Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.45

Alistair Elliot (trans.), Roman Food Poems.   Devon:  Prospect Books, 2003.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 1-903018-25-0.  £12.50.  

Reviewed by Farouk F. Grewing, Universität zu Köln (
Word count: 1104 words

"The Roman poets mention food quite a lot" (p. 9). Thus the first sentence of Alistair Elliot's (henceforth E.) annotated bilingual collection of Roman poems or sections of poems that deal with or are in some way or another related to (the making, consumption, or digestion of) food.

A playwright and poet himself, E. is well known for his translations and adaptations of quite a few ancient (e.g. Aristophanes, Euripides, Virgil) but also French (Verlaine) and German (Heine) works; his version of Medea opened at the Almeida Theatre (London) in the fall of 1992.

This 'food book' embraces pieces by Ennius, Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Phaedrus, Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, and also a few inscriptions. As E. emphasizes, the collection is highly selective and subjective; he intentionally left out some central poems of Horace, e.g. Satire ii 8, and others in order to not "overload the book with too many lines" of the same poet(s) (p. 9).

The material is arranged in three chapters: I. "Ingredients, sources, taste, morality, gifts and mythology", II. "Meals -- invitations, occasions, manners, courses and aims", III. "Making the day's food".

Being by far the largest part of this book (80 or so out of 150 pp.), chapter 1 is also the most wide-ranging or, if you want to put it less nicely, disorganized. To be honest, I was unable to discover any particular structural arrangement -- by (say) subject-matter (kinds of food, regions, etc.), author / chronology, genre, or whatever. Hence, one comes across passages from poems as diverse as Ennius' Hedyphagetica, followed by the Ovidian Pythagoras and the "Forbidden Food" (p. 27) of Seneca's Thyestes, etc.

At chapter end, there are two inscriptions. I cannot really see why CIL iv 7038 = CLE 1934 appears here ('Stercorari ad murum progredere. / si pre(n)sus fueris, poena(m) patiare neces(s)e est. / cave.', p. 94). Yes, the second sentence is a hexameter (p. 157), but the mere fact that (as far as I can tell) any defecation is inevitably the result of eating (usually food) should not justify the graffito's presence in this book, unless for reasons of closure. The threat uttered sounds very Priapean (at Priap. 35, the god's menace is quite explicit), the piece as a whole mock-religious.1 You could as well quote Iuv. ix 43-44 and its cognates.

The other inscription, CIL iv 1645 = CLE 953 (from the Palatine), is a lover's threat: 'Crescens: Whatever rival fucks my girl, may a bear eat him in remote mountains.' One needs a good deal of imagination to consider this a food poem. The two Latin lines have become no less than eight in E.'s rendition (p. 97). However, the comment that "[t]he Latin here is a clumsy adaptation of a couplet about Love burning [...] wherever you are, even in the distant mountains" (p. 157) is not compelling. The threat is not directed at a mountain-climber. Also, Crescens is most likely nominative (add 'dicit' or so) rather than vocative; see Courtney, Musa, pp. 304 and 307.

Chapter 2 is much better structured. It contains invitation poems (Catullus, Martial) and some related party-pieces (e.g. Horace, Ovid, Martial). Again, one finds an inscription at the end (p. 138), the anonymous line "Quod edi, bibi, mecum habeo, quod reliqui perdidi" (CIL vi 18131 = CLE 244 = ILS 8155a). The verse is part of an epitaph (hence E.'s translation of mecum habeo as 'I still have as a ghost', p. 139). But why omit the prose lines that frame this mediocre septenarius, "D.M.T. Flavius Martialis hic situs est" and "vi(xit) a(nn.) lxxx"? Indeed, this is one of the many adaptations of the so-called epitaph of Sardanopallus, for which see Cic. Tusc. v 101; cf. R. Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Urbana 1962 [= 1942]), 261-262.

Chapter 3, "Making the day's food", contains just two texts: the Moretum, the preparation of bread and the flavoring of cheese, and the opening 12 lines of Ovid's 'biography', Trist. iv 10.

It probably matters little that E. does not indicate from which (critical or uncritical) editions the Latin texts were taken since it is the English renditions that are the substance of this collection. Still, the philologist may at times be interested in the exactitude of the Latin. Only regarding the Moretum does E. refer to a particular edition and commentary (that of E.J. Kenney [Bristol 1984]), from which he departs occasionally, without however giving any reasons (pp. 159-160). All in all, E.'s deviations from the standard texts are, I think, mostly immaterial; but note that the text of the inscriptions is not reliable. E.g., in the 6-line elegiac poem written in the corner of a Pompeian wall-painting, which depicts a young woman suckling an elderly man, (CIL iv 6635 = CLE 2048), E. prints ll. 4-5 thus: "as[pice, ia]m venae lacte [rep]lente tument. / [ambiguo]q(ue) simul voltu fri[c]at ipsa Miconem" (p. 32), which is a mixture of conjectures by various hands (cf. Lommatzsch's ed.). However, we should (exempli gratia) print "re[plente tument]"; but even the 're-' is uncertain. Secondly, as E. rightly remarks, "friat (crumbles) is surely a mistake of the painter" (p. 155), so it should be "fri<c>at" (unless you want to defend friat with Mau). I am, however, willing to agree with anyone saying that my philological nitpicking is out of place here.

Most readers who have little background will find the notes (pp. 153-160) insufficient. There are a huge number of details that would require some, however brief, comment to help the layperson. Also, it needs to be pointed out that many of the poems convey significance in interpretive contexts well beyond their actual surface meaning. E. mentions, e.g., the 'big fish' of Iuv. iv (pp. 9 and 155). There is, however, a lot more allegory or metapoetry involved in many of the other food poems. E. Gowers' magnificent The Loaded Table (Oxford 1993) gives some idea. E. suspects a metapoetic dimension in Mart. vii 91, addressing Juvenal (quoted at 66): "here surely the nuts are a comment on Martial's production of short epigrams compared with the younger man's production of large satires" (p. 156). I leave that open to debate. Some pieces may seem dull unless they are read in their (intra- and intertextual) context. So it is regrettable that any indications of context, allusions, references, quotations, etc. are virtually absent from the notes.

On the whole, E.'s English renditions are masterful. It would be inappropriate to discuss their accuracy or even correctness since they are poems of their own right; all deviations from the Latin are intentional and ultimately document the editor's commitment and joy.


1.   See E. Courtney, Musa Lapidaria (Atlanta 1995), 354 for inscriptional parallels. It is not certain if stercorari is vocative (as e.g. in OLD, s.v. '-ius', whence E.'s "dung-producers"). It could as well be an irregular deponent form of stercoro; the infinitive would then be one of purpose (Courtney 354).

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