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[11arg] Marcus Varro's opinion of the just and proper number of banqueters; his views about the dessert and about sweetmeats.

THAT is a very charming book of Marcus Varro's, one of his Menippean Satires, entitled You know not what the Late Evening may Bring, 1 in which he descants upon the proper number of guests at a dinner, and about the order and arrangement of the entertainment itself. Now he says 2 that the number of the guests ought to begin with that of the Graces and end with that of the Muses; that is, [p. 439] it should begin with three and stop at nine, so that when the guests are fewest, they should not be less than three, when they are most numerous, not more than nine. “For it is disagreeable to have a great number, since a crowd is generally disorderly, 3 and at Rome it stands, 4 at Athens it sits, but nowhere does it recline. Now, the banquet itself,” he continues, “has four features, and then only is it complete in all its parts: if a nice little group has been got together, if the place is well chosen, the time fit, and due preparation not neglected. Moreover, one should not,” he says, “invite either too talkative or too silent guests, since eloquence is appropriate to the Forum and the courts, but silence to the bed-chamber and not to a dinner.” He thinks, then, that the conversation at such a time ought not to be about anxious and perplexing affairs, but diverting and cheerful, combining profit with a certain interest and pleasure, such conversation as tends to make our character more refined and agreeable. “This will surely follow,” he says, “if we talk about matters which relate to the common experience of life, which we have no leisure to discuss in the Forum and amid the press of business. Furthermore, the host,” he says, “ought rather to be free from meanness than over-elegant,” and, he adds: “At a banquet not everything should be read, 5 but such things as are at once edifying and enjoyable.”

[p. 441] And he does not omit to tell what the nature of the dessert ought to be. For he uses these words: “Those sweetmeats (bellaria) are sweetest which are not sweet; 6 for harmony between delicacies and digestion is not to be counted upon.”

That no one may be puzzled by the word bellaria which Varro uses in this passage, let me say that it means all kinds of dessert. For what the Greeks called πέμματα or τραγήματα, our forefathers called bellaria. 7 In the earlier comedies 8 one may find this term applied also to the sweeter wines, which are called Liberi bellaria, or “sweetmeats of Bacchus.”

1 Apparently a proverbial expression; cf. Virg. Georg. i. 461, Denique, quid vesper serus vehat . .. sol tibi signa dabit.

2 Fr. 333, Bücheler.

3 There is a word-play on turba and turbulenta, which it seems difficult to reproduce. Cf. Ausonius, p. 12, 146, Peiper; i., p. 22, L. C. L.:

Quinque advocavi; sex enim convivium
Cum rege iustum; si super, convicium est.

4 Referring to turba as the throng of citizens in public assembly.

5 Readings or music were common forms of entertainment at a Roman dinner (cf. e.g. Pliny, Epist. iii. 1. 9). Legi, however, may have the meaning of legere in § 3 (end), in which case the reference would be to the viands and βιωφελῆ would mean “wholesome.”

6 An example of Varro's fondness for word-plays; “sweetest” is used in the double sense of sweetest to the taste and pleasantest in their after-effects.

7 mensa secunda bellariorum occurs in the Transactions of the Arval Brethren for May 27, A.D. 218.

8 p. 144, 65, Ribbeck 3.

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  • Cross-references to this page (2):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), CENA
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), TRICLI´NIUM
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