Social life in ancient Rome was centered on three institutions: associations, dinner parties, and festivals. Like many other aspects of Ro man life and culture, all three institutions had roots in the earlier Etruscan civilization and were strongly influenced by Greek practices. In general, Roman social life eventually became more extravagant over time.
Associations. Associations were groups of people who had something in common and who gathered together, usually for social reasons. In addition, almost all associations had some religious component. Associations gave their members a sense of identity and belonging. Shared meals, winedrinking, and festivals were central activities of most associations, and associations gave people many opportunities to socialize.
In early Rome, associations were generally based on family and kinship. People who claimed to have the same ancestors formed kinship groups called gentes. During the Roman Republic*, the number and types of associations increased steadily. Many were based on shared occupations, religious cults*, or neighborhoods. These bases often overlapped because people with the same occupation tended to live in the same part of the city and to be devoted to the same cults. Some associations were formed for the sole purpose of sharing meals, wine, and conversation.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
Most classes of society, except the very poor, had their own associations. Those too poor to form their own associations socialized at public places. Although women had a few of their own associations, membership in social groups was primarily among men. Men also had more opportunities for informal social interactions at the baths, which provided eating and drinking areas, as well as places to talk and play sports.
Dinner Parties. The social life of emperors, senators, and other wealthy Romans centered on the dinner party. Although the dinner party featured eating and wine drinking—often to excess—it also served other functions. The most influential men in Roman society strengthened their social and political relationships at dinner parties. The dinner party was also the place for discussions of significant issues, romantic encounters, and extravagant displays of wealth, all of which occurred in an atmosphere of goodwill and sharing. The seating at dinner parties was strictly by rank and honor. Those in less favored positions could even be served plainer fare than people of higher status.
The early Romans adopted the Etruscan practice of allowing their wives to attend dinner parties, and this practice persisted for many years. Later Roman dinner parties reflected a strong Greek influence. Dinner parties became very lavish, and the Romans adopted the practice of both the Etruscans and the Greeks of lying on couches and watching performers during the meal. At first, entertainment was simple, often just a harp or lute* player. Over time, a wider variety of entertainments became common, including performances by actors, acrobats, jugglers, and clowns. Gambling, singing, dancing, joke telling, and poetry readings were also popular entertainments at later Roman dinner parties.
One of the best fictional descriptions of a Roman dinner party is “Dinner with Trimalchio” by Petronius. It is the longest surviving segment of the Satyricon, a famous Roman novel that takes place during the early Roman Empire. Many readers agree that both the food and the entertainments Petronius described are extravagant and lavish to the point of being ludicrous.
Festivals. The many public festivals that took place during the Roman year provided opportunities for feasting and entertainment to the community as a whole. Over time, these also became extravagant. The grandest festivals were those that celebrated successful military campaigns. By the beginning of the Roman Empire, festivals were often celebrated with several days or even weeks of festivities, including processions, chariot races, athletic competitions, and performances of plays and mimes. Nearly all festivals ended with public banquets, some of which were very lavish. At these banquets, the meat of the animals sacrificed for the occasion was used as part of the celebration. The choice parts—the inner organs, skin, and fat— were offered to the gods. The less choice parts, such as chops and steaks, were roasted and eaten. This was often the only meat the lower classes enjoyed throughout the year.
Public festivals were very expensive, and many required the financial backing of the emperor. The nobility supported festivals and other public events, such as dedications of buildings. Nobles often displayed their wealth in this way to show that they were worthy of public office.
Festivals not only provided the common people with a break from their daily routines but also reinforced the importance of harmony among the distinct social classes in the community. Although the rich and the poor shared in the entertainment and feasting, the rich always had better seats and superior food. (See also Class Structure, Roman; Etruscans; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Games, Roman; Rome, History of; Social Clubs and Professional Associations; Social Life, Greek.)
* lute stringed instrument similar to a guitar, with a pear-shaped body and a curved back