Ponticuli etiamferruminati sustinebant glires melle ac papavere sparsos.
“There were also dormice rolled in honey and poppy-seed, and supported on little bridges soldered to the plate”
–Petronius, Satyricon, 31 (trans. Heseltine).
Look, I know you may think mice are cute. I, myself, raised adorable hamsters as a child and thus have sympathy for all rodents. But we do have to face the fact that these little critters may or may not be delicious haute cuisine.
First of all, dormice (Lat. a glis) are quite large rodents that are more akin to squirrels. Roman villas oftentimes raised edible dormice to be eaten locally or sold at the market to those with expensive taste. Excavations at Poggio Gramignano in Teverina (about 70 km north of Rome) have turned up the remains of the three standard types of dormice: the Garden dormouse, the Hazel dormouse, and the Edible dormouse.
These rodents were fattened in buried ceramic vessels with little ledges inside them and with holes poked through the walls. Water could be poured through the top. These vessels were called dolia or gliraria, and during the winter hibernating period, dormice were given chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns along with water (Mart. 3. 58; 13. 59) in these little ceramic hamster cages. Pliny notes that the little critters also like beechnuts. Archaeological examples of these ceramic vessels have been found at Pompeii and elsewhere in Roman Italy.
A glirarium for fattening dormice exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Chiusi. (Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Marco Daniele).
As Roman archaeologist and ancient Umbria expert Claudio Bizzarri has noted, there was often a villa economy predicated on smaller livestock that could also turn a profit for a villa owner (what we might call today a side hussle): “The pastio villatica concerned the more prized and profitable courtyard animals such as pigeons, doves, thrushes, geese, ducks, peacocks and hare, but also boar, roe and fallow deer and even snails, dormice, freshwater and saltwater fish.” Ancient historian Grant Nelsestuen discussed in his recent book on Varro the Agronomist the fact that the pastio villatica was a rural setup used to rear small or unusual animals near to the villa and mostly catered to the luxury market–but dormice were indeed relatively easy to raise in gliraria containers.
A Roman glirarium recently shown at the British Museum but from Pompeii (Inventory Number SAP 10744 38.3 x 33.5 cm Collection/Museum: Pompeii Excavation: Pompeii, II,1,11).
These small delicacies were often part of the starter of the meal for Romans, referred to as the gustatio. Roasted dormice rolled in honey and poppyseed was one of the starters for Trimalchio’s guests in Petronius’ Satyricon. The lone surviving cookbook, authored by Apicius (who may or may not have been a mix of various chefs), notes the following recipe for glires (stuffed dormice): “[It] is stuffed with a forcemeat of pork and small pieces of dormouse meat trimmings, all pounded with pepper, nuts, laser, broth. Put the dormouse thus stuffed in an earthen casserole, roast it in the oven, or boil it in the stock pot.” Double-stuffed dormice appear to have been best when roasted rather than boiled.
To conclude, I want to circle back to the irregularity of these little guys in the Roman diet. The tie between dormice and the luxury market is important to remember; most Romans did not subsist on honeyed dormice (and I think you might get scurvy if you did). Just as most extant Roman literature provides a reflection of elite living rather than a mirror of the impoverished day-to-day life of most Romans, many of the recipes and satirical anecdotes that survive from antiquity provide a skewed idea of the quotidian Roman diet. Archaeological objects like gliraria can indeed give us some insight into the luxury market, but they shouldn’t then be taken as typifying the contents of all Roman tables.
Author’s note: A table of the surviving gliraria is listed by ancient historian Kim Beerden in her 2012 article on the fattening of Roman dormice.
Kim Beerden, Table 1: Dormouse-jars, in “Roman dolia and the Fattening of Dormice,” Classical World, Volume 105, Number 2 (Winter 2012): 227-235.