Nemo saltat sobrius: Dancing in Ancient Rome

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.


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.

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

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