I feel guilty buying lattes. Bear with me. Mrs Croc makes infinitely better coffee at home, I am conscious of the supply chains that bring us the beans (the back-breaking underpaid labour; the destroyed environment) and the cheap milk used by coffee shops (moo). And then I hand over a significant portion of the hourly minimum wage in my country and am in turn handed something that is part product part art all sumptuousness.  

Roman attitudes to luxury generally and food/drink specifically are complex. Actually, complex is probably not the right word. Most things are complicated if you stare at them long enough and have the incentive to make them so. Roman attitudes to luxury, especially with regards to food and drink, are well attested across a various sources (legal, literary, religious, artistic) and times (what mores did the authors of the XII tables share with Juvenal?), of course they become complex if we try to squish everything together, this is a nonsense statement. Let’s run with it lol.

It was important for the Romans to see themselves as rugged men at best a generation or two removed from the toil of farm work, whatever the reality. Thus Cincinnatus returns hands over the fasces to return to his farm and, in fact, we are invited to envision him at the plough himself when he was adlected into office.[1] That it would be some seven centuries until another Roman statements, Diocletian, would likewise eschew high office for the trials and tribulations of the land tells us something. That he would be, by origin, Greek and therefore the kind of person Republican Romans warned against as being too luxurious tells us something funny. Rome’s rapid expansion throughout the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean meant that – for the first time in history? – slaves were ridiculously plentiful. If a Roman was in arm’s reach of a stylus you can guarantee he was not within a barge pole’s of a plough. Cabbage, posca, pottage, ofellae; these were a far cry from the diets of those who give us our sources.[2]

This contrast between rustic ancestors and cosmopolitan contemporaries (sound familiar?) is central to the Roman moral imagination. For Livy, it was the Punic Wars, the acquisition of Rome’s oversea empire, that is the watershed and his preface – remember he is as much moralist as historian – explicitly equates the simplicity of the past with the luxury of the present (adeo quanto rerum minus, tanto minus cupiditatis erat. To such an extent that there were fewer things, there was less avarice). I wonder if there was more than cantankerousness to this. If you look at the numbers,[3] the Romans throughout the Punic and Macdonian/Syrian wars were capable of amassing huge armies, but this must have been incredibly destructive to them as a polity especially when you realise the need to marshal such forces directly correlate to losses such as Trasimene and Cannae. Survivors guilt baked into the culture? Your brothers/fathers/friends died or came back to fallow land/land purchased by a senator and worked by slaves but the markets now mean you can add a bit of mace to your morning breakfast? Hmm.

I am writing around the time of jubilee: HRH the Queen will the first British Monarch to celebrate 70 years of rule, she was coronated around a year after Britain had escaped rationing but, needed as rationing was, it has indelibly marked a generation or two of Britons. Orderly queuing, plain fare, a dislike of ostentation, all these arose not from the depths of time but from the second world war and its immediate aftermath.[4] We pay lip service to them even as international supply chains and a cheap third world manufacturing base make ostentation cheap and ubiquitous. Who is to say it was much different for the Romans?

Right. Food.  The lexical net the Romans employed for describing desire, both positive and negative, went beyond simple material acquisitiveness. Voluptas, cupiditas, avaritia, licentia etc all could be applied to any type of appetite. Polybius, that brilliant observer of the Romans,[5] claims Cato the elder saw this in just those terms and elided the distinction between greed, food, and sexual license:

ἐφ᾽ οἷς καὶ Μάρκος ἀγανακτῶν εἶπέ ποτε πρὸς τὸν δῆμον ὅτι μάλιστ᾽ ἂν κατίδοιεν τὴν ἐπὶ τὸ χεῖρον προκοπὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἐκ τούτων, ὅταν πωλούμενοι πλεῖον εὑρίσκωσιν οἱ μὲν εὐπρεπεῖς παῖδες τῶν ἀγρῶν, τὰ δὲ κεράμια τοῦ ταρίχου τῶν ζευγηλατῶν.

Marcus [Porcius Cato] was annoyed by these things[6] and said to the populace that he could seethe decline of the state from these things: that comely boys could be purchased for more than fields and jars of preserved meat more than ploughmen.

Polybius 31.25.5a

Thank you, dearest reader, for bringing up Cato, because he is relevant in more ways than one. Cato the Censor represented for later generations a stern, sparse, republican morality, the maius in the mos maiorum so to speak.[7] Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the case of his great-grandson whose political career veered closer to cosplay than emulation of his ancestor (cosplaying ancestors? See this IS a jubilee relevant post).  Ironically his handbook, de agricultura, is so studious in its simplicity it must in part be performative but if anything, he was too frugal. Even the Romans could balk at his mean treatment of his elderly slaves and Plutarch’s reprimand of his character (Life of Cato 5) must have been widely shared.[8]

The Romans were not everywhere impressed by thrift nor repulsed by largesse; there would have been several times throughout the year e.g bribing voters electioneering, games, and public festivals where the public fiscus was expected to be bloody well public. I am minded to bring this up, not just because it helps to sensibly calibrate Roman attitudes as well as can be done in a shitpoast, but because again we are in the midst of jubilee celebrations and the usual naysayers are crowing about the cost. I agree: our state is too ready with our taxes and the feckless government comprised of people who never held a real job need to be seriously taken to task,[9]  but the Romans would have understood and approved the need to have a festival outside the usual mercenary election cycles which allows people to come together and celebrate their shared nationhood.[10]

Where were we? Oh yeah, food. When moralisers failed the Romans turned to their legal system and we have several examples of sumptuary legislation on the tables e.g in 115 the consul M. Aemilius Scaurus passed the lex aemilia qua lege non sumptus cenarum, sed ciborum genus et modus praefinitus est (which by law fixed not the number of diners but the type and manner of foodstuff. A Gellius Noctes Atticae 2.24.12) and the dictator Sulla followed suit with a lex cornelia in 81 which revived earlier laws which had fallen into abeyance and expanded them.[11] Of course this hardly stopped the dictator throwing wild parties (Plutarch Sulla 35; let’s see you spin that one Keaveney). The Romans had by now come a long way from their rude past where the only legislation needed on the books was the minuendi sumptus lamentationisque funeris. Now every aristocrat had his own fishponds, expensive Greek chef, and the mode du jour seemed to be passing sumptuary legislation in order to flaunt them. There really is something funny in Augustus passing a law trying to limit (sexual) appetites of all people.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy better taken up than in satire and by no one else more skilfully than Juvenal. There are almost too many examples to pick from, but I have always loved his fourth. I can neither translate (it would take some 70 lines, none of us are that patient) or do justice to (I’m just not that funny ☹) the relevant section here but I will try. A fisherman discovers a massive fish and decides it must, of course, be yielded to Caesar (the emperor Domitian) who far from following the Augustan legacy as an arbiter of moral temperance is worse even than his courtiers. The fish is brought to court and the emasculated, timorous, senate are introduced with an epic catalogue and give their suggestions on what to do with it as if it was a war council. At last the heroically named Lucius Venuleius Montanus Apronianus carries the day.[12] We are told of his qualifications:

nouerat ille

luxuriam inperii ueterem noctesque Neronis

iam medias aliamque famem, cum pulmo Falerno

arderet. nulli maior fuit usus edendi

tempestate mea…

                             [for] he knew

the ancient luxury of the court, Nero’s

and the second hunger even at midnight, when his

lungs burned with falernian wine. There was no one

greater at eating, in my time…

Juvenal 4.136-40

It is a great send up. Neither the senators nor the emperor are the equals of their fathers, the historical parallel is Nero who was already a by word for lascivious (prostitution, forced sex-reassignment surgery, gluttony, rape, and singing) and – perhaps most pointedly at all – was probably the first emperor to reign without the old republic being within living memory. The great sadness is that things would have gone better for Rome if Domitian really was so focused on gustatory trivialities (atque utinam his potius nugis tota illa dedisset/tempora saeuitiae 150-1). Domitian did not, of course, reign long enough to celebrate any sort of jubilee.

Ok. Let’s talk about coffee. What would the Romans make of it? Arguably much more exotic than stuffed dormice and despite the protestations of younger millennials who think drinking it is a personality it is neither staple nor necessity. But it is the art that draws me. It is not quite as over the top as things found in Apicius’ de re coquinaria or Petronius’ (Nero’s friend!) satyricon but it is a little extra. I can’t help but like it, in moderation. What would the Romans make of it? Well based on our readings probably try to ban it as a foreign luxury whilst drinking as much of it as possible behind closed doors. Probably enslave whole towns of people and train them solely in the most ostentatious of latte art. I for my part am still quite conflicted. Perhaps I have read too much Bentham, not enough Seneca, but I can’t fully reconcile my love of the drink with the harm it causes to everyone involved in cultivating, roasting, and selling it.

As we consider the queen’s jubilee regnum cuius non iam dimidiam partem vivebam lol and the very different environment in which she started to reign, these things are worth thinking about. Anyway.

Appendix: Romans and their coffee orders

Julius CaesarEspresso
AugustusEspresso (affogato when nobody is looking)
VirgilFrench press
HoraceFarm to table ice latte
Cato the CensorTap water
NeroIrish coffee
OvidMatcha latte (cappuccino when nobody is looking)
ClaudiusPumpkin spice latte
CiceroTea (with free refills)
HadrianGreek coffee

Disagree? Have more to add? Please do below!


[1] Livy 3.26

[2] The new defunct Pass the Garum has recipes for all these and more should you wish to try them. I myself heartily recommend Cato’s bread spread with moretum and washed down with some spiced posca.

[3] Check out this thesis here: https://escholarship.org/content/qt1tj4n5sm/qt1tj4n5sm_noSplash_adf69c425bac62377049e6b7d4deda20.pdf (didn’t read lol)

[4] They seem timeless but believe it or not British food was once spiced and varied as much as the environment and trade routes would allow; British dress – not Italian! – set the standards we all emulate nowadays too. Insane, I know.

[5] One must imagine him like some David Attenborough or, even better! Steve Irwin type hanging around the Scipionic circle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fynWOio9jBo

[6] i.e sexual/moral/gustatory license.

[7] Passet, L. (2020). Frugality as a Political Language in the Second Century BCE: The Strategies of Cato the Elder and Scipio Aemilianus. In I. Gildenhard & C. Viglietti (Eds.), Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond. pp. 192-212. Cambridge – is probably a good source for further discussion of this. Haven’t read lol.

[8] https://el.wikisource.org/wiki/%CE%92%CE%AF%CE%BF%CE%B9_%CE%A0%CE%B1%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BB%CE%BB%CE%B7%CE%BB%CE%BF%CE%B9/%CE%9C%CE%AC%CF%81%CE%BA%CE%BF%CF%82_%CE%9A%CE%AC%CF%84%CF%89%CE%BD bro you can do this one.

[9] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/127/public-accounts-committee/news/150988/unimaginable-cost-of-test-trace-failed-to-deliver-central-promise-of-averting-another-lockdown/ lol

[10] They’d also wonder where the fuck are the naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs. Naked aristocrats in wolf masks whipping ladies with leather thongs in this economy? Are you kidding me, Gaius? dimitte ab colo caput!

[11] Aulus Gellius (book 2) and Macrobius (book 3) who has clearly cribbed from him reverse the chronology here and assume the lex aemilia to have been passed later, perhaps but M. Aemilius Lepidus. This makes a certain historical sense, but I take as my authority Pliny who assigns it to our boy M. Scaurus in consulate (NH 8.57.223) because he has better vibes. He also tells us that the law specifically barred stuffed dormice, mussels, and wild birds. In other words, luxury goods.

[12] Ok I am following Syme here:  Syme, R “People in Pliny”, Journal of Roman Studies, 58 (1968), p. 150 since elsewhere he is also simply referred to as Montanus.

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