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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
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Mon, 24 Sep 2007 17:30:38 -0500
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Dining Posture in Ancient Rome: Bodies, Values, and Status. By MATTHEW B. 
ROLLER. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006. Pp. xii + 
219. Cloth, $39.50. ISBN 0–691–12457–4.

Order this text for $33.97 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.1: 112-14

M.F.K. Fisher, the great 20th-century interpreter of food and foodways, 
once observed that there is a communion of more than our bodies whenever 
bread is broken and wine drunk. Indeed, in recent years the sharing of food 
and drink has allowed for all kinds of interpretation, a reality no better 
confirmed than in M. Roller’s Dining Posture in Ancient Rome. This book 
brings fresh insight into a neglected topic, the role of bodily bearing in 
a convivial setting in the Roman world, and provides a much needed revision 
of the traditional communis opinio on dining posture on convivial 
occasions.

The traditional view of the 19th-century German handbooks holds that dining 
posture played out along schematic lines: free adult males reclined; free 
adult females sat during the Republic, but reclined during the Empire; free 
children, if present, sat; and slaves stood. Recognizing that this 
interpretation is based on limited literary evidence, R. examines both 
literary accounts of convivia from 200 BC to AD 200 and visual material, 
specifically funerary objects and wall murals. R. organizes his study 
around the participants at convivia—devoting a chapter in turn to men, 
women and children, and analyzing within each chapter the literary and 
visual sources. In addition, he draws on contemporary scholarship on the 
history of the body and nonverbal communication to interpret dining 
posture.

The first chapter focuses on men, for whom reclining at table was the 
dominant posture. In the literary sources, reclining was associated not 
only with leisure (otium) and privilege for elite males, but also with 
escape from the negotia of their public lives; in contrast, slaves 
regularly stood, a posture linked to their servile function on these 
occasions. Turning to the visual evidence, R. demonstrates that, consistent 
with the literary texts, standing remained the dominant posture for slaves. 
His main focus, however, is on non-servile diners. In the funerary 
monuments, these individuals typically appear as freedmen or fairly 
low-status freeborn persons (sub-elites) who, on the basis of dress, 
posture and tableware, nevertheless represent themselves as elite diners; 
but unlike the elites of the literary texts, they seem to portray 
themselves so as to solidify their social identity, perhaps even 
advertising their elite aspirations in the process.

Pompeian wall panels provide additional interpretative possibilities. 
Within dining rooms likely utilized by sub-elite males, depictions of 
convivia were centrally located and preserved features of elite dining that 
would have prompted a host of questions relating to the diners’ own social 
aspirations and dining practices. On the other hand, dwellings likely to 
have been occupied by local elites contained less conspicuous and less 
centrally located dining imagery. R. interprets this evidence as indicating 
that these elites did not engage in conscious self-reflection about dining 
practices to form their identity; owing to their social station, they 
probably felt little pressure to do so. R. completes this chapter with a 
consideration of contexts (e.g., military and mourning) in which males 
would have chosen not to recline, as well as with a convincing analysis of 
the meaning behind sitting, as opposed to standing or reclining, in the 
urban cook-shop or tavern (popina).

R. turns next to women and dining posture. His analysis of the literary 
evidence reverses the claims of Valerius and Varro that women in some 
unspecified time period dined seated, while the men reclined. In fact, 
women of every status frequently reclined to dine—a practice which must 
have mirrored contemporary dining norms. Interpretation of the material 
remains is more challenging. The funerary materials portray sub-elite women 
reclining when alone, but seated when in male company. R. interprets the 
latter posture as suggesting sexual restraint, a value especially important 
for this class of women, who would have been concerned to advertise their 
social belonging and to distance themselves from their humble past. R. 
further claims that this seated posture “works” only if we understand 
reclining (as depicted on the reliefs of women dining by themselves) as the 
true “default” posture. Such arguments are indirect, as R. admits. Even so, 
he is right to claim that ideology can illuminate social practice by 
challenging our assumptions about material of this nature.

Children, the focus of R.’s third and final chapter, appeared infrequently 
at convivia, especially in a non-literary context. Once again, R. corrects 
the overly schematic handbook view of children as always sitting on these 
occasions. In fact, children in the literary sources both stood and 
reclined, although the latter posture was most likely restricted to elite 
boys and was closely connected to their functioning as adults. Furthermore, 
the evidence suggests that the age at which reclining took place was more 
fluid than the handbooks suggest.

R. is at his best in his analysis of the literary evidence. His correction 
of the communis opinio of dining posture is invaluable, as is his careful 
analysis of the nature of the comissatio in the appendix. The 
interpretation of the visual sources is more challenging, however, and two 
points might be usefully raised. First, the corpus for the period under 
study is not large—45 pieces of funerary material, restricted primarily to 
Rome and its immediate surroundings, and 31 wall paintings, the majority of 
which come from Pompeii. To be sure, R. can only work with the evidence at 
his disposal, and he puts this material to carefully nuanced use; 
nevertheless, one wishes that the remains were more plentiful and more 
geographically diverse. Second and more generally, we know that the 
postures R. examines on these grave reliefs were present in the ancient 
world long before the Romans came to power. One could argue, then, that 
they reflect a social convention that is even more complex than R. 
portrays. This reality invites further examination.

Nonetheless, R. convincingly shows that dining postures at Roman convivia 
were dynamic rather than static. More broadly, he provides a rich 
interpretative context for understanding the complex ways in which gender, 
status and social relations played out in the Roman world.

JOHN F. DONAHUE
The College of William and Mary in Virginia


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