History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars

Aimee Heidelberg - April 30, 2023

The poised, polished portraits found in history books and art galleries are lying. Their stoic, refined gaze hides a secret: Historic figures, from peasants to Presidents, knew how to party. In fact, some of their antics could put modern party animals to shame. Partying wasn’t just a chance to hang out with friends and drink strange cocktails out of a communal cooler, it was an art form. Parties made strong political and social impressions. They were a power play and a display of wealth. Historic parties celebrated holidays, gods, victories, or just the fact that someone had a giant wheel of cheese they needed to get rid of. There are epic parties, and then there are historic parties that people are still talking about centuries, even millennia, after they happened.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Pouring wine in Ancient Egypt. Public domain.

Egyptian Festival of Drunkenness (c.15th century BCE)

The Festival of Drunkenness was Ancient Egypt’s way of celebrating life – literally. It celebrates Ra’s success in saving humankind. Ra worried about humankind neglecting and disrespecting him. He sent his daughter, Hathor (dressed as the feline goddess Sekhmet), to destroy them all. She obeyed the command – with gusto. Ra decided she had done enough. He commanded her to stop – but Hathor would not obey. Ra put ground hematite in her wine to look like blood and help her sleep. She woke up with the red liquid everywhere. Thinking it was blood, she was satisfied with a job well done. It ended her bloodlust. To celebrate the end of Hathor’s terror, Egyptians ‘reenacted’ Hathor’s feat of drinking each year on the twentieth day of Thoth, the first calendar month. Some historians, however, believe the myth just serves as an excuse to have a large, socially sanctioned drunken melee.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Banquet Stele of Ashurnasirpal, 879 BCE. tableofgods.com

A National Party in Assyria (879 BCE)

In 879 BCE, King Ashurnasirpal II threw a massive, ten-day party to celebrate the revitalization of Kalhu and the completion of his new palace. Instead of the traditional nobility and people in power, he opened the party up to everyone. He invited 69,574 (by his own count) guests, including men and women, dignitaries from other lands, palace officials, and the citizens of Kalhu. A stele, crafted to commemorate the party, and details a menu that, even today, would is lavish. Among the delicacies was 500 gazelles, 1,000 oxen, 14,000 imported fattened sheep, 10,000 measures of beer, and 10,000 containers of wine. To round out the main dishes, there were grapes, nuts, cheese, olives, and spices like mustard, honey, garlic, and sesame. He knew a grand party, open to the public, would be great for public relations and public support, even though he was already well respected.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Belshazzar’s feast interpreted in religious texts. Rembrandt (1636). National Gallery, London.

Belshazzar’s Blasphemous Party (539 BCE)

Rarely is a party so good, it can literally be called “of Biblical proportions.” But Belshazzar, at the end of his Babylonian reign, threw a massive feast, one that made it into Judeo-Christian sacred texts. He invited 1,000 guests to dine and drink. When the party was really rolling along, he called for the gold and silver goblets and bowls plundered from the Jewish temple to be brought in. These were sacred items, used for Hebrew sacraments. Belshazzar showed them off as the spoils of Jerusalem’s defeat and razing Solomon’s Temple. After making sure his guests were duly impressed, he poured barley beer in the goblets, and offered the beverage to his guests to show off his victory. Unfortunately for Belshazzar, he would never wake up from his beer buzz. Persian invaders conquered Belshazzar’s kingdom that very night. Belshazzar was assassinated in his sleep.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Fire of Persepolis (1619 tapestry). Public domain.

Alexander the Great Had a Burning Desire to Party (330 BCE)

In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great finally achieved a longtime goal. He had captured Persepolis. The celebration was no less than one for any major conquest. But Alexander took it to another level. According to Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, amid the drinking, physical pleasures, and revelry, a prostitute suggested to Alexander that he would win the favor of the Greeks if he burned the Persepolis palace. Alexander, drunk of wine and victory, took this as a challenge. He called out, “Why do we not avenge Greece, then and put the city to the torch?” Unfortunately, instead of sleeping off the effects of the alcohol and really thinking about what that would mean for his spoils of war, he made good on his word and set fire to the palace. It burned to the ground, and according to Quintus Curtius Rufus, “never rose again in all the Ages that did ensue.”

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Ariadne being initiated into Dionysian Mysteries. Pompeii, 1st century CE. Image. Following Hadrian.

Greek Dionysian Mysteries

Dionysus is the demigod of wine, theater, and fertility, but also the god of ritual madness, insanity, and religious ecstasy. He is a combination of naughty and nice in the Greek pantheon. The cult was open to anyone in Greek society, even those who were typically not welcome in Greek society like slaves, non-citizens, and criminals. Celebrations featured a procession, a wine-fueled feast, dancing, chanting, animal sacrifice, and theater performances. Revelers may have spiked the wine with drugs or other additives to heighten the intoxicating effects. The partygoers let loose of their inhibitions to an extent and whipped themselves into a trance like state to transcend themselves and to channel Dionysus’ power. It was a rebellion against the establishment, a way to liberate the common people and outcasts. But the cult kept its rituals a carefully guarded secret. Only other members could know what happened behind closed doors.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of a Roman Bacchanal. Moses van Uyttenbroeck (1627). Public Domain.

Roman Bacchanals (4th century BCE – 186 CE)

The Romans were so good at wild parties that modern parties reaching highest level of rowdiness are named after them. The Romans adapted the Greek Dionysian Mysteries to celebrate Bacchus, Dionysus’ Roman counterpart. In the early years, the secret rites were held only three days a year and were only open to women. Over time, they increased to five nights a month, and men were invited. That is when things started to go wild. The rites became drunken parties with too-loud music, wine and other drugs flowing freely, animal sacrifice, and orgiastic coitus. The rites were open to all social classes, anyone who wanted to rebel against “civil, moral, and religious law.” In 186 CE, the Roman Senate found the cult and its rituals at odds with the official Roman religion. The Senate banned the cult, destroying its temples, persecuted its followers and leaders, but the legend lives on.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Bust of Cleopatra VII. Public Domain.

Cleopatra’s Party in Honor of Marc Antony (c. 41 BCE)

Queen Cleopatra held one of the history’s most romantically scandalous parties in honor of Marc Antony. Roman historian Pliny tells of Cleopatra hosting a banquet to show extravagant wealth and complete disregard for valuables. Cleopatra bet Marc Antony she could spend 10 million sesterces during one meal. She took one of her pearl earrings, which Pliny described as “the largest in the whole of history” worth roughly the ten million sesterces she had bet Antony. Cleopatra dropped this treasure in a glass of vinegar. The pearl dissolved, and she drank it. Montclair State University classicists experimented with the vinegar-and-pearl cocktail to test the story. The pearl would have taken some time to dissolve, roughly 24 to 36 hours. It is feasible, although unappetizing. The one gram pearl in the experiment left a sludge in the vinegar. The story is possible, although unappetizing, and Cleopatra could have won such a bet.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Flavian Amphitheater (Coliseum). Ank Kumar (2015).

Coliseum Grand Opening (80 CE)

Bacchanals were not the only grand parties the Romans threw. The opening of the Flavian Amphitheater, known better as the Coliseum, was a 100-day party for all the people of Rome. It was built on top of the remains of Nero’s private Golden Palace, the Domus Aurea. In a politically solid move, the Flavian Emperors replaced it with a public arena. The grand opening had to be a party Romans would never forget. Arenas like the Coliseum had concessions, liquor, souvenirs like action figures of athletes, public restrooms, and air conditioning. The Coliseum’s grand opening had to give the Romans more of what they loved. More liquor, more food, more blood. Roughly 9,000 animals were killed in staged battles. Countless gladiators fought to the blood (but not usually the death). And the best part? Admission was free during the celebrations paid for by Emperor Titus.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Recreating a naval battle in an arena. Public Domain.

Naumachia, Coliseum Naval Battles (80 CE)

The opening party of the Coliseum was a big deal. It needed to impress the Romans, and make a political statement to others. For the one-hundred-day party, fueled by wine, food, and sport, Romans celebrated the opening of the Coliseum with games fit for a bloodthirsty Emperor. Rome provided that, too. Emperor Titus commissioned two naumachia. Naumachia are the mock naval battles held in flooded arenas. The Coliseum used the aqueducts from Nero’s Domus Aurea, sealed the flooring properly, and let the water flow into the arena. From there, ships for the show could stage combat using prisoners, rather than Gladiators. Because naumachia tended to be deadlier than regular gladiator games, condemned criminals and other enemies were put on the ships and shoved into the arena-lake.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Bust of Emperor Nero. cjh1452000 (2009)

Nero’s Domus Aurea Pleasure Palace (64 CE)

What does the Emperor of Rome do after the city burns and the people are trying to rebuild? What else than to build a swinging party palace! Whether or not the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is fact or fiction, he did build his Domus Aurea, his “Golden Palace,” over the city’s ruins. This pleasure palace took up nearly a square mile in the city center, and had forests, and a man-made private lake. To make sure there was no doubt about his ego, he had a 36.5 meter tall (120 foot) statue of himself placed outside the palace, with Nero made up to look like the sun god Sol. The palace was specifically for partying; Nero lived and slept at another residence. But Nero wasn’t entirely selfish with his party house; Some of the grounds were open to the public, which helped with his public image.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
One of the Nemi barges, before it burned. Bilderwoche 1929. Public Domain.

Caligula’s Party Barge (c. 37 CE to 41 CE)

Emperor Caligula loved to have a good time, no matter who had to be hurt to make it happen. While his reputation centers mainly on his love for sadism and pleasures that make Bacchanals look like a church picnic, he also loved spending copious amounts of money for personal pleasure. To mix his love of partying and love of spending, he built himself two party barges on what is now known as Lake Nemi. One of the barges was 73 meters (240 feet) long, with ten oar banks and 11 meter (36 foot) long oars. The barges had gardens with fruit trees and vines, and plumbing for baths, saloons. Rumors abound about the parties on the Nemi ships, from orgies, to adultery and incest. Obsessed with the ships, Benito Mussolini had them recovered in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but were burned to ashes in 1944.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Emperor Domitian. Richard Mortel (2018).

Domitian’s Memento Mori Party (c. 90 CE)

Emperor Domitian idea of a party was a little different than others. Instead of a celebration of life and all its joys, in 89 or 90 CE, Domitian allegedly threw a party in honor of death, leaving his guests less amused than terrified for their lives. His decorators painted the banquet hall black. Not just the decorations, but the floor, walls, ceilings, everything. Guests were escorted to dining couches next to a tombstone with their name on it. Slaves dressed as phantoms lurked about, serving from black dishes. The feast featured the food, dyed black, traditionally left for the dead at cemeteries and temples. The guests, Roman senators and other aristocracy, spent the party wondering if it was going to come with a summons for their execution, but Domitian had no intention of murdering guests. The tombstones were solid silver meant as gifts to the nervous guests.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Emperor Elagabalus. Carole Raddato (2015).

Emperor Elagabalus Loved a Prank (c. 218 – 222 CE)

Young Emperor Elagabalus built a reputation (warranted or politically motivated) for sparing no expense to throw a great, and wild, party. Roman historians spin tales of dinner parties that served the most unusual, expensive, and rare dishes. Rice mixed with pearls. 600 ostrich brains. Peas laced with gold. The histories detail how he would fancy a color, blue, green, whatever. The food had to match his theme. But food wasn’t his only indulgence, so was tormenting guests. The Emperor unleased wolves and leopards on guests, forgetting to mention the beasts were tame. He had a banquet space with a false ceiling that rained rose petals on his guests. Elagabalus loved to play games of chance, where the ‘prize’ could be gold coins – or an animal carcass. By the time of his assassination at age 18, he built a name as an overindulgent hedonist, even though it might be mostly fiction.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Wari vessel. Dornicke (2015)

The Wari People had an Awesome Sendoff (c. 1000 CE)

The Wari people of pre-Inca South America saw the signs of decline in their civilization. There is no solid record of when, how, or why their civilization faltered. But instead of just jumping ship and moving on quietly, they celebrated the end of their way of life with a party to end all parties. The alcohol alone required the construction of a special brewery. It could produce a thousand liters of chicha every day. This was enough to serve hundreds in one sitting. But once the revelries were over, the Wari opted to mark ‘closing time’ with a huge bonfire. The fuel for the fire was the brewery itself. They lit it on fire, and tossed their cups and jugs into the embers.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Le Bal des Ardents. Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse (1889). Public domain.

Ball of the Burning Man (1393)

The wedding celebration for one of French Queen Isabeau’s ladies in waiting started well but descended into chaos. A guessing game, charivari, went horribly awry. Knights disguised as “wild men,” making themselves look hairy and dirty, and guests were to guess who they were. To achieve that dirty and hairy look, the knights covered themselves with pitch. Servants removed torches, candles, and other flames from the room for the safety of the men. Enter the Duc d’Orleans, who drunkenly ignored basic safety. The torch he carried lit one of the knights on fire, and the flames spread quickly. Four men died in the fire, but it became a bigger problem because King Charles VI was among the disguised men. The Duchess de Berri saved him by smothering the flames with her skirt. The court was punished not for lighting knights on fire, but for (unwittingly) endangering the King.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of Vlad Tepes (17th Century). Public domain.

Vlad the Impaler and his Boyer Easter Banquet (1549)

Sometimes it’s better to stay home and read a book than attend a fabulous party. In 1459, the aristocrat boyars of Wallachia were invited with their families to an Easter banquet at their ruler’s place. It showed there were no hard feelings about the ousting and murder of his father in 1447, and torture, blinding, and live burial of his brother. The boyars settled in for food, wine, and a nice evening out. But the ruler hosting the party was Vlad Tepas, known today as “Dracula.” He hadn’t forgotten – he hadn’t forgiven, either. Vlad had the women and the older men, who had no further use to him, stabbed. He then impaled their bodies on tall stakes, leaving them to dangle there as they died. Vlad forced the men to build his favorite home, Poenari Castle. Many of them died serving as slave labor to fulfill Vlad’s revenge fantasies.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Vlad Tepes (16th century oil on canvas). Public domain.

Vlad Loved a Banquet

Vlad “Dracula” Tepes had creative ways of dealing with local problems in Wallachia. He is famous for helping out the poor, homeless, elderly, and lame. Of course his definition of “helping” may differ than most. He invited a large group of them to the great hall of Târgoviște for a feast. They ate, drank, and enjoyed the generosity of their ruler well into the night. When the party was over, he locked the doors and barred exits. He told guards to light the hall on fire, saying, “These men live off the sweat of others, so they are useless to humanity.” However, some historians argue it wasn’t the poor that he burned alive, that it was the boyars and wealthy who wouldn’t support his policies to help. Historic evidence from this time don’t speak much about hall-burning, but Vlad is stuck with the reputation as history’s worst party host.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Pope Pius II. Justus van Gent (c.1472-1476). Public domain.

A Party So Wild it was Condemned by the Pope (1460)

The Borgias were a notorious Italian family dedicated to power and money. Borgias held the highest positions in Europe, but their schemes and reputation inspired scathing backlash. One of the most famous of these commentaries was Machiavelli’s The Prince, based on the Borgia method of power-grabbing. But the family was great at one thing: Partying. In 1460, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia went to a garden party in Siena. This all sounds perfectly proper, until word got out that the husbands and male relatives of female guests were banned from entering the garden. Pope Pius II got word of the party, hearing of orgies and What exactly happened inside is lost to history, but the Pope send Rodrigo a scolding letter, condemning the party with the words everyone dreads to hear from the Pope, “We are more angry than we can say.”

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. Cristofano dell Altissimo, Public domain.

Pope Alexander VI’s Banquet of Chestnuts (1501)

Rodrigo’s parties again caused a stir in 1501. Rodrigo, now deemed Pope Alexander VI, threw another notorious party. In 1501, he invited his inner circle, Roman nobility, and Church officials, to a party. The Banquet of Chestnuts featured a delicious feast and copious amounts of wine, but Pope Alexander had something else in store to entertain his guests – 50 adult entertainers. When guests had their fill of the food and were warm from the wine, the entertainers hopped onto the table to strip for the audience. They then crawled around picking up chestnuts that had been tossed around. Although no one conclusively documented this, the women reportedly used their genitals to collect the nuts and impress the crowd. Alexander then announced a contest to see which of his guests could “entertain” the most ladies. The winner would get a prize from the Pope, although nobody recorded who won.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Field of the Cloth of Gold (1545). Public domain.

Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520)

King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were the original frenemies. After years of conflict, they were ready to strike and alliance. To celebrate their new friendship, there was a seventeen-day-long bash, with the two trying to outdo each other with how opulent they could be. They threw an epic party known in history books as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Tents and clothing had gold woven into the fabric. Feasts lasted all day, topped with fountains of wine and dancing monkeys. A 12,000 square foot (365 meter) tent decorated to look like a castle loomed over the event. Sports, like jousting, and archery added excitement to the festivities. It cumulated in a wrestling match between the two kings, with Henry losing the battle. The two parted without an alliance, and Henry aligned with Francis I’s rival, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of Nicholas Fouquet. Charles leBrun (17th Century), Public domain.

Nicholas Fouquet Partied His Way into Prison (1661)

King Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance Nicholas Fouquet found himself with a life sentence in prison, his wife in exile, and his property confiscated for a strange reason: Holding an epic party. In 1661, Fouquet invited thousands of guests to celebrate his new chateaux at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The party featured a grand banquet, prepared by Vatel, a celebrated chef who invented Chantilly cream. Once the food was eaten and the guests warmed by drink, they were treated debut of a play by Molière, Les Fâcheax (The Bores). The night concluded with spectacular fireworks. The King, already distrustful of his Finance Minister, was unimpressed by Fouquet’s hosting skills. He doubt Fouquet could afford an event so luxurious (among his other luxuries like the chateaux) with his own money. Fouquet was arrested for misuse of public money, embezzlement, and treason. He was imprisoned for the rest of his life.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of Louis XIV of France. Public domain.

King Louis XIV’s Delights of the Magical Isle (1664)

Versailles, the opulent palace that epitomizes the Baroque era (its later additions were more Rococo style) needed a grand party to mark its completion. To celebrate, King Louis XIV threw a week-long party for 600 guests called Delights of the Magical Isle in the gardens. On the surface, the party was to honor his mother, but behind the scenes, it celebrated his mistress, Louise de la Valliére. Each night of the party brought something new, a ballet, exotic animals, horse races, the debut of plays and ballets. On the seventh day, Molière (who was still in good graces after is connection to the Fouquet incident) debut a shocking play, Tartuffe. The King loved it, but his advisors pressured him to censor it for wider audiences. While the party was officially to honor his mother, behind the scenes, it was a celebration of his mistress, Louise de la Valliére.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of Admiral Edward Russell. Godfrey Kneller, c. 1710. Public Domain.

Admiral Russell’s Fountain of Brandy Wine (1694)

In 1694, Admiral Edward Russell was having a rough patch. He was fighting with the English government about the lack of supplies and support during his time at sea. In response to his lengthy list of complaints, the government told Russell he would have to spend the winter in the Mediterranean. He desperately wanted to go home. Instead of moping, he threw a party for 5,000 guests. The drink of choice was a brandy wine punch. But it wasn’t just a really good punch; Russell knew how to put on a show. The punch, around 4,000 liters (1057 gallons), filled a large fountain. Legend has it that the fountain was so big, a server rowed around in a canoe to serve it. On top of the staggering amount of alcohol, he also served 150 tempting dishes, and had 800 servants attend to everyone’s needs.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress. Palace Museum. Public domain.

Manchu-Han Imperial Feast (1720)

The three-day banquet to celebrate Emperor Kangxi of China’s 66th birthday is one of the most massive feasts in history. He was not just celebrating his birthday, though. He was trying to soothe relations between the Han and Manchu ethnic factions. To impress his 2,500 guests and make the proper political statement, he laid out a table with around 300 dishes. The table was full of wine, bear claws, shark fin soup, and monkey brains. If guests had their fill of those delicacies, they could dine on camel humps, leopard fetus, and bird nests. It took three days to finish the food, but his ploy worked; the Han and Manchu were able to find compromise and started the peace process.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Medmenham Abbey. Mark Percy (2017).

Hellfire Club (1720s)

Author Jonathan Swift called them “a brace of monsters, blasphemers, and Bacchanalians” (thus proving the Romans set the standard for epic party). These dastardly fiends were members of Dublin’s Hellfire Club, aristocratic men mocking the religious hypocrisy rampant at the time. Twice a year, Hellfire members of the most notorious chapter met at Medmenham Abbey. Erotic art decorated the walls, and the library boasted a collection of porn. Organizers invited the members to bring women with “a cheerful, lively disposition” (meaning physically and sensually free-spirited). To jab at religious standards, parties featured treats like Breast of Venus, Holy Ghost Pie, and Devil’s Loin. While Hellfire is infamous for Satanic rituals, there no evidence to support this ever happened. Hellfire parties were so secretive, nobody knows whether they were actually drunken parties for underground political and religious debate, or the orgiastic frenzy of blasphemy, deviant physical relations, and raging drunkenness that made them infamous.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
“The True Effigies of the Members of the Calves Head.” Public domain.

A Pleasant Bonfire… And Riot (1734)

The Calves Head Club was a dining and drinking society of aristocrats opposed to King Charles 1. Their mascot, a disembodied head of a calf, supposedly symbolized the beheaded king. The group was anti-monarchist, a dangerous position in England at the time. One party got out of hand in 1734. The club started a bonfire just outside their door. But they didn’t stop with a nice street-fire and wine. There’s always that guy who escalates the party. Someone dragged out the calf-head and put a napkin cap on its head. The head was tossed into the bonfire, much to the horror of people passing by. A crowd had formed by then, and when the calf-head/ Charles effigy burned, they forced themselves into the club’s meeting house and trashed it. The club, in the ruins of their meeting space and realizing the danger they faced, disbanded after the riot.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Public domain.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s Wedding Disaster (1770)

As long as there have been fireworks, there have been fireworks mishaps. When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI in 1770, one of these mishaps turned deadly in the streets of Paris. Their wedding was a spectacle with a massive reception in the Hall of Mirrors. Bad weather cancelled the celebratory fireworkds display, so the couple went directly to their bedchamber. They had to lay down together, in front of the entire French court, to show they share a bed. For two weeks, the couple partied, capped off with more fireworks. But the celebration turned tragic on May 30, when partially exploded fireworks blew into the Place del Concorde, crowded with people trying to watch the display. There was a panic, and 132 or 133 people died in the crowd-crush that followed. It was a bad start to a marriage that ended in revolution and beheading.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
The public swarm on the White House. Robert Cruikshank, White House Collection

Andrew Jackson’s Out of Control Inauguration Party (1829)

Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, took the Oath of Office on March 4, 1829. With the inauguration ceremonies over, it was time to enjoy refreshments and polite conversation with people who showed up to pay their respects at the White House. Instead of tight security and a well-curated guest list, the White House held a veritable Open House. An estimated 20,000 people surged on the White House to greet the new President. Punch spilled. Visitors knocked over trays of food. Furniture broke. People stood on the expensive furniture with fine upholstery in muddy boots. While the upper crust of Washington DC society expected larger crowds at the White House, they were not prepared for a raging party from all walks of society. Some accounts have Jackson climbing out a window to escape the crowd. White House historians say it was the congressman from Georgia and his wife.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Helping President Jackson with his cheese wheel. Jackson Hermitage.

Andrew Jackson’s Cheese Party (1835)

Colonel Thomas Meechum of New York had an unusual gift for President Andrew Jackson in 1935. He arrived at the White House to present Jackson with a 1,400 pound (635 kg) wheel of cheese. Instead of dividing it and distributing it to the public, he let the cheese age for a year at the White House. After a year, he placed an ad in the newspaper, invited the public to come to the White House and help him eat the cheese. He had not learned from his last attempt to open the White House to the public in 1829. 10,000 guests arrived for their slice of cheese. It took two hours for everyone to get their cheese, which could be smelled half a mile away from the White House, and stunk the place up for weeks.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
The notorious 1903 Ball of Nicholas and Alexandra. Public Domain

A Party that Fueled Revolution (1903)

As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, most people in Russia were starving, freezing, and struggling. There was a growing discontent with the aristocracy, and the Czar and Czarina in particular. But Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra either didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the kindling of revolution. They continued their opulent lifestyle with an ambitious party. Guests wore fashions of European high society during the 1600s, with jewels and artifacts from the era to keep the theme going. The party started with a concert at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, followed by an opulent dinner. Partygoers banqueted in three rooms, themed after Italian, Spanish, and Flemish cultures. The party went late into the night. The party continues the next night, and the next. While the people starved, the wealthy dripped in historic jewels and gourmet food. This would come back to haunt the Czar.

History’s Celebrities Partied like Rock Stars
Artist depiction of Pliny the Elder. Public domain.

Are these stories real? Yes. And no. And partially.

Readers of these scandalous tales need a critical mind to consider where they came from. Some of these parties were recorded by historians and chroniclers who weren’t there. For instance, while he’s a respected Roman historian Pliny the Elder’s account of Cleopatra’s pearl-and-vinegar cocktail, was recorded roughly 120 years after the event took place. It was as much a legend then as it is today. Political opponents wrote some of the tales, determined to make their target look bad. Some of the stories are victim of a millennia-long game of ‘telephone.’ In those cases, the basic facts may be right but the details have been changed and embellished as the story was told. And some accounts may be unbiased, factually correct, and recorded by those who where there. It’s not always possible to tell which party was truly “rockstar-level,” and which exaggerated the story to be grand and notorious.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

A Mosaic from Caligula’s ‘Pleasure Boat’ Spent 45 Years as a Coffee Table in NYC. David Kindy, Smithsonian Magazine, 1 December 2021.

Big Block of Cheese Day is Back, and Its Feta Than Ever. Alex Wall, The White House, 16 January 2015.

Cleopatra’s very expensive dinner. Dana Rovang, Obscure Histories.com, (n.d.)

Digging up the truth about the notorious hellfire clubs. Nuala McCann, BBC.com, 12 October 2016.

Greek Drinking Parties. Robert Garland, History Today. 6 June 1982.

Historical Context for The Symposium by Plato. Kate Brassel, Columbia University, (n.d.)

History’s Greatest Feast. (n.a) Table of the Gods (n.d.).

The History of Alexander. Quintus Curtius Rufus. C. 37 CE.

The King’s Play: Censorship and the Politics of Performance in Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” Michael Spingler, Comparative Drama, Vol. 19(3), 1985, pp. 240 – 257.

Natural History, Book IX. Pliny the Elder, 77 CE.

Nemi Ships: How Caligula’s Floating Pleasure Palaces Were Found and Lost Again. Paul Cooper, Discover.com, 7 November 2018.

Not a Ragged Mob; The Inauguration of 1829. David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler. White House Historical Association. 2004.

The Party of the Delights of the Enchanted Island. (n.a.) Chateau de Versailles (n.d.).

The Short Reign of Elagabalus, Rome’s Hard-Partying Emperor. Juan Pablo Sanchez, National Geographic, 19 March 2019.