The Black Dinner

In the year 86 AD, the Roman Emperor, Domitian, held a strange, black dinner which could be described as gothic. This dinner was not a sincere act of art but a revenge ploy of systematic terror. The origins of it lie within war, as do many a dreadful and macabre memory. The Romans conquered all of the Greeks by 146 BC but didn’t expand into the Balkans until the reign of the early emperors over a hundred years later. They slowly crept into Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria right up to the Danube River, absorbing plenty of new lands which hadn’t seen any previous Mediterranean domination. Romania was trickier. In 84 AD their king invaded the Roman province of Moesia and defeated the legion stationed there. Domitian launched a war against the Dacian Kingdom but could not defeat them and a peace agreement was settled to have the Dacians as a client kingdom of the Roman Empire. Blaming some of the senators and equites for the losses, he decided to host the leading members of each at a unique dinner party.

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He had a room prepared with black across every surface. The floor was left bare and black couches were spread around. The guests were invited at night without attendants to increase their anxiety. Each person sat beside a gravestone shaped rock with their name on it and a small lamp, all reminiscent of cemeteries. He brought in attractive boys, naked and painted black, who danced for the guests and then attended to them for the dinner. Domitian then made offerings typical of sacrifices to the deceased and set the food before his guests, dyed black in black dishes. Everyone was kept in dread of being murdered because of the horrible atmosphere and because Domitian did the most of the talking, bringing up death and slaughter mainly. When he dismissed them he gave them new slaves to carry them home to further suggest he might kill them. When they arrived home a messenger from the emperor arrived to give them the rock, made from silver, their dishes from the dinner and the boy servants who were washed.  Thus, even though he didn’t kill them he did remind them of what he could do and conveyed his exact feelings about these men. This event is referred to by Dio as the funeral banquet for the dead soldiers in Dacia. Some of the men were even killed later but, for the most part, everyone was left in fear of another black dinner, lest they tread across the emperor again and meet their doom.

Cassius Dio, Roman History – Book 67, Chapters 6, 9

https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/67*.html

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