Roman Food Poems


ISBN-10 1-903018-25-0

ISBN-13 978-1-903018-25-5

Published May 2003

240 pages; 220×130 mm; paperback



Alistair Elliot

Roman Food Poems

This is a parallel text collection of the best Latin translated into poetic English on the opposite page by one of Britain’s finest translators, Alistair Elliot whose version, for example, of Medeai as performed so famously by Diana Rigg at The Almeida Theatre in London in 1992. All the major poets of Rome can be represented by something they wrote about food. They tell us how we taste it, where to get it, how to serve it, how and with whom to eat it, what and how much to drink with it, and how to get or avoid invitations to meals. Their subjects include vegetarianism, food-snobs and mythology. They also considered the idea of forbidden food. After all, the main preoccupations of human beings in any age can be brought in on the same trays as the food and drink. Sex, death, slavery, gardening, religion and the family are included, one way or another, in the verses printed and translated here. Alistair Elliot has chosen widely from Latin literature, from humble graffiti to the most famous and most memorable; from the oldest (Ennius) to those writing at the high-point of Empire (Juvenal). The lover of poetry will admire the vigorous translations; the student of Latin will welcome the many styles and means of expression contained within a short compass.

Alistair Elliot’s poems have also been published by Bloodaxe and Carcanet. Alistair Elliot died in 2018, a celebrated poet and translator.

Review of Roman Food Poems by Peter O’Neill published in Gastronomica, Fall 2005


I give here Alistair’s English translation of a Horace Satire and two wonderful anonymous inscriptions in Pompeii and Rome respectively. You will see that not only is Alistair Elliot an intelligent translator, but he’s a rather good poet too.

HORACE, Satires, I, 5

A journey to Brindisi

Escaping from great Rome, I’m welcomed in
Ariccia at a reasonable inn;
I’ve got for company our most learned Greek,
Heliodorus, who taught our friends to speak.

Next, Forum Appii, full of canalboat-men
And bloody-minded tavern-keepers. Then,
We lazily split a stretch, that fitter folks
Belt through in one: Appia’s less hard for us slow-pokes.
Here I declare war on my belly because
Of the water (vile), in no philosopher’s
Temper at waiting while the others dine.

Now night leads in her shady battle-line
Across the earth, and spreads her emblems in the sky;
Now slaves insult the boatmen, who reply
With insults to the slaves. “Put in here, steady
As you go.” “You’ve crammed three hundred in already.”
”Enough! or Too much.” A whole hour goes past
While fares are settled and the mule’s made fast.
Vicious gnats and frogs in the marsh turn sleep
Away; a bargee soused in wine so cheap
It’s nearly vinegar sings the girl he left
Behind; a traveller sings right back his own girl’s left
Behind, then sleeps at last; and giving the mule scope
To browse, the sluggish bargee ties its rope
To a boulder, and lies back, and snores.

It’s day
Before we feel the wherry has no way
On her: a headstrong chap jumps out and flails
Away at the mule’s and bargee’s heads and tails
With a club of willow. But it’s ten by the time we land.
Feronia, we make free with either hand
Washing our faces in your stream; then, full
Of breakfast, crawl three miles and the slow pull
Up into Anxur on its gleaming Volscian rock.

Here good Maecenas was to come, and Coc-
ceius, ambassadors on great affairs, two men
Well-versed in making friends agree again.
Here I’ve just rubbed collyrium on my
Sore eyes when, catching me black-handed, Mae-
cenas arrives, Cocceius too, with him
Fonteius Capito as neat and trim
As man could be, Mark Antony’s best friend.

Fondi: we’re amused by the town-clerk, round the bend
About his togs, the senatorial strip
He’s sporting this year (”in the praetorship
Of Aufidius Luscus”), and his chafing-pan
For incense, but we’re glad to leave the man.
Tired out, we stay in the Mamurras’ town – I mean
Formiae – Murena’s house, with Capito’s cuisine.

The following morning is the one we greet
With most delight: Plotius and Varius meet
Our carriage at Sinuessa, and Virgil’s here.
Good souls! Earth has borne none more pure and clear,
Nor one attached to them as I am. What
Embraces, jokes and joy we gave and got!
For me there’s nothing like a pleasant friend
(So long as I’m well).

The small house at the end
Of Latium, next to the Campanian Bridge,
Gave us a roof, and special-privilege
Firewood and salt from government suppliers.

The mules outspan at Capua early. Gaius
Maecenas naturally goes to exercise,
Virgil and I to sleep – they don’t advise
Ball-games for weak-eyed, or dyspeptic, players.

Next we’ve the hospitality of Cocceius’
Villa, full of good things, up on the slope
Above the Caudine inns. Now Muse, I hope
You’re not averse to measuring me a short
Tale, of how Messius and The Jester fought,
Who were their fathers, sprung from what great stock
They made their charges.

Messius (The Cock)
Is of the Oscan breed; Sarmentus’ kin’s
His lady owner: from such origins
They come to combat. First Sarmentus: “Horse!
You’re like a wild horse!” Since we laugh, of course
Messius grants a hit, tossing his mane.
”Hey! – if you had your cropped horn back again,
What wouldn’t you do! You’re pretty threatening, polled!” –
Meaning, his forehead’s spoiled by a foul old
Scar on the left, in the bristles. Building on these
Jibes at his shape and his Campanian disease,
The Jester begs him: “Do the Cyclops dance –
You don’t need horror-mask and boots – Just prance!”
The Cock crows back. “You offered up your shackles
Yet, as you vowed, to the household gods? – whose gods?”, he cackles.
”Being a clerk is no escape: you’re still
Bound to the service of your lady’s will.
In fact, why did you ever run away? –
You slender little weed! – One pound of bread a day
Would keep you ticking over fine.” So we
Drew out the dinner very pleasantly.

Then, straight to Benevento, where mine host
So busily turns thin fieldfares as they toast
At the fire, he nearly sets his place on fire.
For sparks fall out; and lapping higher and higher
Round the old kitchen, tongues of flame start tasting
The ceiling. What a sight! Guests tired of fasting,
And frightened servants, snatched the meal outside –
Then we all put the fire out – or all tried.

From there, Apulia starts, and shows the looks
Of hills well-known to me: Atabulus cooks
Them hot and crusty – we’d never have crawled through
If not for a villa near Trivicum to
Get shelter in, and smoke that made us cry
(The stove burnt boughs with leaves on, and not dry).

Here like a fool for a lying girl I stay
Up, right till midnight – till I drift away
Aroused for Venus in my sleep, and dreams
Dapple my nightshirt with disgraceful creams,
My belly too, since I was on my back.

From here our carriages whirl us down the track
Twenty-four miles, to stay in a small town
Which can’t be named in verse. But it’s pinned down
Simply enough in images: they sell dear
The cheapest thing on earth – that’s water – here.
It’s vile, too; but the bread’s the loveliest
For miles: the canny traveller east or west
Takes on a packful.
For at Canosa bread is gritty,
They’re no more well-to do for water – the city
Was sited by tough Diomed, they say.
Here Varius’ friends weep as he sadly leaves the way.

From there we arrive at Ruvo, tired by hours
On the long road, made rougher still by showers.

The weather next day’s better, the road worse
Right to the walls of fishy Bari.
Then there’s
Another place whose water-nymphs were annoyed
When it was built: Egnazia. We enjoyed
The joke that incense at their temple door
Melts without fire. Such laughs, as they assure
Us of their myth! That miracle-writing Jew
Apella can swallow it; I’m not going to.
For I was taught the gods live a retired
Life without care: though nature is inspired
With wonders now and then, the gods don’t go
Dropping us things from their high portico –
They don’t have fits of sullenness or rage.

Brindisi makes the end of my long journey, and my page.


O dung-producers, keep on going –
go to the city-wall.
If you’re caught here,
you’ll have to bear
the punishment.

[Anonymous inscription, painted on a wall in Pompeii (in district V, in the building next to the most northerly one) (CIL IV 7038)]


Crescens! – If any rival fucks my woman friend
I pray a bear will bite him in the end.
I mean, I hope the taste of her little fountains
Gives him a taste for walking in the mountains
And as he daydreams of her pulls and pushes
A bear bites off his prick and eats him in the bushes.
Or he goes to the Circus, sits in front, and falls
Onto the sand, and the bear bites off his balls.

[Anonymous inscription found in Rome on the Palatine, on the south side of the Slope of Victory, on the fifth arch as you come from the Velabrum. (CIL IV.1645)]

List of poems

For your information I also give a list of the poems translated. I stress that this is a parallel edition so that the tyro Latinist can practice his comprehension with a handy crib. The Latin texts are the best available and are not given the full critical apparatus, for that you must go elsewhere.

PART I: Ingredients, sources, taste, morality, gifts and mythology
Ovid, Dispatches from the Black Sea, I, viii, 41-62
O for an allotment
Martial, Epigrams, III, 47
Coals to Newcastle
Ennius, Hedyphagetica
Nice food
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, 72-142
Pythagoras on meat
Seneca, Thyestes, 970-1006
Forbidden food
Catullus, Poem 59
Disgusting food
Anonymous, Pompeii, Corpus Inscript. Latinarum, IV.6635
Micon and Pero
Juvenal, Satire IV
Big Fish
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, IV, 617-672
The physics of taste
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, 453-78
Seneca, Thyestes, 442-470
Poor but honest food
Petronius, Satyricon, 55
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, 158-175
Metempsychosis and food
Martial, Epigrams, VIII, 23
To a friend from the country
Martial, Epigrams, VII, 91
To Juvenal at Saturnalia time
Martial, Epigrams, XII, 65
A present for Phyllis
Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI, 89-145
The golden touch
Virgil, Aeneid, VII, 107-134
The first Roman meal
Lucan, Civil War, IX, 587-618
The need for water
Horace, Satires, I, 5
A journey to Brindisi
Anonymous, Pompeii, Corpus Inscrip. Latinarum, IV.7038
Taken short
Anonymous, Rome, Corpus Inscrip. Latinarum, IV.1645
A lover’s threat

PART II: Meals – invitations, occasions, manners,
courses and aims
Catullus, Poem 13
An invitation
Martial, Epigrams, I, 27
A sort of invitation
Martial, Epigrams, XII, 82
Cadging an invite
Phaedrus, Fabulae, I, 13
Catching a meal
Horace, Odes, II, vii
Excuse for a party
Juvenal, Satire VI, 418-33
The empty stomach problem
Martial, Epigrams, V, 78
Dinner with a poor poet
Ovid, Ars amatoria, III, 755-68
Table manners for girls
Catullus, Poem 12
Martial, Epigrams, III, 50
A literary host
Martial, Epigrams, V, 79
Top dresser
Ovid, Ars amatoria, I, 565-578
Wine at table
Martial, Epigrams, I, 71
Virgil, Aeneid, III, 210-249
The Harpies spoil a picnic
Martial, Epigrams, X,
The dream place in the country
Horace, Odes, II, xiv
Drink it now
Anonymous, Rome, Corpus Inscrip. Latinarum, VI.18131
Eating and drinking

PART III: Making the day’s food
Anonymous, Moretum
Ovid, Tristia, IV, x
The birthday cake

Review of Roman Food Poems by Peter O’Neill published in Gastronomica, Fall 2005

Roman Food Poems: A Modern Translation  Alistair Elliot
Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2003 160 pp. £12.50 (paper)

All those with an enthusiasm for Latin poetry or an interest in food will welcome the fact that noted translator Alistair Elliot has in this new volume turned his attention to “Roman food poems.” It should be said from the outset, though, that the title of this collection is somewhat misleading. These are not, with a few exceptions, poems about food. Rather they are poems, or excerpts from poems, in which food or food-related activity (covering the whole spectrum from gardening to defecation) happen to feature. This should put nobody off. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this volume lies precisely in the incidental nature of the references to food or drink, references that occur in a remarkable variety of contexts. The Roman preoccupation with what they put into their stomachs was such that food was never too far from their minds. As a result, this collection’s focus on food offers an interesting way into Latin poetry in general, and the poems selected here make up a pleasing anthology and provide a good indication of the varied nature of Latin literature. The general reader with an interest in Latin poetry will find much to enjoy in this volume. The translations are set next to the original Latin, so those with some rusty recollections of college Latin will have the opportunity to relive old memories and at the same time discover that Latin literature is more interesting than Wheelock’s rather limited range of practice sentences might have suggested.

But this collection is equally aimed at people with a serious interest in food. Elliot’s brief introduction suggests that the audience he has in mind will want to learn about the concrete aspects of Roman eating rather than the cultural significance of food. However, the reader of the poems in this collection will finish the book with a good idea of some of the things that food meant to the Romans, although, as we will see, gaps inevitably remain.

The poems are in general well chosen, covering a broad spectrum of Roman life and avoiding the easy temptation of including too many poems about elite banquets or drinking parties. The translations are very fine indeed. Elliot takes a few liberties here and there, but these are in general eminently forgivable. To give an idea of the flavor, beets, which in the Latin are said to be “not without use to a sick stomach,” become in Elliot’s rendition “so good for blocked up pipes” (pp.16-17). Only on occasion does Elliot go far beyond what we find in the Latin, in particular in his entertaining rendition of the inscription on page 97, which is more of a version than a translation.

The collection is in three parts. The first assembles “ingredients, sources, taste, morality, gifts and mythology.” This is a bit of a mishmash, perhaps, but the poems are nevertheless arranged with some thought. For instance, Seneca on the simple life is followed by Petronius us on luxury, and Lucan’s account of Cato’s manic journey through the desert is followed by Horace’s more leisurely journey to Brundisium. Part two looks at Roman meals, not simply the meals themselves but also the etiquette surrounding dining, from invitations to the use of napkins, bringing out the importance of cultivated behavior to Roman aristocrats. The final section is entitled “Making the Day’s Food.” This section consists of only two poems, and the second of these, a delightful excerpt from Ovid, has nothing to do with this topic (although it makes a fine envoi for the collection). The other poem is a welcome translation of the long Moretum, a relatively neglected poem from the Virgilian appendix.

Given that the main readership for this book is likely to lie outside those who specialize in ancient studies, it does seem a shame the notes to this volume are not really adequate to give general readers the help they need to understand these poems. We learn virtually nothing about the poets represented, often not even their dates or any information about the poetry with which they are associated. I completely sympathize with the wish for the poems to stand on their own, and few things are worse than when the experience of reading a poem is spoiled because of a perceived need to check unnecessary footnotes. Nevertheless, it would be helpful for a reader unfamiliar with the Latin poets to be able to place them in some historical context and to have some idea of the kinds of poetry they wrote (especially when the excerpts fail to make this clear). We also need more background information. One of the selections is from Lucan’s brilliant account of Cato’s march across the North African desert with his soldiers. But readers would better understand what was going on here if they were offered a sentence or two explaining the Stoic back-ground to this passage, which is fundamental to our understanding. This is also one of the more egregious instances where Elliot’s excerpts have the feeling of being “bleeding chunks.” One can only hope that Elliot’s vigorous translation will inspire an enthused reader to find a complete translation of Lucan, and it would have been nice if the notes offered some help in this direction (for what it is worth, one need look no further than the wonderful translation by Jane Wilson Joyce). Finally, Elliot’s brief remarks on meter will be meaningless to someone unacquainted with the mechanics of Latin verse, and it is perhaps unfair to expect a general reader to go off and consult textbooks on the subject (p.153). Once more, one sympathizes with the presumed desire to let the poems speak for themselves, but anyone who has experience teaching will know even the brightest and most enthusiastic students need to be given a certain amount of background to understand the often strange literature of the Roman world.

The introduction is brief and offers some concise information concerning the pragmatics of Roman eating (or, at any rate, Roman upper-class eating). This material will doubtless interest many of the food enthusiasts who will pick up this volume. However, I would suggest that some brief background information about broader Roman attitudes to food might have helped readers to place some of the poems in their cultural context. For instance, the politics of food seems to have intensified under the emperors. For the upper classes, culinary extravagance came to be seen as a symptom of a general decline in aristocratic morality, a decline various members of the Roman elite were, at times, conscious of the need to correct. This increased politicization of food consumption came from the very top of society. The emperor Augustus himself told off an equestrian for eating in public at the games, pointing out that when he wanted to take his lunch, he went home to eat it. And, lest this be thought

to be a whim of the first emperor, we should note we also find, in the fourth century A.D., the urban prefect Ampelius attempting to ban the upper classes from chewing in public. How the aristocracy behaved (and was seen to behave) was a matter of crucial concern in the hierarchical world of the Roman empire, and consumption of food was one aspect of this. Against such a background, various poems in Elliot’s collection take on extra light, for instance Thyestes’ great speech in favor of simplicity in Seneca’s play (where a note would be welcome pointing out that shortly after this excerpt Thyestes will be tempted, all too easily, to reenter the world of luxury, with disastrous results).

When an anthology offers so many delights, it is unfair to criticize it for poems that are not included. However, I think it is reasonable to point out that this collection does contain one important omission: poems treating the popular eating houses (popinae) that were such an important part of Roman popular culture. Roman aristocrats, for whom eating in public was, as we have seen, frowned upon, would have had nothing to do with such places. A famous poem by no less a figure than the emperor Hadrian states he does not want to be like Florus and wander around the taverns and eating houses. And Horace, in one of his finest Epistles, attacks his bailiff for longing for the city and finding beauty in aspects of the urban world that the poet hates, including brothels, the “greasy eating house,” and the neighborhood tavern. The popinae served a crucial function in Roman food consumption. And, during the Empire, they proved to be a source of deep concern for the Roman elite, which, on several occasions, passed legislation banning popinae from selling cooked meats or baked foods, with Nero, for example, allowing such establishments to sell only beans and peas. The most likely reason for this prohibition was a desire to make these places less attractive locations for the urban populace to gather (such gatherings were always associated with potentially seditious activity), and the success of this legislation can be seen in the archaeological record, with surviving food counters in eating houses at Ostia lacking the counters with built-in food jars we see in the inns and cafes from an earlier period at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Two poems would have thrown light on this world of eating houses and bars. Above all, Juvenal in his eighth satire offers an extraordinarily interesting account of a popina frequented by the shameless noble Lateranus. But it would also be useful to have an easily accessible translation of the poem in the Virgilian appendix known as the Copa (“Barmaid”), a poem in which the hostess of the inn ironically uses the conventions of aristocratic poetry and philosophy to tempt the reader inside to take part in the pleasures from which the Roman upper classes, in their desire to display their superiority over the rest of the city, had debarred themselves.

I should say, however, Elliot is by no means blind to nonelite dining and food consumption, although the nature of Latin literature inevitably means most of the material here deals with the upper classes. For instance, there is the welcome inclusion of some graffiti from Pompeii (which mayor may not be lower class), although it must be said that the delightful warning to the “dung-producers” to keep their distance is only indirectly related to the topic at hand. Another treat is the welcome complete translation of the so-called Moretum from the Virgilian appendix, an important text for elite representations of poverty and labor.

In short, those who are enthusiastic about food and interested in or intrigued by Latin poetry will find much to entertain and interest them in this volume. But I suspect the general reader would take more away from these poems if the notes were fuller and written with more sympathy for those without a background in classics.