Abstract: The Romans at dinner: a view from archaeology and art

Dinner for the Romans was the central function of social life, and a formal dinner party was governed by numerous rules and conventions, some of them still familiar but many alien to modern ways. The most important of these was the practice of reclining on a couch to dine, adopted from Greek usage but adapted to suit different Roman customs. While written sources have much to say about Roman dining habits, their evidence can be expanded, enriched, and sometimes challenged by that of archaeology and art. We can track the changing layouts of spaces designed for dining in the Roman house or in various public settings, the arrangements of couches and typical numbers of guests, the provision of space for service and entertainment. Both actual vessels and representations in art show the importance of the table service, especially the drinking vessels, and some of the rituals that accompanied their use; and the succession of dishes that made up a correct and appropriately lavish meal may be represented in permanent form in the decoration of the room. An array of elegant slaves to serve and attend on the guests was indispensable to any well-run occasion, and they too are often portrayed in paintings and mosaics as a lasting testimony to the hosts’ hospitality. Such scenes do more than provide information about actual practices; they illustrate the attitudes of their creators and viewers towards the rituals of dining, and the ideology that governed their behaviour.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

K. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet: images of conviviality, Cambridge 2003

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