As an archaeologist studying the ancient Mediterranean, Emma Blake of the University or Arizona finds striking parallels between the production and social cachet of food during the Roman Empire and contemporary times.
One of five lecturers in the recent “Food” series sponsored by the UA at the Fox Tucson Theatre, Blake will talk again about the impact of Roman agriculture on Mediterranean foodways at the Arizona Senior Academy on Thursday (Dec. 11) at 2:30.
The Romans, probably the world’s first industrial farmers, predated modern agribusiness and monoculture by two thousand years during a fortuitous period of weather. As the empire expanded and the population soared, small farmers were, in Blake’s words, “kicked off their land” and replaced by great estates of wine, olives, and grain worked by slaves and run for profit by absentee owners.
Shipped throughout the empire, these foodstuffs as well as new ones from the eastern lands of the empire transformed local cuisines while erasing some pre-Roman food cultures. To Blake’s regret, we’ll never know what was lost.
Then as now, the rich ate very differently from the poor. Blake characterizes the wealthy Romans as “the foodies of their day.” Celebrated—and satirized—in art and literature for their gastronomic indulgences, they sought out exotic ingredients and dined on sumptuous meals prepared at home by personal chefs. In the cities, workers and ordinary people without kitchens ate foods such as lentils and vegetables from snack bars, the Roman equivalent of fast food.
Written by Caroline Bates, Academy Village Volunteer