Here is my top 5 list of dinners from ancient Rome that I wouldn’t want to have to prepare. Enjoy while you wait for the guests to arrive or recovering from a food coma!
Potluck Extreme: I love the Roman poet Catullus (ca. 84-54 BCE); he may be my favorite in fact. But be wary if he invites you over for dinner, as he plays the poor poet image to its fullest. In Carmen 13, Catullus invites his friend Fabullus to dinner, asking him to bring just a few things with him:
“You will dine well, Fabullus my friend, at my place in a few days, (if the gods are in your corner), if you bring along a good, big dinner, including a pretty girl and the wine and some salt and all the laughs. If, I declare, you bring these things my charming friend, you will dine well; for the wallet of your buddy Catullus is full of cobwebs. But in return you will receive undiluted love, or whatever is sweeter and more choice: for I will give you a perfume, which the Venuses and Cupids have given to my girlfriend, and when you smell it, you will beg the gods to make you, Fabullus, all nose.” (my translation)
Least Appealing Menu: The story of the original “Thyestean Banquet” has its origins in Greek myth, but it is perhaps most vividly related by Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCE – 65 CE), a Roman philosopher, tragedian, and tutor to the emperor Nero. In his Thyestes (lns 759-783), Seneca describes how Atreus sought revenge against his brother Thyestes, who had stolen his kingdom and his wife, (there might have been a curse at work):
“…[Atreus] is now free to prepare his brother’s banquet. With his own hands he cuts the body <of his nephew> into parts, severs the broad shoulders at the trunk, and the retarding arms, heartlessly strips off the flesh and severs the bones; the heads only he saves, and the hands that had been given to him in pledge of faith. Some of the flesh is fixed on spits and, set before slow fires, hangs dripping; other parts boiling waters tosses in heated kettles. The fire overleaps the feast that is set before it and, twice and again thrown back upon the shuddering hearth and forced to tarry there, burns grudgingly. The liver sputters on the spits; nor could I well say whether the bodies or the flames made more complaint. The fire dies down in pitchy smoke; and the smoke itself, a gloomy and heavy smudge, does not rise straight up and lift itself in air – upon the household gods themselves in disfiguring cloud it settles. O all-enduring Phoebus, though thou didst shrink afar, and in mid-sky didst bury the darkened day, still thou didst set too late. The father rends his sons and with baleful jaws chews his own flesh; with hair dripping with liquid nard he sits resplendent, heavy with wine; oft-times the food sticks in his choking gullet. In the midst of these thy woes, Thyestes, this only good remains, that thou knowest not thy woes." (translation by F.J. Miller, via theoi.com)
Most Painstaking Preparation: The emperor Vitellius (15-69 CE) was a well-known glutton. In his Life of Vitellius (13), the Roman biographer Suetonius (ca. 70-130 CE) describes the ingredients of the “Shield of Minerva,” a dish of his own design:
“<Vitellius> himself actually exceeded this by the dedication of a platter which, by reason of its great size, he called the shield of Minerva, protectress of cities. On this he combined the livers of parrotfish, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes, and eels’ intestines, sought from Parthia and all the way from the Spanish strait by trireme captains.” (my translation)
The Biggest Guest List: In his Silvae, the Roman poet Statius (ca. 45-96 CE) recounts several banquets hosted by the emperor Domitian. Silvae 1.6.11-50 describes an elaborate festival and feast provided by Domitian for the people of Rome at the beginning of December. The feast is staged in, or perhaps adjacent to, an amphitheater, probably the Colosseum, which could seat ca. 50-90,000 people:
“…And already good things rained down:
These the dews the easterly sprinkled:
Whichever are best of Pontic nuts,
And dates from Idume’s fertile hills,
And plums pious Damascus grows,
And figs Ebusos and Caunos ripen,
Freely the lavish spoils descend.
And pastries and ‘little Gaiuses’
Ameria’s un-dried apples and pears,
Spiced cakes and ripened dates,
Shower from an unseen palm.
Not stormy Hyas drenches Earth
Nor the Pleiades with such showers
As rattled down on the Latian theatre
Like bursts of hail from a clear sky.
Let Jupiter cloud the whole world
Threaten to deluge the open fields,
So long as our Jove brings such rain.
Look, along the aisles comes another
Crowd, handsome and finely dressed,
No less in number than those seated!
These bring bread-baskets and white
Napkins, and elegant delicacies to eat,
Those pour out mellow wine freely:
So many cupbearers down from Ida.
The fourteen rows, now virtuous, sober,
Are fed, with the people wearing gowns;
And since you nourish so many, Lord,
Annona, the price of corn’s, outweighed.
Ages, compare now, if it’s your wish,
Old Saturn’s centuries, golden days:
Never flowed wine so, even then,
Nor did harvest anticipate new year.
Every order eats here at the one table:
Women, children, knights, plebs, Senate:
Freedom has set aside reverence.
Why you yourself (which of the gods
Issues and accepts his own invitation?)
Have come to the feast along with us.
Now all, now whoever, rich or poor
Can boast of dining with our leader…”
(translated by A.S. Kline)
- Pastry peacock eggs filled with fig-peckers in peppered egg yolk
- Wild boar garnished with dates and pastry piglets, stuffed with live thrushes
- Pastry Priapus accompanied by cakes and fruit
- Pastry doves filled with raisins and nuts
- Goose, fish and other birds modeled from pork
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