Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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We will suppose that Silius is specially inclined for action and society. The afternoon is growing chilly, and, as he has no further ceremonial to undergo, he will probably throw over his toga a richly coloured mantle--violet, amethyst, or scarlet--to be fastened on the shoulder with a buckle or brooch. In very cold weather, especially when travelling, Romans of all classes would wear a thick cloak, somewhat like the cape worn by a modern policeman or cab-driver, or perhaps more closely resembling the poncho of Spanish America. This, which consisted of some strong and as nearly as possible waterproof stuff, had no opening at the sides, but was put on by passing the head through a hole. To-day Silius puts on the coloured mantle, and gets himself carried across the Forum, through the gap between the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills, and into the Campus Martius, somewhere about the modern Piazza Venezia and the entrance to the Corso. Here he may descend from his litter, and purchase a statuette, or a vessel of Corinthian bronze or silver, or an attractive table with the true peacock markings, or a handsome slave. While doing so, he may find amusement in observing a pretender who "shops" but does not buy, wearying the dealers by pricing and disparaging the costliest tables and most artistic vessels, and ending with the purchase of a penny pot which he carries home himself. He may then stroll along under the pictured and statued colonnades, perhaps offering the cold shoulder to various impecunious toadies who are there on the look-out for an invitation to dinner, perhaps succumbing to their blandishments. His lackeys are of course in attendance, and clients are still about him. In passing he is greeted by some person who is hanging officiously round a litter containing an elderly lady or gentleman, and whom he recognises as what was called an "angler"--that is to say, one whose business is to wheedle gifts or a legacy out of childless people of wealth. This was a regular profession and extremely lucrative when well managed.

A little further, and he stops to look at the young men curvetting and wheeling on horseback over the riding-ground. Away in the distance others are swimming backwards and forwards across the Tiber. Or he steps into an enclosure, commonly connected with the baths, where not only young men, but their seniors, even of high rank, are engaged in various exercises. Some of them are stripped and are playing a game with a small hard ball, which is struck or thrown, and smartly caught or struck onward by right or left hand equally, from the three corners of a triangle. Some are playing with a larger and lighter article, something like a football stuffed with feathers, which seems to have been punched about by the fist in a way calling for considerable judgment and practice. Others are jumping with dumb-bells in each hand, or they are running races, or hurling a disk of stone, or wrestling. Yet others are practising all manner of sword strokes with a heavy wooden weapon against a dummy post, merely to exercise themselves keep down their flesh.

[Illustration: FIG. 65.--DISCUS-THROWER.]

[Illustration FIG 66.--STABIAN BATHS. (Pompeii.)]

Probably Silius will himself take a hand in the three-cornered game, unless he possesses a private court at home and is intending to take his bath there instead of in one of the larger public or semi-public establishments. Whether he bathes in the baths of Agrippa at the back of the Pantheon, or in those of Nero, or in his own, the process will be much the same. The arrangements are practically uniform however great may be the differences of sumptuousness and spaciousness. We have not indeed yet reached the times of those huge and amazing constructions of Caracalla and Diocletian, but there is no reason to doubt that the existing public baths were already of much magnificence. Regularly we should first find a dressing-room with painted walls, a mosaic floor, and glass windows, and provided with seats, as well as with niches in the walls to hold the clothes. Adjoining this is a "cold" room, containing a large swimming-bath. Next comes a "warm" chamber, with water heated to a sufficient and reasonable degree, and with the general temperature raised either by braziers or by warm air circulating under the floor or in the walls. After this a "hot" room, with both a hot swimming-bath and a smaller marble bath of the common domestic shape--though of much larger size--provided with a shower, or rather with a cold jet. Lastly there is a domelike sweating-chamber filled with an intense dry heat. The public baths built by Nero were particularly notorious for their high temperature. After the bath the body was rubbed over with perfumed oil, in order to close the pores against the cold, and then was scraped down with the hollow sickle-shaped instrument of bronze or iron depicted in the illustration. The other articles there shown are a vessel containing the oil, and a flat dish into which to pour it for use. These, together with linen towels, were brought by your own slave.

[Illustration: FIG. 67.--BATHING IMPLEMENTS.]

Silius is now carried home, and as it is approaching four o'clock, he dresses, or is dressed, for dinner. His toga and senatorial walking-shoes are thrown off, and he puts on light slippers or house-shoes, and dons what is called a "confection" of light and easy material--such as a kind of half-silk--and of bright and festive colours. Some ostentatious diners changed this dress several times during the course of a protracted banquet, giving the company the benefit of as great a variety of "confections" as is afforded by a modern star actress in the theatre. If the days are long and it is suitable weather, he may perhaps dine in the garden at the back of the peristyle. Otherwise in the dining-room the three couches mentioned in a previous chapter (FIG. 48) are arranged along three sides of a rectangle. Their metal and ivory work gleams brightly, and they are resplendent with their embroidered cushions. In the middle of the enclosed space shines the polished table, whether square or round. The sideboard is laden with costly plate; the lamps are, or soon will be, alight upon their tall shafts or hanging from their chains; the stand for the carver is awaiting its load. The dining-room steward and his subordinates are all in readiness.

At the right time the guests arrive, endeavouring to show neither undue eagerness by being too early nor rudeness by being too late. Each brings his own footman to take off his shoes and to stand behind him, in case he may be needed, though not to wait at table, for this service belongs to the slaves of the house. After they have been received by the host, the "name-caller" leads them to their places, according to such order of precedence as Silius chooses to pre-arrange. The regular number of guests for the three couches will be nine--the number of the Muses--or three to each couch. To squeeze in more was regarded as bad form. If the crescent couch and the large round table are to be used the number may be either six or seven. The position of Silius himself as host will be regularly that marked H on the plan, while the position of honour--occupied by a consul if one be present--will be that marked C.

Each guest throws himself as easily as possible into a reclining attitude, resting his left elbow on the cushion provided for the purpose. He has brought his own napkin, marked with a purple stripe if he is a senator, and this he tucks, in a manner still sufficiently familiar on the continent of Europe, into upper part of his attire. Bread is cut and ready, but there are no knives and forks, although there is a spoon of dessert size and also one with a smaller bowl and a point at the other end of the handle for the purpose of picking out the luscious snail or the succulent shell-fish. The dainty use of fingers well inured to heat was necessarily a point of Roman domestic training.

There have been many--perhaps too many--descriptions of a Roman dinner, but the tendency, especially with the novelist, is to exaggerate grossly the average costliness and gluttony of such banquets. Undoubtedly there were such things as "freak" dinners almost as absurd as those of the inferior order of American plutocrat. Undoubtedly also there was often a detestable ostentation of reckless expenditure. But we are endeavouring to obtain a fair view of representative Roman practice, and must put out of our minds all such vagaries as those of the ceiling opening and letting down surprises, or of dishes composed of nightingales' tongues and flamingoes' brains. These were always, as a later writer calls them, "the solecisms of luxury." Nero himself, or rather the ministers of the vulgar pleasures which he regarded as those of artistic genius, devised an abundance of such expensive follies and surprises, but we must not permit the professional satirist or Stoic moralist to delude us into believing them typical of Roman life. Praise of the "simple life" and the simple past is no new thing. It is extremely doubtful whether at an ordinary Roman dinner-party there was any such lavish luxury as to surpass that of a modern aldermanic banquet. We can hardly blame the people who could afford it for obtaining for their tables the best of everything produced around the Mediterranean Sea, any more than we blame the modern citizen of London or New York for obtaining the choicest foods and dainties from a much wider world. Doubtless a Roman dinner too often meant over-eating and over-drinking, and doubtless neither the ordinary table manners nor the ordinary table conversation would recommend themselves to us. The same might be said of our own Elizabethan age. But any one intimately acquainted with Latin literature as a whole, and not merely with the more savoury passages commonly selected, will necessarily incline to the belief that novelistic historians have too often been taking what was exceptional, eccentric, and strongly disapproved by contemporaries, for the usual and the normal. If we read about Romans swallowing emetics after gorging themselves, so that they might begin eating afresh, we may feel both disgust and pity, but we must not imagine such a practice to have been a national habit.

The dinner regularly consisted of three divisions: a preliminary course of hors d'oeuvres, the dinner proper, and a sort of enlarged dessert. It might or might not be accompanied or followed by various entertainments, and closed by a protracted course of wine-drinking. All would depend upon the tastes of the host and the nature of the company. The meal, it may be mentioned, begins with an invocation corresponding to our grace. The hors d'oeuvres are taken in the shape of shell-fish, such as oysters and mussels, snails with piquant sauce, lettuce, radishes and the like, eggs, and a taste of wine tempered with honey.

Next comes the dinner proper, commonly divided into three services, comprising a considerable choice of fish (particularly turbot, flounder, mullet, and lampreys), poultry and game (from chicken, duck, pigeon, and peacock, to partridges, pheasants, ortolans, and fieldfares), hare, joints of the ordinary meats, as well as of wild boar and venison, a kind of haggis, a variety of the vegetables most familiar to modern use, mushrooms, and truffles. There is abundant, and to our taste excessive, use of seasonings, not only of salt, vinegar, and pepper, but of oil, thyme, mint, ginger, and the like, The pièce de résistance--a wild boar, or whatever it may be--regularly arrives as the middle of the three services. The substantial meal ends with a small offering to the household deities. After this follows the dessert, consisting of fresh and dried fruits, and of cakes and sweet-meats artistically composed.

During the dinner a special feature is made of the artistic arrangement of the various viands upon the large trays or stands from which the guest makes his choice, for the several dishes belonging to one course were not brought separately to table. In full view of the guests the professional carver exhibits his dexterity with much demonstration of grace and rapidity, and well-dressed and neat-fingered slaves render the necessary service. Of plates and dishes of various shapes and purposes, silver and silver-gilt, there is great profusion.

The conversation meanwhile depends upon the company. Sometimes it turns upon the chariot-races and the chances of the "Red" or "Green"; sometimes it is social gossip and scandal. If the guests are of a graver cast of mind, it may be concerned with questions of art and literature, or even philosophy. The Roman particularly affected encyclopaedic information, and frequently posted himself with such miscellaneous matter derived from a salaried domestic philosopher or savant--commonly, of course, a Greek. But upon politics in any real sense conversation will either not turn at all, or else very cautiously, at least until some one has drunk more than is good for him. It is only too easy to drop some remark which may be construed into an offence to the emperor, and there are too many ears among the slaves, and perhaps too many among the guests, to permit of any risk in that direction. In some rather serious companies a professional reader or reciter entertained the diners with interesting passages of poetry or prose; before others there might be a performance of scenes from a comedy. At times vocal and instrumental music was discoursed by the domestic minstrels; or persons, generally women, were hired to play upon the harp, lyre, or double flageolet. Such performances would also be carried on during the carousal which often followed deep into the night, and to these may be added posture-dances by girls from Cadiz, juggling and acrobatic feats, and other forms of "variety" entertainment. Dicing in public, except at the chartered Saturnalian festival, was illegal--a fact which did not, of course, prevent it from being practised---but it was permitted in private gatherings like this, provided that ostensibly no money was staked. The dice are rattled in a tower-like box and are thrown upon a special board or tray. You may play "for love," or, as the Romans called it, "for the best man," or you may play for forfeits. Naturally the forfeits became in practice, in spite of the law, sums of money. The best possible throw is called "Venus," the worst possible "the dog." A sort of draughts or of backgammon may be preferred at more quiet times of social intercourse; but a game like "head or tail," called in Latin "heads or ships," was a game for the vulgar.

[Illustration: FIG. 68.--ACROBATS.]

If it was decided to indulge in a prolonged carousal in form, heads were wreathed with garlands of roses, violets, myrtle, or ivy; lots were cast for an "umpire of the drinking," and he decided both how much wine--Falernian, Setine, or Massic--should be drunk, and in what degree it should be mixed with water. A large and handsome mixing-bowl stands in the dining-hall. From this the wine is drawn by a ladle holding about as much as a sherry-glass, and a certain number of such "glasses" are poured into each cup according to the bidding of the umpire. While being poured into the "mixer" the wine is passed through a strainer and in the hot weather the strainer would be filled with snow brought down from the nearest mountains and artificially preserved. Healths were drank in as many "glasses" as the name contained letters; absent ladies were toasted in a similar way; and at some hour or other guests asked their footmen for their shoes and cloaks, and departed to their homes under the escort of attendants, who carried the torches or lanterns and were ready to deal with possible footpads and garroters, if any were lurking in the unlighted streets for pedestrians less wary or less protected. The "Mohawks" also will let them alone, and perhaps their homeward way may be entertained by the sounds of serenaders at the door of some beautiful Chloe or Lydia on the Upper Sacred Way or near the Subura.

It is not, however, to be supposed that every evening meal, even of a noble, took the form of a dinner-party. It is indeed probable that there were few occasions upon which, while in town, he was not either entertaining visitors or being himself entertained. Occasionally there would be an invitation to dine at Court, where perhaps eighty or a hundred guests of both sexes, distributed in different sets of nine or seven over the wide banquet-hall, would eat off gold plate, and be entertained from three or four o'clock till midnight with all the unbridled extravagance that a Petronius or some other "arbiter of taste" might devise for the Caesar. The snob of the period set an enormous value upon this distinction. The emperor could not always review his list of invitations, nor could he on every occasion be personally acquainted with every guest. It was therefore quite possible for his servants now and then to smuggle in a person ambitious of having dined at the palace. Under Caligula a rich provincial once paid nearly £2000 for such an "invitation." When the emperor found it out, he was, if anything, rather flattered; the next day he caused some worthless trifle to be sold to the same man for the same amount, and on the strength of this acquaintance invited him to dinner, this time pocketing the money for himself.

Yet there must have been no few evenings upon which Silius preferred the company of an intimate friend or two, making all together the "number of the graces," and dined with less form and ceremony. At such times the meal would be of comparatively short duration, and there would be deeper and more intimate matter of conversation. Now and then the dinner would be purely domestic; and, after it, Silius would perhaps pass an hour or two in reading, or in listening to the slave who was his professional "reader." If he was himself an author, as an astonishing number of his contemporaries actually were, he might spend the time in preparing a speech, composing some non-committal epic or drama, jotting down memoranda for a history, or concocting an epigram or satire to embody his humorous fancies or to relieve his exasperation. If, as was often the case, he kept in the house a salaried Greek philosopher--in a large measure the analogue of the domestic chaplain of the later seventeenth century--he might enjoy his conversation and pick his brains; or, if a man of real earnestness of purpose, discuss with him the tenets of his particular philosophy, Stoic, Epicurean, or Eclectic. This was the nearest approach which the ancient Roman made to what we should call theological or religious argument.

On other days a patron would naturally entertain a number of his clients at dinner, and on no occasion would he be better able to show how much or how little he was a gentleman in the modern sense of the term. It is not merely from the satirist that we learn how discourteous the Roman grandee might be at his own table if he chose. It was no uncommon thing for a patron to set before these humbler guests dishes or portions of dishes markedly inferior to those which were offered to himself and to any aristocrat whom he had placed near him. In this sense the client was often made to feel very distinctly that he was "sitting below the salt." While the mellowest Setine or Falernian wine was poured into the patron's own jewelled goblet of gold or silver or crystal, his client might be drinking from thick glass or earthenware the poorer stuff grown on the Sabine Hills. The fish presented to Silius and his "brother" noble might be a choice turbot, and the bird might be pheasant, while Proculus the client must be content with pike from the Tiber and the common barndoor fowl. The later satirist Juvenal presents us with inimitable pictures of the hungry dependants at the table of their "king," waiting "bread in hand" (like the sword drawn for the fray) to see what fortune would send them. On the other hand there were, of course, patrons who made no such distinctions. The younger Pliny, who was himself a gentleman almost in the modern sense--if we overlook a too frequent tendency to contemplate his own undeniable virtues--writes a letter to a young friend in the following terms: "I need not go into details as to how I came to be dining with a person with whom I am by no means intimate. In his own eyes he combined elegance with economy; in mine he combined meanness with extravagance. The dishes set before himself and a few others were of the choicest; those supplied to the rest were poor scraps. There was the same difference in his wine, which was of three kinds. The intention was not to offer a choice, but to prevent the right of refusing. One kind was for himself and us; another for his less important friends (for his friends are graded); another for his and our freedmen. My next neighbour noticed this, and asked me if I approved of it. I said 'No!' 'Well,' said he, 'what is your own practice?' 'I treat every one alike, for I invite people to a dinner, not to an insult, and when they share my table I let them share everything.' 'Your freedmen as well?' 'Yes, at such times I regard them as guests, not as freedmen.' At this he said, 'It costs you a good deal?' 'Not at all.' 'How can that be?' 'Because it is not a case of their drinking the same wine as I do, but of my drinking the same wine as they do.'" The letter is perhaps nearly half a century later than our chosen period, but there is no reason to think that manners had undergone any great change in the interval.

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