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 p1054  Sportula

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1054‑1055 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SPO′RTULA. In the days of Roman freedom clients were in the habit of testifying respect for their patron by thronging his atrium at an early hour, and escorting him to places of public resort when he went abroad.º As an acknowledgment of these courtesies some of the number were usually invited to partake of the evening meal. After the extinction of liberty the presence of such guests, who had now lost all political importance, was soon regarded as an irksome restraint, while at the same time many of the noble and wealthy were unwilling to sacrifice the pompous display of a numerous body of retainers. Hence the practice was introduced under the empire of bestowing on each client, when he presented himself for his morning visit, a certain portion of food as a substitute and compensation for the occasional invitation to a regular supper (coena recta), and this dole, being carried off in a little basket provided for the purpose, received the name of sportula. Hence also it is termed by Greek writers on Roman affairs δεῖπνον ἀπὸ σπυρίδος, which however must not be confounded with the δεῖπνον ἀπὸ σπυρίδος of earlier authors, which was a sort of pic-nic [Coena, p304B]. For the sake of convenience it soon became common to give an equivalent in money, the sum established by general usage being a hundred quadrantes (Juv. I.120; Martial. X.70, 75). Martial indeed often speaks of this as a shabby pittance (centum miselli quadrantes, III.7, compare I.60, III.14, X.74), which, however, he did not scorn himself to accept (X.75), but at the same time does not fail to sneer at an upstart who endeavoured to distinguish himself by a largess to a greater amount on his birthday (X.28). The donation in money, however, did not entirely supersede the sportula given in kind, for we find in Juvenal a lively description of a great man's vestibule crowded with dependents, each attended by a slave bearing a portable kitchen to receive the viands and keep them hot while they were carried  p1055 home (III.249). If the sketches of the satirist are not too highly coloured, we must conclude that in his time great numbers of the lower orders derived their whole sustenance and the funds for ordinary existence exclusively from this source, while even the highborn did not scruple to increase their incomes by taking advantage of the ostentatious profusion of the rich and vain (Juv. I.95). A regular roll was kept at each mansion of the persons, male and female, entitled to receive the allowance; the names were called over in order, the individuals were required to appear in person, and the almoner was ever on his guard to frustrate the roguery of false pretenders (Juv. l.c.), whence the proverb quoted by Tertullian (c. Marcion. III.16), sportulam furunculus captat. The morning, as we have seen above (Juv. I.128), was the usual period for these distributions, but they were sometimes made in the afternoon (Martial. X.70).

Nero, imitating the custom of private persons, ordained that a sportula should be substituted for the public banquets (publicae coenae) given on certain high solemnities; but this unpopular regulation was repealed by Domitian (Suet. Ner. 16, Dom. 7; Martial, VIII.50).

When the Emperor Claudius on one occasion resolved unexpectedly to entertain the populace with some games which were to last for a short time only, he styled the exhibition a sportula, and in the age of the younger Pliny the word was commonly employed to signify a gratuity, gift, or emolument of any description (Plin. Ep. II.14, X.118).

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