The power of food






by Christian Schaller

Comparison of food culture in the Roman Empire (c. 0) and in the early modern period (c. 1500)

Despite all the contrasts in our modern world and despite all the differences between the cultures and regions of this earth, there is at least one element that unites everyone and “brings them to the same table”: food. But is food culture really only there to ensure survival and to create community? This article will illustrate how food culture could have acted as a driving and dynamizing element and what positive or negative influence it had on culture, the economy, politics and the standard of living of people and nations. Two significant epochs of European history, which are still influential today, will be highlighted. First, the Roman Empire during the early imperial period around the year 0 is considered, then Europe at the time of the Renaissance and the voyages of discovery around the year 1500.

Food culture at the time of Augustus (around 0)

Already in ancient times, the Mediterranean Sea was no longer untraveled. The advanced civilizations of the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Greeks had established extensive trade networks and spread grain, oil and wine throughout the Mediterranean region. Early Rome was in close contact with the Etruscans to the north, who were known for their agriculture and their guest feasts, and with the Greek colony cities in southern Italy. The Romans of the royal period and the Republic were nevertheless soldiers and farmers who managed their own piece of land. They subsisted mainly on gathered fruits, broad beans, cereal porridge and game. Milk from goats or sheep was also popular. In the coastal regions, fish was also eaten.  Much was eaten raw and with olive oil. Meat was rarely eaten, mostly only on feast days. The public banquets were of a religious nature, but also clearly reflected social and political hierarchies. Normally, people ate twice a day.

Breakfast, ientaculum, was simple and casual, while dinner, cena, had three or more courses of vegetables, legumes, milk, cheese or oil. The basic ingredient was a cereal porridge, the puls. The prandium, a kind of lunch, played a rather subordinate role. It was usually eaten with the fingers. However, this ideal of ancient Roman modesty was dropped by the first century B.C. at the latest. The dining culture became increasingly extravagant and luxurious.

Detail warrior on Etruscan urn, © wjarek

Above all, the emergence and presence of cooks in the Roman Empire can be seen as a decisive step in the refinement of food culture.  Through their rampant expansions eastward, the Romans had come into contact not only with oriental food culture, but also with the spice trade. Laws intended to curb the increasing excesses of the food culture failed.

The newly established guest meal, convivium, was very much based on the oriental model. The meal was longer and more luxurious than the cena; moreover, it took place with obligatory guests and thus had a strongly representative character. The dining room with its reclining sofas, the triclinium, was decorated and the visitors wore special, colorful clothing. Etiquette was very important; for example, there was a special nomenclator who assigned the seating arrangements. The numerous courses were presented on fine tableware, and there were also gifts, performances, music and dancing – though not by the guests themselves, as dancing was usually considered unseemly among the fine Romans. The meal was often followed by a comissatio, a debauched drinking bout that was modeled on the Hellenistic symposion. Communal drinking hardly seemed morally reprehensible, people were boisterous and wore flower wreaths. In the early imperial period, women were also allowed to participate. A kind of judge supervised the mixing ratio of the wine. Critics denounce the guest banquets for their immense extravagance and the loss of the old, republican virtues. They are also very much directed against the import of exotic goods and foreign plants and animals. This decadence was made possible by the spoils of war and the tribute payments of the expanding world empire. Trade flourished especially with Asia. The debauchery was only moderated somewhat by the example of the traditional-minded Emperor Vespasian and the emergence of the new and more frugal landed gentry in the first century AD. The writers of the early imperial period very often used satirical exaggerations to depict the hustle and bustle of the triclines of the elite and, in contrast, to emphasize the soothing simplicity of the peasant ancient Roman way of life.  According to them, oriental decadence was to blame for the decline of republican virtues – or in the words of the satirical poet Juvenal: the Tiber was polluted by the Orontes.

Etruskisches Grab mit Fresken, © wulwais

This tongue-lashing is also very much in line with the ideology of the Augustan and early imperial period. In this context, the past Republican Rome was seen as a virtuous, agricultural community. This simple and ascetic mixture of nostalgia and tradition was opposed to the new, typical Roman hierarchy, which clearly wanted to express social distinctions. The display of luxury food was in keeping with this strict hierarchy and Rome’s status as a world power.

Moreover, the textual sources often deal only with rich, adult men. This one-sided portrayal often leaves out religious festivals, weddings or the eating habits of the common population.  Similar sources on Roman food culture must always be considered under this aspect as well. In addition, a large number of public restaurants existed in the Roman Empire. These establishments were often simple and even disreputable, being frequented by poor people, prostitutes, or others not in good standing. However, they could also be of an almost bourgeois standard. The hotel system was already familiar in its basic features. The food offered was on the whole rather meager and not very varied, however, the poor plebeians as well as the transients were dependent on these inns.

In summary, the refined cooking methods of the early imperial period can be seen as an attempt to set oneself apart – especially, of course, from the carnivorous barbarians beyond the borders of the empire. However, food culture also reinforced social hierarchies, once between the plebeian and patrician estates, but also at other levels, for example between men and women. Another important point is the two contradictory concepts of decadence and nostalgia, that is, Hellenistic mores on the one hand and the ancient Roman way of life on the other. Roman food culture was very heterogeneous; it also possessed very few real taboos, thus differing from Jewish or Hindu culture, for example. Due to the refinements in the cuisine, the Romans were completely dependent on foreigners, long-distance trade was elementary for maintaining the high food culture, spices and luxury foods had to be constantly brought in.

Food culture at the time of the Italian Renaissance or the early modern period (around 1500)

About a millennium and a half later, Europe and the Mediterranean world had changed. The glorious Roman Empire had fallen and the Middle Ages, often considered harsh and sinister, had arrived. The decadent luxury of the Romans was all but forgotten, but food culture still existed. Spices played a major role in medieval cooking, and the nobility used large quantities of imported pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger.  The demand for spices existed since Roman times, but it increased vehemently in the 14th century. Until then, spices came to the Orient via Oceania and India, and only from there to Southern Europe.  As expensive imported goods, they were a status symbol for the nobility, which, however, by far did not only serve culinary purposes, but also triggered a wave of expansion that was to fundamentally revolutionize Europe. Around 1500, Europe was in the age of humanism and the Renaissance, which began in Italy. Food culture was also changing, even if in some aspects it still adhered to medieval traditions, such as show dishes or performances during meals.

Guest banquets, however, increasingly became a staging. The general public was often involved and instrumentalized. The tremendous display of splendor attracted attention, and the distribution of food was intended to demonstrate generosity. At the same time, typical Renaissance antiquity was quoted, such as the display of Roman luxuria, or allusions to Greco-Roman mythology in the performances. Antiquity, the “old”, was literally invoked to compete with the “new”.

Neptunbrunnen in Florenz, Bartolomeo Ammannati, 1565; © Spectral

The fact that a new era, a veritable epochal break, had arrived in Europe can also be explained by the voyages of discovery that began in this period. In general, the early modern period is characterized by a kind of early form of globalization. New foods and economic expansion in the New World allowed the population of Europe to grow constantly. European powers increased their global political influence during this period, first by influencing trade routes in the Indian Ocean, then by expanding in the Americas, and finally by establishing the tropical plantation system. The Portuguese circumnavigated Africa to find new sea routes to India and forcibly seized the spice trade around 1530. Later, the Dutch with their Dutch East India Company wrested the monopoly from them. They also made spices available to a wider spectrum in Europe. In the 17th century, consumers were to a certain extent oversaturated, and a new taste developed. These consumer interests were to be met soon after. The New World, discovered by Columbus in 1492, offered sugar, rum, coffee, tea and chocolate, which quickly enjoyed rapidly increasing demand in Europe. This fostered the emergence of capitalist agriculture, which sought profit and efficiency, relying on slavery.  The Spanish conquistadors brought not only the plantation system but also European diseases to the two Americas, which in a short time wiped out much of the native population. Although this in itself was unintentional, the Spanish nevertheless took advantage of this circumstance. Due to the dwindling populations of the Maya, Inca and Aztec, their empires were quickly conquered. Their fertile but now uncultivated fields were used to grow new crops, which were then brought back to the Old World. This so-called Columbian Exchange, which began as early as after the discovery of the Americas in 1492, was a multi-faceted process. The decision as to whether the new foods from the Western Hemisphere could now gain a foothold in the native Europe was always made at the local level. Europe, for example, remained defensive about the new crops for a long time. While potatoes, tomatoes and corn became established in all parts of the world, such as West Africa, the Ottoman Empire or southern China, Europeans did not adopt such plants – which in some places were even eyed with fear and loathing – until the times of great famines and constant population growth, i.e. not until the 17th century at the earliest. Before that, recurring plague epidemics had always reduced the population enough to make the introduction of new crops virtually superfluous.

So although spices were one of the triggers for the voyages of discovery, the seafarers soon set themselves loftier goals than the mere search for trade routes, such as the assertion of power-political interests. Dutchmen planted coffee beans on Java, and tea was grown in India. The Ottomans and Chinese were thus ousted from their monopolies and replaced by Europeans. Mass production finally made beverages available to the common people.  Europeans thus replaced other powers as the “merchant masters of the world.” Africans, Asians, Muslims, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas nevertheless managed to retain at least some of their economic and cultural autonomy. Not to be forgotten, however, are the brutal exploitation of slaves and the exploitation of trade by the Europeans.

Markusdom in Venedig, © ActiActi

Up to ten million slaves were shipped from Africa to America, living conditions were often very poor and mortality was high. The economic pressure as well as the different skin color promoted racism and thus justified the oppression.  The accusation of cannibalism also played an important role, as this ideologically encouraged the invaders to conquer the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, as well as enslave or kill their populations.

In summary, it would be easy to argue that the biggest change in food culture over the last 500 years was the turn from heavily spiced to simpler, more natural, but also more refined food. The aristocracy dropped the medieval meat platters with their elaborate, over-seasoned sauces and turned to a refinement of the culinary arts. Quality came before quantity. In addition, national cuisines slowly developed. Absolutist France, for example, produced a flood of cookbooks. From then on, dishes contained less meat and more vegetables. Dishes were smaller, there were more courses, more sophisticated sauces and fewer spices. Socialization took place and the formation of table manners still practiced today. In the beginning, this food culture clearly separated the nobility from the peasants, but by the end of the early modern period, the strengthening bourgeoisie also adopted aspects of it. English cuisine is often compared to French cuisine. Of course, a certain dislike of courtly cuisine can be read from British cookbooks, but there can be no question of a contrast here. England merely had a different character, for example, it did not develop such a strict absolutism as France. The dishes may seem simpler, contain more vegetables or are prepared more often in pans than the genteel haute cuisine.

The influence of coffee and coffee houses should also be considered. Once the hot beverage became a mass product, it became, in a sense, a symbol of the sober bourgeoisie. The middle class found a meeting place in the cafés – a public sphere emerged. The importance of these coffeehouses grew, especially in the times of the Enlightenment and the dawn of political culture. However, the developments in the world in terms of power politics – the voyages of discovery, the expansions and the establishment of slavery and plantation systems – also brought about a radical change in the economy and culture that had a lasting impact on Europe and would later lead from the early modern era to the modern age.


Finally, the various aspects and trends of the two food cultures are summarized once again and parallels, similarities and differences are pointed out. While the early Romans still ate very simply, the elite in the early imperial period developed a food luxury that also corresponded to Rome’s rank as a new world power. The decadence of the Hellenistic convivii also provoked criticism – a contrast arose between two dietary concepts. Beyond these forms of food culture, Roman culinary art served above all as a means of demarcation – on the one hand it reflected social hierarchies, but the contrast between Roman “civilization” and the “barbarians” beyond the borders of the empire was also desired. In the early imperial period, nutrition had reached a level that would not be revolutionized again until the early modern period. The rich ate a healthy and balanced diet, but the common people had no access to the luxuries of Roman food culture. Roman literature also dealt extensively with healthy nutrition. Rome’s food culture and economy in imperial times was absolutely dependent on its provinces and trade with foreigners. In the late Middle Ages, the spice trade became more and more important. Therefore, Europe eventually took over world trade, the Portuguese and Dutch expanded their influence in the Indian Ocean, and the Spanish conquistadors conquered America. What followed was an incredible transformation for the culture of Europe. The result was globalization, population growth, and economic expansion through the establishment of the plantation system, the Columbian Exchange, and slavery. The food culture of the Renaissance still placed a lot of emphasis on staging, including public involvement. Later, the many new foods such as coffee and potatoes also had a lasting influence on the food culture and everyday life of Europeans. The culinary arts became more and more refined.

Der Bauernschmaus, Dirck Hals, 1627; CC0 1.o;  © Rijskmuseum Amsterdam

A common feature of both food cultures is the turning to other cultures. New plants and animals are imported, and in many cases there is a certain dependence on trade with foreign countries. Both ancient Rome and early modern Europe did not resist usurping and exploiting other countries and regions along with their resources and trade routes. Roman provinces and European colonies were important for the economic expansion of their respective countries. With the food cultures, of course, an identity and demarcation was also created, be it the contrast between civilization and barbarism among the Romans or, across epochs, the difference between the social classes, the poor and the rich, peasants and nobles.

However, clear differences can also be identified: Roman food culture was very heterogeneous and even taboo by certain standards – and therefore not as identity-forming as, for example, the developing national cuisines of the late early modern period. Rome was merely a political entity that covered many cultural circles, in part also copied and absorbed them – quite in contrast to the fragmented Europe of around 1500. In late antiquity, moreover, the standard of living dropped noticeably, the Roman Empire along with its high food culture broke up, and the period of the migration of peoples and the Dark Ages began. Already during the early imperial period, the golden age of Rome, the poor had almost no access to the Speiseluxus and this was not to change at any time. In the early modern period, on the other hand, the common bourgeoisie became more and more powerful. The prosperity becomes larger, the world becomes smaller and also the simple people gets access to the exotic food and the high culinary at the latest since the beginning of the modern age. Man could not and still cannot get around food, it is an important element of everyday life – at any time. The study of food cultures not only offers an insight into the ways of thinking and behavior of people from bygone days, but also shows the influence and dynamizing effect of food on culture, economy and politics.

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  • Bischoff, Michael: Plinius Secundus der Ältere: Historia Naturalis. Eine Auswahl aus der “Naturgeschichte”. Nördlingen 1987.
  • Bitsch, Irmgard: Essen und Trinken in Mittelalter und Neuzeit. Vortr. e. interdisziplinären Symposions vom 10. – 13. Juni 1987 an der Justus-Liebig-Univ. Gießen , Sigmaringen 1987.
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