Sunday, 16 July 2017

Seneca: a lively bathhouse.

Noise disturbance is an evil rapidly having spread since the invention of loudspeakers and ghetto blasters, but it is not something new: an overcrowded city like Rome must have been a disaster for people insisting on a quiet surrounding. In Letter 56 Seneca describes the noises from the bathhouse above which he has an apartment. What is told with some irony seems to be an accurate description of what was happening there.  Of course Seneca, a true stoic, doesn’t care about all that noise.


[1] Peream si est tam necessarium quam videtur silentium in studia seposito. Ecce undique me varius clamor circumsonat: supra ipsum balneum habito. Propone nunc tibi omnia genera vocum quae in odium possunt aures adducere: cum fortiores exercentur et manus plumbo graves iactant, cum aut laborant aut laborantem imitantur, gemitus audio, quotiens retentum spiritum remiserunt, sibilos et acerbissimas respirationes; cum in aliquem inertem et hac plebeia unctione contentum incidi, audio crepitum illisae manus umeris, quae prout plana pervenit aut concava, ita sonum mutat. Si vero pilicrepus supervenit et numerare coepit pilas, actum est. [2] Adice nunc scordalum et furem deprensum et illum cui vox sua in balineo placet, adice nunc eos qui in piscinam cum ingenti impulsae aquae sono saliunt. Praeter istos quorum, si nihil aliud, rectae voces sunt, alipilum cogita tenuem et stridulam vocem quo sit notabilior subinde exprimentem nec umquam tacentem nisi dum vellit alas et alium pro se clamare cogit; iam biberari varias exclamationes et botularium et crustularium et omnes popinarum institores mercem sua quadam et insignita modulatione vendentis.

in studio seposito: for one engaged in study
undique: from all sides
balneum (balineum): bath
propone tibi: imagine
in odium possent aures adducere: which can lead to hating one’s own ears
fortiores: rather strong men
manus plumbo graves:  the Romans used a kind of muffles with lead
iacto: to thrust, swing
gemitus gemitus (m.): groan (think of tennis games…)
retentum spiritum: breath hold in
sibilus: hissing
acerbus: harsh
hac plebeia unctione contentum: satisfied with that cheap oil (Seneca is referring to someone getting a cheap oil massage)
incidi incidi: to fall upon
crepitus crepitus (m.): clashing
illisae manus umeris: of a hand having been struck on the shoulders (i.e. the hand of the masseur)
prout: according as
pilicrepus: ballplayer (but score-shouter seems a better translation here)
pila: ball
actum est: it is done with the quietness
scordalus: a quarrelsome fellow
fur furis (m.): thief
deprehendo deprehendi deprehensum: to catch
piscina: swimming pool
salio salui saltum: to jump
rectae voces: normal voices
alipilus: one who epilates armpits
cogita: think of
tenuem et stridulam vocem (acc. resp.): with his thin and shrieking voice
quo sit notabilior: in order that he may be more distinctive
subinde: continually
vello (-ere): to pluck
ala: armpit
alium pro se clamare cogit: it must have been a rather painful experience
iam (cogita)
biberarius: seller of drinks
botularius: sausage-maker
crustularius: pastry-maker
popina: food sold at a cookshop
institor institoris (m.): peddler, broker
mercem sua quadam et insignita modulatione vendentis (= es): selling their ware with some own and specific melody

Translation by Richard Mott Gummere (1917)

1. Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study! Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. 2. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.


  1. Beshrew me, Leo, if your English translation is not (today) comical! You translate comparative adjectives as superlatives, and thus may miss a level of nuance.

  2. Hi Tarlach, I was indeed inacurate regarding the comparatives. As for the translation: it is not the first time that in the old Loeb series the original is more transparant to me than the translation, but it is the only tranlation I could find on internet.

  3. Seneca erat vir felix, enim loudspeakers et ghetto blasters non exsistebant eo tempore.