Reading Roman writers is often also an exercise in cultural anthropology for understanding the context of a text. A complicated social system was the relationship between a patronus and a cliens. Ideally a patronus cared for the material well-being of his clientes and defended them in legal procedures. A cliens – always from the plebeian ranks - in his turn had to accompany his patronus at public displays and to vote for him at elections. In practice however a patronus made use of his clients, without returning much. This so especially in the early Empire and the social position of a cliens was thus feeble, that he couldn’t do anything, but hoping for the best. It is with this system in the background that we must understand Juvenal and Martial. The following fragment is from Juvenal: what to do when your patronus summons you for dinner and how to avoid humiliation. The satire is addressed to the poor cliens Trebius.
Iuvenalis, Satura V, 12 – 23
Primo fige loco, quod tu discumbere iussus
mercedem solidam ueterum capis officiorum.
fructus amicitiae magnae cibus: inputat hunc rex,
et quamuis rarum tamen inputat. ergo duos post
si libuit menses neglectum adhibere clientem,
tertia ne uacuo cessaret culcita lecto,
'una simus' ait. uotorum summa. quid ultra
quaeris? habet Trebius propter quod rumpere somnum
debeat et ligulas dimittere, sollicitus ne
tota salutatrix iam turba peregerit orbem,
sideribus dubiis aut illo tempore quo se
frigida circumagunt pigri serraca Bootae.
figo fixi fixum: (here) to consider
discumbo discumbui discumbitum: to recline at a table
mercedem solidam: full payment
officium: the duty of a client
fructus, -us (m.): reward, profit
amicitiae magnae: of course irony
cibus: food (in apposition with fructus)
imputo (-are): to reckon to one’s credit or discredit (a term from book keeping)
hunc rex: that big boss (the word rex has negative overtones in Roman ears)
si libuit adhibere: whenever it pleases him to summon (libuit is here a perfect of repeated action)
cesso (-are): be unused
culcita: cushion, pillow (tertia culcita: a lectus (couch for dinner) had room for three guests, who were reclining on it with their left elbow on the culcita. The third position was the lowest in status. Three lecti were arranged around a mensa and this all together was called a triclinium)
una simus: let us be together
votorum summa (est): it is the height of your ambition
ultra: further, more
rumpo rupi ruptum: break, disrupt
ligulas dimittere: to leave his shoe-ties untied
salutatrix turba: the crowd (of clientes) making their complimentary visits (these visits took place in the morning: the greater the crowd the more prestige a patronus had. Often a cliens has more than one patronus, hence the hade to make a round (orbs) to visit and greet their `benefactors’)
perago peregi peractum: to follow through the end, finish
sideribus dubiis: with stars fading away (i.e. early in the morning)
frigida serraca: the constellation Bear was also known as plaustrum (wagon), a serracum is a two-wheeled cart and it is frigidus because it is in the north of the hemisphere. It was driven by the herdsman Bootes and as this constellation is nearly stationary, the Bootes is called piger (lazy).
circumago circumegi circumactum: to go around
Drawing of a triclinium.
Translation G.G. Ramsay (1918)
First of all be sure of this----that when bidden to dinner, you receive payment in full for all your past services. A meal is the return which your grand friendship yields you; the great man scores it against you, and though it come but seldom, he scores it against you all the same. So if after a couple of months it is his pleasure to invite his forgotten client, lest the third place on the lowest couch should be unoccupied, and he says to you, "Come and dine with me," you are in the seventh Heaven! what more can you desire? Now at last has Trebius got the reward for which he must needs cut short his sleep, and hurry with shoe-strings untied, fearing that the whole crowd of callers may already have gone their rounds, at an hour when the stars are fading or when the chilly wain of Bootes is wheeling slowly round.