From The Inns of Greece & Rome, and a history of Hospitality from the Dawn of Time to the Middle Ages, by W. C. Firebaugh, with an Introduction by Wallace Rice and Illustrations by Norman Lindsay, Chicago: Pascal Covici; 1928; pp. 142-156.
THE INNS OF GREECE AND ROME142
The cabaret dancer — Banquets of the Patricians — Voluptuous dances — Gallus describes the charms of a siren — Dice throwing and gambling — The murder of Clodius — The Appian Way — The first Christians.
A CABARET GIRL
Happy and fortunate in finding a little gem of antiquity less mutilated than the remains of Lucilius, we will attempt a translation or paraphrase of Virgil’s Copa: the most charming and the most authentic of all the fugitive poems attributed to him under the collective title Catalecta. A famous French savant has described this bit of realism as a beautifully cut cameo. The charm and grace of this figure have left their impression, and the deftness of the hand that chiseled her is unquestioned.
THE CABARET DANCER
“Copa Syrisca, caput Graeca redimita mitella,”
A Grecian head-band binding her hair,
The wine-flushed Syrian siren sways
To the titillating clack of her castanets,
In the spell of the dance that Passion begets
Of smouldering Desire that seethes to flare
In the smoke of her tavern: sinuously fair
She sings her appealing lay:
“Ah, why wilt thou broil in the dust and heat,
When wine awaits in a cool retreat,
And a couch of grass, or a garden nook
Trellised with roses? A shepherd’s flute
Murmurously twitters, a brawling brook
Writhes on its way to the strum of a lute:
Pitch-covered puncheons of beaded wine,
Chaplets of crocus and violets blended,
Garlands of buttercups studded with roses,
Wicker-work baskets of fresh lilies, tended
By water-sprites: yon osier hamper discloses
143 Cheeses and chestnuts and plums . . . all are thine:
Apples that blush with the vigor of Fall,
Mulberries blood-red, grapes in great clusters,
Bice-colored melons that hang from their stems,
Ceres her daintiest gifts for thee musters,
Handmaids of Venus to fly at thy call,
Bromius waits, and all kill-joys condemns.
Priapus guards with his sickle this spot,
Heavy his attribute, but maids fear him not.
Enter, Sir Falstaff,1 spare thy jaded ass,
Vesta’s delight . . . nay, nay, thou shalt not pass;
The thickets resound with the katydid’s song,
The lizard has lurked in her cool retreat long,
Come! Lie on a couch and recline at thy ease,
Slake thy thirst with new wine, in surroundings that please;
Come! Weary One, rest in the shade of the vine
And thy heavy head quickly with roses we’ll twine;
Aye, kiss while ye may yon tender young mouth,
While the tide of thy life sets strong from the South;
Away with those grim puritanical ways,
Mere dregs of those ruder and earlier days;
Wilt save these fragrant wreaths to mourn thy dust?
Or crown thy tombstone? Nay, that were not just!”
“Bring wine and dice! Tomorrow’s cares for them that are so dumb,
Death tweaks mine ear and whispers low, Live while ye may, I come.”
Not a detail is lacking in this picture, nor is there the slightest forcing to render it cheerful and true to life. We can see ourselves in a dining-room, a shady arbor of creeper-roses festooned with leafy vines; from such a sanctuary, simple in its elegance and taste, we can look out into the glaring sunlight and see the heat waves tremulous in the air while we quaff our cool wine or acidulous beverage in the fragrant shadows of the arbor, and lazily watch the dancing and listen to the 144 music: the midwatch lookout on a sailing vessel in the tropics offers no finer opportunity for philosophical introspection than we have here, where everything attracts rest and repose. Rare indeed is the intellect that has the power of divorcing itself from its immediate surroundings, or the memory of those which have oppressed it, and thinking deeply and constructively, following the course of a thought from its birth to the effectuation of the plans it has germinated. Propertius has written delightfully of “tables set under an arbor of vines,” and in another pointed passage he makes allusion to the suspicions with which the mind of his mistress was charged: if the text be in order. Propertius was a frequenter of taverns:
“Learn what this night struck panic through the watery Esquiline; when all the neighbors ran headlong through the New Fields, when a noisy brawl broke out in a secret tavern, and brought shame on my fair name, though I was not there.” (Eleg. Lib. IV, 2 and 3.)
Cups of every size, amphorae, chalices, flutes, stringed instruments, all were tossed in a heap upon the violets and roses with which the floor and tables were strewn, but alas, the wine which spouted from these vessels was not generally of the finer vintages, it was probably vappa, a product which the discriminating Spaniard or Frenchman would contemptuously term “corked.” Such a product as this stood in need of all the fortification which pitch could give it.
The hostess of Virgil is the prototype of her to whom the Abbé de Bernis paid troubadour compliment many centuries later, nor were her wines more potent than her eyes:
The mistress of the cabaret,
A sweet enchantress sans her comb:
The god of Love designed this fay,
A lissome Hebe, in her home.
145 And Bacchus, seated on his cask,
Mistakes her for a water-sprite;
Were water all her world could ask,
’Twere still the same: her eyes are bright.
Here will never be found the luxury and the succulence that characterized the banquets of the patricians, the infinite number of dishes and delicacies, and the rarity and age of the vintages. The charm that enchanted genius and enthralled the limpid soul of a Virgil is or a Theocritus, given naturally to a gentle melancholy induced, perhaps by frail health and an extraordinary insight into causes and effects, lay in the utter and poetic simplicity of nature. Here such a rare personality could dream, his brain could teem with harmonies and nocturnes too beautiful for expression; melodies unheard are sweetest, says Keats, who, perhaps of all moderns, had most in common with the Mantuan, whose sombre spirit, which imbued whatever it touched with exquisite delicacy, found at last in the shade and soft atmosphere of Parthenope a peace and a requiem such as Stevenson much have dreamed of when he wrote his greatest poem: “Under the wide and starry sky.”
Little remains to be said, except that the tables were always set, the latch-string was always out, and the larder was always full. It is almost as though one were present at the repast with which Philemon and Baucis regaled Zeus and Hermes, or in the rustic cottage of Hecale when Theseus partook of her hospitality; flowers, dairy products, fruits: here we have the soul of all that is hospitable: the gifts of Flora and of Ceres:
The linen, decked with flowers, with dainties piled high,
A little milk, fruit, garden stuff, that Ceres don’t deny.
Whether it be Ovid, or Rutilius, it is still a commentary upon Virgil or Theocritus!146
As with Baucis, so with the Syrian hostess, the little cheeses, so fresh that they smear the wicker work osiers in which they are to dry, the plums, the late fruits of autumn, the chestnuts, the sweetly blushing apples, the melon with its coloring of the tropic seas, where soundings are not too great, and when clouds and sun are right, the blood red mulberries, the choice grapes on their vine cuttings; it is a repast true in every way to the standards of the Georgics, to those of the elder Cato, or to those of Columella; and the writer remembers well many such repasts served in the patios of Spanish hachendado’s, houses in happier climes under a canopy of cadena de amor, and to the music of harps! Mantua, your son has done you greater service than even Shakespeare! The only factor that jars is that he also wrote the Moretum, which could not have been served in such surroundings as these.
As we have invoked the genius of things as they ought to be, let us also strengthen the illusion by imagining, in the distance, that we can hear the twittering of the rustic pipes, in the hands of a master worthy to compete with Marsyas, swelling from the dim and cool aloofness of a Menaelian grotto, and mingling its dulcet complainings with those of the clear, cold, twisted stream as it foams and chatters through its rocky bed, leaping in cascades that caress the verdure with their vapor, and that enchant the ear with the witchery of nature; pebbles roll along and the water foams deliciously around them, the very source of the water of life and certainly one of the finest opportunities to enjoy its most ethereal moments, “Whose limpid sweetness seems to speak of love,” as only a Frenchman could have said.
Now the guests are coming, they laugh in merriment as they cross the threshold of the little Roman roadhouse; some of the gayer address some pointed pleasantry to 147 the worm-eaten wood god, serving the cabaret as guardian genius and sign: formidable still because of the huge attribute with which he is endowed and which was often used to club trespassers and thieves, or otherwise to coerce them. Truly a most picturesque mirror in which to see ourselves and the place into which we have come!
Then, too, our hostess has greeted an arrival in a manner which outdoes the finesse of the Widow Wadman: “Welcome, Calybita (Falstaff),” the guest has much of the rogue about him, but alas, nothing of that hardihood which appeals most subtly to women: “It is easier,” says Quartilla, “it is easier nowadays to meet a god than it is to meet a real man!” Falstaff, you are older than once could have imagined, but no, I seem to recall the melancholy destiny of Abishag, a doubtful comfort in so dark an age!
Yes, that fat rascal who has just arrived, and is even now dismounting from his puffing mule, is one of the priests of Cybele, one of that curious fraternity immune to half the ills that human flesh is heir to, a peripatetic evangelist who trains the fat of laziness with drunken sprees in every tavern in country or village. The worn-out mule is tied to a tree near the gate of Rome, along with the relics sacred to the ritual, relics which sometimes include a simulacrum of the goddess. Apuleius has described such a pilgrimage and the palmers who took part in it, their slow progress through the country districts, punctuated by the clash of cymbals and the clucking of castanets, the lying prophecies that distilled alms without in the least instructing the superstition of the inhabitants. They danced their way into a scanty and doubtful competence, but their real goals were the drinks and larder of the tavern where their style would be less cramped. Here such a bonze could dance himself into the stupor of exhaustion, recuperate himself, 148 and, if necessary, hypothecate his tambourine or cymbals to pay his score and obtain the means of returning to the city.
We shall follow the fat satyr into the interior of the establishment. The odors of the kitchen will appeal more to his senses than the fragrance of the garden, and the smoky atmosphere of the little inn will furnish a setting more in keeping with the proprieties to which he is accustomed than the clear and clean air of the country. He has come to this place to get away from himself; he would never admit this, he is probably unconscious that it is true; he wants to dance, to drink, to sing, and perhaps it is not too much to say that he even has a flair to experiment at close range with the few active sensual possibilities which still remain to him after an outraged nature has exacted her inexorable dues. Through half closed eyes he watches the lithe and harmonious play of the muscles of the ambunia, in her bacchantic posturings. She is a past mistress in the art of the cordax, and at last, as a tremulous shiver, an erotic tic, runs through the length of that slim lithe figure, as the yellowish eyes open slowly, voluptuously, the lambent flame in their depths scorches the onlookers, as the nostrils twitch, and a crooning sigh comes throbbing from a bosom charged with all the passions of all the ages, as this descendant of Semiramis, this cousin of Artemisia and Rhodope, this Roxena with vigor and skill enough to exhaust a dozen Alexanders, this human leopardess as impersonal as a sphinx stands mute before her audience, her little hands grasping convulsively the firm little breasts whose nipples protrude through the apple green silk netting which confines them — ah, the charm, the subtle appeal that lies in their artificially colored tips, so deeply ruby if under twenty, so golden after twenty, her head thrown back until every cord 149 and muscle of her symmetrical neck stand out, and give a tonus to her entire being; verily, in the words of Fielding, the favored among her audience must have had very much or very little of the hero about them if her appeal proves unavailing! Now she has rested, and wearily, automatically she dances the dance of the Maenad; a little wine, a little ripple of applause, her color heightens, her eyes grow brighter; her movements become more and more spirited, the thyrsus has been tossed aside, and the cluck cluck of the crotals in her hands stimulates her audience as though they were being flagellated with a sprig of nettles; more and more abandoned becomes the dance; through a dark opening which leads to the garden advances a troupe of Pans and Satyrs under the leadership of Dionysus himself: as they intone the hymn to Bacchus: “Evoe, evoe,” chants the infatuated roué, and as the tones wax higher and higher they roll their heads, and as they wane their heads droop: faster and faster becomes the movement, the eyes of the dancer sparkle with a brightness unhealthy and destroying, the postures fade one into another like the everchanging patterns in the brilliant skin of some viper that writhes as it charms its victims: the tones ascend in a shrill crescendo, a rocket of passion that expires in a thousand brilliant sparks, and silence, exhaustion, and satiety! As the dancer falls, she is caught by an attendant and carried from the scene. Soon another will take her place: bring stronger wine, on with the dance, let joy be unconfined. Thus do the emotions of the audience run the entire gamut of titillation, and soon, too soon, will vigor be replaced by a softer and more treacherous substitute, and the nation, suddenly confronted with an enemy that knows only the ritual imposed upon those who are the lawful spoils of war, will find its manhood impotent and cowardly, and its daughters the willing prey of those 150 more worthy to work their will upon them. Thus did Genseric glut his barbarian hordes, and thus did they in their turn pay the ransom to an enemy more cunning and virile than they. Thus and thus only has civilization paid the wages of justice; the fittest survive, but the term needs a proper definition. In the occident, three dances such as we have described have come down through the ages: they are the French chahut, the Neapolitan tarantella (in its most abandoned form), and the baji of the gypsies of Iberia and Balkan Europe.
Many of the poets of antiquity were smitten with the charms of these sirens, but one citation from Gallus, whose tragic fate has colored poetic legend, shall suffice:
“There was a young woman name Blanche; fair as a lily was she, and her black hair was curled with an artistic witchery. I saw her one day, and she had a number of musically chiming little bells attached to her garment, at her every movement they tinkled and the tinklings multiplied themselves. When she snapped her white fingers, or strummed upon a lute, she imbued the chords with a sweet and haunting harmony foreign to the instrument. She danced, and I was lost; I loved, but in loving, I despaired. I suffered agonies from a secret wound, but the agonies were sweet as the hope of life itself. I have carried with me the memories of the day I first saw her, every detail is perfect in my mind, and the thought of her has filled my heart unceasingly, I dream of her, day dreams too enchanting for expression, and at night . . . ah, at night . . . I feel the fancied touch of lips softer than the wing of sleep. I invent imaginary conversations, intimate little confidences with her, and yet in this dialogue, there is but one: questionings, doubts, fears; all that might have been, and I hum to myself the soft airs she was wont to sing.
The dance is ended, and the Syrian follows it with 151 other diversions to amuse the wearied sense of an audience no less insatiable than she.
“Bring wine and dice,” cries one, and now pure wine is served, “bring on the dice,” is cried; “Death tweaks the ear and whispers low, live while ye may, I come!”
The dice are brought, they are contained in an ivory box, and in the hands of the revellers, hands no longer quite steady, they begin to roll and bound over the stone table top. The game, once begun, may continue without interruption for many hours, probably for two or three days and nights with varying fortunes and chances in the game of senio (game of six), and of canicula or canis, (game of the dog’s ace), one of those games of chance in which the stakes were often enormous, and in which the Romans took such keen delight. The dullard Claudius was by nature a gambler, as both Suetonius and Seneca relate, and that the dice might not be disturbed by the movements of his litter, he had constructed a gaming table (alveum) so arranged that the dice combinations were not disturbed by the gait of the bearers.
On this account Seneca, in his Apokolokintosis, can invent no keener punishment with which to plague the dead emperor than that of condemning him to an eternal game of dice with a dice box full of holes.
We need not occupy ourselves with the gambling propensities of emperors, however, nor with the weaknesses of the senators nor prostitutes: Seneca has dealt with them in a manner better than we could hope to rival:
All ye, who owe your wealth’s advance
To games of skill and gambling chance,
Though weighted down with treasure;
Yea, iron-nerved gambler, risking all,
Take heed, lest Death and Fire recall
Your gold, at grim Fate’s pleasure.
The scene depicted above is meant to represent a gambling party in one of the common inns: the players are probably knaves to a man; they have taken to gambling after having had a drinking bout, and will do the best that in them lies to cheat their way to victory, and the matter will presently end in a free for all fight. Plautus in the Curcullio has left us a graphic scene of this description. His hero was tempted to throw dice with a soldier, but he had not the slightest intention of losing; he relates his prowess and dexterity to Phedromos, another rapscallion of his own complexion:
“When we had eaten well and drunk our fill, he proposed a game of dice to me. I put up my mantle as a pledge, he places his ring in escrow, then he invoked Planesius . . . He brought in four blood-suckers. I took the dice for my turn and I invoked my wetnurse Hercules. ‘The Royal Throw,’ I whisper to the dice, I present the soldier with a large throw, and his head falls heavily on the instant he sees it, and he falls asleep. I, I slip his ring off his finger and, for fear he may awaken, I slip under the bed, very quietly.”
In 1866 archaeologists at work in the ruins of Pompeii uncovered a wineshop of the sort of which we have just spoken. The contemporary life is illustrated to admiration on the plaster in one of the front rooms: there are four scenes in all.
In the first scene, on the left, a young man is furiously kissing a slavey dressed in garish and hideous yellow garments. She is fighting him off and the legend belonging to the scene reads: “NOLO CVM MVRTAL” (I don’t want you to play with Myrtalis). In the second panel we see the same slavey in conversation with Myrtalis. Both are pointing their fingers at a third woman who staggers in under the weight of an immense wine jar; she also carries a glass. The legend says: 153 “QVI VVLT SVMAT OCEANE VENI BIBE,” (Let him who wants take, I am here, Oceanus, drink). In the third panel are seen two gamblers. They are seated on opposite sides of a board which rests upon their knees. There are several latrunculi (counters) in rows upon the board: these counters are of different colors, some yellow, some black, and some are white. One of the gamesters has just thrown the dice: “EXSI,” (I have won), he cries. The other points to the dice and says “NON TRIA DV AS EST,” (Not three, it is two). In the fourth and last scene the battle is in full swing: “I did not throw two but three, I won,” and the other answers: “You s . . . o . . . b . . . I won.” The landlord has entered and is shoving both brawlers out into the street: “ITIS FORAS RIXATIS” (Outside to fight) is his valedictory.
Gambling was frowned upon by the authorities, except during the brief season of the Saturnalia, which corresponded more or less roughly with our Christmas holidays, except that the period was longer.
“Betrayed by the rattling of his dice-box,” says Martial, “and dragged from the inn, the fuddled gambler begs mercy of the aedile.” Great license was permitted slaves during this period of the Saturnalia; and unpalatable truths were told to masters under the immunity conferred by the season, infants were allowed the game of nuts, the game that ordinarily symbolized the temporary emancipation of the Roman patrician from some of those six unnatural things and his espousal of a relative degree of normalcy in his relations with society.
When the aedile sent his lictors to pay a call upon some tavern-keeper, it followed naturally that the master of the place was the first arrested, as he was by his very calling on the wrong side of the law; then there was the eternal suspicion of loaded dice. Martial speaks of one 154 individual whose addiction to such lucrative pastimes was chronic: “Gambling with one or more loaded dice.”
The society of the time was faced with the necessity of choosing between two evils: the villainy of the innkeepers was traditional, but the inconvenience which would have resulted from the abolition of such establishments would have resulted in a still greater injury to society and commerce.
When Tarquinius Superbus decided that the knowledge and influence of Turnus Herodinus of Africa might be fatal to his own interests, he bided his time with such patience as he could muster; waited until after the latter had denounced his imperialism and lack of faith to the allies, and then accused his intended victim of plotting his death. Witnesses were suborned and weapons secretly conveyed into the inn where Turnus lodged. By the treachery of slaves and circumstantial evidence his guilt was established and the Latin Assembly condemned him to death by drowning: he was confined in a basket weighted with stones and thrown into the Aqua Ferentia. (Livy, I, 50-1). It goes without saying that the innkeeper must have been one of the principals in this business, otherwise it would have been very difficult for his establishment to have been so well prepared as to entrap a man so honest and fearless as Turnus.
The murder of Clodius by the followers of Milo took place in an inn at Bovillae, but in this case the innkeeper was also a victim without having been in the least involved in the affair. The wounded Clodius took refuge in this inn and the retainers of Milo attempted to force the doors. The place was well defended, however, but the besiegers finally forced their way in and murdered the innkeeper, who died toe to toe with them, fighting to the last. Clodius was dragged into the open, hacked into pieces, and left on the road. These details are mentioned 155 by the scholiast on Asconius, but Cicero passes over them in silence; they are, in effect, a terrible indictment of Milo, who, if he had no actual part in the butchery, nevertheless gave the orders to force the barricades of the inn, that he might have Clodius at his mercy. His enemy was already seriously wounded and the result desired had been attained: it therefore looks as though the entire plan was the result of cold blooded malevolence, and Milo must have thought the campaign out and left the details in the hands of his officers. Nor does Cicero make mention of the fate of the innkeeper who died more gloriously than the majority of the members of his calling: he goes even further, for when Milo was placed in jeopardy by the evidence of Licinius, the tavern-keeper of the Circus Maximus, who had overheard the slaves of Milo plotting the death of Pompeius, the orator takes his revenge and makes light of the importance which might attach to evidence from a source so polluted, and ends by wondering how anyone can place the least credence in the word of a restaurant keeper (popae credi mirabar).
On this great road built by Appius Claudius, the same down which we have already chaperoned Lucilius and Horace from inn to inn and tavern to tavern, we come at length, twenty-three miles from Rome itself, midway between that city and Capua, to a village in which three taverns were for many years the chief attraction, and probably the first buildings on the site. This hamlet bears today the name Tre Taberne, in classical times it was known as Tres Tabernae (Three Taverns). Because of its happy situation, a short distance from Lanuvium, and at most, ten miles from Aricia, at the crossroads where one could take carriage for Antium, it was an ideal situation for a post house, and it was the last stop of importance before the traveller 156 reached the limits of the Eternal City itself. We need, therefore, manifest no surprise at learning that many an illustrious traveller stopped at Tres Tabernae, and that more than one plan of action which had a profound influence upon later history was outlined and developed in this little village named for the three taverns. Cicero made many stops here; rarely did he leave the Antium road to travel the Appian Way without first stopping to receive his letters or posting such as he had ready, and it is in this village, so little in keeping as to name with the meeting which follows, that we witness the first interview of the apostle Paul with the members of the new sect at Rome. After a vexatious journey, the apostle had arrived at Tres Tabernae, where he was greeted by the faithful of Rome, apprised, by rumor, of his arrival, and there he gave thanks to God for his care and protection as is related in the Acts of the Apostles. One must be struck with the singular destiny which gathered there, the first faithful of a sect whose God, born in the stable of an inn, reckoned Rahab the innkeeper or harlot among his ancestors, and whose first temple, as we shall see, was raised upon the same site as that of an inn at Rome, the violent objections of the tavern-keeper to the contrary notwithstanding. Could any illustration serve better to show the reasons that prompted the first Christians to subject themselves to that law of humility extending sometimes even to ignominy, and the observance of which was one of their first duties?
But this village, sanctified for cause, was later on to become the bloody theatre of signal crimes. The ruin of Maxentius and the fall of the pagan empire were to make this historic shrine a shambles, and its last days were to be as cruel as they were infamous.
1 Exception may be taken to an anachronism in rendering Calybita by the Shakespearean Falstaff, but those who are gifted with penetration may applaud. The others matter nothing to the translator.