Tuesday 9 May 2017

The Roman Kiss of Greeting by Caroline Lawrence

One of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of travelling back in time to imperial Rome see what it was really like. One of the things my Time Traveller would surely NOT have seen is the so-called Bogus Roman Handshake made famous in books, movies and TV. This is the strange concept that men, usually soldiers, used to grip forearms or wrists instead of hands. It has been traced back to the late 19th century with the first staged productions of Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur

Sadly, I have not had much luck in my campaign against the #BogusRomanHandshake. I suffered a grave defeat when Game of Thrones showed two female characters employing it in season 6. (I know Game of Thrones is not set in ancient Rome, but the gesture would immediately be recognised as belonging to that world.) If a Time Traveller landed in the middle of the Roman Forum she would see something much more surprising than women greeting one another with a forearm handshake.

She might have seen men in togas greeting one another with a kiss!

Eros & Psyche from Ostia by Lisle Muller
And I’m not talking about the double- or triple-cheek air-kiss so popular in modern day Europe, but a full on lip-to-lip smacker between heterosexual (or at least bisexual) friends or even acquaintances. Primary sources hint that a kiss was a common alternative to shaking hands. The late first century poet Marcus Valerius Martial (whose corpus is a kind of Latin version of Sex in the City) wrote this witty two-line epigram:

Basia das aliis, aliis das Postume, dextram. 
Dicis ‘Utrum mavis?’ Malo manum.

Kisses you give to some, Postumus, to others the right hand. 
You ask me, ‘Which do you prefer?’ I prefer the hand. 
Martial 2.21

Not only do these two lines confirm my theory that the Romans greeted each other by grasping right hands, but it strongly hints that at that time a kiss might be equally acceptable. 

In the very next epigram, Martial writes:

Previously Postumus used to give me kisses with half his lips; recently he’s started to use both of them. 
Martial 2.22

Although Martial presents himself as bisexual, with a strong predilection for boys, it is clear that these are not private erotic kisses but very public greetings between peers. And despite his leanings, Martial is quite choosy about whom he kisses. 

In one epigram Martial states that he won’t kiss a woman called Philaenis because she’s been performing oral sex on a man. (2.33) 

Martial’s repugnance is often but not always due to the sexual habits of the kisser. Sometimes it’s purely aesthetic. 

In his book of poems about Saturnalia gifts, Martial urges a friend to give his kisses closed – oscula clusa dato – after consuming his present of strong-smelling leeks. (13.18)

In one of my favourite poems, Martial complains about a man he calls Linus who dispenses freezing kisses of greeting in mid-December. 

It’s December, Linus, and so cold that you have a frozen beard and icicles hanging from the tip of your nose. Yet you insist on greeting everyone you meet with an icy kiss. For decency’s sake, man, put off your salutations till April!
Martial 7.95 (paraphrased)

A few days ago I was reading for the first time a delightful book of etiquette for Christians. Clement of Alexandria converted to Christianity in the late second century AD. In The Instructor AKA The Paedagogue he cheerfully lays down what he believes a good Christian man or woman should eat, drink and wear. He lists the DOs and DON’Ts of attending a banquet, visiting the baths, going to the games, etc. His sober instruction provides a wonderful glimpse into urban life in the Roman Empire. 

In one paragraph Clement claims that some people make the church resound with their kisses. This is not the chaste, closed-mouth Holy Kiss referred to by the apostle Paul on several occasions (e.g. Romans 16:16 & 1 Corinthians 16:20), but a much more lascivious open-mouthed version. 

But there is another unholy kiss, full of poison, counterfeiting sanctity. Do you not know that spiders, merely by touching the mouth, afflict men with pain? And often kisses inject the poison of licentiousness. It is then very manifest to us, that a kiss is not love. For the love meant is the love of God. And this is the love of God, says John, that we keep His commandments, not that we stroke each other on the mouth.

This passage immediately reminded me of Martial’s complaints about kisses of greeting. 

And that reminded me of Jesus' complaint that ‘You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.’ Luke 7:45 (NIV)

And of course of Judas Escariot’s kiss of greeting, the one that would point Jesus out to the Roman legionaries. 

And the denarius suddenly dropped: the Roman custom of greeting your peers with a kiss is the source of the Holy Kiss mentioned in early Christian writings. 

In today’s Anglican church it is the equivalent to The Peace. 

So next time you squirm as the vicar asks you to ‘exchange the sign of peace’ and you have to shake your neighbours hand, count yourself lucky. In Roman times this might have required a kiss. 


Susan Price said...

Fascinating. All this kissing didn't stop with the Romans, though. When I was researching the background of The Sterkarm Handshake, I came across comments from 16th Century Europeans complaining that, in England, everyone kisses you all the time. When you arrived at a house, your host kissed you, your hostess kissed you, all the children kissed you and any spare relatives they had hanging around also came up and kissed you.

Then, after your meal, you were given books of part-music and made to sing. And when you left, everyone kissed you again. And we always thought the Europeans were the touchy-feely ones.

Somewhere between the 16th century and the present day, the British became all cold, aloof and touch-me-not. My grandparents, when told that their daughter's Polish boyfriend was coming to visit, used to run away and hide,Grandad escaping to the pub or hiding in his garden, Gran sloping out the back-door to one of her sister's. This was because he always hugged and kissed them in greeting and goodbye and they couldn't stand it. But they came round to him, despite it.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for that brilliant contribution, Susan! I love the image of your grandparents scattering when kisses were imminent!

Sue Purkiss said...

What interesting things you know! (I'm certainly one of the 'squirmers' when it comes to all that hand-shaking malarkey!)