On this page is a wonderful image of the preparation of a Roman meal, likely Roman slaves getting ready for a Roman banquet. There is more going on here than meets the eye, or should we say meats the eye? It is no wonder that the image depicts the gutting of a small animal, likely a fawn. Of course, meat is the oldest cooked food. Roman banquets were dominated by meat, and meat helped symbolize Rome’s place in the universe.
Before any animal could be prepared and eaten in ancient Rome, a blood sacrifice had to be made. This ritual marked not only the Roman’s place under the Gods, but also their place in respect to other animals, and even other human beings. Eating meat, simply speaking, was a religious experience.
The image below is a fragment from a fresco which was probably made around 100 to 159 A.D. Find larger version here. It was made available by the J. Paul Getty Museum, which purchased it in 1979.
That a small animal is being butchered is not surprising since the Roman’s favored wild game and the meat of young animals, which was tender. To the left of the cooks holding the animal is a pedestal showing garlic and other spices. Exotic spices of all description were available in Rome at the time. Of course, meat was not the only thing they ate.
We can imagine the household that these cooks worked for. Perhaps the head of the household personally sacrificed the animal to the household Gods, and later would offer a portion of the meat to his guests. Or, maybe he bought it from a butcher shop that sold meat from public sacrifices. The meat was called a caro or “share.” The banquet were it was eaten was called a cena or “place of sharing.” The Roman’s shared meat like other cultures shared bread. Although the host may have been generous to his guests, or even extravagantly generous, a Roman nobles themselves believed in frugality, unlike the popular image of a rich Roman lounging around all day being fed by slaves.
In truth, a extravagant and glutinous in eating was considered the worst example of moral corruption. What was considered extravagant is not necessarily an easy question to answer, but rarity and the difficulty of coming by a particular food was probably central. Many “sumptuary laws” governed Roman eating, but this prohibition against private excess did not extend to public events, including banquets and games. The display wealth and extravagance, and to share it, was the point of these public events.
There is much more to be learned about how the Romans ate. You can read more about the Roman’s relationship with eating in Food: A Culinary History, along with a wealth of other information on the history of food and dining. For more in-depth information on Roman sumptuary laws, see Fighting Hydra-like Luxury: Sumptuary Regulation in the Roman Republic, by Emanuela Zanda.
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