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Ancient Roman Textbooks Give Tips About Dealing With Drunken Relatives

By John Lavitt 02/16/16

Professor Eleanor Dickey's forthcoming book shines a light on ancient Rome's upper-class queries.

How To Deal With Drunken Relatives Detailed In Ancient Roman Language Textbook
Photo via Shutterstock

If your family needs to know how to deal with a drunken relative stumbling in from an orgy, these newly translated ancient Roman textbooks are the perfect gift. Written during the Roman Empire and aimed at ancient Greek speakers, the actual textbooks can be dated to both the second and sixth centuries AD, though they were clearly written during the imperial age. Designed for language learners from Greece coming to the big city, they also provide pointers on shopping, bathing, and dining. 

Professor Eleanor Dickey traveled around Europe to translate the scraps of material that remain from ancient Latin school textbooks, or colloquia. The manuscripts were brought together and translated into English for the first time in Dickey’s forthcoming book Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks in the Ancient World.  

Imagine a phrasebook designed to give you the tools so that you could hang out with Julius Caesar, or, more likely, the people who knew the people who knew Julius Caesar. Still, the phrasebook certainly was designed for the upper classes since it describes how wrestling with your friends is followed by an anointing with oil, before you sweat in steam rooms and dive into heated pools. 

Perhaps the most fascinating translation is Dickey’s description of how you were supposed to scold a drunken relative when they come home after embarrassing the family. It includes the following lines:

1. You don’t want to vomit, do you?

2. Who acts like this, sir, as you do, drinking so much? 

3. If people saw you in such a condition, what would they say? 

4. Is this a fitting way for a master of a household, who is asked to give advice to others, to conduct himself? 

The scolder later adds the final straw - “infamiam maximam tibi cumulasti” - to the scolding that’s supposed to break the proverbial camel’s back, translated as “Great infamy have you accumulated for yourself.” 

Suitably chastened by such words, the recipient of the attack supposedly will respond like so: “I certainly am very much ashamed. I don’t know what to say, for so upset have I been that no explanation to anyone can I give.” Then again, if you are expecting such an apology and a mature acceptance of blame, maybe you should let him or her sober up a bit first.

Published by Cambridge University Press, in the book, Dickey provides context to these proceedings, “Roman dinner parties were not always decorous affairs; participants might drink more than was sensible and while under the influence might do things that they would later regret. The colloquia… include a scene in which a character is rebuked for his behavior while drunk… We don’t know if they would have role played the scenes with other students, but my hunch is that they did.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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