A Roman Feast

A knotty and complex portrait of everyday life under the early Roman emperors, written with delightful abandon.

A Roman Feast, Roberto Bompiani.
A Roman Feast, Roberto Bompiani. Credit: Art Reserve / Alamy Stock Photo

Palatine: An Alternative History of the Caesars  – Peter Stothard – Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2023

Wealthy Romans had a reputation for being experimental in the kitchen. A cookbook by Apicius, the best-known gourmand of the first century, featured recipes for everything from flamingo and parrot to peacock. Pliny the Younger, never one of life’s aesthetes, chastised his friends for supping on oysters and sow’s womb. Elagabalus, emperor in the early third century, was known to dazzle his guests with plates of beans and amber, or rice muddled with pearls hard enough to chip their teeth on.

Being too partial to such delicacies, even in Rome’s most opulent and liberated dining rooms, could nonetheless be lethal to one’s reputation. As Peter Stothard explains in his ‘alternative’ history of the early Roman Empire, ‘gluttony was a definition that extended beyond the table. It was a character flaw, a permanent part of a man’.

Stothard’s intention is to offer a reprieve from the usual top-down accounts of Rome through ‘a history of the big rooms seen from the small, of the top table told from the lower tables’. His prevailing focus upon gluttony and excess is rightly conveyed in such a way as to evoke the spirit of the awed slave or hungry dog.

The biggest surprise to emerge on this theme is not how lavishly and grotesquely the emperors ate, but how evangelical they became about certain foods that might easily have been found on lower tables. Augustus adored figs (his wife Livia was rumoured to have killed him with poisoned ones), while Tiberius was crazy about cucumber. Claudius’ fondness for mushrooms has become proverbial, and as for Nero, anyone looking at portraits of his fat face could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that he was once known as porrophagus, the ‘leek-eater’. The most artistic of the Julio-Claudians, Nero would sometimes eat nothing but leeks and chives all day in the hope that they would add lustre to his rather simpering singing voice.

It seems unlikely that the emperors’ tastes for simpler fare were engineered for show. Although it is true that Augustus, in particular, cultivated a reputation for frugality, fruit and vegetables must have seemed refreshingly novel when there were so many songbirds and stuffed dormice on the table to feast upon. The emperors’ enduring appetites for homegrown produce are interesting because they sat in direct contrast to their developing tastes for non-edible luxuries.

The relevance of this curious contradiction among the protagonists of Stothard’s book is not immediately clear. Far from making slaves and cooks his focus, as one might have expected from his opening brief, Stothard chooses to examine Rome from the position of one of its most interesting upwardly mobile families, the Vitellii, the elder members of which tended to eschew the finer things in life. The brothers Publius and Lucius Vitellius were in imperial service, though as courtiers rather than domestics. Every morning they attended the traditional salutatio, or greeting of the emperor, at the palace, and attained positions of power in the army or Senate.

Lucius, the more cautious and considered of the two, served three times as consul or chief magistrate of the Senate and helped to run the show when Emperor Claudius left Rome for his invasion of Britain in AD 43. Described by Stothard as more ‘a fixer than a player’, Lucius kept his head down while keeping up with the emperors, even buying his own villa in Capri, the glamorous retreat beloved of Tiberius and Caligula.

Publius, headstrong and daring, commanded legions in Germany under Germanicus, the adopted son of Tiberius, and helped to prosecute his commander’s alleged killer, Piso. He also entered the circle of Sejanus, the most notorious prefect of the Praetorian guard, who was rumoured to have been a lover of the cook Apicius. Publius might have associated with gluttons but, like his brother, he was fairly abstemious in his own eating habits, and uxorious besides.

It is only with Lucius’ son Aulus that the significance of gluttony to Stothard’s broader story begins to surface. A one-time governor of Africa who rose to become emperor for a brief spell in AD 69 – the so-called Year of the Four EmperorsAulus Vitellius was decidedly fat, to judge by his portraits. Stothard describes him as ‘a large and genial man with a limp, a low-slung belly and long experience of watching his superiors’. His personal qualities, unlike those of his father and uncle, were subsumed by the Roman historians’ obsession with his fondness for food of the peacock and dormouse rather than cucumber variety, as well as his generally profligate lifestyle.

Stothard, a talented historiographer, is surely right to conclude that Aulus Vitellius was at least in part a victim of the historians’ colourful and rather one-dimensional efforts at characterisation: ‘He didn’t fall from power because he was a glutton; he was a glutton because he fell from power.’ The short-lived emperor was a fine example of what became of a man who failed to uphold Roman mores. Gluttony, as Stothard says, was more than skin-deep.

In one part, a history of Rome between the death of Augustus in AD 14 and the principate of Vitellius in AD 69; in another, a study of the rise of the Vitellii, Palatine  is a beautifully subtle and nuanced book about what it meant to live under an emperor and tread the careful line between flattery and guardedness. If Lucius Vitellius understands what is required of him best of all, the poet Ovid serves as an interesting foil within the narrative, pointing out the conscious redevelopment of the imperial residence into a palace proper atop the Palatine Hill.

Stothard’s role almost parallels Ovid’s as he documents the steady move away from traditional Republican sensibilities and preferences for the simple, local and unassuming, in favour of an eastern-style grandeur under the empire. A civic crown of oak leaves appeared above the entrance to the imperial residence, then the walls were covered in marble, and soon the Palatine Hill represented, in Stothard’s words, ‘a network of offices, dining rooms and halls in which truth was power and rumour spread like fire’.

There are moments in Stothard’s narrative where I worried that this story of the cultural transformation of Rome might become lost between the threads of the various members of the Vitellii, the emperors, and more general passages on luxury and gluttony, but my fears proved unfounded. A book that rewards close reading will always have my vote, and I admired the smoothness with which the story develops on so many different planes, simultaneously. Life under the first emperors was knotty and complex. Stothard paints a portrait of it that spills, with delightful abandon, over edges imposed superficially by other, lesser, modern historians.


Daisy Dunn