Several years ago I posted an absurd speculation about how to say happy birthday in Ancient Greek. Evidence from the ancient world reveals that parents held birthday sacrifices and feasts for children, communities observed birthday feasts for gods and heroes, and people arranged for their own birthday feasts as well. In addition, poetic, political, and philosophical luminaries had their birthdays celebrated after death. And, strangely enough, some people provided for their own postmortem birthday celebrations in their wills.
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Sayings and Deeds 2.12
“Truly The Thracians have earned great praise for their wisdom in celebrating birthdays by weeping and deaths with joyous cheer. Without any fine doctrines from scholars, they have penetrated the true nature of the human condition. Therefore, let life’s sweetness, native to all creatures, the very thing which compels them to act and suffer terribly, let it disappear if its end should still prove more lucky and blessed than its beginning.”
Thraciae vero illa natio merito sibi sapientiae laudem vindicaverit, quae natales hominum flebiliter, exsequias cum hilaritate celebrat, <si>4sine ullis doctorum praeceptis verum condicionis nostrae habitum pervidit. removeatur itaque naturalis omnium animalium dulcedo vitae, quae multa et facere et pati turpiter cogit, si tamen ortu eius aliquanto felicior ac beatior finis reperietur.
Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 2.35
“And he neither revealed to anyone the month in which he was born nor the day of his birth because he did not think it right for anyone to sacrifice or have a feast on his birthday even though he sacrificed and held meals for his friends on the birthdays conventionally dedicated to Plato and Socrates—when it was necessary that the friends who were capable read aloud some argument to those who had gathered.”
οὔτε δὲ τὸν μῆνα δεδήλωκέ τινι καθ᾿ ὃν γεγέννηται, οὔτε τὴν γενέθλιον ἡμέραν, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ θύειν ἢ ἑστιᾶν τινα τοῖς αὐτου γενεθλίοις ἠξίου, καίπερ ἐν τοῖς Πλάτωνος καὶ Σωκράτους παραδεδομένοις γενεθλίοις θύων τε καὶ ἑστιῶν τοὺς ἑταίρους, ὅτε καὶ λόγον ἔδει τῶν ἑταίρων τοὺς δυνατοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν συνελθόντων ἀναγνῶναι.
Plautus, Pseudolus 165-6
“Today is my birthday, and you all should celebrate it with me.
Put the ham, pork rind, innards and sow’s teats in the water. Can you hear me?”
nam mi hodie natalis dies est, decet eum omnis uosconcelebrare.
pernam, callum, glandium, sumen facito in aquaiaceant. satin audis?
A fancy birthday pen…
Greek Anthology, 6.227 Crinagoras of Mytilene
Procles sends this, on your birthday,
This silver newly made pen tip in its holder
With two easily dividable ends,
It moves well over a flowing page
A small gift but one from a bigger heart
A close friend for your recent ease for learning.”
Ἀργύρεόν σοι τόνδε, γενέθλιον ἐς τεὸν ἦμαρ,
Πρόκλε, νεόσμηκτον †δουρατίην κάλαμον,
εὖ μὲν ἐϋσχίστοισι διάγλυπτον κεράεσσιν,
εὖ δὲ ταχυνομένην εὔροον εἰς σελίδα,
πέμπει Κριναγόρης, ὀλίγην δόσιν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀπὸ θυμοῦ
πλείονος, ἀρτιδαεῖ σύμπνοον εὐμαθίῃ.
A homemade gift….
“One sends you from nets, another from the air or sea,
Eupolis, these birthday gift,
But take from me a line from a Muses, which
Will remain with you always as a sign of friendship and learning.”
Ἄλλος ἀπὸ σταλίκων, ὁ δ᾿ ἀπ᾿ ἠέρος, ὃς δ᾿ ἀπὸ πόντου,
Εὔπολι, σοὶ πέμπει δῶρα γενεθλίδια·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐμέθεν δέξαι Μουσῶν στίχον, ὅστις ἐς αἰεὶ
μίμνει, καὶ φιλίης σῆμα καὶ εὐμαθίης
Birthdays ad infinitum
Select Papyri, Wills 84a (Roman Period)
“My wife, and after her death, my son Deios, will give to my slaves and freedmen [100 drachma] for a feats they will hold near my grave every year on my birthday.”
δώσει δὲ ἡ γυνή μου καὶ μετὰ τελευτὴν αὐτῆς ὁ υἱός μου Δεῖος τοῖς δούλοις μου καὶ ἀπελευθέρ[οι]ς εἰς εὐωχίαν αὐτῶν ἣν ποιήσονται πλησίον τοῦ τάφου μου κατ᾿ ἔτος τῇ γενεθλίᾳ μου
Cicero, De Finibus 2.102
“Therefore, no one has a true birthday. “But the day is observed.” And I take that as if I did not know it. But, is it right that this is still celebrated after death? And to put it in a will when he told us as if giving an oracle that nothing matters to us after death?”
Nullus est igitur cuiusquam dies natalis. ‘At habetur.’ Et ego id scilicet nesciebam! Sed ut sit, etiamne post mortem coletur? idque testamento cavebit is qui nobis quasi oraculum ediderit nihil post mortem ad nos pertinere?
Invitation to a rural birthday party
Alciphron, Letter 3.18
“When we have a feast for the birthday of my child, I invite you to come to the party, Pithakniôn—and not only you, but bring your wife, children, your worker. And, if you wish, bring your dog: she’s a good guard and she frightens away those who plot against the flocks with her loud barking.”
Τοὐμοῦ παιδίου γενέσια ἑορτάζων ἥκειν σε ἐπὶ τὴν πανδαισίαν, ὦ Πιθακνίων, παρακαλῶ, ἥκειν δὲ οὐ μόνον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπαγόμενον τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ παιδία καὶ τὸν συνέργαστρον· εἰ βούλοιο δέ, καὶ τὴν κύνα, ἀγαθὴν οὖσαν φύλακα καὶ τῷ βάρει τῆς ὑλακῆς ἀποσοβοῦσαν τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τοῖς ποιμνίοις.
Imperial Birthday appropriation
Ad. M. Caes III.9 Marcus Aurelius to Fronto
Dear best teacher,
I know that on everyone’s birthday friends make prayers for the person whose birthday it is. Nevertheless, because I love you as much as I love myself, I wish on this birthday of yours to make a prayer for myself.”
Salve mi magister optime.
Scio natali die quoiusque pro eo, quoius is dies natalis est, amicos vota suscipere; ego tamen, quia te iuxta a memet ipsum amo, volo hoc die tuo natali mihi bene precari.
Plautus, The Captives 175
“Since it is my birthday: I want to be asked to a dinner at your home.
quia mi est natalis dies;
propterea te uocari ad te ad cenam uolo.
“The hated birthday is here, the sad day which
Must be celebrated in annoying hicksville without Cerinthus.”
Invisvs natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus 3 Jan 47
“I write these things to you on my birthday, a day which I wish had never seen me or that no one else had been born from my mother afterwards. I am kept from writing more by weeping”
Haec ad te die natali meo scripsi; quo utinam susceptus non essem, aut ne quid ex eadem matre postea natum esset! plura scribere fletu prohibeor.