||Pass the Pomegranates: Roman
Banquet Helps Students Understand Ancient Class Differences
December 18, 2003
The tables scattered around the room were heaped with platters of
hard-boiled eggs, cheeses shaped into goat heads, spelt bread, and
olives. Tunic-clad slaves scurried among the guests, spraying them
with rose water and refilling their wineglasses. A common sight in
first-century Rome, but not in 21st-century Oberlin, where students
in the course Oikos and Domus: Houses and Families in the Ancient
World recently recreated a festive Roman dinner party for their
"By reenacting the role of either slave or banquet guest, each
student was able to experience, and not just read about, life in the
ancient world," says Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics
and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Jeremy Hartnett. "This activity
provided them with a unique perspective that they won't get from a
Hartnett's experiential teaching methods have brought antiquity to
life for his students, who are hoping to bridge the gap between their
world and the daily experiences of common people in ancient Rome and
"This class is different from other classes that I've taken within
the department because it doesn't focus on great historical events,
like war or political upheaval, as a way to understand history,"
says Elan Love '05. "Instead, it focuses on women, children,
and slaves, and how they lived out their lives within Greek and Roman
Earlier in the semester, Hartnett's students could be seen outside
Hall Auditorium walking through and analyzing the floor plan of a
Greek house that had been sketched in chalk. In November, the class
visited the University of Michigan to examine artifacts and papyri
found at Karanis, an Egyptian city unearthed by archaeological excavation.
"This class has really helped me develop a feel for antiquity,"
Love says. "We've explored primary documents, handled finds,
and recreated a Roman banquet. Our proximity to the people we've been
studying is tangiblespooky at times, but definitely tangible."
Originally proposed as an alternative to a writing assignment, the
banquet quickly became a group project. Students transformed Wilder
112 into a triclinium, or Roman dining room, and created a decorative
mosaic for the floor. Others drove to Cleveland's West Side Market
to purchase the ingredients (including a whole suckling pig, pomegranates,
and quinces) for their authentic Mediterranean feast, and then spent
the better part of a Sunday afternoon cooking and baking. Still another
group designed the participants' costumes and showed each student
how to wear them.
On the evening of the banquet, the students slipped into their costumes
and took their assigned rolessome were elite Roman citizens
and others miserable slaves.
"Roman society was very much a performance society," Hartnett
says. "You either acted according to your position within society
or you lost that position. For some students, experiencing what it
was like to be servile created a visible tension during the banquet.
Likewise, the students playing the roles of the guests were uncomfortable
treating their fellow students like slaves."
Hartnett's colleague Benjamin Lee also attended the banquet. A proper
"Roman" guest, Lee added to the evening's festivities by
bringing along several Latin poems to recite.
"The banquet raised some substantial intellectual and theoretical
concerns," says Lee, an assistant professor of classics. "I
had never quite understood the degree to which a Roman banquet was
a performance, a dramatic enactment of social roles. As the guest
of honor, however, it became very clear to me that I was playing the
role of a social superior. The extent to which a banquet could reinforce,
and even create, social standing was something of a revelation to
Hartnett is confident that the banquet, which his students judged
a success, achieved its main goaldemonstrating to students how distinct
the Roman world is from our own modern one.
"Projects like these can instill a sense of camaraderie in a
shared undertaking," Hartnett says. "They also can help
students build up the social-historical tool kit they'll need to think
critically about life in different cultures."