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Roman-Era Banquets Depicted

June 28, 2013

As part of the “booty” for co-writing (with Chris Keith) the piece on “Writing and Book Production in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods” for Vol 1 of the New Cambridge History of the Bible, eds. J. C. Paget & J. Schaper (Cambridge Univ. Press), I took delivery of several really interesting books from the publisher.  One of them is a visual and scholarly treat:  Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet:  Images of Conviviality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003).

Group meals were, of course, a central feature of early Christian circles, and the historical context for this was discussed also by Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).  Dunbabin adds to this a much more detailed discussion of the historical develpments in ancient group-meals, e.g., the origins and subsequent adoption (initially by Greeks and then Romans and Jews) of the practice of reclining at banquets, which was indicative of one’s free status.  But she also discusses the differences in customs between eastern (Greek) and western (Roman) meals, e.g., whether wives were present (usually not in Greek/eastern practice).  She discusses the differing layouts for the meal (separate couches, the triclinium, etc.).

But in addition, as hinted in her title, she also gives lots of visual images from antiquity of meals, places for them, etc., which help us to see the phenomenon better.  There are 16 colour plates and 120 black & white images.  And the book is printed on high-quality paper suitable for art.

So, for any of us who really like to get as familiar as we can with the historical context of earliest Christianity and the NT, Dunbabin’s book is highly recommended.

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