The Roman calendar included over 200 holidays, festivals, and special events every year, and Apalachicolans aren’t far behind in their mania for celebrations. Our Main Street group is sponsoring its annual Autos and Oysters Car Show this Saturday, showcasing automobiles owned by area collectors, and their Sock Hop on the City Docks follows, with a DJ spinning 1950s tunes, ‘50s attire encouraged, and oysters in abundance. Both events are gratis, that’s Latin for “free.”
Cars, oysters, and music?—the Romans would have loved it! Some were even into dancing too, and they may have worn socci, pronounced “socky” and source of our word “sock” (though they were actually thin slippers). Cicero, however, groused that folks who danced were either drunk or crazy—maybe both, I’m thinking!
The ancients were crazy for oysters for sure, all the way back to prehistoric times. The finest of these delectable mollusks - raw, in casseroles, and fried - were a rich man’s food, and wealthy Romans would import ostreae from as far away as England and Turkey, just as New Yorkers gladly pay a premium for our succulent, briny Apalach bivalves. Some of the best in antiquity were from south Italy, and oysters harvested from Brundisium on the southeast coast were transported across the Apennines and transplanted into Campania’s Lucrine Lake to fatten up before being harvested and carted to the capital for the tables of Rome’s “1 percenters.” A local engineer and entrepreneur, Gaius Sergius Orata, is credited with inventing new technologies, including artificial oyster beds, to commercialize the industry.
Gorging on these delicacies was a means of showing off one’s wealth. The satirist Juvenal depicts an extravagant glutton downing 100 at one sitting, which of course wouldn’t come close to matching the record at our Florida Seafood Festival’s annual competition! The emperor Vitellius is said to have gorged himself on 1,000 at a single meal. He reigned for only eight months in A.D. 69, slain by Vespasian’s soldiers according to official accounts, though my theory is he got a bad oyster.
Fast and fancy cars were another extravagance Romans had a passion for. Even Roman children had toy carts pulled by mice, just as our kids growing up loved their Hot Wheels and Tonka Trucks. The internal combustion engine wouldn’t be invented until centuries later, but the Romans had many types of wheeled vehicles, employed for both pleasure and business, including transporting those pricey oysters over the mountains. The word “automobile” was a 19th-century French invention, a hybrid of Greek and Latin roots meaning “self-propelled” as opposed to horse-drawn. But the term “vehicle” goes back to classical Latin vehere, which gives us conVEY, and vehiculum, a wheeled conVEYance. “Car” comes from a Latin word too, carra, originally a two-wheeled Gallic wagon for transporting goods.
The Romans had a variety of carts and wagons, drawn by horses or oxen, for moving military supplies overland, hauling building materials, and taking produce to market from their farms. There were canopied litters and sedan-chairs too, carried by six or eight brawny slaves to taxi fat-cat lawyers and other rich folks around town, and luxurious four-wheeled covered coaches, sometimes rentals, to get them to their pricey vacation homes on the Bay of Naples - where the oysters were fresher of course.
The 1st-century B.C. poet Catullus tells of offering a sassy girl use of his sedan chair to impress her. When she surprises him by instantly accepting the offer, he is forced to confess he has neither chair nor bearers. In “Drive My Car,” the Beatles (Paul studied Latin in grammar school) flipped that story: “she said listen babe I got something to say / I got no car and it’s breaking my heart / But I’ve found a driver and that’s a start.”
The Romans faced off against Gallic war-chariots on the battlefield and had their own shiny, streamlined models, typically drawn by four horses (a quadriga), for racing Ben Hur-style around the Circus Maximus to the ear-shattering cheers of 200,000 screaming spectators. Give the people “bread and circuses”/panem (as in PANera) et circenses, Juvenal observed, and they will happily surrender their liberty. Young rich kids would hot-rod on the highways outside Rome too. The same satirist complains of a boy flying down the Flaminian Way north of the city, with his girlfriend on board sporting a military jacket hippie-style.
If you were poor you walked, and ran the risk of having your skull cracked by a bin of garbage tossed out an upper-story window of a high-rise tenement. Walk the streets at night and you might be mugged by some lout who’ll knock out your teeth and later take you to court for assault. Worse yet, a wobbling stone or timber truck, like one of our 18-wheelers, may tip over and topple its load onto you and your pals. Next morning it’ll be hard to identify your crushed limbs or bones, as your penniless soul sits, awaiting passage, on the banks of the river Styx.
Far better to be on the banks of the Apalach, feasting on the freshest of oysters, wearing our dancing socci, and of course enjoying those vintage cars… “beep beep’m beep beep yeah!”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.