Peter Jones

Why Rome didn’t need the Garrick

[Picturenow Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

What fun to mock the elite in the Garrick! But there were no Garricks in Rome: clubs were for those lower down the scale.

They were called collegia and consisted of citizens, freedmen (ex-slaves) and in some cases slaves. All usually had some religious connection and were properly organised with presidents, treasurers and so on. Some were dedicated to maintaining ancient cults; others served the locality; then there were burial clubs, dedicated to appropriate gods, providing (for a regular fee) monthly group dinners and a guaranteed urn for their ashes in their private facilities (for their slaves and freedmen Augustus and his wife Livia provided buildings with 6,000 urns). The rules of one club include: ‘Any member abusing another or becoming obstreperous shall be fined 12ss, any member insolent to the club president, 20ss.’

Then there were guilds, associations of workers. At Rome’s port Ostia, we hear of shipbuilders, dock hands, warehouse guards, grain measurers, caulkers, ropemakers and urinatores (‘divers’, rescuing cargo lost overboard). Electioneering graffiti from Pompeii record e.g. fruit sellers, mule-drivers, carpenters, innkeepers, bakers, porters and chicken sellers urging passers-by to vote for this or that candidate for office. That makes the political point. Such groups could wield influence, which might attract patrons to support them in the town council. That said, the elite were always wary of the collegia concept, because they could become forces for political change (Trajan told the governor Pliny not to allow firefighters to start a club in his province for that very reason). So they would calculate carefully if it was in their interests to become involved with any such group. Some did indeed use them to cause political chaos.

These guilds underpinned the Roman economy, and the whole club culture provided the underclasses with mutual support, welfare, a sense of belonging and the possibility of influencing policies. But why no clubs for toffs? Because they all knew each other already and had their own private villas where they could meet. Cicero is said to have had seven.