Startling evidence of ancient Romans' most exclusive way of dining has been uncovered in a villa in southern Italy, local archaeologists announced.
Excavation at the residence of an aristocratic family in Faragola, in Puglia, has brought to light a rare example of a stibadium, a semicircular couch on which selected guests sat at the most fashionable dinner parties.
Complete with a fountain, which provided fresh water for the meals, the stibadium consisted of a semicircular platform of masonry that formed the basis for mattresses or bolsters on which the guests reclined.
"Only a few stibadia survive, but none of them is so lavishly decorated and well preserved as the one found at Faragola," Giuliano Volpe, the archaeologist from the University of Foggia in charge of the digging, told Discovery News.
Decorated with carvings of dancing maenads, or Bacchantes (the female devotees of the wine-god Dionysus), the newly discovered stibadium couch was covered with "opus sectile," decorations made by using precisely cut pieces of colorful marble.
Described by Latin writers such as Quintus Aurelius Simmacus, Sidonius Apollinaris and Ausonius, the stibadium is also depicted on mosaics, such as the one showing the Last Supper in the church of St. Apollinaire, in Ravenna.
"It started as a fashion for outdoor dining — originally a cushion or bolster on the ground — and later came to be adopted indoors. I think it was seen at first as more casual and relaxed than the normal rectangular arrangement of couches for dining, though it later simply became the fashionable way of dining in style," Katherine Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University in Canada and author of the book "The Roman Banquet: Images Of Conviviality," told Discovery News.
"Its use would be confined to those who were wealthy enough, and had leisure enough, to give elegant dinner parties. Certainly anyone who could afford to have a permanent fixture of this sort decorated with marble in their villa would have had to be pretty rich," she said.
Luxury and opulence abounded at the villa in Faragola.
Built in the 4th century, the residence reached its height of splendor during the 5th century. Belonging to the senatorial Cornelii Scipiones Orfiti family, it featured big and luxurious thermal baths, with rooms for cold, lukewarm and hot baths.
In a large room with a precious mosaic floor, guests indulged in massages.
But the most spectacular room was the cenatio, the dining hall. The dominus, the house owner, sat at the right on the stibadium, while the most important guest sat at the left in front of the dominus.
No more than five to seven selected guests could sit on the semicircular divan.
Sitting there, they could admire musicians, dancers and jugglers and the "carpets of glass" — glass panels with ivory and marble encased in them — which stood on the polychrome marble floors.
"Putting on the floor such precious and frail artworks is really a provocative display of wealth," Volpe said.
Growing wealthy on the grain production, the Orfiti family lived at the villa during the harvest season, and managed all of their lands from there.
Perhaps because of an economic crisis, the Faragola "dolce vita" ended in the 6th century, and the villa was abandoned and forgotten.
"This is a very interesting discovery. The stibadium is indeed spectacular, certainly the most impressive example to have been discovered," Dunbabin said.