Examining the Story: culture and Culture, IV

salvēte iterum, amīcī fidēlēs! As promised, in this post we’ll look at the most recent story from a Cultural prespective.

We’ll begin with a focus on characters, but this time we’ll 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.  Actually, most of this post will have to do with Roman humor: what we know about it from literary sources, and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to the characters’ actions in this story.

First, though, the characters, as compared with literary characters.  The obvious comparison (for Classicists anyway) for the human characters would be with Petronius‘ characters, especially in the cēna Trimalchiōnis, and with the characters of Plautine and Terentian comedy.  Of course, the animals would benefit from a comparison with animals in folklore and fable.

Thinking about Petronius for a moment, there’s clearly no one like Trimalchio (or Encolpius or Giton or the other major characters in the Satyrica) in this story!  Could there actually be a character like any of them … anywhere? 🙂

  • From the previous story about Valerius, Lollius, and the salūtātiō, it’s apparent that Valerius is wealthy (and socially prominent) enough to have a client like Lollius.
  • He also treats Lollius reasonably well, unlike Trimalchio.
  • We might assume that he is of higher status – or, at least, older money – than Trimalchio was, at least by birth.  (Of course, it would be hard to be of lower birth status or newer money than Trimalchio; and that’s the whole point of his character!  But what does that say about Roman values, or at least those of Petronius and his circle?)
  • He’s also not a figure of satire in the way that Trimalchio is.
  • As for Flavius Caeso, he is a bit of a buffoon – I wasn’t thinking of Trimalchio consciously when I developed him, but I can certainly see the resemblance.
  • As for the women, they bear some notable resemblances to the women in Plautine comedy, in particular.  That’s not an accident: I love Plautus, and the servants’ names are an homage to him. 🙂
  • On the other hand, there’s not a servus callidus in this story – Milphio certainly doesn’t qualify, poor fellow! 🙂 – nor are there direct examples of the other stock characters of New Comedy.  No senex īrātus, no mīles glōriōsus (though perhaps Flavius Caeso was in the army in his younger years …?), and, of course, no love story … at least not in this episode!

We’ve already alluded to social class and class relationships a bit, but here I just want to note some ambiguities:

  • We don’t yet know exactly what Valerius‘ social standing is.
  • Nor do we know about Flavius Caeso.  He’s clearly wealthier than Valerius, who treats him with deference (but not exactly as a cliēns might treat his patrōnus).  But is he, in fact, a relative of the Emperor – which would make him an object of great deference for everyone in town – or is he a lībertus Augustī, which would make him an object of derision and contempt (at least in private) to prominent citizens.  We don’t know … and that’s deliberate! 🙂
  • Lollius doesn’t play an important role in this story, but we do know he’s a cliēns of Valerius.  We also know, from his nōmen, that he’s not a lībertus of Valerius … nor of Valerius’ wife’s family the Caeliī.  His wife’s name is Maccia; does that mean she’s related to Maccius Plautus?  If so, does that confer status on her (since her ancestor was a famous and still-popular author) or disfavor (since he was, according to many scholars, a low-status actor)?

Finally, before we leave our characters, we should consider their relationship to core Roman values.  As I wrote the preliminary outline for Cursus Primus, one big consideration was to include – not only in stories, but in background-information work and in the “continuing virtual seminars” we’ll address in a few days – a range of these values; they actually have a column to themselves in the outline.

I think the authors of the “Big Three” reading-method textbooks do a commendable job of creating characters who exemplify pietās, dignitās, gravitās, etc. – and their opposites.  But they don’t really draw attention to these values … except, on occasion, in notes in those “Teacher’s Editions” that bother me, as I’ve mentioned before.   So I wanted to bring these values to the forefront, giving our participants (and us!) the opportunity to learn about them explicitly.  In this case, I’d want participants to think about questions like

  • whether Valeria displayed pietās when she interrupted Flavius Caeso, defending her brother and sister;
  • to what extent Flavius Caeso was motivated by concern for his dignitās and gravitās;
  • to what extent Valerius‘ conduct was motivated by pietās, dignitās, and gravitās;
  • to what extent Ridiculusridiculous dash was motivated by pietās (in caring for his family) … or by a quest for personal glory, which might be an example of dignitās – or of its opposite.

In the end, though, what most participants will remember about this story is the humor.  Yes, it’s intended to be funny! 🙂  And it’s OK to laugh … out loud, if you’d like!  Just speaking as the author, I found myself laughing as I wrote, and I still laugh as I read.

But is this a kind of humor that Romans would find funny? I’m not sure, but I think so!

  • Horace’s country and city mice aren’t directly relevant to the theme of the story, but they’re a small part of the inspiration for Ridiculus.  (And, of course, his name is an allusion to the Ars Poetica … but you all knew that!)  And they appear in the Sermōnēs, which are part of the verse-satire tradition.
  • Not only Petronius, but the verse satirists would, I think, have loved a dinner disaster like this one.  Think of how Juvenal – or Lucilius, for that matter – would have depicted such a party!
  • I also think about the limited amount of information we have about Atellan farce (which I’ve always spelled with a final -e, but Wikipedia doesn’t) and other types of slapstick humor the Romans enjoyed, and the rather more information we have about Plautine and Terentian comedy.
    • How does the action in this story compare with what we know the Romans found funny?
    • And why did they find master-slave reversals and kidnapped-daughters-saved-at-the-last-moment funny and appealing, anyway?
    • Some say that humor is a way of dealing with secret fears … if so, what might the Romans of Plautus’ and Terence’s day have been afraid of?
    • Or should we be asking that question about the Greeks of Menander’s day?
    • Or should we be asking about the many, many later days in Greco-Roman history … and down to our own time … when New Comedy and genres influenced by it have been popular?
  • Do the animals behave as Roman animals should? Or as fable-tradition animals should? I’ll have to defer to Laura G on that issue, since she knows far more about fables than I do.  But I thought of the Aesop’s fables I loved (in English paraphrase) as a child, and I tried to model both Ridiculus and Sabina after their counterparts in that tradition.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • To what extent have I identified appropriate big-C Cultural issues inherent in the story?
  • Have I asked reasonable questions?
  • What are some possible answers other than the ones I’ve suggested – and, for that matter, what do you think of my attempted answers?
  • Is the culture-and-Culture distinction appropriate, or should we look at cultural issues in a different way?
  • Are there changes we need to make to the story to make it more big-c Culturally authentic?

I can’t wait to hear from you, so please keep those comments and emails coming! 🙂

Tune in tomorrow, when we’ll change our perspective a bit and talk about Connections and Comparisons.  First we’ll define them, and then we’ll begin to explore them.  Then, on Friday or possibly Saturday, we’ll look at the “continuing virtual seminar” aspect of Tres Columnae.  What are these things, how will they work logistically, and why are they such an important part of Tres Columnae?