Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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ROMAN FURNITURE

On the customary furniture of a Roman house we need not spend many words. For one thing, it was simple and scanty as compared with the furnishing and upholstering of to-day. For another, its nature presents little that would be strange to us or that would require explanation.

Among the most conspicuous differences between Roman and modern furnishing must be reckoned the absence of carpets, the comparatively small use of tables and chairs, the absence of upholstery from such chairs as were used, and the greater part played by couches. In place of carpets there were the ornamental floors, whether in geometrical pattern-work, arrangements of veined marbles, or mosaic pictures composed of small blocks of coloured stone or glass. The making of carpets was well understood in the East, and Rome would have found no difficulty in obtaining as many as it chose, but so far as it employed tapestries they were for portieres and curtains, for the coverings of dining-couches and beds, or for throwing across a chair-back. The Roman kept his floors, walls, pillars, and ceilings carefully cleared of dust and stains by means of brushes of feathers or light hair, brooms of palm or other leaves, and sponges. He thus saved himself both the labour and the unwholesomeness of carpets.

[Illustration: FIG. 46.--ROMAN FOLDING CHAIR. (Schreiber.)]

[Illustration: FIG. 47.--BRONZE SEAT (Overbeck.)]

We need not enter into dry details concerning such articles as were similar to our own. Of the Roman seats it is enough to say that they were either square stools without back or arms, or folding-stools, or they were true chairs either with straight arms and backs (the Origin of the modern throne) to be used by the owner when receiving clients or visitors on business, or with a long sloping back and without arms, as used particularly by women. A movable cushion constituted all the upholstery.

But the Roman man seldom took his ease in a chair: even his reading and writing were commonly performed while reclining upon a couch. When writing, he doubled his tablets on his knee, and it may be presumed that habit made the practice easy and natural. The couch is, indeed, perhaps the chief article of Roman furniture. So regular was it to recline that, where we should speak of a sitting-room, the Romans spoke of a "reclining-room." At business they sat; but they reclined in social conversation--unless it was brief--when reading, when taking the siesta, and when dining. Their beds in the proper sense were similar to our own, though less heavy than those of our older fashion. To mount them it was often necessary to use steps or an elongated footstool. A slave in close attendance upon a master or mistress sometimes slept upon a low truckle-bed, which, in the daytime, could be pushed under the other. The couches for day use were lower and of lighter and narrower build, with a movable rest at the head and with or without a back.

[Illustration: FIG. 48.--FRAMEWORK OF ROMAN COUCH.]

Upon the frame of such couches a good deal of decoration was lavished in the way of veneerings of ornamental wood, or thin plates of ivory or tortoise-shell, or reliefs in bronze or even in gold or silver. The feet might also, in the richer houses, consist of silver or of ivory. For the dining-rooms of people of wealth a special feature was made of such work upon the conspicuous parts of the frames, while the cushions and coverings were of costly fabrics, richly dyed and embroidered or damasked. The method of serving and eating a dinner is a subject which belongs to our later treatment of a social day, and it must here suffice to picture the ordinary arrangement of a dinner party.

[Illustration: FIG. 49.--PLAN OF DINING-TABLE WITH THREE COUCHES.]

[Illustration: FIG. 50.--SIGMA.]

In the middle is the table, either square or, if round, made if possible of a single piece of costly wood richly grained by nature in a wavy or peacock pattern and obtained by sawing through the lower part of the trunk of a Moorish tree. The price depended on the size. Of one such circular slab we learn that it cost £4000. It may be needless to remark that many tables were only "imitation." When not in use, and sometimes even then, such tables were protected by coloured linen cloths. By preference this ancient equivalent of "the best mahogany" was supported on a single leg, consisting of elephants' tusks or of sculptured marble. On three sides are placed the couches, covered with mattresses stuffed with flock or feathers, and provided with soft cushions for the left arm to rest upon. Sometimes, instead of the three separate couches, there was but one large couch shaped like a crescent, either extending round half the large circular table, or having more than one smaller table placed before it. Tables in other rooms were scarcely to be found, since, as has already been remarked, they were not required for reading or writing or for holding the various articles which we moderns place upon them. Besides the dining tables we should generally find only a sideboard placed in the dining-room for the display of articles of plate. This was either of ornamental wood or of marble with a sculptured stand, and was distinctly meant for show. In place of tables for supporting necessary objects we find tripods, either of bronze or marble, with a flat top and sometimes with a rim.

[Illustration: FIG. 51.--TRIPOD FROM HERCULANEUM.]

Other articles of household furniture were chests and presses or wardrobes. It was almost a rule that in the hall, at the side or end, should stand a low heavy chest--occasionally more than one--sometimes made of iron, sometimes of wood bound with bronze and decorated with metal-work in relief. In this were contained supplies of money and other articles of value, and for this reason it was strongly locked and often fastened to the ground by a vertical rod of iron. Such a chest is still to be seen in its place in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii. Of portières, curtains and awnings enough has been said, except that they were also used for draping the less ornamental walls. Mirrors were apparently plentiful. No mention is made of such articles in glass, probably because the ancients had not yet learned to make that material sufficiently pure and true or to provide it with the proper foil or background. For the most part they were made of highly polished copper, bronze, or silver. The smaller ones were held in the hand, the handle and back parts being richly and often tastefully ornamented. There is an epigram extant which tells of a vindictive Roman dame who struck her maid to the ground with her mirror, because she detected a curl wrongly placed. Other mirrors were made so as to stand upon a support, and there is mention of some sufficiently large to show the full length of the body.

[Illustration: FIG. 52.--CHEST (STRONG-BOX).]

[Illustration: FIG. 53.--MIRRORS.]

In the absence of gas or electricity or even kerosene, there was no better means of lighting a house than by oil-lamps. Even those were provided with no chimney. Naturally every effort would be made to obtain such oil as would produce the least smoke or smell, but doubtless the difficulty was never completely overcome. It is therefore natural to hear of the oil being mixed with perfume. In the less well-to-do houses there might be wax candles, in still poorer houses candles of tallow or even rush-lights, formed by long strips of rush or other fibrous plant thinly dipped in tallow. Generally speaking, however, the Roman house was lit by lamps filled with olive-oil. The commonest were made of terra-cotta, the better sorts of bronze or silver, often richly ornamented and sometimes very graceful. As typical specimens we may take those here illustrated.

[Illustration: FIG. 54.--LAMPS.]

The little figure standing on the one lamp is holding a chain, to which is attached the probe for forcing up the wick or for clearing away the "mushrooms" that might form upon it. Lamps are made in all manner of fantastic shapes--ships, shoes, and other objects--and may burn either one wick or a considerable number, projecting from different nozzles. For the purpose of lighting a room they may either be placed upon the top of upright standards, four or five feet high and sometimes with shafts which could be adjusted in height like the modern reading-stand; or they may be hung from the ceiling by chains, after the manner of a chandelier, or held by a statue, or suspended from a stand shaped like a pillar or a tree, from whose branches they hang like fruit. For use in the street there were torches and also lanterns, which had a metal frame and were "glazed" with sheets of transparent horn, with bladder in the cheaper instances, or with transparent talc in the more costly.

[Illustration: FIG. 35.--LAMP-HOLDER AS TREE.]

As with the Greeks, a Roman house was lavish in the use and display of cups and plate in great diversity of shape and material. Glass vessels were numerous and, except for a perfectly pure white variety, were produced both at Rome and Alexandria with the most ingenious finish. A kind of porcelain was also known, but was very rare and highly valued. For the most part the poor used earthenware cups and plates or wooden trenchers. The rich sought after a lavish profusion of silver goblets studded with jewels and sometimes ventured on a cup of gold, although the use of a full gold service was by imperial ordinance restricted to the palace. There were drinking vessels, broad and shallow with richly embossed or repoussé work, or deep with double handles and a foot, or otherwise diversified. There were all manner of plates and dishes of silver or of silver-gilt. There were graceful jugs and ladles and mixing-bowls. What we regard as most essential articles, but missing from a Roman table, are knives and forks. Table-forks, indeed, were unknown till a very modern date, but even knives were scarcely in use at Rome except by the professional carver at his stand. There were also heaters, in which water could be kept hot at table and drawn off by a small tap.

[Illustration: FIG. 56.--CUP FROM HERCULANEUM.]

[Illustration: FIG. 57.--KITCHEN UTENSILS.]

If now we stepped into the kitchen we should find there practically every kind of utensil likely to be of use even for the modern cuisine. There is no need here to catalogue the kettles and pots and pans, the strainers and shapes and moulds, employed by Roman cooks. Perhaps it will suffice to present a number of them to the eye. In general, however, it deserves to be remarked that such a thing as a pail, a pitcher, a pair of scales, or a steelyard was not regarded in the Roman household as necessarily to be left a bare and unsightly thing because it was useful. The triumph of tin and ugliness was not yet. Such vessels as waterpots are still to be seen made of copper in graceful shapes, if one will notice the women fetching water on the Alban Hills. How far the domestic utensils resembled or differed from those still in use may be judged from the specimens illustrated.

[Illustration: FIG. 58.--PAIL FROM HERCULANEUM.]

There existed no clocks of the modern kind, but the Romans do not appear to have suffered much practical inconvenience in respect of telling the time and meeting engagements. Sundials, both public and private, were numerous, but these were obviously of no use on gloomy days or at night. The instrument on which the Romans mainly relied was therefore the "water-clock," which, though by no means capable of our modern precision of minutes and even seconds could record time down to small fractions of the hour. The principle was that of the hour-glass, water taking the place of sand. From an upper vessel water slowly trickled through an orifice into a lower receptacle, which at this date was transparent and was marked with sections for the hour and its convenient fractions. In this way the time would be told by the mark to which the water had risen in the lower portion. The Romans were not unaware of the difference between the conditions of summer and winter flow of water, but it would appear that they had attained to proper methods of "regulating" their rather awkward time-pieces. It is as well to add that in the wealthier houses a slave was told off to watch the clock and to report the passing of the hours, as well as to summon any member of the family at the time arranged for an appointment.




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