16th April 2021

Book in Focus

Culinary Aspects of Ancient Rome

Ars Cibaria 

By Almudena Villegas Becerril

The study of the history of food in antiquity demands interaction with different areas of knowledge—perhaps much more exhaustively so than in other times—in order to obtain adequate and convincing results, to the extent that available data and trustable sources endorse. The opportunities for such studies emerge from the integration of diverse scientific disciplines, which help configure the identity of the Roman alimentary system.

Culinary Aspects of Ancient Rome interprets and collates the available information bearing in mind the historical usefulness of food studies, which offers a critical contribution to the historical knowledge of the individual as a complex and complete being. Without food, there is no life, and the most important human activity is to feed. The works of agronomists, legislators, moralists, and writers have placed great attention on food habits and practices in fulfilling their primary role of guiding the societies of their times. Due to its permanence throughout time, the study of food is not a set of static practices, but, rather, of dynamic ones. These practices progressed in parallel with society’s evolution to become a collection of advanced technologies and knowledge about food. I hope this work will demonstrate the importance of a fair assessment of the history of food as a discipline in the humanities, and that it, as such, requires a series of distinctive attributes for its study to be productive: rigorous scholarship, the use of interdisciplinary knowledge, and a research methodology capable of analysing the food, recipes, and technology that have been integrated into society. Consequently, I expect that the history of food discussed in this book will attract the attention of readers from a variety of fields of study.

A history of the food that shaped the lives of the ancient Roman world provides a detailed account of the activities of ordinary individuals and their interactions with agriculture and livestock, industry and commerce, the economy, medicine, and available technologies, as well as philosophy, anthropology, religion, sociology, the arts, and literature. It reflects the way they lived, feasted, and enjoyed themselves—all in all, it allows insight into the thinking and the values of a vibrant society.

Attempting to reach a better understanding of any society through food is a complicated endeavour, particularly in a historical civilisation remote from the present. It calls for a thorough interpretation of the technology available at each time under consideration, the institutional framework, the architecture, and the available agrifood resources, and even social habits and the way in which people conceived of religion, morality, and food practices. Understanding the history of food as a means of facilitating the knowledge of human beings as complex subjects will allow us to establish how their development evolved in parallel with social transformations. We will be able to understand how, in turn, humans develop food technologies and cause mutations in their ecosystems relevant to the rhythm of progress. In discussing the society of ancient Rome through the history of food, I have ventured into a captivating subject of research. The journey involved a thorough exercise in getting consistent and fact-grounded results, and interweaving into a coherent body the countless different scraps of information about food. The integration of multiple scientific disciplines and the comprehension thereof transforms a study on the history of food into a multifaceted research endeavour of well-grounded intellectual value.

Evolving further into regarding gastronomy or food as a form of expression of a particular culture, cookery could even manifest as an intellectual and artistic process. The history of food reviewed in this book examines the evolution of the diverse means and capabilities that made it possible for Roman society to accumulate significant expertise in culinary technologies and their associated activities, from agriculture to cooking processes, from the development of preservation techniques and methodologies to storage, from transport to the establishment of trading routes, and from the expansion of markets to the regulation of prices, weights, and measures.

The value of the hypotheses presented in this book relies, therefore, on whether they offer a broad vision of the Roman food system and furnish the reader with significant evidence about the existence, richness, and possibilities of such a unique system.

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Almudena Villegas Becerril received a PhD in Ancient History from the University of Cordoba, Spain, and is currently a Professor-Researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Bromatology and Food Technology at the same institution. She is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy, Spain, and the Institut Européen d’Histoire et des Cultures de l’Alimentation, France, and Director of the Master’s programme in Food History at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Complutense University of Madrid. She specialises in the history of food, and received the International Prize on Gastronomy from the Royal Academy of Gastronomy in 2008 and the Gourmand World Cookbook Prize in 2015. Her publications include Ciencias de la Gastronomía (2019), Triclinium (2016), and Smartfood (2015), among others.

Culinary Aspects of Ancient Rome: Ars Cibaria is available now in Hardback at a special 25% promotional discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.