Examining the Story: culture and Culture, III

salvēte iterum, sodālēs. As promised, we’ll look at cultural elements of the recent story in this post, beginning with characters (and their relationships with each other), then moving on to food and geography. In the next post we’ll look at the characters again, but this time through a Cultural lens as we compare them with characters in literature, folktale, and fable; consider their social class more carefully; and see their conduct in the light of core Roman values.

One big cultural issue, of course, is related to gender – not just the genders of the characters in isolation (and how they individually conform, or don’t conform, to gender stereotypes), which we’ve already addressed to some degree, but the relationships between the genders. How authentic are the gender relationships in this story? Or, in other words, to what extent does this story “fit” with what we know – or think we know – about the relationships between men and women in the Roman world?

  • Flavius Caeso, for example, seems like a typical, domineering Roman man. Is it credible for him to be so easily silenced by his wife?
  • Ridiculus, in turn, seems to enjoy the paterfamiliās and chief-provider role in his household. Is it credible for him to be so easily ruled – and made rueful – by his wife?
  • Do you find young Valeria’s response to Flavius Caeso credible? Would a young Roman girl (she’s about 10 in this story, so “almost a woman” in Roman terms) really be so assertive in response to a senator? There are issues of age as well as gender here!
  • On a related note, do you find Flavius Caeso’s anger at Valeria believable in cultural terms? His dignitās has certainly taken a beating – or at least a large dose of pureed lentils 🙂 – today. But is it culturally authentic for a Roman to get so angry that he threatens a friend’s daughter this way? Especially when she just saved his life! After all, Flavius Caeso has no manus over Valeria! Or is something else going on with him … something mysterious, perhaps related to his mysterious and ambiguous relationship to the Imperial household (or perhaps to a lībertus Augustī)? We’ll find out more about Flavius Caeso in later stories, so I don’t want to give his secret away … actually, all I know right now is that he has a secret of some kind. 🙂

Another huge cultural issue in regard to these characters is social class, and the relationships among people from different classes in the Roman world. How well have we done here? I’m particularly interested in

  • Flavius Caeso’s treatment of Milphio when he drops the bread on the floor
  • Flavius Caeso’s lack of outrage when Milphio spills stuff on him
  • Flavius Caeso’s greater concern for the life of his mustēla than for the enormous mess she directly caused.
  • Falvius Caeso’s deference to his wife (partly a gender issue, of course, but partly not – might she be of higher status than he is? That would explain a lot … and it might be a big part of his secret!)
  • Valerius’ lack of response when Flavius Caeso threatens his daughter. Is that how a proper paterfamiliās behaves? Or is it that Flavius Caeso is so much more powerful that Valerius automatically (or perhaps deliberately) takes on the client role?

Still another cultural issue regarding characters is the treatments of slaves, especially Milphio by Valerius his dominus. At the end of the story, his fate is unclear to say the least! 🙂

  • In cultural terms, what should happen to Milphio after he caused such a mess?  Even Valerius, who seems to be a kind master, will probably beat him
    • for not noticing a weasel … and a mouse … running across the floor.
    • And for spilling lentil puree, pickled vegetables, wine, snail shells, etc., all over the guest of honor.
    • And, of course, for almost killing the guest of honor’s wife with a pointy snail-spoon!
  • How do Romans treat their slaves in such cases, anyway?
  • And is Valerius a kind master? We don’t really know! We’ve barely met the man! 🙂
  • Besides, how do Romans define “kind” or “good” in terms of master-slave relationships, anyway?

Finally, as we prepare to leave the subject of characters and culture, what about cultural attitudes towards pets and pests?

  • After this mouse-caused disaster, should Valerius get his own weasel to try to get rid of Ridiculus?
  • Or should he perhaps borrow Sabina from Flavius Caeso? (Well, maybe not Sabina – especially if she did succeed at biting Caeliola!)
    • But then, how would a Roman respond to a biting animal?
    • They’re closer to nature than we are, so they probably don’t mind as much as we would.
    • And how do they view children, anyway?
      • Are they “expendable” since they tend to die in childhood anyway?
      • Or do you mourn for them even so?)
    • Do mice and other pests bother Romans the way they would bother a modern American?
    • Or are they part of the expected fabric of life, like child mortality, early marriage, and death in childbirth – the expected fabric of life in Roman culture, but not in ours?
  • If mice are objectionable, should we expect Valerius have some words with Ferox the canis?
    • Should Ferox be allowing mice … or, for that matter, foreign weasels … in the house in any case?
    • And what breed of dog is Ferox, anyway?
    • And how do Roman dogs compare with modern breeds? My own Jasper, part Border collie, part Jack Russell terrier, would never allow a foreign weasel in the house … or even on the property! Or within a half-mile! And he’d have the same reaction to a mouse.
  • Besides, why don’t the Romans have pet cats? The Egyptians certainly did! And there are plenty of cats in Italy today. So why would you want a pet weasel?

Moving away from characters and culture, Another big cultural issue is that of food and food service:

  • Is the meal authentic? What other dishes, if any, should be included to make it even more so? (Obviously the snails and the lentils are required for purposes of the plot, but the pickled onions could be replaced with something else if necessary)
  • How about Flavius Caeso’s response when he drops the bread? Is it “normal” or “authentic” for a wealthy, powerful Roman like him to be so unconcerned? Or to laugh at his own clumsiness? Might he, at some subconscious level, be worried about his own dignitās when he dropped the bread on the floor?
  • Under such circumstances, would a Roman expect the servants to go get more bread from the kitchen? Or should there be more bread in place already? If there should be more bread – and there isn’t – does that mean that Milphio (or, for that matter, Gallicus the coquus) has already been negligent and already deserves to be punished? Or do Romans, without the benefits of microwaves and fast-food drive-through lanes, have more tolerance when things aren’t immediately available than “we” would?

And still another big cultural issue relates to geography:

  • Where exactly in Herculaneum do the Valerii live? In the excavated part, or in the part that’s forever buried under the modern town? Or in some fictional part?
  • How is their house laid out? Could Sabina easily get to the dining room from the angiportus and postīcum, or would she have to pass through a number of rooms in the process?
  • Does it really make a difference, in the end, where they live? Or do we just want to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story?
  • Are there angiportūs in Herculaneum, as there are in Pompeii and Rome? If not, what would we need to change to make Sabina’s trek possible?
  • Should we be specific, or should the characters live in a generalized, fictional part of Herculaneum?
  • What if they visit parts of town that we do know about?

quid respondētis, amīcissimī?

  • To what extent have I identified the cultural issues in this text?
  • Are there others that I’ve overlooked … even though I wrote them into the story?
  • Have I asked good questions?
  • What answers would you suggest?
  • How might we need to change the story as a result of your answers?

Tune in shortly for more about the Cultural issues in this story. And please keep those emails and comments coming.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As I read this entry, I noticed that nearly all of the questions are predicated on the event that a weasel and a mouse might be causing an uproar in the dining room. In light of this, the questions you ask (e.g. “Would a 10 year old girl respond to a senator in this way?”) to me seem pointless if the answer to the question “Is it realistic that the primary events of this story would happen?” is “no.” Having had pets nearly all my life I don’t think my dinner has every been interrupted by an such uproar. As a result, I believe the rest of the discussion is a non sequitur.

    Let me give a close parallel. In the first episodes of The Brady Bunch, the boys’ dog Tiger chases the girls’ cat Fluffy, thereby wrecking Mike and Carol’s wedding cake, turning over people in their chairs, etc. It’s a preposterous (albeit not impossible) scenario. But I would never follow up the episode with a discussion of whether or not Cindy’s behavior was consistent with American attitudes/culture, because the hypothesis on which it is base is not probable.

    Am I being unduly critical? I don’t mean to be. I’m just pretending to approach it like my students would if they were in my class (and, yes, they are my second worse critics).


    • Randy,
      I think I see where you’re coming from – and I know you address this issue further in your second post, where I’ll respond further. I actually rather like the comparison with the Brady Bunch episodes! 🙂 In both cases, there’s comedy, but there’s also an attempt (deliberate in my case, perhaps incidental in the case of those writers) to present a recognizable and partly-realistic society. You might not examine Cindy’s behavior, per se, but a sociologist of entertainment might very well be interested in the implicit cultural attitudes. Does that make any sense?
      More on that in a moment. But no, I don’t think you’re being unduly critical, and I certainly appreciate your commitment to the conversation.

  2. As I think more about this, I’m wondering if a study of genre could be introduced here. Could this story be paratactically arranged so that when elements of comedy are presented (as this story seems to me to be) it could be written as a “play.” If this were done, then I might find the following discussion more likely to happen. I’m a fan of Plautus (and to some extent, Terrence) and would love to see features of comedy in a project like this.

    Perhaps a second set of characters could be used for “comic relief.” They might have their own story line that runs parallel.

    I guess what I’m asking is the following: Is it suitable to explore Plautus for an understanding of pietas, gravitas, etc.?

    What do you think?

    I’m posting between classes and at my lunch break. I hope I’m making sense.

    • Randy,
      Yes, I think it’s quite appropriate to consider genre here; in fact, it’s probably inescapable, in so far as there are comic and not-so-comic elements. The story will actually be presented as a series of short, illustrated paragraphs, and (if participants in the project are interested) it would be a natural candidate for filming. I don’t envision presenting it in script form, but that would be an easy rewrite – again, most likely if a participant in the project wanted to take that on.

      I’m glad you could see the Plautine elements; I’m also a big fan of his! Have you read Duckworth’s book The Nature of Roman Comedy? It’s been several years, but he does a lot of work, as I recall, with the implications of both Plautus and Terence for Roman cultural values. Erich Segal went even further than Duckworth, as I recall, in Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus.

      I certainly understand the need for caution in over-analyzing comedy, but you could make the same point about any literary work. For a rather extreme example, I suppose you could argue that the Aeneid isn’t a good source for Roman attitudes towards pietas because the main characters are Trojan, not Roman. But of course, people have been analyzing the Aeneid for pietas for quite a while! 🙂

      Thanks again for helping me sharpen my thoughts about this matter. Am I making sense to you?

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