Sunday, 30 September 2012

& keeping it short

It's a simple rule really - dictators dictate - so someone has to be around to write it all down. The great orators of the 1st-century BC - particularly Cicero - were famous for speaking 150 words a minute while filibustering for hours on end - much to the chagrin of fellow senators or jurists bored to the point of committing the ultimate crime just to shut them up. And to catch every word, their personal scribes burnt out stylus after stylus trying to record the magnificent tedium so school children could read these speeches for the next twenty centuries. Cicero's personal scribe, a young Greek named Tiro is credited with inventing his own 'symbolised' style of shorthand, known as Tironian, which was to be used throughout the western world until the 1100s. Yet while his method has now fallen out of use, at least one of his word symbols remains on nearly every computer keyboard to this day - and is very likely to be right in front of you sitting on the '7' key. It's the Ampersand. That little '&' has been around since at least 63BC & was first used to record some of Cicero's greatest speeches at the very moment they were spoken. Think about that next time you hit shift.

Find out if Calvus ever scratched '&' on the court stool in front of him


Saturday, 29 September 2012

Worse things happen at sea

If there's one thing the Indian Ocean trade proves - and to a lessor extent their Atlantic explorations - it's that Carthaginian and Roman traders were capable of trans-ocean voyages rather than the simple coast hugging ancient mariners are generally accused of. Staying at sea for extended periods brings all sorts of issues for the sailor, but the most important is generally the lack of drinking water. This was to curse the voyages of discovery during the middle ages and has meant the end for more than a few modern mariners. Yet, back in 78AD Pliny writes of two desalination techniques used at sea, one of which has only been recently re-invented. The first is pretty simple and probably dates to the earliest bronze age sailors...woollen fleeces were scattered about on the ship's deck to collect sea spray - Pliny says that ringing these out produced fresh water...although I'd imagine it still had a fairly high salt content. The other is considerably more sophisticated. Osmosis - the passage of water molecules though a semi-permeable membrane - was first demonstrated in 1748 by Jean-Antoine Nollet, yet Pliny explains that Roman sailors were using the process back in the 1st-century AD. He describes hollow balls or sealed clay containers being lowered into the water and trailing behind the ships - after a period of time these vessels were brought aboard filled with fresh water - something pretty remarkable since even to this day people are still dying of thirst in boats when, as the Romans knew, they are surrounded by water.

Find out if Calvus ever drank too much sea water      

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Getting more Industrial

Obviously there are more variables at work for the failed mechanisation of the Roman world other than Hero of Alexandria never visiting a flooded Spanish mine. The simplest explanation is that Roman industry must have had lower labour costs than that of England in the 18th-century, right? Slavery is always used to explain how the ancients managed without machines, but when factoring in purchase costs, housing, clothing and feeding, a Roman slave could easily have cost just as much - if not more - than those employed in the factories of the 18th and 19th-centuries. As evidence of this, by the 1st-century AD automated urban flour mills powered by local aquaeducts were appearing throughout Rome and the provinces, proving Roman industry was just as big on labour minimisation as those in the modern world. In the end, the difference between the 1st-century AD and the 18th-century - the two occasions when steam power was harnessed for useful work - is more about geopolitics than a Roman reliance on slavery.

Put simply, the 1st-century AD was a time of relative peace for Rome - sure there were invasions of Britain and the Judean revolt - but both used only fractions of the Roman military and economy to effect. All of the great empires that had opposed Rome were gone, there was no longer a need to out-compete an aggressor of equal capacity and for all intents and purposes the 1st-century world was one of coasting along in a dull status quo. Change that to the 18th-century with the birth of the industrial age and you have Britain and France struggling for world dominance, ending with Napoleon's global war and the colonial wars across North America. In other words, outnumbered by the French, the English had to find ways to outproduce their arch rival...mechanisation was the only way...and it is very likely that without the English-French rivalry of the 18th-century, the industrial revolution might still be waiting to happen.

Put back into the Roman world, the time for the steam engine to have changed history was the late 3rd or 2nd-century BC, at a time when Rome and Carthage had risen to be the two masters of the Mediterranean, with each vying for the other's downfall. After Carthage, the Gauls, the Germans, the Greeks and Egyptians were all minor players, none of whom could so completely employ the Roman economy to overcome. So, as we've seen in the last century, the time for the greatest human inventiveness is always at the time of most urgent need - the Pax Romana might have brought peace to the western world - but, ironically, it strangled classical era innovation.

Find out if Calvus knew a bobbin from a poppet      

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Getting Industrial

One of those big 'ifs' of the Roman era is how close did they come to having an 'Industrial Revolution' similar to that experienced in the 18th and 19th-centuries? After all, following the same time line that we have - if the atmospheric steam engine had been invented in 12AD, then the Romans may have ended up with nuclear energy in 245AD. Does that sound incredible? It shouldn't. We were no more technically advanced at the beginning of the 18th-century than 1st-century AD Romans, but we still managed to harness (or split) the atom by 1945. Thank goodness they didn't have the stationary steam engine, eh? Can you imagine a world beset with best and worst of nuclear technology for the last 1800-years? Well, trouble is, despite the first successful atmospheric steam engine being credited to Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the first 'usefully employed' steam engine was fired up around 40AD. This was when Hero of Alexander demonstrated the closed-system steam-syphon engine to automatically open and close doors. Perhaps happily (or unhappily) for us, Hero was more interested in theatrics and urban automation rather than finding industrial uses for his steam engines. But the facts are pressurised steam boilers were common place in every Roman bathhouse and Hero proves an understanding for steam cylinders and water pumps...the trouble is, unlike Newcomen - who saw the machine as a solution to pumping water from flooded mines - Hero clearly never visited Spain where he would have seen miners beset with the same troubles as those in 18th-century England. Perhaps if he had, our earliest steam engineer might have seen how an open-system steam engine could replace the dozens of slaves driving the pumps and water-wheels. Makes you think what might have happened if he had.

Find out if Calvus ever saw a steam engine                

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Some like it hot

If there's one thing that has stayed the same since the Mesopotamians invented the shekel five thousand years ago, its economics. At its most basic level economics relies on human nature - which has remained a constant throughout the history of civilisation. Consumers will always want to pay less...and the less they pay, the more they will consume.

Case in point...Romans and black pepper.

Originally from South East Asia, black pepper first arrived in Greece during the 4th-century BC - but having travelled the land route from India, it was incredibly expensive, and only the super rich were able to acquire a taste for the spice. By the 2nd-century BC black pepper was being cultivated throughout southern India, reducing some of the costs, but it remained more expensive than the 'long pepper' (piper longum - a spice virtually unheard of these days and not to be confused with chili) grown in northern India...simply because the 'long pepper' plantations were closer by road to Europe than those in the south.

But all that changed when Augustus annexed Egypt in 30BC. For the first time Rome controlled the shipping routes to India, and for the first time freight costs from southern India fell below those to the north. Black pepper's price fell overnight and demand sky-rocketed. More black pepper was planted in India, and farmers began growing the spice in Java and Madagascar. The 78AD prices Pliny gives us says it all. The previously cheaper 'long pepper' - still being road hauled from modern Pakistan through Mesopotamia to the Nabataean trading cities like Petra - cost 15 denarii per pound ($1500), however the black pepper coming from southern India by ship was selling for 4 denarii per pound ($400). By this time black pepper was appearing in most Roman cooking...and at $25 an ounce (one sesterce) almost anyone could afford it. A classic case of supply and demand. Black pepper got cheaper, and 'long pepper' disappeared from recipes.

Find out if Calvus could handle some spice in his life        

Monday, 24 September 2012

Rome in the Ancient World - the Americas

In the last post in this series, here's one of those 'out there' conspiracy theories, X-Files, Lost stories. The question is, did the Romans - or the Greeks or the Phoenicians for that matter - ever make landfall in the Americas? It seems pretty incredible and very unlikely, but first lets consider the idea with a little logic. For a start, the Classical World already knew the earth was in the shape of a sphere...and by 240BC the planet's circumference had already been calculated. In other words, just like Columbus, classical ocean going seafarers knew that they could reach the same points on the globe sailing east or west, and could reasonably calculate just how far these opposing routes might be. We also know that the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all knew where the Canary and Cape Verde Islands were - and some of Pliny's descriptions also suggest the Azores - so some exploration of the central Atlantic was undertaken. But did they take the next step? Did Roman era sailors press onwards from the coast of Africa? Well, it's possible. Some 4000-miles west of the Canary Islands in the harbour of Rio De Janeiro divers recovered several amphorae during the 1970s. This is one of those stories that has never been properly followed up with sound archaeology - and although the amphorae sighted may date from the 2nd-century BC, the supposed Roman shipwreck has never been properly explored and excavated. However, even if this 'wreck' has so easily been dismissed by the mainstream as unlikely to be Roman, the possibility that some of Europe's classical sailors reached the Americas cannot be entirely ignored. After all, the Vikings managed it 1000-years later in much smaller ships...and so did Columbus, again with vessels smaller and no more sophisticated than those of the classical age. So you never know, this subject shouldn't be considered properly explored just yet.

Find out if Calvus knew the earth was round

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Some people have all the luck

Today's Birthday boy
On this day in 63BC Gaius Octavius Thurinus was born. Big deal, you say? Never heard of him? You probably have, but like the modern era of celebrities inventing new names and personalities for themselves, he changed his name twice to buy some more chutzpah from the public. So who was he? A musician? An actor? Well, like most celebrities, he was a nobody. He was born the great nephew of a struggling Senator who had hocked himself to the eyeballs and looked like he was going to send his entire family to the dosshouse for the rest of the Roman age. That was until the family hit pay dirt. His debt stricken great uncle realised he could make some quick cash invading Gaul, and, well, the rest is history. Still, despite his great uncle's lucky streak, Gaius Thurinus would have stayed a nobody if things had gone a little differently on the morning of March 15th, 44BC. Luckily for our birthday boy, the old duffer's good run ran out at the back door of a theatre and Rome suddenly had a murder on its hands. That, and Rome's biggest fortune had to quickly find itself a worthy heir. Enter our 19-year old Gaius spending his year of officer training studying Greek literature in distant Illyricum (modern day Albania). Plucked from obscurity to handle a mind boggling amount of money - starting with 700 million sesterces ($17.5 billion) that had been squirrelled away for a war on Parthia, he quickly adopted his great uncle's name - Gaius Julius Caesar - and declared war on the old man's murderers. Long story short, he won. Then he sorted out everyone else who might have had a claim on this great uncle's legacy, so that by 30BC his 39-year-old great aunt, great uncle's only son and aunty's new lover - great uncle's second cousin - had all succumbed to very untimely deaths. After that, everything must have seemed pretty dull, so with nothing else to do, he got the Senate to bestow him yet another name - Augustus - plus the title of Rome's first Emperor and then the month Sextilius renamed as a little nod to his very long lucky streak. Not bad for a nobody from a family that nearly ended up in poverty. You probably wouldn't read about it.

Find out if Calvus ever rated him

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Rome in the Ancient World - Northern Europe and Russia

Scythia and Sarmatia in 100BC
Scythians as the Romans saw them -
they don't look much like Conan do they?
In the second last post of the 'Rome in the Ancient World' series we'll take a look at two parts of the world where you wouldn't imagine Romans - Scandinavia and Siberia. Well, there's no doubt the Romans had a toe hold in the southern Ukraine - the Emperor Vespasian established forts in the Crimea (ancient Sarmatia) during the 1st-century AD to protect Roman outposts in the region from the surrounding Scythian kingdoms. These kingdoms stretched northwards and westwards across the Urals into Siberia, and although Pliny's accounts of this area are limited to dubious descriptions of the Hyporboreans who lived beyond the Scythians, his understanding of life in the six month day and six month night encountered beyond the Arctic suggests the Romans had some knowledge of northern Russia and Siberia. However trade in this region appears limited - the Scythians weren't inclined to be miners and still used wooden tools during the Roman era, so at the most, harvested timber and perhaps grain were the principle commodities exchanged.

To the west in Scandinavia, the impact of Rome was far more intense. Rome had established trading routes with Denmark by the 1st-century BC - soon after the catastrophic invasions of the Cimbri invasions into Gaul - which had also originated from the same region. Roman ceramics, weapons and coins are found throughout Denmark and there's evidence that Danes fought as cavalrymen and auxiliaries in the Roman legions. In fact the Danish adopted many of Rome's military practices, copying their sword and armour designs and then selling them to the Germans, complete with Scandinavian maker's marks - arms that were then used against the Roman Legions. I guess free trade was a big thing back then.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Rome and the rest of the Ancient World - Africa

Well, part of this answer is easy. All the modern nations of North Africa were once parts of five Roman provinces, with Roman occupation beginning in 146BC during the final war with Carthage. Over the next two hundred years the Empire took over the kingdoms of Mauritania to the west and Egypt to the east. Great cities soon covered the fertile regions north of the Sahara and some Roman Emperors were even African born. And apart from the highways and aqueducts still to be found across these former territories, one Roman influence remains very apparent to this day - the total absence of large African game and predators - with everything from lions and leopards to antelope and elephants driven to extinction in North Africa by Rome's insatiable need for bloody entertainment in the arena.

But what about south of the Sahara? The Niger and the Congo in the west or Kenya and Tanzania in the east? Did Rome make a difference in these distant places? Coinciding with their eastward push into the Indian Ocean, Roman merchants certainly began heading down the east coast of Africa. By 60AD, reports of trade with the African island of Menouthesias - modern day Zanzibar - were appearing in texts. African trade was mostly for ebony and ivory, with the Romans bringing ceramics, fabrics and glass in exchange. And thanks to the Phoenician voyages of discovery between the 6th and 4th-centuries BC - that may or may not have involved a complete circumnavigation of the African continent - the Romans were aware of considerable parts of the west coast to Guinea and east coast to Mozambique. The hardest evidence for trade beyond Zanzibar comes in the form of Roman coins, with 2nd and 4th-century AD Roman coins having been found in Zimbabwe and Madagascar and a 1st-century AD coin discovered in the Congo. Still, the coin finds have been pretty thin on the ground, so Roman visits to these regions were probably rare, and it's more than possible African traders brought them from further north. Still, Zimbabwe is 10,000-miles from Rome, yet even so, the ancient inhabitants of Southern Africa knew what a Roman Emperor looked like, and that's no small thing in this great big world.

Find out if Calvus ever went to Africa

Monday, 17 September 2012

Rome and the rest of the Ancient World - East Asia

So we know Rome was a big deal in India and India was big deal to Rome - but what about beyond? How much further did Rome reach into Asia? Well, we know the Romans and the Chinese knew about each other so that's a start. The Romans drew maps of South East Asia, China and the western Pacific Ocean - and the Chinese report several visits from Roman officials and merchants during the second and third century-AD - however Chinese descriptions of Romans looking Chinese, and Pliny's 78AD assertion that the Chinese were blonde and blue eyed leaves room for some doubt on 'official' contact. It appears almost all the silk and steel trade between Rome and China was done so by Indian and Sri Lankan traders.

The same could also be said about the fabulously profitable spice trade to the Malaysian Peninsular and the modern day Indonesian Archipelago - the former Spice Islands. The world's supply of cloves came exclusively from the Maluku Islands - and nutmeg from the Banda Islands. Roman pottery has been found in Sembrian on the island of Bali, still, whether a Roman left it there is pretty much up in the air. However, being closer to the Roman expats living in India - and being where most money was to be made east of India, ancient Europeans probably did visit South East Asia on a semi-regular basis, unlike their few trips to China.

And then there's Japan. Roman glass jewelry has been found in 5th-century AD Japanese tombs - so like the Chinese, the Japanese were probably aware of a 'Western Empire' but their contact too was fleeting and more than likely second or third hand. In the end, it looks like the world was just too big for the Roman Empire to be more than an ephemeral thought in the minds of those in the far east.

Find out if Calvus knew about China

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Imports Exports

So we know Rome's Red Sea ports were pretty busy by the beginning of the 1st-century AD. Those 120 return journeys from India represent about 200,000-tons of freight needing to be moved to or from the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean basin...or about 100,000 average sized wagon loads. So as Col&#39 suggested yesterday, there was a lot of money to be made for those in the ancient logistics business. The Red Sea's two biggest ports, Myos Hormos and Berenice were connected to the Nile Valley by the Coptos Road (later renamed the Via Hadriana) which ran from modern day Gift, across 258-miles of desert to the Red Sea in what was described as an eleven day journey. Special watering stations were spread out along the route, with most water also having to be carted in from the Nile. Needless to say, moving 100,000 wagon loads over this highway, or the other three Nile Valley-Red Sea roads would have been an expensive business...and just like today, business is always looking for the cheapest solution.

The cost of transport from the Red Sea was apparent well before the Roman trade began, and in the 6th-century BC, Pharaoh Necho II began a canal from the Gulf of Suez across the deserts to the Nile Delta. The canal is believed to have been completed by the Persian king, Darius I, and in 273BC Ptolemy II is credited for improving the channel with locks to cope with a 4.5 foot difference in the height of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Parts of the canal were 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep, more than capable of handling ocean going ships - presumably these big sailing craft were hauled through the canal by rowing tugs or animals on parallel tow paths. Four hundred years later and perhaps because of silting - or to have a current powered canal for both eastbound and westbound shipping - a new canal, known as the Trajan River, was excavated in the decade prior to 112AD. It started 60km further upstream on the Nile, running as fresh water rather than salt, and joined the older canal just prior to its exit into the Gulf of Suez at Arisnoe. In turn the Roman canal had silted up by the 7th-century AD, but was reopened in 642AD by Amir ibn al Aas. In 747AD it was closed again to stop supplies reaching a rebellion in Medina, after which it fell into permanent disuse. With that, all freight moving from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean had to do so by camel. But then, of course, demand was a mere trickle compared to what it had once been. 

Find out if Calvus was a logistical nightmare       

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Rome and the rest of the Ancient World

We've got a pretty good idea of Rome's place in the world...from Syria and Morocco to Germany and Wales, everyone within this enormous conglomeration of cultures was considering themselves Roman by the 1st-century AD...well, nearly everyone. North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Europe - this was the Roman World. But what about the rest? What about the rest of Asia? What about the rest of Africa? What about...even the America's? How did Rome fit into their worlds?

Well, today we'll start off with the part of the world most influenced by Rome, yet never occupied as a Roman territory. Any ideas? It was a vast land, known to be around the same size as Gaul, populated by countless millions and irrigated by rivers measured miles across. Roman era Jews and Christians lived there and it's southern tip was the trading hub that joined the shipping routes of the east with those of the west. And even today Roman coins are still found throughout the country. Bet India wasn't the first name you thought of.
Roman Trade routes to the East - India was the number one destination

Since the earliest beginnings of civilisation in the Middle East, trade between Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsular and India has been recorded, so it should be no surprise that India was still a big part of ancient global economy when Rome came along. Trade between the two regions exploded soon after Augustus annexed Egypt from Cleopatra and Antony - in fact the lovers had been planning an escape to India until Pro-Roman Egyptian rebels burnt their Red Sea fleet. With an independent Egypt removed as a middleman, direct trade between Rome and India was possible for the first time, and within a decade 120 ships were crossing the Indian Ocean between several Indian ports and Myos Hormos - Rome's principle Red Sea port - each year. Not bad for a shipping season restricted to just seven months by the summer monsoon.

Roman traders settled along the sub-continent's east coast and southern Tamil states at places such as Barbaricum (now Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, and Arikamedu - the latter three all being Tamil. Pliny writes in 78AD that the Tamil economy was built almost entirely on international trade, where Tamil or Sri Lankan ships from Southeast Asia and China met Roman shippers arriving from Egypt. Commodities traded included frankincense, ceramics, gold and silver, coral, linen clothing, glass and wine coming from Europe. The Roman ships returned west loaded with silk yarn, cotton cloth, rice, wheat, sesame oil, spices and Chinese made steel (goes to show nothing much has changed). Pliny conservatively estimated Rome's annual trade deficit with Asia was some 100-million sesterces ($2.5-billion). And this was no small deal. Two thousand years later India is still littered with the millions of coins shipped into the country during the reign of the Roman Emperors.

It is also likely India had the world's largest population of Roman expats at the time. The Apostle Thomas (the doubting one) travelled to the sub-continent in 52AD to convert a large Jewish population already established in the north and in the Tamil States. It has been suggested he even converted one of the northern kings, Gundaphorus, and established seven and a half churches in the south (yes, I know, I can't explain the half either), some of which continue as places of worship to this day.

So the next time you think of ancient India, think of it as a modern day Hong Kong or Singapore rather than some outpost Alexander the Great eventually got to. This was a place that really mattered to the Romans, and it goes to show the ancient world had just as big a picture as ours does today.    

Friday, 14 September 2012

Putting the boot on the other foot

The 2000-year old Birkenstock
We've all heard of 'Roman Sandals', right? But did you know they also wore boots, shoes, high heels and cork soles? Just like us they were fashion conscious, and they weren't about to trudge around the snows of Germany and Scotland in flip flops either. Women's shoes covered the same vast array of choice we see today, with many Roman designs still appearing as 'new' fashion in the 21st-century. But even Roman men had some choice - so today we'll take the guys shopping...

For the up and comers in the world, the Cothurus was the kind of boot for anyone who had enough money to own a horse or a seat in the Senate, ornate and lavishly shaped in leather this was the power shoe of the age. Those who wore them were used to giving orders.

The Cothurus - Power dressing for the man of Rome 

The Gallicae was the work boot of the north. Where it was too cold to have open toes, this was the gift the Gauls gave to the Romans. After ten years of fighting in the north, the Romans were quick to realise the Doc Martin of the classical age was the best choice for the cold and they wore them for the next five hundred years. And the best thing was they didn't look half bad with socks.  

The Gauls greatest invention (apart from trousers, chainmail, Spanish steel, and Roman warfare) - the Gallicae

The sneaker of the age was the Calceus, mostly enclosed, this was the go almost anywhere, do almost anything shoe, you could wear socks with them in the winter or go commando when the sun came out.

The Calceus - every man's sneaker back when Nike was still a goddess

Alternatively there was the Crepida - more open than the Calceus but similar in principle, probably more popular during summer when the sun balms and linen tunics came out of the wardrobe.

The Crepida - the classy sandal
But of course there was always the trusty Caligula we know from every sword and sandal movie that's been on TV. The classical footwear image of the Roman army. Handed out to the legions in their millions, they were cheap and easy to make and could be easily squeezed into a soldier's kit when they were wearing something else.  

The Caligula - for those who like the classical look
Find out if Calvus liked a Jimmy Choo

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Counting the minutes

The Clepsydra - stealing time
So we know the Romans were able to tell the time...otherwise estimating 'midnight' for the beginning of a new day would have been a very hit and miss affair. Imagine waking someone up for their midnight shift...only to see the sun come up a few minutes later - I know, embarrassment. Obviously they had timers of some sort, and for most people it was probably a Clepsydra (a time thief) - this was simply two bowls, one emptying into the other, with lines on their insides to mark off minutes or quarters of an hour. Once the water finished emptying out of the top bowl, time effectively stopped...and this is where our modern day term "time is running out" comes from. The Roman army probably used these to time their three nightly watches, because these timers were simple and easy to transport and had been around for more than 1600-years before the Roman Empire.

The self-restoring water clock -
plug and play Roman style
But the clepsydra was just the beginning of classical era time machines. Far more advanced water clocks began appearing in the 3rd-century BC - these needed a constant water supply from the nearest tap, but they were self-restoring every twenty-four hours, counted every hour of the day and could chime or whistle on the hour just like modern clocks. As long as the local aqueduct didn't run dry the Roman water clock could work unattended almost for perpetuity and no doubt was a fixture in most higher status houses, temples and public squares. There was no need to worry about the sun going behind a cloud or someone forgetting to refill the water reservoir.

As for the mechanical clocks that have set the time for us since the middle-ages, well, there's no evidence for them dating back to the classical era, but the Romans did have the technology to build the internal machinery and weight driven pendulums that would have been needed. Whether they put these two elements together as a clock is pure conjecture, but I don't think it should be ruled out...after all, almost everyday someone digs up something from the classical world that can't be quickly explained. So keep an eye on the Internet news, maybe one day they will find a Roman cuckoo clock.

  Find out if Calvus could keep the time

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

What's a day

Today is today, right? It started last night at midnight and will finish at midnight tonight. Not too hard to figure out. But hang on...who decided that? How did we pluck an arbitrary moment from the middle of the night and decide it should be the beginning of the day? Well, just like our calendar, we can thank the Romans for our 'day'. Pliny tells us there were a variety of measurements for a day before this - the Babylonians counted a day as the interval between two sunrises, the Athenians had settled for the time between two sunsets and the Umbrians in central Italy preferred midday to midday...which to our sensibilities would have been pretty strange, you'd wake up in one day and go to bed in the next. However the Roman choice of midnight is an interesting one. Setting the time by a sunrise, sunset or the midday sun was a simple act of observation, anyone could tell the time when the sun was around. However in the deepest darkest part of the night, 'midnight' could only be determined by a clock. The Romans needed a considerable level of technology to measure their day...just like us. So to start their day, the Romans became the world's first clock watchers. What kind of clocks? Well, that'll be another post.

Find out if Calvus knew what day it was    

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sending a Postcard from the edge

So we know Claudia Severa was able to post her postcards, but, as Col&#39 asked yesterday, just how did she do it? The Romans probably didn't have formalised post offices as we do today, but they almost certainly had some form of mail delivery available to the wider populace. To post a letter or a parcel, a Roman probably did one of three things. As Claudia proves, private letters to a military address were moved with the daily/weekly/monthly dispatches. Hers was probably fairly simple - she lived in the Ninth Legion's headquarters at Isurium Brigantum, from where regular dispatches probably went straight to outlying forts like Vindolanda. We know from the Vindolanda letters that these dispatches also included 'care parcels' for soldiers from their families so the term 'army dispatches' probably covered almost anything addressed to a soldier. Presumably if you lived in or near one fort you could send mail to your Legionary headquarters, which then sent the mail to the addressee's Legionary headquarters and ultimately to their fort.
In less militarised parts of the Roman world, a similar government system almost certainly existed too. Most large towns had a Basilica - not the churches as we know them today - but what the Romans called their government buildings. Here a civilian version of dispatches moving between outer provincial towns to the provincial capital, and then on to other provincial capitals for eventual delivery. It may have functioned separately to the army system or the two may have blended into each other in the outer provinces.

And then lastly, there would have been private couriers. Like the modern day FedEx, DHL or TNT there was almost certainly someone in your town or city you could pay to move your mail. Just like today's modern couriers, they probably hubbed and spoked their deliveries around the major cities and shipping routes. And they were fairly fast too - ships sailing from Rome to Alexandria could do so in less than two days, to Massilia in less than a week and to Spain or the Middle East in a fortnight...depending on the prevailing winds. 

But once the mail arrived in your town, how was it delivered? Perhaps it was quite similar to how ours is. Most Roman streets were named and there's ample evidence that most houses had the resident's name written beside the front door - some towns may also have used street numbers. Whether the resident payed for the delivery is pure speculation, but you could imagine the public slave or privateer who arrived at your door probably wanted a coin or two for their trouble.

However there is one thing I can say with some certainty on this speculative topic...there weren't too many stamp collectors in ancient Rome.

Find out what Calvus lost in the mail    

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Another postcard from the Edge

A she-wolf mosaic from Isurium Brigantum, the town
Claudia Severa may have posted her letter from
Here's another postcard Claudia Severa sent to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina living in the Northumberland fort of Vindolanda around 100AD. Like Lepidina, Claudia is living in a northern fort, possibly at the location she calls Briga (shortened version of Isurium Brigantum), which is now Aldborough west of York. This is 92 miles south of Vindolanda, which is near modern day Bardon Mill west of Newcastle. In the letter she says she is travelling north, perhaps with her young son, to see her friend - no mean feat in 100AD, because these northern lands were barely Romanised and a journey of this distance in a carriage would have taken two very long days, or perhaps three. As I made the comparison yesterday, this would have been like crossing South Dakota in the 1860s, yet clearly her husband, Aelius Brocchus, the fort commander at Briga, thought the travel safe enough. Unfortunately this two page card is partly incomplete, but the gist of the letter is still in there...

Claudia Severa's two page postcard to Lepidina
" ... greetings. Just as I had spoken with you, sister, and promised that I would ask Brocchus of me visiting you, I asked him and he gave me the following reply "that it was always readily permitted to me, together with (missing - possibly my son) to come to you in whatever way I can." There are certain essential things which (missing) you will receive in my letters by which you will know what I am going to do (missing) I was (missing) and will remain at Briga. Greet your Cerialis from me. Farewell my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul."


"To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa, wife of Brocchus."

Another day in an army wife's life, who at the time was literally living on the edge of the known world.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Postcards from the Edge

Roman mail, the grain supplies are a problem again

In 1973 archaeologists excavating the pre-Hadrians Wall fort known as Vindolandia discovered a horde of partially burnt but well preserved wooden postcards in the 1900-year old fort's rubbish. These postcards were the standard for sending or receiving dispatches across the Roman Empire, hardy and relatively water resistant this was the postal standard of the era...address on one side and the message on the other. Being a military fort, most of the 500 surviving cards deal with the day to day issues confronting the fort commanders - sick leave, grain supply and incidentals. However some are far more personal, and given the fort's location, paint a picture of life on the edge of the world.

This is northern England between 92 and 102AD, there is no Hadrians Wall yet, and the wilds of Pictish Scotland are mere miles away. This is South Dakota in the 1860s or Siberia in the 1900s. The fort is garrisoned with a cohort - about 480 - German speaking Batavians from the modern day Netherlands - commanded by Latin and Gallic officers. And yet life goes on. The senior officers have brought their wives with them, and in this man's world, the girls reach out to each other, just as army wives do today...and we know this because we have their letters.

From a neighbouring fort to Vindolanda, Claudia Severa sends a postcard to her friend, Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Vindolanda's commander, Flavius Cerialis in 100AD...just 1912-years ago...

Currently the world's oldest known Latin document
written by a woman - Claudia Severa 

"Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On September 11th, sister, for the day of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival and your presence. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius (her husband) and my little son send Cerialis their greetings too. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail."


"To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa."

Tomorrow, thanks to the University of Oxford, we'll see another of Claudia's letters to her frontier friend.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Sisterhood surviving in a man's world

It might almost surprise a lot of people, but there were actually women in ancient Rome. I know, go figure. Somehow women's lives seem to get lost in the percolations of testosterone that attract most interest in the ancients...they couldn't be soldiers, they couldn't be politicians and they couldn't be Emperors, so we don't hear much about them - except when a sordid affair or two effects the storyline for a high profile male. But they were there, and not just by default - in fact Roman women had more rights and freedoms than those in the Victorian era barely a century ago.

Roman women enjoyed the same citizenship rights as men - apart from the right to vote. They could buy and sell property, run businesses, lend money or take out a loan independently of family or husbands. They could learn a trade and continue in it after they were married. They could represent themselves in criminal courts, and act for others in civil courts. They ran anything from shops to brick factories to shipping lines and worked in all kinds of trades - from gilding, making expensive clothes dyes, high status fashion design and the more mundane like laundries, hairstyling and fast food stalls. And while most marriages were arranged, women entered into them with their own dowry and possessions, none of which could become the property of the husband. A divorce was as simple as the woman taking her leave from the house. Men had no legal recourse to prevent her or keep her property. Domestic violence was also frowned upon in Roman society and the social need to appear "a good and proper husband" demanded moderated behaviour in a marriage.

Obviously it wasn't the perfect world, but Roman women enjoyed far more freedoms than their descendants through the middle ages and even in the recent past. In the ancient world, perhaps only the women of Gaul had more rights than their Roman sisters...but I guess that's another story.     

Find out if Calvus was an avid supporter of women's rights

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

When is a tunic just a mini-skirt?

One of the things that annoys me most about the great Roman epics from the sixties is watching some Hollywood legend with knobbly white knees prancing about in a tunic so short he would have been arrested if he'd gone off set. Let's set things straight. Throughout the classical age, the tunic was the go to ensemble for a whole range of peoples - the Celts wore them, so did the Greeks, and of course the Romans. It was the T-shirt and jeans we would wear today. And yes, tunic hems did go up and down. The Gauls wore trousers so they didn't need long tunics, and the Greeks weren't afraid of showing some thigh during the 4th-century. But the Romans were always a little more modest than the Greeks, in much the same way the English used to compare themselves to the French - and it showed in their tunics. By the 1st-century BC - when most of our great Roman epics are set - the Roman tunic was knee-length, and actually slightly longer at the front than the that sitting on a public privvy didn't reveal any more than a dietary issue. The Romans were all about practicality, which even showed in their clothes...apart from their togas - but that's another post.

Find out if Calvus liked his tunics short

Monday, 3 September 2012

Keeping up appearances

The Romans were around for a long time...from Rome's foundation in 753BC through to its fall in 476AD, that's 1229 years...the same as from 783AD to now. Obviously a lot changes over 1229 years. Just as we don't dress or speak like those living in the Dark Ages or even the Victorians, it's a bit of a stretch by movie makers to have Romans running around in 400AD looking like they did in 50AD - and since most Roman movies involves someone being a Roman soldier, lets take a snapshot at them.

In the 4th-century BC when Sparta and Athens ruled the region, the Roman soldier looked and fought much like the Greeks...wearing short tunics, bronze or leather 'muscled' cuirasses, shin greaves, Greek style crested attic helmets and fought in hoplite formations with round shields. By the 3rd-century BC - with Hannibal rampaging through Italy - the Roman citizen armies had adopted Gallic fighting techniques, with self-funded light infantrymen (meaning they could run faster - and die faster) wearing bronze chest plates over their everyday tunics with a long oblong shield and a bronze montefortino helmet. Those with more money fought as heavy infantry wearing chain mail vests copied from the Gauls. By the 1st-century BC the citizen armies had been replaced by the state-funded legions - which gave up on light infantry and put every soldier in chain mail vests worn over knee-length white tunics, with more sophisticated neck-protecting bronze helmets and the oblong shield. It wasn't until the 1st-century AD  that the legions began equipping with the segmented steel armour (lorica segmentata) that we usually see in the movies. This, along with polished steel helmets, rectangular shields and red tunics changed completely how a Roman soldier looked - it was like comparing an American civil war soldier with those who fought in the Second Gulf War. But just because this was probably the most practical armour ever designed for ancient warfare, even the 'modern' legion didn't stay the same. Within three hundred years and now functioning more as police than an army, the legions had mostly abandoned armour and had adopted crude Intercisa pattern helmets that were cheaper to make - Rome was running out of money and didn't it show. So next time you see someone trying to be a Roman on TV, have a look at what they're wearing and decide for yourself if the director spent more money on special affects than research.

Find out if Calvus ever polished his buttons

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Keeping your cool Part 2

If the Romans had access to a commerical ice trade, then we may actually have some evidence for 'ice' refrigeration when we do a little lateral thinking. The Mediteranean cultures loved their seafood, and the Romans weren't any different. They began oyster cultivation on a massive scale...and some Roman era oyster beds are still in use around the coast of Sardinia. So big was the demand for oysters across the Roman world, that Roman era rubbish dumps are generally identified by the amount of oyster shell present. In fact, oysters were the fast food of the Roman world. From Britain to Syria, roadside stalls sold oysters to famished travellers by the bucket. The thing is, a lot of these places where oysters were sold in quantity are hundreds of miles from where the oysters were cultivated. Now a live oyster will survive about four weeks in transit - the reason oyster consumption became so widespread - but they must be kept cool. Without some way of keeping those oysters cool, a traveller in the Syrian desert would have been very brave to sample the local oyster shop. The same goes for any seafood consumed in Rome's landlocked cities - which includes Rome itself. Does this mean fresh goods were packed in ice, or even evaporative coolers? From a modern perspective, and presuming the Romans were just as keen not to die from food poisoning as us, then the answer once again points towards a large commercial trade of ice flowing from the northern Germanic lands, the Alps and other highlands in the Roman world...the kind of ho-hum and hum-drum of life the ancient writers never bothered to mention.

Find out if Calvus ever had a dodgy oyster  

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Keeping your cool

A Persian Yakhchal - the world's first
 ice-cream factory
We've probably all heard the stories of crazy Roman emperors sending fleet-footed slaves to the mountains to collect snow for making icy wine gelatos to beat the summer heat. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but I've come to the conclusion that the savvy mass consumers of the classical age probably worked out a better way of making ice cream than this. There's not a lot of evidence for a Roman ice industry, but we do know they used ice-cellars similar to those used by the English during the 18th and 19th-Centuries. The Romans perhaps had even better technology available to them 400BC the Persians had perfected industrial sized evaporative coolers - conical towers called 'Yakhchals' which could store up to 180,000 cubic feet of ice right through the year. Ice was either collected and brought on site, or was frozen on site during winter and then placed into storage. For the Romans, getting industrial quantities of ice into city storages probably meant shipping in from northern Europe or the Alps. Again there's no evidence for this, but we know from the New England ice trade during the early 1800s that long distance ice shipping was more than possible. In fact, New England ice chipped from frozen lakes in winter was shipped 10,000-miles across the equator to the Australian goldfields to fill glasses at hundreds of hotels during the 1850s - and this was with storage technology no more advanced than that available to the classical era. Romans wanting ice cream, sorbets and refreshing drinks would have almost certainly generated sufficient demand for this kind of trade - and I doubt ice was as rare in Rome as the crazy Emperor myths like to state.