even he himself was forbidden to alienate for ever land from his family. This wise disposition did not escape the notice of an ancient heathen author, and various states of Greece adopted the same plan; amongst others, the Locrians, Athenians, and Spartans, who did not allow their fathers' inheritance to be sold.
The plan which we have adopted for our guidance in this work hardly justifies us in casting more than a glance at the Mosaic legislation; we shall, therefore, pass over all those prescriptions, all those memorable prohibitions, which the reader must have so often admired in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and content ourselves with observing that Moses knew how to find in agriculture an infallible means of developing the industry of his people, and that, by imposing the necessity of giving rest to the land every seventh year, he obliged them, by the generality of this repose, to have stores in reserve; and consequently to employ every means of preserving portions of the grain, fruit, wines, and oil which they had gathered in the course of the six years preceding.
Ancient casuists of this nation enter into the most minute details on tillage and sowing, and also on the gathering of olives, on the tithes which were paid to the priests, and the portion set aside for the poor. They also mention some species of excellent wheat, barley, rice, figs, dates, &c., which were gathered in Judea.
The soil of this delicious country was astonishingly fertile, the operation of tillage was easy, and the cattle here supplied a greater abundance of milk than anywhere else; we will just remark that even the names of several localities indicate some of these advantages. For instance, Capernaum signified a beautiful country town; Gennesareth, the garden of the groves; Bethsaida, the house of plenty; Nain was indebted for its sweet name to the beauty of its situation; and Magdela, on the borders of the sea of Galilee, to its site, and the happy life of its inhabitants.
Next to the Hebrews, in agriculture, came the Egyptians, a strange and fantastical people, who raised the imperishable pyramids, the statue of Memnon, and the lighthouse of Alexandria, and who yet prayed religiously every morning to their goddess—a radish, or their gods—leek and onion." Whatever there may be of folly and rare industry in this mixture, we cannot but agree that the art of agriculture was very ancient in Egypt, as the father of the faithful—Abraham—retired into that country at a time of famine; and, later, the sons of Jacob went there also to purchase corn.
We know that the Romans called this province the granary of the empire, and that they drew from it every year twenty million bushels of corn. If we are to believe the Egyptians, Osiris, son of Jupiter (and hence a demi-god of good family), taught them the art of tilling the ground by aid of the plough. This instrument, we may easily believe, was much less complicated than ours of the present day; there is no doubt that in the beginning, and for a great length of time afterwards, it was nothing but a long piece of wood without joint, and bent in such manner that one end went into the ground, whilst the other served to yoke the oxen; for it was always these animals which drew the plough, although Homer seems to give the preference to mules.
DESCRIPTION OF PLATE No. I.
No. 1. Represents an Egyptian labourer tilling the ground with a pickaxe of a simple form; drawn at Thebes, by Mons. Nectoul, member of the commission of the French expedition in Egypt, from paintings in the subterranean vaults of Minich.
No. 2. Is a sketch of the plough, which a great number of Egyptian figures hold as an attribute; this was taken from the subterranean vault of Eileithya; it represents the plough guided by a labourer, and drawn by oxen tied by the liorns, and whipped by a second labourer, whilst a third, placed by the side of the oxen, throws before them the seeds which are to be covered by the ploughed earth.
No. 3. A basket to carry the seeds. On the tombs of the kings of Thebes is seen painted a sower, with a basket like this, an attribute which is seen hanging on the back of the divinity Osiris.
No. 4. Represents an Egyptian with a sickle, much like in shape to a scythe; and Denon, of the French expedition, proved that corn was also cut with a scythe.
The Greeks, clever imitators of the Egyptians, pretended that Ceres taught them the art of sowing, reaping, and grinding corn; they made her goddess of harvest, and applied themselves to the labour of agriculture with that rare and persevering ability which always characterised these people, and consequently was often the cause of many things being attributed to them which they only borrowed from other nations.
The Romans, future rulers of the world, understood from the first that the earth claimed their nursing care; and Romulus instituted an order of priesthood for no other object than the advancement of this useful art. It was composed of the twelve sons of his nurse, all invested with a sacerdotal character, who were commanded to offer to Heaven vows and sacrifices in order to obtain an abundant harvest. They were called Arvales brothers; one of them dying, the king took his place, and continued to fulfil his duty for the rest of his life.
In the palmy days of the republic, the conquerors of the universe passed from the army or the senate to their fields; Seranus was sowing when called to command the Roman troops, and Quintus Cincinnatus was ploughing when a deputation came and informed him that he was appointed dictator.
Everything in the conduct of the Romans gives evidence of their great veneration for agriculture. They called the rich, locupletes, that is, persons who were possessors of a farm or country seat (locus); their first money was stamped with a sheep or an ox, the symbol of abundance: they called it pecunia, from pecus (flock). The public treasure was designated pascua, because the Roman domain consisted, at the beginning, only of pasturage.
After the taking of Carthage, the books of the libraries were distributed to the allied princes of the republic, but the senate reserved the twenty-eight books of Mango on agriculture.
We shall briefly point out the principal processes of this art in use among the Greeks and Romans, or at least those which appear to us most deserving of interest. Like us, the ancients divided the land in furrows, whose legal length (if we may so term it) was one hundred and thirty feet. Oxen were never allowed to stop while tracing a furrow, but on arriving at the end they rested a short time; and when their task was over they were cleaned with the greatest care, and their mouths washed with wine. The ground being well prepared and fit to receive the seed, the grain was spread on the even surface of the furrows, and then covered over.
The primitive plough, already mentioned, was of extreme simplicity. It had no wheels, but was merely furnished with a handle, to enable the ploughman to direct it according to his judgment; neither was there any iron or other metal in its construction. They afterwards made a plough of two pieces, one of a certain length to put the oxen to, and the other was shorter to go in the ground; it was similar, in shape, to an anchor. Such was the style of plough which the Greeks used. They also very often employed a sort of fork, with three or four prongs, for the same purpose. Pliny gives credit to the Gauls for the invention of the plough mounted on wheels. The Anglo-Norman plough had no wheels; the ploughman guided it with one hand, and carried a stick in the other to break the clods.
The Greeks and Romans had not, perhaps, the celebrated guano of our days, though we would not positively assert it; but they knew of a great variety of manures, all well adapted to the various soils they wished to improve. Sometimes they made use of marl, a sort of fat clay; and frequently manure from pigeons, blackbirds, and thrushes, which were fattened in aviaries for the benefit of Roman epicures. Certain plants, they thought, required a light layer of ashes, which they obtained from roots and brushwood; others succeeded best, according to their dictum, on land where sheep, goats, &c., had grazed for a long time.
When the harvest season arrived, they joyfully prepared to cut the corn, with instruments varying in form according to the locality or the fancy of the master. In one place they adopted the plain sickle, in another that with teeth. Sometimes they mowed the corn, as they did the meadows, with a scythe; or else they plucked off the ears with a kind of fork, armed with five teeth. A short time after the harvest, the operation of thrashing generally began. Heavy chariots, armed with pointed teeth, crushed the ears: Varro calls this machine the "Carthaginian chariot." Strabo asserts that the ancient Britons carried the corn into a large covered area, or barn, where they thrashed it; adding that, without this precaution, the rain and damp would have spoiled the grain. At all events, this kind of thrashing in barns, with flails and sticks, was not unknown to other countries; Pliny speaks of it, and Columella describes it; we may add that the Egyptians were also very probably acquainted with this method, since the Jews, who had submitted to their power, employed it themselves. When the corn had been thrashed, winnowed, and put into baskets very similar to our own of the present day, they immediately studied the best means of preserving it: some preferred granaries exposed to a mild temperature, others had extensive edifices with thick brick walls without openings, except one hole only, in the roof, to admit light and air.
DESCRIPTION OF PLATE No. II.
Nos. 1 & 2. Greek and Roman plough, made of several pieces; the first taken from the "Miscel-an. Erndit." of Spon, the second from an engraved stone in the gallery of Florence.
No. 3. Plough, made of one crooked piece of wood, turned once or twice.
No. 4. Plough, as used by the Gauls, furnished with wheels.
The Spaniards, Africans, and Cappadocians, dug deep ditches, from which they excluded all moisture; they covered the bottom and lined the sides with straw, then put in the grain, and covered it up. The ancients were of opinion that corn in the ear could, by this means, be preserved a great number of years.
If it is desirable to keep corn for any length of time, choose the finest and best grown. After having worked it, make a pile as high as the ceiling will permit. Cover with a layer of quicklime, powdered, of about three inches thick; then, with a watering-pot, moisten this lime, which forms a crust with the corn The outside seeds bud, and shoot forth a stalk, which perishes in winter. This corn is only to be touched when necessity requires it. At Sedan, a warehouse has been seen, hewed out of the rock and tolerably damp, in which there had been a considerable pile of corn for the last hundred and ten years. It was covered with a crust a foot thick, on which persons might walk without bending or breaking it in the slightest degree.
Excerpted from Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times by Alexis Soyer. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.