Banquets and Entertaining

© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016

Food and dining in the Roman Empire reflect both the variety of foodstuffs available through the expanded trade networks of the Roman Empire and the traditions of conviviality from ancient Rome's earliest times, inherited in part from the Greeks and Etruscans.
In contrast to the Greek symposium, which was primarily a drinking party, the equivalent social institution of the Roman 'convivium' (dinner party) was focused on food.
Banqueting played an major role in Rome's communal religion.


Maintaining the food supply to the city of Rome had become a major political issue in the late Republic, and continued to be one of the main ways the emperor expressed his relationship to the Roman people and established his role as a benefactor.

Roman food vendors and farmers' markets sold meats, fish, cheeses, produce, olive oil and spices and pubs, bars, inns and food stalls sold prepared food.

Bread was a staple food for Romans, with more well-to-do people eating wheat bread and poorer people eating barley bread.
Fresh produce such as vegetables and legumes were important to Romans, as farming was a valued activity.
A variety of olives and nuts were eaten.
While there were prominent Romans who discouraged meat eating, a variety of meat products were prepared, including blood puddings, sausages, cured ham and bacon.
The milk of goats or sheep was thought superior to that of cows; milk was used to make many types of cheese, as this was a way of storing and trading milk products.
While olive oil was fundamental to Roman cooking, butter was viewed as an undesirable Gallic foodstuff.
Sweet foods such as pastries typically used honey and wine-must syrup as a sweetener.
A variety of dried fruits (figs, dates and plums) and fresh berries were also eaten.
Salt–which in its pure form was an expensive commodity in Rome - was the fundamental seasoning and the most common salty condiment was a fermented fish sauce.
Locally available seasonings included garden herbs, cumin, coriander, and juniper berries.
Imported spices included pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and fennel.
While wine was an important beverage, Romans looked down on drinking to excess, and drank their wine mixed with water; drinking wine "straight" was viewed as a Barbarian custom.

Maintaining an affordable food supply to the city of Rome had become a major political issue in the late Republic, when the state began to provide a grain dole (annona) to citizens who registered for it.
About 200,000–250,000 adult males in Rome received the dole, amounting to about 33 kg per month, for a per annum total of about 100,000 tonnes of wheat primarily from Sicily, Northern Africa, and Egypt.
The dole cost at least 15 percent of state revenues, but improved living conditions and family life among the lower classes, and subsidized the rich by allowing workers to spend more of their earnings on the wine and olive oil produced on the estates of the landowning class.
The grain dole also had symbolic value: it affirmed both the emperor's position as universal benefactor, and the right of all citizens to share in "the fruits of conquest".
The public facilities, and spectacular entertainments mitigated the otherwise dreary living conditions of lower-class Romans, and kept social unrest in check.
The satirist Juvenal, however, saw "bread and circuses" (panem et circenses) as emblematic of the loss of republican political liberty:
'The public has long since cast off its cares: the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things: bread and circuses.'
Romans who received the dole took it to a mill to have it ground into flour.
By the reign of Aurelian, the state had begun to distribute the annona as a daily ration of bread baked in state factories, and added olive oil, wine, and pork to the dole.


Kitchen in a Small Roman Domus
The Latin expression for a full-course dinner was ab ovo usque mala, "from the egg to the apples,".
A multicourse dinner began with the gustatio ("tasting" or "appetizer"), often a salad or other minimally cooked composed dish, with ingredients to promote good digestion.
The cena proper centered on meat, a practice that evokes the tradition of communal banquets following animal sacrifice.
A meal concluded with fruits and nuts, or with deliberately superfluous desserts (secundae mensae).
Roman literature focuses on the dining habits of the upper classes, and the most famous description of a Roman meal is probably Trimalchio's dinner party in the Satyricon.
The poet Martial describes serving a dinner, beginning with the gustatio, which was a composed salad of mallow leaves, lettuce, chopped leeks, mint, arugula, mackerel garnished with rue, sliced eggs, and marinated sow udder.
The main course was succulent cuts of kid, beans, greens, a chicken, and left over ham, followed by a dessert of fresh fruit and vintage wine.
The Roman elite indulged in wild game, fowl such as peacock and flamingo, large fish (mullet was especially prized), and shellfish.
Oysters were farmed at Baiae, a resort town on the Campanian coast known for a regional shellfish stew made from oysters, mussels, sea urchins, celery and coriander.
The favorite dish of the emperor Vitellius was supposed to be the "Shield of Minerva", composed of pike liver, brains of pheasant and peacock, flamingo tongue, and lamprey milt.
The description given by Suetonius emphasizes that these luxury ingredients were brought by the fleet from the far reaches of empire, from the Parthian frontier to the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Augustan historian Livy explicitly links the development of gourmet cuisine to Roman territorial expansion, dating the introduction of the first chefs to 187 BC, following the Galatian War.


The Romans 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). Dinner parties took place in private residences, in which the host entertained a small group of family friends, business associates, and clients.
Banqueting Hall at the Villa Auri
from 'The Story of Gracchus'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
Elite, private banquets, were designed to be 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.

The Banqueting Hall had been designed by the prominent Roman architect, Lucius Severius.
Surprisingly, despite his philhellenism, Gracchus had chosen a Roman architect rather that a Greek for his magnificent villa by the sea.
The reason, of course, was that Gracchus wanted some large areas, uncluttered with columns.
Greek architects, unfortunately had a habit of inserting rows of columns in any large internal space, - which was not what Gracchus wanted at all.
So Gracchus had chosen an architect who was a master at creating magnificent spaces using concrete.
The Reception Hall was large enough to accommodate over one hundred people, and had no internal columns, as it was roofed with a coffered, concrete barrel vault.
The vault was finished in white stucco, with plaster ornamentation finished with gold leaf.
The doors to the hall were masterpieces, cast in bronze, enormously heavy, and then lacquered, and ornamented with the most tasteful gilded decoration, which included Gracchus' monogram on each door.
All the walls of the hall were veneered in the most expensive off-white, veined Greek marble.
And the floor was finished in marble mosaic, polished with olive oil.
A Roman dinner  party included three courses: the hors d’oeuvres (gustatio), the main course (mensae primae), and the dessert (mensae secundae).

Silver Table Ware
At the Roman banquet, wine was served throughout the meal as an accompaniment to the food.
Elite banquets 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).
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 and the lyre, as well as singing.
Active forms of entertainment could include troupes of acrobats, dancing, 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.
It was normal for the staff and slaves of the house were incorporated into the entertainment: singing cooks performed as they served guests, while young, attractive, slave-boys provided an additional form of visual distraction.
Often, each guest was allocated a slave boy or slave girl to attend to their needs during the evening - which could include sexual services in one of the cubicula reserved for such purposes.

to be continued ........

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© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016