Feasting in the Shadow of Death

Profane Museum’s “unswept room” mosaic, via Atlas Obscura

This is all stuff that came up during the research and writing of In Victrix, and found it’s way in some off-hand way into the book. I’ve mentioned before how small trivia and throwaway lines make for rich world-building.

For me, I love exploring all those articles for the enjoyment in learning more about a subject I love. I then work it into my writing,

Dining Room Decorations

The above wonderful mosaic used to decorate a triclinium (dining room) in a villa on the Aventine in Rome. Besides the amazingly fine detail of the mosaic, do you notice anything strange?

It’s rubbish.

It literally depicts cast rubbish that fell to the floor. Now, why on earth would ancient Romans decorate their main dining area with garbage and refuse? It’s part of the concept of memento mori, a reminder that we are mortal and will one day die. The phrase literally means “remember that you will die”, and the concept goes back to antiquity and the early stoics. The idea is to make you focus on the here and now, appreciate life for what it is.

Side note: the common view that generals granting a triumph had a slave ride with them to remind them that they are mortal, is in doubt. It is only mentioned once by Tertullian, and never by any other source.

For an example of memento mori that did make it into my latest novel, you would want to visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for their Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition. For those not able to travel to the UK (like me), there are still some excellent videos an articles that are freely available on their website.

Of course, not every house used grim mosaics like that. Some just had beautiful still life (or semi-still) with bits of food to put you in the mood. The Ashmolean link above shows a wonderful collection of seafood.

In writing the world of Egretia, I include these details. eg. from In Numina, when I wanted to set a pastoral, relaxed dinner. Bits of that scene (the statue and the murals) will be visited later, when they’ll be twisted into a nightmare:

I reached the triclinium together with Aemilia, ahead of the domus’ mistress. Aemilia took the couch on the right, while I reclined on the one to the left.

A slave took my sandals off and washed my feet while I gazed around the room. The murals on the walls matched the kingdoms of food: a seascape, with frolicking fish and nymphs; a pastoral glade, with grazing sheep and cows; hills with fields of golden wheat; blue sky with white clouds, with flocks of ducks and geese crossing them. The floor mosaic held elaborate depictions of tables laden with dishes of fruit and meat interspersed with bright flowers, while on the ceiling were pictures of gods and goddesses dining on ambrosia and nectar, done in the Hellican style. I settled more comfortably on the couch and chatted with Aemilia about the statue of the boxer in the garden.

Or more recently from In Victrix — providing that all important “whiff of death” in a late scene that is otherwise about winding down during Saturnalia (before all hell breaks loose, naturally):

We kept on like that. Sometimes we sat to eat and drink, sometimes we served the slaves as they reclined. Clodius had nominated one of his garden slaves as the king of misrule, but thankfully the guy wasn’t too imaginative, or he was simply shy. He only had us sing or dance occasionally, nothing wilder. Aurelia reclined on her couch, not participating in the errands but when her turn came she had an amazingly clear voice, and entertained us with renditions of holiday favourites.

There were more than the customary three long couches in the triclinium, the dining room now playing host to Clodius’ complete household. The walls were decorated with fine murals, depicting pastoral and maritime scenes and all the bounty they offered for feasting Egretians. A statue on Bacchus — leaning on his staff, a panther at his feet and grapes in his hair — had been pushed to the corner. In the centre of the room an exquisite mosaic was visible between the couches: a grinning skeleton, holding a wine jug in each hand, with each bone and tooth finely detailed. It was a memento mori, a reminder to those enjoying the pleasures of the room that life is fleeting. Death awaits us all alike, so we might as well savour the present moment.

The rest of the scene is quite festive, but like I said — death looms ever nearer. A few hours later, and Felix will hit a new low. These kind of cultural background provides an excellent way to enrich both the fantasy world and add layers to the storytelling.

If you want to get a feel for eating in such an environment, a London restaurant will start serving last dinners from Pompeii. They might not have a memento mori as decorations and the food will be on the fancier side, but you will, at least in spirit, be dining the same meals as those dearly departed Roman spirits. The meals are more “inspired by” historical cuisine, so if you’d like to read about more accurate recreations — including using strains of ancient yeast to make beer and bread — read this excellent article on Archaeologists serve up ancient menus for modern tables.

Lastly, there’s the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. While Oxford is bit too far for me to travel, they did post a few videos and articles online, which I suggest you visit. This one in particular refers to the mosaic example above and the concept of memento mori as it played a part in daily life:

Other food-related sources

You all should know my love for garum (now making its way into my cooking when no one’s looking), so imagine my delight at this evidence for ancient Kosher garum: 2,000-year-old Roman ‘ketchup factory’ uncovered in Askhelon

I’ve included in the notes of Murder In Absentia about the different grades of fish and the like, and my own added obsession with squid. One can only imagine that the ancient Jews wanted that salty goodness, but had to ensure that the raw products met their stringent requirements. Cultural melting pot in action.

I made the terminology for grades of fish-sauce a bit arbitrary (still using real historical terms, but from different periods), but there was certainly important distinctions between places of origins and specific manufacturers, just like with wine. If you’re curious what it takes to keep a whole empire sauced, take a look at this article about the massive supply chain.

On to food in general. Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow about the Roman gourmand and first cookbook author Apicius, has a nice introductory article on her blog about The Food of Ancient Rome.

For those who want the original sources, De Re Coquinaria is available in both English and Latin on Project Gutenberg.

The Smithsonian published an article about From Baked Dormouse to Carbonized Bread, 300 Artifacts Show What Romans Ate based on a recent exhibition, which is fascinating.

Other Roman Curios

Games, Races, and Gladiators

In Victrix, the next Felix adventure, deals a lot with the Roman Games. What might surprise some modern readers, is that the biggest attractions were the chariot races, not the gladiatorial games. (Certainly during the Republic and Early Empire periods).

Consequently, an interesting recent find when Archaeologists Unearth Fossilised Roman Chariot With Two Horses In Croatia is the first of its kind. We know a lot about the chariot races from various sources, but this is the first complete example with horses.

There were many things from Pompeii that found their way to the book, notably graffiti, bar-tabs, and one particularly illuminating public notice about a shitty water tower (you’ll get that reference when you read In Victrix). But this Vivid gladiator fresco discovered at Pompeii is here for sheer brilliance of colours.

And speaking of frescoes, the Villa Romana del Casale includes the famous ‘bikini’ mosaic — depicting women doing sports and competing. Women and their options being the major theme in In Victrix.

Of course, gladiator games did get creative as time went on… As LiveScience says: Could You Stomach the Horrors of ‘Halftime’ in Ancient Rome?
This is actually a fairly lengthy article, about the development of the games and the role that gladiator fights — from professionals to creative executions — took within them from Republican times to late antiquity. Well worth the read.


If you “played” in the Roman games (willingly or otherwise), chances are you’ll get hurt. But even for normal people, disease, injury, and other ailments meant you’ll want a physician to look after you. I can’t recommend FutureLearn’s course on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World enough. It’s one of those information rich courses, and will present you with he ancient views about health and well-being, as well as plenty of trivia. Felix does have a run-in with a vendor of some dodgy medicines and cosmetics during the twisty plot of In Victrix.

It also appears that medicines were imported to Rome from as far away as China.

Antiqua Medicina is a review of ancient medicine, from Homer to Vesalius. Including an article about my favourite subject: Sanitation Engineering 😄 This should be useful for anyone who tries to ground historical fiction (or fantasy) in a particular period in antiquity, especially when their protagonist needs a physician (or goes down the sewers. Just saying).

The similarly named Medicina Antiqua is a collection of short essays about the subject of ancient medicine. Subjects are a bit all over the place, so more if you’re looking for specific info.

Other interesting Roman tidbits

Let us end on a lighter note. Roads to Rome is an interesting visualisation of Roman roads throughout the empire, and the tree-like structure of how one would get from anywhere to the centre.

And to squeeze out the laughs: Have you ever gotten a commemorative pen from someone who went somewhere and brought back souvenirs? Turns out the concept is quite old: ‘Roman Biro’ – complete with joke – found at London building site

That’s it for now! Hope you found something both educational and entertaining in there. If you’re curious about how I use this kind of trivia in my Roman-inspired writing, check out my books. Guaranteed to keep you steeped in Roman culture while being entertained by the ancient world’s premier occult detective. (Or try the short stories — they’re free and quick!)


  1. As always a fascinating look behind the scenes of your books (at least for us history geeks). Speaking of books….do we have an idea when the next one will be out 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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