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A 12th-century manuscript with material copied from the earlier texts – an important source for Professor Dickey in her research.

Fights, Drunks, Baths, and Excuses: Clues to Daily Life in the Roman Empire Via Latin Textbooks

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A researcher translating Latin textbooks from the 2nd and 6th centuries has joined language learners of the past in discovering how to best deal with a variety of aspects of life in the Roman Empire. While many of the tasks described appear rather mundane, and include pointers on shopping, bathing, and dining, there are also some less apparent tips provided, such as how to deal with drunk relatives, handle being scolded, and picking fights. The texts are proving invaluable, as they offer hints on the social norms of the time for “ordinary Romans.”

Classics Professor Eleanor Dickey, of the University of Reading, has travelled around Europe and picked apart the details of ancient Latin school textbooks, or colloquia, which would have been used by young Greek speakers in the Roman empire learning Latin. Dickey has analyzed combined the manuscripts she recovered to create a book entitled Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks in the Ancient World .

The beginning of the Gospel of John, in the Codex Sangallensis from the 9th century AD.

The beginning of the Gospel of John, in the Codex Sangallensis from the 9th century AD. ( Public Domain ) Latin text is written above the Greek.

A blog by the University of Reading describes some of the “typical” situations that Greek students learning Latin could expect to experience while living in Roman society, and the importance of these texts for modern researchers:

“Ancient students studied short dialogues and narratives about daily life: buying clothes, buying food, having lunch, borrowing money, and visiting sick friends. Of course, ancient daily life was not quite like modern daily life, so the dialogues also cover going to the public baths, winning court cases, making excuses, getting into fights, taking oaths in temples, and coming home drunk after a Roman orgy. Just like their modern counterparts, these dialogues were written to teach students about culture as well as language; therefore they offer us priceless insight into life in the Roman empire as Romans saw it.”

“When we think of the Romans, it’s mainly of the rich and famous generals, emperors and statesmen,” Dickey told the Guardian . She went on to say:

“But those people are clearly atypical: they’re famous precisely because they were remarkable. Historians try to correct this bias by telling us about the masses of ordinary Romans, but rarely do we have works written by or about these people. These colloquia give us real, contemporary stories about their lives and I hope my work gives a fairer and truer vision of ancient society.”

One example comes in the form of a classic dialogue at the Roman baths. It follows the characters as they wrestle, are anointed with oil, enter the steam room and then proceed to a hot pool. This is followed by a shower and scraping off dirt with a metal instrument called a strigil. A section of the dialogue says:

“Let’s use the dry heat room and go down that way to the hot pool,” says one character. “Go down, pour hot water over me. Now get out. Throw yourself into the pool in the open air. Swim!” “I have swum.”

‘Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths’ (1798) by Hubert Robert.

‘Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths’ (1798) by Hubert Robert. ( Public Domain )

“We learn all kinds of things we didn’t know here. When they come from the baths, they take a shower and scrape themselves off with a ‘strigil’,” Dickey explains . The need to use the strigil after being in the bath, suggests to Dickey that the bath may have made the characters even dirtier than they were after they wrestled. “We knew the baths were dirty, but not that they were this dirty,” Dickey said.

Nevertheless, Dickey’s book is not meant only as a window into life in the Roman Empire, but she also suggests its use for modern Latin students and teachers. She explains that many of the texts mirror modern language-learning books in providing authentic, real-life (at the time), and interesting dialogues. Much like today’s language learners, Greek students of the past “also used special beginners' versions of great Latin authors including Virgil and Cicero, and dictionaries, grammars, texts in Greek transliteration, etc.”

A 5th-century papyrus showing a parallel Latin-Greek text of a speech by Cicero.

A 5th-century papyrus showing a parallel Latin-Greek text of a speech by Cicero. ( Public Domain )

Dickey told the Guardian that the texts were very commonly used. “We know this because they survive in lots of different medieval manuscript versions. At least six different versions were floating around Europe by 600 AD,” she said. “This is actually more common than many better-known ancient texts: there was only one copy of Catullus, and fewer than six of Caesar. Also, we have several papyrus fragments – since only a tiny fraction survive, when you have more than one papyrus fragment, for sure a text was popular in antiquity.”

Featured Image: A 12th-century manuscript with material copied from the earlier texts – an important source for Professor Dickey in her research. Source: Zisterzienserstift Zwettl

By Alicia McDermott

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