When you’ve read this book, you’ll know exactly when Romans reclined to dine and when they didn’t.
You’ll also know a lot about Roman tomb reliefs that depict the subject enjoying a meal. There are many such; in fact it was already a typical theme for relief sculpture in ancient Babylonia, Assyria, Persia and Greece. The ones that are commemorating a dead man have a reclining man as the central figure. There will be wine and food at his elbow, there will be an attentive woman of a certain age seated on his couch (let’s agree to suppose that it’s his wife) and there will be equally attentive slaves, often attractive young male slaves with longish hair, standing in attendance or bringing more food and wine. A smaller number of these tomb reliefs are accompanied by an inscription naming a woman. These, naturally, have a woman as central figure, and she may be surrounded by children, but there won’t be any men in attendance.
Now I’ll tell you a story about this book (a story that may be completely false, but never mind). In my story, Matthew Roller started his research with the tomb reliefs, but he soon saw that he wouldn’t fully understand what they were getting at unless he looked at Roman literature. So he decided to do this too, and he did it properly, using a database and tracking down every reference that has something to do with the way people stood or sat or reclined to eat a meal. As he did this, Roller noticed that the ‘handbook’ views about the way people behaved at Roman dinners didn’t correspond with the evidence. He now realised what a worthwhile topic he had chosen; so did Princeton University Press. The rest is history.
These ‘handbooks’, I must explain, are in German and classicists are in the habit of taking them very seriously. Roller is quite right that they have had a lot of influence.
For one thing, the handbooks said that respectable Roman ladies sat at dinner while their menfolk reclined. You can find recent books by English-speaking authors who have believed the handbooks and say the same. It ain’t so. Roller shows that a Roman woman reclined at dinner, just as a Roman man did. OK, we who didn’t bother with the handbooks already knew this from watching I, Claudius. What we didn’t know – I think Roller is truly the first to get this straight – is the crucial importance of where this Roman woman reclined. Are you going to tell me? No? I’ll tell you, then. As Roller explains, a Roman woman must always recline below (i.e. to the right of) her husband, or whatever man currently claims possession.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. Armed with this knowledge (whose validity he demonstrates from many texts) Roller can explain just what’s wrong with Caligula’s placings on the dining couch. According to Suetonius, Caligula placed his wife above him and his three sisters in a row below him. The true wrongness of this, in Roman terms, is that it implies, just by the placing, that Caligula’s sisters are his ‘wives’. This little detail, unimportant as it might have seemed to the godlike Caligula, could be the reason why a certain intelligent observer, putting two and two together, deduced that Caligula had incestuous relationships with his sisters. Yes; that is the assertion that appears in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula.
Naturally, this study isn’t only about women. Roller explores afresh why it was that men reclined to eat, and how this made the difference between negotium (business) and otium (leisure and pleasure). Dining came into the second of these categories, as is signalled by the reclining posture, and that’s why anything that belonged to the sphere of business was utterly out of place at dinner. Roller also explores (in greater detail than anyone else, and much better than the handbooks) at what age Roman children began to dine among the adults, and at what age they reclined.
I won’t spoil the book by giving too many examples of the new insights provided by Roller’s careful study of Roman texts, but here again he illuminates Suetonius, who at one point remarks on the fact that Augustus’s short-lived grandsons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, dined seated on Augustus’s couch. Why didn’t they recline? Now read on ...
Roller even knows exactly what went on in a Roman comissatio. Those who believed what the handbooks say thought that a Roman comissatio was an equivalent of a symposium – a drinking party following the meal. I plead not guilty here, and several other English classicists would join me in mounting this defence: we knew that a comissatio was closer to a Greek komos, a drunken progress through the streets, and we said so in our writings (“somewhere between a Greek komos and an English pub crawl” was what I said). But it’s true that many others have taken those German handbooks seriously, and still do. Roller, in a useful appendix, now demonstrates in full what the evidence really shows, how the mistaken opinion spread and on what shaky foundations it was based.
If the story I made up, near the beginning of this review, happens to be true, it explains why the tomb reliefs have a rather larger place in this book than they perhaps deserve. There’s a problem with the tomb reliefs, you see. It’s the same problem that we get when using the behaviour depicted in Plautus’s plays to tell us how Romans behaved. In both cases we know that other cultures are involved as well. Greek playwrights devised the plots and some of the dialogue that Plautus uses, he sets his plays in Greece, he is in some ways describing Greeks rather than Romans, or rather, an almost inextricable mixture of the two. The grave reliefs follow patterns set in Babylonia, Persia and Greece, and the postures and gestures they depict draw on that ancient lineage; so they aren’t depicting ‘Romans’ either, but a mixture of the realities and aspirations of people in all those traditions. Still, even if we can’t reach firm conclusions on the basis of the reliefs alone, we can learn a great deal from them in combination with the literary texts, and that is where Roller’s approach is so valuable.
To conclude: if you want to know how Roman men, women and children positioned themselves around the dinner tables, you need to read Roller’s book.
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