How far do modern perceptions of Roman and Grecian dining experiences differ from the reality?
Modern views on ancient dining would tend to bring to mind opulent, large dinner parties with flamboyantly decorated dishes and sizable amounts of wine. It could constitute a large part of the day; W. A. Becker described one fictional example as becoming a ‘nocturnal feast’, for it moved from the afternoon, to right through the night. While in some rare instances, this may have been true, it was not the norm. Writers like Juvenal and Petronius described fictitious dinners of great grandeur that were based upon a certain degree of truth, and this is corroborated by their contemporaries. Yet most of the population of Rome and Athens, which were believed to be the hubs of wealth and populace during their own periods, were poor and therefore could not afford the dishes for which in the current day and age, were renowned for. Owing to the nature of literature, however, while some of the oldest written works do describe aspects of dining in its period, it is a very narrow scope which only encompasses the wealthiest members of Ancient society of the time.
The Greeks were just as known for their dining habits as the Romans. It seems, however, that the symposium that followed was of greater concern to writers at the time. The symposium came after the dinner and was the part of the meal which centered around drinking and entertainment. The entertainment could have been anything from philosophical debates to dancing, singing, storytelling, acting and gambling. This symposium seems to be less well known about in the 21st century, perhaps because drinking and eating in the present day are activities performed together, however this seemed at the time to be a very important and sometimes spiritual event. Its importance was recognised by Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) who dedicated a whole book to one particular symposium.
While it is difficult to give a definitive modern view on ancient dining, television shows and children’s books give an idea of the perceptions that infiltrate modern society. Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Roman feast’ is factually incorrect at many different points, perhaps supporting the idea that we have rather idealistic and fantastical views of this experience, as Alexander Armstrong, a guest of Blumenthal’s, said on the Romans, “They lay on couches and had grapes dangled in their mouths”. Similarly, the BBC program ‘The Supersizers Eat’, which was a popular series about the history of food, had incorrect perceptions which were built around the wealthiest of dinners. This is not to say that all of the modern views are incorrect, and the same series did acknowledge the type of meals eaten by the not so wealthy. Yet it seems that the Romans’ and Greeks’ eating habits, are known in our generation, as ostentatious, rich and unusual, an outlook which is only partially true.
Having studied classical civilization at AS Level, I began to realize that the 21st century are misinformed on this subject so I thought it would be interesting to really expose and delve into not only what the misconceptions were, but why they had come about. In order to do so, I began by familiarizing myself with the setting in which the dining would take place so as to form a base level of knowledge that would allow me to question now day perceptions.
The Dining Surroundings
There were two main living spaces in Rome, the insulae, which were commonly made up of three stories and were blocks of flats, with each flat of varying size and rental cost, and the domus, which were large houses that were much less common due to their cost. The insulae housed a great proportion of Roman society due to their rental price, although there were some expensive flats which tended to be the safest (found on the ground floor) and the largest. The upper floors of the insulae tended to be dangerous because of their height, flimsiness and flammability. It is for these reasons that there is little evidence of insulae left in Rome, so the best examples are in Ostia. The insulae sometimes surrounded a central courtyard which contained a cistern in the middle for water as none of the apartments had running water. The lower floors seemed to be the safest and therefore highly priced, whereas the top floors were flimsy, dark and much smaller. These conditions of the more perilous rooms on the upper floors of the insulae are commented on by the satirist Juvenal who says “here we inhabit a city largely shored up with gimcrack stays and props: that’s how our landlords postpone slippage, and – after masking great cracks in the ancient fabric – assure the tenants they can sleep sound, when the house is tottering.’
Juvenal was known to exaggerate for effect as, after all, his works were written to be read out loud as an argument. In this case, however, he is telling the truth for we know from other sources such as Cicero, ‘the greatest prose writer in the Latin language’, who wrote a letter to a friend about some apartments which he rented out, “two of my buildings have fallen down, and the rest have large cracks”. Juvenal later mentions the fire hazards of living in insulae and, although they were mainly built out of bricks, the beams were built of wood and rooms were often fitted with a brazier and wooden furniture. It is for these reasons that a fire in 64 CE destroyed large parts of the city. The wealth of families in Rome determined how opulently they dined , as is the same today; however it seemed that those who lived in the insulae, even the larger and more expensive apartments, were a world apart from the populace who lived in the domus.
The domus, which were more infrequent and housed a very small amount of the population in Roman times, were inhabited by the wealthiest members of society. They tended to be just two floors, with the upper floor mainly being used for sleeping and storage. The best surviving example of a domus is the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii (Fig.1), which was built at the end of the 1st century BCE. These sorts of houses were carefully designed to impress guests, for the owner of a domus, in most instances, had to entertain guests. While Renshaw believes that there were three key areas which the house was built around, there is one more that cannot be ignored, first came the atrium (reception hall) which one entered straight after coming through the front door. It was here where there were frescoes to attract the immediate attention of the guests as they entered and in the House of the Tragic Poet there are several frescoes depicting different mythological scenes, for example, Achilles giving Briseis to Agamemnon during the Trojan War. These frescoes displayed the host’s wealth but also his sophistication for he would most certainly know about these events. This tradition is acknowledged by Petronius in his Satyricon as he includes frescoes in his host’s house portraying scenes from the Illiad and the Odyssey, though incorrectly, perhaps showing the author’s contempt for rich freedmen, of whom the host, Trimalchio was one. The next key area of the house was the tablinium, the master’s study, and behind this, to the back of the house, was the peristylium. The peristylium was a colonnaded garden which was looked out on from the triclinium, and was often decorated with fountains, flowers and frescoes or mosaics. It is the triclinium, the dining room, which Renshaw overlooks. It was here where the host entertained his guests, whether it be a formal dinner party for business purposes, or an informal dinner with friends. The triclinium, its literal translation ‘three-couches’, had three walls with one open side, designed so the guests could look out at the peristylium. Inside the room there tended to be three couches arranged in a U-shape, this being subject to change depending on the number of guests, with a low lying table in the middle. Each guest reclined on their left arm, holding up a plate with their left hand, while eating from it with their right, occasionally using knifes and spoons if the food required it. It seems that something as simple and as easily proved as the layout of the triclinium, is challenged by some modern perceptions. In Heston Blumenthal’s “Roman Feast”, he claims he has created a “Roman inspired feasting room”, yet instead of couches he includes a table and chairs. Heston says of the Roman dining experience, “it was exciting, it was theatrical, it was extreme”, yet his perception of this revolves solely around the food’s extravagance, rather than the entertainment or setting. The rest of the house was made up of bedrooms, a kitchen, storage rooms and alcoves where the family kept busts of household gods. The reliability of the House of the Tragic Poet has to be taken into account when using it as a primary source for investigation. While it is one of the most well preserved examples of a domus that we have in this present day, in its time, it may not have been an accurate representation of its kind. This is a potential possibility for the house itself is of an average size, yet it contains what are deemed to be the highest quality interior decorations, mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii. Nothing is known about the family who lived in the house, so it is even harder to understand why an average domus had such expensive decorations.
The difference in frugality of lifestyle, especially dining, between those who lived in insulae and those who lived in a domus was huge. This could be explained purely by the cost of each living space, for those who could afford a domus, had enough money to buy any sort of food they wanted. It could be, however, that those living in a domus had a large amount of power and status and therefore had to entertain figures of political influence in order to win their support. This would call for extravagant parties that were fueled by money and attended by gourmands.
The dining experiences differed greatly between the rich and the poor members of Roman and Athenian society. It is difficult, however, to assimilate the more thrifty lifestyle because little of it has been written about. The wealthiest writers of each period wrote about dinners they attended or heard about. Horace is a good example, writing about a very pretentious and ostentatious dinner in satire 2.8, and even the less wealthy writers like Juvenal also wrote about the rich, using their activities as examples of what he was deprived of. For example in Satire V he discusses the richer clients of his patron experiencing luxury at a dinner while he has wine which is reminiscent of “dishwater”. We also have the works of Apicius, a first century author who compiled a recipe book containing detailed instructions of how to cook some of the most gaudy dishes of his time. Yet again these do not shed light upon what sort of nourishment that was consumed by the poor. Similarly, frescoes were expensive and therefore only possessed by the rich. They depicted either mythological scenes, which do not help us, or famous or ostentatious parties, Fig.2 is an example from the House of Triclinium, Pompeii. This may be because they offered an escape for the poor, a window into something for which they could aspire to. Yet it is most likely that these accounts were to show off the writer’s skills, company and sophistication, for they were mostly accessible only to those of the upper class. In order to gain some perspective on what poorer families ate, we have to look at archaeological evidence as well as literary evidence.
The cena (dinner) was the main meal of the day for all Romans and Greeks alike, with breakfast (ientaculum) and lunch (prandium) being very light or, in some instances, ignored. The satirist Martial explains that for breakfast he has a little cheese and bread, with some cold meats, dates and fruit for lunch. The average cena consisted of three courses:
1.Gustatio or hors d’oeuvre – These were light appetisers which could be eggs, olives or salads. These were likely to be more elaborate in a more luxurious dinner. After these, muslum followed, which was a honey sweetened wine.
2. Primae mensa (main dish) – This was constituted of a single meat or fish or vegetable dish. Again, this would be a series of different dishes at a wealthier dinner.
3.Secundae mensae (desert) – This would be fruits, nuts or sweet cakes. This would sometimes be followed by a comissatio, a drinking party which was a Roman adaption of the Greek symposium.
These three simple courses have been corroborated by inscriptions found on an atrium wall in Pompeii which charted the purchased provisions over an eight day period. Bread, oil, leeks, onions and cheese regularly appeared on the list, yet on only one day out of the eight, fish and sausages were written down, implying that to this household, they were a treat among the regular staples purchased. Horace, the aforementioned satirist, was by no means poor, yet in one of his satires he describes a simple cena, “Off I go home to prepare my meal: fritters, leaks and peas.”. It seems that even those who could afford more luxurious foods, didn’t on a regular basis, for the inscription detailing a shopping list was found on an atrium wall, signifying that the family lived in a domus. This may have been because eating such delicacies regularly, eventually made you sick of them, for “The man who is pale and bloated from gluttony, will never enjoy his oysters and wrasse and imported grouse”. Horace claims while arguing for simple living as a better way of life rather than that of a glutton. While modern perceptions of a Roman dinner tended to be based on luxury, the BBC episode ‘The Supersizers Eat: Ancient Rome’ acknowledge that meat and fish were mostly purchased by the rich due to their cost, and state “for most people, the roman diet was mainly based around grain”. This modern perception is in fact accurate and does not differ from the reality, for as mentioned above, staple foods made up the diet of the people of the lower class in Ancient times.
There is a plethora of literary evidence for larger scale and wealthier dinner parties, however we can never be sure of the reliability of this evidence for it was more often than not written to propitiate the host of the dinner. This won favour for the writer and enhanced the host’s statues. It is because of this that this evidence may at times have been hyperbolised to create a more dramatic effect or to create a generous and luxurious image of the host. On the other hand, even if some of these accounts are fictitious, like Petronius’ Dinner with Trimalchio in the Satyricon, it can still be used as evidence for the types of dinners that were being held at the time, for certain aspects of this specific instance, are corroborated by a number of different authors, meaning it was most likely based on some truth. The topics of conversation for example revolve around stories and anecdotes. In Heston’s ‘Roman Feast’, he is seen reading The Satyricon at the beginning and it leads him to say that the Romans “created theatrical spectacles”. Yet it seems he has taken the extravagance and luxuriousness in the Dinner with Trimalchio to be the truth, thus creating factually incorrect perceptions of how most Romans dined. This is also seen in the Horrible Histories book “Rotten Romans”, in which Trimalchio is cited having “a feast which included wine that was a hundred years old”. Not only is this an erroneous statement, they do not acknowledge that Trimalchio was a fictional character and so his feast is a mere story.
Upper class dinners had a certain structure to them which was similar to the more meagre ones mentioned above, with a few differences, the talk which surrounded it, the amount of dishes and their opulence. Especially the Romans, believed that at a dinner, ‘serious’ matters should be the topic of conversation, with philosophy, politics or other important issues of contemporary life playing a large part. In the dinner with Trimalchio, the narrator Encolpius sneers at the subject matter when it is ‘off topic’. For example when Trimalchio tells his guests to feel free to relieve themselves whenever they want, for “there’s nothing more tormenting than holding yourself in”. This is the same when the topic of conversation moves along the right lines, however Trimalchio gets things wrong, “do you remember……the story of Ulyses – how the Cyclops tore out his eye with his thumb”. Here Trimalchio’s learning is flawed, similar to that of Calvisius Sabinus described by Seneca who forgets the names of Achilles, Ulysses and Priam, the Cyclops does not cause Ulysses any harm, but it is Ulysses who stabs his eye, turning him blind. Encolpius obviously seems fed up with this uncultured talk for he says, “He was still droning on”. Contrastingly, Horace describes sitting down with his friends and discussing “Things which affect us more nearly and one ought to know about: what is the key to happiness, money or moral character?”. This is an example of the ‘bigger questions’, that were thought to be an appropriate topic of conversation at dinner. Modern writers like Terry Deary acknowledge the importance of the subject matter at dinner, for he states “talk about important things like life, death and great leaders of our time”. It is interesting that while the food served and the size of the dinners are perceived incorrectly, yet something so specific as the type of conversation surrounding dinner is discerned correctly. This may be because modern civilisation like to hold romantic views of the past, and that this is enhanced by large feasts and intelligent talk. It could also be that in the public imagination, the Greeks and Romans are seen to be philosophers and individuals of high culture.
Trimalchio’s feast is one of the most famous dinners of ancient time. Renowned for his ostentation, Trimalchio entertains his guests with numerous courses of delicacies, surrounded by acting, dancing, singing, poetry and stories. It could be argued that the dinner is more of an event, having been curated by Trimalchio, with each course comes another form of entertainment. For example, when a a whole pig is brought out to the table, Trimalchio says, “What’s this? Isn’t this pig gutted?”. He then makes the chef carve it open in front of the guests and “out poured sausages and blood-puddings”. Here Trimalchio almost puts on a scene for his guests which has obviously been pre-prepared, but this was not the sort of entertainment which should be surrounding the food, and Encolpius states that “It was more like a musical comedy than a respectable dinner party”. It is most likely that it was from pieces of literature like the Satyricon that created the modern perception that “you could eat at a Roman feast with dancers and acrobats, jugglers and clowns rushing around. Or even a pair of gladiators trying to kill each other”. Yet there is no mention of Gladiators being present at any feasts and dancers and acrobats were a rare occurrence, only ever being present at the largest dinner parties. The dancing and acting however, could, on the other hand be viewed as appropriate for we know that when the Romans conquered the Greek world in the second century B.C, they adopted much of their dining traditions. It was dancers especially that featured in Greek dinners or symposiums, and this can be seen in Xenephon’s symposium when Callias, the host, brings in a Syracusan with “a trio of assistants”, whom all danced and played music. After their performance, Socrates, a guest of the symposium, says “Was it not enough to set before your guests a faultless dinner, but you must feast your eyes and ears on sights and sounds the most delicious?”. Here, the performance is not out of place, for Socrates was a man of intelligence and thoroughly believed in appropriate entertainment at dinner parties. We know this because later on in the symposium, one of the Syracusan’s assistants begins to dance and jump through knives and fire, to which he comments, “Throwing somersaults in and out of swords is a display of danger uncongenial to a banquet”.
The food served at these dinners, whether it be for a funeral, birthday, business or for some friends, was always extravagant. Dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seed were served for Trimalchio’s guests, and the poet Martial serves “Lizard-fish garnished with sliced eggs, served with fresh herbs”. One common misconception was that at dinner parties where a large plethora of dishes were served, the guests used to make themselves be sick, Deary states, “a special room was set aside for them called the vomitorium”. This is false, and a vomitorium was a series of entrance of exit passages in a Roman amphitheater or theatre. While the orator Cicero mentioned that Julius Caesar once “expressed a desire to vomit after dinner”, there are only implicit references to intentionally vomiting during dinner, meaning there is little evidence to support Deary. Occasionally, the host became too obsessed with the details of the food they served and Horace retells the story of a dinner party at the house of Násidiénus where a boar was served that had been “caught in a soft southerly breeze”, along with apples which were “picked by a waning moon”. It is here that maybe these sources become unreliable, exaggerating to prove a point. Horace’s argument in this case is two-fold, the first is that “It’s a terrible thing to have money!”, and the second is that the rich people in his society have their “judgment impaired by what doesn’t count”. It seems that the finest details become so important that the extravagance of the feast becomes a vehicle whereby the life and preoccupations of the wealthy are satirised.
Contrastingly, some dinners saw a range of different quality dishes handed out to different guests. These dinners tended to be for business purposes, to which the host invited members of his clientele. A clientele was a group of people for whom the richer members of Roman society was their patron. He supported them, giving them togas, money and invited them to the occasional dinner party, in return receiving electoral support , prestige or the spreading of one’s name. Pliny the Younger comments on a particular dinner party he attends where the host served the best dishes for himself and a selected few, and served cheap scraps to the rest of his company: “He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories, not with the idea of giving his guests with the opportunity of choosing, but to make it impossible to refuse what they were given”. While the host called it “elegant economy”, Pliny describes it as “stingy extravagance”, and explains to the man next to him that when he has dinner parties he does not make “class distinctions” and his freedmen “do not drink the sort of wine I do, but I drink theirs”. Here we see that even when there is a large dinner party, sometimes it is just a selected few who indulge in delicacies galore, for it was expensive to have all the guests eating the same quality of food.
Behavior was another important aspect to upper class dinners and one inscription was found on a wall in Pompeii which read “Do not cast lustful glances or make eyes at another man’s wife. Do not be coarse in your conversation. Restrain yourself from getting angry or using offensive language. If you cannot do so, then go home!”. It was a stereotype of the time that the upper class dinners were riddled with debauchery compared to those of the middle class. Juvenal comments on this when talking about the entertainment at his dinner party, “If you’re expecting Spanish dancing-girls with castanets, you’ve got the wrong address…Such debauchery is for the rich. Gambling and adultery is quite the done thing for them”. While there is no concrete evidence that such debauchery was confined just to the upper class, it does seem likely for the wine flowed in greater quantities and depending on who was in charge of the mixing, it was often of a stronger blend. Drunkenness, for these reasons, was by no means uncommon at these dinners and if at a cultured party, frowned upon. It can be seen in Trimalchio’s feast, both the host and the guests becoming more and more intoxicated as the night wares on, exemplified when Trimalchio is about to get up from his place and dance in front of his guests but is reminded “that such low fooling did not suit his dignity”, narrates Encolpius in a rather sneering manner. On the other hand, occasionally drunkenness seemed acceptable, for instance Horace describes both playing drinking games “where a failure meant a forfeit”, and having no drinking regulations, “One goes for the strong stuff like a hero”. In both instances supporting the act of getting drunk, for that was what both of these activities lead to.
The dinner for which the Romans were known, did not seem to be as regular or as lavish as one would imagine from their stereotypes in the 21st century. Archeological evidence has been found which suggests that maybe once or twice a fortnight families would have food which may have cost a little extra. Yet even with the works of Petronius, Horace and Juvenal to back up this stereotype, they cannot be used as solid evidence for they were satirists and by definition, they exaggerated examples for effect. Only for occasions did the Romans feast, and when they did, it rarely contained the grandeur one might expect. It seems that modern perceptions tend to either romanticise the dinners or lean too heavily on the fictional works of writers such as Petronius, creating an incorrect image of the ancient dining experience.
The most formal context of drinking in the classical period was the symposium. Originating in the Greek world, it was a gathering designed to form friendships, strengthen bonds and alliances, with wine’s role to “facilitate conversation”. The symposium proceeded the solid section of the meal, after which, the tables were removed and the floors swept. What followed was almost a ritualized occasion that was controlled by an elected man, usually the host or chosen guest, called the symposiarch. This person controlled the rate of the rounds, the strength of the wine, number of toasts and both the type and size of cups used. It could be said that he dictated the level of drunkenness that overcame the guests, with some drinking parties spiraling out of control.
Similar to the dinner, the symposium centered around conversation and James Davidson believed that “Drinking was ancillary, serving only to loosen the tongue and facilitate the flow of words”. The topics were usually, love, sex, pleasure and drinking, tending to be in the form of anecdotes and stories. The symposium took place in a small space called an andron ‘men’s room’, couches provided seating, however, unlike the U-shape that was definitive of Roman dinner parties, the couches were arranged in a circle shape, with the only break being the door. The idea of the shape of the couches and the room, which was quite small, was so that everything happened in front of the drinkers, but also to sever ties with the outside world. This sympotic space inaugurated a sense of intimacy and aimed to create a separate reality. One humorous anecdote told by Timaeus of Taormina, illustrates the severing of ties from reality and the sort of stories told at a symposium:
In Agrigentum there is a house called ‘the trireme’ for the following reason. Some young men were getting drunk in it, and became feverish with intoxication, off their heads to such an extent that they supposed that they were in a trireme, sailing through a dangerous tempest; they became so befuddled as to throw all the furniture and fittings out of the house as though at sea, thinking that the pilot had told them to lighten the ship because of the storm. A great many people, meanwhile, were gathering at the scene and started to carry off the discarded property, but even the youths did not pause from their lunacy. On the following day the generals turned up at their house, and charges were brought against them. Still sea-sick, they answered to the officials’ questioning that in their anxiety over the storm they had been compelled to jettison their superfluous cargo by throwing it into the sea.
The type of drinking that took place at a symposium depended on the variety of cups used and the strength of wine. Wine was always mixed with water, unmixed it was furiously strong and called akratos, which despite its strength, was sometimes drunk. While at an ordered symposium, conventionally three kraters of wine were mixed, things could often spiral out of control. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, describes in Eubulus’ play, what happens after drinking beyond the advised three kraters, “The fourth krater is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris; the fifth to shouting; the sixth to revel; the seventh to blackeyes; the eight to summonses; the ninth to bile; and the tenth to madness and people tossing furniture about”. While the play is a comedy and this is most likely exaggerated, we can see from the anecdote before that such levels of intoxication were sometimes reached. This may have been down to an ignorant symposiarch, the strength of the mix of wine or down to the way an individual drunk. Some people were known as a “Silent guzzlers”, and a character in Alexis’ play “dines as mute as Telephus”. This type of drinking was associated with degenerates and people of lower class, with Alexis further going on to say, “no man who is a wine-lover can be of low character. For twice mothered Bromius (Dionysus) doesn’t enjoy the company of coarse men and a life of no refinement”. It seems unusual then that, 20th and 21st depictions of this god are usually of him in an intoxicated state, for example in Walt Disney’s Fantasia he is depicted as a happily drunk man. This stereotype could purely come from the fact that he is the god of wine, however in 300 B.C. he is described as leading a life of refinement, so somewhere between then and 1497, when a statue of him was created by Michelangelo depicting him drunk, his eyes rolling and his body in a slumped stand (Fig.3), the perception of this god has changed. The type of drinking which was supposed of the upper class is epitomised by Socrates in Xenephon’s symposium, where poetically sums up the way they should drink using a plant-centered metaphor:
If drinking is the order of the day, I heartily approve. Wine it is in it’s very truth that moistens the soul of man, that lulls at once all cares to sleep, even as mandragora drugs our human senses, and at the same time kindles light-hearted thoughts, as oil a flame. Yet is flares with the banquets of men, if i mistake not, precisely as with plants that spring and shoot on earth. When God gives these vegetable growths too full a draught of rain, they cannot lift their heads nor feel the light air breathe through them; but if they drink in only the glad supply they need, they stand erect, they shoot apace, and reach maturity of fruitage. So we, too, if we drench our throats with over-copious draughts, ere long may find our legs begin to reel and our thoughts begin to falter; we shall scarce be able to draw breath, much less to speak a word in season. But if (to borrow language from the mint of Gorgias), if only the attendants will bedew us with a frequent mizzle of small glasses, we shall not be violently driven on by wine to drunkenness, but with sweet seduction reach the goal of sportive levity.
While this speech of Socrates is written by Xenephon, and therefore is actually credited to him, it is most likely accurate to the sort of things Socrates said, for Xenephon was a contemporary of his and a historian.
The symposium is an event that seems to have been forgotten by most people of the 21st century, with little reference to it in any modern documentaries. This may have happened after the Roman Empire conquered Athens and adopted the symposium, instead naming it the convivium, where it became more merged with the cena. In Athens however, it is acknowledged and reproduced by a restaurant called Archeon Gefsis (Ancient tastes). Here you can enjoy “the dining and spiritual parts of a ‘Symposium’”, highlighting the common modern fallacious perception that there was eating during a symposium. While they do appreciate the “spiritual” part of the symposium, and offer couches to recline on, this restaurant situated in the heart of Athens, where the symposium would have been a salient point in the lives of the Athenian upper class, couples dining with drinking. It does not seem that these perceptions are from a lack of learning, for the owners “put a considerable amount of time into studying rare manuscripts with the aim to collect recipes and identify the eating habits of ancient Greeks”, so one may assume that in order to make financial gain, they sacrificed authenticity.
The symposium wasn’t the only setting for drinking, and in Athens there were established taverns (kapélion) which sold wine to the public. It is speculated that this was also where the wine for symposiums was bought, however some of these taverns offered a service which was called “half-pinting”, that was breaking the bulk in order to sell wine to be drunk on the premises. The quality and strength of the wine depended on the taverner, Plato describes one taverner in Gorgias called Sarambus, whose skill at preparing wine was compared with that of Athens’ finest baker. By the 5th century, taverns became as widespread as pubs in the 21st century and have been found mentioned in plays and on curse tablets. One instance in particular was found which seems to have been written either by an unsuccessful and spiteful taverner or a moneyless alcoholic, “I bind Callias, the taverner and his wife Thraitta, and the tavern of the bald man, and Anthemion’s tavern near […] and Philo the taverner. Of all these I bind their soul, their trade, their hand and feet, their taverns . . . and also the taverner Agathon”. This rant seems to be rather whimsical, attacking as many taverners as he can think of. This implies that there was by no means a shortage of wine available to the public and it seems that unlike a symposium which formed bonds and enjoyed conversation, taverns were a place to get drunk. They were of a similar disposition in Rome, however, there taverns sometimes offered a place for travelers to stay and the room occasionally offered female services. One particular inscription records a conversation between an innkeeper and their guest:
‘Innkeeper, let’s work out the bill.’
‘One pint of wine and bread, one as. Food, two asses.’
‘Girl’s services, eight asses.’
‘Hay for the mule, two asses.’
‘That mule will ruin me!’
(The ‘as’ was a small copper coin.)
James Davidson states that the difference between the symposium and a kapéleion, “was one of class and culture rather than socialisation”, and this does seem to be true for the taverns seemed to be a far more demotic and promiscuous space than the spiritual sympotic andron. It is no wonder that modern perceptions on the wining section of dining are almost entirely focussed on the symposium for it was a rather aristocratic and private affair which appealed to the upper classes of history and was therefore given historical precedence for in ancient society, it was the rich who controlled what was recorded and remembered.
It seems that over centuries, time has distorted different aspects of the ancient dining experience from being, in most cases, a fairly meager affair due to the poverty that encompassed most of the population at the time, to something of humongous extravagance, bizarre dishes and copious amounts of wine. It is down to sources like The Satyricon being taken literally, rather than treating it as the fiction that it is. There are also not many accessible pieces of literature available to educate one in this area of study. While we have works by the likes of Xenophon, Pliny, Horace and Juvenal, it would still take a certain level of dissection to unveil the necessary information. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire may account to parts of these perceptions, for in our smug, protestant values we often pin the deterioration of the Empire down to the fact that, ‘They had too much fun’. We also owe these inaccurate views also to exaggeration for the sake of a good story, and it is down to this that some believe grapes were dangled into mouths, and vomitoriums were an area where guests could make themselves vomit. The 21st century still has continuing incorrect perceptions of the Greek Symposium in the form of the restaurant Archeon Gefsis, which offers a ‘symposium’ service very unlike those which occurred in Ancient Greece. Ancient civilisation was civilised, without a doubt, but the luxury for which some Romans and Grecians made their name, is not an accurate representation of the dining experience as a whole.