National Geographic : 1946 Nov
A Distinguished Dinner Party FOR A LADY to eat at table, reclining with the men and responding to their toasts as the young matron is doing at the wedding anniversary dinner illustrated, was an inno vation in the days of Cicero and Caesar. Custom until then had decreed that even a wife, though she ate alone with her husband, should sit while he reclined on his couch. Equally novel was the use of a round table, with mat tresses arranged about it in a semicircle in place of the traditional three straight divans forming three sides of a square and accommodating exactly nine persons in strict order of social rank. The circular arrangement permitted eight or ten to be disposed quite as comfortably and ceremonially as nine. Where the old arrangement was used, it was bad manners to put four on a couch, and a couch with only two drew attention to the empty space. The silverware is of the finest at this party; and the food and wine are of the best-fowl and suckling pig, some sort of joint, an excellent mullet, fruit, and perhaps "a draught from the Alban Hills or a Setan wine whose vintage year the dust has obliterated." To be sure, the menu lacks some of the items once sar castically extolled by Juvenal-"a mullet from Corsica, a lamprey from the Sicilian Straits, a huge goose liver, a capon as big as a goose, and a steaming boar, with truffles in springtime, and apples for dessert." First, there should be tasting of dainties, gustatio, and then the main courses, to be followed by dessert of pastry and fruit and a more leisurely sipping of some of the sweeter after-dinner wines. But wine was seldom drunk without a generous admixture of water. These diners are not theepicures whose line runs from the great Lucullus and passes tothe rich parvenu Trimalchio of Petronius's celebrated banquet. Probably no one atthetable could "tell at the first taste whether anoyster isfrom the Circean beds or the Lucrinerocks andguess ataglance from what shore a sea urchin comes." One can eat much morelying down, andaparty like this might last for hours-without thedisgusting Epicurean remedy for an overfull stomach satirized byHorace. Itis still daylight, and thoughthere arenowindows inthis room of false columns andplastered walls, on which the shutters are painted stripesand thepanes areonly panels in a bright pattern like watered silk, there isabundant light because the hither wall isopen toasunlit garden court. The room, specifically adining room, belongs toawealthy house built on the slope ofthe Palatine, before theemperors pre-empted all the hill fortheir palaces. Just there, only a few years ago, overcuriousmoderns discovered theremains of precisely such a room with enough of thepainted plaster to show the colors and thedecorative scheme. Dinners began in midafternoon andlasted until dark. There were those who ordered torches andlamp stands brought in and prolongedthe eating anddrinking tillmid night; but the penalty was thehome-going through the dark, noisy streets underthe high, overhanging tenement houses whence "from thetopmost roof some leaky, broken vessel may be pitched from awindow down onyour head!"