How to pick up girls in ancient Rome

“The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” We often romanticize “the good old days” because we’ve forgotten what they were really like. As a history buff, I don’t. While also being keenly aware that past peoples were not so different from you or me.

These thoughts were evoked in reading Alberto Angela’s book, The Reach of Rome. It was a gift from a coin customer, John Dunn, a history professor. It’s really good (despite a few mistakes*) in depicting the actual lives of people of all classes in Trajan’s time (98-117 AD). The subtitle is A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire Following a Coin — as it passes from hand to hand.

The Roman Empire was unique in human annals, stretching from Spain to Syria and Britain to Egypt, for half a millennium. Much of our modern culture is an evolution from our Roman heritage.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the harsher aspects of Roman life. A battle is shown in quite gory detail. Slavery was a ubiquitous feature, and wasn’t confined to ethnic minorities. Many were taken in war, but that was well short of needs, and ordinary Romans were quite commonly kidnapped and enslaved.

Lives were short, with no consolation of belief in an afterlife. It was easy to die from an illness or injury that would be no big deal today. Medicine operated with a knowledge base approximating zero.

We’re shown a top surgeon operating to relieve a child’s brain tumor; he follows the prescribed procedure beautifully, but it won’t stop the tumor killing the kid.

Women were particularly perishable. Odds of dying in childbirth were one-in-ten. Do the math for having ten kids. (My calculator says a 35% chance of survival, but that ignores all other hazards.) However, the book suggests contraception existed, though giving no details.

And speaking of bad odds, the author says one in five sea voyages ended on the bottom. This may overstate the risk, but embarkation on such a trip was definitely very scary. And there were no lifeboats. Given this picture, you’d think people would at least learn to swim. But few Romans did (perhaps realizing it was pointless).

Mail service did not exist. To send a letter to another town, you’d have to find someone going there. If overseas, you’d go to the docks looking for a ship sailing there, and pay some passenger to take your letter and (hopefully) deliver it. If the ship makes it.

Yet it’s not all bad. These were again human beings, just like us, and one remarkable characteristic of the species is a capacity to cope with adversity and make the best of things. The book shows how Romans enjoyed themselves.

Specifically, there’s a lot of sex in it. While the punishment for adultery was severe (sealed in a sack with a snake, a chicken, and a dog, and thrown in the river), it wasn’t imposed too often, and Romans tended to be pretty easygoing and freewheeling. Prostitution wasn’t illegal and was everywhere. The author seems to skirt the issue of homosexuality, I suspect because the book was originally published in Italy. But homophobia was not a thing, and men were expected to want sex without it mattering much who or what was on the other end.

As to picking up girls, the book quotes at length from the poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, which was a pretty detailed instruction manual. Ovid explains where to go (the Circus Maximus was ideal), and how to go about it; where to sit, how to strike up a conversation, how to find excuses for touching. In the guise of helping to keep a gal’s hem undirtied, Ovid says, you could get a look at her legs.

Sure wish I knew about Ovid when I was a lad.

The Romans also had jokes, and the book includes a selection, presumably weeding out those that might baffle modern ears. Here’s one: A guy goes to a doctor and says, “Doc, when I wake up I feel dizzy for half an hour, then it goes away. What’s your advice?” The doctor: “Wake up half an hour later!”

Well, there’s been progress on the humor front over these two millennia.

And progressives will be glad to know that while we think of welfare as a fairly modern concept, the Romans actually had it. In fact, food stamps. Or the near equivalent. When Juvenal spoke of keeping people pacified with bread and circuses, this was literal. Every Roman, bar the wealthiest, was given a card entitling them to a monthly grain distribution. The card even specified the number of the arch where you were to line up. The eligible population was a couple hundred thousand, and the grain ration for each amounted to around half a ton annually; so organizing and administering this dole was a massive undertaking. And remember, computers were very primitive then.

Another thing the Romans had was globalization. Well, hemiglobalization; the Western hemisphere was of course unknown, but there was a vast trade in goods all over the Eastern. Roman coins have been found in Southeast Asia.

And something they did not have was racism and xenophobia. They welcomed immigrants from everywhere, reveling in a diverse society. There was at least one African emperor (very successful), Septimius Severus; a contemporary painting shows him rather dark skinned.

And history records no demands for his birth certificate. Nobody said, “Go back to Africa.”

* Angela talks of sestertii broken in half for change. A smaller coin, the As, worth a quarter sestertius, was often thusly halved. But I don’t recall ever seeing this with a sestertius, a big thick coin.

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