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Dining with Angels: cuisine and dining in Rômania

This article, written by Henry Marks, who has published several books on this subject (see at the bottom) was originally published in Medieval History Magazine, vol. 2 no. 1 (2004).

Introduction

The Eastern Roman Empire, or “Byzantine” Empire as it is nowadays called, existed from 330 to 1453CE. In western and southern Europe literally dozens and dozens of medieval cookbooks exist, many of which have been translated into English. No such Eastern Roman cookbook or organised set of recipes has apparently survived. Culinary information from the 1100 years of the Eastern Roman Empire is scattered, and until the past decade or so, the vast majority of it had never been translated into English.

Sources

While a few references have been translated into English and published, the vast majority have not. To address this situation, I have translated, or had translated, the work of Simeon Seth, the Prodromic Poems, portions of Koukoules’ Byzantine Life and Civilization, Jeanselme and Oeconomos’ ‘Byzantine Cuisine and Dietary Recipes’, as well as Hierophilos’s dietary Calendar (Marks, Byzantine Cuisine). Andrew Dalby’s recent book offers translations of several additional short texts, but three of the four translations involve compilations of different editions or texts.
The books of Orebasios (a fourth–century physician) provide a compilation of information from a variety of earlier writers about foods. One can most likely view Oribasios as a transition from Rome to Constantinople.
Anthimius was a sixth–century physician who was forced to leave Constantinople. He lived in Gaul and wrote the short dietary work to Theuderic, King of the Franks.
Simeon Seth was a eleventh–century physician to the Emperor, who late became a monk. His list of foods is the most extensive of all the primary sources, although he provides very limited information about how to prepare them.
The Prodromic Poems are a set of four satirical poems from the eleventh century, which poke fun at a wife, the clergy, and the economic value of scholarship. While they provide information about the food of the eleventh century, the recipes should be treated with caution, as they appear to be parodies, much like that of Trimalchio’s feast.
Hierophilos was a thirteenth–century physician according to the surviving manuscripts of his work. He provides a dietary calendar of the year in which he specified what foods to eat, what not to eat, the number of baths to take and whether sexual intercourse is appropriate in that month.
Phaidon Koukoules’ five volume set, Byzantine Life and Civilization, has never been completely translated into English, although brief excerpts and references to the work exist in a large number of other texts. Koukoules was a very prestigious scholar and author. He had access to many materials not readily available to other scholars, but even he admits that he was not always able to fully understand some of the medieval Greek writings.
Sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks, a large number of Typika (rules which govern the various daily activities of a monastery) have been translated and are available in a five volume set. A number of these typika provide information regarding the food and its preparation of the monks on both feast and fast days.
Information on behavior during a meal, as well as table types, settings and silverware is limited, but does provide some hints as to where and how some Eastern Romans ate, with what type of utensils and displaying what sorts of manners

Foods and Preparation Techniques

byzantine dinner
Detail of a fourteenth–century nativity scene.

As in most medieval locales, cereals (wheat, oats, rye, etc.) were the most important food and were eaten by rich and poor alike. Cereals were eaten as breads, with the rich eating fine white breads and the poor eating breads which might be made of dried peas, thistle, oats, etc. Yeast breads were known and considered superior to other types. The finest were called court foam and puffy.
Breads were baked in a variety of fashions. The “milk oven” had a fire in a separate area below the actual oven. Western Europe, at this time, generally used an oven in which the fire was lit in the cooking space, heating the oven. The ashes were swept out and the break was put in. This oven was also in common use in Byzantium. Bread was also literally cooked in the ashes of a fire. A fourth type of baking was done using a portable oven called a krivanos or klivanos. The krivanos was a metal or pottery dome which covered the bread and allowed it to cook faster and more evenly than simply being cooked in the ashes or upon a brazier.
Cereals were also baked into biscuits. Unleavened bread, called voukellon, was baked twice to make it sufficiently dry to preserve it for long periods of time. This became the bread of the Eastern Roman troops, and was reportedly so hard it had to be dipped in liquid to soften it before it could be eaten.
there were apparently a variety of porridges (cereals cooked in a liquid). one, called trachanas, was made from cracked bulgur wheat soaked in sour milk or yoghurt, then made into balls which were dried in the sun. These balls were added to hot water and produced a porridge which was often garnished with feta cheese. Dishes similar to modern oatmeal were also common.
Pancakes or fritters are some type of flour, plus a liquid, often with other ingredients, which are spooned or poured into a pan and fried. I have found only one specific mention of pancakes and one of fritters, so it is unclear how common these dishes were in Byzantium. In Flavours of Byzantium, Dalby suggests that Eastern Roman pasta, itria, was not commonly eaten. The only specific description of itria I have found comes from the fourth century writings of Oribasios who describes itria as made from wheat, which is made very thin so it bakes easily and then is pounded into very small pieces and boiled for a long time until it becomes a simple mass. Based on this description, it seems unlikely what we call pasta was available in medieval Eastern Roman Empire, although it was clearly available in medieval Europe.
Eastern Romans did not differentiate between things we call vegetables and those we call herbs. Some authors included beans as vegetables, others as cereals, and others as legumes. Vegetables are described as being eaten both raw and cooked. In medieval Western European cookbooks, cooked vegetables are occasionally mentioned, but seldom, if ever, raw ones.
Among the vegetables mentioned are cabbage, lettuce, onions, radishes, leeks, cucumbers, asparagus, rocket, garlic, celeriac, endive, watercress, spinach, orache (mountain spinach), kohlrabi, turnips, and cauliflower. Note the absence of tomatoes, peppers (chili and capisicum) and potatoes (new world foods).
Preparation techniques are remarkably similar to modern ones. Vegetables are cooked (boiled, simmered or steamed) in a variety of liquids, water, wine, linseed oil, garon (Greek garum, Latin = fish sauce). If cooked in water, some sort of additional flavoring was often added. In monasteries, olive oil was often added, much as we add butter today. Vegetables were also baked or fried. Since many of the sources were health texts, we can see Eastern Romans valued vegetables much more than Western Europeans did.
Eastern Romans ate a wide variety of meats, including pigs, goats, sheep, deer, hare, rabbit, and cattle. Most authors indicate that the Eastern Roman preference was for very young, often unweaned, animals. Additionally, meats as well as other foods, were to be served lukewarm. According to most authors sheep, goats, and pork were the usual domesticated animals to be eaten. However, the ninth-century Ordinances of Leo VI specify two types of butchers in Constantinople — one who butchers swine and the other that butchers cattle and sheep.
Young (presumably tender) animals were often broiled or roasted. One recipe describes pork broiled over coals, after being coated with a mixture of wine and honey. Older meats were more often cooked in a liquid, but this liquid might be oil, in which case we are describing frying. Game and beef were to be boiled, but “later”, suggesting the Eastern Romans knew the value of aging meat. Many types of meats were often steamed, but its not clear if these were whole animals or pieces. Marinating meats was also a well–known procedure in the Eastern Roman Empire. Meat was also chopped and cooked much like we cook meatballs today. Sausages were well–known, with pork being the basis for the majority. A variety of sauces were served with meat.
Some dishes were extremely complicated, such as the kid (baby goat) offered to the Bishop of Cremona by the Byzantine Emperor. The kid was stuffed with garlic, leeks, and onions, and coated with garon and roasted whole. It was also quite common for meat to be boiled, followed by another cooking process (baking in a liquid, roasting, etc).
The consumption of meat and its blood was regulated by the Orthodox Church. These included abstinence from meat on fast days (approximately 40% of the days of the year). The Church also forbad the eating of blood–based foods (e.g., blood sausage) and threatened excommunication to those who did. Further restrictions forbade the consumption of an animal which has died by asphyxiation, died in a trap, died from natural causes, or had been killed by another animal. The basis for this proscription appears to be the notion that these animals would contain dried blood. The frequent repetition of these proscriptions would suggest that they were often ignored.
There is substantially less information about fowl than meat. We know that a huge variety of birds were eaten, including chickens, peacocks, turtledoves, starlings, cranes, partridges, doves, sparrows, beccaficos, ducks, titmice, fig–peckers, and bustards. Cooking procedures for any variety of fowl almost invariably recommend the bird be hung (to age it), although there is less agreement as to how long a given bird should be hung. Interestingly, domesticated fowl were also hung to age.
Cooking procedures for fowl included boiling, roasting, baked under the ashes or cooked in a liquid (in an oven). One recipe suggests submerging chickens in vinegar for a day prior to cooking them. While there are many statements about sauces to accompany meats, there are few such statements regarding fowl.
Procedures for cooking eggs are infrequently mentioned as food in Eastern Roman reports. These are limited to boiling in the shell, omelets, and afratos. Afratos is beaten egg white with chopped chicken cooked in wine and fish sauce, then topped with honey and wine. The eggs of chickens, geese, duck, partridge, and pheasant were eaten. In none of the material I have seen is there mention of eggs used as leavening agents or as a binding agents (to help hold foods together).
Eastern Romans separated fish and other seafood into two different categories. I believe this was primarily on a religious basis. Fish contain obvious blood, while according to the Eastern Romans seafood has none. This would mean that seafood could be eaten many times when fish could not. Seafood consisted of crabs, lobsters, cockles, sea nettles, cuttlefish, scallops, oysters, mussels, octopus, and squid. Seafood was usually boiled or fried, but it could also be stuffed and baked. An example of the latter procedure is a recipe in which squid is stuffed with rice and pomegranates and baked.

byzantine bowls

Bowls from a twelfth–century shipwreck.

Given the location of Constantinople, it would be surprising if fish were not commonly found on the East Roman menu. Fish was such a staple that the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennitos ordered nets be taken on all military campaigns so the fresh fish could be caught. There are substantial lists of fish in many of the texts. Some like tuna fish, cod, trout, sturgeon, pike, salmon, sole, etc. appear quite common, even today. Others have names which do not translate into modern terms; for example, porcelets, thrush, and torpedo. Many fish were boiled, but this term (boil) may correspond to our poaching fish. Fish were also baked, preferably with skin on to keep more of the juice inside. Frying and grilling were other popular cooking techniques. Fish were also cooked as part of a soup or stew,
One particularly unusual method of cooking was to use a double boiler. An uncooked barley cake is placed in the bottom of the double boiler, the fish is placed above it and the steam from the cooking barley cake cooks the fish. The result is a cooked fish and a crisp barley cake.
Legumes were a common source of protein for the lower classes and monks. Lentils, broad beans, red beans, black eyed beans, peas, chickpeas, lupines, and vetch. The only legumes regularly eaten raw were fresh chickpeas and fresh sweet peas. Soups and porridges were common dishes for legumes, as were a dish of lentils cooked by itself. In all cases lentils were to be washed and then boiled twice with a change of liquid part–way through. In most cases, the first liquid was plain water, the second could be wine, water with spices and herbs, etc.
Cheese was made from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, and water buffalo. It was curdled using rennet, fig juice, fig leaves or artichokes. Cheese was generally considered good for one’s health, with fresh (like cottage cheese) being the best and hard or cooked cheeses being the worst. Feta and mizithra cheeses are identifiable as being made during the Byzantine era. Yogurt was apparently another common way of preserving milk and was present in Eastern Roman Empire since at least the sixth century.
Nuts and fruits were both subsumed under the term fruits. The list of fruits is extensive, although there is some disagreement as to the translation of some fruits. Fruits available included watermelon, melon, figs, grapes, mulberries, blackberries, apricots, plums, jujubes, citrons, walnuts, hazelnuts, peaches, dates, pine nuts, quinces, pomegranates and walnuts. While most sources suggest that fruits were primarily eaten raw as deserts, they were also made into various types of preserves. A very few recipes suggest cooked fruit other than as preserves.
In addition to fruits and nuts as desserts, there were various prepared, sweet dishes. There were sweet rice dishes made with milk and sugar, unleavened cakes soaked in honey, cakes made with boiled down grape juice (must) and flour, as well as candies made with honey and sesame seeds.
Mushrooms and other fungi were apparently well–known, with warnings regarding those which were poisonous. Truffles were also known. The most detailed recipe for mushrooms indicates that they are to be seasoned with nard, lavender, carnation, cinnamon, a dash of vinegar and honey and then cooked in an egg soup.
Sauces were common and quite varied in Byzantium. They ranged from the simplest brine (water plus salt) to complex combinations of spices, herbs, oil, wine, vinegar and honey. A favored sauce was garon / garum, the famous fish sauce of Roman times. This sauce was in continual use throughout the period and was reported in use by the Turks after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Other common sauces were some combination of vinegar, garum, oil, and wine. Oxygaron was vinegar and garon, eleogaron was oil and garon, oenomelitos was honey and wine, and oxymelitos was honey and vinegar.
In Western Europe there was a specialty dish called a “sotelty”. These sotelties took a variety of forms, but all usually had some element of entertainment associated with them. One form was the practical joke such as making meat look raw or the medieval dribble cup. There were message sotelties which were decorated (some edible, some not) which carried the theme of an event or made a specific point. An example of this form was a thirteenth–century wedding feast in which the sotelty was a representation of a woman having a child. The third type of sotelty was characterized by a deceptiveness in which the appearance of the dish was different than its taste. This last type derived from ancient Rome and continued to the Byzantine Era. These specialty dishes included small fish stuffed into birds as well as small birds stuffed into fish. One particularly elaborate dish took a chicken and removed all the bones except the legs. The innards of the bird “were mixed up and unimaginably complicated” and stuffed back into the intact skin. The skin was covered with dough and cooked.
Medieval Western Europe offers limited information on drinks — beer/ale, mead, wine, and some wine mixtures are the vast majority of drinks reported. Byzantium offers information on a huge variety of drinks. Naturally wine is mentioned. It was sweet, dry, or sour, red, white, or yellow, resinated or unresinated, blended or single vintage. While wine was drunk by itself it was also mixed with a wide variety of spices, as well as honey. These combinations were called conditon. An example of a conditon is wine mixed with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and spikenard. Wine was usually drunk at room temperature, or as a luxury, heated. Honey wine was not the mead of Western Europe, but is one part honey to two parts wine.
In addition to wine, water is frequently mentioned as a drink. Portions of the religious calendar were designated hydroposion — time of water–drinking. Milk is also frequently mentioned, but very fresh milk is considered the best. Other drinks included fruit juices and juleps. A basic julep is honey and water or sugar and water. Naturally a wide variety of additional flavorings were added. These included fruit juices, herbs and spices. Another class of drinks were called posca or oxycrat. These are vinegar plus water drinks, and like juleps, may have a variety of other ingredients added. There were a few more esoteric drinks: meligala, honey and milk; rodomeli, extract of rose petals and honey; and urdomeli, the foam from boiling honey and wine.
Like the recipes of Western Europe, East Roman recipes seldom offered more than a list of ingredients and a cooking procedure. One hypothesis is that a cook simply needed a reminder of the ingredients and would be experienced enough to know the proportions. Another hypothesis is that specific quantities could not be listed since they would have to be adjusted to meet the health needs of the person(s) consuming the food. These adjustments were made based on the second century humoral theories of Galen. Dalby offers a nice summary of this theory.

Dining customs

golden byzantine bowl
A golden bowl of the twelfth century.

While some sources indicate Byzantines ate three meals a day, there is sufficient disagreement among the experts to make that little more than a hypothesis. One of the difficulties in making this determination is that there were a variety of words used for the different meals. Words used at one time for lunch might at a later time indicate an early dinner. A meal in wealthier homes usually followed the Roman custom of appetizers, main course and dessert. The number a variety of each of these courses would naturally depend on the wealth of the individual and the type of occasion.
The early dining “seats” for the upper classes and nobility were the couches of Rome In the Triklinos, the Emperor’s State banquet chamber, there were nineteen couches— two rows of nine, with the Emperors couch at the head. Each of these couches was reportedly able to hold twelve people. By the sixth century both couches and chairs are reported. By the tenth century, the preference has shifted to chairs, although couches were used on special occasions. By the thirteenth century, chairs were the standard. For the common folk, stools or benches were often available and when not, the ground was the available seating. For the wealthy, chairs might be constructed of wood, ivory, silver, gold, or some combination of these materials, they were often very elaborate.
The earliest tables were small circular or D–shaped ones. These were the most functional when dining from couches as they allowed immediate access to the foods of the individual diner, who rested on his left arm and could only grasp food with his right hand. Later tables became rectangular, although it is not clear when this change occurred. Tables for the rich, like chairs, were often made of precious materials. Small circular table were the most practical for peasants since they most often ate from a single bowl in the middle of the table.
Table coverings were also very common for the rich, although they could also be used to make a statement about a diner’s status. To eat at a place without a table cloth might be considered similar to eating “below the salt” at a Western European noble table. The use of some sort of hand towel or napkin is reported throughout most of the Byzantine era, and in iconography, having one tucked through a person’s belt was a signifier of gentility. Both hand towels and table coverings were made of the finest materials the individual might afford. At least at one time the Emperor was reported to have table coverings of golden cloth. Hand washing before and after meals was also quite common, suggesting that Byzantine ate with their hands.

byzantine tableware
Late Antique silver spoons. Wear patterns on some surviving spoons in the British Museum indicate that they were used with ceramic as well as metal tableware.

Although commoners in the Enduring Roman Empire may have eaten with their hands, spoons and forks are repeatedly shown in icons and many exist in museums today. Spoons were in use from at least the fourth century, while a single report suggests a single tined for was also used in the fourth century. The number of tines increased over time, with a report of a five tined fork in the eleventh century. Knives are notable from their absence in descriptions and in icons, yet they are extremely well represented in archaeological finds, so those absences may be simply because they were too prosaic. Utensils were made from wood, bone, horn, ivory and metal. The wealthier the individual, the more, expensive and elaborate the utensils. The degree to which utensils versus hands were used is unknown. A thirteenth–century priest provides a list of appropriate and inappropriate manners at meal time. His statements about the use of hands, the Eastern Roman preference for lukewarm foods, plus the pre– and post–eating hand washing have led some individuals to conclude that spoons and forks were primary for display rather than for general use.
For most poor individuals, dishes were wooden or pottery. For the wealthier, gold, silver, copper, tine and even glass were more common. Decorations ranged from ceramic coatings to various types of inlays, including enamels and precious stones. After the twelfth century, most of the dishes which have survived are pottery. This may be, in part, due to the theft of valuables during the Latin conquest of Constantinople. It may also reflect the declining power and influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. Serving dishes ranged from plain wood to extremely costly, highly decorated pieces. Enormous serving pieces were found in the Emperor’s formal dining room. The Bishop of Cremona described a major feat in these words:
“‚Ķeverything is served in vessels, not of silver, but of gold. After the solid food is brought in on three golden bowls, which are too heavy for men to lift and come in on carriers covered with purple cloth. Two of them are put on the table in the following way. Through openings in the ceiling hang ropes covered with gilded leather and furnished with golden rings. These rings are attached to handles projecting from the bowl, and with four or five men helping from below, the are swung onto the table by means of a movable device in the ceiling and removed in the same fashion.’
The East Romans distinguished between meals and symposia or banquets. Symposia were parties at which drinking and conversation flourished. Symposia started in ancient Greece, but gradually changed in early Roman and later times so the difference between a banquet and symposion become blurred. Proper women did not attend symposia. When women did attend, they were most likely entertainers of one form or another. One of Emperor Justinian’s laws allowed the husband of a married woman to leave her if she attended a symposion,. Some symposia became extremely rowdy, with practical jokes and obscenities common. Justinian II ended some of his banquets by having his enemies executed.
One of the more curious aspects of banquets was the giving of gifts. Among the wealthy the host would often give both leftovers and expensive gift to guests. Some individuals may have help support themselves by being guests. Gift–giving occurred in both direction since in many cases guests brought presents for the host. Guests at banquets were not of friends and important individuals, but were also supposed to include the poor and churchmen. The former were invited as examples of Christian charity. This is substantially different than Western Europe where the poor where often given the leavings of a feast but were not likely to be invited to sit with the Lord of the manor.
Meals were primarily family affairs. Both sexes often ate together and guests of either gender might join them.
We have one primary source who details manners at family gatherings. Bar Ebraya, a thirteenth–century priest discusses the place of prayer at meals and when to wash (before and after meals). He describes exactly how to take food from the common bowls (“do not take food from the center of the bowl, but from the sides, to avoid putting your hand deep into it”), If Bar Ebraya’s recommendations were standard practice at meals in the Eastern Roman Empire, etiquette standards were quite high. Without additional confirmation it is not possible to conclude his standards reflected common practice.

Henry Marks


Recommended reading

M. Abdall, ‘Culinary guidelines of a 13th Century Assyrian Catholicos, Bar Ebraya’, In Cooks and other People, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking, Prospect Books, Devon, 1996, pp 9—14.
A. Dalby, Flavours of Byzantium, Prospect Books, Devon, 2003.
H. Marks, Byzantine Cuisine, Self–published, 2002 efentesdemetrios@hotmail.com
F.A. Wright, The Works of Liudprand of Cremona, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1930.