Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How Roman life wasn't necessarily that different from our own: a letter from Seneca

I've said before, but when you actually look at Greek and Roman writings you find that they're quite current, as compared with those of the Bible. I think that part of the disdain folks have for the classical world is that they think that what's covered in the Bible is what it was all like. In fact, it seems that the Biblical world was a sort of primitive backwater compared to the more cosmopolitan centers of life, and that Jerusalem was a kind of cow town compared to Rome. Yet religions based on the thoughts of backwoods sheep farmers continue to dominate our lives. In any case, take a look at this description of Baiae, a Roman holiday town, that Seneca puts out in Letter 56 to Lucillius, taken from the new Oxford World's Classics translation of the Letters. Seneca lived from 3 BC to 65 AD, so was writing at the same time as Christ. He was also a tutor of Nero in his later years:

"I'll be damned if silence is as necessary as it seems for a man withdrawn for study! Here a mixed hubbub surrounds me on all sides. I am living over a public bath. Just imagine all the varieties of cries that can fill the ears with loathing; when the tougher fellows are exercising and thrusting arms heavy with lead, when they are either straining or imitating those under strain, I hear their grunts, and whenever they let out the breath they have been holding, I hear their whistles and bitter panting: when I come upon some feeble fellow content with the common-or-garden massage, I hear the crack of hands slapping the shoulders, which changes pitch as it hits them flat or hollowed. But if the umpire of the ballgame joins in and begins to count the balls, that is the end. Now listen to the brawler and the thief caught in the act, and the man who likes the sound of his own voice in the bath. Then add those who leap into the pool with a great splash, as well as those whose voices, if nothing else, are loud and clear. Imagine the depilator suddenly emitting his thin, shrill cry, calculated to make him more conspicuous, constantly uttering and never silent except when he is plucking the underarms and forcing the other man to cry out instead. Now I hear the different cries of the cake-seller and the sausage-seller and pastrycook and all the hawkers from the snack-bars selling their wares with a special distinct intonation."

So you have that, then you have these pleas to Jehovah for mercy for some sort of imagined transgression, people wailing and moaning on their knees to atone for some guilt that their Father has seen and is supposedly punishing them for.

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