Sunday, 29 July 2012
Ever wondered how the ancients refined precious metals? This is Pliny's explanation for the production of pure gold - "Gold is first heated with twice its weight of salt, three times its weight of copper pyrites, and then heated again with two parts salt and one of alum (most likely iron sulphate rather than potassium aluminium sulphate in this case). This process removes the impurities when the other substances have been burnt away in an earthenware crucible." Sounds easier than going to the Olympics...
Find out if Calvus was any good at finding gold
Saturday, 28 July 2012
Now despite the impressive engineering and the incredible timeframe Caesar's first Rhine Bridge was built with...it didn't last all that long. Eighteen days to be exact. The German tribes he was pursuing vanished into the forests when they realised the trouble that bridge was going to bring and the Roman army found itself with nothing to do when they crossed into Germany. On top of this, Caesar knew he was exceeding the authority he'd been given by the Senate - having entered territories beyond Gaul...which could mean prosecution when he returned to Rome (which is just what his politcal enemies intended). So having found the Germans unwilling to settle their account in battle, the legions were marched back across their new bridge and then ordered to tear it down ... after all, there was no point leaving it there for the Germans to use. But I'm sure there was some serious grumbling when the engineers got that order. Sometimes history making doesn't last for long.
Find out if Calvus was good at breaking things
Friday, 27 July 2012
There's a new bridge being built over a river estuary a few blocks from where I live. It's only half a dozen spans across, and will never feature on Discovery Channel as one of the world's greatest structures. Yet with all our modern machinery it has taken over two years to prepare the site and more than eight months to get five spans in place. Maybe that's fast these days. What I do know, is that its construction pace doesn't measure up to many of the great structures from the 19th and early 20th century, and certainly not to the First Century BC. The first bridge to ever cross the River Rhine was built in 55BC by Caesar's army in just 10 days. Situated near modern Coblenz, where the river is around 400 metres across and is noted for strong currents, the soldiers harvested a forest of timber, built pile drivers and drove a two lane highway across that mighty river in less than a fortnight. It was an incredible feat. But it was was repeated by the Roman Army again and again. Most of the great infrastructure projects found across the provinces, the paved roads, the aqueducts, even Hadrian's wall...they were all constructed by professional soldiers. Sure, their intentions weren't necessarily altruistic. A paved road meant an army on the march could cross a province in a matter of days, and a regulated water supply meant armies could be quartered without fear of exhausting local wells. But they didn't shirk on quality for the sake of speed ...considering some of their bridges in Spain and France are now carrying semi-trailers - they engineered their structures to last. Now if only they were building the bridge near me...it would last 2000 years and I would have been using it eighteen months ago.
Find out if Calvus was any good with his hands
Thursday, 26 July 2012
If you've stood trackside and felt the thunder of a dozen horses racing past you, then just imagine what it was like in 52BC. Caesar's cavalry numbered some three thousand and Vercingetorix had perhaps twenty thousand horses split between two armies. In the Battle of Dibio, the biggest of the horse battles, around twelve thousand horses took to the field. The sound, the sensation and the dust. I personally conjure up a brown thunderstorm rolling and shouting over the plains now filled by Dijon. But the logistics are just as mind boggling. Feeding and watering tens of thousands of horses everyday, winter or summer? And it wasn't just horses either. Caesar's army also had six thousand mules, the Gauls had at least twice that number of pack animals. Each of these wore cow bells so their attendants could find them in the dark - which is probably the sound missing from movies or documentaries showing ancient armies on the march. Over the trudging hobnailed boots would have been the ever presenting ringing of thousands of bells. And almost certainly, every ancient soldier's memory of sleeping in camp was the tolling of those bells out there, somewhere in the dark, a constant every night he was a soldier.
Find out if Calvus was a cavalryman
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
While we don't hear a whole lot about the great artworks of the classical era...the great Greek and Roman artists of the day were every bit the darlings of the ancient jetset - and they drew none of the gender lines we see in post Renaissance art. Talented women were given the same dues as the men they competed with. Pliny names several, including Iaia of Cyzicus (in modern day Turkey) who came to Rome around 100BC and was noted for her brushwork and ivory engravings. She completed mostly female portraits, including Old Woman at Neapolis and used a mirror for self portraits. Pliny claims she worked faster than anyone else and her pictures fetched prices far in excess of the male artists from the same period - Sopolis and Dionysius - who were the rock-star Impressionists of the time.
Find out if Calvus had any taste
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
In an era when few people would have travelled more than a 1000-miles from their place of birth, the Greeks and Romans could still get their heads around vast distances. By the First Century AD time the popular belief was that some clouds reached a height of 103-miles above the earth's surface (the very highest actually only reach 53-miles). But 100-years earlier, Posidonius of Rhodes (even though he was born in Syria) was far more conservative when he concluded that clouds and winds were only five miles high - his calculation is very close to the maximum height of the Troposphere, where most clouds do exist. His other number crunchings were also much more accurate than his contemporaries. In 90BC he estimated the Sun's enormous diameter, and in doing so realised the vast distances of space. He reasoned the moon was 230,000-miles from the earth (it actually varies between 237,600-miles and 271,100-miles) and from the Moon to the Sun was 575,000-miles. Pythagoras had previously produced a distance of only 29,000-miles. The actual distance is 93-million miles, so they were both a little out, but when all said and done, in a time when most people measured a long way as the next town, Posidonius realised there was a whole lot more beyond the horizon.
Find out if Calvus could count that far
Monday, 23 July 2012
I'm guessing you've noticed me mention Calvus a few times by now. Who is Calvus? I see him as the embodiment of the average Roman. He doesn't wage war on distant peoples, he doesn't work as a gladiator...he can't even afford a slave. Calvus is 99% of real Roman life, not the one percent we see in the latest Sword and Sandal drama from HBO. That doesn't mean he's boring. This guy's got all the issues any struggle street character should have. He's an unemployed actor...enough said. Put him in a tweed jacket and he's Bored to Death's Jonathon Ames. An accidental detective who finds he discovers trouble and doesn't get the credit for it. We shouldn't forget Rome was just like New York on any normal day - full of complicated people who have...well, complications.
Do you want to know more...
Sunday, 22 July 2012
The recent release of the almost blockbuster 'John Carter' provides an interesting taste of the early Twentieth century's ideas of living 'off' world. For us, one hundred years later, it seems hard to believe that someone living before World War One could accommodate the idea of existing beyond earth. But the idea is much older than we might think. Pliny is able to define the planets as 'worlds' rather than stars or suns, and contemplates their spherical surfaces as being hot or cold. He doesn't necessarily agree with Leucippus theory (from the 5th Century BC) that countless other worlds existed around countless other suns...but he does, at least mention it. And then he states, 'Men are not concerned to explore the extraterrestial', in that he understood in the First century AD there was no capacity to do so. Just goes to say that our understanding of the universe goes back a lot further than we 'moderns' would like to admit.
Find out if Calvus knew anything about the planets
Saturday, 21 July 2012
Now we've seen the Gauls were more sophisticated than Caesar ever admitted to his adoring public - we have to wonder why he painted them as simple uneducatededs. After all, doesn't it make his victory even greater if he defeated a far more capable enemy than he writes about? The answer is not that simple. Firstly, this was a man with an estimated IQ of 181, so I'm not going to pretend I can get inside a head like that - all I can do is make some best guesses and hope they're not too far off the mark.
Firstly we have to consider the geopolitical situation in 58BC when the invasion of Gaul began. By this time Rome's previous threats, the Greek city states, Carthage and the Pontic Kingdom had all been warred into oblivion and their lands folded into the Roman Republic. The Gauls, and to a lesser extent, the Germans, were the only peoples left on the Roman frontier with the proven capacity to invade the Italian peninsular and threaten Rome. Destroying their ability to do this was the primary reason Caesar received so much unspoken support from the Senate.
The same logic had been used in the destruction of Carthage a century before - and so was the underlying belief that subjugating Gaul and destroying the Punic Empire (Carthage) was morally acceptable as both peoples were barbarians. In fact, with the possible exception of the Greeks, the Romans' greatest enemies were always labelled barbarians. Carthage is the best example of this 'labelling' or desensitisation of the Roman public. Despite inventing concrete, building the world's first 'high rise' apartment blocks, circumnavigating Africa and developing some of the most advanced water storage systems ever seen, Roman literature paints the Carthaginians as blood thirsty heathens who sacrificed their own children to Beelzebub (a name still seen as evil to this day). This process was repeated a century later when the Gauls were the new threat to Rome - suddenly the Druids were murdering their own countrymen to read their entrails...seeing a pattern here?
So it became important to the Roman sense of right that subjugating the barbarians could bring civilisation to these lessor peoples and make them new and upstanding citizens. But this only works if the Roman public are convinced these are, indeed, barbarians. If Caesar had written he'd fought an equally advanced and capable enemy, it is very likely he would have alienated his public supporters...after all, it would have been immoral to subjugate a civilised Gaul, parts of which had had long standing treaties with Rome prior to the Caesar's arrival there...treaties he chose to ignore. So in the end, we can see the book we still base most of our contemporary knowledge of Gaul on - Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul - is all about painting Caesar in the best possible light...not the Gauls. Proof again that only the victorious get to write our history. Remember that next time you're reading a former power broker's autobiography.
Find out if Calvus told a few white lies
Friday, 20 July 2012
Thursday, 19 July 2012
|A loaded three-span Scorpion|
This is further borne out with the great siege works thrown up around Gergovia and Alesia by the Romans. Caesar completed ditches six hundred yards from his own fortifications in both cases. Perhaps it was just to slow the Gallic advance, but I suspect it was more than that. These ditches were at the outer limits of scorpion range...but you have to wonder, whose scorpions? Certainly, a deep ditch would make it difficult to wheel heavy artillery pieces into range of the Roman walls.
|A Scorpion and Onager side by side...they don't share much in common do they.|
Wednesday, 18 July 2012
Like to be one for all things natural and organic? It seems the Romans had a taste for healthy living too. Now a lot has been written about how their lead pipes poisoned the bally lot of them - dulling their minds and delivering terrible premature deaths. Oddly skeletal analysis doen't seem to suggest much in the way of heavy metal poisoning for the ancients, and nor were they oblivious to the danger. The famous First Century BC architect, Vitruvius, began recommending terracotta pipes, writing, "Water from clay pipes is much more wholesome than that which is conducted through lead pipes - since lead is found to be harmful as white lead is derived from it, which is said to harmful to the human system." Something to think about next time you pour some water from your organic clay water filter.
Postscript - It has been suggested the levels of disolvable lead fell as pipes aged, as they tended to gain a crust of calcium carbonate from the concrete aqueducts that prevented lead leaching. Either way, there are still Roman lead pipes carrying water to this day.
Find out if Calvus had too much lead in his system
Tuesday, 17 July 2012
Just in case you think the last decade's obsession with removing body hair from all of its traditional nooks and crannies is something new...well, the bad news is it's just an old trade rehashed by 'Sex in the City'. The truth is, mass hair removal had become popular by the end of the Roman Republic in the first century BC. Just as today, waxing was standard fare, however most bath-houses (the Roman version of a beauty clinic) also employed the infamous 'Depilator'. Armed with a pair of tweezers and a will to inflict pain on all genders, these were the true artists of hair removal, and were paid handsomely for the agony they could inflict. Seneca is quoted as saying, "The only thing louder than the depilators hawking their trade were the screams of their victims." Just goes to show, body image, and any amount of suffering for it, hasn't changed all that much.
Find out if Calvus went to the depilator
Monday, 16 July 2012
Why leave something for tomorrow when you can start it today? History is filled with those who tried. Sure, sometimes things didn't work out for them. But at least we know they gave it their best. If you want to know what happened to those who couldn't be bothered, well, I can't help there, because no one wrote about them.
Find out if Calvus tried
Sunday, 15 July 2012
Saturday, 14 July 2012
When the revolt began six legions were camped on the River Seine south of Paris. Another two were further south in the Loire Valley and two were in Belgium. But Caesar was in modern Piacenza hedging his bets there would be a civil war in Rome that year rather than trouble in the Celtic states. And he wasn't the only one. The Celtic Gauls thought Rome would consume itself that year. The Senate House had just been burnt down by a mob and the senate elections had been postponed. Those like Vercingetorix knew this was the only chance they would get to rid themselves of Rome. Against any other Roman General at the time, they would have been right. There was only one commander who would have braved the Alps in the middle of winter to get back to his legions - the trouble for the Celtic Gauls, it was Caesar...
Find out if Calvus crossed the Alps
Friday, 13 July 2012
Thursday, 12 July 2012
Wednesday, 11 July 2012
The Conquest of Gaul is going to be a bit of topic for the rest of this month - for reasons to be revealed tomorrow. What has to be taken from this war is that at any moment it could have changed world history. Imagine the twenty-first century without our current calendar. Imagine a present without the Latin Alphabet. Imagine a world where Christianity and Islam had no empire to spread them. This all could have happened - the death of just one man would have caused it. But then, consider what happened because he survived. In 58BC there were six million Gauls living in dozens of disparate tribes across modern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. By the end of 52BC Gaul had become a single nation under one King - however one million were dead and another million Gauls were enslaved. Modern, heavily armed armies of up to 250,000 men had waged total war against each other - bringing a scale of destruction to western Europe that was never really equalled until Napoleon or even World War One. And this was all because of one man. Love his legacy or hate it...we are living in a world he gave us, which for those victims of Gaul, is quite the bitter pill to swallow. Tomorrow we'll find out who this man was.
Find out what Calvus thought of Gaul
Tuesday, 10 July 2012
2064 years ago most Romans believed their greatest threat were the barabarian hoards from Gaul - now modern day France. You know the ones, long haired, bearded barbarians running around in Asterix cartoons. Of course, in those days the Romans needed to know they were 'barbarians'...it wouldn't do if their greatest enemy was educated, wrote in Greek and Latin and had been cutting their hair short and shaving for almost a century. And it certainly wouldn't do if the Roman public knew their steel making processes, their swords and chainmail armour were all copied from these wild men. Unfortunately for us the Romans got to write the history books back then so we now only see the Gauls through Roman eyes. There's an entire historical stereotype we still cling to that certainly didn't exist in 52BC. Does it matter? Well, it would be a bit like watching a Gulf War movie with everyone dressed in Civil War uniforms...it just wouldn't be right, would it? Sure, the world's not going to end because of it, but if our view of history has been shaped by propaganda, what does that do to our present...or our future?
Find out what Calvus thought of Gaul
Monday, 9 July 2012
Sunday, 8 July 2012
In this age of beauty before everything - where the surgeon's scalpel is seen as a fashion accessory - it would be easy to assume this was the modern world's domain alone...but, alas - it's not that new. We have been fighting age for a very long time. Nose jobs, breast reductions, face lifts - all things available to the Romans who could afford it. For those who hadn't been looking after their teeth, there were bridges and crowns to keep that winning smile. And for those a little more dubious about going under the knife, there was a cosmetic industry not matched until the great name brands of the last century. So next time you think about new look, just remember, it's getting pretty old.
Find out how vain Calvus was
Tuesday, 3 July 2012
Oil has caused all sorts of troubles for us...Japan bombed Pearl Harbor because if it, and Germany invaded Russia because of it. The Gulf War...one and two? Oil is the grease of this modern world, take it away, and everything stops. So far this hasn't happened - but if you a want a lesson in what would happen if it did, then we need only look to the fall of the Roman Empire - the First Millennium's great oil shock. Of course, it wasn't sweet light crude back then, it was olive...but don't think for a moment the Roman world collapsed because the deep-friers ran dry. Just like modern crude, olive oil kept the lights on, it kept the wheels of industry and trade turning and every last person used it for skin lotions and bathing...just as the petrochemical plants provide for us today. Now just imagine what would happen if one day you went to the supermarket and found every single product you relied on wasn't there...and then you went home and sat in the dark - all because your government couldn't stop a bunch of Visigoths and Vandals cutting off the oil supplies from France, Spain and North Africa. One by one the provinces drifted away from the core, siding with the northern barbarians just so the lights would come on at night again. Now, perhaps this sounds all too simple, but think about...put yourself in their position. If your government stopped providing for you - but some else offered to help instead...what would you do to keep the lights on?
Find out if Calvus could keep his lights on
Monday, 2 July 2012
I'm annoyed, really annoyed. 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 with Celtic speaking peoples before the Greeks and Etruscans arrived - and the Romans came from a part of Italy where that Celtic background had never been interrupted...so much so that Latin could be understood by the Celtic speaking Gauls in modern France. 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.
Find out what Calvus looked like
Sunday, 1 July 2012
Pop Quiz - where was Julius Caesar murdered? On the Senate steps right? Every documentary or movie recreating the assassination always shows him walking up those marble steps and getting a jolly good knifing. There's only one problem with this. Rome's Senate House was burnt down in January 52BC and on March 15th 44BC it still hadn't been rebuilt. In fact during this period the Senate had been meeting in Pompey's theatre - a few blocks away on the edge of the Forum. What's more, poor old Caesar wasn't even entering via the main entrance when he was stabbed - he was actually stepping from a dark alleyway and through the small backdoor used by the theatre's staff when he was accosted. In true theatrical drama he died behind the stagedoor having been stabbed in an alley. Not quiet the impression we're given whenever we see the latest version on TV. And perhaps more by luck than good planning, that little door and its alleyway do still exist if you want to see the where Caesar met the realities of democracy.
Find out what Calvus thought of Caesar