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Communal Meals

Oxford Handbooks Online


Communal Meals  
Richard S. Ascough
The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Ritual
Edited by Risto Uro, Juliette J. Day, Rikard Roitto, and Richard E. DeMaris

Print Publication Date: Nov 2018 Subject: Religion, Christianity, Ritual and Performance
Online Publication Date: Dec 2018 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198747871.013.12

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter begins by briefly discussing the prevalence of communal meals in the Roman
world and then turns attention to the form and setting of communal dining. Such meals
were framed as semi-public events. While not everyone was invited—indeed, only a small
cadre of the especially chosen took part—banquets were often located and structured so
that they could be observed. Within the meal setting itself, seating arrangements were
such that each participant was also an observer. The bulk of the chapter examines how
communal dining rituals model the values of the surrounding culture while also serving to
mirror these values back to the banqueters, thus reinforcing and legitimating these
values within the group. While meal rituals have the potential to challenge societal
norms, in practice, the replication of cultural values reinforce the dominant social order.

Keywords: banquet, boundaries, identity, meal posture, meal setting, social tension, status reinforcement, values

Introduction
COMMUNAL meals in Roman antiquity were framed as semi-public events. While not
everyone was invited—indeed, only a small cadre of the especially chosen took part—
banquets were often located and structured so that they could be observed, to a greater
or lesser degree. Within the meal setting itself, seating arrangements were such that
each participant was also an observer. The rituals and ritualized behaviour that were
embedded into the communal meals served primarily to negotiate social relations among
participants and observers. Strong social bonds were forged and maintained among those
present at the meal, and when fractures occurred through aberrant behaviour,
regulations ensured that decorum was re-established. At the same time, Roman social
differentiation was also clear and obvious throughout the meal, and not all participants

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Communal Meals

were treated equally. Such social tension was, however, both inscribed by and held in
check through the meal rituals. While the communal bonds created within the meal
setting provide a glimmer for overcoming the cultural differentiation among the
participants, the ritualized differentiation within various aspects of the meal ends up
enacting the extant hierarchical stratifications of Roman society and thus ultimately
mirrors, legitimates, and reinforces such cultural values to the group.

In examining the Roman communal meal rituals, we take a rather functionalist approach,
so it is important to recognize at the outset that while functionalism per se has fallen out
of fashion in the study of religion, there is still much to be learned through an
examination of the effects of rituals, both on the participants and on those who observe,
or are at least aware of, the rituals. As Uro notes, ‘Understood as one explanation for
ritual behaviour, functionalist reasoning has hardly lost its relevance. It is very intuitive to
think that collective rituals often provide a kind of glue that keeps social groups
together’ (2010: 223, his emphasis). There are consequences to rituals, intentional or not,
that need examination (Grimes 2014: 298, 301). Approaching rituals in this way is not, of
course, exhaustive of all possible understandings, but does provide insight into how
(p. 205) rituals, in our case in the setting of communal dining, helped participants

navigate and negotiate social networks.

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Communal Meals

The Prevalence of Communal Meals


Meals in antiquity took place in many different ways, as is the case today. One needs only
think of the difference between eating a regular family meal in the home, sharing a meal
with extended family on a holiday occasion, eating at a fast food restaurant, attending a
formal banquet, or grabbing a quick bite on the way to work or school. In all instances,
food is consumed, but in each case, there are distinct differences, such as the type of food
consumed, the setting, companions present (or not), and the formal and informal rules
that govern not only the manner in which the food is presented and consumed but also
the behaviours that are manifest around such activities. Not unexpectedly, Roman
communal meals were likewise complicated, and of necessity we must speak in somewhat
broad terms of typicalities rather than nuance, being representative rather than
comprehensive in our summary (cf. Smith 2003: 12).

Those living in the Roman period ate at multiple times during the day—what we might
call breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and in different ways, but of particular importance was
the evening meal, the cena or convivium in Latin or deipnon or syssition in Greek
(Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 726C–D [Clement, LCL]), which in many instances
extended beyond family dinner to become a social event to which a network of contacts
could be invited (cf. Smith 2003: 20). Given the fluidity between the public and private
spheres in Roman antiquity, it is no surprise that communal dining was never truly a
private affair (Dunbabin 2003: 36). The cena could be a public meal on a grand scale or
mark some special occasion, often being linked in some way to rites of passage (Donahue
2004: 8), such as birthdays, coming of age ceremonies (when boys receive the toga virilis),
weddings, funerals, or memorials for the deceased (see Smith 2003: 38–42 for
descriptions; these are examples of what Grignon calls ‘exceptional commensality’ [2001:
27–8; cf. Ascough 2008: 38–41]). A convivium, on the other hand, tended to be a much
smaller dinner party to which one invited friends for fellowship and enjoyment (Donahue
2004: 9). Both, however, were times for sustenance and for socializing. As Plutarch
records in a saying from an otherwise unknown Hagias, ‘We invite each other not for the
sake of eating and drinking, but for drinking together and eating together’ (Mor., Quaest.
Conv. 643A, LCL, my emphasis). In both the cena and the convivium, however, rituals
played an important role.

There are a number of sources available that provide data for understanding Graeco-
Roman meal practices and from which we can trace patterns of behaviours: literary,
epigraphic, papyrological, and archaeological (for a more detailed description of the vast
swath of the evidence for ancient meal practices, see Klinghardt 1996: 21–174). The
primary data are generally drawn from the literary tradition, although such texts tend to
reflect the mores and practices of the elite. Authors such as Cato, Columella, Apicius,
(p. 206) Petronius, Martial, and Juvenal are, for the most part, concerned with agriculture

and recipes, although do give descriptions of the various courses of banquets and provide
some information on the general rules of dining etiquette (Giacosa 1992: 5). Plutarch

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Communal Meals

discusses Roman etiquette in his Moralia, particularly Quaestiones Convivales, written at


the end of the first century CE. It is, however, an idealized account of the setting and
clearly the rules were not always observed (Faas 1994: 48). In contrast, Petronius’ first-
century CE satire The Satyricon includes a section called ‘Dinner with Trimalchio’ which
serves as an anti-etiquette manual—what not to do in hosting a banquet—from which we
can learn much about what was expected at communal meals. While it drips with satire
and somewhat outrageous overstatement, it most likely has at its core a fairly accurate
reflection of the excesses of elite social banquets. One of the most complete descriptions
of Roman meal practices is found in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, an account of a series of
banquets held in an elite household, written in the early third century CE, but including
quotes and summaries of many earlier writers. Although it is a fictional account overall, it
provides invaluable information for understanding Roman meal rituals.

Lest one think that communal banqueting was the purview of the elite alone, there was a
‘trickle-down effect’ of elaborate elite banqueting practices to the non-elite, as can be
seen in Varro’s complaint that ‘the ever proliferating epula of the lowly collegia at Rome’
ends up increasing food prices in the markets (Rust. 3.2.16, cited in D’Arms 1999: 311; cf.
Donahue 2004: 89). One of the richest epigraphic repositories for communal meals
among the non-elite comes from the inscriptions and papyri of the vast array of these
Graeco-Roman associations (see Kloppenborg, Chapter 9 in this volume), which imitated
elite practices (Smith 2003: 95–123; Ascough 2012). Some groups even designated
themselves explicitly with reference to meals, either in their collective name, such as ‘the
banqueters’ (thoiniētai; AGRW 75 = IGLSkythia III 68, A, Kallatis, 50–100 CE), or the
name of their leader, such as the ‘head of the banquet’ (trikliniarchos) who oversees a
group of thirty-eight ‘fellow-banqueters’ (synklitai; AGRW 51 = IG X/2.1, Thessalonike,
late I CE). Many of these small groups—formed on the basis of households, ethnic/
immigrant status, neighbourhoods, shared occupation, or common purpose (cf. Harland
2003: 28–9) —set aside a particular day or days for weekly, monthly, or yearly meetings
that included banqueting (Ascough 2012). Those who had their own buildings often
included space designed and designated for shared meals (see Ascough 2016: 551–62).

In the (little) artwork that survives from antiquity, images of dining appear predominantly
in domestic and funerary settings. ‘They show groups of banqueters or single
participants, or present cognate subjects or extracts from larger scenes: the servants,
ready to attend on the guests; food and drink that might be set before them; and the
entertainment that they might be offered’ (Dunbabin 2003: 5). The domestic art appears
as painting on walls, particularly in dining rooms (and predominantly from Pompeii and
Herculaneum) and on mosaic pavements. In funerary contexts, dining scenes can be
found on wall paintings in tombs and in statues and in reliefs on various objects such as
sarcophagi, urns, altars, and stelae (Dunbabin 2003: 5–6).

(p. 207)Such data are important for (re-)constructing Graeco-Roman communal meal
rituals, but in using this data we must, of course, proceed with caution. As Hal Taussig
points out, applying ritual theory to the social practices of the ancient world is a very
different process than applying theory to modern, observable rituals (2009: 56). By

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Communal Meals

relying on second-hand accounts there is always a chance—indeed, a high degree of


likelihood—that the ancient authors have not fully or accurately represented the
proceedings. All the events are filtered through their own biases. The once-removed
nature of our data thus compounds the problem of interpreter bias, which is present in
any use of data. Yet, such is the limitation of historical investigation and so we proceed,
albeit cautiously, knowing that we must always take care to determine ‘to what extent a
banquet reference in the data represents social reality or merely an idealized,
imaginative reconstruction of it’ (Smith 2003: 6).

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Communal Meals

Form and Setting of Communal Dining


Dennis Smith has rightly proposed a common Roman banquet tradition centred on the
triclinium arrangement that was adapted to various settings such as: everyday meals,
symposia, sacrificial meals, mystery meals, festival meals, and ethnically specific meals
(e.g. Jewish meals; Smith 2003: 3; cf. Donahue 2004: 36). It is clear that the form of the
banquet ‘had become the pattern for all formalized meals in the Mediterranean world’ in
the Roman period (Smith 2003: 2). Thus, while there were minor regional variations and
nuanced differences among social groups, ‘the evidence suggests that meals took similar
forms and shared similar meanings and interpretations across a broad range of the
ancient world’ (Smith 2003: 2).

Dinner generally took place from just before sundown until late in the evening (Smith
2003: 22). Upon entering the venue, guests would gather in the atrium if in a house, or
some other open space if elsewhere, before entering the dining room to take their places.
The triclinium was a set of three couches, each of which could comfortably accommodate
three guests, and situated so as to form an open U-shape. Although sometimes a
triclinium could be expanded to accommodate more diners, either through larger couches
or the addition of more couches (cf. Athenaeus, Deipn. 142C), nine diners was thought to
be ideal as symbolized by the nine muses who might inspire the guests: ‘Clio, history,
Euterpe, flute-playing and tragedy, Thalia, comedy, Melpomene, song, Terpsichore, dance,
Erato, poetry, Polyhumnia, lyre-playing, Urania, astronomy and Calliope,
philosophy’ (Faas 1994: 56). If the number of guests exceeded the reasonable
accommodation of the triclinium, one or more other triclinia might be set up for them.
And although large venues were not unheard of, the ideal was small, intimate gatherings
of nine to fifteen diners, so that even some meeting houses of large associations had
dedicated dining space that would restrict the numbers at a sitting to no more than
fifteen participants (e.g, AGRW B14 and B19; cf. Ascough 2016: 559–60).

(p. 208) The preferred posture on the triclinium itself was to lie on the left side, freeing
the right arm and hand for the taking of food to be placed on a plate held in the left hand
or placed on a bench-table in front of the diners (see Smith 2003: 14–17). Artistic
renditions of meals, however, rarely reflect such static poses, and show diners in ‘a
relaxed, disorderly fashion’ (Faas 1994: 56). Often guests would eat lying on their
stomach and then turn onto their side afterwards (Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 679F–
680A). Non-elite diners and uninvited guests such as gate-crashers (‘shadows’) and
‘parasites’ (see Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 706F–710A; Faas 1994: 60–1) were often
required to sit at the feet of the invited guests or on chairs. If women and children were
present at the banquet, they would be required to sit, either on chairs or at the feet of
their male companion or on a separate couch, thus differentiating their social position
from the males reclining on the couches (Lucian, Symp., 13–15; Smith 2003: 11; cf. Visser
1991: 172–3). This changed, however, throughout the Roman period to women reclining
on couches (Smith 2003: 43; Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 619D). One or more low, three-

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Communal Meals

legged circular tables stood in the centre space, sometimes covered with a tablecloth.
From here, diners helped themselves to the food. In larger rooms, low benches might be
placed in front of the couches, from which food could be taken. Once a course finished,
the entire tabletop would be taken back to the kitchen, the leftovers to be eaten by the
slaves (cf. Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 703D). Fresh food was piled onto a new table and
brought in for the next course.

The food itself was eaten using fingers or spoons, while knives were reserved for the
cutting of meat (Giacosa 1992: 23). Although diners were urged to take small amounts of
food with their fingers, suggesting some delicacy, any remnants of food were simply
tossed to the ground for the slaves to clean up (Giacosa 1992: 23–4). Thus, from a modern
perspective, there is a curious juxtaposition of fine etiquette and vulgar slovenliness. The
meal proper in Roman times was preceded with appetizers and often followed by ‘an
extended period of relaxed drinking during which the entertainment of the evening would
be presented’ called a convivium in Latin and symposion in Greek (Smith 2003: 27). Such
entertainment might include games (e.g. kottabos, see below), female flute players (who
sometimes also provided sexual favours), musicians, dancers, acrobats, riddles, stories,
and extended philosophical discussion (cf. Plutarch, Mor., Quaest. Conv. 710B–713F).

Although many houses, especially larger houses and villas, typically included dedicated
space for banqueting, communal meals could also be held in other settings such as
gardens, religious sanctuaries, cemeteries and tombs, porticoes, tents, and association
meeting halls, the latter of which might include many rooms designed for a triclinium
(Dunbabin 2003: 50–1; Ascough 2016). Such rooms allowed the couches to be arranged to
facilitate shared tables and easy communication; ‘The same form was used for domestic,
public, and religious settings, supporting the argument that the same meal customs were
followed for banquets regardless of the setting or context’ (Smith 2003: 25). In the early
Roman imperial period, the typical form of the dining space followed that of the Greeks in
being a square or rectangular room, around the edges of which would be placed the beds
or benches of one or more triclinia, while in later centuries a single semi-circular couch
(stibadium or sigma) came into use (Dunbabin 2003: 43).

(p. 209)Given the organization of the triclinium setting and the intimacy it provided for
participants even while exposing them to wider view, both to themselves and to others, it
is clear than Roman communal meals were ‘performative’ events in the sense described
by Robert Grimes (see esp. 2006). As Dunbabin notes:

Few things are more revealing of the significance that a society attaches to the
process of communal eating and drinking than the physical layout of the spaces
used for that purpose. The size of the group that can readily be accommodated,
and the arrangement of the diners within that group, profoundly affect their
ability to communicate their relationship to one another; the whole atmosphere
and character of the occasion are dependent upon these factors. (2003: 36; cf.
Visser 1991: 31)

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Roman writers describe architectural features and decorative elements of dining facilities
in ‘visually expressive terms’ and emphasize both the visual and aural entertainment that
accompanied the banqueting (see D’Arms 1999: 302).

Plutarch makes reference to elite banquets as ‘a spectacle and a show’ (Mor., Cupid.
Diviti. 528B [De Lacy and Einarson, LCL]) and thus ‘introduces the idea of upper-class
banquets as consciously performative and theatrical events, around which, in imaginative
literature, a vocabulary of viewing tends to cluster’ (D’Arms 1999: 301). The food itself
was brought in with great fanfare—‘more for show than for nutritional use’ (Macrobius,
Sat. 7.5.32, cited in D’Arms 1999: 303) and was consumed using elaborate table settings
(D’Arms 1999: 302). While such literary accounts are not necessarily reflective of actual
practices, they do establish a sense that meals were thought of in terms of performance
and display, both to those participating in them and to those ‘observing’ from outside
(D’Arms 1999: 303, 307–8).

Ritualized Social Bonding


Roman communal dining rituals model the values of the surrounding culture insofar as
they assert and reinscribe the strong status boundaries that define individuals and groups
in a collectivist culture. Invitation to, or exclusion from, a banquet serves to differentiate
insiders from outsiders. From the point of entry onwards ritualized behaviour serves to
mirror group values to the banqueters, thus reinforcing and legitimating these values
within the group (cf. Ascough 2012). At the same time, meal rituals can and do model
challenges to dominant cultural values and have the potential to become mechanisms for
enacting societal change. This too is mirrored back to the group and frames their self-
understanding. Dining rituals thus function as instruments through which a group
negotiates its identity, both to outside observers and among the insider participants
themselves (cf. Grignon 2001; Donahue 2004; Ascough 2008). As such, these rituals both
depict and reinforce social arrangements among dining participants while (p. 210) also
increasing the social tensions the diners experience with the dominant cultural values
(Grimes 2014: 294–337).

Although we noted above that communal meals were performative events, they were also
locations in which group boundaries were set and as a result of ritual performance
boundaries were declared and maintained. By choosing to dine together, individuals
signalled to one another a desire for connection while also separating themselves from
those on the other side. The rituals around entrance into the dining space emphasized
such distinctions. In a banquet held in a private house, for example, guests gathered in
the atrium until all the invitees had arrived (for details, see Faas 1994: 50). Non-attenders
would not only see them enter, but could look through the vestibulum, the lobby, to see
who had been admitted. In order to attend a banquet, one must receive an invitation,
either in person or in writing (many of which are preserved among the papyri in Egypt;

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Smith 2003: 23), which in itself was a form of differentiating group insiders and
outsiders.

While they waited, guests could view not only the mosaics and frescoes that decorated
the atrium, but also the family’s treasured works of art, which would be put on display for
the occasion. Guests might even choose to worship at the lararium (the domestic altar),
the doors of which would have been opened for this special occasion. There, they would
see, and perhaps honour, the household gods (Faas 1994: 50). Such acts of devotion
would create a sense of bonding not only with the host’s family but also with one another
gathered before the altar.

Upon being ushered into the dining room itself, guests stepped over the threshold with
their right foot first in order to avoid bad luck (cf. Petronius, Sat. 30). Inside, slaves
washed their hands and their feet in a ritual of purification. Although feet were always
dirty due to open shoes and muddy streets, ‘above all, foot washing was symbolic: in
removing one’s shoes, one was shaking off earthly bonds. One could no longer run into
the street but had entered the spiritual sphere of the triclinium’ (Faas 1994: 53; cf. Smith
2003: 27). As Visser notes, after having described various ritual actions that occur before
meals in different times and cultures, ‘All these complicated manoeuvres have been
devised by their various cultures in order to make the person who is about to eat
conscious of what he or she is doing, and to force the members of the group to take notice
of one another’ (Visser 1991: 163, my emphasis). The ritualized process of waiting and
then entering the dining space serves to demarcate who is ‘inside’ the group and
reinforces that there are also those who are excluded, not just the slaves who wash their
hands and feet but also others who remain physically outside.

Assertion of group boundaries in this manner is a form of what Grignon calls ‘segregative
commensality’. Boundaries are established between those who are included in the
banqueting and those who are not as ‘a way to assert or to strengthen the “We” by
pointing out and rejecting, as symbols of otherness, the “not We”, strangers, rivals,
enemies, superiors or inferiors’ (Grignon 2001: 29). Yet these boundaries are neither
random nor porous; the pre-existing social groups to which an individual belongs often
determine a banquet invitation list. Yet within the confines of the meal itself social bonds
are forged; ‘satisfaction of the most individual of needs becomes a means of creating
(p. 211) community’ (Visser 1991: 1). Plutarch talks of the ‘friend-making character of the

dining-table’ (Mor., Quaest. Conv. 612D [Clement, LCL]) and notes that ‘A guest comes to
share not only meat, wine, and dessert, but conversation, fun, and the amiability that
leads to friendship’ (Mor., Quaest. Conv. 660B [Hoffleit, LCL]). The rituals and
ritualization associated with shared meals broker the social bonding, since ‘ritual,
whether secular or sacred, binds groups together, ensuring their harmonious functioning
by generating and maintaining orders of meaning, purpose, and value’ (Stephenson 2015:
38).

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Once in the dining space itself, participants took their place on the couches. As we noted
above, the triclinium was constructed to maximize visibility among the diners, with the
focus of the gaze oriented not only towards the food but also towards one another (cf.
D’Arms 1999: 306). The sharing of food thus allows individuals to observe who is
accepted into the group and, by their absence, who is excluded; ‘Because of the clear
boundary-defining symbolism of table fellowship in the ancient world, banquets became a
significant feature of various identifiable social groups’ (Smith 2003: 9; Douglas 1975:
231). The shared conviviality was strong, and allowed group members to bond with one
another (Dunbabin 2003: 99; Smith 2003: 9). In some cases, groups even articulated this
shared commitment to one another, acknowledging their responsibilities to help one
another in times of crisis, particularly financial debt (see AGRW 300 = PMich V 243,
Tebtynis, 14–37 CE; AGRW 301 = PMich V 244, Tebtynis, 43 CE; cf. PCairo Dem 30606,
Tebtynis, 158/7 BCE; GRA I 8 = IG II2 1275, Piraeus, III–II BCE).

The ritualized posture of reclining served a dual purpose. On the one hand, the act of
reclining in and of itself was a signal about one’s social location; ‘Because reclining was a
posture that required that one be served, it tended to be associated with a class that
owned servants’ (Smith 2003: 44). By reclining together, people who might otherwise be
demarcated as having different status due to such markers as family origins, ethnicity, or
occupation, could be together in one unified configuration (Taussig 2009: 69). At the
same time, even within this configuration, banqueters are reminded of their social
location through their placement around the triclinium, or, in the case of women, their
having been pushed to the margins.

Where one reclined on the triclinium was regulated by social convention. Diners were
divided into three groups, and guests were seated according to their social rank relative
to one another (Smith 2003: 31). The central couch was reserved for guests of honour
while the couch to its right was for the host and his family. The couch to the left of the
centre couch was the least favoured place and was for the remaining guests. The goal, of
course, was to be invited into the highest position possible—the guest of honour. But in
any given setting, the closer one was to that position the better. Plutarch includes a
lengthy discussion of the protocols around how one seats guests at a banquet (Mor.,
Quaest. Conv. 615D–619F), although the opinion of the speaker’s father perhaps best
encapsulates the prevailing cultural mores at the time: ‘For the man of quality does not
have his honour and his station in the world, yet fail to receive recognition in the place he
occupies at dinner; nor will a host drink to one of his guests before another, yet overlook
their distinctions in placing them at the table’ (Mor., Quaest. Conv. 616B [Clement, LCL]).
Those who possess the most honour must be recognized as such at the table.

At the banquet those who have contributed significantly to a group or to the


(p. 212)

wider culture are not only given the place of honour on the central couch of the
triclinium. Their status is recognized in a number of other ways. For example, a first-
century BCE inscription from Egypt records decrees in which an association (synagogē) of
fellow-farmers established a number of honours for a patron whose largess included the
donation of a meeting hall. Although the group intends to honour him in public, the first

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decree notes that he will receive special recognition at communal meals: ‘it was resolved
that he shall have a seat on the first couch at the banquet for life’. Should he choose to
give more funds to the association, they promise that ‘when they hold their banquet, a
statue of him will be crowned during the toasts, and three men, who he shall propose to
be honoured, will be received into the synod without an entrance fee’ (AGRW 287 =
IDelta I 446, Psenamosis, Egypt, 67 BCE; translation by Kloppenborg). A few years later,
and after further largess, another decree, recorded on the same inscription but from 64
BCE, declares further honours for him including the following:

And it is further resolved that he be named priest for life and that he be free from
further dues, and free from contributions for the banquets and free from monthly
dues and free from the services (leitourgia) and exempt from levies, and will
receive a double portion of food. And if he is not present at the banquet, it will be
sent to him, and his statue will be crowned by the association at the toasts with a
special wreath.

Even after he dies, the association promises to maintain the annual observances,
including the special crown at the toasts and banquets.

One particularly illustrative example can be found in an inscription that records the
honours granted by a mixed gender association to their priestess, written underneath a
three-panel relief depicting a banqueting scene (GRA II 99 = IApamBith 35, Apameia
Myrleia area, Bithynia, Asia Minor, 119 or 104 BCE; translation by Harland). The text
reads

The male (thiasitai) and female (thiasitides) members of the society crowned
Stratonike daughter of Menekrates, who was priestess of Mother Cybele and
Apollo in the 178th year, with a crown with a band engraved on a plaque that was
announced and another crown with a band that was announced in the synagogue
(synagogē) of Zeus, since she acted in a benevolent manner.

The first relief depicts a sacrificial sheep beside an altar set before Cybele and Apollo.
The middle panel shows members of the association reclining together eating and
drinking, while they watch the musicians and dancers perform, as depicted in the bottom
panel. Not only do we get a good sense of the form of the post-sacrifice banquet, we hear
that the priestess was honoured with two separate crowns, both of which were publicly
proclaimed. From the relief panels, we can presume these proclamations took place
during a banquet.

The conferring of honours—particularly proclamations and crownings—is seen in


(p. 213)

a number of associations and is part of the ritualized recognition of special persons. Such
activities serve a dual function, beyond merely guaranteeing the happiness of the
recipient and thus the likelihood of further benefaction. Clearly, these public recognitions
set the individual apart and confirm his or her special standing within the group. But
perhaps more importantly, the communal activity of proclaiming praise and crowning
people and/or statues consolidates the group by confirming to them their collective

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special status. Unlike the others—those not invited into the banqueting space—they are
recipients of special favours. In performing the rituals of granting honours, they forge a
collective identity that sets them apart from others. The inscribing of these behaviours as
decrees not only serves to confirm this to the insiders but also communicates it to those
outside the group. Lest there be any doubt, the association members, who are often
named in the inscriptions, are communicating how special they are as a group.

As a repercussion of the strong social bonds created by ritualized behaviours at Roman


communal meals, there is clear evidence that social breakdown also took place. This
should not be surprising given both the cultural context of competition for honour and
dominance, and a setting in which persons are seated in close proximity to one another
while consuming large amounts of alcohol, among other things. Thus, banquets came to
be portrayed as times of drunkenness and excessive indulgence in food and sex (see, for
example, Philo’s condemnation of the associations; AGRW L8–L10). Petronius’ Dinner with
Trimalchio is a good case in point. Trimalchio is a former slave who gained excessive
riches and bought his freedom and now uses his wealth to host lavish, ostentatious, and
decadent dinner parties with every sort of delicacy imaginable. Although the narrative
itself is overstated for effect, the satire is aimed at the banqueting practices of the elite,
and more particularly those who have the wealth of the elite but not the pedigree—the
‘new money’ class that embodies ‘all the excesses of bad taste, all the ridiculous things a
boor-become-millionaire could do and say’ (Giacosa 1992: 9).

In contrast, in order to preserve proper decorum, rules of etiquette were established to


govern collective behaviour. More than simple rules and regulations, such regulations
reflect ritualized behaviour. ‘Table manners are rituals because they are the way in which
it is commonly agreed that eating should be performed’ (Visser 1991: 31, her emphasis;
cf. Smith 2003: 10). For example, three rather permanent elegiac couplets inscribed on
the wall of a dining room in Pompeii suggest regular behaviours that needed to be
controlled in the meal setting:

Let the water wash your feet, and let the slave wipe them dry; let a cloth drape
the couch, but be careful with my linen.

Turn your lustful looks and your wheedling eyes away from other men’s wives, and
put on a decorous expression.

Postpone disputes and tedious wrangling if you can—otherwise, turn your steps
back to your own house. (CIL IV 7698, in McKeown 2010: 156–7)

Many groups also formalized regulations to govern participants’ behaviour at


(p. 214)

banquets. Fines could be assessed on those who use any abusive language towards the
leaders (AGRW 300 = PMich V 243, Tebtynis, 14–37 CE) or for attempts to shove in front
of another member in order to secure a more desirable place at the table (AGRW 310 =
CIL XIV 2112, Lanuvium, 136 CE). The regulations of the Iobacchoi in Athens, inscribed
onto one of the columns in their meeting hall (see AGRW B2), list a number of rules
governing behaviour during communal meals and meetings, prefaced with: ‘If one of

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those who enters does not pay the entrance fee to the priest or the vice-priest, he shall be
expelled from the banquet until he pays and he shall pay in whatever way the priest
orders’ (AGRW 7 = IG II2 1368, 166/165 CE; translation by Harland and Kloppenborg).
There follows a litany of a number of unruly behaviours that the group imagines might
take place—most likely because they have proven to be common behaviours at past
meetings: reciting a speech without permission, singing out of turn, applauding, sitting in
someone else’s seat, causing a disturbance or being disorderly, hurling insults, abusing
someone, beginning a fight, throwing punches, and taking an assailant to court rather
than reporting it to the leaders. Towards the end of the inscription various official
positions are described, including that of ‘the officer in charge of order’ who bears ‘the
wand (thyrsos) of the god for anyone who is disorderly or creates a disturbance’. His
duties are clear:

Now if the wand is laid on anyone—and the priest or the head of the Bacchic-
devotees approves—the one who made the disturbance shall leave the banquet
hall. If he refuses, those who have been appointed by the priests as ‘horses’ (i.e.
bouncers) shall take him outside of the door. And he shall be liable to the
punishment that applies to those who fight.

Anyone exhibiting any of the disruptive behaviours outlined above is to be removed from
the meal and fined. Without such regulations, the meal rituals would fall into disarray,
and with that the group cohesion would begin to fray.

During the meal itself, food was brought into the dining room on trays or portable tables
by slaves (Smith 2003: 28) and elaborately presented. Even here, in the serving of the
meal, etiquette carried with it symbolic value that signalled to diners their relative
position within the group, just as did the dining position. The more socially elevated a
person was considered to be, the larger portion he received, and often with better quality
food (Donahue 2005: 97). Thus, dining position was not the only marker of social
differentiation; within the distribution of food there is a ‘pattern of social relations being
expressed’ (Douglas 1975: 231).

Once the main course concluded, the banquet would transition to the symposium, with
entertainment and/or broad conversation flowing around a variety of topics, enhanced
with wine. Plutarch gives a sampling of the types of questions discussed, at least in first-
century Rome (see Quaestiones Conviviales and Quaestiones Romanae; cf. Faas 1994: 96,
who gives a few examples). They reflect an interesting mixture of the philosophical and
the practical, with the latter focused somewhat on eating and especially (p. 215) drinking.
‘An elaborate formal ritual’ wherein the tables were removed, the floor swept, and hands
were washed demarcated the transition to the symposium (Smith 2003: 28). That the
table should not be completely emptied is part of its symbolic value at the meal, at least
according to Plutarch, who cites Lucius’ grandmother’s view ‘that the table is sacred and
that nothing sacred should be empty’. He goes on to note:

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[T]he table is in fact copied from the earth. For besides nourishing us, it is both
round and stable, and by some it is properly given the name of ‘hearth’. Just as we
expect the earth always to have and produce something useful for us so we do not
think a table should be seen, when it is abandoned, bare and carrying no load of
luck. (Mor., Quaest. Conv. 704B [Minar, LCL]; cf. 702D)

Once the table was removed, the wine that would be used for the symposium itself was
brought forth and mixed before the final course of the meal was served.

Although some rituals highlighted social connections and obligations among the diners,
the gods were never very far away and were often acknowledged through specific rituals,
particularly libations and prayers. This is summarized nicely in a clause from the
regulations of an association of Zeus Hypsistos in a mid-first-century BCE papyrus text:
‘You shall arrange one banquet a month in the sanctuary of Zeus for all the contributors,
at which they should in a common banqueting hall pour libations, pray, and perform the
other customary rites on behalf of the god and lord, the king’ (AGRW 295 = PLond VII
2193, Philadelphia, Egypt, 69–58 BCE; translation by Kloppenborg). Since it was a
sacrifice, the libation included invocation of the patron deity of the meal and perhaps
other deities, first when the wine was ladled into the cup and again by the host or
symposiarch (‘banquet leader’) as he poured a portion into the fire or onto the floor
(Smith 2003, 30). At this point, the cup might be passed between the guests for each to
take a sip and invoke the name of the deity with the formula ‘for so-and-so’ (Smith 2003:
30). Alternatively, a wine-pourer (ministrator or pocillator), often a child, could distribute
individual cups to the diners, each of whom would hold it by one of the handles with two
fingers and swirl the wine within the bowl, allowing some to splash over as the libation
(Faas 1994: 94).

Even beyond the libation, deities could be invoked during the banquet; according to
Diodorus Siculus, ‘It is the custom, they say, when unmixed wine is served during a meal
to greet it with the words, “to the Good Deity! [agathou daimonos]” but when the cup is
passed around after the meal diluted with water, to cry out “To Zeus Savior! [Dios
Sōtēros]” ’ (4.3, cited in Smith 2003: 29). In some cases, three bowls of mixed wine and
water could be prepared, the first cup from each dedicated to different deities: the
Olympians, the Heroes, and Zeus Saviour (Smith 2003: 30). In many cases the libation
would also be accompanied by a song or chant praising the gods or extolling some victory
or triumph (Smith 2003: 30). A flautist might accompany the guests in singing these
songs, which, according to Athenaeus’ citation of other authors, might take on a number
of forms: a chorus, individuals singing in turn, or restricted to the more accomplished
singers in the group (Deipn. 694B). Athenaeus provides a few examples of songs sung,
(p. 216) some of which extol the virtues of gods and heroes, others of which are less

religious (Deipn. 695; Faas 1994: 94).

Although the libation itself was serious business, it led to the development of a game
called kottabus in which each player attempted to swirl their wine over the lip of the cup
and land droplets in a centrally placed vessel while toasting a beloved. Success indicated

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good fortune for the lovers (Faas 1994: 95). Other games could be included as part of the
banquet, such as checkers, backgammon, and dice, although gambling for money was a
breach of etiquette (Faas 1994: 96). Other diversions could accompany dinner, such as
acrobats and jugglers who ‘displayed their arts with knives and flaming hoops.
Comedians and dwarfs charmed the company’ (Faas 1994: 97). Music was most often
present, usually through flute or lyre, although singers could also be hired. Sometimes,
however, cymbals, drums, and other percussion instruments were used. Such rhythmic
music might be the backdrop to the performance of naked dancers (Faas 1994: 98). Far
from being ‘mere’ entertainment, however, the inclusion of these pastimes contributes to
what John D’Arms rightly demonstrates is ‘the metaphor of the banquet-as-
spectacle’ (1999: 301). In imitation of such elite performances, non-elite banquets
included elements of such entertainments, albeit on a less grandiose scale, but
nevertheless ritualizing the theatricality within the meal setting.

Although the libations and accompanying prayers and songs play a small part in the meal
itself, they are important ritual aspects that affirm the religious commitments of the
participants as they are performed. As Bell (1997: 120) notes:

In fasting and feasting rites, there may be little overt testimony to the presence of
deities but a great deal of emphasis on the public display of religiocultural
sentiments. One might say that in these rituals people are particularly concerned
to express publicly—to themselves, each other, and sometimes outsiders—their
commitment and adherence to basic religious values.

Through the libations, and the games that were linked to the cups used therein,
participants in the communal meal affirm and reinscribe the group boundaries that
provide them with cohesiveness while holding others at bay. The rituals are expressions
of solidarity among participants—‘People get together and enact what they hold in
common’ (Visser 1991: 30)—and what, or better, ‘who’, they exclude. The rituals are thus
a form of ‘social negotiation rather than simply a set of cosmically or inwardly directed
gestures’ (Taussig 2009: 57; cf. Stephenson 2015: 49).

Nevertheless, while the act of reclining together is an act of social differentiation, at the
same time, communal meal rituals hint at the possibility of the elimination of
differentiation (Smith 2003: 10; Taussig 2009: 72;). The rituals can both at once ‘reinforce
the status quo and enact transformation’ (Grimes 2014: 312–17; cf. Handelman 1998: 48–
9, 52–3). The similarity to elite practices express the normative socio-cultural relations
but in doing so open up possibilities for ‘their renegotiation and the formulation of
alternatives’ (Rao 2006: 148; cf. 156; Stephenson 2015: 53). As Rao points out, drawing
on the work of Geertz, rituals are both ‘models of’ behaviour and ‘models for’ behaviour
(p. 217) (2006: 146). It is this latter aspect that opens up possibilities for transforming

social hierarchies as non-elite men (and sometimes women) gathered for communal meals
that replicated the (elite) social location that they could never occupy. For a brief time,

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their status becomes inverted and they can imagine themselves occupying higher social
locations—doing what the elites do.

By modern standards, such temporary transformations of social location seem quite


limited in their potential for challenging the inherent discrimination of the Roman status
quo, since slaves still have limited inclusion and women are still mostly left on the
margins. Yet within the Roman context the meal creates a liminal space and with it a
sense of communitas, a place from which a person has the potential to emerge different.
Such meals can be ‘delimited occasions of “licensed reversal” or “ritual inversion” by
which the status quo is taken apart, relativized, and often reconstituted in changed
ways’ (Bell 1997: 120).

Grignon designates meals in which such social boundaries are actually crossed as
‘transgressive commensality’ (2001: 30). At such times, a relationship of exchange is
created between people who come from different social or economic status, albeit
‘temporarily and symbolically’ (Grignon 2001: 30). We noted earlier a mixed gender
banqueting association (GRA II 99), to which other mixed gender examples might be
added (e.g. GRA II 117 = SIG3 985, Philadelphia, Lydia, I BCE; AGRW 330 = IGUR 160,
Torre Nova, 160–170 CE). Other examples of somewhat socially transgressive communal
meals can be found among groups that include masters and slaves dining together (e.g.
ARGW 310, Lanuvium, 136 CE; GRA I 68 = CIL III 633, Philippi, II CE; GRA I 72 = SEG
46:800, Pydna, 250 CE) or the inclusion of children (Lupu 2005: 180). We find an example
also in interactions between associations and civic magistrates or imperial authorities
(e.g. see Kolb 1995).

Despite this potential, however, while communal meals are a time of forging group bonds
and establishing group boundaries, they did not aim to overcome the inherent divisions
that saturated Roman society. As we have seen, ritualized behaviour at the meal,
including even the distribution of the food itself, demarcated the stratification of society
(Donahue 2004: 83). As Grimes notes, drawing on Durkheim, ‘rites conserve and
consolidated social reality’ (2000: 264). Thus, ‘in the socially stratified society of ancient
Rome, the meal became a highly effective means to emphasize such
distinctions’ (Donahue 2004: 91). Although participants might, for a brief snapshot of
time, feel that they are socially bonded together within a larger social group through
their shared rituals (Rao 2006: 144), these very same rituals are part of the strategies of
power negotiation in which societal differences are merely replicated (Bell 1992: 211).
Even rituals of status transformation, which by definition are ‘transformative’, serve to
reinforce the overarching social system(s) of which they are a part. In the context of the
Roman meal setting, change is not realized. Even if transgressing the social boundaries
within the meal setting through the inclusion of persons of differing status, the social
distinctions are both recognized and maintained (cf. Grignon 2001: 31). The ritualized
Roman communal meal thus remains part and parcel of the wider social ‘system of
domination, oppression, and exploitation’ (Stephenson 2015: 47) of the minority elites

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over and above (p. 218) the majority poor and slaves, of the men over the women, and of
the Emperor and his retinue over everyone else.

When banqueters emerge from the Roman meal setting, they return to the reality they
left. The ritualized inversion was temporary and has not effected societal transformation.
As Handelman (1998: 52) points out: ‘Inversion maintains mode of discourse … The
aspects of order that are inverted remain the mold for the inversion … The inverted order
is not self-sustaining. It is an inauthentic version that revers to its normative counterpart,
from which it derived.’

The communal meal rituals among the non-elites offer the potential for transformation
through the inversion of societal expectations that only elites can participate in such
lavish practices. Yet the very replication of the elite banqueting rituals, such as ranked
reclining and larger portions for special guests, not to mention the reliance on elite and
semi-elite patronage and the proclamation and recognition of such, subvert the possibility
for transformation and thus Roman communal meal rituals at all levels mirror and
reinforce social order to participants and observers alike (cf. Ascough 2012: 68–9).

Works Cited
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Association Meeting Places’. In Scribal Practices and Social Structures among Jesus
Adherents: Essays in Honour of John S. Kloppenborg, edited by William E. Arnal, Richard
S. Ascough, Robert A. Derrenbacker, and Philip A. Harland, pp. 547–65. Leuven: Peeters.

Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bell, Catherine. 1997. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University
Press.

D’Arms, John H. 1999. ‘Performing Culture: Roman Spectacle and the Banquets of the
Powerful’. In The Art of Ancient Spectacle, edited by Bettina Bergmann and Christine
Kondoleon, pp. 301–19. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Donahue, John F. 2005. ‘Toward a Typology of Roman Public Feasting’. In Roman Dining:
A Special Issue of American Journal of Philology, edited by B. K. Gold and John F.
Donahue, pp. 95–113. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press (reprint of
American Journal of Philology 124 [2003]: 423–41).

Douglas, Mary. 1975. Implicit Meaning: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge.

Faas, Patrick. 1994. Around the Roman Table. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini. 1992. A Taste of Ancient Rome. Translated by Anna Herklotz.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Grignon, Charles. 2001 ‘Commensality and Social Morphology: An Essay of Typology’. In


Food, Drink and Identity, edited by Peter Scholliers, pp. 23–33. Oxford: Bert.

Grimes, Ronald L. 2000. ‘Ritual’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun
and Russell T. McCutcheon, pp. 259–70. London: Cassell.

Grimes, Ronald L. 2006. ‘Performance’. In Theorizing Rituals. Vol. 1. Issues, Topics,


Approaches, Concepts, edited by Jens Kreinath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg, pp.
379–94. Studies in the History of Religions 114. Leiden: Brill.

Grimes, Ronald L. 2014. The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Handelman, Don. 1998. Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public


(p. 219)

Events, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harland, Philip A. 2003. Associations, Synagogues and Congregations: Claiming a Place


in Ancient Mediterranean Society. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Klinghardt, Matthias. 1996. Gemeinschaftsmahl und Mahlgemeinschaft. Soziologie und


Liturgie frühchristlicher Mahlfeiern. Texte und Arbeiten zum neutestamentlichen
Zeitalter 13. Tübingen: Francke.

Kolb, Anne. 1995. ‘Vereine “Kleiner Leute” und Kaiserliche Verwaltung’. Zeitschrift für
Papyrologie und Epigraphik 107: pp. 201–12.

Lupu, Eran. 2005. Greek Sacred Law: A Collection of New Documents. Leiden: Brill.

McKeown, J. C. 2010. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts
from the World’s Greatest Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Einarson, H. B. Hoffleit, E. L. Minar et al. 17 vols. London: Heinemann.

Rao, Ursula. 2006. ‘Ritual in Society’. In Theorizing Rituals. Vol. 1. Issues, Topics,
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143–60. Leiden: Brill.

Stephenson, Barry. 2015. Ritual: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University
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Uro, Risto. 2010. ‘Ritual and Christian Origins’. In Understanding the Social World of the
New Testament, edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, pp. 220–32. London:
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Visser, Margaret. 1991. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and
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Communal Meals

Suggested Reading
Ascough, Richard S. 2008. ‘Forms of Commensality in Greco-Roman Associations’.
Classical World 102: pp. 33–46.

Ascough, Richard S. 2012. ‘Social and Political Characteristics of Greco-Roman


Association Meals’. In Meals in the Early Christian World: Social Formation,
Experimentation, and Conflict at the Table, edited by Dennis E. Smith and Hal Taussig,
pp. 59–72. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Donahue, John F. 2004. The Roman Community at Table during the Principate. Ann Arbor,
MI: University of Michigan Press.

Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. 2003. The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Dennis E. 2003. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian
World. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Taussig, Hal. 2009. In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early
Christian Identity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Richard S. Ascough

Richard S. Ascough is Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in


Kingston, Canada, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in
Religious Studies. His research focuses on the history of early Christianity and
Greco-Roman religious culture with particular attention to various types of
associations. He has published numerous articles and book chapters and ten books,
including Associations in the Greco-Roman World (written with John Kloppenborg
and Philip Harland, 2012) and 1 and 2 Thessalonians: Encountering the Christ Group
at Thessalonike (2014).

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