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Roman at a toga partyThe toga party really made modern history during the 50’s in the US, largely as a result of the post-war American presence in Italy. The Americans “discovered” Italy and its history and reintroduced selected cultural elements back home in the US. Suddenly things Roman became fashionable. Rome became a destination for American tourists.
A good number of film productions reflected the mood. Who hasn’t heard of Ben Hur or Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra? Hollywood practically moved to Rome’s Cinecitta’ studios. The Roman costumes and supporting paraphernalia used were of excellent quality.
A second revival came during the 80’s thanks to the highly successful film “Animal House” which mixed the toga party theme with University college culture. Other cult-transgressive films such as “Caligula” have further consolidated the reputation of toga parties.
The transgressive image of the Roman (toga) party was by no means a sudden phenomenon but was rather built up through the ages by a hotchpotch of fact, hearsay, anecdotes and colorful characters. For a start we should always remember that the Romans themselves were lovers of Satire and would therefore leap at any opportunity to create the hottest gossip imaginable.
History, Anecdotes and famous Roman Party-Goers
Ancient Roman marital and extra marital practices might be viewed as relatively common to us in many ways, possibly even practical in approach. The truth is that as society evolved (and was also richer) the hold of the traditionally austere values over society weakened. Ancient Roman women and men gained increasing social & individual freedom to do as they wished with their personal wealth and reputations. So why are the Roman costumes sold for toga parties always so similar to one another?
The debate surrounding the failing Roman economy towards the last centuries of the empire soon engulfed other aspects such as the shift in morality and the loss of the austerity which a thousand years earlier had supposedly been a bed rock of Rome’s greatness. The authorities played lip service from very early on but the conduct of the individuals regularly left itself prey of public Satire. For a good example you really must read Petronius’ Satiricon which pokes colourful fun at the society of the day.
An example of this was the increasingly marked contrast between the Pagan and Christian moral values. The Pagans regarded Christians as the fools who shared their wealth and belongings with each another. The Christians retorted the Pagans were the ones who shared their wives. The Christian values eventually won through and lasted through to modern days. One could debate as to whether history is repeating itself.
The bald adultererA good example was Julius Caesar: well known as the husband of all Roman wives and the wife of all Roman husbands (say no more). Suetonius provides us with a list of some of the Roman matrons he seduced – and their unhappy husbands. Not surprisingly Roman costumes for Toga parties are often modeled around the Julius Caesar character.
Roman morality was quite interesting in this respect. Adultery wasn’t generally regarded as acceptable social behavior and there were even laws in place which required a woman to be divorced at least ten months before the woman might engage in a new marriage. Divorcing and remarriage wasn’t seen in a bad light:
The ancient custom of lending one’s wife out to provide a friend with descendents could be dressed up as being somewhat noble – especially if she had already given her first husband three or more children.
So as an example of all this we have Emperor Augustus. He needed an heir and so took Livia in marriage from her husband whilst she was still pregnant. What about the 10 month rule you might ask? Exceptions make the rules. To be fair to them they made a good couple.
So given the above it is easy to imagine how the piquant events of ancient Roman high society – in many respects similar to our own – could quite easily raise an eyebrow or two during the moralizing years which spanned the middle ages through to the early 20th century.
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Roman Toga Party Animals and wine abuse in Ancient Rome
An introduction to the approach Romans took to feasting deserves an opening quote from Horace:
“I’ll start the drinking, scatter flowers, and even allow you to think me indiscreet. What can’t drunkenness do? It unlocks secrets, and makes secure our hopes, urges the coward on to battle, lifts the weight from anxious hearts, teaches new skills. Whom has the flowing wine-bowl not made eloquent? Whom constrained by poverty has it not set free?” (From Horace’s Epistles – Book 1Ep5:1-31 An invitation to dinner)
Wine consumption took off particularly when soft grain entered the market and a greater variety of bread and cakes became broadly available through public bakeries: the hard grain which preceded it required a great deal of work to process and was unsuited to producing in great volumes as well as unsuited to make leaven breads and cakes.
Ancient Rome is famed for its orgiastic approach to wine and partying/feasting although this is very much an exaggeration: wine in Rome, at least in the beginning was absorbed into regular society more as a means of quenching thirst than as an adjunct to their famous feasts. In fact it was drunk by all parts of society from the very richest to the poorest and drinking it neat, ie not mixed with water, was largely considered a degenerate behaviour.
We can easily imagine that an advanced civilisation coupled with personal freedom and wealth soon gave rise to individuals who were entirely dedicated to the good life: good parties, good food and drink, games and gambling, the races, racy women and, why not, racy men too. Put these together and you get the good orgies so famous in popular culture .
Only the most famous and public figures would have had the dubious honor of being written about and remembered, through Satire and literature, for their habits. Clearly they were only the tip of the ice berg. Roman costumes and modcons of nowadays tend to be pretty standard but clearly each character of Roman society had his or her appropriate clothing and tastes.
History tells us of a good number of heavy drinkers and party goers amongst the roman elite. Some notable examples include:
Emperor Tiberius according to Pliny (Natural History) nominated political roles on the basis of the candidate’s ability to drink heavily. I have yet to determine whether his constant love for cucumbers was in any way related, perhaps they were part of his cure for constant hang-overs? See below for a Roman hangover recipe.
General Silla or Sulla died from a condition caused by excessive drinking at his private villa. Pliny tells us in his Natural History (Bk 7,44) that his dying sufferance was comparable to that which he himself had caused to others during the proscriptions and that his own flesh had eaten into itself. The actual cause of death was likely liver failure or a gastric ulcer which resulted in profuse bleeding from the mouth.
Messalina – Emperor Claudius’ wife. Claudius enjoyed his extra marital relationships and so did his fourth wife Messalina – whom Juvenal tells us enjoyed leaving the palace at night wearing a cloak and blond wig to go and work in the down town Suburra as a common prostitute by the name of Licisca. Here (sordid details abound!) she would offer herself to her male clients until closing time, after which she would make her way back to the palace with her cheeks blackened with smoke and smelling of her place of work; she was tired but as yet dissatisfied. Hmmm – perhaps he wished he’d get an invite to her parties.
Emperor Claudiu’s fifth wife Agrippina did him in with a plate of mushrooms and cleared the path for Emperor Nero – a frustrated lover of the arts who ended up marrying a Eunuch and then topping himself saying something along the lines of “oh what an artist dies with me”.
The (in)famous Caligula – hardly requires an introduction.
The less known Emperor Heliogabalus or Elagabalus – known to dress up and hang out by the lavatories….. Adverse to violence and war his short reign was apparently made up of licentious feasts and orgies. He got done in by the military. There’s a good painting about him by a Victorian painter called Alma Tadema.
Lucullus – more than a party-goer he was a lover of good food. He despaired at his poverty when he’d eaten through his wealth to the last million. Probably quite a large man!
Toga Party Tips and Ideas
Recipes with Ancient Roman Wine
Toga parties weren’t the only occasion where ancient Roman wine would be broadly consumed, indeed it formed part of daily nutrition, for feasting, for Roman medicine as well as at Roman religious ceremonies such as Roman sacrifices or Roman funerals.
Consequently there was a rich variety of Roman wines to support the highly varied demand. More detail of such habits is included on a separate area about wine drinking in Roman society which also includes varieties of ancient Roman wine drinking cups, however we do take the opportunity to include some Roman recepies involving wine as well as remedies for the hang-overs the drink produced (indeed certain wines were well known to produce a hang-over at feasts, for example those from Pompeii).
Against hangovers….”Fried prawns and African snails will revive the flagging drinker: for after wine lettuce floats in an acid stomach that prefers instead to be stimulated and freshened by sausage and ham, it in fact prefers something hot brought in from a greasy stall.” (From Horace’s Satires, Book 2 Sat4:40-69
Tips and Ideas for Toga Parties
The toga party is a simple idea to ad a little zest to any party. Roman costumes and modcons are the least part of it.
Exotic: A variety of aspects of ancient roman culture were somewhat exotic from a modern day Western world perspective. Nothing like adding a little spice to a party!
Historic: In spite of the exotic aspects, ancient Roman culture has left us an indelible inheritance. The ancient Roman party culture which developed to its greatest expression during the Empire is in many ways similar to our own.
Simple: let’s face it, dressing up is always fun and the best parties are those where everyone joins in – nothing like a handful of non-dresser-uppers to spoil the mood. A toga party is an excellent way of ensuring that everyone has an easy chance to join in whilst giving the keener dresser-uppers an opportunity to really show off.
So all told, a toga party is an excellent recipe with plenty of pick and mix ingredients.
Characters of Roman Life
Whoever said the participants of a toga party all wore togas? Roman society was highly structured and everyone within it had their own distinctive place within it, distinctive clothing and accessories.
Upper class men – Emperor, Senators, Equites, Patricians
Upper class women
Military – Common soldiers, Centurions
Clients – foreigners and merchants
Others: Gladiators, Prostitutes, Actors & Dancers
Roman Gods and deities – Dressed as common mortals but all carrying their own distinctive symbols. The Roman goddess Venus was a favourite of Caesar, Augustus preferred Apollo and Mars, Mark Anthony went for the chaotic Dionysus.
Toga Party Ingredients
So, with that baggage of Toga Party background it’s relatively easy matter to start putting together a number of toga party ingredients and further references:
Roman costumes and modcons
About the Roman toga
How to make and wear roman clothing
Roman games and entertainment
Ancient Roman food
Morality in Ancient Rome
Popular amusements: roman baths, Satire, theatre.
Clothing, Hair and Accessories