Feasts and Famine: Modern Misconceptions of the Ancient Roman Diet
Ancient sources, modern scholarship, and modern popular media have misled audiences about the truth of the typical diet of the Roman lower strata. Modern movies and books, as well as ancient satire, a popular cultural medium of its time, put forth a stereotype of the lifestyle of rich citizens of Imperial Rome as contrasted with the poor Romans’ humble fare. Modern media, influenced by ancient satire, plays into stereotypes of the Imperial Romans stuffing themselves on dormice and grapes while their servants go hungry. The misconception in modern media may be created by a misreading of ancient satire, which is critical in nature. When the critical aspect of satire is misinterpreted, the elaborate and excessive meals are taken at face value rather than read as symbolic. In ancient satires, the depictions of both simple meals and fantastic banquets are exaggerated and must be interpreted as symbolic of the character serving or eating the meal.
Modern representations of the ancient Romans’ diet, inaccurately influenced by ancient literature such as the satires of Horace, Juvenal, and Petronius, differ from recent findings of archaeologists in Herculaneum and Pompeii. The modern misrepresentation seems to come from a mistake in equating the food symbolic of the Roman upper strata with high nutritional value as well as equating the food symbolic of the lower strata to low nutritional value. An analysis of the food depictions in ancient literature and recent archeological findings suggest that poor Romans ate a healthier and more varied diet than is commonly believed.
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