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Inside the diets of ancient Romans

UW lecturer Mira Green reflects on the morals of eating in the Empire

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Rome Lecture

University of Washington department of History lecturer, Mira Green, begins her lecture entitled “Skeletons and Dining Couches: Eating and Dying in the Roman Empire”, organized as part of the History department’s lecture series on Life, Death and the Gods.

It was only recently that Mira Green, a UW history lecturer, realized that she was kind of strange kid.

During her lecture “Skeletons and Dining Couches: Eating and Dying in the Roman Empire” on Wednesday night, she recounted the moment that she first became interested in Roman history. It was when she saw an issue of National Geographic as a child that featured pictures of skeletons from the ruins of Pompeii. 

“I just wanted to know more about that, and I share this all the time as a way to try to say, ‘look, if you follow your passion, you can do what you want later on in life,’” Green said. “And so I said to my students recently, ‘oh, this image here, this is what got me excited about becoming a Roman historian.’ And they all looked at me like I was crazy.”

Her dissertation in 2015 focused on the sexuality of slaves in the ancient world, which won two national awards from the American Philological Association. Now she has pivoted her interests to focus on the diet of Romans. 

“[Eating is] the thing that we all need to do to live,” she said. “Every single person on the planet needs to eat. And yet we turn it into something that expresses power, right? Something that is really about socioeconomic issues and not just about the need to live and to eat. For me, that's the thing that just really started to come out when I started to do this research is how much those decisions can have kind of these lasting physical effects on a person.”

Green focused her attention on three different sources of evidence: the remains of material bodies, actual texts from writers like Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger, and art. As is the case with much of the source material from the ancient world, she claims that these three realms of evidence do not mesh easily, but together they paint a complicated picture.

Some of the most compelling information presented during the lecture was what historians learned from the remains of bodies at sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, sites that were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. For example, the average lifespan of a Roman was 25 years, but this low number is partially due to the high rate of mortality in the early years of life. If someone could make it past five years old, they were much more likely to make it to 45. Through marks on the body, historians also saw signs of long-term low-level anemia, as well as evidence of high levels of strontium, which suggests a diet rich in vegetables and seafood. 

The human body, Green claimed, is a surface on which social transcripts are inscribed. Through diet, people can signal memberships to communities, status, and wealth. Some of the writing by Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger, both elite Roman men, actually derided the luxurious eating that we tend to associate with high-class ancient Romans and their infamous vomitoriums. 

They described diseased-looking bodies of people who ate “complicated” food and drank too much wine (people who today we would probably call “foodies”) with their “pudge” and elevated heart rate. They instead campaigned for a simple diet, claiming that food is simply a means to an end, a way to nourish the vessel of the body, not something that brings pleasure.

This is something we still do today — Green brought up the example of this figure of a “moral eater” in our society: They shop at farmers markets, buy pasture-raised eggs and organic produce, and they do it all with their reusable bag (it’s at this point in the lecture that I began to feel targeted). She pointed out that these are choices surrounding food that are both moral as well as signaling something about class; you must have the time and money available to make these choices. 

In our culture, the ability to resist the temptation of excess is a way that people demonstrate class. This isn’t that different than what the Romans seemed to be doing — except instead of processed and fast food, it was the flavors of coriander, celery, dill, grapes, black pepper, and cumin coming from all over the newly globalized empire. 

In spring quarter, Green will teach a class called The Roman Empire (HSTAM 313) and one on Alexander the Great (HSTAM 290).

Reach Pacific Wave Co-Editor Charlotte Houston at Twitter: @choustoo

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