Skeletons in the dining room


Who in their right mind decorates their dining room with skeletons, anyway? Well, the Greeks and Romans – that’s who.

A 2,400-year-old unusual mosaic was quite recently discovered in the dining room of a villa, in the ancient Greek city of Antioch (modern-day Turkey's southern Hatay province). It depicts a human skeleton set against a black background, reclining leisurely with a drinking cup in his hand next to a wine amphora and a couple of bread loaves, just as if he we were a dinner guest straight out of a cheesy horror movie.

There’s also an inscription above the skeleton which reads “euphrosinos”, literally translating to “gay” (in the Shakespearean sense of the word) or “jovial / jolly”. In other words, this morbid piece of dining room décor is antiquity’s version of what we’d call today a motivational poster, proclaiming something along the lines of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, very reminiscent of the Biblical verses found at Ecclesiastes 8:15 and Isaiah 22:13. 

Upon seeing this I couldn’t help but immediately think of the famous “memento mori” mosaic (currently in Naples, National Archaeological Museum, Inv. No. 109982) found also in a dining room floor, in Pompeei, which dates to the 1st century A.D. Of course, this one is not as playful as the Antiochian mosaic. The “memento mori”, or “skull and level” as it’s also known, is full of symbolisms alluding to the doctrine of the soul’s cycle of reincarnations (as expounded by the Orphics, Pythagoreans and later on the Platonists and Neo-Platonists), divine justice, the Great Work and the terrible, inescapable equality of all human beings when it comes to death.

Nevertheless, both mosaics have pretty much the same meaning. What is perplexing, though, is why would anyone want to decorate his dining room with such stark reminders of his own mortality?

To the modern Western mentality something like that would, at best, be considered eccentric or in poor taste if not downright creepy and sickening. 

In order to better understand why the ancients would go and do weird stuff like that, first we have to understand what sort of people inhabited those villas and could afford mosaic-laden dining rooms to begin with: the upper class. The wealthy and the educated; and by “educated” one is to understand people adhering to some degree to one of the many "hues" of philosophy current throughout the extended Hellenistic and Roman world. It is also quite possible that the owners of those villas were initiates in a Mystery School or other since every person of any intellectual aspiration and / or societal standing would not miss out on the opportunity of peering deeper into the essence of the true nature of both temporal and divine truths. 

Furthermore, we must keep in mind that people in ancient times were much more accustomed to death than we are today: weather it was death by disease or during childbirth, an animal sacrifice, bloodletting in the arena or first-hand experience of war and brutal hand-to-hand combat, the ancients, unlike us, did not harbor any delusions that they would live forever. They knew death was coming and they knew it well.

In addition to this, dining was one of the sublime joys of life, especially for the well-to-do villa-dweller: the pleasure of good cuisine was accompanied by music (which was a rather big deal in an era without iTunes and MP3 players, where your only option was to have live musicians present), and animated conversation to stimulate the mind and provide this emotional thrill that the average person today gets from watching TV during his meal.

To be reminded of impending death in the midst of all this merry-making and contentment was not just an expression of spiritual sobriety and maturity – it was also a way of subconsciously putting things into perspective and heightening the awareness of the moment. 

In a way, skeletons in the dining room, served as a reminded to be grateful – to know one’s place in the order of things, come to terms with it, and thus attain inner peace.

Diotogenes the Pythagorean, writes: “it is also a good thing to pray to God before dinner and breakfast, not because God needs any such thing but because we, by remembering Him, bring harmonious order in our soul” (Stobeaus, Anth. 130). 

In an age where complaining voices multiply by the day, cursing and whining and shaking their verbal fists to the sky, wouldn’t it be better if we were to remember to be thankful for all the amazing things we already have, like the ancients did?

After all, life on this earth is only so long. 

Wouldn’t it be better if instead of complaining about the anchovies on the pizza we just put some skeletons in the dining room as well? 


Article Published: Saturday, 23 April 2016