The ancient Greeks had a recumbent approach to their (male-only) dinner parties, as I discussed in a previous post: elite men reclined, propped on pillows, to drink, converse, and—sometimes—overindulge.
The practice of reclining and dining continued into ancient Rome, but with a few additions—for one, respectable women were invited to join the party, and for another, drinking was not a separate, post-dinner event, but became part of the dining experience. An association of dining with luxury led to 19th-century depictions, like the one above, of Roman diners leading the soft life (here, without reclining).
The Greeks used single couches onto which companions were often squeezed for after-dinner drinking parties. The practice seems to have been adopted from the east, where it was a form of dining for elites. In Rome, couches for single (generally male) diners existed, but by the late Republican and early Imperial period the practice at dinner parties was for guests to recline on three large beds placed in a U shape in a triclinium (dining room). Reclining at parties continued to be primarily an elite practice—poorer people had no room for beds of this size. Although in the “old days” reclining had been shameful for respectable women, they now reclined with men, although some old fogeys disapproved, as we know from texts by Isidore of Seville (Etymologiae 20.11.9) and Valerius Maximus (De Institutis Antiquis 2.1.2).
Surviving triclinia with built-in cement dinner couches (the elegant mattresses long since destroyed by time) show that the beds were strongly angled upward to elevate the diner above the tabletop. In contrast, portable beds used cushions like those on Greek beds to elevate the diners.
As still happens at formal dinners today, places were designated for host, favored guests, and less-favored guests. In his Satire 8, the Roman poet Horace reveals “status seating” in action and shows how hard a Roman host (in this case, an unappreciated one) might work to impress a guest.
Ancient sources of course take it for granted that the reader knew all about dining protocol, and therefore authors didn’t bother to explain the rules for dining with crystal clarity. Scholars sometimes debate the locations of the best seats. (The Romans themselves called the reclining spots sedes, seats.) We know that the middle bed (lectus medius) offered a very good location, and there is evidence that the middle seat in this middle bed was an especially honorable one. Certainly it would have suited the Roman appreciation for symmetry. Queen Dido positioned herself “on a golden couch, in the middle,” when she feasted with Aeneas and Cupid, disguised as Aeneas’s son (Virgil, Aeneid 1.1.297–700).
This digital recreation of diners in the triclinium of the Roman villa at Boscoreale shows how the eyes of a person entering the dining room were drawn to the middle seat on the middle couch.
Guests reclining on this middle couch (lectus medius) could speak easily with the host to their right (on the low couch, lectus imus) and also look out at a view of the home’s courtyard or garden, a view carefully designed to impress, as shown on the seating diagram above. In contrast, diners on the high couch (lectus summus) to the left of the important guests (to the right of the person entering the room) could not see the view without twisting uncomfortably.
The re-creation of dining couches in the famous Villa of the Mysteries (below) shows how guest and host beds permitted a view out the main doorway (through which the viewer is entering), and in this case also into a peristyle at right, while the less important diners could only see the opulent wall paintings that decorated Roman triclinia—still not a bad view, however!
In time, Romans with space for serious entertaining increased the number of couches and hosted bigger dinner parties. Another type of couch, a semi-circular stibadium, eventually replaced the three beds. While literary descriptions of reclining and dining faded in the third century A.D., dining rooms for extremely wealthy recliners endure in the archaeological record into the sixth century. However, the collapse of the western Empire and the incursions of “barbarians” with newfangled dining agendas inevitably took their toll. In the eastern Empire, imperial dining rooms and elaborate church art still reference reclining and dining until A.D. 1000. Thus, the elitist practice of recumbent dining lasted the longest in the east, where it originated.
To explore more about the history of reclining and dining, see the entry in Brill’s New Pauly, and this article on status at mealtime in the Roman house. Or pull up a bed and crack open the wonderful book The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality by Katherine Dunbabin—along with, of course, a bottle of wine.