Life on the edge of the forum

When I read the epigrams of Martial or the satires of Juvenal, what strikes me more than anything else is the sheer discomfort of living in ancient Rome.  Martial himself had no running water laid on at his home.  Juvenal describes the risk of a poor man on his way home being crushed in the mass of people, making their way through the streets, and how his slaves — everyone has slaves, it seems — await him in vain while he sits shivering on the banks of the Styx, without a copper to pay the ferryman.

The abuse of those enslaved is endless, as Martial makes plain, yet, as in a modern office, the human element breaks through.  Some “owners” are in fact under the thumb of their slaves; others again refuse to allow their slaves even to sleep at night. 

At the other extreme, we read the letters of the younger Pliny, of a life of retirement in one of a number of rural farms, interspersed with a public career.  Even Martial, who wears a bad cloak, acquires a farm of some kind from a benefactor.

None of us, I suppose, would truly choose to live in ancient Rome.  And yet … the fascination with it is endless.

6 thoughts on “Life on the edge of the forum

  1. I’m halfway through the Loeb Livy translation and at times the war stories seem redundant and then he socks you with some insight to the time or a specific character; Scipio beheading 35 members of a mutinous legion and then in the next instant paying wages out to the other 8,000! I keep reading…

  2. Reading all that material at one go … wow. It would give most of us indigestion, I suspect. But I am sure that he is full of interesting material, if one could but face all the rest of it.

  3. Seneca (I think!) has a delightful letter in which he “complains” of the incessant noise from the gym downstairs in his lodgings – but good Stoic, he will NOT be distracted…

  4. It is Letter LVI, ”On Quiet and Study”. Seneca’s description is funny, indeed, although, as far as I am concerned, I wouldn’t be able to read or write a single page in a similar environment…

  5. Thank you very much! An English translation of the letter is here, from the Loeb translation of the Moral Letters to Lucilius:

    1. Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional[1] comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. 2. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom,[2] or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

    3. So you say: “What iron nerves or deadened ears, you must have, if your mind can hold out amid so many noises, so various and so discordant, when our friend Chrysippus[3] is brought to his death by the continual good-morrows that greet him!” But I assure you that this racket means no more to me than the sound of waves or falling water; although you will remind me that a certain tribe once moved their city merely because they could not endure the din of a Nile cataract.[4] 4. Words seem to distract me more than noises; for words demand attention, but noises merely fill the ears and beat upon them. Among the sounds that din round me without distracting, I include passing carriages, a machinist in the same block, a saw-sharpener near by, or some fellow who is demonstrating with little pipes and flutes at the Trickling Fountain,[5] shouting rather than singing.

    5. Furthermore, an intermittent noise upsets me more than a steady one. But by this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar?

    Life on the edge of the forum indeed!

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