~Desiree, Vanessa (LO2)
“You need to learn how to say “please” and “thank you”, “Hold your utensils properly”, “Don’t interrupt when adults are talking”... sounds familiar? These are some commonly heard phrases during our growing up years as our parents teach us about having etiquette. Etiquette that were taught to us by our parents includes but is not limited to manners during mealtimes. Specifically, we were taught how to hold and use utensils, which utensils to use for the type of food which would be placed before us, what we can or cannot eat, where to sit (this is especially important in traditional families whereby the head of the households will have to sit at the start of the table) and the list goes on. Similarly, ancient Romans also have their own set of dining etiquette which they will have to abide by. This blog post serves as a set of Roman etiquette guidelines to highlight what you should take note of when sitting at a Roman dining table or when you are having a meal in ancient Rome, should you be lucky enough to turn back time and land yourself in an extravagant banquet there.
The Roman Etiquette
#1: Seating Arrangement
Sit here, you peasant! And I'll sit there...
Seating arrangement is a crucial part of the Roman dining etiquette. Ancient Roman dinner guests, usually those with higher social status, who were invited to a banquet will usually lounge on a triclinium, a three-cushioned couch which acts like a dining room for them. These couches are arranged in a semi-circular form around a table called the mensa, on which their food dishes are being placed. This is comparable to the dining etiquette that we learn today albeit a slight difference, whereby we too learn that food should be served at a table and we as consumers would have to sit at the table or gather around it to eat. The difference lies in that the ancient Romans only surround on three sides of a four-sided table, whereas in our society today, we can surround all four sides of the table.
In addition to how people should sit, the seat at which each person sits is also particularly crucial in the Roman dining etiquette. At lavish banquets, the usual seating arrangement for people is as follows: guests will recline on the lectus summus (high couch on the right) and lectus medius (high couch at the rear), whereas the host, wife, and another member of the family will recline on the lectus imus (low couch on the left). Referring to the diagram shown below, there can be up to nine people made up of both women and men sitting around the mensa, of which the host of the banquet will occupy seat number 7 and next to him is usually a guest who will occupy seat number 8. The guest-of-honour for the banquet will be seated at the bottom of middle couch, which is known as medius 3 (indicated by seat number 3).
As someone who is attending the ancient Roman banquet, it is extremely important to note the seating arrangement for such an event as failure to sit at the right seats could ruin the party. Similarly, seating arrangement is also significant in modern day dining etiquette. Today, the head of the household or the most senior member (in a family) or the host of the banquet would sit at the head of the table, with his wife sitting at the other end of the table and the other family members or guests will sit along the the sides of the table.
However, these guests will never sit at a table and chair to have their food. Instead, slaves and children are the ones who sits at normal tables and chairs while they consume their food. Other than that, tables and chairs will be used only when poorer ancient Romans have informal meals. As previously mentioned, reclining on the triclinum is part of the Roman dining etiquette which guests have to adhere to, in particular, they can only recline and rest on their left elbows only. Today, even the wealthy will sit at tables and chairs to consume their food during a formal event. More importantly, today’s dining etiquette tells us that we should show respect by sitting upright and that it is only proper have our food at the table; we should not display disrespect by slouching or leaving the table to eat.
Are we fighting or eating?
Everytime you see a bucket of piping hot and crispy bucket of KFC chicken, we would not hesitate to dig into the bucket and rip the meats off those drumsticks and lick our fingers to savour the last remaining bits of crisps and the aromatic oil. As for the Romans, they feast on food using their bare fingertips at every meal. The Romans ate off serving dishes instead of using plates and food is relished using bare fingertips and with two kinds of spoons, the Lingula and a smaller-sized Cochlear. Fingers were washed after every course of the meal and slaves would wash the guest’s hands with more perfumed water. Two types of napkins were used while dining. The first napkin is known as Sundarium (Handkerchief). It is a pocket-sized napkin used by guests to dab sweat off their brows in the warm local climate. The second napkin is the Mappae, which were produced in two different lengths, small and large. It was also used to dab the lips to clean the mouth after every course of the meal. Each guests is provided their own Mappae and would take away unfinished food from the feast. The Mappae is similar to the brown paper, Styrofoam boxes or the plastic containers that we use to ‘Dabao’ (takeaway) our meals, just that we also take-away food before we even eat them.
#3: Type of Food Consumed
Never say 'No' to food. Never.
Potatoes, tomatoes, and everyone’s favourite chocolates are some example of common food which we take for granted today. Surprisingly, these food are unheard of to the ancient Romans. At the same time, food that were typically consumed by the Romans are also unknown to all of us living in the modern age. Those who were less well-to-do as well as the slaves consume staple food such as porridge, bread and stew. On the other hand, the wealthier Romans will have dishes such as elephant trunks, doormice in honey, peacock brains, pike livers, cock crests, lark tongue, bear and lion commonly served on their table during lunch or at extravagant dinner banquets which only the wealthy get to organise and attend. During breakfast, these Romans who are more well-to-do will also get to enjoy cold meats, eggs, cheese, honey, milk and vegetables which would also be served in addition to bread. In contrast to the usual fish, beef, pork and chicken that we consume today, the Romans would obtain their sources of meat from game-birds, fish, shellfish, lamb, kid and wild boar. Most of their dishes were also either sweet or spicy as herbs and spices were used to enhance the taste of their dishes.
Like most of the food we consume, the ancient Romans also add condiments to their dishes but it is not the usual tomato ketchup or SOS chilli or the dark soy sauce that we would add to our food. Instead, they would add in the most popular condiment of the Roman cuisine - fish sauce and fish pickle, whereby “The gills, blood, and intestines of a mackerel were placed in a jar with salt, vinegar, and herbs. The mixture was stirred and pounded into paste or sauce, which was left in the sun to ferment”.
As for their beverage, the ancient Romans would usually accompany their food with wine instead of fruit juices or plain water like we do. However, their wine is not just any normal wine! Their wine would have to first be sweetened with honey and diluted with water. To them, not diluting their wine with water is deemed as being unrespectable to whoever was dining with them. Of course, the ancient Romans do consume other types of beverages such as fruit juices and milk as well, although not as frequently as they consume wine. Grape juice and goat’s milk are amongst the more popular choices for beverages that is not alcohol-based, it’s just like how we sometimes turn to ordering fruit juices or soda or chocolate milkshake when we do not want to order alcohol or have a mere glass of plain water.
Hitler's roman food guide 101
From the paragraphs above, we now know what are the customs that ancient Romans usually have to take note of at meals, as well as the kinds of food that they consume - both of which contribute greatly to the Roman dining etiquette. We have created a video that summarizes up this guideline for you. You can also find, in this video, that Hitler is about to attend a banquet hosted by his Roman general friend. However, before he can attend the banquet, he will first have to learn all about the Roman dining etiquette. Let’s watch to see how well Hitler is adapting and reacting to this situation, shall we?
We may find the Roman etiquette of dining barbaric and maybe kind of revolting-- the highlights being using bare hands to eat with minimal aid of knives and spoons, savouring peacock’s brain and lark’s tongue to purging food out when they are full so that they can eat some more. But some of these dining practices can actually be found in today’s society! Sometimes when we decide that savouring fried chicken using hands is the best and most enjoyable way to devour that crispy chicken drumstick. Maybe when we are walking past a roadside stall in the bustling streets of Bangkok and we decide to have a test of our guts and sample that fried silkworm or that juicy beetle. When we attend a wedding dinner, we are often assigned tables that are in accordance to our status as a dinner guest, usually with the family members and relatives of the bride and groom seated nearer the stage, just like how the Romans sit according to their social status. When we feel stuffed from eating that delectable chicken chop and we are left with unfinished waffle fries. We would often get those unfinished fries takeaway in a paper bag or a container. The Romans too would use the Mappae to take away food when they could not finish their meals.
In conclusion, etiquette may change over time and they may differ across cultures, but it will always exist. While this blog post have left out many other type of etiquettes that the Romans have adopted, it has covered the most crucial aspects of the Roman dining etiquette. Using this set of guidelines that we have presented to you in this blog post, we are sure that you can pass off as a Roman and even the Romans themselves will mistake you as one of them if you were to sit with them at the dining table. So, are you ready to take on the challenge of feasting with the Romans?
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Robinson, E. (2016). Roman Cuisine. Pompeii Revisted (Meditarch).
Unknown,. (2016). A Wealthy Roman Dinner Party. Sites.google.com. Retrieved 16 November 2016, from https://sites.google.com/site/awealthyromandinnerparty/
Unknown,. (2016). Ancient Roman Meals. Tribunesandtriumphs.org. Retrieved 16 November 2016, from http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-life/ancient-roman-meals.htm
Unknown,. (2016). Manners & Customs: Ancient Rome - Resources for Ancient Biblical Studies. Bible-history.com. Retrieved 16 November 2016, from http://www.bible-history.com/links.php?cat=1&sub=32&cat_name=Ancient+Rome&subcat_name=Manners+%26+Customs