Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.08.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.29

Dirk Schnurbusch, Convivium: Form und Bedeutung aristokratischer Geselligkeit in der römischen Antike. Historia Einzelschriften, 219.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 314.  ISBN 9783515098601.  €62.00.  

Reviewed by Anastasios Nikolopoulos, University of the Peloponnese (

Table of Contents

Dirk Schnurbusch's book is an agreeable addition to the growing bibliography on the Roman banquet. It is a quite readable book thanks to its clear structure, which has been dictated not only by the fact that it is the revised form of a doctoral dissertation but also by the straightforward methodological framework, which is laid out in the first two chapters.

The author's explicit aim is to detect and discuss the conventional norms of the banquet as a social practice in the Roman world from the beginning of the 2nd c. BCE to the end of the 1 c. CE, in other words the period in which the convivium becomes an important aspect of social life and its formal conventions are established and fully developed. Accordingly, the theoretical concepts which have shaped Schnurbusch's thought and structured the presentation of this material are derived mainly from the sociological theories of Norbert Elias and Niklas Luhmann. The former is mentioned in Chapter 1 (Introduction) and the latter in Chapter 2 (Methodological Foreword). With these tools Schnurbusch aims to overcome problems of previous literature on the subject, such as the dichotomy public vs. private and the concept of luxuria. For even though the aristocratic banquet belonged to the private sphere, it soon became a matter of concern for state authorities and legal regulation, in order to keep elite competition within certain limits, and prevent public offence at extravagant luxury.

A survey of previous research on the subject (Chapter 3) is followed by three chapters on the form of the convivium, each one covering a distinct aspect (material, temporal and social) of the banquet, and a chapter on its meaning (the Bedeutung of the book's subtitle) or rather its socio-political functions (as indicated in the chapter's title).

Beginning with a catalogue of the various dates proposed by ancient authorities for the introduction of oriental luxuria in Rome as an indication of the variable understanding of its limits, Chapter 4 proceeds with a discussion of the considerable sums invested by Roman aristocracy in urban houses and countryside villas, as well as the objections raised by members of the elite, particularly under Tiberius. In the next section Schnurbusch argues convincingly that terms such as triclinium and conclave do not refer to specific rooms in the Roman house, but could be applied to any room used permanently or occasionally as a dining-hall. Vitruvius and Pliny the younger are mined for every piece of information on the location, orientation, dimensions and decoration of these rooms. Furniture and serving utensils could also be used to display wealth and fine taste to guests and the relevant section is again packed with information on the use of rare woods, precious metals and glass. Finally, extravagant choice of food was not the only means by which a host could achieve the variety necessary to keep guests excited; the personnel employed for preparing and serving the feast as well as welcoming and entertaining the guests became increasingly numerous and specialized.

The temporal dimension of the convivium is addressed in Chapter 5. After an introductory discussion of the relevant ancient terms (cena, cenula, convivium), denying any water-tight distinction, Schnurbusch offers a detailed account of the banquet from the invitation several days or even weeks earlier and the guests' appearance at the host's doorstep in their cenatoria normally at the ninth or tenth hour to their cheerful return home the same night. Obviously, taste was not the only sense a Roman convivium sought to satisfy; the last section of this chapter offers an overview of entertainment at a banquet from the carmina convivalia, attributed by Cato to earlier times than the period covered by the present book, to music and dancing which became popular during Cicero's lifetime, alongside the more sophisticated pleasures offered by literary readings.

In his exploration of the banquet's social dimensions (Chapter 6), the author turns to Cicero for the republican period and Seneca for the early empire. On the whole, the former adopts a positive view although he is not keen to participate, while the latter is overtly critical. It appears that ten to twelve was the maximum number of guests normally invited to a dinner-party. It is not so evident, however, how they were chosen, although social standing and patronage were certainly taken into account by hosts and guests. The presence of wives and children is a well-known fact that differentiates the Roman convivium from the Greek symposion. Another distinctive characteristic was the location of the place of honor, the so-called locus consularis. What Greeks and Romans seem to have shared was the expectation for good-mannered, witty and sophisticated conversation even on matters literary and philosophical, while in the imperial period the banquet functioned more and more as a substitute for the forum.

Chapter 7 on the social and political functions of the banquet is probably the most interesting one, at least in terms of argumentation. Being at the crossroads of public and private, the convivium had certain standards that were monitored by peers, in order to establish whether a member of the elite behaved according to decorum. Although with the passage of time the rules were somewhat relaxed, they never ceased to exist altogether, even in the imperial period, when they were seriously challenged by the nouveau-riche freedmen. Not only the material means employed and the luxury displayed during the banquets, but also the number and identity of the persons invited were scrutinized. During the republican period invitations, issued, accepted or rejected, marked the changing landscape of an aristocrat's political affiliations; in the company of like-minded peers, members of the Roman elite felt free to express political opinions and circulate stories without worrying about discretion or the infamous denouncers of the imperial period. The author rightly emphasizes how hard it is to pinpoint the exact role the banquet could play during an electoral campaign in the same period as well as the risk involved in joining the wrong persons at a dinner-party during the early empire.

A brief chapter of Conclusions is followed by a rich bibliography and three indices (ancient authors, ancient names and subject-matter). Typos are rare and generally limited to quotations in languages other than German.1 Although several references are supplemented with the relevant text, only once has this been misquoted.2 All in all, a feast of detailed information and textual evidence presented with clarity and elucidated with unpretentious argument.


1.   Greek: p.70 and 79 asarotos instead of asaratos, p. 183-4 read συμπόσιον and ἐδεσμάτων, p.189 δωδεκάθεος; English: p.70 n.78 host instead of lost (of variations possible); Latin: p.85 nitidioris instead of nitidoris, p.89 inimicitia instead of inimicita, p.101 n.277 thesaurorum instead of thesauorum, p.181 Paetus instead of Peatus, p.237 n. 61 profectus instead of profesctus; German: p.221 n.9 read Anthropologie. Errors like infelicites (p.103), obscentiae (p.213), decores (p.226) and omnes collegiae (p.244) as well as the preference for the masculine form dedecor (p.219 and 223) do not look like typos, however.
2.   P. 164 n. 153 where the text supplied is that of Cic. Verr. 2, 1, 66 quoted in n. 151. In footnote 178 on p. 178 the first two words of the quotation should be omitted, because they are not part of Cato's fragment.

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