CHAPTER XI. 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.

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.

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.

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 L4000. 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.