Sunday, September 17, 2017

All the Wrong Lessons

If history teaches us anything, I would say that it teaches our society -- at best - very little.

In reading the (somewhat lengthy) introduction to Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, the editor,  Frederick Starr ("Formerly Professor of Anthroplogy at the University of Chicago") describes the lengths the Roman elite went to, in order to properly feed their guests. In doing so, he makes it clear that, in our own modern age, much of what we eat – flavors, sauces, prepartion techniques – has direct ties to the Romans, and their Greek slave cooks.

He also points out that this slave-dependent society meant that labor was cheap, and that the Roman middle class, such as it was, usually lived at a lower level of access to many things – especially foods – than household slaves did. This, of course, led to ill feelings between the classes (to say the least!). When it was evident to the entire of a city that a few were enjoying imported foods with exotic seasonings and rich, flavorful sauces while everybody else was suffering with the ancient equivalent of Top Ramen and an occasional boiled egg, one might expect some people to demand that "there ought to be a law".

I came across this passage, describing the official response to class envy over that very common brand of conspicuous consumption (emphasis mine):

During the reign of C├Žsar and Augustus severe laws were passed, fixing the sums to be spent for public and private dinners and specifying the edibles to be consumed. 
These laws classified gastronomic functions with an ingenious eye for system, professing all the time to protect the public’s morals and health; but they were primarily designed to replenish the ever-vanishing contents of the Imperial exchequer and to provide soft jobs for hordes of enforcers.
The amounts allowed to be spent for various social functions were so ridiculously small in our own modern estimation that we may well wonder how a Roman host could have ever made a decent showing at a banquet. However, he and the cooks managed somehow.

Does this taxing and restricting use of perishables, to make the hoi polloi feel better about themselves, sound familiar?

But, wait. There's more:
How did they do it?...

Difficile est satyram non scribere! To make a long story short: The Roman host just broke the law, that’s all. Indeed, those who made the laws were first to break them.

In other words, laws were for the little people.

We really are learning all the wrong lessons from ancient Rome, aren't we?

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