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Why Did Ancient Greeks Recline to Eat and Drink?

ancient greek diet
A symposium scene on an ancient Kylix, or drinking cup. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

Kline (Greek Ανάκλινδρο) was a type of furniture used by the ancient Greeks in their symposia and by the Romans in their slightly different convivia.

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 caught on in the Mediterranean and survived for millennia.

Dining habits differed along class, gender lines in ancient Greece

ancient greeks eat symposium
Symposium. Credit: User:Jastrow /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

Some experts also argue that eating while lying down as you were served by others 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 meals.

Women didn’t generally get invited to banquets except on rare occasions such as wedding feasts—and even then they were expected 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

ancient Greek east symposium
Credit: Public Domain

The couches were “single beds” that could accommodate an additional person, especially during a symposion (symposium), the after-dinner male drinking party.

Seven to fifteen beds were arranged against the walls of the andron, the male dining room, with a small table and occasional step stool for each bed.

Rather than actually lying down, the men reclined on their left elbows and used their right hands for eating and drinking.

Individuals propped themselves up quite high on pillows and maintained their balance by bending their right knees and bracing them against the left.


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