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Flavor and the Elder Pliny

John Paulas

Greek and Roman authors make complex observations about the sensory perception of taste and flavor.  Although excellent work has been done in this area (e.g.,Wilkins and Hill 1993; Alcock 1993), scholars have not yet fully treated the Elder Pliny's ideas about taste and flavor.  Pliny's Naturalis Historia relates flavor to a broader intellectual outlook that emphasizes change in the sense of both generation and decay. 

Pliny's accounts of the origins of the sea's salinity and of the nature of honey show the complexities that arise in his analysis of flavor.  For Pliny, fire, water, and air in their elemental forms are flavorless (NH 15.108).  Yet Pliny's exposition of the production of flavors involves these elements.  For example, the "flavor of salt" (saporem salis) is boiled into the water (incoqui) by the sun (2.222).  In the case of honey, Pliny begins from the assumption that honey comes from the heavens in the form of dew, which he suggests is either the sweat of the sky, saliva of stars, or the juice of air purifying itself (11.30).   Pliny further details how this pure liquid that will become honey is corrupted by its contact with the exhalations of earth and other factors.  Nevertheless, its heavenly nature is still demonstrated in the sensory pleasure (voluptas) that the honey affords (11.31-32).  Pliny paradoxically explains the creation of honey's pleasurable taste in a manner similar to the reasoning he rejects for the saltiness of the sea.  He had earlier dismissed the idea that the salt in the sea is the "sweat of the earth" as less valid than his own "boiling" theory (2.222).  Given Pliny's claim that three elemental forms are flavorless and given the inconsistency in the processes of the generation of flavor, readers are left to meditate about the exact origins of the flavor principles. 

Rather than offering a consistent account of the origins of flavors that posits the existence of elemental flavors, Pliny's attempts to theorize about flavor focus on the process of change in generating or destroying flavor.  This is evident, for example, in his speculation about the sea's salinity, where he uses a form of coquere, a verb that Pliny has been shown to use to signal a process of change rather than simple heating (Healy 1999, 85).  In a similar vein, Pliny's discussion of the origins of honey emphasizes its corruption on its way to earth from the heavens.  In his account of an ostrich-sized Alpine goose (NH 10.56), Pliny offers a curious example of change's effect on flavor.  When the bird is relocated to a Roman vivarium from its Alpine habitat, it loses its flavor (sapor).  Considering Pliny's other discussions of taste, one can argue that change of habitat from the Alps to an elite Roman's pen altered the bird's flavor.  Here Pliny's exposition of relationship between change and flavor reveals the tension in his work between Romanness and otherness (see, e.g., Murphy 2004), but also his complex moral outlook regarding contemporary luxury (see especially Lao 2011), decadence, and exploitation of the natural world.  In this way, flavor figures in Pliny's larger discourse of generation and corruption, reminiscent of Stoic and Peripatetic outlooks on the natural world (for Stoicism, see Paparazzo 2011, 97), and in his literary goal of exciting wonder in the reader (Beagon 2011, 84). 

Session/Panel Title

Scientific Modes of Perception and Expression

Session/Paper Number

49.4

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