Romans ate their main meal starting at the ninth hour of the Roman day, approximately four o’ clock in the afternoon. The dinner would last until evening, and if it was a very sumptuous affair, even later. It would typically be a long affair, and allowed the family and the guests to talk and discuss important issues of the day. Wine was usually served, but more often than not watered down.
Roman men reclined while eating, their womenfolk sitting on chairs like we do in western civilization today. The dining table (triclinium)1 was either square, or u-shaped (especially in more traditional households). The square table would probably have been used when only men were dining, while the u-shaped table would have been used if the guests were intimate with the family, in which case the women and daughters would occupy chairs within the U of the table.
The couches (= lecti) for the men were always arranged as three, one on either side, and one forming the bottom of the U. The couches sloped downwards away from the table, leaving the feet lower than the table surface, each lectus usually capable of comfortably accommodating three men.2 Everyone would recline on their left sides. Looking at the table from the open end of the U, the men on the left would recline with their heads facing towards the closed end of the U, those at the closed end would recline with their heads facing towards the men reclining at the other arm of the U, who would recline with their heads towards the open end of the U. Thus the feet always pointed away from the table. Each couch would have a cushion for each diner it accommodated.
Strict rules were observed in seating the guests. The couch at the closed end of the U (lectus medius = the middle couch) and the one on its left (lectus summus = the high couch) were reserved for guests, the more important guests reclining on the lectus medius. The remaining couch (lectus imus = the low couch) was reserved for the host and guests of lesser importance, or even a grown son of the household (filiusfamilias).
Of the two couches reserved for guests, the left hand corner position was the more important one. By way of example: if three men of consular rank dined with three men of praetorian rank at a dinner hosted by someone else, the most senior consular would recline at the bottom left of the U, with the second most senior consular in the centre of the lectus medius and the third most senior consular on the right hand corner at the bottom of the U. Now the most senior praetorian in rank would recline furthest away from the most junior consular, and the most junior praetorian would recline closest to the most senior consular. The same pecking order would prevail on the lectus imus for the host and the most junior ranking guests. The most important position at the table was referred to as the locus consularis, i.e. the place of the consul.
Later, towards the end of the republic, round tables came into fashion, and crescent shaped couches were devised to accommodate the diners. These couches were called sigma, after the Greek letter most resembling a C. The placing of the most important guests was now done at the corner seats, the most honourable one being on the corner of the right wing when one stands facing the opening of the C. Thus the most senior guest would be reclining in dextro cornu (= on the right hand corner).
The meal was often an extended affair, and while the Romans in principle had three courses to a meal, each course consisted of various dishes, not only one as we moderns would have it. Petronius in the Satyricon gives us a wonderful example of what Trimalchio’s dinner consisted of. The first course was called the gustatio (= literally “the tasting”), our modern hors d’oevres, followed by the fercula (= “dishes carried” from the kitchen), and ending with the mensae secundae (= “the second table”), dessert. The menu for the cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s dinner) was the following:
White and black olives, dormice sprinkled with honey and poppy seeds, various grilled sausages, damsons (a type of small plum), pomegranate seeds, figpeckers (small type of bird) in egg yolk with spices and honeyed wine.
The food was served on a huge round platter divided into the twelve signs of the zodiac as follows: A goose on aquarius; two red mullets of the sign of pisces; chick-peas on the aries; beef on taurus, kidneys on gemini; a crown of myrtle on cancer; African figs on the leo; a sterile sow’s womb on the virgo; scales supporting honey cakes and tartlets in the sign of libra; a scorpion fish on the sign of scorpio; an eyfish on saggitarius, ending with a lobster on the horns of aries. There was also roasted fowl, sow belly and hare together with whole wild boar, roasted with dates with piglets made of cakes and stuffed with live thrushes. Boiled whole pig stuffed with black pudding and sausages was served, everything with 100 year old Falernian wine.
Various fruits and fresh dates; deboned chicken and goose eggs, quinces and pork done up to look like fish and fowls, oysters, scallops, snails and pastries stuffed with nuts and raisins.
No wonder Escolpius and Ascyltos only escaped at midnight!
1 Triclinium is also the word for “dining room”.
2 At a pinch, more could be squeezed onto a couch if a second table could not be filled.
* Many thanks to eien meru who spotted that aries was missing. In translating I joined the two dishes on aries and saggitarius together.
* The Debutante points out that "table" is mensa in Latin. This is so, but mensa generally refers to any table. Triclinium refers to both the dining table (at which men reclined) and the room in which people dined. Rich Romans would have had several (or often more than one, at least) rooms in which to dine, differing in size and decoration depending on the number of guests. In summer dining would take often place in the peristyle garden. When only the family dined en famille, less formal arrangements would probably have obtained and men too would possibly have sat at the table rather than recline. Reclining was an obvious option while wearing a toga, so when not formally attired wearing only a tunic, being seated would not have been a problem.