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Serendipity: Roman Street Scenes

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

I was surprised as I read Juvenal’s Third Satire how vivid the ancient Roman street became. When we think of the ancients, we don’t usually see them in any way as if they could be our contemporaries. Here the satirist says goodbye to a Rome which he feels is going to the dogs as a result of corruption:

So farewell Rome. I leave you
To sanitary engineers and municipal architects, men
Who by swearing black is white land all the juicy contracts
Just like that—a new temple, swamp-drainage, harbour-works,
River-clearance, undertaking, the lot—then pocket the cash
And fraudulently file their petition in bankruptcy.

What is worse, those wily Greek immigrants are taking over everywhere:

One small dose of venom
(Half Greek, half personal) dropped in that ready ear
And I’m out, shown the back-door, my years of obsequious
Service all gone for nothing. Where can a hanger-on
Be ditched with less fuss than in Rome?

During the ten hours after sunrise, carts were forbidden to drive through the streets of the city. During the night, however, it is a different matter: The streets are also crawling with lowlifes:

But for me, a lonely pedestrian, trudging home by moonlight
Or with hand cupped round the wick of one poor guttering candle,
He has no respect whatever. This is the way the wretched
Brawl comes about (if you can term it a brawl
When you do the fighting and I’m just cast as punchbag).
He blocks my way. “Stop,” he says. I have no option
But to obey—what else can one do when attacked
By a huge tough, twice one’s size and fighting mad as well?
“Where have you sprung from?” he shouts. “Ugh, what a stench
Of beans and sour wine! I know your sort, you’ve been round
With some cobbler-crony, scoffing a boiled sheep’s head
And a dish of spring leeks. What? Nothing to say for yourself?
Speak up, or I’ll kick your teeth in! Tell me, where’s your pitch?
What synagogue do you doss is?” It makes not a jot of difference
Whether you try to answer, or back away from him
Without saying a word, you get beaten up just the same—
And then your irate “victim” takes you to court on a charge
Of assault and battery. Such is the poor man’s “freedom”:
After being slugged to a pulp, he may beg, as a special
Favour, to be left with his last few remaining teeth.

Juvenal shows us it’s not all togas and decorum. His Rome reeks of boiled sheep heads and spring leeks.