Roman ice-cream

The following quote, which appears on a website which ranks highly on Google when you type in “Roman ice cream”, amused me for several reasons…

During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (A.D. 54-86) frequently sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruits and juices.

At least they spelled Caesar right… But Nero died in A.D. 68, and the rest of that story is also apparently without any sort of historical veracity whatever. From some very brief research, I think I have discovered that Suetonius and Pliny the Elder mention Nero as having a liking for very cold water, used as a mixer with wine, and it is quite reasonable to suggest that the best place to get this cold water, especially during the hotter months when colder water might be more pleasant, would be the mountains.

Someone on a blog somewhere refers to someone else on an uncited blog somewhere (game of Chinese whispers anyone?) says something about Fabius Cunctator’s grandfather liking to eat snow with nuts, fruit and milk. But as with this story about Nero, which seems to be as accurate as the stories of him playing the violin while Rome burnt, this appears to be merely a wish. When someone asks about the history of ice-cream, the answer “oh the Romans probably had it, because they apparently used iced water in their drinks, so it makes sense to suggest they also mixed ice with milk and fruit” just isn’t as exciting as a proper story (or ‘lie’) with names, details and (sometimes incorrect, as above) dates.

Of course, there is a place for speculation, and even for extrapolations on speculations, creating a valid and unverifiable but reasonable environment for the imagination. That place is historical fiction (and brilliant some of it is).

It seems that some, particularly on the internet, are set on blurring the lines between fictions that have been made up on the spot to sound knowledgeable in the pub and attested details. I’m not suggesting that we should believe the likes of Suetonius just because he lived shortly after the events he’s describing. But it’s no good just making things up to sound impressive. Because it doesn’t. And that goes for quiz-makers too…

Which Roman emporer [sic] made his horse a senator?

Did he really? Well, probably not. As Mary Beard pointed out in her recent documentary on Gaius (Caligula, by the way, QuizUp, is neuter plural, not singular) it is most likely that he joked that he might as well have made his horse a senator, for all the good the current senators are doing…

Roman ice-cream? If you can find a proper reference to anything resembling it, please do let me know. Anyway, it’s quite clear that it would have melted when Nero left it on the side during the Great Fire of Rome, so that he could play his violin.


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