Some parties are fun, others are un-missable “cultural experiences.” The strange and exotic festivals held during the French Revolution would have to fall in the latter category. There was one particular event — the Fête de l’Être Suprême, or Festival of the Supreme Being — that was easily the most bizarre. Held during the height of the Terror, with the guillotine casting its gruesome shadow over Paris, it was a giant street party organized to celebrate fraternity and fuzzy warm feelings. It may not have been a barrel of laughs — at least not intentionally — but it was definitely something to see.

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The Revolution, the Catholic Church had organized France’s hectic calendar of festivities. But from the moment the Bastille was stormed in 1789, patriots had been… More…

Everyone loves a party open to all comers, and the emperors of Rome were history’s most magnanimous hosts. But while their citizens were accustomed to lavish freebies, living as they did on grain handouts and endless public entertainments, one particular day — April 21, 248 A.D. — must have stood out as the ultimate bash. That was when the ancient megalopolis hosted the world’s first and most opulent millennial celebrations, marking 1,000 years since the city’s foundation by the shepherd Romulus.

It was the mother of all anniversaries, and everything was laid on.

At the time, the empire had been weathering some hard knocks — the early third century had seen repeated barbarian incursions and civil strife — but Rome was still the undisputed… More…

Elegant parties were a dime a dozen in Gilded Age New York. If you were in the right social set, you could attend an Europhile black-tie event on Fifth Avenue any day of the week, drowning yourself in French wine and beluga caviar. But not just anyone could get an invitation to a quintessentially American experience — a luxury dinner while buffalo hunting on the Western frontier. After the Civil War, a customized journey to the Great Plains was an envied excursion for the fashionable man-about-town. Lacking the seamless organization of a modern Abercrombie & Kent safari, this sort of high-end wilderness party was not for the faint of heart or the poor of pocket: You had to combine a long journey on the new Pacific railway line with an extended horseback ride into the prairies led by experienced Western guides, taking your chances with horseback accidents and… More…

Medieval partygoers loved spectacles, and every decent feast would contain pranks such as dwarves leaping out of giant pies, or jesters climbing onto the dinner table and burying their heads into tubs of custard. But one joke performance went tragically awry in 1394 Paris. It was a wedding feast attended by the young French King Charles VI, who was given to fits of madness, and his long-suffering queen, Isabel.

One of the groom’s friends, a known party animal from Normandy named Hugonin de Guisay, decided to entertain the ladies by dressing himself and five accomplices (including the loopy king himself) as “Wildmen,” or savages. In secret, they donned their inventive outfits: Each man wore a linen body-stocking coated in resin and covered with flax to look like… More…

If undergrads seem an irresponsible bunch these days, excelling in the extra-curricular subjects of dorm-hopping, beer-swilling, and the squandering of parental cash, they pale in comparison to their medieval ancestors at Oxford. The accounts from England’s first and most hallowed University read like Animal House in Latin.

The university had sprung up during the medieval intellectual explosion of the early 10th century in the model of Europe’s first great academies, Paris and Bologna. We don’t know exactly when the first classes were given, but by the early 11th century, the university was an indelible feature of Oxford, then a busy riverside market town. It had none of the grand ivy-covered buildings we associated with the university today; the lectures were not held in purpose-built theaters but in… More…

The symbol of American statehood a wreck. Drunken revelers in the lobby. Boozers romping through the bedrooms. And all this 140 years before JFK moved in.

The most riotous party scene in the U.S. political arena occurred when the war hero Andrew Jackson, considered a country bumpkin by many a patrician Easterner, arrived in Washington, D.C. An estimated 30,000 of his supporters converged on the young capital city, mostly from the South and West, to whoop it up for the March 4 swearing-in. These frontier crowds didn’t just want to fill the saloons of the capital — they wanted to shake Jackson’s hand and pay a visit to his swank new home, the President’s House, which had recently been painted a glossy white. The scenes of… More…

If the Bacchanalia created a blueprint for our most depraved debauches, the ancients also bequeathed us its more elegant counterpart: the learned drinking party or symposium. Like the Algonquin roundtable of 1920s New York, it was a brilliant excuse for all forms of excess: In classical Athens, A-list philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates loved to gather for wine-fueled intellectual bouts, during which they would recline on sumptuous couches, sip wine from ornate goblets, be entertained by beautiful lute girls and handsome dancing boys, and throw themselves into scintillating debate. In fact, Plato’s fundamental tract, The Symposium, is based on a real party in 415 B.C. Athens, attended by a revolving cast of artists, thinkers, and politicians, including the playwright Aristophanes and the dashing, up-and-coming general Alcibiades. The wine was mixed with water in a bowl called a krater, then passed amongst the guests in a communal… More…

Today, the term “bacchanal” is bandied about at almost any gathering where the guests get a bit tipsy and mildly frisky, but it originally referred to a specific ancient Roman celebration — the frenzied rites of Bacchus, god of wine and intoxication. Unlike the formal banquets so beloved by Roman aristocrats, these were essentially outdoor rave parties — anarchic romps held after dark in remote forest settings, where the quest for mania (a total festive abandon) could proceed unfettered beneath the stars. Luring hundreds of young initiates, the gatherings were as free-spirited and sexually charged as San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and even in ancient times they scandalized the prudish and disturbed the authorities. Today, those first Bacchanalia still echo through the ages as the prototypical legless debauch, where participants can achieve a pitch of euphoria that hovers between divine ecstasy and the oblivion of death.

As Jonathon Richman of the proto-punk band the Modern Lovers elegantly put it, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole” — although the genius’ girlfriend Fernande Olivier must have been sorely tempted in the late summer of 1908, when she learned that Picasso had invited half of Montmartre to their squalid garret and given the food caterer the wrong date. Actually, everything turned out for the best: The resulting “Rousseau Banquet” was a resounding success, an all-night extravaganza whose details have been lovingly told and retold for the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as the symbolic highlight of the Parisian Belle Époque. The key to its success, historians agree, was its giddy spontaneity, a fact that provides an object lesson to many of today’s practicing hosts. As far as we can ascertain, even allowing for nostalgia and self-serving exaggeration in the guests’ memoirs, the event really was a… More…

Since the dawn of time, all of humanity, from the most learned philosophers to the humblest working stiff, has wrestled with the question: What makes a great party?

One thing seems certain: The most famous celebrations were not the most enjoyable, and vice versa. From ancient Greece to the modern day, the bashes that have made it into the history books were often political affairs, swimming in luxury and stacked with official guests — kings, presidents, plutocrats, and assorted stuffed shirts. But how much fun was it really attending, say, one of Louis XIV’s soirees in Versailles? The evidence is that, for all their splendor, they were a pain in the neck for invitees, who had to nearly bankrupt themselves to buy the latest fashions, and tied themselves into… More…