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Roman Furniture History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Roman society was full of art, poetry, philosophy, and furniture. In this lesson, we're going to talk about Roman home furnishings and see how furniture helped the people of Rome define their lives and society.

Roman Furniture: Overview

They're amongst the most underappreciated elements of our society, but where would we be without them? Yes, we're talking about furniture, the assemblage of large-scale items we use to make our lives that much easier and more efficient.

Furniture was an important part of functional life and fashion in nearly every settled society, and ancient Rome was no exception. The Romans took their home lives very seriously and used their furniture to reflect their identity as Romans and their place in the Roman world. We don't always take time to appreciate Roman furniture, but where would they be without it?

Together, the ancient Romans and Greeks laid the foundation for Western culture, so it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that much of their furniture was similar. Roman furniture was essentially Greek in character, with some notable influences from the Etruscan civilization of Tuscany.

Now, when dealing with a 3,000-year-old civilization, it's always important to consider how we know what we know. Our knowledge of ancient Roman furniture is based on a few factors, such as materials. Romans made their furniture from wood, metal, or stone (generally marble). Obviously, more examples of marble furniture have survived than wooden furniture.

Since higher-quality materials were owned by the wealthy, we do know more about the furniture of the rich than the home furnishings of the poor. There are, however, exceptions. In 79 CE, the volcano named Vesuvius blew. The sudden eruption buried the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserving materials like wood that would have eroded and giving us a glimpse into Roman life, uninterrupted by time. Most of our best examples of Roman furniture came from these excavations.

Main Types of Furniture

So, what kinds of furniture did the Romans actually use? While usage varied a bit over time and across the empire, there are a few common types we can talk about.

Chairs

Romans, from wealthy to poor, were entertainers. They often had people in their homes for various social, political, or economic reasons and, as any good host knows, this means they needed lots of chairs. The simplest chairs, known as sella, were essentially stools. They were light, cheap, easily portable and found all over Roman homes. Wealthier Romans had folding stools as well, a status symbol of the time.

Roman relief of a seated god using a typical Roman stool
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Although they were less common, some Romans did have chairs with backs and armrests. This style, which is more like the chairs we think of, may have originated from a style of throne used by Greeks and Etruscans.

Couches

Another ubiquitous furniture item in Roman homes was the couch. When Romans partied or relaxed, they did so on large lounging or reclining couches, generally called the lectus. When we eat, we sit in chairs, but the Romans always used couches for important and festive banquets. This tradition, likely inherited from the Etruscans, let them eat, drink, party, and lounge simultaneously. This is the foundation of Western civilization, people.

Re-creation of a Roman banqueting room with reclining couches
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Couches are one area where we see a wide variation between rich and poor. The wealthy had specific banqueting couches, used exclusively for that purpose. Many poorer Romans couldn't afford multiple couches and compensated by filling their homes with wooden benches instead. In these homes, couches often served as beds for the family as well.

Tables

At this point, we know how the Romans sat, but where did they put their stuff? Roman tables were defined by their function or what kind of stuff they held. Work tables, used for crafts, arts, and cooking, were different than decorative tables used to hold lamps or sculptures, which were different than dining tables. This is one area where Romans differed from the Greeks. Greeks had few tables in their homes, while Romans had a unique table for every occasion.

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