Dear Everyone In Our Class Except Ernestus,
You’re invited to a celebration of the anniversary of the day I was born, my “birth-day,” this Thursday at 11 a.m. inside the temple of Bacchus. (I will tie an inflated bull’s bladder to the doorpost so you’ll know it’s the right place.) We’ll sacrifice a goat or two and then get to the heavy wine drinking so I can forget that I’m already six and thus only have another thirty or so years to live. At the end of the morning, we’ll set the entire place on fire, and then attempt to blow out the flames to keep our lungs young and supple.
Hope you can make it! Bring un-lame presents.
As with so much in our contemporary society, we can thank the Romans for introducing the concept of birthday party invitations. Before young Marcus chiseled the above message into 12 tablets for his classmates (except Ernestus), birthday celebrations happened at random. The Greeks, for example, simply threw a party and allowed anyone to walk in off the street. The Etruscans, in contrast, had a holy ritual by which the upcoming birthday boy or girl would stand in a group of people, clear their throat, and say “weather’s supposed to be nice this weekend. Anyone doing anything?” Sadly, most people had already made other plans by then. The Romans, with their rigid social schedules, needed a new way to schedule celebrations of births.
In this seminal letter, Marcus also invented the snub. Ernestus, of course, was the class nerd, more interested in philosophy and mathematics than slaughtering things. Despite having no friends, the young fellow vowed to “show them all someday” and reportedly told Marcus, “I don’t even care. You’ll all be working for me some day.” He was wrong of course, as all these children were in school, and therefore the sons of the rich and influential, so he had to make do with slaves like everyone else. On a happier note, he ruled Rome as consul in 277 BCE and did a nice job restructuring grain payments. In his “Lives,” Plutarch says of Ernestus: “Once a nerd, always a nerd.”
After the temple of Bacchus burned down, Marcus was punished by his father. The young arson was forced to blow out candles stuck into goat meat or soft cheese until he collapsed. Then, he was forced to chase various animals around his farm, attempting to pin a bow on their tails. Finally, he was forced to sit in a dark room as a terrifying person with a face painted ghostly white and a great shock of red hair laughed menacingly at him and performed magic spells. Marcus came out of the ordeal with a newfound respect for his father and an inflated bull’s bladder twisted into the shape of a puppy.