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Competition in the Record Book

My next example is drawn from a late ancient source, the Saturnalia of Macrobius.[1] The following passage is quoted from the commentarii, the records of the priesthood of the Pontifices, and it is quite probably the most precisely identifiable quotation from priestly books: it is part of the fourth annual volume of the notes of the Pontifex Maximus Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius regarding his urban official affairs. Caecilius held the office of Pontifex Maximus from 81—64 BC. Given his periods of absence from Rome, the described event would belong to the year 70 BC.[2]

Refero enim pontificis vetustissimam cenam quae scripta est in indice quarto Metelli illius pontificis maximi in haec verba: ante diem nonam kalendas Septembres, quo die Lentulus flamen Martialis inauguratus est, domus or- nata fuit, triclinea lectis eburneis strata fuerunt, duobus tricliniis pontifices cubuerunt, Q. Catulus, M. Aemilius Lepidus, D. Silanus, C. Caesar, <***> rex sacrorum, P. Scaevola sextus; Q. Cornelius, P. Volumnius, P. Albinova- nus et C. Iulius Caesar augur, qui eum inauguravit; in tertio triclinio Po- pilia, Perpennia, Licinia, Arruntia virgines Vestales et ipsius uxor Publicia flaminica et Sempronia socrus eius. cena haec fuit: ante cenam echinos, os- treas crudas quantum vellent, peloridas, sphondylos, turdum asparagos subtus, gallinam altilem, patinam ostrearum peloridum, balanos nigros, balanos albos; iterum sphondylos, glycomaridas, urticas, ficedulas, lumbos capruginos aprugnos, altilia ex farina involuta, ficedulas, murices et purpuras. in cena sumina, sinciput aprugnum, patinam piscium, patinam suminis, anates, querquedulas elixas, lepores, altilia assa, amulum, panes Picentes.

I refer to the long bygone banquet of the pontiff that is described in the fourth volume of that supreme pontiff Metellus as follows: on September 22, on the day when Lentulus was inaugurated as Flamen Martialis, his house was decorated, the triclinia of ivory were prepared. On two of the triclinia reclined the Pontifices, Q. Catulus, M. Aemilius Lepidus, D. Sila- nus, C. Caesar, the Rex Sacrorum [the name is missing], P. [Mucius] Scae- vola coming sixth; |now the Pontifices minores are listed:| Q. Cornelius,

P. Volumnius, P. Albinovanus and the augur L. Iulius Caesar, who had inaugurated the Flamen. On the third bed the Vestal Virgins Popilia, Per- pennia, Licinia, Arruntia, and his own wife, the Flaminica Publicia, and Sempronia, his mother-in-law. This was the meal: before the main course, sea urchin, raw oysters (as many as they wanted), giant mussels, mussels, thrush under asparagus, fattened chicken, a bowl of oysters and giant mussels, black shellfish, white shellfish, again mussels, Venus mussels, stinging nettle, fig thrushes, loin roast of goats and boar, fattened poultry coated with breadcrumbs, again fig thrushes, two sorts of purple snails. For the main course pork udder, head of boar, a bowl of fishes, a bowl of udder, ducks, cooked crick ducks, rabbits, backed fattened poultry, wheat porridge.

Despite its exceptional testimony, the quotation is not found in any modern collections of the fragments of priestly books. It seems to correspond too little to the expectations of philologists interested in the history of reli- gion.[3] We find neither a close description of the inauguration nor one of the ritual constitution of the new priest performed by an augur; rather, we read of the sumptuous meal that the newly elected person offers to his colleagues, the cena aditialis, the inaugural meal. What is happening here?

The text registers those present by listing the names in a certain order. As evidenced in other texts,[4] strict attention was paid to seniority, as determined by the period of membership in a given college. Documenting the membership of a college and individual terms of office might have been among the most important interests of this type of text.[5] Religious change and modification are not immediately apparent objects of documentation. Yet it is the instantiation of an essentially variable part of the entire ritual that is described in minute detail. The text documents a nonsynchronic, culinary competition. Priestly meals had potlatch character: they were known for ostentatious extravagance and they were the stage for such lavish culinary innovations as established the peacock and the moray as foods of prestige.[6] Written records enabled these feasts to be publicized with a precision that rendered competition all the more fierce, and all the more worthwhile. However, the reduction of culinary luxury to the price paid for it, monetarization, so to speak, was not a desirable mode of documentation; such an approach belonged not to internal communication, but rather to satirical mockery and antiquarian sensation seeking.[7] To summarize my interpretation: precise documentation, especially of how the most variable elements of the ritual had been realized, opened an additional venue for rivalry within an aristocracy based on a competition for prestige.

We know little about the use and the circulation of the commentarii of the Pontifices Maximi.[8] They were not secret documents, nor were they internal to the committee. This is demonstrated by the famous tabulae dealbatae, the whitened wood panels, which were displayed before the house of the Pontifex Maximus. At least the abstracts of the protocols copied onto these tables were addressed to a public audience, as is attested by the tradition of their supposed publication by Publius Mucius Scaevola.[9] As far as the records of Metellus Pius are concerned, current or future colleagues were also likely potential readers. (Antiquarians would constitute a further, secondary audience.) These men were at very least aware of the existence of these records. Writing raised the details of a particular ritual performance into the sphere of permanently documented ritual, which fact surely influenced the hosts of events such as cenae aditiales: competition could now be waged via a medium both more stable and more predictable than unsupported memory.

The lengthy record of ritual details is exceptional in the case of the meal described above, but not isolated. Comparable examples of documentation can be found for ritual performances in a very different field—performances that were, nevertheless, enacted by the same class of people. Appian’s description of the triumphal procession of Pompey closely matches the pattern of the description of the pontiffs’ meal:[10] here again, it is the actual performance, the details of the procession of 63 BC that are the subject matter. By contrast, scarcely anything can be learned about what scholars usually like to conceive of as serious, invariant ritual. The similarities between the commentariipontificum and Appian’s description show that such a selective view of rituals was not exclusive either to antiquarian accounts or to historiography.

  • [1] Macrob. Sat. 3.13.10—12. For Macrobius's dating (the decade after AD 400), see Dopp 1978.
  • [2] Cf. Marinonc 1970.
  • [3] On the idea of priestly books, see the critical discussion of J. A. North 1998; Rupke 2003b.Cf. Sini 1983.
  • [4] As demonstrated by Taylor 1942.
  • [5] See Rupke 1993.
  • [6] See Rupke 1998a, 200-201.
  • [7] See Sen. Ep. 95.41 for a “million-dollar meal”; for a discussion of this motif in differentgenres, see Rupke 2015d.
  • [8] Cf. J. A. North 1998; see also Scheid 1998c.
  • [9] See Frier 1979; Rupke 1993.
  • [10] App. Mith. 116-17.
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