If you eat with your fingers you might be a Roman.
Researching the ancients
In my murder #mystery novel “Obedient unto Death,” I needed to describe a formal Roman dinner. I have watched movies portraying Roman dinner parties, but watching and writing about them are two entirely different skill sets. What did the ancient Romans living around the Mediterranean eat and drink at dinner parties? Did they drink from goblets, mugs, glasses, if so, what were they made from? Wood? Ceramic? Jewel-encrusted gold and silver? Glass? Did they actually recline while eating? Which led to the question - How does a person eat while reclining?
And for that matter who reclined on cushioned couches while eating? Not the slaves serving the dinner and removing the guest's shoes, that’s for sure. Nor the poor folk who barely got home from work before dark to sit on the floor or a wooden stool to eat a dinner of cold porridge (another post on diets will follow).
The wealthy, the aristocracy and the powerful, did indeed dine while lying on their side, propped up on one arm. It was the norm for most social gatherings, dinner parties, and
(Private banquet portrayed in Pompeian mural. dining with socially acceptable peers. In the
Can you find the drunken dinner guest? ) first-century AD.
The optimal number of dinner guests was nine, three on each of three couches, an intimate arrangement ensuring enlightening and witty conversation for all. Couches were positioned in the triclinium (dining room) in a C formation with the most prestigious of guests or family positioned in the most honored places. The least esteemed guests were well aware of their lower status by their placement at the right side of the arrangement. Appearances mattered A LOT! Meanwhile, the slaves or household servants could access all the guests from the center of the C formation, delivering new courses, refreshing wine glasses, clearing plates, and extremely soiled napkins. Knives for cutting and spoons for soup were used sparingly, which meant fingers were the standard utensils. Forks as common eating instruments were a few hundred years in the future.
I have been warned not to go down the rabbit hole of research. But determining where the necessary research ends and the tantalizing tidbits of the rabbit hole begin is sometimes difficult to discern, especially when “inquiring minds want to know.” Are you being sucked down the rabbit hole of curiosity yet? Was licking greasy fingers socially acceptable? I’ll have to check on that.
The dishes within the typical three courses often depended on who you were trying to impress. A simple meal with friends could consist of local delicacies such as songbirds and dormice. Yes they ate mice. A high-ranking government official or wealthy patron required more elaborate displays of deference, including meticulously prepared sauces and spiced foreign meats, like ostrich and flamingo.
A social dinner was never just a meal. It was a production of exotic dishes, imported wines, and entertainment, often including musicians, dancers, poets, or orators, all choreographed to highlight your wealth, your family pedigree, your education, and most importantly, your status.
And yes, goblets, one and two-handled cups, and (woman musician entertaining guests) glasses were all in use and made from carved onyx,
glass, and gem-encrusted bronze, silver, and gold.
However, for those of us reclining on the right-side couch, the more affordable and abundant tableware was terracotta pottery.
For more information on ancient Roman eating habits check out these excellent websites.