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The empty triclinium: an exploration of Roman food culture.

Seminar by Dr Erica Rowan (University of Exeter) for Classics and Ancient History

You are not what you eat. You are what you think you are eating. You are also where you are eating, with whom, when and how. Roman diet has traditionally been studied from the literary perspective and more recently, through the use of archaeological material. It could be argued that the ubiquity of food mentioned in ancient texts, and the abundance of physical remains such as plates, cups, amphorae, carbonized plant remains and animal bones, means that we have a good understanding of Roman food culture. Within certain contexts, we know what people were eating and with whom, what their tableware looked like, how the room was decorated and at what time of day this activity was taking place. We are less sure where people purchased their food and the price of most goods, but, for the most part, we have at least some knowledge of each step of the production, consumption and deposition process. What we do not know, and what has received almost no scholarly attention, is how the Romans viewed and conceptualized their own food culture. What did they think it meant to ‘eat like a Roman?’ Roman food culture is fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Was there the notion that this ambiguity made it characteristically Roman? Was there even a synonymous notion of Roman food culture or did people retain a localized sense of identity? This paper will attempt to provide answers to these questions and take the unique approach of exploring Roman food culture from the Roman perspective.

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Building:One Bateman Lecture Theatre