The Poetry of Food – poems by Dan Simpson inspired by the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition

These three poems were written in response to the Food for Thought exhibition, generously funded by the Roman Society and supported by the Corinium Museum. I’ve been writing poems based on British Roman history and artefacts as part of my work at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (, so was delighted to be asked to do the same at the Corinium. There are lots of approaches to creating this kind of work, but I am personally interested in the small and everyday objects – they really do link us to our past, and tell us something of the people we come from.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the 'Food for Thought' exhibition.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition.

Dan with the 'Food for Thought' team at the exhibition event.

Dan with the ‘Food for Thought’ team at the exhibition event.

Eternal Dog of the Hunting Cup

I was struck by the sense of movement the potter had captured in the dog depicted on the hunting cup. I looked into how dogs had co-existed with humans for millennia, being one of the fundamental species that helped our survival. I got to thinking about Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and how he sees the love scene depicted on that object as immortalised. I wanted to do the same for the dog – and indeed, some of the lines in poem are directly adapted from the Keats’.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Ah happy, happy dog!

forever panting, and forever young

we can almost hear your barks of joy

the curl of your tail swinging back and forth

as the swift bounding of your legs

carries you eagerly over eternal ground.

You are not a nobleman’s hunting dog

all well-fed and well-bred muscle

sleek coat slipping through undergrowth

blood-scent in your sharp nose

keen-eyed and fleet-footed foe of deer and hare

nor are you some mongrel cur

snuffling through waste for scraps

a vagrant beast of burden

your ears and head drooping

your stomach growling more than your throat.

You are not a farmer’s black watchdog

eating with the family

as if you are one of them

standing silent guard in the household

alert for shadows moving in the night

nor are you a child’s over-indulged pet

fat from food fed from the table

lazily curling up next to your mistress

legs kicking as you dream of rabbits

fearful of other dogs not so well treated.

You are not the shepherd’s white dog

nipping at the legs of stray sheep

guardian and keeper of the flock

chasing away your wolf cousins

your lineage and history forgotten

nor are you a dog of war

half-starved and constantly beaten

made ferocious by the hands and whips of man

returned to your wild wolf origins

let slip to fight in the politics of conquest.

Caught in full flight made static by the potter

you have no name: you are every dog

man has ever loved and lived with

your barks echo back and forth down the ages

companionship resonating with the warmth of centuries

as timeless as the earth you are made from.

Prayer to Bacchus

The child’s drinking vessel is an interesting object as it’s adorned with vines and grapes – signs of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. This wouldn’t be something obvious to put on a child’s object! I wanted to imagine why this might have happened, and who would get their child such an object. I settled on a new father, who was perhaps regretting his overindulgence and wanted to make peace with the gods through a prayer.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Janus, hear my prayer

you, god of many faces and roles:

as Consevius you have created new life

blessed my marriage with a beginning

Janus, you have opened a portal in time

as my child sets out on his life’s journey –

hear my prayer.

Bacchus, see my child

you, god of the harvest and fertility

who have been kind to me already

now I ask more of you:

for though you are god of bliss and pleasure

you, god of wine, have another face –

that of bitterness and fury.

Do not let my son inherit the weakness of his father:

I am too often found sat, alone and in company

my wine cup constantly empty and full

with a serpent lying in wait coiled around my happiness

the poison ivy of cynicism creeping through my veins

my thyrsus in hand, wand turned to weapon

the raging bull of my anger ready to charge.

Bacchus, do not look on my son with this drunk darkness

but rather with smiles and red-faced delight

do not tempt my child to the ruin I have suffered

but rather to understand you as a fickle god

the pleasures of your madness and ecstasy as transient

wine as occasional and brilliant as music and dance

a fleeting beauty, not a permanent scar.

I honour you with this drinking vessel

adorned with vines and fig trees

your hopeful symbols of life and joy

given to my child so he may always remember you

I leave wine in this bowl in dedication of you

freshly-harvested corn for the eternal feast

accept my sacrifices, Bacchus.

Hear my prayer, Vesta

goddess of hearth and home

I seal my words with you

with the intensity of sacred fire:

may the future for my son

be not one of struggle and strife

but of harmony with Bacchus.

Corinium Cockerel

I knew I had to write a poem on the Corinium Cockerel – the artefact is truly beautiful, and its backstory is tragic and intriguing. It’s the kind of object you want to reach out to and hold with your hands, and I can imagine that being especially true for a child. As it was buried in a child’s grave, it must have been loved by them – and the child in turn loved by the family.

To see the cockerel and hear Dan’s poem, click here.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Go, cockerel: I send you away from my household

and into the next world with my child

she, who was so fond of you in life

demanding to hold and play with you

at every moment of the day

from her waking cry at first light

to her softly-breathing sleep at night.

In some ways you are alive

animated by the craft of the bronze-worker

his hands shaping the prideful curve of breast and wing

the definite fix of comb and wattle

the lively detail of eye and beak

but it was my child who – like some infant Pygmalion –

breathed life into you through her love.

And yet more than this – we all gave you spirit:

in the hollow of your back you hold memories

household stories of a mother’s love

everyday moments of a father’s affection

sounds of siblings’ teasing and laughter

the clash and clatter of an entire household

turning our villa inside out, trying to find you when lost.

The dark shade of night’s sky lightens to deep blue

after this profoundly long and severe night

and I remember that you are Mercury’s creature:

heralding the coming of the light with a cry of triumph

a message from the gods that a new day is here

that we mortals are not forgotten by the gods

hope rising as surely – and slowly – as the sun.

Speak for me now, you who may speak freely with Mercury

tell him of my child who can no longer see that light

nor feel the first touch of Sol’s warmth

put my anguish into your crowing

give voice to my grief where I can not

so that the gods may know

something of mortal suffering.

Tell Apollo that his medicine does not always work

and that Mors has eager teeth to take one so young

crow for her who can no longer cry

and charge Mercury to see her safe

in her passage to the afterlife

where I may see her again one day

holding you, cockerel, as I hold you now.

To find out more about Dan and his poetry, click here.

To hear Dan recite these poems, click here.

Try this at home! Recipes from the Roman Food Festival (30-31 May 2015)

Last weekend we had a great time tasting, sniffing and touching Roman food and food remains. For those of you who couldn’t make it, or for those who want more, here are recipes for some of the food from the festival.

Sampling some of these recipes at the festival.

Sampling some of these recipes at the festival.


Mulsum was a wine flavoured with spices and sweetened with honey, mixed in just before it was drunk. The taste is similar to mulled wine, but more watery.

  • 3 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 4 tbsp runny honey

Add all the ingredients to a large container or pitcher and stir well. Refrigerate for 24 hours to allow the spices to infuse, then remove the cinnamon stick and cloves. Serve warm or chilled

This will make about 4 cups and can be stored in a refrigerator for up to 5 days.

If you are using a thick honey, you may need to blend the wine, water and honey before adding in the spices.

Simon's 'Marcham Mulsum' - are these the modern equivalent of amphorae?

Simon’s ‘Marcham Mulsum’ – are these the modern equivalent of amphorae?


Moretum is the name given to a dish prepared in a mortarium or grinding bowl – like a modern pestle and mortar. It is often made of fresh cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar and is very similar to what we call pesto. Virgil, a Roman poet, even wrote a poem dedicated to moretum.

  • 1 small head of lettuce
  • 100g fresh mint
  • 50 g fresh parsley
  • 200 g ricotta cheese
  • Pepper
  • 1 small leek/celery
  • 50 g coriander seeds
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • Vinegar
  • Olive oil

Process all the ingredients in a food processor – or to be more authentic, in a pestle and mortar.

You can use this as a dip with celery and carrot sticks. You could also spread it on Roman bread – for a recipe, click here.



Libum was a special kind of cake used as an offering to the gods that was sweetened with honey. The recipe comes from Cato (De Agricultura 75), but the cakes are also mentioned by Roman poets, like Ovid.

  • 1 cup spelt flour
  • 8 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 beaten egg
  • ½ cup clear honey
  • Bay leaves

Grease a baking tray and cover with the bay leaves. Beat the cheese until smooth. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Slowly add the flour to the beaten cheese and egg. Gather up the dough and gently form into a round ball (for one large cake) or into small balls (for smaller cakes). Place the ball(s) directly onto the bay leaves. Bake in a hot oven (425F/200C/gas mark 7) for c 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and score . Warm the honey and pour over the cake(s). Serve warm.

Simon and the Trendles Project with their foodstuffs ready for sampling!

Simon and the Trendles Project with their foodstuffs ready for sampling!

These recipes were cooked and selected for the festival by Simon Blackmore, who is one of the Trendles Project team. We are very grateful to Simon and the Trendles Project for sharing their food with us! To find out more about the Trendles Project, visit their website.

Millet in the Roman Diet

“If you want to waste your time, scatter millet and pick it up again” (moram si quaeres, sparge miliu[m] et collige)

A proverb scratched on a column in the peristyle of the House of M. Holconius Rufus (VIII.4.4) at Pompeii (Jashemski et al. 2002, 137).

Looking for the evidence of millet, a generic term for a large group of small seeded-grasses, that includes both Setaria italia (L.) P. Beauv. and Panicum miliaceum L., used during the Roman empire, circa 753 BC–610 AD, presents a number of challenges. Millets are only mentioned a handful of times in the ancient surviving texts, there are only a few well-documented preserved archaeological finds of millet and limited scientific evidence, including archaeobotanical (ancient preserved plant remains) and isotopic evidence (based upon plants using either C3 and C4 photosynthesis). All these lines of evidence are problematic in terms of their representativeness but together they offer a more complete glimpse into the growing understanding of millet and its use and importance in the Roman world.

In other plant taxa it may be problematic to attribute specific botanical species to ancient Greek and Latin names as it is difficult to trace the ancient version of the plant through to modern times. However, this is not the case with Panicum miliaceum or common millet as it has been recovered dating back to the end of the third millennium BC on European archaeological sites (Boivin et al. 2012; Dalby 2003, p. 99; Valamoti 2013) and Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv or commonly known as Italian millet has been cultivated since the Bronze Age circa 2000 BC in Europe (Jashemski et al. 2002, p. 162). The wild progenitor or ancestor of foxtail millet, Setaria viridis (L.) P. Beauv, is well identified and shows clear morphological affinities with, and can interbreed with domesticated Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv. (De Wet et al. 1979, p. 53; Zohary et al. 2012, p. 71).

Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Fig 1: Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Millet is most commonly known in ancient times as being used for fodder to feed livestock and other domesticated animals including birds (see Figure 1). However, millet was also eaten by humans. Millet can be boiled and made into a porridge or ground into a flour and made into a heavy flat bread. The Romans probably did both with it. From the writing of the ancient Greek physician and author Philotimus, we know that one way of preparing millet involved being ‘pounded when raw, ground finely and, after some water has been poured on, it is pounded once again, strained, boiled’ (Oribasius I.15.2).

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Based upon the ancient texts it appears that millet was not the Romans’ favourite or first choice of flour for making bread with but it also wasn’t discarded by the Romans. For example, the presence of millet within the majority of properties with Insula VI.I and other elite houses within the city of Pompeii suggests that millet may have been consumed by the wealthy Roman owners and their servants and slaves. We now know that millets are rich in carbohydrates but poorer in digestible proteins than other cereals making it an excellent appetite satisfier to fend off hunger (Spurr 1986). Thus, common and Italian millet could have been used by the Romans in place of other cereal grains to make and/or bulk up breads and porridges, particularly in times of food shortages or crop failures in an to attempt to satisfy a starving stomach. Practically, millet filled a very useful place in the Roman diet. Millet was cheap to purchase and easy to grown alongside both summer and winter crops. Millet could have helped to hedge against famine in terms of its ability to grow in a wide range of less than ideal agricultural environments. This would have been a very important trait in an unpredictable agrarian world that was quickly exhausting its agricultural farmland (Fraser and Rimas 2010). As the ancient author Strabo (5.1.12) advised, ‘millet is the greatest preventive of famine, since it withstands every unfavourable weather, and can never fail, even though there be scarcity of every other grain’.

Traditional Roman foods were considered ones that the small farmer could grow cheaply on their small plots of land to sustain their families which included millets, pulses and vegetables. Millets were grown in Europe since the Bronze Age and possessed a hardy nature, capable of growing when and where other crops failed. These intrinsic attributes of common and Italian millet’s nature tie-in with traditional Roman values, connecting Romans with their perceived past as a conservative, hardy agrarian people living off the land. Based upon limited ritual evidence, common and Italian millet were likely traditional Roman foods that continued to be offered to the gods. Hence, common and Italian millet appear to fit into the model of the conflicted Roman psyche of traditional agrarian values and the reality of expanding new frontiers and increasing influx of foreign foods and ideas within the empire.

Thus, the evidence for millet reveals that millet was part of the Roman dietary assemblage, to varying degrees, throughout the Roman empire. Based upon the limited evidence to date it looks like millet consumption within Roman society was a more complex issue than the ancient sources alone would lead one to believe and millet consumption was closely tied to Roman social, economic and cultural values (Killgrove and Tykot 2013, p. 36). As more data is collected it is suspected that millets’ reputation and usefulness in the ancient world will become clearer and millets will move beyond being regarded simply as animal fodder.

 Charlene Murphy, UCL


Boivin N, Fuller D, Crowther A (2012) Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast. World Archaeol 44(3):452–469

Dalby A (2003) Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. Routledge, London

De Wet JMJ, Oestry-Stidd LL, Cubero JI (1979) Origins and evolution of foxtail millets (Setaria italica). J Agric Tradit Bot Appl 26(1):53–64

Fraser EDG, Rimas A (2010) Empires of food: feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Free Press, New York

Jashemski, WF (2002) The Vesuvian sites before A.D 79: the archaeological, literary, and epigraphical evidence. In: Jashemski WF, Meyer FG (ed.) The natural history of Pompeii. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 6–28, chap. 2

Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, Stirling L, Lazreg, NB (2009) Stable isotopic evidence for diet in a Roman and Late Roman population from Leptiminus, Tunisia. J Archaeol Sci 36:51–63

Killgrove K, Tykot RH (2013) Food for Rome: a stable isotope investigation of diet in the imperial period (1st–3rd centuries AD). J Anthropol Archaeol 32:28–38

Murphy, C (2015) Finding Millet in the Roman world. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. DOI 10.1007/s12520-015-0237-4.

Murphy, C, Thompson, G and Fuller, DQ (2013) Rubbish, Refuse and the Romans, the Archaeobotanical Assemblage of Insula VI.I, Pompeii. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22 (5), 409-419. doi:10.1007/s00334-012-0385-8

Murphy, C (2011) Pompeii, A Changing City, the Archaeobotanical Analysis of Insula VI.I. Unpublished PhD thesis, Institute of Archaeology, UCL.

Spurr MS (1986) Arable cultivation in Roman Italy c. 200 BC–c. AD 100. Journal of Roman studies, monograph no. 3. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, London

Valamoti SM (2013) Millet, the late comer: on the tracks of Panicum miliaceum in prehistoric Greece. Archaeol Anthropol Sci. doi:10.1007/s12520-013-0152-5

Zohary D, Hopf M, Weiss E (2012) Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of cultivated plants in west Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley, 4th edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Ancient Sources

Oribasius (1997) Dieting for an emperor: a translation of books 1 and 4 of Oribasius’ Medical compilations. Brill, Leiden

Strabo (1924) In: Jones HL (ed) The Geography of Strabo. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

The place of plants in pre-Islamic Saharan trade: cultivation and consumption of plant foods by the Garamantes

The Garamantes, a tribal group who occupied Fazzan, southern Libya from c900BC to  AD500, held a strategically important position within a complex trade network linking sub-Saharan and east Africa with the Mediterranean and Nile valley.  Through contact with diverse cultural groups they evolved agricultural, material, burial and building traditions which reflect both their desert origins and their trading links. Plant remains and artefacts associated with food and consumption recovered during the Fazzan Project , particularly excavations at the ancient capital of Garama (Old Garma), led by David Mattingly of Leicester University, indicate that this ‘fusion’ culture can also be seen in the agricultue and diet of the population.

Aerial view of excavations at Garma showing the final Garamantian phases . (Copyright Toby Savage)

Settled agricultural communities emerged in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, with a material culture evolved locally from the preceding late pastoral Neolithic period. The crops cultivated were more Mediterranean in character: emmer wheat, barley, and a small amount of bread type wheat, as well as the fruits grapes and figs. Dates, which are more suited to the desert oasis environment, were also cultivated, but may have been introduced to the region somewhat earlier (dates have been found in late pastoral Neolithic graves). Crops were probably grown in small garden plots, likely to have been regularly heaped with manure, perhaps with shade provided by the date palms, and irrigated by water, possible drawn from wells.

Towards the end of the first millennium cultural and archaeobotanical evidence indicates a new wave of influences, contemporary with the emergence of complex trading societies both north and south of the Sahara (Greek and Phoenician settlements, the beginnings of the Kingdom of Ghana, and city state of Djenné-Djenno, and the Kushite/Meroitic Kingdoms). The introduction of a new irrigation technique, foggara, originating from Persia and introduced via the Egyptian Oases, must have revolutionised arable production. Foggara technology enabled an increase in the speed water was taken to the fields and the area of land irrigated, as well as enabling year round cultivation and the introduction of two significant summer crops from sub-Saharan Africa: sorghum and pearl millet. Sorghum arrived in Nubia (southern Egypt/northern Sudan) at a similar time but appears to have been a different type to that found in Garamantian Fazzan, and which eventually evolved into the durra type grown both in Nubia and Fazzan today. Slaves may have been used to construct and maintain the new irrigation system and it is possible that they brought crops and associated artefacts with them. New pottery types included flat doka, ceramic platters which are thought to be associated with making flat, pancake type bread, and in Sudan are assumed to be associated with sorghum. The doka disappear from the site of Garama in the Islamic period when bread ovens started to appear, suggesting a change in bread technology associated perhaps with new social influences. Quern stones were flat, saddle quern types, and are found on both settlement sites and within burials, suggesting a particular significance. Other cultural evidence for sub-Saharan contacts include a lip plug found in the grave of a young woman. From the Mediterranean region Punic beads and Punic/Hellenistic amphora have been found on settlement sites, indicating the import of consumable goods. Graves were marked by upright stone stele and offering tables, which may have contained food.


Agriculture in Fazzan: adding manure to garden plots (top) and irrigating winter cereals (bottom). Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (left) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (right) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (bottom) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (top) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.


The 1st and 2nd centuries AD represent the high point of Garamantian society, coinciding with the maximum extent and wealth of the Roman Empire as well as the flourishing of sub-Saharan kingdoms. It is likely that the Garamantes grew wealthy due to their access to water and strategic geographical position at the centre of a complex trading network which took gold, salt, slaves and wild animals (and later cotton and rice) to the north, and consumable goods like oil and wine as well as ceramics, glassware and worked jewellery, to Fazzan, and maybe beyond. In this period large quantities of imported vessels appear in both grave assemblages and on settlement sites: amphorae, glassware, sigilata, oil lamps and more utilitarian ceramic coarse-wares.  Rotary querns appear for the first time, initially imported basaltic lava examples, soon replaced by locally produced sandstone versions. Deep mortars also emerge, better suited to pounding millets and other small seeds, as well as non-food items. New food crops which appear include imported fruits such as pomegranate, almond and cucumber or melon (the seeds are difficult to distinguish if preservation is poor). A new wheat type, durum wheat, appears which is the variety associated with pasta and couscous. Fish bones of Mediterranean origin have even been recovered, perhaps imported with garum fish paste. Camel also appears at this time, while large deposits of seeds of wild, thorny shrubs only usually consumed by camels, suggest some tethering or stabling of the animals within the settlement. Ceramic fine-wares were mostly recovered from grave assemblages, often accompanied by quern stones (rotary and saddle querns), glass, amphorae, and oil lamps, perhaps related to the funerary rite. Stele and offering tables continue to mark the graves. In contrast the ceramics from within the settlement sites tend to be of more utilitarian imported coarse-ware as well as locally produced pots. New types of coarse-ware include casseroles and saucepans with lids. It is tempting to suggest a link with the introduction of durum wheat and perhaps a development of more sauce based couscous type dishes.

Towards the end of the Garamantian period the population and the wealth of imported goods declined. The range of exotic imported fruits dwindled and sorghum disappears from the archaeobotanical record. Interestingly cotton, a crop first domesticated in the Indian sub-continent, but also possibly domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, appears in the archaeobotanical record during the later phases of the Roman Empire, perhaps to fill demand for cotton cloth at a time when the decline in global trade networks reduced the availability of imported Indian cloth. The disappearance of sorghum could be related to the reduction in sorghum growing population, particularly if it was associated with sub-Saharan slaves. When sorghum was reintroduced in the post-medieval period it was the durra type, which may have evolved in Nubia, and which is today known by its variety name ‘durra’, suggesting both name and crop were late introductions. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum is not today cultivated as a bread grain or beer, but is more commonly use as animal feed, or a snack food (as pop-corn) or occasionally mixed with barley flour to produce bazeen, a flour, salt and water paste, eaten with meat and gravy. This is typical of a late adoption of a crop or food type into a pre-existing culinary tradition, rather that its introduction as part of a new cuisine or with a migrating population.

Ruth Pelling, Historic England

This discussion draws on a range of specialist and archaeological evidence generated by the project team, all of which is published in a series of volumes:


Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2003. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 1, Synthesis. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2007. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 2, Gazetteer, Pottery and Other Finds. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2010. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 3, Excavations of C.M. Daniels. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2014. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 4, Survey and Excavations at Old Jarma (Ancient Garama) carried out by C. M. Daniels (1962–69) and the Fazzān Project (1997–2001). The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Wasting Perfume on Lentils

Consumption of perfume was widespread in Roman society. However, the use of aromatics was not just restricted to bodily application and other external processes, but they also made their way into Roman dietary habits. One would, however, hardly consider pouring Brut – or the latest offering from Chanel – on to morning porridge. Adding essential oils into one’s evening meal would probably prompt a look of concern from even the most open-minded foodie. What, then, were Roman perfumes and why might they be suited to adding to food? Before we begin to examine different dishes to which the Romans may have added perfume, it is important to discuss the Roman concept of perfume and compare it to our modern reality.

Modern perfume substrates (the vehicle for the scent) are commonly alcohols which evaporate after application on the skin, clothing or when dispensed. Distillation, at least for use in chemistry, was not invented until the Islamic period and later spread to the medieval west. The Romans, however, following Greek precedent used oils as perfume substrates. Any fine, light and delicately scented oil was deemed particularly useful for this purpose.


Based upon the perfume recipes in Pliny’s Natural History and the On Odours by Theophrastus we can see that some particularly well regarded oils were extracted from the ben or behen nut, castor and a form of high quality oil called omphacium, which was pressed from immature green olives and, less certainly, grapes (Amouretti 1986; Brun 2000). It is also clear that perfumes could be made using animal fat substrates. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence for all of these processes has, to date, eluded us.

Roman compound perfumes (unguenta) were rather greasy compared to modern perfumes and thus have rather more in common with ointments, salves and, using a term more at home in the Victorian period, unguents. An understanding of their nature makes their use in food perhaps less shocking, but what flavour would they be trying to impart?

The scent profile of Roman perfumes was nearly always floral or, at least plant based. Rose (probably the damask), iris, jasmine, cypress, lily and myrtle are all commonly named ingredients in the recipes given Pliny and Theophrastus. Colourants and fixatives could also be added depending on the desired viscosity and colour of the end product. The scent was imparted by heating the oil/fat (hot enfleurage) and any additional ingredients or by leaving it to steep (cold enfleurage). In a similar manner to an infusion of tea into water, the hotter the substance the quicker this diffusion occurs.

Experimental perfume recreation, Castel et al. 2012

Experimental perfume recreation, Castel et al. 2012

In three recipes in Mark Grant’s compilation of Roman recipes, Roman Cookery (Grant 2008), there are examples of flowers being added directly to food. The references to the ancient texts are not given here but Grant’s book is fully referenced and includes suggestions for modern kitchens. One recipe is from Bassus (a 10th C compiler of earlier recipes), which details the production of a rose honey (rhodomeli) which is made by simply adding rose petals to honey. Another is a beef casserole (carnes vaccinae – from the 5th-6th centuries) to which spikenard is added – a privileged perfume ingredient according to Pliny. The dried stigmas of the crocus, saffron, were also added to chickpeas with salt (erebinthoi knakosymmigeis in Greek) in order to prepare a rather subtle yet rich dish. Saffron perfumes (unguenta), moreover, were a particular pet peeve, and a symbol of problematic luxury, in many of Cicero’s speeches. Flowers and flower extracts, then, were clearly added to food, but what about compound perfumes?

Chickpeas and saffron from modern Moroccan cooking

Chickpeas and saffron from modern Moroccan cooking

The post’s title refers to a literary topos, or commonplace, from Roman literature; the pouring of perfume (Myron/myrum – an unguent or sweet smelling oil) on to lentils. This phrase becomes a proverb not for profligacy – that perfume is wasted on lentils – but for incongruity (Pearson 1963). This proverb is rarely explained and indeed it is humorously used by Cicero to suggest that Lentulus (lenticula/lens being Latin for Lentil – a pun!) was unfit for a certain duty in the same way that perfume and lentils do not suit. It seems then, that certain specific flowers were considered more suitable for culinary use than perfumed concoctions.


Simple floral perfumes were, perhaps, more likely to make their way in to cooking but our evidence is incredibly scant. If flowers were added to food, as is suggested above, the use of simple flower infused oils in delicate dishes does not seem absurd. One is instantly reminded of the way in which we use infused oils and sugars in modern cooking and baking.

Although, a final ‘take-home’ note might be a reminder to heed the words of Strattis (in a parody of Euripides – Pearson 1963: 178): “When cooking lentils, don’t pour perfume on.”

Tom Derrick, University of Leicester

Ancient Sources:

Cicero, Letters to Atticus

Pliny, Natural History.

Theophrastus, On Odours.

Modern Sources:

Amouretti, M.C. 1986. Le pain e l’huile dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Brun, 2000. The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum. American Journal of Archaeology 110: 419-472.

Grant, M. 2008. Roman Cookery – Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. Revised ed. London: Serif.

Pearson, L. 1963. Perfume on Lentils. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 176-184.

Food for Thought Exhibition: Installation Day 3

Today began much more smoothly with no transportation hiccups. In the morning, Miranda Creswell and I installed her ‘Chop Marks’ exhibit. The exhibit comprises a set of modern, used chopping boards (including one of mine!) on which Miranda has responded to the chop marks in her drawings of imagined landscapes. We also did a trial run of Heather’s projection, which shows objects that we weren’t able to include in the exhibition – happy to say, it all works. In my opinion, both ‘Chop Marks’ and the projection add some lovely texture to the exhibition. We then spent the rest of the afternoon doing the finishing touches, ready (nearly) for our preview tomorrow evening.

Miranda, making sure that 'Chop Marks' is looking its best.

Miranda, making sure that ‘Chop Marks’ is looking its best.

Any measures to make sure everything is hanging correctly!

Any measures to make sure everything is hanging correctly!

Food objects have many uses - here my upside-down (modern) pie dish makes for a very handy projector prop.

Food objects have many uses – here my upside-down (modern) pie dish makes for a very handy projector prop.

Numbering the exhibits - these little stickers are surprisingly fiddly and difficult to get straight.

Numbering the exhibits – these little stickers are surprisingly fiddly and difficult to get straight.

Case labels waiting to take their place in the exhibition.

Case labels waiting to take their place in the exhibition.

And my final job of the day - touching up the paintwork.

And my final job of the day – touching up the paintwork.

If you would like to know more about Miranda’s art, you can follow her on twitter:


and read her blog at:

Food for Thought Exhibition: Installation Day 2

Today did not start well – Heather’s car wouldn’t start and Lisa was stuck on a train with a flat tyre (!). We battled on, however, and by the end of the day we had made lots of progress. While I was out collecting Lisa from the train station, James and Dan hung our panels. When we had everyone together in the museum, we then continued installing the rest of the objects, using material from Corinium Museum’s stores and from the University of Reading’s Silchester Insula IX Townlife project. Dan also spent some time planning his gallery talk on learning about food from Roman pottery, which will be on 21st May, and gathering food memories from the staff of the museum to hang on our memory trees.

Yay! Against the odds, Heather and Lisa have both made it to the museum!

Yay! Against the odds, Heather and Lisa have both made it to the museum!

Lisa adding some seeds from Silchester to the 'How do we know about Roman food?' case.

Lisa adding some seeds from Silchester to the ‘How do we know about Roman food?’ case.

Our memory trees, already filling up with people's food memories. The trees are both olive trees, which were grown widely around the Mediterranean during the Roman period.

Our memory trees, already filling up with people’s food memories. The trees are both olive trees, which were grown widely around the Mediterranean during the Roman period.

What food memory will you share with us? If you can't come to the exhibition ,you could tweet us @NotJustDormice

What food memory will you share with us? If you can’t come to the exhibition, you could tweet us @NotJustDormice