The Egyptians always washed their hands before starting their meals, and it is probable that they also did it after each course. It is a custom found with all of the peoples of Antiquity, and is explained by the necessity of using the fingers to take up food.
In Wasps, Aristophane describes the ritual of meals:
“Lie on this bed, and learn what to do to be a good guest and have beautiful manners. Extend your legs and, like a clever athlete, perfume your body in the blankets; then praise the bronze vases, contemplate the wood panelling, admire the sheets spread over the courtyard… Water for the hands; tables are brought; we start to eat… let us wipe ourselves; let us partake of libations… ” This is the moment when the servant pours the contents of the vase, which usually contains perfumed water, over the hands of the guests.
The Athenians so loved odours and perfumes that they mixed them with the wine for washing their feet before lying down to eat. It is also customary to take your own serviette with you when you dine in town.
Like the Greeks, the Romans have the habit of lying down on beds, to eat. There are usually three beds for each table, installed in the dining-room, the triclinium.
The normal triclinium is arranged for nine people, but it often happens that the beds, prepared for three people, have only one or two. It is bad manners to put more than three. However, this is sometimes done, when the people in question are not very highly estimed clients, invited by rich Romans, who want to make them feel their inferiority.
The guests, once installed in the triclinium, receive iced water on their hands, from Egyptian slaves. Others remove their sandals, and wash their feet and nails.
The Romans eat three meals a day. The first, breakfast (jentaculum) is very modest. It is generally composed of cheese and fruit, with a little wine. Around the middle of the day, there is a light meal or snack, but the real meal is supper (caena) which is eaten at nightfall, when the tribunals are closed, business is finished, and there is no-one left in the forum. It is at supper that people meet up, invite their friends, talk business and politics.
In Rome, the ablution is customary in society, and during the meal, it is usual to wash your hands. Water is poured over the fingers using a gutturnium, a vase whose opening is very narrow, and lets the water through a few drops at a time. The hands are then wiped with a lintea or mappa, brought by each guest.
The Hebrews washed their hands before sitting down to eat, and the Gospels trace this custom back to the most ancient times. For these ablutions, a vase with a long lip, and a basin, are generally used.
In a painting from an Etruscan tomb in Corneto, representing a feast, underneath a dresser where bowls and goblets are stored, two vases with handles, placed in basins, can be seen. These are most likely water pots for ablutions.
The Gallo-Franks and the Gallo-Romans ate lying on beds, around tables scattered with flowers, and washed their hands before and after meals.
Second part tomorrow.