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Ancient Roman Furniture: Overview & Examples

Angela Pickard, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Angela Pickard

    Angela has taught ages from preschool to high school for the last 17 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts in the Humanities from The Ohio State University with a focus in English. She also has a TESOL certification and extensive experience in teaching English as a second language.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about ancient Roman furniture commonly found in homes. Explore the ancient Roman bed, couch, chairs, and table to see how a Roman interior was furnished. Updated: 05/18/2022

Ancient Roman Furniture Overview

Ancient Roman furniture was often made of bronze, stone (usually marble), and wood. Wood furniture has not survived the ages but there are surviving examples of metal hardware and preserved artifacts recovered beneath the volcanic ash of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Much of the ancient Roman furniture we know about was preserved in cities buried by a volcanic explosion. The high temperatures did not burn the wood but caused the elements within it to carbonize. This left very well preserved, carbonized wooden objects. These cities were buried as near time capsules when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE.

Roman furniture was often sparse in villas and homes, as the people preferred more space. Furniture would have specific uses and purposes. Stone tables and benches were common, as well as wood with heavy ornamentation of gold, silver, bronze, and ivory. Ancient Roman furniture styles were mostly influenced by the Greeks and the Etruscans. Etruscans were an ancient society that held territory in what is now considered Tuscany.

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 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 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, giving us a glimpse into Roman life, uninterrupted by time. Most of our best examples of Roman furniture came from these excavations.

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  • 0:04 Roman Furniture: Overview
  • 1:52 Chairs
  • 2:45 Couches
  • 3:39 Tables
  • 4:42 Other Furnishings
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Roman Furniture Examples

Ancient Romans took pride in their homes and used them often for entertaining purposes. Roman furniture would have been useful, and at times versatile. The social status of the Roman would dictate if they used their benches for eating, lounging, and sleeping, or if they had individual pieces for each specific usage.

Examples of Roman furniture types are; beds, couches, chairs (called sellas), tables (called mensas), shelves, cabinets and buffets.

Roman Bed

Ancient Roman bedrooms were typically basic and utilitarian. They were rarely stocked with anything beyond the bed. Roman beds, referred to as the lectus, could be single for one person or double for a couple. They were sometimes made of bronze and often made of wood and decorated with moldings of mother of pearl or bronze, and animal-like legs. Some of the more simple ones were terracotta. The beds were not what modern day people would consider comfortable. A mattress of stuffed wool, feathers or leaves would rest on the top of crossed straps. The beds were often three sided and would double as couches or even dining couches.

Roman Couch

It is not always easy to discern if a Roman couch was also used as a bed, or dining couch. Often in poorer or moderate income houses, a couch would serve multiple purposes. Couches and beds were referred to as the lectus. They, too, could be made of bronze or wood and contained much of the heavy ornamentation of the beds. Dining couches typically had two sides at the foot and head of the couch, leaving the longer sides open to reach for food and drink. The primary use of the lectus or couch was for reclining while eating and usually grouped together for the number of diners included in the meal. Romans would have used a lectus at banquets and parties.

Ancient Roman Chair

A stool, also called a sella, was commonly found in Roman households. This ancient Roman chair would be used for resting or for working at a table, but would not have been used by the wealthy during meals, as they would recline while eating. Children and slaves would have used them while eating. These were typically chairs without a back or arms and often a cushion would be added to the top. Ancient Romans had chairs with backs and arms, however, these were less common than the stool style chairs. The design may have originated from the thrones of the Greeks and Etruscans.


Sella or ancient Roman chair

Sella or ancient Roman chair


Chairs

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Video Transcript

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 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 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, giving us a glimpse into Roman life, uninterrupted by time. Most of our best examples of Roman furniture came from these excavations.

Chairs

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What were ancient Roman couches called?

An ancient Roman couch was called a lectus. This couch was usually used to recline while dining, but could also serve a dual purpose as a bed.

Did ancient Romans have beds?

Yes, the ancient Romans had beds. Some families used their dining couches as a sleeping surface. More wealthy families would have beds for the sole purpose of sleeping. These were often bronze or wood and sometimes terracotta. They would be topped with a mattress stuffed with leaves, feathers, or wool. They would not be considered comfortable by today's standards.

What furniture did the ancient Romans have?

The ancient Romans had dining couches called lectus. These would sometimes double as a bed if the family had a more modest income, or if wealthy, the family could afford seperate beds from dining couches. The Roman household was also typically equipped with chairs called sellas, tables called mensas and other pieces used to hold household items.

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