This painting, by the Italian artist Roberto Bompiani (c. 1821 – 1908), strives to depict what it might have looked like to witness a luxurious feast thrown by a wealthy host at the height of ancient Roman prosperity. Bompiani relied on artifacts, archaeology and descriptions from Roman, Etruscan and Greek sources to create his convincing scene. One such vivid, lively and humorous description of an ancient Roman feast came from the preserved letters of Pliny the Younger (c. 61/61-113)—a prolific penpal with various Roman lawyers, statesmen, military men and intellectuals. In a message sent to a certain Septicius Clarus (who was a no-show at a banquet he had promised to attend), Pliny the Younger lavishly described everything that Septicius had missed out on at the feat. Pliny wrote:
“Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? Here’s your sentence and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 1.15).
Roberto Bompiani’s artwork paints a similar scene as Pliny the Younger’s descriptive letter. In both, the host of the feast spared no expense to please and impress his guests. Roberto Bompiani, however, seemed to leave out Pliny’s suggestion of actors, orators or musicians. Nevertheless, a lyre can be seen lying on the floor for anyone brave enough to strike a tune. That aside, the crowd looks content with the food, drink and conversation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.