It was commonplace in Latin poetry that the Golden Age came to a decisive end when humans started to build ships and sail across the sea. In the good old days, men stayed at home and plowed the earth and ate the produce of their own fields. In his tragedy Medea, Seneca (d. 65 CE) writes: “Then every man inactive kept to his own shores and lived to old age on ancestral fields, rich with but little, knowing no wealth save what his home soil had yielded.” The fall from grace came when men cut down trees to fashion ships, transgressing the natural limits that the gods had established. As Horace (d. 8 CE) writes: “In vain did a provident god separate the lands with a disconnecting sea, if ungodly ships still bound across the forbidden depths.”
Ships made possible trade with distant lands, and the Romans no longer had to rely on the produce of their own fields. Corn (wheat) flowed in from the provinces to feed the Roman populace. All boundaries had been dissolved. Seneca writes: “All bounds have been removed, cities have set their walls in new lands, and the world, now passable throughout, has left nothing where it once had place: the Indian drinks of the cold Arazes, the Persians quaff the Elbe and the Rhine. ” Moralists like Horace and Seneca saw that the Romans had abandoned the virtues of the agrarian ancestors for luxury and license.
Food was a clear marker of the fall from ancient Roman virtue. The Stoic philosopher Seneca is obsessed with food. In his Moral Epistles, he writes about the rise in obesity in Rome, comparing his contemporaries with their more abstemious ancestors: “[In those days] men’s bodies were still sound and strong; their food was light and not spoiled by art and luxury, whereas when they began to seek dishes not for the sake of removing, but of rousing, the appetite, and devised countless sauces to whet their gluttony, —then what before was nourishment to a hungry man became a burden to the full stomach.”
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon pauses to dwell on the decadence of the early third-century emperor Elagabalus. First on the list of his vices was that he liked to “confound the order of seasons and climates.” In other words, he ate foods out of season, and imported from great distances. In a footnote, Gibbon writes: “He would never eat sea-fish except at a great distance from the sea…”
The Historia Augusta, Gibbon’s source, records a long list of outlandish foods consumed by Elagabalus, including peacock tongues and ostrich brains. The late Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius includes this recipe for Roasted Flamingo: “Pluck the flamingo, wash it, truss it, put it in a pot; add water, salt, dill, and a bit of vinegar. When it is half cooked, tie together a bouquet of leeks and coriander and cook together with the flamingo. When it is almost cooked, add defrutum [reduced wine] for color. In a mortar put pepper, cumin, coriander, silphium root, mint, and rue; grind, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and poor on cooking broth. Empty into the same pot and thicken with starch. Pour the sauce over the flamingo and serve. Do the same for parrot.”*
Even if you manage to procure a flamingo for roasting, you won’t find silphium root. The exotic and expensive herb, imported by the Romans from Syria, went extinct during the reign of Nero. Poor dyspeptic Seneca was part of the last generation to enjoy the taste of silphium root in his food.
*From Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 120.