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Too abundant Roman feasts

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mosaic showing the feast on the Nile. The site is located in the National  Archaeological Museum in Palestrina (Italy)
Mosaic showing the feast on the Nile. The site is located in the National Archaeological Museum in Palestrina (Italy)

To this day, the ancient Romans appear to us as wasteful and absorbed in abundant feasts. As it turns out, the upper social classes did not spare a penny and allowed themselves crazy feasts.

This is evidenced by, for example, Roman statutes, which were issued to curb such unlimited spending (sumtus), the striking extravagant lifestyle and pathetic exuberance – termed sumtuariae leges. We know about 17 such acts, which, among other things, set the maximum number of guests at a party or specified a list of forbidden dishes.

In 215 BCE adopted Lex Orchia (from the surname of the surname of the incumbent consul Gaius Oppius), which ordered, inter alia, organizing feasts with the house door open, and women wear colorful dresses. But where does the idea to limit the lavish lifestyle of the Romans come from? At that time, the Roman Republic waged the Second Punic War with the Carthage in which it lost. Considering war expenses and the need to save their homeland, the Roman elites wanted to limit the extravagant and decadent lifestyle of patricians, seek savings and mobilize the whole society.

As it turned out, the success of the fight against “liberated” patricians was short-lived. Victory in the war and the lack of danger caused the two tribunes of the people Marek Fundanius and Lucius Walerius to appeal Lex Oppia twenty years later.

With the defeat of Carthage, Macedonia or Antioch, riches began to flow into Rome, the recipients of which were naturally the upper strata. Patricians had access to a larger range of products. This forced the conservative Roman authorities to adopt Lex Orchia in 181 BCE, which was largely a success for the Cato the Elder himself. Thus, sumptuous feasts and display of wealth were struck again.

Another law Lex Fannia – from 161 BCE (issued on the order of Consul Fannius Strabo) – set the upper limit for the costs that could be incurred for organizing the price. The Fannius Act here spoke of a round total of 100 aces for major holidays (e.g., Saturnalia) and games (e.g., Ludi Plebeii) and 30 aces for each subsequent feast of the month. Apparently, the act also forbade serving birds during feasts, except for one “lean” chicken. Interestingly, the Romans often sought ways to circumvent legal regulations. And so instead of a chicken, a rooster was served – which turned out to be a bull’s-eye – the taste of the meat was better than that of the female. It is worth mentioning that Lex Fannia was only for Rome.

Over time, however, the equivalent of the law was created, covering all of Italy. The initiator of a new act – named Lex Didia from 143 BCE – was the people’s tribune Titus Didius. In addition, this law determined how to punish guests who accepted an invitation to a feast that was too regulated. The next law was Lex Licinia (probably from 103 BCE). It was the spending limit for 200 aces for various festive occasions or weddings.

Roman authorities have tried to influence the decadent lifestyle of patricians many times in history. Other such laws are: Lex Cornelia (81 BCE, on the initiative of dictator Sulla), Aemilia (78 BCE, on the initiative of consul Emilius Lepidus), Antia (on the initiative of Ancjus Restio), Julia (on the initiative of Caesar), Julia II (on the initiative of Octavian). Also some Roman emperors (including Tiberius) tried to influence the extravaganza of society.

  • Bardel Michał, Wielkie żarcie w oczach Petroniusza, czyli o rzymskich zbytkach w dziedzinie jedzenia i picia, "Misięcznik ZNAK", 10.2007
  • Matz David, Daily Life of the Ancient Romans
  • Smith William, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London 1875

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