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The History of the Roman Banquet

Banquets are as political as they are festive and indulgent. Romans have been throwing these parties not just to show off their wealth but also to network and make important political statements, sometimes subtle, other times outwardly blatant.

The Roman banquet evokes voluptuary images of men in togas reclining on couches and glutting themselves on wild sow's udders and stuffed snails, while servants stream in bearing platters heaped with heavily sauced and delicately spiced foods from all over the world: ostrich from Africa, pepper and sugar cane from India, cumin from Ethiopia, sumac from Syria, olives from Greece, and that perennial Roman favorite, the fleshy homegrown fig.
Wine is drunk in copious amounts from double-handled silver cups, while a lyre plays in the background. There are performing troupes, poets, even the occasional leopard, and sometimes rose petals flutter down from on high.

Some argue however that the Roman banquets have been heavily exaggerated and that it wasn't always as revelrous. But there are stories about how different Roman emperors hosted their banquets, their particular eating habits, and selectiveness when it comes to food. Meanwhile, the plebeians have it rough.

Outside the patrician mansions and saffron-flavored swimming pools, the plebeians lived in overcrowded tenements and ate frugally. Food inequality was as endemic to ancient Rome as it is to our world today, with hunger and hedonism coexisting through the empire.

One thing is quite interesting about these lavish displays. It's not something done on a whim. Historians suggest that these were very calculated, not just to have fun but more so to establish their position in society.

(Image credit: Ulpiano Checa y Sanz/Wikimedia Commons)


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