CHAPTER XIII. SOCIAL DAY OF A ROMAN ARISTOCRAT (continued) - AFTERNOON AND DINNER
Silius is now carried home, and as it is approaching four o'clock, he dresses, or is dressed, for dinner. His toga and senatorial walking-shoes are thrown off, and he puts on light slippers or house-shoes, and dons what is called a "confection" of light and easy material - such as a kind of half-silk - and of bright and festive colours. Some ostentatious diners changed this dress several times during the course of a protracted banquet, giving the company the benefit of as great a variety of "confections" as is afforded by a modern star actress in the theatre. If the days are long and it is suitable weather, he may perhaps dine in the garden at the back of the peristyle. Otherwise in the dining-room the three couches mentioned in a previous chapter (FIG. 48) are arranged along three sides of a rectangle. Their metal and ivory work gleams brightly, and they are resplendent with their embroidered cushions. In the middle of the enclosed space shines the polished table, whether square or round. The sideboard is laden with costly plate; the lamps are, or soon will be, alight upon their tall shafts or hanging from their chains; the stand for the carver is awaiting its load. The dining-room steward and his subordinates are all in readiness.
At the right time the guests arrive, endeavouring to show neither undue eagerness by being too early nor rudeness by being too late. Each brings his own footman to take off his shoes and to stand behind him, in case he may be needed, though not to wait at table, for this service belongs to the slaves of the house. After they have been received by the host, the "name-caller" leads them to their places, according to such order of precedence as Silius chooses to pre-arrange. The regular number of guests for the three couches will be nine - the number of the Muses - or three to each couch. To squeeze in more was regarded as bad form. If the crescent couch and the large round table are to be used the number may be either six or seven. The position of Silius himself as host will be regularly that marked H on the plan, while the position of honour - occupied by a consul if one be present - will be that marked C.
Each guest throws himself as easily as possible into a reclining attitude, resting his left elbow on the cushion provided for the purpose. He has brought his own napkin, marked with a purple stripe if he is a senator, and this he tucks, in a manner still sufficiently familiar on the continent of Europe, into upper part of his attire. Bread is cut and ready, but there are no knives and forks, although there is a spoon of dessert size and also one with a smaller bowl and a point at the other end of the handle for the purpose of picking out the luscious snail or the succulent shell-fish. The dainty use of fingers well inured to heat was necessarily a point of Roman domestic training.
There have been many - perhaps too many - descriptions of a Roman dinner, but the tendency, especially with the novelist, is to exaggerate grossly the average costliness and gluttony of such banquets. Undoubtedly there were such things as "freak" dinners almost as absurd as those of the inferior order of American plutocrat. Undoubtedly also there was often a detestable ostentation of reckless expenditure. But we are endeavouring to obtain a fair view of representative Roman practice, and must put out of our minds all such vagaries as those of the ceiling opening and letting down surprises, or of dishes composed of nightingales' tongues and flamingoes' brains. These were always, as a later writer calls them, "the solecisms of luxury." Nero himself, or rather the ministers of the vulgar pleasures which he regarded as those of artistic genius, devised an abundance of such expensive follies and surprises, but we must not permit the professional satirist or Stoic moralist to delude us into believing them typical of Roman life. Praise of the "simple life" and the simple past is no new thing. It is extremely doubtful whether at an ordinary Roman dinner-party there was any such lavish luxury as to surpass that of a modern aldermanic banquet. We can hardly blame the people who could afford it for obtaining for their tables the best of everything produced around the Mediterranean Sea, any more than we blame the modern citizen of London or New York for obtaining the choicest foods and dainties from a much wider world. Doubtless a Roman dinner too often meant over-eating and over-drinking, and doubtless neither the ordinary table manners nor the ordinary table conversation would recommend themselves to us. The same might be said of our own Elizabethan age. But any one intimately acquainted with Latin literature as a whole, and not merely with the more savoury passages commonly selected, will necessarily incline to the belief that novelistic historians have too often been taking what was exceptional, eccentric, and strongly disapproved by contemporaries, for the usual and the normal. If we read about Romans swallowing emetics after gorging themselves, so that they might begin eating afresh, we may feel both disgust and pity, but we must not imagine such a practice to have been a national habit.