Salt Cellars


In Ancient Rome, salt was so valuable that it was sometimes used as payment for soldiers (hence the word “salary” and the term “earning his salt”). But salt was also useful as a drying agent and for the preparation and preservation of food. For example, in The Deadliest Lie, Miriam recognizes the use of salt to preserve the meats sold in the agora:

I raised my hem to tiptoe around the ripe twists of excrement and the opals of phlegm that dotted the pavement while I confronted the squawks of caged fowl awaiting the butcher’s knife, the smoky odors of street food, and the reek of salted meat hanging in strips, threaded with fat, and streaked with blood.

Not only was salt a necessity, but it had to be either mined or made. In Alexandria, it was made from the evaporation of weakly saline seawater from ponds made at the edge of the Mediterranean.

Aside from these uses, it was important in the human diet. Just think of the salt in our body fluids such as blood, sweat, and tears. And so, the use of salt cellars, small bowls for serving salt at the dinner table, have been traced back as far as Ancient Greece. True, the early ones were simple terracotta bowls. The Roman ones, however, were typically made of silver. Later Europeans, to show off their status, owned extravagant salt cellars. In fact, your social status was determined by how close you were seated to the salt cellar.

The one pictured here is a part-enamel, gold table sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini. It portrays Land and Sea, personified by the Earth goddess Gaea and the sea god Poseidon. Once a possession of the Habsburgs, it is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But you will not have to go to Vienna to see The Deadliest Lie. Just click here.

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