Furniture of Ancient Greece

by A. Whitham

Early Greek chests from the 6th and 7th centuries BCE were made with elongated square posts and roof-like lids. (Giannelli, 1970). This tradition continued until the 5th Century BCE when chests began to become more ornate and have flat lids to them. According to Schmitz (1957), chests "are mostly painted in a vivid way; generally there is a blue ground with a palmette frieze..." (pg. 9) These intricate and decorative chests were the main storage for clothing until cupboards came into usage during the Hellenistic period.

Modern life in Western civilization has many of its roots and background in ancient Greece. Much of ancient Greek culture such as drama, art, architecture, literature, mythology, and the Olympic games all began in one small country in Europe. Yet there is another aspect of Greek life affecting culture today that is often overlooked: furniture.

No indoor ancient Greek furniture has survived to present day due to the fact that it was entirely made of wood. The examples of the furniture that we see today in vase paintings, sculptures, and reliefs from the Parthenon are considered by historians to be valid. Yet, these are but artists depictions of what furniture was. The only surviving furniture was used in outdoor plays, and is believed to ill-represent the common furniture of the people.


Types of Furniture

According to Lucie-Smith (1979), in ancient Greek society from the 7th century BCE to 4th century BCE, there were 5 main types of furniture and little else: stools, couches, small tables, chests, and chairs. The early kinds of ancient Greek furniture were predominantly influenced by Egyptian furniture. Characteristic of this early furniture was a stiff, rectangular, and unflattering shape. In the 4th and 5th centuries, once the Greeks developed their own style, furniture became less square and rigid and more curved and flowing.

Stools:

Two main styles of stools of ancient Greece have survived through reliefs. The first type looks more like what would today be considered to be a small table. The typical stool consisted of a flat top and four straight legs. This stool was known as a Bathron. There was no back support and the bottom was hard and uncompromising.

The second type of stool was made lightweight and easy to carry. Like most furniture of the time, the X-stool, also known as the diphros okladias, was easily movable and did not have a specific place in the home. This folding X-stool was designed by the Egyptians. It consisted of three animal legs pointed inwards and ending with lion's paws. Along with beds, chairs, and couches, stools ere covered in piles of fleece to increase sitting comfort.

The third type of stool, the Thronos or throne, was a type of stool known only to the wealthy. The Thronos was ornately decorated and was often times lined with precious stones. The footstool, which was used for access to couches and other high furniture, was known as the Theyns.

Couches:

Couches of ancient Greece were combinations of beds and sofas. This type of furniture, called the Kline, was made for sleeping as well as dining. During meals Greek diners would lie down rather than sit to eat. The Greek trend to recline rather than sit originated in the 6th century. Greek couches were similar to those of the Egyptians except for two differences. According to Lucie-Smith (1979), "first, they stood higher off the ground, so much that a footstool was sometimes used as a means of access; and second, there was now a headboard but no footboard". The height allowed for easier access to tables and also allowed room beneath to fit tables. The headboard was used as a means of back support while eating.

Tables:

The Greeks had one set item to be placed upon their tables: food. Unlike people today, the ancient Greeks did not use tables a s places to set up trinkets or valuables, but merely used them in their most basic purpose. According to Schmitz (1957), "Tables were low and mostly movable, credences and drinking tables being often three-legged and made of bronze" (pg. 8). Most ancient tables, contrary to other furniture, were made with 3 rather than 4 legs to create a better sense of balance. These tables could be made of bronze or marble, but typically of wood. This type of table was the most common up until the 4th Century BCE when square topped tables were replaced with round tops.

Chests:

Continuing with the tradition of ancient Greek furniture, chests were originally made similar to those of the Egyptian style and then took on their own style. Chests were the only means for storing clothing because shelves were generally not used for that purpose. Jewelry, coverings, and fruits (predominantly quince) were hidden alongside the clothing for protection. Chests were also often valued enough to be part of a wife's dowry into use in the Hellenistic period.

Chairs:
Prior to the invention of a type of chair known as the Klismos by the Greeks in the 5th Century BCE, chairs were the same as those of Egypt and Persian. These chairs had hard stiff backs and arms. Even the people depicted in paintings and friezes sitting in these types of chairs look to be uncomfortable. Rather than being designed to be comfortable, these chairs of the 6th and 7th Centuries BCE were purely practical or ceremonial in nature.
The 5th Century BCE brought along a new era in Greek chairs and furniture. The Klismos was an entirely new type of chair designed by the Greeks. It's smooth and flowing shape inspired cultures of the Middle Ages and the early 19th Century to revive the concept. The Klismos, used principally by women, was made with delicately curved back and legs. These features allowed the sitter to be in a freer and more natural position. According to Bishop (1979), the backs of these chairs, referred to as Stiles, were designed to the curvature of the back for comfort and extended to the shoulders. The Klismos, like most other furniture, was made of wood and not ornately decorated. In order to increase the comfort, cushions and animal skins were usually placed on the Klismos. By Hellenistic times, the general shape and structure of the Klismos had already started to change. Chairs once again became heavier and more rigid. The general concept of comfort over ceremony has luckily survived through these changes so that a piece of furniture from 2500 years ago does not seem at all strange today.
Additional Furnishings:

The previously mentioned furnishings were usually the bare essentials for a family living in ancient Greece. There are also other furnishings which were less useful and more decorative. These, of course, belonged to the wealthy.
Wealthy Greeks enjoyed the luxuries of incense burners, vases, and large vases known as Lebeti as a part of daily life. The vases of the wealthy were decorative and were often times made of precious or semi-precious metals. These vases, along with Lebeti, were made by highly skilled workers and were often times ornately decorated. According to Bishop (1979), Lebeti were "elegant nuptial vases of eighteen inches high and minutely decorated with stories from history or legend..." (pg. 20) Lebeti, in addition to their decorative purpose, were used as water jugs and large bowls.

In conclusion, it is easy to see the effect that ancient Greek furniture has had on contemporary life by examining the types of furniture used by Greeks. The five main types of furniture in ancient Greece were made for practicality then, and have continued to serve their purpose to this day. The stools, couches, tables, chests, and chairs of the Greeks are merely more additions to the grand assortment of Greek items and ideas that have had an immense influence on Western life today.


REFERENCES

This page was created by A. Whitham, 5/22/97, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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