Zombies, Witches, and Werewolves (Oh my!)


Although Halloween (or whatever variation you wish to call it), is a day that originates in Celtic and Christian traditions after the end of what we conceive of as the ancient Roman world, that doesn’t mean the Romans didn’t enjoy a good spooky story. Tied up within the various rites and practices of paganism and polytheism that dominated the ancient world were numerous superstitions, tales of transformation, and the threat of falling under the spell of a witch. Perhaps one of the best known examples of the latter comes from the second century AD writer Apuleius, whose novel The Golden Ass follows the adventures (and mis-adventures) of a man who is turned into an ass by a witch of Thessaly.

One of the most common themes is a straight-forward ghost story. What is interesting about these is that they relate directly to burial practices and observed rituals. In both stories that follow, the ghost is haunting his resting place, which is one that has been created without the completion of the necessary rites.

Suetonius Caligula 69
‘He lived twenty-nine years and ruled three years, ten months and eight days. His body was conveyed secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly consumed on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of turf; later his sisters on their return from exile dug it up, cremated it, and consigned it to the tomb. Before this was done, it was well known that the caretakers of the gardens were disturbed by ghosts, and that in the house where he was slain not a night passed without some fearsome apparition, until at last the house itself was destroyed by fire.’

Pliny Epistles VII.27
‘At first there was nothing but the general silence of the night; then came the clanking of iron and ragging of chains. He did not look up or stop writing, but steeled his mind to shut out the sounds. Then the noise grew louder, came nearer, was heard in the doorway, and then inside the room. He looked round, saw and recognized the ghost described to him. It stood and beckoned, as if summoning him. Athenodorus in his turn signed to it to wait a little, and again bent over his notes and pen, while it stood rattling its chains over his head as he wrote. He looked round again and saw it beckoning as before, so without further delay he picked up his lamp and followed. It moved slowly, as if weighed down with chains, and when it turned off into the courtyard of the house it suddenly vanished, leaving him alone. He then picked some plants and leaves and marked the spot. The following day he approached the magistrates, and advised them to give orders for the place to be dug up. Here they found bones, twisted round with chains, which were left bare and corroded by the fetters when time and the action of the soil had rotted away the body. The bones were collected and given a public burial, and after the shade had been duly laid to rest the house saw them no more.’

Slightly more disturbing is the idea of the raising of the dead. Although the idea of a zombie is a wholly modern one (the word was first used only in the nineteenth century), Romans did write of the re-animation of corpses, as was practiced by witches. Sextus Pompey, son of the great commander, wishing to know the future and the outcome of the Battle of Pharsalus, tracks down the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, to help him divine the future.

Lucan Civil War VI .624-673
‘Thus spake the hag
And through redoubled night, a squalid veil
Swathing her pallid features, stole among
Unburied carcases. Fast fled the wolves,
The carrion birds with maw unsatisfied
Relaxed their talons, as with creeping step
She sought her prophet. Firm must be the flesh
As yet, though cold in death, and firm the lungs
Untouched by wound. Now in the balance hung
The fates of slain unnumbered; had she striven
Armies to raise and order back to life
Whole ranks of warriors, the laws had failed
Of Erebus; and, summoned up from Styx,
Its ghostly tenants had obeyed her call,
And rising fought once more. At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose. Gripped by pitiless hook
O’er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites, that shall restore
The dead man’s life. Close to the hidden brink
The land that girds the precipice of hell
Sinks towards the depths: with ever falling leaves
A wood o’ershadows, and a spreading yew
Casts shade impenetrable. Foul decay
Fills all the space, and in the deep recess
Darkness unbroken, save by chanted spells,
Reigns ever. Not where gape the misty jaws
Of caverned Taenarus, the gloomy bound
Of either world, through which the nether kings
Permit the passage of the dead to earth,
So poisonous, mephitic, hangs the air.
Nay, though the witch had power to call the shades
Forth from the depths, ’twas doubtful if the cave
Were not a part of hell. Discordant hues
Flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
Bare was her visage, and upon her brow
Dread vipers hissed, beneath her streaming locks
In sable coils entwined. But when she saw
The youth’s companions trembling, and himself
With eyes cast down, with visage as of death,
Thus spake the witch: ‘ Forbid your craven souls
‘These fears to cherish: soon returning life
‘This frame shall quicken, and in tones which reach
Even the timorous ear shall speak the man.
‘If I have power the Stygian lakes to show,
The bank that sounds with fire, the fury band,
‘And giants fettered, and the hound that shakes
‘Bristling with heads of snakes his triple head,
What fear is this that cringes at the sight
Of timid shivering shades? ”

Needless to say, it probably didn’t require a re-animated corpse to see that things weren’t going to end well for the Pompey family.

Cemeteries, in the ancient world much like today, were also the focus of odd nocturnal activities. Both Martial (Epigrams 1.34 and 3.93) and Apuleius (Met. 4.18) wrote about whores and thieves operating in cemeteries. Tombs offered hiding places for both stolen goods, and for entertaining clients. Witches also frequented burial areas, stealing bones and ashes from tombs or corpses from the funeral pyre (Tib. 1.11.41-48, Horace Epod. 5.15-24, and Lucan Civil War 6.510-830). For Petronius, it is also a place where one migth witness a startling transformation from man to wolf.

Petronius Satryicon 62
‘We got among the tombstones; my man went aside to look at the epitaphs, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, then I went to take up his clothes; but they had all turned to stone. No one could be more dead with terror than I was. But I drew my sword and went slaying shadows all the way till I came to my love’s house. I went in like a corpse, and nearly gave up the ghost, the sweat ran down my legs, my eyes were dull, I could hardly be revived. My dear Melissa was surprised at my being out so late, and said, “If you had come earlier you might at least have helped us; a wolf got into the farm and worried all our sheep, and let their blood like a butcher. But he did not make fools of us, even though he got off; for our slave made a hole in his neck with a spear.” When I heard this, I could not keep my eyes shut any longer, but at break of day I rushed back to my master Gaius’s house like a defrauded publican, and when I came to the place where the clothes were turned to stone, I found nothing but a pool of blood. But when I reached home, my soldier was lying in bed like an ox, with a doctor looking after his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first. Other people may think what they like about this; but may all your guardian angels punish me if I am lying.’

Pliny the Elder also wrote about werewolves, but he, in his usual pragmatic manner, finds these tales wholly ridiculous, and puts them down to the overactive imagination of the Greeks.

Pliny Natural History 8.34
‘That men have been turned into wolves, and again restored to their original form, we must confidently look upon as untrue, unless, indeed, we are ready to believe all the tales, which, for so many ages, have been found to be fabulous. But, as the belief of it has become so firmly fixed in the minds of the common people, as to have caused the term ‘Versipellisto be used as a common form of imprecation, I will here point out its origin. Euanthes, a Grecian author of no mean reputation, informs us that the Arcadians assert that a member of the family of one Anthus is chosen by lot, and then taken to a certain lake in that district, where, after suspending his clothes on an oak, he swims across the water and goes away into the desert, where he is changed into a wolf and associates with other animals of the same species for a space of nine years. If he has kept himself from beholding a man during the whole of that time, he returns to the same lake, and, after swimming across it, resumes his original form, only with the addition of nine years in age to his former appearance. To this Fabius adds, that he takes his former clothes as well. It is really wonderful to what a length the credulity of the Greeks will go! There is no falsehood, if ever so barefaced, to which some of them cannot be found to bear testimony.

So too, Agriopas, who wrote the Olympionics, informs us that Demænetus, the Parrhasian, during a sacrifice of human victims, which the Arcadians were offering up to the Lycæan Jupiter, tasted the entrails of a boy who had been slaughtered; upon which he was turned into a wolf, but, ten years afterwards, was restored to his original shape and his calling of an athlete, and returned victorious in the pugilistic contests at the Olympic games.’

Considering some other practices the Romans engaged in, particularly regarding the rites of the dead, and in conjunction with their obvious appeal for a scary story or two, I can’t help but think that the ancient Romans would have quite enjoyed the idea of Halloween, and especially would have recognised aspects of Día de Muertos as akin to their own rituals. So today, I suggest you scatter some beans as in the practice of Lemuria to ward off evil spirits, and watch a scary film in honour of Halloween. Just don’t forget the chocolate.


Book Review: Graffiti and the Literary Landscape in Roman Pompeii


The review I wrote of Kristina Milnor‘s latest book has just been made available online by The Classical Review, a publication of the Classical Association. Her book, Graffiti & the Literary Landscape of Pompeii, addresses Pompeian graffiti that is thought to derive from or otherwise copy known ancient authors or literary styles. For the purposes of her study, Milnor focuses entirely on metrical graffiti. In addition, she discusses potential influences on some other types of graffiti, mainly greetings as a reflection of epistolary style. I admittedly have some issue with her methods and overall conclusions, but for that you’ll just have to read the review. It is available online here.

O tempora, o mores!


There has been quite a bit of kerfuffle in the past week about Senator Ted Cruz’s recent speech against President Obama that was more or less lifted directly from the first of Cicero’s speeches against Cataline (with changes marked in red, the full transcript of the doctored text can be found here):

‘When, O Catiline President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Do not the nightly guards placed on the Palatine Hill border — do not the watches posted throughout the city — does not the alarm of the people, and the union of all good men and women — does not the precaution taken of assembling the senate in this most defensible place — do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you?’

Delivered to the Senate in 63 BC, this speech focused on revealing the plotting of Lucius Sergius Catilina, a nobleman and senator, to kill Cicero, a number of other senators, and seize power for himself.

Of course, as any Classicist can tell you, the point of Cicero’s speech was to expose the plot of Cataline, and thus Cruz’s use of it places himself in the role of the noble statesman (Cicero, who was consul at the time), and Obama as the treasonous, illegitimate and self-appointed destroyer of the Republic (Cataline). This comparison to the current US president is not exactly a valid one – part of what got Cataline’s toga in a twist was losing what he perceived as his birthright, the office of consul, to Cicero – a novus homo, the previous year. Cataline’s subsequent attempts to get elected were so corrupt Cicero enacted a law to prevent his actions of bribery and forceful persuasion. If we truly want to draw a modern political parallel, G.W. Bush circa the second week of November 2000 would be more apropos than a sitting president in his second term. Regardless, as others have already pointed out, Cruz’s use of this speech is a misappropriation of its true intent at best, and dangerous, threatening rhetoric at worst. Indeed, his likening of a president to a man planning revolution such as Cataline seems far more treasonous an act, regardless of politics.

I have never held a great fondness for Cicero, despite recent work on his letters, but I do find his use in a modern political setting fascinating, in as much for his own presence as for the profound influence the Roman Republic has had on modern democracy. Most people will trace the American democracy to Athens, who obviously invented the concept of government by and for the people. However, I have always thought, regardless of the original intention of our much revered (and often greatly mis-understood) founding fathers, that the true design of the government is an oligarchy, and one that Cicero would have adored. Apparently I’m not alone in this conclusion. Cicero was, after all, a member of the optimates, a group of men including Sulla, Cato, and others, who were determined to not only safeguard but increase the power of the Senate and the aristocracy, limiting the power of the people’s assemblies, the tribune of the plebs, and restricting access to land, the grain dole, citizenship and debt relief. The opposite group, the populares, (think, at their earliest, the Gracchi brothers) were locked in a political struggle throughout the end of the Republic with the likes of Marius, Pompey, and Caesar fighting on behalf of the people. The assassination of Caesar by other members of the Senate (i.e. the optimates), of course, leads to civil wars, the rise of Octavian, and the eventual creation of the Empire, which was a monarchy in all but name. So I guess if Senator Cruz and his ilk have their way, at least we have a coronation to look forward to.





Reading is Fundamental

on the walls

One thing I have not addressed yet which may seem obvious for my work with epigraphic texts is the subject of literacy. Of course, much has been written about ancient literacy by scholars far more expert than I, but as the basis of this project on social network analysis is epigraphic material, it seems remiss not to make my own views on the subject available.

The original scholarly argument regarding ancient literacy (which is greatly over simplified here), as developed largely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in relation to Pompeii, goes something like this:

  1. Only the aristocratic upper classes were learned and literate. Think Livy, Cicero, Tacitus and Vergil.
  2. The graffiti of Pompeii – i.e. vulgar Latin texts – were not written by the upper classes. The aristocratic class would not be responsible for non-grammatically correct texts, spelling mistakes, and generally poor Latin, nor would they write sexual or otherwise lowbrow content.

In other words, the lower classes are illiterate, and the upper classes would not write something like this:

CIL IV 8898
T(h)iop(h)ilus canis / cunnu(m) lingere no/li puellis in muro.
‘Thiophilus, don’t be a dog and lick girls’ cunts against a wall.’

The question then must be asked, if the lower classes, of the sort who would make errors in their written Latin and engage in exchanging sexual jibes, were incapable of writing, then who wrote graffiti such as the one above?

Here is my view (for what its worth): Whilst there are certainly varying degrees of literacy to be found, much as there are in any literate society,  for the most part, the Roman world was literate on a level that was unparalleled until the modern era. Rome had, after all, a system that was based on professional and administrative writing. Laws, tax codes, calendars, trials, elections, and sundry other notices were posted publicly for all to see, not only in Rome but throughout the provinces. Dupont calls Rome ‘a civilization based on the book and the register,’ and rightfully so. Financial records of sales, leases, and property were kept on tablets. Archives of reports, magisterial actions, and court decisions were kept in administrative centres both in Rome and other cities. Aristocratic families kept their own records pertaining to ancestry, funeral orations, and other documents. Any family could be expected to have a small collection of writings containing tips on farming, remedies for illness, or prayers. Letters were exchanged with an incredible frequency, and there was even a postal system in place between provinces during the Empire. Possessing the time to write for leisure was viewed as an activity that showed a person’s wealth and standing in society. And I have not yet mentioned the public writing, the lapidary inscriptions on buildings, tombs, shrines, statues, and other edifices. Finally, add to this the graffiti, the dipiniti, and other temporary writings, and ancient Rome becomes a place covered with words – words that were meant to be read by the majority of the populace.

That the Roman people expected to have their rules and regulations readily available, in a written format, is illustrated perfectly by the outcry raised over new tax laws. Caligula, Suetonius tells us (41), enacted a new tax code but did not display it (‘vectigalibus indictis neque propositis’) specifically to raise more revenue, and was subsequently criticised and forced to post them for all to see. In typical Caligula fashion, he of course then does this in a manner which is virtually illegible. For the thousands of texts scribbled on the walls that survive from Pompeii, there were once just as many to be found in Rome, Ostia, and other settlements. We know this because of ancient literature, which recounts such instances, demonstrating that graffiti was a normal and frequent means of communication in the ancient world. Often, in the city of Rome at least, the graffiti was political in nature:

Suetonius Tib. 52.3
Propter quae multifariam inscriptum et per noctes celeberrime adclamatum est: “Redde Germanicum!”
‘Because of this the words, “Give us back Germanicus,” were posted in many places, and shouted at night all over the city.’

Suetonius Nero 39.2
Multa Graece Latineque proscripta aut vulgata sunt, sicut illa:
Νέρων Ὀρέστης Ἀλκμέων μητροκτόνος.
Νεόψηφον· Νέρων ἰδίαν μητέρα ἀπέκτεινε.
Quis negat Aeneae magna de stirpe Neronem? / Sustulit hic matrem, sustulit ille patrem.
Dum tendit citharam noster, dum cornua Parthus, / Noster erit Paean, ille Hecatebeletes.
Roma domus fiet; Veios migrate, Quirites, / Si non et Veios occupat ista domus.
Sed neque auctores requisiit et quosdam per indicem delatos ad senatum adfici graviore poena prohibuit.

‘Of these many were posted or circulated both in Greek and Latin, for example the following:
“Nero, Orestes, Alcmeon their mothers slew.”
“A calculation new. Nero his mother slew.”
“Who can deny the descent from Aeneas’ great line of our Nero? One his mother took off, the other one took off his sire.”
“While our ruler his lyre doth twang and the Parthian his bowstring, Paean-singer our prince shall be, and Far-darter our foe.”
“Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii, Quirites! If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well.”
He made no effort, however, to find the authors; in fact, when some of them were reported to the senate by an informer, he forbade their being very severely punished.

Plutarch, Ti. Gracchus 8.7
τὴν δὲ πλείστην αὐτὸς ὁ δῆμος ὁρμὴν καὶ φιλοτιμίαν ἐξῆψε, προκαλούμενος διὰ γραμμάτων αὐτὸν ἐν στοαῖς καὶ τοίχοις καὶ μνήμασι καταγραφομένων ἀναλαβεῖν τοῖς πένησι τὴν δημοσίαν χώραν.
‘However, the energy and ambition of Tiberius were most of all kindled by the people themselves, who posted writings on porticoes, house-walls, and monuments, calling upon him to recover for the poor the public land.’

Other literature illustrates the role graffiti took in exchanges of love, not just of the physical act as illustrated in the Pompeian graffito above, but as a means of professing romantic sentiment:

Plautus Mercator 409
Impleantur elegeorim meae fores carbonibus.
‘With their pieces of charcoal my door would be filled with elegies’

Ovid Amores 3.1.53-54
A quotiens foribus duris infixa pependi / non verita a populo praetereunt legi!
‘Oh, how often have I hung, fastened to unyielding doors, not fearing to be read by the passer-by!’

Whilst there may be little doubt as to the pervasiveness of the written word in ancient Rome, that still does not prove that a high proportion of the population could read. Rather than look to the ancient world to prove literacy levels, I think it is far more prudent to look to the world in which these judgements were made. As I noted last week, Charles Wordsworth suggested that to judge a different time or place by current standards was not only unfair, but likely wrong. He stated that though members of the Houses of Parliament may read Shakespeare, they were hardly writing it on the walls of the chamber. Wordsworth questioned whether any modern literature, if lost, could be reconstructed from the graffiti on the walls of country towns, unequivocally answering no, as ‘Our Pompeiis do not yet exhibit the words of our Virgils, nor does it seem probable that they soon will.’

One reason this is likely the case is due to the literacy rates of (modern) Europe. When Dante published the Divine Comedy in 1321, barely ten percent of the Italian population had the ability to read it. Only thirty percent of the adult population of the entirety of Europe was literate at the time Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Statistics show that in the seventeenth century, men in France, England and Scotland had a literacy rate of thirty percent or less. A century later, this had more than doubled for Scotland (25% to 65%), doubled for England (30% to 60%), but increased at a far lower rate for France (29% to 48%). The first figures for female literacy do not appear until the eighteenth century, when England boasts a literacy rate of 37.5%, with France having 27%, whereas Scotland lags behind with just 15%. By the time of the nineteenth century, largely due to industrialisation and urbanisation, along with the start of the movement (at least in Britain) to educate all children, the literacy rates continued to climb with some regularity.

What this means is this: in the eighteenth century, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered and the graffiti came to light for the first time in seventeen hundred years, at least half (if not more) of the population of Europe was illiterate. Those involved in overseeing the early excavation and documentation of the sites (and thereby the texts), were educated, aristocratic, wealthy members of the European upper classes, who presumed, based on their own experiences, that the lower classes of Pompeii, like the lower classes of eighteenth century Naples, London or Paris, were illiterate.  Wordsworth was, in a sense, ahead of his time in pointing out the fallacy of this type of judgement – one that would become a crucial aspect in the methodology of ethnographers and anthropologists in the twentieth century – the same standards, morals, or practices of one’s own culture cannot be applied when evaluating another. This, I believe, is exactly what happened in regards to ancient Roman literacy, whereas the evidence we are left, especially from a city like Pompeii, proves that this was a fully literate society, of proportions unrivaled until the modern era.

Getting Your Word’s Worth



I recently came across what is quite likely the earliest treatise to appear on Pompeian graffiti: Inscriptiones Pompeianae; or Specimens and Facsimiles of Ancient Inscriptions discovered on the walls of buildings at Pompeii. Published in 1837, this small volume penned by Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the famous poet, Classicist, and bishop of St. Andrews, is, if not always entirely accurate in its interpretation of the texts, nonetheless an altogether lovely presentation of the texts scratched into the walls of the ancient city.

A mere thirty-three pages, this slim volume takes the form of a letter Wordsworth addresses to a friend – his dear P—, who seemingly accompanied him on a trip to Pompeii in 1832. He states the letter is ‘retaliation’ for P, who indulged in ‘some pleasant humour’ for his interest in the graffiti they saw on their trip. He further writes that he ‘should indeed have abstained from this undertaking as unnecessary, had any notice whatever been taken of these fragments to which I now invite your attention, by any of the writers who have described the antiquities of Pompeii.’ He claims (rightly) that apart from a few vague references in William Gell’s revised 1832 publication of Pompeiana, no one has yet mentioned the texts in print, much less published them in any way. This then, is what he sets out to do.

Wordsworth invites P to join him, as he acts as guide, to go back through the streets of Pompeii, and examine more thoroughly a number of the ancient graffiti. Likely to pique the interest of his friend, Wordsworth begins with a text from Vergil, P’s favourite Latin poet, which is to be found on a wall in the Building of Eumachia.


Now recorded as CIL IV 1982 (CLE 1785 = CLE 2292):

Circe socios 

the graffito is line 70  from Book VIII of Vergil’s Eclogues, the entire stanza (lines 69-71) of which reads:

Carmina vel caelo possunt deducere lunam,
carminibus Circe socios mutavit Ulixi,
frigidus in pratis cantando rumpitur anguis.

‘Songs can even draw the moon down from heaven; by songs Circe transformed the comrades of Ulysses; with song the cold snake in the meadows is burst asunder.’

Wordsworth demonstrates again and again throughout the book his thorough knowledge of ancient literature, but more astonishingly, an understanding of the graffiti and the culture of writing on display on the walls of Pompeii that is not always found in later (dare I say, even recent) works on the Pompeian epigraphy. This is clear in his recording of the following text, one of many found in the Basilica. Here, the writer combined the words of two poets, Ovid and Propertius, who wrote similar entreaties regarding gifts, matchmaking, and the difficulties of love.



Ovid Amores I.8.77-78 and Propertius Elegies IV.5.47-48

CIL IV 1893 (CLE 1785)
Surda sit oranti tua ianua laxa ferenti
audiat exclusi verba receptus amans

CIL IV 1894 (CLE 1785)
Ianitor addantis vigilet si pulsat inanis
surdus in obductam somniet usqu[e] seram 

‘Let your door be deaf to prayers but wide open to the bearer of gifts; let the lover who has been admitted hear the laments of the one excluded. The door-keeper must be awake for bearers of gifts, but when empty hands knock, let him be deaf and sleep against the bolt.’

There are a number of things that I find remarkable about this book, and not just because I love a beautiful, old, leather-bound tome. One is the faithful rendering of ancient handwriting throughout the text, as seen in the photos above. Wordsworth does this for every grafitto he presents, both in Latin and in Greek, which presumably would not have been possible if he had not made a faithful rendering of each one at the time he visited Pompeii five years before writing. Considering many of the early visitors to the excavations were more interested in collecting images of themselves in a romantically ruinous vista, or, for those bent on more scholarly pursuits, reproducing the ancient artworks, this attention to the non-lapidary texts is an unusual occurrence. As a feature of epigraphic publishing, illustrations of the handwriting do not appear again for nearly forty years until the first volume of CIL IV, and even then, is not applied systematically until sometime late in the 20th century. Wordsworth also shows an astuteness in his observations on language and the literary nature of the texts. Not only does he recognise the origin of those he records, but he seemingly has no difficulty in discerning the accurate quotations from those that are adapted or conflated in some way. He remarks once or twice on the poor spelling of the texts (which he attributes to slaves), but does not assume this is due to illiteracy, but rather refers to it as the ‘false Latinity of an Italian scribe.’ He also remarks on the very nature of literacy itself (which is a topic I have been meaning to address myself at some point), and makes a point with which I strongly agree, that ‘We hear much of the diffusion of literary tastes among all classes of people in our own age and country; and comparisons, injurious to other nations and times, are founded on this assumption. This is hardly fair. I should much question whether all the walls of all the country towns in England, would, if Milton were lost, help us to a single line of the Paradise Lost.’

Wordsworth’s attention to the graffiti shows, in many ways, that he was ahead of his time, not just in the recording of the texts, but in his appreciation for them, for the literary and literate proclivities of the Pompeians, and for recognising what an important artefact these scratched words were. For that, I would argue anyone working on ancient graffiti or Pompeii owes him a great deal of admiration and gratitude.

Cicero Recommends

One of the pivotal studies in developing network theory is Mark Granovetter’s 1973 essay ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, which posits the hypothesis that weak ties are more beneficial to an individual seeking employment than strong ties. This is in part because ‘those to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to move in circles different from our own and thus will have access to information different from that which we receive.’ The weak tie acts as a bridge, connecting two individuals previously unknown to each other through a mutual friend or acquaintance. Using Granovetter’s example, if you select any two people at random, call them A and B, from a set of all the people who have ties to either or both of them, the stronger the tie between A and B, the larger the proportion of people in the set who will have ties to both of them. If the tie between A and B is weak, then they are less likely to have a significant amount of mutual links. If you add a third person to this example, C, who has a tie to A but not to B, the common ties between A and B and A and C will eventually bring B and C into contact, and a relationship will be generated. A acts as the bridge, and thus a weak tie is established between B and C.

In reading a series of letter’s written by Cicero for another purpose, it suddenly occurred to me that this concept might be applicable to the ancient world. Of the roughly thousand or so letters (plus fragments) written by Cicero that survive antiquity, about ten percent (of what I have surveyed thus far – I’m only about half way through the entire corpus of evidence) are litterae commendaticiae. These letters are written on behalf of a number of individuals (and on a few occasions, a municipium or other group), and sent to one of Cicero’s acquaintances in order to pave the way for the recommendee’s interests to be advanced. In essence, Cicero is recommending these men for a job, and is thus acting as the bridge, creating a weak tie between someone who requires assistance, and someone else who is in the position to grant such favour.

The letters are scattered throughout his collections, but Book 13 (in the pre-Shackleton Bailey edition) contains 79 letters, 78 of which are ‘commendatory’ letters regarding individuals or communities, and as such is the largest concentration of this form found in the literature of antiquity. (By contrast, similar letters found in the works of Pliny the Younger and Fronto are distributed fairly evenly throughout their books). The fact that so many letters are concentrated in one book has led some scholars to view Book 13 as a collection that was compiled and published by Cicero in his lifetime, thus illustrating that Cicero regarded these letters as a definite ‘type’. Whilst this idea cannot be proved, the fact that the letters contain certain features suggest there was a schema or formula to the letters, that this form of writing was an entrenched practice, using set phrases and conventional attitudes. As nearly half of the recommendations found in Book 13 can be dated to 46 BC, this lends further weight to the idea that this book was specifically compiled. It seems as if 46 was a particularly good year for Cicero – he had found favour with Caesar upon his return to Italy, was happily into his second marriage, and hadn’t yet been devastated by the death of his daughter Tullia. Because of his past legal and political career, he was seen as having great influence despite a current lack of power, and was probably one of the most widely known figures in the Roman world besides Caesar. Publishing his litterae commendaticiae from this time would thus serve to heighten appreciation of the influence he was still able to wield through social contacts and networks.

Letter writing in the Roman world was an essential part of political and social life, and that aspect goes some way to explain the nature of the letters of recommendation. Letters were meant to sustain or advance friendship and in the case of recommendations, were ineffective if there was no friendship between the author and addressee. Unlike more modern letters of recommendation, the emphasis in the letters of antiquity is not on the candidate himself, apart from identification, but the letter gets its force from the relationship between the recommender and the recipient. The letter was meant to invoke the obligations and responsibilities to each other which were born on an appeal to qualities of humanitas, liberalitas, voluntas, integritas, mansuetudo, clementia, stadium, and officium. Cicero not only makes note of his respect for the protocols of this obligation but also requests the benefactor to be aware of his deed, which illustrates Cicero’s desire to be seen as influential. These letters were more of a testimonial, recommending someone’s character, trustworthiness, honour, and staking the writer’s own reputation and integrity, as he provided surety for the recommended simply by writing the letter.

In a compelling essay, which at its essence is about social networks though the term is never utilised, Roger Rees refers to this as ‘The Amicitia Triangle,’ a moniker which evokes the earlier example of the links between individuals A, B and C that bridged a tie between the two figures unknown to each other. He argues, I think correctly, that a ‘more persuasive argument than the bald assertion of the relationship between the author and the subject, or between the author and the recipient, was the integration of all three parties.’  This ‘social triangulation’ makes fulfilling the request for assistance that much more attractive to the addressee, because rejecting it would not only refute Cicero’s amicitia but also deny the possibility of a new relationship. The assertion that the subject, by definition a friend of the author (whether or not this is in fact true), will prove to be deserving of the friendship of the recipient, creates a contract of reciprocal obligations, which forms the basis of social system found in the Roman world. In his 1929 Loeb translation of the letters, Williams suggests that the recommendations Cicero wrote show ‘impressive evidence of Cicero’s large-hearted bonhomie, and his unfailing readiness to do a friend, or even an acquaintance, a good turn; in short, of that humanitas which was one of his dominant characteristics.’ I’d argue this gives Cicero considerably more credit than is his due, as the letters are more often about the author than the beneficiary, and the sheer number of letters of this type that survive antiquity, by others in addition to Cicero, demonstrates that this was a standard, if not expected practice, and was an integral part of the patronage system and necessary to ensuring one’s rise up the political ladder. This is particularly clear in a substantial series of letters Cicero writes to a young protégé, Gaius Trebatius Testa.

Ad Fam. 27 (VII. 6)
‘Every letter I write to Caesar or to Balbus carries as a kind of statutory bonus a recommendation of yourself, and not the standard sort but phrased with some special indication of my regard for you.’

Ad Fam. 33 (VII.10)
‘How pressingly I have written to Caesar on your behalf, you know; how often, I know.’

Ad Fam. 29 (VII.8)
‘Caesar has written to me very civilly, regretting that he has so far been to busy to get to know you very well, but assuring me that this will come. I told him in my reply how greatly he would oblige me by conferring upon you all he could in the way of good will, friendly offices, and liberality.’

Fortunately, we also have one letter Cicero wrote to Caesar, so we know that the claim of his efforts on Trebatius’ behalf was true. In this letter, Cicero breaks from form, referencing positions to which Trebatius no doubt aspires, but he does so in a joking manner. I suspect the tone is meant to prevent Caesar taking any offense that Cicero should presume to tell him what to do.

Ad Fam. 26 (VII.5)
‘So observe my presumption: I now want Trebatius to look to you for everything he would have hoped for from me, and I have assured him of your friendly disposition in terms really no less ample than I had previously been wont to use respecting my own… In embracing his acquaintance with all your usual graciousness, my dear Caesar, I should wish you to confer upon his single person all the kindnesses which I could induce you to wish to confer upon my friends…. I do not ask on his behalf for a Tribunate of Prefecture or any other specific favour. It is your good will and generosity I bespeak; though if in addition you have a mind to decorate him with such ambitious trinkets, I say nothing to deter you. In fine, I put him altogether, as the phrase goes, out of my hand into yours – the hand of a great conqueror and a great gentleman, if I may become a trifle fulsome, though that’s hardly permissible with you. But you will let it pass, I see you will.’

There is further analysis to conduct with those letters I have catalogued so far, particularly in regards to the identity and connections between Cicero, the recommended individual, and the addressee of the letters. Deniaux’s prosopography of the letters should be particularly useful for this. From there, my intention is to go forward with the remainder of Cicero’s letters. I am most curious to see if he included recommendations in the correspondence he wrote to those we can undoubtedly view as Ciceros’s strongest ties – Atticus, Quintus, and to some extent, Brutus. Though the evidence certainly will never provide a completed network for any of the authors, the ability to build even a partial network for them should shed some light on how networks of patronage and advancement worked in the Roman world.

Research Seminar: Cicero and Networks


Next week, on the 8th of October, I will be returning to my alma mater, the Department of Classics at the University of Reading, to kick off their Autumn Term seminar series. I am leaving Pompeii behind for the moment, and instead focusing on networks that are evident in the epistolary works of antiquity, specifically Cicero’s letters. He often wrote letters of recommendation for those seeking a position, and these letters can be used, in conjunction with Mark Granovetter’s landmark essay ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, to examine the types of networks in play in ancient Italian politics and how strongly connected these networks were.

Anyone interested in attending can find more information here. Otherwise, look for some version of my paper to be posted on this blog in a few weeks.