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Bill Thayer

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 p306  The Roman section only (pp306‑309)
of an article by Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
on pp303‑309 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

COENA (δεῖπνον), the principal meal of the Greeks and Romans, corresponding to our dinner, rather than supper. As the meals are not always clearly distinguished, it will be convenient to give a brief account of all of them under the present head.

[Greek section omitted in this Web transcription]

In the following account of Roman meals, we take the ordinary life of the middle ranks of society in the Augustan age, noticing incidentally the most remarkable deviations, either on the side of primitive simplicity or of late refinement.

The meal with which the Roman sometimes began the day was the jentaculum, a word derived, as Isidore would have us believe, a jejunio solvendo, and answering to the Greek ἀκράτισμα. Festus tells us that it was also called prandicula or silatum. Though by no means uncommon, it does not appear to have been usual, except in the case of children, or sick persons, or the luxurious, or, as Nonius adds (De Re Cib. I.4), of labouring men. An irregular meal (if we may so express it) was not likely to have any very regular time: two epigrams of Martial, however, seem to fix the hour at about three or four o'clock in the morning (Mart. Ep. XIV.223,º VIII.67.9). Bread, as we learn from the epigram just quoted, formed the substantial part of this early breakfast, to which cheese (Apul. Met. I p110, ed. Francof. 1621), or dried fruit, as dates and raisins Suet. Aug. 76) were sometimes added. The jentaculum of Vitellius (Suet. Vit. c7, c13) was doubtless of a more solid character; but this was a case of monstrous luxury.

Next followed the prandium or luncheon, persons of simple habits a frugal meal —

"Quantum interpellet inani

Ventre diem durare."

Hor. Sat. I.6.127, 128.

As Horace himself describes it in another place (Sat. II.2.17),

"Cum sale panis

Latrantem stomachum bene leniet,"

agreeably with Seneca's account (Ep. 84), Panis deinde siccus et sine mensa prandium, post quod non sunt lavandae manus. From the latter passage we learn incidentally that it was a hasty meal, such as sailors (Juv. Sat. VI.101) and soldiers (Liv. XXVIII.14) partook of when on duty, without sitting down. The prandium seems to have originated in these military meals, and a doubt has been entertained whether in their ordinary life the Romans took food more than once in the day. Pliny (Ep. III.5) speaks of Aufidius Bassus as following the ancient custom in taking luncheon; but again (Ep. III.1), in describing the manners of an old-fashioned person, he mentions no other meal but the coena. The following references (Sen. Ep. 87; Cic. ad Att. V.1; Mart. VI.64) seem to prove that luncheon was a usual meal, although it cannot be supposed that there were many who, like Vitellius, could avail themselves of all the various times which the different fashions of the day allowed Suet. Vit. 13). It would evidently be absurd, however, to lay down uniform rules for matters of individual caprice, or of fashion at best.

The prandium, called by Suetonius (Aug. 78) cibus meridianus, was usually taken about twelve or one o'clock (Suet. Calig. 58, Claud. 34). For the luxurious palate, as we gather incidentally from Horace's satires, very different provision was made from what was described above as his own simple repast. Fish was a requisite of the table (Sat. II.2.16) —

"Foris est promus, et atrum

Defendens pisces hyemat mare,"

to which the choicest wines, sweetened with the finest honey, were to be added —

"Nisi Hymettia mella Falerno

Ne biberis diluta,"

which latter practice is condemned by the learned gastronomer (Sat. II.4.26), who recommends a weaker mixture —

"Leni praecordia mulso

Prolueris melius,"

and gravely advises to finish with mulberries fresh gathered in the morning (Ibid. 21‑23; see Tate's Horace, 2nd ed. pp97‑106).

The words of Festus, coena apud antiquos dicebatur quod nunc prandium, have given much trouble to the critics, perhaps needlessly, when we remember the change of hours in our own country. If we translate coena, as according to our notions we ought to do, by "dinner," they describe exactly the alteration of our own manners during the last century. The analogy of the Greek word δεῖπνον, which, according to Athenaeus, was used in a similar way for ἄριστον, also affords assistance. Another meal, termed merenda, is mentioned by Isidore and Festus, for which several refined distinctions are proposed; but it is not certain that it really differed from the prandium.

The table, which was made of citron, maple-wood, or even of ivory (Juv. Sat. XI.), was covered with a mantele, and each of the different courses, sometimes amounting to seven (Juv. Sat. I.95), served upon a ferculum or waiter. In the "munda supellex" of Horace, great care was taken

"Ne turpe toral, ne sordida mappa

Corruget nares; ne non et cantharus et lanx

Ostendat tibi te."

Ep. I.5.22‑24.

 p307  And on the same occasion, the whole dinner, which consisted of vegetables, was served up on a single platter (V. 2).

To return to our description, the dinner usually consisted of three courses first, the promulsis or antecoena (Cic. ad Fam. IX.20), called also gustatio (Petron. Sat. 31), made up of all sorts of stimulants to the appetite, such as those described by Horace (Sat. II.8.9),

"Repula, lactucae, radices, qualia lassum

pervellunt stomachum, siser, alec, faecula Coa."

Eggs also (Cic. ad Fam. IX.20; Hor. Sat. I.3.6) were so indispensable to the first course that they almost gave a name to it (ab ovo Usque ad mala). In the promulsis of Trimalchio's supper (Petron. 31) — probably designed as a satire on the emperor Nero — an ass of Corinthian brass is introduced, bearing two panniers, one of white, the other of black olives, covered with two large dishes inscribed with Trimalchio's name. Next come dormice (glires)​a on small bridges sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey, and hot sausages (tomacula) on a silver gridiron (craticula), with Syrian prunes and pomegranate berries underneath. These, however, were imperial luxuries; the frugality of Martial only allowed of lettuce and Sicenian olives; indeed he himself tells us that the promulsis was a refinement of modern luxury (Ep. XIII.14.1). Macrobius (Sat. II.9) has left an authentic record of a coena pontificum (see Hor. Carm. II.14.28), given by Lentulus on his election to the office of flamen, in which the first course alone was made up of the following dishes:— Several kinds of shell-fish (echini, ostreae crudae, pelorides, spondyli, glycomarides, murices purpurae, balani albi et nigri), thrushes, asparagus, a fatted hen (gallina altilis), beccaficoes (ficedulae), nettles (urticae), the haunches of a goat and wild boar (lumbi capragini, aprugni), rich meats made into pasties (altilia ex farina involuta), many of which are twice repeated in the inventory.

It would far exceed the limits of this work even to mention all the dishes which formed the second course of a Roman dinner, which, whoever likes, may find minutely described in Bulengerus (De Conviviis, II. and III.). Of birds, the Guinea hen (Afra avis), the pheasant (phasiana, so called from Phasis, a river of Colchis), and the thrush, were most in repute; the liver of a capon steeped in milk (Pliny), and beccaficoes (ficedulae) dressed with pepper, were held a delicacy (Mart. XIII.5).º The peacock, according to Macrobius (Sat. II.9), was first introduced by Hortensius the orator, at an inaugural supper, and acquired such repute among the Roman gourmands as to be commonly sold for fifty denarii. Other birds are mentioned, as the duck (anas, Mart. XIII.52), especially its head and breast; the woodcock (attagen), the turtle, and flamingo (phoenicopterus, Mart. XIII.71), the tongue of which, Martial ells us, especially commended itself to the delicate palate. Of fish, the variety was perhaps still greater: the charr (scarus), the turbot (rhombus), the sturgeon (acipenser), the mullet (mullus), were highly prized, and dressed in the most various fashions. In the banquet of Nasidienus, an eel is brought, garnished with prawns swimming in the sauce (Mart. Xenia, XIII). Of solid meat, pork seems to have been the favourite dish, especially sucking-pig (Mart. XIII.41); the paps of a sow served up in milk (sumen, Ibid. Ep. 44), the flitch of bacon (petaso, Ep. 55), the womb of a sow (vulva, Ep. 56), are all mentioned by Martial. Boar's flesh and venison were also in high repute, especially the former, described by Juvenal (Sat. I.141) as animal propter convivia natum. Condiments were added to most of these dishes: such were the muria, a kind of pickle made from the tunny fish (Mart. XIII.103); the garum sociorum, made from the intestines of the mackerel (scomber), so called because brought from abroad; alec, a sort of brine; faex, the sediment of wine, &c., for the receipts of which we must again refer the reader to Catius's learned instructor (Hor. Sat. II.4). Several kinds of fungi (Ibid. V. 20) are mentioned, trufflesº (boleti), mushrooms (tuberes), which either made dishes by themselves, or formed the garniture for larger dishes.

It must not be supposed that the artistes of imperial Rome were at all behind ourselves in the preparation and arrangements of the table. In a large household, the functionaries to whom this important part of domestic economy was entrusted were four, the butler (promus), the cook (archimagirus), the arranger of the dishes (structor), and the carver (carptor or scissor). Carving was taught as an art, and, according to Petronius (35, 36), performed to the sound of music, with appropriate gesticulations (Juv. Sat. V.121),

"Nec minimo sane discrimine refert

Quo vultu lepores et quo gallina secetur."

In the supper of Petronius, a large round tray (ferculum, repositorium) is brought in, with the signs of the zodiac figured all round it, upon each of which the artiste (structor) had placed some appropriate viand, a goose on Aquarius, a pair of scales with tarts (scriblitae) and cheesecakes (placentae) in each scale on Libra &c. In the middle was placed a hive supported by delicate herbage. Presently four slaves come forward dancing to the sound of music, and take away the upper part of the dish; beneath appear all kinds of dressed meats; a hare with wings, to imitate Pegasus, in the middle; and four figures of Marsyas at the corners, pouring hot sauce (garum piperatum) over the fish, that were swimming in the Euripus below. So entirely had the Romans lost all shame of luxury, since the days when Cincius, in supporting the Fannian law, charged his own age with the enormity of introducing the porcus Trojanus (a sort of pudding stuffed with the flesh of other animals, Macrob. Sat. II.2).

The bellaria or dessert, to which Horace alludes when he says of Tigellius ab ovo Usque ad mala citaret, consisted of fruits (which the Romans usually ate uncooked), such as almonds (amygdalae), dried grapes (uvae passae), dates (palmulae, laryotae, dactyli); of sweetmeats and confections, called edulia mellita, dulciaria, such as cheesecakes (cupediae, crustula, liba, placentae, artologani), almond cakes (coptae), tarts (scriblitae), whence the maker of them was called pistor dulciarius, placentarius, libarius, &c.

We will now suppose the table spread and the guests assembled, each with his mappa or napkins (Mart. XII.28),º and in his dinner dress, called coenatoria or cubitoria, usually of a bright colour (Petron. c21), and variegated with flowers. First they took off their shoes for fear of soiling the couch (Mart. III.30), which was often inlaid with  p308 ivory or tortoiseshell, and covered with cloth of gold. Next they layº down to eat (Hor. Sat. I.4.39), the head resting on the left elbow and supported by cushions (Mart. III.8). There were usually, but not always, three on the same couch (Hor. Sat. I.4.86), the middle place being esteemed the most honourable. Around the tables stood the servants (ministri) clothed in a tunic (Hor. Sat. II.6.107), and girt with napkins (Suet. Calig. 26): some removed the dishes and wiped the tables with a rough cloth (gausape, Hor. Sat. II.8.11), others gave the guests water for their hands, or cooled the room with fans (Mart. III.82). Here stood an Eastern youth (Juv. Sat. V.55) behind his master's couch, ready to answer the noise of his fingers (digiti crepitus, Mart. III.82),º while others bore a large platter (mazonomum) of different kinds of meat to the guest (Hor. Sat. II.8.86).

Whatever changes of fashion had taken place since primitive times, the coena in Cicero's day (ad Att. IX.7) was at all events an evening meal. It was usual to bathe about two o'clock and dine at three, hours which seem to have been observed, at least by the higher classes, long after the Augustan age. (Mart. IV.8.6, XI.53.3; Cic. ad Fam. IX.26; Plin. Ep. III.1). When Juvenal mentions two o'clock as a dinner hour, he evidently means a censure on the luxury of the person named (Sat. I.49, 50),

"Exul ab octava Marius bibit."

In the banquet of Nasidienus, about the same hour is intended when Horace says to Fundanius,

"Nam mihi quaerenti convivam dictus here illic

De medio potare die."

Horace and Maecenas used to dine at a late hour about sunset (Hor. Sat. II.7.33, Ep. I.5.3). Perhaps the various statements of classical authors upon this subject can only be reconciled by supposing that with the Romans, as with ourselves, there was a great variety of hours in the different ranks of society.

Dinner was set out in a room called coenatio or diaeta (which two words perhaps conveyed to a Roman ear nearly the same distinction as our dining-room and parlour). The coenatio, in rich men's houses, was fitted up with great magnificence (Sen. Ep. 90). Suetonius (Nero, 31) mentions a supper-room in the golden palace of Nero, constructed like a theatre, with shifting scenes to change with every course. In the midst of the coenatio were set three couches (triclinia), answering in shape to the square, as the long semicircular couches (sigmata) did to the oval tables. An account of the disposition of the couches, and of the place which each guest occupied, is given in the article Triclinium.

The Greeks and Romans were accustomed, in later times, to recline at their meals; though this practice could not have been of great antiquity in Greece, since Homer never describes persons as reclining, but always as sitting, at their meals. Isidore of Seville (Orig. XX.11) also attributes the same practice to the ancient Romans. Even in the time of the early Roman emperors, children in families of the highest rank used to sit together at an inferior table, while their fathers and elders reclined on couches at the upper part of the room ( Tac. Ann. XIII.16; Suet. Aug. 65, Claud. 32).

Roman ladies continued the practice of sitting at table, even after the recumbent position had become common with the other sex (Varro, ap. Isid. Orig. XX.II; Val. Max. II.1 § 3). It appears to have been considered more decent, and more agreeable to the severity and purity of ancient manners, for women to sit, more especially if many persons were present. But, on the other hand, we find cases of women reclining, where there was conceived to be nothing bold or indelicate in their posture. In some of the bas-reliefs, representing the visit of Bacchus to Icarus, Erigone, instead of sitting on the couch, reclines upon it in the bosom of her father. In Juvenal (Sat. II.120) a bride reclines at the marriage supper on the bosom of her husband; which is illustrated by the following woodcut, taken from Montfaucon (Ant. Exp. Suppl. III.66).

[image ALT: An engraving of a man and a woman semi-recumbent on a couch, surrounded by various people standing or sitting, and in front of them a small circular table. It is a representation of an ancient Roman meal.]

It seems intended to represent a scene of perfect matrimonial felicity. The husband and wife recline on a sofa of rich materials. A three-legged table is spread with viands before them. Their two sons are in front of the sofa, one of them sitting, in the manner above described, on a low stool, and playing with the dog. Several females and a boy are performing a piece of music for the entertainment of the married pair.

[image ALT: An engraving of a young man, bare-chested, sitting up from a reclining posture on a couch, and an older man, standing, whose shoes are being taken off by a naked boy. It is a representation of the beginning of an ancient Roman meal.]

It has been already remarked that, before lying down, the shoes or sandals were taken off. In all the ancient paintings and bas-reliefs illustrative of this subject, we see the guests reclining with naked feet; and in those of them which contain the  p309 favourite subject of the visit of Bacchus to Icarus, we observe a faun performing for Bacchus this office. The preceding woodcut, taken from a terra cotta in the British Museum, representing this subject, but shows the naked feet of Icarus, who has partly raised himself from his couch to welcome his guest, and also that Bacchus has one of his feet already naked, whilst the faun is in the act of removing the shoe from the other.

Thayer's Note:

a Our good dictionary has no article on dormice, that delight of ancient Roman cooking; a gap in my site that could not pass without repair — see therefore Daremberg & Saglio's article (Glirarium) on the little beasties and what the Romans did with them.

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Page updated: 18 Jun 09