THE TRIVIAL ROUND AND THE COMMON TASKS 

In the domus of our friend, let us call him Quintus (as do his intimates), who lives on the Caelian Hill, opposite the Palatine, the bell rings just before dawn. His acquaintance the polymath Pliny, would have been up hours ago, scribbling away – but then he even wrote in his sedan chair . . . Quintus’ first caller is his twelve-year-old son, just off to school. He notices the old slave carrying a lantern and the boy’s books, probably Virgil or Horace. He kisses him, reminds him he has to recite a poem at the dinner party tonight, and he sighs, for he knows the school is boring, that the lessons are repetitive, literally beaten into the boys, and wonders if he shouldn’t assemble a group of friends and fund a school with an intelligent Greek as teacher, as had been done recently over on the Palatine and was constantly advocated by (again) Pliny. Trouble is, Quintus thought, we Romans are so suspicious of the Greeks, giving the boys the wrong ideas . . . ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,’ he muttered to himself – one of the few lines he remembered from the Aeneid. (‘I fear the Greeks even though they bring gifts.’)

At this point, his valet enters with water in a silver bowl for him to wash his hands and face and helps him to dress – his underwear, which he exchanges for what he had been sleeping in; his tunic with a broad purple stripe running down the middle, which indicates his senatorial rank, his black patrician shoes, each with a little silver or ivory crescent on the instep with the same significance. Next he is shaved – in soapless Ancient Rome, a barbarous and agonizing daily event but obligatory for gentlemen (for custom dictated a beardless countenance) and though the iron razor (none, of course, extant) was sharp, facial cuts were common and hair was often removed with tweezers or some other depilatory. Julius Caesar, a strict dandy, suffered particularly. Nero had the world’s best barber. Quintus has his own but most Romans went to the neighbourhood shop, sometimes in the open air, and bled when the barber was jostled by the crowd; indeed, there are lawsuits arising from such injury – and, contrariwise, stories of successful practitioners retiring with a fortune. When the Emperor Hadrian grew a beard to conceal a scar and the fashion was allowed, upper-class Romans, who for centuries had been painfully clean-shaven, must have been mightily relieved. His barber also dresses his hair, not as complicated a procedure as that for his wife, whose hair might be piled elaborately on her head, like Marie Antoinette (the times that an angry matron had hit her hairdresser with a mirror or had her flogged for fumbling over a kiss-curl were already part of Roman folklore). Bald men wore wigs and Sulla, once so handsome but suffering from psoriasis, as painful as it was unsightly, had one of ginger curls which, until they realized who he was, made people laugh; alternatively imitation hair was painted on bare parts of the head; but let us give Quintus a reasonable head of hair and allow him to have his simple breakfast – milk, honey and bread – in peace. His valet helps him with his toga, also obligatory for any citizen of standing (only a full Roman citizen could wear one), but often, especially in hot weather, an affliction and needing a certain amount of skill to arrange the impressive folds. Quintus is now ready to meet his clientes, which have assembled in his reception hall.

These are citizens, sometimes poor relations, who have difficulty in making ends meet without a private dole from a great man. Quintus is not dangerously rich or powerful, nor does he have the patronage of some great office of state – controlling the water supply or the corn, or being about to govern a province – but he is important enough to have, and in a sense to need, hangers-on for mutual support. His money, which he does not handle himself, comes from rents of property in Rome, estates in Sicily and North Africa and farms dotted all over Italy and is enough to enable him to keep up a train de vie as elegant as any eighteenth-century nobleman, including the maintenance of villas in Puteoli and Antium, the occasional heavy flutter on the horses, the purchase of jewels for his wife, the odd visit (in an anonymous sedan chair) to the most expensive brothel in Rome (for although a good man he is not a puritan) and finally, but crucially, the daily gifts to his clients. Originally these came in the shape of parcels of food, which the hungry client might cook in the street outside, but nowadays money was the form. In return for this patronage, which might be brutal and mean or tender and generous, according to the mood and disposition of the patron (clients were not allowed moods), Quintus was applauded whenever and wherever – he would be an unusual Roman if he did not enjoy declaiming his own verse – he spoke, be it at a law court as a character witness or on the floor of the Senate.

Quintus has dealt with his clients – all, like him, in togas but some quite threadbare and in colours which do not show marks – one by one, according to teir status. A typical reception of a patronus might include a praetor (to help in an election campaign), a tribune, a knight (offering an investment in a shipload of silk), a poet, an artist (who had heard that Quintus planned to build a private bath), an architect (ditto), a bum or two, one or two freedmen and even a slave. All would have addressed him as ‘dominus’(Lord); all would have received something, if only an invitation to dinner; a few would have been told to return to the domus to receive their present because Quintus needs their presence during the day to help him with his shopping, which today involves the purchase of a new slave. In Rome the men, at all social levels, were responsible for purchases and also the collection of the corn dole. They always left the house, the women rarely did. The wives of the poor had their chores but those of the rich had nothing to do save gossip, intrigue (socially and sexually), look after their money and contemplate divorce, which was often instigated by them.60

Quintus is now ready to go to the Forum, a mile away. He does not take the sedan chair, nor the litter with the six hunky Germans in scarlet livery, but decides, it being a fine day, if cold, to walk. This, in a toga, is no light undertaking61 and Quintus, a favourite client on either side, an accountant to hold his purse, servants to clear the way for him, is the centre of an impressive little procession. Should a consul pass, preceded by his lictors, he will stop and, if he is wearing a hat, remove it. If he sees a friend and equal, he will embrace him effusively. (In this way, it was often objected, Romans of rank passed their colds on to each other.)

Although this is an ordinary day, with no festival and no Games, the Forum is crowded – with gamblers playing dice, beggars (including a soldier with a wooden leg), a hired claque applauding unconvincingly, a man declaiming some verse plagiarized from Virgil, a group of noisy fellows, linen-clad and with shaven heads, proclaiming the end of the world, a man carrying a tray of loaves, another pushing a tiny cart containing an enormous turbot. On an impulse Quintus buys it. Apart from mullet, turbot is the most expensive fish known in Rome and it will impress his chief dinner guest, a quaestor who has just returned62 from a tour in Britain and is now at the treasury in Rome.

Rome pullulated with people of every race, voluntary emigrants attracted to the great city from the provinces but also the descendants of prisoners-of-war brought in as slaves, some of whom Quintus might have among his clientes and who could only litigate through his sponsorship. Indeed the crowd in the Forum would be a macrocosm of his own household – Gauls, Spaniards, Thracians, Cappadocians (from eastern Turkey), Syrians, Greeks, Galatians, Numidians, Macedonians; Jews he would not have employed because of their odd habits, strange diet and unavailability to work every seventh day, licensed by their first protector, Julius Caesar.

Quintus sends a servant for a copy of the Daily News, posted up by the rostra in the Forum; he is going to attend upon Nero and should know what is (officially) happening. Presently, with his little retinue, he climbs the Palatine Hill to the palace of Nero and makes his way through the curious crowd by the gates – who had nothing to fear from the rapacity and jealousy of their Emperor; indeed they liked him. Quintus hoped Nero would be in a good mood and wondered if he would be searched for a concealed weapon, since the Emperor had taken such a hatred for men of his class. (We are in early AD 64, when the death of his mentors, Seneca and Burrus, and the murder of his mother had removed any restraint from the twenty-seven-year-old ruler of the world.) Quintus is officially a ‘friend of the Emperor’, who likes to see him at court, and even more, Quintus remembers uneasily, likes to see him applaud his increasingly common performances in his theatre. Our friend is handed to a freedman, who acts as usher, and presented unsearched to the Emperor, who receives him graciously enough with a kiss and even remembers his name. Nero is wearing not a toga but a sort of silk dressing-gown with a kerchief round a fattish neck. His eyes are grey-blue and slightly protuberant, his legs are slender but he is developing a paunch, his hair is yellowish, his fingers are covered with rings, his skin is blotchy and he stinks of perfume, but, one has to admit, as Quintus will to his dinner guests that evening (omitting, because there are spies everywhere, the other details), the man has charm.

Nero apparently has no need of Quintus’ counsel this morning, nor (and Quintus thanks his favourite god, Apollo) has he been bidden to dine at the palace, the meal being a marathon which started at noon and often did not end before midnight. Normal Romans had their cena (supper) at the end of the working day, which incidentally, for all the 150 types of artisan differentiated by the great Professor Waltzing, lasted no longer than that of the average worker in the European Community today. The prandium (lunch) was no more than a snack of bread, cold meat, fruit and vegetables with a glass of wine, served with little ceremony, but for which Quintus returns home, as he could not be seen in any of the thousands of wine shops in the city of Rome. Lunch is not substantial enough nor is the weather hot enough for Quintus to take a siesta, so he returns to the Forum to attend to his business. He tells his banker in the Basilica to send a draft to a nephew studying in Rhodes – the money will be in Athens in four days – and asks him whether, in his view, silk is a good investment these days? (It is; hasn’t he noticed the number of weddings announced in today’s gazette?) Which reminds him, he must not forget to go to a betrothal at the Temple of Julia for a granddaughter of the great Caesar; he witnesses the signing and sealing of a will, taken for safekeeping to the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, he attends the manumission, before a magistrate, of a friend’s slave who had been his secretary for six years, he decides not to appear as a character witness for an official charged with extortion in Syria, because he has heard the jurors have been satisfactorily bribed, and he also funks attending a declamation by an actor of a another friend’s poems at a hall he has hired for the occasion, but he goes to the street of booksellers, just behind the Forum, in search of a little light pornography. Books, or more properly, scrolls, on rollers like the Torah in synagogues, were more plentiful in Ancient Rome than printed books in eighteenth-century Europe and cost less. Quintus is not a great scholar but he shares the view that a gentleman should have a well-stocked library.

He has promised his wife that he will buy another cupbearer to replace the current incumbent (called, not too originally, Ganymede), who is growing too hairy and can be sent to the help the gardener, who is growing too old. In the slave market, still accompanied by his little suite of attendants, Quintus notices without interest the adult slaves, chained and naked, shivering in the courtyard with their nationalities, professions and recommendations written on a board round their necks. Having declared his requirement, he is ushered by the dealer into an inner room, where a brazier is alight and the choicest merchandise (equally unclothed, indeed with genitalia scrupulously shaved) is displayed. He is shocked by the price of a fair-haired blue-eyed boy – from Britain perhaps? – and remembers his wife’s warning not to bring back anything too pretty, as ‘they spell trouble’. The slave dealer comments: ‘You can see, my lord, that the boy has been very well looked after.’ ‘Perhaps a little too well,’ Quintus replies. ‘I find him on the plump side; a few pounds lighter and he’ll fetch a fortune’, and with this excuse he chooses a plain but friendly, smiling, fine-boned Numidian, who will match one of his wife’s bedroom slaves. The accountant, since blacks are cheaper than whites, nods in approval. (Even so this purchase sets him back the equivalent of £8,000 in modern money.) The new slave will also be called Ganymede.

On the way to the baths he orders nine garlands from a shop which only sells this commodity, a minor industry in Rome; but first he sends the new boy to his domus with a slave and a note saying he wants his litter to be at the baths in two hours’ time, hoping to be sufficiently fatigued not to face the climb back up the hill. With his valet, Quintus then makes his way to the gymnasium attached to the baths to work out with his wrestler and play with a heavy stuffed ball. This will give him an appetite and keep him in trim. Like all Romans of his class, he has a horror of corpulence, the characteristic of gladiator trainers, slave dealers – and Emperors.

In 33 BC Agrippa made a census of the thermae of Rome and counted 170. While a city aedile he subsidized the entrance fee to the level of a quarter of an ‘as’ – the smallest coin – so that citizens could luxuriate in these palaces of pleasure for little money and for hours of their day. In Quintus’ time the grandest of these establishments, the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla, spreading over thirteen and seventeen hectares respectively, were not yet built. The baths behind the Pantheon were favourite with patricians, so it is there he goes, the new baths of Nero being too hot for his taste.

When first introduced, the concept of nudity offended the Romans’ sensibilities, smacking, they thought, of Greek decadence and exhibitionism, but the practice soon caught on (though the sexes were separated, not by rooms but by hours of attendance). To wrestle, Quintus strips and is covered with an unguent of wax and oil, then with a layer of dust. He can play a variety of games, a sort of fives or pelota, or punch a heavy stuffed ball or exercise with dumb-bells. Quite senior citizens, even sometimes the Emperor, cavorted with their friends, indistinguishably equal in their sports tunics, save that a rich old man might have a slave to hand him a ball he had dropped and would certainly bring his own man to rub him down. Dirty and sweaty, Quintus goes to a dressing room, sumptously decorated, unlike the clinical changing rooms of our era, then to one of the sudatoria or dry baths to work up a sweat, and on to the caldarium where he lies down and is sprinkled with hot water before his body is scraped with the strigil. Last he runs to the frigidarium and dives into the cold pool. The Elder Pliny, Martial and Petronius, who adds that his hero (or villain) Trimalchio picks up his dinner guests somewhere along the routine, all recommend this procedure as conducive to the Roman ideal of mens sana in corpore sano; indeed the comfort and grandeur and cleanliness of the Roman baths, egalitarian and almost free, must have offset the horror and stink of much of everyday life in the world outside.

Quintus is carried up the hill in his litter, together with one of his dinner guests he had arranged to collect at the baths and the two clients, both his freedmen, who will receive their reward for attending him throughout the day; this in the form of dinner, which will include an introduction to his ‘consular’ guest (of honour), the quaestor at the treasury, and some titbits to take home in their napkins. On returning to the domus, Quintus, just as he is being helped off with his cloak and toga, is hit by the furore which precedes the best organized dinner parties. The cook is put out by the arrival of the turbot (partly aggrieved at missing out on the kickback which would have been a perk to add to his peculium if he had ordered this expensive item himself), and Ganymede I has burst into tears on seeing his successor, the newly purchased cup-bearer from Numidia. His wife, Cornelia, called after the saintly and efficient mother of the Gracchi and possessed of all her namesake’s tact, has comforted both servants, who have been so long (too long?) with the family. His son has fluffed the lines written for him by Quintus’ pet poet and is threatening not to perform. A Roman master would be perfectly entitled to flog the lot of them but Quintus enjoys the Games, eschews the lash in the home and is a fair and just man. (Nor does he, like some of his contemporaries, serve inferior wine and food to less important guests.)

He has put on a loose, light, muslin garment which he might change between courses, because a good dinner can be quite a messy affair, and is checking the seating arrangements in the triclinium with his nomenclator (usher), who will announce the guests and show them to the couch, one of three, on which they will recline, their left elbows resting on a cushion, at an angle to the table. Slaves will remove the slippers of his guests and wash their feet. Ministrators (waiters) will bring in knives, different sorts of spoons, and toothpicks.63 Quintus appoints his guest of honour as president of the occasion, making it his responsibility to organize, monitor and mix the wine, reasoning that a treasury man would discourage too much drunkenness and bad behaviour, and having noticed, with approval but with some apprehension, the glad eyes shot in the direction of the Numidian boy, who seems to have blossomed since his moment of purchase, only a few hours ago . . . The garlands are distributed.

After the hors d’oeuvres, his son, who has been sitting on a stool in front of him, declaims his poem (flawlessly), is applauded, blushes and withdraws. Course follows course and after each the guests are brought bowls of water for their hands and the marble table is wiped. (Tablecloths did not appear in Rome until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.) The conversation is cheerful but guarded since in AD 64 Nero has reintroduced treason trials and in Rome even careful talk could cost lives. But the subject of Quintus’ new private bath, with the designs passed round, is a safe enough topic and its inauguration (with, indeed, an augur) will be the occasion of a much bigger party, with poetry and music.

The clear Numentian wine, carefully measured out (at first) by the quaestor and in its seventh year of ageing, is appreciated by all except for Quintus’ remote cousin from Como – where he has estates near the elegant Pliny, whom he claims to know. Quintus had forgotten what a boor he is and resolves that he should stay remote. The man is continually sick from over-eating the shellfish and gulping the wine and has to be helped by Ganymede I, who has vainly shaved his legs and thighs – and cut himself – in an attempt to postpone his last supper as cup-bearer. The musicians, flute and lyre, please and the gyrations of the Spanish dancing girl draw applause, especially from the questor, whose measures are growing more reckless with time – apropos of which, Quintus reflects, should not his guests be toying with the idea of departure?

The cena has been a success. People will talk about that enormous turbot, so big the cook had to borrow a dish big enough to contain it. The expense, even for nine guests, has been as great as the fish, but so what? Quintus has spent on one evening the annual salary of a master mason, but he can earn that amount ten times over if his shipload of silk comes safely into port. And his wife . . . his wife . . . has charmed the company. She is still beautiful (and so efficient) and maybe he has been neglecting her of late. As his guests pile into the night with their servants and litters and sedan chairs and bodyguards with heavy sticks to deter the villains, Quintus decides he might pay her a visit, later on . . .

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