On Wednesday I talked a little about some of the unusual tastes of famous Romans (specifically Pliny’s very particular attitudes when it comes to pig’s sexual organs), but there is one particular Roman delicacy that is liable to appear in literally any TV, film or novel trying to give a peek into Roman dining habits – dormice. But did the Romans really make this tiny rodent a regular dinnertime treat?
When the BBC first premiered Rome back in 2005, leading classical authority Mary Beard referred in The Guardian to her own “dormouse test” for how well put together a Roman historical drama is: “the longer you have to wait before this tasty little morsel appears on the recreated banquet, the more subtle the reconstruction is likely to be” (according to Beard, Rome managed half an hour into the first episode). As far as Beard is concerned, the use of stereotypes like the eating of dormice allows the audience to define themselves against the “other”, using a long dead culture allowing that kind of broad stereotyping that may be unacceptable if the French were characterised as eating frog’s legs all the time. For Beard, then, it was obvious that, although dormice were really consumed in ancient Rome, they were by no means a universal or everyday food. In fact, she said: “Unsuccessful and temporary as the ruling almost certainly was, the Roman senate banned the eating of dormice in 115 BC”.
Dormice do, however, make an appearance in the British Museum’s exhibition (although it takes most of the way around the display for the BM to achieve Beard’s dormouse test). The kitchen section of the display contains a jar specifically designed to keep live dormice in while they fattened up. Indeed, the excavations that contributed to the exhibition revealed an enormous amount of human waste in a giant septic tank that, on analysis, suggested a varied 1st century AD diet that included regular tastes of sea urchin and, yes, dormice.
Nevertheless, Roman food historian Mark Grant’s reaction to the exhibition focuses on the garum, grapes, bread and figs. He describes these basic essentials as more reflective of real Roman dining habits than images of larks’ tongues or dormice. “Only a few wealthy and bored Romans indulged in such excesses, and even then only on high days and holidays,” Grant says, “This gave moralists and satirists something to moan about. It was headline stuff which they wrote about at great length. Reading these accounts today is a bit like eating a TV snack while watching Heston Blumenthal on the telly, concocting something extraordinary out of jellyfish that we’d never dream of cooking at home.”
So, did the Romans eat dormice? Yes, but only in the sense that we in 21st century Britain eat snail porridge!