BANQUETS

A banquet is a formal meal or feast. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, banquets served many public and private functions. Public banquets given by the state or by officials generally had civic, religious, or political purposes. Private banquets provided an opportunity for the upper classes to exchange ideas or display their wealth.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest

Greek Banquets. Civic life in Athens and other Greek city-states* often included banquets sponsored by various organizations to which citizens belonged: philosophical societies, religious groups, community organizations, and clan* and family associations. All of these groups held feasts for their members from time to time to celebrate various occasions. Such banquets created a sense of unity within each organization and also reinforced the social order by reminding each citizen of his place in the larger community. Governments also occasionally sponsored feasts for their citizens.

Private dinner parties called symposia were the favorite evening pastime among wealthy and educated Greeks. (The term symposium is still used today. It means a conference where people meet to discuss a particular topic.) Guests at symposia reclined on couches while drinking wine and eating rich foods. Professional entertainers—mostly women—danced, sang, and played musical instruments while the guests ate, drank, and talked. Guests sometimes played games, and told jokes as well. A symposium often included lighthearted conversations on various issues or more serious discussions on philosophical or literary topics. In his work Symposium, Plato describes an occasion on which the guests discussed the nature of love. Over time, Greek symposia became increasingly elaborate and expensive.

A ROMAN MENU

During the 100s B.C., a Roman named Mucius Lentulus Niger gave a banquet for nearly 700 people to celebrate his advancement to a high office. Among the many delicacies he served as appetizers were oysters, roasted thrushes with asparagus, mussels, deer and boar ribs, and oyster and mussel pies. The meal itself included a boar's head, boar and fish pies, boiled ducks and hares, roasted chickens, and pastries. Such feasts were vastly different from the simple meals of grains, lentils, and vegetables eaten by most country folk and the urban poor.

Roman Banquets. During the time of the Roman Republic*, public feasts at the state’s expense generally were reserved for high officials and the upper class. Often, however, wealthy individuals gave banquets for anyone who attended or participated in the funeral of a relative who had died. This practice began as a way of honoring the memory of the deceased. In time, the wealthy also used such banquets as a way of gaining favor. Generals, politicians seeking office, and others eager to win popular support also adopted the custom of giving public banquets. In 27 B.C., the emperor Augustus banned public banquets, except those given by himself. He hoped, in this way, to keep others from winning the affection and support of the Roman populace.

Private Roman banquets were often large, lavish affairs. As in ancient Greece, the guests generally reclined on couches while they ate, drank, talked, and enjoyed various entertainments. Banquet meals usually consisted of numerous courses. The Romans described such meals as including everything ab ovo usque ad mala (from eggs to apples), or as we might say, “from soup to nuts.” First came a series of appetizers, primarily different types of seafood. Then came the actual meal, consisting of as many as seven courses, which usually included whole roasted animals, such as pigs, ducks, and rabbits. Hosts and cooks often competed to create the most elaborate and exotic dishes. The centerpiece of a banquet, for example, might be small roasted birds (such as larks) inside a roasted duck, which might be inside a large roasted bird (such as a peacock). The third part of the meal was dessert, which usually included fruits and sweets. Various wines, generally mixed with water, were served throughout the meal.

The Romans were famous for their love of fine cuisine. A cookbook written by noted gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius was widely used for at least two centuries. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Roman general and epicure*, became famous for holding grand banquets featuring exotic foods from throughout the Mediterranean region. The term “Lucullan feast”—an extravagant dinner given by gourmets—still bears his name. (See also Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Food and Drink.)

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* epicure person with refined taste in food and drink

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