Friday 15 May 2020

The Ancient Guide to Coping with Lock-down by L.J. Trafford

These are strange times when we find ourselves constrained to our homes. As a result the country is awash with glossy Sunday supplements offering advice and suggestions for how we should spend our lock-down time.

Which made me think of a good way I could kill some lock-down time; by compiling my very own glossy Sunday supplement guide. Which got me thinking further. We all know the ancients were terribly wise, what with inventing philosophy and drama and concrete. Surely, they would possess some insightful knowledge, some great wisdom that can help us navigate this new normal?

Having scoured ancient texts for inspirational quotes I bring you my (irreverent) guide to coping with lock-down with input from the grand minds of antiquity

Self-isolating chums

Being holed up for weeks on end it is very important that you get on with your fellow incarcerates.
Something that Martial is clearly struggling with:  “Though I can’t live without you. I can live without you in the house.”

Over to Seneca who has some extremely good advice on the subject: “You should be extending your stay amongst writers whose genius is unquestionable.”

Which is exactly what I told my husband and children. They looked at me blankly.

Facing up to hard times

The ancients have much advice on how to handle hard times, such as this gem from philosopher
Epictetus, “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer has paired with a tough young buck.”
As an additional boost why not picture your opponent wrestler as being particularly attractive and muscly, maybe like Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender.
Or as someone you really dislike and then picture yourself wrestling the crap out of them.

Plutarch has a different approach, “Reflect on famous men and how they have not been affected at all by circumstances identical to one’s own.” Which I believe is a call to stalk celebs on social media and boggle over their choice in internal design.

Alternatively, why not reflect on the Queen and her stoical stance to all the troubling times throughout her long reign? God bless you ma’am!

Her Majesty is thrilled to meet L.J. Trafford

Make the most of the lock-down 

Whereas modern social media is awash with people growing sour dough monstrosities, completing 10k jigsaw puzzles and squat thrusting to within an inch of their lives, Pliny the Younger has a more chillaxed approach.

“I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honourable more rewarding than any ‘business’ can be.” 

Seneca echoes Pliny’s take that quietness and stillness can be a reward in themselves and that we should let go of our busy, busy endlessly moving lifestyles.
“The man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet; will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.” 

Another saying from antiquity tells us: “Contentment is impossible for anyone who busies himself with personal or public affairs”

Which is what you should tell your other half when they berate you for lying on the sofa all day doing nothing.


If you’re had all the stillness and quiet you can handle, why not try taking up a hobby.  Here's some examples you might wish to follow, courtesy of Rome’s emperors

Emperor Augustus had quite a collection of “skeletons of extinct sea and land monsters”, Suetonius tells us, which he had on display in his house. Why not see if amazon is delivering monster skeletons so you too can have a collection like Augustus.

You might also want to follow Augustus’ example by spending your lock-down time to write an account of all the marvellous things you have achieved in your life. Augustus’ Res Gestae covered such accomplishments as; “ At the age of nineteen, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.” 

Which might pale your student union drinking exploits somewhat, but we can’t all be Augustus.
Augustus had his accomplishment carved into whopping big stones and displayed outside his mausoleum and all over the empire. Why not do similar by making multiple copies of your achievements, sticking them in your window next to your kids’ rainbow picture and then sharing them by posting copies through your neighbours letterboxes. 

Augustus kindly points out where the toilets are located.

Emperor Nero, of course, was dedicated to the art of song. Dedicate yourself to the art of song and don’t fret if you aren’t any good, because neither was Nero.

Alternatively, you might want emulate emperor Domitian, who “would spend hours alone every day doing nothing but catch flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”


It's not surprising that during this lock-down period many people have acquired a fluffy friend to keep them company.
Romans were big on pets too, particularly the aquatic kind. Fish ponds were wildly popular, so much so that sour puss Cicero took a swipe at ‘fish fanciers'.
Fish are relaxing to watch but should you tire of being relaxed why not follow Crassus’s example. He had a pet eel which he trained to swim up to him when he called it’s name.
Crassus also dressed up his eel as a lady in earrings and necklace, which gives new meaning to Cicero’s ‘fish fanciers’. This is an example you might want to avoid copying, if only for the slippery difficulty of putting a ring on a goldfish. 

Remember the downsides 

It can be difficult being away from people, shut up in your own house. But this can be countenanced by remembering how awful the outside world is and everyone who lives in it.
Martial for instance won’t be missing those dreadful dinner parties he was forced to attend : “Though each dish is lavish and superb the pleasures nil since you recite your poems.”

Juvenal won’t be missing the commute certainly, “The endless traffic In narrow twisting streets the tide ahead obstructs me, And the huge massed ranks that follow behind crush my kidneys;
This man sticks out his elbow, that one flails with a solid pole,
This man strikes my head with a beam, that one with a barrel.
Legs caked with mud, I’m forever trampled by mighty feet
From every side, while a soldier’s hobnailed boot pierces my toe.”

And not forgetting those irritating pieces of flesh and blood known as other people. Boy are they annoying, as Juvenal notes.  “Always ready to throw up their hands and cheer
If their ‘friend’ belches deeply, or perhaps pisses straight,
Or gives a fart when the golden bowl’s turned upside down.”

Really very, very annoying;
"You always whisper into every one's ear, Cinna; you whisper even what might be said in the hearing of the whole world. You laugh, you complain, you dispute, you weep, you sing, you criticise, you are silent, you are noisy; and all in one's ear.” 

With disgusting habits:
"To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy." 
Pompeii graffiti

In short, people are annoying and horrible and disgusting and you are better off without them. In fact, you are a better person without them. As Seneca notes.
“You ask me to say what you should consider it particularly important to avoid. My answer is this; a mass crowd”
“I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out.”
So as you sit at home revel in this improvement to your moral character. Then WhatsApp all your friends to inform them that in their absence you are a much better person.

Having lost all your friends you may as well go the full misanthropic route favoured by Martial.
“You ask me what I get out of my country place. The profit, gross or net, is never seeing your face.”

L.J. Trafford is the author of four fiction and two non fiction books on Ancient Rome. She is spending the lock-down doing jigsaws, colouring things and contemplating important things, like how you put earrings on an eel. 

1 comment:

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Brilliant, Linda. Very informative and amusing. I think I shall follow Pliny the Younger's example rather than some of the more rather flamboyant Romans... Strange how Juvenal's observations on the downsides of commuting still ring so true! Great photo of you in the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology. I shall re-read your post several times - thank you!