Triclinia (John 13)

The triclinium (plural triclinia) was the dining room in a Roman house. Some of the finest examples of triclinia have been excavated at Pompeii in the houses identified with Menander, Pansa, Castor and Pollux and the Golden Cupids. In wealthier homes the walls of the triclinia were often adorned with ornate frescoes of mythological or pastoral scenes. The room was typically placed such that it afforded a view of the garden, creating a scenic backdrop for the dining experience. It had an oblong shape and featured long couches placed along three of its walls; hence its name. The couch frames were usually made of wood with bronze adornments. Leather straps crisscrossed the open bottoms of the frames and supported stuffed cushions. The diners reclined on their left sides, freeing their right hands to take food from the low table in the centre of the room.

The traditional Roman dinner party (convivium) involved nine guests, with their three persons apiece on each of three couches. These would be arranged in three sides of a square, with entertainment taking place in the open space. Since multiple diners occupied each couch, each person would place his or her head close to the table and then angle the rest of the body away. The bodies of the diners, then, overlapped, with the head of one diner situated next to the chest of the adjacent guest (their feet were angled back and away from the table). For this reason, according to the historian Pliny, one diner was said to lie “in the bosom” of the other. The historian Livy recorded that a type of hierarchy developed in this reclining system. The inferior person’s head lay near the torso of the superior.

By the New Testament times many Jews had adopted the Roman style of dining. The account of the Last Supper in John 13 suggests that Jesus and the disciples were following this custom in a modified form. The Last Supper was not a convivium meal but a Passover, and there had to be room for all of Jesus’ inner circle of 12. There was, of course, no entertainment, and so it may have been the case that four couches were arranged around a central table. The 13 diners were reclining as they ate, and John is said to have been leaning against the breast of Jesus, who was naturally in the position of a superior. John’s position next to Jesus suggests that he was Jesus’ closest friend, which is indeed implied in the narrative (John 13:23).

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