A Roman dinner party conjures up images of sophisticated conversation, poetry recitations, and gentle flute music, but this is only a partial view. Some gatherings were just as likely to involve raucous drinking, naked tightrope walkers and vulgar ostentation.
Traditionally thrown in the early evening, after a visit to the baths and an afternoon of fun and games, the Roman dinner party was one of the most important pieces of social and political cement in the Republic and Empire.
The classic account of a dinner comes from the time of Nero, himself well known for revolving dining rooms and ornamental wine fountains, and was left to us by an author named Petronius. His book, the Satyricon, is as the name suggests a sport of fictionalised satire with exaggerated characters and situations. The surviving section, Dinner with Trimalchio, recounts the hero’s attendance at a lavish dinner thrown by a ghastly, gauche, nuovo riche freedman. It became a central piece in the famous film version of the book directed by Federico Fellini.