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roman left and right hands
Date: Wed, 26 May 1993
From: William Turpin
Subject: Romans' left and right hands

Maybe this is a stupid question, but here goes. I was reading something this semester, probably Tacitus or Suetonius, which suggested that for a Roman wearing a toga to use his left hand was not only improper, it was downright disgusting. So one question is, was this really a serious thing? (I've never known as much about "rank and gesture" as I should, Richard Brilliant and Peter Brown notwithstanding). The embarrassing question is, was the left hand supposed to be concealed for the same reason that--and this too is a dim memory--Moslems (or Arabs?) traditionally only eat with their right hands, viz. that the left is used for personal hygene? I don't suppose this matters much, but I found it troubling that I didn't know. It does rather affect one's image of Daily Life.
Date: Thu, 27 May 1993
From: Lowell Edmunds
Subject: Re: Romans' left and right hands

On the Romans' left hand: did you check Marquardt - Mau?
Date: Wed, 2 Jun 1993
From: David Meadows
Subject: Re: Romans' left and right hands

At one time I too would have thought that the reason for keeping the left hand covered was because of associations with personal hygiene, but I can't recall anywhere where such an association is made in Roman times. Of course, Ovid (Met. 13.111) and Catullus (12.1 but cf. 33.3) suggest that the left hand is the one traditionally used for theft. But I suspect that the real reason it was considered a nasty thing for someone clad in a toga to uncover their left hand was because, in the case of an advocate or rhetor or politician or whomever else might find an occasion to be so attired, it would lead to excessive gesturing which, it seems was offensive to refined sensibilities. Whoever wrote the *ad Herennium* 3.15.26 sez `Convenit igitur in vultu pudorem et acrimoniam esse, in gestu nec venustatem conspiciendam nec turpitudinem esse, ne aut histriones aut operarii videamur esse'. [the note to the Loeb edition notes that Quintillian 2.3 provides a fuller treatment of gesture] So it seems to be a `class thang' rather than a hygiene thang.

Date: Wed, 2 Jun 1993
Subject: Re: Romans' left and right hands

For the Romans, excessive gesture was an ethnic give-away as well as a social-class indicator. The Romans associated gesticulation with inferior types (less modestia, or incontinentia) and with the stigmatics of theater (again, see Edwards' recent _Politics of Immorality_, also Graf in Bremmer and Roodenburg (misnomered) _Cultural History of Gesture_). Of course North Atlantic rim types also connect limb and facial expressiveness with inferior types (not only Greeks, Syrians, and Jews, but (irony of ironies) Italians, Spaniards, African-Americans in a previous epoch --in fact anyone trying to make him/herself understood to a blockhead Northerner aiming a gun at them/him/her). Not only ad Herennium (the best Loeb your $16.50! can buy; take it from a student of Harry Caplan), but de oratore, as well as Quintilian and Senecae (sic) discuss the inappropriateness of gesture that makes you look like an actor, a woman, a foreigner (three lesser forms of life in Roman discourse; again Edwards discusses this).
Culled from classics.log9305 and classics.log9306
Copyright © 2001 David Meadows
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