Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2010.02.47

Version at BMCR home site
Konrad Vössing (ed.), Das römische Bankett im Spiegel der Altertumswissenschaften: Internationales Kolloquium 5./6. Oktober 2005, Schloss Mickeln, Düsseldorf. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008. Pp. 213; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9783515092357. €44.00.
Reviewed by Steven Thompson, Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Roman convivium as a social phenomenon is the theme of this essay collection, emerging from a colloquium held in Düsseldorf in October 2005. The twelve mostly Europe-based contributors usher the reader into the world of the upper-class Roman banquet to savor the personal, social and political significance of the witty poetic banquet invitation, the guest list, seating arrangement, and room decoration. They enable the reader to evaluate the socio-political significance of banquet table talk, and assist by interpreting the subtle and not-so-subtle cautions woven into banquet protocol against denting one's reputation through overindulgence, or inattentiveness to appropriate conversation topics and related demands of status-appropriate etiquette.

Contributors employed what editor Konrad Vössing termed a "Mikrohistorie" approach to the convivium, drawing on perspectives from archaeology, history, literary criticism and philology. Further shared goals of the colloquium contributors, according to the editor, were to narrow the research gap separating the much-studied Greek symposion from its relatively neglected Roman counterpart, and to employ the wider range of research approaches, including the recent openness to the techniques and concerns of social historians, which have yielded results to Greek banqueting researchers during the last two decades. Vössing suggests grouping the volume's twelve essays by pairs, providing six approaches to the Roman banquet. Each pair is linked, he maintains, by theme or method. Most of his pairings seem reasonable.

The first pair, which Vössing labeled "announcement of the banquet," includes Dunbabin's analysis of Roman-era banquet room wall decorations. She argues that artistic depictions of banquet entertainment should be seen as impressionistic. Like their literary counterparts, such wall decorations reflected the way their owners wanted to be seen, rather than snapshots of what really happened. The primary advantage of wall decorations over literary banquet sketches lies in their inclusion of a wider social range of banquet entertainers, including especially what one might term the lowbrow end of the entertainment spectrum. She raises, but ultimately acknowledges her inability to answer, the question whether the degree of vulgarity depicted, especially in earlier banquet scenes, corresponded to reality. In the paired essay Merli focuses on surviving written poetic banquet invitations, especially satirical ones, detecting evidence in them for emerging Roman social class ideals and realities. The main emerging social tension, according to Merli, was between the older Epicurean ideal of the social equality of banqueters and the growing patron-client social phenomenon accompanying escalating Roman power. Against the background of work done on the ideal of banqueter equality in Greek banqueting accounts, she argues for a more nuanced awareness of the political setting for understanding the impact of changing power and status ideals on upper class Roman banquet practice.

The second pair of essays focus on what the editor labels "moral discourse and banquet conduct." Stein-Hölkeskamp discusses the construct of the time-appropriate, early(-ish) evening banquet as part of the orderly day of a well-modulated upper-class Roman's life. This became a standard against which opponents and competitors were unfavorably depicted as indulging intemperately in after-hours or even all-night carousing during which, it was typically implied, they succumbed to irresponsible, decadent conduct unworthy of their status. Cicero and others made extensive literary use of this "sharp weapon" to depict their opponents in polemical fashion, suggesting that their lack of temporal regularity, with too much of their night devoted to feasting, indicated their lack of moral regularity. The corresponding essay by Tietz focuses on the undesirable social specter of a Roman dining in solitude in a society where invitations to meals conveyed a sense of belonging, equality and citizenship. Building on recent work on Roman dining companion attitudes, especially by Braund and Vössing, he examines solitary dining's negative implications for three groups: social "parasites," both the impoverished and the prosperous varieties; patrons and their clients; and emperors. Tietz argues that these negative connotations in literary references to dining alone, present already in early Roman sources, gave mixed signals in the increasingly complex social dynamics of the Principate. This resulted especially from the emergence of prosperous, status-seeking parasitic "invitation hunters," as well as from the habit of solo dining attributed by historians to the less congenial emperors.

The third pair of essays explores Roman dining space. Nappo argues convincingly for the existence of a more sophisticated level of the emerging hospitality industry than is traditionally assumed for the early Principate. His evidence comes from his detailed interpretation of the remains of the so-called "Hotel Murecine" uncovered during highway construction near Pompeii in 1959. Nappo confirms earlier interpretations, which understood the structure to be "designed to receive members of the public of a certain social rank" (p. 66). He then focuses on the three luxurious dining rooms included in the complex, each with triclinia to accommodate ten or eleven reclining diners. Luxury on this scale in the Roman hospitality industry was probably available in only a few prosperous regions which attracted numbers of travelling merchants. The essay by Morvelliz traces the development of a single feature of later Roman banquet rooms in larger private dwellings, the stibadium, or circular couch on which diners reclined. He notes the displacement, during the shift from high- to late-empire era, of the table that once stood at the focal point of the stibadium in favor of a basin with a water feature. While the physical proximity of diners provided by the semi-circular reclining arrangement of the stibadium brought a sense of intimacy, the water feature contributed to what the author argues was a deeply-rooted Roman wish to associate banqueting with an outdoor garden atmosphere.

The fourth pair of essays take up modesty and restraint in table talk and wine consumption. Veteran Roman banquet researcher Slater's essay suggests that sustaining exalted topics of table conversation was, or should have been, a shared goal of both host and guest. The host's role in subtly directing conversation was implied by employing such terms as "king" and "captain" to express it. Guests were expected to come prepared to contribute to exalted conversation, and to employ diversionary tactics to prevent conversation from degenerating into wrangling. Slater's brief reference to the erosion of traditional Roman freedom of speech during upper class banquets during the Principate (owing to the sensitivities of emperors and their grip on power) reminds the reader why some banquet guests actually sought coaching in the art of exalted, un-politicized and non-provoking, table talk! The corresponding essay by Egelhaaf-Gaiser takes as its point of departure the stock decoration of the interior of drinking bowls with a leering Gorgon head, whose bulging eyes and gaping mouth gradually appeared as the wine was consumed. Gorgon's role in this setting was to caution the drinker against excessive consumption and its undesirable consequences. She then turns the reader's attention from gorgon-decorated cups to the myth of Perseus and the Gorgon head, where she focuses on a detailed study of Ovid's version of it in Metamorphoses 4.607-5.272. It is her thesis that Ovid recast the traditional form of the Perseus myth to focus more extensively on the convivium itself, and that he intended his version to be read at banquets to provoke consideration and discussion of the roles and dynamic relationships linking fiction and fact, miracle and belief, in myths. She then makes a bold case for understanding Ovid's work as a set banquet entertainment piece with inbuilt moral cautions and sample conversation starters for Roman banqueters.

The fifth pair of essays focuses on the shifting demands for upper class demonstration of status during and after the transition from Republic to Principate. Schnurbusch traces the emergence of the homo novus, or "self-made man," and his challenge to the inherited social dominance of the old Roman nobility during the final half century of the Republic and into the Principate. Employing the critical concept of "prestige hierarchy" developed by Friedrich Vittinghoff to account for the ways in which Romans during the Principate calculated and competed for social and political status, the author pursues the implications of this complex status quest for banquet participants. Analyzing relevant literature, primarily Sallust, Cicero, Seneca and the elder Pliny, and supplementing his findings with accounts of emperors by Suetonius and Tacitus, Schnurbusch argues that the older, inherited status hierarchy was successfully challenged, then replaced, by the newly-emerging prestige hierarchy determined by wealth, social influence, and access to the emperor. The tip of the status pyramid was of course reserved for the emperors, who appropriated for themselves the displays of status formerly employed by the nobility. Bettenworth investigates the social rank of Roman banqueters from a different angle in her analysis of accounts of Saint Martin at dinner with Caesar Magnus Maximus, Western Roman emperor in the 380s A.D. After a careful sketch of the sources, the author focuses on the accounts of the table confrontation between emperor and saint, representing, respectively, temporal and spiritual power. Traditional status tokens such as furnishings, table settings, dishes and entertainment lost customary significance within the modified set of narrative devices employed by the authors to designate the favored person in that paradigmatic banquet setting. In addition to classical Greek and Roman narrative devices, biblical narrative devices were employed to articulate the power conflict and its resolution. Unusually for research on Roman banquets, the author focuses on the setting's cultic and spiritual dimensions. She argues that the banquet episode that most clearly established the locus of power was the poignant scene of the shared cup making its round of the diners. Caesar waited expectantly, hoping to receive it from Martin's hand, betokening thereby a transfer of at least a share of spiritual power. His hopes were thwarted, however, because Martin handed the cup instead to the local bishop.

The final pair of essays, with the weakest shared thematic link, are by Mielsch and Vössing. Artists' still life depictions of animals and fruit adorning Roman dining rooms and some kitchens receive attention from Mielsch, but he acknowledges widespread modern uncertainty about what they signified to their ancient viewers. Possible meanings include depictions of food typically served to guests, symbols of the abundance of land and sea, signs for the seasons of the year, and even a preview of the successive courses of a single banquet. Following some quite detailed description of several paintings, photographs of which are included in the back of the volume, Mielsch acknowledges his inability to settle on the significance of these decorations, and concludes that few such paintings dating between the first and fourth centuries disclose their point. Vössing in his essay confronts head-on a century of lexicographical labor over the meaning of comissatio. He notes the three contemporary options for translating it: a drunken revel through the streets; a luxurious supper; or a chimera, a non-happening in Roman society, something existing only in the imagination of modern readers. Starting with the tradition in classical lexicography of defining comissatio by its etymological link to Greek komos, or "drunken revelry," he states as his "very modest goal" an examination of the word's meaning. After surveying the Greek background term and examining key occurrences of comissatio in wide cultural context, Vössing concludes that comissatio, like its Greek predecessor komos/komazein, can and often did designate the entire banquet, not just the drinking session which followed the meal. Therefore basis is lacking for the assumption that the term should designate only an outdoor revel;of the hundred or so occurrences in the literature under examination, only four clearly denote exclusively an outdoor revel. The morally negative connotations often accompanying the term result from its use in prominent literary attacks on opponents by Cicero and on certain emperors by ancient historians. The modern student of Roman banquet literature should not therefore read much outdoor reveling into descriptions of upper class Roman banquets.

The volume concludes with a combined index of all one hundred ancient authors cited with Athenaeus, Cicero, Gellius, Horace, Juvenal, Martial, Ovid, Plautus, Plutarch, Seneca and Suetonius quoted with highest frequency. A convenient combined bibliography contains five hundred entries, nearly 18% of which were published in 2000 or more recently, a considerable number of them by the contributors to this volume. A work by Donahue (2004), cited in footnote 1 on p. 69, has been omitted, and the publication date of E. Courtney's commentary on Juvenal is missing. There are 32 pages (not 16, as indicated in the publication details at the head of this review) of mostly color photographs and sketches supplementing selected essays. The volume is beautifully and carefully produced, with a very high level of attention to detail. The only typographical error noted by this reviewer is "akohol" for "alkohol" on p. 169.

This essay collection makes a valuable contribution to our rapidly-expanding awareness of Roman banqueting life by filling gaps and refining the focus in the wider picture, especially on the topic of status signifiers. Several essays implicitly point to the need for exploration of the cultic and spiritual aspects of Roman banquets. Hints at the presence of such features appear in Mielsch's reference to a painting of a banquet server who wore a knotted cord, "possibly part of a cultic meal" (p. 33), and in Vössing's passing reference to Xenophon's symposion narrative of the routine libation and hymn to Zeus, which opened the Greek symposion. The essay by Bettenworth focuses on spirituality in its power dimension, especially the section describing the passing of the cup. Judging by their Greek predecessors, Roman banquets probably included routine cultic and spiritual features, and a search of relevant sources might provide another glimpse into the reality of upper class Roman dining.

Table of Contents (Inhaltsverzeichnis)

Konrad Vössing
Einleitung, p. 7

Katherine M.D. Dunbabin
Nec grave nec infacetum: the imagery of convivial entertainment, p. 13

Harald Mielsch
Stilleben zwischen Naturstudie und Speisekarte, p. 27

Eric Morvillez
Les sigmas-fontaines dans l'antiquité tardive, p. 37

Salvatore Ciro Nappo
I triclinia di Murecine, uso ed interpretazione, p. 55

Anja Bettenworth
"... cessit diadema fidei": Das Gastmahl des Kaisers Maximus im Martinsepos des Paulinus von Périgueux, p. 69

Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser
Das versteinerte convivium. Mirabile Metamorphosen und narrative Bildkunst bei Tisch (Ovid, Metamorphosen 4,607-5,272), p. 83

Elena Merli
Stilizzazione letteraria e mutamenti diacronici nelle cene della poesia romana, p. 101

William J. Slater
The ancient art of conversation, p. 113

Dirk Schnurbusch
'Prestigehierarchie' und aristokratisches Gastmahl in der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit, p. 129

Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp
Tempestiva convivia -- das Gastmahl und die Ordnung der Zeit, p. 143

Werner Tietz
Das 'einsame' Mahl im römischen Moraldiskurs, p. 157

Konrad Vössing
Das römische Trinkgelage (comissatio) -- eine Schimäre der Forschung?, p. 169

Die Autorinnen und Autoren, p. 191

Quellenindex und Quellenabkürzungen, p. 193

Bibliographie und bibliographische Abkürzungen, p. 199

Abbildungen (Dunbabin, Mielsch, Morvillez, Nappo), p. 215

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