Few civilizations knew how to tie one on better than the Egyptians.
According to archaeological research at the Temple of Mut in Luxor, the ancient inhabitants of the Nile River Valley had a raucous “Festival of Drunkenness” that occurred at least once per year during the 15th century B.C. reign of Hatshepsut. The celebration had a religious component—it was inspired by a myth about a bloodthirsty warrior goddess named Sekhmet who nearly destroyed mankind before drinking too much beer and passing out—and the festivities played out as a massive, debauched party.
To reenact their salvation, the Egyptians would spend a wild evening dancing to music, engaging in casual sex and drinking themselves into a stupor with mug after mug of frothy beer. The festivities only ended the next morning, when the thousands of dazed, hung-over revelers were woken by the sound of drum players.
The “Ball of the Burning Man” brought new meaning to the phrase “killer party.”
On January 28, 1393, the French Queen Isabeau of Bavaria hosted a lavish banquet at Paris’s Hôtel Saint-Pol to celebrate the marriage of one of her maids-in-waiting. The highlight of the evening was supposed to be a dance involving King Charles VI and five nobles, each of whom was clad in a woodland “wild man” costume made from linen and flax and oakum fibers.
Shortly after Charles and his men began their routine, however, the King’s brother the Duke of Orleans arrived and drunkenly approached the dancers with a lit torch. When he moved too close, he accidently ignited one of their resin-covered costumes, triggering a blaze that instantly spread to the rest of the group. King Charles avoided injury only after a quick-thinking aunt covered him with her skirt. Another man saved himself by diving into a tankard of wine, but four other dancers were engulfed in flames and killed.
The Man Han Quan Xi was one of China’s most gluttonous banquets.
First staged in 1720, the Manchu Han Imperial Feast eat-a-thon was ostensibly a 66th birthday party for the Qing Emperor Kangxi, but it was also an attempt to unify the ruling Manchus with China’s Han population. For three days, the banquet’s 2,500 guests quaffed wine and stuffed themselves silly with as many as 300 different dishes and snacks. Along with dumplings, duck and roast pigs fattened with porridge, the menu also offered a selection of more obscure dishes known as the “32 delicacies.” These included such culinary oddities as bear paws, camel humps, bird’s nests, leopard fetuses and monkey brains. The feast was the height of imperial opulence, and it was so popular that it was later copied multiple times during the Qing era. Even today, some of China’s more ritzy restaurants still serve multi-course, Manchu Han-inspired feasts.
The Shah of Iran throws a $175 million birthday party
In 1971, a multi-day banquet was held to celebrate the 2,500 anniversary of Cyrus the Great’s founding of the Persian Empire. The elaborate birthday bash was staged in the shadow of the ancient ruins of Persepolis. As part of the preparations, the Shah erected an oasis tent city adorned with 20 miles of silk, flew in food and chefs from France and imported 50,000 songbirds. The 600 guests—who included Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the prince and princess of Monaco and more than 60 other royals and heads of state—dined on roast peacock and quail eggs and sampled 5,000 bottles of vintage champagne.
In between meals, they took in fireworks displays, dance performances and a parade that featured soldiers costumed as great armies from Persian history. The celebration was supposed to signify the greatness of the Shah’s regime—he even had it documented in a propaganda film called “Flames of Persia”—but it ended up being the last gasp of Iran’s millennia-old monarchy. By the end of the decade, growing discontentment with his rule saw him overthrown in a revolution.
The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a Renaissance study in royal one-upmanship.
When King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France hosted a joint summit in 1520 in a valley near Calais, they were supposed to be nurturing friendly relations between their two nations. What happened instead was a competition in party form. For two-and-half weeks, the royals attempted to upstage and outspend one another by hosting a spree of drinking, jousting, archery, and feasting. The banquets featured elaborate tents and pavilions, meat from over 4,000 lambs, calves and oxen, and fountains that spewed wine.
The highlight of the bender came near its conclusion, when the two royals squared off in an impromptu wrestling match (Francis reportedly tossed Henry to the ground). Despite its steep price tag—it supposedly drained both nations’ treasuries—the party failed to initiate an era of good feelings. By 1521, England and France were once again on opposite sides of a war.
Capote’s Black and White Ball was the party of the 20th century.
On November 28, 1966, fresh off the success of his bestselling book “In Cold Blood,” literary celebrity Truman Capote hosted a much-publicized “Black and White Ball” in the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel. Held in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, the soiree brought together what the New York Times called “as spectacular a group as have ever been assembled for a private party.” Its eclectic, 540-person guest list included crooner Frank Sinatra, novelist Ralph Ellison, actors Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda, artist Andy Warhol, Italian princess Luciana Pignatelli, and members of the affluent Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Astor families.
The revelers arrived wearing masks, which Capote decreed could not be removed until midnight, and celebrated with dancing and 450 bottles of vintage Tattinger champagne. A lone tense moment occurred when author Normal Mailer challenged former U.S. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy to a fight over the Vietnam War, but most of the guests later remembered the party as a glamorous affair.
Roman Bacchanalia were secretive cultic parties that may have been orgies.
Scholars still debate what went on at the Bacchanalia, Rome’s cultic celebrations of the wine god Bacchus, but if the historian Livy is to be believed, they were some of the ancient world’s most decadent parties. “When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty,” he wrote of the secretive meetings, “then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced.” Bacchanalia first came to Rome via Greece, and they reached their peak sometime in the second century B.C., when their initiates included people from every strata of society.
Members of the cults would reportedly gather in private homes or in woodland groves for all-night orgies of dancing, animal sacrifice, feasting, drinking and sex. Details of the rites are sketchy at best—Livy claims they may have also involved murders and poisonings—but there’s no doubt that they scandalized certain factions of Roman society. Fueled by rumors of the excess that occurred at the Bacchanalia, the Roman Senate famously voted to suppress the celebrations in 186 B.C.
Andrew Jackson’s first inauguration almost killed him.
Presidential inaugurations are typically staid affairs, but the March 4, 1829, swearing in of Andrew Jackson nearly turned into a drunken disaster. After giving his inauguration speech, Old Hickory retired to the White House, which was hosting an open reception to allow the public to greet their new commander in chief. Before long, the executive mansion was crammed with thousands of rowdy well-wishers, some of whom climbed atop furniture and knocked over glassware in their struggle to catch a glimpse of the celebrity president.
When Jackson’s staff tried to control the rabble by serving alcoholic refreshments, the scene only grew worse. The chaos abated after the tubs of whiskey punch were moved to the White House lawn, but Jackson was forced to flee to a nearby hotel to avoid being crushed by his supporters.