“The Roses of Heliogabalus” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888

Lucullan Banquet

Sorry guys, but before going to the point we’d like to say a few words about eating habits in ancient Rome, because they were so significantly different from the way we serve and eat food now that an introduction is needed.

In ancient Rome most people lived in apartment buildings where only rudimentary cooking such as stewing in a pot was possible. Shared cooking and backing facilities were communal. Prepared food was widely sold at pubs and bars, inns and food stalls, and considered dining for the lower classes.

Fine dining could be sought only at private dinner parties in wealthy homes, or at banquets hosted by social clubs. It became customary for the upper classes to conduct all business affairs in the morning. After that they went to the baths, and then a dinner would begin. Hosting a party at one’s villa with an elaborate meal was an important way to establish and maintain social status. During a dinner for guests, musicians, acrobats, or poets would perform. Dancing at dinner was considered improper and would not mix well with table manners.

Triclinium - a Formal Dining Room

Multicourse meals were served by the household slaves in a formal dining room, called triclinium, with extremely elaborate décor. It was the most important reception space of the residence lavishly decorated: wall paintings, floor mosaics, stucco reliefs, sculptures, and luxury furniture. Elite Roman houses usually had at least two dining rooms.

A diner lay down on a specially designed couch while feasting. Traditionally, three of these couches were arranged around the round table in the shape of a horseshoe, so that slaves could easily serve. All heads were oriented towards the central table. Each couch was wide enough to accommodate three guests who reclined on their left side on cushions. That’s why the ideal number of guests for a dinner party was nine. Women dined and drank wine along with men, but only men were allowed a place on a couch, and women would dine sitting upright across from their husbands or fathers in chairs. Male-guests over nine had to sit on chairs as well. People lay down to eat only on formal occasions. If the meal was routine, they ate while seated or even standing.

According to the cookbook of Apicius, the menu included everything from raw fish to the exotic specialties: boiled tree fungi, sea urchins, boiled veal with cumin and fish sauce, boiled flamingo and ostrich, stuffed dormice, must rolls made with grape juice, tuna cooked with dates and honey, and fricassee of roses.

Dining was the defining ritual, lasting from late afternoon through late at night. The meals were sophisticated, and nutrition was not the point (actually, they preferred low energy and easily digestible foods). In a lavishly adorned setting, an elite private banquet was a kind of feast for the senses, during which the host strove to impress his guests with extravagant fare, luxurious tableware, and diverse forms of entertainment.

Ancient Romans’ Table Manners

A lot is known about ancient Romans’ table manners. Here is the “summary” of them:

  • Feet and hands were washed before the dinner, and after each course the fingers were washed again. Napkins were customary to wipe one’s mouth.
  • The food was taken with the fingertips and spoons with a needle-thin grip, which was used as a prong when eating snails and mollusks.
  • The leftovers could be taken home by guests and what was not eaten, such as bones and shells, was thrown onto the floor to swipe away by a slave.
  • To leave the table for bodily needs was considered bad manners. However, vomiting, belching and spitting during meals were approved. Seneca the philosopher said that Romans engaged in “eating till they vomited and of vomiting in order to eat more.”
Fresco from a house in Herculaneum, Pompeii

Lucullan Banquets

Finally, we have got to the point – Lucullan banquets, the banquets that were extravagant, luxurious, sumptuous, marked by lavishness and richness. Such a feast got its name after Lucius Lucullus, a famous Roman general, who poured enormous sums into private building and banquets that shocked and amazed his contemporaries by their magnitude. Guests drank liquefied pearls for delicacies at his home. So famous did Lucullus become for his banqueting that the word “lucullan” now means lavish, luxurious and gourmet.

Once, Cicero and Pompey succeeded in inviting themselves to dinner with Lucullus, but, curious to see what sort of meal Lucullus ate when alone, forbade him to communicate with his slaves regarding any preparation of the meal for his guests. However, Lucullus outsmarted them by schooling his slaves ahead of time as to the specific details of service he expected for each of his particular dining rooms. No wonder that Cicero and Pompey found themselves a short time later dining upon a most unexpectedly luxurious meal. On another occasion, the tale runs that his steward, hearing that he would have no guests for dinner, served only one not especially impressive course. Lucullus reprimanded him saying, “What, didn’t you know, then, that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

One more example of ancient Roman feast - Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio's dinner)

“Satyricon” written by Gaius Petronius (or Titus Petronius) is regarded as useful evidence for the reconstruction of how high and lower classes lived during the early Roman Empire. A dinner at the estate of Trimalchio, an ex-slave who had become a freedman of enormous wealth, is described in this novel. Petronius tells us a lot about what the guests said and ate. It was a relatively modest gathering of about sixteen people. Trimalchio entertained his guests with ostentatious and extravagant courses

The food was washed with a hundred-year-old sweet white wine and served on silver and Corinthian bronze. Twelve courses were presented on the dinner in the amount that was sufficient to feed a small army. The host and hostess and their guests shared a fondness for extraordinary jewellery. The slaves were obliged not only to serve the food but they had to do so while singing, dancing, doing bird impressions or reciting Trimalchio’s poetry. Even the carving of the meat is choreographed in strict time to music. And now look at a few dishes that were included in the menu:

  • A bronze donkey bearing a double pannier of olives flanked by a gridiron of sausages, damsons and dormice coated with poppy seeds and honey.
  • A wooden hen sitting on a nest full of peahens’ eggs, which in turn contained garden warblers cooked in spiced egg yolk.
  • A zodiacal arrangement concealing a surprise dish of winged hare surrounded by stuffed capons and sows’ bellies
  • A boiled calf wearing a helmet, sliced up by a slave dressed as the hero Ajax who serves the meat on the point of his sword.
  • A statue of the fertility god Priapus with its paunch holding a medley of saffron-squirting cakes and fruits

Although “Lucullan” echoes the name of a distinguished Roman general Lucullus, since the Roman times, this word is associated with the splendour of opulent and extravagant banquets.

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