Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) Classics (2000-2011)
| HOME | FICTION | POETRY | SQUID | RANTS | archive | masthead |
Rant #516
(published December 9, 2010)
Scipio's Villa
by Seneca
I write this to you from the actual villa of Scipio Africanus. I have just done reverence to the hero's spirit and to an altar which I suspect is his tomb. His soul, I am convinced, has returned to the heavens whence it came, not because he commanded great armies—mad Cambyses did that, and exploited his madness to good effect—but because of his singular moderation and piety. This, I think, was more remarkable when he abandoned his country than when he defended it; it was impossible that he continue in Rome and Rome continue free. "I have no wish to make light of our laws and constitution," he said. "All citizens must have equal rights. Use the service I have done you, my country, but without my presence. I have been the cause of your liberty, and I shall be its proof. I depart if I have grown too big to be good for you."

How could I not admire the high spirit which withdrew him into voluntary exile and so disburdened the state? A situation had come about where either liberty must injure Scipio or Scipio liberty, and neither was admissible. So he made way for the laws and betook himself to Litemum, in the thought that his exile was as much a service to the state as was Hannibal's.

I have looked at the villa built of squared blocks, the wall enclosing a grove, towers buttressed on both sides as a bulwark for the house, a cistern hidden among buildings and shrubbery which might be adequate for an army, and a cramped bath, quite unlighted, after the old fashion; our ancestors thought a hot bath must be dark. It afforded me great satisfaction to compare Scipio's habits with ours. In this cranny the terror of Carthage, whom Rome had to thank that the Gallic sack was not repeated, used to wash down a body tired out by field chores. For he used to do real work, and himself cultivated his acres, as was the regular practice in the old days. It was under this dingy ceiling he stood, this very ordinary floor held his weight.

Who would tolerate such bathing nowadays? A man thinks himself poor and slovenly if his walls are not shiny with large and costly mirrors, if his Alexandrian marbles are not figured with slabs from Numidia, if there is no border elaborately worked around the whole with a varied pictorial pattern, if there is no room enclosed in glass, if there is no Thasian marble—once a rare sight in an occasional temple—to line the pools into which we lower our bodies when they have been reduced by a hard sweat, when the spigots for discharging the water are not silver. So far I have been speaking of ordinary establishments; what shall I say when I come to the freedmen's baths? What a quantity of statuary, what a quantity of columns that hold nothing up but are planted as extravagant ornaments! What a quantity of water, arranged to produce a series of crashing falls! We have become so dainty that we will tread only on gems.

In this bath of Scipio's there are not windows but chinks cut out of the masonry to admit light without weakening the structure. Nowadays they call baths moth-dens if they are not planned to get sun all day through spacious windows, unless they can bathe and tan simultaneously, unless they have a view of the countryside and the sea from their tubs. So it is; bathhouses which drew admiring throngs when they were dedicated are dismissed and relegated to the category of the superannuated as soon as luxury has devised some new gadget to bury itself under. Once baths were few and had no elegant trimmings. Why trim out a place meant for use, not luxury, where the admission is a penny? There were no showers in those days, nor a continuous stream as from a hot spring, and they didn't think it mattered how crystal the water to leave their dirt in was.

Good heavens, what a joy to step into that dimly lit bath, covered with an ordinary roof, in the knowledge that Cato as aedile, look you, or Fabius Maximus, or one of the Comelii had tempered the water with his own hand! Even the noblest aediles, as part of their function, used to enter the resorts which catered to the populace and insist upon cleanliness and a moderate and healthy temperature, not the blazing heat newly introduced, so great indeed that a slave convicted of crime should be bathed alive! Now I think a man might as well say, "The bath is on fire," as, "The bath is warm."

Nowadays some people write Scipio down a yokel because he let no daylight into his sweat room, did not broil in a strong glare, or wait in his bath until he stewed. "Ah, a disaster of a man! He didn't know how to live. The water he bathed in was not filtered but often cloudy, and after heavy rains almost muddy." Baths like that did not bother Scipio; he had come to wash off sweat, not perfume. And what kind of remark do you suppose this will elicit? "I don't envy Scipio; a man who bathed that way was really living in exile." If you must know, he didn't bathe every day. Writers who have recorded the manners of our old Romans tell us that they washed their arms and legs every day—these, of course, they dirtied working—and took a whole bath once a week. "I can see they were very dirty," someone will say. "How do you suppose they smelled?" Of soldiery and exertion and manliness. Men are fouler now, after baths came to be trimmed out. When Horace chooses to describe an infamous fellow, notorious for his mincing foppishness, what does he say? "Buccillus smells of pastilles" (Sermones 1.2.27). Show me a Buccillus today: his smell would seem goatish, like the noisome Gargonius with whom Horace contrasts Buccillus. For today it is not enough to use perfume unless you apply it two or three times a day, to keep it from evaporating on the body. And why should a man preen himself on the scent as if it were his own?

If all this strikes you as too gloomy charge it up to Scipio's house, where I learned from Aegialus, who is a frugal householder and now owns the farm, that a tree can be transplanted even if it is quite old. We old fellows need to know this, for we all plant olive orchards for others to enjoy.

Seneca was a stoic philosopher from ancient Rome.

Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece

see other pieces by this author

Poor Mojo's Tip Jar:

The Next Rant piece (from Issue #517):

Susie's Letter from Santa
by Mark Twain

The Last few Rant pieces (from Issues #515 thru #511):

Sirkus Andromeda
by Jane Røken

No Rules
by Keith Landrum

Unholy Eucharist
by Gary Presley

Hi My Dearie
by Michelle Fadem

The Ordeal Of Change
by Frank Sloan

Rant Archives

Contact Us

Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson

More Copyright Info