There are several types of godawful dinner party host–the drunk and domineering, the flustered and fastidious, and of course the plain old terrible cooks, to name just a few. But most guests don’t fear for their lives.
History, on the other hand, is replete with examples of a more deliberately sadistic kind–powerful rulers or groups abusing their guests with horrifyingly self-indulgent abandon. Hosts like…
In 90 AD, the Roman Emperor Domitian invited a slew of aristocrats to his palace for a banquet they would never forget. They arrived, at night, to find the dining room decorated floor-to-ceiling in black–black marble surfaces, black paint, black velvet drapes, and so on–and lit only by flickering funeral lamps. Even more unnervingly, they weren’t allowed to bring their own attendants and were ushered in alone to places marked with personalized gravestones. The seats were rock-hard benches and the food itself (made from things commonly offered as sacrifices to the dead) was dyed black and served on black onyx plates by naked, black-painted young boys who entered “like phantoms … encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance.”
The dinner conversation (or lecture, as it turned out, from Domitian alone) focused on the inevitability of death and decay. Only the emperor spoke; his guests remained silent, perhaps stunned in fear, as though they were already dead.
Given Domitian’s reputation for executing senators, his guests quite reasonably assumed they had been summoned by the emperor to their doom. Even at the end of the night, when they were conveyed back to their homes in silence, they continued to fear for their lives. So they were likely horrified later on when they each got a knock on the door–and were perhaps only mildly relieved when it turned out to be the black-painted slaves from earlier on, bearing gifts: The black onyx plates and gravestones from the dinner party, and their own mortal bodies as brand new household servants.
Historians believe the event was meant to honor the soldiers who died in the Dacian War, but Domitian must have been aware of the vibe.
The Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus) ascended the throne as a teenager and ruled for just four years before he was killed and dumped in the Tiber. As it turned out, despite being par for the course, entitlement, hedonism, and cruelty were frowned upon in such a powerful ruler.
Many of the “filthy anecdotes” that surround his life may be untrue, but they all agree on one thing: Elagabalus was an incompetent, pleasure-seeking despot.
He was known for his extravagant banquets and prodigiously experimental appetite–consuming cockscombs from living birds, flamingo brains, parrot heads, and mullet “beards,” among other curious “delicacies.” But his guests, whose attendance was mandatory, often went hungry. In fact, Elagabalus treated them a little like dolls at a make-believe tea party, serving them waxwork or earthenware replicas of whatever he happened to be eating. And this wasn’t to cut down on costs; he just wanted them “tormented by hunger.” In any case, he was also known for serving up meals cut with gems (peas with gold pieces, lentils with onyx, beans with amber, and rice with pearls, etc.), perhaps hoping they’d all chip their teeth–no matter the cost. Another prank was to seat guests on inflatable pillows, instead of his own fur- or feather-filled cushions, and have slaves gradually let out the air while they dined. Later, when they were all passed out drunk, he is said to have unleashed lions, leopards, and bears to frighten them out of their stupors–and sometimes even to death.
Elagabalus is most famous, however, for allegedly suffocating his dinner guests beneath a mass of rose petals, violets, and other flowers released through a reversible ceiling. This incident was depicted in the 1888 painting The Roses of Heliogabalus and, while improbable, highlights his decadent sadism.
8. The Vikings
“A bird of Unmindfulness / flutters over ale-feasts, / wiling away men’s wits …”
- Ódinn, in the Hávamál (Sayings of the High One)
Viking feasts often lasted days, sometimes involved human sacrifices, and were always fueled by booze. But the Vikings still found the time to make trouble in England. By the 10th century only Wessex (a southern kingdom that encompassed what is now Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and Bristol) remained unconquered by the Danes. And King Æthelred was at his wit’s end. Despite signing boundary agreements and peace treaties, and even paying the Vikings off (as agreed), the king continued to have trouble with the invaders. And when he finally received warning of threats to his own life, he ordered all of the Danes in his kingdom rounded up and killed, culminating in the St. Brice’s Day massacre.
But it only worsened the problem, alienating his few Danish allies and inviting revenge from the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, who was especially incensed at the murder of his sister with her husband and child. The raids continued with perhaps even greater ferocity and in 1011 AD the Vikings besieged the town of Canterbury. Burning much of it to the ground, including the famous cathedral, they took the Archbishop Alphege (Ælfheah) hostage. However, they demanded a ransom so high that the archbishop refused to let anyone pay it. He knew it would impoverish his people. So, unsure what to do with the cleric, the Vikings simply dragged Alphege around with them–to their ships, to political meetings, and, most fatefully, to a feast. By this time, the Vikings had apparently had quite enough of the archbishop’s piety and, after getting drunk in the usual manner, pelted the man with ox bones and horns from their meal, leaving him close to death. Finally, one of them swung an axe into his head and finished the holy man off.
What the archbishop may not have realized was that bone-throwing was something of a post-prandial pastime for the Norse. In the 14th-century Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, Vikings follow a hearty meal in a cave full of monsters with a lively game of hnútukast. This involved lobbing huge bones at each other with enough force to cause serious, often life-threatening injuries. One man had his eye knocked out and left dangling against his face, for instance, while in another saga a man is actually killed.
7. Lucrezia Borgia
The illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia was a key member of the ruthlessly influential House of Borgia. Among other things, the Borgias were known for their dinner parties and decidedly un-Christian get-togethers–most notably including the infamous “Banquet of Chestnuts,” an all-night orgy where prostitutes stripped naked and crawled about on all fours, picking up chestnuts like pigs while the pope and his children looked on.
Lucrezia herself often played the hostess at such affairs, and was always outwardly gracious–greeting each of her guests with a smile. But she’s also thought to have worn a ring with a hidden phial of poison inside, something she may have used to kill off her family’s enemies or perhaps anyone she didn’t much like. The poison (cantarella: cantharidin from blister beetles or arsenic mixed with pig entrails) was just one of her methods. In private, she is also said to have stabbed or garrotted those who had dared to cross her.
The actual facts of Lucrezia Borgia’s life are murky, but she is thought to have been loyal to her father. Some consider her a pawn in the (male) Borgias’ power games, but the fact that she was often left in charge in her father’s absence suggests she was in on it all. Indeed, her first husband Giovanni Sforza accused her of incest with the pope.
6. Sun Hao
Sun Hao, the last of the emperors of Wu (one of three ancient Chinese states), ruled between 264-280 AD as “the number one tyrant of that era.” He was often drunk and, like many heavy drinkers, liked others to get drunk with him too.
At one banquet, he became so angry at one of his imperial counselors for pretending to be drunk when he wasn’t that he had him beheaded on the spot. He then ordered his guards to toss the head from one man to the next, each taking a bite until the flesh was stripped down to the skull.
Dinner with Sun Hao was generally a tense affair. In fact, Sun Hao’s insistence on mutual oblivion when it came to drinking with others probably had more to do with his paranoia than any desire for revelry. His banquets were carefully observed by a team of imperial “rectors”–spies, essentially–who scrutinized his guests for “treason.” And often all it took was a disobedient glance or a stray remark for them to have their eyes gouged out or face peeled off as punishment.
5. Genghis Khan
As a child, Genghis Khan (or Temüjin Borjigin as he was known) killed his own brother for eating a fish by himself without sharing. He thought it unwise, apparently, to keep such a selfish person alive in his already impoverished family. But this was just one of many food-related episodes to come.
During his siege of the Jin capital Zhongdu (in present-day Beijing), for example, he trapped citizens inside the city in a bid to starve them into submission. But they turned to cannibalism instead, leaving mountains of bones and fat for the invaders.
Later, having defeated Rus’ forces in the Battle of the Kalka River (1223) and accepted the survivors’ surrender, he ordered the commander Mstislav the Daring and two other Rus’ princes to be stretched out under boards, alive, and for a feast to be arranged on top. In this way, the Mongols enjoyed a victory banquet while their enemies slowly suffocated underfoot. The Sultan of Persia actually met a similar fate at the hands of the Khan, having been rolled up in a rug with his family and trampled to death by horses.
4. The Scythians
Cyaxares, the third king of Media (in present-day northwestern Iran), ascended the throne when his father was killed besieging the city of Nineveh, Mesopotamia. Right away, he sought to avenge his father and launched another siege on the city–but he was called away soon after to defend his own kingdom against the Scythians.
These warlike horsemen of the Steppes appear to have antagonized everyone in their day and had decided to take refuge in Media–which for them meant subjecting it to their rule. Actually, Cyaxares tolerated them quite well, even trusting them with the education of young Median boys (e.g. in the Scythian language and their formidable bow-shooting skills). But it didn’t last.
The Scythians had something of an agreement with Cyaxares that whenever they went out hunting they would bring something back for the court. And when on one fateful occasion they didn’t, the Median king was so enraged that he hurled insults at the occupying force. The Scythians were indignant. Never ones to stand for such treatment without revenge, they took one of the Median boys entrusted to their care (sometimes said to be Cyaxares’ son), killed him and chopped him to pieces, then dressed the meat as they would any other game taken in hunting. Then they served it up to the king in one of history’s earliest “Thyestean banquets.”
In response, Cyaxares invited the majority of the Scythian chiefs to a banquet of his own and, after getting them all blind drunk, savagely murdered them all.
Nitocris remains a mysterious and possibly even mythical ancient ruler, known only through the accounts of classical historians. But, if she lived, she is believed to have ruled Egypt between the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period (around 2200 BC). According to Herodotus, her husband Metesouphis (or Merenre) II was brutally killed by his nobles shortly after ascending the throne, which left Nitocris to reign as pharaoh alone. But she was evidently heartbroken and determined to get revenge on the assassins. Her method was legendary.
She ordered the construction of a vast underground banquet hall connected by a hidden channel to the Nile and invited all of the murderous nobles to celebrate her inauguration. Then, as they dined, she stepped out of the banquet hall into a secret adjoining duct and arranged for the hidden channel to be opened, flooding the hall with river water and drowning all of the traitors inside.
Knowing her actions would be unpopular with the rest of her subjects, however, she concluded the evening by killing herself in another chamber–this one filled with hot ashes and smoke.
2. Vlad the Impaler
Vlad III Dracula, the 15th-century prince (or voivode) of Wallachia in present-day Romania, was known–indeed nicknamed–for being a dinner party host from Hell. In his twenties, he hosted a feast for hundreds of boyar nobles and had most of them impaled at the end. This meant spiking them on wooden stakes (through the backside) and leaving them writhing in agony until they died, which may have been several days later.
He didn’t just hate the boyar, though; he also hated the poor. On another occasion, he gathered together the elderly, the sick, and the helpless from across the realm and plied them with fine wine and meat. He then sealed the doors to the specially-constructed banquet hall and had his soldiers burn the place down to the ground. His reasoning? Killing off the poor would naturally bring an end to their poverty.
1. Papua Cannibals
The Melanesian island of New Guinea, or Papua as Indonesians call it, is known for its cannibal tribes. There have been numerous cases of Western explorers going missing, presumed (or known) to have been eaten, including: Michael Rockefeller, the son of New York Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in 1961; Stan Dole and Phil Masters, two Christian missionaries, at Christmas 1974; and a priest with 12 companions in 1976.
But cannibalism is often more of a bloodsport than a day-to-day dietary staple–much like bull-fighting, pheasant-shooting, or fox-hunting in the West, right down to the vicious pomp and ceremony that goes with it.
One missionary witnessed a cannibal feast firsthand while living among the Dani tribe of the Baliem Valley and provided notes on the thinking behind it. Following one of their routine battles with a neighboring group, the victorious Dani kept the corpse of a man speared through the heart and, after dressing in their finest feathers and beads, carried it an hour’s walk to where they knew they could be seen by their enemies. And, sure enough, their enemies were watching from a nearby hill, weeping and pleading for the body to be returned for an honorable cremation. But the winners had no such intention, shouting back “We’re going to eat him!”
After the tribesmen dumped the body on the ground, scores of women rushed over with pointed “digging sticks” and circled the corpse, stabbing it, stomping on it, and slinging verbal insults while the men built a fire nearby. The missionary suggested the women were venting anger at their own losses to the enemy in battle. Then came the preparation of the meat–the toes, meat from the calves, and so on. It’s unclear whether the missionary “went native” and sampled the flesh himself, but he apparently went home nauseated and tried desperately to forget the experience.