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