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Dinner, Real And Reputed
by [?]

Great misconceptions have always prevailed about the Roman dinner. Dinner [coena] was the only meal which the Romans as a nation took. It was no accident, but arose out of their whole social economy. This we shall show by running through the history of a Roman day. Ridentem dicere, verum quid vetat? And the course of this review will expose one or two important truths in ancient political economy, which have been wholly overlooked.

With the lark it was that the Roman rose. Not that the earliest lark rises so early in Latium as the earliest lark in England; that is, during summer: but then, on the other hand, neither does it ever rise so late. The Roman citizen was stirring with the dawn–which, allowing for the shorter longest-day and longer shortest-day of Rome, you may call about four in summer–about seven in winter. Why did he do this? Because he went to bed at a very early hour. But why did he do that? By backing in this way, we shall surely back into the very well of truth: always, if it is possible, let us have the pourquoi of the pourquoi. The Roman went to bed early for two special reasons. 1st, Because in Rome, which had been built for a martial destiny, every habit of life had reference to the usages of war. Every citizen, if he were not a mere proletarian animal kept at the public cost, held himself a sort of soldier-elect: the more noble he was, the more was his liability to military service: in short, all Rome, and at all times, was consciously “in procinct.”[1] Now it was a principle of ancient warfare, that every hour of daylight had a triple worth, if valued against hours of darkness. That was one reason–a reason suggested by the understanding. But there was a second reason, far more remarkable; and this was a reason dictated by a blind necessity. It is an important fact, that this planet on which we live, this little industrious earth of ours, has developed her wealth by slow stages of increase. She was far from being the rich little globe in Caesar’s days that she is at present. The earth in our days is incalculably richer, as a whole, than in the time of Charlemagne: at that time she was richer, by many a million of acres, than in the era of Augustus. In that Augustan era we descry a clear belt of cultivation, averaging about six hundred miles in depth, running in a ring-fence about the Mediterranean. This belt, and no more, was in decent cultivation. Beyond that belt, there was only a wild Indian cultivation. At present what a difference! We have that very belt, but much richer, all things considered aequatis aequandis, than in the Roman era. The reader must not look to single cases, as that of Egypt or other parts of Africa, but take the whole collectively. On that scheme of valuation, we have the old Roman belt, the Mediterranean riband not much tarnished, and we have all the rest of Europe to boot–or, speaking in scholar’s language, as a lucro ponamus. We say nothing of remoter gains. Such being the case, our mother, the earth, being (as a whole) so incomparably poorer, could not in the Pagan era support the expense of maintaining great empires in cold latitudes. Her purse would not reach that cost. Wherever she undertook in those early ages to rear man in great abundance, it must be where nature would consent to work in partnership with herself; where warmth was to be had for nothing; where clothes were not so entirely indispensable but that a ragged fellow might still keep himself warm; where slight shelter might serve; and where the soil, if not absolutely richer in reversionary wealth, was more easily cultured. Nature must come forward liberally, and take a number of shares in every new joint-stock concern before it could move. Man, therefore, went to bed early in those ages, simply because his worthy mother earth could not afford him candles. She, good old lady, (or good young lady, for geologists know not[2] whether she is in that stage of her progress which corresponds to gray hairs, or to infancy, or to “a certain age,”)–she, good lady, would certainly have shuddered to hear any of her nations asking for candles. “Candles!” She would have said, “Who ever heard of such a thing? and with so much excellent daylight running to waste, as I have provided gratis! What will the wretches want next?”