BMCR 2005.04.05

The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality

, The Roman banquet : images of conviviality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xvii, 291 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521822521. $75.00.

Banquets and food are among the most popular subjects in Roman art, and eating and drinking have been among the most popular objects of scholarship in recent years, but, as Katherine Dunbabin points out in her introduction to this book, the Roman banquet has never received the same volume of academic attention as the Greek symposium. Here, she sets out to remedy that deficit by examining the representation of banquets in Roman art from the first century BC to the sixth century AD, with the laudable aim of treating the visual material as a source in its own right, rather than as a mere illustration of the textual evidence. The book grew out of a series of lectures delivered at Harvard in 1998, and it retains the somewhat discontinuous feel of a collection of separate papers, but this is more than compensated for by the richness of Dunbabin’s insights into a collection of material which, as she demonstrates, was produced by a much wider section of society than that represented by the literary sources.

The first two chapters focus on the late Republic and early Empire. Dunbabin sets the scene by tracing the history of the reclining banquet and its representation in art back to the Near East and Greece in the first millennium BC, highlighting the differences between Greek and Roman practices and the contribution of the Etruscans to Roman dining customs. She also considers architectural spaces designed for dining, comparing the forms of Greek and Roman dining rooms and tracking the growing size of Roman triclinia, from the standard nine-person rooms of the Republic and early Empire to rooms that could hold as many as two dozen guests, found in houses from the mid-first century AD onwards. This shift from intimate parties to large, spectacular and potentially hierarchical gatherings has important implications for social change, which become clearer in the later chapters.

She goes on to analyse depictions of banquets in wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum, attempting to tease out the Greek elements from the Roman: some scenes, such as those from the House of the Chaste Lovers at Pompeii, she identifies as almost exclusively Hellenistic in their trappings and thus in their inspiration, while others, such as those in the House of the Triclinium, introduce more Roman features, including the characteristic arrangement of the triclinium couches. In all the paintings, however, she identifies a strong idealising trend, designed to convey the ambience of a luxurious banquet rather than representing the reality of the gatherings that might have taken place in the painted rooms; the ideal of luxury, throughout this period, is still defined by the practices — real or imagined — of the Hellenistic East. A brief look at images from the eastern provinces shows that there too Hellenistic conventions still dominated the representation of banquets, even when, judging from the form of domestic dining rooms, actual dining practices had long been adapted to Roman custom.

Chapters Three and Four turn to depictions of banquets on funerary monuments. In Chapter Three, Dunbabin attempts to identify representations of public banquets, an elusive subject because of the difficulty of distinguishing them from funerary or domestic gatherings. She finds a couple of examples in first-century AD funerary reliefs from central and northern Italy, arguing that their scenes of twelve or thirteen diners sharing a triclinium differ significantly both from the small, Greek-flavoured parties depicted in contemporary domestic paintings and from the conventional solitary diner of ‘ Totenmahl‘ reliefs. A third relief, from Amiternum, which puzzlingly shows both reclining and seated diners, is interpreted as a public banquet where distinctions of status were marked by the different postures adopted by the participants; such events are attested in inscriptions recording public benefactions. Here, as throughout the book, Dunbabin rightly emphasises the importance of the banquet as a spectacle to be watched by others as much as an event to be participated in. The final section of this chapter examines the form and decoration of buildings which may have been the setting for public meals: most are probably the headquarters of collegia, and seem designed to emulate the banquets of the elite, reflecting the aspirations of the relatively humble groups who used them.

Chapter Four looks at the ‘Totenmahl’ scenes showing the deceased person reclining at a banquet, which appear on funerary monuments throughout the ancient world, from Archaic Greece onwards. The motif has been interpreted in many different ways, but Dunbabin sensibly refuses to accept a single interpretation, and instead views it as multivalent, adaptable to a variety of possible meanings depending on the context. Her examples illustrate the narrowness of the line between the banqueting-couch and the funeral bier; how the characteristically masculine pose of the reclining drinker became so closely associated with death that the aspiring classes saw no incongruity in choosing it for their womenfolk and children; and how elements of the convivial banquet could be introduced into the solitary meal of the dead, projecting an image of worldly luxury even in the tomb. Likewise, she argues that it is not possible to draw a simple distinction between these heroising representations of the deceased person as banqueter and depictions of actual funerary banquets, because there is too much cross-fertilisation between the two genres. This leads naturally into a discussion of the other context in which death and dining are entwined, the memento mori, a reminder to the living to enjoy the pleasures of life while they still can; the dining room was the usual setting for these images, but the same visual conventions found also a natural place in the imagery of the tomb.

The final chapters move forward to late antiquity. The banquet dropped out of fashion as a subject for domestic decoration in Italy for most of the second and third centuries AD, but, when it returned to favour in the late Empire, the emphasis on imagined Hellenistic luxury was replaced by a set of conventions that was more representative of reality. Dunbabin draws out common threads in representations of banquets on mosaics and silver dishes from across the Empire. Many show well-appointed picnics, set amid scenes of hunting, presumably alluding to the country estates and leisured lifestyles of the very wealthy; both indoor and outdoor meals are now accompanied by a host of attendants, with their functions carefully differentiated — the wine-pourer, the hand-washer, and even the fan-bearer. There is a new emphasis on the food rather than the drink which dominated the earlier, Greek-inspired scenes, and, consequently, on the serving-dishes, which are often the same type of lavish silver platters that the dining scenes decorate. At last, Dunbabin argues, the Roman elite had developed a convention of representation which truly conveyed the status and magnificence that the images of banquets were intended to lay claim to. Not all banquets were such formal affairs, however, and she identifies a group of more convivial gatherings centred on semi-circular stibadia and elaborate water-heaters.

The final chapter looks at the last depictions of the reclining banquet in the ancient world, in the Christian catacombs of the third and fourth centuries AD. Most are simpler than their pagan counterparts, and more decorous; the absence of servants suggests that the principal interest is in conviviality rather than display. A few, from a single catacomb in Rome, appear more luxurious, and the diners are attended by women with names such as Agape or Irene, suggesting an allegorical dimension; but even if the motif may have had additional layers of meaning for a Christian viewer, Dunbabin emphasises the need to consider these scenes in the context of other contemporary images of banquets, with which they share many features. She ends by briefly tracing the afterlife of the Roman banquet in medieval and Byzantine art: long after the custom of reclining to eat had died out, the stibadium continued to feature in scenes from mythology and the Bible, becoming the standard format for depictions of the Last Supper.

The book is handsomely produced and well illustrated, with a generous section of colour plates. Latin texts and inscriptions are banished to the notes, but I was surprised to find that not every text is translated in full: some are only paraphrased in English, and others are not translated at all, which will reduce the usefulness of the book for students and non-Classicists (who will otherwise find it very accessible). However, there can be no doubt that the wealth of material and ideas presented here will help to stimulate further research into this important but under-exploited subject.