Around the year 399 BCE, the Roman Republic was reportedly hit by a terrible plague. The outbreak of disease was so bad that the Romans consulted their Sibylline Books—a collection of mystical and cryptic prophecies from ancient sibyls—for answers on how to overcome the disaster. After perusing through the records of mysterious sibylline utterances, Roman officials evidently were able to piece together a peculiar plan of action. According to the Roman interpretation of the Sibylline Books, they needed to behave kindly to the gods, and to each other, for at least a week in order to survive the plague. Looking to the Greeks for inspiration, the Romans quickly put together a new ceremony that they called the Lectisternium, which can be translated as the “Draping of the Couches.” The Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE- 17 CE), using whatever records he had at his disposal, wrote about this new ceremony, and all of the charitable and good-natured rules that went with it:
“The two officials in charge of such matters performed, for the first time in Rome, the ceremony of the lectisternium or Draping of the Couches: to win the favour of Apollo, Latona, and Diana, of Hercules, Mercury and Neptune, for eight successive days three couches as richly furnished as the times could afford, were left standing out of doors for the divine company to recline on. A similar ceremony was celebrated in private houses: in every street doors were left open and viands of all sorts displayed for the promiscuous use of anyone and everyone; friends and strangers alike were, we are told, invited in and hospitably entertained; men talked with kindliness and courtesy to their bitterest enemies; quarrels were forgotten, no process was served, and even the prisoners in gaol were relieved of their chains” (The History of Rome, 5.13).
Unfortunately, Livy did not elaborate on the plague that was said to have caused the Lectisternium to be introduced in Rome. On whether the ceremony worked or was ineffective, Livy remained silent. Whatever the case, the Romans were not debilitated by the disease for long, as Rome was able to quickly resume its military campaigns in the following years, notably conquering their major rival, Veii, in 396 BCE. Like other ceremonies adopted by Rome in times of need, the Lectisternium remained in practice for a long time after it was first introduced. Later generations believed the ceremony could be used to appease the gods and to ward off disease.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Preparation for the Festivities, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.