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CLAS 220: Sample Student Essay


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Virro's Feast
by Nathan Enns

One of the recurring themes in Juvenal's poetry is the theme of the breakdown of the patron-client relationship. This relationship was very important to the Roman way of thinking. It represented an expansion of the pater familias unit from a family context, to the larger social context (Shelton, 13). Like many important Roman customs, it was present in both the Republican and Imperial periods. Indeed, ancient historians traced its beginnings back to the legendary days of Romulus (Shelton, 14). The Republicans even passed laws designed to guarantee the sanctity of this relationship, and for centuries it was an important link between the Roman aristocrats and the lower class plebeians.

Unfortunately, this relationship deteriorated with time. Juvenal laments this deterioration in at least four of his sixteen satires. Satire V, in fact, is devoted to the shabby treatment a client could expect from his patron. From its lofty and revered position as part of the social foundation of Rome, this relationship became a burden to all parties as the Imperial period wore on.

In the Imperial period, both the clients and the patrons were happy with their social ties. This relationship was essential in early Rome, as it bound the two social classes together, fostering a sense of community. It also acted as a sort of perk that distinguished the poor Roman citizen from the sometimes very wealthy allies, who had no patrons. Indeed, in the early days of Rome, it was illegal for clients and patrons to sue one another, or even to vote in support of someone else (Shelton, 14).

The role of patron was seen as an aspect of pietas (Friedlander, Roman Life and Manners, vol. I [RLM I] 195). The patron gave free legal advice, including acting as a lawyer for the accused client. He also acted as a patron of the arts, sponsoring struggling artists with his coffers (Carcopino, 172). Even a struggling businessman could expect to count on his patron as an investor (Mattingly, 94). All of this was approved and encouraged by the patrons, for it gave him status in the eyes of the community, fame as a lawyer, and may even have made him wealthier.

The client also had duties to fulfill. Every morning he had to travel to his patron's house and pay his respects, where he would receive his daily gift of food or money, called the sportula. He had to accompany his patron to the forum and cheer him on when he was pleading a legal case. The client was expected to support any political career his patron had, by advertising for him amongst his plebeian friends, and by voting for him. This political service was especially important, as Cicero indicates in his Some Thoughts about Political Campaigns, "When several candidates are campaigning and men see that there is one who really appreciates the services of his attendants [i.e. clients], they frequently desert the other candidates and pledge themselves to him. . . " (Shelton, 222).

By the mid first century AD. this relationship has deteriorated, as Juvenal described in agonizing detail. An increasing population of urban poor, and an influx of foreigners such as Greeks meant that there were many more clients dependent on the generosity of the wealthy patrons. Some plebeians became very wealthy through trade and became patrons in their own right, corrupting the original tradition of a benevolent aristocracy, and a dependent lower class.

Juvenal first used the imagery of the new client-patron relationship in his Satire I to illustrate Rome's fall from tradition, and in his mind, greatness. In Juvenal's satire this once symbiotic relationship is reduced to pure economics.

. . . Clients were guests in those days,
But now Roman citizens are reduced to scrambling
For a little basket of scraps on their patron's doorstep.
He peers into each face first, scared stiff that some impostor
May give a false name and cheat him. . . (Juvenal, Satire I, 93-101)
Considering that the daily sportula given to each client was a paltry sum of 6.25 sesterces (Friedlander, RLM IV, 78), it is hard to sympathize with the patrons, who were frequently incredibly wealthy. For example, Pliny the Younger left 1120 sesterces to each of 100 freedmen - annually (Friedlander, RLM IV, 79).

To the majority of the clients, however, this represented the greater part of their income. From this money they had to buy, ". . . clothes and shoes. . . food and the fuel for heating." (Juvenal, Satire I, 119-120). They also had to scrape enough money together to buy the toga they had to wear each morning in order to receive their sportula (Carcopino, 172). However, Juvenal also tells us of wealthy clients, including consuls and praetors who continue to collect the sportula every morning, making a mockery of this ancient and important Roman tradition (Juvenal, Satire I, 100, 117).

The patron-client tradition changed in other ways during Juvenal's time. In his Satire I he briefly describes a man, an informer, who obtained his incredible wealth when he, ". . . turned in his noble patron." (Juvenal, Satire I, 33). Presumably the ancient law about patrons and clients not suing one another had fallen into disuse in Juvenal's time. In Satire III, during his anti-Greek speech he implies that Greeks do have patrons in Rome, indicating that the client post was now open to non Greeks (Juvenal, Satire III, 121-122).

Some traditional aspects of the patron-client relationship did remain in the Imperial Rome that Juvenal lived in. Unfortunately, in Juvenal's mind they are all the bad aspects of this relationship. In Juvenal's writings, all of the honor of this class-bridging relationship is gone, as evidenced in a passage from his tenth Satire, in which he describes a Consul's parade of, ". . .white-robed [i.e. the uncomfortable toga] citizens marching so dutifully. . . retainers whose friendship was bought / With the meal-ticket [sportula] stashed in their wallets." (Juvenal, Satire X, 44-46). Instead of acquiring prestige and support from their noble patrons, the clients are hired attendants, sacrificing dignity for 6.25 sesterces a day.

After the sportula, it was customary that at least some of the clients accompanied the patron in his daily travels, to the Forum to plead a law case, to a poetry reading, or to the baths. Even this duty is found onerous, as Juvenal writes, "Dole in pocket, we next attend my lord to the Forum; / Stare, bored, at all those statues. . . " (Juvenal, Satire I, 127-128). Thus, the client becomes dependent upon the goodwill of the patron, as he is not free to seek his own livelihood. Rather, he must support his patron's lawyer or poet aspirations by cheering him on, no matter how bad he is.

It is in his fifth Satire that Juvenal explores what it was like to be a client in greatest detail. Addressed to one Trebius, it is designed to talk him out of going to his patron's house for supper. It is a great resource that illustrates what being a client entailed in Juvenal's Rome.

First, Juvenal tells his friend why he is being invited to the dinner party. The patron, Virro, has an extra seat at his table, and, this repays his client for at least two months of political and social support (Juvenal, Satire V, 14-16). Thus, the patron acts the 'friend' to the client only when it is convenient for him.

Then Juvenal goes on to describe what kind of treatment Trebius can expect at the hands of Virro and his friends. First, Trebius is not Virro's equal, and this is reflected in their respective dinners. While Virro dines on crayfish, fresh-baked bread, mullet and lamprey, Trebius is served, "A grey-mottled river-pike. . . Bloated with sewage. . ." (Juvenal, Satire V, 102-103).

Next, Juvenal explains that Trebius can expect disrespect not just from Virro and the other guests, but also from the slaves. Virro's costly dinner party slaves know they are worth more than Trebius is, and let him know it. Virro doesn't even trust Trebius with his own dinner-ware, ". . . a waiter is stationed by you / To count the jewels, check your sharp fingernails." (Juvenal, Satire V, 37-38). Trebius is there purely out of obligation, and Virro lets him know it.

Trebius is lucky if he can get a word in edgewise to his patron, his noble friend. His poverty keeps him out of the conversation. Whereas in ancient times, there was mutual respect between patron and client, now, ". . . it's your cash / That earns his respect, your cash that's truly his brother." (Juvenal, Satire V, 136-137) There is no point in wasting valuable time and resources on a poor client who is only fit to trail after Virro and make him look important.

In addition to satisfying Virro's duty as a patron, he has another reason for inviting Trebius to dinner - entertainment. Trebius will be served bad food, snubbed by mere slaves, and even provoked to fight with other lowbrow guests (Juvenal, Satire V, 26-28). Juvenal writes, "You see yourself as a free man, guest at the magnate's banquet;. . . [but he treats you]. . . Like a public buffoon, well inured to the whip, a worthy / Companion for such a feast - and for such a friend." (Juvenal, Satire V, 149, 172-173).

Thus Trebius becomes Virro's dinner floor show. It was for this, bad food and humiliation, Juvenal writes, that Trebius woke early each morning,

Cutting his sleep short, hurrying out in the dark with
Shoelaces trailing, all in a pother for fear lest
Everyone's done the rounds already,. . .
. . . while violent springtime
Hailstorms bombard me, or some sudden cloudburst
Beat through my sodden cloak? Was it for this? (Juvenal, Satire V, 19-21, 78-80).
This is a far cry from the idyllic days of the Republic, when patrons gained prestige through their clientele, not amusement.

So Juvenal writes. But how reliable a source is Juvenal? It must be remembered that he is a satirist, and therefore well versed in the use of exaggeration and fabrication in order to make his point. One must remember this before using him for an historically accurate source. For a modern parallel, one could hardly use Joseph Heller's Catch 22 as a portrait of a typical American air group during World War II.

Despite this precaution, for the most part, there are other sources that support many of Juvenal's complaints. Martial, for instance, another, somewhat less caustic satirist contemporary of Juvenal's, confirms the hassles clients went through to satisfy their arrogant patrons. He wrote one letter to his patron where he regrets that he, ". . . forgot to call you 'My Lord.' How much did this liberty cost me? You knocked a dollar off my allowance." (Shelton, 16). This shows how much friendship was a part of the Imperial patron-client relationship.

Epictetus, a Greek philosophy teacher, adds additional support to Juvenal's barbs. In his writings, he describes how clients must be humble, and not be angry if they are snubbed or not offered a dinner invitation. Friedlander explains part of the text, "The few honoured few paid dear in morning visits, bearing the patron company, and flattery." (Friedlander, RLM I, 200). This, again, shows how unequal the relationship had become. The client is expected to humiliate himself for the patron, and in return, he may receive a dinner invitation.

Columella describes how the clients must kowtow not only to their patron, but also to his slaves. Bribes were needed to ascertain if the patron was at home and awake. More money exchanged hands to get the porter to open the door. Finally, the announcer's palm had to be greased, or the poor client's name would never be called (Friedlander, RLM I, 199, 202). Thus it could conceivably cost more to get the sportula than it would be worth!

Juvenal's contemporaries considered the duties after the salutatio just as tedious as he did. Martial complains that in the courts, it is, ". . . the eloquence, not of the orator, but of his scullions [i.e., clients]" (Friedlander, RLM I, 198) that wins the case. In another Epigram, Martial condemns his patron Ligurinus for boring him to death with his horrible poem recitations (Shelton, 320).

Juvenal's description of Virro's abuse of Trebius is likewise supported. Martial describes a dinner where the disparity of meals is equally evident. He berates Lupus because, "Wines of Setia are strained to inflame your lady's snow; we drink the black poison of a Corsican jar." (Carcopino, 270). Pliny the Younger likewise attended a dinner where, "There were three kinds of wine; the best he reserved for himself and Pliny, the next best for his inferior friends, while the worst was given to his freedmen [and clients]. . . " (Church and Brodribb, 159). The unknown author of the Encomium on Piso is cited with describing how poor men were invited to their patrons' houses for the express purpose of being laughed at and humiliated (Friedlander, RLM I, 200).

Juvenal is an equal opportunity satirist - he criticizes the clients as well as the patrons. In his first Satire, he tells of an informer who made his fortune by accusing his patron. Later in the poem, he describes several other ignoble practices of greedy clients. He writes of a consul, a praetor, and a tribune, all present at the morning salutatio to collect the sportula. He also mentions husbands who bring their sick wives, "Or better. . . pretend she's there when she isn't, / And claim for both. . ." (Juvenal, Satire I, 122-123). Finally, he describes the client who lavishes praise on his patron and follows him all day in the hope of being invited for supper (Juvenal, Satire I, 132-133). This shows that the patrons weren't the only ones abusing this ancient relationship. Clients could be just as greedy.

Most of these instances are well supported by other sources as well. Seneca laments the deterioration of the patron-client relationship in one of his letters, "Once upon a time, clients sought a politically powerful friend; now they seek loot." (Shelton, 15). Horace, although not a contemporary of Juvenal's has similar things to say about clients. On the Saturnalia, they would bring cheap gifts to the patron, while expecting a huge gift in return. In addition, ". . .they gossiped anywhere and everywhere about his family secrets." (Friedlander, RLM I, 202). Some clients even spent their mornings traveling around to several patrons, maximizing their income through multiple sportulae (Carcopino, 172).

On the subject of mealtimes, the evidence makes one almost sympathize with Virro. Horace again complains, "They brawled at his table, and fought with his freedmen." (Friedlander, RLM I, 202). Martial writes a comic Epigram about a client named Santra, who, ". . .steals the bluish oysters. . .[and]. . .conceals in his filthy napkin mouthfuls of cake. . .But when his napkin is already bursting with his thousand petty thefts, he hides in the warm folds of his toga. . . the body of a turtledove. . . then the next day, he sells it!" (Shelton, 318). Lucian too complains about the behaviour of clients, saying that if they're mistreated at the table, they get what they deserve (Friedlander, RLM I, 202).

All of this evidence is very compelling. But it must be remembered that Juvenal was a satirist, pointing out the absolutely worst aspects of the patron-client relationship in his day. Martial is almost as suspect, as he too was a satirist, although not nearly as bitter or biting. Therefore, at least some of Juvenal's claims should be taken with a grain of salt, as they were purely for shock value.

Among such dubious claims, is Juvenal's assertion that consuls, praetors, and tribunes lined up for the morning sportula along with the lower classes. While the occupants of these positions did have a patron, it wasn't a wealthy senator or freedman, it was the Emperor (Friedlander, RLM I, 86). This is more likely an exaggeration on the part of Juvenal to illustrate Rome's preoccupation with money - an extremely popular theme with Juvenal. This is a popular satiric tool used even by modern satirists. For example, in Catch 22, Joseph Heller's mess officer Milo creates a syndicate where, ". . . everybody has a share." (Heller, 238) - even the Germans. In one instance Milo accepts a contract from the Germans, and has his own bombers bomb and strafe his airbase. Everyone was enraged, ". . . until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made." (Heller, 266). This, of course, did not happen in World War II, but it makes an effective comment on how intertwined profit and war was.

This is exactly what Juvenal does, showing how obsessed Rome's aristocracy was with money rather than pietas, by writing about the consul lining up for his six-and-a-quarter sesterces per day.

Another question that must be asked is, how universal is this picture that Juvenal paints? Surely there must have been some who maintained the values of the Republican Romans. Surely there must have been some generous patrons, some valued clients. These people did indeed exist, as the ancient sources reveal. Not every patron was a Virro, not every client was an informer.

There is little direct evidence on the behavior of clients that has not been examined already. As to the loyalty of clients, Iturius and Calvisius make excellent Roman role models. At their great personal risk, they aided Junia Silana in her accusation of Agrippina of treason (Friedlander, RLM I, 198, 201). This contrasts nicely with Juvenal's informer of Satire I. Financially speaking, with no welfare programs other than the grain dole, it is more than likely that most clients truly did need the support and generosity of a patron to survive in urban Rome (Friedlander, RLM I, 195).This casts more doubt on Juvenal's lines about consuls and praetors currying favour from people below them in social status. Much more evidence exists in support of the kinder, more benevolent patron.

Pliny the Younger was one of these dignified patrons. Not only did he disapprove of feeding clients poor quality food at banquets, but he tried to spread this disapproval through teaching his friends and peers. In one letter to Junius Avitus, Pliny writes, "Take care that you avoid above everything this new-fangled idea of combining a show of splendour with actual meanness. . ." (Church and Brodribb, 160). In another instance he offered to help pay for a school in his hometown of Comum to benefit his rural clients (Shelton, 111). In another letter he describes how he sent one of his freedman to Egypt to recover from illness, and paid for all of his expenses (Church and Brodribb, 160). This is certainly not the type of aristocrat that would invite his clients to supper so he can provoke them to fight and thus receive a free floor show. Rather, Pliny acts as an example to which the rest of his social class should aspire.

Neither is Pliny alone in his generosity. Seneca also advises against mistreating clients, especially at the salutatio. If the client has made the effort to visit, Seneca writes, the least the patron can do is be courteous and greet the client (Shelton, 17). Piso too, was a model of benevolence, for, "In his house the poor friend was not contemned, and the client was not downtrodden." (Friedlander, RLM I, 202). Elsewhere, Friedlander mentions Paetus Thrasea, who, ". . .was impugned for devoting more time to the private interests of his clients than the public affairs of State." (Friedlander, RLM I, 196). It was also traditional for many patrons to give their clients gifts such as small plots of land, togas, and other expensive household items (Carcopino, 172, Friedlander, RLM I, 196).

This presents a much gentler picture of the client-patron relationship to contrast against Juvenal's cynicism. This does not invalidate Juvenal, but rather tempers his take on urban life. These other sources act as a sort of filter that exposes some of Juvenal's exaggerations and shock tactics. Juvenal, on the other hand, acts as the voice of the Roman lower class. This point of view is often more revealing than the self serving writings of the aristocrats. Taken together, these two viewpoints produce a reasonably accurate picture of the client patron relationship in the late first century AD.


Works Cited


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