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SELLA The customs and associations which the Greeks and Romans connected with the attitude of sitting were so different from ours that any account of the seats they used must involve some mention of the ceremonial meaning and etiquette which had grown up round it. Most strange to a modern is the religious and ceremonial use of the posture. To sit at or on a sacred spot or object was in itself an act of supplication (cf. Aesch. Supp. 224, 265; Soph. O. T. 2), not merely in the heroic age, but, as we see from the story of Themistocles seating himself on the household hearth of Admetus (Thuc. 1.135), in classical times. In art it is very often shown: for instance, Priam seated on the altar of Zeus at the taking of Troy, Telephos on the hearth of Agamemnon, and Orestes at the omphalos at Delphi (cf. Baumeister, Denkmäler, arts. Iliupersis, Telephos, and Oresteia). So too, when being purified from the stain of blood, the sinner sat on the altar, possibly on the skins of the victims, as the novice did when being initiated, and the sorcerer when summoning the spirits of the dead (cf. Vase-painting of Odysseus and the Ghost of Teiresias, Mon. d. Inst. 4.19). In taking omens from birds, the seer, both among Greeks and Romans, was seated (cf. Soph. Antig. 999; Serv. ad Aen. 9.4). Chairs also formed an important part of the sacred furniture in many ceremonial processions (cf. Aristoph. Eccl. 734; Av. 1552), as in the well-known instance of the central group of the East Parthenon frieze, [p. 2.618]where the priestess is attended by maidens carrying chairs on their heads.

Of the place seats took in the civil life of antiquity it is needless to speak, for the customs by which difference of rank, dignity, or authority was typified by the prominence and magnificence or the reverse of seats, are easily comprehended and too numerous to mention [cf. THRONUS]. It is enough to point to such words as συνεδρία, προεδρία, consessus praesidium, or sessio, to show how deeply such ideas had sunk into the national life and language. Nor again does the contempt which in social life the leisured classes felt for the artisans and others who pursued a sedentary occupation (cf. Xen. Rep. Lac. 1.3, οἱ πολλοὶ τῶν τὰς τέχνας ἐχόντων ἑδραῖοί εἰσιν) call for explanation. The etiquette, too, which regulated such matters, was not unlike our own, for even in the Homeric age it was part of the welcome of a guest to bid him be seated (e.g. Od. 1.130). It was also considered an act of necessary politeness to rise in the presence of an older or more honoured man (cf. Cic. de Sen. 18, 63, “ assurgi: ” cf. Juv. 13.55; Mayor ad loc.); and Caesar was accused of aiming at royal power, when he refused to rise in presence of the senate (Liv. Ep. cxvi.; Suet. Jul. 78; Dio Cassius, 44.8), and the emperors showed their authority by sitting between the consuls.

At banquets when men reclined it was considered becoming for boys to sit (Xen. Symp. 1.8; Suet. Cl. 32), and the rule for women was originally the same (V. Max. 2.1, 2), though disregarded in later times. In art even the goddesses are represented as seated, while the gods recline (cf. Baumeister, Denkmäler, art. Zwolfgötter, fig. 2401); and while the latter were honoured by lectisternia, the former were only given sellisternia. Many grave reliefs representing a banquet of the deified dead show the same custom, which was by no means confined to the Greeks, for it may be seen on the Assyrian bas-relief of Sardanapalus feasting, now in the British Museum.

On the monuments, especially the vase-paintings, the personages in a mythological scene who are merely spectators are often depicted as seated, especially when they are deities. The most familiar instance is the assembly of gods beholding the Panathenaic procession, on the east frieze of the Parthenon. In genre scenes, the use of chairs often shows that the scene takes place indoors, and in many cases helps us to distinguish the mistress from her maids, or the master from his followers.

Seats in antiquity were of almost as many forms as nowadays, but for practical purposes it is sufficient to divide them into three classes: (1) those which have a straight back and arms; (2) those with a back, but no arms; and (3) those which have neither a back nor arms. The first class is described under THRONUS the second under CATHEDRA while the present article gives an account of seats in general and the third class in particular.

In Greece, before Homer, seats both with and without backs were used, as is shown by carvings on ivory which have been found at Mycenae (cf. Ἐφημερίς, 1888, Πίναξ B. 3, 2, and 4, 29). These were no doubt not unlike the Assyrian and Egyptian thrones and chairs, which are plainly the ancestors of those used in Greece in historical times. In Homer the general term for seats of all kinds is ἕδρη: but, with the exception of the θρόνος [THRONUS], which is of the first class mentioned above, and may be assumed to be identical with the thrones on which the gods of later times were seated, there is no information given about the distinctive shapes of the different varieties.

The κλισμός, which came next in honour to the θρόνος, was apparently used for ease and comfort, since Penelope sat in it spinning (Od. 17.97), and Telemachus rested in it after a bath (Od. 17.90). This seems to imply that it had a back, but no arms. It must have been of some height, for a footstool (θρῆνυς = later ὑποπόδιον) was sometimes used with it (Od. 4.136). The κλισμὸς was decorated with metal plates and inlaying, as is shown by the epithets χρύσειος (Il. 8.436) and ποικίλος (Od. 1.132), and was only used by people of rank.

There is a good deal of difficulty in deciding whether the word is always used in a specific sense, and Helbig on account of Il. 24.515 and 597 (cf. Il. 11.623, 645), where κλισμὸς and θρόνος are synonymous, maintains that the usage of the word is not consistent throughout. This would account for the fact that Helen works seated on a κλισίη (Il. 4.123). The κλισίη is exclusively a woman's chair, and is possibly identical with the κλιντήρ,--an easy chair in which one could, like Penelope (Od. 18.189), take a nap.

The commonest kind of seat was the δίφρος: it was for instance given to Odysseus, when he appeared in beggar's rags (Od. 19.97), and it formed part of the furniture of the Thalamos (Il. 6.354), being meant for use, not ornament. It was doubtless, like the δίφρος of classical times, merely a stool, without back or arms. Owing to the indefiniteness of the mentions in Homer, it is impossible to identify these various forms with those shown on Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, or early Greek monuments.

In the classical period the generic name for chairs and stools was καθέδρα (to be distinguished from the Latin CATHEDRA which was only used for one kind, the κλισμός). For the different varieties, the Homeric names remained in use, the difference in meaning being expressed as follows by Athenaeus (5.192 e): γὰρ θρόνος αὐτὸ μόνον ἐλευθέριός ἐστι καθέδρα οὺν ὑποποδίῳ . . . δὲ κλισμὸς περιττοτέρως κεκόσμηται ἀνακλίσει, τούτων δὲ εὐτελέστερος ἧν δίφρος. Our information, however, on the subject is given by the monuments rather than by literature, and on them we have the great variety of forms shown. The simplest is that of the δίφρος, which is of the third class, being without arms or back. It was besides called σκίμπους, though this name is also given to benches (βάθρα or χαμαίζηλοι i.e. δίφροι χαμαίζηλοι), which were sometimes long enough to serve as a bed (cf. Plato, Prot. p. 310 C). These chairs are seen on the earliest monuments, and are of every variety of make, from simple four-legged stools to chairs with richly-turned legs, ornamented with inlaying and chased or embossed metal work. They were a most important part of household furniture, especially in the women's rooms (cf. Pollux, 10.47), where they were used not only for sitting at work or the toilet, but as a substitute for tables and shelves on which to lay clothes, vessels, or instruments. [p. 2.619]

This was also one of the uses to which the chairs, which were carried in sacred processions with the holy vessels, were put (cf. the

Δίφρος, from a vase-painting. (Baumeister.)

διφροφόροι on the east side of the Parthenon frieze, and Aristophanes, Aristoph. Eccl. 734). The δίφρος was also used much in workshops by shoemakers, carpenters, smiths, painters, potters, and others of a sedentary employment. [See cut under FICTILE Vol. I. p. 844 a.] It was also part of the furniture of a school, where the master sat on a higher and more dignified seat and the pupils on chairs or benches (βάθρα cf. Plato, Prot. p. 315 C, and see cut from vase of Duris in Berlin Museum on page 96). The δίφρος was also used out of doors, and it was the custom for well-to-do gentlemen of the old school to have a boy carrying one in attendance as he walked about (Arist. Eq. 1384-6: cf. Ath. 12.512 c). For this purpose a camp-stool (δίφρος ὀκλαδίας) was used. The shape, however, was a favourite one, and chairs were often made in it which could not possibly fold up and were meant for ordinary use. The legs were either straight or curved (Inscr., Hermes, 5.346).

Chairs of all kinds were covered with skins and fleeces in the Homeric age, and at all periods with shawls and coverlets. Cushions (κνέφαλλα, τύλαι) were also used, but upholstery was unknown.

The manufacture of chairs flourished, especially in Thessaly, Miletus, and Chios (cf. Critias quoted by Athen. 1.28 b). Maple and beech were the woods chiefly used, but harder and more expensive sorts were necessary for those which were inlaid with ivory. Wickerwork chairs are also mentioned (Theophr. 5.3, 4; Plin. Nat. 16.174; Cato, Cat. Agr. 33, 5), and are shown on some monuments (as on the sarcophagus in British Museum; see Baumeister, 1610). The fixed chairs which were set up in theatres or other public places, for certain officials or as a special honour, are described in the article THRONUS

The Romans made use of all the forms of chair known to the Greeks, and do not seem to have had any peculiar shapes of their own. The general term in Latin is sedile (= καθέδρα for all kinds of seats, while the varieties are the scamnum or subsellium (= βάθρον), the sella ( = δίφρος), the cathedra, and the solium. [THRONUS]

The sella was the commonest form, and was used by all classes, both men and women; whereas the cathedra was specially an easy chair for ladies, children, and sickly folk. It was used no less in private houses than in workshops (Cic. Cat. 4.8, 17; Verr. 4.25, 56), and in schools, though whether the pupils were allowed to use it, or were confined to the subsellia, has been disputed: Göll, in Becker's Gallus, ii. p. 347, maintains, with good reason, against Marquardt, that the pupils had only subsellia. [LUDUS LITTERARIUS p. 97.] Like the δίφρος, it might be plain or very highly ornamented, and was covered when in use by a cushion (pulvinus), but never upholstered. It was made not only with four upright legs, but in the form of a campstool; and this shape, though in common use for every-day purposes, is best known as peculiar to the sellae curules of the higher Roman magistrates, the office they held being on this account called a magistratus curulis. The derivation of curulis is uncertain, but that from currus, which was given by the ancients (cf. Gavius Bassus, quoted by Gellius, 3.18, and Festus, Ep. p. 49), seems best to accord with the customs connected with the magistrate's chair, which was originally, it would seem, placed in the magistrate's chariot. The actual carrying of the chair is not mentioned in historical times; but the underlying idea, that the right of moving the sella curulis betokened a jurisdiction that was not confined to any one place, like a tribunal, but extended wherever the magistrate had a right to drive, is clear enough (cf. Liv. 3.11, “consules in conspectu eorum positis sellis delectum habebant” ). Even out of Rome, the magistrate brought with him, as symbol of his rule, a sella castrensis (Suet. Galba, 18). The importance of being seated when acting officially runs through the whole of Roman ceremonial etiquette, subordination being expressed when the people stood before the seated magistrate, equality when the senate sat in his presence. The same was the rule in social life; for the paterfamilias received visitors sitting, and younger people or those of lower rank rose in the presence of an older or more honourable man. So, too, the public rose when the magistrate entered the amphitheatre during the games (Suet. Cl. 12). The difference in the position of magistrates was also shown by the fact that the sella curulis was confined to the, consuls and praetors, all magistrates with the consular or praetorian imperium (e. g. decemviri and tribuni militares: cf. Liv. 3.44, 9, 4.7), the Dictator, the Magister Equitum, the Censor, and the Flamen Dialis.

Sellae Curules, from Pompeii. (
Mus. Borbon.
vi. tav. 28.)

The sella curulis was a campstool, which, when open, had a square seat and was without a back or arms. Its legs were curved, whence it is [p. 2.620]called δίφρος ἀγαυλόπους by Greek writers (Plut. Mar. 5), a form which is shown on numerous monuments, especially coins: cf. a gravestone in the Museum at Avignon (Cahier

Sella Castrensis.

and Martin, Mélanges d. Arch. i. p. 166), where it is shown having a seat of straps, covered with cushions. The sella castrensis is shown on the coins of the praetors and quaestors of the Cyrenaica (cf. Longperier, Rev. Arch. 1868, p. 106), and is of simpler shape with straight legs.

The sella curulis was also used by magistrates in the municipia (cf. Mommsen, Staatsrecht, 1.384). Other magistrates had chairs of office,

Sella Quaestoris.

that of the quaestor having four straight legs, but not arranged for shutting together (cf. Longperier, Rev. Arch. 1868, p. 58; called by him subsellium), while the tribunes and other colleges had a bench (subsellium).

Sella Quaestoris.

The bisellium is not a magistrate's seat, and its use was confined to the municipia, where it was given as an honour to the Augustales. It was in this case a double seat, set apart in the amphitheatre and theatre (Orelli, 4044, 4046). The decuriones seem to have had it by right of their office, as the biselliatus honor is not


given among their titles on inscriptions. Some of the inscriptions are accompanied by a representation of a seat, but it is not at all certain that this is intended to be a bisellium, and in one case it is more like a sella curulis (cf. Jordan, Annali: d. Inst. 1862, p. 293; and Castellani, Bullettino delìa Commissione Arch. Municip. 1874, p. 22). In any case there does not seem to be the slightest reason (Varro, L. L. 5.128, is not definite) for giving the name bisellium to a class of sellae found at Pompeii, and represented in the accompanying cut, taken from the specimen in the Hamilton Collection at the British Museum, in which it is to be noted that the supports on which the cushions rested have been wrongly restored as supports below instead of above the seat. [PULVINUS]

Sedan chairs were known as sellae gestatoriae, portatoriae, or fertoriae, and are contrasted with the litter (lectica: cf. Mart. 10.10, it;11.98, 10), though occasionally the distinction is not observed (cf. Mart. 4.51, where the ingens hexaphoron can only be a lectica, and yet is called sella). These were known in Greece as an Oriental innovation, and were at Rome used by ladies, senators' wives having, it would seem, a special sort (D. C. 57.15), but under the Empire their use became common with men. Thus they were used by Augustus (Suet. Aug.

Sella. (British Museum.)

53) and Claudius (D. C. 60.2, δίφρῳ καταστέγῳ πρῶτος Ῥωμαίων ἐχρήσατο), and in later times almost universally. They were often large enough to hold two persons (Plin. Ep. 3.5, 15), and were either open (apertae) or covered over (opertae), and could be shut close (cf. Juv. 1.124), sometimes with windows of “bull's-eye” glass (Juv. 4.21). Another variety of sedan chair is the cathedra, which is probably the same as the sella muliebris in Suetonius, Oth. 6, and in any case was covered, for Seneca regards it as one of the scandals of his time that women went about in open chairs (de Benef. 1.9, 3). The roof of the sella was called arcus (cf. Tac. Ann. 15.57, where a woman hangs herself from the arcus). (Buchholz, Die hom. Realien, 2.138; Helbig, Das hom. Epos, 1887, p. 118; Hermann-Blümner, Lehrbuch, p. 158;--Becker--G$20oll, Charikles, iii. p. 82; Gallus, ii. p. 347, iii. p. 7;--Mommsen, Staatsrecht, i. pp. 370 ff., 380 ff.; Marquardt, Privatleben, 1886, p. 725; Blümner, Techn. v. Index, s. v. Sessel; Kunstgewerbe, ii. p. 29; Iwan Müller, Handbuch, iv. pp. 379, 381, 386, 509, 519; Daremberg and Saglio, Dict. Antiq., art. Bisellium, Cathedra; Baumeister, Denkmäler, art. Sessel; Mayor, Juvenal, notes on 1.124, 4.21.)


hide References (39 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (39):
    • Aeschylus, Suppliant Maidens, 224
    • Aeschylus, Suppliant Maidens, 265
    • Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 734
    • Homer, Iliad, 4.123
    • Homer, Odyssey, 17.97
    • Homer, Odyssey, 19.97
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.130
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.132
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.136
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 999
    • Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.135
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 1.3
    • Xenophon, Symposium, 1.8
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.623
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.645
    • Homer, Iliad, 24.515
    • Homer, Iliad, 6.354
    • Homer, Iliad, 8.436
    • Homer, Odyssey, 17.90
    • Homer, Odyssey, 18.189
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 4.8
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 12
    • Suetonius, Divus Claudius, 32
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 78
    • Tacitus, Annales, 15.57
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 3.15
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 3.5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 9
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 7
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 3.18
    • Plutarch, Caius Marius, 5
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 1.28
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 10.10
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 4.51
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 2.1
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 2.2
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