In Petronius’ “Dinner with Trimalchio,” the host of the dinner feast engages in behaviors that should have offended his guests. Curiously, his guests either fail to notice Trimalchio’s offensive behavior or bear out his excesses in exchange for feasting on food and wine. The guests’ nonchalance at Trimalchio’s bad manners clearly reveals the guests’ character vices as well as Trimalchio’s own.
Arguably, Trimalchio’s disrespect for his guests, his subversion of table decorum, and his ostentatious display of wealth at dinner exposes not only Trimalchio’s arrogance and crudity but his guests’ gluttony and ignorance, which keep the latter from declaring any opposition to Trimalchio’s behavior. Trimalchio’s disrespect for his guests and the guests’ insensitivity to Trimalchio’s insults are evident in the entire dinner episode.
First, Trimalchio repeatedly insults his guests by appearing late for dinner and playing a game on the table (Petronius 1185). Next, he explicitly debases his guests by telling them that he did not offer the vintage Opimian Falernian to his guests the other day although they were more respectable than those currently assembled (1186). He also rudely tells his guests that he has served them eggs that might be beyond edible (1185).
This scene is repeated when Trimalchio brings out a boar fitted with a liberty cap, which openly announces the boar’s condition as a left-over from dinner the other day. It is interesting to note, however, that none of his guests rose up to challenge of confronting Trimalchio about his blatant disrespect. Nor did any of them think that Trimalchio was showing bad manners. This is evident in how the guests did not appear to mind Trimalchio’s tardiness in showing up for dinner nor did they complain when the host preferred his game to their company.
Likewise, the guests proceeded to promptly eat the eggs despite being warned that they might be spoiled. It is also a telling sign of the guests’ ignorance when Encolpius—from whose viewpoint the story is told—censures himself from asking any more questions about the odd table and food rituals at Trimalchio’s table, for fear that he would leave the impression that he had not experienced fine dining before.
Hence, it is not surprising that most of Trimalchio’s lapses in hosting the dinner would go unnoticed by the guests. In effect, the guests’ failure to notice Trimalchio’s discourtesy on their personalities shows either their ignorance on fine dining or their dishonesty towards the host. Another obvious fact is that both Trimalchio and the guests lack a sense of table decorum.
Numerous instances show Trimalchio’s crude manners: First, he shows up at dinner while picking his teeth; second, he sings loudly at the meal table and even encourages noise and loud music at the dining hall to show off his wealth; third, he shows cruelty to a servant in front of his guests; fourth, he talks about his bowel movement and entreats his guests to relieve themselves if they felt the need to do so (Petronius 1192); fifth, he has a cooked pig gutted out in plain sight of his guests; and lastly, he stages his own death in front of his guests while dining.
Here, the guests also fail to notice Tramalchio’s poor manners. In an absurd way, Trimalchio’s short speech on the importance of regular bowel movements draws laughter from the guests instead of reproach. Likewise, his other eccentricities are treated by guests as a form of dining entertainment. Meanwhile, the guests themselves show an utter lack of table manners by engaging in gossip about the host and other guests present in the feast.
They also engage in talking about the illness and death of one of the guest’s friend, and discuss their hygiene rituals in front of the dining table. Their poor sense of proper dining behavior is also revealed by the fact that they are oblivious to the host’s poor taste, so that neither the host’s strange and crude behavior are able to affect their appetite for food. Indeed, Trimalchio’s incessant boasting and his deliberate display of his wealth to his guests show how poor his character is.
His guests’ inability to recognize Trimalchio’s acts as an indication of how ill-mannered he is, on the other hand, make them as ill-mannered as the host is. Hence, it is not surprising that no one finds Trimalchio’s braggadacio repulsive; his simplistic interpretation of the zodiac even generates applause from the guests. In the same manner, Trimalchio’s arrogance does not turn off his guests but earns him their awe and admiration instead.
This shows that the guests are either as poor in character as the host or are so gluttonous that they continue to indulge the host’s excesses in order to remain in the feast. It is evident that some of them find Trimalchio’s boasting and tendency to engage in monologues repressive, as Trimalchio’s brief absence from the dinner table encourages the guests to a vigorous conversation. On the other hand, none of the guests attempt to leave the dinner, or show that they are appalled by Trimalchio’s conceit.
On the contrary, the guests appear to enjoy Trimalchio’s vulgar display of his wealth since it benefits them. For instance, Trimalchio’s arrogance prompts him to extend the feast to include various courses after the main meal of the boar. Likewise, the host’s arrogance also makes it necessary for him to offer him his best wine and his finest table implements. Clearly, Trimalchio’s strange behavior is merely a reflection of his guests’ flaws. The guests’ ability to endure Trimalchio’s arrogance and his lack of table decorum exposes the guests’ own lack of taste.
It reveals how these guests are easily swayed by Trimalchio’s power and wealth to endure being subjected to his arrogance and poor manners. More importantly, it shows how their gluttony makes them captive audience to Trimalchio’s need to flaunt his riches. Thus, the guests’ participation in Trimalchio’s dinner and their acquisience to the host’s lack of table decorum automatically make them as crude as Trimalchio. Even worse, it shows the guests’ gluttony and desperation to feast on food to the point that they would tolerate the host’s insults and rude behavior.