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p673 Lectus

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D, F.R.S.E, Rector of the High School of Edinburgh,
on pp673‑675 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LECTUS (λέχος, κλίνη, εὐνή), a bed. In the heroic ages of Greece beds were very simple; the bedsteads, however, are sometimes represented as ornamented (τρητὰ λέχεα, Il. III.448; compare Odyss. XXIII.219, &c.). The principal parts of a bed were the χλαῖναι and ῥήγεα (Odyss. XIX.337); the former were a kind of thick woollen cloak, sometimes coloured, which was in bad weather worn by men over their χιτών, and was sometimes spread over a chair to render the seat soft. That these χλαῖναι served as blankets for persons in their sleep, is seen from Odyss. XIV.488, 500, 504, 513, 529, XX.4. The ῥήγεα, on the other hand, were probably a softer and more costly kind of woollen cloth, and were used chiefly by persons of high rank. They were, like the χλαῖναι, sometimes used to cover the seat of chairs when persons wanted to sit down (Odyss. X.352). To render this thick woollen stuff less disagreeable, a linen cloth was sometimes spread over it (Odyss. XIII.73). It has been supposed that the ῥήγεα were pillows or bolsters; but this opinion seems to be refuted by the circumstance that, in Odyss. VI.38, they are described as being washed without anything being said as to any operation which would have necessarily preceded the washing had they been pillows. Beyond this supposition respecting the ῥήγεα, we have no traces of pillows or bolsters being used in the Homeric age. The bedstead (λέχος, λέκτρον, δέμνιον) of persons of high rank was covered with skins (κώεα) upon which the ῥήγεα were placed, and over these linen sheets or carpets were spread; the χλαῖνα, lastly, served as a cover or blanket for the sleeper (Odyss. IV.296, &c.; Il. XXIV.643, &c.; IX.660, &c.). Poor persons slept on skins or beds of dry herbs spread upon the ground (Odyss. XIV.519; XX.139, &c.; XI.188, &c.; compare Nitzsch, zur Odyss. vol. I p210). These simple beds. to which shortly after the Homeric age a pillow for the head was added, continued to be used by the poorer classes among the Greeks at all times. Thus the bed of the orator Lycurgus is said to have consisted of one sheep-skin (κώδιον) and a pillow (Plut. Vit. Dec. Orat. Lycurg. p842C). But the complete bed (εὐνή) of a wealthy Greek in later times, generally consisted of the following parts: κλίνη, ἐπίτονοι, τυλεῖον or κέφαλον, προσκεφάλειον, and στρώματα.

The κλίνη is properly speaking only the bedstead, and seems to have consisted only of posts fitted into one another and resting upon four feet. At the head part alone there was a board (ἀνάκλιντρον or ἐπι κλιντρον) to support the pillow and prevent its falling out. Sometimes the ἀνάκλιντρον was wanting, as we see in drawings on ancient vases (Pollux, X.34, VI.9). Sometimes, however, the bottom part of a bedstead was likewise protected by the board, so that in this case a Greek bedstead resembled a modern so‑called French bedstead. The κλίνη was generally made of wood, which in quality varied according to the means of the persons for whose use it was intended; for in some cases we find that it was made of solid maple or box-wood, or veneered with a coating of these more expensive woods. At a later period, bedsteads were not only made of solid ivory or veneered with tortoiseshell, but sometimes had silver feet (Pollux, l.c.; Aelian, V.H. XII.29; Athen. VI p255).

The bedstead was provided with girths (τόνοι, ἐπίτονοι, κειρία) on which the bed or mattress (κέφαλον, τυλεῖον, κοινῶς or τύλη) rested; instead of these girths poorer people used strings (Aristoph. Av. 814, with the Schol.). The cover or ticking of a mattress was made of linen or woollen cloth, or of leather, and the usual material with which it was filled (τὸ ἐμβαλλόμενον, πλήρωμα, or γνάφαλον) was either wool or dried weeds. At the head part of the bed, and supported by the ἐπίκλιντρον, lay a round pillow (προσκεφάλειον) p674to support the head; and in some ancient pictures two other square pillows are seen, which were intended to support the back. The covers of such pillows are striped in several pictures on ancient vases (see the woodcut under Symposium), and were therefore probably of various colours. They were undoubtedly filled with the same materials as the beds and mattresses.

The bed-covers, which may be termed blankets or counterpanes, were called by a variety of names, such as περιστρώματα, ὑποστρώματα, ἐπιβλήματα, ἐρεστρίδες, χλαῖναι, ἀμφιεστρίδες, ἐπιβόλαια, δάπιδες, ψιλοδάπιδες, ξυστίδες, χρυσόπαστοι, τάπητες or ἀμφιτάπητες. The common name, however, was στρώματα. They were generally made of cloth, which was very thick and woolly either on one or on both sides (Pollux, VI.9). It is not always easy to distinguish whether the ancients, when speaking of κλίναι, mean beds in our sense of the word, or the couches on which they lay at meal times. We consequently do not know whether the descriptive epithets of κλίναι, enumerated by Pollux, belong to beds or couches. But this matters little, as there was scarcely any difference between the beds of the ancients and their couches, with this exception, that the latter being made for appearance as well as for comfort, were, on the whole, undoubtedly more splendid and costly than the former. Considering, however, that bedsteads were often made of the most costly materials, we may reasonably infer that the coverings and other ornaments of beds were little inferior to those of couches. Notwithstanding the splendour and comfort of many Greek beds, the Asiatics, who have at all times excelled the Europeans in these kinds of luxuries, said that the Greeks did not understand how to make a comfortable bed (Athen. II p48; Plut. Pelop. 30). The places most celebrated for the manufacture of splendid bed-covers were Miletus, Corinth, and Carthage (Aristoph. Ran. 410, 542, with the Schol.; Lysistr. 732; Cic. c. Verr. I.34; Athen. I. pp27, 28). It appears that the Greeks, though they wore night-gowns, did not simply cover themselves with the στρώματα, but wrapt themselves up in them. Less wealthy persons continued, according to the ancient custom, to use skins of sheep and other animals, especially in winter, as blankets (Pollux, X.123; Aristoph. Nub. 10).

The bedsteads of the poorer classes are designated by the names σκίμπους, ἀσκάντης, and κράββατος, and an exaggerated description of such a bed is given by Aristophanes (Plut. 540, &c.; compare Lysistr. 916). The words χαμεύνη and χαμεύνιον, which originally signified a bed of straw or dry herbs made on the ground (Theocrit. III.33; Plut. Lycurg. 16), were afterwards applied to a bed which was only near the ground, to distinguish it from the κλίνη which was generally a high bedstead. Χαμεύνια were the usual beds for slaves, soldiers in the field, and poor citizens, and the mattresses used in them were mere mats made of rushes or bast (Pollux, l.c., and VI.11; Becker, Charikles, vol. II pp114‑122; Pollux, X. c7, 8, VI.1).

The beds of the Romans (lecti cubiculares) in the earlier periods of the republic were probably of the same description as those used in Greece; but towards the end of the republic and during the empire, when Asiatic luxuries were imported into Italy, the richness and magnificence of the beds of the wealthy Romans far surpassed everything we find described in Greece. The bedstead was generally rather high, so that persons entered the bed (scandere, ascendere) by means of steps place beside it (scamnum, Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.168, Müller; Ovid. Fast. II.349, &c.). It was sometimes made of metal, and sometimes of costly kinds of wood or veneered with tortoise-shell or ivory; its feet (fulcra) were frequently of silver or gold (Plin. H. N. XVI.43;a Mart. XII.67; Juv. XI.94). The bed or mattress (culcita and torus) rested upon girths or strings (restes, fasciae, institae, or funes) which connected the two horizontal side-posts of the bed (Cic. de Div. II.65; Mart. V.62; Petron. 97; compare Horat. Epod. XII.12; Cato, de Re Rust. c10). In beds destined for two persons, the two sides are distinguished by different names; the sideº at which persons entered was open, and bore the name of sponda; the other side, which was protected by a board, was called pluteus (Isidor. XX.11 p629, ed. Lindemann). The two sides of such a bed are also distinguished by the names torus exterior and torus interior, or sponda exterior and sponda interior (Ovid. Amor. III.14. 32; Sueton. Caes. 49); and from these expressions it is not improbable that such lecti had two beds or mattresses, one for each person. Mattresses were in the earlier times filled with dry herbs (Varro, l.c.; Ovid. Fast. I.200 and 205), or straw (Horat. Sat. II.3.117; Mart. XIV.160; Senec. De Vit. Beat. 8.25), and such beds continued to be used by the poor. But in subsequent times wool, and at a still later period, feathers were used by the wealthy for the beds as well as for the pillows (Plin. H. N. VIII.48, X.22; Plaut. Mil. Glor. IV.4.42; Cic. Tusc. III.19; Mart. XIV.161 and 159). The cloth or ticking (operimentum or involucrum), with which the beds or mattresses were covered, was called toral, torale, linteum, or segestre (Horat. Sat. II.4.84, Epist. I.5.21; Varro, l.c.). The blankets or counterpanes (vestes stragulae, stragula, peristromata, peripetasmata) were in the houses of wealthy Romans of the most costly description, and generally of a purple colour (stragula conchylio tincta, peristromata conchyliata, coccina stragula) and embroidered with beautiful figures in gold. Covers of this sort were called peripetasmata Attalica, because they were said to have been first used at the court of Attalus (Plin. H.N. l.c.; Cic. c. Verr. IV.12, 26, Philip. II.27; Mart. II.16). The pillows were likewise covered with magnificent casings. Whether the ancients had curtains to their beds is not mentioned anywhere; but as curtains, or rather a kind of canopy (aulaea), were used in the lectus tricliniaris (Horat. Carm. III.29.15, Sat. II.8.54) for the purpose of preventing the dust falling upon the persons lying on it, it is not improbable that the same or a similar contrivance was used in the lectus cubicularis.

The lectus genialis or adversus was the bridal bed which stood in the atrium, opposite the janus, whence it derived the epithet adversus (Horat. Epist. I.1.87; Festus, s.v.; comp. Domus, p428A). It was generally high, with steps by its side, and in later times beautifully adorned ( Gellius, XVI.9; Lucan. II.356; Cic. pro Cluent. c5).

Respecting the lectus funebris see the articles Funus and Lectica. An account of the disposition of the couches used at entertainments, and p675of the place which each guest occupied, is given under Triclinium (Becker, Gallus, vol. I p42, &c.).


Thayer's Note:

a fulcra in Pliny: I find no such reference in Book 16 of Pliny, but I do find one to bronze fulcra at XXXIV.IV.9.


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