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Table manners

In the Middle East, Greece and Rome, lying down to eat was a custom which lasted for more than one thousand years. At the end of the Western Roman Empire, beds were abandoned in favour of chairs. Christian dignitaries played a part in this change: The seated position conveyed greater authority and dignity.

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© Getty Images / Universal History Archive - A meal taking place on beds during a banquet in Ancient Rome, anonymous, C19th, Universal History Archive

Something suspicious

Did Jesus and the Apostles eat the Last Supper sitting or lying down? Renaissance paintings always show them sitting down. Yet, depending on the translations of the Bible, we can read that, ‘they took their place at the table’, or ‘they lay at the table’, or even ‘the disciple, whom Jesus loved, was lying at the table.’

A long tradition in Antiquity

During Jesus’ time, lying down to eat was already an ancient tradition. This position was adopted by Phoenician and Aramaic princes (populations of modern-day Syria) whilst the Greeks adopted it in the 6th century BCE. At that time, the privilege of lying down to eat was granted to all free men. Women, children and slaves, however, had to eat sitting down. In turn, the Romans also began lying down to eat, and women gradually started doing the same. This way of eating, however, remained more common for family celebrations, banquets and gatherings between friends, as it favoured relaxation and discussion. The Hebrews also adopted this custom, which was considered a privilege of free people. It was observed during festivals, in particular at Passover, therefore it is quite reasonable to assume that Jesus and the Apostles were lying down.

A more dignified position

In the 5th century, at the end of the Western Roman Empire, beds were abandoned in favour of chairs. After one thousand years of feasts eaten lying down, why did people in the West start to sit? In actual fact, during that time, the use of chairs had not disappeared. In public office, a chair conveyed more authority. Magistrates and teachers sat down to perform their duties. It seems that, over time, the chair came to project an image of dignity and self-control. It is said that the Emperor Maximus (who died in 388) invited Saint Martin (famous for having shared his cloak) and a priest to eat with him. Whereas Saint Martin sat on a chair, the priest ate lying down. Mosaics in Rome depict three Envoys of the Lord sitting on a bench, in front of a rectangular table. Ecclesiastical authorities seem to have claimed the chair, which then became a model. In fact, the word ‘cathedral’ comes from the Latin cathedra, ‘seat’, meaning it is the ‘the bishop’s seat’.