aristocratic boy

The upper classes and elite consisted of landowners, military officers, government officials and administrators and wealthy soldier-landowners who were similar to medieval knights. Together they made up less than 1 percent of the population. Rich Romans had land, slaves, livestock and wealth. They could easily be identified by their clothes. The historian Michael Grant said the standard of grand villas built in Pompeii "was never achieved again until the 19th century, To pay for their indulgences, many rich Romans, particularly in Italy, exploited the slaves, farmers and peasants under their control. One scholar wrote: "They were permitted to do a great deal — as long as they did nothing constructive.”

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “Great fortunes under the Empire fell into two general classes — those founded on commerce, and those founded on land. A good instance of the latter is here cited from Pliny the Elder. Isidorus must have been a great territorial lord — almost a petty prince upon his vast domains. It was estates like his — worked by cheap slave labor — which ruined the honest peasant farmers of Italy.”

On “A Wealthy Roman's Fortune,” Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 A.D.) wrote in “Natural History”, XXXIII.47: “Gaius Caecilius Claudius Isidorus in the consulship of Gaius Asinius Gallus and Gaius Marcius Censorinus [8 B.C.] upon the sixth day before the kalends of February declared by his will, that though he had suffered great losses by the civil wars, he was still able to leave behind him 4,116 slaves, 3,600 yoke of oxen, and 257,000 head of other kinds of cattle, besides in ready money 60,000,000 sesterces. Upon his funeral he ordered 1,100,000 sesterces to be expended. [Source: Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 A.D.), “Natural History,” XXXIII.47: “A Wealthy Roman's Fortune,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Aristocratic women lived a pampered lifestyle. They wore expensive clothes and sported elaborate hairdos that resembled beehives of curls. These women most likely spent their days gambling, gossiping, attending the theater and shopping. Cleopatra and Antony ate pearls. One patrician gave a jeweled bracelet to his pet eel.

A fresco uncovered in a banquet room in Pompeii shows a upper class man have his hair teased and wine feed to him by three lovely bare-breasted women. The scenes look just like something taken out of films on Roman decadence such as Fellini's Roma and Penthouse's Caligula.

One of Rome's most famous actors, a man named Aesop (not to be confused with the fable writer) once ate a pie, costing the equivalent of thousands of dollars, made of birds that "could imitate the human voice." His son Clodius, with equally expensive tastes, demanded that every meal he ate be season with a "powered gemstone." [People's Almanac]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Crassus, Rome's Richest Man


One of the most powerful politicians in the era of corruption, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 B.C.), not surprisingly was also one of the richest Roman. Born into a wealthy family, he acquired his riches, according to Plutarch, through "fire and rapine." Crassus became so powerful that he financed the army that put down the slave revolt led by Spartacus. To celebrate Spartacus's crucifixion, Crassus hosted a banquet for the entire voting public of Rome (10,000 people) that lasted for several days. Each participant was also given an allowance of three months of grain. His ostentatious displays gave us the word crass.

Crassus made a fortune in real estate by controlled Rome's only fire department acquiring the land from property owners victimized by fire.. When a fire broke out, a horse drawn water tank was dispatched to the site, but before fire was put out, Crassus or one of his representatives haggled over the price of his services, often while the house was burning down before their eyes. To save the building Crassus often required the owner to fork over title to the property and then pay rent.

Crassus was most likely the largest property owner in Rome. He also purchased property with money obtained through underhanded methods. While serving as a lieutenant in the civil war of 88-82 he able to buy land formally held by the enemy at bargain prices, sometimes by murdering its owners. Crassius also opened a profitable training center for slaves. He purchased unskilled bondsmen, trained them and then sold them as slaves for a handsome profit.

Crassus was not unlike successful modern businessmen who contribute large sums of money to a political parties in return for favors or high level government positions. He gave loans to nearly every Senator and hosted lavish parties for the influential and powerful. Through shrewd use of his money to gain political influence he reached the position of triumvir, one of the three people responsible for controlling the apparatus of state.

After attaining riches and political power the only left for Crassus to do was lead a Roman army in a great military victory. He purchased an army and sent to Syria by Caesar to battle the Parthians. In 53 B.C. Crassus lost the Battle of Carrhae, one of the Roman Empire's worst defeats. He was captured by the Parthians, who according to legend, poured molten gold down his throat when they realized he was the richest man in Rome. The reasoning of the act was that his lifelong thirst for gold should quenched in death.

Careers of the Nobles

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The nobles inherited certain of the aristocratic notions of the old patriciate. These limited their business activities and had much to do with the corruption of public life in the last century of the Republic. Men in their position were held to be above all manner of work, with the hands or with the head, for the sake of gain. Agriculture alone was free from debasing associations, as it has been in England until recent times, and statecraft and war were the only careers fit to engage the energies of these men. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Even as statesmen and generals, too, they served their fellow citizens without material reward, for no salaries were drawn by the senators, no salaries attached to the magistracies or to positions of military command. This theory had worked well enough in the time before the Punic Wars, when every Roman was a farmer, when the farmer produced all that he needed for his simple wants, when he left his farm only to serve as a soldier in his young manhood or as a senator in his old age, and returned to his fields, like Cincinnatus, when his services were no longer required by his country. Under the aristocracy of later times, however, the theory subverted every aim that it was intended to secure. |+|

“Agriculture. The farm life that Cicero has described so eloquently and praised so enthusiastically in his Cato Maior would have scarcely been recognized by Cato himself and, long before Cicero wrote, had become a memory or a dream. The farmer no longer tilled his fields, even with the help of his slaves. The yeoman class had largely disappeared from Italy. Many small holdings had been absorbed in the vast estates of the wealthy landowners, and the aims and methods of farming had wholly changed. This is discussed elsewhere, and it will be sufficient here to recall the fact that in Italy grain was no longer raised for the market, simply because the market could be supplied more cheaply from overseas. The grape and the olive had become the chief sources of wealth, and Sallust and Horace complained that for them less and less space was being left by the parks and pleasure grounds. Still, the making of wine and oil under the direction of a careful steward must have been very profitable in Italy, and many of the nobles had plantations in the provinces as well, the revenues of which helped to maintain their state at Rome. Further, certain industries that naturally arose from the soil were considered proper enough for a senator, such as the development and management of stone quarries, brickyards, tile works, and potteries.” |+|

Equites: Roman Capitalists

Equites at a cavalry re-enactment

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The name of knight (eques) had lost its original significance long before the time of Cicero. The equites had become the class of capitalists who found in financial transactions the excitement and the profit that the nobles found in politics and war. Under the Empire certain important administrative posts were turned over to the equites, and there came to be a regular equestrian cursus honorum, but the equites continued to be on the whole the business class. It was the immense scale of their operations that relieved them from the stigma that attached to working for gain just as in modern times the wholesale dealer may have a social position entirely beyond the hopes of the small retailer. From early times their syndicates had financed and carried on great public works of all sorts, bidding for the contracts let by the magistrates. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Though “big business” never exerted the power at Rome attributed to it in modern times, in the later years of the Republic the equites as a body exerted considerable political influence, holding in fact the balance of power between the senatorial and the democratic parties. As a rule they exerted this influence only so far as was necessary to secure legislation favorable to them as a class, and to insure as governors for the provinces men that would not look too closely into their transactions there. For in the provinces the knights as well as the nobles found their best opportunities. Their chief business in the provinces was collecting the revenues on a contract basis. For this purpose syndicates were formed, which paid into the public treasury a lump sum fixed by the senate, and reimbursed themselves by collecting what they could from the province. While the system lasted, the profits were far beyond all reason, and the word “publican” became a synonym for “sinner.” Besides farming the revenues, the equites “financed” provinces and allied states, advancing money to meet the ordinary or extraordinary expenses. Sulla levied a contribution of 20,000 talents (about $20,000,000) in Asia. |+|

“The money was advanced by a syndicate of Roman capitalists, and they had collected the amount six times over, when Sulla interfered, for fear that there would be nothing left for him in case of future needs. More than one pretender was set upon a puppet throne in the East in order to secure the payment of sums previously lent to him by the capitalists. The operations of the equites as individuals were only less extensive and less profitable. The grain in the provinces, the wool, and the products of mines and factories could be moved only with the money advanced by them. They ventured also to engage in commercial enterprises abroad that were barred against them at home, doing the buying and selling themselves, not merely supplying the money to others. They lent money to individuals, too, though at Rome money-lending was discreditable. The usual rate of interest was twelve per cent, but Marcus Brutus was lending money at forty-eight per cent in Cilicia, and trying to collect compound interest, too, when Cicero went there as governor in 51 B.C., and he expected Cicero to enforce his demands for him.” |+|

Decadence of the Rich in A.D. 4th Century Rome

William Stearns Davis wrote: “The following was written only about a generation before Alaric plundered Rome in 410 CE. Ammianus Marcellinus, who observed Rome on a visit, saw the city as full of emptiness, shallowness, and as lacking of all real culture.”

On the Luxury of the Rich in Rome in A.D. 400, Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-395 A.D.) wrote in “History”: “Rome is still looked upon as the queen of the earth, and the name of the Roman people is respected and venerated. But the magnificence of Rome is defaced by the inconsiderate levity of a few, who never recollect where they are born, but fall away into error and licentiousness as if a perfect immunity were granted to vice. Of these men, some, thinking that they can be handed down to immortality by means of statues, are eager after them, as if they would obtain a higher reward from brazen figures unendowed with sense than from a consciousness of upright and honorable actions; and they are even anxious to have them plated over with gold! [Source: Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-395 A.D.), “History, XIV.16: The Luxury of the Rich in Rome, c. 400 A.D. William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 224-225, 239-244, 247-258, 260-265, 305-309]

“Others place the summit of glory in having a couch higher than usual, or splendid apparel; and so toil and sweat under a vast burden of cloaks which are fastened to their necks by many clasps, and blow about by the excessive fineness of the material, showing a desire by the continual wriggling of their bodies, and especially by the waving of the left hand, to make more conspicuous their long fringes and tunics, which are embroidered in multiform figures of animals with threads of divers colors.

“Others again, put on a feigned severity of countenance, and extol their patrimonial estates in a boundless degree, exaggerating the yearly produce of their fruitful fields, which they boast of possessing in numbers, from east and west, being forsooth ignorant that their ancestors, who won greatness for Rome, were not eminent in riches; but through many a direful war overpowered their foes by valor, though little above the common privates in riches, or luxury, or costliness of garments.

“If now you, as an honorable stranger, should enter the house of any passing rich man, you will be hospitably received, as though you were very welcome; and after having had many questions put to you, and having been forced to tell a number of lies, you will wonder — since the gentleman has never seen you before — that a person of high rank should pay such attention to a humble individual like yourself, so that you become exceeding happy, and begin to repent not having come to Rome ten years before. When, however, relying on this affability you do the same thing the next day, you will stand waiting as one utterly unknown and unexpected, while he who yesterday urged you to "come again," counts upon his fingers who you can be, marveling for a long time whence you came, and what you can want. But when at last you are recognized and admitted to his acquaintance, if you should devote yourself to him for three years running, and after that cease with your visits for the same stretch of time, then at last begin them again, you will never be asked about your absence any more than if you had been dead, and you will waste your whole life trying to court the humors of this blockhead.

“But when those long and unwholesome banquets, which are indulged in at periodic intervals, begin to be prepared, or the distribution of the usual dole baskets takes place, then it is discussed with anxious care, whether, when those to whom a return is due are to be entertained, it is also proper to ask in a stranger; and if after the question has been duly sifted, it is determined that this may be done, the person preferred is one who hangs around all night before the houses of charioteers, or one who claims to be an expert with dice, or affects to possess some peculiar secrets. For hosts of this stamp avoid all learned and sober men as unprofitable and useless — with this addition, that the nomenclators also, who usually make a market of these invitations and such favors, selling them for bribes, often for a fee thrust into these dinners mean and obscure creatures indeed.

Emperor Caracalla

“The whirlpool of banquets, and divers other allurements of luxury I omit, lest I grow too prolix. Many people drive on their horses recklessly, as if they were post horses, with a legal right of way, straight down the boulevards of the city, and over the flint-paved streets, dragging behind them huge bodies of slaves, like bands of robbers. And many matrons, imitating these men, gallop over every quarter of the city, with their heads covered, and in closed carriages. And so the stewards of these city households make careful arrangement of the cortege; the stewards themselves being conspicuous by the wands in their right hands. First of all before the master's carriage march all his slaves concerned with spinning and working; next come the blackened crew employed in the kitchen; then the whole body of slaves promiscuously mixed with a gang of idle plebeians; and last of all, the multitude of eunuchs, beginning with the old men and ending with the boys, pale and unsightly from the deformity of their features.

“Those few mansions which were once celebrated for the serious cultivation of liberal studies, now are filled with ridiculous amusements of torpid indolence, reechoing with the sound of singing, and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. You find a singer instead of a philosopher; a teacher of silly arts is summoned in place of an orator, the libraries are shut up like tombs, organs played by waterpower are built, and lyres so big that they look like wagons! and flutes, and huge machines suitable for the theater. The Romans have even sunk so far, that not long ago, when a dearth was apprehended, and the foreigners were driven from the city, those who practiced liberal accomplishments were expelled instantly, yet the followers of actresses and all their ilk were suffered to stay; and three thousand dancing girls were not even questioned, but remained unmolested along with the members of their choruses, and a corresponding number of dancing masters.

“On account of the frequency of epidemics in Rome, rich men take absurd precautions to avoid contagion, but even when these rules are observed thus stringently, some persons, if they be invited to a wedding, though the vigor of their limbs be vastly diminished, yet when gold is pressed in their palm they will go with all activity as far as Spoletum! So much for the nobles. As for the lower and poorer classes some spend the whole night in the wine shops, some lie concealed in the shady arcades of the theaters. They play at dice so eagerly as to quarrel over them, snuffing up their nostrils, and making unseemly noises by drawing back their breath into their noses: — or (and this is their favorite amusement by far) from sunrise till evening, through sunshine or rain, they stay gaping and examining the charioteers and their horses; and their good and bad qualities. Wonderful indeed it is to see an innumerable multitude of people, with prodigious eagerness, intent upon the events of the chariot race!”

Luxury in the Use of Rings

Roman snake ring

Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 A.D.) described the absurd lengths Romans went through in their pursuit luxury and showy displays. The topic is rings but Romans could be equally excessive about other thing such as clothes, furniture and other forms of jewelry. In “On Luxury in the Use of Rings,” Pliny the Elder wrote in In Natural History, XXXIII.6: “It was the custom at first to wear rings on a single finger only — the one next to the little finger, and this we see to be the case in the statues of Numa and Servius Tullius. Later it became usual to put rings on the finger next to the thumb, even with statues of the gods; and more recently still it has been the fashion to wear them upon the little finger too. Among the Gauls and Britons the middle finger — it is said — is used for the purpose. At the present day, however, with us, this is the only finger that is excepted, for all the others are loaded with rings, smaller rings even being separately adapted for the smaller joints of the fingers. [Source: Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 A.D.): “Natural History”, XXXIII.6: “Luxury in the Use of Rings,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West] “Some people thrust several rings upon the little finger alone; while others wear but one ring upon this finger, the ring that carries the seal upon the signet ring itself, this last being carefully shut up as an object of rarity, too precious to be worn in common use, and only to be taken from the coffer as from a sanctuary. And thus is the wearing of a single ring upon the little finger, no more than an ostentatious advertisement that the owner has property of a more precious nature under seal at home.

“Some too make a parade of their rings, whilst to others it is a decided labor to wear more than one at a time; some, in their solicitude for the safety of their gems, make the hoop of gold tinsel, and fill it with lighter material than gold, thinking thereby to diminish the risks of a fall. Others again, are in the habit of concealing poisons beneath their ring stones, and so wear them as instruments of death; so e.g. did Demosthenes, mightiest of Greek orators. And besides, how many of the crimes that are stimulated by cupidity, are committed by the instrumentality of rings!

“Happy the times; yes, truly innocent when no seal was ever put on anything! At the present day, indeed, our very food and drink even have to be kept from theft through the agency of the ring. This of course is thanks to those legions of slaves, those throngs of foreigners who are introduced into our houses, multitudes so great that we have to have a nomenclator [professional remembrancer] to tell us even the names of our own servants. Different surely it was in the times of our forefathers, when each person possessed a single slave only, one of his master's own lineage, called Marcipor [Marcus's boy] or Lucipor [Lucius's boy], from his master's name, as the case might be, and taking all his meals with him in common; when, too, there was no need to take precautions at home by keeping a watch upon the servants. But at present, we not only buy dainties that are sure to be pilfered but hands to pilfer them as well; and so far from its being enough to keep the very keys sealed, often the signet ring is taken from the owner's finger while he is overpowered with sleep, or actually lying on his death bed.”

Roman Seaside Villa

William Stearns Davis wrote: “About 90 CE. a Roman poet wrote this description of a friend's villa on the beautiful bay of Naples. Despite somewhat strained and flowery language, we get a good idea of the charms of the location and the elegance and luxury of the building. There is no reason, however, to believe that this villa surpassed many others of its kind. [Source: Statius (45-96 A.D.), Silvae, II.2 “A Roman Seaside Villa.” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

On a Roman seaside villa, Statius (A.D. 45-96 A.D.) wrote in Silvae, II: “Between the walls that bear the name of the Sirens and the rocks burdened with Tyrrhene Minerva's temple, stands a lofty mansion that looks out upon the Bay of Puteoli. This is ground dear to Bromius. On the high hills ripens a vintage that need not be jealous of Falernian vats. The sheltered waters, the crescent bay break a passage through the arc of cliff on either hand. The charm that first meets the sight is a steaming bathhouse with twin cupolas. From the land a rivulet of fresh water flows to meet the brine. From the shore, along the long counterscarps of cliff, the colonnade makes its way, worthy of a city. The long platform dominates the rough rocks. Where once was blinding dust and dazzling sunshine — a wild, unlovely track — it is now a joy to pass.

“One hall looks out upon the sunrise and the fresh beams of Phoebus, another keeps him back at his setting and will not suffer the afterglow to pass. Here are rooms that resound with the voices of the sea: here are others that refuse to know the thunderous surges, but rather the silence of the land. What need to tell of statues fashioned long since in wax and bronze? Masterpieces of Apelles and Myro and Phidias; bronzes from the funeral fire of Corinth; busts of great captains, and bards, and wise men of old.

“Why should I rehearse the countless roof tops and the ever-changing view? Each has a charm of its own; every chamber window has its own view of the sea. There is one hall that quite outshines them all; one hall that straight across the sea presents to thee, the view of Parthenope. Therein are marbles chosen from the heart of the quarries in Greece, and the other marbles from Egypt, or from Phrygia: green marbles from Laconia and yellow from Numidia. Here are the Carystian pillars that delight to face seaward. These all front and greet the towers of Naples. A blessing on the fancy that prefers the Greek, that makes a Grecian land your home!”

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early bikinis

Life of a Refined Roman Gentleman

Davis Introduction: “If at its worst a Roman magnate's life was one of stupid sensuality, at its best it represented an almost ideal refinement and cultivated leisure. Pliny's friend here described must have been a most charming companion Very pleasant, indeed, might life be during the early Empire - if one belonged to the favored classes. [Source: Pliny the Younger (61/62-113 A.D.), “Letters, III.1: The Life of a Refined Roman Gentleman,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp.239-244]

On “The Life of a Refined Roman Gentleman Pliny” the Younger (61/62-113 A.D.) wrote in Letters, III.1: “I do not think I have ever spent a more delightful time than during my recent visit to Spurinna's house; indeed I enjoyed myself so much that if it is my fortune to grow old, there is no one whom I should prefer to take as my model in old age, as there is nothing more methodical than that time of life. Personally I like to see men map out their lives with the regularity of the fixed courses of the stars, and especially old men. For while one is young a little disorder and rush — so to speak — is not unbecoming; but for old folks, whose days of exertion are past, and in whom personal ambition is disgraceful, a placid and well-ordered life is highly suitable. That is the principle upon which Spurinna acts most religiously; even trifles, or what would be trifles were they not of daily occurrence, he goes through in fixed order, and, as it were, orbit.

“In the morning he keeps his couch; at the second hour he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him, the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud, and sometimes this is done even when his friends are present, but never in such a way as to bore them. Then he sits down, and there is more talk for preference; afterward he enters his carriage, taking with him either his wife — who is a pattern lady — or one of his friends, a distinction I recently enjoyed. How delightful, how charming that privacy is! What glimpses of old times one gets! What noble deeds and noble men he tells you of! What lessons you drink in! Yet at the same time it is his wont to so blend his learning with modesty, that he never seems to be playing the schoolmaster.

“After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then resumes his seat, or betakes himself to his room and his pen; for he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness and wonderful humor, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm. When he is told that the bathing hour has come — which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer — he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind. Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.

“After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer. Then dinner is served, the table being as bright as it is modest, and the silver plain and old-fashioned: he has also some Corinthian vases in use, for which he has a taste but not a mania. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it has kept up with such good humor and charm. The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom. This is the sort of life that I have vowed and determined to forestall, and I shall enter upon it with zest, as soon as my age justifies me in beating a retreat.”

Roman banquet

Banqueting in Ancient Rome

Katharine Raff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The festive consumption of food and drink was an important social ritual in the Roman world. Known in general terms as the convivium (Latin: "living together"), or banquet, the Romans also distinguished between specific types of gatherings, such as the epulum (public feast), the cena (dinner, normally eaten in the mid-afternoon), and the comissatio (drinking party). Public banquets, such as the civic feasts offered for all of the inhabitants of a city, often accommodated large numbers of diners. In contrast, the dinner parties that took place in residences were more private affairs in which the host entertained a small group of family friends, business associates, and clients. “Roman literary sources describe elite private banquets as 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, all of which were enjoyed in a lavishly adorned setting. Archaeological evidence of Roman housing has shed important light on the contexts in which private banquets occurred and the types of objects employed during such gatherings. [Source: Katharine Raff, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011,]

Paintings from Pompeii show banqueting scenes. From the attention that banquets and dinner-parties get in written texts is presumed they were importants parts of Roman life. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ Guests reclined on couches padded with cushions and draperies and were served food and drinks by slaves (usually depicted as smaller in scale, to suggest their status, in paintings). [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]|

“Examples of wooden couches have been found in several of the excavated houses of Pompeii, and there are also many masonry couches in the gardens, for use when dining outside. Dinner-parties could be an opportunity for the rich elite to display their wealth, for example by providing entertainment in the form of dancers, acrobats and singers or by using an expensive dinner service.” In one Pompeii wall-painting, “a slave holds out a drinking cup to one of the diners. Occasional silver services, such as the famous vessels discovered in the House of Menander, have been excavated at Pompeii, but in general most vessels that might have been used for dining were made from bronze and glass.”

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote:“The Romans laid a vast stress upon the joys of eating. Probably never before or since has greater effort been expended upon gratifying the palate. The art of cooking was placed almost on a level with that of sculpture or of music. It is worth noticing that the ancient epicures were, however, handicapped by the absence of most forms of modern ices, and of sugar. The menu here presented was for a feast given by Mucius Lentulus Niger, when, in 63 B.C., he became a pontifex. There were present the other pontifices including Julius Caesar, the Vestal Virgins, and some other priests, also ladies related to them. While this banquet took place under the Republic, it was probably surpassed by many in Imperial times.

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Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Elaborate Banquet in Ancient Rome

Roman banquets sometimes lasted for ten hours. They were held in dining rooms decorated with frescos of Helen of Troy and Castor and Pollox. Slaves cooked the meal and beautiful women served the dishes. Prostitutes, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, actors and fire-eaters entertained guests between courses. Masseuses washed their feet with perfumed water.

Banquets were regarded as demonstrations of wealth and position. Spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars was not uncommon. Feasting was so popular that satires were written about it and laws were passed outlawing the consumption of particularly rare delicacies and hosting especially large banquets. Police had stake-outs set up in the markets to prevent extravagant purchases. Menus had to be approved by local officials. In some places dining rooms were required to have windows so inspectors could check the proceedings

Describing a lavish feast, Petronius wrote in Satyricon: “Spread around a circular tray were the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and over each sign the chef had put the most suitable food, Thus, over the sign of Aries were chickpeas, over Taurus a slice of beef, a pair of testicles and kidneys over Gemini, a wreath of flowers over Cancer, over Leo an African fig, virgin sowbelly on Virgo, over Libra a pair of scales with tartlet in one pan and cheesecake in the other, over Scorpio a crawfish, a lobster on Capricorn, on Aquarius a goose, and two mullets over Pisces. The centerpiece was a clod of turf with grass still green surmounted by a fat honeycomb. With some reluctance we began attacking this wretched fare." Petronius slit his own throat and bled to death while eating a feast with friends.

Pliny described the gourmet Marcus Gabius Apicus as "the greatest spendthrift of all." He said he squandered most of his large fortune on feasts and then, anticipating a need to economize, committed suicide with poison. In A.D. 20 Apicus hosted a legendary banquet that cost between 60 million and 100 million sesterces ($15 million). There is no record of what was eaten but he was left with only 10 million sesterces afterwards. It was after this feast that he committed suicide. According to a 16th century manuscript: "Six hundred thousand spent, and but/ Ten thousand left to feed his gutt." Fearing for want of food and dye," Despairing, he did poyson buy:/ Never was known such gluttonye."

Elagabulus and the Banquets of Rome’s Filthy Rich

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Little need be said of the banquets of the vulgar nobles in the last century of the Republic and of the rich parvenus who thronged the courts of the earlier emperors. They were arranged on the same plan as the dinners we have described, differing from them only in the ostentatious display of furniture, plate, and food. So far as particulars have reached us they were, judged by the canons of today, grotesque and revolting rather than magnificent. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

mosaic showing the waste left on the floor from a banquet

“Couches made of silver, wine instead of water for the hands, twenty-two courses to a single cena, seven thousand birds served at another, a dish of livers of fish, tongues of flamingoes, brains of peacocks and pheasants mixed up together, strike us as vulgarity run mad. The sums spent upon these feasts do not seem so fabulous now as they did then. Every season in our great capitals sees social functions that surpass the feasts of Lucullus in cost as far as they do in taste and refinement. As signs of the times, however, as indications of changed ideals, of degeneracy and decay, they deserved the notice that the Roman historians and satirists gave them.

The teenage emperor Elagabulus hosted a famous feast which featured camels’ feet, honeyed dormice, the brains of 600 ostriches, conger eels fattened on Christian slaves, and caviar from fish caught by the emperor's private fishing fleet. Guests were also given a dish with a sauce made by a chef who had to eat nothing but that sauce if the emperor didn't like it.

Elagabulus reportedly came to the banquet on a chariot pulled by naked women and is said to have liked to mix gold and pearls with peas and rice. He ate and drank from bejeweled gold plates and goblets. Guests at his banquets were given free slaves and homes and live versions of the animals they had just eaten. His idea of a practical joke was to play a game and give the winner a prize of dead flies, or to drug guests’ wine and have them wake in a room filled with lions and leopards. These excesses exhausted Rome's treasury and Elagabulus soon met his end, assassinated in a latrine.

Food and Wine at an Elaborate Roman Banquet

Katharine Raff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “A proper Roman dinner included three courses: the hors d'oeuvres (gustatio), the main course (mensae primae), and the dessert (mensae secundae). The food and drink that was served was intended not only to satiate the guests but also to add an element of spectacle to the meal. Exotic produce, particularly those from wild animals, birds, and fish, were favored at elite dinner parties because of their rarity, difficulty of procurement, and consequent high cost, which reflected the host's affluence. Popular but costly fare included pheasant, thrush (or other songbirds), raw oysters, lobster, shellfish, venison, wild boar, and peacock. Foods that were forbidden by sumptuary laws, such as fattened fowl and sow's udders, were flagrantly consumed at the most exclusive feasts. In addition, elaborate recipes were invented—a surviving literary work, known as Apicius, is a late Roman compilation of cookery recipes. These often required not only expensive ingredients and means of preparation but also elaborate, even dramatic, forms of presentation. [Source: Katharine Raff, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011, \^/]

banquet scene on a Herculaneum fresco

“At the Roman banquet, wine was served throughout the meal as an accompaniment to the food. This practice contrasted with that of the Greek deipnon, or main meal, which focused on the consumption of food; wine was reserved for the symposium that followed. Like the Greeks, the Romans mixed their wine with water prior to drinking. The mixing of hot water, which was heated using special boilers known as authepsae, seems to have been a specifically Roman custom. Such devices (similar to later samovars) are depicted in Roman paintings and mosaics, and some examples have been found in archaeological contexts in different parts of the Roman empire. Cold water and, more rarely, ice or snow were also used for mixing. Typically, the wine was mixed to the guest's taste and in his own cup, unlike the Greek practice of communal mixing for the entire party in a large krater (mixing bowl). Wine was poured into the drinking cup with a simpulum (ladle), which allowed the server to measure out a specific quantity of wine.” \^/

Petronius wrote: “We were invited to take our seats. Immediately, Egyptian slaves came in and poured ice water over our hands. The starters were served. On a large tray stood a donkey made of bronze. On its back were two baskets, one holding green olives, and the other black. On either side were dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed. nearby, on a silver grill, piping hot, lay small sausages. As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it.”

Describing the Bill of Fare of a Great Roman Banquetin 63 B.C. Macrobius wrote in Saturnalia Convivia, III.13: “Before the dinner proper came sea hedgehogs; fresh oysters, as many as the guests wished; large mussels; sphondyli; field fares with asparagus; fattened fowls; oyster and mussel pasties; black and white sea acorns; sphondyli again; glycimarides; sea nettles; becaficoes; roe ribs; boar's ribs; fowls dressed with flour; becaficoes; purple shellfish of two sorts. The dinner itself consisted of sows' udder; boar's head; fish-pasties; boar-pasties; ducks; boiled teals; hares; roasted fowls; starch pastry; Pontic pastry.” [Source: Macrobius, “Saturnalia Convivia, III.13:” The Bill of Fare of a Great Roman Banquet, 63 B.C., William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Banquet of Trimalchio from the Satyricon

The following is a excerpt from the comic romance “Satyricon” probably composed during the reign of Nero (A.D. 37-68). The depiction of Trimalchio, the fictitious, uncouth former slave, who has nothing good about him except his money, and who is surrounded by sycophants, flatterers and people expected to serve or amuse him, is regarded as “one of the most clever and unsparing delineations in ancient literature.”

re-enacting a Roman banquet

Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66) wrote in “Satyricon“:“At last we went to recline at table where boys from Alexandria poured snow water on our hands, while others, turning their attention to our feet, picked our nails, and not in silence did they perform their task, but singing all the time. I wished to try if the whole retinue could sing, and so I called for a drink, and a boy, not less ready with his tune, brought it accompanying his action with a sharp-toned ditty; and no matter what you asked for it was all the same song. [Source: Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66), “The Banquet of Trimalchio” from the “Satyricon,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“The first course was served and it was good, for all were close up at the table, save Trimalchio, for whom, after a new fashion, the place of honor was reserved. Among the first viands there was a little ass of Corinthian bronze with saddle bags on his back, in one of which were white olives and in the other black. Over the ass were two silver platters, engraved on the edges with Trimalchio's name, and the weight of silver. Dormice seasoned with honey and poppies lay on little bridge-like structures of iron; there were also sausages brought in piping hot on a silver gridiron, and under that Syrian plums and pomegranate grains.

“We were in the midst of these delights when Trimalchio was brought in with a burst of music. They laid him down on some little cushions, very carefully; whereat some giddy ones broke into a laugh, though it was not much to be wondered at, to see his bald pate peeping out from a scarlet cloak, and his neck all wrapped up and a robe with a broad purple stripe hanging down before him, with tassels and fringes dingle-dangle about him.”

Entertainment and Gaming at Trimalchio Banquet in Satyricon

Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66) wrote in “Satyricon“: “Then going through his teeth with a silver pick, "my friends," quoth he, "I really didn't want to come to dinner so soon, but I was afraid my absence would cause too great a delay, so I denied myself the pleasure I was at — at any rate I hope you'll let me finish my game." A slave followed, carrying a checkerboard of turpentine wood, with crystal dice; but one thing in particular I noticed as extra nice — he had gold and silver coins instead of the ordinary black and white pieces. While he was cursing like a trooper over the game and we were starting on the lighter dishes, a basket was brought in on a tray, with a wooden hen in it, her wings spread round, as if she were hatching. [Source: Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66), “The Banquet of Trimalchio” from the “Satyricon,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“Then two slaves came with their eternal singing, and began searching the straw, whence they rooted out some peahen's eggs, and distributed them among the guests. At this Trimalchio turned around — "Friends," he says, "I had some peahen's eggs placed under a hen, and so help me Hercules! — I hope they're not hatched out; we'd better try if they're still tasty." Thereupon we took up our spoons — they were not less than half a pound weight of silver — and broke the eggs that were made of rich pastry. I had been almost on the point of throwing my share away, for I thought I had a chick in it, until hearing an old hand saying, "There must be something good in this," I delved deeper — and found a very fat fig-pecker inside, surrounded by peppered egg yolk.

“At this point Trimalchio stopped his game, demanded the same dishes, and raising his voice, declared that if anyone wanted more liquor he had only to say the word. At once the orchestra struck up the music, as the slaves also struck up theirs, and removed the first course. In the bustle a dish chanced to fall, and when a boy stooped to pick it up, Trimalchio gave him a few vigorous cuffs for his pains, and bade him to "throw it down again" — and a slave coming in swept out the silver platter along with the refuse. After that two long-haired Ethiopians entered with little bladders, similar to those used in sprinkling the arena in the amphitheater, but instead of water they poured wine on our hands. Then glass wine jars were brought in, carefully sealed and a ticket on the neck of each, reading thus: "Opimian Falernia, One hundred years old."”

Presently one of the guests remarks, first on how completely Trimalchio is under the thumb of his wife; next he comments on the gentleman's vast riches.] "So help me Hercules, the tenth of his slaves don't know their own master.... Some time ago the quality of his wool was not to his liking; so what does he do, but buys rams at Tarentum to improve the breed. In order to have Attic honey at home with him, he has bees brought from Attica to better his stock by crossing it with the Greek. A couple of days ago he had the notion to write to India for mushroom seed. And his freedmen, his one-time comrades [in slavery] they are no small cheese either; they are immensely well-off. Do you see that chap on the last couch over there? Today he has his 800,000 sesterces. He came from nothing, and time was when he had to carry wood upon his back.... He has been manumitted only lately, but he knows his business. Not long ago he displayed this notice: "Caius Pompeius Diogenes, Having Taken A House Is Disposed To Let His Garret From The Kalends Of July."”

Trimalchio Explains How He Earned His Great Wealth

After a very long discussion and a vulgar display of luxuries and riches, Trimalchio condescends to tell the company how he came by his vast wealth. Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66) wrote in “Satyricon“: "When I came here first [as a slave] from Asia, I was only as high as yonder candlestick, and I'd be measuring my height on it every day, and greasing my lips with lamp oil to bring out a bit of hair on my snout. Well, at last, to make a long story short, as it pleased the gods, I became master in the house, and as you see, I'm a chip off the same block. He [my master] made me coheir with Caesar, and I came into a royal fortune, but no one ever thinks he has enough. I was mad for trading, and to put it all in a nutshell, bought five ships, freighted them with wine — and wine was as good as coined money at that time — and sent them to Rome. [Source: Petronius Arbiter (A.D. c.27-66), “The Banquet of Trimalchio” from the “Satyricon,” William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Trimalchio in Fellini's Satyricon

“You wouldn't believe it, every one of those ships was wrecked. In one day Neptune swallowed up 30,000,000 sesterces on me. D'ye think I lost heart? Not much! I took no notice of it, by Hercules! I got more ships made, larger, better, and luckier; that no one might say I wasn't a plucky fellow. A big ship has big strength — that's plain! Well I freighted them with wine, bacon, beans, perfumes, and slaves. Here Fortuna (my consort) showed her devotion. She sold her jewelry and all her dresses, and gave me a hundred gold pieces — that's what my fortune grew from. What the gods ordain happens quickly. For on just one voyage I scooped in 10,000,000 sesterces and immediately started to redeem all the lands that used to be my master's. I built a house, bought some cattle to sell again — whatever I laid my hand to grew like a honeycomb. When I found myself richer than all the country round about was worth, in less than no time I gave up trading, and commenced lending money at interest to the freedmen. Upon my word, I was very near giving up business altogether, only an astrologer, who happened to come into our colony, dissuaded me.

“"And now I may as well tell you it all — I have thirty years, four months and two days to live, moreover I"m to fall in for an estate — that's prophecy anyway. If I'm so lucky as to be able to join my domains to Apulia, I'll say I've got on pretty well. Meanwhile under Mercury's' fostering, I've built this house. Just a hut once, you know — now a regular temple! It has four dining rooms, twenty bedrooms, two marble porticoes, a set of cells upstairs, my own bedroom, a sitting room for this viper (my wife!) here, a very fine porter's room, and it holds guests to any amount. There are a lot of other things too that I'll show you by and by. Take my word for it, if you have a penny you're worth a penny, you are valued for just what you have. Yesterday your friend was a frog, he's a king today — that's the way it goes."

[Trimalchio goes on to show off to his guests the costly shroud, perfumes, etc., he has been assembling for his own funeral; and at last] we, the guests were already disgusted with the whole affair when Trimalchio, who, by the way, was beastly drunk, ordered in the cornet players for our further pleasure, and propped up with cushions, stretched himself out at full length. "Imagine I'm dead," says he, "and play something soothing!" Whereat the cornet players struck up a funeral march, and one of them especially — a slave of the undertaker fellow — the best in the crowd, played with such effect that he roused the whole neighborhood. So the watchmen, who had charge of the district, thinking Trimalchio's house on fire, burst in the door, and surged in — as was their right — with axes and water ready. Taking advantage of such an opportune moment . . . we bolted incontinently, as if there had been a real fire in the place.”

Charity in Ancient Rome

Good deeds and charity were common, almost obligatory. practices among wealthy Romans. The idea seems to be that if had successful public career and profited from it, you paid some of it back to your community. Sometimes people whi did this did will they were alive in part to help their children.

Roman banquet couch

An ancient Roman inscription of this sort from Città di Castello, Umbria in central Italy — on a thin horizontal rectangular marble plaque about 1 m long by 50 cm high, with with seven centered lines of beautifully cut monumental capitals, reads:
“Lucius Vennius Sabinus, with
his son Efficax,
gave as a gift to the people of Tifernum Tiberinum
(this) fountain and the (entire) water collection system,
from their property line up to the intake,
for the embellishment of the community. [Source: LacusCurtius]

Davis wrote: “The Imperial Age was one of great benevolence if we are willing to give that name to acts of generosity which were often too showy and ostentatious to merit the highest praise. The cases here cited are nearly all (except that of Pliny) based upon the evidence of inscriptions.

“Ummidia Quadratilla built at Casinum an amphitheater and a temple.”
“Secundus at Bordeaux built an aqueduct costing 2,000,000 sesterces”
“Perigrinus [a character in Lucian] is represented as giving during his lifetime his whole property, 30 talents, to his native city.”
“Crinas of Massillia expended 10,000,000 sesterces in rebuilding the walls of that city.”
“The two brothers Stertinus gave a still larger sum than the last for erecting public buildings in their native Neapolis.’
“Hiero gave 2000 talents to Laodicea, his native town.”
[Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 224-225

“The younger Pliny spent on his native town of Como 11,000,000 sesterces, though by no means a very rich man. He founded a library, a school, and a charity institute for poor children; also a temple to Ceres, with spacious porticoes to shelter tradespeople who came to the fair held in honor of that goddess. His grandfather had already built for the town a costly portico, and provided the money for decorating the city gates.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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