BMCR 2005.06.12

Mensa Regia. Das Bankett beim hellenistischen König und beim römischen Kaiser. BzA 193

, Mensa regia : das Bankett beim hellenistischen König und beim römischen Kaiser. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 193. München/Leipzig: Saur, 2004. 627 pages, 15 pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3598778058 €110.00.

With this book, a revised version of his 2001 Düsseldorf ‘Habilitationsschrift’, V(össing) presents a comprehensive study of dining practices in the context of rulership from Alexander the Great to the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235).

V.’s work consists of three main chapters following a short introduction and preceding a conclusion and several appendices. The introduction provides an outline of his method and approach as well as stating the aims of the book. The primary field of tension in any ruler’s banquet is identified as that between traditional forms of dining on the one hand and the overwhelming power of a king or princeps compared to his guests on the other hand. The sources exploited range from incidental or marginal passages in literary works of all kind to specific symposiastic literature.

The author differentiates diligently between the banquets of the Hellenistic kings and those of Roman emperors. For that reason, in the three main chapters he deals with forerunners of the Hellenistic banquet first, discovering them in the Persian and Macedonian reigns as well as in those of Greek tyrants (Chapter II). From these, he derives the nature of the Hellenistic banquet, which again, combined with traditions of the Roman republican elite (Chapter III) served as a forerunner of the Roman emperors’ dinners (Chapter IV).

In Chapter II, V. points out the differences between three main forms of a banquet before Hellenistic times. The archaic and classical Greek symposion cherished the ideal of equality of all men present. In opposition to this, the banquet of the Persian kings — from the Greek point of view — stood for excessive luxury ( tryphe), and by elevating the Great King himself in any way possible, widening the distance between him and his subjects who happened to be called guests at this occasion. Humiliation of everybody else present seems to have been an integral part of any banquet the Persian king engaged in.

Humiliation was the model for most of the Greek tyrants too. In addition, those tyrants provided entertainment by poets and artists and seem to have felt the necessity of simulating equality with their guests to maintain good favor for themselves and to secure their position.

The Macedonian kings provided another scheme of dining. Their meals were abundant, but only with very basic kinds of foodstuffs that lacked the refinement offered by the Persian and Greek tyrants’ tables. Conspicuous consumption, in Macedon, mainly consisted of lots of meat. Reciprocity was not asked for, and the ruler appeared to nurture his subjects; Philipp II, especially, appears to have let himself be invited by lesser lords to simulate some kind of equality. It was Alexander the Great who combined Macedonian abundance and Persian refinement to form what constituted the royal Hellenistic banquet. Excessive joint consumption of food and wine now took place in an environment of luxury and, more and more, fear and subordination among the guests.

The successors of Alexander tried to imitate these two components more or less, showing off not only by the amount of food eaten but also by the number of guests. These guests became mere parasites at the royal table, even if they were seemingly divided into ‘friends’, ‘parasites’ and ‘foreigners’, and the reciprocity of the Greek symposion was no longer asked for. The king himself always maintained the unquestionable first place at the table. V.’s detailed analysis of various aspects such as the setting, dishes, entertainment shows that almost the whole banquet served only one purpose, that of elevating the position of the king.

Chapter III deals with the banquet of the Roman republican elite. From the 2nd century B.C., one had to decide whether one wanted to preserve the mos maiorum or engage in the fashionable customs of the Hellenistic world, which the Romans had recently come to know. After a short outline of terms applied to Roman eating customs, V. presents the unavoidably official character of any meal of the Roman elite. Although this might not be surprising, the Romans at the same time were meticulous when it came to upholding the custom of no ‘official’ talk taking place when dining. The contradiction between the official character and its constant denial deepened when clients were present and not treated as equals.

In Chapter IV, V.’s work culminates in combining the previous chapters’ results and thus giving an impressively convincing picture of the Roman emperor’s meals. This he describes within a very detailed structure, comprising again subjects as diverse as furnishings, seating order, meals and drinks, the position of the princeps himself and sacrifices. The republican traditions were still held in some honor in imperial times, and of course the princeps too had no real intention of privacy when it came to his meals. He was eager to present himself as a chief patron of the whole people, no matter how superior his position really was. What follows is an enumeration of Roman principes and their dining customs, mostly (and disappointingly) not well connected to each other. V. here deals with philological details rather than looking for consistencies which lasted longer than the reign of a single emperor. Only at the end of this chapter are there a few splendid pages (533-539), in which he shows a banqueting typology, which can be traced through Roman imperial history and by which an emperor and his attitudes could very easily be characterized, e.g. his attitude towards the senate and towards his clientela, the populus Romanus.

After a short summary, Chapter V, the book closes with a series of highly sophisticated appendices (all comprising philological discussions about the significance of certain terms defining parts of the Roman dining room), a large bibliography, several chronological lists of Greek and Roman rulers, an index of the rulers mentioned and, finally, an especially useful index locorum where V. lists his sources.

V.’s work excels especially when it comes to accuracy and richness of detail. Its detailed structure leads to many repetitions of all kinds, but these serve to make every single subchapter easily accessible. The book does not aim at one single theory or thesis but rather to provide a complete overview of all the phenomena connected to a ruler’s banquets in classical antiquity. Still, V. succeeds in showing the interdependence and coherent succession of three main models of meals, those of the Hellenistic king, the princeps as chief patronus of the populus Romanus as a whole, and, in the end, of the brutal tyrant in general. These models culminated in the meals of the Roman emperors who, according to V. were bound to navigate between the implications of all of them. As older studies mostly collected and presented all the evidence available rather than discussing it, V. has been forced to present all the material relevant to the subject once again, together with a thorough analysis of its implications. He successfully does this especially in the — sometimes overwhelmingly abundant — annotations, thus rendering the main text very easily accessible and readable. V. explicitly refuses to let himself be guided by the results of social anthropology (p. 15) (in order to be free of any prejudice). This, one has to say, sometimes leads him a little too far, and a considerable part of his book consists of little more than narrative, which might have been kept a little shorter.

Unfortunately, V. has not been able to take into account the results of two other important books dealing with similar subjects, which were published almost simultaneously.1 However, his monograph presents an important step forward for the social history of classical antiquity. For the first time it applies traditional scholarship in the best sense of the word to a very important subject, which had so far be treated only from a rather theoretical and abstract point of view.


1. John F. Donahue, The Roman Community at Table during the Principate, Ann Arbor 2004; Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp, Das römische Gastmahl. Eine Kulturgeschichte, München 2005.