The Dinner Party from Hell

The 2,000-year-old history of the intimidating dinner host.


Inventor of the awkward dinner party.

Dinner parties are often about power. A host can lord over his captive
guests, so many have been the setting for cruel practical jokes.

Around 90 A.D., the twisted Emperor Domitian invited a crowd of aristocratic couples to a banquet at his palace on the Palatine Hill. When they arrived at the palace, the guests were ushered into a room that was decorated entirely in black — black marble, black paint, and black velvet drapes, lit only by flickering funeral lamps. Each guest’s place was marked with a gravestone engraved with his or her name, and instead of the customary soft couches, they reclined on rock-hard benches. The terrified guests assumed they were about to be murdered by the emperor — a vicious predator who had cruelly executed many Senators in the past — and their fears was not assuaged by the nightmarish meal that followed. A string of naked serving boys emerged from the shadows. Painted black from head to toe, they carried food that was itself dyed black and served on black onyx plates. Only the emperor’s voice broke the sepulchral silence. He droned on monotonously about the inevitability of death and decay.

After the ghastly meal was over, the shaken guests were sent home on litters carried by Domitian’s men; most assumed they were about to be taken into back alleys and butchered by imperial assassins. But the expected deathblows did not come: the guests were safely dropped at their homes. When their nerves had partially recovered, a messenger from the emperor arrived at each guest’s door bearing an ancient gift bag — their personal gravestone from the banquet (which was crafted of fine silver), one of the expensive onyx plates they had eaten from, and one handsome waiter, now washed clean, doused in fragrant perfume, and ready to do the survivor’s bidding.

The guests were left to speculate on the real purpose of this deranged dinner; some assumed it was in honor of those who had lost their lives on the campaigns in Dacia, although simple sadism could also be the answer.

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Dio Cassius, Roman History, (Loeb Classical Library, 1924).

ROMAN CONVERSATION TIPS: How did you fill awkward silences if you were invited to a Roman banquet? Luckily, before attending, you could bone up on a book called Table Talk by the author Plutarch, written around 150 A.D. He offers a whole series of handy conversation topics for contemporary parties, among them: What is the best time of day for a man to make love to his wife? Why do Jews abstain from pork? Why are sleeping men never hit by lightning? Why does Homer call salt divine? What causes bulimia? Should one make decisions when drunk? Why does a room that seems small at the beginning of a meal seem large by the end? Is there an odd or even number of stars? Why do we give less credit to dreams that occur in autumn…? • 31 August 2009

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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