This next one comes out of a recent rabbit hole of mine: strange stories from the ancient world. And my oh my is it a deep rabbit hole.
The story I chose comes out of a little-known Roman text written by a man named Tullus Trebonius Mundus in 118 AD. The text is titled Codex Primarius Romanus in Latin—which translates to “The Principle Roman Codex”.
The Codex was a monumental work when completed, numbering some 30 volumes. Unfortunately, only fragments survive. However, the Codex is interesting as it gave an exhaustive view of daily life in the Roman Empire, particularly the capital city itself. Not only did it chronicle the daily routines and habits of its citizens, but also some of the stories they told each other. Effectively, the Codex includes what we would today call “urban legends” of ancient Rome.
One of the most interesting of these “urban legends” is of a being named Invortus. No where near Olympian status, this minor deity appeared to people in dreams and trances, offering them wishes. But he always asked a steep price.
This wish-granting demon was nicknamed “the Pauper of Rome” (Vir Pauper Romae in Latin) or “the Fool of the Aventine” (Asinus Aventini). According to the Codex, Invortus had been living in Rome since the most ancient times. The first story to involve Invortus said that he helped to overthrow the Roman monarchy by making a deal with the conspirators. Brutus, one of the Republic’s first consuls, was killed that same year at the Battle of Silva Arsia. That was Invortus’s price for overthrowing a government.
Invortus made his home in a cave in the Aventine Hill that overlooked the Tiber River. During the day, Invortus was in his cave or else down in the sewers and catacombs of the great city. Some said he was guarding an entrance to the underworld that lay beneath the Tiber; others that he did not like sunlight. Invortus appeared as a bald fat man with dark, mottled skin and wearing a senator’s toga. His skin was filthy and he oozed tar, leaving black smears on the ground and on anything he touched.
Invortus greeted any he met jovially, treating them like long-lost friends. He was indeed a friend to all, rich or poor. He made deals with any who wished, so long as they were at least 25 (25 being the age of full maturity in Roman law). If someone wanted to make a deal with Invortus, he would often come to them in their dreams. But there are a number of instance where people met him at night in the streets of Rome.
When meeting them in the waking world, he always asked politely for a penny, since according to the Codex, he always claimed poverty. Giving Invortus a penny was seen as a courtesy: to refuse would be to incur his malice. And Invortus had a wicked sense of humor.
One freedman, Hippocrates, who refused to give Invortus a penny was later taken to surgeons with a burning pain in his colon. When the surgeons drugged him, they found ten copper pennies lodged in the man’s rectum. Hippocrates survived the surgery, but his bowels never did work the same again.
When one did make a contract with Invortus, they were bound to it. Invortus was clever and an expert in legalism. There was no loophole that one could exploit to escape their contract. And the price that Invortus asked always had unexpected consequences.
There was really only one thing that would prevent Invortus making contact with someone. Invortus loved filth: he was filthy himself and lived in dark, disgusting places. Therefore, it made sense he hated baths. There are no instances of Invortus ever entering a bathhouse or getting too near a water reservoir.
There is an account of a young man, Valerius Nummus, fleeing his debt to Invortus by hiding in a public bath. Valerius hid in the baths for two days. Thinking Invortus had left, Valerius exited the building. At once, the man was struck by a runaway cart and killed.
The stories written in the Codex make it appear Invortus was active all times of the year. Though, his favorite time to mingle openly with the people of Rome was during the festival of Saturnalia in December. During this 6-day long celebration was marked by public feasting, pranks, gift-giving, and the reversal of social norms. Masters served their slaves, that sort of thing. Understandably, Invortus loved this. He would spend the holiday going to the evening feasts and spending long hours of the night at the orgies of wealthy men and the brothels of the poorest neighborhoods. It became a tradition as well not to bathe on the last day of Saturnalia. Romans would also drop pennies down wells or fountains to please Invortus.
The most famous historical event Invortus is linked to in the Codex is the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The young emperor Nero sought Invortus fervently. The palace was in a perpetual state of Saturnalian lopsidedness with the emperor parading around dressed as a slave girl. Every day, slaves dumped pennies into the cities’ fountains and some slaves were sent down into the sewers to find Invortus.
At last, Invortus appeared to the emperor in a dream. Nero asked to be made the best harp-player in the Empire. In return, he promised to give Invortus yearly offerings. In addition, Invortus asked for one tenement building in the city to be given to him. It was agreed and when Nero woke up the next morning, he found he could play the harp like no other. He shocked the palace slaves and visiting senators by his extraordinary skill, moving many to tears by the beauty of his music.
All was well for Nero for about a month. Then for a building project, Nero sent men to tear down a certain tenement building in poor condition. Nero had quite forgotten this was the building he had given to Invortus. That night a fire started in the upper floors of the building. The fire spread, raging for 6 days and devouring much of the city of Rome.
As the flames rose higher and higher, Nero stood by a window, playing his harp. With each passing moment his prodigious skill left him. Nero wept, not so much for his city but for the gift he had now lost.
Mundus’s Codex treats Invortus as if he were a curiosity, though one that was still around. The author had not made up his mind if Invortus was real or a popular myth among the city’s residents. However, there is one source outside of the Codex that mentions Invortus, though only in passing. An account of work done in the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) states that a “cave on the Aventine, long associated with a pagan spirit of the [Tiber] river, was filled with rubble and sealed in with cement”. There is a good chance this is referring to the home of Invortus.
That is the last textual reference to Invortus. For all we know, the Fool of the Aventine was buried by rubble in his cave. There are anecdotal rumors of occultists in the Renaissance seeking Invortus in the ancient sewers of Rome. And even today, some theorize Invortus now lives in the Vatican Archives where he offers wishes to the Vatican. As is his way, he asks for little presents in return or promises which prove unexpectedly hard to keep.
This may all be fairy tale talk. But many in the ancient world took Invortus’s existence seriously. He was a genie, of sorts, with a twisted sense of humor. Who knows if this mythical granter of wishes was ever real or just a story the people of Rome told themselves to explain the often capricious nature of life.