How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

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Did the Ancient Romans Have Designated Vomit Rooms?

There is a common misconception that the Ancient Romans created rooms called vomitoria for the sole purpose of vomiting food, which they would do regularly as part of a decadent binge and purge cycle.

In actuality, such a gluttonous practice was never common in Rome, and although vomitoria did exist, they were not used for actual vomiting. Rather, the vomitorium was an entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium.

Behold the decadent vomitorium.

The world vomitorium comes from the Latin verb vomitum, which means “to spew forth” — thus a vomitorium was designed to rapidly spew forth a large number of people. Given the loose application of the word, and the widespread stereotype of Rome as a center of moral decay and debauchery, it’s an understand misconception

Random History Fact: Welfare

One of the first comprehensive welfare programs in history was introduced by Muslim Caliph Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s senior companion and father-in-law) of the Rashidun Caliphate (632 to 634), who established an annual guaranteed income to each man, woman, and child. Special taxes were also used to provide assistance to the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, and those with disabilities. The government further decreed that food must be stored up and supplied for all citizens in the event of an emergency. 

Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD), the founder of the Roman Empire, established the “congiaria” for citizens who could not afford to buy food, while Emperor Trajan (98 to 117) further enlarged the program. 

The Song Dynasty of China (960 to 1279) supported an extensive and sophisticated social welfare program that included the establishment of retirement homes, public clinics, and cemeteries for the poor.

If you think we’re morally depraved more than ever…

…then read some of this graffiti excavated from the ruins of Pompeii:

  • Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
  • Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
  • I screwed the barmaid.
  • Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
  • I screwed a lot of girls here.
  • Sollemnes, you screw well!

You can read more amusing examples here. Needless to say, even a history buff like me finds it difficult to remember that, in many ways, we humans haven’t changed all that much. Our ancestors thought and behaved very much like we do.

We forget how the average person went about their everyday lives in the ancient world. We focus on the great characters and events of history – on the epic stories, on the glory and might of civilizations, etc – but neglect the humble, mundane, and very familiar qualities of the typical commoner.

There’s a lesson to be learned even from this crass and humorous display. I think it’s captured very well by Cord Jefferson of the The Nation:

Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.

It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality.The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.

While it may be sad to think that we haven’t changed much as a species, I think in many ways it’s a good thing. We’ve come a long way, and while we still struggle to meet a higher standard of social justice and morality, we can put our present failings in perspective: we’re nowhere near as bad as we’ve always been. Progress may be a slow and often stagnating path, but we’re certainly not in any serious decline.