Great misconceptions have always prevailed about the Roman dinner. Dinner [coena] was the only meal which the Romans as a nation took. It was no accident, but arose out of their whole social economy. This we shall show by running through the history of a Roman day. Ridentem dicere, verum quid vetat? And the course of this review will expose one or two important truths in ancient political economy, which have been wholly overlooked.
With the lark it was that the Roman rose. Not that the earliest lark rises so early in Latium as the earliest lark in England; that is, during summer: but then, on the other hand, neither does it ever rise so late. The Roman citizen was stirring with the dawn — which, allowing for the shorter longest-day and longer shortest-day of Rome, you may call about four in summer — about seven in winter. Why did he do this? Because he went to bed at a very early hour. But why did he do that? By backing in this way, we shall surely back into the very well of truth: always, if it is possible, let us have the pourquoi of the pourquoi. The Roman went to bed early for two special reasons. 1st, Because in Rome, which had been built for a martial destiny, every habit of life had reference to the usages of war. Every citizen, if he were not a mere proletarian animal kept at the public cost, held himself a sort of soldier-elect: the more noble he was, the more was his liability to military service: in short, all Rome, and at all times, was consciously “in procinct.” Now it was a principle of ancient warfare, that every hour of daylight had a triple worth, if valued against hours of darkness. That was one reason — a reason suggested by the understanding. But there was a second reason, far more remarkable; and this was a reason dictated by a blind necessity. It is an important fact, that this planet on which we live, this little industrious earth of ours, has developed her wealth by slow stages of increase. She was far from being the rich little globe in Cæsar’s days that she is at present. The earth in our days is incalculably richer, as a whole, than in the time of Charlemagne: at that time she was richer, by many a million of acres, than in the era of Augustus. In that Augustan era we descry a clear belt of cultivation, averaging about six hundred miles in depth, running in a ring-fence about the Mediterranean. This belt, and no more, was in decent cultivation. Beyond that belt, there was only a wild Indian cultivation. At present what a difference! We have that very belt, but much richer, all things considered æquatis æquandis, than in the Roman era. The reader must not look to single cases, as that of Egypt or other parts of Africa, but take the whole collectively. On that scheme of valuation, we have the old Roman belt, the Mediterranean riband not much tarnished, and we have all the rest of Europe to boot — or, speaking in scholar’s language, as a lucro ponamus. We say nothing of remoter gains. Such being the case, our mother, the earth, being (as a whole) so incomparably poorer, could not in the Pagan era support the expense of maintaining great empires in cold latitudes. Her purse would not reach that cost. Wherever she undertook in those early ages to rear man in great abundance, it must be where nature would consent to work in partnership with herself; where warmth was to be had for nothing; where clothes were not so entirely indispensable but that a ragged fellow might still keep himself warm; where slight sheltermight serve; and where the soil, if not absolutely richer in reversionary wealth, was more easily cultured. Nature must come forward liberally, and take a number of shares in every new joint-stock concern before it could move. Man, therefore, went to bed early in those ages, simply because his worthy mother earth could not afford him candles. She, good old lady, (or good young lady, for geologists know not whether she is in that stage of her progress which corresponds to gray hairs, or to infancy, or to “a certain age,”) — she, good lady, would certainly have shuddered to hear any of her nations asking for candles. “Candles!” She would have said, “Who ever heard of such a thing? and with so much excellent daylight running to waste, as I have provided gratis! What will the wretches want next?”
The daylight, furnished gratis, was certainly “neat,” and “undeniable” in its quality, and quite sufficient for all purposes that were honest. Seneca, even in his own luxurious period, called those men ’lucifugæ,” and by other ugly names, who lived chiefly by candle-light. None but rich and luxurious men, nay, even amongst these, none but idlers did live much by candle-light. An immense majority of men in Rome never lighted a candle, unless sometimes in the early dawn. And this custom of Rome was the custom also of all nations that lived round the great pond of the Mediterranean. In Athens, Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, everywhere, the ancients went to bed, like good boys, from seven to nine o’clock. The Turks and other people, who have succeeded to the stations and the habits of the ancients, do so at this day.
The Roman, therefore, who saw no joke in sitting round a table in the dark, went off to bed as the darkness began. Everybody did so. Old Numa Pompilius himself, was obliged to trundle off in the dusk. Tarquinius might be a very superb fellow; but we doubt whether he ever saw a farthing rushlight. And, though it may be thought that plots and conspiracies would flourish in such a city of darkness, it is to be considered, that the conspirators themselves had no more candles than honest men: both parties were in the dark.
Being up then, and stirring not long after the lark, what mischief did the Roman go about first? Now-a-days, he would have taken a pipe or a cigar. But, alas for the ignorance of the poor heathen creatures! they had neither one nor the other. In this point, we must tax our mother earth with being really too stingy. In the case of the candles, we approve of her parsimony. Much mischief is brewed by candle-light. But, it was coming it too strong to allow no tobacco. Many a wild fellow in Rome, your Gracchi, Syllas, Catilines, would not have played “h — — and Tommy” in the way they did, if they could have soothed their angry stomachs with a cigar — a pipe has intercepted many an evil scheme. But the thing is past helping now. At Rome, you must do as “they does” at Rome. So, after shaving, (supposing the age of the Barbati to be passed), what is the first business that our Roman will undertake? Forty to one he is a poor man, born to look upwards to his fellow-men — and not to look down upon anybody but slaves. He goes, therefore, to the palace of some grandee, some top-sawyer of the Senatorian order. This great man, for all his greatness, has turned out even sooner than himself. For he also has had no candles and no cigars; and he well knows, that before the sun looks into his portals, all his halls will be overflowing and buzzing with the matin susurrus of courtiers — the “mane salutantes.” it is as much as his popularity is worth to absent himself, or to keep people waiting. But surely, the reader may think, this poor man he might keep waiting. No, he might not; for, though poor, being a citizen, he is a gentleman. That was the consequence of keeping slaves. Wherever there is a class of slaves, he that enjoys the jus suffragii (no matter how poor) is a gentleman. The true Latin word for a gentleman is ingentius — a freeman and the son of a freeman.
Yet even here there were distinctions. Under the Emperors, the courtiers were divided into two classes: with respect to the superior class, it was said of the sovereign — that he saw them, (videbat;) with respect to the other — that he was seen, (“videbatur.”) Even Plutarch mentions it as a common boast in his times, [Greek: aemas eiden ho basileus] — Cæsar is in the habit of seeing me; or, as a common plea for evading a suit, [Greek: ora mallon] — I am sorry to say he is more inclined to look upon others. And this usage derived itself (mark that well!) from the republican era. The aulic spirit was propagated by the Empire, but from a republican root.
Having paid his court, you will suppose that our friend comes home to breakfast. Not at all: no such discovery as “breakfast” had then been made: breakfast was not invented for many centuries after that. We have always admired, and always shall admire, as the very best of all human stories, Charles Lamb’s account of the origin of roast pig in China. Ching Ping, it seems, had suffered his father’s house to be burned down; the outhouses were burned along with the house; and in one of these the pigs, by accident, were roasted to a turn. Memorable were the results for all future China and future civilization. Ping, who (like all China beside) had hitherto eaten his pig raw, now for the first time tasted it in a state of torrefaction. Of course he made his peace with his father by a part (tradition says a leg) of the new dish. The father was so astounded with the discovery, that he burned his house down once a year for the sake of coming at an annual banquet of roast pig. A curious prying sort of fellow, one Chang Pang, got to know of this. He also burned down a house with a pig in it, and had his eyes opened. The secret was ill kept — the discovery spread — many great conversions were made — houses were blazing in every part of the Celestial Empire. The insurance offices took the matter up. One Chong Pong, detected in the very act of shutting up a pig in his drawing-room, and then firing a train, was indicted on a charge of arson. The chief justice of Pekin, on that occasion, requested an officer of the court to hand him a piece of the roast pig, the corpus delicti, for pure curiosity led him to taste; but within two days after it was observed that his lordship’s town-house was burned down. In short, all China apostatized to the new faith; and it was not until some centuries had passed, that a great genius arose, who established the second era in the history of roast pig, by showing that it could be had without burning down a house.
No such genius had yet arisen in Rome. Breakfast was not suspected. No prophecy, no type of breakfast had been published. In fact, it took as much time and research to arrive at that great discovery as at the Copernican system. True it is, reader, that you have heard of such a word as jentaculum; and your dictionary translates that old heathen word by the Christian word breakfast. But dictionaries, one and all, are dull deceivers. Between jentaculum and breakfast the differences are as wide as between a horse-chestnut and chestnut horse; differences in the time when, in the place where, in the manner how, but preeminently in the thing which.
Galen is a good authority upon such a subject, since, if (like other pagans) he ate no breakfast himself, in some sense he may be called the cause of breakfast to other men, by treating of those things which could safely be taken upon an empty stomach. As to the time, he (like many other authors) says, [peri tritaen, ae (to makroteron) peri tetartaen,] about the third, or at farthest about the fourth hour: and so exact is he, that he assumes the day to lie exactly between six and six o’clock, and to be divided into thirteen equal portions. So the time will be a few minutes before nine, or a few minutes before ten, in the forenoon. That seems fair enough. But it is not time in respect to its location that we are so much concerned with, as time in respect to its duration. Now, heaps of authorities take it for granted, that you are not to sit down — you are to stand; and, as to the place, that any place will do — “any corner of the forum,” says Galen, “any corner that you fancy;” which is like referring a man for his salle à manger to Westminster Hall or Fleet Street. Augustus, in a letter still surviving, tells us that he jentabat, or took his jentaculum in his carriage; now in a wheel carriage, (in essedo,) now in a litter or palanquin (in lecticâ.) This careless and disorderly way as to time and place, and other circumstances of haste, sufficiently indicate the quality of the meal you are to expect. Already you are “sagacious of your quarry from so far.” Not that we would presume, excellent reader, to liken you to Death, or to insinuate that you are “a grim feature.” But would it not make a saint “grim,” to hear of such preparations for the morning meal? And then to hear of such consummations as panis siccus, dry bread; or, (if the learned reader thinks it will taste better in Greek,) [Greek: artos xaeros!] And what may this word dry happen to mean? “Does it mean stale bread?” says Salmasius. “Shall we suppose,” says he, in querulous words, ’molli et recenti opponi,” and from that antithesis conclude it to be, ’durum et non recens coctum, eoque sicciorem?” Hard and stale, and for that reason the more arid! Not quite so bad as that, we hope. Or again — “siccum pro biscocto, ut hodie vocamus, sumemus?” By hodie Salmasius means, amongst his countrymen of France, where biscoctus is verbatim reproduced in the wordbis (twice) cuit, (baked;) whence our own biscuit. Biscuit might do very well, could we be sure that it was cabin biscuit: but Salmasius argues — that in this case he takes it to mean ’buccellatum, qui est panis nauticus;” that is, the ship company’s biscuit, broken with a sledge-hammer. In Greek, for the benefit again of the learned reader, it is termed [Greek: dipuros], indicating that it has passed twice under the action of fire.
“Well,” you say, “No matter if it had passed fifty times — and through the fires of Moloch; only let us have this biscuit, such as it is.” In good faith, then, fasting reader, you are not likely to see much more than you have seen. It is a very Barmecide feast, we do assure you — this same “jentaculum;” at which abstinence and patience are much more exercised than the teeth: faith and hope are the chief graces cultivated, together with that species of the magnificum which is founded on the ignotum. Even this biscuit was allowed in the most limited quantities; for which reason it is that the Greeks called this apology for a a meal by the name of [Greek: bouchismos], a word formed (as many words were in the Post-Augustan ages) from a Latin word — viz., buccea, a mouthful; not literally such, but so much as a polished man could allow himself to put into his mouth at once. “We took a mouthful,” says Sir William Waller, the Parliamentary general, “took a mouthful; paid our reckoning; mounted; and were off.” But there Sir William means, by his plausible “mouthful,” something very much beyond either nine or nineteen ordinary quantities of that denomination, whereas the Roman “jentaculum” was literally such; and, accordingly, one of the varieties under which the ancient vocabularies express this model of evanescent quantities is gustatio, a mere tasting; and again it is called by another variety, gustus, a mere taste: [whence by the usual suppression of the s, comes the French word for a collation or luncheon, viz. gouter] Speaking of his uncle, Pliny the Younger says — “Post solem plerumque lavabatur; deinde gustabat; dormiebat minimum; mox, quasi alio die, studebat in coenæ tempus”. “After taking the air he bathed; after that he broke his fast on a bit of biscuit, and took a very slight siesta: which done, as if awaking to a new day, he set in regularly to his studies, and pursued them to dinner-time.” Gustabathere meant that nondescript meal which arose at Rome when jentaculum and prandium were fused into one, and that only a taste or mouthful of biscuit, as we shall show farther on.
Possibly, however, most excellent reader, like some epicurean traveller, who, in crossing the Alps, finds himself weather-bound at St. Bernard’s on Ash-Wednesday, you surmise a remedy: you descry some opening from “the loopholes of retreat,” through which a few delicacies might be insinuated to spread verdure on this arid desert of biscuit. Casuistry can do much. A dead hand at casuistry has often proved more than a match for Lent with all his quarantines. But sorry we are to say that, in this case, no relief is hinted at in any ancient author. A grape or two, (not a bunch of grapes,) a raisin or two, a date, an olive — these are the whole amount of relief which the chancery of the Roman kitchen granted in such cases. All things here hang together, and prove each other; the time, the place, the mode, the thing. Well might man eat standing, or eat in public, such a trifle as this. Go home to such a breakfast as this! You would as soon think of ordering a cloth to be laid in order to eat a peach, or of asking a friend to join you in an orange. No man makes “two bites of a cherry.” So let us pass on to the other stages of the day. Only in taking leave of this morning stage, throw your eyes back with us, Christian reader, upon this truly heathen meal, fit for idolatrous dogs like your Greeks and your Romans; survey, through the vista of ages, that thrice-cursed biscuit, with half a fig, perhaps, by way of garnish, and a huge hammer by its side, to secure the certainty of mastication, by previous comminution. Then turn your eyes to a Christian breakfast — hot rolls, eggs, coffee, beef; but down, down, rebellious visions: we need say no more! You, reader, like ourselves, will breathe a malediction on the classical era, and thank your stars for making you a Romanticist. Every morning we thank ours for keeping us back, and reserving us to an age in which breakfast had been already invented. In the words of Ovid we say: —
“Prisca juvent alios: ego me nunc denique natum Gratulor. Hæc ætas moribus apta meis.”
Our friend, the Roman cit, has therefore thus far, in his progress through life, obtained no breakfast, if he ever contemplated an idea so frantic. But it occurs to you, our faithful reader, that perhaps he will not always be thus unhappy. We could bring waggon-loads of sentiments, Greek as well as Roman, which prove, more clearly than the most eminent pikestaff, that, as the wheel of fortune revolves, simply out of the fact that it has carried a man downwards, it must subsequently carry him upwards, no matter what dislike that wheel, or any of its spokes, may bear to that man: “non, si male nunc sit, et olim sic erit:” and that if a man, through the madness of his nation, misses coffee and hot rolls at nine, he may easily run into a leg of mutton at twelve. True it is he may do so: truth is commendable; and we will not deny that a man may sometimes, by losing a breakfast, gain a dinner. Such things have been in various ages, and will be again, but not at Rome. There are reasons against it. We have heard of men who consider life under the idea of a wilderness — dry as “a remainder biscuit after a voyage:” and who consider a day under the idea of a little life. Life is the macrocosm, or world at large; day is the microcosm, or world in miniature. Consequently, if life is a wilderness, then day, as a little life, is a little wilderness. And this wilderness can be safely traversed only by having relays of fountains, or stages for refreshment. Such stages, they conceive, are found in the several meals which Providence has stationed at due intervals through the day, whenever the perverseness of man does not break the chain, or derange the order of succession.
These are the anchors by which man rides in that billowy ocean between morning and night. The first anchor, viz., breakfast, having given way in Rome, the more need there is that he should pull up by the second; and that is often reputed to be dinner. And as your dictionary, good reader, translated breakfast by that vain word jentaculum, so, doubtless, it will translatedinner by that still vainer word prandium. Sincerely we hope that your own dinner on this day, and through all time coming, may have a better root in fact and substance than this most visionary of all baseless things — the Roman prandium, of which we shall presently show you that the most approved translation is moonshine.
Reader, we are not jesting here. In the very spirit of serious truth, we assure you, that the delusion about “jentaculum” is even exceeded by this other delusion about “prandium.” Salmasius himself, for whom a natural prejudice of place and time partially obscured the truth, admits, however, that prandium was a meal which the ancients rarely took; his very words are — “raro prandebant veteres.” Now, judge for yourself of the good sense which is shown in translating by the word dinner, which must of necessity mean the chief meal — a Roman word which represents a fancy meal, a meal of caprice, a meal which few people took. At this moment, what is the single point of agreement between the noon meal of the English laborer and the evening meal of the English gentleman? What is the single circumstance common to both, which causes us to denominate them by the common name of dinner? It is that in both we recognize the principal meal of the day, the meal upon which is thrown the onus of the day’s support. In everything else they are as wide asunder as the poles; but they agree in this one point of their function. Is it credible that, to represent such a meal amongst ourselves, we select a Roman word so notoriously expressing a mere shadow, a pure apology, that very few people ever tasted it — nobody sate down to it — not many washed their hands after it, and gradually the very name of it became interchangeable with another name, implying the slightest possible act of trying or sipping? ’Post larationem sine mensâ prandium,” says Seneca, ’post quod non sunt lavandæ manus;” that is, “after bathing, I take a prandium without sitting down to table, and such a prandium as brings after itself no need of washing the hands.” No; moonshine as little soils the hands as it oppresses the stomach.
Reader! we, as well as Pliny, had an uncle, an East Indian uncle; doubtless you have such an uncle; everybody has an Indian uncle. Generally such a person is “rather yellow, rather yellow,” [to quote Canning versus Lord Durham:] that is the chief fault with his physics; but, as to his morals, he is universally a man of princely aspirations and habits. He is not always so orientally rich as he is reputed; but he is always orientally munificent. Call upon him at any hour from two to five, he insists on your taking tiffin: and such a tiffin! The English corresponding term is luncheon: but how meagre a shadow is the European meal to its glowing Asiatic cousin! Still, gloriously as tiffin shines, does anybody imagine that it is a vicarious dinner, or ever meant to be the substitute of dinner? Wait till eight, and you will have your eyes opened on that subject. So of the Roman prandium: had it been as luxurious as it was simple, still it was always viewed as something meant only to stay the stomach, as a prologue to something beyond. The prandium was far enough from giving the feeblest idea of the English luncheon; yet it stood in the same relation to the Roman day. Now to Englishmen that meal scarcely exists; and were it not for women, whose delicacy of organization does not allow them to fast so long as men, would probably be abolished. It is singular in this, as in other points, how nearly England and ancient Rome approximate. We all know how hard it is to tempt a man generally into spoiling his appetite, by eating before dinner. The same dislike of violating what they called the integrity of the appetite, [integram famem,] existed at Rome. Every man who knows anything of Latin critically, sees the connection of the word integer with in andtetigi: integermeans what is intact, unviolated by touch. Cicero, when protesting against spoiling his appetite for dinner, by tasting anything beforehand, says, integram famem ad coenam afferam; I shall bring to dinner an appetite untampered with. Nay, so much stress did the Romans lay on maintaining this primitive state of the appetite undisturbed, that any prelusions with either jentaculum or prandium were said, by a very strong phrase indeed, polluere famem, to pollute the sanctity of the appetite. The appetite was regarded as a holy vestal flame, soaring upwards towards dinner throughout the day: if undebauched, it tended to its natural consummation in coena: expired like a phoenix, to rise again out of its own ashes. On this theory, to which language had accommodated itself, the two prelusive meals of nine o’clock, A.M., and of one, P.M., so far from being ratified by the public sense, and adopted into the economy of the day, were regarded gloomily as gross irregularities, enormities, debauchers of the natural instinct; and, in so far as they thwarted that instinct, lessened it, or depraved it, were universally held to be full of pollution; and, finally, to profane a motion of nature. Such was the language.
But we guess what is passing in the reader’s mind. He thinks that all this proves the prandiumto have been a meal of little account; and in very many cases absolutely unknown. But still he thinks all this might happen to the English dinner — that might be neglected; supper might be generally preferred; and, nevertheless, dinner would be as truly entitled to the name of dinner as before. Many a student neglects his dinner; enthusiasm in any pursuit must often have extinguished appetite for all of us. Many a time and oft did this happen to Sir Isaac Newton. Evidence is on record, that such a deponent at eight o’clock, A.M., found Sir Isaac with one stocking on, one off; at two, said deponent called him to dinner. Being interrogated whether Sir Isaac had pulled on the minus stocking, or gartered the plus stocking, witness replied that he had not. Being asked if Sir Isaac came to dinner, replied that he did not. Being again asked, “At sunset, did you look in on Sir Isaac?” Witness replied, “I did.” “And now, upon your conscience, sir, by the virtue of your oath, in what state were the stockings?” Ans. “In statu quo ante bellum.” It seems Sir Isaac had fought through that whole battle of a long day, so trying a campaign to many people — be had traversed that whole sandy Zaarah, without calling, or needing to call at one of those fountains, stages, or mansiones, by which (according to our former explanation) Providence has relieved the continuity of arid soil, which else disfigures that long dreary level. This happens to all; but was dinner not dinner, and did supper become dinner, because Sir Isaac Newton ate nothing at the first, and threw the whole day’s support upon the last? No, you will say, a rule is not defeated by one casual deviation, nor by one person’s constant deviation. Everybody else was still dining at two, though Sir Isaac might not; and Sir Isaac himself on most days no more deferred his dinner beyond two, than he sate with one stocking off. But what if everybody, Sir Isaac included, had deferred his substantial meal until night, and taken a slight refection only at two? The question put does really represent the very case which has happened with us in England. In 1700, a large part of London took a meal at two, P.M., and another at seven or eight, P.M. In 1839, a large part of London is still doing the very same thing, taking one meal at two, and another at seven or eight. But the names are entirely changed: the two o’clock meal used to be called dinner, and is now called luncheon; the eight o’clock meal used to be called supper, and is now called dinner.
Now the question is easily solved: because, upon reviewing the idea of dinner, we soon perceive that time has little or no connection with it: since, both in England and France, dinner has travelled, like the hand of a clock, through every hour between ten, A.M. and ten, P.M. We have a list, well attested, of every successive hour between these limits having been the known established hour for the royal dinner-table within the last three hundred and fifty years. Time, therefore, vanishes from the equation: it is a quantity as regularly exterminated as in any algebraic problem. The true elements of the idea, are evidently these: — 1. That dinner is that meal, no matter when taken, which is the principal meal; i.e. the meal on which the day’s support is thrown. 2. That it is the meal of hospitality. 3. That it is the meal (with reference to both Nos 1 and 2) in which animal food predominates. 4. That it is that meal which, upon necessity arising for the abolition of all but one, would naturally offer itself as that one. Apply these four tests to prandium: — How could that meal answer to the first test, as the day’s support, which few people touched? How could that meal answer to the second test, as the meal of hospitality, at which nobody sate down? How could that meal answer to the third test, as the meal of animal food, which consisted exclusively and notoriously of bread? Or to the fourth test, of the meal entitled to survive the abolition of the rest, which was itself abolished at all times in practice?
Tried, therefore, by every test, prandium vanishes. But we have something further to communicate about this same prandium.
- It came to pass, by a very natural association of feeling, that prandiumand jentuculum, in the latter centuries of Rome, were generally confounded. This result was inevitable. Both professed the same basis Both came in the morning. Both were fictions. Hence they were confounded.
That fact speaks for itself, — breakfast and luncheon never could have been confounded; but who would be at the pains of distinguishing two shadows? In a gambling-house of that class, where you are at liberty to sit down to a splendid banquet, anxiety probably prevents your sitting down at all; but, if you do, the same cause prevents your noticing what you eat. So of the twopseudo meals of Rome, they came in the very midst of the Roman business; viz. from nine, A.M. to two, P.M. Nobody could give his mind to them, had they been of better quality. There lay one cause of their vagueness, viz. — in their position. Another cause was, the common basis of both. Bread was so notoriously the predominating “feature” in each of these prelusive banquets, that all foreigners at Rome, who communicated with Romans through the Greek language, knew both the one and the other by the name of [Greek: artositos], or the bread repast. Originally this name had been restricted to the earlier meal. But a distinction without a difference could not sustain itself: and both alike disguised their emptiness under this pompous quadrisyllable. In the identity of substance, therefore, lay a second ground of confusion. And, then, thirdly, even as to the time, which had ever been the sole real distinction, there arose from accident a tendency to converge. For it happened that while some had jentaculum but noprandium, others had prandium but no jentaculum; a third party had both; a fourth party, by much the largest, had neither. Out of which varieties (who would think that a nonentity could cut up into so many somethings?) arose a fifth party of compromisers, who, because they could not afford a regular coena, and yet were hospitably disposed, fused the two ideas into one; and so, because the usual time for the idea of a breakfast was nine to ten, and for the idea of a luncheon twelve to one, compromised the rival pretensions by what diplomatists call a mezzo termine; bisecting the time at eleven, and melting the two ideas into one. But by thus merging the separate times of each, they abolished the sole real difference that had ever divided them. Losing that, they lost all.
Perhaps, as two negatives make one affirmative, it may be thought that two layers of moonshine might coalesce into one pancake; and two Barmecide banquets might compose one poached egg. Of that the company were the best judges. But probably, as a rump and dozen, in our land of wagers, is construed with a very liberal latitude as to the materials, so Martial’s invitation, “to take bread with him at eleven,” might be understood by the [Greek: sunetoi] as significant of something better than [Greek: artositos]. Otherwise, in good truth, “moonshine and turn-out” at eleven, A.M., would be even worse than “tea and turn-out” at eight, P.M., which the “fervida juventus” of young England so loudly detests. But however that might be, in this convergement of the several frontiers, and the confusion that ensued, one cannot wonder that, whilst the two bladders collapsed into one idea, they actually expanded into four names, two Latin and two Greek, gustus and gustatio, [Greek: geusis], and [Greek: geusma], which all alike express the merely tentative or exploratory act of a prægustator or professional “taster” in a king’s household: what, if applied to a fluid, we should denominate sipping.
At last, by so many steps all in one direction, things had come to such a pass — the two prelusive meals of the Roman morning, each for itself separately vague from the beginning, had so communicated and interfused their several and joint vaguenesses, that at last no man knew or cared to know what any other man included in his idea of either; how much or how little. And you might as well have hunted in the woods of Ethiopia for Prester John, or fixed the parish of the everlasting Jew, as have attempted to say what “jentaculum” might be, or what “prandium.” Only one thing was clear — what they were not. Neither was or wished to be anything that people cared for. They were both empty shadows; but shadows as they were, we find from Cicero that they had a power of polluting and profaning better things than themselves.
We presume that no rational man will henceforth look for “dinner” — that great idea according to Dr. Johnson — that sacred idea according to Cicero — in a bag of moonshine on one side, or a bag of pollution on the other. Prandium, so far from being what our foolish dictionaries pretend — dinner itself — never in its palmiest days was more or other than a miserable attempt at beingluncheon. It was a conatus, what physiologists call a nisus, a struggle in a very ambitious spark, or scintilla, to kindle into a fire. This nisus went on for some centuries; but finally issued in smoke. If prandium had worked out his ambition, had “the great stream of tendency” accomplished all his wishes, prandium never could have been more than a very indifferent luncheon. But now,
- We have to offer another fact, ruinous to our dictionaries on another ground. Various circumstances have disguised the truth, but a truth it is, that “prandium”, in its very origin andincunabula, never was a meal known to the Roman culina. In that court it was never recognized except as an alien. It had no original domicile in the city of Rome. It was a vot casfren-sis, a word and an idea purely martial, and pointing to martial necessities. Amongst the new ideas proclaimed to the recruit, this was one — “Look for no ’coenu’, no regular dinner, with us. Resign these unwarlike notions. It is true that even war has its respites; in these it would be possible to have our Roman coenawith all its equipage of ministrations. Such luxury untunes the mind for doing and suffering. Let us voluntarily renounce it; that when a necessity of renouncing it arrives, we may not feel it among the hardships of war. From the day when you enter the gates of the camp, reconcile yourself, tyro, to a new fashion of meal, to what in camp dialect we call prandium.” This “prandium,” this essentially military meal, was taken standing, by way of symbolizing the necessity of being always ready for the enemy. Hence the posture in which it was taken at Rome, the very counter-pole to the luxurious posture of dinner. A writer of the third century, a period from which the Romans naturally looked back upon everything connected with their own early habits, and with the same kind of interest as we extend to our Alfred, (separated from us as Romulus from them by just a thousand years,) in speaking ofprandium, says, “Quod dictum est parandium, ab eo quod milites ad bellum paret.” Isidorus again says, “Proprie apud veteres prandium vocatum fuisse oinnem militum cibum ante pugnam;” i.e. “that, properly speaking, amongst our ancestors every military meal taken before battle was termed prandium.” According to Isidore, the proposition is reciprocating, viz., that, as every prandiumwas a military meal, so every military meal was called prandium. But, in fact, the reason of that is apparent. Whether in the camp or the city, the early Romans had probably but one meal in a day. That is true of many a man amongst ourselves by choice; it is true also, to our knowledge, of some horse regiments in our service, and may be of all. This meal was called coena, or dinner in the city — prandium in camps. In the city it would always be tending to one fixed hour. In the camp innumerable accidents of war would make it very uncertain. On this account it would be an established rule to celebrate the daily meal at noon, if nothing hindered; not that a later hour would not have been preferred had the choice been free; but it was better to have a certainty at a bad hour, than by waiting for a better hour to make it an uncertainty. For it was a camp proverb — Pransus, paratus; armed with his daily meal, the soldier is ready for service. It was not, however, that all meals, as Isidore imagined, were indiscriminately called prandium; but that the one sole meal of the day, by accidents of war, might, and did, revolve through all hours of the day.
The first introduction of this military meal into Rome itself, would be through the honorable pedantry of old centurions, &c., delighting (like the Trunnions, &c., of our navy) to keep up in peaceful life some image or memorial of their past experience, so wild, so full of peril, excitement, and romance, as Roman warfare must have been in those ages. Many non-military people for health’s sake, many as an excuse for eating early, many by way of interposing some refreshment between the stages of forensic business, would adopt this hurried and informal meal. Many would wish to see their sons adopting such a meal as a training for foreign service in particular, and for temperance in general. It would also be maintained by a solemn and very interesting commemoration of this camp repast in Rome.
This commemoration, because it has been grossly misunderstood by Salmasius, (whose error arose from not marking the true point of a particular antithesis,) and still more, because it is a distinct confirmation of all we have said as to the military nature of prandium, we shall detach from the series of our illustrations, by placing it in a separate paragraph.
On a set day the officers of the army were invited by Cæsar to a banquet; it was a circumstance expressly noticed in the invitation, by the proper officers of the palace, that the banquet was not a “coena,” but a “prandium.” What followed, in consequence? Why, that all the guests sate down in full military accoutrement; whereas, observes the historian, had it been a coena, the officers would have unbelted their swords; for, he adds, even in Cæsar’s presence the officers lay aside their swords. The word prandium, in short, converted the palace into the imperial tent; and Cæsar was no longer a civil emperor and princeps senatûs, but became a commander-in-chief amongst a council of his staff, all belted and plumed, and in full military fig.
On this principle we come to understand why it is, that, whenever the Latin poets speak of an army as taking food, the word used is always prandensand pransus; and, when the word used is prandens, then always it is an army that is concerned. Thus Juvenal in a well-known satire —
— — “Credimus altos Desiccasse amnes, epotaque ftumina, Medo Prandente.”
Not coenante, observe: you might as well talk of an army taking tea and toast. Nor is that word ever applied to armies. It is true that the converse is not so rigorously observed: nor ought it, from the explanations already given. Though no soldier dined, (coenabat,) yet the citizen sometimes adopted the camp usage and took a prandium. But generally the poets use the word merely to mark the time of day. In that most humorous appeal of Perseus — “Cur quis non prandeat, hoc est?” “Is this a sufficient reason for losing one’s prandium?” He was obliged to say prandium, because no exhibitions ever could cause a man to lose his coenia, since none were displayed at a time of day when anybody in Rome would have attended. Just as, in alluding to a parliamentary speech notoriously delivered at midnight, an English satirist must have said, Is this a speech to furnish an argument for leaving one’s bed? — not as what stood foremost in his regard, but as the only thing that could be lost at the time of night.
On this principle, also, viz. by going back to the military origin of prandium, we gain the interpretation of all the peculiarities attached to it; viz. — 1, its early hour — 2, its being taken in a standing posture — 3, in the open air — 4, the humble quality of its materials — bread and biscuit, (the main articles of military fare.) In all these circumstances of the meal, we read, most legibly written, the exotic and military character of the meal.
Thus we have brought down our Roman friend to noonday, or even one hour later than noon, and to this moment the poor man has had nothing to eat. For, supposing him to be notimpransus, and supposing him jentâssebeside; yet it is evident, (we hope,) that neither one nor the other means more than what it was often called, viz. [Greek: Bouchismos], or, in plain English, a mouthful. How long do we intend to keep him waiting? Reader, he will dine at three, or (supposing dinner put off to the latest) at four. Dinner was never known to be later than the tenth hour in Rome, which in summer would be past five; but for a far greater proportion of days would be near four in Rome, except for one or two of the emperors, whom the mere business attached to their unhappy station kept sometimes dinnerless till six. And so entirely was a Roman the creature of ceremony, that a national mourning would probably have been celebrated, and the “sad augurs” would have been called in to expiate the prodigy, had the general dinner lingered beyond four.
But, meantime, what has our friend been about since perhaps six or seven in the morning? After paying his little homage to his patronus, in what way has he fought with the great enemy Time since then? Why, reader, this illustrates one of the most interesting features in the Roman character. The Roman was the idlest of men. “Man and boy,” he was “an idler in the land.” He called himself and his pals “rerum dominos, gentemque togatam;” the gentry that wore the toga. Yes, and a pretty affair that “toga” was. Just figure to yourself, reader, the picture of a hardworking man, with horny hands like our hedgers, ditchers, weavers, porters, &c., setting to work on the highroad in that vast sweeping toga, filling with a strong gale like the mainsail of a frigate. Conceive the roars with which this magnificent figure would be received into the bosom of a poor-house detachment sent out to attack the stones on some new line of road, or a fatigue party of dustmen sent upon secret service. Had there been nothing left as a memorial of the Romans but that one relic — their immeasurable toga, — we should have known that they were born and bred to idleness. In fact, except in war, the Roman never did anything at all but sun himself. Ut se apricaret was the final cause of peace in his opinion; in literal truth, that he might make an apricot of himself. The public rations at all times supported the poorest inhabitant of Rome if he were a citizen. Hence it was that Hadrian was so astonished with the spectacle of Alexandria, ’civitas opulenta, fæcunda, in qua nemo vivat otiosus.” Here first he saw the spectacle of a vast city, second only to Rome, where every man had something to do; ’podagrosi quod agant habent; habent cæci quod faciant; ne chiragrici” (those with gout in the fingers) ’apud eos otiosi vivunt.” No poor rates levied upon the rest of the world for the benefit of their own paupers were there distributed gratis. The prodigious spectacle (so it seemed to Hadrian) was exhibited in Alexandria, of all men earning their bread in the sweat of their brow. In Rome only, (and at one time in some of the Grecian states,) it was the very meaning ofcitizenthat he could vote and be idle.
In these circumstances, where the whole sum of life’s duties amounted to voting, all the business a man could have was to attend the public assemblies, electioneering, or factious. These, and any judicial trial (public or private) that might happen to interest him for the persons concerned, or for the questions, amused him through the morning; that is, from eight till one. He might also extract some diversion from the columnæ, or pillars of certain porticoes to which they pasted advertisements. These affiches must have been numerous; for all the girls in Rome who lost a trinket, or a pet bird, or a lap-dog, took this mode of angling in the great ocean of the public for the missing articles.
But all this time we take for granted that there were no shows in a course of exhibition, either the dreadful ones of the amphitheatre, or the bloodless ones of the circus. If there were, then that became the business of all Romans; and it was a business which would have occupied him from daylight until the light began to fail. Here we see another effect from the scarcity of artificial light amongst the ancients. These magnificent shows went on by daylight. But how incomparably greater would have been the splendor by lamp-light! What a gigantic conception! Eighty thousand human faces all revealed under one blaze of lamp-light! Lord Bacon saw the mighty advantage of candle-light for the pomps and glories of this world. But the poverty of the earth was the ultimate cause that the Pagan shows proceeded by day. Not that the masters of the world, who rained Arabian odors and perfumed waters of the most costly description from a thousand fountains, simply to cool the summer heats, would have regarded the expense of light; cedar and other odorous woods burning upon vast altars, together with every variety of fragrant torch, would have created light enough to shed a new day over the distant Adriatic.
However, as there are no public spectacles, we will suppose, and the courts or political meetings, (if not closed altogether by superstition,) would at any rate be closed in the ordinary course by twelve or one o’clock, nothing remains for him to do, before returning home, except perhaps to attend the palæstra, or some public recitation of a poem written by a friend, but in any case to attend the public baths. For these the time varied; and many people have thought it tyrannical in some of the Cæsars that they imposed restraints on the time open for the baths; some, for instance, would not suffer them to open at all before two, and in any case, if you were later than four or five in summer, you would have to pay a fine which most effectually cleaned out the baths of all raff, since it was a sum that John Quires could not have produced to save his life. But it should be considered that the emperor was the steward of the public resources for maintaining the baths in fuel, oil, attendance, repairs. We are prepared to show, on a fitting occasion, that every fourth person amongst the citizens bathed daily, and non-citizens, of course, paid an extra sum. Now the population of Rome was far larger than has ever been hinted at except by Lipsius. But certain it is, that during the long peace of the first Cæsars, and after the annonaria prorisio, (that great pledge of popularity to a Roman prince,) had been increased by the corn tribute from the Nile, the Roman population took an immense lurch ahead. The subsequent increase of baths, whilst no old ones were neglected, proves that decisively. And as citizenship expanded by means of the easy terms on which it could be had, so did the bathers multiply. The population of Rome in the century after Augustus, was far greater than during that era; and this, still acting as a vortex to the rest of the world, may have been one great motive with Constantine for “transferring” the capital eastwards; in reality, for breaking up one monster capital into two of more manageable dimensions. Two o’clock was often the earliest hour at which the public baths were opened. But in Martial’s time a man could go without blushing (salvâ fronte) at eleven, though even then two o’clock was the meridian hour for the great uproar of splashing, and swimming, and “larking” in the endless baths of endless Rome.
And now, at last, bathing finished, and the exercises of the palæstra, at half-past two, or three, our friend finds his way home — not again to leave it for that day. He is now a new man; refreshed, oiled with perfumes, his dust washed off by hot water, and ready for enjoyment. These were the things that determined the time for dinner. Had there been no other proof thatcoena was the Roman dinner, this is an ample one. Now first the Roman was fit for dinner, in a condition of luxurious ease; business ever — that day’s load of anxiety laid aside — his cuticle, as he delighted to talk, cleansed and polished — nothing more to do or to think of until the next morning, he might now go and dine, and get drunk with a safe conscience. Besides, if he does not get dinner now, when will he get it? For most demonstrably he has taken nothing yet which comes near in value to that basin of soup which many of ourselves take at the Roman hour of bathing. No; we have kept our man fasting as yet. It is to be hoped that something is coming at last.
It does come, — dinner, the great meal of “coena;” the meal sacred to hospitality and genial pleasure, comes now to fill up the rest of the day, until light fails altogether.
Many people are of opinion that the Romans only understood what the capabilities of dinner were. It is certain that they were the first great people that discovered the true secret and meaning of dinner, the great office which it fulfils, and which we in England are now so generally acting on. Barbarous nations, — and none were, in that respect, more barbarous than our own ancestors, — made this capital blunder; the brutes, if you asked them what was the use of dinner, what it was meant for, stared at you and replied — as a horse would reply if you put the same question about his provender — that it was to give him strength for finishing his work! Therefore, if you point your telescope back to antiquity about twelve or one o’clock in the daytime, you will descry our most worthy ancestors all eating for their very lives, eating as dogs eat, viz. in bodily fear that some other dog will come and take their dinner away. What swelling of the veins in the temples! (see Boswell’s natural history of Dr. Johnson at dinner;) what intense and rapid deglutition! what odious clatter of knives and plates! what silence of the human voice! what gravity! what fury in the libidinous eyes with which they contemplate the dishes! Positively it was an indecent spectacle to see Dr. Johnson at dinner. But, above all, what maniacal haste and hurry, as if the fiend were waiting with red-hot pincers to lay hold of the hindermost!
Oh, reader, do you recognize in this abominable picture your respected ancestors and ours? Excuse us for saying — “What monsters!” We have a right to call our own ancestors monsters; and, if so, we must have the same right over yours. For Dr. Southey has shown plainly in the “Doctor,” that every man having four grand parents in the second stage of ascent, (each of whom having four, therefore,) sixteen in the third, and so on, long before you get to the Conquest, every man and woman then living in England will be wanted to make up the sum of my separate ancestors; consequently, you must take your ancestors out of the very same fund, or (if you are too proud for that) you must go without ancestors. So that, your ancestors being clearly mine, I have a right in law to call the whole “kit” of them monsters. Quod erat demonstrandum. Really and upon our honor, it makes one, for the moment, ashamed of one’s descent; one would wish to disinherit one’s-self backwards, and (as Sheridan says in theRivals) to “cut the connection.” Wordsworth has an admirable picture in Peter Bell of “A snug party in a parlor,” removed into limbus patrum for their offences in the flesh: —
“Cramming, as they on earth were cramm’d; All sipping wine, all sipping tea; But, as you by their faces see, All silent, and all d — d.”
How well does that one word describe those venerable ancestral dinners — “All silent!” Contrast this infernal silence of voice and fury of eye with the “risus amabilis,” the festivity, the social kindness, the music, the wine, the “dulcis insania,” of a Roman “coena.” We mentioned four tests for determining what meal is, and what is not, dinner; we may now add a fifth, viz. the spirit of festal joy and elegant enjoyment, of anxiety laid aside, and of honorable social pleasure put on like a marriage garment.
And what caused the difference between our ancestors and the Romans? Simply this — the error of interposing dinner in the middle of business, thus courting all the breezes of angry feeling that may happen to blow from the business yet to come, instead of finishing, absolutely closing, the account with this world’s troubles before you sit down. That unhappy interpolation ruined all. Dinner was an ugly little parenthesis between two still uglier clauses of a tee-totally ugly sentence. Whereas with us, their enlightened posterity, to whom they have the honor to be ancestors, dinner is a great reaction. There lies our conception of the matter. It grew out of the very excess of the evil. When business was moderate, dinner was allowed to divide and bisect it. When it swelled into that vast strife and agony, as one may call it, that boils along the tortured streets of modern London or other capitals, men began to see the necessity of an adequate counterforce to push against this overwhelming torrent, and thus maintain the equilibrium. Were it not for the soft relief of a six o’clock dinner, the gentle manner succeeding to the boisterous hubbub of the day, the soft glowing lights, the wine, the intellectual conversation, life in London is now come to such a pass, that in two years all nerves would sink before it. But for this periodic reaction, the modern business which draws so cruelly on the brain, and so little on the hands, would overthrow that organ in all but those of coarse organization. Dinner it is, — meaning by dinner the whole complexity of attendant circumstances, — which saves the modern brain-working men from going mad.
This revolution as to dinner was the greatest in virtue and value ever accomplished. In fact, those are always the most operative revolutions which are brought about through social or domestic changes. A nation must be barbarous, neither could it have much intellectual business, which dined in the morning. They could not be at ease in the morning. So much must be granted: every day has its separate quantum, its dose (as the doctrinists of rent phrase it) of anxiety, that could not be digested so soon as noon. No man will say it. He, therefore, who dined at noon, was willing to sit down squalid as he was, with his dress unchanged, his cares not washed off. And what follows from that? Why, that to him, to such a canine or cynical specimen of the genus homo, dinner existed only as a physical event, a mere animal relief, a mere carnal enjoyment. For what, we demand, did this fleshly creature differ from the carrion crow, or the kite, or the vulture, or the cormorant? A French judge, in an action upon a wager, laid it down in law, that man only had a bouche, all other animals had a gueule: only with regard to the horse, in consideration of his beauty, nobility, use, and in honor of the respect with which man regarded him, by the courtesy of Christendom, he might be allowed to have abouche, and his reproach of brutality, if not taken away, might thus be hidden. But surely, of the rabid animal who is caught dining at noonday, the homo ferus, who affronts the meridian sun like Thyestes and Atreus, by his inhuman meals, we are, by parity of reason, entitled to say, that he has a “maw,” (so has Milton’s Death,) but nothing resembling stomach. And to this vile man a philosopher would say — “Go away, sir, and come back to me two or three centuries hence, when you have learned to be a reasonable creature, and to make that physico-intellectual thing out of dinner which it was meant to be, and is capable of becoming.” In Henry VII.’s time the court dined at eleven in the forenoon. But even that hour was considered so shockingly late in the French court, that Louis XII. actually had his gray hairs brought down with sorrow to the grave, by changing his regular hour of half-past nine for eleven, in gallantry to his young English bride. He fell a victim to late hours in the forenoon. In Cromwell’s time they dined at one, P.M. One century and a half had carried them on by two hours. Doubtless, old cooks and scullions wondered what the world would come to next. Our French neighbors were in the same predicament. But they far surpassed us in veneration for the meal. They actually dated from it. Dinner constituted the great era of the day. L’apres diner is almost the sole date which you find in Cardinal De Retz’s memoirs of the Fronde. Dinner was theirHegira — dinner was their line in traversing the ocean of day: they crossed the equator when they dined. Our English revolution came next; it made some little difference, we have heard people say, in Church and State; but its great effects were perceived in dinner. People now dined at two. So dined Addison for his last thirty years; so dined Pope, who was coeval with the revolution through his entire life. Precisely as the rebellion of 1745 arose, did people (but observe, very great people) advance to four, P.M. Philosophers, who watch the “semina rerum,” and the first symptoms of change, had perceived this alteration singing in the upper air like a coming storm some little time before. About the year 1740, Pope complains to a friend of Lady Suffolk’s dining so late as four. Young people may bear those things, he observes; but as to himself, now turned of fifty, if such doings went on, if Lady Suffolk would adopt such strange hours, he must really absent himself from Marble Hill. Lady Suffolk had a right to please herself: he himself loved her. But if she would persist, all which remained for a decayed poet was respectfully to “cut his stick, and retire.” Whether Pope ever put up with four o’clock dinners again, we have vainly sought to fathom. Some things advance continuously, like a flood or a fire, which always make an end of A, eat and digest it, before they go on to B. Other things advance per saltum — they do not silently cancer their way onwards, but lie as still as a snake after they have made some notable conquest, then when unobserved they make themselves up “for mischief,” and take a flying bound onwards. Thus advanced dinner, and by these fits got into the territory of evening. And ever as it made a motion onwards, it found the nation more civilized, (else the change would not have been effected,) and raised them to a still higher civilization. The next relay on that line of road, the next repeating frigate, is Cowper in his poem on Conversation. He speaks of four o’clock as still the elegant hour for dinner — the hour for the lautiores and the lepidi homines. Now this was written about 1780, or a little earlier; perhaps, therefore, just one generation after Pope’s Lady Suffolk. But then Cowper was living amongst the rural gentry, not in high life; yet, again, Cowper was nearly connected by blood with the eminent Whig house of Cowper, and acknowledged as a kinsman. About twenty-five years after this, we may take Oxford as a good exponent of the national advance. As a magnificent body of “foundations,” endowed by kings, and resorted to by the flower of the national youth, Oxford is always elegant and even splendid in her habits. Yet, on the other hand, as a grave seat of learning, and feeling the weight of her position in the commonwealth, she is slow to move: she is inert as she should be, having the functions of resistance assigned to her against the popular instinct of movement. Now, in Oxford, about 1804-5, there was a general move in the dinner hour. Those colleges who dined at three, of which there were still several, now dined at four; those who had dined at four, now translated their hour to five. These continued good general hours, but still amongst the more intellectual orders, till about Waterloo. After that era, six, which had been somewhat of a gala hour, was promoted to the fixed station of dinner-time in ordinary; and there perhaps it will rest through centuries. For a more festal dinner, seven, eight, nine, ten, have all been in requisition since then; but we have not yet heard of any man’s dining later than 10, P.M., except in that single classical instance (so well remembered from our father Joe) of an Irishman who must have dined much later than ten, because his servant protested, when others were enforcing the dignity of their masters by the lateness of their dinner hours, that his master dined “to-morrow.”
Were the Romans not as barbarous as our own ancestors at one time? Most certainly they were; in their primitive ages they took their coena at noon, that was before they had laid aside their barbarism; before they shaved: it was during their barbarism, and in consequence of their barbarism, that they timed their coena thus unseasonably. And this is made evident by the fact, that, so long as they erred in the hour, they erred in the attending circumstances. At this period they had no music at dinner, no festal graces, and no reposing upon sofas. They sate bolt upright in chairs, and were as grave as our ancestors, as rabid, and doubtless as furiously in haste.
With us the revolution has been equally complex. We do not, indeed, adopt the luxurious attitude of semi-recumbency; our climate makes that less requisite; and, moreover, the Romans had no knives and forks, which could scarcely be used in that posture: they ate with their fingers from dishes already cut up — whence the peculiar force of Seneca’s “post quod non sunt lavandæ manus.” But exactly in proportion as our dinner has advanced towards evening, have we and has that advanced in circumstances of elegance, of taste, of intellectual value.” That by itself would be much. Infinite would be the gain for any people that it had ceased to be brutal, animal, fleshly; ceased to regard the chief meal of the day as a ministration only to an animal necessity; that they had raised it to a far higher standard; associated it with social and humanizing feelings, with manners, with graces both moral and intellectual; moral in the self-restraint; intellectual in the fact, notorious to all men, that the chief arenas for the easy display of intellectual power are at our dinner tables. But dinner has now even a greater function than this; as the fervor of our day’s business increases, dinner is continually more needed in its office of a great reaction. We repeat that, at this moment, but for the daily relief of dinner, the brain of all men who mix in the strife of capitals would be unhinged and thrown off its centre.
If we should suppose the case of a nation taking three equidistant meals all of the same material and the same quantity, all milk, for instance, it would be impossible for Thomas Aquinas himself to say which was or was not dinner. The case would be that of the Romanancile which dropped from the skies; to prevent its ever being stolen, the priests made elevenfacsimiles of it, that the thief, seeing the hopelessness of distinguishing the true one, might let all alone. And the result was, that, in the next generation, nobody could point to the true one. But our dinner, the Roman coena, is distinguished from the rest by far more than the hour; it is distinguished by great functions, and by still greater capacities. It is most beneficial; it may become more so.
In saying this, we point to the lighter graces of music, and conversation more varied, by which the Roman coena was chiefly distinguished from our dinner. We are far from agreeing with Mr. Croly, that the Roman meal was more “intellectual” than ours. On the contrary, ours is the more intellectual by much; we have far greater knowledge, far greater means for making it such. In fact, the fault of our meal is — that it is toointellectual; of too severe a character; too political; too much tending, in many hands, to disquisition. Reciprocation of question and answer, variety of topics, shifting of topics, are points not sufficiently cultivated. In all else we assent to the following passage from Mr. Croly’s eloquent Salathiel: —
“If an ancient Roman could start from his slumber into the midst of European life, he must look with scorn on its absence of grace, elegance, and fancy. But it is in its festivity, and most of all in its banquets, that he would feel the incurable barbarism of the Gothic blood. Contrasted with the fine displays that made the table of the Roman noble a picture, and threw over the indulgence of appetite the colors of the imagination, with what eyes must he contemplate the tasteless and commonplace dress, the coarse attendants, the meagre ornament, the want of mirth, music, and intellectual interest — the whole heavy machinery that converts the feast into the mere drudgery of devouring!”
Thus far the reader knows already that we dissent violently; and by looking back he will see a picture of our ancestors at dinner, in which they rehearse the very part in relation to ourselves that Mr. Croly supposes all moderns to rehearse in relation to the Romans; but in the rest of the beautiful description, the positive, though not the comparative part, we must all concur: —
“The guests before me were fifty or sixty splendidly dressed men,” (they were in fact Titus and his staff, then occupied with the siege of Jerusalem,) “attended by a crowd of domestics, attired with scarcely less splendor; for no man thought of coming to the banquet in the robes of ordinary life. The embroidered couches, themselves striking objects, allowed the ease of position at once delightful in the relaxing climates of the South, and capable of combining with every grace of the human figure. At a slight distance, the table loaded with plate glittering under a profusion of lamps, and surrounded by couches thus covered by rich draperies, was like a central source of light radiating in broad shafts of every brilliant hue. The wealth of the patricians, and their intercourse with the Greeks, made them masters of the first performances of the arts. Copies of the most famous statues, and groups of sculpture in the precious metals; trophies of victories; models of temples; were mingled with vases of flowers and lighted perfumes. Finally, covering and closing all, was a vast scarlet canopy, which combined the groups beneath to the eye, and threw the whole into the form that a painter would love.”
Mr. Croly then goes on to insist on the intellectual embellishments of the Roman dinner; their variety, their grace, their adaptation to a festive purpose. The truth is, our English imagination, more profound than the Roman, is also more gloomy, less gay, less riante. That accounts for our want of the gorgeous trictinium, with its scarlet draperies, and for many other differences both to the eye and to the understanding. But both we and the Romans agree in the main point; we both discovered the true purpose which dinner might serve, — 1, to throw the grace of intellectual enjoyment over an animal necessity; 2, to relieve and antagonize the toil of brain incident to high forms of social life.
Our object has been to point the eye to this fact; to show uses imperfectly suspected in a recurring accident of life; to show a steady tendency to that consummation, by holding up, as in a mirror, (together with occasional glimpses of hidden corners in history,) the corresponding revolution silently going on in a great people of antiquity.