From the Egyptians to the 90s, humans have always loved letting loose and indulging in a little bit of hedonism. Whether it was to worship gods or simply at the temple of disco music, alcohol, costumes and festivities have long characterised celebrations and given people a chance to make merry, subvert the norm and party until morning.
Whilst we may think we party hard in normal times with huge festivals, all-night raves and outrageous outfits, you’d be surprised at exactly how much our ancestors knew about getting down to the music. Here’s a round up of some of history’s wildest parties.
1. Festival of Drunkenness (Egypt, 15th century BC)
The Egyptian sun god, Ra, is who is to thank for the existence of the Festival of Drunkenness – which was, technically, a religious celebration. Ra supposedly stopped the destruction of humankind by getting Hathor drunk on 7,000 jars of beer dyed red to look like blood. She proceeded to pass out and forgot about her plan to devour human life on earth.
In memory of this event, Egyptians drank copious quantities of alcohol every year in memory of this event, mimicking Hathor in that they aimed to eventually pass out from their consumption. This celebration happened on the 20th day of Thoth, the first month of the Egyptian calendar.
Others also reportedly engaged in orgies and wild sex as part of their honour of Hathor, who was the goddess of love and fertility amongst other things.
2. Nero’s Golden House (Rome, 64-68AD)
The infamous Emperor Nero‘s Domus Aurea (literally, Golden House) was said to host some of the most debauched parties in antiquity. Held in the coenatio rotunda (or rotating dining room), Nero would ply his guests with elaborate, gluttonous feasts which guests were supposedly only allowed to leave if they were going to make themselves vomit so they could continue eating, or to have sex.
Legend has it Nero would cover himself with the skin of a wild animal and have men and women tied to posts for him to ravage in the guise of a wild beast. Guests were not allowed to leave until Nero had the doors opened and decreed the party to be over.
3. Ball of the Burning Men (Paris, 1393)
What began as entertainment designed to celebrate a marriage and to keep the mentally unstable king occupied turned into pandemonium. The ball centred around a charivari, a performance by knights dressed as wild men (their costumes were soaked in pitch to make them look hairy), whilst the rest of the court had to guess who they were underneath their disguises.
Candles and torches had been banned from the room because of the highly flammable costumes, but the king’s brother, the Duc d’Orleans, missed the message and appeared drunk, carrying a torch. One of the dancers caught fire and the blaze quickly spread. Unbeknownst to many, the young king was one of the knights in costume: he was protected from the flames by a quick-thinking duchess,
The entire court was forced to do public penance for risking the king’s life for something as trivial as a party, and the event gained the name the Bal des Ardents – the Ball of the Burning Men.
4. Field of the Cloth of Gold (Northern France, 1520)
Effectively a competition of conspicuous consumption, King Henry VIII and King Francis I – rulers of England and France respectively – staged a meeting in Northern France in order to try and outshine each other. The event’s name, Field of the Cloth of Gold, stems from the sheer quantity of expensive cloth used by both the English and French in their attempts to dazzle each other. The two and a half weeks of festivities saw the consumption of 216,000 gallons of wine, and cost the equivalent of a huge £15 million in today’s money.
A series of temporary tents were erected to host huge banquets, jousting tournaments and festivities every evening. Despite the money lavished on the event, very little political diplomacy was achieved during the trip. Both kings had large and somewhat sensitive egos, and after being defeated by Francis in a wrestling match, Henry’s mood was said to have turned sour.
5. The Party of the Delights of the Enchanted Island (Versailles, 1664)
Famous for extravagance, King Louis XIV made the most of his new chateau, Versailles, hosting a 4 day party there in honour of his mother, Anne of Austria, and his wife, Maria-Theresa – although the guests all knew it was also dedicated to his mistress, Louise de la Vallière too.
The celebrations were based around the story of a magician who kept noble knights imprisoned – lavish costumes, new plays, dancing, ballets, music, fireworks, a huge feast and the entire garden at Versailles lit up with thousands of lights all featured in the course of the celebrations, which were said never to be rivalled again by the kings of France.
6. Admiral Edward Russell’s Cocktail Party (London, 1694)
Edward Russell, First Lord of the Admiralty and one of the architects of the Glorious Revolution, threw a party for his officers in the garden of his Covent Garden house in 1694. Determined to put on a show, he reportedly drained his fountain of water and filled it with 250 gallons of brandy, 125 gallons of Malaga wine, 1400lbs of sugar, 2500 lemons and 5lbs of nutmeg: a huge (and hugely expensive) cocktail, in effect.
Legend has it that it took guests a week to drink the fountain dry, and the party continued all the while. When it rained, a silk canopy was erected over the fountain to ensure the alcohol wasn’t watered down.
7. Manchu Han Imperial Feast (China, 1720)
Food has long been seen as a tool of diplomacy and harmony: it’s believed breaking bread with someone is a gesture of peace and solidarity. The legendary 3 day banquet hosted by Emperor Kangxi for his 66th birthday is seen as the pinnacle of political eating.
At the time China was struggling with factionalism between Manchu and Han ethnic groups. As government positions traditionally held by Manchu began to be taken over by Han, there was a palpable sense of discontent. In order to try and improve relations between the two groups, the Emperor decided his birthday feast would use marry together Manchu and Han cuisines into one huge, remarkable feast.
There were so many courses that supposedly over the 3 days it took to eat them all, they found neutral ground and began to embrace the process of making peace. Since then, thousands of replica banquets and meals have been spawned as a gesture of reconciliation and unity. They can even be found on the menu in some Chinese restaurants today!
8. Les Noces After Party (Paris, 1923)
Les Noces was a ballet and orchestral work composed by Igor Stravinsky which debuted at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris in June 1923. After the premiere, Gerald and Sara Murphy, two Americans artists and socialites, hosted a fabulous after-party on a barge on the Seine.
With a guest list including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Cole Porter and Stravinsky himself, it was said to be a night of champagne-fulled debauchery and partying that became iconic amongst the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’ of the age, and cemented the Murphys’ reputation as some of Paris’ best hosts.