History of food in the ancient world

Start - End 
2015 - 2018 (ongoing)
Department of Archaeology
Department of History



"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." This aphorism was coined in 1825 by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a famous French gastronome and author of Physiologie du goût, the 19th-century handbook for foodies. Brillat-Savarin already understood that the deliberate choice of food, preparation techniques, and consumption patterns all contributed to the creation of one’s unique self-image or identity in society. Yet, food preferences change: purchasing power, age, interpersonal relationships, available supplies and many other factors determine the daily menu. In a globalizing world such as we know today, one additional factor to take into account is the constant interaction with foreign cuisines, encouraging people to experiment with new ingredientsand cooking techniques, to change traditional diets and adopt new dishes. In this respect, the Roman empire was perhaps not all that different from today. Ever since the Roman armies marched through Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean territory, new dishes and exotic ingredients constantly reached Italy. However, before Tiberius could enjoy his German vegetables (Pliny NH 19.28) and Apicius could start to prepare flamingos and parrots (6.231), these ingredients needed to pass and travel through the empire’s frontier regions. It is precisely in these areas that people, both Roman and native, encounter new foodstuffs, engage with different diets and start (or refuse) to adopt them. In this conference, we wish to approach the impact of frontiers on consumption patterns, by asking in what different ways living at the frontiers is able to influence food and cuisine of populations living on both sides of the frontiers. What induced local and resident communities to abandon or adapt traditional consumption patterns? How quickly and through which channels did these new food habits travel within and beyond the frontiers?We are interested in the military, but also and especially in the food habits of civilian populations living on both sides of the frontiers of the Roman empire. We concentrate on production, distribution and consumption, and primarily on interaction at the frontiers, on flows from the imperial center to the frontiers, and on flows from outside the empire into the frontier areas. By focusing on the intermediate role of frontier zones, rather than on the results of interaction, we approach the question of cross-cultural exchange and its consequences on food and cuisine from a new angle.

(abstract of the first workshop organised by the project: Food at the frontiers, History Department UGhent, May 2016)