Wednesday, 22 May 2013
The Romans were a pretty literate bunch, the sheer amount of signs and graffiti around Roman towns suggests the bulk of the population could read - and the Roman military machine ensured every soldier knew his Ps and Qs. But those 80-million Romans spread across the Empire needed something to read, and that meant the ancient paper industry was at least as large as anything the world saw pre-industrialisation. Helpfully Pliny gives us a good run-down of paper making in 78AD, which at the time mostly used papyrus as feedstock.
The best paper was derived from the centre of the papyrus plant - this 'first quality' paper was known as 'Augustus' by the time of Pliny, although it had earlier been known as 'hieratic'. Working a little further out from the plant's centre, 'second quality' paper was named 'Livia' after Augustus' wife, while 'third quality' paper retained the term 'hieratic'. Roman paper was priced by quality, hence the need for these distinctions. Pliny notes that the paper maker Fannius had developed a technique for dressing lower quality paper to achieve the same finish as 'first quality', no doubt making more money in the process. He doesn't say how, but its possible the paper was smoothed with chalk in the same manner togas were treated. From 'third quality' Pliny describes progressively cheaper paper such as 'Taeneotic' which was sold by weight rather than quality. And lastly he comes to the brown paper of the age - 'emporitica' or packing paper. Too course for writing, this was used for wrapping parcels and merchandise. So if you want to imagine Romans going shopping or getting a parcel in the mail...think of them holding something that would have looked a lot like the brown-wrapped parcels of the 19th and 20th centuries - before postpaks. For more on Roman writing you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available on Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday, 21 May 2013
While it's not too easy to explain why the temperatures in ancient Rome would be a good degree warmer than they are today, at least the Roman cold snaps are open to some exploration. For anyone who remembers the winters of 1991 and 1992, you might have noticed they were a bit colder than usual, and the sunsets at the time were a bloody red. These of course coincided with the Mt Pinatubo Eruption in the Philippines. It was the biggest bang in recent history, ejecting 16 cubic kilometres of material - not a lot on the scale of things, but enough to effect the global climate for several years once it had finished pumping millions of tonnes of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.
So, going back to the big freeze around 110BC - the one that sowed the seeds of destruction for the Roman Republic - mean temperatures fell by nearly two degrees Celsius in just a couple of years. If a volcanic eruption caused this, it must have been a big one, and it appears Mt Churchill in Alaska is a strong contender. Its eruption was considerably larger than Mt Pinatubo, producing 25 cubic kilometres of material (the famous 1883 Krakatoa eruption was 21 cubic km). Another smaller eruption (6 cubic km) from the Okmok Caldera in the Aleutian Islands may have occurred within a year or so too.
Then there's the long cooling period beginning after 56AD and bottoming out around 300AD. A lot can happen in 250-years (think what's happened since 1762). But it does coincide with a number of big volcanic eruptions. The first was Ambrym in Vanuatu, it occurred sometime around 56AD but was only half the size of the Pinatubo. It was followed in 79AD by the much smaller eruption of Mt Vesuvius (just 3.8 cubic km). And then in 186AD the Roman historian Herodian describes several weeks when the day turned to night and the evil portents - not to mention the cold and failed crops - would mire the reign of the Emperor Commodus (the one who got snuffed out a few years too early in the movie Gladiator) for the remainder of his life - he was strangled in his bath on December 31st, 192AD. This darkness most likely marks the Taupo Eruption in New Zealand - the biggest eruption during the Roman period, producing 120 cubic km atmospheric pollution - and no doubt cooling down the globe for decades. Then to cap off the 3rd-Century AD, the cold snap got colder with the eruption of Ksudatch in Eastern Russia, ejecting 26 cubic kilometres of material.
Anyone notice that apart from Mt Vesuvius all of those eruptions, which may or may not have changed Roman history, happened on the other side of the world, sometimes in places where no humans had even reached? Goes to show, that no matter how big an empire you have, nature can throw it all back at you. For more on how the Romans coped with the cold you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Monday, 20 May 2013
Climate change and global warming have been one of the big debates of the last decade - although it has got a little overshadowed by the great debt meltdowns since 2008. However, since none of us live in a vacuum, I think we can still safely say that climate change - natural or assisted - is impacting on us one way or another...just like it did to the Romans. The Romans? Really? Well, they lived in the climate too, and just as the woolly mammoths found out, nothing stays the same forever. In fact the Roman-era is the only other point in history where we can see man made atmospheric pollution spiking in ice cores. Did they change the climate? Look, I doubt the evidence is there to say that, but the absolute peak of the Roman economy does coincide with the warmest period measured for the last 2200-years. A report published in Global and Planetary Change using Scandinavian tree rings has found that the mean temperature between the years 27-56AD was a full one degree Celsius warmer than today. This is a time when more people lived in Britain than during the Elizabethan age. And after a long decline, there is a sudden dip between 299 and 328AD to almost a degree cooler than today, which coincides with the breaking up of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Empires as their economies collapsed under the weight of inflation, invasions and civil violence. Another little gem the graph shows is the last century of the Roman Republic coinciding with a climate recovery from a very sharp cooling period which bottomed out around 110BC. Apart from the five Roman civil wars that followed this cold snap, 110BC also marks - almost to the year - the mass migration of more than one million Cimbri and Teutons from modern day Denmark. Some ancient writers said these German tribes were driven south by floods that had destroyed their arable lands. They would spend the next decade devastating Gaul and several Roman armies. Victims of climate change? It would seem so.
Tomorrow we'll look at some of the reasons the climate changed in Roman times. And guess what? It might just involve greenhouse gases. For more on the ancient Danes you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Sunday, 19 May 2013
As we face the possibility of the traditional newspaper disappearing within the next decade, maybe it's time to introduce the Acta Diurna to you (the Daily News or Daily Action). This was the Roman State's first official newspaper and was started by the king of spin doctors himself - Julius Caesar. It had a much better print run than most modern papers - surviving for some 500-years. In doing so it became the very first model for the mass production of printed news - creating the news appetite we still feed today. And just to show nothing's new, this paper read just like today too - headlined with scandals and crime, plus sports results and the standard births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Initially it was handwritten onto white washed walls in the Roman Forum, but was soon converted to wooden tablets (in those day post cards and notebooks were written on cardboard-like wooden wafers). Paper copies were sold throughout Rome, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility the Action was block printed rather than hand copied...after all, hand copying a paper for a city of a million people - many of whom could read - seems a little beyond economic reality. Stepping out on a limb here, I'm pretty sure sooner or later someone must have noticed the local fuller's press was cheaper to use than a couple thousand 'handcopy' scribes...but maybe I'm reading too much into it. For more on the Daily Action you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Thursday, 16 May 2013
It's all too easy to stare up at some great Roman building and ponder its engineering and its longevity, but how often do we consider how much it cost? The Romans, just like us, existed in a world of liquidity, needing to find money to build private and public infrastructure and buildings - and these things didn't come cheap. At the time of Pliny, Rome was served by nine aqueducts, the newest of which, the forty-five mile long Aqua Claudia, had been completed in 52AD at the cost of 350-million sesterces - that's as much as $8.75-billion folks - which is an enormous amount of public money. Mind you, it could deliver 185,000 cubic metres of water to Rome each day, so it's drain on the public purse was symptomatic of Rome becoming the largest consumption city in the world would see until the rise of the modern European and North American consumption cities in the late 19th-century. For more on Roman consumption you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
We seem to think all the problems with a modern consumer economy are something new...something that hasn't happened before. The traffic jams, the damage to the environment, the almost pointless moving of something somewhere just because it can...well, take heart, in 78AD Pliny didn't think things were any better.
'Nature is levelled. We carry off materials which were meant to be a barrier between nations, ships are built and thus mountain ranges are carried here and there over the waves, Nature's wildest domain. When we hear the prices fetched and the volume's transported by sea and road, let each of us reflect how many people's lives would be happier without these!'
Sounds like someone had just got stuck behind a slow wagon on a long road. For more on Roman transport you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
I'm annoyed, really annoyed. All right maybe just a little bit peeved. Why? Well, I just can't believe that every time someone does a documentary, movie or TV series on the fall of the Roman Republic - supposedly awing us with their incredible level of details and research - they give us a black-haired Julius Caesar with a five o'clock shadow at two in the afternoon. I mean really, how much credence can we put in a show when they're not even bothered to get the basics right. Stanley Kubrick got it wrong in 1960 with Spartacus and it's been a downhill slope ever since. So let's get this settled, Julius Caesar was fair skinned, he was at least six feet tall, he had dark brown eyes and his hair was blonde...although by his forties it was receding. Now would it be that hard to find an actor that looks like that? That's half of Hollywood right there.
And here's the bigger problem, most of us have a preconception of what a Roman looks like...short, beak-nosed, olive complexion with a constant need to shave. The trouble is, the Italian peninsular was populated by all kinds of people, including the Romans who originated in Celtic Austria. So to put things bluntly, the average Roman probably looked a lot more like the present day French and Irish, while those with black hair and darker skin had Etruscan origins. So who were the Etruscans? Well, that's another movie, involving a big horse and Brad Pitt...but don't get me started. You can find out more about the Romans by reading 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links