By Emma Sanders
Want to shake things up at your next dinner party? Take a cue from the early Romans. Pour Boone’s Farm, Yellowtail Shiraz, and a coveted Super Tuscan wine, but don’t offer your guests a choice. Instead, assign each guest to one of the three wines based on how much you like and value that person relative to his or her dinner companions. (Warning: you may lose some friends in the process.)
This kind of overt rank valuation was common at early Roman banquets, according to Dr. Nicholas Hudson of UNC Wilmington, who recently spoke on the topic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His lecture, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: The Changing Identify of Dining in the Roman World illuminates how styles of dining reflect a changing society.
On early Roman banquets, Pliny writes:
“He apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wines; but it was not that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all. One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know the measures of friendship according to degrees of quality; and the third for his own free men.”
The Romans also applied this behavior to food, as hilariously summarized by the Latin poet Martial:
“Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill. Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump; there is set before me magpie that has died in its cage. Why do I recline with you?”
Over time, banquets shifted from the model of assigning guests social worth. Large sharing dishes became more common. These sharing dishes tended to be very similar in color and design to emphasize consistency of food served across a table. This growing egalitarianism of banquets demonstrated a social and cultural shift from the elitism of early Roman banquets.
In late Rome, a fissure grew between Romans who adopted the newer style of banquets and those who clung to elitism. Dr. Hudson espouses that the newer style of banquets ‑‑based on unity and sharing‑‑ even provided an early precedent for the rituals of Christianity.