Abstract: Eat, Drink, and be Roman: How to Survive a Roman Banquet


The Roman banquet was a spectacular social event that holds a peculiar place in modern popular culture. Whether in the form of the college Greek ‘toga party’ or portrayals in films such as Cleopatra, I, Claudius, and the over-the-top Caligula, as a modern audience we have expectations about the Roman banquet that meet certain criteria regarding common (mis)conceptions of Roman luxury and revelry. The ancient reality was something strikingly different, but not necessarily any less exotic. The Roman banquet was more than simply a chance to eat well with friends, it was an opportunity to expand one’s political and economic horizons. Successfully participating in a banquet required detailed knowledge of appropriate etiquette and the ability to prove by wit and erudition that you belong on the guest list. Using a wide variety of evidence, including frescoes, mosaics, the written word, and the dishes used at the banquets themselves, we can reconstruct banqueting traditions full of social meaning. In this lecture we explore the purposes, processes and changes of the Roman banquet from the first through the sixth century AD. During the first few centuries of the Roman Empire the banquet followed a relatively constant set of rules. After the fourth century AD, a new tradition appeared that was in stark contrast to the earlier model. Rather than replace the old banquet, the new is associated with the non-elite, whereas the Late Roman rich and powerful continued to feast in much the same way as their Early Roman predecessors. The divergence of banqueting fashions represents a fissure between the ruling elite and the increasingly disenfranchised masses, and the form the new style took may have everything to do with the rise of Christianity.



Short bibliography on lecture topic:


N. Hudson, “Changing Places: The Archaeology of the Roman Convivium,” American Journal of Archaeology 114 (2010), 663-95.

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