Dining and Roman Luxury, The Getty

Passover is coming up, and whilst I don't want to get involved in the debate about whether Jesus' Last Supper was a Jewish Passover, there is one point that strikes me every year.

Every Passover the youngest of the group asks the Four Questions as part of the religious rituals at the dinner table, the last of which is:

"On every other night we eat whilst sitting upright, but on this night we dine reclining Why?"

The simple answer given is that on that night we Jews celebrate freedom from Egyptian slavery, and that in earlier dining rituals slaves did not recline, but on that night we celebrate our freedom by reclining as real Roman lords at the table. Of course, this is the 21st century, but even in the 20th I have never actually attended a Passover Seder where the guests reclined. The "acceptance" of the question and answer is a universal part of the ritual, but the actual reclining is theoretical and went out centuries ago.

There is no Passover link to the Berthouville Treasure currently on show at the Getty. But I did find it interesting that much of the treasure was probably made in Gallo-Roman workshops specifically to be dedicated to Mercury in the later 2nd and early 3rd centuries BC ... except for the very finest pieces, which were dedicated by Q. Domitius Tutus, and which I will blog separately. As well as being of much higher quality - some of the finest surviving ancient silver wares - these items were made outside the area, probably in Italy, and were already rather old when dedicated (picture 2). This has led to them being described as "family heirlooms" because of their stupendous quality, but part of me wonders whether they were not just bullion too, the importance of their dedication more related to the weight of their silver than their intrinsic artistic value.

The other point is to differentiate between "old" and "heirlooms" - because too many of us discuss "Rome" or "Antiquity" as if it had been one monolithic block, but in fact dining habits changed dramatically over the years both in terms of how the diners arranged themselves physically at the table and in terms of the items they used at the table.

To quote Ken Lapatin's brilliant book accompanying the exhibition (p. 33): "The treasure testifies to the almost complete disappearance of scyphi and canthari (two types of cups) in the second century in favor of shapes that continued in vogue until the end of antiquity." He writes about the later dedications, but interestingly at roughly the same period there were significant architectural changes taking place in Roman dining rooms - as well as those who preferred to dine "old style" for centuries in the same slightly archaising manner as Late Antique consuls being depicted wearing togas even though those had long gone out of style for actual wearing.

For the move from the three-couch triclinium to the semi-circular couch stibadium, around the same period as the majority of the Berthouville Treasure was probably dedicated, this Getty Education blog post is worth looking at: Reclining and Dining (and Drinking) in Ancient Rome | The Getty Iris (NB this is my suggestion, in this post, to correlate the dates, not theirs, so don't blame them for it!)

The villas around Vesuvius provide beautiful evidence for dining before AD 79, but many later depictions of dining that survive are of the Last Supper. The earliest Christian images of dining are not the actual Last Supper but rather of the communal agape meals which were an integral part of Early Christian society (left).

The great early Last Supper at Ravenna, ca AD 500 (below) of course shows Jesus and his Apostles dining reclining. But was it necessarily anachronistic and archaising, the way later Medieval versions of it were?

There are earlier images of people seated whilst "dining" but those seem to be either outdoor 'picnics' or religious rituals or archaeological evidence for 'lower class' individuals at bars, but ... This mosaic in the Bardo from Carthage, probably dating to the mid 4th century AD (image from The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality, by Katherine M. D. Dunbabin fig. 47) is the first certain scene showing members of the ruling class eating whilst seated. Dunbadin's date around 350 AD is interesting as the great cultural change of the period was of course Constantine's legalisation of Christianity and it subsequently becoming the state religion (others had dated it to ca AD 400). I cannot help wondering whether the move from reclining to sitting was linked to this. 

Descriptions of reclining diners largely faded from 3rd century literary descriptions, but that was a time of political chaos, and the archaeological record shows that villas continued to be constructed with couches so seated did not become the norm then.

In fact, although "Germanic" people seem to have preferred eating seated on chairs during the Empire, by the Late Antique and Byzantine periods there had been a back-lash against this. Although the sanctuary of Mercury is believed to have been destroyed in the Germanic invasions of the Empire, and the nearby villa, probably of its priests (?) would probably also have ceased to operated around the same time, other Gallo-Roman villas in the area continued to emphasise Roman-style dining and use couches, as has been shown in the archaeological record. By the period of Theodosius, who commissioned the Ravenna Last Supper above, the Germans had become more Roman than the Romans, so he, for example, revived the image of the Lupercalia, and embraced pre-Christian Roman institutions, including dining on couches. Even the Vandals who took Carthage like to recline and dine, as an account by Procopius of Guntharis' dinner there in AD 546 makes clear; the proconsul's residence went so retro that they skipped the semi-circular stibadium shown in Christian art and went back to the three couch triclinium!

The history of how the Romans and Byzantines dined is complicated, because they didn't all choose to do the same thing the same way. This c. 1080 fresco from Capua was almost certainly anachronistic, as was the depiction from the later Pala D'Oro in San Marco, each influenced by earlier depictions, neither showing contemporary practices - just as the line we recite at Passover each year bears no relation whatsoever to how we are all arranged at the Seder table. From ca AD 400, as parts of Gaul increasingly fell increasingly to Germanic "war lords" ... the archaeological record shows that both these new local rulers and their 'nobles' in fact embraced older Roman dining practices. Literary records confirm this, with the 5th century Christian Bishops of Ravenna not only dining a la Romaine on couches, but with Bishop Neon commissioning an old-fashioned stibadium dining room for his new episcopal palace. As the Franks became the Merovingians, and kings of France, they also embraced Roman dining - for the men, women seem to have been seated, which was of course an even old idea abandoned by the Romans many centuries before.

I'll blog more about the actual objects in a series of posts, but I just wanted to mention their 'dining' context not just their dedicatory one.

Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, is at the Getty Villa until August 17th 2015, then it will be on tour.

The book accompanying the exhibition is very good and worth picking up a copy of: The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury (Amazon UK); The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury (Amazon US), and the usual places.

Bethouville silver photographs courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris, via The Getty.

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