The Romans, long idolised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were notoriously gluttonous. Their dinners ran from eggs to apples and featured such delicacies as dormice stuffed with pork and pine nuts, thick and sticky garum (fish sauce) and gently roasted song birds.
In his newfound abstemiousness … Boris Johnson is perhaps, once again, hoping to channel that most upstanding and straight-laced of emperors, Augustus. – Daisy Dunn
A surviving cookbook by Apicius, a gourmand of the first century AD, contains instructions for preparing flamingo, parrot and peacock. Not even the chefs at Chequers could rustle up such extravagance.
But the Prime Minister is now looking for a different recipe. With obesity being linked to severe cases of Coronavirus – many of which require hospitalisation – and Johnson blaming his weight for his own battle with the virus, frugality is now the order of the day. Johnson, watching his waistline, wants us on our bikes, munching greens, and slimming into our skinny jeans.
All of which presents an ideological problem. For thousands of years, gastronomy and power have gone hand in hand. As Caligula used to say, “a man should be frugal or be Caesar”. The image of emperors and leaders savouring the finest wines, juiciest puddings and choicest cuts is so well ingrained that dieting advice issued from the top can be difficult to digest.
The mind flashes to Caligula drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar – a trick Cleopatra also used to mesmerise Mark Antony – and serving his guests gold loaves of bread while the poor struggled to afford tripe from town stalls. Or to Elagabalus, the Syria-born emperor of the early third century, who dished up plates of amber with beans and fish dyed sea-blue, and drowned those banqueters who were too full to move in a mountain of petal confetti. Or to countless wealthy Romans throwing up their food in order to make room in their stomachs for more.
In his newfound abstemiousness (he has apparently lost over a stone in weight since leaving intensive care in April), Boris Johnson is perhaps, once again, hoping to channel that most upstanding and straight-laced of emperors, Augustus. Like his adopted father, Julius Caesar, Augustus ate little and blandly – bits of bread, portions of cheese, small fish, fresh fruit – and went down in history as one of the better rulers.
By this time, gluttony was already seen as a sign of moral weakness. Bad rulers are generally described as greedy eaters in the biographies of Suetonius. Good ones tend to have modest palates and an ability to exercise self-restraint.
[Roman] dinners ran from eggs to apples and featured such delicacies as dormice stuffed with pork and pine nuts. – Daisy Dunn
This filtered down to society more widely. Writing in the first century, as the wealthy plundered the oceans to source interesting appetisers for their friends, Pliny the Elder declared that “there is no greater cause for the destruction of morals and rise of luxury than shellfish”. His nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger, despaired similarly of his friends favouring sea urchin, womb of sow, and oysters over his own simple suppers of beetroot, onions, lettuce and snails.
At the height of the Roman Empire, certain freedmen (former slaves) achieved unprecedented levels of wealth and laid on dinners to rival those of the emperors. Trimalchio, the gauche protagonist of a brilliant satire by Petronius, served up cakes that exploded with saffron and ingenious dishes resembling the signs of the Zodiac. Little wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald used him as a model for Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.
Trimalchio – like Gatsby – learned from above. He did not always get it right – his ignorance and bad taste made him the butt of many jokes – but he was more than happy to follow the example set by the emperors. Whether a leader’s abstemiousness is as likely to catch on and inspire a generation of evangelical dieters remains to be seen. Given the choice between pig womb, absurdly fattened mice, and fermented fish sauce, or fresh olives, bean salad, and thick golden honey, however, I know which I would choose. As for Boris, who knows, he may just be the new Joe Wicks. “Push-ups with the PM”? Youtube, watch this space
Daisy Dunn is the author of In The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny, which is published in paperback on 20 August.
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