John Alexander Lobur
This paper explores an unnoticed strategy Augustus used to enhance his image by publicizing certain food preferences while keeping refined tastes private. This can be most clearly seen in his wine preferences, which are similar in nature to Joseph Stalin’s choice of tobacco. The paper also explores similarities between modern political invective involving gluttony and untidy eating, and the reported dietary practices of emperors such as Claudius and Vitellius. Overall, it will further refine our understanding of imperial "propaganda" by introducing an new approach to the evidence, and help us better understand how, like today, food and political culture intersected in imperial Rome.
The primary source for Augustus’ eating habits, Suetonius (Aug. 76-77), describes them as simple and frugal, and goes into a good deal of detail. While scholars have long observed that descriptions of the eating habits of emperors engage an established relationship between food and morality, with extravagance a sign of immorality and poor government (Gowers, 1993; Leigh 1996; Purcell 2003; Wardle 2014), little has been made of the possibility that, like today, leaders publicized their preferences to enhance their political capital, or that they could damage themselves by leaking preferences that alienated them from ordinary citizens.
Today, this matters a great deal in from the standpoint of public relations. In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections, for instance, Donald Trump tweeted numerous pictures of himself eating popular fast-food. Conversely, it harmed Barak Obama when he complained about the price of Arugula, or requested Dijon mustard for his Hamburger at a diner. Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister David Cameron was excoriated as a “monster” for eating a hotdog in an “upper class” manner, with a knife and fork.
It appears that Augustus was also sensitive to these matters. Much of the evidence from Suetonius explicitly derives from correspondences, where the line between public and private communication could be intentionally blurred, with letters often functioning as a form of propaganda and wider communication (e.g. Jal 1963, 217-30). There is no reason to think Augustus included his eating habits there exclusively for the benefit of his addressees. Moreover, Pliny’s discussion of the food of the rich and poor (NH 19.51-59, cf. Wallace-Hadrill 2008), shows how Augustus’ diet, as described, was quite modest, and this is well-suited to the calculated and politically salient modestia of his lifestyle (e.g. in house, furniture and clothing). He wore homespun cloth, and ate the food of a commoner, all part of a strategy of condescension such as Bourdieu demonstrated in the area of social linguistics (Bourdieu 1991, cf. Elias 1939), and all in pointed contrast between his earlier image (Suet. Aug. 70) and Antonian extravagance (Plut. Ant. 28).
Several examples provide nuance here, yet there is also evidence for disingenuity. We read from Suetonius (Suet. Aug. 77) that Augustus preferred Rhaetian wine. Pliny, our chief source for the ranking of wine, places this among the fifth (and last) rate. (NH 14.67), which corresponds to Suetonius’ earlier statements on food choice, for example that Augustus favored “second class bread” (panis secundarius). Rhaetian was an Italian wine, and preferring it would also be a “nationalistic,” popular choice (cf. Verg. Georg. 2.95 and NH 14.96) and sumptuary in posture (cf. NH 14.96). However, this contradicts Pliny’s bald statement that Augustus and all subsequent emperors preferred Sentinum, rated as one of the two best (NH 14.61), and more exclusive than Falernian.
Perhaps Augustus thought his refined tastes were best kept hidden. In a similar way Josef Stalin preferred to smoke Herzigovina Flor, the elite cigarette brand of the Russian nobility and upper class. This conflicted with the working-class image he cultivated with his famous pipe, so in public he crushed the tobacco from two of his choice cigarettes into the bowl as a way of masking his private bourgeois tastes (Boer 2014, Kotkin, 2017). Augustus likewise guarded his image as a man of the plebs.
Roman Political Self-Representation