The Dinner at Trimalchio’s: What Makes a High Social Status
Throughout the history of humankind, societies have featured hierarchies, i.e. the positions of some people were higher than those of other people. The social position of a person may be determined by various means. In primitive societies, the strongest person had the highest position due to the ability to defeat other members of this society in a physical fight. In more complex societies, the concept of high social position was more complicated and involved power, influence, wealth, and other considerations beyond mere physical strength.
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In a Roman society of the 1st century AD, the social position of a person was primarily defined in terms of social status, as opposed to merely being rich. A Roman writer known as Petronius made an important contribution to the understanding of social status in Ancient Rome by describing a dinner hosted by a freedman (i.e. a former slave or a child of former slaves) and the behavior of people who attended it. By reflecting on the writing in which Petronius mocks the way a freedman strives for behaving like a person with high social status, it is possible to observe what constituted the membership of the elite. Instead of wealth, the main characteristics that qualified for membership of the elite were origin, discourse, and behavior.
First of all, it is noteworthy that wealth alone did not qualify for membership of the elite. Trimalchio was very rich, and he wanted to demonstrate it to his guests as explicitly as possible. Every served meal was more luxurious than the previous one; for example, there was a tray with lots of food on it that “by its oddity, drew every eye” (Petronius, Satyricon) because the foods represented the twelve signs of the zodiac. The entire dinner was a manifestation of Trimalchio’s wealth; he wanted to show that he can afford the things that many of his guests may not have been able to afford, e.g. he was “[p]icking his teeth with a silver quill” (Petronius, Satyricon).
However, Trimalchio’s wealth was not something praised by Petronius; quite the opposite, Petronius made fun of the exaggerative displays of being rich. Petronius himself was not as wealthy as Trimalchio, but the way Petronius looks down on him and mocks him shows that Petronius had a higher status. Among other guests, wealth was not considered the main virtue either, as one of them says, “I’d rather have my reputation than riches” (Petronius, Satyricon). This quote and the tone of Petronius regarding Trimalchio’s richness suggested that there were other, perhaps intangible, characteristics that made one a member of the elite.
One of such characteristics, as one can learn from the history of Ancient Rome, was a person’s origin. One’s social position largely depended on where he or she came from and who his or her parents were. Some regions of the Roman Empire were considered more “prestigious” than others, and people who originated from them were treated with more respect. As one of the guests put it, “I’d rather be a Roman citizen than a tax-paying provincial” (Petronius, Satyricon). Slaves, of course, occupied the lowest social position, but it should be noted that not all the slaves were illiterate people who only performed physical labor.
Some well-educated people, and even people of such professions as doctors and merchants, had the status of slaves. They might have enjoyed considerable wealth, too, but the fact that they were born as slaves did not allow them into higher layers of society. Former slaves, such as Trimalchio, were intelligent enough to understand that they needed to build up their status if they wanted to eventually have a certain degree of social, cultural, or even political power. One’s origin played a significant role, but some people in Roman society were respected despite their slave or former-slave status, which suggests that there were other components to the notion of high status.
Upon reflecting on the dinner at Trimalchio’s, one can conclude that one of such components is the choice of subjects that people talked about and the way they talked. One of the main things that Petronius made fun of was the conversation that occurred during the feast. Trimalchio’s guests tried to make an impression of high-status people, but the way they spoke did not convince Petronius. For example, Trimalchio discussed his bodily functions with his guests, as he said, “[M]y stomach’s been on strike for the past few days and the doctors disagreed about the cause. But pomegranate rind and pitch steeped in vinegar have helped me, and I hope that my belly will get on its good behavior, for sometimes there’s such a rumbling in my guts that you’d think a bellowing bull was in there” (Petronius, Satyricon). Judging from the context, by the way, Petronius employs an ironic intonation, it can be concluded that such subjects were not normally discussed at dinner among people of high status. Trimalchio’s and his guests’ inability to choose subjects and talk about them was what vividly disqualified them for membership of the elite from the perspective of Petronius.
Finally, the main characteristic that Petronius seemed to consider as a trait of a high-status person was behavior. One of the episodes of the book that allows addressing this point is when one of the slaves who waited on the table dropped a cup, and Trimalchio said to him, “Go hang yourself since you’re so careless” (Petronius, Satyricon). Slaves, of course, were the lowest class of people in the Roman Empire, but Petronius seemed to suggest that people of high status would not treat their slaves like this. Cruelty and mercilessness toward slaves were more likely to be seen in former slaves who compensated for their past by being as mean to their slaves as possible.
High-status people did not need to protect their social position by such behaviors. Another aspect of behavior was that Trimalchio himself and his guest were rather vulgar and disrespectful at the dinner, of which Petronius did not approve. At a particular point, Petronius described two women who, “angry though they were, were laughing together, in the meantime, and exchanging drunken kisses, the one running on about her diligence as a housekeeper, and the other about the infidelities and neglect of her husband” (Petronius, Satyricon). Such an unbridled behavior of drunk people was not something that qualified for membership of the elite.
Petronius wrote a humorous piece, but his work has become a valuable source for historians to reflect on the nature of social positions in Roman society. A high position was defined in terms of origin and behavior, notably lacking the consideration of wealth. Trimalchio and his guests, as described by Petronius, became a negative example: if one wanted to be more respected among high-status people in the Roman Empire, he or she should not have behaved like Trimalchio—vulgarly and cruelly.