Archaeologists: In Herculaneum, Men Ate Fish, Women Ate Dairy and Eggs

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Mount Vesuvius volcano is seen from the archaeological excavations of Pompeii in Naples, southern Italy, in 2017.
Mount Vesuvius volcano is seen from the archaeological excavations of Pompeii in Naples, southern Italy, in 2017.Credit: Cesare Abbate/AP

Once upon a time, Mount Vesuvius was considered divine. Then, in the year 79 C.E., the “Genius” divinity spewed forth its godly wrath, burying Pompeii, Herculaneum and other nearby towns in pumice and ash – and providing archaeologists with a golden opportunity to study them as they were nearly 2,000 years ago.

Now the analysis of 17 bodies in Herculaneum indicates a twist: men and women, or at least, of a subset of ancient Herculaneumites, had different diets, report Silvia Soncin of the University of York and colleagues in the journal of the American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS).

The tables of ancient Rome captivate the imagination even if some revolt certain modern sensibilities: pork-stuffed dormice, pig womb avec mint, bird tongues in batter, and anything and everything doused in garum fish sauce – even the wine. But their analysis found that the men of Herculaneum ate more fish and cereals, while women ate more meat, eggs and dairy. Or at least this is the case for the 11 men and six women the study covers. Why this was so, though, is another matter.

Helen of Troy drugs the guests

Whether or not ancient Greek and Roman women and men ate together is unclear. It seems that sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, but the status of the women at the table was not fixed. While the norm in Rome does seem to be common meals, women might be excluded, or sometimes serve as the entertainment.

Earlier, in the Homeric world, elite co-dining was apparently not verboten. Note the fabled beauty Helen’s role in a banquet she clearly attended after returning from Troy: “She drugged the wine with an herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humor,” Homer wrote. After having had the wine served, she said: “Menelaus, son of Atreus, and you my good friends, sons of honorable men (which is as Jove wills, for he is the giver both of good and evil, and can do what he chooses), feast here as you will, and listen while I tell you a tale…” (written about 800 B.C.E. and translated by Samuel Butler).

View of skeletal remains in one of the vaulted chambers (fornici) during excavation.Credit: Luciano Fattore, Sapienza Univer

There are other historic descriptions of women at Homeric-era meals, including in Greek tragedies, and the gods of the Homeric epoch were envisioned as eating together.

However, Joan Burton writes in her book “Commensality in the Ancient Greek World,” by the 4th century B.C.E. females present at symposia and parties were considered – at least by some – to be loose, unless it was a family gathering. The ancient Greek philosophers, on the other hand, seem to have been singularly stimulated by feminine presence at table.

It bears adding that women in Homeric and Hellenistic Greece would apparently hold feasts and meetings of their own; and like men could and did invite women to their fests, the women could and did invite men.

All this pertains to high society, though; the hoi polloi is likely another story. In any case, it seems that Roman society perpetuated some of these concepts: Pedar Foss of the DePauw University, Indiana noted that history records both men and women cooking. As for eating, some historic sources cite co-dining and others describe male-only banquets. At the higher level of society, women at banquets – including married ones – were in danger of being handed over like chattel.

Intriguing as historic sources are, they do not paint an even picture, beyond enshrining the notion that the men always felt superior. But now the 17 bodies found at Herculaneum, who the volcano killed in the year 79 C.E., provide solid evidence, albeit from a very small sample.

One fish, two fish, red fish, his fish

On August 9 Mount Etna erupted again, spewing ash on the neighboring cities. They’re used to it, even if it’s a “great annoyance.” Ditto the settlements surrounding Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples, which last blew in 1944. But the eruption in 79 C.E. was, as the Classic world would put it, epic.

A North American B-25 Mitchell bomber flying near Mount Vesuvius during its last eruption in March 1944.Credit: unknown member of 12th USAAF, 34

As the magistrate Pliny the Younger, who had been staying at the town of Misenum, put it in a letter written to a Roman historian Tacitus: first came tremors, which became violent enough to induce him and his mother to flee town amid a “panic-stricken crowd.”

“Then we saw the sea sucked back, apparently by an earthquake, and many sea creatures were left stranded on the dry sand. From the other direction over the land, a dreadful black cloud was torn by gushing flames and great tongues of fire like much-magnified lightning.” Ash was falling, he relates. “Then I turned around and saw a thick black cloud advancing over the land behind us like a flood.”

Ash and pumice raining down from Vesuvius and pyroclastic flows burned, choked and covered the people of the towns near the volcano. In Pompeii, the volcanic flows were so hot that one man’s brain turned to glass, archaeologists recently discovered. In Pompeii, about a thousand victims have been found; in Herculaneum about 340, most of them on the beach. Both figures indicate that a lot of people managed to get away, or have not been found yet.

Mount Etna erupts

In Herculaneum, archaeologists found skeletons of the victims, some still in their final poses. How do we know what they ate?

In the new study, the researchers explain, they checked the stable isotope values of amino acids from bone collagen and used statistical models that incorporate knowledge of protein synthesis. “We were able to reconstruct the diets of seven adults from Herculaneum with unprecedented resolution,” they claim.

It’s one thing to assume that masters and slaves ate different classes of foods. So did kings and plebes: a separate study found the Minoans evidently felt wheat was classy and lentils were for lowly folk. Similar norms may have applied more than a thousand years later in the shadow of the volcano.

Mount Vesuvius, as seen from the air.Credit: Pastorius

Note that archaeology may find seeds, animal bones, fish scales and whatnot, but that doesn’t say who ate what. Now the bone analysis conducted on the Vesuvian victims in Herculaneum suggests significant differences in the consumption habits of the males and females of the town.

Men obtained 1.6 times more protein from seafood than the women did, the researchers calculate (and add that they ate a lot more seafood than modern 20th century Mediterranean peoples, but less cereals).

Which means what? We don’t know if they ate together in first-century Herculaneum, but there was likely an access issue. There could have been cultural constraints and prohibitions. Maybe men felt eggs and milk products were unmanly. The team notes, by the way, that nuts and legumes could produce signals similar to the terrestrial foods.

Another possibility: gendered occupations. Men would fish and eat their catch and – the team writes – could be freed from slavery at a younger age than females. In general, they had more access to “expensive commodities, such as fresh fish.”

The team makes no statement about Roman dietary habits in general; this study is particular to a small group of people in ancient Herculaneum, who may or may not represent the norm at the time. But whatever they ate, they probably doused in garum, a sauce made of fermented fish and/or fish guts that was enormously popular. It was so pungent, though, its manufacture was banished from the towns.

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