Sunday 23 December 2012

Dormice and other Saturnalia Gifts

by Caroline Lawrence

a dormouse?
Marcus Valerius Martialis (AKA Martial) is one of my favourite Roman poets. His acerbic, gossipy, sometimes shocking poems were a kind of ancient Sex in the City for the Flavian period in late first century Rome. He uses the f-word and the c-word plenty and warns his readers that they might be shocked.

Less daring were his epigrams. An epigram is a short poem, in Martial's case usually a poetic couplet, i.e. two lines. One of the customs of the Roman midwinter festival called Saturnalia was to compose an epigram to accompany a Saturnalia gift. Martial wrote a batch of these and published them in two papyrus scrolls which are numbered books 13 and 14 in his corpus and are given the names the Xenia (Greek for "guest gifts") and the Apophoreta, (Greek for "things to be taken away"). Although you could give gifts any time during the Saturnalia, a particular custom was to give your dinner guest a present to take away, hence the titles of those books.

(T.J. Leary's commentaries on the Xenia and the Apophoreta are full of information, but if you don't have a Classics library nearby or can't afford the scholarly price tags, you can access the Loeb version of Martial's epigrams free on the internet at sites such as this one.)

These poetic "gift tags" are often written from the point of view of the gift, almost like a riddle. Some are humorous, some straight-faced.  Some have literary or mythical allusions. But for me the appeal is the concrete. From them we know exactly what kinds of gifts people gave each other from the humblest (handful of nuts) to the most extravagant (a slave). This is the kind of detail about ancient Rome that I adore. It brings that world to life.

It is Martial who tells us that Romans ate stuffed dormice, a popular trope of all historical fiction set in ancient Rome. Here is the fifty-ninth epigram in book 13, which also show the format of these Saturnalia couplets: a title and two lines.

tota mihi dormitur hiems et pinguior illo
tampore sum quo me nil nisi somnus alit.

I snooze the whole winter long and am fatter at that 

time, when nothing except sleep nourishes me. 

The joke here is that usually men and beasts grow thinner in the winter, when food is scarce, but the dormice are presumably fed so much that they enter a comatose state akin to hibernation.

The dormouse, glis glis, was a delicacy banned by the Emperor Claudius for being too extravagant. These mice were kept in special containers called gliraria and were fattened on beech nuts until they grew to the size of rats: 20 cm or 8 inches, not including the tail. They were then killed, stuffed, baked, glazed with honey and sprinkled with poppy-seed. Yum.

Here are some other gifts we know Romans gave to one another, thanks to Martial's wonderful Saturnalia epigrams.

pomegranates and other fruit
FOOD like pepper, beans, lentils, flour, barley, lettuces, asparagus, grapes, figs, pine nuts, jar of figs, jar of plums, smoked cheese, onions, sausages, box of olives, eggs, sucking pig, pomegranates, sow’s udder, chickens, early peaches, mushrooms, truffles, a hoop of little birds, ducks, ham, goose liver and Rhodian hardbake, (a kind of shortbread that might break your tooth.)

CONDIMENTS and CUTLERY People also gave each other condiments and wine, cutlery and cups. Garum (fish sauce), honey, mulsum (honeyed wine), raisin wine, retsina, Falernian wine, Surrentine wine and vinegar. Luxury tableware included antique cups, golden bowls, jewelled cups, arretine ware, glass cups, crystal cups and murrhine cups (a semi precious stone that gives flavour to wine). Other utensils mentioned by Martial are a strainer for snow, a flagon for snow, a drinking flask,  small table jugs, an earthenware jug, silver spoons, snail spoons, baskets and mushroom pots.

replica Roman gaming board and oil lamp
STATIONERY and FURNITURE were also popular gifts. Martial mentions wax tablets, ivory tablets, three leaved wax tablets, parchment tablets, small Vitellian tablets for love letters, ivory cashbox, dice, dice box, nuts (for gambling), gaming board, gaming pieces, case for writing materials, stylus case, bookcase, bundle of reed pens, oil lamp for the bedroom, candle, multi wicked lamp, wax taper, candelabrum, horn lantern, lantern made of a bladder, incense, smokeless wood, peacock-feather fly whisk, ox-tail fly-swat, place-keeper for scroll (like a bookmark), palm leaf broom, peacock couch, semicircular couch, citrus wood table, maple table, tablecloth, feather stuffing for a mattress, marsh reed stuffing for a mattress and hay for a mattress, if you are really strapped for sesterces.

sandals and pull toy (replica)
OBJECTS FOR GROOMING and BEAUTY - Martial mentions such gifts as a toothpick, an ear scoop, a hair pin of gold, combs, hair, wigs, hair dye, a parasol, a hair-cutting kit, a bath-set, a strigil, dentifrice (dentifricium) for polishing teeth, bean meal for folds in your stomach, opobalsam (a balsam type perfume for men), a breast band, a sponge, wool lined slippers, a horn oil flask, a medicine chest of ivory, an ivory back scratcher in the shape of a hand, unguent, a garland of roses, an earthenware chamberpot, rings, a ring case, a toga, a wrapper for after a workout, a broad-brimmed hat, a hooded cloak, a leather overcoat, a pilleum (freedman's hat), a girdle, an apron, a bath wrap, white wool, purple wool, amethyst wool, etc. Here's a poem about the gift of a red cloak:

SCARLET CLOAK Careful if you support the Blues or Greens at the races, this cloak might make you a traitor! XIV.131

replica Roman rag doll
THINGS FOR BOYS and GIRLS - a hunting knife, hunting spears, a belt and sword, a dagger, a small shield, a small hatchet, a feather-stuffed ball, a ball for trigon, dumbbells, a leather wrestling cap, a rattle, a parrot that says ‘Ave Caesar’, a ‘talking’ crow, a nightingale, an ivory cage, a lyre, a plectrum, a hoop, jewellery and of course SIGILLA: little clay or wooden figures.

SIGILLUM of a HUNCHBACK – I think Prometheus was drunk when he made hunchbacks from the earth, he was fooling around with Saturnalian clay. XIV.182

 clay mask from Lipari, Sicily
LUXURY GOODS - If you were really rich, you could give opulent gifts of silver, gold, jewels, animals and - in an age of slavery - even people. Martial composes epigrams for a gold statue of Victory, various figures in Corinthian bronze, paintings of different mythological characters, a clay theatrical mask, Minerva in silver, Homer in parchment notebooks, Virgil, Livy or Cicero on parchment, works by poets such as Propertius, Ovid, Lucan and Catullus – (scrolls were luxury items in those days) - a hawk, dwarf mules, a Gallic lapdog, a greyhound, a monkey, a wrestler, a dancing girl, a scribe, an idiot, a cook, a confectioner, and a dwarf!

DWARF - If you only saw his head, you would think he was Hector; if you saw him standing up, you’d think he was Astyanax. XIV.212

That epigram was the inspiration for the bad guy in my tenth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes. But I have used Martial for inspiration throughout the eighteen books of my Roman Mysteries series, copies of which would make perfect apophoreta for children aged 8 and up!



Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating! ( a word that comes fom those sticks the lictors carried?) :-) in other words there was as much variety as in today's Christmas gifts.

Jane Borodale said...

You make the dormice sound worryingly delicious, Caroline. The talking crow sounds good, and an oxtail fly-swat might come in handy... I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Sue Purkiss said...

You know so much! Fascinating...

Caroline Lawrence said...

Poor Romans. No chocolate, tomato, coffee, chili peppers, potatoes, vanilla, pumpkin pie or corn on the cob! A sorry trade-off for a honey-glazed stuffed rat!

Sue Bursztynski said...

But plenty of good stuff anyway. Mind you, I think I can manage without the garum.