Ancient Eater: Archestratus, the OG (Original Gourmand) (Greek, 4th century BCE)

“Now the best [flour] to get ahold of and the finest of all, cleanly bolted from barley with a good grain, is in Lesbos…it is whiter than snow from the sky. If the gods eat barley groats, then Hermes must come and buy it for them there. In seven-gated Thebes too it is reasonably good, and in Thasos and some other cities, but it is like grape pips compared with that of Lesbos.” ~Archilochus, Hedypatheia
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The cryptic, idealized “Archaic smile” was a trademark of early Greek sculpture. This particular woman is clearly smiling because she read Archestratus and knows where to find the best food in Greece (or maybe she just got Sappho’s number). Photo by Xuan Che (2011)

Ancient Greek history is divided into a number of different periods, which represent a cultural flowering between periods of shift and disruption. The Greeks as a recognizable culture emerge around 1600 BCE, the Mycenaean Period. After the unknown catastrophes of the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks reemerge in the Archaic Period. Another great disruption (the Persian Wars) at the dawn of the fifth century BCE brings about the Classical Age.

Every period of Greek history has its famous writers: Homer, Sappho, Aristotle, etc, etc. Yet alongside these poets and philosophers is another writer whose work is less well-known, but whose influence is no less great: Archestratus. Contemporaries nicknamed him “Daedalus” after the mythological figure, but Archestratus was no genius inventor; he was a food critic. In fact, he is the earliest known.

THE FACTS

Archestratus was from Syracuse in modern Sicily, part of a region that has long been famous for its cuisine. The food of the Greek cities of southern Italy was so well-known that they are credited with establishing the first patents, protecting the recipes of master chefs as intellectual property. We don’t know whether Archestratus ever trained as a chef, but he certainly would have grown up in an environment that cherished and celebrated the power of good food.

Archestratus’ greatest work is the Hedypatheia or “Life of Luxury”, a poem that tells readers where to find the best food in Greece. The surviving fragments of his work reveal Archestratus as a highly educated, somewhat cantankerous man; someone with a love for hyperbole and strong opinions about everything. Just take the quote above about comparative flour-shopping, or the recipe below:

“Now the kitharos [a type of fish], provided it is white and firm, I order you to stew in clean salt water with a few green leaves. If it has a reddish/yellow appearance and is not too big, then you must bake it, having pricked its body with a straight and newly sharpened knife. And anoint it with plenty of cheese and oil, for it takes pleasure in big spenders and is unchecked in extravagance.”

Like many Greek writers, we don’t actually know much about Archestratus’s life, but his unique sensibilities ensured him a great but not entirely flattering legacy. To the Ancient Greeks, especially those of the mainland, diet was viewed as a signifier of character. Decent, honest Greeks ate simple, hearty meals. The Greeks of southern Italy, with their highly-developed culinary traditions, developed a reputation among other Greeks for being “soft” and unmanly. A famous joke has a native of the Italian city of Sybaris gagging at the plainness of Spartan cuisine and remarking, “now I know why the Spartans do not fear death.”

THE FOOD

Archestratus, with his love of comparing different foods and reveling in “unchecked extravagance”, was often regarded as a morally suspect glutton, on par with the worst stereotypes of his native city and even foreign “barbarians” like the Carthaginians or the Persians, who were also mocked by the Greeks for their obsession with food. A stock character in Greek comic theater–the snooty professional chef whose opinions on food are as elitist as they are unshakeable–is almost certainly meant to lampoon him. Critics compared Life of Luxury with a controversial sex manual written by the courtesan Philaenis. The connection? Both texts that might corrupt readers into naughty, indulgent behavior (the Greeks were, after all, the people who invented the saying “everything in moderation“).

That Archestratus should even be interested in the “best food in Greece” hints at the great diversity surrounding him. Not least among the differences between Greek cities was their taste in food. In the fish recipe quoted above, Archestratus alludes to the fact that he and other Greeks of the western colonies put melted cheese on fish; a custom which mainland Greeks lamented as ruining the flavor. These cultural divisions within Greece go back a long time, to the development of Greek cities as independent nations back in the Mycenaean Period. The constant battle for resources in the harsh environment of Bronze Age Greece led the first Greeks to turn inwards. Each city bristled against its neighbors and worked to bind its own population together, encouraging communal rituals like dining that helped the people work as a unit and support one another. From a basic need for stability grew elaborate ritualized meals, like the lively entertainments of the symposium, or the syssitia, the mandatory shared “military mess” of Spartan men. And the more the people of a Greek city ate together, the more they developed a shared culture unique to themselves.

By Archestratus’ lifetime, the encroaching predations of the Persian Empire had long-since forced the Greeks to band together politically, but the old differences were still there. Well beyond the Classical Period, they are a prominent source of comedic material in a text called the Deipnosophistae (“The Philosopher’s Dinner”). In this culinary text dating some seven hundred years after Archestratus’ death, many jokes are made about the differing vocabulary across dialects and the varied culinary tastes of the Greeks. When one Greek proclaims ray the tastiest fish, another replies “yes, if you like eating a boiled cloak.”  Through the lens of food culture, Archestratus captured the cultural spirit of his time.

Ancient Eaters: Elagabalus, the Roman Doctor Frank-N-Furter (203-222 CE)

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To a Roman, Elagabalus’s mustache was one of many characteristics that marked him as a foreigner (and to me, definitely reads as a teenage boy trying to appear grown up). Photo by Carole Raddato (2015)

Higgledy-piggledy, Heliogabalus
Lurched through the Forum, his
Bottom a-wag.

Vainly pretending to
Gynecological
Matters beneath his
Imperial drag 

~Anonymous “double dactyl” poem

If any figure in Roman history could be summed up by the phrase “don’t dream it, be it,” it would be Elagabalus. Also called Heliogabalus, he was Emperor of Rome for just four years in the third century, from the age of 14 until his assassination at 18. Despite his youth and short reign, he managed to develop a reputation for debauchery and excess that makes his predecessors Caligula and Nero look like Buddhist monks. In a long parade of mad tyrants, matricides and horse-lovers, Elagabalus stands out as maybe the wildest Roman Emperor ever. That is, if any of the stories about him are true.

Roman histories tell us that Elagabalus spent all his time and money on lavish entertainments, including elaborate dinner parties. At one of these affairs, guests could expect up to 22 courses, with a menu of everything expensive and rare. Tables were piled high with such delicacies as camel’s heels, peacock tongues and ostrich brains (600 at one banquet alone), not to mention “peas with gold-pieces…and rice with pearls.” The boy-Emperor took a hands-on approach to party-planning, choosing each element carefully for its sensory impact. “He gave summer-banquets in various colours, one day a green banquet, another day an iridescent one, and next in order a blue one, varying them continually every day of the summer“, while the fish that he ate were cooked in a bluish sauce that preserved their natural colour, as though they were still in the sea-water.” At some parties guests could get in on the fun, as when “he would propose…that they should invent new sauces for giving flavour to the food, and he would offer a very large prize for the man whose invention should please him, even presenting him with a silk garment.”

Recipe contests were just one of the many entertainments Elagabalus devised for his dinner guests, some of which came at their expense. Once he smothered a group of diners beneath an avalanche of rose petals. On several occasions, he unleashed wolves and leopards on people without telling them the animals were tame and harmless. And in between terrorizing his own parties, the teenage Emperor managed to fit in various other crimes, from cross-dressing and sexual deviancy to corruption and blasphemy, as though working his way through a checklist of everything offensive to Ancient Roman sensibilities.

THE FACTS

Most of the wild stories about Elagabalus come from Cassius Dio’s Roman History and the multi-authored Augustan History, sources we should take with a hearty helping of salt. Both were written well after the young Emperor’s death and sponsored by enemies of his family. One scholarly analysis determined that only 24% of the Life of Elagabalus section in the Augustan History is reliable historical fact. While Elagabalus was certainly an unpopular Emperor, the real reasons behind his unpopularity were far less outrageous than the sources tell us. Constructed from a handful of reliable crumbs, the true story runs as follows:

Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, first cousin once-removed of the Emperor of Rome, enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the city of Emesa (modern Homs, Syria). The ruling class to which his family belonged was of Roman origin but had adopted Syrian culture. Varius’s native language was Aramaic, and he was raised to worship a local god named El-Gabbal, the Lord of the Mountain, eventually serving as the god’s high priest. When the political scheming of his grandmother and mother led to his being declared Emperor, Varius brought his faith with him to Rome as only a melodramatic teenager could. He had the sacred black meteorite of El-Gabbal enshrined in a grand new temple and demanded the Roman people worship the Lord of the Mountain above all other gods. He later tried to unite the Roman gods to his own through a symbolic marriage ritual, but in the eyes of his subjects the damage had been done, and the Emperor’s popularity plummeted. His power-hungry family decided he was a liability and moved swiftly to replace him with his more tractable and predictable cousin. The eighteen-year old once called Varius was assassinated in a plot organized by his own grandmother. Worship of El-Gabbal in Rome ended with his death.

The story of Elagabalus tells us a lot about how the Roman people saw him as well as how they saw themselves. The Romans were not pleased to have an Emperor who considered himself more Syrian than Roman. They were even less pleased when he tried to impose his Syrian god on them. Elagabalus, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is the Latinized form of El-Gabbal, but he never called himself by that name. After his death, the boy-emperor was so strongly associated with his foreign religion that Romans started using the name of his god to refer to him. It was his foreignness of dress and worship, his being from “the East”, that made the Romans hate Elagabalus. The outlandish stories about him are, at their heart, born of racist Roman stereotypes of Easterners. Opulent and hedonistic. Effeminate and weak, yet also cruel and merciless. Weird sex habits, weird religion, weird clothes and weird food.

THE FOOD

The tall tales of Elagabalus simultaneously draw on the Romans’ worst fears about foreigners and present an exaggeration of typical Roman patrician behavior. The Roman upper classes really did serve food and drink imported from far-off places (such as flamingo) as a means of impressing their guests and displaying their wealth in being able to obtain it. Perhaps no Emperor ever actually mixed gold with his peas, but costly dried spices brought in from Asia were the culinary equivalent.

Various Roman sources demonstrate an interest among the upper classes in food as entertainment, and food accompanied by entertainment. In the comedic Satyricon, sausages and cakes spill out from the belly of a whole roasted pig, to the delight of the audience, while the cookbook Apicius offers recipes with disguised ingredients meant to inspire diners to guess what’s on their plates, such as “patina of anchovies without anchovies“. Elagabalus’s dinner parties are again described in keeping with real Roman traditions, but distorted and exaggerated to extremity. The bizarre and sadistic games that followed his grand meals are a corrupted reflection of the poetry recitation, dance and music that accompanied a real Roman Imperial banquet.

That food figures so prominently in the legends of Elagabalus is no accident. The young Emperor’s apparent devotion to dining would have been frowned upon by a Roman reader as further evidence of his lack of manly restraint and thus, his unsuitability for the throne. Traditional Roman ideals emphasized frugality and moderation and decried the vice of decadence (luxuria), in food as in other areas of society. A decent, honest Roman man, particularly an Emperor, ought to be working hard and fighting for the pride of Rome instead of fooling around with fripperies like crafting recipes. Elagabalus’s keen interest in food was just another example of his impropriety, no less grave a violation of social norms than his dressing in drag or refusing to worship the Roman gods.

There are two Elagabaluses: one the serious-minded and deeply religious boy Varius, the other a mythologized caricature. Yet ironically, it is this second, false Elagabalus, the product of propaganda and hearsay, that has captivated later peoples ever since he was first decried by the Romans. Elagabalus’s rockstar image has made him the subject of numerous operas, plays, poems and paintings. This one from 1906 by French artist Gustav-Adolfe Mossa is my favorite; the title is simply Lui, “Him.” And while I acknowledge that the Elagabalus of popular imagination is a fantasy, I have to admit there is something alluring about it. Part supervillain, part queer icon. A mad genius, a gleeful deviant, a culinary experimenter. A “wild and untamed thing” who tried to make the world match the beauty of his own imagination.