Although they served very different functions, both festivals and feasts played an important role in the social and civic life of ancient Rome. Festivals were a recognition of the importance of the religious side of Roman life, while feasts celebrated the secular* and worldly aspects of Roman civilization.

The Role of Religious Festivals. The popular image of ancient Rome, especially during the Roman Empire, is one of military power, wealth, luxury, and immorality. While a society that thrilled to the spectacle of gladiators* fighting to the death might be unlikely to have a strong religious foundation, the average Roman was very conscious of the spiritual side of life. The sheer number and variety of religious festivals celebrated by the Romans indicate the prominent role that religion played in their lives.

The Romans did not see their gods and goddesses as passive deities* but rather as active participants in the affairs of human beings. The goodwill of the gods was not taken for granted. In fact, many were seen as hostile or dangerous, and it was important to make sure that they were kept happy as much as possible. Even those gods and goddesses who were considered friendly toward mortals* could not be ignored, and many Roman religious festivals were intended to keep the gods content so that they would not cause grief or trouble for humans.

Many Roman festivals were very ancient, and most reflected the concerns of an agricultural society—a plentiful harvest, the health and fertility of the family, and honoring the spirits of the dead. The prominence of the military in Roman society is revealed in many of the festivals in which weapons were purified and blessings offered for campaigns. All these concerns were addressed during festivals and rituals* celebrated each year.

* secular nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* gladiator in ancient Rome, slave or captive who participated in combats that were staged for public entertainment

* deity god or goddess

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die

* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious

The Roman Calendar. Pontiffs, or state priests, carefully recorded religious festivals in an official calendar. This calendar noted the religious importance of each day of the year, indicating whether it was a holiday or a workday. The priests wrote the names of the major festivals that were celebrated by all Romans in capital letters to distinguish them from minor holidays. Modern historians know of about 40 fixed festivals, which were celebrated on the same day every year, as well as many movable festivals, the dates of which were determined by the pontiffs. The Romans celebrated, on average, more than one festival every seven days.

Each month of the Roman calendar was sacred to a particular god or goddess, and the festivals celebrated during any month usually honored that deity or addressed human activities over which the deity presided. For example, March was sacred to Mars, the god of war and protector of crops, and the main festivals held during March reflect his roles. On the first day of March, the Festival of Mars featured the dance of the Salii, or leaping priests, who would clash swords against shields as they leaped. The clashing of sword and shield was a ritual preparation for the spring season of military campaigning, and the leaping was a plea to Mars for tall and healthy crops. Other festivals in March included the Equirria, a horse racing festival that had both military and agricultural significance, and the Quinquatrus, a festival honoring Mars that was celebrated from the 15th to the 19th of the month.


Emperors commonly used the occasion of an imperial dinner party to display their power and influence over their subjects, but the emperor Domitian reached a new high (or low) in such demonstrations of power at his notorious "funeral banquet." Prominent senators and other guests who attended the feast endured a night-long dinner in a pitch-black room with black couches, black dishes, black food, and an individualized gravestone for each guest. The guests were eventually released, and they received gifts from the emperor afterward, but no one was likely to forget soon just who was the boss in Rome.

The Romans carefully avoided religious celebrations on the many days of the year that were considered to be unlucky. In addition, certain months were considered better or worse for particular religious activities. For instance, the two months currently thought to be the best times for weddings—May and June—were considered by the Romans to be unlucky for them, and many Romans avoided marrying during this time of the year.

While the Romans had an extensive religious life, they also enjoyed a good party, and the lengths to which they would go in socializing and merrymaking can be seen in the feasts that were a staple of the Roman pursuit of leisure.

The Nature of Roman Feasts. Elaborate Roman feasts were almost exclusively upper-class celebrations. The most common were private formal dinner parties, known as cenae rectae, held by wealthy and influential Roman citizens for their friends and acquaintances, and for prominent members of society. Less frequent were the large public banquets staged by emperors or high public officials on the occasions of festivals, public games, or celebrations of military victories. Each of these types of feasts served important, although quite different, functions in the social life of Rome.

Public Banquets and Sportulae. Public banquets given by Roman emperors were occasions on which poorer Romans joined the wealthy and powerful in a common meal. Such feasts were typically huge, and some held in the Colosseum in the first century A.D. and later were attended by tens of thousands of people. The emperor usually sat where he could be seen by everyone, although only a few selected guests had the opportunity to approach or talk to him. Wealthy guests were usually seated ahead of poorer guests, and if large groups of upper-class citizens arrived, there would be places for only a few of the poor.

These events celebrated social harmony and shared hospitality, and they provided an opportunity for the emperor to impress the citizens with the “fairness” of Roman society. Banquets created the impression that the wealth was shared and that class distinctions were blurry at best. In practice, however, banquets actually reinforced the existing social structure and the dominant position of the emperor and the upper classes, since, even in these celebrations of Roman social unity, the elite still enjoyed many advantages over the poor. There was, no doubt, some genuine civility and good feeling, which served the emperor’s purpose of maintaining harmony between the classes.

Wealthy citizens throughout the empire also gave handouts, or sportulae, to the lower classes. Clients of wealthy Romans received such handouts while visiting their patrons*. These were sometimes gifts of money, but they could often take the form of invitations to dinner parties. These parties, though, also reinforced the class structure, since less important guests would often be served inferior food or drink, or receive less distinguished seats at the feast than more respected guests. Gifts given to dinner guests, a standard feature of Roman feasts, also reflected class distinctions—the lower a guest’s status, the smaller the gift he or she received. Women often received nothing at all or smaller gifts than their husbands.

* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter

Private Dinner Parties. While public feasts were impressive, the settings, food, and entertainment of private feasts, or cenae, were frequently amazing. The emperor Tiberius had a formal dining room, or triclinium, built on an artificial island off the west coast of Italy. Guests at his dinners faced a huge cave on the mainland decorated with sculptures depicting scenes from the life of the hero* Odysseus. In the Golden House of the emperor Nero in Rome, roses and perfumes fell from ivory ceilings onto the guests, and the ceiling of the central dining room revolved to reflect the movements of day and night. The most expensive and exotic dishes, such as wild game, oysters, sea urchins, and animals stuffed with all sorts of delicacies, were served at such affairs. Guests dined while reclining on couches and were entertained with music, plays, and poetry recitals or less-refined but popular pleasures, such as dancing girls from Spain. The most famous account of a Roman dinner party is by Petronius, court adviser to Nero. In his novel Satyricon, Petronius describes a party hosted by Trimalchio, a wealthy former slave who stages a banquet that rivals the emperor’s in luxury and excess.

Private feasts were not solely pleasant social outings. Many of them, especially those hosted by the emperor, were held to gain favor among certain classes or to project an image of importance and power. After the death of Nero, whose banquets were known for their expense and elegance, emperors attempted to reduce the level of luxury and the tension that existed at imperial* dinners. The emperor Caligula, for example, once burst out laughing at an imperial dinner party for no apparent reason. He explained his action by saying to the startled guests next to him that he suddenly had the thought that he could have their throats cut on the spot.

Humiliation of guests and extravagant displays of wealth and influence were not restricted to the emperors’ parties. For many Romans, an invitation to a dinner party was a means of climbing the social ladder, where they could be seen with society’s elite and make valuable contacts that would otherwise not be available. A person fortunate enough to receive an invitation expected to be entertained in grand style but also had to expect the possibility of being treated like an outsider by the more honored or socially prominent guests. If one became the object of ridicule or was treated with less respect than was hospitable, that was simply the price one paid for being invited to attend the party. Like the festivals intended to gain favor with their gods, the dinner party could be a chance for Romans to gain favor with their social superiors in the hope of securing a brighter future. (See also Calendars; Class Structure, Roman; Cults; Divinities; Food and Drink; Priesthood, Roman; Religion, Roman; Ritual and Sacrifice; Social Life, Roman.)

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire

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