The first recorded Latin novel isn’t a story of heroism in battle or of virtue, but of excess. The Satyricon, attributed to a first-century-AD figure known as Gaius Petronius, has only three surviving chapters, but an exciting three they are. Petronius tells the tale of three young men, Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltos, and their adventures and misadventures traveling around southern Italy. It’s a wild story whose characters are lowlifes, stealing, drinking, picking fights, sleeping around, and flashing money—an amusing read if you’re in the mood!
One of the main scenes of the Satyricon is the feast of Trimalchio, where the three main characters wind up. A very wealthy man, Trimalchio overwhelms his guests with pretense and extravagance. The dishes of the dinner are exotic—one course is inspired by the zodiacs, another involves hares with sewn-on wings to resemble Pegasus, a third serves up a sow and piglets all together—but over the top, and the crowd is noisy, coarse, and unsophisticated.
The feast that Trimalchio hosts is a delightful example of satire, but historical accounts mention similarly massive meals that took place beyond the pages of books
Elagabalus, who became emperor as a teenager, once threw a dinner party of stifling extravagance, involving a retractable ceiling and loads of flower petals. And Licinius Lucullus, a decorated general during the first century BC, got a reputation as quite the gastronome later in life. He built fishponds using his war spoils and evidently gained the epithet piscinarius from Cicero because of his fondness for fish, which he served up at lavish banquets for fellow politicians.
I’d be thrilled to try a feast of this scale. I considered doing it, too, except that pretty quickly I ran into some obstacles. For one, it’s tricky to orchestrate something like that — the cost of procuring several hundred fish is sky-high, and cooking them up all at once doesn’t make a ton of sense for my lowly purposes of taste-testing and blogging.
Also, it’s not possible to get a hold of certain ingredients that are described in the more elaborate banquets: hunting and eating flamingos and songbirds, choice foods for Roman gourmets like Vitellius, isn’t allowed in the U.S. Bounded by these understandable practical and legal constraints, I decided to make a more modest, low-key ancient dinner.
That said, the courses for the cena I made are still based on literary evidence. I was inspired to make this dinner by two menus that the poet Martial described in his Epigrams: the first for a meal shared with Gaius Toranius, a contemporary and pal of Martial’s, and the second for a feast Martial hosted for six friends. Though my rendition is mostly based on the menu for Toranius, I’ve combined parts of both dinners into one. Here’s what the original meals would’ve looked like, the first for Toranius (Epigrams 5.78):
If you are troubled by the thought of a gloomy dinner at home, Toranius, you may eat modestly with me. If you are accustomed to an appetizer, you will not lack cheap Cappadocian lettuces and strong-smelling leeks; fish will lie hidden under slices of egg. Green broccoli, which has just left the cool garden, will be served on a black dish — to be handled with greasy fingers — and a sausage lying on white porridge, and pale beans with ruddy bacon. If you wish for the riches of a dessert, grapes will be offered to you, and pears that bear the name of Syrian […] the wine you will make good by drinking it. If after all this spread, Bacchus — as is his habit — rouses the usual appetite, excellent olives which Picenian branches have lately borne will relieve you…
And the second for the feast with multiple guests (Epigrams 10.48):
Stella, Nepos, Canius, Cerealis, Flaccus, are you coming? The dinner couch holds seven: we are only six, add Lupus. The steward’s wife has brought me mallows to soothe the stomach, and other treasures of the garden. There is sitting lettuce, cut leeks, belching mint is not to seek nor the salacious herb; slices of egg will crown anchovies, and there will be a sow’s udder soaked in tuna brine. These will whet the appetite […] For dessert I will give ripe fruits and wine from a Nomentan flagon filled in the second consulship of Frontinus.
These cenae include three courses: an appetizer, or gustatio; a main dish, or prima mensa; and a dessert, or secunda mensa. The names of the second and third courses come from the way in which they were served. As guests reclined on couches in the triclinium (dining room), the food would be carried in on small tables called mensae. While still reclining, diners would eat from their tables, and once finished the next course would be brought out on its own mensa. To capture this spirit, I chose to photograph each course on a round wooden table I had.
A three-course dinner makes for a fair amount of food. For this reason, I decided not to write out every recipe for the constituent dishes of each course; instead, I’ve linked to existing posts as needed. If you’re looking for a fuller description of ancient Roman meals, you can read this post I wrote two years ago.
Now without further ado, here’s my modern recreation of a cena fit for a poet, in three courses:
Gustatio, or appetizers
- Lettuce, leeks, and mint, dressed with olive oil
Ancient diners ate fresh herbs and other raw greens to help with digestion before a filling cena. Cato the Elder also writes that Roman dinner guests ate things like this garlic spread.
- Anchovies with hard-boiled egg
Martial describes serving a fish called lacertus in the second menu. Its identity is unknown, but he says it is smaller than tuna fry; I would lean toward small, oily fish like anchovies or sardines.
- Bread with cheese
Though not described outright in Martial’s menus, I included bread in this course as it was a staple food in Roman cuisine. It seemed fitting, and I served mine with a soft cheese.
Prima mensa, or entrée
- Sausage over white porridge
Pliny the Elder writes that millet was used in Campania to make a white porridge, so I adapted the recipe for barley porridge by only using millet flour. Martial also tells us, at another point in his epigrams, that sausage from Lucania is a “grateful garnish to snow-white porridge.”
- Fava beans with bacon
The beans of the Romans were fava beans, as nearly every other bean species is from the Americas. I boiled these and served them with chopped bacon and a light dressing of oil, vinegar, and herbs.
- Steamed broccoli with leeks and olives
Martial uses the same word as the brassica recipe I made from Apicius—cauliculus—so I tried preparing the vegetables for the main course using a similar approach to that.
Secunda mensa, or dessert
- Olives with basil
The author Columella purportedly wrote about this pairing, saying basil went especially well with olives. Martial describes olives from Picenum (roughly modern Marche, in central Italy) in his dinner.
- Fruit: honeyed dates, pears (I think they can pass for Syrian), grapes, and a peach
Though you can’t eat it, I set the table for this course with a cheeky satyr statue from Potted History (a really wonderful company that recreates historical ceramics, and where I also got the lamp and cup shown with the first course). Satyrs are companions of Dionysus, the Greek god of drinking, and they themselves were symbolic of parties and merriment—fitting for a feast. This figurine could have been given as an after-dinner gift to the cena host, as was customary.
And all of the courses would, of course, be washed down with plenty of good, well-watered Falernian wine. This famous ancient variety, a strong, amber-colored white, was made from grapes grown on Mt. Falernus (now Monte Massico) in northern Campania, and would have been a showpiece for a refined Roman cena.
The food of ancient Roman feasts ran the gamut—from simple wheat porridge for the poorest plebeians to truly Lucullan feasts of peacock, lampreys, and sow’s udders held by the most gluttonous patrons. Despite it all, the idea of hospitality was a common thread that ran through these cenae—even, you could argue, in the case of Trimalchio’s banquet. Martial says later in his epigram to Toranius:
My poor dinner is a small one — who can deny it? — but you will say no word insincere nor hear one, and, wearing your natural face, will recline at ease.
Even though Martial feels he has little to offer, he humbly extends the welcome to his friend all the same. Mealtime is—and for centuries has been—one of our most universal rituals, and Martial shows us that there’s no better way to break bread than in the company of friends.