Walk like a Roman | TLS

W hen the ancient geographer Strabo described the native inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, he listed – with a predictable combination of relish, horror and exaggeration – all kinds of aspects of their weird barbarity. Some of the Spanish tribesmen, he insisted, stored vintage urine in cisterns and then bathed in it, or used it to clean their teeth. Others dressed their women up with iron rods around their necks rather than jewellery. Others, still stranger, appeared to have no gods.

No less remarkable, for Strabo, was the bafflement some of these poor Spaniards felt at the day-to-day habits of their new Roman allies or conquerors. One group of tribesmen, he explained, visiting a Roman camp and seeing some generals taking a stroll, “walking up and down the road”, thought they were “mad and tried to take them back into their tents”, either to sit down and rest, or get up and fight. Despite Strabo’s patronizing tone, it’s one of those rare occasions where we can catch a glimpse of the barbarian point of view on the Romans. The Spaniards presumably thought that walking was something that got a person from A to B or from tent to battleground. What on earth then were these Roman generals doing as they ambled around, chatting, but not actually going anywhere?

In Walking in Roman Culture, Timothy M. O’Sullivan eloquently explains that how and why a person walked were crucial cultural indicators in ancient Rome: ways of walking divided barbarians from Romans, and good Romans from bad. If this aspect of Roman culture has not often bulked large in modern studies of the ancient world, that is partly because – as O’Sullivan notes – we have chosen not to recognize it, or have even actively “translated it away”. The key Latin word is incessus, which literally means “gait” or “how a person moves on their feet”. It is now regularly translated as “bearing” or “demeanour”; but that removes all the sense of movement from it. “He has a noble bearing” may seem to us a more “natural” thing to say than “He has a noble way of walking”. It is not often what the Romans said, wrote or meant. In ancient Rome how you walked was a sign of who you were. Quite simply, it could be an indication of paternity. When people wondered whether Cleopatra’s child, young Caesarion, really was the son of Julius Caesar, they pointed to his walk incessus as much as to his facial features. Gait ran in families. Think, for example, how often those Roman family names often derived – like Crassus, “Fatty”, or Rufus, “Redhead” – from physical characteristics referred to feet or to odd ways of walking: Plautus, “flat-footed”; Valgus, “bow-legged”; Varus, “knock-kneed”. As O’Sullivan observes, “‘a family gait’ was no less distinctive than ‘a family nose’”.

Walking was also closely related to morals and social status. Slaves moved quickly; in fact, they did not so much walk as run servus currens, “the running slave” being almost a tautology. One particular social climber, parodied in a comedy of “flat-footed” Plautus, was advised to slow down and to ape the exaggerated stately pace of the Roman gentleman the only pace possible, I imagine, when you were formally dressed up in a toga. But it was important not to go too slowly; for that was the mark of a woman, or an effeminate. And it is precisely this idea that helps us restore some sense to one of the “jokes of Cicero”, a sometimes pretty opaque collection preserved in the Macrobius’s fifth-century encyclopedia, the Saturnalia. Catching sight of his daughter walking too quickly, and her husband walking too “softly” mollius, Cicero is said to have quipped to his daughter “Walk like your husband”, and to his son-in-law “Walk like your wife”. It’s still not a great laugh maybe, but we can begin to get the point.

CONTINUA.

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