Roman pranks: Glueing a coin to the pavement, in Horace and Persius

While reading Horace at the weekend in the old Loeb edition, my eye fell upon a passage in Epistles I, XVI 63:[1]

Qui melior servo, qui liberior sit avarus, in triviis fixum cum se demittit ob assem, non video; nam qui cupiet, metuet quoque ; porro, qui metuens vivet, liber mihi non erit umquam.

How the miser is better than a slave, or is more free, when he stoops at the crossroads to pick up the copper fastened there,[a] I do not see: for he who covets will also have fears; further, he who lives in fear, will never, to my mind, be free.

The footnote indicated:

a. We are told that Roman boys would solder a coin to the pavement and then ridicule those who tried to pick it up (so scholiast on Persius, v. 111).

Persius imitates the lines from Horace in Satire 5, line 111.  So looking at Jahn’s 1843 edition of Persius and the scholia,[2] which is most likely the edition referenced, I find the scholion as follows:

111. Inque luto fixum, id est: Sordidum lucrum spernis; aut certe visum in luto nummum praetermittis, quia solent pueri, ut ridendi causam habeant, assem in silice plumbatum infigere, ut qui viderint, se ad colligendum inclinesit, nec tamen possint avellere, quo facto pueri etiam acclamare solent.

That is:

You spurn filthy cash; or at least, seeing a penny lying in the mud, you pass by, because boys, thinking it grounds for a laugh, used to fasten a coin on the stone with solder, so that when someone saw it and bent down to pick it up, and was unable to pull it of, when this happened, the boys commonly shout “[try] again”![3]

Human nature remains the same, even over a period of two thousand years.  For I remember this prank being practised a couple of decades ago on a television show that relied on this kind of embarrassment for its “humour”.  I have seen a coin affixed to the  ground in just this manner.

  1. [1]Tr. Rushton Fairclough, 1961. P.355-6 in the Loeb, volume 2.
  2. [2]Otto Jahn, Auli Persii Flacci Satirarum liber, 1843. Online at Archive.org, here.  The page is 332, which is p.546 in the PDF, the scholia on Satire V.
  3. [3]Translation mine: corrected from comment by Alexander MacAulay – thank you!

8 thoughts on “Roman pranks: Glueing a coin to the pavement, in Horace and Persius

  1. Thanks for this – I don’t remember noticing it in Horace (whom I have only read through in translation, puzzling over little enough in Latin), and don’t know Persius!

    And it never occurred to me that it could be antique as well as contemporary. When I first got caught out by this, on a walk round a city-centre in the Netherlands, I circled around again and successfully deployed the screwdriver on my Swiss Army knife to liberate the coin – and since then keep my eyes peeled for such subversive opportunities: a curious example of what Johan Huizinga (in Homo Ludens) calls the ‘agonal’ at work. There are also those who simply drop small denomination coins, apparently thinking it risible that anyone could be bothered to pick up such paltry sums.

  2. Sordidum lucrum spernis; “You seek out filthy cash”. An idiosyncratic understanding of the verb. Does it not mean ‘scorn’? Your translation lacks a main verb after ‘or’. The subject of ‘praetermittis’ is surely the person who passes by, scorning filthy lucre, despite spotting the coin (‘certe visum’), aware of the trick the boys are trying to play on the unsuspecting.

    And did the scholiast really write ‘inclinesit’?

  3. You despise filthy lucre; or at least, on seeing a coin in the mud, you pass by, since boys are in the habit of soldering a coin to the pavement for a laugh, so that those who spot the penny, bend down to pick it up but can’t prise it away, and when that happens they commonly shout “try again!”.

    ‘Praetermittis’ glosses Persius’s ‘transcendere’.

    Inque luto fixum possis transcendere nummum
    Nec glutto sorbere salivam Mercurialem?

    Can you restrain
    the eager appetite for sordid gain;
    Nor feel, when in the mire, a coin you note
    Mercurial spittle gurgle in your throat? (William Gifford, 1821)

    I take ‘etiam’ as what the boys shout. See, e.g., the L&S entry under etiam “E. In familiar lang., with imperatives, “again, once more”.

  4. By association, Numismatic pranks in Antiquity might bring to mind a possible theory offered behind the ‘spintriea’.

  5. @Alexander MacAulay – you are quite right – thank you! Such are the perils of writing in a hurry that I didn’t spot that praetermittis was the main verb. You’re also right of course about spernis; although I wonder whether the scholiast actually understood the point that Persius/Horace was making; the target does not despise money, however dirty, and is so greedy that he is only deterred from lifting the nummus in the street by his fear of attracting harassment from the boys. I liked your “acclamare ‘etiam'”. So I’ve slightly modified my version, and added a credit to you in the footnote. But I think your version is better all round. Thank you for catching my blunders!!

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