My sister recently lent me The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher, which, besides featuring the most poetic food writing I’ve ever read, has a lovely little chapter on Ancient Roman eating habits. As much as I’d love to simply post the book’s full text for you to read, I will try to remain concise:
Fisher mentions Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a general and politician from the late Republic: Besides being a prolifically successful military leader, conqueror of the eastern Roman territories, quaestor in 89-88, consul in 74 B.C. and governor of Cilicia (a region in Asia Minor) during the Third Mithridatic War, Lucullus was most famously a lover of food.
Lucullus, perhaps the truest epicure as we now think of one, was undoubtedly the most refined. He set the pace. Other Romans, like Trimalchio’s vulgar prototype, might give banquets whose success depended upon the leaping of three naked virgins from a great crusted tart. It was Lucullus who gave his carefully chosen guests the exquisite compliment of letting them watch their next course die!
Unlike Apicius, who was driven to suicide after running out of money to pay for his parties, Lucullus was well-funded by the spoils of his military victories. While he was not staging grand conquests or carrying out his legislative duties, he lived a busy lifestyle as a generous patron of arts, sciences, and social entertaining.
At his dinner parties, guests were assigned to different rooms, where they were served food and surrounded by decor of a quality dependent on their social status/relationship to the host. Less distinguished partygoers dined on relatively inexpensive fare around relatively simple furnishings, while
in the Apollo Room, where only his very intimate or important guests were invited, [Lucullus] spent one thousand dollars for each person.
Here he entertained most frequently, with the most precious foods laid upon tables now solid ivory, now silver or carved tortoise shell. For ordinary guests goblets of inlaid gold did well enough, but in the Apollo Room glasses hollowed from great gems were used with nonchalance.
I’m almost sad to say that Lucullus is more well known for the indulgent novelties in his Apollo Room than his academic patronage or military prowess. Tellingly, he is now remembered in the english word “lucullan,” which is used to describe extreme luxury.