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About ancient gluttons

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic showing a feast
Roman mosaic showing a feast

Greeks taught the Romans not only philosophy but also feasting. Greek symposiums were imitated by Roman elites, and the tables were simply laden with dishes, the splendour of which can be seen, for example, thanks to the preserved cookbook of Apicius.

However, under the term polyfagus (“glutton”) we do not simply find people eating elephant stew or other sublime foods.

The flagship breviary (a term derived from the Latin word “brevis” meaning “short”, which is used to describe works that are often only lists of kings with a short commentary) from the mid-19th century. The 4th century CE, known in science as Chronica Urbis Romae, along with information about the catastrophe of the amphitheatre in which 201 people died under Tiberius, or the construction of many temples under Domitian, contains vast lists of food eaten by gluttons. And they ate a lot.

From Chronicles we learn that during the reign of Nero there lived a glutton named Arpokras who ate: a roasted wild boar, a live hen with feathers, 100 eggs, 100 mussels, shoemakers’ nails, broken glass dishes, young shoots from a palm branch, 4 canvases, a suckling piglet, a bundle of hay and, surprisingly, he was still hungry.

This glutton must have been especially remembered by people because it seems that the same glutton was also written about by Suetonius, who mentioned that Nero was impressed by a certain glutton eating raw meat and everything that was given to him, he wanted to feed him alive people (Suetonius, Life of Nero, chapter 37). In turn, under Alexander Severus, according to this Chronicle, there was still an insatiable glutton who ate: a box of lettuce, a sardon dish (for storing fish), 10 tunas, 70 melons, shoots from a palm branch, 4 napkins, a case, a thorny thistle, and drank a lot of Greek wine, then went to Jasura’s temple, drank the whole cauldron, and it was obvious that he was still hungry.

But not only breviaries but also works on exquisite feasts contain extreme descriptions of great food. Athenaeus in his Feast, a vast work dealing extensively with the feast and the topics often discussed there, included information about the Lydian king Cambles, who, being very hungry, cut and ate his wife (Athenaeus, Feast, book 10, chapter 8). Many biographies, including Plutarch, apart from battles or great political intrigues, look behind the scenes of royal cuisine and local customs. Plutarch writes about the corruption of a group of twelve people, which consisted of m. Antony and Cleopatra mentioned the food they prepared constantly, which was constantly thrown away to keep it fresh and made anew, among which were, among others. eight roasted boars (Plutarch, Antony, chapter 28). However, the proverbial glutton was Vitelius, one of the rulers of the so-called year of the four emperors (69 CE). His carcass aroused contempt among the people of the time, so when he was being dragged to death, people laughed at his ever-purple face and huge belly, throwing dung at him (Suetonius, Vitelius, chapter 17).

The ancients despised obese people because of intemperance, which was perceived as one of the most important human vices, and often occurred among the then-elites. This does not change the fact that eating huge amounts of food could arouse admiration and become a repeated curiosity, thanks to which we can still read about them today.

Author: Joanna Cel (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Atenajos, Uczta mędrców, tł. K. Bartol, J. Danielewicz, Poznań 2010.
  • Chronica Urbis Romae, [w:] Imperium Romanum. Władza, propaganda, konflikty ideologiczne. Wybór źródeł, red. K. Stebnicka, P. Janiszewski, Warszawa 2003.
  • Swetoniusz, Żywoty Cezarów, tł. J. Niemirska-Pliszczyńska, Warszawa 1987.

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