Peter Jones

Oscar vs Augustus

Elagabalus wouldn’t have palmed you off with a trip to a winery – unless it was part of a bigger joke

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There was something admirable about the spirit of careful mockery behind the doggy bags on offer to the finalists in this year’s Oscars and Daftas. The chance to hire a car or visit a New Zealand winery (pay your own airfare) cannot be very high on even the most grasping star’s list of ultimate desiderata. That said, the organisers are missing a trick here — the element of chance. The Roman emperors can come to their aid.

Apophoreta, literally ‘takeaways’, were standard features of Roman dinner parties (the satirical poet Martial wrote a book of 221 couplets about them, celebrating everything from bras to nail-scissors and food for dealing with stretchmarks). But the emperors’ dinner parties were something different. At his extravaganzas, the emperor Augustus (d. AD 14) ‘had guests pay for tokens inscribed with misleading descriptions of the objects concerned’ and ‘whimsically varied their value’, from rich clothing or gold and silver plate to sponges, pokers and tongs; or he invited guests to e.g. bid for pictures whose faces were turned to the wall. This was fun: guests clubbed together, three to a couch, to try their luck.

The youthful emperor Elagabalus (d. AD 222) took this to commendable extremes. A lucky diner at one of his banquets could go home with a eunuch or a four-horse chariot. But the masterstroke was his invention of ‘lucky chances’ — an inscribed spoon detailing what the diner had won. It could be ‘ten flies’, ‘ten pounds of gold’, ‘ten camels’, ‘ten pounds of lead’ or ‘ten ostriches’.

He then extended the principle to the performers at the games. At these great public events, the ‘chances’ would include ten bears or dormice, lettuces, gold pieces, pounds of beef or worse. The crowds ‘loved every minute of it and afterwards rejoiced that he was emperor’.

Forget doggy bags at these ‘prestigious’ awards (from Latin praestigia, ‘illusion, deceit’) and give them all ‘chances’. How one longs to see a winner thanking the sponsor for her prize of ‘ten dead dogs’.