Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Roman at Athens


Could I transport you, my dearest Quintus, to this place, and introduce you to even a part of the delights which it ministers to those who frequent it, you would certainly repent that you have chosen to stay in Rome, and have preferred the Forum and the Court of the Hundred to the Areopagus and the Schools of the Philosophers.

Doubtless when I shall return, my studies finished, I shall find that you have outstripped me in the race for wealth and honour, yet I would not exchange for these advantages the manifold goods both of mind and body with which Athens supplies her adopted children. It must be confessed indeed that, for the most part, our countrymen are of your opinion. There are but few Romans or Italians in the city, scarcely more than might be counted on the fingers of one hand. I suppose that it is our national temper to desire the shortest way towards the things that seem desirable, and that such a way is not furnished by philosophy is manifest. But enough of this matter, which we have already discussed sufficiently at other times.

Let me recount some of the things which I have seen or heard. Know then, in the first place, that I reached this place on the Kalends of October, having had a more prosperous voyage than I could have expected considering the lateness of the season. I was almost the last comer of those who intended to study during the year then about to begin. (Here, I should say, the year for civil matters commences with the autumn equinox, and for matters academical some ten days later, or, according to our reckoning, on the Nones of October, or thereabouts, for the day is not absolutely fixed). The time between the day of my arrival and this same commencement was fully occupied with various preparations.

First I provided myself with a convenient lodging in the house of a certain Meniscus, a worthy man who makes his livelihood by copying books and by giving instruction to youths that are backward in their studies. I pay him 500 sesterces by the month and have no reason to complain of the liberality of his table. My wine I purchase for myself, not having a taste for the thin vintage which, according to our bargain, he supplies. It comes, he tells me, from Hymettus, but that mountain must keep, I think, all its sweetness for its honey.

I had to purchase a gown, for all that are devoted to study wear a peculiar dress. This gown is white, and of a shape not unlike to our own toga. Not many years ago the colour was black, but a certain Herodes, of whom I shall have more to say hereafter, caused that it should be changed, providing a sum of money for that purpose. I myself am a sharer in this liberality, for thanks to the endowment furnished by him I bought a handsome white gown of fine material at the same price that was formerly paid for one both black and coarse. The purchase of books I postponed for the time, till I should have for my guidance in this matter the recommendations of my teachers, but I furnished myself with a store of paper and parchment for notes and copies, with other literary material.

On the Nones of October, (here the name of the month is Pyanepsias or the 'month of pulse cooking') we that were new students paraded at the Town Hall. A motley crew we were, so far as country was concerned, Europe, Asia, and Africa being represented in our ranks. Of all towns none sent more than Marseilles, a place which combines in a high degree wealth and culture. From Rome there was but one, myself; from the rest of Italy two.

The birthplaces of the others I need not enumerate, nor indeed did I learn them all; but I noticed two youths from Britain, with whom indeed I have since made acquaintance. They are two brothers, and both of excellent ability. We took an oath that we would observe the laws of the city, that we would study diligently, that we would avoid all idle and loose ways, and that we would be dutiful to the Governor of the students. This done we inscribed our names upon a roll, from which they will be transferred, if we pass the year without discredit, to a marble slab.

We did not omit to pay certain fees, among which were 500 sesterces for the purchase of books, and 3000 sesterces to be divided among various teachers whose lectures we shall have the duty and privilege of attending. The question was put to us one by one to which school of philosophy we belonged or desired to frequent. In this matter a choice is given to us, but only so far as the Stoics or the various sects which have followed more or less the teaching of Plato are concerned. A student of the first year is not permitted to attend the teaching of the Epicureans. Afterwards, if he be of the number of those who prolong their stay for the purposes of study beyond the year, he may follow his own inclinations. I, having the example of our most noble and wise Emperor before me, chose the Stoics as my instructors. If I can only learn from them to emulate his virtues, I shall indeed have visited this ancient abode of philosophy to most excellent purpose. I must, however, confess that it is not in the Porch, where, as you know, the successors of Zeno still teach, that I have found the most fruitful and suggestive instruction.

I do not desire to disparage the knowledge and ability of the Stoical teacher—and indeed who am I that I should presume, to criticise so celebrated a man? Yet, I say that I have myself gained more profit, as far as I can estimate it, from the teaching of a certain Demonax.

This philosopher professes to be a follower of the Cynic Diogenes. I fancy that you smile as you read these words. "What," you say, "is it possible that anyone willingly calls himself by the name of that madman? Or is there indeed any Cynical philosophy other than a contempt, often itself truly contemptible, for all that men admire and value?" I do not deny that it is not any excellence of system that attracts me in this same Demonax. System he has none, as indeed Diogenes had none. But he gives for all that a singular charm and attraction to his teaching; for every word that he says seems to come from his heart; as we listen we say to ourselves, "this is a good man and honest, the things that he recommends must be desirable."

He is a man of the most venerable age, having already passed his ninetieth year, and of an aspect that corresponds, though he is still erect and vigorous. As to the people here, they could not honour him more were he a god. 'Tis pretty to see the children run to offer him fruit and flowers, and as for the market people, there is nothing that pleases them better than that he should accept the best things that they have on their stalls. And yet, so I am told, there was a time when he went in danger of his life from his boldness of speech.

After he had been settled here for some years, there was a loud outcry against him because he had never been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. No good man, they said, would have refused to have become a partaker of the highest truth. "My friends," was his answer, "I have avoided the knowledge of these secret things for this reason. Had I found them bad, then I must, for conscience sake, have warned all men against them; had I found them good, then I must, also for conscience sake, have made all men partakers of them to the best of my ability."

And it must be confessed that he has more than once shown such sharpness of tongue that Diogenes himself whom he professes to follow could not have excelled it. To a fat and pursy citizen who practised fencing at a dummy figure, and asked him, "Do I use my weapon well, think you?" he answered, "Admirably, so long as your enemy is of wood." An indifferent pleader he advised to practice much in private if he would improve. "Yes, so I do," answered the man. "I go over all my speeches to myself, not once but many times." "Is it so?" said Demonax, "then you must get another audience."

A soothsayer he thus reproved, "Do you take pay for the exercise of your art?" he asked. The man owned that he did. "Tell me how much," said the philosopher; and when the man named the sum, he answered, " 'Tis either too little or too much; too little if you can change at all the decrees of fate; for such a power no recompense would suffice; but if these decrees cannot be changed, what profits your soothsaying?"

To me the philosopher has been most friendly. He singled me out from his audience when I first heard him, perceiving that I was a Roman, and asked me many questions about our studies at Rome, and also about our Emperor, of whom he said smiling, that there had never been so good a philosopher wasted on such unprofitable things as commanding armies and the like. Since then I have often supped with him.

A more pleasant and more courteous host could not be, and though he himself practises the severest abstinence, contenting himself with a dish of vegetables and a draught of water, he provides his friends with good cake and generous wine, an entertainment ample but not luxurious. He is, I should have said, and has always been, a single man, though much importuned by his friends in former days to change his condition. Among these, Epictetus the philosopher was specially urgent. Demonax made as if he had yielded to his persuasion. "You are right," said he, "I will marry, if only you will give me one of your daughters to wife." Now Epictetus, who was then an old man, had himself lived single all his life.

Not many days ago, Demonax took me to see that same Herodes of whom I have already made mention. He was for a long time the most notable man in Athens, both as a great benefactor of the City and as a professor of rhetoric, an art in which no one within the memory of man has equalled him. A race course of white marble, and a theatre roofed with cedar are among the benefactions which he bestowed on Athens. For the benefit of learning he has furnished endowments for more than one Professor's chair. Yet the people have been little grateful to him, bearing him a grudge for something that he did in the matter of his father's will.

More than once he has been accused to the Emperor, but has always been honorably acquitted. These things have so disturbed him that he has ceased to frequent the city, living always at his villa that overlooks the plain of Marathon. Here it was that I saw him, being entertained for two days most hospitably. He fills his house indeed throughout the year with guests, whom he chooses for their love of study.

He took me to see the famous plain, and described to me most minutely the scene of the battle. As he was speaking I found it easy to believe that he had been accounted the most eloquent man of his generation. With Demonax he is on the most friendly terms, though he too has felt the sharpness of the philosopher's tongue, as you will see from what I am about to relate.

Some year's ago Atticus lost his son, Pollux by name, a youth of much promise, and mourned for him so inconsolably, as to excite the displeasure of Demonax, who thinks that men should not allow themselves to be vanquished either by pleasure or by grief. Hear then how the wise man reproved him. Herodes would have the young man's chariot harnessed day by day as though he might use it, and a meal prepared for him as though he might sit down to it. Demonax noting this, said, "You feign to yourself that he is yet alive?" "Yes;" replied the father, "feeling that I cannot live without him." "Is it so?" the other made answer, and departed. The next day he returned, saying "I have a letter for you from Pollux." "What says he?" cried the father, "He complains," returned the other, "that you are so tardy in coming to him." At another time he said: "Know that I have discovered a spell by which I can call up the spirit of your son, but before I can use it you must find three men that have never suffered bereavement."

My host invited me to visit him again when I might find time, and especially he said when the students, according to custom, came to pay the annual honours at the grave of those who fell at Marathon. You must know that this day is one of the chief festivals of the year with us. Another is the anniversary of Salamis, which we honour with boat races on the bay and other sports.

Speaking of these things reminds me to tell you that we are not less careful of the body than of the mind. Athletic exercises are duly practised, and twice or thrice a month we are roused up at night, and arming ourselves in haste, hurry to the frontier as if to repel the attack of an invader.

To complete the list of my studies I must tell you that I hear Aristides lecture every other day on logic, that every third day Callias discourses on Homer, while not a day passes, except it be devoted to some great festival of the gods, but that I am present at a lecture from one or other of the teachers of philosophy.

From all these I hope to gain much profit. Yet, if they were absent, to live in this place where every stone, so to speak, is eloquent of the great and wise, is in itself a liberal education. Why should I repeat these names to you who know them as well as I? One thing I may tell you which pleased me as a Roman, as without doubt it will please you. Yesterday, as I was walking in one of the streets of the city, my companion said to me, "See, that dwelling yonder is the house where your poet Horatius lived when he studied in this place." Rome therefore has its share among the glories of Athens.