Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Walk Like a Roman

From Mary Beard's review, in the May 11 TLS, of Walking in Roman Culture by Timothy O'Sullivan:
The key Latin word in incessus, which literally means "gait" or "how a person moves on their feet." It is now regularly translated as "bearing" or "demeanor"; but that removes all sense of movement from it. "He has a noble bearing" may seem to us a more "natural" thing to say than "He has a noble way of walking." It is not often what the Romans said, wrote or meant. In ancient Rome how you walked was a sign of who you were. . . . It could be an indication of paternity. when people wondered whether Cleopatra's child, young Caesarion, really was the son of Julius Caesar, they pointed to his walk (incessus) as much as to his facial features. Gait rain in families. . . . As O'Sullivan observers, "a family gait was no less distinctive than a family nose."

Walking was also closely related to morals and social status. Slaves moved quickly; in fact they did not so much walk as run (servus currens, "the running slave" being almost a tautology). One particular social climber, parodied in the comedy of 'flat-footed' Plautus, was advised to slow down and to ape the exaggerated stately pace of the Roman gentleman (the only pace possible, I imagine, when you were formally dressed up in a toga). But it was important not to go too slowly; for that was the mark of a woman, or an effeminate.
O'Sullivan also passes along the story of ancient Iberians who were baffled by the noble Roman habit of strolling around while talking or thinking. The Iberians had the idea that you only walked when you had somewhere to go, and otherwise you sat still. This interested me because American Indians were also puzzled by the way Europeans walked without purpose, and they found pacing back and forth to be absolutely hilarious. Indians were great walkers, perfectly willing to walk hundreds of miles when they had to, but they felt no need to waste energy walking nowhere. The habit of strolling seems to be a product of urban civilization.

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