Coping with the party season, Roman-style

The season of partying has begun! Io Saturnalia!

“No need to rush: the guests won’t be here for ages.”

…although to be honest I’ve never been terribly confident about social occasions. Nothing illustrates my lack of prowess so well as the time I turned up to a party to find the hostess still in her dressing-gown with a towel around her hair.  And that was in my home country. How much harder must it be to fit into a society where you don’t have the language?

It was certainly a problem for the highly mobile population of the Roman empire. What if you were a Greek-speaker trying to make good in the big city? Or indeed, a Latin-speaker who had moved east and now found all your neighbours chatting away in Greek?

Time to hire a language teacher and practise a little conversation.

Happily for us, some of those ancient conversations have survived. Originally written in Latin and Greek side by side, the “Colloquia” cover all sorts of situations the student is likely to face. Many are obviously for schoolchildren (there’s a lot about washing your face in the morning and saying ‘hello’ to the teacher) but amongst the others are “asking a banker for a loan,” “preparing for a lunch guest,” “afternoons at the baths,” “winning a lawsuit,” “going out to dinner,” and “getting ready for bed”. There are also handy suggestions for acceptable excuses.

The Colloquia give a fresh and delightful insight into the everyday life of the empire, and I’ve just been reading them in Eleanor Dickey’s splendid translation.* They’re full of things that newcomers might have found useful to know, including what to say when things went wrong, such as,

“I haven’t got anything to drink – I asked for wine and nobody gave me any.”

Once the wine is supplied, there’s advice on how to toast one’s fellow-guests and how to thank the host at the end.

Of course not everyone was a partygoer. Someone coping with a relative who had over-indulged might want to say,

“Is this the way to behave when you are a respectable father?”

statue of naked man on couch with cup


The following is aimed at slave-owners, but could be useful for parents too:

“Since you were slow to do your job, none of you may go out tonight. And be quiet – I’m going to punish anyone whose voice I hear.”

The passage about lunch reveals how a Roman guest could, unlike me, turn up at the right time every time – even though timekeeping relied largely on sundials and what was, in Britannia at least, an unreliable sun. The invited guest tells his host, “Just send a slave round when you want me to come. I’ll be at home.”  

If only we still did that. Admittedly few of us have servants these days, but a simple phone call would save all that hanging around clutching drinks and making polite conversation while frantic preparations go on in the background. And no hostess would need to apologize for slipping away to put her clothes on.

*”Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World – Extracts from the Ancient Colloquia” by Eleanor Dickey, Cambridge University Press, 2017   ISBN 978-1-316-62728-0  – Highly recommended!

15 thoughts on “Coping with the party season, Roman-style

  1. Io Saturnalia Ruth! Thank you for another very interesting post – I will have to have a look at the book “Stories of Ancient Life….” that you mentioned, it sounds fascinating!

  2. very interesting, as ever..
    I find the ordinary day to day trivia fascinating.
    Did women drink their fare share of wine at all in those days?
    I suppose Pompey and Herculaneum give us a great insight. .

    1. I can’t immediately summon any sources, Patrick, but I have the impression that women’s fair share was not deemed to be very large. Although since many wines were thought to be medicinal, some extra indulgence might have been allowed for health reasons. The lady on the left in this painting from Pompeii certainly looks well-medicated.

      1. like old ladies today having a wee sherry for medicinal purposes

  3. Hi Ruth, thanks for the heads up – I’ll buy this book you mention. Sounds like a treasure house of the sort of info about day to day life that I really enjoy.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family!

  4. Hope you enjoy it, Sarah. Thanks for the good wishes – Merry Christmas and all the best for 2018 to you and yours! (Although if things don’t go as well as you might hope, the book offers a selection of “phrases to use in arguments”!)

  5. Fascinating book! I just ordered a copy. Your description reminded me of a list of words and phrases, apparently intended for medieval Parisian (?) travelers who did not speak Old High German. This was included in Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (Braune/Ebbinghaus) Tübingen 1994. On pages 9-11 we find, for example, #30. Guaz guildo? (quid uis tu?), #32. Ne guez. (nescio), #37 Cver ist? (ubi est?), #69. Haben e gonego. (habeo satis ego), #71. Erro, e guile trenchen (ego uolo bibere.)

    Apart from other interesting things in this list, it may also tell us something about the way the semi vowel u/v was pronounced in Paris.

  6. These dual-language pieces must be a linguist’s delight – thank you, Allan. They also provide so much insight into the needs and aspirations of long-gone students and their teachers. Which, it would seem, are not so very different from our own!

  7. Io Saturnalia, Ruth! Unlike the Romans (most years), we’re going to need a phrase for “I know your feet are cold, but that walkway has to be shoveled”!

    1. Season’s greetings, Sherry! Here the current phrase would have to be, “And the scenery will be lovely if the fog ever clears…”!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.