Whips, cloaks and parchment: the festive presents of ancient Rome
Matthew Nicholls, who is working on a huge digital recreation of ancient Rome, reveals the gifts given on Saturnalia
This was the day when the ancient Romans woke with joyful anticipation, or a lurch of dread: December 23, Sigillaria, the gift-giving day of the festival of Saturnalia.
What would the day bring to the naughty and nice? A handful of walnuts and a nice jar of fermented fish sauce? A hideous but warm sweater? Or – the inspired suggestion of the witty poet Marcus Valerius Martial – a useful whip for a spot of post-Saturnia self flagellation?
Many must have yearned for the first century Kindle instead of a scroll of papyrus – a codex, a book made of sewn-in parchment pages, almost indestructible and with so much data storage space. A single book, Martial noted in wonder, could hold the whole of Livy’s monumental history of Rome. “The voluminous Livy, of whom my bookcase would once scarcely have contained the whole, is now comprised in this small parchment volume.”
Martial helpfully pointed out where you could buy these marvels: “So that you are not ignorant of where I am on sale, and don’t wander aimlessly through the whole city, I will be your guide and you will be certain: look for Secundus, the freedman of learned Lucensis, behind the threshold of the Temple of Peace and the Forum of Pallas.”
That shop is gone, but modern readers will at least be able to find its site, in a gigantic digital recreation of ancient Rome, due to be published in full next year, which Matthew Nicholls, senior lecturer in classics at Reading university, has been working on for years – while poring over Roman Christmas present lists.
“The whip points out how in some ways they were very like us – there are gifts which people are bound to get this year, like pencil cases, slippers and perfume – and in some ways very different, so you have to beware of attempting to draw direct parallels.
“There were jolly types who felt it was all an excuse for a laugh and joined in with enthusiasm, and then you get the superior Scrooge types, like Seneca and Pliny, who clearly feel they’re above all that.”
Seneca, stoic philosopher and dramatist – whose gloomy disposition was entirely justified by his end, when he was forced into suicide – wrote: “It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations.”
In contrast the jolly Martial wrote a whole book of little couplets, designed to be given with gifts, arranged as poor gifts and rich gifts – rich gifts, he pointed out, might do no favours, compelling the recipient to respond in kind.
Martial’s equivalent of an atrocious reindeer Christmas sweater was an ugly but warm cloak: “the stout workmanship of a Gallic weaver, which, though of a barbarous country, has a Lacedaemonian name; a thing uncouth, but not to be despised in cold December …Clad in this gift; you will laugh at winds and showers.”
By late on Wednesday afternoon, many with aching heads may sympathise with Pliny the Elder – who later died in the eruption of Vesuvius which would destroy Pompeii – and envy him the escape route at his country villa, into a sunny private room.
“When I betake myself into this sitting-room, I seem to be quite away even from my villa, and I find it delightful to sit there, especially during the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merry riot and shouts of the festival-makers; for then I do not interfere with their amusements.” If Nicholls had to choose from Martial’s suggestions, “an inlaid citron wood table, and a silver statue of Minerva, goddess of learning, would look good in my study”. And, he adds, reminded by an insistent voice at his knee, a rattle for 14-month-old Sophia.
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