THE BOY WAS IN HIS LATE TEENS AND ENJOYING HIS first serious love affair. Then a small cloud appeared on the horizon. One day in 186, he lightheartedly told his girlfriend that they would be unable to have sex for a week or so.
He was Publius Aebutius and she, somewhat older than he, was Hispala Faecenia, a high-class prostitute and former slave. An archetypal good-time girl with a heart of gold, she adored her young lover. He had not started the affair, for, uncharacteristically in a man’s world, she had picked him up. In fact, rather than make money from the relationship, as she would with an ordinary client, she subsidized him.
This was because Aebutius had trouble at home. He came from an affluent, upper-class family, but his father died when he was small and he was brought up by his mother and a stepfather. They embezzled his fortune and made as little provision for his daily needs as possible. He was able to get by only thanks to Hispala’s generosity.
After Aebutius had recovered from an illness, his mother told him that she wanted to initiate him into a secret cult devoted to Bacchus, the Latin name for Dionysus, the god of intoxication and ritual madness. She had vowed to do this on his behalf, she claimed,once he had got better. He agreed to fall in with her wish, and she warned that he would have to be sexually continent for ten days before the ceremony.
This was the reason, Aebutius explained to Hispala, for staying away from her bed. Her reaction astonished him. “Heaven forbid!” she exclaimed. “Better for both of us to die than you should do that!” He protested that he was only following his mother’s request.
“This means that your stepfather—I suppose it would be offensive to mention your mother—is in a hurry to destroy your virtue, your good name, your prospects and your life.”
Swearing her lover to the strictest secrecy, Hispala said that she had been initiated while still a slave, and the cult was a cover for the grossest immorality and even murder. As Livy describes them, the rites were
a workshop of corruptions of every kind; and it was common knowledge that for the past two years no one had been initiated who was over the age of twenty. As each one was introduced, he became a kind of sacrificial victim for the priests. They led the initiate to a place that resounded with shrieks, with the chanting of a choir, the clashing of cymbals and the beating of drums, so that the victim’s cries for help, when violence was offered to his chastity, might not be heard.
Aebutius went home and announced that he would have nothing to do with the Bacchic cult. This enraged his mother and his stepfather, and they drove him out of the house. He took refuge with an aunt, who advised him to go and tell all to the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus. After checking that Aebutius was a reliable witness, Postumius made some discreet inquiries. He arranged for his mother-in-law to ask Hispala to pay her a visit. Mystified by the fact that this well-known and eminently respectable lady should want to see her, Hispala obeyed.
Puzzlement turned to terror when she saw the consul’s lictors and entourage in the hall, and then the consul himself. Eventually, she calmed down and told her story. Apparently, the rites had originally been all-female and had taken place only three times a year, but then a Campanian priestess had introduced reforms. Now men were allowed to take part, the ceremonies were held at night, and their frequency had risen to five times a month. According to Livy:
There were more obscenities practiced between men than between men and women. Anyone refusing to submit to outrage or reluctant to commit crimes was slaughtered as a sacrificial victim. To regard nothing as forbidden was among these people the summit of religious achievement. Men, apparently out of their wits, would shout prophecies with frenzied bodily convulsions: married women, dressed as Bacchantes, with their hair disheveled and carrying blazing torches, would run down to the Tiber, plunge their torches into the water and bring them out still alight—because they contained a mixture of live sulfur and calcium.
Anyone unwilling to take part was whisked away by, or in, some sort of mechanical device and done away with in hidden caves.
Postumius made a full report to a shocked Senate. Although the immoral goings-on were to be deprecated in themselves, what really worried members was that a secret society could recruit adherents from across the classes and plan heaven knows what clandestine mischief, political as well as sexual. Dionysus was associated with breaches of social control and the dissolution of gender, age, and class distinctions. It may be no accident that the orgies took place in a grove on the Aventine, the traditional center of popular agitation, and that Aebutius and Hispala both lived on the hill, too.
An inscription has survived communicating the Senate’s decision on the cult to communities across the peninsula. It ordered:
No man is to be a priest; no one, either man or woman, is to be an officer (to manage the temporal affairs of the organization); nor is anyone of them to have charge of a common treasury; no one shall appoint either man or woman to be master or to act as master; henceforth they shall not form conspiracies among themselves, stir up any disorder, make mutual promises or agreements, or exchange pledges.
Care was taken not to offend the god needlessly. Bacchic rituals could still be performed, but only with official permission and in the presence of no more than five people.
As for the lovers, they were handsomely rewarded. Aebutius was forgiven his military service and Hispala was allowed to marry a freeborn Roman, and, it was decreed, “no slur or disgrace on account of the marriage should attach to the man who married her.” History does not relate what happened to them next.
With this permission granted, the couple were entitled to become husband and wife, in theory. But the boy was young and, like many who have their first sexual experience with a knowledgeable and kindly older woman, he probably moved on. After all, he and his girlfriend were from radically different social classes. Whatever the Senate said, prejudice against former slaves and prostitutes was fierce. The integrity of the family line had to be protected at all costs.
We may hope for, but doubt, a happy ending.
THE REAL IMPORTANCE of the scandal was the light it threw on Rome’s contradictory attitudes toward Greece. From the Republic’s earliest years, the Hellenic world had been a major influence, but now that they were emerging as the dominant Mediterranean state, Romans were coming into direct contact with this culture for the first time. They admired the deathless achievements of a glorious past—the works of the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the sculpture of Pheidias; the architecture of Ictinus and so forth—and knew they could not compete with them.
The decadent descendants of these great men looked down their noses on the provincial newcomers from Italy. They “would jeer at their habits and customs, others at Roman achievements, others at the appearance of the city itself, which was not yet beautified in either its public places or private districts.” For his part, the average Roman harbored a healthy distrust of contemporary Greeks (they were the classical equivalent of cheese-eating surrender monkeys). Livy makes this clear when, with a sneer, he attributes the Bacchanalia as a “method of infecting people’s minds with error” to a “Greek of humble origin, a man possessed of none of those numerous accomplishments which the Greek people, the most highly educated and civilized of nations, has introduced among us for the cultivation of mind and body.”
While the Senate disliked and discouraged foreign cults from the Orient, it was by no means consistent in practice. In 293, an outbreak of plague led to a consultation of the Sibylline Books and the importation from Epidaurus, in Greece, of a snake sacred to the god of medicine, Asklepios (Latinized into Aesculapius), for whom a shrine and a healing center were built on Tiber Island. In 206, a prophecy was discovered which stated that if ever a foreign enemy were to invade Italy he would be driven out only if Cybele, or the Great Mother, was brought to Rome (in the shape of a holy black stone).
Desperate to see an end to Hannibal’s occupation of the peninsula, the goddess was welcomed into the city and a new temple was built for her on the Palatine. Cybele and her youthful consort, Attis, expressed the annual cycle of the fertility of the land in a manner that a Roman traditionalist would find distinctly unappealing. Her spring festivities, during which self-castrated eunuchs danced to cymbals and drums, were no less exotic than those dedicated to Dionysus. Attis had set the precedent. As the first-century poet Catullus writes, he,
moved by madness,
bemused in his mind, Lopped off the load of his loins with a sharp flint.
Woman now, and aware of her wasted manhood,
Still bleeding, the blood bedaubing the ground still,
With feminine fingers she fetched the light drum
That makes the music, Great Mother, at your mysteries.
This was all most un-Roman, and care was taken to limit the impact of the new cult. The goddess’s priests were and remained foreigners, and their numbers and activities were strictly limited.
Meanwhile, the ruling élite maintained, with its usual attention to detail, the superstitious, placatory rituals of Rome’s official religion. Change was unwelcome, and loyalty to the mos maiorum was essential to the Republic’s well-being. This was sometimes taken to absurd lengths. One example may speak for all. Every year the senior outgoing consul proclaimed his successors in office. In 163, the officeholder of the day, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, conducted the ceremony as usual. But after the new magistrates had taken command in their respective spheres of activity Gracchus came across an ancient book of religious practices, in which he found a regulation he knew nothing about. Plutarch explains it:
Whenever a magistrate, sitting in a hired house or tent outside the city to take auspices from the flight of birds, is compelled for any reason to return to the city before sure signs have appeared, he must give up the house first hired and take another, and from this he must take his observations anew.
Tiberius had innocently twice used the same house for his observations before making his consular proclamations. Horrified, he referred the matter to the Senate, which recalled the consuls and made them resign their offices. They were then reappointed after the liturgy had been repeated in proper form.
The mos maiorum received its symbolic incarnation in the funerals of noblemen. The corpse was carried into the Forum and displayed in an upright position, as if the dead man were still alive, on the Rostra. His son or some other relative delivered a eulogy, listing the facts of his career, as both a history lesson and an assertion of Republican virtue. Polybius, the observant foreigner who spent much of a lifetime observing Romans, describes the most extraordinary aspect of the ceremony. He reports that an image of the deceased was present alongside those of his famous forebears and, after the burial, was put on permanent show in a wooden shrine in his house:
The image consists of a mask, which is fashioned with extraordinary fidelity both in its modeling and its complexion to represent the features of the dead man.… And when any distinguished member of the family dies, the masks [of his predecessors] are taken to the funeral, and are there worn by men who are considered to bear the closest resemblance to the original, both in height and in their general appearance and bearing. These substitutes [they were usually family members] are dressed according to the rank of the deceased: a toga with a purple border for a consul or praetor, a completely purple garment for a censor, and one embroidered with gold for a man who had celebrated a triumph or performed some similar exploit. They all ride in chariots with the fasces, axes, and other insignia carried before them … and when they arrive at the Rostra they all seat themselves in a row upon chairs of ivory.
What a spectacle this must have been. The dead had reawakened—perhaps they had never fallen asleep—and were now listening attentively to the life story of their freshly deceased posterity. Today’s generation could see, with all the sharpened focus of a waking dream, that it was on trial before its ancestors.
THERE WERE OTHER ways in the city of Rome by which the sanctified past kept company with the present. On every corner were shrines, temples, and holy groves, sacred to one divinity or another. Temples were storehouses of old trophies, bronze tablets with the texts of laws and treaties, votive offerings, and other obsolete odds and ends. In the Forum and elsewhere, paintings of famous military exploits, originally made for triumphs, were on display. Masterpieces of Greek art, captured in the sack of such cities as Syracuse and Tarentum, transformed Rome into an open-air museum. Here was a treasury of clutter, awaiting the explanations of both the historian and the antiquarian, although these were often inaccurate or imaginative.
On the Sacred Way, Romulus and his Sabine counterpart, Titus Tatius, kept watch, in sculptural form, over the Forum below. In the middle of the square itself, the fig tree beneath which the founding brothers were suckled by the she-wolf still flourished. Nearby was a pool, now dried up, called the Lacus Curtius. Here a chasm had once split open; it was said that it would never close until Rome’s most valued possession had been deposited in it. Gold and jewelry were thrown in, to no effect. At last, a young cavalryman realized that the answer to the riddle was the Roman soldier. He galloped into the abyss and the earth closed above his head.
Not far away, next to the Temple of Castor, with its lofty podium, was the spring of Iuturna, where the divine twins watered their horses after the Battle of Lake Regillus. At the other end of the Forum was the speakers’ platform, the Rostra. Orators addressing the populace had to compete for attention with a throng of half-life-size statues of ambassadors who had perished while on missions for the state.
The hill of the Capitol was also littered with statues of famous Romans, kings, and that expeller of the kings, Marcus Brutus. Among them stood two colossi of the hero Hercules and another of Jupiter himself, erected in the fourth century. There were so many representations of the great men of old that visitors must have had the eerie impression that they were walking through a crowd turned into stone by some passing Medusa.
Subterranean chambers beneath the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest were packed not only with old dedications but also with sculptures that had fallen from the temple roof and a variety of superfluous gifts. Walls were covered with bronze tablets on which the terms of treaties and the texts of laws were inscribed. Victory trophies and votive monuments occupied every spare corner.
OF COURSE, ROME was more than a space for memory, a cemetery field of relics; it was also a living city, expanding all the time and well on its way to becoming an early megalopolis. The Forum was the city’s center, part shopping center, part law courts, and part political arena. Human life in all its variety pushed its way up among the statues, the shrines, the temples.
We are lucky to have a direct account of daily life from someone who lived and thrived in Rome during and after the wars with Carthage. He was the comedy playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. In one of his pieces, a character conducts a tour of the Forum, a locale where the best and worst of human nature can be found. “From virtue down to trash,” he says, “here is god’s plenty.” The lower or southern part of the piazza was the preserve of the respectable or, in Plautus’s words, “the good men and the opulent.” He comments, “For perjurers, you can apply to the courts of law,” which were held in the open air near the circular Comitium, where public assemblies were convened (there was room, at a squeeze, for perhaps five thousand citizens to attend and for ten thousand in the Forum as a whole). Liars and dishonest salesmen congregated at the little shrine of Venus Cloacina, or Venus of the Drain. A statue of Venus was said once to have fallen into the open drain here, hence her cognomen. The shrine was a low circular platform with two statues of the goddess, a pleasant enough place to loiter.
“Rich and errant husbands” frequented the Basilica, a business hall where bankers set up their tables and entrepreneurs sold shares in enterprises. Across the square a line of retail outlets, the tabernae veteres, or Old Shops, was largely peopled with moneylenders, and behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux “conmen extract loans from the unwary.” Near the Vicus Tuscus (Etruscan Street), was the rent boys’ cruising ground. The street led to the Velabrum, a saddle of land between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, where “you’ll find bakers, butchers and fortune-tellers.”
Unlike Alexandria, the gleaming white, checkered capital of the Ptolemies, Rome was unplanned. Buildings grew up ad hoc along ancient pathways that led to the Palatine and Capitoline hills, until the city became a maze of gloomy, narrow alleys and little squares. The principles of hygiene were little understood and infectious diseases were rife. Some (not altogether successful) efforts were made to collect sewage for use as agricultural fertilizer, and it was recognized that a copious supply of clean water was essential. Two aqueducts, mainly running underground, were built in 312 (by Appius Claudius Caecus, see this page) and in 272. By the middle of the second century, a rising population had led to the construction of the Aqua Marcia, an astonishing feat of engineering that brought water to the top of the Capitol. Few people could afford baths at home, and by about 100 public baths had become a universal feature of daily life.
Most thoroughfares in the city were unpaved, although they might have raised sidewalks; people dumped rubbish and sewage in them, as well as dead animals and the occasional unwanted corpse. Slops from pots often fell on the heads of unwary passersby (Laws were passed regulating claims for damages.) Unsanitary conditions were not the only danger, for wheeled traffic took up much of the available space and accidents were common.
The urban unit was the vicus, a street that functioned as an artery for pedestrians and wheeled traffic and served the neighborhood around it. Each vicus had a central point of reference—a crossroads, a sacred grove, a shrine. To qualify officially for the title of street, or via, the Twelve Tables specified that a roadway should be eight feet wide when straight and sixteen at bends; only two roadways merited the title—the Via Sacra and the Via Nova (New Street), which ran between the Forum and the Palatine.
A snatch of dialogue from the comic playwright Publius Terentius Afer (or Terence) from the middle of the second century, conveys the flavor of a well-to-do part of town. A slave is giving someone directions in a city that has no street signs.
“Do you know that arcade by the market?”
“Of course I do.”
“Go uphill past it, straight along the road. When you get to the top, there’s a slope downward. Rattle your way down that. Next there’s a little shrine on this side, and there’s an alleyway thereabouts.”
“There’s also a big fig tree.”
“But you can’t get through that alleyway.”
“You’re absolutely right! Really! … I made a mistake: go back to the arcade; yes, you’ll get there much more directly this way, and there isn’t so far to walk. Do you know the house of old Cratinus?”
“When you’ve passed that, go left straight along that road; when you come to the temple of Diana, go to the right. Before you reach the gate, just by the pond, there’s a bakery, and a workshop opposite: that’s where he is.”
On main streets, one- or two-room shops or poky apartments for the poor faced one another along either side. These were usually open to the passersby and could be secured by wooden shutters. All sorts of goods were sold—food, cloth, kitchenware, jewelry, and books. Bars served wine mixed with water and flavored with herbs, honey, or resin (the ancestor of today’s Greek retsina). Soup with bread, stews, diced roasted meat, sausages, pies, fruit, and filled buns were also on offer, even a kind of proto-pizza. Restaurants with seating catered to the more affluent customer.
THE ROWS OF shops and apartments protected the houses of the well-to-do, which lay behind them, from the noises and stinks of the street. They were laid out according to a basic pattern on which those with money and space could expand. A front door led through a narrow vestibule to a semi-public waiting room or hallway; this was the atrium, with an opening to the sky, and lined on three sides by small dark bedrooms. The side facing the visitor was occupied by a raised space, the tablinum, originally the master bedroom but now the owner’s study, with rich frescoes on the walls and the masks of the family’s ancestors on pedestals. Nearby, the triclinium was a formal dining room where guests ate elaborate meals lying on couches. The back of the house was the family’s living quarters, dominated by a columned garden courtyard or peristyle. In the bigger houses there was a first floor and a summer triclinium by the peristyle.
As always, some parts of town were more fashionable—and costly—than others. The most expensive houses could be found on the Palatine and the Velia, a ridge of ground running down alongside the Sacred Way into the Forum, the hub of élite transactions. The land surrounding the city was taken up with market gardens that produced flowers and vegetables. During the second century, many of these horti were purchased by the rich and powerful, who built villas in them: calm, green retreats where they could escape the din and anger of city life. This was rus in urbe, an urban countryside.
There was too little space inside the city walls to meet Rome’s requirements, and buildings began to appear on the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars. This was an open area beyond the Capitol that was used for pasturage and military exercises. Scipio Africanus built a villa and garden there. The Circus Flaminius, a public square, was commissioned in 221 for the Plebeian Games by Gaius Flaminius, the populist leader who fell at Lake Trasimene a few years later. It also served as a marketplace and a display area for triumphal booty. There were government structures on the Campus, too; the Ovile was an enclosure rather like a sheep pen where the comitia centuriata held its votes; the adjoining Villa Publica, rebuilt and enlarged in 194, was a headquarters for state officials in which the census was taken and troops were levied.
Rome’s increasing wealth in the second century led to civic improvements. The rich and famous built triumphal arches (Scipio among them), porticoes, and basilicas as public amenities. More streets were paved and the drainage system was improved. Concrete,opus caementicium, was widely used and new temples were constructed, in the Greek manner, from marble or travertine. But the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Circus Maximus, remained a less than glamorous construction of painted wood.
Rome had a long way to go before it could match the magnificence of the Hellenic cities of the East.
AS EVER, THE poor had a hard time of it. There were plenty of jobs in service industries such as food supplies (grain, meat, fish), in construction, in retail and crafts of various kinds (ceramics, glassware, metalwork). But Rome’s population was growing rapidly and slaves soaked up much available work. We can assume high levels of unemployment or part-time employment, at least periodically.
Space was at a premium. As in modern cities, developers began to look skyward and built apartment blocks as many as eight stories high. At first, these were rickety wood-framed structures that had an alarming tendency to catch fire. With the introduction of concrete, something rather more solid was created; the Romans called it an insula, or island. This solidity was more apparent than real, however, for insulae often collapsed without warning.
Many people joined associations (collegia, sodalicia, corpora, or curiae), which would give their lives some stability beyond the family. There was little in the way of local government, and no regular police force or fire service. However, the four aediles (two were originally deputies to the tribunes and were joined in 387 by another pair elected by patricians only) were responsible for the upkeep of the city’s fabric, presentation of the Games, the supply of grain and water, and oversight of the markets. Membership in a trade guild, a professional association, or a cult group provided some protection against the vicissitudes and injustice of life. Members of these organizations met regularly (say, once a month), held a sacrifice, and ate a meal together. There were neighborhood societies, which took part in the annual festival of the Compitalia, a celebration in honor of the Lares Compitales, the gods of local crossroads. Some collegia were burial clubs, to which members made small, regular financial contributions to pay for their funeral costs.
The state was uneasy about these societies, as its reaction to the Bacchanalia crisis showed, because it did not know what they were up to. At times of political upheaval, they might conspire against good order. But potentially subversive “horizontal” social structures were counteracted by the “vertical” pyramid of the clientela. As we have seen, everyone, except those at the very pinnacle of society, was a cliens helpful to and dependent on one or more richer patrons. The relationship was hereditary and recognized, albeit not enforced, by law. If a man was lucky enough to be the client of a senator, he was expected to call on this person at home first thing in the morning and accompany him to the Forum; the more followers in a great man’s train, the greater his prestige. In return, he could expect a sportula—some food or pocket money.
This system of mutual exchange of goods and services bound society together and made revolt from below or the emergence of reform movements unlikely. Of course, patrons could sometimes be mean or fall on hard times for one reason or another. Plautus imagines an unemployed and half-starved client lamenting his fate:
Why, just now in the Forum I worked on a couple of
fellows I knew, young lawyers, and, “Going to lunch, then?”
I in my innocence ask. And a terrible silence
settles upon us. Does anyone say “You come too!”?
Heads begin shaking. I tell them a nice little story,
one of my best. God knows how often it’s fed me.
Laughter then? No. Smiles? No.
Rome was a great and growing community, it was the center of government, it was where the action was. In fact, its inhabitants often dispensed with its name and instead referred to it as urbs—not any ordinary city but the city. However, urban life was corrupting; money made the rich idle, and unemployment did the same for the moneyless. Responsible citizens believed that the countryside was a far, far better place. After all, it was to his small farm that the dictator Cincinnatus retired after saving the state, eschewing glory and wealth. It was from smallholders that the Republic’s victorious legions were recruited. Cicero’s friend the antiquarian and polymath Varro wrote in De re rustica, his compendium of country lore: “It was not without reason that those great men, our ancestors, put the Romans who lived in the country ahead of those who lived in the city.”
An ordinary Roman farmer has left us his summary of the good life in his own words, found on an inscription at Forlì, in Italy. It expresses the tough, hardworking, sober values of the countrymen:
Take all this as true advice, whoever wants to live really well and freely. First, show respect where it is due. Next, want what’s best for your master. Honor your parents. Earn others’ trust. Don’t speak or listen to slander. If you don’t harm or betray anyone, you will lead a pleasant life, uprightly and happily, giving no offense.
A new generation of politicians emerged after the end of the wars with Carthage, the most able but most unlikable of whom was Marcus Porcius Cato (called the Elder, or the Censor, to distinguish him from his first-century namesake). He came from yeoman stock and spent the earlier years of his adult life, when not fighting in the army, tilling his own fields, just like a latter-day Cincinnatus. Plutarch said of him:
Early in the morning, Cato went on foot to the [local] marketplace and pleaded the cases of all who wished his aid. Then he came back to his farm, where, wearing a working blouse if it was winter, and stripped to the waist if it was summer, he worked alongside his slaves, then sat down with them to eat the same bread and drink the same wine.
Talent-spotted by an aristocratic neighbor, he was introduced to Roman politics in the capital and soon rose to the top.
For Cato, there was something unforgivably Greek about the sophisticated self-indulgences of city life. Every true Roman’s moral guide, the mos maiorum, was a treasury of rural virtues. In his book on farming, De agri cultura, Cato observed that trade was more profitable than farming, but too risky; the same went for banking, with the addition that it was more dishonorable. By contrast, he wrote, “it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility.” The citizen, in the field with his plow and on the battlefield with his sword and spear, stood for all that was best about Rome.
Cato did in fact farm his own acres himself, but only when he was young and poor. An austere hypocrite, he lived very simply but amassed a fortune, against his fine principles, as a moneylender and a property investor. Once he had made his way in the world, he ran his estates as an absentee landlord. He gives the game away in his book. In it, he offers copious practical advice to a landowner like himself, who pays his farm only the occasional visit. The overseer or bailiff, who runs the business on his behalf and manages the workers, some of them slaves and others freeborn, is to be kept on a tight rein:
He must not be a gadabout; he must always be sober, and must not go out to dine. He must keep the farm laborers busy, and see that the master’s orders are carried out. He must not assume that he knows more than the master.… He must not consult a fortune-teller, or prophet, or diviner, or astrologer [an echo here of official fears of Bacchic cults and the like].… He must be the first out of bed, the last to go to bed.
Cato is unsentimental. He wants the laborers to be well enough looked after to function efficiently, but that’s all. They should be either at work or asleep. Failure or illness, even old age, is not to be tolerated:
Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemished sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous. The master should have the selling habit, not the buying habit.
We can blame Cato for his mean-spiritedness and intellectual dishonesty, but the fact is that the heyday of the independent smallholder, tilling his own soil and sending his sons to war, was over. Sixteen years of burning, looting, and destruction by Hannibal’s army had emptied much of the Italian countryside and swelled the population of Rome. It would take many years for the land to recover, and in some parts of the south it never did.
POVERTY WAS PARTLY alleviated by fun, albeit in the cause of religion. Throughout the year, groups of days were dedicated to the gods and set aside as holidays. In the city, public and commercial business was suspended, the Senate did not meet, and the city’s routine was interrupted by festivals, or “games.” The oldest were the ludi Romani (Roman Games), founded in the days of the kings and celebrated in September. They featured pantomime dances set to flute music, which doubled as both ritual and entertainment, and from 240B.C. plays were added to the schedule. The other games were founded during the nerve-racked time of the war with Hannibal and its aftermath, and were attempts either to placate the menacing supernatural order or to express heartfelt thanks for victory.
As already noted, the ludi Plebeii, or People’s Games, were established in 221 by the plebeian leader Gaius Flaminius. The ludi Apollinares, the games of Apollo, followed in 208; the ludi Cereales, the games of Ceres, in 202; and in 194 the ludi Megalenses, held in honor of the Magna Mater in front of her new temple on the Palatine.
Antiquarians like Varro were fascinated by the origins of live performance. They posited archaic rituals in the countryside, with dances and crude verses. Italians, wrote Virgil on the back of antiquarian speculation, were
accustomed to hold a
Beano, their poems unpolished and unrestrained their jokes:
They wear the most hideous wooden
Masks, and address the Wine-god in jovial ditties, and hang
Wee images of the god to sway from windy pine-boughs.
Professional dance companies were imported from Etruria, but (we are told) the Roman youths began to imitate them, adding obscene verses of their own composition. This blend of words, music and gesture was cleaned up and professionalized, and led to the presentation of written comedies, which were performed at the ludi. (The young amateurs maintained their tradition of ribald songs regardless.)
The first proper plays to appear at the Games were written by Livius Andronicus, a half-Greek who was sold into slavery when Rome captured Tarentum after the defeat of King Pyrrhus. He tutored his master’s son and wrote a translation into Latin of Homer’sOdyssey; Cicero thought it poor stuff, but it became a set text that hapless schoolboys had to learn by rote. Little of his work survives except for a few titles—farces inspired by Greek models such as “The Gambler” and “The Dagger.” His plots centered on rich young men’s love affairs with prostitutes (who invariably turned out to be wellborn) and clever slaves who ran rings around their masters. His more famous successors, Plautus (Latin for “flatfoot,” c. 254–184), a stage carpenter and sceneshifter from Umbria, and a young Carthaginian slave, Terence (195/185–159), used much the same kind of material.
Tragedies on Greek mythological themes (the adventures of Trojan heroes, for example) were also popular, as was an authentic Roman form, fabulae praetextae, poetic dramas about “documentary” or real-life subjects. These celebrated great moments in Republican history, such as the devotio of Decius Mus at Sentinum and Manlius’s duel with a Gallic chieftain.
Plays were presented in the open air, and the audience sat on the grass or on temporary bleachers in front of a wooden stage. They fulfilled a useful social function, for they appealed to all classes, each of which was allocated special seating. A Roman could look around the audience and see all Rome represented, from a senior senator to a slave who had been given some time off.
Conservative politicians felt that the performing arts were a decadent, Hellenic innovation and blocked all attempts to build a permanent theater with more convenient and comfortable facilities. At one point, a senatorial decree was passed banning the erection of seats for shows on the risible grounds that “mental relaxation should go together with the virility of a standing posture proper to the Roman nation.”
The atmosphere at the ludi could be rowdy. Terence was furious that noise and commotion made a play of his, in which he was acting, fail:
When I first began to perform it, there was talk of a boxing match, and there were hopes of a tightrope walker, too. Slaves were arriving; there was a din, women were shouting—these things made me leave the stage before I’d reached the end.
When he revived the play, the first part went well, but then the performance was disrupted by the rumor of a gladiatorial show, a spectacle that was much in demand.
Fights to the death as public display were akin to human sacrifice. Their origin is uncertain; perhaps Rome borrowed them from funeral rites in Etruria (along with wild-animal hunts) or came across them in Campania. The killing of prisoners of war to mark the passing of great men was not unknown. Homer, that universal maker of classical precedents, reports that the grief-stricken Achilles “hacked to pieces with his bronze [sword]” twelve young Trojans at the pyre of his dead friend or lover, Patroclus.
However, physical combat was unusual. The first report we have of it dates from 264, the year that the First Punic War began. At the funeral of a former consul, Decimus Junius Brutus Pera, his sons presented three pairs of slaves, selected from a group of prisoners of war, who fought one another in the Forum Boarium. By 216, the number of fights in a single program had risen to twenty-two, and in 174 seventy-four men fought over a period of three days.
As we saw with drama, entertainment and religion marched hand in hand, and it was not for nothing that a gladiatorial show was called in Latin a munus—a service or gift to a man’s ancestors and to the gods. Until the first century, it always marked the death of a male relative, and was often staged in the Forum in a temporary arena. As violent death became an increasingly popular spectator sport, Romans offered a rational justification of its purpose. Gladiators were expected to act bravely and give up their lives with grace. They were an inspiring example of bravery, it was said, which citizens were to learn from and imitate. They were a metaphor for Rome’s martial spirit—in a word, for virtus.
Munera were regularly programmed in December, especially during the festival of Saturnalia. This prototype of Christmas was the celebration to end all celebrations, and was introduced in 217. It had about it more than a whiff of misrule. Whereas theludiaffirmed social class, the Saturnalia temporarily subverted it. For up to a week, beginning on December 17, the ordinary rules of social interaction were turned upside down. Slaves were excused from work, and their owners would serve them a meal (often actually prepared by the slaves). They were allowed to gamble. Even Cato gave his slaves an extra ration of wine. Citizens were not obliged to dress in togas and everyone wore the pileus, the felt bonnet denoting a slave’s manumission. Gifts were exchanged—wax candles and small pottery figurines, or sigillaria.
Rome’s frequent festivities certainly mitigated the pain of life, but to the slave and the jobless citizen or part-timer the city was a cramped, crowded, smelly, unhealthy habitat. The rich and powerful enjoyed a high level of comfort and ease, but wisely kept a weather eye on the discontents that surrounded them in every street, alley, or crossroads.
IF THERE WAS one man Cato could not stand, who was the epitome of the decadent Greekness of which he so passionately disapproved, it was the hero of Zama, the all-conquering Scipio Africanus. Cato devoted much of his time attempting to discredit him.
There was an annoying grandeur about Scipio. He came from an extremely distinguished patrician family with many consulships to its credit. As we have seen, his father and uncle had been distinguished generals. Since being given command of an army himself at the early age of twenty-five, he had never lost a battle or seen a Roman force defeated. When abroad on foreign commissions, he tended to give himself the airs and graces of a Hellenistic monarch. He did not have the patience or the moral flexibility to thrive in the noisy rivalry of the marketplace; the first-rate general was a third-rate politician.
Worst of all, from Cato’s point of view, Scipio was an unrepentant lover of Hellenic culture. He enjoyed wearing Greek fashions (and when he did put on a toga he draped it in an unusual and, unfriendly commentators said, effeminate manner). He wrote a memoir in Greek and spoke the language fluently. He gave his two sons a Greek education, and probably his two daughters, too, for one of them, Cornelia, the wife of that stickler for religious rules, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, had a reputation in adult life as a highly cultivated woman and an intellectual.
IN 204, THE two men’s paths crossed for the first time. Scipio was in Sicily, assembling his consular army for the invasion of Africa. Cato was one of his quaestors, a junior elected official with financial duties. He argued that his commander was indulging in typically lavish personal expenditure and overpaying his troops. (Many of them were volunteers, so, if there was truth in the claim, the high command was very probably conceding to market forces.) They received much more money than was needed for the necessaries of life, it was said, and were spending the surplus on luxuries and the pleasures of the senses. In other words, Scipio was corrupting the “natural simplicity of his men”; the phrase is Plutarch’s, but it rings true of Cato’s self-serving self-righteousness.
Scipio replied tartly that he had no use for a cheese-paring quaestor, and Cato returned home to stir things up at Rome. He helped Fabius to attack the consul’s waste of immense sums of money. They deplored Scipio’s “boyish addiction to Greek gymnasia and theatrical performances. It was as if he had been appointed the director of an arts festival, not a commander on active service.” A board of inquiry was sent to Sicily, but found nothing to substantiate the charges. The army was in excellent shape, as Scipio showed when he quickly went on to destroy the power of Carthage. He had won this round against his critics, but they would return. The squabbles and maneuvers of domestic politics bored and irritated him. His enemies were always lying in wait for any slip they could exploit.
And, reluctant though some might be to admit it, the suspicion in which Cato and his friends held Scipio was by no means irrational. So great now and so far-flung were the challenges and opportunities facing the triumphant Republic that a general could spend years away from Rome and the picky oversight of the Senate. (Scipio fought in Spain and Africa for almost all of a decade starting in 211.) He commanded soldiers who expected to spend many seasons far from home; in the past, they had been farmers who would leave their fields for only a few months, but now their link with the soil was becoming more and more tenuous. When Scipio demobilized his forces, he was obliged to ask the Senate to give them smallholdings from the ager publicus (state-owned land) so that they had somewhere to live and some means of making a living. If their general did not look after his landless legionaries, who would?
Scipio posed a potential danger to the state, given that he was the master of a great army whose first loyalty was to him. Had he so wished, he could have overshadowed the Senate and even established a formal or an informal despotism. In fact, he did not so wish. He remained at heart loyal to the constitution, that haphazard cocktail of oligarchy moderated by democracy and peopled by an annual procession of temporary monarchs. But it must have occurred to observant senators that a less scrupulous man could accumulate sufficient power with which to subvert the Republic.
It was also true that Rome’s transformation from a middling Italian city-state into an invincible superpower had a coarsening impact on standards in public life. Vast quantities of wealth began to flow not only into the treasury but also into the pockets of the senatorial élite. Bribery during elections began to be widespread, and elected officials recouped the expenditure by extorting money from the provinces—to begin with, the two Spains (Near and Further), Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily—which they went on to govern after their year of office as consul or praetor was over.
As censor in 184, Cato did his best to discourage high living and set punitive taxes on expensive clothing, carriages, women’s ornaments, furniture and plate. Many young men paid fortunes for a rent boy or for highly fashionable pickled fish. In a public speech, Cato said, “Anybody can see that the Republic is going downhill when a pretty lad can cost more than a plot of land and jars of fish more than plowmen.” In no way did Scipio and his family have anything to do with that kind of behavior, but to judge by Polybius’s account of his wife’s appearances in public at religious services there was little attempt to cut costs:
[It was] her habit to appear in great state.… Apart from the magnificence of her personal attire and of the decorations of her carriage, all the baskets, cups and sacrificial vessels or utensils were made of gold or of silver, and were carried in her train on such ceremonial occasions, while the retinue of her maids and manservants who accompanied her was proportionally large.
Scipio’s critics regarded the extravagant splendor of his lifestyle as part of the same general picture of moral decline.
Cato was disgusted by the abuses of power he came across as censor and ruthlessly weeded out the unworthy when he scrutinized the membership lists of the Senate and the class of equites. One particular case that Cato exposed concerned a former consul, Lucius Quinctius Flamininus, and horrified public opinion. Flamininus was conducting an affair with an expensive and notorious male prostitute named Philippus the Carthaginian. He persuaded Philippus to join him on campaign in Cisalpine Gaul (today’s Po Valley). The boy used to tease his lover for having made him leave Rome just before the gladiatorial games, which, as a result, he had had to miss. One evening they were having a dinner party and were flushed with wine when a senior Celtic deserter arrived in the camp. He asked to see the consul, with a view to winning his personal protection.
The man was brought into the tent and began to address Flamininus through an interpreter. While he was speaking, the consul turned to his lover and said, “Since you missed the gladiatorial show, would you like to see this Celt dying?”
The boy nodded, not taking the offer seriously. Flamininus then drew his sword, which was hanging above his couch, struck the Celt’s head while he was still speaking, and ran him through as he tried to escape. This breach of good faith toward someone seeking Rome’s friendship was shocking enough, but what was really dreadful to the Roman mind was the casual ending of a life at a convivium, a boozy party.
Had the virtuous Republic of Cincinnatus come to this?
AS THE GLORIOUS victory over Hannibal receded into history, Cato and his friends sought every occasion to muddy the reputation of the Scipios. Africanus responded to these attacks with the clumsiness of a hurt lion trying to fend off a pack of hyenas. Matters came to a head when he and his brother Lucius returned to Rome in 190 after a successful campaign against Antiochus the Great of Syria. (I describe this in the next chapter.)
A few years later, during a meeting of the Senate, a hostile tribune, eager to stir up trouble, asked Lucius to account for the sum of five hundred talents, the first installment of a vast Syrian indemnity of fifteen thousand talents. There seems to have been no real suspicion of fraud; the money probably went to pay the soldiers’ wages. In any event, while Lucius, as consul and commander-in-chief, was under a legal obligation to account for state funds, he was much less accountable for moneys won from the enemy.
Whoever was in the right, Africanus—then princeps senatus, or honorary leader of the Senate—lost his temper. Realizing that he was the indirect target of the intervention, he asked for the campaign books to be brought to him and tore them up in front of the Senate. The affair was allowed to drop, but the Scipios had been shown to be high-handed and possibly light-fingered. The opposition under Cato soon resumed their assault; another tribune was found who laid the question before the People. When Lucius still refused to account for the five hundred talents, he was fined, with a threat of imprisonment if he declined to pay. However, yet another tribune entered a veto. Cato was satisfied that enough had been done to discredit the brothers and no further action was taken.
When the Bacchanalia scandal broke in 186, Cato (of course) blamed Scipio and his circle for having opened the doors to Greek cults and influences, which now posed such great danger to the security of the Republic.
The final onslaught came in 184, and this time Scipio himself was accused (with a farrago of old charges). A huge crowd of clients and friends accompanied him to the Forum. According to Polybius, he spoke only briefly and with typically lofty sangfroid: “The Roman People are not entitled to listen to anyone who speaks against Publius Cornelius Scipio, for it is thanks to him that they have the power of speech at all.”
The hearing was adjourned to a new date, which happened to be the anniversary of the Battle of Zama. This was too good an opportunity to be missed. Scipio arrived in court and announced that he was going to climb up to the Capitol to render thanks to the gods for the victory. Anyone who wished to accompany him would be very welcome. With one accord, the crowd left the Forum and followed in Scipio’s footsteps. The master publicist did not stop at the Capitol but spent the rest of the day visiting other temples in the city. It was indeed as if Rome were celebrating a festival, with Scipio Africanus as its impresario. Cato’s old insult had become reality.
But the lordly patrician had had enough. He retired to his villa at Liternum, a town on the sandy shore near Cumae, and refused to appear at the trial when it resumed. He pleaded sickness; this may have been a truthful rather than a diplomatic excuse, for within a year he was dead, at the comparatively early age of fifty-two.
He left instructions that he should be buried on the grounds of his villa, rather than in the Scipio mausoleum on the Via Appia. Rome’s most talented commander wanted nothing more to do with his ungrateful city, even in death.