How To: Host A Roman Bacchanalia

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Bring the Wife
While not exactly paragons of female equality, the Romans also certainly weren't at the bottom of the patriarchy pole either (that spot probably goes to the Greeks, who believed that ladies shouldn't be seen or heard and basically kept them locked up in the house). Unmarried Roman women, particularly those who were engaged via arranged marriage, didn't have a whole lot of freedom, but that changed once the marriage was validated. Proper Roman matrons had power within their home, could go out of it when they wanted, and were usually invited along with their husbands to dinner parties. (Any of which would have caused a minor social crisis and possibly major government intervention had it been tried in ancient Greece.) However, unlike their husbands, women were generally expected to stay sober for these parties and were almost never invited to the booziest shindigs.

Get Creative With the Menu
The original Roman dinner probably isn't at all like what you'd imagine. Up until the later years of the Republic, almost everybody in Rome, from wealthy to slave, based their diet around a fat and wheat gruel called puls, into which various vegetables (and, if you were rich, meat, cheese, fish or eggs) might be added. Yum. By the time of the Empire, however, this relatively Spartan diet had blossomed into a full-on, decadent cuisine. Dinner, called the cena, would often begin around 3 p.m. and last for hours. There were three courses, with any number of dishes involved in each and, for the better sort of parties, it was generally understood that the more whimsical the menu, the better. Thus, you get dishes like the "Trojan Pig," a whole roasted porker stuffed with sausages and fruit meant to spill out like entrails when the stomach was cut open; creative cuts of meat like uterus or marinated larks' tongues; and exotic additions like stuffed whole dormice, ostrich, or peacock.

toga21.jpgDon't Forget the Rotted Fish
Of course, no Roman dinner party was complete without liquamen, ancient Rome's rather disgusting answer to ketchup. The sauce was made by taking the guts of several different kinds of fish, mashing them into a liquid, and letting them stew in the sun for weeks, even months, before straining off the solids and bottling (tightly) the rest. Romans put this stuff on everything, from meat to veggies"¦even some desserts. Nevertheless, they weren't immune to the sauce's gross nature. Reportedly, the smell put off by fermenting liquamen was so rancid, even to Roman noses, that production of the condiment was banned within city limits.

Keep It All Down
Much has been made of the vomitorium, the room distinguished Romans supposedly retired to in order to, uh, "make room for another course." But, sadly, history has burned us all on this one. According to Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope books, vomitoriums weren't rooms to vomit in at all. Rather, they were an architectural feature added onto the entrances of stadiums that helped to keep human traffic moving smoothly. Apparently, the mix up can be blamed on Aldous Huxley, who first used the term incorrectly back in 1923. That's not to say, however, that Romans weren't doing some seriously nasty things during dinner. Ancient texts describe tableside bedpan service and puking was, apparently, rampant---they just didn't have a special room for it.

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April 3, 2007 - 4:26am
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