What Were Buffets Like in Ancient Roman Times?

Baked birds stuffed with fruits, swimming in an herb sauce and with flower petals for garnish. That’s how the Romans were into cooking. Or to be accurate, that’s how they wanted their food to satiate them. The people of history seemed to have more class than people eating at today’s buffets, but the Romans did indulge in food to the point of vomiting it afterwards.

There are several stories about how the Romans conducted themselves around food during a banquet or a feast. A banquet would be the closest equivalent to a buffet for comparison’s sake.

Fictional Feaster 

Starting with the most extravagant is the Dinner of Trimalchio. Although this is fictional, the story about the banquet was one of excessive gluttony. Trimalchio was a character in the story Satyricon. He was a rags-to-riches character and did so by manipulating his way into higher society. 

His banquets featured exotic foods, featuring food such as poultry fitted inside swine, and other assortment of birds in contraptions that banquet guests had to look for prior to consuming them. Petronius went as far as to have the characters act out Trimalchio’s funeral during his banquet.

Mean, Old Domitian

Another prankster was Emperor Domitian. He arranged a banquet where everything was colored black, including the food. Emperor Domitian was known for his authoritarian leadership and his determination to rebuild and expand the Roman empire. In one of his banquets, Domitian had his guests eat next to his gravestone. 

The guests were mortified but they only found out of the emperor’s prank when they were sent home and had been given parting gifts. Domitian also was responsible for reviving public banquets.

Purging Is Fake News

With all these eating and feasting, it isn’t surprising that the Romans had a special place to throw up all the food just so they can have another round at the banquet table. Vomitoriums were places for the Romans to vomit when they were already full. 

This practice and the Roman’s excesses on banquets and food was pointed out by Seneca in one of his writings, Letter to Helvia. But vomitoriums are actually doorways (entrance or exit) to stadiums or theaters. 

Seneca was being metaphorical in his writings, and that popular culture (hello, Hunger Games) reinforced the idea of the practice of purging after eating. In addition to the two, linguistics had the majority of people fooled into thinking that it’s really a place to vomit. 

So next time you eat at a buffet restaurant like Bacchanal Buffet or MGM Buffet, do not try to look for a vomitorium. Interestingly enough, Bacchanal’s name is from the Roman god Bacchus, the god of wine.

Good Food and Good Vibes

The focus of a Roman banquet was its wine. Food shortages were common for the masses but Rome saw a daily import of cheap wine. The biggest suppliers of wine came from Western Italy and Crete, among others. Despite the lavishness of Roman banquets, drunkenness was not revered, and it was common for people to mix it with water.

Roman banquets were also set with entertainment, women, musicians and dancers. Banquets were held privately by some well-to-do families and it served a political function. Roman elites held banquets as a form of networking. It also functioned as an intimidation against possible enemies. Guests were usually accommodated in a dining room with a view of their garden.

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