The Roman poet Gajus Petronius Arbiter (14-66) wrote this 20-volume novel, which is only preserved in fragments. It describes a witty-realistic, partly grotesque moral picture of the social conditions in Rome in the first century. The main character and narrator is an educated young man named Encolpius, who is interested in many things and travels all over lower Italy. Between many erotic-amorous adventures with people of both sexes and many roguish pranks, he also travels to the coastal town of Puteoli (today Pozzuoli in Campania). Here he takes part with his companion Giton, his friend Ascyltos and the rhetorician Agamemnon in an extremely sumptuous and remarkable feast of the nouveau riche and illiterate multi-billionaire Trimalchio (a wine merchant).
This episode, which became famous as "Cena Trimalchionis", is the main part of the fragments. It is also an excellent source of the typical food, drink and table manners of the upper classes of early Imperial Rome. The cena was the main meal of the day for the higher classes and was served in the late afternoon (beginning 3 to 4 pm), usually after a visit to the baths. The parts of the present banquet with explanatory background information concerning the drinking culture in particular were written by Christopher Daniel (working for the University of Erlangen), who kindly gave his permission for their use.
Water and wine played an important role in the everyday life of the Romans. The consumption of pure water was not common for a cena (especially in rich circles), but it was an indispensable part of every meal to dilute the wine. Wine was drunk with almost every meal (less often with breakfast), but especially with the main meal. Light wine was already enjoyed with starters (gustatio), preferably the very popular honey wine Mulsum. Wine was considered a staple food. The consumption was correspondingly high in the imperial period, with a daily amount of 0.8 to 1 litre per male and 0.5 litre per female inhabitant of Rome. Slaves also had a right to this, although they had to be content with simple quality.
In the "Cena Trimalchionis" the host gives the instruction to mix a mighty pot (a big vessel) and also to distribute full cups to the slaves. For the guests, however, a Falernian, and not just any Falernian, but a (supposedly) century-old famous "Opimian" (i.e. from 121 BC) is served. Carefully plastered glass jugs were brought in, with labels stuck to their necks with the text "Falernian, anno Opimius, centenary" (whether this was actually true is a matter of doubt). As with any other wine, it was customary to dilute this very expensive and unusual wine before drinking it. The reason was the relatively high alcohol content, the thick liquid of older top wines, as well as the fact that wine was sometimes even drunk at breakfast.
The aim was to be able to drink considerably more of the diluted wine and enjoy its stimulating and intoxicating effects for longer. Either one mixed it with sweeter wine to soften the bitterness of an older vintage or with water. In summer, chilled wine was drunk using snow (often brought from far away). In winter it was common to add warm water. The mixing took place in the individual's cup, and more often in a crater (mixing jug), into which the wine was poured first and then the water. A sieve-like funnel on the mixing jug made it possible to separate the often cloudy wine from the sediment.
From the mixing jug the wine was poured into the drinking vessels with a ladle(Cyathus, about half a litre). Although mixing was common practice, there is almost no information about common mixing ratios among the Romans. According to Greek sources, there were variations depending on the occasion and mood. Two parts of wine to five parts of water were considered a strong drink, 1:2, 1:3 and 1:4 were not unusual; always more water than wine. The Romans probably preferred similar proportions. Those who only wanted to quench their thirst drank wine with plenty of water, and those who wanted to forget their worries added less or none at all.
Fruit was eaten with pleasure at any time of the day and in every course of a cena. Figs were an important part of the diet of the time and took first place in Rome in the popularity scale for fruit in all classes. When dried, they formed the usual winter diet of the rural population according to the author Columella (1st century). Figs were also used to make wine. The grapes had a special position. In addition to grapes, the Romans already cultivated specially cultivated table grapes, which played an important role in the daily diet from early on. They were an indispensable part of the diet as fresh fruit, as a sweetener and also preserved. Table grapes intended for consumption were cultivated (to keep them fresh) in the vineyards in the immediate vicinity of Rome. The most widespread method of preserving fruit was drying. The largest and sweetest fruits were mainly used to make raisins. But there were many other techniques as well. Grapes were also hung for a long time in the smoke of the oven, which dried them very slowly, giving them a peculiar taste.
Usually a Cena was followed by a "Comissatio" at the end. This was an exuberant drinking binge that could last until dawn and often ended with a frenzy of most of those present. One crowned oneself and rubbed oneself with valuable, fragrant ointments. No Comissatio took place without "Rex bibendi" (drinking king, also "Rex convivii" = guest meal king). This was determined by acclamation or by throwing dice from the round. His task was not only to determine the mixing ratio and the number of drinking units, which was obligatory for each participant, but also to entertain the evening. The most frequent fixed points were mainly musical performances such as dancing, singing, playing the flute or lyrics. The drinking king also had to determine who from the group had to entertain the company with witty lectures or riddles. The most unusual and crazy ideas were used to heat up the atmosphere and the limits of good taste were often exceeded.
During the Commisatio, toasts were drunk to the welfare of those present, absent, emperor, senate and army, and toasts were offered. The cup was filled up to the brim with wine, the speaker made a toast to a person present and emptied it in one go. Now the cup was filled again and handed to the person just honoured, who in turn had to empty the cup. This went around in the round. Deviations were understood as disapproval or rejection, which revealed many a hidden rivalry. Although not specifically mentioned, Trimalchio himself was probably the drinking king among the "Cena Trimalchionis". He invites his table mates to talk and provides artistic interludes.
However, the Cena Trimalchionis does not use toasts, only the "Flos tangomenas facere", i.e. the invitation to toast or to get drunk. In connection with the increasing intoxication, which was not considered a disgrace in social gatherings during the feast - a careful distinction was made between "Ebrius", a temporary state of intoxication, and "Ebriosus", a chronic alcoholic - the disinhibitory effect of alcohol led to quarrels and sometimes to physical violence. The no longer sober host Trimalcho, for example, threw a wine cup at his wife. For more information on this topic, see also Ancient Wines, Ancient Grape Varieties, Bacchus, Dionysus and especially Drinking Culture.
Source: Christopher Daniel (work for the University of Erlangen)
Picture left: By P. Bodart - GoogleBooks, Public Domain, Link
Picture right: By Roberto Bompiani - J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain, Link