the hairy Lupercus / by Anthony Gibbins

I am going to type out the entire first paragraph of Victoria Rimells’s Martial’s Rome. I’m a slow typer, but I think you’ll find it worth the effort.

Think back. It’s the mid-nineties. We are on the brink of a new century, and are living and breathing the ‘New Age’ people have been preaching about since the eighties. Thanks to more efficient communication, and the regularising machine of empire, the world seems to have got smaller, and more and more provincials are gravitating towards the sprawling, crowded metropolis, all manically networking to win the same jobs (they all want to be ‘socialites’ or ‘artists’). Many of us are richer and more mobile than ever, but arguably have less freedom. Modern life is a struggle, it seems – it’s dog eat dog in the urban jungle, and those who can’t keep up the pace become victims (actually, being a ‘victim’ is the in thing). ‘Reality’ is the hottest show in town: we’re done with drama and fantasy, as amateur theatrics and seeing people actually suffer is such a blast (as well as being a really ‘ironic’ creative experiment). This is a culture that has long realised Warhol’s prophecy, where everyone wants their bite of the fame cherry, but where fame itself is a dirty shadow of what it used to be. The young recall nothing but peace, yet fierce wars still bristle at the world’s edges, and even as the concrete keeps rising, a smog of instability and malaise lingers. A cynical, middle-class sketch of 1990’s Manhattan or London, or a summary of Martial’s Rome at the peak of his career under Domitian?

And here is one of Martial’s short poems, chosen for containing a tonsor;

Eutrapelus tonsor dum circuit ora Luperci

expingitque genas, altera barba subit.

While (dum) Eutrapelus the barber (Eutrapelus tonsor) goes around (circuit) the mouth of Lupercus (ora Luperci) and (-que) paints (expingit) his cheeks (genas), another (altera) beard (barba) springs up (subit).

I see in this a fairly funny joke about the hairiness of Lupercus. After all, lupus is the Latin word for wolf. But this anonymous translator from 1695 provides a different interpretation;

Eutrapelus, the barber, works so slow,

That while he shaves, the beard anew does grow.

Perhaps you are asking what a tonsor is. A tonsor is a man or woman who clips (tondet) hair (literally, hairs) and beards. The shop where a tonsor works is called a tonstrina.