You may be surprised to know that The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem about the founding of Rome, contains references to pizza! Or, at least, an early version of what we recognize as pizza today.
The origins of pizza are not entirely clear. The word is thought to have been derived from the Latin word pinsere, which means to pound or stamp. It is also possible that the word came from the Byzantine Greek pitta, a round flatbread, or from the Lombardic word, pizzo, for mouthful or bite. Whatever the linguistic origins, the dish itself is a staple in the diets of many people around the globe and is almost always associated with Italian cooking.
The Aeneid is an epic poem–written around 29-19 BC in Classical Latin–that tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who is ultimately responsible for the founding of Rome. It’s considered one of the major works of the Western Canon and historically thought to be essential to the study of Latin.
The Aeneid, however, is notable for another, more obscure reason. You see, in Book III of the epic, Aeneas happens upon the Queen of the Harpies, named Celaeno. She foretells that he and his crew will not find Rome unless and until they are so hungry that they resort to eating their tables.
“Italy is the land you seek?
You call on the winds to sweep you there by sea?
To Italy you will go. Permitted to ender port
but never granted a city girded round by ramparts,
not before some terrible hunger and your attack on us–
outrageous slaughter–drive you to gnaw your platters
with your teeth!”
–The Aeneid, Book III
What Aeneas doesn’t realize, however, is that these tables are actually bread! See, the early origins of pizza can be traced back to something called bread plates. The easiest way to consume food without making a mess was (and still is!) by using a plate. For travelers like Aeneas, though, who may not have access to a typical plate, bread was used instead. Food was piled onto the “bread plate” and eaten off of it. When finished, the bread could be eaten by the consumer, given to another who may want it, or thrown away.
Toppings could include olive oil, herbs, cheese, and various types of proteins. The only thing missing from this pizza are the tomatoes! Though the bread plates described in The Aeneid resemble a modern day focaccia more than they do a pizza, you’ll be surprised to know that it actually resembles one of the earliest forms of pizza, as tomatoes are a relatively recent addition. In the past, typical Italian pizzas did not include sauce, only using olive oil, cheese, and other toppings for the dish.
Book III isn’t the only mention of these bread plates. In Book VII of The Aeneid, Aeneas and his crew face an endless hunger during their feast.
“An once they’d devoured all in sight,
still not sated, their hunger drove them on to attack
the fateful plates themselves, their hands and teeth
defiling, ripping into the thin dry crusts, never
sparing a crumb of the flat-bread scored in quarters.”
–The Aeneid, Book VII
Aeneas later realizes that the plates Celaeno referenced were, in actuality, the plates of bread they used during meals. Again, they used these plates to hold their food–or pizza toppings–and then eventually ate the bread separately. Had they cut up the bread and eaten it with the toppings, it would resemble pizza even more!
Did The Aeneid truly make an early mention of pizza? Of course! Though it might not be what we recognize today, it’s still an integral part of pizza history. Without bread plates, who knows if we’d be enjoying pizza today.
Feeling hungry now? Here’s a recipe for a delicious bread plate (pizza dough) that you can top with whatever you like–even tomatoes!
3.5-4 cups flour
1 tbsp olive oil
1 packet of active dry yeast
2 tbsp sugar (1 tbsp for yeast; 1 tbsp for flavor)
1/4 cup water (and add. water as necessary)
Pinch of salt
Desired toppings (cheese, tomatoes, etc.)
- Add yeast, water, and 1 tbsp sugar to bowl. Let sit until foamy, about 5 mins.
- Combine yeast mixture with flour, remaining sugar, olive oil, and salt. Add water as necessary, making sure dough isn’t too wet or dry.
- Mix, then knead until smooth.
- Place dough in lightly greased bowl. Cover and let rise 1.5 hrs, or until doubled in size.
- Roll out dough into round shape and add desired toppings.
- Bake pizza at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for ~10-12 minutes, or until crust begins to brown on top.