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How realistic is the ‘Cena Trimalchionis’ as a portrayal of Roman Dining in the Early Imperial Period? Illustrate your essay with specific examples.

The Cena Trimalchionis is a description of an outrageously extravagant and luxurious dinner given by a fictional Roman freedman (ex-slave) called Trimalchio.  It appears in the Satyricon (or Satyrica), written by Petronius.  The Satyricon is the earliest Roman novel, and as such shares some features with Greek novels, which preceded it, but it is also a satirical work.  Satire was a Roman genre which comprised elements of parody, invective and diatribe, as well as Old Comedy and mime.  A genre with these elements will obviously make use of exaggeration and stereotypes to parody and mock the subjects being attacked, and it is important to bear this in mind.  The Cena Trimalchionis is full of exaggeration and over-the-top details and occurrences, and it is important to bear this in mind when assessing whether it is realistic.

The first thing to note is that dinners like the one given by Trimalchio were not at all the day-to-day experience of most ordinary Roman citizens at the time.  Because most of our sources are written by members of the two top classes in Rome, the senators and equestrians, and because these are also the classes which the sources mainly tell us about, it is easy to forget that the majority of Roman citizens were not noble or rich.  The lives of the ordinary people did not feature great banquets given for, or by, their friends because the ingredients required were far too expensive.  Plebians, the non-noble class, would have eaten simple, boring, cheap food most of the time.  Many did not even have facilities to cook food safely in their flammable high-rise apartments, so a lot of their diet would have consisted of street food.  The fact that the luxurious cuisine provided by Trimalchio was totally out of the reach of most people is underlined by the existence of the bread dole, which was a free portion of bread and sometimes other staples given to those in the city of Rome who were deemed poor enough, to prevent them from starving or rioting.  Under the Emperor Augustus, at the very beginning of the Imperial Period, 320,000 people in are recorded as receiving this dole, which may have added up to as much as one third of the population of the city.  Even those of the educated classes who could afford to invite their friends round for dinner would usually not be able to offer whole boiled pig, or fruit and cakes loaded with the expensive spice saffron, such as Trimalchio served.  Martial describes a more normal dinner to which he invites his friend, listing lettuce, leeks, chickpeas, and broccoli from the garden as some of the food on offer. 

 

 

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