Food feasts in Ancient Rome

December 17th, 2011

The festive consumption of food and drink was an important social ritual in the Roman world. Known in general terms as the convivium (Latin: “living together”), or banquet, the Romans also distinguished between specific types of gatherings, such as the epulum (public feast), the cena (dinner, normally eaten in the mid-afternoon), and the comissatio (drinking party). Public banquets, such as the civic feasts offered for all of the inhabitants of a city, often accommodated large numbers of diners. In contrast, the dinner parties that took place in residences were more private affairs in which the host entertained a small group of family friends, business associates, and clients.

Roman literary sources describe elite private banquets as a kind of feast for the senses, during which the host strove to impress his guests with extravagant fare, luxurious tableware, and diverse forms of entertainment, all of which were enjoyed in a lavishly adorned setting. Archaeological evidence of Roman housing has shed important light on the contexts in which private banquets occurred and the types of objects employed during such gatherings.

The dining room was one of the most important reception spaces of the residence and, as such, it included high-quality decorative fixtures, such as floor mosaics, wall paintings, and stucco reliefs, as well as portable luxury objects, such as artworks (particularly sculptures) and furniture. Like the Greeks, the Romans reclined on couches while banqueting, although in the Roman context respectable women were permitted to join men in reclining. This practice set the convivium apart from the Greek symposium, or male aristocratic drinking party, at which female attendees were restricted to entertainers such as flute-girls and dancers as well as courtesans (heterae).

A dining room typically held three broad couches, each of which seated three individuals, thus allowing for a total of nine guests. This type of room is commonly described as a triclinium (literally, “three-couch room”), although dining rooms that could accommodate greater numbers of couches are archaeologically attested. In a triclinium, the couches were arranged along three walls of the room in a U-shape, at the center of which was placed a single table that was accessible to all of the diners. Couches were frequently made of wood, but there were also more opulent versions with fittings made of costly materials, such as ivory and bronze.

A proper Roman dinner included three courses: the hors d’oeuvres (gustatio), the main course (mensae primae), and the dessert (mensae secundae). The food and drink that was served was intended not only to satiate the guests but also to add an element of spectacle to the meal. Exotic produce, particularly those from wild animals, birds, and fish, were favored at elite dinner parties because of their rarity, difficulty of procurement, and consequent high cost, which reflected the host’s affluence. Popular but costly fare included pheasant, thrush (or other songbirds), raw oysters, lobster, shellfish, venison, wild boar, and peacock. Foods that were forbidden by sumptuary laws, such as fattened fowl and sow’s udders, were flagrantly consumed at the most exclusive feasts.

In addition, elaborate recipes were invented—a surviving literary work, known as Apicius, is a late Roman compilation of cookery recipes. These often required not only expensive ingredients and means of preparation but also elaborate, even dramatic, forms of presentation. For example, in the fictional Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s Dinner), written by Petronius Arbiter during the reign of Nero (54–68 A.D.), the wealthy freedman Trimalchio serves his guests numerous extravagant dishes, such as a roasted pig stuffed with sausages, a hare decorated with wings to resemble Pegasus, and various foods arranged in the shape of the twelve signs of the zodiac.

At the Roman banquet, wine was served throughout the meal as an accompaniment to the food. This practice contrasted with that of the Greek deipnon, or main meal, which focused on the consumption of food; wine was reserved for the symposium that followed. Like the Greeks, the Romans mixed their wine with water prior to drinking. The mixing of hot water, which was heated using special boilers known as authepsae, seems to have been a specifically Roman custom. Such devices (similar to later samovars) are depicted in Roman paintings and mosaics, and some examples have been found in archaeological contexts in different parts of the Roman empire. Cold water and, more rarely, ice or snow were also used for mixing. Typically, the wine was mixed to the guest’s taste and in his own cup, unlike the Greek practice of communal mixing for the entire party in a large krater (mixing bowl). Wine was poured into the drinking cup with a simpulum (ladle), which allowed the server to measure out a specific quantity of wine.

A decadent meal required an elaborate table service comprising numerous vessels and utensils that were designed to serve both functional and decorative purposes. The most ostentatious tableware was made of costly materials, such as silver, gold, bronze, or semi-precious stone (such as rock crystal, agate, and onyx). However, even a family of moderate means likely would have owned a set of table silver, known as a ministerium. Major collections of silver tableware, such as those found at Pompeii, Moregine (a site on the outskirts of Pompeii), Boscoreale, and Tivoli, reflect the diversity in the shapes and sizes of vessels and utensils used.

A complete table service included silver for eating (argentum escarium) and silver for drinking (argentum potorium). Silver for food included large serving trays and dishes, and individual bowls and plates, as well as spoons, which were the primary eating utensil used by the Romans. The spoon came in two popular forms: the cochlear, which has a small, circular bowl and a pointed handle that was used for eating shellfish, eggs, and snails; and the ligula, which has a larger, pear-shaped bowl. Knives and forks were less commonly used, although examples have survived. Among the drinking silver, cups came in a variety of forms, the most popular of which had their origins in Greek types, such the scyphos and the cantharus, both of which are two-handled drinking cups. In numerous cases, silver drinking cups have been found in pairs. It is possible that they were intended for use in convivial rituals, such as the drinking of toasts.

The most ornate silver cups were decorated with reliefs in repoussé, which frequently depict naturalistic floral and vegetal motifs, animals, erotic scenes, and mythological subjects. Imagery associated with Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, intoxication, and revelry, was popularly used on objects designed for serving and imbibing wine. This pair of cups, both of which depict cupids dancing and playing instruments, would have been especially suitable for a drinking party because their subject matter evoked the rites of Dionysos. Dionysiac imagery was also employed in other banqueting accoutrements, such as a bronze handle attachment for a situla (bucket-shaped vessel) in the form of a mask of a satyr or Silenos.

Similar types of tableware were made of less costly materials, yet they exhibit a high level of craftsmanship. Glass had become especially fashionable and was more readily available in the Roman world following the rapid development of the Roman glass industry in the first half of the first century A.D. New techniques allowed glassmakers to create vessels in a variety of styles, such as monochrome glass, polychrome mosaic glass, gold-band glass, and colorless glass, which mimicked the appearance of costly rock crystal vessels. Cameo glass, which was made by carving designs into layered glass, was especially prized among the elite for its delicately carved imagery, which was similar to that found on silver and gold tableware.

Vessels made of terracotta were another affordable alternative. Terra sigillata, a type of mold-made pottery known for its lacquerlike red glaze, was widely popular. Terra sigillata vessels from Arretium (modern Arezzo, Italy), known as Arretine ware, were renowned for their relief decoration, which was typically produced using stamps of different figures and motifs. The terra sigillata industry also flourished in the provinces, particularly in Gaul, where plain and decorated vessels were mass-produced and exported to diverse parts of the empire.

The final component of the banquet was its entertainment, which was designed to delight both the eye and ear. Musical performances often involved the flute, the water-organ, and the lyre, as well as choral works. Active forms of entertainment could include troupes of acrobats, dancing girls, gladiatorial fights, mime, pantomime, and even trained animals, such as lions and leopards. There were also more reserved options, such as recitations of poetry (particularly the new Roman epic, Virgil’s Aeneid), histories, and dramatic performances. Even the staff and slaves of the house were incorporated into the entertainment: singing cooks performed as they served guests, while young, attractive, and well-groomed male wine waiters provided an additional form of visual distraction. In sum, the Roman banquet was not merely a meal but rather a calculated spectacle of display that was intended to demonstrate the host’s wealth, status, and sophistication to his guests, preferably outdoing at the same time the lavish banquets of his elite friends and colleagues.

Katharine Raff
Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


3 Responses

  1. Gallicus says:

    What is the historical evidence for the modern drawing showing women reclining next to men at the same table (1) ?

    (1) http://www.historynotes.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/roman-feast-1.jpg

    • tamara says:

      Well, I haven’t found an evidence. Though I found out that more conservative Roman citizens have had the separate dining rooms for men and women, and this tradition fade out around the Augustus era. However, men and women dining together doesn’t necessarily mean the low morality.

  2. me says:

    Rome is boring

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