In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes about the divisions between rich and poor, including meals they were supposed to be sharing. These are brought vividly to life by the Roman satirist Juvenal.
Thanks to archaeology and a greater understaing of ancient history, we are getting a far clearer picture of the system of patronage and how that impacted on the lives of the Corinthians.
This is particularly shown in the archaeological evidence for villas and how they were arranged, as Thiselton (2000:860ff) describes in his commentary. In the sort of villa in which the Corinthian Christians seem to have been meeting, the entrance-way led into a courtyard (atrium), off which there were four or five rooms. One of the rooms was the dining-room (triclinium), which, as the name suggests was big enough for 3 couches, each holding about 3 people. So, only about 9 or 10 people could be accommodated in the triclinium, whilst about another 30 people could fit in the atrium.
There were very strong social conventions on who sat where and what that said about your status, and equally strong conventions about the sort of food people would be served.
Thiselton quotes Pliny the Younger as reporting that only the select few received the best dishes, whilst everyone else was given “scraps”. Witherington (1995 Conflict and Community in Corinth p242) quotes the Roman writers Lucian and Martial both commenting on the inequities of usual Roman dining practice.
Martial complains about the difference in quality of food (a fat turtledove for the host but only a “magpie that has died in its cage” for the other guests) and asks his host:
Why do I find without you, Ponticus, even though I am dining with you?
This gives some sense of what it felt like to be of lower status at a Roman dinner-party. However, neither Thiselton nor Witherington make reference to the Roman satiric poet Juvenal to give a better sense of what this would have felt like for those involved. Juvenal was born about the time that Paul was writing to the Corinthians, and wrote his satires less than 50 years after the time of Paul. The system that he holds up for ridicule is therefore basically the same as the one that Paul knew.
As a satirical poet, Juvenal
loved to pour scorn on Roman pretentions, lambasted the snobbery that was another side of Roman life, and he ridiculed those aristocrats who boasted of a family tree going back centuries. (Beard 2016 SPQR, pp68f)
Juvenal’s vividness and exaggeration based on fact brings to life far more clearly the patronage system and the feelings of the clients and the abuses that they had to suffer. This is particularly the case with Juvenal’s Satire 5, which talks of a client (Trebius) going to dine at the house of his patron, Virro.
It’s particularly interesting to compare Satire 5, with Paul’s criticisms (and satire) of how the Corinthian Christians were holding the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-22):
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
It can be seen how the understanding of the system of patronage and the layout of Roman houses helps understand this passage.
Juvenal’s Satire 5 shows how this felt in practice. I quote from A S Kline’s (2011) translation.
Juvenal begins by advising Trebius not to become a client of a wealthy patron, and that begging for food is more honourable.
…Are insults for dinner worth it?
Are you as famished as that? Wouldn’t it be more honest
To shiver outside, and gnaw bread left behind by the dogs?
Otherwise, warns Juvenal (5:12f,15-17):
…understand that being invited to dinner
Will be treated as payment in full for all your past service.
… Each couple
Of months, if he wishes, he’ll invite a neglected client to eat,
So that the third cushion on some unfilled couch isn’t vacant
So far, so humilating. But, there’s worse to come:
And what a dinner! You’ll get wine too dry for cotton-wool
The patron meanwhile sips old wine, bottled when Consuls
Wore their hair long, and gets stewed on a vintage trodden
During the Social Wars, yet denies his dyspeptic friend a drop.
And whilst Virro sits and sips the best, this happens:
Brawls break out, but once you’re hit you’ll be hurling cups
too, and dabbing at your wounds
[While]…the battle rages between the guests
And the crowd of freedmen
Note the reference to the ‘crowd of freedmen’, presumably clustering in the atrium. And the relative status of the patron and the client continues through the meal:
Virro, the patron, himself, drinks from capacious goblets, tiled
With amber, encrusted with beryl. You’re not allowed their gold,
Or, if you are handed one, there’s a servant guarding your place,
Counting the gems, keeping his eye on your sharp fingernails.
If the patron’s stomach’s heated by food and wine, then distilled
Water cooler than frost in Thrace is ordered. Just now, was I
Complaining you’ll not be served from the same bottle of wine?
Well, you’ll drink different water too
Assuming, Juvenal continues, you can actually get any water at all, as you’re likely to be ignored by the slaves meant to be serving you:
… A boy bought for so many
Thousands hasn’t the time to be mixing drinks for paupers,
His looks and youth justify his scorn. When will he get to you?
When will the server of hot and cold water answer your plea?
Of course he’s annoyed at having to answer to some old client
Who keeps asking for things, reclining there, while he stands.
What did you expect? asks Juvenal, you knew that:
The greatest houses are always full of arrogant slaves.
Behold another, grumbling as he offers you scarcely
Breakable bread, lumps of solid crust already mouldy,
That exercise your molars, while thwarting your bite.
While that reserved for the patron is soft snowy-white
Kneaded from finest flour.
And if you forget yourself and try and take the good bread then you are ordered to stop by another slave (5:72f). But it’s not just the slaves that look down on the unimportant guests, so does the food itself:
Look at the size of that lobster they bring the patron,
How it adorns the dish, how it’s hedged all round
By asparagus, how it’s tail scorns the diners, on entry,
Carried along, on high, in the hands of a tall attendant.
While you’re served crayfish cupped by half an egg,
A morsel only fit for a funeral, on a miniscule plate.
Also, the olive oil is the best for the patron, but the clients’ smells like it’s been poured from the oil lamp (5:87), whe finest fish are given to the patron, specially imported (5:92)
But what awaits you is an eel, the stringy snake’s relative,
Or a fish from the Tiber, covered with grey-green blotches,
Slave of its shores like you, fed from the flowing sewer,
The patron is given
“Apples whose scent is a meal on its own” (5:150)
“Your treat’s a scabby apple” (5:153)
All in all, Juvenal sourly concludes
Perhaps you think Virro’s intent on saving money. No,
He does it to grieve you; for what comedy, what mime
Is better than a groaning stomach?
With such a cultural norm to battle against it’s perhaps not surprising that the rich Corinthian Christians failed to live up to the love and radical equality of Christ and needed to be reminded. It’s also a reminder to us that our thinking needs challenging too, particularly our unconscious acceptance of cultural norms.