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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.

Pining after pine nuts

The growing popularity of pesto in recent years means pine nuts are now a common food in the UK. Pine nuts are also used in many Mediterranean dishes, such as eastern Mediterranean dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), Lebanese kibbeh  (raw meat and bulgur wheat) and Syrian kofta mabrouma (minced lamb and pine nuts) – see Laura Mason’s wonderful book Pine for many other recipes.

Nuts from any type of pine tree can be eaten, but traditionally it is the nuts from Stone or Umbrella pines (Pinus pinea L.) which are eaten in the Mediterranean. The stone pine is not a domesticated tree. So every year from October to March, pine cones are harvested from wild forests. The cones are left outside to ripen in the sun, before being beaten to remove the nuts. To cope with the huge demand, machines are now used to shake off the pine cones and to crush them to extract the nuts. Due to the huge global demands for them, many of the pine nuts sold in supermarkets come from other pines grown in China, such as the Chinese white pine.

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Pine nuts were a common ingredient in the Apician recipes. Some of these are sweet dishes such as almond and semolina pudding (Apicius 2.2.10) or pine nut and honey pudding (Apicius 7.11.5). But pine nuts were also used in patinas (thick omelettes), faggots, sauces for meat and fish, and even stuffed kidneys. How about trying out this recipe for poached eggs with pine-nut sauce, over at Pass the Garum.

Finding archaeological evidence to show who was eating  nutty foods like these in the Roman period is unfortunately not straight forward. The kernels are so soft, that they rarely survive charring. However, the pine nut shell does preserve well. So well in fact, that individual nutshells and whole cones have been recovered from many sites in the Roman world. The problem is, many of these finds are not from the typical domestic context – refuse pits, hearths, dumps of broken pottery and kitchen debris, but from offering pits in temples, cremations and alongside other “ritually deposited” items in wells.

To start off with the definite food finds, charred pine nuts have been found from military forts and major towns like Colchester and London in Roman Britain. A few rural dwellers in southern Britain were also eating pine nuts, such as those living on the Isle of Thanet, the small town at Springhead (both in Kent) and at Fullerton Villa in Hampshire. Pine nutshells are found at the same range of sites in north-western Europe. Over in Italy, pine nuts have been found amongst other food refuse (fig pips, grape pips, cereal grains) at Regio VI, Insula 1, Pompeii.

Pinus pinea kernels

Turning to the ritual finds, the most obvious examples are from temples. Intact stone pine cones were found in the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrians Wall and the London Mithraeum. More often, broken up and charred remains of pine cones are found, such as at the Triangular Temple in Verulamium and the Temple of Isis in Mainz. These probably came from pine cones being used as incense or offerings to the gods. Pine nuts have also been identified from cremation burials, both in northern Italy and London.

Other finds of stone pine cones are more difficult to assign as “food” or “ritual” remains, and of course we know that there was no clear separation between these categories. For instance, at a Military annex at Orton’s Pasture in Staffordshire, broken up nutshells and bracts were found in a pit, which initially looked like the left overs from a tasty pine nut snack. However, the only pits to contain pine nuts (and also dates) were in one area of the enclosure, close to where an altar was deposited. Another example is an intact pine cone that was found in a waterhole at the edge of an enclosure at a rural farmstead outside Cirencester (Claydon Pike), but with very few artefacts to indicate how the pine cone got there. In contrast, amongst some Early Roman buildings at 1 Poultry (The City, London), several pine cones were found in and around a water tank, alongside other food waste (coriander seeds, grapes pips), but also a Venus figurine. Maybe this material was from ritualistic activities in the Walbrook valley?

Pine cone

Pine cone from Claydon Pike, near Cirencester – on display in the Corinium museum!

The special significance of stone pine cones is revealed through a wealth of material culture. The most obvious example is this Roman tombstone found near a fort in Cumbria. The tombstone was for a soldier’s daughter, and shows a women reclining on a dining couch. A pine cone is in the top right hand corner, as a symbol of rebirth. Replica pine cones made from terracotta have also been found at some sites in Roman Britain, such as at Roman villas at Rapsley (Surrey) and Witcombe (Gloucestershire). Pine cones also appear as steelyard weights, and on fountains.

Kirkby Thore tombstone.  Copyright British Musem.

Kirkby Thore tombstone. Copyright British Museum.

Beyond food and ritual offerings, literary evidence gives us another use of pine nuts – as aphrodisiacs. Galen suggested that taking a combination of almonds, honey and pine nut on three consecutive evenings would have the desired effect. The demand for pine cones, for ritual offerings, food and other uses, meant that they were traded across the empire. A first century BC shipwreck off of Toulon, southern France, contained 61 pine cones. At the other end of the empire, pine cones have been found at quarry settlements in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

Next time you have pasta and pesto, take a moment to think about how pine nuts were used in the past.


Grocock, C.W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text. Tonnes: Prospect.

Lodwick, L. 2015. Identifying ritual deposition of plant remains: a case study of Stone Pine cones in Roman Britain, pp. 54-69. In Brindle, T., Allen, M., Durham, E. and Smith, A. TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Mason, L. 2013. Pine. London: Reaktion Books.

Mutke, S. et al. 2012. Mediterranean Stone Pine: botany and horticulture. Horticultural Review 39: 153-201.

Evidence for Roman eating and drinking from the Mola database

I’ve blogged before on this site about my ongoing PhD research into “Big Data” and evidence for Roman food recovered during developer-funded archaeological work in England, as part of the EngLaId Project based at the University of Oxford, and I thought I’d post a quick update now, as I’ve recently come into possession of an amazing new data-set courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) and the excellent archaeologists who work there, including particularly Karen Stewart.

I think it’s fair to say that the database produced by developer-funded archaeological work in England is still an under-used resource, particularly in academia and the reasons for this are no doubt varied and complex. There is no space in a short blog to go into these reasons in depth; however, I think that among the main reasons is the fragmented nature of the sector, with many different organisations carrying out the work, and particularly the reliance on freelance specialists to carry out much of the finds specialist work upon which our knowledge of eating and drinking in the past relies. One consequence of this fragmentation is the great diversity of ways in which digital data is stored and managed, with specialists often tailoring their finds databases to the needs of individual projects.

At Mola though, things are a little different. Again the reasons may be complex and, I suspect, relate to the scale and complexity of the organisation, but at Mola all finds, and indeed context data is stored in a single database that includes information on all of the different finds recovered from at least 11,000 sites, some of which were excavated as long ago as 1915. The result is an incredibly flexible tool for research, which has already been used to do some fantastic work on food, including a study of the fishing industry and fish consumption in medieval London (Orton et al. 2014), which makes use of anatomical data and detailed chronological information to link changes in the nature of commercial fishing to changes in the anatomical elements present in deposits of cod remains.

The data that I’ve extracted from the Mola database relates to the period between 1500BC and AD1086 (the period covered by the EngLaId project) which covers the long period between the first wide spread permanent settlement and the origins of the modern settlement pattern. These data falls into four main categories: context data, ceramics, animal bones and charred plant remains and the idea is to plot changes in these data, both chronologically and spatially using GIS and to see (among other things) whether data analysed on this scale changes our understanding of Roman food consumption and particularly what was carried over from the Iron Age and what continued into the early medieval period. I haven’t yet crunched the numbers in a sufficiently detailed way to report on my analysis – but when I have I’ll be posting another blog on Food For Thought to let everybody know how it went. Hopefully, the results will be interesting!

Figure 1: Distribution of Mola Sites



Orton, D C, Morris, J, Locker, A, and Barrett, J H, 2014 Fish for the city: meta analysis of archaeological cod remains and the growth of London’s northern trade, Antiquity, 88, 516-30.




Eating like a Roman: The 4D experience starts now!

I was sitting on the grass in one of the quadrangles at Wadham College in Oxford the other day, eating a nectarine, when I suddenly thought (as one is wont to do when they study Roman diet), “did the Romans have nectarines? What exactly are nectarines and where do they come from?” A quick Wikipedia search informed me that nectarines and peaches are in fact the same species (Prunus persica) and that due to a recessive allele, nectarines are simply fuzz-less peaches. We have archaeological evidence that demonstrates that the Roman ate peaches. There are wallpaintings from Pompeii showing peaches and waterlogged peach pits have been found at Roman sites throughout Italy (for some nice images of ancient peach pits see Sadori et al. 2009, available free online at Since the Romans had peaches it is possible that they also had nectarines, although unfortunately we can’t tell the difference from the pits alone.

Imagine a man in a toga or a woman in a stola, eating a peach. You may even imagine the man struggling to eat the peach without getting any of the juice onto his nice clean white toga. This series of blog posts is designed to paint a 4D picture of what it was like to eat like a Roman, and by 4D I mean to involve all your senses. What did the food taste like? What were the textures? The flavours? The smells? If you’re picturing a boring diet of bread, wine and lots and lots of fish sauce, then you’re in for a surprise. Recent archaeological, archaeobotanical (ancient plants) and archaeozoological (ancient animal bones) data, especially from Herculaneum, has shown us that they ate so much more.

Stay tuned for the first in this series: Going without (which I know sounds ironic, but keep faith!)


Wallpainting of peaches from Pompeii (AD62-79)