Tossing Shells and Other Inedibles on the Floor, in Ancient Rome and Today

A dinner party for the elite in ancient Rome was often as much about politics and social climbing as about food and drink: who was and wasn’t on the guest list, who sat next to who, who sat where, what foods were served, and so on. The food was often carefully chosen to illustrate the prosperity of the host, or perhaps his or her connections (e.g., “Gaius and Livia Maximus must know some powerful people to obtain ostrich eggs this time of year”). As always, good table manners were important, as Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa recounts in A Taste of Ancient Rome: “Etiquette required that small amounts of food be taken each time and that one should always remain clean. Ovid admonished: ‘Take the food with your fingers, this is the usual way to eat; but do not soil your face with your dirty hand'” But there were exceptions to these guidelines when it came to the inedible parts of the meal. Apparently the host didn’t provide little bowls for olive pits, nor dedicated bowls for bivalve shells, nor was it common to discreetly pile animal bones at the edge of your plate. Instead, a diner simply tossed inedible parts of the meal onto the floor, which slaves would periodically clear.

Unswept floor mosaic from ancient Rome
Detail of asàrotos òikos mosaic (unswept room)

Over the years, archaeologists have found several mosaics showing what a mid-banquet floor might have looked like, with some even adding a little mouse (perhaps the highly desired edible dormouse, but more likely a common house mouse). The image below (from Wikimedia Commons) is a photo of a portion of the mosaic from its current location in the Vatican Museum. Note the splendid detail work on the pieces humble subjects and the inclusion of shadows.

This particular mosaic was uncovered in 1833 in the vineyard of Achilli Wolves near the Porta Ardeatina in Rome. It was probably created during the time of the Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from 117 to 138) and decorated the entry room (triclinum) of a luxurious villa.

Today’s Unswept Rooms

These days, if we went to the right location, one could find material to make a modern day unswept room mosaic. We might go to a bar or tavern where you can throw peanut shells on the ground, or a large sporting event where many people just drop their trash to the ground (peanut shells, empty cups, and hot dog wrappers).  Not having any skill at making mosaics, I turned to the internet and found a tool at Picture to People. Using a photo from the Creative Commons collection at Flickr, the tool and gave me the result below.  Not quite as interesting as the Roman mosaic.

Original photo from Flickr user tyl_r

I spent a lot of time (too much, probably) searching for good photos of messy floors with appropriate licenses. This wasn’t an easy task because debris on the floor of a bar or baseball stadium is not at all photogenic and also hard to photograph well (especially a dark bar), and a few good photos had licenses that weren’t compatible with my desired use.  But while searching, I ran across two amusing items.

The first is a sign reminding guests that peanut shell tossing is encouraged from the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel in notoriously neat Singapore.  A photo from Flickr user willposh shows the sign, which reads in part:  “Quite possibly the one place in Singapore where littering is actually encouraged…at the Long Bar at Raffles, feel free to brush your peanut shells onto the floor.”

The second is a woman remembering an embarrassing lunch with her birth mother at a restaurant that had the word “roadhouse” in its name. Her birth mother was convinced that it was another “roadhouse” that she used to visit — despite many facts from the daughter, like that they are on different sides of town, that the prices are far higher, that the decor is less casual.  But that information doesn’t sink in and so there is a bit of trouble after the server leaves a basket of unshelled peanuts on the table:

When we returned to our table, there were tons of peanut shells on the floor surrounding her chair!  Worse yet, just as we sat down, she tossed yet another handful down beside her feet!  “What are you doing?” I asked her.  “They gave you an empty basket to put those in!”  (I think my face must have been about three different shades of red by then.)

As it turned out, she was still not convinced that this new restaurant was not the old steakhouse where people were encouraged to toss peanut shells on the floor.  I told her to look around and see how clean the floor was under everyone else’s table.

Photo credits

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