Aw yeah, we’re getting into some stuff now! This is one of the most familiar, read, misinterpreted, and debated collections of literature in the world. Everyone thinks they’re an expert, and most think their particular religion is correct. But we’re not here to talk about religion, we’re here to talk about dick jokes. And history. And language. Hence, I’m not discussing a holy book, but a collection of ancient works, written 2000 years ago in Ancient Greek, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, in the Hellenized East, by a bunch of Jews. Needless to say, there are a lot of quirks in the Bible worthy of discussion. This one’s about Bible manuscripts.
Throw a stone or do a Google search and you can find someone talking about Bible manuscripts. Some say it’s the best attested or most accurate text in ancient history. It’s a common line and claim among Christians and apologists. Likewise, it’s commonly dismissed outright, denied, or harshly criticized by non-Christians (including believers in other religions). Bias is rampant, but there are ways through the weeds. As usual, a dispassionate, objective analysis reveals the truth as somewhere in the middle.
Let’s start with the good things to make us stand up erect and proudly bask in the impressive girth of our wisdom. There are some 20,000 manuscripts for the Bible. That is undeniably the largest for an ancient work (or collection of works). The Bible is the biggest. Some, like the Codex Sinaiticus are quite complete, and offer a great resource. Others are merely fragments, little snippets of text sometimes only offering a few words, like P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript. Fortunately, we have a boatload of these, so they are pretty helpful too, once scholars put the jigsaw back together. Unlike some other works, we have the Bible in its complete form, with plenty of pieces to support our readings. By comparison, we’re missing entire books from Tacitus’ works.
Now for the bad news. Most of those 20,000 manuscripts (mss. for short) are crap. It’s not the size of the manuscripts that counts, it’s how you use them. Here’s a handy dandy chart showing the distribution, by century, of all 5,742 Greek manuscripts.
If you look, most are from the middle ages. Almost none are from the century in which the Gospels and other NT books were written, and there are relatively few from the immediate following centuries. Similarly, Bible mss are categorized into 5 rankings, 1 being the best, 5 being the worst, the majority of which are ranked 3-5. This creates an issue for reconstructing the “first edition”. Even worse, those later mss tend to be the ones filled with mistakes. Our manuscripts are impressive in their volume, but there’s a weird odor coming from them. Turns out, copying an error 1000 times doesn’t make the error go away. There’s been a good amount of work in just trying to figure out where the interpolations—unintended additions not written by the author—have snuck into the texts. With volume also comes an additional problem due to the nature of the manuscripts being handwritten; namely, there are some 400,000 textual differences! That’s a number you know is false, because who the fuck is going to count that high? While the actual number is unknown, there are a massive number of differences, making Bible mss one of the worst games of telephone ever. No two manuscripts are exactly the same. Which one’s the “real” one? Which one’s the “correct” one? There are enough problems to make even the most pompous person’s mighty ego shrivel up like a politician being asked about ethics.
Hey, look at that! Another article where I point out how little we know. Sounds like we’re up the creek without even a damn boat, but we’re actually in decent condition on the Bible, so don’t break out the little blue pills and attack me for being a heretic quite yet. Most of those 400K variants—or however many there really are and feel free to count them up yourself if you’ve got a few decades of free time—are things like spelling differences and word order changes (word order in Greek being less about grammar and more about emphasis). There are relatively few critical issues that seriously alter the text, but they do exist. Feel free to look up the ending of Mark, the Comma Johanneum, and the Pericope Adulterae for three examples of Bible oopsies. Even Isaac Newton got in on the action. Scholars will forever argue about which manuscripts are the best, which words (and word order) are most accurate, and which readings are most correct, but for the most part, this is the stuff of high level academics, and not the concern of the common man.
That said, everyone should be aware of what manuscripts are being used as the basis for a given translation. They are not all equal, and some “critical editions” are better than others. So yes, this is sort of a mess. Not only do we have different translations with different focuses and methodologies, but we even have different source material for the basis of those translations. The nice thing is Wikipedia has listed the source material for most of the translations when you search for them (the Bibles themselves should also do the same somewhere).
Research on Bible manuscripts is an ongoing process, as it is with all ancient texts. Scholars have been very effective at correcting the text, but it is not perfect. For the serious student, it is good practice to remember a given passage is only one translation of one version of the text; there may be multiple variations that alter what gets translated, and of course multiple ways to translate. If your study bible has a critical apparatus, it will list all the textual variants for a passage, as well as the manuscript evidence for each difference. So they’re at least trying to make it a little easier for you.
Free Speech. The right to say what you want without fear of arrest or prosecution by the government. Is there any aspect more fundamental to democracy? Ok, voting, but shut up, I’m trying to make a point here. We regard freedom of speech as essential to a free state. The denial of free speech is seen as a move to dictatorship, oppression, and slavery. It’s a big deal. The ancient Athenians thought free speech was a big deal too. Just like how you can’t say “fire” in a crowded theater, the Athenians also had limitations on freedom of speech. In a way these laws—what I like to call anti-asshole initiatives—highlight the importance of freedom of speech in the society. It seems most societies grapple with the lines, and so I can think of no better way to look at this than making it a straight up competition between freedom and limitation of speech.
Socrates was more or less killed for saying the wrong thing. His trial sets one limit on free speech. Technically, Socrates was indicted on two charges; denigrating the city gods (impiety) and introducing new gods (corrupting the youth). Both highlight one area where speech was more regulated, namely, religion. Unlike modernity, Athens was not a secular state. Religion and politics were intricately intertwined, with rituals and temple buildings being functions of the government. The gods were real, intervened in human affairs, and didn’t take kindly to being mocked.
Hence, the health of the state was at least partially believed to be dependent on the favor of the gods. When Socrates was put on trial, Athens had just lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. They lost a great deal of pride in themselves, their democracy, and were understandingly worried about their future. Their navy, the source of Athenian power, was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Aegospotami. Things were bleak. Then along came Socrates, praising Sparta, and tempting the fate of Athens by pissing off the gods. In such a context, it is perhaps easier to see why free speech didn’t extend to religious matters. That said, it’s still a restriction, point for the limits.
Before anyone decides the Athenians were a bunch of superstitious backwards nutters, keep in mind we tend to have similar debates. When the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church fame started picketing the funerals of deceased soldiers, a similar issue came up. How far do we go to defend First Amendment rights? The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that public speech on public sidewalks could not be restricted. Perhaps this was such a big deal because it also touched on something almost universal among cultures—the prohibition against speaking ill of the dead.
Athens was little different with regard to the dead. In Athenian thinking, not speaking ill of the dead was one of those fundamental things in life. Plutarch cites Solon as the lawmaker forbidding this act:
“Praise is given also to that law of Solon which forbids speaking ill of the dead. For it is piety to regard the deceased as sacred, justice to spare the absent, and good policy to rob hatred of its perpetuity. He also forbade speaking ill of the living in temples, court-of‑law, public offices, and at festivals; the transgressor must pay three drachmas to the person injured, and two more into the public treasury” (21.1).
There’s a problem though. During the 3rd century BC, Athens and other states had a tendency to attribute various laws to past leaders or mytho-historical figures. The idea is clear enough; the older a law or custom and the more famous its supposed founder, the more weight and credence it appears to have. We tend to do the same thing with our Founding Fathers. It doesn’t always represent truth though. In this case, Solon is one of the legendary figures in Athenian history, and the extent to which he created Athenian democracy, or wrote a law prohibiting bad-mouthing the dead probably cannot be known with any great certainty or accuracy.
Adding to the skepticism are clear cases of Athenians speaking ill of the dead, seemingly with impunity. Aristophanes seems to do it regularly. In the Frogs, performed in 405 BC, the plot follows the god Dionysus in trying to bring the recently deceased Euripides (died in 406 BC) from Hades. Likewise, in Peace (performed 421 BC) Kleon is ruthlessly mocked, despite having died in battle merely months before. Peace won 2nd place at the City Dionysia that year. Either the law didn’t actually exist, it was unenforced by the time of Aristophanes, or the penalty was never updated—and five drachmas for someone like Aristophanes wouldn’t have even counted as a rounding error. So we’ve got a law that doesn’t work, even if it existed (and it probably didn’t). Point for free speech.
Next are several restrictions governing “aporreta (ἀπόρρητα)”, literally things forbidden to be said. Essentially these were slander laws. Interestingly though, these laws seemed to forbid pretty specific accusations rather than general practices—such as calling someone a murderer, a father-beater, a mother-beater, and a shield-thrower. Yeah, that last one is going to need some explanation.
The Athenians, like pretty much all the Greeks, fought in phalanx formations. These were tightly packed shield and spear walls, basically the ancient equivalent of a tank. Ideally, the shields would overlap, and your shield was used to protect the guy next to you, rather than yourself. Everyone see where this is going? Dropping your shield was thus both an act of cowardice and basically treason. It meant you were betraying your friends and countrymen, leaving your fellow soldier exposed, and fleeing from the enemy.
Of course, Aristophanes pushes the limits even on slander. In Birds (287-289), he almost accuses Kleonymos of being a shield-thrower, but changes it to “crest”. Like the sarcastic little bastard he was, Aristophanes was basically told not to push the red button, totally pushes the button using a stick, and then justifies it by saying it wasn’t him, it was the stick that pushed the button. To be fair, he’s making fun of politicians—some things never change (cough, Jon Stewart, cough). He followed the literal letter of the law, but damn sure not its spirit. Lysias also cites the law in Against Theomnestus—this gives a little more weight to the historicity of it. Point for the limitations.
That brings us to the last piece for discussion, the Decree of Syrakosios. The decree is mentioned in a scholiast’s note (a Medieval commentator) on Aristophanes’ Birds. It supposedly bans satirizing someone by name, although the exact language is a little unclear. It either bans satirizing people by name, or satires that name people. Obviously this would be a major issue for comedians like Aristophanes. There is a matter of debate regarding what this law actually banned, what the punishments were, and whether the damn thing even existed. But no fear, because remember: Historian = Time Detective.
Aristophanes’ first comedy, Babylonians, went after Kleon very hard. It seems then Kleon sued him. We know this because like a typical sarcastic, satirical ass, Aristophanes decided to reference the lawsuit in his next play, Acharnians. The character Dikaiopolis breaks the fourth wall to address the lawsuit as if he were Aristophanes himself:
“And in my own case I know what Cleon did to me because of last year’s comedy. He hauled me before the Council, and slandered me, and tongue-lashed me with lies, and roared like the Cycloborus, and soaked me in abuse, so that I nearly died in a mephitic miasma of misadventure” (48-50).
It seems like it was a real thing, and a big deal for the comedian. So perhaps the decree has some historical teeth, and there were limits on comedians’ free speech after all?
Nah. Keep in mind all these scholiasts are Medieval people—they’re writing notes in the 8-10th centuries or later about events nearly 1000 years old. Doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, but you have to ask where they’re getting their information, before we start using them to get our information.
Secondly, while Kleon probably did sue Aristophanes, it wasn’t for personal slander. The charge was slandering the city in the presence of foreigners. The Babylonians was staged during the City Dionysia, with foreign diplomats from states allied to Athens in attendance. Dikaeopolis (probably representing the playwright) says that this won’t be a problem anymore because there are no foreigners present this time around. The Acharnians was staged during the Lenaia, with pretty much only Athenians in attendance. Once again, the comedian is exploiting a loophole, following the letter but not the spirit of law.
Finally, Aristophanes still wrote and put on plays. We don’t know what happened to this case, but in any event, Aristophanes didn’t stop. He didn’t even seem to hold back any more than usual, and you can read the rest of his plays to see just how harsh and critical he could be.
So that leaves us with a few possibilities: One, the Decree existed, and banned named comedy (in whichever sense). This probably isn’t the case since it’s clear this just didn’t happen. Grass is green, sky is blue, and Aristophanes makes fun of politicians by name. The evidence refutes this theory. Two, the Decree existed, but involved something else. Some scholars have proposed that the Syrakosios decree concerned a scandal with the hermai, others have said it is one and the same with the slander law. Neither alternative really add up though. Finally, the damned thing doesn’t really exist. It’s a mistake on the part of the scholiast; speculation that a law was preventing named comedy. My bet’s on the last one—point for freedom—but as the great philosophers of Monty Python once said, “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals! You’re all different!”
On that note, I think it’s game, set, and match for Freedom of Speech. So the next time you enjoy a good mocking of our politicians, think of Aristophanes.
For those with academic library access, there’s a buttload (technical term) of discussion on free speech in Athens, the various laws supposedly limiting free speech, the comedian’s right to free speech, and the Decree of Syrakosios.
Look at me, giving a bibliography like I’m all professional and shit. . . .
Atkinson, J.E. “Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syrakosios’ Decree.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 42.1 (1992): 56-64. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/639144>
Halliwell, Stephen. “Ancient Interpretations of ὀνομαστὶ κωμῳδεῖν in Aristophanes.” The ClassicalQuarterly, New Series Vol. 34.1 (1984): 83-88. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638337>
Halliwell, Stephen. “Comic Satire and Freedom of Speech in Classical Athens”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111 (1991). pp. 48-70. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631887>
Hunter, Virginia. “Gossip and Politics of Reputation in Classical Athens.” Poenix Vol. 44.4 (Winter 1990): 299-325. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1088805>
Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: Scholia in Vespes; Pacem; Aves et Lysistratam. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1978.
Koster, W.J.W. Scholia in Aristophanem: In Acharnenses. Bouma’s Boekhuis B.V. Groningen, The Netherlands. 1975.
MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 1978. Pgs 126-129.
MacDowell, Douglas M. “Law-Making at Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 95 (1975). pp. 62-74. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/630870>
Radin, Max. “Freedom of Speech in Ancient Athens.” The American Journal of Philology Vol. 48.3 (1927): 215-230. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/290126>
Sommerstein, Alan H. “The Decree of Syrakosios.” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 36.1 (1986):101-108. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/638947>
Sommerstein, Alan H. “Aristophanes and the Events of 411.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 97 (1977): 112-126. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/631026>
Sommerstein, Alan H. “Harassing the Satirist: The Alleged Attempts to Prosecute Aristophanes”. In Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (Edited by Sluiter, Ineke and Rosen, Ralph M.). Brill-Leiden. Boston. 2004. pp. 145-174.
Trevett, Jeremy. “Was There a Decree of Syrakosios?” The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol. 50.2 (2000); pp. 598-600. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1558915>
Wallace, Robert W. “Law, Attic Comedy, and the Regulation of Comic Speech”. In The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law. Cambridge University Press. 2005.
Rich vs poor. Wealthy elites vs the proletariat. The upper classes vs the lower classes. Class warfare, income inequality, socioeconomic disparity. It’s a major issue in our world right now. Some are arguing against big banks and corporate welfare, others are arguing against business taxes and regulations. On some level, though, the argument is the same; income inequality has risen to unacceptable measures, and we need to fix it so the gap between the rich and the poor, the elite and the common man, is not so great.
Income inequality has always existed. Every society and every country has had to deal with the issues separating the aristocracy from the peasantry. We’re just a naturally shitty species that way. Sometimes the issue of power and wealth will come to a violent conclusion, as when nobles and monarchs are overthrown in revolution. Other times political and economic forces mollify people and prevent violent outcomes.
Rome was no different. Just like we have socio-economic classes (upper, middle, lower, working), Rome had divisions – senatorial, knight, patrician, plebeian. Throughout her early history, the divide between the senatorial class and the commoners was as an issue for politicians and people alike. From the earliest of the early Roman state (the Roman Kingdom) up to the late Republic, the distinctions between patrician and plebeian were important and influential in running the state. Although our information about the Roman Kingdom is scant, we have some idea of how early Rome divided powers and privileges between the two groups. Livy (1.8) tells us that Romulus made 100 people the first senators, and hence they became the first “patricians”. Whether that story is true, or is the ancient equivalent of George Washington’s cherry tree, this essentially shows the start of the Roman aristocracy. From the early days, patricians were the people who owned most of the land and controlled most of the wealth. It’s good to be the king pater.
Under the Early Republic, patricians sought to consolidate their control. Obviously, the plebeians sought to gain some power of their own. Both groups argued and moved against each other for control of the state over a roughly 200 year period historians call the “Struggle of the Orders”. The patricians had political power, money, and land. The plebeians had numbers. Sometimes money wins, but when things get bad enough, or the people get fed up enough, the numbers always win. This is a lesson Jeb Bush probably should have learned before getting his ass kicked by Donald Trump.
According to tradition, only patricians could stand for the highest magistracies like the consulship. Likewise, membership in various priesthoods was closed to the plebeian class. The upper echelon of political and social power was pretty much off limits to the lower classes. With the dissolution of the monarchy and the formation of the Republic, however, the plebs saw an opportunity to gain more powers, specifically a voice and representation in government (the original “no taxation without representation” group). The fledgling years of the new government seemed the best time to give it a shot.
Rome, at the formation of the Republic in 505 BC, was not the Mediterranean superpower we all know and love. Rome was more or less just “Rome”, the singular city on seven hills. And they were to a large extent surrounded by enemies. In their immediate vicinity were the Latins, an early Italic tribe. There were also the Volscians, another nearby tribe. Larger groups included the Etruscans, the Sabines, and other peoples.
People like Pyrrhus or Hannibal, or groups like the Carthaginians and Gauls won’t be on the radar for a while. So in short, Rome is kind of weak sauce. With the last Roman King being expelled and the new Republic in its formative years, Rome is still facing problems internally and externally. In 495 BC, Rome had just won a decisive victory against the Latins at Lake Regillus. It was an important victory for the Romans, both in solidifying the Republic against future attempts to restore the monarchy, and in demonstrating to its neighbors that under a Republic, Rome could still raise an army and kick major ass. Shortly after, Rome sent an army into the Volscian territory, just to reinforce the message.
No sooner than the army returned home did many of its legionaries, and other members of the plebeian order, start to raise complaints about taxes and debt. Wars cost money, and with a civilian army, those who fought in it tended to run the risk of winding up without a farm or home on their return, and subsequently no way to pay for taxes or personal debt. Rome was basically another state that did a terrible job taking care of its veterans. Livy describes the event that really kicked things off:
But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people. The discontent, which was becoming of itself continually more embittered, was still further inflamed by the signal misfortunes of one individual. An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, “Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?” He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death. Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash. Livy 2.23
Well, as one would expect, the plebs lost their minds, and demanded the Senate (made up of patricians) be convened to address the debt and tax issue. The Senate, as one would expect, paid lip service to the commoners and went back to swimming in pools of their own money, Scrooge McDuck style.
Fortunately for the patricians, there were bigger fish to fry. The Senate decided this fight with the plebs should probably be put on the backburner until the Volscians were pacified. As such, they sent out a levy to raise the appropriate ass-kicking force. The plebs then promptly decided not to enroll in the army. The plebs had the patricians by the balls here—little hard to kick ass when your ass-kicking force decides not to show up for work. One of the consuls, Publius Servilius Priscus Structus, urged the people to take up arms for the common defense, and sweetened the deal by passing an edict that nobody should be prevented from enrolling due to debt, and more importantly, that no active duty legionary should have his property seized or his family imprisoned while on tour. The plan and concession worked, the plebs enrolled, and Servilius led the army on a series of victories against the Volscians, Sabines, and Aurunci. Did I mention the early Romans had a lot of enemies?
Unfortunately, almost immediately on taking out the external problems, the senators/patricians went back on their words, imposing severe penalties for debt. The plebs took some revenge when another threat from the Sabines a year later popped up, prompted a new army levy, and again nobody enrolled. This time though, there was no Servilius to save the day.
With no moderate voices, on either side, shit pretty much hit the fan. The Senate cracked down hard with arrests, and the people formed mobs and got violent. Rome was essentially tearing itself apart, and the Sabines weren’t even doing the damage—but seeing the Romans destroy the city must have been quite funny, because they invited the Aequi and Volsci to join the party. Things were so bad Rome elected a dictator to deal with everything. Manius Valerius Marius was given unlimited power and a six month term to save the Republic, both from the combined Sabines/Aequi/Volsci threat (seriously, the Romans were not well liked), and from itself. He issued a similar decree as Servilius, providing debt relief and protections from creditors. The people accepted, an army was raised, and Rome kicked ass.
In a move anybody with some sense prompts them to ask what the hell is wrong with these people, upon return, the Senate started acting like dicks again. The Senate were such dicks, Valerius the dictator, a person with absolute power, by law, resigned in protest. I can’t even think of a joke to make that funny. Nobody with absolute power just. . .quits, do they? Well, in 493 BC, the Aequi decided to stir up some trouble. Again. Can you guess what happened next? Yup, let’s run history by the book. Once more from the top everybody!
In what is called the “First Secession of the Plebs”, rather than go through the same process that had occurred in the last two years, the plebs decided they were just going to leave the city, literally. A decent sized body of the plebs said, “fuck this noise” and went up to Mons Sacer, about 3 miles outside Rome, and set up camp.
In what had to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, the patricians woke up to find half the city deserted, and the few remaining plebs none too keen on obeying the patricians, let alone joining the army to fight the Aequi. The patricians collectively crapped their togas.
The Senate negotiated (which is to say totally caved in to plebeian demands), and the First Secession of the Plebs ended peacefully. Livy recounts that part of the conditions were that “the plebeians were to have magistrates of their own, who should be inviolable, and in them should lie the right to aid the people against the consuls, nor should any senator be permitted to take this magistracy”. Thus, the office of Tribune of the Plebs was created. This office gave the plebs much of what they wanted, which at the core of their message was representation in the affairs of state. Now they could bitch about high taxes to one of their own! Taxation with representation! Uh, victory is ours?
The Tribune of the Plebs became an unequivocally important and influential position for almost the entirety of the Roman Republic. The office fell outside the cursus honorum, the typical succession of offices for a Roman political career, but because of their powers, they were never far from the action. The Tribunes were elected by the plebs, and had to be plebs themselves, putting a check on the patricians from controlling the office. Their role was to protect plebeians from the power of the consuls; to this end, Tribunes had the all-important ius intercessionis, “law of intercession”, or more popularly known as veto power.
In Rome, every magistrate had veto power over magistrates in a lower office; hence, an Aedile could overturn a Quaestor, a Praetor an Aedile, and the Consuls could veto a decree from anyone, including each other—where do you think our Founding Fathers got that whole “checks and balances” notion from? Veto for the Tribunes meant any action, by any magistrate, including the consuls, could be overturned. This put Tribunes in a unique position of falling outside the magistracy, yet practically on top of the pyramid. Even better, the position being “inviolable” (sacrosanctus or more literally “sacrosanct” in the Latin) meant attempting to harm a Tribune, prevent a Tribune from carrying out their duties, or disregarding a Tribune’s veto was punishable by death as an insult to the gods. No more fucking around. The plebs have POWER. So the struggle between the plebs and patricians basically ended with the plebeians winning.
Keen observers will notice that I earlier stated the Struggle of the Orders occurred over a 200 year period and not the three I’ve talked about so far; they might also note I referred to the above episode in Roman history as the First Secession of the Plebs. There is some disagreement over the number, but there are at least three such Secessio Plebis events in the Roman Republic. I will give a quick breakdown of the situation and changes that resulted in the plebs literally leaving the city in protest two more times. History really does repeat, and chances are, you can guess what the results were: The patricians act like jerks, the plebs leave, the patricians cave and more or less give the plebs what they want. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
The second Secessio Plebis occurred in 449 BC. Rome appointed 10 men, “decemvirs”, to overhaul the legal system and compile a code of laws. This would eventually become the Law of the Twelve Tables. In order to facilitate this, they suspended all magistrates and offices, and exempted the decemvirs’ statutes and actions from appeal. It’s still a mystery why they thought this was a good idea. Well, after their term ended and the legal codex was assembled, the decemvirs decided to keep their near unlimited power and acted how one would expect someone with unlimited power to act—like power-hungry bellends. The plebs seceded, the Senate caved, and eventually things went back to normal. The resulting lex Valeria Horatia (named after the two consuls of 449 BC) restored appeal and decreed that laws passed by the Plebeian Council were binding to all Roman citizens. So the plebs gained the right to issue laws that would also affect patricians, and not just themselves. Oh, and they also banned the creation of any new offices not subject to appeal—at least they learned something from this episode.
The Third Secessio Plebis occurred in 287 BC. Quintus Hortensius was appointed dictator after the plebs once again did their thing. While the previous law allowed the Plebeian Council to pass laws binding to both orders, there was still a stipulation that any “plebicites” (laws passed by the Plebeian Council) had to be approved by the Senate—filled, of course, with patricians. Essentially, the Senate was just vetoing all the pleb laws and bypassing having to follow them. Hortensius, a pleb himself, issued a law that made plebicites binding, whether they were Senate approved or not. Pretty easy solution.
There were other fights and laws leading up to the final secession in 287 BC. Sometimes historians will count these as separate secessions. For example, in 445 BC, tribune Gaius Carnuleius led a fight to get a law passed allowing intermarriage between plebs and patricians, and for the consulship to be opened to the plebs.
All in all, it worked out well for the plebeians. The little guys won. Probably because they outnumbered the big guys like 100 to 1. Like I said, when push comes to shove, the side with the numbers always wins. Threatening to move to Canada if Trump wins sounds silly, but the Romans essentially made this sort of threat work. Although there was still a divide between rich and poor, the function of the orders became more or less obsolete. Being a patrician just didn’t matter much after 287 BC. Being a plebeian was no longer a sentence of complete poverty and powerlessness either. Of course, the Roman Republic would unravel in the 1st century BC, and the Empire would rise in the 1st century AD, bringing with it a whole new set of rules, orders, and socioeconomic system.
But that’s an article for another day.
At some point, everyone should experience live performance. It’s fun. I recently saw a production of Sophokles’ Antigone. It was bad. Ok, that wasn’t a great endorsement for live performance. But seeing the play made me think about the difficulty of trying to perform a 2000 year old Greek tragedy for a modern American audience. Despite my less-than-impressed reaction, it was testament to the legacy we inherited from the ancient Greek theater.
Much of our information on the Greek theater comes from the period where it was at its height of popularity—at Athens, during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. The three great tragedians, Sophokles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, wrote the majority of the surviving plays. The comic Aristophanes provides the bulk of surviving comedies. Satyr plays were a mix of tragedy and comedy, and made up the third form of staged drama. While most of our information comes from this period, drama pre-dates it. By how much, we don’t know. We are not entirely sure on when, who, or how drama and theater originated. We don’t know shit. Welcome to Classics.
Fortunately, we can pass the buck on this one, because the Athenians themselves weren’t very sure of the origins either. Various authors speculated over the different aspects of theater, including when and who invented each part. One favored explanation is drama grew out of rituals associated with the god Dionysus, starting in the 7th century BCE, and took a more coherent and recognizable form around the mid-6th century BCE. From several sources, Arion of Methymna is credited with producing the first drama, composed of a sung dithyramb and chorus around 625 BCE. Other sources refer to Thespis of Ikarion as the first (or second) playwright in 532 BCE, and the inventor of “acting”—which is why actors today are called “thespians”.
Other names have been dropped in playing roles in the invention. Epigenes of Sicyion is mentioned in the Suda (a 10th century CE encyclopedia) as the first tragic poet. Cleisthenes gets credit for transferring the tragic chorus to Dionysus, having supposedly previously being rites for Adrastrus. Peisistratus founded the Greater Dionysia, also called the City Dionysia, which is when a lot of the plays were staged during the heyday of Athenian theater.
While the origins of drama and theater are still unclear, what is undeniable is tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays become a well-known and recognizable feature of Athenian society. Staging the plays occurred in much the same way they are done today, albeit with some differences. Greek theaters were built all over, in many cities. They look exactly liked you’d think. The all-stone design allowed for longevity in their construction, which is why many survive in decent condition today. Earlier theaters were built of wood, but being exposed to the elements (all theaters were outdoors) meant they were high maintenance, and none survive—let that be a lesson if you want something to survive for 2000 years , don’t build it out of wood.
No more than three actors were used, regardless of how many speaking roles there were, whether tragedy or comedy. At the City Dionysia, playwrights competed for both fame and prizes, and unlike today, were primarily funded by the state. The theater itself can be broken into four parts; the “theatron” is where the spectators sat. The “orchestra” was a circular area in front of the stage where the chorus would dance, sing, and perform their roles. The “parodos” were passageways where the chorus or actors would enter and leave the stage. Finally, there was the “skene”, a small building directly behind the stage; it usually had a set of doors for actors to enter and exit, could be decorated to embrace the scenery, and had a roof where actors could climb when they played divine roles—the “deus ex machina” or “god from the machine” could literally be a crane to raise or lower actors from the roof of the skene to the floor.
Because the actors were in the open and conventions limited the number of performers, actors wore masks (think of the famous happy/sad actor masks) and costumes to display different characters. As a rule, each time the actor enters and leaves the stage, they take on a new character, usually accompanied by a wardrobe and mask change. The skene became quite useful in hiding actors “backstage” while they changed masks and costumes.
The plays themselves were usually divided into various sections of more or less recognizable pieces. They usually started with a prologue spoken by one or two characters that set the scene and introduced the play. They had three big “acts” for your beginning, middle, and end. Chorus speeches and dances filled the rest of the play, typically done between acts as transition pieces.
Unlike modern theater, Greek plays followed meter—even the spoken parts. This is similar to the Homeric poems, which we sometimes forget were in meter too. Iambic trimeter was the standard for dialogue, and trochaic tetrameter was the preferred form for the chorus’ songs. Musical theater and opera are the closest comparisons popular in today’s world. This is probably the most untranslatable aspect of ancient Greek theater, Greek being a fairly musical language, and the flow of dialogue spoken in meter becomes apparent only through the experience of hearing it. A similar problem with translation exists, with some people trying to translate the plays or metered works like the Homeric poems using meter or rhyming patterns, while others ignore these features and translate into straight prose. Basically, we tend to suck at capturing the true “essence” of these plays.
While today theater, Broadway, and Hollywood are prominent aspects of our society and culture, in Athens and elsewhere they carried extra public and social importance, in some respects even being functions of the state and government. It is quite likely part of this grew out of the relationship between state and religion, and the historically ritualized religious aspects of theater. Likewise, while the City Dionysia was a big ostentatious display of the might of the Athenian polis, it was still a religious festival for the god Dionysus. Because of the emphasis on ritual, the Greek states, much like the later Romans, controlled the public religious displays to ensure they were done correctly. Hence, the performance of plays became controlled as well.
The playwright submits his play to the Eponymous Archon, one of the chief Athenian magistrates. The Archon then decides which proposals to accept, and assigns a “choregos”, literally “grantor”, to fund the play (see my article on liturgies for how plays were funded and the Athenian tax system worked). During the festival, civil and religious proceedings go on. Libations are poured, a sacrifice is made, and the tribute of all the allied states is laid out on the stage, vast sums of silver and riches put on display to highlight the power of the Athenian Empire.
Then come the plays themselves. In the audience are foreign dignitaries, the Archons, generals, and other leaders of the city, other important and prominent Athenians, and the common folk. A few playwrights would be accepted, and they would compete. In the first row are the priests of Dionysus and the 10 judges. All in all, this was a festive and enjoyable day for everyone involved, but was still a serious and professional event. An upset didn’t just mean bad review, but serious consequences as an insult to the city and god.
A notable case is Aristophanes. Ancient Greek “Old Comedy” was highly political and biting, like Jon Stewart on a particularly hash and unforgiving day. In his first (now lost) play, Babylonians, he was particularly critical against Athenian policy and Kleon, a highly influential politician. Kleon sued Aristophanes, not for personal attacks, but slander against the city in front of foreigners. Although little is known about the incident, and although it does not appear to have impacted the comic’s career (Aristophanes lampooned the event two years later in the Acharnians, his second play, and the Babylonians itself reportedly took second place) it does highlight the high level of professional, religious, and political implications involved. Essentially, it’s like being asked to put on a play by the federal government, and President Obama, various foreign ambassadors, and the Pope are going to be in attendance. Oh, and the gods might get angry if the play is not up to par. No pressure.
Drama was biggest in Athens, thanks both to its sphere of influence and celebrations like the City Dionysia. Plato and Aristotle would write about drama in the 4th century BCE, and Menander’s “New Comedy” would be popular, although all his works only survive in fragments. Perhaps because of the collapse of the Athenian Empire, the rise of Macedon and Alexander the Great, or the sentiments of the Hellenistic Age, the centuries following would not be as prominent for Greek drama. Eventually, Roman drama took over as a major cultural attraction of the Western World.
Greek theater set the stage—pun intended—for much of how we do live performances today. At the very least, Greek theater influenced the Romans in many ways. The theater design itself has basically remained the same over the centuries, and the design served as the inspiration for the Coliseum (also called the Flavian Amphitheater, amphi–theater, literally “two theaters” mashed together). When the Romans expanded into Greece, they basically copied Greek theater. The first Roman playwright writing in Latin, Livius Andronicus, simply translated Greek plays. The comedians Terence and Plautus likewise adapted plays from Greek “New Comedy”, i.e., Menander, and when push came to shove, guys like Seneca the Younger simply staged classics like Euripides’ Medea, with his own unique spin.
The Romans, influenced by the Greeks, would in turn influence poets of the Middle Ages, including Shakespeare, and continue right up to the modern day. Of course, the ancient plays themselves have a legacy. “Greek tragedy” has become a phrase on its own and even in 2016, I can attend a showing of Antigone, written in 414 BCE. I can imagine the look of shock on Sophocles’ face if he knew people would still be performing his play almost 2500 years later. But there it is; Greek theater has survived the test of time, and by current indications, will continue well into the future.
Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.
Perhaps no single article of clothing is so famous, so iconic, and so well remembered as the Roman toga. Drunk frat boys can even create parties with a toga theme, and it seems almost instinctual that we all know how to make one out of our bedsheets. There were, of course, other elements to the Roman wardrobe, and just like today, industries around clothing-material, making clothes, and keeping them clean. So before we commit any party fouls, let’s look at the dress code of Ancient Rome.
Togas. Let’s start at the top with what we know, because I don’t want anyone to wet their pants in anticipation. These are like suits or dresses by our standards, as in to say, togas are a bit more formal than frats would have us believe. The toga has significant social er…significance (I need a thesaurus), and was worn as your social class allowed. Even the Romans knew the toga was a symbol of Rome. Virgil remarked, “Romanos rerum dominos gentemque togatam” (I. 282). Romans, masters of the world, the toga-wearing people.
Unlike the modern bedsheet, the real Roman toga took two people to put on, and was made to high quality standards. Wool was the material of choice, and togas came in a few variations. The most common was the toga praetexta, which was just an ordinary white toga with a broad purple stripe. The magistrates wore this and this is probably what you see in the movies. Just like suits and dresses, though, there were other togas for other occasions, like the toga pulla for funerals and mourning.
The other thing you see is the regular old tunic. This is like a t-shirt, or maybe a golf polo if you splurged on a nice one. Both women and men, common citizen, rich patrician, and slaves wore it. Speaking of, the female equivalent to the toga was the stola. It was similarly difficult to put on, and generally a more formal article of clothing.
As for the more interesting point, laundry. “Laundry is interesting?” you ask, “and where can I get whatever it is you’re smoking?” “Well it is interesting when you take a piss on your clothes to clean them” I respond.
When that toga finally started to be too dirty and smelly to justify wearing, the Romans took them to the local Fullo. Just like today, they treated the clothes in a cleaning solution (they didn’t have soap), rinsed, and dried them. But unlike today, what the Romans sometimes used as “soap” included urine.
First, the fullers put the clothes in big tubs (some of which are archaeologically preserved). Then some alkaline substance is added; from the evidence, urine from men and animals was one of the common ingredients used to clean clothes. Then workers or the fuller himself stomps on the clothes. No seriously, here’s a mural of fullers at work, stomping clothes.
Next they rinsed the clothes and dried them. In a fairly ingenious low-tech process, the fuller usually had a system of tubes and basins for rinsing, so they weren’t continually rinsing the clothes in dirty water.
Finally, they treated the garment. This could include brushing or carding, or adding sulfur to white clothes in order to make them brighter. According to Pliny, fullers were taken pretty seriously, and the Romans even had the “Metilian Law” to govern methods and responsibilities. Thanks to digs in Pompeii, the literary evidence can be supplemented by archaeological remains. Fulleries seem to have come in all sorts of sizes, and frescos help give us more concrete ideas of the fuller and the methods employed. Just be thankful soap got invented, otherwise we might have people cleaning our clothes by pissing and stomping on them.
Thanks to Hollywood, basic common knowledge, and whatever Western Civ/Ancient History course we took in high school, we all have a set image in our heads whenever someone mentions ancient Greece or Rome. Despite numerous resources and websites dedicated to misconceptions, I still see them pop up occasionally. I’ll try to correct a few for the two of you who regularly read this blog.
First: Gladiators. Whether it’s the movie Gladiator, or any one of the Spartacus shows, a lot of people still have misconceptions about gladiators. Part of this is understandable; not everyone keeps up with the scholarship—ok, nobody does. New information is always being discovered and added to the books. For example, back in my day Pluto was a planet (thanks, Obama). A big issue with gladiators is the mortality rate. Scholars still debate this, but the range is between 5 and 50%. While still quite deadly and bloody, even 50% is nowhere near the massacre usually depicted in movies. Russel Crowe’s “are you not entertained” line might be a little less effective if half the other gladiators were still alive. The reason for the lower rates is gladiators were professional athletes, and just like today, they were incredibly expensive to hire and maintain. They underwent expensive training and upkeep, and most owners did not want to flush the equivalent of a million dollar investment down the drain on a three minute fight to the death. While fights sine missio (literally “without relief”) did happen, the literary evidence seems to point to these matches being a rarity rather than the norm. In addition, we have gladiator tombstones listing their records. One famous one is Flamma, who “fought 34 times, won 21, drew 9, and lost 4”. There are two possibilities: 1. Flamma was killed and brought back from the dead. Zombie Flamma didn’t have the same dexterity though, so he lost 3 more times before being killed by fire, holy water, decapitation, silver, garlic, and a wood stake through the heart. Or 2. Gladiators didn’t always fight to the death. As sweet as option 1 would be (Zombie Gladiators; in theaters 2018), chances are option 2 is the correct answer.
This brings me to a second gladiator misconception: Gladiators were the main sport in ancient Rome. Gladiators are utterly fascinating, and they were a major source of entertainment for the Romans. The ponies were still more popular. Here’s a fun fact; adjusted for inflation, the highest paid athlete in the history of the world is a Roman charioteer. Keep that in mind next time you think about how well paid today’s athletes are. Diocles raked in $15 billion in winnings, not counting endorsement deals. In reality, gladiators were the main event at the ludi (games), but no means Rome’s only, or even greatest sport. The Romans also had a love of public execution, “beast fights”, fake naval battles (yes, the Colosseum could actually be filled with water), and the aforementioned ponies. The chariot races were so popular that they continued long into the Byzantine period, well after the decline of gladiator combat.
I don’t want this to be all about gladiators though, there’s a bunch of other things people have incorrect views on. So the second big category is sexuality. We all know Greeks and Romans were like rock stars; sex, drugs, rock and roll, live fast and die young. Drunken symposia and orgies, not to mention the constant sex. Did I mention the sex? SEX! Basically, any show on HBO. It is true that we have many stories of drunken orgies and promiscuous activities that would make Jerry Springer shows look bland; Caligula’s story of debauchery is so well known that they made a porno of it—which I only know about for research purposes, I swear. Nevertheless, they are the exception rather than the rule. Modesty is one of the chief Roman virtues, and is described extensively in the literature. This included the sex and drugs. In point of fact, the crazy sex parties and stories of lewd behavior usually damaged, rather than enhanced one’s reputation. Cicero somewhat famously called out Mark Antony for being a prostitute in his youth.
“sumpsisti virilem, quam statim muliebrem togam reddidisti. primo volgarescortum; certa flagiti merces nec ea parva.”
“You put on men’s clothing, which you immediately returned to a woman’s toga. At first you were a common prostitute; you whored yourself out for a set price, and not a small one”.
~Cicero, 2nd Philippics 44. Cicero was also world champion of “yo momma” jokes.
Similarly throughout the Greek world, lascivious behavior was more the exception than the rule. These are the people who invented Stoicism, Epicureanism, and other ethical and moral philosophies, many of which preach modesty and moderation. More than enough examples show Athenian society to be a bit more puritan than common perception suggests. For example, the standard Athenian house had separate quarters for husband and wife. Likewise, women were chaperoned when in public. This is Middle Ages type stuff. Spartan women enjoyed a bit more progression than their Athenian counterparts, as they not only received a decent education, but also were largely responsible for managing the house, slaves, and in some sense, the state, while the men trained or fought their wars.
Next misconception: Homogeneity. Hollywood is weird. Ancient Greeks have been portrayed in a number of different ways by various people, but Romans? Why do Romans always have to be posh British? There is a weird disconnect where we tend to think of the Romans as a homogenous group. But throughout Roman history, the expansion of territory and citizenship made them the original “melting pot” country. Roman auxilia legions were drawn up from foreigners and provincials, including Gauls, Germans, and Britons. Likewise, even the emperor became more and more someone not even born in Italy, let alone Rome. Hadrian was born in Spain, the first of the “provincial” emperors.
Rome was a metropolis and highly international city; slaves, foreign traders, diplomats, and the ancient equivalent of resident aliens crowded the streets. A mix of languages and people, not the stark and bland place many movies depict.
Notice how whenever I talk about Greece, I separate different city-states like Sparta and Athens? That’s because there isn’t really a “Greece” for these articles. What we now think of as a unified country and culture was a hundred different poleis, or “city-states”, essentially with each city as its own country. Except in certain cases such as the Persian Wars or Philip and Alexander’s annexation of Greece, these city-states were not often united, and commonly were at war with each other. Stark differences can be seen in culture between city-states. Likewise, the various regions developed their own dialects; Attic Greek was spoken by the Athenians while Doric Greek was the dominant dialect of the Peloponnese and Spartans. Herodotus, hailing from Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey, wrote in Ionic Greek. Sappho wrote her poetry in Aeolic Greek. These are all preceded by Homeric Greek, and after Alexander, we start talking about Koine Greek, which is what dialect the New Testament uses.
In its heyday, Athens was similar to Rome; it was a major international capital. It was cosmopolitan—they would know, they invented the word. Its scientific and cultural fame attracted thousands from all over. Vassal states would come to pay tribute during the Athenian empire; Aristophanes lampoons this in the Acharnians. Only a small portion of the population were citizens and Athens hosted a large population of metics, essentially resident aliens living and working in Attica and Athens.
The last misconception I want to touch on is on slavery. While not the same in every detail, slavery in Greece and Rome could be as demeaning and inhuman as American slavery. Slavery, in any form, is bad, mmk? But one’s status as a slave in some respects was not all bad; some Roman Imperial slaves had a good deal of power and status, domestic slaves tended to live more comfortably (and longer) than those in the fields or mines, and many rose to prominence, like Cicero’s slave Tiro or some of the gladiators. Unlike US slavery, Greco-Roman slavery was not primarily a racial issue; many were acquired through conquest and might be ethnically similar to the society or owner. Greek slavery differed from city-state to city-state; Spartans relied heavily on helots—who were similar to serfs in the middle Ages—to till the fields and work the non-military industries. The helots were treated extremely harshly, to the extent that the Spartans essentially had an annual Helot-killing party to keep their spirits broken. Athenian slavery was a little more like American slavery, with a strong economic basis, and slave treatment ranging from absolute brutality to some measure of upward mobility; some legal protections were afforded Athenian slaves against excessive violence—although more to protect the state from revolts than the slave from inhuman treatment.
Roman slavery was likewise varied and complex. There is still debate over how many slaves flowed into the state between the first centuries BC an AD, and ongoing work to figure out the details of freeborn, freedman, and slave identities. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Roman slavery was manumission, whereby a slave could gain their freedom. The children of a freedman became Roman citizens, and this offered an unparalleled way for a family to rise up out of slavery; the Roman poet Horace was the free-born son of a freed slave. Similar to the Greek world, slaves could be treated on a wide spectrum. Not all gladiators were slaves, but many were, and while some achieved significant fame and fortune, others fought for freedom after being brutally treated (Spartacus’ revolt comes to mind). Technically, slaves could own nothing, but often acquired money and could save up enough to buy their own freedom.
And while we’re on the topic, a remake of Ben-Hur is on the horizon (actually, the Heston version is a remake of the 1927 movie called uh, “Ben-Hur”—Hollywood really likes to beat dead horses). I’m sure we are all looking forward to a CGI chariot race and the famous ship ramming rowing scene, parodied to death. Except slaves did not row Roman warships. Just like Greek navies of the day, rowers were citizens, if not professional sailors. The scale of precision needed alone would make slaves an impractical choice for rowers, not to mention the inherent problems the Heston movie made clear; like how under duress, a chained slave is more likely to try escaping than continuing the fight. There is simply no evidence that this occurred except in extreme circumstances. For example, during the Civil War, Octavian and Pompey bought slaves, but freed them before making them rowers. Slaves were used for many things, rowing was not one of them.
Fall has come and gone. The leaves changed color, and the temperature is dropping. School is in full swing and winter break is on the back of every student’s mind. And of course, we’ve already had the ability to do our Christmas shopping, three weeks before Halloween. It’s the Holiday Season. We get Halloween, then Thanksgiving, and the big mother, Christmas, all topped off with New Year’s Eve. Our party season is little match for the Roman circuit though, and they had a multitude of festivals during this quarter of the year. They had the Roman Games, the Plebeian Games, other festivals to various gods and goddesses, and the Saturnalia, going from Dec 18-23. It wasn’t just the fall and early winter though; a full ⅓ of the Roman calendar was dedicated to holidays, which make one wonder how they even had the time to conquer the known world. The most interesting holiday during this season was the Saturnalia; a day that emphasized humility, and a literal inversion of the social order.
The Saturnalia is one of the longer historical festivals, stretching back at least to the Early Republic, if not further. The festival underwent various changes over the centuries, with Augustus restricting it to three days. Like other holy days (holy days, holidays, get it?) It was a public event with no official business being conducted. As the name suggests, it celebrated Saturn, here in his role as an agricultural deity. After the Romans have planted their crops in the fall, the Saturnalia comes to honor the god of sowing. Makes sense. The Saturnalia was one of the most popular holidays—who doesn’t love a good drunken revel—and only fell out of active celebration in the 5th century CE, with the rise of Christianity as the state religion.
While the original celebration fell on a single day, throughout its history it was celebrated anywhere from 3-7 days. As one would expect, religious rites were performed at the Temple of Saturn, including an animal sacrifice. The cult statue of Saturn normally had feet bound in wool, but these were loosened on December 17 to symbolize the god’s liberation. After the sacrifice, there was a public banquet, including a special lectisternium, where an image of the god had a seat, as if at the banquet with them. Typical holiday festivities went on afterwards, both publicly and privately, including feasting, drinking, more drinking, partying, and of course, drinking.
What makes this holiday stand out though, is the role-reversal activities. Slaves became masters and masters became slaves; slaves were not required to work, were allowed dice and the ability to gamble, could wear their master’s clothes, and were even served meals by their masters. In some respects, the social order was suspended during the holiday; slaves and freemen, senators and common folk, patrician and plebeian were all “equal” during the Saturnalia. It was a time when you did not have to worry so much about social restrictions or proper behavior—and according to Seneca the Younger, few did.
It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. License is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations, – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true it is that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said: “Once December was a month; now it is a year.”
If I had you with me, I should be glad to consult you and find out what you think should be done, – whether we ought to make no change in our daily routine, or whether, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public, we should dine in gayer fashion and doff the toga. As it is now, we Romans have changed our dress for the sake of pleasure and holiday-making, though in former times that was only customary when the State was disturbed and had fallen on evil days. I am sure that, if I know you aright, playing the part of an umpire you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped throng in all ways, nor in all ways unlike them; unless, perhaps, this is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them.
~Epistle 18, On Festivals and Fasting
Formal wear such as the toga were put aside in favor of common wear, and many adorned the pilleum, normally a symbol of a manumitted slave, which fit well with the whole “freedom” and role-reversal aspects of the holiday.
The Saturnalia was a time of warmth, of seeing friends and family. It was a holiday of merry-making and gift-giving. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Many elements of the Saturnalia have become incorporated into the typical Christmas celebration. It was a festival of light leading to the winter solstice (on Dec 25th, no less). Gifts were simple and came from the heart. The Romans even sometimes gave gag gifts, all in the spirit of good fun. Families gathered and ate well; some would have suckling pig, an appropriately “earthy” meal for the deity.
Of course, many religious celebrations accumulate aspects from cultures around them. Christmas has elements from the Saturnalia and other traditions, and likewise, the Saturnalia evolved over time. As we move into the holiday spirit, maybe reflect on how traditions are started, molded, and continued throughout history. The more things change, the more they stay the same; we have inherited many things from the cradle of Western Civilization, how we celebrate our holidays is no different. So get partying like it’s 99….BC!
Happy Saturnalia and Winter Solstice.