Life: Few Details From Ancient Rome by Plutarch

Aldobrandini Wedding (Nozze Aldobrandini) fresco, 1st century BC

Some of the most interesting sources for Roman history belong to Plutarch (c. 46AD – c. 119AD), a Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies depicting the lives of illustrious Greeks and Romans.

But, one of his interesting works is also Moralia, a collection of essays and speeches, sometimes loosely translated as Customs and Mores. Moralia gives an incredible insight into Roman and Greek everyday life. In The Roman Questions (Quaestiones Romanae) Plutarch observes and discusses some of the intriguing details of life in Ancient Rome. Sometimes quite incredible, every question is like a scene from the life of Romans. So, here are some of them.

A Man Enters the House… through the Roof

Walking the streets of Roman cities it wasn’t unusual to see a man climbing the rooftop and entering the house from above. That wasn’t about any kind of robbery.

Those men were the members of the household falsely reported dead in a foreign country. So, how come they entered the house from above? Plutarch explains:

“Varro gives an explanation of the cause that is quite fabulous. For he says that in the Sicilian war there was a great naval battle, and in the case of many men a false report spread that they were dead. But, when they had returned home, in a short time they all came to their end except one who, when he tried to enter, found the doors shutting against him of their own accord, nor did they yield when he strove to open them. The man fell asleep there before his threshold and in his sleep saw a vision, which instructed him to climb upon the roof and let himself down into the house. When he had done so, he prospered and lived to an advanced age; and from this occurrence the custom became established for succeeding generations.

But consider if this be not in some wise similar to Greek customs; for the Greeks did not consider pure, nor admit to familiar intercourse, nor suffer to approach the temples any person for whom a funeral had been held and a tomb constructed on the assumption that they were dead. The tale is told that Aristinus, a victim of this superstition, sent to Delphi and besought the god to release him from the difficulties in which he was involved because of the custom; and the prophetic priestess gave response:

All that a woman in childbed does at the birth of her baby,

When this again thou hast done, to the blessed gods sacrifice offer.

Aristinus, accordingly, chose the part of wisdom and  p15 delivered himself like a new-born babe into the hands of women to be washed, and to be wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and to be suckled;​ and all other men in such plight do likewise and they are called “Men of Later Fate.” But some will have it that this was done in the case of such persons even before Aristinus, and that the custom is ancient. Hence it is nothing surprising if the Romans also did not think it right to admit by the door, through which they go out to sacrifice and come in from sacrificing, those who are thought to have been buried once and for all and to belong to the company of the departed, but bade them descend from the open air above into that portion of the house which is exposed to the sky. And with good reason, for, naturally, they perform all their rites of purification under the open sky.”

Men Returning to Their Wives

When a man was returning to his house and his wife from abroad, especially from the wars, he usually sent the people ahead to bring the news about his return. Apart from confidence, there are many reasons why they did this:

“Is it because this is the mark of a man who is confident that his wife is not up to any mischief, whereas coming suddenly and unexpectedly is, as it were, an arrival by stratagem and unfair vigilance; and are they eager to send good tidings about themselves to their wives as if they felt certain that their wives would be longing for them and expecting them?

Or is it rather that the men themselves long to hear news of their wives, if they shall find them safe at home and longing for their husbands?

Or is it because during their husbands’ absence the wives have more household duties and occasions, and also dissensions and outbursts against those of the household? Therefore the notice is given in advance that the wife may rid herself of these matters and make for her husband his welcome home undisturbed and pleasant.”

Children Swearing by Hercules

The adults told the children swearing by Hercules not to do that under the roof but in the open air. Some Romans believed that Hercules didn’t enjoy staying in the house. He preferred to breathe the fresh air and enjoy the starry night.

“Is it, as some relate, because they believe that Hercules had no pleasure in staying in the house, but rejoiced in a life in the open air and a bed under the stars?

Or is it rather because Hercules is not one of the native gods, but a foreigner from afar? For neither do they swear under a roof by Bacchus, since he also is a foreign god if he is from Nysa.

Or is this but said in jest to the children, and what is done is really a check upon over-readiness and hastiness to swear, as Favorinus stated? For what is done following, as it were, upon preparation produces delay and allows deliberation. Yet one might urge against Favorinus the fact that this custom is not common, but peculiar to Hercules, as may be seen from the legend about him: for it is recorded that he was so circumspect regarding an oath that he swore but once and for Phyleus, the son of Augeas, alone. Wherefore they say that the prophetic priestess also brought up against the Spartans all the oaths they had sworn, saying that it would be better and much more to be desired if they would keep them!”

Marriage – Not in May

Romans who wanted to marry usually did that in April or wait until June. The month of May was the month of maior (older), and June was reserved for the young – iunior.

“Is it because this month comes between April and June, of which they regard April as sacred to Venus and June as sacred to Juno, both of them divinities of marriage; and so they put the wedding a little earlier or wait until later?

Or is it because in this month they hold their most important ceremony of purification, in which they now throw images from the bridge into the river,​ but in days of old they used to throw human beings? Wherefore it is the custom that the Flaminica, reputed to be consecrate to Juno, shall wear a stern face, and refrain from bathing and wearing ornaments at this time.

Or is it because many of the Latins make offerings to the departed in this month? And it is for this reason, perhaps, that they worship Mercury in this month and that the month derives its name from Maia.​

Or is May, as some relate, named after the older (maior) and June after the younger generation (iunior)? For youth is better fitted for marriage, as Euripides​ also says:

Old age bids Love to take her leave for aye

And Aphroditê wearies of the old.

They do not, therefore, marry in May, but wait for June which comes next after May.”

Also, the brides parted their hair with the point of a spear. Plutarch calls it an “unaffected, unfeminine, and simple mode of beautification.”

“Does this symbolize the marriage of the first Roman wives​ by violence with attendant war, or do the wives thus learn, now that they are mated to brave and warlike men, to welcome an unaffected, unfeminine, and simple mode of beautification? Even as Lycurgus,​ by giving orders to make the doors and roofs of houses with the saw and the axe only, and to use absolutely no other tool, banished all over-refinement and extravagance.

Or does this procedure hint at the manner of their separation, that with steel alone can their marriage be dissolved?

Or is it that most of the marriage customs were connected with Juno?​ Now the spear is commonly held to be sacred to Juno, and most of her statues represent her as leaning on a spear, and the goddess herself is surnamed Quiritis; for the men of old used to call the spear curis; wherefore they further relate that Enyalius is called Quirinus by the Romans.”

Military: Not All Were Allowed to Throw Missiles

Apart from regular soldiers, others weren’t regularly enlisted. It was necessary to have permission from the superior to throw the missiles or harm the enemy.

Inside the Roman camp, Trajan’s Column, 113 AD

And only regular soldiers had that permission. When it comes to doing that by regular soldiers and those who were only staying in the camp, Plutarch also opens the question of ethics.

“This fact Cato the Elder​ has made clear in one of his letters to his son, in which he bids the young man to return home if he has completed his term of service and has been discharged; or, if he should stay over, to obtain permission from his general to wound or slay an enemy.

Is it because sheer necessity alone constitutes a warrant to kill a human being, and he who does so illegally and without the word of command is a murderer? For this reason Cyrus also praised Chrysantas​ who, when he was about to kill an enemy, and had his weapon raised to strike, heard the recall sounded and let the man go without striking, believing that he was now prevented from so doing.

Or must he who grapples with the enemy and fights not be free from accountability nor go unscathed should he play the coward? For he does not help so much by hitting or wounding an enemy as he does harm by fleeing or retreating. He, therefore, who has been discharge from service is freed from military regulations; but he who asks leave to perform the offices of a soldier renders himself again accountable to the regulations and to his general.”

These and a lot of other customs were practiced in Ancient Rome. They confirm how Roman civilization was unique. Customs and mores formed socially acceptable, unwritten rules that formed strong traditions and a sense of identity. An identity that attracted. Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam.

Source: Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae,

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