Why Is Pizza Round? The Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean

The remains of an ancient Roman bread pie from Pompeii, carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE
The remains of an ancient Roman bread pie from Pompeii,
carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE

The poem Moretum (discussed in my last post) narrates the preparation of a meal that can be characterized in modern English as ‘pizza.’  Round flatbread is baked; to go on it, a cheese spread is mixed.  The details of the narration are such as to create a recipe of its ingredients and related cooking instructions.  

The most important ingredient, however, is not an ‘ingredient’ as such, but a shape.  The bread, the cheese, and the cheese spread are all round.  That by itself might not seem remarkable, but the Latin terminology (words from which ‘orbit’ and ‘globe’ derive) is identical to then contemporary astrological terminology.  The bread is even scored into quadrants, symbolizing, among other things, the four elements and the quadrants of an astrological observer’s circle. 

The ancient audience of Moretum would have recognized in all this the world view of the Italian poet from southern Campania, Parmenides.  Though the only poem he is known to have composed is in Greek, the combination of the fact that he likely wrote it while in Italy and that it had over the centuries since its composition become one of the most influential philosophical works of pre-Christian antiquity meant Parmenides had special importance to Romans.  It is not surprising Moretum has the same meter and many of the poetic images as are found in the poem of Parmenides.

In what survives of his poem, Parmenides narrates a dream of his meeting a goddess, who holds his hand as she tells him of how she is at the center of the cosmos, as its governess, with her power manifested by what in modern terms would be deemed a gravitational force.  Hence, she was closely associated with the round shape the cosmos was then believed to have (the ‘Dika’ (Justice) with flowered wreaths around her head in a fragment of Sappho’s may be an allegorical reference to her).  Parmenides does not name her in what survives of his poem, but Moretum’s audience would have known who she was by any number of names, including the ‘(S)cybale’ of Moretum, the Black Goddess of Rome (hereafter, the ‘Goddess’).

While Moretum derives much from Parmenides, it moves in an entirely different direction from his dream world (a world from which Plato got his ‘ideas’).  Moretum is not about a dream of an ideal world but about awakening to the real one.  There is an implicit invitation to do what its farmer does at the start of the poem: wake up and prepare food for the day, while singing country songs (rustica carmina cantat).  Nothing is more real, nothing more really Roman, than that.

That reality relates to an ancient type of spirituality that quite unlike Platonism unites with, rather than escapes from, the real world.  The process of (1) gathering the ingredients of the pizza, (2) baking the bread and mixing the cheese spread and (3) consuming the pizza can be interpreted as belonging to the meditative sequence of purgatio (cleansing, e.g., sifting grain), illuminatio (enlightening, e.g., lighting the fire to bake bread) and unio (the union that eating the pizza constitutes).  Although commonly associated with the Christian tradition, the origins of that sequence in remote antiquity are betrayed by its resemblance to the sequence of tapas, svadhyaya and ishvarapranidhana of the yogic tradition.

It is particularly significant that the pizza is made with or from all four elements.  Water, for example, is in the bread and (from milk) in the cheese.  Fire bakes the bread and smokes the cheese.  Earth produces the grain from which the bread is made and the herbs that are mixed into the spread.  Air functions in a variety of ways, most directly in activating the fire.  Thus, consistent with the world view Moretum can be associated with, the pizza does not merely represent, but actually is constituted by the elements that encircle and hence embody the Goddess.

Therefore, it would seem that such a pizza is to Goddess worship what the Eucharist is to Christianity.  The Eucharist, however, belongs to a masculine tradition and is with few exceptions mediated by men.  That is entirely different from Moretum.  Everything it narrates about the preparation of pizza evinces the recognition of the importance of equal cooperation of man and woman.  Furthermore, it subtly ridicules social norms: in its world the poor and enslaved are equal to, if not better than, the rich and free.  Such egalitarianism manifests a belief that what goes into pizza is as important as how it gets there.  

That belief resonates with the poetic principle that what is said is as important as how it is said.  Moretum makes sure that resonance is detected by being marked by what is known as ‘ring composition.’  Its form has the roundness of the pizza it narrates being made.

The importance of roundness as a unifying principle manifested by the shape of both the pizza and the poem can be directly appreciated from a consideration of a well known cooking technique.  One way to mix the ingredients in a pan is to lift it a bit and then push it forcefully forward and down and then immediately to pull it back and up, repeating as necessary.  Done properly, the ingredients are launched into a little bit of an orbit above the pan that ultimately results in the ingredients landing back in it, evenly cooked and well mixed.  

This technique is but one example of the union of opposites, the combination of pushing and pulling in general, that underlies all natural phenomena.  It is literally what makes the world go round–a reality that cannot be ignored on any level.  Imagine, for example, what happens if you only push or pull a pan to mix its ingredients: you make a mess rather than a meal. 

Yet, on all too many levels there is no need to imagine what happens when the reality roundness represents is ignored.  Are not many of the messes men have made for millennia attributable to ignoring that reality?  Is it not the case that to include men, but exclude women, is to go in only one direction when two directions are to be combined?  


Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/

Author: Stuart Dean

Independent researcher and writer

14 thoughts on “Why Is Pizza Round? The Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean”

  1. I love your posts. I learn so much from them. They’re additional toppings on the pizza of what I already know. And, yes, you’ve inspired me to order pizza for supper tonight. Henceforward, I’ll think of your blogs as the sausage and mushrooms–the elemental (so to speak) animal and vegetable of our round world. But today’s blog is the spicy pepperoni. (Oh, gee. Did I just go too far with that metaphor??)


    1. Thanks. I am going to have more on this poem as it relates to the sense of taste and its relevance to spirituality so do not use up all your food metaphors just yet.


  2. And to think that every single day we are enrapturing our kids with the mysteries of the Goddess, and they don’t even know it. I feel deliciously devious.


  3. Yet another wonderful example of how the Goddess is all around us if we will only look and appreciate! Daily life is full of small rituals to inspirit and enlighten us. And pizza – not only has it survived all these millennia, but we have actually made it better and in unexpected ways (who would have thought that pineapple was good on pizza?) over the years! Add me to the list of those who plan to have some for dinner tonight…


    1. Good to hear–and another ingredient–the tomato–either in a sauce or otherwise, though now grown in Italy, was an import from the New World around 1500 years after this poem was composed.


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