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p1157 Triclinium

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp1157‑1158 of

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

TRICLINIUM, the dining-room of a Roman house, the position of which, relatively to the other parts of the house, is explained in p428. It was of an oblong shape, and according to Vitruvius (VI.3 §8) ought to be twice as long as it was broad. The same author (§ 10) describes triclinia, evidently intended to be used in summer, which were open towards the north, and had on each side a window looking into a garden. The "house of the Tragic Poet" at Pompeii, and also that of Actaeon, appear to have had summer dining-rooms opening to the viridarium. The woodcut at p562 shows the arrangement of the three couches (lecti, κλίναι), from which the triclinium derived its name. They also remain in the "House of Actaeon," being built of stone.

The articles Lectus, Torus and Pulvinar, contain accounts of the furniture used to adapt these couches for the accubatio, i.e. for the act of reclining during the meal. When so prepared for an entertainment they were called triclinia strata (Caes. B. C. III.92; cf. Athen. II. pp47, 48), and they were made to correspond with one another in substance, in dimensions, and in shape (Varro, L. L. IX.47, ed. Müller). As each guest leaned during a great part of the entertainment upon his left elbow, so as to leave the right arm at liberty, and as two or more lay on the same couch, the head of one man was near the breast of the man who lay behind him, and he was therefore said to lie in the bosom of the other (Plin. Epist. IV.22). Among the Romans, the usual number of persons occupying each couch was three, so that the three couches of a triclinium afforded accommodation for a party of nine. It was the rule of Varro (Gellius XIII.11), that the number of guests ought not to be less than that of the Graces, nor to exceed that of the Muses. Sometimes however, as many as four lay on each of the couches (Hor. Sat. I.4.86). Among the Greeks it was usual for only two persons to recline on each couch. [Coena, p305A.]

In such works of ancient art as represent a symposium, or drinking-party, we always observe that the couches are elevated above the level of the table. This circumstance throws some light upon Plutarch's mode of solving the problem respecting the increase of room for the guests as they proceeded with their meal (Sympos. V.6). Each man in order to feed himself lay flat upon his breast or nearly so, and stretched out his hand towards the table; but afterwards, when his hunger was satisfied, he turned upon his left side, leaning on his elbow. To this Horace alludes in describing a person sated with a particular dish, and turning p1158in order to repose upon his elbow (Sat. II.4.39).

We find the relative positions of two persons who lay next to one another, commonly expressed by the prepositions supra orinfra. A passage of Livy (Liv. XXXIX.43), in which he related the cruel conduct of the consul L. Quintius Flamininus, shows that infra aliquem cubare was the same as in sinu alicujus cubare, and consequently that each person was considered as below him to whose breast his own head approached. On this principle we are enabled to explain the denominations both of the three couches, and of the three places on each couch.a


[image ALT: A diagram of a seating arrangement, or more properly a reclining arrangement on three couches around a table. It is an illustration of Roman dinner protocol.]

Supposing the annexed arrangement to represent the plan of a Triclinium, it is evident that, as each guest reclined on his left side, the countenances of all when in this position were directed, first, from No. 1 towards No. 3, then from No. 4 towards No. 6, and lastly, from No. 7 towards No. 9; that the guest No. 1 lay, in the sense explained, above No. 2, No. 3 below No. 2, and so of the rest; and that, going in the same direction, the couch to the right hand was above the others, and the couch to the left hand below the others. Accordingly the following fragment of Sallust (ap. Serv. in Virg. Aen. I.698) contains the denominations of the couches as shown on the plan: "Igitur discubuere: Sertorius (i.e. No. 6) inferior in medio; super eum L. Fabius Hispaniensis senator ex proscriptis (No. 5): in summo Antonius (No. 1); et infra scriba Sertorii Versius (No. 2): et alter scriba Maecenas (No. 8) in imo, medius inter Tarquinium (No. 7) et dominum Perpernam (No. 9)." On the same principle, No. 1 was the highest place (Locus summus) on the highest couch; No. 3 was Locus imus in lecto summo; No. 2 Locus medius in lecto summo; and so on. It will be found that in the following passage (Hor. Sat. II.8.20‑23) the guests are enumerated in the order of their accubation — an order exhibited in the annexed diagram.


[image ALT: A diagram of a reclining arrangement on three couches around a table. Different from the preceding one on this page, it is yet another illustration of Roman dinner protocol.]

Fundanius, one of the guests, who was at the top relatively to all the others, says,

"Summus ego, et prope me Viscus Thurinus, et infra,

Si memini, Varius: cum Servilio Balatrone

Vibidius, quos Maecenas adduxerat umbras.

Nomentanus erat super ipsum, Porcius infra."

It is possible that Maecenas ought to be in the place No. 4 instead of No. 5, since the entertainment was given more especially in honour of him, and No. 4 was an honourable place. The host himself, Nasidienus, occupies the place No. 8, which was usually taken by the master of the feast, and was a convenient situation for giving directions and superintending the entertainment. Unless there be an exception in the instance of No. 4, it is to be observed that at each table the most honourable was the middle place (Virg. Aen. I.698).

The general superintendence of the dining-room in a great house was intrusted to a slave called tricliniarcha, who, through the instrumentality of other slaves of inferior rank, took care that every thing was kept and proceeded in proper order.


Thayer's Note:

a the nine places at table: The protocol that follows was tighter than that of most dinners among friends in our own time, although no stricter than that of the formal Western dinner; on the other hand, like any protocol, it was only good when people abided by it. For a mildly amusing and instructive example of someone who didn't, see this passage (34.8) of Plutarch's Life of Brutus.


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