~ Humor, Seduction, and Adultery ~

Scenes from a Wedding

After a long journey the young woman spent the night in an inn in Placentia (Piacenza). Then she got back on the road early the next morning in time to get to Fidentia (Fidenza) for her best friend’s wedding.

It was a beautiful ceremony, the bride in a splendid saffron shawl and her face partly covered by a lovely orange veil, so bright it looked like a flame (that’s why it’s called flammeum), and crowned by a myrtle wreath.

The groom was even more attractive than usual. Maybe it was because of the special occasion or the reflected beauty of the bride, her friend, a truly unique woman. For the entire ceremony she couldn’t take her eyes off them. She didn’t miss a word of the ritual. Sure, when it came time to sacrifice the bull, she closed her eyes, but when he examined the animal’s entrails the haruspex smiled so spontaneously, giving a verdict so sincere and positive for the couple that everyone was surprised by his optimism. At most weddings, the outlook is usually not so uniformly positive. And knowing the newlyweds as she does, she’s sure their glowing prospects are truly deserved.

Afterward, there was a huge banquet with lots of guests that lasted into the night, even though the wind created some trouble for those in attendance. And then she too had to do her part.

When everyone got up from their places and the nuptial procession headed off toward the home of the groom, it was she, the best friend of the bride, who accompanied her to the conjugal bed, where the newly-wed husband was waiting for her with a smile brimming with desire. Shortly thereafter, he would take off her cloak and loosen the triple knot of her tunic. As everyone was on their way out to leave the couple alone, she took a last look before going out and saw them kissing passionately. She closed the door and, smiling, let out a long sigh before joining the others.

As everyone is leaving with torches and lamps, we decide to linger. The evening air is cool, and all the stars are out, regaling us with their flickering light. Our thoughts return to our last look at the newlyweds. Do the Romans kiss the same way we do?

Roman Kisses

The Romans have names for three different kinds of kisses. There’s the basium, that is, the classic affectionate kiss of lovers. It’s sweet and full of feeling. All you have to do is look at some statues like the ones that were discovered in Trier, which show some couples kissing: like pairs of high school sweethearts they tilt their faces to the right. Then there’s the osculum, the respectful kiss, the one you give your relatives. Last comes the savium, the especially erotic kiss expressive of lust that is given during sexual relations.

If you find this way of distinguishing the various kinds of kisses surprising, stop for a minute and take a better look at the world around you and you’ll see that today, when it comes to different kinds of kisses, we have many more.

Italians give friends and family two symbolic kisses (cheek to cheek) when they meet again after a long time, and they give only one to people they see intimately on a daily basis (the husband who kisses his wife before going to work, for example). In other countries, however, the kisses are often more than one: in Holland, France, and many other European countries three kisses are standard, but sometimes even four or five, depending on the local custom.

Then if you consider kissing the hand, and in Russia, until recently, the custom of a kiss on the lips between men, you can see that the Romans, if faced with these modern habits, would feel very confused. The Roman world of kissing was actually simpler than ours.

There is one curiosity with regard to the Roman kiss. It has been said that initially the osculum, the more discreet kiss, had an investigative purpose. The husband used it to check if his wife had been drinking wine, and all the men in the family, if they wished, could do the same to check the breath of the women in the family. It was a sort of cross-verification to ensure the family’s good reputation.

With respect to the widespread practice of kissing in the Roman world, we have also discovered a surprise: the Romans may have been the first in history to outlaw kissing. Almost two thousand years ago, the emperor Tiberius ordered the prohibition of kissing in public. The reason? To combat an epidemic of herpes (labialis). Even with his almost total absence of scientific knowledge in this field of medicine, Tiberius was right: that is exactly how the contagion spreads. We don’t know, however, how much his order was respected, especially over time. Kisses really can’t be outlawed.

Reggio Emilia: Roman Jokes

It’s now a few days later. Our sestertius, used by the young woman to pay the bill at the inn where she stayed, has now arrived here in Regium Lepidi, present-day Reggio Emilia, about thirty miles away, carried by another lodger at the inn. Now he’s with a friend outside a popina.

The two men are happy to rest their feet after a long walk through the fields in the countryside around Reggio. For a few seconds they don’t speak, enjoying the shade of a tall plane tree, sitting on simple wooden stools, and a light breeze that feels like a cool caress on their cheeks. Then, having gotten situated, one of them turns to the innkeeper: “Two reds, and lighten them up with a splash of water; but not watered down, eh!”

As we have already had occasion to note, wine in the days of the empire has such a high level of alcohol that it’s normal to add a little water. Nearly everywhere, and for generations now, innkeepers often go too far, watering down the “nectar of the gods” to increase their profits.

But in a place not far from here it’s just the opposite. To hear Martial tell it, the city of Ravenna has so little drinking water that it costs as much as wine! As one of our two friends immediately remarks: “In Ravenna a sly innkeeper gave me an unexpected treat; I asked for wine with a splash of water and he gave it to me neat!” and he bursts out laughing.

The other man shoots back: “Yeah, water is so expensive there I’d rather have a cistern of water than a vineyard. I could make a lot more money selling the water!”

These simple wisecracks, sharp, spoken in Latin with a thick local accent, were recorded by Martial in Book III of his Epigrams (56–57). The poet lived in this area for a while.

Having a good laugh after a hard day’s work is a common practice in these parts, and that won’t change over the centuries. Downing a healthy glass or two with friends, accompanying the wine with a few jokes and funny stories, is more than a habit. It’s human nature. But what kinds of funny stories make the rounds in antiquity? What’s their sense of humor like? Did the Romans have their equivalent of modern Italy’s carabinieri stories or America’s blonde jokes? The answer is yes!

We know some of the jokes that were told in Roman times thanks above all to the Philogelos or Laughter-Lover, a humorous collection of 265 jokes written in Greek, compiled probably in the fifth century CE.

It is organized just like any modern book of jokes, in categories: funny stories about the inhabitants of certain cities thought to be a little on the dull side (Cuma, Sidon, Abdera, etc.); some stock figures with typical character defects displayed in daily life: the grump, the miser, the coward, the wise guy, the jealous friend, the guy with bad breath, and so on.

But there is one character who figures in almost half of the stories: the egghead, the obsessive-compulsive intellectual with his head in the clouds. We might call him a know-it-all who doesn’t quite get it. The jokes about him are as common in Roman times as carabinieri jokes are in Italy today, or Aggie jokes in Texas, or Newfie jokes in Canada.

But keep this in mind: a sense of humor isn’t fixed; it changes with the times. To make you laugh, a joke has to be as fresh as a good piece of fruit, tied to the historical moment; otherwise it’s not funny anymore. (You might have noticed that your grandfather’s jokes usually go over like a lead balloon.) So, although some of the humor has lost its edge over the centuries, it’s surprising to find that some of the jokes handed down to us from antiquity can still make us chuckle.

A guy goes to the doctor and says: “Doc, when I wake up I feel dizzy for half an hour and then I get over it and everything’s okay. What’s your advice?”

The doctor: “Wake up half an hour later!”

A guy from Abdera sees a eunuch go by with a woman on his arm and asks his friend if the woman is the eunuch’s wife. When the friend tells him a eunuch can’t have a wife, he exclaims: “So, she must be his daughter!”

An egghead runs into a friend of his and says, “They told me you had died!” His friend responds, “But can’t you see I’m alive and well?!” And the egghead: “Yeah, but the person who told me is a lot more reliable than you are!”

During a voyage at sea, a terrible storm breaks out and when an egghead sees his slaves crying in fright, he yells out to them: “Don’t cry. In my will I’ve given you your freedom!”

A barb for the greedy: “A cheapskate made out his will and named himself as his only heir!”

On bad breath: A guy whose breath smelled like the plague runs into a doctor and says to him, “Doc, take a look in my mouth. I’m afraid my palate has dropped down.” He opens his mouth wide and the doctor yells, “Your palate hasn’t dropped down; your ass has come up.”

On the inhabitants of Cuma, now part of the city of Pozzuoli, near Naples: A guy from Cuma is riding his donkey near a vegetable garden. Seeing the branch of a fig tree, full of ripe figs, hanging over the street, he stands up on his donkey and grabs it. But the donkey runs off, leaving him hanging from the tree. The custodian of the vegetable garden asks him what he’s doing up there, and the Cuman says, “I fell off my donkey.”

A Cuman’s father dies in Alexandria, Egypt, and he gives his body to the embalmers. A long time goes by and he sees that they still haven’t embalmed the body, so he asks them to give it back. The guy in charge, who has dozens of bodies in storage, asks him for a distinguishing characteristic of his father. And the Cuman answers: “He used to cough a lot.”

Take my wife, please!”: A misogynist whose wife has just died is walking in her funeral procession. A passerby asks him: “Who is it that’s gone on to a better life?” And he says, “I have, now that I got rid of her.”

Modena: A Seducer on the Attack

A soldier is sitting in a tavern having a good time. He’s an officer in the cavalry, and when he hears a certain joke he bursts into uncontrollable laughter. The joke has a deep meaning for him; he has never wanted to get married. On the contrary, he’s an unrepentant bachelor. He doesn’t have a wife but probably has more than a couple of children scattered about here and there. Today, we would call him a gigolo with all the traits of an accomplished ladies’ man.

Let’s face it, it runs in the family. His grandfather is best remembered not so much for his numerous liaisons that make him a Casanova of antiquity but for his acrobatic love techniques. And yet, in all likelihood, you’ve never even heard of him. His name is Quintus Petillius Cerialis. In 60 CE, during Nero’s reign, he was in Britain commanding the IX Hispana legion when the revolution led by Boudicca broke out. Cerialis tried to round up all the soldiers he needed to defend the city of Camulodunum (Colchester). Despite their heroic resistance, however, his outnumbered troops were quickly overwhelmed. He barely escaped being killed himself.

But Cerialis didn’t always get the worst of it in battle; on the contrary, when Vespasian came to power, he sent Cerialis to Germany in command of another legion and there he found himself again right in the middle of a furious revolt, this time by the Batavians on the empire’s northern border. He succeeded in defeating his adversaries (he fought together with the XXII Primigenia, which we got to know in the chapter on Germany) and he was awarded all possible honors by Emperor Vespasian, who was his brother-in-law.

It was in that very war that a number of amorous (and quite lucky) mishaps took place. One night, the Roman camp was attacked by the barbarians. But Cerialis wasn’t there. As luck would have it, at the time he was otherwise engaged with a Roman noblewoman at a villa not far from the camp. He arrived at the battlefield half-naked.

And that’s not all. On another night, after Cerialis had taken his newly built fleet of ships up the Rhine to reach an advance post of Roman soldiers, some barbarian commandos in smaller vessels untied the mooring lines of his flagship and silently dragged it away with them without anybody noticing. Then, when they burst inside to kill Cerialis they were met with a surprise: he wasn’t there. He was elsewhere, spending the night in the company of a genteel local lady … and he had to make his way through enemy lines to get back to his men, under siege.

The next year, Cerialis was appointed governor of Britain and had to fight against still another enemy, the Brigantes of northern England. But he didn’t lose his amorous habits and started up a “diplomatic” relationship with the Brigantes’ former queen, Cartimandua, a sort of Cleopatra of the north—a charismatic woman with a strong character.

Cerialis finished his career in Rome, where he was twice appointed consul and entered into the highest spheres of court under Domitian. Tacitus describes him as more of an impetuous soldier than a reflective general, accustomed to taking it to the limit every time. His ascendancy over his men was reinforced by his simple and direct manner of speaking and his granite-like loyalty. And his strong, decisive, and loyal character must also have been what made him so attractive to women.

How to Seduce Someone at a Banquet

Our coin has now passed into the hands of this handsome officer with the penetrating eyes who finds himself stretched out on a triclinium bed at a banquet. He is one of the invited guests of an important fabric merchant. Judging from his place in the triclinium he is not one of the most important guests. There is, in fact, a precise code at the places to recline that immediately expresses the hierarchy of those in attendance. The host, obviously, is in the center.

Between one course and the next, between a poem and a brief dance, the conversation has touched on a lot of subjects: from the abundance of the harvest, to the latest news from the Orient, to memories of travels in the provinces with their strange local customs. The young officer has chimed in politely, but he’s quiet right now because he’s concentrating on another exchange. For some time now he has been flirting with the wife of the master of the house, who is lying next to him. It’s a very risky activity, but that’s exactly why he finds it so arousing, not least because the mistress of the house, considerably younger than her dominus, seems to be playing right along. She’s shapely, with deep brown eyes and gorgeous red curls cascading down her shoulders like sinuous grapevines.

The young officer is just putting into practice what Ovid advises in these cases, a veritable Ten Commandments of seduction, specifically for banquets. Here is what the great poet, who lived about a hundred years ago, advises in Book I of his Ars Amatoria, a three-volume work. (Translated by A.S. Kline)

Stay close to her so that it will be easy to “speak many secret things, with hidden words she’ll feel were spoken for her alone.” Or, make tenderly flattering comments to her so “she will understand that she is your mistress.” And stare “in her eyes with eyes confessing fire.”

Then the poet turns bold, advising to take first the cup from which the woman has just drunk and drink from it at the same point, placing your lips exactly where she had placed hers, in a sort of deferred kiss.

Be the first to snatch the cup that touched her lips,

And where she drank from, that is where you drink.

This is courtship as hot pursuit, first with glances and words, then with kisses from afar, and finally with touching, public but discreet and hidden.

And whatever food her fingers touch, take that,

and as you take it, touch hers with your hand.

And what about the husband? It’s embarrassing how Ovid suggests charming him with flattery and hypocrisy.

Let it be your wish besides to please the girl’s husband:

It’ll be more useful to you to make friends.

He even offers little stratagems. At Roman banquets, in fact, it was a custom to have a drawing to select the name of the “king of the feast,” that is, the person in charge of deciding on the quality of the wine to be served and the number of cups to be drunk over the course of the evening. Ovid advises passing the scepter to the master of the house if you should win, and assenting to all of his pronouncements.

If you cast lots for drinking, give him the better draw:

give him the garland you were crowned with.

Though he’s below you or beside you, let him always be served first:

Don’t hesitate to second whatever he says.

But has Ovid no sense of guilt at all? No, and he says so quite openly, even if for hypocrisy’s sake he lets it be understood that it can’t be avoided.

It’s a safe and well-trodden path to deceive in a friend’s name,

though it’s a safe and well-trodden path, it’s a crime.

All of this is exactly what our officer is doing now, to the letter. His hands touch hers fleetingly but often, their eyes remain still in long and longing gazes, their pupils dilating. And then? Here’s what Ovid advises:

Then when the table’s cleared, the guests are free,

the throng will give you access to her and her room.

Join the crowd, and softly approach her,

let fingers brush her thigh, and foot touch foot.

At this point, everything is clear between the two and, according to Ovid, at the first opportunity the man must speak to the woman directly.

Now is the time to speak to her: boorish modesty

fly far from here.

This is where the seducer’s dirty work begins: according to the poet, the weapons of seduction are flattery and false promises, and in this the seducer (Roman or modern) must be skillful and pitiless.

Ovid has more to say, but we can stop here. Our officer has now managed to go off alone with the young wife for a few minutes while the master of the house is taking his guests to see the beautiful horses he is training for the races. We don’t want to intrude on their intimacy. But what would happen if they were to be discovered?

What Was the Risk for Adulterers?

For centuries the Romans considered adultery to be a one-way offense: sexual relations between a married woman and a male who was not a member of the family. A man is free to have relations outside the marriage, even with the family’s female slaves, while the woman must be totally faithful.

Until the time of Augustus, a betrayed husband could do justice himself by killing his wife (who was subject to his authority as pater familias), while her lover risked either death or more probably castration. Then came Augustus, who tried to combat extramarital relations (which must have been extremely commonplace) within a more general framework of returning to the sound principles that had made Rome great, as well as combating the alarming drop in the birth rate and the increase in divorces.

The Julian law on the punishment of adultery, Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendis, promulgated by Augustus in 18 CE, clearly established how adulterers were to be judged. And it remained in effect, with few changes, for the life of the empire. The essential point is that the law inserted itself between husband and wife: adultery was no longer a family affair but a public crime.

The law required the husband of the adulteress to repudiate her and sue for divorce. Within sixty days of the divorce decree the ex-husband could request that criminal proceeding be initiated before a jury. Once that time elapsed, the right of action passed to the father of the adulteress; and if that additional time elapsed anyone could propose the accusation, as long as he was a citizen of Rome.

The Prescribed Penalties

A convicted adulteress lost half of her dowry, a third of her property, and was relegated to exile on an island (ad insulam): in the case of Julia the elder, Augustus’ daughter, the chosen place was the island of Pandataria (now Ventotene).

Beyond that, the law provided that a woman found guilty of adultery could not contract other marriages, nor wear the stole reserved for matrons. Instead she had to wear the brown toga that was usually the distinguishing dress of prostitutes. The law laid down penalties (though much lighter) for adulterous husbands, who, in the event the adultery resulted in divorce, had to return his wife’s dowry. And the lover of the adulterous woman? Heavy penalties were provided for him too. He was sent to another island, and half of his property was confiscated.

But the law also provided for more severe penalties. It established that it was legal to kill the two adulterers, in a sort of crime of honor. They could be eliminated by the father (adoptive or natural) of the woman or of her husband. But some rules had to be respected.

The father of the adulteress could kill her and her lover only if he caught them in the act (in the paternal home or the home of the husband). But he had to kill them both! If he killed only one of the two it was considered homicide.

The husband, on the other hand, was not allowed to kill his adulterous wife (because she was “under the authority” of her father), but he could kill her lover provided he was of low social extraction and had been caught in the act in the husband’s home.

Once the betrayal was discovered (with or without bloodshed), the husband was obliged by law to repudiate his wife in order to avoid being accused of pandering (lenocinio), or “inducement to and exploitation of prostitution” (as it is called in Italy today), and he had to notify the magistrate within three days of the betrayal and, where applicable, the killing of the adulterer.

How often was this law applied? Very rarely. The number of people publicly tried and convicted of adultery was very low. Practically speaking, the law against adultery was a legacy from an earlier time, so much so that just a few decades before Trajan came to power the law had nearly been forgotten and Domitian was forced to solemnly renew its principles. When the Roman Empire fell, however, in all the Germanic kingdoms that sprang up to replace it, the archaic practice of the private vendetta once again became the normal practice.

Despite its relatively primitive provisions, Augustus’s law nevertheless contains an important aspect: for the first time the law also punished the man. Moreover, the convicted woman was removed from the cruel revenge of her husband.

Under Septimius Severus the law’s sanctions became more severe (the risk was no longer exile but death); however, cases of adultery diminished in number thanks also to the ease of obtaining a divorce, as we have seen.

But how common was adultery in the Roman era? According to Jens-Uwe Krause, who teaches ancient history at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, then as now people gossiped a lot, especially in the smaller cities and towns of the empire where everybody knew one another and it was difficult to keep a betrayal secret. So there were plenty of cases that ended up in court and, from reading the authors of the late imperial period, it appears that attending a trial in the Forum of a woman accused of adultery with her slave was so frequent that it was no longer news. Cassius Dio declared that over the course of his consulate adultery complaints were so numerous (three thousand) that because of the scarcity of judicial personnel (this certainly sounds familiar), the great majority of the cases never made it to trial. And that’s probably the way it was all over in the empire. Consequently, only a few truly outrageous cases were prosecuted.

Who Did Women Cheat With?

So, while husbands enjoyed full freedom to engage in extramarital sexual relationships, who did their wives go to bed with? The most readily available lovers were their slaves. They were in the home, within easy reach, and above all they were obligated to keep quiet. Then there were men like the strapping descendant of Cerialis.

Why is the wife of the host so attentive to the young officer she has just met? Certainly because of his manner and his appearance. But also because in ancient Rome a woman has very few opportunities to make outside contacts. She’ll never be able to form a circle of friends and acquaintances outside the home, so she must go looking for lovers from her husband’s circle of friends or work associates. From this perspective, it’s not immediately clear if the young man, for all his amorous skills and abilities, is the hunter or the hunted.

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