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Butcher Blocks, Vegetable Stands, and Home-Cooked Food: Resisting Gender and Class Constructions in the Roman World

Mira Green

University of Washington

There has been a recent flurry of research that explores how tools and object/human interactions affected daily life in the Roman world (Van Oyen 2016; Green 2015a; Eckhardt 2014).  Other scholars have also focused on how architecture, wall-paintings, and landscapes created and maintained social interactions and gender performances (Green 2015b; Severy-Hoven 2012; von Stackelberg 2009; Grahame 1997).  My paper builds on these studies, but it investigates the literary and visual expressions of resistance to elite culture in images of work involving food preparation and production.  

Although there have been important studies on work, craftsmen, and freed individuals (Perry 2014; Mouritsen 2011; Hackworth-Petersen 2010, 2006; Roller 2006; Joshel 1992; Kampen 1981), none have considered how visual representations of commercial food production are in conversation with similar ones found in domestic settings.  Notably, work reliefs focus on the mercantile aspect of food production, while also reinterpreting the intimate association between person, tool, and audience that is seen in domestic food preparation. Through these elements, I contend that reliefs of food vendors and butchers refigure the tacit cues that are inherent in the design of domestic cooking utensils and fixtures, thus creating a visual language of resistance to elite culture, and mastery.  Additionally, literary representations of cooking and kitchen tools (once the thick patina of elite authors’ moralizing agenda or sexual innuendo is scrubbed off) reveal instances when slaves and ordinary Romans could momentarily upend or (at least) muddy Roman social hierarchies and gender expectations (Apul. Meta. 2.10; ad Mortem 6881, 101-16; and Ovid. Meta. 632-650).  Thus, objects associated with food preparation and production became subtle, yet powerful tools of resistance to elite Roman culture.

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Material Girls

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