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Aristocratic life and culture in late antiquity

Por: | 03 de enero de 2013


By Emmanuelle Raga, FNRS - Université Libre de Bruxelles

The importance of food habits and food ideologies in shedding light on the enigmatic period of transformation of the Roman World.

“Then he [Epiphanius] decided not to lunch (prandendum). But in order that the arriving of guests does not make him disregard his resolution and that his reputation is not tarnished by vanity or by a reputation of stinginess, he decided not to dine (cenandum) so that the permutation of the hours should allow him to eat only once a day.”

From Life of Saint Epiphanius by Ennodius of Pavia, written around 501-502.

Epiphanius, an Italian aristocrat, deacon of the church of Pavia, Italy, has become the new bishop of his city. In order to adapt his lifestyle to his new role, he tries to reduce the luxuries of his aristocratic way of life. So, after deciding never to wash because the public baths were a place of perversion, he also decides to change his eating habits and have only one meal a day instead of two. In doing so he fasts, as fasting in the first centuries of Christianity meant eating only one meal at the end of the day. There were many reasons for a good Christian to fast; for example, to purify the body, to punish one’s sins by the suffering of hunger, or to help the body to resist sexual temptation. But this pious resolution apparently raises a problem for Epiphanius’s reputation as a top young aristocrat, which might be tarnished by people labelling his new habit as either vain or stingy. Epiphanius takes this problem so seriously that decides to modify his resolution: instead of only eating at night, he will only eat at midday. But why is this 5th century nobleman so concerned with eating times?

Epiphanius became bishop of Pavia around 466-467 and died in 496. During his episcopate, he witnessed the deposition of the last West Roman Emperor in 476 and, 20 years later, of the beginning of the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Theodoric the Great in Italy (493-526). In other words, his life took place during the turning point that we call “the fall of the Roman Empire”, a term considered inadequate today by most of the historians, who prefer to use the expression “transformation of the Roman World”.

By deciding to dine only once a day, the young bishop of Pavia is adopting the austerity of the hermits and the monks. But he must deal with the problem of his position as bishop and his aristocratic reputation. In fact, it is his duty, as a member of the elite, to receive the friends that might show up during the day, and receiving implies offering a meal.

What the author Ennodius of Pavia means in the extract above is that Epiphanius has three possibilities if friends show up:

1) He could offer guests a meal and share it with them, but by so doing he will be neglecting his pious resolution of eating only at night.

2) He could offer a meal to his guests but not eat himself. He might then be accused of vanity because of this excessive demonstration of faith and the obvious lack of humility, a very important quality for a Christian.

3) He could not offer a meal to his guests but might be then accused of stinginess, a capital flaw for an aristocrat.

Thus Epiphanius is forced to choose between his duties as a good Christian and his duties as a good aristocrat. Since he cannot sacrifice either of these sets of responsibilities, he chooses to adapt his resolution by replacing his dinner by a midday lunch.

This example illustrates well the extent to which hospitality was fundamental for an influential individual in the 5th century, but above all it shows us that hospitality implied offering and sharing a meal. In fact, the banquet was the social event par excellence for the elite of Antiquity and Late Antiquity. Through the choice of the guests – and of those excluded – the table manners, the food eaten, and the way it is cooked and prepared, the banquet was the best way to express the aristocratic way of life. Furthermore, it seems that taking part in banquets was even more important in these times of political transformation. Traditional aristocracy was becoming marginalised to a certain extent on account of increasing competition with new elites orbiting around the “barbarian” royal courts: Ostrogoths in Italy, Wisigoths in the south of Gaul (modern day France) and in Spain, and the Francs in the north of Gaul. The traditional Roman elite needed to keep together and assert its identity. One way was through a lavish banquet, where aristocrats could express the sophistication of their way of life and of their culture, high literature being one of the main subjects of conversation during banquets.

However, the example here also shows that not only did the political changes of the 5th century weaken the traditional Roman aristocracy, the growing hold of the Christian religion was also a danger for the survival of their elite culture. In fact, the Christian food ideology of the time combined uncomfortably with the aristocratic food habits. The members of this order needed to use all their ingenuity to adapt to the new ideology in a way that allowed them to meet their duties both towards God and towards men. This is why some ancient authors defend in their writings the aristocratic food habit of practicing private fasts while still holding public banquets. This is precisely what Epiphanius of Pavia decided to do.

Late Antiquity is a fascinating period of Europe’s history. It covers the complete transformation of the classical world, and the birth of what historians have for a long time seen as the ancestors of our modern European nations. My research, done between the Centre de Recherche Histoire, Arts et Cultures des Sociétés Anciennes, Médiévales et Modernes (SOCIAMM) of the University of Brussels (Belgium) and the Dipartimento di paleographia e medievistica of the University of Bologna (Italy), focuses on the uses of the banquet in this transitional time. By doing so, I wish to provide more insight on this encounter between classical Roman culture and two important sources of change: the new “barbarian” local power and Christianity. By examining apparently innocent comments about food habits made by the writers of Late Antiquity, we can throw some light on some of the sociopolitical stakes that have characterised this much talked about but still enigmatic period of transformation of the Roman World.

Emmanuelle Raga
FNRS - Université Libre de Bruxelles

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