Happy New Year, Roman Style: Time to Get Baking!

I am working, rather dilatorily, on a substantial paper on ‘fringe epigraphy’– inscriptions at the margins of what epigraphists tend to be interested in.

This paper matters a great deal to me, for I believe that the Romans inhabited a fundamentally lettered world. I believe that, in order to appreciate the role of reading and writing in the Roman world, we must look at everyday objects which bear letters on them rather than (just) literature and objects of monumental decoration.

But this is not the time for any such serious business. We are in the festive season, after all!

So let’s have something rather more lighthearted instead…

As I was compiling the evidence for Roman ‘fringe epigraphy’, I have been setting aside a great trouvaille for this blog post – a blog post to celebrate the impending New Year.

And now it is high time to share this remarkable object with my readership.

Here it is:

As the writing in the negative gives away immediately, this object is an inscription that is designed to multiply its message, i. e. a stamp or stencil.

The stamp’s inscription, enclosed in a tabula ansata (the iconic ‘winged tablet’ of the Romans), reads as follows (CIL III 6287):

Accipio | annu(m) | novu(m) | felice(m).

I receive a happy new year.

What makes it so interesting to me, then, is this: the object has been described as a stamp for baked goods – so, like other scholars, I would like to think of it as a stamp for cookies or biscuits of sorts (which may or may pertain to a religious cult of sorts).

The inscribed message itself has been found in several dozens of other Latin inscriptions (though not on any surviving biscuits, sadly!) – it is a rather common wish, often inscribed on clay lamps and money boxes (Rome’s precursor of the piggy bank).

Here is but one example for the same kind of inscription on a clay lamp from Sepino (cf. A. Di Niro, Il museo sannitico di Campobasso. Catalogo della collezione provinciale, Pescara 2007, 162):

It is inscribed as follows:

Annum | novum | faustum | felicem | mihi.

Happy, Auspicious New Year to me!

One could go to great lengths to discuss the ways in which people in the Roman empire celebrated the new year (like Mary Beard does in this hugely entertaining little clip).

On the basis of the material evidence, one would soon notice to what extent the Roman notion of a ‘happy new year’ was, in fact, a fundamentally materialist one (did you spot the coins and ears of grain on the lamp?), and how much that notion depended on prosperity and security, financial and otherwise.

But what really fascinates me about the biscuit stamp is something else.

It is the idea that the Romans produced inscribed, lettered objects that were meant to be ingested – objects that wished them a prosperous, happy new year.

The reason why this resonates with me so much, I suppose, is that our language is full of verbal images that relate notions of food and eating with that of intellectual engagement with texts: we eat words, devour books, digest what we have read (or just go for the reader’s digest if we found the real thing too hard to swallow), and then praise wholesome, nourishing reads.

Of course, we don’t think this digestive process through all the time.

Otherwise we might have to ask: is it really a good idea to munch on, and to chew up, objects that are essentially good-luck wishes, only so that they could travel through our intestines towards their final destination?

Probably not.

But is this thought just superstitious nonsense? (To be fair, it probably is. But surely I’m not the only one out there who has a hard time chomping off the head of animals or other figures made of chocolate or marzipan…? It may be silly and superstitious, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a powerful concept!)

At any rate, the imagery that equates the consumption of the written word with that of food is not at all a modern one.

Most famously, perhaps, it features in the Septuagint, in Ezekiel 2:8–3:3 (ISV):

Son of Man, you are to listen to what I tell you. You are never to be rebellious like they are: a rebellious group. Now, open your mouth and eat what I’m giving you…

As I watched, all of a sudden there was a hand being stretched out in my direction! And there was a scroll

being unrolled right in front of me! Written on both sides were lamentations, mourning, and cries of grief.

Then he told me, “Son of Man, eat! Eat what you see —this scroll—and then go talk to the house of Israel.”

So I opened my mouth and he fed me the scroll.

Then he told me, “Son of Man, fill your stomach and digest this scroll that I’m giving you.” So I ate it, and it was like sweet honey in my mouth.

Cicero, too, uses this imagery, in his letters to Atticus, namely at Cic. Att. 126 (= 7.3.2) S-B:

quid enim tibi faciam, qui illos libros devorasti

For what can I do for you, as you have devoured those books

and similarly at Att. 86 (= 4.11.2) S-B:

nos hic voramus litteras cum homine mirifico (ita mehercule sentio) Dionysio, qui te omnisque vos salutat: οὐδὲν γλυκύτερον ἢ πάντ᾽ εἰδέναι.

Here we devour literature with that amazing man (I mean it, by Hercules), Dionysius, who extends his greetings to you and all: there is no sweeter thing than being omniscient. 

And finally, the idea of ‘eating books’ even features in Artemidoruswork on the interpretation of ominous dreams (2.45), where he explains that –

Eating books signifies benefits for teachers, sophists, and for all those who earn a living from words or books. But for other men, it portends sudden death.

Back to more cheerful, festive thoughts.

The New Year biscuits of ancient Rome, inscribed with their magical formula accipio | annu(m) | novu(m) | felice(m) (‘I receive a happy new year‘) – a magical formula that may remind of similar spoken formulae, e. g. those used in the context of sacramental bread – merges the metaphorical and the literal intake of written words.

In fact, it is, in a number of ways, a bit like a positive counterpart to the binding spell of ancient curse tablets, as it allows the devourer, quite literally, to be filled with the (again quite literally!) strong, positive energy of the New Year’s wish – an idea that has not at all died out in the context of the emotional celebrations for New Year’s Eve.

And on that note: Happy New Year, everyone!

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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