What the Romans did for fun

Blame the pandemic; blame social media, but as winter rolls around again it can feel as if we've forgotten how truly to celebrate. But antiquity offers us the key to re-learning how to have fun, as opposed to merely pretending we are.
A Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii depicting a group of men having fun playing dice.
A Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii depicting a group of men having fun playing dice. Credit: Wolfgang Rieger via Wikipedia Commons
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This is about the time of year when people begin to moan about that curiously modern phenomenon known as ‘the pressure to have fun.’ Invitations are rolling in, the seasonal WhatsApp groups have resumed and bookings are open for New Year’s Eve, the one night of the year when fun is absolutely obligatory.  

It is also the time of year when the ancient world seems to come most palpably back to life. For the Romans, as for us, the approach of the winter solstice in December heralded the beginning of the party season that accompanied a major religious festival. The Saturnalia, so-named after the god of time and the seasons, took the form of a week-long holiday during which work and business ceased. There was a lot of eating, drinking, joking and exchanging of novelty presents, and people generally lightened up. The writings of the second-century satirist Lucian describe the playing of games similar to apple-bobbing, and gambling was very popular. 

It is reasonable to assume that some of the customs observed during the Saturnalia collided with those surrounding Christmas. The Roman holiday was still being celebrated long after the mid-fourth century when the birth of Christ began to be marked on 25 December. Given the overlap of traditions, we might well look to the Saturnalia-celebrating Romans as guides in the run-up to our winter season, but we might also ask, why stop there? We could do worse than to consider the Romans’ attitude to fun all year round.

Blame the pandemic, but the truth is we have been forgetting how actually to have fun – as opposed to simply pretending to – for years. Social media has a lot to answer for when it comes to keeping up appearances. How many of us would plead guilty to attending a party simply to document doing something other than nothing? Inhabitants of ancient Rome did not save up their moments of celebration to be witnessed and scrutinised. The sheer number of days of each month given over to festivals and feasting precluded them from investing too much thought in what was expected of them.  

It’s true that many of these events would challenge our understanding of what is enjoyable. One festival held in February, Lupercalia, involved whipping young women with goat skins to enhance their fertility. But the religious dimension of Roman festivals did much to alleviate any feeling that participants were getting drunk, eating too much and playing idle simply for the sake of it. Animal sacrifices, after all, were gifts for the gods, who kindly lent a share. These feasts were guilt-free.

I often think of the Roman attitude to good humour when I get a clever but far from side-splitting cracker joke. It says a lot that Cicero had a reputation in antiquity for his jokes. Reading some of his writings, you could be forgiven for thinking him rather dour and straight-laced, but look carefully at his speeches, and you can easily imagine where he paused in anticipation of laughter. He was obviously very proud of his puns, quips and witty coinages, which included the branding of Clodia Metelli, the widow of a senator, as ‘a Palatine Medea,’ a phrase that encapsulated her reputation as a wealthy murderess.  

Then, as now, fun was often to be had at the expense of other people. The great comedian Aristophanes had led the way in directing slurs at the rich and powerful in fifth-century BC Athens. If the modern legacy of his plays lies in political satire and cartoons, then the freedom of expression he exhibited in his jibes is at threat of being extinguished by the fear of causing offence. The ancients did not always get right the balance between making fun and lampooning to the point of cruelty, but there is much to be said for analysing where they fell short, and embracing the example of trial and error. 

What emerges particularly clearly from ancient sources is that fun always has been, to some extent, a matter of personal taste. While both Greeks and Romans were united by festivals and ceremonies that enforced a collective sense of celebration, there were always grumblers, who found their own fun in complaining and criticising or simply wishing they were somewhere else instead. The truth of this was brought home to me when I went from writing the biography of the Latin love poet Catullus, who considered the Saturnalia ‘the very best of days,’ to that of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger –  the latter liked nothing better than to lock himself away in a soundproof room for the duration of the festival in order to work. 

There may always have existed people who are curmudgeonly about fun, but the ancient spirit for taking it as it comes – another day, another feast – yet living each for the moment, is perhaps the most palatable antidote we can take to the long build-up to a season when fun is a societal expectation rather than a promise.

Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny. Her women-led history of the ancient world, Pandora’s Revenge, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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