The Entourage in Antiquity
Sarah E. Bond
In December of 45 BCE, Caesar took a vacation to Campania with an entourage of 2,000 persons, many of which were probably soldiers. Cicero notes that while he was there staying with his neighbor, the two dined together and discussed literature (Cic. Att. 13.52)—which was probably the safest topic given the political storms brewing. Everywhere Caesar went, a deluge of petitions were presented to him and a number of favors asked for. Consequently, for both protective and administrative purposes, it made sense to travel with a large entourage. Although often necessary, there was tremendous expense associated with traveling with such a large group.
This observation holds true even today. Celebrities such as J.Lo or M.C. Hammer (most notoriously) and TV shows such as Entourage demonstrate that a retinue is an expensive thing to acquire and to maintain. The implication of having one is, in fact, that you have the money and the prestige to support not only yourself, but also this retinue of hangers on. The size of an entourage is thus commensurate with one’s status, which can then be easily evaluated visually. This was true in antiquity as well.
Although many of the cultures within the ancient Mediterranean relied on extensive patronage networks to bind the social orders, Rome in particular had a defined patron-client system. This allowed for a ritualized gathering of a patron’s posse and the quick activation of an entourage if need be. In the morning, a client went to the atrium of his patron’s house. From there, they might follow their patron to the Roman Forum, so that he could be seen with a large retinue. Later, they might clap for his speeches or perhaps go to the baths with him or her. Wherever powerful men or women went, one had to make way not only for them, but also for their entourage.
For this service, clients were paid a sportula (“a little basket”) that once contained food, but later was probably money. In the late first century, one usually got 25 asses, or a little bit more than six sesterces. We know from Pliny that legionaries got about 100 sesterces a month, and other sources indicate that day laborers received about 4 sesterces per day (Bablitz, 131). In other words, though they often complained, being part of a patronus posse was not bad work if you could get it.
Another choice one had to make in ancient Rome was if you were going to travel in style. Litters were an expensive, often ostentatious display of wealth. However, it was an effective, elite advertisement that many wealthy individuals engaged in. There was indeed a lot of muck on the streets (e.g., butcher’s remains, dead animals, feces), and a litter elevated you both literally and figuratively above this. Much in the way that party guests could be sent home by the manor’s carriage (cf. Downton Abbey), being able to lend one’s litter to another was yet another mark of stature, as when Varus’ girlfriend asked to borrow Catullus’ Bithynian litter-bearers (Cat. 10). Unfortunately, Catullus had lied about his servile services—another common way of pumping up one’s status.
Roman emperors were similarly surrounded by family and friends within their entourage; however it was on a much grander scale. This was an imitation of Hellenistic kings and the cohort of friends (cohors amicorum) that traveled with Roman governors (Van Tilburg, 77). Knights and senators also traveled with the emperor, as did a retinue of artists, writers, criers, and other liberal artists. Additionally there was often a medical staff and a number of slaves from the familia Caesaris. Hadrian took about 5,000 to Egypt with him, and thus needed 3,000 bundles of hay, 2,000 sheep, and 372 pigs. Before a trip taken by the emperor Caligula, the city had been wiped of all bread supplies and hundred of wagons were filled. When a king came or went, you knew it in terms of traffic congestion, food supplies, and noise pollution.
As is the case with litanies in ancient texts, antique sources often use extensive catalog numbers of supplies used by these entourages in order to demonstrate the amount of wealth (and luxurious behavior) engaged in by emperors. Moreover, one could expect that as emperors became more mobile—and were often farther and farther from Rome—in the later empire, that the cost of having this mobile court was high. Even these mobile courts had a very defined hierarchy that they advertised visually.
There was a defined etiquette and order for many of these regal entourages—much in the way there was when Baldesar Castiglione wrote his Book of the Courtier (1528). Even when they traveled, there was precise procedure. Curtius Rufus (3.3.8-16) laid out the entourage of Darius III as follows: 1. Fire on two silver altars in front 2. Magi 3. 365 men in purple robes 4. White horses pulling the chariot of Ahuramazda 5. 1 horse of the sun 6. 10 chariots 7. Horsemen of 12 nations 8. 10,000 immortals 9. 15,000 royal kindred 10. spear bearers …… 19. 365 concubines 20. 600 mules, 300 camels 21. The wives of the King’s relatives and friends 22. The troops of sutlers and batmen 23. Light-armed troops. (For whole list, see Brosius in Spawforth, 45-46). One tends to wonder at how the wives of the King’s relatives and friends felt about following behind the 365 concubines, but, in any case, you get the point. There are book loads to say about these entourages, but it is clear that what elites did on a small scale, royalty was expected to do on a grand scale.
In that vein, we can return to our dear Caesar and see that in 45 BCE, just mere months before his untimely death, Caesar was already indicating to those around him of his prestige via his enormous entourage. No longer was he only a dignified senator with a large retinue, now he was a man who would be king.
Richard P. Saller, Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire (Cambridge, 1982 [repr. 2002]).
A.J.S. Spawforth, ed., The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies (Cambridge, 2007).
Timothy M. O’Sullivan, “Let Your Slaves Do the Walking: Litters,” Walking in Roman Culture (Cambridge 2011).
Leanne E. Bablitz, “The Audience,” Actors and Audience in the Roman Courtroom (Routledge, 2000).
Cornelis Van Tilburg, Traffic and Congestion in The Roman Empire (Routledge, 2007).