Erich Lessing

At Roman banquets, revelers reclined on couches while drinking wine and eating three-course meals, as in this first-century A.D. fresco from Pompeii. Guests were often seated and fed according to their social status—a humiliating ordeal for the underclasses. Until Nero’s reign (54‒58 A.D.), patrons traditionally paid for services by providing meals, but Nero insisted those who rendered services be compensated with a fixed amount of money instead. When the emperor Domitian (81‒96) abolished this “dole,” Martial and his friends found themselves “[sucking] whelks” while their hosts dined on “choice oysters.”