lesbiassparrow: (Sacred chickens)
[personal profile] lesbiassparrow
I've been terribly busy, but decided I needed a break from marking and that I would inflict on you tales of disasters from Rome's courts. (Quite a few of these come from Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory but not all.

First, did you know that there's evidence that some people wore sort of war paint to trials? Pliny the Younger mentions one person who would paint a stripe on his face - one side for when he was pleading for the defence, another for when he was prosecuting. Pliny doesn't seem to find this all that remarkable which suggests that maybe it went on more often than we might imagine (I think he says it was old-fashioned though). (I like to imagine Cicero bedaubed in paint sometimes.)

Quintilian is full of the dangers of props. Romans sometimes used paintings of the scene of the crime to show the full horror of it. But, of course, your prop needed to be shown at the right time for the full effect. People went to court for entertainment and they were more than ready to fall about laughing if cues were missed (people also paid for appreciative or critical audiences as the audience could sway the jury - you'd have a pre-arranged signal like shaking your toga in a particular way and they'd respond with "Graviter! Cito! Nequiter! Euge! Beate! Hoc volui! Good going! Strong blow! Fast! Nasty! Well done! Lovely! That’s that I wanted!" and such things like that).

There was a case where someone defending a woman had the great idea that they would use a wax portrait of her dead husband which would be handed to him at the right moment in the peroratio (the closing point of the speech) so that everyone would look at the dead man and feel massive sympathy for the widow. Unfortunately the person given it did not know what a peroratio was so whenever the person giving the defence speech looked at them they kept trying to give it to him. And when he finally raised it, it was so incredibly hideous that everyone laughed who hadn’t been laughing before then.

The other thing you would do was bring in an entire family and have them dressed in mourning looking miserable as a way to get pity. This was even better if you could get children to cry - and then, you, the kindly orator would lean forward and ask them why they were crying and they would lisp "because Dad's dead' or something of that ilk. Unfortunately, children aren't always co-operative and had to be prompted to cry. One time a young orator asked a child why he was crying and he said "because my tutor is pinching me!" In another case an orator carried a young child around the courtroom to gain sympathy. The other orator simply shrugged and looked at his rather fat client and said "What can I do? I can't carry you around."

One big problem was the toga. If you weren't very good at wearing one you might do something terrible LIKE EXPOSE AN ARM. Here's Quintilian: "an arm is exposed and we catch a glimpse of the fold of his toga; another stretches out his arm to its full length, raises it to the roof, or swings it back and forth over his left shoulder, raining down blows to the rear so that it is dangerous to be standing beside him; another makes a leftwards sweep, waves his hand around at random and hits his neighbours, or else flaps both elbows against his two sides. And then there is the sluggish or timid hand, and the hand that moves as though it were slicing something." (It didn't help that there was little space in courtrooms and you might take out the rest of the bench - of course, that's better than Republican orators who didn't have courtrooms and had to plead in the open air, rain or shine.)

My favourite are the people who Quintilian remarks would march over to the jury making a great impression on their way there, but who couldn't work out how to make a dignified retreat back to their bench and would have to sidle off, ruining the effect.

(ETA: And random Roman cure of the day: kissing a mule will cure a cold. Pliny the Elder seems to have put this remedy into practice. But then he also liked to wear a bra on his head to cure headaches.)
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August 2011

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