The Roman convivium was modelled on the Etruscan version of the Greek symposium. These Italian feasts differed from their Greek prototypes in four important respects: citizen women were present; equality was replaced by a hierarchy of honour; the emphasis was on eating and the cēna (see meals), rather than on the later drinking session; the entertainment was often given by one man for his inferior friends and clients (see cliens). The Roman convivium was therefore embedded in social and family structures, rather than largely independent of them; the difference is captured by the remark of Porcius Cato 1 that the Romans were right to emphasize the aspect of ‘living together’ by calling a group of reclining friends a convivium rather than a symposium.
The differences between Greek and Roman customs produced some tensions. The presence of respectable women is archaeologically attested in Etruria (see etruscans) and early Rome, and was already denounced by Theopompus; it led to a series of attempts by Roman antiquarians to explain that originally Roman women had been prohibited from drinking wine or reclining. Later moralists were obsessed with the consequent dangers of adultery, which became a specifically Roman vice. Inequality and the tendency to excessive display of wealth gave rise to an emphasis on the need for moderate behaviour, and satires on ostentation. The activities of the parasite and pretensions towards Greek‐style literary sophistication in private banquets were ridiculed, and contrasted with the public feasts given by politicians and emperors. The result was a complex convivial culture, whose literature was descriptive and moralizing, rather than designed for actual performance at the convivium, and was much concerned with differences between Greek and Roman customs.
Roman religion involved special forms of the feast. In 399 bc the lectisternium was introduced, a ritual in which images of the gods were arranged as banqueters on couches, and for which the septemvirī epulones seem to have had responsibility. Other collegia such as the arval brethren dined together according to complex rituals. The Saturnalia (see saturnus) was a traditional carnivalesque feast of reversal.
The Roman dining‐room was based on the triclinium arrangement of couches, traditionally with three couches and nine participants. This produced a space for entertainment facing the diners, rather than enclosed by them, and encouraged displays that were more lavish than in Greece, but did not involve participation.
Subjects: Classical Studies.