Kitchenalia: Roman Glirarium
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
In 'Kitchenalia' we introduce objects from different historical periods, discover a bit about their history and find out how each was made. We look at how, through our practical experiments, we have learnt to best use them, and we have even included some recipes for you to try at home.
Today's object is a Roman glirarium, a terracotta container, a replica of which is pictured right, was used for keeping the largest of all dormice: the edible dormice (Glis glis). These animals were considered a delicacy by the Etruscans, the Gauls and the Romans who farmed and ate them, hence the term "edible" in its name. These Glis glis can reach 32 cm from nose to tail, which includes around thirteen 'delicious' centimetres of edible mouse - according to the Romans that is!
Farming Our principal source for farming dormice is from the writings of the Roman scholar and prolific author, Marcus Terentius Varro. He describes how, having caught wild dormice in autumn when they were fattest, the Romans kept and raised them in large pens. The walls of these enclosures were polished or plastered to prevent the dormice from escaping. The pens were filled with trees whose fruit the dormice like, such as beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, and so on. If the trees did not bear any nuts, then the pens were amply supplied with such. According to Varro the dormice needed little water, preferred to live in a dry place, gave birth in burrows, and in winter hibernated in the hollows of trees.
Dormouse jars In less spacious urban surroundings, where it would be difficult to establish pens, enterprising potters crafted earthenware jars (dolia) to mimic the dormice burrows. These terra cotta gliraria (the plural of glirarium) were polished on the inside to prevent escape and were lidded to seal the top. Ventilation holes were also essential, providing sufficient air for the dormice to survive but limiting the available light inside.
Ledges or ribs were attached to the internal surface of each jar for the dormice to walk on. Like the example on display in the Ashmolean Museum, pictured right, "D"-shaped dishes (behind the faux dormouse's head) were also attached to the interior for food and water. The museum in Naples has jars of this kind, with ribs forming three to five stories, and little openings traversing the walls.
With a sufficient supply of food, the jars were sealed. Given that no ceramic lid has ever been discovered or connected with these jars, we can only assume that the Romans used a wooden stopper or some form of fabric or leather lid tied around the top. Either way, the darkness and confinement induced hibernation in the captive dormice. This left them with little to do but eat and sleep, until they were fat enough to provide rich Romans with a luxury 'snack'. The fatter the dormice were, the more they were valued.
A rich recipe Dormice were definitely the food of the rich. The process of keeping and feeding these rodents would have involved considerable time and effort for a relatively low return. Moreover, it seems that fattening dormice became something of a competitive sport amongst wealthy Romans, with hosts attempting to serve the fattest possible mice to impress their banquet guests. According to the histories of Ammianus Marcellinus sometimes scales were brought to banquets so the dormouse's weight could be noted.
The evidence So, what is the evidence for the eating of dormice? Recipes do survive, principally from Apicius, which are our best but limited evidence. These recipes, for example, describe dormice being roasted and served dipped in honey, or rolled in a coating of honey and poppy seeds, or stuffed with a mixture of pork, pine nuts, and other flavourings.
It should be borne in mind, however, that the eating of dormice seems to be the preserve of rich Romans and not something on the menu of the average citizen. Remember also that just because we have a surviving recipe, it does not mean the dish was widely eaten, if at all. That said, the popular, tabloid-style headlines always claim 'the Romans ate dormice'.
The problem with such statements is that when we say 'Romans', who are we actually talking about? After all the term has more than one meaning. On a grand scale 'Roman' is often applied, in general terms, to anyone living in the Roman period and anywhere in the Empire. At a more local level, it might mean someone who has adopted a 'Roman' way of life whether they live in Italy, France, Spain or the Romanized areas of Germany. One can imagine wealthy Romans in Italy eating stuffed dormice, but can we say the same about people living in Roman North Africa, Egypt, Syria or, indeed, Roman Britain? What evidence do we have for the presence of dormice, eaten or otherwise, in the province of Britannia?
Britannia There are many examples of gliraria recovered from archaeological excavations that look much like our replica. Nearly all are from mainland Italy, the most famous find site being that of Pompeii. Indeed, the National Archaeology Museum in Naples houses five examples: three from Pompeii and two from the area around Vesuvius. Another example, pictured right, from Pompeii is currently housed in the collection at the Boscoreale Villa and Antiquarium. Unlike our replica, this latter original has much straighter sides, but the ventilation holes are clearly visible.
Here in Britain you might see an example displayed in a museum, perhaps as part of a special exhibition, but there have been no finds of gliraria, or identifiable parts thereof, in this country. A search of all archaeological finds on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database produces no results. So, it really does seem that we have no physical evidence for the farming or raising dormice in Britain. Furthermore, as far as we know, there have been no osteoarchaeological  finds identifiable as the bones of edible dormouse recovered from a Roman context. Of course bones could be discovered in the future so this is not definitive proof, but the current lack of evidence strongly suggests that edible dormouse simply were not on the menu in Britannia.
Today Perhaps even more compelling is that the edible dormouse is not a native species in Britain. The nocturnal Hazel, or Common, dormouse is, however. The latter's golden-brown fur and large black eyes are very distinctive, but it is a tiny creature being 6½ to 8 cm in head-body length and weighing in at only 20 g (oz) . Compare that with the edible dormouse that has a squirrel-like body, small ears, short legs, large feet, and grey to greyish-brown fur. Moreover, the edible dormouse is double the size being around 14 to 19 cm (5½ to 7½ in) in head-body length, plus an 11 to 13 cm long tail - that’s up to 32 cm long (over one foot)! And edible dormice weigh in at anything from 120 to 150 g (4.2 to 5.3 oz), which is six or seven times heavier than the cute little native Hazel.
All that being said, today there is a small, relatively isolated population of edible dormice living in the Home Counties of England. This population, however, cannot trace its ancestry to Roman Britannia. Rather, at the turn of the 20th-century, the British banker and zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild introduced edible dormouse to his private zoological collection housed in the Natural History Museum at Tring  in Hertfordshire.
In 1902, however, some of the dormice escaped and having found a habitat conducive to survival and reproduction, established themselves in the wild. Today, as an invasive species, the British edible dormouse population is thought to be some 30,000 strong. Dormice have been recorded in a 25-kilometre (16 mile) radius of Tring, mostly concentrated to the south and east. The area of distribution has been described as 200-square-mile (520 km2) triangle between Beaconsfield, Aylesbury, and Luton, around the southeast side of the Chiltern Hills. Although now classed as a pest, because they cause widespread damage to woodland by stripping bark from trees and destroy fruit crops such as apples and pears, edible dormice are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
And finally We do not recommend gliraria for housing dormice or any other small furry animal as this would be cruel, so don't do it! Moreover, the little Hazel dormouse is an endangered species, and the edible dormice is protected by law, No matter how tempting, or 'delicious' the Roman recipes might sound, you cannot eat them!
So, did the Romans eat dormice? Yes, probably, if you happen to be exceptionally wealthy and living in Italy. But as far as Britain is concerned, there is no evidence for farming or eating of dormice. No matter how gruesome or shocking it may seem, the attention grabbing media headline - 'the Romans ate dormice' - is more myth than reality. Sorry folks, but for us Britons dormice is off the menu.
1. Osteoarchaeology is the study of human and animal skeletal remains found in archaeological contexts.
2. Popularised by the small, sleepy dormouse character in 'A Mad Tea Party', Chapter VII from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
3. The Natural History Museum at Tring was built in 1889 to house the incredible collections of Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild. It was known as the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum until April 2007. Today it is under the control of the Natural History Museum, London and displays one of the finest collections of stuffed mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in the United Kingdom. The National History Museum at Tring is located on Akeman Street.
Our thanks to Graham Taylor of Potted History who handmade our replica glirarium.