Monday, 26 May 2008

Valeria Messalina and the harbour of vice

This early cultivation around Baiae has lent the oyster two of its more mythical reputations. First its repeated and continued association with the underworld and ancients. The neighbouring semi circular lake Fusaro (which was also to become important in oystering) was described by the Greek writer Lycophron in 28 BC as a "billowing and tempestuous lagoon", and later by Strabo as a "muddy expanse of sea". Mythology and poetry going back much further, place it in the centre of hell, in the area of Tartarus, "where kings were punished and the righteous passed through on their way to the Elysian Fields". Righteous or not it became a fertile and eventually historic oyster lagoon.

Baiae, by association, gave the oyster its reputation for licentiousness. It was a fashionable, decadent seaside town where rich Romans went to take the waters and misbehave. There are many references to debauchery.

The prominent socialite Marcus Caelius Rufus in 60 BC was accused of living the life of a harlot in Rome and in the “crowded resort of Baiae”, indulging in beach parties and drinking sessions.

Seneca the Younger, who died 65 BC, wrote a moral epistle on Baiae and Vice, describing the spa town as being a "vortex of luxury" and a "harbour of vice".

Things had obviously not changed much when Sextus Propertius, who died 15 BC, described the town as a “den of licentiousness and vice”.

It was here also that Caligula ordered a two mile bridge of pontoons be set across the bay for a stunt so he could ride his horse across the water in defiance of an astrologer’s prediction that he had “no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Baiae”.

It was here that Emperor Claudius built a grand villa for his third wife, Messalina, who spent her days and nights revelling in debauchery and plotting to have her husband replaced by her lover, a thought for which she was eventually beheaded.

Messalina alone might single handedly have been responsible for both Rome and the oyster’s reputation for lascivious debauchery, although her promiscuity and intriguing must have been embellished over time. Married at 15, on the orders of Caligula to the 50 year old Claudius, Valeria Messalina was reputedly as beautiful as she was politically scheming as she was sexually voracious taking lovers seemingly as she pleased including one time, so the story goes, challenging the champion prostitute Scylla as to who could satisfy more men in one night. Scylla apparently retired before dawn after 25 men, but Messalina carried on through the morning. According to Juvenal she was “tired but never satisfied”. Anyone who spurned Messalina’s advances ran the risk of execution. She slept with the handsomest, the most powerful and even on occasion the ugliest men in Rome for her own diversion or for political and financial gain. Apologists suggest a variation where she was the victim of the intrigue, that her children were fathered by Caligula and that he then foistered her on to a marriage with the elderly Claudius to save his own reputation. Eventually she fell in love with the consul Caius Silius and was determined to marry him, even bigamously. Possibly this may have been a part of a wider failed coup attempt, and that her real motive was self protection in a post Claudius order. Claudius, who while thought of as a dumb but benign dictator, seems to have been genuinely been fond of her at the start of their union, was coerced into sending soldiers to the bigamous wedding feast to kill her. She was 23.

Worse, for Claudius, it was at Baiae where he would be poisoned by his last wife, Agrippina, the controlling mother of Nero who wanted to put her son on the throne.

Baiae was just the sort of place, you might think, for a respectable oyster to lodge and find a reputation. The town even had its own well know stew named after it which is almost as rich and spicy as its own legends – a casserole of oysters, mussels, jellyfish, pine nuts, rue, celery pepper coriander, cumin, wine garum, date and oil.

The Romans demonstrably liked oysters. They baked a special bread to be served with them, a forerunner of the American enthusiasm for oyster crackers and oyster loaves.

Orgies or not, dinner was an important occasion to look forward to for the elite as this beguiling invitation from Martial suggests:

"You will dine well, Julius Cerialis, at my house...The first course will be a lettuce (a useful digestive aid), and tender shoots cut from leek plants, and then a pickled young tuna which is larger than a small lizard fish and will be garnished with eggs and rue leaves. And there will be more eggs, those cooked over a low flame, and cheese from Velabrum Street, and olives which have felt the Picene cold. That's enough for the appetizers...You want to know what else we are having? Fish, oysters, sow's udder, stuffed wild fowl and barnyard hens..."

Typically oysters were served on the shell with a famous dressing quoted by everyone writing of the time as of pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen (the salty sauce made from fermented fish), olive oil and wine.