Something old – something new: Greek and Roman recipes in focus

By Laurence Totelin

A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html
A Roman coin showing the god Janus. Source: http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/janus/janus.html

The double-faced Roman god Janus presided over transitions: transitions from war to peace, from month to month, and from year to year. The Romans celebrated him on the Kalends of January, the first day of the year. The festivities are described most fully by the poet Ovid (first century CE) in his Fasti, where the offerings to Janus are described as wine, frankincense, cakes and meal sprinkled with salt (Book 1, lines 75, 128, 172). Later in that same poem, Ovid indicated that the offering of such simple products as cakes, meal and salt harked back to a past when imported and luxury products were not available:

Of old the means to win the goodwill of gods for man were spelt and the sparkling grains of pure salt. As yet no foreign ship had brought across the ocean waves the bark-stilled myrrh; the Euphrates had sent no incense, India no balm. And the red saffron’s filaments were still unknown.

(Ovid, Fasti 1.337-342; translation: James Frazer).

The cake offered to Janus was called “janual” (Festus, s.v. janual). According to Cato the Elder (second century BCE), author of a famous work On Agriculture, heaps of such cakes were sacrificed to the god before the harvest (On Agriculture 134). Unfortunately, we do not have any recipe for the janual, but Cato transmits a couple of recipes for cakes used for sacrificial purposes – the libum and the placenta – which may have been somewhat similar (On Agriculture 75-76).

The Recipes Project cannot offer you cakes to celebrate the Kalends of January 2015, but it can present you this series about Greek and Roman recipes instead. Helen King and I have devoted several Recipes Project posts to these ‘old’ recipes, but for the series we have enrolled three brand new bloggers: Jane Draycott, Ianto Jocks and David Leith. Their posts will demonstrate – if there was any need – how much there is still to study about ancient recipes.

Jane opens the series with Cato the Elder, who is familiar to all classicists, but whose recipes are still understudied. She shows how Cato exploited the produce from his ideal farm, and in particular from its garden, in his medicinal and veterinary recipes. Ianto turns to Scribonius Largus (first century CE), one of the most neglected of classical writers, the author of the wonderful Compositiones (Compositions of Remedies). Ianto focusses more particularly on a recipe to cure a headache which includes, among other ingredients, castoreum. The ancients believed that substance to originate from the testes of beavers (in fact, it comes from a gland located near the anus) – we are here far from the hearty garden produce praised by Cato, that great admirer of cabbage. David discusses recipes preserved on a papyrus dating to around 400 CE, but which may originate from a much earlier period.

A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum. Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html
A medieval miniature representing a beaver biting off his testes to avoid been killed by a hunter for its castoreum.
Source: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/11/beavers-on-the-run.html

There are particular issues surrounding the study of ancient Greek and Latin recipes. Many texts are not translated into any modern language. In the case of Scribonius’ Compositions of Remedies there is no complete English translation. Translators have avoided that arduous task partly because it is sometimes impossible to identify ingredients listed in ancient recipes. It is important, however, not to use this obstacle as an excuse to neglect texts that are a rich source for social, economic, and medical history. As our bloggers show, one can still study an ancient recipe even though not all its ingredients are identifiable.

Studying ancient recipes can also be difficult when one is faced with fragmentary evidence, which is particularly the case for recipes preserved on papyrus. In antiquity, texts were copied onto papyrus, a very fragile material that survives only in certain climatic conditions. The climates of Greece and Rome are not favourable to the preservation of papyrus. However, the Greek and Roman worlds extended well beyond modern Greece and Italy, and included (from the end of the fourth century BCE onwards) one country in which papyrus survives quite well: Egypt. This explains why the Greek-language papyrus studied by David in his post was found in that country.

We hope you will enjoy our ‘Janual’ series on Greek and Roman recipes and that you will join in the discussion! Salve as they say in Latin.


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