Eating and Living in Ancient Rome

Tomasz Sapota

There is a saying attributed to Socrates (470/469–399 BC): “one should eat to live, not live to eat”. This was popularised in Greek by Diogenes Laertius (ἔλεγέ τε τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους ζῆν ἵν’ ἐσθίοιεν· αὐτὸς δὲ ἐσθίειν ἵνα ζῴη, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 2.5.34), and preserved in slightly different versions in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (“The Orator’s Education”, 9.3.85, written AD 90s) and in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (“Rhetorical teachings for Herennius”, 4.28.39, written c. 90 BC): esse oportet, ut vivas, non vivere, ut edas. The obvious moral intent of the phrase is to denounce gluttony, ostentatious dining, and the pleasures of the palate as obstacles to making one’s life meaningful. Although this sentiment known well enough in Rome and indeed became commonplace in its Latin version, the banquet scenes construed by Roman writers furnish grim evidence of the utter disregard in which Romans of various times kept the Socratic formula. Could we risk saying that Romans lived to eat?

The “fat man” sarcophagus lid (“Obesus Etruscus”‘), Etruscan, 3rd cent. BC (National Archaeological Museum, Florence, Italy).

When reading Latin authors, one becomes undoubtedly aware that the Roman obsession with food and eating is not only a pop cultural image imposed on modern readers (or afficionados of historical films). Nutrition and digestive organs seem to enjoy an extraordinary position in Roman imagery. In the collection of Aesopic fables, there is a piece portraying the legs and the stomach quarreling about their power (132 Hausrath: Hunger). In a similar parable cited by Plutarch (Life of Coriolanus 6) and before him by Livy (2.32.9–12), where the stomach (venter) epitomises the Roman Senate, the heart, as we would say, of the Roman power system and the head of the state. Here Livy relates how, in 494 BC, a former consul, Menenius Agrippa, who had been sent by the Senate to deal with a plebeian protest on the Aventine Hill, convinced the protesters to return to the city:

tempore quo in homine non, ut nunc, omnia in unum consentiant, sed singulis membris suum cuique consilium suus sermo fuerit, indignatas reliquas partes sua cura suo labore ac ministerio ventri omnia quaeri, ventrem in medio quietum nihil aliud quam datis voluptatibus frui; conspirasse inde ne manus ad os cibum ferrent, nec os acciperet datum, nec dentes quae acciperent conficerent. hac ira dum ventrem fame domare vellent, ipsa una membra totumque corpus ad extremam tabem venisse. inde apparuisse ventris quoque haud segne ministerium esse, nec magis ali quam alere eum, reddentem in omnis corporis partes hinc quo vivimus vigemusque, divisum pariter in venas, maturum confecto cibo sanguinem. comparando hinc quam intestina corporis seditio similis esset irae plebis in patres, flexisse mentes hominum.

In the days when man’s members did not all agree amongst themselves, as is now the case, but had each its own ideas and a voice of its own, the other parts thought it unfair that they should have the worry and the trouble and the labour of providing everything for the belly, while the belly remained quietly in their midst with nothing to do but to enjoy the good things which they bestowed upon it; they therefore conspired together that the hands should carry no food to the mouth, nor the mouth accept anything that was given it, nor the teeth grind up what they received. While they sought in this angry spirit to starve the belly into submission, the members themselves and the whole body were reduced to the utmost weakness. Hence it had become clear that even the belly had no idle task to perform, and was no more nourished than it nourished the rest, by giving out to all parts of the body that by which we live and thrive, when it has been divided equally amongst the veins and is enriched with digested food—that is, the blood. Drawing a parallel from this to show how like was the internal dissension of the bodily members to the anger of the plebs against the Fathers, he prevailed upon the minds of his hearers. (trans. B.O. Foster)[1]

Etruscan anatomical votive sculpture, 3rd/2nd cent. BC (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Similarly, Pliny the Elder (writing in the mid-1st century AD) considered the stomach a central organ of the human body, controlling its physiology, and the mind. He ascribes the vicious excesses of greed and extravagant desires to which the Romans were prone to the tyrannical power which the belly exerts over its compatriots. As he observes in Natural History (NH 26.28.43):

plurimum tamen homini negotii alvus exhibet, cuius causa maior pars mortalium vivit. alias enim cibos non transmittit, alias non continet, alias non capit, alias non conficit, eoque mores venere, ut homo maxime cibo pereat. pessimum corporum vas instat ut creditor et saepius die appellat. huius gratia praecipue avaritia expetit, huic luxuria condit, huic navigatur ad phasim, huic profundi vada exquiruntur; et nemo vilitatem eius aestimat consummationis foeditate. ergo numerosissima est circa hanc medicinae opera.

The greatest part however of man’s trouble is caused by the belly, the gratification of which is the life’s work of the majority of mankind. For at one time it does not allow food to pass, at another it will not retain it, at another it does not take it, at another it does not digest it; and so much have our customs degenerated that it is chiefly through his food that a man dies. This, the most troublesome organ in the body, presses as does a creditor, making its demands several times a day. It is for the belly’s sake especially that avarice is so acquisitive; for its sake luxury uses spices, voyages are made to the Phasis, and the bottom of the ocean is explored. Nobody, again, is led to consider how base an organ it is by the foulness of its completed work. (trans. W.H.S. Jones)

Fresco of a banquet in the Casa dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii, Italy, mid-1st cent. AD.

Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, in his Saturnalia (written around AD 400), characterizes the stomach as the head of the family making quasi-rational decisions of vital importance for the whole body (Sat.7.4.17):

hic est stomachus, qui paterfamilias dici meruit, quasi omne animal solus gubernans, nam si aegrescat, vita in ancipiti est, titubante alimoniae meatu, cui natura tamquam rationis capaci, velle ac nolle contribuit.

This cavity is the stomach, and the stomach is deservedly called the “father of the family” as if it were the sole governor of the whole living creature (for if the stomach is sick, then life is in danger since the passage of nourishment is insecure). Nature has endowed the stomach (as though it were capable of reasoning) with the ability to accept or refuse food. (trans. P.V. Davies)

Summer banquet at the House of Lucullus, Gustave Boulanger, 1877 (for sale from Jean-François Heim, Basel, Switzerland).

According to Juvenal (AD c.50s–120s), a diet is a means to lead a philosophical life, gain insight into oneself, and exercise virtue. When he pontificates (Sat. 11.27–8): “From Heaven descends the maxim ‘Know Thyself’ / to be taken to heart and remembered”(e caelo descendit γνῶθι σεαυτόν / figendum et memori tractandum pectore), he does not hesitate to explain the meaning of the Delphic Sanctuary’s adage with examples found both in the food market and inside the kitchen:

noscenda est mensura sui spectandaque rebus
in summis minimisque, etiam cum piscis emetur,
ne mullum cupias, cum sit tibi gobio tantum
in loculis. quis enim te deficiente crumina
et crescente gula manet exitus, aere paterno
ac rebus mersis in uentrem fenoris atque
argenti gravis et pecorum agrorumque capacem? (35–41)

A man should know, and study, his own measure
in great things and small alike: even when buying fish
don’t go hankering after salmon on an income only suited
to catfish. What end awaits you, if your appetite’s expanding
as your funds contract, if you sink all your father’s cash
and property into a belly capacious enough to swallow
all his herds and estates, family silver, and capital holdings? (trans. P. Green)

The writings of Juvenal, a master of satire active under the Flavian and Ulpian dynasties, seem to originate in fascination with food, which becomes transmuted into a pleonastic literary construct. Pleonastic because, as the grammarian Diomedes attests, ancient scholars tended to think that the genre term satura (‘satire’, as it is known in modern English) originally referred to a plentiful dish offered to the gods, or a kind of stuffing – and Juvenal fills his saturae with extensive descriptions of foodstuffs and elaborate dishes and dinners. He is not unique in this. Roman literature overflows with vivid pictures of alimentary excess, the spectacles of luxuria, and the vices of the gula (gullet).

The banquet of Cleopatra, Giambattista Tiepolo, 1743 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia),

In the third book of his Saturnalia, Macrobius collects anecdotes of people known for their gluttonous appetites; their names could easily make a list of contenders in a competition of culinary extravagance. The famous orator Hortensius, Cicero’s adversary in Verres’ trial, irrigated his beloved plane trees with wine (Sat. 3.13.3). That luxurious oddity pales in comparison with Cleopatra’s Wager: she bet her Roman husband (and partner in wastefulness) Mark Antony that she could spend ten million sesterces on a dinner. The queen won by an unconventional route: after a perfectly ordinary meal, she suddenly dissolved one of her near-priceless pearl earrings in vinegar, only to drinking it down.

It is worth noticing that the excess in gastronomical overindulgence may be measured not only by the cost of the dishes served but also by the origin of the ingredients. Macrobius cites Caius Titius, an orator and tragedian, as well as the famous satirist Lucilius, on the value of wolffish, especially when caught between the two bridges, i.e. between the Aemilian and the Fabricius Bridge (Sat. 3.16.17, drawing on Plin. NH 9.119–21):

haec Titius. sed et Lucilius, acer et violentus poeta, ostendit scire se hunc piscem egregii saporis qui inter duos pontes captus esset, eumque quasi ligurritorem catillonem appellat, scilicet qui proxime ripas stercus insectaretur.

There you have the actual words of Titius. Lucilius, too, a pungent and forceful poet, shows that he knows this fish to have a remarkably good flavour, if caught between the two bridges, and he calls it a “scavenger” fish, and a leftovers-licker, because it would haunt the river banks in search of excrement. (trans. P.V. Davies)

I must remind readers here that the mouth of the main Roman sewer – the Cloaca Maxima – opened into that part of the Tiber.

The outfall of the Cloaca Maxima in present-day Rome.

Such a hoggish appetite could ultimately only be satiated by death, as the fate of the famous gourmet Apicius demonstrates (Seneca the Younger, Cons. Helv. 10.9):

cum sestertium milliens in culinam coniecisset, cum tot congiaria principum et ingens Capitolii vectigal singulis comisationibus exsorpsisset, aere alieno oppressus rationes suas tunc primum coactus inspexit. superfuturum sibi sestertium centiens computavit et velut in ultima fame victurus, si in sestertio centiens vixisset, veneno vitam finivit.

After he had spent a hundred million sesterces on his kitchen, and had wasted on each single banquet a sum equal to so many gifts from the reigning emperors, and the vast revenue which he drew from the Capitol being overburdened with debt, he then for the first time was forced to examine his accounts: he calculated that he would have ten millions left of his fortune, and, as though he would live a life of mere starvation on ten millions, put an end to his life by poison. (trans. A. Stewart)

There are numerous examples of metaphorical hyperboles which employ images of Roman dietary practices; these are omnipresent in Latin literature, as in videbis illas fauces per quas bona Cn. Pompei transierunt (“you will see the throat that gulped down the property of Pompey”, Seneca the Elder, Suas. 6.3, trans. M. Winterbottom); helluo patriae – “a devourer of the fatherland” (Cicero on Gabinius, a former consul; Sest. 2.6); vomens frustis esculentis gremium suum et totum tribunal implevit – “he vomited and filled his lap and the whole tribunal with scraps of food” (Cicero on Marc Antony; Phil. 2.25.63)?

A skeleton reclines beneath the word “Cheerful”, mosaic of the 3rd cent. BC, found in Hatay, Southern Turkey (Hatay Archaeological Museum, Antakya, Turkey).

As I mentioned above, Roman authors sometimes regarded the stomach as a central organ of the human body, and ascribed to it the powers and abilities usually associated with the mind (animus, mens, ratio) or the heart (cor). By enthroning the idea of the stomach as the ruling force behind human actions (or more precisely, the actions of the Romans), they arrived at the conclusion that political changes in the world are driven by appetite – the more potent the craving the more profound its consequences. In Juvenal’s fifth Satire, the frenzied gullet (gula) brings about an ecological catastrophe:

                           quando omne peractum est
et iam defecit nostrum mare, dum gula saevit,
retibus adsiduis penitus scrutante macello
proxima, nec patimur Tyrrhenum crescere piscem. (5.93–6)

                          home waters are all fished out
to fill such ravening maws, our local breeding-grounds
are trawled without cease, the market never lets up –
we kill off the fry now, close seasons go by the board. (trans. P. Green)

The same poet’s fourth Satire is a hyperbolic vision of the distorted world ravaged by the voracity of the insatiable tyrant (4.37–8): cum iam semianimum laceraret Flavius orbem / ultimus et calvo serviret Roma Neroni (“In the days when the last Flavian was flaying a half-dead world,/ and Rome was in thrall to a hairless Nero”, trans. P. Green). Suetonius’ portrait of Vitellius (r. AD 69) ends with the vivid description of this Caesar’s eating habits (Vit. 13.1):

sed vel praecipue luxuriae saevitiaeque deditus epulas trifariam semper, interdum quadrifariam dispertiebat, in iantacula et prandia et cenas comisationesque, facile omnibus sufficiens vomitandi consuetudine. indicebat autem aliud alii eadem die, nec cuiquam minus singuli apparatus quadringenis milibus nummum constiterunt.

He was chiefly addicted to the vices of luxury and cruelty. He always made three meals a day, sometimes four; breakfast, dinner, and supper, and a drunken revel after all. This load of victuals he could well enough bear, from a custom to which he had endured himself, of frequently vomiting. For these several meals he would make different appointments at the houses of his friends on the same day. None ever entertained him at less expense than four hundred thousand sesterces. (trans. A. Thomson)

Gold medallion of Vitellius, anonymous Italian artist, 15th-century (National Museum of Bargello, Florence, Italy).

This depiction may be read in the context of Juvenal’s condemnation of Domitian – a despot devouring the world. The private customs of rulers allegorically represent the aims and methods of imperial politics: the forceful exploitation of subjugated nations and peoples as a means of unlimited consumption. The image of excessive eating transforms into a political symbol retaining its primary meaning – because being able to eat more becomes the ultimate end of imperial politics. Juvenal’s saevit gula might serve as an epitome of the political machine searching for new quests or intensifying asset-looting to keep up the volume of consumption. Literary images of how Roman dinners used to be staged, and the paraphernalia brought in for the occasion, embellish the metaphor of the world as a dish on the Roman table. Let us listen to Juvenal’s angry voice again:

illa domi natas nostraque ex arbore mensas
tempora viderunt; hos lignum stabat ad usus,
annosam si forte nucem deiecerat Eurus,
at nunc divitibus cenandi nulla voluptas,
nil rhombus, nil damma sapit, putere videntur
unguenta atque rosae, latos nisi sustinet orbes
grande ebur et magno sublimis pardus hiatu
dentibus ex illis quos mittit porta Syenes
et Mauri celeres et Mauro obscurior Indus,
et quos deposuit Nabataeo belua saltu
iam nimios capitique graves, hinc surgit orexis,
hinc stomacho vires; nam pes argenteus illis,
anulus in digito quod ferreus. (Sat. 11.117–30)

In those days there were home-grown tables, carpentered
from our own local timber. If a gale uprooted
some ancient walnut-tree, its trunk would serve this purpose.
But your modern millionaire cannot enjoy his dinner –
finds the turbot and venison tasteless, the perfume and roses
stinking like garbage – unless his broad table-top
rests on an ivory leopard, rampant, snarling, a stand
carved in the round from tusks such as Assuan exports,
and the slippery Moors, and the blacker-than-Moorish Hindu:
tusks that those great beasts shed in some Arabian wadi,
so burdensome they’ve grown, too big to support. This makes
for bon appétit and a strong | digestion. Table-legs
of silver, for them, are as bad as an iron ring. (trans. P. Green)

To summarize, the interiors of elite houses were furnished with the best and rarest products the conquered world may offer. Their opulent dining rooms are sui generis maps of the world.

Mosaic of a funerary symposium from Antioch, southern Turkey, 4th cent. AD (Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA, USA).

Dietary politics (sit venia verbo!), as envisioned by the writers, permeate all aspects of Roman life and play an essential part in social relations. The primary institution for Roman dietary mores is the traditional evening meal, a celebratory occasion often accompanied by entertainment, known as the cena. In Republican times, it was a ceremonial way of strengthening ties of loyalty between patrons and clients. Their relationship was called ‘friendship (amicitia). The term, in this case, denoted formal obligations that included, on the part of clients, supporting electoral campaigns run by their patrons, and on the part of the latter, representing their friends at court.

Although a formal dinner given by a powerful individual assembled his allies and acquaintances of different social strata, it was first of all intended as a show of unity where all the guests were ideally treated as equals. Under the rule of emperors, once the system of political careers based on elections had been dismantled, formal cenae retained a purely symbolic significance, and many authors denounced the advancing decay of the custom. Pliny the Younger, in one of his letters (AD c.100), vents his anger at a host’s segregation of his the guests:

longum est altius repetere nec refert, quemadmodum acciderit, ut homo minime familiaris cenarem apud quendam, ut sibi videbatur, lautum et diligentem, ut mihi, sordidum simul et sumptuosum. nam sibi et paucis opima quaedam, ceteris vilia et minuta ponebat. vinum etiam parvolis lagunculis in tria genera discripserat, non ut potestas eligendi, sed ne ius esset recusandi, aliud sibi et nobis, aliud minoribus amicis – nam gradatim amicos habet – aliud suis nostrisque libertis. (Epp. 2.6.1–2)

It would be a long story – and it is of no importance – to tell you how I came to be dining – for I am no particular friend of his – with a man who thought he combined elegance with economy, but who appeared to me to be both mean and lavish, for he set the best dishes before himself and a few others and treated the rest to cheap and scrappy food. He had apportioned the wine in small decanters of three different kinds, not in order to give his guests their choice but so that they might not refuse. He had one kind for himself and us, another for his less distinguished friends – for he is a man who classifies his acquaintances – and a third for his own freedmen and those of his guests. (trans. J.B. Firth)

Roman banquet, Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans, 1876 (priv. coll.).

Juvenal gives a more vitriolic account of the dinner hosted by a Virro, addressed in the text, not as amicus (“friend”) and hospes (“host”), but rex (“king”) – a pejorative term for the Romans who, even under the rule of emperors, religiously clung to their ancient Republican concept of liberty:

ecce alius quanto porrexit murmure panem
vix fractum, solidae iam mucida frusta farinae,
quae genuinum agitent, non admittentia morsum;
sed tener et niveus mollique siligine fictus
servatur domino. (Sat. 5.67–71)

Here’s another: look how he grumbles as he offers you the bread,
though it’s almost too hard to break, solid lumps of old mouldy
dough that crack your grinders sooner than let you bite them.
But snowy-white, fresh-baked from the very finest flour,
is the loaf reserved for my lord.

ventre nihil novi frugalius; hoc tamen ipsum
defecisse puta, quod inani sufficit alvo:
nulla crepido vacat? nusquam pons et tegetis pars
dimidia brevior? tantine iniuria cenae,
tam ieiuna fames, cum possit honestius illic
et tremere et sordes farris mordere canini? (Sat. 5.6–11)

Nothing I know asks less than the gut: yet supposing
even the little that’s needed to fill its void is absent –
are there no sidewalks or bridges, no share in a beggar’s mat
for you to make your pitch from? Is dinner worth such insults?
Are you that famished? Wouldn’t your self-respect do better
out there, shivering cold, and chewing on mouldy dog’s bread? (trans. P. Green)

Those instances of nutritional folly and atrocious table manners may be answered with the samples of alimentary virtue. Juvenal, Seneca the Younger, and Macrobius, all preach the ethics of self-restraint and moderation by displaying role-models to imitate. Yet it is rather interesting that, regardless of whether they laud or censure the mores of their compatriots, they all employ similar images of Roman culinary practices, similar menus and instances of gluttonous overreach.

Death comes to the banquet table, Giovanni Martinelli, 1635 (New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, USA).

As it may be charitable to end on a positive note and confirm the idea that an inescapable punishment awaits the wicked, let us see the image of a glutton’s final moments given by Persius, writing in the 60s AD:

turgidus hic epulis atque albo ventre lavatur,
gutture sulpureas lente exhalante mefites.
sed tremor inter vina subit calidumque trientem
excutit e manibus, dentes crepuere refecti,
uncta cadunt laxis tunc pulmentaria labris.
hinc tuba, candelae, tandemque beatulus alto
compositus lecto crassisque lutatus amomis
in portam rigidas calces extendit, at illum
hesterni capite induto subiere Quirites. (Sat. 3.98–106)

Stuffed from his feasting he goes white-bellied
to bathe, but as he drinks, his throat emitting long noxious
belches, a sudden tremor makes the warm glass slip from
his hand, his bared teeth chatter, and the greasy food slides
from his slack mouth. Then it’s the bugle, the candles, and
finally the dear deceased, thick-coated with perfumed balm,
on a tall bier, with his rigid heels extended towards the door.
and his slaves, instant citizens in liberty-caps, as the bearers. (trans. A.S. Kline)

Tomasz Sapota is Professor of Classics at the University of Silesia in Poland.

Further Reading

Susanna Braund (ed.), Satire and Society in Ancient Rome (Liverpool UP, 1989).

Andrew Dalby, Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World (Routledge, London/New York, 2000).

Emily Gowers, The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature (Oxford UP, 1993).

Nicholas Purcell, “The way we used to eat: diet, community, and history at Rome,” American Journal of Philology 124 (2003) 329–58.

William J. Slater, Dining in a Classical Context (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1990).


1 Perhaps it may be useful to recall here the famous “Fable of the Belly” from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (Act I, Scene 1) taken directly from Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus (presumably via the translation of Sir Thomas North):

MENENIUS: There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answer’d—

FIRST CITIZEN: Well, sir, what answer made the belly?

MENENIUS: Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,
Which ne’er came from the lungs, but even thus–
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak–it tauntingly replied
To the discontented members, the mutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly
As you malign our senators for that
They are not such as you.