Sunday, 20 April 2008

Roman Banquets

In republican ancient Rome banquets where just about the only place where a respectable patrician could be fickle and indulge in sensuality without damaging his carefully cultivated reputation. Once the men had been relaxed sufficiently by the wine, in the absence of family women and children, the noble Roman could indulge in the presence of salacious dancers, good-looking flute-players, and performers of various kinds and of both sexes. These activities were not considered serious and anything that occurred during a banquet would be conveniently brushed aside by the next day.

Banquet love affairs were in fact common, even if sexual relations hardly ever took place during the actual banquet. The attendees, despite all knowing each other's identity, would assume nicknames for the evening and dress up in exotic costumes - perhaps in a further effort to highlight the fickle and non-serious nature of any subsequent activities and separate it from everyday life. The poet Catullus for example, tells us of a certain Clodia who called herself Lesbia during these occasions. He subsequently wrote of her (approximate translation):

"You ask how many kisses will please me, oh Lesbia. As many as the grains of sand in the desert of many as the number of the stars in a quiet night witnessing stolen loves of men. So many kisses dear Lesbia, they would be enough for your insane Catullus; so many kisses that gossiping eyes cannot count them and malicious people cannot put the evil-eye on...."

The kisses Catullus was alluding are generally thought to refer to the act of fellatio, however many banquets relied on their attendees using the power of suggestive talk and poetry to excite and scandalize each other while actual physical manifestation of these sexually charged verbal outpourings, during the cena (banquet) was indeed frowned upon and perceived as weakness in most patrician circles.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Sulla: Rome’s Brutal Butcher

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC) was born into a poor aristocratic family in Rome, a very unfortunate situation for an ambitious young patrician. Fortunately for him and not necessarily for the thousands who would have good reason to dread and fear him in later life, he was a man who always seemed to have luck on his side.

As a young man with golden-blond hair, piercing grey-blue eyes, striking good looks and a charming personality, Sulla managed to create such a strong and lasting impression on one of Rome’s richest courtesans that when she died she left all her money to him, thus enabling him, along with an inheritance from his step-mother, to pursue the cursus honorum, the expected but costly career path for a male member of the Roman aristocracy.

Thus, via a combination of good looks, luck and no-doubt careful cultivating of his political acquaintances, Sulla became the Consul Marius’s Quaestor in 107 BC. (The Quaestorship being the first step of the cursus honorum). After taking part in successful military campaigns in north Africa against King Jugurtha and in the northernmost parts of Italy defending against migrating Germanic tribes, Sulla was elected Praetor Urbanus. Rumour had it that he achieved this via bribery. The next year he was posted as Pro-Consul of Cilicia, one of the richest Roman provinces, offering even more potential for advancement. There, during a meeting with the Parthian ambassador Orobazus who brought along a Chaldean seer with him, Sulla was told he would die at the height of his fame, a prophecy which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Sulla returned to Rome in 93 BC and aligned himself firmly with the Optimates, the ultra-conservative political faction in Rome, serving primarily the interests of the patricians. Shortly afterwards, in 91 BC a civil war broke out which was to solidify Sulla’s reputation as a general in the battlefield, as he won the grass crown Corona Graminea for his services. In 88 BC he was elected Consul, the most coveted magistracy in Rome and the top of the cursus honorum.

One of the most notoriously bloody and terrifying times in ancient Rome’s history came about shortly after Sulla was declared dictator by the Senate in 82/81 BC. He was granted absolute power and proceeded to proscribe around 1,500 Roman nobles (although some say the number may be larger than that). Sulla had proscription lists drafted and posted in the Roman Forum [proscriptio] and widespread butchering ensued as Sulla eradicated all his enemies or those he was suspicious of. Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under law. Reward money was given to any informer who gave information leading to the death of a proscribed man and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate (the remainder went to the state). No person could inherit money or property from the proscribed men, nor could any woman married to a proscribed man remarry after his death. Many victims of proscription were decapitated and their heads were displayed on spears on the Rostra in the Forum.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Cicero on the father of Emperor Tiberius

The father of emperor Tiberius, called Tiberius Claudius Nero, was a quaestor to Julius Caesar in 48 BC and Praetor in 42 BC.
We know little about him but Cicero offers some interesting insight on the young man in a letter to Minucius Thermus, governor of Asia, in April 50 BC. The letter reads:

"My friend Nero has told me of his enormous gratitude to you in the best of terms, absolutely unbelievable...In all our patrician families there is no man I value more." [ Cicero, Letters to Friends, Letter 138 (XIII.64)]

Forum Romanum (The Roman Forum)

The Forum was the center of the ancient city, a place to see and to be seen, to catch up on the latest news and gossip, do some shopping, business and even to be entertained. Nowadays all we see are ruins, mostly due to the plundering which took place in the Middle Ages as the great monuments were ravaged and had their marble and other elements stripped off them for the building of the Vatican and other Papal palaces and churches. Despite this it is still the best example of an open-air museum, offering the visitor a chance to go back in time somewhat and walk in the footsteps of the ancient Romans.

Over the centuries the Forum has gone through many changes. After a big fire in AD 283 it was already 1,000 years old and had been remodelled several times. The Forum started life as a marshy area, a meeting place for the early inhabitants of the surrounding hills. By the 5th century BC it had evolved into Rome's city-centre, a place for political assemblies, riots, demonstrations, trials, gladiatorial shows and various public festivities. The marshy ground had been drained, the Cloaca Maxima had been created and one could see lofty patrician houses amidst the hustle and bustle of a market filled with food stalls, various imported and local goods and even cattle in the area closer to the river (Forum Boarium). Plautus gives us an interesting description of the kinds of people lurking around the Forum:

"For perjurers, try the Comitium. Liars and braggarts hang around the Shrine of Cloacina: rich, married ne'er do-wells by the Basilica. Packs of prostitutes there too - but rather clapped-out ones. In the Fish-Market, members of the dining clubs. In the lower Forum respectable, well-to-do citizens out for a stroll; in the Middle Forum, flashier types along the canal. By the Lacus Curtius you will find bold fellows with a tongue in their head and a bad intent in their mind - great slanderers of others and very vulnerable to it themselves. By the old shops, the money-lenders - they will make or take a loan. Behind the Temple of Castor there are men to whom you wouldn't entrust yourself. In the Vicus Tuscus are men who sell themselves. In the Velabrum you will find a baker or a butcher or a fortune-teller, or men who will do a turn for you or get you to do a turn for them." [Plautus, Curculio 470-82]

As time went by the are transformed yet again into a showcase of Roman power, reminders of triumphs celebrated by victorious generals, the conquests of the empire, and elaborate temples and various public buildings built with the booty and slaves Rome had acquired.

Today it is interesting to see, as indeed one of my pictures above shows, that the alleged site of Julius Caesar's funeral pyre at the Ara di Cesare (Temple of Divus Julius) is still honoured by people who deposit flowers at the spot anonymously.