Sunday 25 December 2011

Dave the Slave

Happy Christmas! That's for everybody but a special mention for Hafal Members and others with experience of serious mental illness and for Hafal staff and volunteers working today.

A year ago I mentioned the publication at the same moment as the first Christmas 2010 years ago of Ovid's Ars Amatoria. It occurs to me that it would be appropriate to note how the seasonal festivities were being celebrated across the Roman Empire at that same time.

No, I haven't had a chronological brainstorm. It was customary 2011 years ago for citizens to attend a carol service with readings, go home and exchange presents, and then overindulge in food and drink in an age-old celebration of the birth of the state religion embracing rich and poor alike. I refer to the annual Saturnalia which culminated in late December and dated back some further hundreds of years. The carol service was at the temple of Saturn but otherwise the whole festival would have been recognisable to us today.

One distinctive feature was a role reversal where masters waited on servants or slaves (a custom which persists in some aristocratic contexts today). There are a few reports of this curious activity from antiquity and, if you listen very carefully, you can even hear the slave's point of view from all those years ago...

The poet Horace's slave Davus (let's call him Dave) got his say one Saturnalia two thousand years ago, getting permission from the famous Augustan poet ("Use the licence granted by our ancestors each December to say what you want") to retaliate after years of listening to his master boasting, whinging and pontificating to his friends at dinner parties. Among many well-judged accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy Dave offers these (my loose translation from Satires 2.7):-

• You constantly complain that everything was better in the good old days "when men were men" but if you actually had to live then you wouldn't have been able to survive.

• When you are in town you go on and on about how much better the country is...and vice-versa.

• If you haven't had any invitations to parties you bang on defensively about how you prefer your own company and the simple life at home but, if you actually get an invite from a rich friend, you charge around hysterically shouting at us to get your clothes ready to go out.

• You scoff at my simple love life with a lady of the night from down the road but what about your furtive affair with a married woman? And who is the slave here when you have to run around meeting her every unreasonable whim?

• In summary, how sure are you that you are worth more than the 500 Drachmas you paid for me?

At this point Horace shut him up forcibly, threatening violence and regretting ever letting Dave speak his mind. Specifically Horace threatened Dave with transfer to work in the fields of his farm in the country - away from his girlfriend and no doubt a lot harder than serving as a butler in the poet's town house. But... fact Horace was a decent chap, the product of the surprising social mobility of those days - his father was a freed slave - and he enjoyed a relaxed and friendly relationship with his servants both in Rome and at his little Sabine farm (pictured in winter above).


What's a Greek urn? About two Drachmas a week. More to the point how much is 500 Drachmas? Dave was evidently a Greek as he refers to Drachmas but a Drachma was essentially the same as four Roman Sesterces. 2,000 Sesterces wasn't a lot for a slave (a healthy girl might fetch 8,000) but was still twice the annual salary of a soldier (who would be a Roman Citizen). But that wasn't a great deal - they signed on for the adventure and to escape grinding poverty. Maybe the best point of reference would be the price of the local wine which Horace - and undoubtedly Dave - would have been drinking at the time of their little exchange. It cost about one Sesterce a litre so Dave was worth about £10,000 in today's money.