In Walking in Roman Culture, Timothy M. O’Sullivan eloquently explains that how and why a person walked were crucial cultural indicators in ancient Rome: ways of walking divided barbarians from Romans, and good Romans from bad. If this aspect of Roman culture has not often bulked large in modern studies of the ancient world, that is partly because – as O’Sullivan notes – we have chosen not to recognize it, or have even actively “translated it away”. The key Latin word is incessus, which literally means “gait” or “how a person moves on their feet”. It is now regularly translated as “bearing” or “demeanour”; but that removes all the sense of movement from it. “He has a noble bearing” may seem to us a more “natural” thing to say than “He has a noble way of walking”. It is not often what the Romans said, wrote or meant. In ancient Rome how you walked was a sign of who you were. Quite simply, it could be an indication of paternity. When people wondered whether Cleopatra’s child, young Caesarion, really was the son of Julius Caesar, they pointed to his walk (incessus) as much as to his facial features. Gait ran in families. Think, for example, how often those Roman family names (often derived – like Crassus, “Fatty”, or Rufus, “Redhead” – from physical characteristics) referred to feet or to odd ways of walking: Plautus, “flat-footed”; Valgus, “bow-legged”; Varus, “knock-kneed”. As O’Sullivan observes, “‘a family gait’ was no less distinctive than ‘a family nose’”.
Walking was also closely related to morals and social status. Slaves moved quickly; in fact, they did not so much walk as run (servus currens, “the running slave” being almost a tautology). One particular social climber, parodied in a comedy of “flat-footed” Plautus, was advised to slow down and to ape the exaggerated stately pace of the Roman gentleman (the only pace possible, I imagine, when you were formally dressed up in a toga). But it was important not to go too slowly; for that was the mark of a woman, or an effeminate. And it is precisely this idea that helps us restore some sense to one of the “jokes of Cicero”, a sometimes pretty opaque collection preserved in the Macrobius’s fifth-century encyclopedia, the Saturnalia. Catching sight of his daughter walking too quickly, and her husband walking too “softly” (mollius), Cicero is said to have quipped to his daughter “Walk like your husband”, and to his son-in-law “Walk like your wife”. It’s still not a great laugh maybe, but we can begin to get the point.