Ancient and modern

Stranger than fiction

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

8 January 2022

9:00 AM

Saturnalia was a period of Roman fun and games held just before our Christmas. Macrobius (c. ad 430) composed a series of conversations enjoyed by cultured Romans over this festive period, covering a vast range of topics, one of which featured amusing true stories. What better way to start the year?

The emperor Augustus, tired of being offered epigrams almost daily by a poor Greek, dashed off one in Greek himself and gave it to him. Expressing his admiration, the Greek gave Augustus a few coins, swearing he would have given more if he had them. Everyone burst out laughing, and Augustus gave him 100,000 sesterces.

A man appeared in Rome, looking remarkably like Augustus. Augustus summoned him and asked: ‘Was your, er, mother ever in Rome?’ ‘No’, came the reply, ‘but my father was, often.’


Vatinius, staging some feeble games in Rome, was stoned. He persuaded the aediles to decree that only fruit be thrown in the arena. The lawyer Cascellius was asked if pine cones were a fruit. ‘Only if they’re being thrown at Vatinius,’ he replied.

In 31 bc Augustus was returning to Rome after his victory over Antony at Actium. A man greeted him with a raven taught to say: ‘Hail Caesar, victorious commander!’ Impressed, Augustus gave him 20,000 sesterces for it. The man’s associate, left empty-handed, said they had another raven, which Augustus asked to be shown. That one squawked: ‘Hail Antony, victorious commander!’ Not at all put out, Augustus told them to split the cash.

He also bought a similarly trained parrot and magpie. A poor shoe-maker decided to try his luck and with his last pennies bought a raven to train up. When it stayed resolutely dumb, he kept on muttering: ‘What a waste of time and effort!’ However, the raven finally got the hang of it. Augustus heard it as he passed by, but said he had enough birds at home already. At this point the raven remembered his master’s next words and said: ‘What a waste of time and effort!’ Augustus fell about laughing and bought the bird for more than all the rest.

Happier new year!

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