Surviving images on countless works of art, including pottery, frescoes, wine cups, and sculptures, frequently depict ancient Greeks reclining on one side to eat and drink at a symposium.
The habit of reclining to dine in ancient Greece began at least as early as the 7th century B.C. and was later picked up by the Romans.
Strangely, Greeks are always pictured lying on their left side — never their right.
The reason for this tradition is not entirely clear, but historians and classicists have debated the topic for decades.
Some argue that lying on this particular side leaves the right hand free to grasp vessels used to eat and drink; yet there are examples of Greeks reclining on their left side and still using their left hands to eat and drink in ancient art.
Did ancient Greeks eat and drink lying down to aid in digestion?
Others, citing human anatomy, contend that the practice has a direct relationship with the way we digest food.
The stomach curves upon itself, and often, when lying down, the gastric acids that help break down food actually splash up toward the esophagus and cause heartburn.
When lying on the left side, however, digestion is actually improved.
As the left side of the stomach is curved, lying on the left side of the body while eating and drinking actually provides more room for extra food as well, without causing acid reflux.
Regardless of the reason, it must have been both comfortable and convenient, since reclining during meals spread throughout the Mediterranean and survived for millennia.
Dining habits differed along class, gender lines in ancient Greece
Some experts also say that to eat lying down, while others served you, was a sign of power and luxury enjoyed by the elite.
People further down the social ladder copied the laid-back dining style if they could afford to.
Greek dining couches of the archaic and classical periods were intended for men and, less commonly, females, who served as slaves, musicians, and entertainers at the meal.
Women didn’t generally get invited to banquets except for rare occasions like wedding feasts — and even then they had to sit upright.
It was only in ancient Rome that customs changed, allowing upper-class women to lounge alongside men.
Ancient Greek Symposium: eat, drink, philosophize
The couches were “single beds” that could accommodate an additional person, especially during a symposion (symposium), the after-dinner male drinking party.
From seven to fifteen beds were arranged against the walls of the andron, the male dining room, each bed with its own little table and often a step stool.
Rather than actually lying down, the men reclined on their left elbows and used their right hands to eat and drink.
They propped themselves up quite high on pillows and kept their balance by bending their right knees and bracing them against the left.