Ancient and modern

30,000 gallons of wine, 2,000 golden bulls and a three-month party: how the ancients celebrated

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

The ancients certainly knew how to put on a celebration. Let us hope the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee comes up to scratch.

In 274 bc the Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy II, staged a procession in honour of his father. It featured 400 cartloads of silver plate, 20 of gold and 800 of spices, 57,600 infantry, 23,200 horse, 2,000 bulls covered in gold, 2,400 dogs, 150 men carrying exotic trees with birds in them and 120 boys carrying saffron on gold platters.


They were accompanied by elephants, goats, hartebeest, camels, ostriches, peacocks, a large white bear, three bear cubs, 14 leopards, 16 cheetahs, a giraffe and an Ethiopian rhinoceros. A vast bag stitched together out of leopard pelts poured 30,000 gallons of wine on to the streets and a cart-borne golden phallus nearly 200 feet long, draped with gold ribbons and bows and tipped with a star nine feet round, supplied the subtle finishing touch.

But the Romans were not to be outdone. In ad 80 the emperor Titus opened the gigantic arena that we know as the Colosseum. It covered a base area of six acres, was 187ft high (Nelson’s column is 170ft), seating (or standing) some 50,000 in perhaps about 50 tiers, divided into five sections, almost enough of a spectacle in its own right.

The poet Martial was there and devoted a book of poems to describing what he saw. He was fascinated by the re-enacted mythological extravaganzas: Pasiphae coupling with a bull, a woman dressed as Hercules killing a lion, Leander swimming to Hero. Battles involving men and animals – bulls, elephants, a rhinoceros, bears, lions, tigers, cranes – were followed by battles at sea in a nearby lake and a ‘well-trained chorus of Nereids’ (sea-nymphs) in shifting formations. Gladiator shows (one involving 5,000 wild animals), horse races and multiple infantry combats also featured.

Meanwhile, Titus showered the crowds with wooden balls inscribed as gift vouchers for food, clothing, gold or silver vessels, horses, pack animals, cattle or slaves. And it lasted for three months. Now that is a celebration.

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