THE TRICLINIUM, CENTRAL PART OF BANQUETS
The “Triclinium”, or dining room, was the finest room in the house, and the decoration and furniture was often opulent and sumptuous (marbles, mosaics, frescoes, fountains, inlaid tables and flowers). Three large containers could be found here: the oenophorus for wine, the caldarium for hot water, and a cratere (craterra) for dispensing the wine. The triclinium was to be entered with the right foot and each guest had a place on a bed accommodating three people, where they could eat in a reclining position like the Greeks. The custom of eating in a reclining position was indeed uncomfortable, but it was also a sign of elegance and social superiority. In fact, women, children and the poor would eat in the sitting position. The triclinia contained three long couches, arranged in the shape of a horseshoe around a three-legged round or square table. The fourth side of the table remained open for servants to bring in the food and the wine.
The place of honour was on the open and unsupported side of the couch (lectus medius). Of the other two couches, the one on the right was the most important (lectus summus) followed by the other (lectus imus). The host (dominus) normally occupied the lucus summus in imus , whilst the other places were assigned according to a hierarchical plan.
Each couch, as already said, accommodated three people, but those who did not want to be disturbed by their guests would occupy the middle couch alone, or would share it with only one other guest. Diners helped themselves to the food from a large platter, or from a plate served by slaves which they held in their left hand, while the right hand would be used to bring bite-size pieces to their mouths, being careful not to soil them. Plates and goblets were made of Italic terra sigillata (because of the sigillum). Knives were not generally used at meals, as they were not very practical due to the reclining position. This is the reason why the food was served already cut in bite-size pieces by slaves, called scissors, assigned to this special task. Spoons (ligulae), on the other hand, were more widely used and one in particular, called cochlea, was used for extracting snails from their shells, a food relished by the Romans.
Romans usually ate with their fingers and, indeed, it was considered refined and proper to carry food to the mouth using the finger tips. Another custom, which we would regard as bad manners, was to throw the food that could not be eaten onto the floor, a mark of appreciation and satiety for the people of the time. It was quite common during Roman banquets to be entertained by dancers, and the performers that were by far preferred were the lascivious dancers of Candice, to the sound of castanets. However, the Romans soon realised that their eating excesses were the main cause of several diseases, and hence the first treaties of gastronomy and dietetics appeared, which were very influential through to the Middle Ages. Such concerns were justified if you only consider that, at the time of the Roman Empire, up to more than a hundred servings were consumed at a single banquet.