Latin Words and Grammar

Nemo Saltat Sobrius: Dancing in Ancient Rome

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In 62 B.C. a man named Lucius Licinius Mure­na was up for tri­al in Rome. He was accused of bribery.

Mure­na had served in the mil­i­tary and had lat­er made him­self pop­u­lar as a politi­cian. In 62 B.C. he was elect­ed con­sul of Rome, but short­ly after hav­ing been elect­ed, before even tak­ing office, he was accused of cor­rup­tion and bribery.

To defend him, he had three defense attor­neys: Mar­cus Licinius Cras­sus, Quin­tus Hort­en­sius Hor­talus and, the one and only, Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero. He was acquit­ted of his crimes.

Party-Proverb

So what has all of this to do with dancing?

Well, in his defense speech, Pro Mure­na (13.8), Cicero uttered what would become one of the most famous lines in his­to­ry: Nemo saltat sobrius.

Only, he did not real­ly say it that way. The ver­sion used today is a short­ed ver­sion of the orig­i­nal. What Cicero real­ly said was:

“Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit.”

— Cicero

i.e. ”Almost nobody dances sober, unless, of course, he is mad.”

This very good line has through­out the ages has become short­ened, and some­where along the line peo­ple start­ed to use it more and more proverbially.

Defending a Dancer

Cicero used this line in a response to the accu­sa­tions of Cato Minor for the prosecution.

Cato, accord­ing to Cicero’s speech, had called Mure­na a dancer. (Mur. 13.1) This was, accord­ing to Cicero, a way to attack Mure­na’s pri­vate life and his vices. Cicero most ardent­ly called this accu­sa­tion false and deemed it slan­der­ous abuse.

This might seem odd. To be upset because some­one called your client a dancer. How­ev­er, when it came to the mat­ter of danc­ing in ancient Rome, things are not as easy as they might seem.

Through the remains of texts and art, danc­ing has been described as pri­mar­i­ly for enter­tain­ment. In Greece danc­ing and dancers had a rather high sta­tus due to the use of danc­ing in reli­gious events. In Rome, this was, to our knowl­edge, nor­mal­ly not the case (there are some excep­tions, such as, for exam­ple, danc­ing priests and fer­til­i­ty danc­ing for Pan). Instead dancers were pro­fes­sion­als of low sta­tus, usu­al­ly wear­ing masks and were hired to dance as a per­for­mance to entertain.

Drunken Dance

The Romans them­selves, at least not the nobil­i­ty, is said not to have danced. Or rather — you did not dance alone, and you did not dance sober. Danc­ing, explains Cicero, is the last of all vices. Danc­ing comes after a long feast and after great enjoy­ment with all of a feast’s attrib­ut­es. And, he says, as you already know: 

Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit.

Debauchery & Dancing

With his com­ment that Mure­na was a dancer, Cato (at least accord­ing to Cicero) was try­ing to imply that Mure­na was guilty of debauch­ery, since danc­ing came with so much more than just danc­ing — it came with drink­ing, par­ty­ing, riotous behav­iour, extrav­a­gant liv­ing, lust, etc.

But Cato gave no proof of any of the oth­er par­ty­ing vices that must come before danc­ing, and with­out which, danc­ing, accord­ing to Cicero, could not be in the first place.

Cicero added that, when it came to Mure­na, there was none of these vices to be found. If this was true or not, we will nev­er know. 


In the same speech, Cicero also gave us the expres­sion Has­tas abicere. Learn more about it here

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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