This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.
Ancient Rome grew powerful and wealthy because her great men and soldiers put their country first and were prepared to make many sacrifices. It was a hard life, and when power and wealth were won, it was as if Rome breathed a sigh of relief and began to enjoy herself. Many of Imperial Rome’s troubles stemmed from the fact that rich and important families got the taste for life at its most comfortable and well-fed. In fact, what went on at some banquets has brought the whole Roman way of life into disrepute.
Not all Romans were greedy, but if you happened to dine with one who was, he did not do things by half. What is more, it was the Emperors who led the field in the provision of grotesque feasts. The Emperor Nero is well known for his many vices, and gluttony was one of them. Suetonius, the Roman biographer, tells us that “his feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water.” And the Emperor Caligula had a talent for inventing the most peculiar delicacies, his best-known being a draught of priceless pearls dissolved in vinegar.
Many Romans were neither extravagant nor wasteful, in fact it was customary for them to have nothing but a cold snack during the day, waiting until evening for their one substantial meal. The Emperor Tiberius made a half-hearted effort to cut down on public expenditure and wastefulness; and to set a good example, he took to serving at banquets the half-eaten remains of the meals of the day before, or he served only one side of a wild boar “which,” he said, “contained everything the other side did.”
Whether the feast was to be a simple or a gargantuan affair, the first essential was that the guests should be able to recline in comfort: to have sat down as we do would have been to class oneself with the slaves. Normally, two or three people shared a couch which was arranged with others around a table, but there were some extravagantly luxurious couches, which could accommodate up to eight people.
Guests, wearing loose gowns, were announced by an usher and shown to their couches. Then slaves brought perfumed water to bathe their hands and feet. The most handsome and skilful slaves, with their long curling hair falling about their shoulders, served the wine and cut up the food and served it. The guests, lying across their couches, held plates in their left hands, and ate with their fingers. Other uglier slaves, whose heads were shaved, collected the empty dishes and cleared away the unwanted food which guests had thrown under the table.
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