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This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Games of Sulis

Nowadays, visitors to the Baths enjoy their chance to walk upon the stone trodden by Roman feet two thousand years ago; but did you know that, in the 1960s & ‘70s, there were regular events which gave people an even more intimate taste of ancient culture, allowing them to dine at a full Roman banquet around the baths themselves? 

An invitation to the very first of these, in the shape of a scroll with a wax seal and ribbon and entitled LUDI SULIS I JUNIUS MCMLXI (The Games of Sulis, 1st June 1961), has recently been acquired by the Roman Baths:

The invitation to the Roman banquet

The invitation sets out full details of the ‘orgy’, from clothing and music to décor and food, interspersed with quotes from poets such as Tibullus and Propertius, and even begins with a specially-composed, three-verse Latin poem, inviting the guests to the feast:

The invitation’s heading, including the Latin invitatory poem

The first two verses imagine the invitee as a weary ploughman or shepherd, enticed to take rest under a tree, sate their thirst and be lulled to sleep. The final verse invites the guest to a rather less tranquil affair, as can be seen by a possible translation:

But if you prefer a ladle of Falernian wine with water, or an beautiful girl to a disgusting sheep, seize the lavish joys of the night with the orgies of Sulis.

Every invitee was required to attend in full Roman attire to make the atmosphere more authentic, the men therefore being given a purple toga on arrival, the women a stola (a long, sleeveless dress). Together with the invitation was a photograph (see below) showing some guests in their outfits. The women’s hair is arranged in Roman style, in accordance with the invitation’s suggestion that they ‘imitated Cypassis’, an expert in ornamenting hair in a thousand fashions’ (ponendis in mille modos perfecta capillis, Ovid Amores II.8).

Guests to Ludi Sulis in their Roman attire of toga or stola

Each item of food in the gustatio (hors d’oeuvres), fercula (roast) and mensa secunda (dessert) was an authentic Roman delicacy. These ranged from tunny fish, snails, honey cakes and stuffed pastry birds to a complete roast pig, which greeted the guests as they arrived to sit on cushions around the Great Bath.

Organisers even took inspiration from Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s Feast), part of Petronius’ Satyricon (often considered one of the earliest ‘novels’, written in the 1st century AD), in setting up a ‘table of delicacies’. Guests were advised to decline these, seeing as they included things like nightingales’ tongues, flamingos’ brains and sows’ udders!

The feast was accompanied by music adapted from surviving Greek fragments and performed on lyres and recorders (the double flute or tibia being deemed too unwieldy to play). The after-dinner entertainment was decidedly more modern: guests were serenaded on the terrace by Nero and the Gladiators, a 1960s rock band!

According to a newspaper article from 1990 written about it, the event was organised by Mrs B. Robertson and Mrs V. Crallan to raise money for the Bath Festival. Tickets cost four guineas, and a film crew was even paid to record the event, on the condition that the cameramen must enter into the spirit of things by donning togas too! The event quickly morphed into ‘Roman Rendezvous’ nights, and many people remember being allowed to swim in the Great Bath before dancing in the Pump Room.

Acquisitions come from many different sources, such as donations, purchases or transfers - but it’s always fascinating to receive evidence of the colourful history of the Baths’ use through time.

Collections Volunteer 

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