Roman Dining

When Mercurio throws a banquet in my upcoming novella, Devouring Light, his guests dine Roman style.

I’d always envisioned the ancient Romans as reclining while dining, propped up on couches with low tripod tables at their elbows. But when it was time for me to write the feast scene, I needed details. So I dove into research!

And discovered that my vision was somewhat mistaken!

The video below is what I’d imagined.

Certainly there are museums with replicas that look somewhat like that. One even features the individual tables I’d envisioned. While that may be accurate for meals with three people only, the scene looked rather different when more people were gathered.

Before we go further, let’s note two terms.

A klinē is a sort of slanting couch, with the foot ten degrees lower than its head.

A triclinium, the ancient Roman dining room, meant “three klinai” or “three couches.”

The houses of the ancient Romans usually had at least two triclinia. Elite households might feature four in a triclinium maius .

Triclinium, Museo de Zaragoza

But, here’s the thing that confused me.

The ancient Romans commonly invited between nine and twenty guests to their feasts.

How on earth would they squish three reclining diners on each of those narrow couches? They would have to sit, not recline. And I knew they didn’t. Or I thought they didn’t.

Once I’d located some more scholarly works, I discovered there was more variation among Roman dining styles than I’d supposed. Specifically, the ancient Romans were people with individual habits, just as you and I have our own idiosyncrasies.

Sure, the reclining habit was a mark of status. Undoubtedly, most eaters started off that way, just to show they could.

“Yes, I’m rich and privileged. See!”

But what about the child who couldn’t lie still? Or the lady with a bad back? Or the senator with a dyspeptic stomach?

Well, the likelihood that people shifted their position a fair bit while eating was only common sense.

But it still didn’t explain how they fit three reclining diners on those couches.

Finally I found another visual, and it all made sense.

Aha! The head of the couch pointed toward the table, and the foot of the couch pointed away. Those klinai for three people were much bigger than those for a solo diner.

I couldn’t find an image in the pubic domain that I am free to post here. But check this link, if you want to see the visual for yourself.

Mercurio gives each of his guests a unique klinē garnished with flowers, rather than grouping them on shared couches. The major “celestials” in Devouring Light happen to number eighteen, perfect to exactly fill two triclinia. How convenient!

This was Mercurio’s seating plan for them until . . . he realized he needed to accommodate an unexpected guest!

Mercurio's seating plan

For more about the background of Devouring Light see:
Celestial Spheres
What Do Celestials Wear?
Three Graces



The Graces

The Three GracesMy newest work, Devouring Light, will release soon. I’m excited! Eager to make the story available for readers!

To tide myself over until the release – and because I can’t resist – I’m sharing some of the tidbits I’ve learned while doing research for the book.

This week, I’m talking about the Graces of ancient Greece.

And why am I presenting the Graces? Because they were the archetypes I drew on when dreaming up Lixy’s handmaidens.

“Who is Lixy?” you ask.

The beautiful celestial wanderer who fetches up at the domicile of Mercurio, my protagonist. Lixy is lovely, mysterious, and utterly lost – both in memory and in space. She doesn’t know who she is or where she came from. Quite the intriguing puzzle for Mercurio, who gives her shelter.

Lixy does remember her handmaidens, especially Eupheme, her nurse when Lixy was young.

So what about the Graces?

They were female spirits personifying the feminine attributes of grace. The most famous, the “Three Graces,” were Splendor (Aglaea), Mirth (Euphrosyne), and Good Cheer (Thalia).

But there were also “lesser” Graces. These were the ones who caught my attention. So who were they?

Philophrosyne personified welcome, friendliness, and kindness. Her name means “friendly-minded,” and I envision her as a spirit of hospitality. She became a cupbearer in Lixy’s home star system. Cupbearers in ancient times were particularly honored, since they ensured that the food and drink of a ruler was pure and unpoisoned. Hebe and Ganymede, cupbearers in Greek mythology, took that role in the solar system (ours) where Devouring Light takes place.

Eupheme personified words of good omen, praise, acclaim, shouts of triumph, and applause. Wow! She sure appealed to me! And I could see why Lixy remembered her. Who wouldn’t remember the person who steadfastly offered genuine and enthusiastic praise? Her name means “well-spoken,” and she was nursemaid to the Muses of Greek Mythology. It seemed appropriate that my Eupheme served as Lixy’s childhood nurse.

Euthenia personified prosperity, abundance, and plenty. Her name means “well-being.” Like her sisters, she was believed to be the daughter of Hephaestus and Aglaea. I envision the Euthenia of Devouring Light as possessing healing skills.

Eucleia personified glory and good repute. In Greek mythology, she served as Aphrodite’s handmaiden and was also associated with Artemis. She represented the loveliness of the bride approaching her wedding. I imagine the Eucleia of my story as modeling and encouraging integrity in Lixy. Her name means “renowned” or “celebrated.”

I’m almost tempted to write a story in which these four Graces get some “stage time,” rather than serving as a part of Lixy’s background!

If you’d like to read more about the inspiration behind Devouring Light, try What Do Celestials Wear? and Celestial Spheres.



What Do Celestials Wear?

Planet EarthThe characters in my soon-to-release Devouring Light are celestial beings charged with the guardianship of heavenly bodies.

Some of them share a name with a Greek or a Roman god. Thus Ares protects the planet Mars. Artemis Diana cares for Earth’s moon. While Gaia watches over Earth itself.

Other celestials bear unique names. My protagonist, Mercurio Veloxus Ludificor, tends the planet Mercury.

All of the celestials wear the garb of the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks.

Everyone knows what a toga is. (Or thinks he does! 😉 ) But what about the peplos? Or the strophium? I had to research the topic in order to describe Mercurio’s garments accurately. As well as those of Lixy, his unexpected visitor.

Of course, I’m going to share what I learned! Let’s take it garment by garment.

The Princess AlexandraThe Tunica

The tunica is your basic undergarment, often worn under another tunic or peplos. It usually hangs to the knees, but sometimes falls to mid-calf, or even the ankles. Children typically wear only a tunica at home, but don an outer garment in which to go out. Adults prefer more layers.

The tunica is a rectangular garment sewn into a tube. Pins (fibulae) or buttons secure the shoulders when it is worn solo. A sewn seam is more usual when it is worn beneath other clothing.

The Strophium

Another undergarment: the breast band. It’s a long, narrow strip of cloth bound tightly around the chest to support a woman’s bosom.

Obviously, Mercurio does not wear one of these. But Lixy does, as do Juno and Star and other female celestials.

Spoiler: As it turned out, I never did mention the strophium in Devouring Light. So often we writers do the research and only a tiny bit makes it onto the page. But we need to know.

The Subligaculum

This word was too long, with too many syllables, for me to use it in Devouring Light. Yes, I did need to refer to it in the course of my story! But I called it a “loin brief,” because that’s what it covers: the loins.

The subligacula of the ancient Romans took the form of either shorts or a cloth wrapped around the loins. It was a standard part of the dress for active folk like soldiers, gladiators, and athletes. Sometimes it was made of leather.

ArtemisThe Peplos

Reading about the peplos was an aha! moment for me. So that’s why those ancient Greek statues look the way they do! Ha!

So what’s the trick?

The peplos is essentially a long tunic, worn by women, that stretches from shoulder to ankle. Like a tunica, it’s sewn along the sides to make a tube. But it’s so long that the top third is folded over and drapes to the waist. That’s what makes that blousey over garment on all the statuary.

A sash or belt gathers the peplos at the waist.

Pins or buttons secure the fold at the top over the shoulders. And there you have it: the peplos.

The Tunica

This is where the garb of the ancients gets confusing. Because while the tunica is the basic undergarment, it can also serve as outer wear for children and for men.

Thus Mercurio might wear a short tunica next to his skin, with a longer tunica over it. Especially when he wants to be most formally dressed!

So is the tunica underwear? Or is it a formal robe? Only context makes this clear!

Statue of LibertyThe Stola

The stola is a woman’s version of the men’s toga, but it’s a lot more convenient!

It’s a long, pleated linen dress – generally sleeveless; sometimes sleeved – worn as an outer garment.

Clasps secure the shoulders. Two belts confine the garment to the torso: one immediately below the breasts, the other at the waist. The belts create many folds and layers. The more layers, the higher the woman’s status.

The Toga

The toga is the outer garment for males, worn both for warmth (in cool weather) and for propriety when leaving the home. Going without, in ancient Rome, would have been shocking. Not quite so shocking for my celestials.

Being a casual guy, Mercurio doffs his when he can get away with it, because the thing is so unweildy!

Togas are huge! And heavy! Made of a rectangular piece of wool, they measure 20 feet in length, and were wrapped around the body, under the right arm, and over the left shoulder.

Pure white togas dignify ceremonial occasions, but my celestials wear them in all hues.

For another post about Devouring Light, see The Celestial Spheres of Sol’s Demesne or The Graces.