Photo courtesy of Sophie Hay
Two thoughts on Roman city dwelling here, first shared a couple of years ago, retooled for the world of COVID-19. They originate in a weekly graduate seminar I was helping to coordinate on Ovid’s Epistulae ex Ponto 4, the very last poems composed by Rome’s second- or possibly third-greatest and most influential poet, and some research I was doing on Aeneas and Roman priesthoods, forthcoming later this year in Classical Quarterly (a publication on Ovid is on its way, too, feel free to pre-order). So what follows concerns a passage that particularly struck me from Ex Ponto 4.9 and a piece of priestly equipment I had hitherto not been aware of. The common factor is something like personal space and keeping one’s distance.
The city of Rome was loud, smelly and crowded: Horace talks of the beatae/ fumum et opes strepitumque Romae, “the smoke and riches and hubbub of prosperous Rome” (Odes 3.29.11-12). One’s capacity to enjoy a comfortable existence within it essentially depended on one’s wealth and class. The satirist Juvenal gives a splendidly exaggerated account of what it was like for the little guy (3.243-8):
nobis properantibus obstat
unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos
qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito, ferit assere duro
alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
pinguia crura luto, planta mox undique magna
calcor, et in digito clauus mihi militis haeret.
“As I hurry along, the wave ahead impedes me/ and the people that follow me in a massed rank crush my kidneys./ One smacks me with his elbow, another with a hard pole./ This guy bashes my head with a beam, that guy with a wine cask./ My legs are caked with mud, and now I’m trampled by huge feet on every side,/ and a soldier’s hobnail boot is planted on my toe.”
The rich man, according to Juvenal, avoids all this hassle by riding in a litter the size of a ship, and reads or writes or even sleeps as he’s effortlessly conveyed over the crowd.
Another way of keeping your distance from other people was the commoetaculum, an item that might be of some considerable use in our current circumstances. You can see a commoetaculum, a kind of wand, in the hand of the figure in the middle of the image at the top: the man holding it is a flamen, a variety of Roman priest, and may well be the most important flamen, the flamen Dialis who was the priest of the chief god Jupiter.
The flamen Dialis and his wife the flaminica (the priesthood really consisted in the family group as a whole) were obliged to live a life that segregated them from the rest of humanity. Their lives were dedicated to the gods they served, to the extent that they came to be regarded as offerings to the god or as their embodiments on earth: the flamen Dialis was “a sacred and animate statue” of their deity, as Plutarch memorably puts it (Roman Questions 111). Other taboos laid on the flamen (we typically hear more about him than the flaminica), a prohibition on oaths, on knots in his clothes, on seeing humans at work, all served to distance the priest from the domain of profani, ordinary people, and to make him sacer, sacred, the possession of the gods.
The commoetaculum was a practical aide to this end: people were kept at a physical remove from the priest with a judicious prod of his wand. There might not seem an obvious class dimension to all this, except that the character of this priesthood was felt to reflect in important ways the behaviour and lifestyle of the ancient elite of Rome, a kind of ideal original family. You could only be flamen or flaminica Dialis if you were a patrician, a member of the ancient Roman aristocratic class, and if you and your parents and your spouse’s parents had all been married by an arcane ritual called confarreatio, a ceremony that was again restricted to the patrician class. So there is in fact a very aristocratic quality to this implement designed to maintain a proper distance between a Roman of high status and the general populace.
Ovid was posh, too, perhaps the most socially elevated of all the Roman poets. But by the time he was writing Ex Ponto 4, he couldn’t afford such scruples. Ovid has been banished, partly for obscure reasons seemingly related to conspiracies against Augustus, and partly for his risqué poem The Art of Love, to the edge of the Empire, Tomi on the Black Sea in modern Romania. A consistent theme of the poems he writes back to men who might help him overturn or mitigate his exile (superbly crafted and moving poems, as I’ve also suggested before) is how desperately he misses his home city. In general Roman authors could always conjure up a bit of ambivalence about Rome, as we’ve seen. Ovid had no such qualms, delighting unapologetically in the vibrant society and culture of Augustan Rome.
To send such a man away from Rome was unusually vindictive, and that’s no doubt partly why Augustus did it. In exile Ovid dwells obsessively on the city from which he is banned, to the extent that, as a colleague put it during the seminar, we get a lot more detailed information about the city of Rome from Ovid far away on the Black Sea than we do from authors actually domiciled there.
In Ex Ponto 4.9 he celebrates the consulship won by Pomponius Graecinus, another old associate he hopes will be able to make his case with the Emperor (Tiberius by now, as Augustus had recently died; but Tiberius proved no more sympathetic). Ovid imagines being on the spot as Graecinus goes through the elaborate ritual of inauguration, and it could not be more different from that fastidious priest with his pointy stick (4.9.21-8):
nec querulus, turba quamuis eliderer, essem,
sed foret a populo tum mihi dulce premi.
prospicerem gaudens quantus foret agminis ordo
densaque quam longum turba teneret iter,
quoque magis noris quam me uulgaria tangant,
spectarem qualis purpura te tegeret.
signa quoque in sella nossem formata curuli
et totum Numidi sculptile dentis opus.
Nor would I complain, though bruised by the crowd;/ at such a time it would be pleasant to feel the crush of the people./ I would behold with joy how long was the line of the procession/ and how dense the throng all along its route./ And that you may know how trivial things appeal to me,/ I would examine the texture of the purple you wear./ I would even inspect the figures carved on your curule chair,/ all the sculpted work of Numidian ivory.”
What “touch” (tangant) Ovid are uulgaria, a wonderfully suggestive word: trivial things, ordinary things, popular things. Ovid the toff rejoices here in exactly what Juvenal would later complain so bitterly about, getting manhandled by crowds, emerging physically battered from a walk through the city. But it is the touch, the sensation of Rome that Ovid yearns for: Graecinus’ consular robes with their purple border, and the ivory carvings on his official consular chair–in his imagination Ovid seems almost to be running his fingers over them. He cannot get enough of the city of Rome, cannot get too close to it.
But the poem to Graecinus may be the very last poem that Ovid ever wrote. This Roman never did emerge from his confinement.