What I’m Reading: Stories of Daily Life From the Roman World

Stories of Daily Life From the Roman World: Extracts From the Ancient Colloquia, translated and with commentary by Eleanor Dickey, is not precisely what I was expecting, although it was close enough.

What I was expecting was stories from different sources of everyday life in Rome presented in something of a comprehensive manner. The problem was I didn’t understand the term colloquia in this context. It turns out the Colloquia are a collection of texts from antiquity that Romans, especially children, used to learn Greek. They’re essentially dual-reading texts, presenting common everyday situations (attending school, going to the baths, eating dinner) with one side written in Latin and the other in Greek. The Roman could read the Latin side that he understood and compare to the Greek side to learn the vocabulary used in different situations. It’s maybe a little different than a modern-day foreign language textbook, but the same idea.

The reason they’re valuable to scholars today is because they describe situations that don’t usually come up in ancient literature. How exactly did Romans behave in court, or go to bed, or conduct a transaction at the bank or the market? Because these things were so common and mundane, Plutarch or Cicero, say, never bothered to address them.

Two parts really stood out as interesting to me. The first is the chapter on going to the baths. Because public bathing is foreign to Americans today (but not to Scandinavians or Russians, with their saunas in winter), it was fun to find out about the different rooms for exercising or rinsing, or the way the way they would cover themselves in olive oil and then take the oil off with a scraping instrument called a strigil. Of course I’d heard about the Roman public baths before, but I didn’t realize that everybody in Rome bathed nearly every day–even slaves. The rich might have had their fancy bathhouses and the poor cheaper ones, but there was a place for everyone to keep clean.

The other part is slaves. Many scenes in the book describe vocabulary or phrases for ordering slaves to cook your meal, or help you dress, or carry your items while you shop. I suppose those who were rich enough to study a foreign language were also rich enough to own slaves, so slave-owning was perhaps not as widespread as the scenes in the book would lead one to believe. Nevertheless, for a significant portion of the population, dealing with slaves was an everyday matter.  (Parts of Xenophon’s Conversations of Socrates, which I read last year, also dealt with this topic.)

Dickey has supplemented her translations of the colloquia with her own explanations of the text to fill in the blanks, and has added some well-selected pictures to give us an idea. However, due to the fragmented nature of the colloquia, there are lots of aspects of Roman daily life I might have liked to read about but that didn’t come up–religion in daily life, for instance, or the interaction between parents and children. Still, there was a lot of good information here and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how ancient people really lived.

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