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Why did wealthy Romans dine with whole cities?

In some parts of the Roman Empire public meals were the norm: the wealthy treated the whole city to a meal. This phenomenon that suddenly arose and disappeared just as quickly had to do with political and social developments, according to historian Shanshan Wen. PhD defence 6 September.

Eating together was popular in the second century

In cities in the western part of the Roman Empire, communal meals were the norm during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire. These public meals, to which the whole population was often invited, reached their peak in the second century, and disappeared again in the third and early fourth centuries. Little research has been done on the reasons why these meals were so popular, Shanshan Wen, who originally comes from China, says. In her dissertation she concludes that political and societal changes played a major role in both the rise of these communal dinners and in their disappearance. 

Elections lost significance

Based on inscriptions, Wenn studied communal meals in cities in Italy, Roman Spain and parts of North Africa. She discovered that the benefactors who organised and paid for these dinners were mainly prominent citizens, such as members of the local elite and holders of public office. Wen: ‘The local elite gave the dinners to legitimise their political authority among their fellow citizens.' She explained: When the Roman Empire was a republic, local elections were still held, but because at the time of the empire the highest local offices were in the hands of a small group of families, the elections lost their significance. Organising these meals was a way for the local elite to show that they still attached great value to the local community.  

An inscription from the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis, in present-day Spain, refers to benefactor Cornelia Marullina, who regularly organised communal dinners.
An inscription from the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis, in present-day Spain, refers to benefactor Cornelia Marullina, who regularly organised communal dinners.

Dinners no longer needed

The communal meals arose suddenly and died out equally suddenly. In the last third of the third century and the early part of the fourth century, the number of communal dinners decreaased rapidly. This was a time when the bureaucracy of the Empire was expanded, Wenn explained. This undermined the old political culture, in which the elite used their wealth for the benefit of local communities. 'There were new opportunities to make a career in one of the departments of the Empire. The local communities were no longer the most important source of social status, which meant that the communal dinners were no longer necessary.'  

Meals were related to specific regions

Historians already knew that these meals were not organised throughout the whole of the Roman Empire, but questions have rarely been raised about why this was so. These dinners are not found in Britannia and Germania. This may be because these regions had a different political system, Wen proposes. ‘In the north-western provinces, benefaction mainly took the form of the construction of public buildings or sanctuaries. Probably the local elites were so firmly in power here that their position towards the citizens did not need to be legitimised by organising meals.’

More Chinese focus on ancient civilisations

Wen's research was supported by the China Scholarship Council, which is unusual: it is very rare for a Chinese funder to support research on western history. 'More attention is currently paid to ancient civilisations outside China,' Wen explains. 'Students are encouraged to learn more about outside civilisations. I wrote a proposal and was given this scholarship. After this, I'm going back to the University of Shanghai, where I did my master's, to teach there. It was a condition of the funding that I would return to China.'

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