Contrary to popular belief, Rome was not all crazy sex parties. In fact, ancient Roman parties were pretty tame by today’s standards. Most of the time, it consisted of noble families getting together, eating elaborate food dishes, and shooting the sh*t on everything from politics to the weather. These parties were beacons of status and networking opportunities, which is why they became a cornerstone in everyday Roman life. Partying in Rome was common, but Ancient Roman orgies weren't popping off on the daily.
In addition to dinner parties, there were festivals backed by cults filled with the most socially undesirable factions of the time, such as women. There were also occasional orgies, and while people did go to them, it was usually under the guise of secrecy, as they were considered the lowest of the low in terms of entertainment (boo!). If you want to know more about how Ancient Romans got down, check out the list below.
Dinner Parties Were the Thing to Do
Most social activities form their foundations on eating, and Rome wasn’t one to eschew tradition. It may surprise you to know dinner parties were the cornerstone of Roman social life. It was the best excuse for the noble class to get together and network. If you were the one throwing the party, then that was more prestige for you. These parties were known in Latin as convivium (literally, "living together"), and happened at all echelons of society, though most surviving histories speak only of those dinners hosted by the elite.
In his book Daily Life of the Ancient Romans, author David Matz quotes Suetonius on Emperor Augustus's habit of throwing dinner parties: "He gave dinner parties constantly and always formally, with great regard to the rank and personality of his guests... He served a dinner of three courses or of six when he was most lavish, without needless extravagance but with the greatest goodfellowship."
For the Elite, Dinner Parties Were a Display of Status
What and how you served at your dinner party meant everything. The goal was to impress guests enough to call in favors and make impressions, so you had to bring your A-game. The more exotic and expensive your food, the more impressive you were. If you really wanted to show everyone how rich and cultured you were, you wouldn’t just give them courses, you’d lay out platters of different dishes for them to choose from.
According to The Illustrated History of the Roman Empire, a meat course alone might include "veal, sucking pig, boar, venison, hare, wild goat, kid, porpoise, bream, hake, mackerel, mullet, oysters, sole, chicken, duck, goose, partridge, thrush, turtle dove, even crane, flamingo and ostric."
Dinner Parties Weren't Always Private - Holidays Got Everyone Together to Get Down
While there were plenty of private dinner parties, Ancient Romans also hosted public feasts called epulums, which were religious events. The Epulum Jovis, for instance, was held each year in honor of Jupiter, to commemorate the dedication of the Capitoline temple in Rome. It was a festival of feasting. Other Roman holidays were accompanied by feasting that spilled over from public to private spaces, as food was made available in public but citizens also hosted their own parties, at which they ate and drank.
Gregory S. Aldrete describes the party scene during the Roman holiday Saturnalia thus in his book Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia:
The... week was taken up with nonstop parties and feasts. All shops, law courts, and schools were closed. Normal moral restraints were loosened and everyone was expected to engage in all forms of revelry and fun. This was the only time of year people were allowed to gamble in public. Bands of revelers ran through the streets drinking and shouting...
Entertainment for Elite Roman Parties Might Include Poetry, Hookers, and Gladiators
Elite ancient Roman private dinner parties featured more than just elaborate food and noble guests. They also featured a wealth of entertainment of many forms. Conversation was the bedrock of many dinner parties, but they also could feature poetry readings, music, plays, and acrobatics. The most impressive dinners could end in an intimate gladiator fight, but they also sometimes featured discreet back rooms with prostitutes.
So, to recap, things you might run into at a dinner party:
- Discreet hooker situation
- Gladiator fights
- Plays, live music, and poetry readings
- Conversation (which is a total snooze fest if you're looking for hookers or gladiator fights)