Although barbarian invasions, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner wine, and ripping out a gladiator’s throat for the Emperor is our view of Ancient Rome, there’s more to the blood and alcohol. The stomachs of the Ancients are little known, but it's clear there was a strong link between eating, class, and Roman politics.

Although a sequel to Gladiator isn't about to drop, modern society is going back to the Ancients more than ever – Italy is a hot-button study abroad location, Spoon writers are latching onto their recipes, and their epic decline in the 5th century CE smells of our own era. Maybe our culture is so intrigued by dead senators and Empires since history, as the saying goes, repeats itself.

coffee, tea
Mackenzie Patel

I’ve been studying the Romans for six years, reading countless books and visiting that unrivaled city three times. Over the years, comparisons between our society and Rome have emerged, with everything from food habits to politicians to sexual violence ringing similar.

Although this subject is complex and something Edward Gibbon (the OG Roman historian in the 18th Century) would write about, my argument simmers down to this: ancient and modern cuisine is not only similar ingredients-wise, but it hints directly at the role food plays in political agendas. However, these parallels don’t end at dining. Our current political climate is also eerily reminiscent of the Ancient Romans in their later years. Food is just the tip of the gladiator’s sword.

Ancient and Modern Dining

toast, alcohol, wine
Mackenzie Patel

Apicius, the notorious gastronome of Ancient Rome, is finally getting the word space he deserves on Spoon. His work, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, is my main inspiration and insight into ancient dishes – fish balls included. Although some recipes are extravagant (i.e. milk-fed snails, boiled ostrich), most of the meals are variations of our modern table.

The Romans fermented their own absinthe and had ancient French toast, lentils, and sour chicken. They also used lemons as status symbols! It’s no wonder reading this “cookbook” felt so familiar (minus the lack of measurements and times): it is quite literally the foundation of western cooking.

Although we take food for granted, it's an essential aspect of being human. It's not just simple grains, wines, and cheeses — it's mingled with how we interact with others, survive, and shape our day-to-day lives. 

Food and Politics In Ancient Real Life

beer, water
Mackenzie Patel

The Ancient Roman emperors used food to their advantage, especially since the class divisions were stark. The Patricians (upper class) were loads wealthier than the down-and-out Plebeians, the lower class. Politics were intertwined with every aspect of life, even in the BC days; it was inevitable, given that people adore arguments and attention.

However, the Plebeians, who were “poor, shiftless, and floating,” according to Apicius, soon attacked the Patricians and accused them of gluttony and extravagant lifestyles. To pacify the skeleton masses, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and subsequent Emperors gave out free grain to citizens. Hence, the phrase “bread and circuses” was created.

Don’t want an angry, poor mob storming the palace and beheading you? Throw bread at them. The Emperors feared the potential power of the pleebs, especially since they were in the army, the backbone of the Empire. Provide a lavish circus (where chariot races were held) and some sourdough, and Publius is pleased.

In case that illustration wasn't clear, the concept, though simple and a burden to the Roman State, was the birth of the welfare system. Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, explained it as “the idea that [a state’s] citizens should be fed.”

This tangled relationship between free food and the poor continues today in our welfare system, though it is much larger, messier, and controversial. Per, former President Obama budgeted $10.3 trillion for welfare, a staggering amount (even by Roman standards).

While we don’t feed welfare recipients to stay loyal to the government, the question of welfare is always on a candidate’s platform.

chicken, pizza
Mackenzie Patel

Despite the parallels, mentioning differences between our food in our society and the Romans is crucial, too. First, Apicius writes that "Roman food was not raised in a very systematic way.” There was no mass production or long-term storage: food was cooked if it was fresh and available.

Second, “Skilled labor….imperative for the rational preparation of food was cheap to those who held slaves.” In the Roman days, food was expensive and labor was cheap or free — the opposite of conditions in the food industry today. 

Thanks to machinery and Abraham Lincoln, we can mass produce our food and slavery doesn’t exist. However, these inventions aren’t inexpensive, adding to the cost of food production, and ultimately, welfare. Even though these initial problems have been "fixed" in our modern society, this doesn't mean politics has been removed from the production of food and feeding people, at all. 

We might be 2,000 years removed from the Ancients, but it's disturbing how similar our political climates are, even outside of the politics that surround food and hunger. International relations, warfare, and the economy existed under Latin terms during Roman days, just as they do now. 

Comparing the Political Climates

coffee, beer, tea
Jennifer Walter

I hate politics, but I also love free subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal. And historical significances.  Here’s our State of the Union: the events at Charlottesville have brought racial violence, white supremacism, and free speech issues to the forefront. Current US debt clocks in at $19.9 trillion.

Key business counsels disband after Trump’s garbled comments. VP Pence is representing Trump abroad again as the President takes a working vacation. Not exactly dewey-eyed, right? I remember why I don’t read the news: it sucks.

But sifting through articles about the US gets me thinking, as per usual, about Ancient Rome. The Roman civilization (not the Empire) was founded in 753 BCE and ended in 476 CE – a decent run compared to Game of Thrones drama. However, the years leading up to 476 CE and the deposition of Romulus Augustulus were painful... just as painful as the "trending" tab on Facebook today. 

Mackenzie Patel

The Romans declined because of several factors (I’ll only list a few). The Emperors were bungling and useless, the rise of the more prosperous Eastern Empire was causing a divide between the citizens, and the state was practically bankrupt because of greedy leaders and pointless wars. 

Barbarians were invading and sacking, Christianity was another social split, and chaos was the true Queen. Our Presidents can’t get their Twitter act together, a civil war based on race isn’t crazy, and did you read our debt figure? 

We are the Romans without togas and incest (I hope). This could be the root of our societal and food interest in Ancient Rome: we see our political decline mirrored in Rome’s loss of grandeur. The fiscal problems, incompetent politicians, and divisive country… we’ve seen these circumstances before. If we don’t want Visigoths at our door and another Middle Ages, I would reexamine the past.

pasture, water, grass
Mackenzie Patel

Digging at ancient cuisine and food politics led to a mine of discoveries, not all of them positive. If I were an Ancient Roman around 476 CE, I’d pack up a dish of Chicken Parthian style and hike it to the Eastern side of the Roman Empire – which lasted as the Byzantine Empire for another 1,000 years.