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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 16, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 7
Matt Roller Shares the Lowdown on Lying Down to Eat

Not his usual dining posture: Matt Roller reclines in Cafe Azafran at the Space Telescope Science Institute, one of his favorite places to eat lunch.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Amy Lunday

Lying down at the 21st-century dinner table? Miss Manners would frown on it. But ancient Romans who took their meals horizontally weren't considered slouches. In fact, society's most elite were reclining diners, according to Matthew Roller, chair of the Classics Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. In his new book, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome: Bodies, Values and Status (Princeton University Press, 2006), Roller writes that revelers lounged on couches situated near low tables of finger food. The only utensils in sight were used for preparing and serving wine.

Roller recently sat down with The Gazette in his Gilman Hall office to discuss how ancient Romans' mealtime posture conveyed their role in the world.

Q. So, to play devil's advocate, dining postures in ancient Rome? Really? There's a whole book to be written on that?

A. I guarantee you that some of the reviewers will say the same thing. They'll say, You've got to be kidding. I guess in about the last 15 years or so, people working in ancient history have gotten very interested in food and what they call "foodways." Dining. All the kinds of social rituals that encompass the consumption of food as well as the food itself. What are people eating? What's the diet like? What will the climate support? So everything — the whole social and economic infrastructure around food. And you know, everybody has always known that's important, but I would say maybe since the mid-'80s there's been a real upsurge in interest in that topic, and a number of researchers all over the world in different areas of ancient history and ancient culture have gotten together and started thinking about these questions in a more focused way.

Q. How did you become interested in this topic?

A. I was actually working on a different project, and I got interested in the question of the three dining postures — reclining, sitting and standing — and I thought, You know, I'd like to write a little something about that. So I envisioned a short article. I figured that was about right for something of that importance. Then I started collecting stuff and collecting stuff, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and more and more complicated.

Q. How did you organize all the material you'd gathered?

A. I organized the book mostly around gender — what men do, what women do and what children do. And, in fact, gender and age are both things that play into these differences in posture. They're both part of the sort of complicated mix of figuring out how to decide what it is that you ought to be doing when you walk into the dining room. There are no fixed rules relating to age or status or gender, but there are certain kinds of preferences that can be inflected by other circumstances. People in mourning, for example, don't recline because that suggests that they're enjoying life. I think the sense is that you're externalizing a supposedly internal state. You're showing the world that you feel lousy.

Q. You studied texts, paintings and funerary monuments depicting people eating together. What did you learn about their dining habits?

A. Our ancient authors seemed to think that if you can describe the way an emperor dines, that tells you all you need to know about him, right? Somehow, what goes on in the dining room is coded in such a way that if you just read a description of it you can sort of say, "Yup, yup, yup, yup," and you've got what you need to know. It's like if you know how the guy dines, you don't need to know anything else. Emperors who start their dinner parties early, end them early and serve no more than five dishes are very self-restrained, very frugal. And then you have emperors who begin drinking at 1 in the afternoon and go on till 3 in the morning.

Q. So lying down at dinner was de rigueur?

A. Under circumstances we don't entirely understand, along about the 6th century A.D. in pretty much all of Europe, everyone changed the way they presented themselves at dinner. Everybody began to sit in a chair at a table, just the way we do now. But prior to that, for over 1,000 years, everyone in the Mediterranean basin pretty much had dined in the kind of way that this book describes. That is, you could recline on a couch where you have a little table and you have finger food, and that posture seemed to indicate privilege and high status. And other people sat, [but] not on chairs; usually they'd sit on the couch rather than recline on it. And then other people stood. And people who stood were mostly, but not exclusively, service people. So something was going on in these three different postures that articulated a social hierarchy. And, you know, the social hierarchies didn't disappear in the 6th century A.D. It's just that somehow at a certain moment there was this change, and it stopped being expressed at dinner in this way.

Q. And they ate with their hands, too? That doesn't seem very elite if you're lying down eating with your hands.

A. Well, if you're sort of propped up on your left elbow, you only really have one hand free. The other thing is that it appears, at least in these representations, that people hold their drinking vessel with their left hand and they sort of lie there. They may not be able to drink with their left hand. They may be able to put [the drink] on one little table in front of them. But yeah, we're dealing mostly with finger food because you're not really positioned to handle utensils.

Q. So where did the notion to use utensils come from?

A. I think it's perhaps only the Europeans who got preoccupied with these sorts of big slabs of metal and these diversified functions where you stab at something — a big piece of meat with a fork — or you ladle your soup out with a spoon. I mean, everybody else just picks up the bowl and drinks it or, you know, the food is already cut up for them. So utensils. There's an interesting history of utensils as well. I think it was in about the 18th century before the fork really caught on. But our sort of suites of tableware that we take as natural and inevitable and universal are really a pretty modern invention. Before that, you may have people with knives and maybe a skewer or something to spear things. I don't know the history of the spoon. The Romans did have spoons, but they seem to mostly have been mixing devices; that is, you used [them] for the wine.

Q. Do you do a lot of cooking and entertaining, or is this just sort of a strictly research thing for you?

A. I do like to cook, but I would say it's more of an academic interest. I didn't get into Roman dining through my own passion for food, precisely, though I've had various people sort of pushing me to perform some of this stuff. And actually last year — I can't quite remember how it came about — I was supposed to stage a Roman dinner party in a dormitory for a group of undergraduates. But we didn't have the right furniture. The actual couches aren't long enough for kids to recline on. All we could do was position people on the floor, and that wasn't very comfortable because the floor's hard. You need a mattress. But I was able to position people in sort of the right arrangements, and I got a couple to volunteer to be slaves. So it was a little bit ad hoc.


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