Way back in college, I was half persuaded, half coerced by my classics-loving friends into taking a challenging history course called Fall of the Roman Republic. There were 7 of us all told in the class, and we decided it was only right to call ourselves something pompous and regal and dubbed ourselves the Septumviri.
The course was taught by an amazing professor named Dr. Elizabeth Meyer who looked like a Roman herself. An aquiline nose, piercing eyes, booming voice, and intimidating boots were her signature features, as was her theory of teaching, which she called “the New Cruelty.” Dr. Meyer totally kicked my ass academically and simultaneously gave me a tremendous interest in classical history, and she later served as my academic adviser.
Throughout the rest of my college career, I took every last course on Roman and Greek history that I could sign up for, and by the end of it all I had amassed a tremendous pile of semi-useless but totally cool knowledge about Hannibal’s war elephants, Thessalian battle formations (the best of which is the Thessalian rhombus, obv), and gruesome political murders, like the time that Tiberius Gracchus got beaten to death with chair legs on the floor of the Roman Senate, in part because he suggested that Rome’s elites should forgive the debts of the Republic’s impoverished farmers.
Anyway, it’s interesting to me that in later years, I discovered that the Romans were avid mycophiles as well! The Roman diet included Amanita mushrooms, Boletus mushrooms, truffles, various wild Agaricus species, and likely other species as well.
In pursuing an understanding of the human-fungus connection, I realized that one of my favorite ancient cultures treasured mushrooms just about as much as I do. This little synergy delights me to no end, especially because the Romans approached mushrooms with all the flashy, semi-glorious and semi-reprehensible behavior that was a major hallmark of their culture.
Of course, the Romans were not the first people in western Europe to collect and enjoy mushrooms. The paleolithic Red Lady of el Miron, who was buried nearly 19,000 years ago, was a mushroom-eater, and a hunter named Otzi carried a pouch of medicinal mushrooms with him when he was killed 5,300 years ago. However, the Romans are yet another step in the human-mushroom dance, and I cannot help but dedicate a little time on this blog to the intersection between two of my intellectual interests.
Once I’ve talked about the Romans, I swear I will return to more useful information about how to do wild mushroom identification, find chanterelles, and other handy stuff for mushroom hunters, but for now, feel free to either indulge me or click onward to a more interesting part of the internet.
Yours in Fungal Fancy,
Mushrooms in the Roman Republic and Empire
The Romans were not the first so-called “western” civilization to enjoy the pleasures of mushrooms. As in so many other things, the Romans looked to the Greeks for an understanding of fungi, and Roman literature related to mushrooms leans heavily on Aristotle’s Natural Histories, which classified mushrooms as plants with invisible seeds. Other Greek writers called mushrooms “sons of the gods,” because they appeared mysteriously in the wake of thunderstorms and caused much puzzlement to the curious and clever Greek thinkers of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE.
According to some Greek authors, the great god Zeus hurled “mushroom seed” to earth on lightning bolts, which explained the sudden appearance of fruiting fungi after storms. The Romans similarly assumed that mushrooms and thunderstorms were inexplicably linked, and most Roman-era writers who attempted to explain mushroom biology noted that thunderstorms were critically important in the lifecycle of fungi.
The arch Romans loved mushrooms, and aristocrats devoured loads of them at absurdly sumptuous feasts. The Romans commonly called mushrooms “food of the gods,” and there was a significant market for wild-foraged mushrooms in and around the city of Rome. The Romans were mostly interested in the gastronomic pleasures of consuming fungi, and there is little to suggest that they were used medicinally or spiritually.
However, the Romans did pursue further research on the cause of fungal fruiting, and introduced new applications of cultivation and species classification. Mushroom recipes are a prominent part of Apicius, a Roman cookbook from the late 300s, and a special dish called the Boletaria was used to prepare and serve mushrooms, which is the root word for the large (and largely edible) genus Boletus.
Today, certain species of genus Boletus (in particular the King Bolete, Boletus edulis) are highly prized worldwide, especially in Italy, where it goes by the name porcini, and the tradition of eating porcini almost surely goes back to Roman times (and probably even further back than that). However, the Romans were not solely interested in stocking the cupboard with boletes. They fancied all sorts of mushrooms, especially delectable species of the Amanita genus, which unfortunately also contains some of the most deadly mushrooms in the world.
As such, the Romans took care not to poison themselves at dinner by hiring experienced mushroom foragers and daring food tasters to assure that the fungal bounty was safe to eat.
The Romans were particularly fond of the rich flavor of Amanita caesaria, the aptly named Caesar’s Mushroom, and serving mushroom dishes to one’s guests was a mark of class and wealth. Considering the Roman obsession with social status and vainglorious boasting, mushrooms became an important part of their food culture and high society.
Like the ancient Egyptians, the Romans crafted laws prohibiting commoners from eating mushrooms, reserving them for nobles and the soldiery. The famed 1st century Roman poet Martial was particularly myco-covetous, and showed a characteristic mistrust of common folk that was quite normal at the time: “Silver and gold and a fine cloak—these are easy to send with a messenger. To trust him with mushrooms—that is difficult!”
Nonetheless, the Romans did permit their warrior class to consume fungi, on the grounds that mushrooms were good for the constitution. Legionnaires were fed meals of mushrooms before battle to heighten strength and endurance. In fact, the Roman understanding of mushrooms was really twofold: first as a high-class delicacy that spoiled easily and must be collected and prepared with great care, and as one of the western world’s first health foods.
Like current-day Italian mushroom collectors, the Romans were bold about consuming several different species of Amanita mushrooms. They preferred to eat them in “egg” form, when a universal veil of tissue surrounds and protects the baby mushroom. Unfortunately, this is also a phase of development where the difference between a deadly species like the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and a delicious one like the Cocorra (Amanita calyptroderma) is challenging to discern. As a consequence, Romans occasionally died because of misidentification of Amanita mushrooms, and in some cases mushrooms were used in deliberate poisonings.
Mushroom Poisoning and the Emperor Claudius
The most prominent incident of (alleged) mushroom poisoning in Classical Rome resulted in the death of Emperor Claudius in 54 AD. According to several authors, Claudius’s wife Agrippina hired a notorious female poisoner named Locusta to do away with her noisome imperial spouse.
When Claudius (supposedly) gobbled up a poisonous feast of mushrooms 54 AD, he was an aging leader whose succession and reputation were in question. Although keenly interested in imperial expansion, justice, and civic works, Claudius wasn’t popular; he was lame in the legs, stumpy in stature, and he wasn’t even born in Rome. Furthermore, his intended heir, Brittanicus, was a minor and Claudius’s strapping stepson Nero posed a serious threat to the youth’s succession. Agrippina was Nero’s mom and Claudius’s fourth and terminal wife, and she desperately wanted to keep Brittanicus out of the picture so that her unbalanced but handsome son could take the reins of power once Claudius shuffled off the mortal coil.
And so, with villainous intent, Agrippina enlisted the help of Locusta to do away with her husband before he had a chance to amend his will upon Brittanicus’s 18th birthday. The crafty assassin chose poisonous Amanita mushrooms as her weapon of choice because Claudius was known for gorging himself on mushrooms at the imperial table. The rest, as they say, is history.
Other sources implicate Claudius’s taster Halotus as the culprit, and many classical historians believe that Claudius simply died of natural causes, because he was always frail and was relatively old by the time of his death in 54 AD. Anyway, at least a few authors maintained that Claudius ate mushrooms and promptly croaked, and Nero became the new Roman Emperor until his suicide in AD 69, a year that will stand in infamy as one of the most politically unstable eras in Roman history, a year where 4 emperors were proclaimed, ruled, and promptly got snuffed.
Although Nero was eager to divorce himself from the Julio-Claudian side of the family, he showed his stepfather some respect by proclaiming that Claudius was divine. The Roman Senate seconded the motion, and subsequently there was much theatrical hulabaloo, drinking, killing, and various other excesses that characterized a good old-fashioned Roman deification in the first century AD. And in such an ignominious way, the mushroom-poisoned old man was reinvented as a part of the ever-expanding Roman pantheon.
Charming fellow that he was, Nero managed to craft a bit of mushroom-snark into the ceremonies during which Claudius was deified. According to Seutonius, Nero remarked that it was fitting that mushrooms should be called “food of the gods,” because by eating them, Emperor Claudius became divine, leaving behind his past as an unimpressive dictator who came to an untimely demise.
The witty and sardonic writer Seneca was close with the imperial family (he served as one of Nero’s advisers up until Seneca decided to lay a plot against the mad emperor’s life). In his writings, Seneca accused Agrippina and Locusta of using mushrooms to kill Claudius. His account of Claudius’s passing includes a particularly crass passage:“This was the last utterance of his to be heard in this world, after he had let out a louder sound from that part by which he found it easier to communicate. ‘Oh dear, I think I’ve shit myself!’ I suspect he did. He certainly shat up everything else.”
Claudius was not the only powerful Roman leader to die from mushroom poisoning. The emperor Jovian, whose brief reign in the 4th century AD was marked by strong anti-pagan policies (traditional religious practices were banned and violators faced the death penalty), violence toward the learned (he burned the ancient library at Antioch and overturned earlier decrees permitting freedom of conscience for Roman subjects), and the re-establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 364 AD, after eight years of rule, Jovian died from eating “a surfeit of mushrooms,” and very possibly consumed poisonous species of some sort.
Roman Writers Who Expounded on Mushrooms
It is interesting to me that the Romans defined their fungal relationship in a way that sheds some light on their cultural values; they were delicious treats enjoyed by the nobility at decadent banquets, as a health food meant to pump up their soldiers for combat, and they were also used to commit murder.
To their credit, however, the Romans also carried on the intellectual tradition of studying the scientific classification of mushrooms. Pliny the Elder, a Roman warrior-scientist, observed that mushrooms were born in the wake of storms, further advancing the theory that mushrooms were spontaneously generated by certain weather events.
Plutarch, the Greek author and Roman citizen who authored of a series of biographies in the 2nd century that are the equivalent of the classical world’s People Magazine, was a huge truffle fan and posited that thunder triggered their growth. Plutarch was uncertain of his conclusion and expressed puzzlement about truffles that mirrored Aristotle. By the end of the Classical Period, the intellectual class had reached a bit of an impasse with its scientific understanding of fungi, which is one reason mushrooms fell into disrepute during the suspicious and grim Dark Ages.
On the whole, the Romans were a bit more rational about fungus than the Greeks. This is particularly true if you believe theories that the Greeks used mushrooms, ergot, or other hallucinogenic fungi to trigger visions and altered states of consciousness at Eleusinian Mysteries and the Oracle at Delphi. At the same time, the Romans still puzzled over mushrooms’ inexplicable nature and origin and never really figured them out.
Concluding Thoughts on Food of the Gods
It is fascinating to me that so many ancient cultures thought that mushrooms were divine in some way. From ancient China to Mesoamerica, people throughout the world adopted names for mushrooms that showed a reverence for their mysterious nature. The Aztecs called them “flesh of the gods,” and believed that the god Quetzalcoatl created mushrooms from drops of his blood. The Chinese goddess Xi Wang Mu, a primordial mother figure who ruled over a celestial garden and governed life, death, and time, was often depicted with the ling zhe (also known as reishi mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum) in one hand, and this mushroom was synonymous with longevity, wisdom, and the touch of the divine. The Romans and Greeks, in their own ways, also embraced the mystery of mushrooms and worked these organisms into the fabric of cultural narrative, which is evidence that these interesting creatures have an almost unavoidable appeal to the human imagination.