XX. THE ROMAN REPUBLICANS SERIOUS AND GAY.
As early as the time of the first Punic war, a consul was bold enough to jest at the auspices in public. Superstitions and impostures flourished, the astrology of ancient Chaldea spread, the Oriental ceremonies were introduced with the pomps that accompanied the reception of the unformed boulder which the special embassy brought from Pessinus when the weary war with Hannibal had rendered any source of hope, even the most futile, inspiring. [Footnote: B.C. 204. See page 153.] Then the abominable worship of Bacchus came in, and thousands were corrupted and made vicious throughout Italy before the authorities were able to put a stop to the midnight orgies and the crimes that daylight exposed.
Cato the elder, who would have nothing to do with consulting Chaldeans or magicians of any sort, asked how it were possible for two such ministers to meet each other face to face without laughing at their own duplicity and the ridiculous superstition of the people they deceived. [Footnote: It had been in early times customary to dismiss a political gathering if a thunder-storm came up, and the augurs had taken advantage of the practice to increase their own power by laying down an occult system of celestial omens which enabled them to bring any such meeting to a close when the legislation promised to thwart their plans. They finally reached the absurd extreme of enacting a law, by the terms of which a popular assembly was obliged to disperse, if it should occur to a higher magistrate merely to look into the heavens for signs of the approach of such a storm. The power of the priests under such a law was immeasurable. (See pages 236 and 247). ] Cato was very much shocked by the preaching of three Greek philosophers: Diogenes, a stoic; Critolaus, a peripatetic; and Carneades, an academic, who visited Rome on a political mission, B.C. 155; because it seemed to him that they, especially the last, preached a doctrine that confounded justice and injustice, a system of expediency, and he urged successfully that they should have a polite permission to depart with all speed. The philosophers were dismissed, but it was impossible to restrain the Roman youth who had listened to the addresses of the strangers with an avidity all the greater because their utterances had been found scandalous, and they went to Athens, or Rhodes, to hear more of the same doctrine.
Thus in time the simplicity of the people was completely undermined, and while they became more cosmopolitan they also grew more lax. They used the Greek language, and employed Greek writers, as we have seen, to make their books for them, which, though bearing Greek titles, were composed in Latin. The public men performed in the forenoon their civil and religious acts; took their siestas in the middle of the day; exercised in the Campus Martius, swimming, wrestling, and fencing, in the afternoon; enjoyed the delicacies of the table later, listening to singing and buffoonery the while, and were thus prepared to seek their beds when the sun went down. At the bath, which came to be the polite resort of pleasure-seekers, all was holiday; the toga and the foot-coverings were exchanged for a light Greek dressing-gown, and the time was whiled away in gossip, idle talk, lounging, many dippings into the flowing waters, and music. Pleasure became the business of life, and morality was relaxed to a frightful extent.
When we consider the gay moods of the Roman people we turn probably first to childhood, and try to imagine how the little ones amused themselves. We find that the girls had their dolls, some of which have been dug out of ruins of the ancient buildings, and that the boys played games similar to those that still hold dominion over the young English or American school-boy at play. In their quieter moods they played with huckle-bones taken from sheep, goats, or antelopes, or imitated in stone, metal, ivory, or glass. From the earliest days these were used chiefly by women and children, who used five at a time, which they threw into the air and then tried to catch on the back of the hand, their irregular form making the success the result of considerable skill. The bones were also made to contribute to a variety of amusements requiring agility and accuracy; but after a while the element of chance was introduced. The sides were marked with different values, and the victor was he who threw the highest value, fourteen, the numbers cast being each different from the rest. This throw obtained at a symposium or drinking party caused a person to be appointed king of the feast.
One of the oldest games of the world is that called by the Romans little marauders (latrunculi), because it was played like draughts or checkers, there being two sets of "men," white and red, representing opposed soldiers, and the aim of each player being to gain advantage over the other, as soldiers do in a combat. This game is as old as Homer, and is represented in Egyptian tombs, which are of much greater antiquity than any Grecian monuments. In this game, too, skill was all that was needed at first, but in time spice was given by the addition of chance, and dice (tessera, a die) were used as in backgammon; but gambling was deemed disreputable, and was forbidden during the republic, except at the time of the Saturnalia, though both Greeks and Romans permitted aged men to amuse themselves in that way. [Footnote: A gambler was called aleator, and sometimes his implement was spoken of as alea, which meant literally gaming. When Suetonius makes Cæsar say, before crossing the Rubicon, "The die is cast," he uses the words Jacta alea est!]