Roman World of Spices


 Octobre 2012                    André J. Fabre         

The Roman world of spices has been in all times object of fascination : merger of all Mediterranean traditions, giant network of trade expanding on three continents, ingredients of every magic rituals and assigned to the many tasks of daily life, as dyes or perfumes, table food and medicine.


However, this Roman world remains mainly obscure to us on many sides. Even definitions pose problems :in our times, spices will commonly be defined as exotic condiments intended to enhance " flavour" and " aroma " in foods but, in Ancient times, distinction between condiments, perfumes and drugs or between aromas, aromates and aromatic plants was only relative. In fact, we can only understand this simple word "spices" using a complicated system of criteria : peculiar quality in taste and/or smell, "exotic" origin, high commercial value. but such criteria could not be applied easily to the Roman world. In the classical Latin texts, the word "species" has no entry: there is only mention of "condiments" and the triad : "aromas, aromates and aromatic plants ". Most likely, spices were, for the Romans, nothing more specific than substances with specific aromatic strength and high market prices.


The judgement that the Romans could have on spices is, by no means, clear : at times, quite similar to our experience, often surprisingly different. Very likely, there has been no change in sensory systems : spices have always carried on a subtle mixture of hedonism and passion, instinct and dreams, exotism and conquests and mutations. Beyond sensorial perceptions, a huge complex in the central nervous structures has a main impact on the psychology of human beings and their way of living. Recent works have demonstrated that a cerebral "image" is created from our sensorial perceptions : could not it explain some wide differences in our judgements on spices ??.


Three components of this "image" of spices could help to understand the Ancients :


PowerS and magic of spices


All aromatic plants and, mostly, spices, according to the knowledge of Antiquity had "virtues", i.e. "qualities" merging flavours, aromas and therapeutic properties.


SPICES AND "luxury "


Spices in the Roman world were indeed symbol of wealth and abundance. Could it be also a secret desire to "show-off", a flair for the "well being" or, more pragmatic, a call for "better living" ?


SPICES AND Exotism  


Clothes, furniture, arts and, most of all, table foods had to come from the most distant countries. Whatever it may be : caprice, exoticism", "orientalism", "egyptomania" or "cosmopolitanism",: an unleashed "passion" is born in Rome at the time of the Empire for the "far away" : a "premiere" in world History ?





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Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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