Friday, January 11, 2013

Revolutionary Materials: Furniture and Civil Uprisings in Antiquity

By Sarah E. Bond

In the movie Les Misérables and in historical reality, the French revolutionaries of the 1832 June rebellion piled furniture in the streets of Paris in order to form impromptu barricades. As I sat in the theater attempting (rather unsuccessfully) to ignore some of the (rather off key) singing, I began to think about the use of Roman furniture for violence and popular action. For instance: what exactly did Tiberius Gracchus get hit with and what did it look like when furniture was piled high for extemporaneous funeral pyres?

Graeco-Roman Furniture:

Cato remarked that even a well-equipped farmhouse should be furnished with a pair of chairs. In terms of structures, most inexpensive Roman chairs were little more than "horizontal slabs" with legs (Ulrich, 219). Usually made of wood, backless chairs or benches called subsellia could be found in homes, the senate house, theaters, and many other places within the city. They were highly portable; much like chairs that people carry with them to camp out or perhaps to attend a concert at a park. There could also be longer benches to sit on as well. The Greeks even used a kind of folding stool (diphros okladias). Whereas dining couches were stationary, three legged tables called trapezai in Greek were often used for banking. There was a great amount of more disposable furniture in public places.

Seated woman playing a kithara on a painted armchair
from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)
As is the case with chariots, we owe a lot of our knowledge about Roman furniture to grave goods. The royal tumulus in Anatolia at Gordion (cf. UPenn's the Gordion Furniture Project), for instance, preserved an inlaid table, two serving stands, and a studded stool. A caveat about using grave goods as depictions of social reality, though: this was usually the good (i.e., luxurious) stuff--not the Ikea brand furniture that currently populates my house. For more pedestrian furniture, we must turn to the carbonized furniture at Herculaneum (e.g., a wood and leather couch), the furniture preserved at Pompeii through plaster casting, wall paintings such as the one from the Villa Boscoreale (though more elite), images on pottery, and textual references.

Interior of the sarcophagus of Simpelveld. 
(National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden)
Furniture and Roman Violence 

The most infamous use of a chair leg in history occurs in the story of the second century BCE Roman reformer Tiberius Gracchus. In Plutarch's Life of Tiberius Gracchus, he notes: "The attendants they brought with them, had furnished themselves with clubs and staves from their houses, and they themselves picked up the feet and other fragments of stools and chairs" (19). As if being attacked with furniture wasn't bad enough, the mob that killed him was led by his own cousin, Scipio Nasica. They wielded chairs as cudgels in an act of violence that usually demarcates the beginning of the turbulent late Republic.

Another instance of extemporaneous furniture usage comes under the Julio-Claudians. It was said that, grabbing a freedman's cap or a wig as he dashed out, Nero often went incognito in the streets of Rome. He is accused by Suetonius of inciting riots among the pantomime actors. These brawls often then devolved into a melee of stones and broken benches (Ner. 26.2) being thrown about. Apparently, Nero dropped things into the audience for the use of these brawlers. Always fueling the fire, that Nero was. Both Nero and Tiberius Gracchus indicate the ubiquity of benches in public--which could be ready weapons if need be.

Revolutionary Kindling

As Les Mis accurately portrays, furniture could be there for you in a pinch. In a creative getaway tactic when his house was set on fire in Phyrgia, Alcibiades heaped furniture and clothes on the flames and dashed over them (Plut. Alc. 39.3); he didn't escape with his life or with the sumptuous furniture he was known for. However, furniture was much more often used to fuel flames than to extinguish them--particularly in the case of funeral pyres.

On January 18 of 52 BCE, Clodius was killed on the Via Appia (Dio 40.48.2). Two tribunes incited the populace to bring Clodius into the Roman forum, where his body was displayed on the Rostra.The people then carried his body into the Senate House (the Curia Cornelia built by Sulla) and heaped up the benches in the space to form a funeral pyre. Clodius' body, the furniture, and the senate house itself burned. It is for this reason that the Senate would commission the Curia to be rebuilt by Faustus, the surviving son of Sulla.

The alleged spot where the body of Caesar was burned (Roman Forum)
This scene would, in a remarkably scary and parallel sense, be repeated just 8 years later, following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Following Caesar's death, subsellia were piled on a pyre (Suet. Div. Jul. 84.3), along with many of the chairs and tables in the shops nearby. The couch that Caesar was upon was then placed on top of the pyre. But let us reflect a moment on this scene. We often think of the lamentations of the mourning people in the Forum that day, upset at the death of Caesar, but what of the terrifying idea (both religiously and in terms of the fire hazard) in a city that did not yet have a fire brigade and in a culture that placed the dead and their funeral pyres outside the pomerium of the city? Truly this use of furniture was revolutionary.

As this altogether too short overview of the impromptu use of furniture suggests, there are strong parallels between the last days of the Roman Republic and the June Rebellion that occurred many years later. Furniture used as weapons or as barricades is often a populist method within urban areas that can indicate to us, the modern viewer, of the hurried nature of the action. The French apartment dwellers who threw down chairs, stools, and tables from their apartment windows onto the streets of Paris were not all that different from the Romans who took to the streets of Rome following Caesar's death--they were both people using what was at hand to accomplish a specific goal.

Further Reading:

Alexandra Croom, Roman Furniture (Tempus, 2007).

David Noy, "Half Burnt on an Emergency Pyre: Roman Cremations Which Went Wrong," Greece and Rome 47.2 (2000), 186-196.

Geoffrey S. Sumi, "Power and Ritual: The Crowd at Clodius' Funeral," ZPE 46.1 (1997), 80-102.

Roger Bradley Ulrich, Roman Woodworking (Yale University Press, 2007).


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