Plato's klinai

To follow up on my last post, which concerned the great variety of couch styles represented on Athenian vases: If there were so many different types of klinai in the repertoire of Athenian vase painters, why did Plato choose to use the kline as a paradigm in his discussion of ideal form and mimesis (Republic 10.596b-598a)? What kind of kline did Plato have in mind as the “one” essential form of the kline, to be distinguished from the kline that the furniture-maker (klinepoios) makes and the kline that the painter paints? And why did Plato prescribe klinai for the burial of the ‘examiners’ of his ideal state (Laws 12.947b-e)?

It is important, first, to stress that the kline was a multifunctional piece of furniture combining the roles of bed and couch. It was used for reclining while dining and drinking as well as for sleeping, sexual activity, and funerary rituals, and could serve as eternal resting place in a tomb. So the translation of the word as “bed” in many English editions of Plato is quite misleading. “Couch” is closer, but those unaware of the many uses of “couches” in ancient Greece can easily miss the social significance of the item Plato uses to demonstrate this important idea. The kline was, first and foremost, symposion furniture, and its occurrence in this passage should be understood against the sympotic context of this and other Socratic dialogues, and perhaps also as a nod to the primary social pastime of Plato’s primary audience. The fact that the most likely place one might have encountered a painted image of a kline in Plato’s time was on a vase used for serving or drinking wine at a symposion imbues the passage with sympotic significance even more clearly. And the discussion of viewpoint—how the image of a kline may “appear otherwise” (φαίνεται δὲ ἀλλοία) if it is depicted from the side or from another perspective—correlates well with the pictorial convention of showing the long sides of some couches and the short end of another in order to suggest the L-shaped arrangement of real klinai in an andron (for example, Fig. 1), as Burnyeat has noted. So both the furniture type and the representational mode under discussion have sympotic connotations. What was the significance of this underlying sympotic context? Burnyeat has suggested that this was how Plato was able to implicate poetic mimesis in a discussion that is, on the surface, about visual representation; that when the kline and the image of a kline on a painted vase call to mind the space of the symposion, they bring with them the poetry that circulated within it.

Fig. 1: Red-figured kylix attributed to Douris, London, British Museum E49, ARV2 432.53 (Beazley Archive vase no. 205096)

But the question of which type of kline Plato had in mind remains, as does the seeming tension between the idea of “one” essential kline form and the many different varieties depicted by Athenian artists. What if Plato had all these types in mind? Assuming that there was some correlation between the types of klinai seen on vases and those actually used—not an obvious assumption to make but a likely one, given that textual sources confirm a variety of kline types designated by a range of different adjectives (Milesiourges, Chiourges, sphenopodos, etc.)—perhaps it was the very variability of kline form that made this piece of sympotic furniture particularly apt for use in this paradigm. By choosing a familiar class of object for which any of his contemporaries could conceive a number of different types, Plato could ensure that his audience would understand that an ideal form was not particular. What all these different styles of klinai shared was that they were couches: the idea of the couch transcends particular style. This point gets lost if one takes it for granted that Plato had “one” kind of couch in mind. The “one” ideal form is the couch-ness of the kline, not the specifics of what the couch looks like. Appearance is, after all, what the carpenter and the painter produce and is inherently variable.

One could counter that tables were also variable and connected with the symposion and so perhaps just as appropriate for demonstrating this idea, and in fact at the beginning of the discussion (R. 10.596b) tables are adduced along with klinai. But the kline becomes the primary exemplum, and the table soon drops from the discussion. I think this is because tables were not only less variable than klinai, but also not so functionally tied to the symposion—the kline originated as symposion furniture, and its multifunctionality reflects the range of activities encompassed by the term.

The kline also makes an appearance in Plato’s Laws (12.947b-e), in his description of the funeral celebrations to be held for the ‘examiners’ of the ideal state: the prothesis and ekphora are to take place on a kline, and the tomb should be a vaulted chamber underground, equipped with stone klinai. What Plato prescribes is remarkably similar to a Macedonian tomb and may reflect his knowledge of burial fashions in Macedonia (though only the very earliest Macedonian chamber tombs may be contemporary with Plato’s last years) or in Asia Minor, where stone models of klinai had been used in tumulus chambers since the sixth century BCE. The question of whether Plato had in mind a “true” barrel vault has long been tied to the debate about the origins of this architectural innovation and lies outside the scope of this brief discussion, but it should be noted that at least one Lydian kline-tomb of the early fifth century (Aktepe) had a corbel-vaulted chamber. Italy has been proposed as another possible source of inspiration, since many Etruscan tombs held stone funeral beds or couches, some carved to resemble klinai. Inlaid wooden klinai had occasionally been used as burial receptacles in Archaic Athens, but a fifth-century sumptuary law from Keos stipulates that klinai used for ekphora had to be returned to household use after the funeral (and requisite purification rites). So whatever the inspiration, the mode of burial Plato describes had foreign and probably dynastic connotations, and its stated purpose is to distinguish the examiners from their fellow citizens (τελευτήσασι δὲ προθέσεις καὶ ἐκφορὰς καὶ θήκας διαφόρους εἶναι τῶν ἄλλων πολιτῶν, 947b). Considering the prominence of wine and its place in society in the preceding portions of the dialogue, is there an underlying sympotic context also for the examiners’ klinai?

This is a more difficult question to answer than it might seem, since the meaning of klinai in funerary contexts is not always certain. While they may often have been intended to portray the deceased as banqueters or symposiasts, they could also be included as indicators of wealth and status or because of their use in funerary prothesis, or simply as beds, for eternal rest or even nuptial symbolism. It is only through context (arrangement and associated finds such as tables and drinking vessels) that we can confirm a banqueting or sympotic significance. Plato does not specify what kind of grave goods should be included with the burial, if any, but he does make an interesting point about the arrangement of the tomb interior: the stone klinai are to be “lying next to one another” (παρ᾽ ἀλλήλας κειμένας, 947d-e). This clarifies that the tomb envisioned is a communal one—to be used for the burial of multiple examiners (and eventually expanded if necessary, 947e)—and the most likely arrangement of multiple klinai in a tomb chamber closely approximates the layout of an andron, with couches placed end to end along the walls. Did Plato envision his examiners laid out as a “blessed” hetaireia, for an eternal symposion? Is there some underlying eschatological significance here? It is only in the fourth century that belief in an eternal afterlife banquet really begins to emerge in Greek textual and visual evidence—is it possible that Plato alludes to that here, in his list of “rewards” (γέρα) for the examiners? Maybe, but only speculatively so. For one thing, few known kline-tombs (in Macedonia, Anatolia, or elsewhere) actually replicate the distinctive interlocking arrangement of klinai in an andron (where each wall held at least one long side and one short end of a kline). And with the potential symbolism of funerary klinai just as variable as klinai themselves, any eschatological reading of their significance must remain speculative.