You Are What You Eat: Food and Identity in Ancient Rome
This paper demonstrates the ways in which food contributed to intracommunal and intercommunal constructions of Ancient Roman identity. In the late repulican period, 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 regarded the availability of a wide range of imported foods, proof of Roman domination over the Mediterranean. They continued to value homegrown food (though their preparation of such food, using imported condiments and seasonings, made such food 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: Haute Cuisine, Gourmand, Identity, Moderation, Virtue, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Conquest, Colonization
Undergraduate Research Student, Religious Studies, Occidental College