With unwashed feet

Giotto di Bondone, “Washing of Feet,” 1304-06. Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua, Italy.













In the ancient world, hand and foot washing of guests or travelers was an act of hospitality, the sign of a meal to come. When Romans arrived at a banquet, their shoes were removed by slaves, who washed their feet and replaced the shoes, only to remove them again when the guests arrived in the dining room and lay down to eat on couches. In PetroniusSatyricon, the foot washing slaves perform something of a pedicure for the guests. Foot washing always had servile connotations. In the Gospel According to John, when Jesus bent down to wash the feet of his disciples at the last supper, Simon Peter was scandalized. “Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet! Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8).

Foot washing was also a sign of preparation, hence the saying, “with unwashed feet,” to describe someone who jumps into a task without thinking.


Welcome all deities

Photo: Roman General, 1st century CE, figurine by Young Miniatures.

One unique element in the religion of ancient Rome was its ability to incorporate many different gods and goddesses from the peoples it conquered. One way in which this was done was a ceremony called evocatio, which means “summoning away.” It is described in Religions of Rome, Volume II, by Mary Beard, John North and Simon PriceBefore attacking a town, they write, “The Roman general would offer the enemy god a cult and temple in Rome —so depriving the enemy of their divine protection, while at the same time incorporating a new deity into the Roman pantheon.”

One example of this is found in Livy’s History of Rome, when the general (at this time, a dictator) Marcus Furius Camillus attacked Veii, a major Etruscan city near Rome, in 390 BCE. Livy writes, “After consulting the auspices, the dictator went out and ordered the soldiers to take up arms. ‘It is under your leadership,’ he said, ‘Pythian Apollo, and inspired by your majesty, that I proceed to destroy the city of Veii. And I vow to you a tenth part of the spoils. To you also, Juno Regina, who now lives in Veii, I pray that after our victory you will accompany us to our city —soon to be your city— to be received in a temple worthy of your greatness.'”

How clients are entertained

Mosaic of slaves serving at a banquet, from Carthage, 3rd century CE. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Barbara McManus












Ancient Rome was full of dubious hospitality. The complicated system of patronage meant that clients were occasionally invited to a banquet, in gratitude or reciprocity for all their efforts on their patron’s behalf. It was not uncommon for guests at the same party to be treated to different food and wine, served on different plates and glasses, depending on where they stood in the social hierarchy. J.P.V.D. Balsdon notes in Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome, that “(t)his differentiation, it seems, could be made even between guests at the same table.”

In “How Clients Are Entertained,” Juvenal, taking the part of the client/guest, asks, “[i]s a dinner worth all the insults with which you have to pay for it?”

“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…

“The page [slave] who has cost so many thousands cannot mix a drink for a poor man: but then his beauty, his youth, justify his disdain! … It is beneath him to attend to an old dependent; he is indignant that you should ask for anything, and that you should be seated while he stands. All your great houses are full of saucy slaves. See with what a grumble another of them has handed you a bit of hard bread that you can scarce break in two, or bits of solid dough that have turned mouldy – stuff that will exercise your grinders  and into which no tooth can gain admittance. For [the host] himself a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the bread-basket! …’What?’ you may ask, ‘was it for this that I would so often leave my wife’s side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak?’

Juvenal, Satire V, 20-25; 60-70. Loeb edition, translated by G.G. Ramsay


What we owe our guests


Bronze hospitality tessera, from the 1st century BCE. Found in Castillo de Cedrillas, Teruel, Spain. From the Museo Aqueológico Nacional.

In Latin, the word for guest and host are the same: hospes, reflecting the idea that one should be an excellent host on principle, because one would surely be a guest before long. Reciprocity of this kind played an important role at a time when there were few amenities or services for those in transit, and traveling was a dangerous business. According to A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, a connection of private hospitality to a Roman implied a bond more sacred than that which he owed his own blood relations, and required receiving a traveler in his home, offering him protection, and representing him in court, if need be. Once established, these relationships could go on over centuries. A traveler seeking to activate a mutual aid connection would present a hospitality tessera, like the one above, when arriving at someone’s home. This was something between an identity card and a token, to identify the traveler, who might be several generations removed from the host family’s original friend. Sometimes, the tessera was two pieces of a whole, that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Think of a familiar story about strangers from another part of the ancient world: Lot greeted two angels visiting Sodom, offering them hospitality, including a feast and shelter in his home. When the men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that he hand his guests over to them, Lot pleaded, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” — GENESIS 19:1-11.

This puts the occasional house visit (from in-laws, college friends and long-lost acquaintances from the Old Country) into perspective, no?


Seneca on Saturday — dangerous dinner party

Bust of Gaius Caesar, aka “Caligula,” from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen.

Lord Macaulay once said that Seneca the Younger was easily quotable, but reading him straight through would be like “dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.”

I agree! Thus I present some of the condensed wit and wisdom of Seneca, every Saturday.

Here is a curious story of survival at Court. Seneca tells this story as an example of the hospitality one could expect from Gaius Caesar, aka “Caligula,” the third Emperor of Rome.


On Anger

Gaius Caesar, offended with the son of Pastor, a distinguished Roman knight, because of his foppishness and his too elaborately dressed hair, sent him to prison; when the father begged that his son’s life might be spared, Caesar, just as if he had been reminded to punish him, ordered him to be executed forthwith; yet in order not to be wholly brutal to the father, he invited him to dine with him that day. Pastor actually came and showed no reproach in his countenance. Caesar, taking a cup, proposed his health and set some one to watch him; the poor wretch went through with it, although he seemed to be drinking the blood of his Son. Caesar then sent him perfume and garlands of flowers and gave orders to watch whether he used them: he used them. On the very day on which he had buried – no, before he had yet buried – his son, he took his place among a hundred dinner-guests, and, old and gouty as he was, drained a draught of wine that would scarce have been a seemly potion even on the birthday of one of his children, all the while shedding not a single tear nor by any sign suffering his grief to be revealed; at the dinner he acted as if he had obtained the pardon he had sought for his son. Do you ask why? He had a second son.

From Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younnger, Moral Essays, Volume I, translated by John W. Basore. Loeb Classical Library.