New Year’s Toasting Redux

We haven’t read claims of the Roman origins of toasting — especially that once-common, and spurious, claim about putting a piece of burnt bread in wine to make it taste better  — for a while, but it seems that the latter-day mythologizers persist in wanting to somehow connect toasting to the Romans. The latest is a piece at NPR (for shame) which has a couple of questionable (perhaps) claims:

“There’s a thin line between history and folklore,” says historian Paul Dickson. He should know. He wrote a book about toasting called Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings and Graces. “But toasting definitely goes back to the ancient world.”

Ulysses drank to the health of Achilles in The Odyssey, he says. And in Rome, drinking to someone’s health was so important that the Senate demanded that all diners drink to their emperor, Augustus, before every meal.

… thin line indeed, and it seems to be crossed here. Near as I can tell, Achilles’ only appearance in the Odyssey is in book 11 and it’s as a shade of the dead. There is no toasting by Odysseus (why is he always Ulysses in US newspapers) … does Achilles appear elsewhere in a toast-worthy situation? As for the drinking to Augustus, I’d love to hear a source for that … so vague as to be meaningless and if thought about for even a few seconds, it makes no sense (enforceable? penalties? What about folks who couldn’t afford wine with their meal? Did it apply to drunks in tabernae?).

If you’re wondering about the ‘burnt toast’ thing:

CJ Online Review: Mellor, Historians of Ancient Rome, 3rd ed.

posted with permission:

The Historians of Ancient Rome: An Anthology of the Major Writings. Third Edition. Edited by RONALD MELLOR. London and New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xxx + 583. Paper, $42.95. ISBN 978-0-415-52716-3.

Reviewed by Herbert W. Benario, Emory University

When a volume intended for use in a college or university class reaches a third edition within fifteen years of first publication, it is a clear sign of the author’s success. Comparison with the first edition of 1997 shows evolution of Ronald Mellor’s concept.

The early volume was about fifty pages shorter than the present one, yet the philosophy behind them has changed dramatically. The former offered selections from only ten authors, the present one has twenty-one, including some whose names will likely be unknown to the average reader. In 1997 some works were presented in their entirety, such as Tacitus’ Life of Agricola. Now there are only twenty-two chapters, about half of the essay. Livy then had just over two hundred pages, now there are one hundred thirty-six. But the balance of the volume has been substantially improved, with a Timeline, an Introduction, brief comment on Reading Roman Historians, a Glossary, and a Select Bibliography. A student who comes to the study of the historians as a tabula rasa will now start the journey with some basic material at hand.

The additions are four historical inscriptions (the Twelve Tables, the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus, Claudius’ speech on the Gallic senators, and the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani), Cicero (though not an historian in a strict sense, but whose letters often treat of history), Nepos, Velleius Paterculus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger (like Cicero in his frequent discussion of historical events), Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Lactantius, Eusebius, and Zosimus. In the first edition, the first two authors were Greek, the remainder Latin, in the present reincarnation there are four additional Greek authors. A student will be more fully aware that the later empire consisted of two halves, speaking different languages.

Any selection of passages for a collection of this sort will leave many readers wishing that certain passages had been included and perhaps some of the offerings omitted. But any author or editor is aware that the publisher’s limitation of allotted words constricts many efforts. Nonetheless, I wish that two others had been added: Tacitus’ discussion of Maternus in the Dialogue on Orators 1–13 and Caesar’s gripping narrative from B.G. 5.24–48, dealing with the slaughter of Sabinus’ and Cotta’s men and the rescue of Quintus Cicero’s camp.

This is, quite literally, a heavy tome, which I should not wish to lug in a backpack. The publisher has done a fine job in production. The pages are pleasing in appearance, the type is of ample size for steady reading, proof reading has been very good. I discerned only five slips in Mellor’s introductory and closing material. They are: (1) p. xxi, bottom: Tacitus tells us in Agricola 45.5 that he was absent from Rome for four years, not five; (2) p. xxiii: Ammianus was born c. 330, not 350; (3) p. 575, under Campus Martius: Augustus did not build the Pantheon, which was Hadrian’s glory—perhaps the Ara Pacis was intended; (4) p. 576, under Proconsul, propraetor; (5) p. 578, under Julius Caesar, Handford.

I shall conclude this discussion of Mellor’s fine book with a paragraph from page xxviii:

Moral historiography became the conscience of the Roman People, and it is in Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, and Ammianus that we find the most cogent Roman discussions of freedom versus tyranny, the corrupting effect of individual or civic power, and the decline of political and social institutions. And these remain central issues for the historian of any age.

The linking of the names of the “big four” recalled for me the first significant volume dealing with these four which appeared after the conclusion of World War II, M.L.W. Laistner’s The Greater Roman Historians (1947). The four would now be differently evaluated, but they remain the glories of Latin historiography.

Classical Words of the Day


This Day in Ancient History:

ante diem iv nonas januarias

  • 43 B.C. — Octavian is granted propraetorian imperium and admitted to the senate
  • 17 A.D. — death of Publius Ovidius Naso … a.k.a. Ovid
  • 18 A.D. — death of Titus Livius … a.k.a. Livy
  • 69 A.D. — dies imperii of Vitellius
  • 1866 — birth of Gilbert Murray

… interesting entry in the lists of martyrs I consult … The Many Martyrs Who Suffered in Rome, commemorated today.