Rome after dark, Professor Elizabeth Minchin, 18 January 2019
PENELOPE VAILE: Senators, civilians, centurions and slaves. There's one in the corner. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia for ‘Rome up late’.
This is actually the last of our adult programs for the Rome exhibition before it leaves on 3 February. So tell everybody to come back and see it before they can't. My name's Penny. I'm part of the Adult Programs team here at the National Museum, and it is my pleasure to introduce Elizabeth Minchin. She is an Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Classical Studies at the Australian National University.
Her research focuses on the Homeric epics and the relation between myth and landscape. She's interested in the teaching of ancient Greek and Latin languages and in the literatures and in the exploration of everyday life in the wider Greek and Roman world. Tonight she will be talking about the dark and seamy side of Roman life, while exploring the city at night.
Please put your hands together and welcome Professor Elizabeth Minchin.
ELIZABETH MINCHIN: Thank you Penny. I really have to confess that there won't be much darkness and seaminess, so bear with me.
In our own world, we have the means to prolong the day. The arrival of darkness doesn't close off options for activities and social engagements. We can go to the theatre, we can watch sport, we can visit pubs and bars, we can go to restaurants with friends and we visit their homes for a drink and a meal. We have ready and convenient sources of artificial light at our disposal. And we take these for granted.
When we think about the relationship of day and night in the ancient Roman world, our expectation of after-dark activities tend to be shaped by the easy assumptions that we make of our own world and of course by some racy novels, both ancient and modern. So we forget that in the Roman world, daylight could be prolonged only with great difficulty and at a price, just as elsewhere in the ancient world. And as in any less developed society, daylight, which comes at no cost, was at a premium and it was therefore to be used to the full.
So what I'm going to do this evening is talk a little bit — I like practical things too — so I'm going to talk a little bit about how the Romans measured out time. Then I'll talk about how they distributed activities across the day, how they use their time, and then eventually I'll get to the night.
As I do all this, I'm going to address my secret agenda, which I'll confess to you now. That is I want to introduce you to some of the poets and some of the writers from the ancient world. So we'll be hearing the voices of poets and other gossip writers to speak to the topic.
Okay. I'm going to start my talk in the countryside. My example here is a fictional peasant, a small-scale farmer who lived just on the edge of Rome. Similus was his name. And he would naturally rise before dawn to prepare something to stave off his hunger, something for him to take into the fields with him to help him through the day.
This poem, 'The Moretum', as you can see on the slide, is a delightful — it's one of my favourite little poems — it's a delightful mock epic, as you can see from the elevated language of the first lines: ‘And now night had completed twice five winter hours and the winged sentry’ — guess who that is — ‘announced the new day with his crowing. Similus, the peasant farmer of a meagre little plot worried about gnawing hunger on this coming day. He slowly raised his weary limbs from his wretched little cot. With anxious hands, he groped his way through the murky darkness and felt his way to the fireplace.’
So here's someone who's getting up really early. In the subsequent segments of the poem, Similus mixes up and bakes a loaf of bread, and he creates a fresh pesto from the herbs that he has plucked from his garden. What he does very carefully is he takes the herbs that he's not going to sell; he carefully preserves the ones he will take to market, but he uses the scrappier ones for himself. The Latin word for this pesto is moretum, which is the title of the poem.
So Similus will eat when he is hungry and he'll return home in the heat of the afternoon to prepare a quick meal before retiring after darkness to sleep. At this point I need to confess, and this may be disappointing to you all, that people in this world generally retired early by our standards, usually not long after sunset.
I did think of putting in just a slide just with Zs running up it but I'll just tell you about it. But I will, as I said earlier, get to — I will have something to say about Rome after dark because being out and about after dark was, in fact, unusual and often quite risky.
As you can imagine, a peasant farmer and his family woke with the birds. They ate when they were hungry, they returned home when it was too hot to work and they slept when night fell. They didn't need technology to supply indicators of time, but it was different in the city, in Rome itself.
Here at the busy heart of the empire, life was structured by business and administrative demands and by the demands of social contacts and appointments rather than, as for Similus, the agricultural routine. In the cities of the Roman world, time was measured out by sun dials and by water clocks. Small sundials have been found across the Roman world in private homes and in public places.
What you did was you set up your sun dial — you've probably seen sundials in parks and such places — on a pillar in full sun. And because you're in the Northern Hemisphere, you make sure that your pointer is facing south. And this pointer — I don't really know what you call it. The Greek word is gnomon. So I do know that word, but let's assume that it's a pointer.
The most famous sundial of all is the most spectacular one; this is just a little one in one of the Roman cities, I think in Africa. But the most spectacular one of all is of course in Rome. There's the pointer there. [points to slide] When Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian — who was later to be known as the Emperor Augustus — when Octavian conquered Egypt in 30 BC, he brought back to Rome an obelisk.
This is what we're looking at — an obelisk from Heliopolis as a victory monument. Of course it's a significant monument, so it reminded the people of Rome, day in and day out, of Octavian’s triumph. Now, the obelisk was used as a pointer for a huge sundial that was marked out, laid out at the northern end of the Campus Martius in the heart of Rome.
So there are sundials which work when the sun is out. A necessary supplement to the sundial was the water clock, which measured the passing of hours by the controlled flow of water from one vessel to another. In the first slide, you can see the theory. In the second slide, we've got two examples, in fact, from Greece.
In the third slide there is a mechanical version which was worked up in the 19th century, I think, to replicate the actions so that hours could be measured by this device. Nineteenth century — I hope I said that.
Now, what is interesting to me about the measurement of time in the Roman world is that the days and the nights, whether in winter or in summer, were divided into 12 hours each. These hours therefore varied in length throughout the year. So a daylight hour in summer would be about 75 minutes in length by today's reckoning. Of course it would be longer than a daylight hour in winter, which measured about — which came in at about 45 minutes. And for the nights, obviously the opposite was true. Only at the equinoxes would the hours be actually uniform as we know them.
One can't help but feeling that in the political and commercial world of Rome, absolute punctuality must've been very difficult to achieve. Where are we now? And a certain vagueness about time must've been tolerated. Even so, there's this rather lovely graffito in Pompeii [points to slide] that indicates that some people at least expected appointments to be kept. As in our own urban lives today, there were certain expectations in Rome about the structure of the day.
We have expectations about opening hours for banks and shops, about working hours for public servants, and we tend to fit other activities — like the gym, or dinner with friends — around these larger blocks of time. The Roman world operated in exactly the same way except that they allocated their activities quite differently.
The poet Martial — he’s our second poet who was writing in Rome in the mid-1st century AD. So this is the time of the emperors. He's writing about the time of Nero and then the subsequent Flavian emperors. Now, so that's Martial. [points to slide] He wrote a vast number of short poems called epigrams, just little poems that throw a great deal of light on customs, social practice and behaviour, particularly bad behaviour in Rome. So he describes very usefully the pattern of the day for many citizens.
And this is what he says. He says, ‘The first and second hours’ — now these are the hours between 6am and 8am — ‘The first and second hours wear out the morning greeters.’ Now, let me just pause there and tell you about the morning greeters.
Now, at the beginning Penny addressed you as senators and distinguished citizens and so on. If you were someone of that aristocratic class, if you were a senator or a wealthy businessmen, you actually would open your house early in the morning, at six, and you would receive into your house people who were called your clients. Now, they weren't clients in our sense of the word. Rather, you were their patron and they were your hangers-on, let's say. They would do little jobs for you and you would do little jobs for them. You might write a recommendation or tee someone up with someone else.
So this was the way the social world operated by this practice of patronage. And if I can call it a word, 'clientage' whereby, you know, you got things done. You made things happen for yourself and for others. So, the first two hours are quite busy for those morning greeters who would show up every morning in the atrium of the house and pay their respects and see what they could do for you.
The third hour, and this is between eight and nine, ‘taxes the talents,’ Martial says, ‘of strident lawyers’ who get out there in the forum, taking cases, defending their clients — in our sense of the word — and so on.
Rome continues her various labours well into the fifth hour, certainly up until 11. So six until 11. That's fair enough. The sixth hour promises — it hasn't happened yet — but it promises rest for the weary. That's between 11 and 12. The seventh between noon and 1pm will bring an end to their work. It's knock-off time.
The eighth hour, one until two, provides time for what Martial calls 'the sleek gymnasia'. Sleek in the sense that people use oil. Remember, this is a world without soap — that's a Gallic invention. Oil was used as part of the cleansing process. So the gymnasia he describes as sleek, because everyone is sleek.
And the ninth hour, that's two ’til three in the afternoon and thereafter; the ninth hour bids us to sink down on cushions that have been piled high. And that is time for dinner. Right. Okay. So there we have it. So let me, let me just go back through the day. I want to begin again at dawn. I want to give you though ... it's time for a bit of Latin, you know, so here are some … here are some observations for you.
The prima aura was the first hour, and you can relate prima to primary and aura to hour. Sexta aura, the sixth hour, is — we see in Spanish when we talk about the siesta, it's that word sixth, right? Nona aura, the ninth hour — 2pm in Roman time — but it is the word that leaves — nona gives us noon. Now, there's been a bit of semantic slippage here, but it's interesting to know that that's noon. And then I just put the am and pm words there for you just to let you see that you know Latin already and you use it every day.
Okay. So back to dawn. Martial explains in another one of his epigrams why he simply cannot sleep when he stays in his apartment in Rome. Martial, by the way, is Spanish and so he has a little farm elsewhere. But he can't sleep in his apartment in Rome. In his short epigram, he brings the city alive for us. ‘Bakers are thumping their dough well before dawn,’ he says, ‘school teachers begin their classes’ — outdoor classes — ‘at dawn. Coppersmiths are at work banging away on their metal creations. Money changers are setting up tables in the forum. Beggars are all out and about.’
Martial says, ‘All of Rome, it seems, is standing near my bed. I just can't get a wink of sleep after dawn.’ Although work generally stopped, as we saw, about midday or shortly thereafter, many workers might return later in the day, just as you find in Rome today, and many other Mediterranean cities, where there's the long break, over a lunch for the siesta, etc., when shops and businesses will open again at about four. But for most people in ancient Rome, the afternoon brought time, as you can see, for relaxation.
For most people it seems the first thing you did was visit the baths. For Romans a visit to the baths was really important. Romans took their bathing practice very seriously. First of all, their wonderful engineering had brought abundant water into the city. Secondly, because they were so enthusiastic, there were hundreds of baths built around Rome.
Most houses didn't have their own bathing facilities unless you were remarkably wealthy. But you could go to little private baths run by small-time operators, or you could go to some of these magnificent imperial baths built by the emperors as a kind of sop to the citizens. The emperors had vast wealth and so they, to ensure their popularity, they had constructed these amazing baths. And you can see what an institution the public baths could be with hot pools, hot rooms, and cold rooms and change rooms and exercise courts and whatever.
So, I'll talk a bit more about baths — where are we? So they're at the baths; the emperors have built them. This was not only a recreational activity going to the baths, but it was also a physical workout. You'd go, you'd get some exercise, you'd meet up with friends. It's like going to the gym today with a group and you might exercise vigorously and then have coffee and cake afterwards, or something like that. There was socialising and pleasure and this could eat up quite a bit of time.
Just to remind you, you can still see substantial remains of bars here at the baths of Caracalla — the Emperor Caracalla — in Rome. This is just a kind of fantasy image of what baths might look like. [points to slide] You've got that small pool with people bathing and so on. So this is rather romanticised. But even so what — the remains we have of some of those great baths in North Africa in particular, they look as though they were amazing. Anyway, they were busy places. They were busy and noisy.
I want to turn now to a letter writer, Seneca, who lives right above a public bath, not one of the grand imperial ones, but one of the local ones. And he says, ‘Just imagine the whole range of voices that can irritate my ears when the more muscular types are exercising and swinging lead weights in their hands. I hear groans. When I have to hear an unathletic fellow satisfied with a low-class rub-down, I hear the slap of the hand pummelling his shoulders. Now if a ball player comes along and begins to count his score out loud, I'm over it. Imagine also a quarrelsome drunk or sometimes the thief caught in the act or a man who loves to sing in the bath. And then imagine people diving into the pool with a great splash of water. The hair plucker, people selling drinks, sausages and pastries. It just goes on.’
Yes. So, poor old Seneca, he really felt sorry for himself. Now, despite Seneca's grumblings, an hour or two at the baths could be a relaxing prelude to a meal at the so-called ‘end of the day’. You might pick up some takeaway food to eat indoors at home. You might eat a quick meal and drink a cup of wine at one of the local taverns of which there was an abundant number. This one, of course, is from Herculaneum [points to slide], because we have better remains there than we do in Rome.
But there are many tabernae (taverns) in Rome in, sorry, in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, wherever, which seems to indicate that people did a lot more purchasing of takeaway food or eating at the taverna than they did of cooking up elaborate food in their own homes, because most small apartments didn't really have a kitchen. They had a little charcoal burner, but that was about it.
So a lot of takeaway food went through the Roman digestive system. Otherwise, of course, if you're not eating at a taverna, you might host, or even attend, a dinner party — a proper dinner party. Invitations to dinner were clearly highly prized, whether for practical or social reasons.
Now, Martial tells us, just as we discussed earlier, that one's evening meal as we would call it, might begin as early as the ninth hour — mid-afternoon. This is really daylight saving in action. But in some circumstances, a dinner could well last into the night. In fact, dinner parties were the only social entertainment for Romans that could extend into the evening hours.
Events in the theatre — so here's a theatre in Mérita, in Spain [points to slide] — such as plays and pantomimes. Events in the amphitheatre — we're going across the empire now — this is the amphitheatre at Arles, fully peopled as you can see. Gladiatorial contests and events in the stadium. And here's the Circus Maximus in Rome. And this one's a bit of a promotion for the Australian National University. This is an image from the large model of Rome that you can see in the Classics Museum in the AD Hope building, which is open every day, every weekday. Did I just say that? But you will see there is the stadium — that was where chariot racing was conducted. All these events were daytime activities, not at night. So we're mistaken if we think that ancient Rome was a city with a really active nightlife.
Okay, so let's get back to dinner parties. A dinner party that might last into the evening was possible only with artificial lighting. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, used oil lamps to provide light within their homes. Given that each small lamp provided just the amount of light that a small domestic candle might provide, it's clear that if you're going to hold a dinner party for six to eight guests, which is pretty much the standard number, you must have the wherewithal to supply dozens of lamps for both food preparation and for your guests. And you must be able to afford both the oil that the lamps will use and the slaves who will tend the lamps, filling and cleaning them.
These are all lamps from the Australian National University Classics Museum [points to slide]. The extravagance of dinner parties in Rome has become the material of legend. But I'm going to start with something closer to the real world before we move off into the fantasies that have coloured our imaginations about Roman dinner parties.
So I want to look first at some accounts of more authentic dinners. First of all, I'm going to start with Pliny, the Younger — I don't know how that picture got there — whose letters are quite famous to us. I'm going to start that sentence again. Pliny the Younger is best known to us for his letters that describe the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These are remarkable texts: the voice from 79 AD that actually describe the phenomena of the particular clouds and so on. Anyway, he had two letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius, but in other letters he talks about everyday matters.
In one letter he describes the menu for a dinner that he had organised for a guest who didn't show. His friend had opted for a classier menu elsewhere. So Pliny says, ‘My kitchen staff had prepared one head of lettuce for each of us, three snails and two eggs each, barley soup along with mead and snow.’ Now, snow might seem an odd addition there, but snow was a luxury item as you can imagine. It has to be brought from well out of Rome, into Rome. And we'll see it showing up again. But it was a luxury item. So we've got to the barley soup, the snow, olives, beets, cucumbers, onions, and a thousand other items, no less sumptuous. This is a bit ironic of course. ‘But you preferred the oysters, the sow's wounds and sea urchins at someone else's house.’
Martial, who's becoming an old friend now, offers an invitation to a friend along with a menu. And I love this one, I love the colours that he evokes. He says, ‘Terranius, you can come if you're worried about having a lonely dinner at home, why not come and share your hunger with me? If you're accustomed to an appetiser, you won't be disappointed.’
And here we go, here's the text. 'There'll be cheap Cappadocian lettuce and strong leeks and tuna fish garnished with sliced eggs. Then a fresh green cabbage, which has just left the cool garden, will be served in a black dish. Careful lest you scorch your fingers. We'll also have a small sausage served on a bed of white grits and pale beans with red bacon. If you want the delights of dessert, you will be offered shrivelled grapes’ — we’d call them raisins — 'and Syrian pears and Neapolitan chestnuts roasted in a slow heat. The wine’ — I love this sentence — ‘The wine you will make good by drinking. This is a humble little dinner. But you will neither say nor hear a dishonest word and you will recline’ — remember Romans reclined at their dinner parties, here they are reclining — 'but you will recline, relaxed and at ease. Your host won't read to you from a thick and dull book. Nor will cheeky girls from Gardez’ — this is Cadiz — ‘wiggle their hips and sways deductively. I will provide entertainment that is neither serious nor frivolous. You will hear the music of one small flute. Such will be my little dinner party.’
Now, Martial's last sentence tells us something more about dinner parties, not just dinners, but dinner parties. Dinner was often an occasion for some kind of entertainment: music, comic actors, a dancing girl or a reading or two from the host's own literary production. Lucky guests.
The fact that the third of these options is not on the menu on this occasion — that was the dancing girls — indicates that dancing girls were on other people's menus on some occasions. The fourth option, a reading from the host's literary work was very much in vogue in Rome during the imperial period from Augustus's time onwards. This of course could be heavy going, depending on the literary talent of the poet.
But not every dinner was as sober, intellectual and restrained as those described by Pliny and Martial. We find its opposite, described most inventively, in Petronius's novel, The Satyricon, in which — now I just have to scamper forward a bit, no we haven't got that. I don't want to show you that yet. It's in Petronius’s novel, The Satyricon, in which the extravagance and vulgarity of its sleazy, nouveau riche ex-slave hero Trimalchio is on display.
Now, here's the prelude from The Satyricon Section 31, ‘A prelude to dinner’, which is a mix of reality and the absurd: ‘At last, we sat down and boys from Alexandria poured water cooled with snow over our hands. Others followed’ — now this is a mix of the real world and the bizarre, so be prepared — ‘Others followed and knelt down at our feet and proceeded with great skill to pare our hangnails. This unpleasant duty didn't silence them, but they sang as they worked. I wanted to find out if the whole household could sing. So I asked for a drink. A ready slave repeated my order in a chant, no less shrill. They all did the same whenever they were asked to bring anything. It was more like an actor's dance than a gentleman's dining room. But some rich and tasty appetisers were brought on, for everyone’ — except Trimalchio, this hero — ‘had now sat down. A donkey fashioned in Corinthian bronze’ — that is not a real one — ‘A donkey fashioned in Corinthian bronze stood on the sideboard with paniers holding olives, white on one side’ — we'd call them green — ‘black on the other. Two great dishes were beside the donkey. Trimalchio's name and their weight in silver was inscribed on their edges.’
It was common practice in the households of the wealthy to have on display your silverware. You see lovely examples of that silverware in the exhibition — not so grand as this but Trimalchio, of course, is being marked out by Petronius as being the height of vulgarity. So not only does he display his silverware, not only does he put his name on his silverware, but he also puts the weight of the silver content on it, just so you know.
Now, this is why I included this bit. There were also, amongst the appetisers, ‘Dormice rolled in honey and poppy seed.’ Everyone talks about these and they actually did eat dormice, and supported on little bridges that were soldered onto the plate. ‘There were hot sausages laid on a silver grill and under the grill there were Damson plums and pomegranate seeds.’
Now Satyricon breaks off here and I just add that several courses later, the guests dine on boar stuffed with thrushes and they dine later on a pig stuffed with blood pudding and sausages, you know, their cooking is elaborate, inventive. Then there were trays of cakes and exotic fruits of all kinds.
Now, as I say, The Satyricon is a fantasy, but there are some elements of authenticity in it. The novel shows us an indulgent realm that was characterised by oversupply and overconsumption. There is some reference to that also in the exhibition where there is some display of some rather lovely wine jugs and so on. And there is a discussion of excess. Now, so, it is an indulgent realm and it is characterised by oversupply and overconsumption.
Now, these circumstances are the awareness through the ages of this propensity for success in Romans inspired the term ‘Roman orgy’, a term which was first used in about 1750 AD — so it's not a Roman term at all — which is a term for dinner party debauchery, if you like. It's used in English, but there is no real equivalent in Latin. I went looking for it and I couldn't find it. So, oversupply and overconsumption were possible for Rome's wealthy party-going citizens. And these circumstances gave rise to bad behaviour of all kinds.
One host in Pompeii tried to prevent disruptive behaviour by painting rules of conduct on his dining room walls. I'm starting with the second one there. First of all, he says, ‘Be sociable and put aside if you can, annoying quarrels. If you can't, go back to your own home.’ Guests were known to — guests could be badly behaved. Guests were known to steal their host’s food, loading it into their napkins and giving it to their slaves to carry home. They would eat it at leisure, over the next few days, or indeed, according to Martial, in one of his poems, they can sell it off at a nice profit.
The Pompeiian host's second piece of advice was ‘Keep your lascivious looks and your bedroom eyes away from another man's wife. Maintain a semblance of decency on your face.’ So I think it's time to think about sex. In his love poems, the poet Ovid, who was writing in the early years of the empire, describes ‘Dalliances, affairs and assignations'. He describes lovers being admitted by night to the bedroom of their beloved. He describes hardhearted mistresses and he describes cooperative slave girls who facilitate secret assignations. And for the ladies, he talks about the best fabrics to wear: diaphanous silks, if you need to know, if you want to seduce a guy whom you have your eye on.
He also gives us some idea of what could go on at a dinner party when he writes to his mistress, ‘So your husband will be attending the same banquet as us’ — and this is the extract from Ovid there — ‘Shall I look on while someone else has the pleasure of being caressed by you, while you snuggle up to him and warm his breast’ — remember, we're all reclining on couches here — ‘while he casually puts his arms around you? Don't let your husband lean against you and don't rest your pretty head against his ugly chest. Don't let him put his fingers on your soft breasts and try not to let him kiss you. Save yourself for me.’ [inaudible]
Ovid deliberately depicts himself as a playboy, but what he describes must be founded on truth, or at least on some elements of it. I can say this with confidence because Roman rulers periodically tried to restrain, through new laws, what was thought of as loose behaviour, particularly amongst the upper classes.
The Emperor Augustus's laws against adultery make it clear that men and women were held to different standards of moral conduct. For a woman, sex with any man other than her husband was strictly out of bounds. A man on the other hand was condemned only if he had sex with the wife of another man. Anyone else was fair game.
Now, Augustus brought in strict laws but gossip suggests that Augustus himself had not always been so concerned with moral standards. The historian Suetonius, who's name's on that slide, who was admittedly writing a couple of generations after Augustus’s lifetime, reports that Augustus on one occasion had taken the wife of a distinguished Roman from her husband's dining room right before his eyes and led her into a bedroom. He later brought her back to the dinner party with her ears glowing and her hair dishevelled. Now, Suetonius was a fearful gossip. So, it's a good story.
Okay, so the party is now over. We have to imagine now that a few people might be making their way home from a tavern, probably on foot in the darkness of night. Guests from our dinner party, or our various dinner parties, would be escorted home, perhaps with blazing torches carried by slaves, or they might make their way home in the comfort of a litter carried again by slaves.
The streets at this hour should be quiet since the majority of the population would have retired to their beds. House doors would be bolted, shops would be locked, their shutters closed, the streets would be dark and because of the darkness, potentially dangerous. There's the threat of an accident and injury: falling tiles from shoddily built structures, a basin of water emptied from an upper window or the threat of loss, an injury — a mugger, a ‘footpad’, as they like to describe them in old-fashioned translations. As the satirist Juvenal says, ‘You would be thoughtless and careless about sudden accidents and injury if you were to go out to dinner without first making a will.’
Now, I'm going to close with a remarkable but possibly true story that will illustrate what went on in the streets by night. This concerns the Emperor Nero, whose flawed character was well documented in the ancient world. Now, this also comes from Suetonius's Life of the Caesars, and it's from Section 36 in his Life of Nero: ‘No sooner was twilight over than he would catch up a cap, or a wig, and go to the taverns or range about the streets playing pranks, which were by no means harmless. He used to beat up men as they came home from dinner, stabbing anyone who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers. He would break into shops and rob them and later set up a market at the palace where he divided up the booty he had taken, sold it at auction, and then squandered the proceeds. In the strife, which then resulted, he often ran the risk of losing an eye or even his life, that he was almost beaten to death by a man of senatorial rank’ — one of you guys — ‘whose wife Nero had maltreated.
'Warned off by this, Nero never ventured to appear in public at that hour again without having tribunes follow him at a distance unobserved. Being out and about after dark could be perilous, so let's put everyone to bed. It won't be long however, before carts from the countryside outside Rome, bearing produce destined for the markets, will rumble into the city. These came in by night. They were not allowed in the city by daylight. Julius Caesar had passed a regulation to this effect. Those who need to rise before dawn, will be scrambling once more out of their beds, the bakers who have to shape the dough and bake it for those on their way to work, the school teachers and the school pupils getting ready for dawn classes, the tradesman who need to make the best use of the daylight hours, money changers, hangers-on of the wealthy. All these people are getting up almost before dawn.' By dawn, the streets will be buzzing, just as Martial told us.
That was Juvenal. Oh, that was Nero by night. I'm really lost. Lost the plot here. And then that was Martial's comment: ‘I'm awakened by the laughter of the passing crowd and all of Rome, it seems, stands by my bed.’
Now, this has been a talk about light and dark, about the measurement of time and about work and play. It's been a talk that draws on the words of ancient poets and writers who describe a society that through necessity had developed a rather different economy of time from our own. And I've intended the talk also as a mild corrective to our over- enthusiastic assumptions about wild nocturnal debauchery in the world of Rome.
Romans may not have been entirely buttoned up, but they were not universally wild. Disappointing perhaps, but there you are. Thank you.
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Date published: 12 March 2019