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Dining and Reclining

Inspired by impending summer picnics, Christmas lunch comas and the imitable Carrie Bradshaw, we couldn't help but wonder: why did the ancient Greeks and Romans eat while lying down?

An attic red-figure kylix (ca. 490 BCE) attributed to Onesimos, depicting a woman reclining on a klinē and playing kottabos, a popular drinking game at ancient Greek symposia. Getty Museum 82.AE.14.

Have you ever noticed how many ancient Greek and Roman artworks depict people lying down while eating? Countless pots, vases, frescoes, wine cups and sculptures were decorated with lavish scenes of ancient Greek symposia, Roman convivia and other leisurely banquets. But why exactly did they choose to recline during these feasts, and how did they avoid heartburn before the modern marvel of QuickEze?

Lying Down = Social Standing

The practice of eating while lying down is believed to have started in ancient Greece as early as 7th Century BCE, before then being adopted by the Romans and spreading throughout the broader Mediterranean. Both ancient Greek and Roman cultures placed a lot of value in communal meals, and the upper classes commonly indulged in resplendent, hours-long feasts as a way of broadcasting their wealth and status. Particularly in ancient Rome, these feasts would become a game of one-upmanship with each host serving more exotic delicacies than the last – resulting in dishes like parrot tongue stew and stuffed dormouse!

In this vein, eating while lying down and being served by others was considered an ultimate expression of power and luxury. The custom was reserved for the elite but, in an ancient equivalent to “keeping up with the Joneses”, it began to be emulated by members of the lower classes – if they could afford to do so. Even as it became more common, it wasn't accessible to all; Greek women were not allowed to attend symposia, unless they were courtesans, prostitutes, flute-girls, dancers or the like who were employed for entertainment during the evening. Contrastingly, Roman women (i.e. wives) could attend banquets although they were expected to sit at another table or upright beside their husbands, to denote their status.

A symposium scene on a fresco in the Tomb of the Diver from the Greek colony of Paestum, Italy, ca. 480–470 BCE.

Health is (Also) Wealth

The other belief spurring the popularity of this custom was its purported digestive benefits. The idea of eating while lying down might evoke fears of heartburn for most of us today, but the ancients believed they had their posture down to a science – and it was all about the side of the body they laid on.

Yes, if you haven’t yet noticed, you might now realise the Greeks and Romans are (almost) always pictured lying on their left side. The reason for this has been debated by historians and classicists for decades, but one argument is that the posture works with human anatomy rather than against it. Lying entirely flat can cause gastric acids to splash upwards and cause heartburn, but the stomach curves upon itself and toward the left. By lying on the left side of the body, the contents of the stomach move furthest away from the oesophageal opening, preventing reflux and creating more room for food – thus allowing the ancients to indulge in greater quantity and comfort, no antacids required. This posture was then slightly adapted by the Romans who chose to eat while leaning slightly more on their bellies, as this was believed to spread the weight of the body evenly for greater comfort and relaxation.

Bacchus/Dionysus, ever the disruptor, reclines on his right side in this 1596–97 oil painting by Caravaggio

Lying down also allowed for the occasional nap between courses, to give the stomach a rest. It has also been suggested that lying on this side frees the (more commonly dominant) right hand for food and drinking vessels; though some ancient artworks do depict feast-goers leaning on and eating with their left side.

Regardless, the practice of lying down during meals persisted throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, so it must have been pretty comfortable! This summer, as you recline on grass enjoying a leisurely picnic or nap your way out of your post-Christmas lunch coma, consider: perhaps we’re not so different from the ancients after all?


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