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 p749  Mensa

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on pp749‑750 of

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


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MENSA (τράπεζα), a table. The simplest kind of table was one with three legs, round, called cilliba (Festus, s.v.; Varro, de Ling. Lat. V.25, p123, ed. Spengel; Hor. Sat. I.3.13; Ovid. Met. VIII.662), and in Greek τρίπους (Xen. Anab. VII.3 §10; Athen. IV.21, 35, V.28). It is shown in the drinking-scene painted on the wall of a wine-shop at Pompeii (Gell's Pompeiana, 1832, vol. II p11) (see woodcut). The term τράπεζα, though commonly used in Greek for a table of any kind, must, according to its etymology, have denoted originally a four-legged table. Accordingly, in paintings on vases, the tables are usually represented with four legs, of which an example is given in the annexed cut (Millin, Peintures de Vases Antiques, vol. I pl. 59). Horace used at Rome a dining-table of white marble, thus combining neatness with economy (Sat. I.6.116). For the houses of the opulent, tables were made of the most valuable and beautiful kinds of wood, especially of maple (σφενδάμνινη, Athen. II.32; acerna, Hor. Sat. II.8.10; Mart. XIV.90), or of the citrus of Africa, which was a species of cypress or juniper (citrea, Cic. Verr. IV.17; Mart. II.43, XIV.89; Plin. H. N. XIII.29). For this purpose the Romans made use of the roots and tubers of the tree, which, when cut, displayed the greatest variety of spots, beautiful waves, and curling veins. The finest specimens of tables so adorned were sold for many thousand pounds (Plin. H. N. XIII.29, XVI.26, 84; Tertull. de Pallio, sub fin.; A. Aikin, On Ornamental Woods, pp23, 24). Besides the beauty of the boards (ἐπιθήματα) the legs of these tables were often very tasteful, being carved in imitation of lion's or tiger's feet, and made of ivory (Athen. l.c.; Mart. II.43.9).​a

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One of the principal improvements was the invention  p750 of the monopodium, a round table (orbis) supported by a single foot; this, with other elegant kinds of furniture, was introduced into Rome from Asia Minor by Cn. Manlius (Plin. H. N. XXXIV.8). Under the Roman emperors semi-circular tables were introduced, called mensae lunatae from comparing them to the half-moon, and sigmata, because they had the form of that letter, C (Lamprid. Hel. 25, 29). This lunate table was surrounded by a sofa of the same form, called stibadium, which was adapted to hold seven or eight persons (Mart. X.48, XIV.87).

As the table was not very large, as we see from the preceding cut, it was usual to place the dishes and the various kinds of meat upon it, and then to bring it thus furnished to the place where the guests were reclining: hence such phrases as mensam apponere or opponere (Plaut. Asin. V.1.2, Most. I.3.150; Cic. ad Att. XIV.21; Ovid, Met. VIII.570), and mensam auferre or removere (Plaut. Amphit. II.2.175; Virg. Aen. I.216). As the board of the table is called by a distinct name ἐπίθημα (Athen. l.c.; Pollux, X.81), it appears that it was very frequently made separate from the tripod or other stand (κιλλίβας) on which it was fixed.

Among the Greeks the tables were not covered with cloths at meals, but were cleansed by the use of wet sponges (Hom. Od. I.111, XX.151; Mart. XIV.144), or of fragrant herbs (Ovid. Met. VIII.665). The Romans used for the same purpose a thick cloth with a long woolly nap (gausape, Hor. l.c.; Heindorf in loc.).

Under the influence of the ideas of hospitality, which have prevailed universally in the primitive states in society, the table was considered sacred (Juv. II.110). Small statues of the gods were placed upon it (Arnob. contra Gentes, lib. II). On this account Hercules was worshipped under the title τραπέζιος and ἐπιτραπέζιος. The Cretans ate in public; and in the upper part of their ἀνδρεῖον, or public dining-room, there was a constant table set apart for strangers, and another sacred to Jupiter, called τραπέζα ξενία, or Δίος ξενίου (Athen. IV.22; Höck's Kreta, vol. III pp120‑128).

The two principal courses of a δεῖπνον and coena, or a Greek and Roman dinner, were called respectively πρώτη τράπεζα, δεύτερα τράπεζα, and mensa prima, mensa secunda. [Coena.]

The name of τραπέζα or mensa was given to a square tomb-stone (Becker, Charikles, vol. II pp191, 193) [Funus p556B.];º and the same name was also given to square altars. Every curia at Rome had an altar, called mensa, which was sacred to Juno Curitis (Dionys. II.50; Festus, pp49, 64, 156, ed. Müller; Macrob. Sat. III.11; Becker, Röm. Alterth. vol. II pt. I p34).

Thayer's Note:

a And for more on the sometimes outrageous luxury in the matter of tables, see the article Abacus.

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