eligo, eligere, elegi, electus

Given the undeniable unfairness baked into Roman society, it might be a surprise to some that the Romans embraced a democracy of sorts. Only a small fraction of people living under Roman control could actually vote, but male citizens during the period when Rome was a Republic did have the opportunity to cast their vote for various administrative positions in government. The Latin verb “to choose”, which forms the title of this blog post, is what produced the participle electus and gives us the modern word election.

In the 6th century BCE, with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, the city-state of Rome was re-founded as a Republic and by the 3rd Century BCE it had risen to become the dominant civilisation in the Mediterranean world. The ruling body known as the Senate was made up of the wealthiest and most powerful patricians, men of aristocratic descent. These men oversaw both the military campaigns that brought expansion and wealth to Rome and the political structures that managed its society. At the beginning of the Republic, only the Consuls were elected, but in later years Roman free-born male citizens could vote for officials in around 40 public offices which formed a complex hierarchical structure of power.  Yet this public performance of voting did not really offer the citizens any kind of real choice. If you’re feeling depressed about the choices offered to you in your polling booth today, take heart: things were considerably worse two thousand years ago (even if you were a man).

Candidates for office under the Roman Republic were originally selected by the Senate and were voted for by various different Assemblies of male citizens. These Assemblies were stratified by social class and the weighting was heavily skewed in favour of the aristocracy. In the early years of the Republic, candidates were banned from speaking or even appearing in public. The Senate argued that candidates should be voted for on the merit of their policies, rather than through rhetoric and personality; in truth it meant the general public had no real opportunity to hear candidates’ arguments or indeed to hold them to account. In the later Republic the ban on public oracy was lifted and the empty promises so familiar to us today abounded, alongside some good old-fashioned bribery which – while theoretically illegal – was widespread. As the practice of electoral campaigning developed things did begin to change, with the pool of candidates no longer tightly limited to a select group of aristocrats under Senatorial control. In the long-term, however, this led to even greater misery for the citizens. They lost what little democracy they had during the Roman revolution, when what should have been a righteous and deserved uprising against the ruling oligarchy ended up turning into something arguably worse. Rome’s first ruling emperor, Augustus Caesar, claimed that voting was corrupt and had been rigged by the Senate for years in order to perpetuate the power of a handful of aristocratic families. His neat solution was to abolish voting altogether. Be careful what you wish for?

Once the early ban on public oracy was lifted, a key component of public campaigning during the Republic was canvassing for votes in the Forum. A candidate would walk to this location surrounded by an entourage of supporters, many of whom were paid, in order to meet another pre-prepared gathering of allies in the central marketplace. Being seen surrounded by a gaggle of admirers was hugely important for a candidate’s public image and was worth paying for. Once in the Forum, the candidate would shake hands with eligible voters aided by his nomenclator, a slave whose job it was to memorise the names of all the voters, so that his candidate could greet them all in person. The man running for office stood out in the crowd by wearing a toga that was chalk-whitened called the toga candida: it is from this that we get the modern word candidate.

To further attract voters among the ordinary people, candidates gave away free tickets to the gladiatorial games. To pay for such a display a candidate either had to be extremely wealthy, or to secure the sponsorship of wealthy friends. Cases are documented of men ending up in ruinous debt as a result of their electoral campaigning. Several laws were passed attempting to limit candidates’ spending on banquets and games, which evidences the fact that that the Senate didn’t like electoral corruption except when they were in charge of it.

Democracy under the Roman Republic was very much controlled by the select few male members of the aristocracy who held seats in the Senate. They essentially held all of the power, having been born into wealthy patriarchal families. The majority of people who inhabited the Roman world were not allowed to vote, including women and slaves. It is striking and not to say infuriating how many modern sources on Roman voting talk about “citizens” and “people” without seeming to feel any need to clarify that they are talking about male citizens and male people only. We do have evidence that women in the wealthiest families put their money and their energy behind their preferred male candidates, most usually because they were members of the same family. Electioneering in the form of visible graffiti in Pompeii evidences women’s support of their husbands, fathers and brothers but this is all produced by women of considerable means; what the poorest women in society thought and felt about the men who controlled their lives is anybody’s guess.

Cicero denounces Catiline in the Senate by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) .
Palazzo Madama, Rome

On bugbears and juxtaposition

An old Head of Department from many years ago used to start his Year 7 German course in the same way every year. Every year he would ask students to name any famous Germans they could think of. Every year he hoped to hear names like Michael Schumacher or Boris Becker, or perhaps one of the countless famous German composers from over the centuries. Every year he was given Hitler. It never seemed to occur to this lovely man that perhaps there was a better way of starting off his first German lesson. Something made him do the same thing over and again and I think a bit of him somehow relished the inevitable disappointment. We all have our crosses to bear in our chosen subjects.

For anyone who teaches or touches upon Roman culture, for us it’s waiting for the inevitable moment when a child will inform us that the Romans used to eat so much at their dinner parties that they would go and make themselves sick so that they could eat more. I’ve even overheard the guides at Pompeii help to perpetuate this myth by mischievously telling tourists that any random passageway that they can’t account for is a “vomitorium”, where guests would relieve themselves to create space for more gluttony. They know that this is nonsense. The confusion seems to have come from the word vomitorium itself (which actually was used by the Romans to refer to any passageway leading crowds out of a public building) combined with satirical pieces such as Trimalchio’s Feast, sometimes called The Millionaire’s Dinner Party, which describes the imagined excesses of dinner parties held by the nouveaux riches. We also have the disapproving remarks of authors such as Seneca, who wrote of slaves cleaning up the vomit of drunks at banquets and criticised what he saw as the excesses of Rome. It’s a depressingly familiar picture for anyone who has worked in a hotel or similar establishment in modern Britain; wealthy Romans were no more or no less gluttonous than the comfortably-off in any society, especially those societies which have alcohol at the heart of their culture.

Eye-roll inducing as this was, my personal bugbear of misinformation I simply cannot wait to hear is different. I tell myself I have to go there to prevent students from getting it wrong in their exams, but in truth there’s a bit of me that cannot resist it for my own torture. When working on the literature, I always ask every GCSE candidate what they think the term juxtaposition means. Almost without exception, students will tell me that the word means “contrast”. On an exceptionally good day, they will tell me that it means “putting things next to each other in order to create a contrast”. In actual fact, it means “putting things next to each other” and this may be done in order to highlight a contrast.

While I hate to be a massive Latin bore, I’m afraid this is yet another case where a simple knowledge of the Latin roots of words can help. To juxtapose has its origins in the Latin words iuxta (which means “next to”) and iungo (“to join”, also notable in derivatives such as join, conjunction, conjugation, conjugal) alongside the Latin word positus (“place” or “position”). It quite literally means “a placing next to”: there is no mention of the notion of contrast in the original etymological meaning of the word. The frequency with which the technique is used to highlight a contrast means that it is arguably justifiable to include this in the definition, but the etymological roots of the word really must be prioritised. Fundamentally, juxtaposition is placing a word or phrase next to another word or phrase, often but not exclusively to highlight a contrast.

Unfortunately, students (and teachers) Googling the word will find an avalanche of quotations using the word to mean simply and exclusively “contrast”. Just this morning I spotted a horrendous meme quoting American guitarist Dean Ween of all people: “the juxtaposition of fishing and touring couldn’t be greater”. Sigh.

Another part of the problem with this misunderstanding is that English really isn’t very good at doing juxtaposition. Our language requires too many supplementary words to make sense, plus we cannot muck about with word order in the way that Latin can without a serious change in meaning. Word order is sense-critical in the English language: “man bites dog” means the opposite of “dog bites man”. Latin, being an inflected language (i.e. one where the endings of the words dictate their meaning and role) has the advantage in that an author can place words next to each other with ease – certainly to highlight a contrast or frankly to do whatever he wishes.

The good news is that once a student realised what juxtaposition means it becomes much easier to spot in Latin. Once a student understands that it simply means placing words next to each other, they can assume that an author as adept as Virgil has always done so for a reason – it does not have to be limited to the concept of highlighting a contrast. An author may juxtapose a string of sounds, for example, or indeed words with a similar rather than a contrasting meaning. It’s entirely up to him.

Photo taken in Athens by Alexandra on Unsplash

Julius Caesar and the longest Leap Year in history

When it came to taking charge of chaotic situations, Julius Caesar did not mess about. The stories surrounding his courage on the battlefield, his talent for strategic thinking and his downright tenacity are countless, but did you know that tackling the hopelessly disorganised Roman calendar and introducing the concept of the Leap Year was also among Caesar’s claims to fame?

Picture the scene. You’re a farmer in the 1st century BC and – according to the calendar, which circled around the ritual of state religion – you ought to be doling out ripe vegetables ready for the festivals of plenty. Yet to you and any of your slave-labourers, for whom the passage of the seasons are essential, it is clear that those harvests are months away from fruition. How did this end up happening? Well, the Roman calendar had become so out of sync with astronomical reality that annual festivals were starting to bear little resemblance to what was going on in the real world. Something had to be done.

Julius Caesar wanted to fix the mess but this was no mean feat: to shift the entire Roman empire and all its provinces onto a calendar that was properly aligned with both the rotation of Earth on its axis (one day) and its orbit of the Sun (a year). Caesar’s solution created not only the longest year in history, adding months to the calendar during that year, it also anchored the calendar to the seasons and brought us the leap year. It was a phenomenal task. We are in 46BC, otherwise known as “the year of confusion”.

Centuries prior to Caesar’s intervention, the early Roman calendar was drawn up according to the cycles of the Moon and the agricultural year. The origins of the calendar being focused on agriculture gave rise to the phenomenon of a calendar with only 10 months in it, starting in spring, with the tenth and final month of the year roughly equivalent to what we now know as December. Six of the months had 30 days, and four had 31 days, giving a total of 304 days. So what about the rest? Well, this is where it gets really weird. For the two “months” of the year when there was no work being done in the fields, those days were simply not counted. The Sun continued to rise and set but – according to the early Roman calendar, no “days” officially passed. As far back as 731BC people realised that this was a little unhinged, and King Numa, the second King of Rome tried to improve the situation by introducing two extra months to cover that dead winter period. He added 51 days to the calendar, creating what we now call January and February, and this extension brought the calendar year up to 355 days.

If you think that 355 days seems like an odd number, you’d be right. The number took its starting point from the lunar year (12 lunar months), which is 354 days long. However, due to Roman superstitions about even numbers being unlucky, an additional day was added to make a nice non-threatening 355. At the same time, and for the same reason, the months of the year were arranged in such a way that they all had odd numbers of days, except for February, which had 28. February, as a result, was considered to be unlucky and became a time during which the dead were honoured as well as a time of ritual purification.

This all looks like good progress, but it was a situation that still left the Romans around 11 days out from the Solar year and even with all the improvements made, it remained inevitable that the calendar would gradually become more and more out of sync with the seasons, which are controlled by the Earth’s position in relation to the sun. By the 2nd century BC things had got so bad that a near-total eclipse of the Sun was observed in Rome in what we would now consider to be mid-March, but it was recorded as having taken place on 11th July.

Increasingly unable to escape the problem, the College of Pontiffs in Rome resorted to inserting an additional month called Mercedonius on an ad-hoc basis to try to realign the calendar. This did not go well, since public officials tended to pop the month in whenever it suited them best politically, without sufficient focus on the goal of re-aligning the calendar with the seasons. According to Suetonius, if anything it made the situation worse: “the negligence of the Pontiffs had disordered the calendar for so long through their privilege of adding months or days at pleasure, that the harvest festivals did not come in summer nor those of the vintage in the autumn”.

During 46BC – Caesar’s year of confusion – there was already an extra Mercedonius month planned for that year. But Caesar’s Egyptian astronomical advisor Sosigenes, warned that Mercedonius wasn’t going to be enough this time and that things were getting drastic. On the astronomer’s advice, Caesar therefore added another two extra months to the year, one of 33 days and one of 34, to bring the calendar in line with the Sun. These additions created the longest year in history: 15 months, lasting 445 days. Caesar’s drastic intervention brought the calendar back in line with the seasons, meaning that the practice of the ad hoc extra month of Mercedonius could be abandoned.

Of course, getting the calendar to line up with the Sun is one thing; keeping it that way is quite another. As an astronomer, Sosigenes was well aware of the problem. The issue arises from the inconvenient fact that there aren’t a nice round number of days (i.e. Earth rotations) per year (i.e. Earth orbits of the Sun). The number of Earth rotations on each of its trips around the Sun is – I am reliably infomed – roughly 365.2421897. Hence the problem and hence the need for a leap year. The Earth fits in almost an extra quarter-turn every time it does a full orbit of the Sun. Sosigenes therefore calculated that adding an extra day every four years – in February – would help to fix the mismatch. It doesn’t completely solve the problem forever, but it was a jolly good stop-gap.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash