Our book today hails all the way from 1925: A Day in Old Rome by William Stearns Davis, a wonderfully amiable educator and writer who brought out this book as a follow-up to his 1914 A Day in Old Athens, which surprised both its author and its publisher by actually selling briskly in bookshops. A part of this resulted from the publisher’s decision to load the volume with pictures and drawings – picking up a copy in 2015 (at the Brattle Bookshop sale lot, of course), pitted and faded with decades of sitting in somebody’s attic, hardly gives a hint of how impressive a brand-new copy looked to browsers in Boston.
But a bigger reason for the success of A Day in Old Athens and then later A Day in Old Rome is Davis himself: he had an unfailing ability to break down the distance between the past and the present, an unfailing ability to put faces and names on the dry records of history. He could beguile a dinner party for two hours at an easy stretch by invoking some incident from the past and investing it with all the energy and day-to-day believability of the present day – it’s no wonder his many students (in Minnesota, of all godforsaken places) all sang his praises.
“This book,” he writes at the beginning of A Day in Old Rome, “tries to describe what an intelligent person would have witnessed in Ancient Rome if they by some legerdemain he had been translated to the Second Christian Century, and conducted about the imperial city under competent guidance.” And in order to provide that guidance, Davis invents a well-to-do middle class couple, Calvus and Gratia, and follows them everywhere in the course of a day. We get the breakdown of hours, the mechanics of breakfast, the workings of their household, and the planning of how they’ll spend their time. We watch Gratia deal with the fashions of the day, with the drama of the household staff, with the visits of her lady-friends. And we follow Calvus out into the hurly-burly of the City – which isn’t always a pleasant experience, as Davis somberly scolds:
Another thing becomes obvious after a short scrutiny – the vast numbers of idlers. People are incessantly lounging up and down the street manifestly with nothing important to do. Hard work and common trade are, as later explained, by no means genteel; and many a Roman who possesses merely the threadbare toga has his name on the list for corn doles prefers living by his wits in busy idleness, fawning on the great, and hunting dinner invitations to doing a stroke of honest labor.
While one corps of slaves was passing about the wine, asking each guest whether “Hot?” or “Cold?” others were distributing wreaths of fragrant flowers, to put on the forehead and even round the neck (by their odor supposedly preventing drunkenness) and also little alabaster vials of choice perfumes which the guests immediately broke and poured upon their hands and hair. Then followed long conversations, grave or gay according to the mood.
Technical, specific research has superseded A Day in Old Rome just a bit here and there, but whenever I go back to it, I’m always impressed by solid the thing is: Davis imbibed his classics well at Harvard, and he built his books to last. It’s a shame his fiction is now long gone and never to return, but I’m glad enough to visit ancient Rome with him from time to time.
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