You Are What You Eat: Evaluation of Character through Food in Ancient Rome

By Aralyn Beaumont.

Published by Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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This paper demonstrates the ways in which food production and consumption contributed to constructions of ancient Roman identity. In the late Republic, Romans nurtured a sense of Romanitas by valuing “homegrown” foods, while they also maintained social hierarchies by distinguishing the dining practices of the elite from the masses. With conquest and colonization, ancient Romans turned their attention outward. As they dominated Greek territories, Romans imported Greek products and assimilated Greek haute cuisine and Greek gourmands into their traditional menus and dining roles, yet they did so carefully since they wished to maintain claims of preeminence—a hard claim to make since the adoption of Greek food customs implicitly acknowledged the cultural supremacy of Greeks. Romans thus formulated a food ethic to buttress claims of their own supremacy. They made use of the availability of a wide range of imported foods, proof of Roman domination over the Mediterranean, but they continued to value homegrown food (though their preparation of such food, using imported condiments and seasonings, made it nearly unrecognizable). They claimed moral preeminence through their moderate enjoyment of imported goods, and reimagined the role of the Greek gourmand (mageiroi) from a master chef to a philosopher of food (transforming the gourmand from a lowly laborer to an intellectual). To assert that this Roman food ethic was inherently Roman, individual Romans had to abide by these guidelines, a seemingly difficult task since Romans, whose diet had previously been limited and bland, were now faced with a plethora of new delicacies. To police these boundaries of Romanitas, Roman moralists—including legislators, playwrights, and poets—satirized as depraved those who failed to live up to the Roman food ethic. In sum, this demonstrates how Romans manipulated the foodstuffs and gastronomic roles of those they conquered to serve Romans’ social agenda and claims of Roman supremacy.

Keywords: Dining, Manual Labor, Gourmand, Haute Cuisine, Identity, Virtue, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Conquest

Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp.27-39. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 507.424KB).

Aralyn Beaumont

Undergraduate Research Student, Religious Studies, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Aralyn Beaumont is undertaking her Bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Occidental College. Her research interests frequently incorporate studies of foodways into a religious context, having just completed another food studies project on the ritual fasting of ascetic monks in Asia Minor that was also presented in Cappadocia, Turkey. Currently, she is researching contemporary Mennonite religiosity through the study of cookbooks commissioned by the Mennonite Central Committee after the declaration of the World Food Crisis in 1974. During her sophomore year, she was the editor-in-chief of The Occidental Weekly, and has since spent her time on the staff as a senior editor and food critic. She aims to apply for graduate programs in religious studies following her graduation from Occidental College.