As the holiday season dies down, we’re left with fond memories, aching stomachs, fading hangovers, and of course the debris of gifts given and received. But amid the toys, clothes, books and edibles, there are usually a few gifts we’d rather not have received – things not to our taste, novelty items, or tat churned out by gift shops the world over. Perhaps a relative thought we’d like it. Perhaps a cheeky friend knew we wouldn’t.
The tackiest gift? Queen bobble heads, in Niagara Fall’s Souvenir City
The Romans also had a mid-winter celebration, Saturnalia, many of the habits of which are echoed in our Christmas festivities (unsurprisingly, since the Christian holiday arguably “took over” from Saturnalia when the Roman Empire gradually Christianized in the 4th and 5th C). Gift-giving in particular was a key part of the festival. Like us, the Romans gave clothes, toys, books and foodstuffs (fish sauce, anyone?), often sourcing luxury imported goods at great expense (the womb of a virgin pig?). But is there any evidence that the Romans, like us, got gifts they’d rather not have?
Gladiator helmet glass dropper-flask (3rd C AD, Cologne), in the British Museum.
The archaeological record certainly preserves objects that seem temptingly close to novelty items. This perfume bottle is designed in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet. In a world where gladiators were both celebrities and sex symbols, it’s hard not to see it as the Roman equivalent of a One Direction duvet cover. The famously tacky character Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon remarks at his dinner party that “I’ve got the fights of Hermeros and Petraites on a series of cups all of massive metal (Satyricon 52).” The Roman world did kitschy just as well as us.
Moreover, a shipment of crates which arrived in Pompeii on the eve of the infamous 79AD eruption hints at mass-produced gifts. It contained 76 pottery bowls from Southern Gaul (modern France) and 37 lamps from Northern Italy. There’s no shop connected to the find site, so the shipment doesn’t seem to have been for resale. Scholars have suggested instead that this is a box of gifts, to be split up and distributed. It arrived in late August/early September, near the end of the shipping season. We might complain about shops preparing for Christmas in November, but spare a thought for the Romans, who had to do their Christmas shopping even earlier.
It’s harder for us to know whether these gifts would have been welcomed. But there are hints in Roman writings that gifts were sometimes neither appropriate or appreciated. The poet Martial (second half of the 1st C AD) dedicated a whole book of epigrams to messages for gift tags. And as we’d expect from a tongue as ascerbic as Martial’s, these sentiments sometimes have a sting attached. When giving a leek, write, “Whenever you have eaten strong-smelling shreds of the Tarentine leek, give kisses with your mouth shut (Epigram 18).” Similarly, the Roman biographer-cum-historian Suetonius notes of the first emperor, Augustus, that:
“On the Saturnalia, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would give gifts of clothing or gold and silver; again coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money; another time nothing but hair cloth, sponges, pokers and tongs, and other such things under misleading names of double meaning.”
If the culture of Roman gift-giving was as fraught as our own, with pressure to buy imported gifts and a culture of double-edged presents, perhaps we can find new meaning in Virgil’s famous words, “I fear the Greeks, especially when they come bearing gifts.”