Horace’s delights in a rustic country dinner, rusticus cenae, the custom of which is linked to the Greek custom of eranos, a dinner to which each guest contributes something. It was an old custom in Horace’s time, and soon faded. It was apparently unknown to the French, the custom was revived as dining in the pique-nique style in mid-seventeenth century Paris.
At a dinner at Horace’s villa in the Sabine Hills, a guest might contribute food and drink, but was obligated to provide entertainment, either by conversation or telling a story. It’s real talk, Horace believed, makes an ordinary rustic repast worthwhile and truly enjoyable. So in Book II, Satire 6 opens:
O heavenly night-time dinners, when I and my friends
Eat beside my own Lar (household god), and feed jostling servants
On left-over offerings. Each guest drinks as he wishes
Large glasses or small, free from foolish rules, whether
He downs the strong stuff, nobly, or wets his whistle
In more carefree style.
And when conversation starts, Cervius, one of the guests begins the tale of the country mouse and the city mouse, And so the conversation starts with “De Mure Urbano et Mure Rustico,” a retelling of Aesop’s fable, without attribution, of course.
‘Often retold in variation, tale’s moral always contrasts urban luxury with country simplicity. Horace’s readers understood that he contrasting Rome (excessive and sinful) with his country villa (wholesome and good). The irony is that the villa was luxurious, a complex including with a residence of at least twenty-seven rooms, a bathhouse, and many outbuildings surrounded by well-tended gardens. It was “rustic” only in the sense that it is in the town of Licenza, thirty miles northeast of Rome.
Cervius begins his tale with the familiar:
a country mouse welcomed a town mouse once
To his humble hole, the guest and the host were old friends:
He lived frugally, and was careful, but his spirit
Was still open to the art of being hospitable.
In short, he never grudged vetch or oats from his store,
And he’d bring raisins or pieces of nibbled bacon
In his mouth, eager by varying the fare to please
His guest, whose fastidious tooth barely sampled it.
At last the town mouse asks: ‘Where’s the pleasure, my friend,
In barely surviving, in this glade on a steep ridge?
Wouldn’t you prefer the crowded city to these wild woods?
Horace’s menus included much wine, the rest is unspecified.
Featured image: Wall painting of a group at dinner in Pompeii (c.79AD). Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. This wall painting shows an approximation of what Horace’s dinner might have looked like some forty years earlier.
See: Horace [Quintus Horatius Flaccus], The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace. Translated by Sidney Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). Richard Rutherford. A Concise History of Classical Literature: New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008; Bernard D. Frischer and Iain Gordon Brown, eds. Allan Ramsay and the Search for Horace’s Villa. London: Ashgate, 2001; Bernard Frischer. “Horace’s Villa at Licenza,” http://vimeo.com/9403778