Who Is Dining at Lucullus Today? Mediterranean Diet in Ancient Rome.

“It is a hard matter to save that city from ruin where a fish is sold for more than an ox.” – Marcus Porcius Cato on the craze for fish dishes in Rome in the 2nd century BC. 

In ancient Rome, they loved to eat well and knew how to do it right. Especially those Romans who had enough money and time.

Did they call it the Mediterranean Diet? It is unlikely, although the Romans certainly knew the Greek word “diatia”. This word did not mean restrictions on food but had a broader meaning: an orderly lifestyle, meaningfulness and moderation. 

Ancient Greeks have always been adherents of a sense of proportion. The very concept of the golden middle (or golden mean) was first used by Aristotle, who considered moderation one of the main human virtues. 

The diet of any ancient Roman, from slave to senator, was unthinkable without three things: bread, olive oil and wine.

Has anything changed? Bread: the average Italian consumes almost 100 kg/year of durum wheat and common wheat products. 

Olive oil: Italy ranks second (after Greece) in the world in terms of olive oil consumption. 

And what about wine? 

Wine consumption in Italy

By the way, most sources indicate that the best wheat was delivered from Egypt, the best wine was made in Campania and Lazio, and the best olive oil was considered to be olive oil from Spain. 

So Who Is Dining at Lucullus Today?

Food was not only an important part of the Roman lifestyle but also a hallmark of noble birth, wealth and refined taste. 

A person with high social status could not afford to stoop to cheap food or dine in a street cafe, thermopolium. It was some kind of low-grade fast-food eatery where commoners ate. 

Thermopolium - Roman Fast-food Eatery

There were no expensive and decent restaurants then, as it was considered prestigious to have your own kitchen and a good slave cook. There was even a tradition to exchange cooks with friends for a short time. It was a kind of cultural event that enriched the gourmet experience.

But not only! Eating together was an important social ritual. A skilled cook was very expensive, and it was almost impossible to buy him because no one wanted to lose such a valuable socio-political asset. 

Such cooks were “stars” and if you managed to get them for a couple of days in your kitchen, then you could invite the most noble and influential people of Rome to dinner. And this, as a result, raised your status and opened many doors and opportunities for your career growth.

Sometimes, such dinner parties boggle the imagination of even the most sophisticated guests. Well, actually this was exactly the goal of the host. 

The main requirement for food preparation was often its uniqueness and pretentiousness. Dishes made from exotic animals, such as fried crocodiles or flamingo tongues, were highly valuable. There was also a custom to bake a whole boar carcass stuffed with pigeons, thrushes and quails.

In general, serving meat with meat was considered normal. At rich feasts, combined dishes of several types of meat were often cooked with a large amount of sausage.

However, the attraction for the guests was not only and not so much the culinary part of these banquets. At these luxurious parties, guests watched performances, enjoyed singing and dancing, had sex, conversed with philosophers, made useful contacts, and even committed ritual suicides. 

Feast in Rome

For most (hopefully) of us, this sounds a little crazy and we are surprised by this behavior of the Roman elite. But perhaps we just don’t know everything about the people who work in our governments…

One of the most famous gourmets was the Roman consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not interested in vulgar shows and exciting orgies. 

Lucullus was a true expert and a very sophisticated connoisseur of haute cuisine. He was well-versed in the nuances of taste and knew all the features of creating complex dishes and their combination with various wines. The best cooks worked for Lucullus, he had the most exquisite dinners, and it was considered a great honor to receive an invitation to dine with Lucullus. 

“Dine at Lucullus” is still a popular expression, meaning a great gastronomic feast. And if you stumble upon a restaurant named Lucullus somewhere, chances are the food will not disappoint you. 

There is a legend (although it may not be a legend) that one day the consul’s cook served too simple dishes for dinner, which caused Lucullus sincere indignation. “But no one is dining with us today…” the chef began to justify himself. “What does “no one” mean? Lucullus raged. “Today Lucullus is dining at Lucullus!” 

Give Your Dinner to Your Enemy 

There was once a popular saying: “Eat your breakfast yourself, share your lunch with a friend, and give your dinner to your enemy.” 

This “folk wisdom” is often attributed to the Romans. In fact, modern breakfast cereal manufacturers invented it to convince us to consume more cheap carbohydrates. 

Typically, the diet involves meals ordered on time. When did the Romans eat? Did they have some kind of food schedule? 

To find out, we need to clarify what kind of Romans we mean: Soldiers? Poets? Peasants? Senators? 

People who lived in Rome belonged to different social classes with different lifestyles. Also, dozens of ethnic groups with their own culture and food traditions lived in Rome during different times. 

And finally, Rome existed for about 1000 years. It must be understood that Romans of the 500s BC and Romans of the 200s AD had more differences than similarities. So the correct answer is: we do not know. 

Sure, some inhabitants of Rome did follow the “breakfast is the main meal” formula. These were legionnaires and people engaged in physical labor: slaves, peasants…

They got up early and had a hearty breakfast, stocking up energy for long hours of work. The working day of these people began with a large bowl of thick oatmeal named puls. 

Usually, lunch was the same puls or vegetables and beans with olive oil. 
Dinner was really modest: some cheese, bread, olives and wine. They went to bed early.

Other Romans mostly ate once a day, in the evening. They were businessmen, politicians, writers, and philosophers. Actually, they ate more often but had just light snacks, like a handful of nuts or some fruit. This practice allowed them not to be distracted by lunches and to use the period of peak performance for the most important work.

In the afternoon it was already possible to return home, drink some wine and wonder what was going on in the kitchen. If guests came, the dinner lasted several hours and ended late at night, and of course, no one was eager to give this dinner to the enemy. 

Whatever the regimen and diet of these people, they somehow adapted and most likely did not feel any inconvenience. Of course, we heard some stories about Romans who ate every time they were awake. And we can say they also felt quite good. But not for long. 

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