How clients are entertained

Mosaic of slaves serving at a banquet, from Carthage, 3rd century CE. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Barbara McManus












Ancient Rome was full of dubious hospitality. The complicated system of patronage meant that clients were occasionally invited to a banquet, in gratitude or reciprocity for all their efforts on their patron’s behalf. It was not uncommon for guests at the same party to be treated to different food and wine, served on different plates and glasses, depending on where they stood in the social hierarchy. J.P.V.D. Balsdon notes in Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, that “(t)his differentiation, it seems, could be made even between guests at the same table.”

In “How Clients Are Entertained,” Juvenal, taking the part of the client/guest, asks, “[i]s a dinner worth all the insults with which you have to pay for it?”

“First of all be sure of this –that when bidden to dinner, you receive payment in full for all your past services. A meal is the return which your grand friendship yields you; the great man scores it against you…

“The page [slave] who has cost so many thousands cannot mix a drink for a poor man: but then his beauty, his youth, justify his disdain! … It is beneath him to attend to an old dependent; he is indignant that you should ask for anything, and that you should be seated while he stands. All your great houses are full of saucy slaves. See with what a grumble another of them has handed you a bit of hard bread that you can scarce break in two, or bits of solid dough that have turned mouldy – stuff that will exercise your grinders  and into which no tooth can gain admittance. For [the host] himself a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the bread-basket! …’What?’ you may ask, ‘was it for this that I would so often leave my wife’s side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak?’

Juvenal, Satire V, 20-25; 60-70. Loeb edition, translated by G.G. Ramsay


Seneca on Saturday — dangerous dinner party

Bust of Gaius Caesar, aka “Caligula,” from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen.

Lord Macaulay once said that Seneca the Younger was easily quotable, but reading him straight through would be like “dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.”

I agree! Thus I present some of the condensed wit and wisdom of Seneca, every Saturday.

Here is a curious story of survival at Court. Seneca tells this story as an example of the hospitality one could expect from Gaius Caesar, aka “Caligula,” the third Emperor of Rome.


On Anger

Gaius Caesar, offended with the son of Pastor, a distinguished Roman knight, because of his foppishness and his too elaborately dressed hair, sent him to prison; when the father begged that his son’s life might be spared, Caesar, just as if he had been reminded to punish him, ordered him to be executed forthwith; yet in order not to be wholly brutal to the father, he invited him to dine with him that day. Pastor actually came and showed no reproach in his countenance. Caesar, taking a cup, proposed his health and set some one to watch him; the poor wretch went through with it, although he seemed to be drinking the blood of his Son. Caesar then sent him perfume and garlands of flowers and gave orders to watch whether he used them: he used them. On the very day on which he had buried – no, before he had yet buried – his son, he took his place among a hundred dinner-guests, and, old and gouty as he was, drained a draught of wine that would scarce have been a seemly potion even on the birthday of one of his children, all the while shedding not a single tear nor by any sign suffering his grief to be revealed; at the dinner he acted as if he had obtained the pardon he had sought for his son. Do you ask why? He had a second son.

From Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younnger, Moral Essays, Volume I, translated by John W. Basore. Loeb Classical Library.