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‘If you have no better offer, do come’: Martial’s guide to Roman dinner parties

“If you have no better offer, do come,” 11.52 helps put flesh on the bones of Martial’s Rome (‘you know Stephanus’ baths are right next door…’) and presents the city poet in a neighbourly light. It’s also a favourite of modern foodies in search of an unpretentious sample menu from ancient daily life. Pre-modern lettuce was bitter; the Roman cookery-book of Apicius (3.18.1-3) treats it like its close relative, chicory. It was often served as a freshly-made pickle, like the onion relishes of modern Indian cooking. Lettuce cleansed the palate, whether at the beginning or (in days gone by) the end of a meal, “Lettuce always concluded our ancestors’ feasts. So tell me, why does it introduce ours?” (Party Favours 14).

Still, Romans thought this dinner-party staple could be hard on the digestion (and modern dieticians agree); Apicius includes (3.18.3) a recipe for a pungent date-and-cumin purée to be taken medicinally after dinner, ne lactucae laedant, “to prevent the harmful effects of lettuce.”

Martial clearly has a lot of eggs to use up. They must have been cheap in the Subura that week, because they certainly didn’t come from his little country place (7.31, 7.91, 11.18). Egg-yolks and rue are found together in a sauce for boiled ray at Apicius 9.2.2; bitter rue is a surprisingly frequent inclusion in the great gourmet’s fish recipes, so this is not just Martial trying to cover up a marginal bit of fish, although his tuna is clearly the runt of the shoal. His plan for serving it echoes Apicius’ recommended way with lizard-fish, an unknown species used here to give an idea of size – poach and serve with punchy herbs (lovage and rue), spices (pepper and cumin), honey, vinegar, and the ubiquitous garum, thickened with a little starch. Thai fish sauce and cornflour would be the obvious substitutes for the last two in a modern kitchen. The sweet-and-sour combination of honey and vinegar is instantly familiar to modern Roman diners, who know this style of sharp sauce (made with sugar now) as agrodolce and expect it with unctuous lamb or slow-cooked trays of vegetables.

The low-lying Velabrum, between the Forum and the Forum Boarium, was a great place to shop for fresh produce and is still home to a regular farmers’ market; it was particularly known for its smoked cheese, a peculiarly Roman taste (‘that cheese has a kick to it’, Xenia 32). Olives from Picenum on Italy’s north-east coast were a good cheap choice, but any gourmet would reject Martial’s because they are the tail end of the season’s crop (cf. 7.53, where December’s olives are an inferior Saturnalia gift); frost damages the fruit, and the exact date to harvest remains an issue of contention among harvesters today.

Before the Romans, Greek foodies too had prized fish and seafood because they were so tricky to get fresh. CC0 via Pixabay.

“I’ll lie, so that you’ll come,” Martial’s imaginary catalogue samples the upmarket pleasures of ancient fine dining. Before the Romans, Greek foodies too had prized fish and seafood because they were so tricky to get fresh; Apicius devotes two whole books to them. “Rib-eye steaks” is my guess at coloephia, the Greek-named prime cut guzzled by the lesbian bodybuilder Philaenis at 7.67. Sow’s udder could be parboiled and roasted, or stuffed with sea urchin (Apicius 7.2.1-2) – then as now, Romans liked their offal, while chicken was a valued meat: only in very recent times have obscene factory-farming methods made it inexpensive. There was a huge appetite for small wildfowl, which were netted by professional bird-catchers (Apophoreta 217(216)) and bred in aviaries. Thrushes are still a dinner-party treat in rural Latium, where they turn in ranks on a griddle in front of the kitchen fire.

Martial’s ultimate bait is not food, though – or not the food he can afford – but the Muses; his proposal of smart authors relaxing together and sharing their work is straight out of Catullus (e.g. Carmen 50). That he promises not to recite anything himself is no great surprise: Martial does not rate epigram when it is performed aloud to an audience, even his own (e.g. 2.1), preferring instead to see it circulate in books for private reading (e.g. 1.117). Really nothing is known of Martial’s Cerialis as a poet, but the theme of Gigantomachy (war against giants) suggests an epic, perhaps a learned and small-scale one (an ‘epyllion’) after the Hellenistic manner of, for instance, Apollonius of Rhodes; Catullus’ friends wrote micro-epics along those lines, or tried to (Carmen 35). Cerialis’ rustic poems (rura) could be patterned after either the Eclogues or the Georgics of Virgil: I chose the former because their smaller size makes them riper for imitation (we have some by Calpurnius Siculus from Nero’s time).

Featured Image Credit: Market, CC0 via Pixabay

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