Photograph of a first-century Roman Lararium from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. Photo is an altered version of the creative commons licensed photo found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vettii.jpg

Thinking about thinking about the Roman Empire

Eating dormice with garum from the trashcan of memology

by AK Krajewska

This Monday morning, my spouse and I are sitting in bed drinking coffee, reading the internet on our respective handheld computers.

Spouse: How often do you think about the Roman Empire?

Me: About once a week.

Spouse: Did you know that’s a meme?

Me: No.

Half an hour later after reading a few think pieces on men thinking about the Roman Empire

Me: Wait, did you mean Rome in general or just the Empire? I’m not sure how much I’m thinking about the Republic vs the Empire. It might be a different amount.

I love trash

Now it has been almost a week and I bet a lot more people have been thinking about the Roman Empire, or maybe Ancient Rome in general, more than they usually do. I've read a lot of trash articles and OK thinkpieces, and I guess I'm just adding to it here. Well, sorry. I could have written about Ed Ruscha or weird mushrooms, or the succulent society, or even picked up haunted manuals again (I do have an outline), but no, instead I am compelled to eat from the trash can and write trash. As my two favorite philosophers, Slavoj Žižek and Oscar the Grouch have opined

"I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating." The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012)


"I love trash." Sesame Street (1969)

And I'm always a little fascinated by these women are like this, and men are like that trends. Because, if you know me, you'll know that my spouse is a man. And I am, well, I am not a man. It's not the first time where I found myself in the neither this nor that of gender categories, though it may be one of the sillier times. Because on the one hand I'm saying, yes, I think about Ancient Rome at the frequency of a man, apparently, but based on my research [1], I think about different things about Ancient Rome than manly Rome-fantasizing men think about.

What I think about when I think about Ancient Rome

When I think about Ancient Rome I think a lot about the stuff that Ancient Romans ate. Like garum the stinky fermented fish sauce they apparently put on everything, or about Roman bread which was round and looked like it had big pizza slices, or about the fact that most Romans probably didn't cook at home and just got cooked food out from vendors. I especially think about edible dormice, which are yes, a kind of tiny rodent, and which were a delicacy in Ancient Rome. Rich people would breed them in special jars called glirarium so the dormice would be extra fresh. And like, I know how weird this sounds. The first few times I read about Romans eating little stuffed rodents as decadent snacks, I thought I was probably misreading or misunderstanding. Nope, they absolutely ate mice[2].

I think a lot about Pompeii, because I was obsessed with volcanos as a kid, in exactly the same way as some kids get obsessed with dinosaurs. Also because I saw Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 2021 and it was so astounding, I made an important change in my life. That exhibition had a lot of day-to-day stuff from people's lives. Previously, I found a lot of stuff about Rome pretty tedious because it tended to focus on marble busts of boring looking dudes with names that all ended in "us" and their military exploits. You may take it as read I am making the jerking off motion in the direction of a phalanx. I mean OK, a phalanx is cool once. A jar full of holes that people bred dormice in on the other hand? That's cool at least a dozen times.

Speaking of jerking off motions, I also love the way Romans had just, a very different attitude towards phalluses than modern Americans and Europeans do. They liked to decorate things with them, for luck. Not for the Romans a mere phallic symbol. No, they would stick penises with wings all over their wind chimes. And some of those penises with wings had their own penises. Or they would place life-sized ithyphallic deities with larger than life penises in their gardens. Again, for luck, and possibility agrarian fecundity. As a modern person brought up in American and European cultures, I find that shit hilarious.

Genius and Lares

The other thing I think about a lot is how in addition to all the official big-name Gods, the Romans had all these hyper-local Gods. Every mildly important place had its own God, a genius loci. We now think of that meaning metaphorically, the spirit of a place, but it was a real God, a real spirit. Wherever you went, you had to make sure not to offend the genius loci, and you'd probably make some prayers and offerings to it if you were about to do something important.

Your house had its own guardian divinity, a Lares, and houses had a domestic shrine, called a lararium where you would make sacrifices both to your house guardian spirit, but also to your own personal guardian spirit. For men, this personal divinity is called a Genius, and for women, a Juno. And like, this is not your own soul, but it's also kind of personal. I think the Guardian Angel ideal is kind of similar, though I don't think Christians make food offerings to their Guardian Angels, nor are Guardian Angels generally supposed to have some personality traits similar to the person they guard, whereas the Genius or Juno might. Also the lararium often had a picture of a snake, often accepting offerings. I've seen the snake referred to as the agathadaimon and I can't quite figure out if the "good spirit" snake and the Lares are the same or if they just go together. I also got the impression that maybe some households had actual pet/sacred snakes.

At the time I went to see the Pompeii exhibition, I was exploring getting involved with a religion that has a lot of similar ideas of genius loci and a world full of invisible beings and your personal divinity. A lot of it was cool, but I also felt like there were some things that I found weird in a not cool way, however I felt like I had to just put up with them for the parts I liked, because where else would I find this kind of richness and good weirdness? Anyway I was ambivalent, maybe even conflicted. And then I saw all this stuff about Ancient Rome and the the domestic shrines of Pompeii, and weird as that felt over the distance of time, it also felt a lot more comfortable. Like, I could have this richness connected to the culture that I was already connected to, rather than either trying to acculturate to something foreign or getting involved in some cultural appropriation nonsense. Neither of those paths sounded cool. Painting a giant snake shrine and making sacrifices of incense to local spirits and my personal Juno/Genius, or at least thinking about what it might be like to live my life that way sounded cool.

So, because of the Lares and the agathodaimon I got uninvolved with the fascinating but occasionally uncomfortable foreign religious group with a lot less regret and ambivalence than I would have otherwise. The lararia of Pompeii reminded me many of the things I was hoping to get from it were already part of the lineage I had connected with, and a culture I was far more familiar with. Maybe this is is similar to what Rome-pondering dudes get out of thinking about Ancient Rome, too, a sense of connection to something that seems missing in modern life but which they can point to as being part of their heritage.

All the other stuff

There's a lot more to think about Ancient Rome besides food and household shrines. But honestly, I think the thnkpieces have it mostly covered. Most of it just boring dude stuff, and the parts that aren't I'm too tired to think about to write about clearly (like the whole patermailias gig and the patriarchy and the corrosiveness of slavery, and the broken fantasies of masculinity).

My only regret is I didn't talk about augury. Because prophetic chickens, oh man. Someday I'm going to have to write about augury vs haruspicy and we'll talk about prophetic chickens then. In the meantime, if you're thinking about the Roman Empire, maybe try thinking about the Roman Republic a little bit, too.

Footnotes and photo credit

[1] Reading at least 2 articles and skimming several headlines.

[2] Technically dormice aren't mice, but they are basically mice with furry tails.

Photo credit: The header photo is a a cropped version of Photograph of a first-century Roman Lararium from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii by Patricio Lorente. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. As such, my header image, is shared under the same license.