Dinner in ancient Rome was a time for the Roman families to congregate or to network and entertain guests, either the atrium or the triclinium
Dinner was the main meal of the Roman day. It could be an informal family occasion, to relax and enjoy, traditionally taken in the atrium. Or it could be a social occasion, taken in a formal dining room or triclinium, with the host providing the best menu, wine and entertainment he could afford in order to entertain and impress his guests.
The Roman Culture of Dining.
Dinner or cena occurred late in the afternoon, at around 5pm modern time, after the business of the day was concluded and the baths had been visited. For the poor, it would have been a simple affair, prepared on a brazier in an apartment block or perhaps eaten out in a tabernae.
A house offered greater scope for entertaining. Whether they were dining out or entertaining guests, a man would wear a special tunic known as a synthesis. The toga was only appropriate for very formal occasions and was difficult to wear as well as to eat in!
Guests at dinner parties brought their own napkin since such items were not provided by the host. Used for wiping hands and mouths, the napkin also doubled as a kind of doggy bag for left over tit bits.
On arrival, the guests washed their hands as part of a ritual purification and changed from outdoor footwear into indoor sandals. Their host would present them with dining wreaths made of plants sacred to the gods the host wished to honour.
The Atrium or the Triclinium?
Traditionally, families would dine in the atrium, the location of the shrine to the household gods. It was customary to offer a portion of the meal to these deities. But with time, those with the space and the money built a separate dining room, the triclinium. For the very affluent and influential, the aim was to have two: one for winter and one for summer. The summer triclinium often overlooked the garden and honoured guests would have been positioned so that they had the best of the view.
The standard seating arrangement in a Roman dining room was three couches arranged around a central table or tables. Each couch could take three people. This triple arrangement of couches gave the ‘triclinium’ its name.
Many couches were immovable, solid structures covered with cushions and mattresses. Others were freestanding and ornate, made from wood and ivory.
The standard setting meant that only nine people could be accommodated around a table. So more tables and couches were added for larger dinner parties.
The importance of the individual guests would be indicated by where they sat. The host would sit at the top end of the left couch. The guest of honour would be seated next to him but on the back couch, head to head with his host so he could share his view. The next two important guests shared the left hand couch with their host. Lesser guests filled the other spaces.
Guests would help themselves from dishes placed on the tables in front of them. Forks were generally only used for serving; eating occurred with spoons or the fingers. In early times, dining services in wealthy households were simple, made of pottery rather than gold or silver as ostentation was frowned upon and indeed legislated against.
However, with the passage of time it became acceptable. If the host could afford it, he would serve food on one or two well-placed dishes of precious metal. But pottery remained the norm, mainly because it was possible to acquire excellent glazed sets, such as the famous Samnium wear.
A Typical Menu.
A dinner with the family would probably be simple and consist of various vegetable courses or salads accompanied by eggs, cheese and beans. A meat course may have been included, finished with fruit and nuts for dessert.
If guests were invited or if the host’s social standing permitted it, dinner would be more lavish. However, contrary to the image portrayed by some sources, lavish orgies were the exception rather than the rule. It was regarded as vulgar to display too much ostentation a dinner parties, as Petronius’s satire’ Dinner with Trimalchio’ highlights. Even those who could afford it would not serve meat with every course. Likewise, breaks between courses to purge through vomiting would have been rare.
Dinner parties would begin with the first course or gustatio- usually a salad consisting of lettuce or leeks, accompanied by eggs or if available, fish. Several other small courses would follow, such as olives and cheese. A meat course, if applicable would follow. At its most simple, this could consist of sausages or plain fowl or poultry. More elaborate meat courses would include delicacies such as dormice, sows udders or whole roast pigs.
Dessert could be simple fruit or one of the sweet sticky pastries favoured by the Romans, sticky with honey and filled with dried fruit.
The Romans rarely drank their wines unmixed. They were often diluted with water to prolong sobriety or flavoured with spices and honey. At an elaborate dinner, several types of wine would be served. Only a bad host would reserve the best wine for honoured guests whilst serving the others lesser vintages.
A common wine served with dinner was a mulsum, a chilled white wine sweetened with honey.
Ancient Roman Entertainment
No matter how simple the dinner, entertainment would always be an integral part. At its most basic, this would include conversation (although never about business) or poetry readings. Music was often performed, with small plays, juggling and acrobatics also part of the entertainment for more lavish events. Some elite evening dinners are even recorded as being rounded off by gladiator fights.
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