Thursday, 31 January 2013
Face it, Rome was around a long time - it was a global player for almost 1000-years - so the concept of 'being Roman' changes repeatedly. Take a look at a Roman living around 500BC, and this is a person identified with a tiny city state in the middle of Italy. This Roman is a descendant of the same Celtics who would become Gauls in Central France and speaks a similar Celtic language - one that is fast becoming Latin. Their world extends to the farms surrounding their walled city and they still only number in the tens of thousands. To the north the Etruscan Kingdom controls much of the trade in the region, while the Greek city states are facing off with the Persian Empire.
Fast forward to 89BC and a Roman is now very different - the small city state has extended its reach across all of Italy, into southern Gaul, Spain, Greece and North Africa. After a civil war to decide the matter - to be a Roman is almost anyone born in Italy and in the veteran communities dotted around the western Mediterranean. A Roman might speak Latin, but many now speak languages that will eventually become Italian, while others speak Greek or Etruscan. Late Republic Romans might now recall Celtic, Etruscan and Greek ancestors and they already dominate trade across much of the known world. With the fall of Carthage they know they are part of the greatest superpower in the Mediterranean - even though the Roman Republic has a population of just six million people.
Two hundred years later and the Roman Empire means 'being Roman' is largely becoming a state of mind. By now nearly 100-million people from across the North, Mediterranean and Black Sea basins can call themselves Roman. Most of these will never visit Rome - or even know someone who has. To be Roman has become something more akin to being European - or even American. Romans are African, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Gauls, Britons, Germans, Jews, Arabs, Persian, Syrian, Armenian, Pontic and Slavs. They speak hundreds of different languages and rely more on Greek than Latin as a common tongue. This is the world most Roman watchers know - so this is the one that probably best explains what it was to be Roman. These were the people of the Empire - they may have felt stronger regional and language ties with their immediate neighbours, but they paid their taxes with Imperial coins, they walked on Roman built-roads, marched in Roman armies, and lived in Romano cities sharing such a common culture that someone from the northern England city of York would just as easily find and talk their way around Syrian Damascus. That was what it was to be Roman.
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Wednesday, 30 January 2013
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 of the 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 affects 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.
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.
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Tuesday, 29 January 2013
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.
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Friday, 25 January 2013
All right, we've all seen the History channel documentaries or some HBO drama - we know what a Gaul looks like, right? Fighting bare-chested with long, platted pony tails, big moustaches, horned helmets and a nasty habit of collecting severed heads for their village altars. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but if we think Gauls still looked like this during the 1st-century BC Gallic Wars, then we might as well cling to the belief that Gulf War soldiers dressed in Civil War uniforms. Just like Roman history, a lot happened in Gallic history too. The Gauls of the 4th-century BC would have been completely unrecognisable to the Gauls of the 1st-century BC. It's possible a 'modern' Celtic Gaul may not have even understood their ancestors as Greek and Latin made the same inroads into their language as French did to Old English after 1066.
The first thing we need to understand is that the Gallic culture and concept of state became increasingly sophisticated as the centuries passed. In both Belgic and Celtic Gaul, the tribal regions were functioning much more like states by the end of the 2nd-century BC, most had central governments, and in Celtic Gaul, kings had largely been supplanted by Senate-like agrarian parliaments that annually elected a new head of state - a Vergobret - identical in concept to a Roman Consul. By this time Gallic society was in a broad sense similar to medieval Europe, with regional land Barons controlling the local peasantry rather than owning slaves. In Celtic Gaul the situation was probably more complicated than that to the north, increasing urbanisation was widening property ownership in the 1st-century BC and we know women shared equal rights of ownership - including sales or purchase - to men. Obviously, as Celtic Gaul moved from an agrarian society to a consumer and trading economy, the sense of feudalism in the cities and towns was fast disappearing when Caesar arrived.
But what did a 1st-century Gaul look like? In Belgic Gaul (modern day northern France, Belgium and Holland) there's not as much certainty, but we know Gallic women as a whole were very fond of make-up and cosmetics. Julius Caesar say the Gauls - as a people - were very careful of their appearance, and it is very likely Roman fashions were popular in the Celtic cities (central France) at least. As for men? By the 1st-Century BC, Celtic Gauls were clean-shaven and wore their hair short or in the wavy Macedonian style. They were still wearing their plaid trousers tucked into hob-nailed leather boots, and some were probably wearing Roman style tunics as well as their own plaid styles.
|A Celtic Warrior from the Gallic War era - |
no long hair, no naked chest and no barbarian
|Vercingetorix and his Macedonian hair-style from 52BC|
As for the soldiering Gaul? On more than one occasion Caesar's men mistook their own legions for Gallic helmet crests and standards, so despite what you saw on HBO, the Gauls that fought Caesar's legions were rather Romanesque. They wore the same chain mail armour (a Gallic invention), they fought with similar long oblong shields and they wore similar helmets with horsehair crests. On the few occasions that Avernian or Aeduan infantry actually fought pitched hand-to-hand battles with the Roman legions, they proved every bit the equal in armour and strategy - so much so that Julius Caesar ended the Gallic Wars by keeping Gallic infantry at arm's length with artillery and battlements.
In the end, if we want to imagine 1st-century BC Celtic Gaul, we should be picturing a neo-Romano society - where Latin and Greek was widely spoken and written, where the townsfolk were increasingly urbane and the aristocrats more often than not educated in the Roman provinces. These were not the barbarian masses we see in the movies - they were the greatest 'might have beens' of Classical History. As for the Druids and their gruesome human sacrifices...well, that's another post.
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Thursday, 24 January 2013
So what about the other great cities of Gaul? I've already mentioned Bibracte, Cenabum and Lutetia whose principle purpose was international trade. From a Gallic perspective, they were modern metropolitan centres located to specifically take advantage of trade routes - a concept that went entirely against the reason for the traditional Gallic Oppidum - the fortified citadel on top of a mountain. If anything, the existence of these 'lowland' cities by the 2nd-century BC suggests the tribal states of Celtic Gaul were already moving towards a more peaceful trade-based economy rather than one previously based on planting and harvesting with some raiding in between. But that's not to say the great hilltop Oppida were falling out of use - Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul mentions several - and it seems some were urbanised fortified cities rather than the Gallic version of medieval castle. Perhaps the most important was Gergovia - the Arvernian capital, and a city from which much of central and southern Gaul was governed during the 3rd and 2nd-centuries BC.
|The plateau of Gergovia above |
modern day Clermont-Ferrand
Gergovia sits atop a 1000-ft plateau that juts from the Central Massif above the valley of the River Allier. The original Oppidum dates from around 700 BC when the ancestors of the Arverni reached the Allier valley from Austria. By the 2nd-century BC much of the plateau was walled in - enclosing a similar area to Bibracte - suggesting the city may have boasted a population of around 15,000-20,000. Unlike Bibracte, Gergovia relied more on military muscle to preserve it's status. It did control overland trade routes south through the Central Massif to the Mediterranean and Spain, and west to the Atlantic coast, but compared to the river traffic in Central Gaul, the Arverni were very much on the peripheries of the major trading routes. But what they had on their side was clearly a more organised style of Gallic warfare than the 'trading states' - resulting in much of the trade money made in the Loire and Saone valleys going to Gergovia as cash tributes in exchange for protection. The Arvenian Kingdom peaked around 126 BC - after this they lost much of their southern territories to the new Roman province of Transalpine Gaul - but received the status of 'Friend of Rome' and a peace treaty recognised by the Roman Senate in return.
Twenty years later the city of Gergovia was specifically targeted by the 1-million strong invading Cimbri from Jutland - they besieged the city for perhaps a year or more, reducing the residents to cannibalism, but despite this Gergovia never capitulated. In May 52 BC Julius Caesar arrived with the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th legions - around 27,000 battle-hardened troops at the height of the 'Great Rebellion'. Within a week, two of his legions had been effectively ruined as fighting forces and he was in full retreat. Gergovia was one of the worst defeats of his career - and the city famously never fell to any attacker - a stark reminder of its incredible defensive position not to mention the quality of Arvernian infantry. However Gergovia may have won the battle but it didn't win the war. Just as Bibracte, a Roman city - Augstonemetum - was built down in the Allier Valley a few decades later, usurping Gergovia's role in the region. Augustonemetum became Clermont-Ferrand and Gergovia is now an empty plateau - a legacy of the Pax Romana.
|The Arvernian field of influence |
during the mid-1st Century BC
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Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Monday, 21 January 2013
|The walls of Bibracte|
|A map of Bibracte showing the earlier outer wall |
and the newer inner wall
Bibracte was not just the home of the local chief and a few grain silos, rather it was a city of at least 20,000 people and was larger than most of the Roman provincial cities built afterwards. Many of the houses in the Aeduan capital were built of timber - rectangular cottages inhabited by the thousands of artisans, metal workers and merchants who drove the Aeduan urban economy. However at the centre of Bibracte was a town square known as the 'Horse Park' surrounded by much larger Roman influenced stone villas that included hypocausts and sewers. One of these villas covered some 12,000sq-ft. The city also featured large urban fountains that may have had civic or religious purposes - or both. There is no doubt that prior to Julius Caesar's conquest, Bibracte was one of the most sophisticated cities in northern Europe - and after the Gallic wars Bibracte maintained its importance for several more decades. Within two years of the 'Great Rebellion' - when the Aedui had turned against Caesar's legions and had hosted proclamation of the Arvernian, Vercingetorix, as the King of the Gauls - Bibracte had a brand new Roman basilica from which the region was governed until 15BC. The Romans then established the new regional capital of Augustodunum (Modern Autun) 16-miles to the west - this move was the beginning of the end of Bibracte - as it was for several other Gallic hilltop cities, particularly the Arvernian capital of Gergovia...but that's another story.
|Central Gaul in 52BC|
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Sunday, 20 January 2013
It's one of those strange paradoxes of archaeology - an ancient authority on Gaul describes Gallic cities 2000-years ago but his descriptions are often ignored by modern historians. The 19th and 20th century produced the idea of Gauls as the 'Noble Savage' and clearly, noble savages couldn't go around living in cities. As a result many of us - if we've ever heard of Gauls at all - will conjure up images of Asterix and Obelix living in thatched roundhouses rather than a sophisticated western civilisation that was rapidly catching up with Rome and Greece. Julius Caesar embraced this latter concept when he foresaw Gaul in its ascendancy - his reaction was to control the economic powerhouse Gaul could become through diplomatic and military force. If he hadn't, then it's likely just a few unified states from modern day central France would have had the economic means and resources to make Rome a client rather than the master.
Celtic Gaul was dotted with several large commercial hubs by the 1st-century BC - many, such as Cenabum (modern day Orleans) and Lutetia (modern day Paris) had built their power on river trade. Cenabum's position on the Loire allowed it to control almost all commodity trading between the Atlantic Coast and the Mediterranean Basin, likewise Lutetia controlled the Seine, the gateway to the North Sea and the Baltic lands. But for both of these shipping corridors to prosper, short land routes between the southwards flowing Saone and, the northwards flowing Loire and Seine was an unavoidable necessity - making the area between Chalon-S-Saone (Cavillonum) and Nevers (Noviodunum) the place where the real money was to be made. This 100-mile land corridor was the bridge for all north-south trade across Celtic and Belgic Gaul. For all intents and purposes, every wine amphora moving north and every talent of iron heading south had to be taken off ships and road hauled. So whoever controlled this land bridge stood to make a lot of money - and it they did so by collecting tolls. Think about it - imagine a single freeway linking northern and southern Europe over which every pedestrian, pack animal and wagon had to pay for the pleasure. It was a cash cow and it was critically important - and it drove Gallic politics before and after Julius Caesar arrived in 58BC. The money this region was producing was almost certainly the reason for the continual warring between the Arverni and Aeduans in the early 1st-century BC and why Julius Caesar moved to eject Ariovistus and his German mercenaries from the same region as soon as the Romans arrived. That Caesar elected to maintain close relations with the Aeduans rather than the more powerful Arverni also suggests he was much more interested in where the Aedui were - rather than who they were.
So what's this got to do with Gallic cities? Well, it seems probable that the wealthiest and largest city in 1st-century BC Gaul was the Aeduan capital - Bibracte (modern Mont Beuvray) . Founded in the 3rd-century BC - around the same time as the regional toll roads - it sat on the watershed between the Loire and Saone Valleys. It's location, wealth and reason-for-being was entirely built around one of Europe's most important pre-Roman highways - and if history had gone in some other direction, you might know its name as well you know Rome, Athens or Carthage. Tomorrow we'll take a closer look at this great Gallic city - the city that 'crowned' the first and only King of a unified Gaul.
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Thursday, 17 January 2013
It's pretty easy to look back at the Romans with that big dollop of disdain...I mean, turning people into some sort of commodity, how plain evil is that, right? We're so much better. Are we? really? The Atlantic slave trader John Newton wrote his battle hymn against slavery - 'Amazing Grace' - in 1748, having survived a horrific storm at sea...but he kept on slave trading for another six years after that lucky break. Britain officially abolished slavery in its territories on August 1st, 1834, however the 'Slavery Abolition Act' wasn't fully implemented until 1840 when the last 'British' slaves had served their time. And of course, the final decision on slavery in North America wasn't made until April 1865 - with the cost of 600,000 lives. So face it, we all have ancestors within eight generations of us that were touched in some way by the modern slave trade. But don't think for a moment worldwide slavery ended with the American Civil War. There were still 300,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia in 1962 when the tradition was banned there. Mauritania didn't end slavery until 1981 - freeing some 600,000. As of today it's estimated that 2.7-million people are currently trafficked slaves, with another 25.7-million in forced labour or bonded and debt labour. And just because we might be living comfortable western lives, don't think for a moment there is nothing in your house that could have been made by at least one of those 21st-century slaves. In fact, some might even be living your city. So are we that much better than the Romans? Or are we just better at pretending?
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Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Just like anything else, slavery was a business in the Roman-era - with a long chain of slavers, wholesalers and auctioneers taking their share of the trade as a person passed from their point of enslavement to their new owner's premises. Because of a central location in the Mediterranean basin, the cities of Ephesus and Sardis in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) became the major wholesale markets for the slave trade across the Roman world. Here, those slaves gathered from the Middle East, Greece, the Caucuses, Egypt and Ethiopia were onsold into the western markets. By the 1st-century BC about 40-percent of the Italian peninsular's population were slaves - that's around 3-million people - suggesting the Italian slave trade alone had a total worth of around $150-billion (6-billion sesterces) and was probably generating about $15-billion (600-million sesterces) per annum. That's a whole lot of cash going into the pockets of those invested in the industry. As for who made the most amount of money out of the slave business, well, Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul - where one million men, women and children were eventually sold into bondage - and no doubt glutting the market for several years - probably netted him a personal take of around $20-billion...not bad for him, since he was broke when he first became the Governor of the two Gauls...but not so good if you were a Gaul.
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Tuesday, 15 January 2013
The thing you've got to remember with slavery in the ancient world - and the modern one for that matter - is that this was a long standing institution. For the average Roman the act of giving up their slaves would be like us giving up our car...or smart phone, unimaginable, right? Slaves were a seemingly indispensable way for households, farms, and factories to get through the day - without them, for all intents and purposes the sky could fall in. And despite the extreme powers an owner held over them - freed slaves did not turn into rabble rousing emancipators or run underground railroads to get escaped compatriots back home - instead most became slave owners themselves, and some even owned slaves while still in bondage. So presumably the experiences of the average Roman slave - of course there would be exceptions - were not as negative as we might imagine.
There are probably several reasons why, but firstly we should explore the bluntest. Money. Apart from the very poor, virtually all Roman citizens owned at least one slave. For the everyday man in the street, his servant probably cost him three or four years worth of wages, which was almost certainly borrowed. Beating, injuring or killing their slave would be akin to us taking to the family car with a baseball bat. Sure, some of us might, but most of us wouldn't. It's what I call the 'Porsche' scenario. Most of us would have to give up a whole lot to afford a Porsche and once we owned one, we would do everything we could to make sure it never lost value. Of course, there'd be a few who are so rich they wouldn't care what happened to the car...wrapping it around a tree and walking away from the wreckage wouldn't matter one bit. Roman slave owners could be defined in much the same way and a slave's experience probably matched that of a car. The majority of owners who'd scraped together enough cash to buy another human wouldn't be in the mindset of setting out to devalue their investment...but then, some wouldn't have cared.
Added to this, slavery had some broader advantages we might not consider, but no doubt a Roman-era slave did. A master with a trade meant an apprenticeship...and a career. An unmarried master might mean a marriage proposal - as might an unmarried mistress - oh, the scandal. Plus, working in a household meant eating just as well as those they lived with - chemical analysis of Roman-era skeletal remains of known slaves has shown this - not to mention free health care and a retirement plan. So perhaps we shouldn't look at Roman slavery quite the same way as we look at the modern-era slave trade. In an extreme way it was more like a current day workplace agreement - with productivity schedules and get-out clauses. Sure, our employers don't have the power of life and death over us, but then again, we're chained to our banks - and our desk - for the next twenty years anyway...so you've got to admit, we're not a whole lot better off, are we?
Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life after one million Gauls are sold into slavery
Monday, 14 January 2013
I'm going to be up front here...slavery is just about the worse thing someone has ever come up with. In the Roman-era slave owners were entitled to do anything they wanted with their slaves, and I mean anything...torture, death and the other stuff people with power like to do to those who don't. Some slaves, such as those working the Spanish silver mines or those who found themselves in the arena had very short and awful lives. But - and this is a big caveat - on the whole, life as a Roman slave was a genuine improvement on the slavery cultures prior to and after the classical age. For one thing, Roman slavery wasn't hereditary or cultural - a child born into servitude had a good chance of earning their freedom and becoming a Roman citizen regardless of their cultural origin, their skin colour or choice of religion. And for many, slavery meant learning Latin and a trade and being able to earn good money before and after they were granted freedom. In fact, for those tens of millions of provincials living outside of Italy, slavery was often their only means of economic improvement. The preponderance of Greeks who continued to arrive in Rome as slaves during the 1st-century AD - despite Greece having been peacefully ruled by Rome for the best part of two centuries, suggests the majority of 1st-century Greek slaves were selling themselves - or their children - into servitude rather than finding a way into slave markets via crime or rebellion. And from that, we should assume they were thinking life in a Roman household - despite what a Roman might do to them - had more long term rewards than the freedom they were giving up.
So what does that mean? Didn't these 'volunteers' have any pride in their freedom? Surely they were masochists to think life was better under the whip than in some dirt poor, muddy backwater? Perhaps, perhaps not, obviously their expectations weren't as pessimistic as our modern day interpretations...in tomorrow's post we'll explore why.
Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life after one million Gauls were sold into slavery
Sunday, 13 January 2013
Everything has a price we're told. And as we know, the Romans weren't shy about putting a price on people. Just as the Greek world that preceded them, slavery ran the Roman economy. Slaves could easily make up half a city's population, and some households could afford dozens. But just how much did it cost to take away someone's freedom? What was the value the Romans put on their servant's labour? One account survives from Pompeii in 79AD, where a male slave was sold for 6,252 sesterces - $156,300 in today's terms. Around the same time a Gallic girl was sold in Britain for 2,400 sesterces - $60,000. By comparison a donkey cost 500 sesterces ($12,500), the average annual income was around 900 sesterces ($22,500), the weekly rent on a moderate inner city apartment was 38 sesterces ($961), a large bread loaf was 0.5 sesterces ($12.50), as was half a litre of straight wine. In other words, owning someone was no small matter. Just one slave could cost the same as a modern day luxury car, and social expectations meant most slaves were freed - or allowed to purchase their freedom - within a decade. Many Romans probably borrowed heavily to buy a slave...and considering bankruptcy could end in non-citizens having to sell themselves to pay down debts, the bizarre cycle of slave-owner to slave and back again would have been fairly common among the less fortunate...or perhaps it was karma.
But how's this for a little side note...if we fast forward to 1850, when Americans were earning $130 a year - the average slave was selling for $500 - which works out at $76,923 in today's values. So it seems commercial slavery managed to keep human worth pretty consistent - for the last 2000-years we've actually kept our value. Sad, but true.
Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life after one million Gauls were sold into slavery
Saturday, 12 January 2013
Imagine a world where today's date is pretty much subjective, and where a year could vary by four weeks. This was the calendar the Romans lived with until 46BC. Their traditional lunar calendar had only 354 days, with an additional month of Mercedonius usually added between February and March every second year - depending on Rome's senior priests. The situation wasn't perfect and by the time Julius Caesar became Dictator, the New Year was being celebrated in Autumn. Being a man who made big ideas happen, Julius Caesar decided the situation could be improved upon and sought out the western world's top mathematicians in Alexandria to remedy the calendar 'issue'. One, Sosigenes, was able to advance his existing work of charting the sun relative to the earth, showing a solar calendar with 365 days - and an extra day added to February every fourth year - that could take the 'calendar year' out of the hands of Rome's priestly colleges and into the hands of the people. For the first time everyone in the Roman world would be able to calculate a day in the future - and when it would fall - rather than awaiting an edict from Rome. Picking a date next year might seem simple today, but without the drive of Julius Caesar and wherewithal of Sosigenes we might still be having a leap month instead of a leap day.
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Thursday, 10 January 2013
Being on the periphery of the world's neolithic, bronze and iron age history - and despite it's very rich paleolithic past - Australia seems to generate a lot of wild theories and wishful thinking about such-and-such pile of rocks being a lost Egyptian pyramid. Put to the test these stories never usually stack up. They might be in places where lots of Australians live now, but are so far from any shipping-route an ancient mariner might have been taking they can be immediately refuted. Once again, it pays to consider the economic reasoning a classical-era seafarer might have made to continue searching along a desolate, and uninviting Australian coastline when they left the Spice Islands...even Sinbad would have given up eventually...and it's at some approximate point down the Cape York Peninsular in the east and the Pilbara in the west we can more or less dismiss any 'logical' chance of early European or Asian exploration continuing southwards.
|Australia in 1583, that's the |
Kimberley coast on the left
Still, Egyptians? Puleeeeeaaaase. Well, not so fast. Egyptians were making the ocean voyage to India as early as 1400BC. By 1000BC they dominated the eastern trade route. And as my source isn't an expert - if those tomb paintings are the real deal, they could date anywhere from the New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic period. That gives us a potential 1300-year window for at least one expedition east of India, and given these were tomb paintings, I suppose the expedition wasn't a success. So, if the Egyptians possibly made it to the Kimberley coast...who else might have?
A-ha, you say, I've just Googled and I can't find anything about these paintings. Yeah, don't worry I Googled too. What I can tell you, at least one Australian University was sent photographs and video footage of the cave, but to my knowledge nothing more was done. The area is culturally sensitive to First Australians and it's very remote - but most likely some history academic did the same thing I did when I was told the story. Egyptians in Australia? Puleeeeeaaaaase.
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Wednesday, 9 January 2013
I guess you're wondering where this post is going to go? How could Australia have played any part in Roman history - it wasn't discovered until 1770, right? Well...not really. The concept of a Terra Australis (the Southern Land) dates back to the mid-3rd-century BC and Aristotle. Fisherman from the Indonesian archipelago have been travelling to the northern coasts of the continent for at least a thousand years. During the 15th and 16th-centuries Portuguese and Dutch traders likewise explored and named much of northern Australia. And we shouldn't forget that the sea-borne ancestors of Australia's First peoples discovered the southern continent at least 60,000-years ago.
Yeah, yeah, I know, so what about the Romans? Well, the simple fact is those Portuguese and Dutch traders were following the same trade routes established by the Roman-era Tamil and Sri Lankan traders between India and China - in fact Australia has been on the southern edge of these trade routes for at least 2300-years, and perhaps much longer. So why would those Tamils and Sri Lankans come to Australia? The reasons hadn't changed when the Portuguese, Dutch and British came along - either by accident, or for money. By accident was pretty common - seafarers daring the tropical monsoon season could have ended up anywhere along the vast north Australian coast when the storms blew in. And then there's the money. Economic imperatives haven't changed since paleolithic Siberians began trading beads with Europe thirty thousand years ago. Just as the post-Renaissance traders came to northern Australia looking for money to be made, Roman-era traders could well have done the same.
|Australia in 1583 - that's Cape York Penninsular on the right, |
the Northern Territory and the Kimberlys are on the left.
The ancient Roman-era Spice Islands are to the north.
Okay, so why isn't there any evidence? Well, there's not a lot of evidence of the Portuguese and Dutch explorers from five-hundred years ago either. In fact most of their reports, maps and discoveries were jealously guarded by their governments and have already been lost to history. And the few expedition camps that might have been established were probably impossible to find a year or two later - let alone now. The simple fact is that Northern Australia was utterly uninviting to the 15th-century European explorers. There was little cultivatable land and little permanent freshwater. The First Australian's they met had little or nothing to trade. There was no mining - so there was no copper, gold or iron to buy. In other words there was no economic imperative to stay and establish trading communities.
The situation was identical when Roman-era traders were passing too - and with no surviving written evidence from that period, the only way a Roman-era contact might be proven is if some day someone finds some broken shards of pottery or a couple of coins on a beach somewhere along the seven thousand kilometres of the North Australian coastline - and as no one's looking that makes such a discovery a very distant possibility. But that shouldn't be taken as evidence that no one who knew what a Roman was didn't wash up on a beach - it's just that we're unlikely to ever know. What we need to understand, is that if the Portuguese or the Dutch tried to trade in Northern Australia, then they probably weren't the first. The colour of money - and how to make some for yourself - hasn't changed in the last 2500-years. A lack of physical evidence for something happening doesn't mean it couldn't have happened, so long as you can find an economic reason for someone trying. I think that economic reason did exist 2000-years ago, so I guess it's time to pull out the metal detector and put on the Aerogard.
Tomorrow I'm going to let you in on a story that might actually back up these claims...
Check out my latest book - Vagabond - about life in Roman Gaul
Tuesday, 8 January 2013
It's no doubt a big stretch to suggest Vercingetorix - or a descendant - was old King Cole, or the eventual genesis for Arthur of Camelot. But as I've previously covered, there are some surprising coincidences between real Romano-Gallic history, Gallic religious beliefs and Arthurian myth. Still, if circumstances allowed a stateless Arvernian 'royal' family to exist in Britain...then what were they?
But could this have been Vercingetorix himself? It is improbable, but it can't be entirely ruled out. And this is where Julius Caesar himself offers some fuel to the conspiracy. As I've mentioned before, Vercingetorix was a title, not a name. It actually means "King of/over Warriors"...and since the Arverni didn't have any kings in 78BC when he was born, it is very unlikely his father and mother were so prescient of mind to name him as such. So why doesn't Julius Caesar mention the Arvernian's real name? It was either a very well kept secret that Caesar never learnt...or more likely (as someone who made a habit of learning everything they could of their enemies) Caesar had reason enough to protect the king's identity. Don't forget Julius Caesar wanted the Arvernians on his side after the war, and we know he gave them very generous terms of surrender. Executing the Arvernian 'King of Gaul' while most of the former Gallic legions were mopping up from the Civil War in Greece, North Africa and Spain might have been more trouble than Caesar really needed in 45BC...let alone giving the Arverni a reason to join the Pompey's side during the war. A huge stretch, yes, but remember, Caesar didn't execute any of his Civil War protagonists either. It may have been worth his while for a stateless King of Gaul to exist on the fringes of the world...just as the British did with Napoleon 1800-years later. Juvenal's quip about 'Arviragus' - the Arvernian - sits well with this, just as a British satirist may have humoured his audience with 'the Emperor of St Helena'.
|Vercingetorix - Arviragus or King Arthur?|
Monday, 7 January 2013
So there we go then, we've got Roman satirist Juvenal - the Seinfeld or Connolly of his age - writing about an Arvernian king living in Ancient Britain. Most likely his point was meant to be a matter of farce or absurdity, a fact that may have been lost on Geoffrey of Monmouth - who possibly sourced the name 'Arviragus' from Juvenal's poem. But why did Juvenal joke about an Arvenian king living in Britain? And could such a king be related to someone as real as Vercingetorix?
This is where we come up against the limitations of what we can be sure is reasonably accurate 'recorded' history. We lose track of Vercingetorix after his surrender in early October 52BC. As the declared leader of a conquered state he would have been transported to Rome, probably via ship out of Narbo (modern day Narbonne) during November and then afforded a private villa beyond Rome's city boundary - where he would have been allowed a privileged but imprisoned life - all standard practice for death-row heads of state. After Caesar's Gallic Triumph in 45BC the King of Gaul would have then been taken to the Mamertine prison for execution. But in truth, we don't really know. We don't know if Vercingetorix was shipped to Rome, we don't know if he enjoyed house-arrest in a luxurious villa, and the few ancient historians who mention his execution do so centuries after the event. Chances were he was...but that's by no means definitive.
What we do know is Julius Caesar gave immediate clemency to all Arvernian and Aeduan soldiers and aristocrats at the end of hostilities. These two states made up a large proportion of the Gallic army's heavy infantry and cavalry - and Caesar impresses on his readers he wanted to return to good terms with these two powerful tribal states who had very much proven their mettle against him. And in describing his generous terms for their surrender, he does not mention the imprisonment of Vercingetorix. So, yes, there's a chance Vercingetorix was allowed to flee to neutral Britain rather than face the music in Rome. And if he didn't, there's a good chance a hitherto unreported relative did. Remember, we don't know Vercingetorix's real name and we don't know if he had brothers or children.
So this raises two possibilities...an unlikely one that Vercingetorix lived out a life of exile in Britain...eventually becoming some age old joke - a King of Gaul who had no Gaul to rule - or a dauphin existing in his father's name, achieving the same notoriety. And this infamy is something we have evidence for. Juvenal's joke about Arviragus is exhibit A. But here's exhibit B...and one most of us have heard. It is, what researchers like to say, that wonderful second independent source.
Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there's none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three
The origins of this Romano-British poem date to the same time as Juvenal...and guess what the Welsh name 'Cole' (or Coel - say Coil) phonetically resembles and may have once meant? Try saying Gaul instead of Cole and I think you'll see where I'm coming from. Hmmm...I think there might be even more to this story.
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Sunday, 6 January 2013
And here it is...Arvi-ragus. Arvi is Latin shorthand for Arverni or Arvernian. So Arviragus was the 'Arvernian' or the 'Arvernian King'. And if there was one Arvernian king Juvenal was joking about, it could be Vercingetorix. But why would Juvenal be suggesting an Arvernian King was living in Britain? Well, that's going to be tomorrow's post...
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Friday, 4 January 2013
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 1st-century BC. The first bridge to ever cross the River Rhine was built in 55BC by Julius Caesar's Gallic army in just 10 days. Situated near modern Coblenz - where the river is around 400 metres across and is noted for strong currents - the legions 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 repeated by the Roman Army again and again over the next few centuries. 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 18-wheeler 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.
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Thursday, 3 January 2013
Of course, one thing the Greeks and Romans found after the arrival of sugar cane was the arrival of lots of cavities. Roman cemeteries can often reveal those who could afford sugary desserts - the middle class and wealthy with bad teeth - and those who couldn't...I guess that was one good thing about being poor. But like everything in the Roman economy, treating tooth decay was a matter of supply and demand - once there was a demand for dentistry, along came the medical solutions. Just like today, Romans frequently used tooth powders and tooth pastes - these gritty chalks were usually applied with the fingers rather than brushes and often contained flavourings to freshen the breath - that's right, that minty freshness began a long time before Colgate. For those who found the tooth powders coming up short, urine was actually suggested as a mouth wash - yeah, I know, but at the time boiled urine was a common whitening agent so it shouldn't be a surprise - still, so much for the minty freshness on that one.
|A 20th-century copy of Roman bridgework from the Science Museum London|
However once things got bad - as if rinsing with pee wasn't - Romans could visit their barbers for a tooth polish or tooth pulling, deadened with local anaesthetics made from cloves or chrysanthemum roots - the latter could also soften the gums to make extraction easier...overzealous application would mean more than one tooth fell out. Fortunately for those who'd lost their winning smile at the barber, they could then have customised bridges and crowns made for them. Gold dental bridges had actually been invented by the Etruscans by 500BC, but the Romans took dental prostheses to a whole new level, using artificial teeth made from ivory, bone and boxwood, not to mention recycling their own choppers or the occasional dog or pig tooth - no doubt depending on the customer's budget. Rows of false teeth were more or less permanently wired into the mouth with gold filaments, and remain a common find in Roman graves. In fact by 450BC, the Romans had enshrined in law that a citizen could be buried with the their permanently wired teeth - although any removable gold bridgework was to be recovered for recycling.
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Wednesday, 2 January 2013
I'm sure most of us have sampled those syrup soaked and sugary desserts from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece - the famous baklava, halva and galaktoboureko, not to mention the widespread favourite - fairy floss. Believe it or not, these sugary treats date back to the Roman era and even further - and the Roman sweet tooth was just as sugary as ours. Now you might expect all of the ancients' sugary goodness came from honey...but that's not entirely true. The fact is, crystallised sugar and syrups have been around for at least five thousand years and was common enough in the Roman world. The tall grass we call sugar cane was first cultivated around 6000BC in Papua New Guinea. By 3000BC there is evidence that cane cultivation had spread to the Indus Valley civilisation in India - where the first signs of sugar crystal manufacturing can be found. Fast forward to the Classical era and the Persians, then Alexander the Great discovered Indian sugar - the honey made without bees - and introduced sugar and sugar syrup into the Mediterranean basin. During the Roman era, the Mediterranean countries were warmer than present (by at least one degree centigrade), and after Alexander the Great sent sugar cane to Greece for cultivation, the crop soon spread to Italy and Spain where cane farming continued through the Roman era and into the Middle Ages. It was only the gradual cooling of the Northern Hemisphere after the 12th-century that saw cane cultivation collapse in Europe and sugar become the expensive luxury that it was by the time of the Renaissance...which of course leads into sugar cane's modern history now firmly focused in the Tropics and Subtropics.
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Tuesday, 1 January 2013
So this is the big question - were Roman surgeons capable of replicating modern Caesarian births where both mother and child are expected to have survive? The first successful modern Caesarian birth did not occur until 1881, however the conditions in which it occurred were little different to those that would have presented themselves two thousand years earlier - that is, it occurred in a private residence, it was completed with minimal anaesthetic and with only the most basic wound and instrument sterilisation. What's more, two years before this historic birth, Ugandan villagers were observed completing successful Caesarian sections in even more basic conditions. So, all in all, there doesn't seem a lot standing in the way of ancient surgeons being able to do the same. Remember, with a fairly regular attendance to pregnant women who had died for any number of reasons, a Roman surgeon would have been familiar with the abdominal region, including where they should make incisions and what they would encounter beneath.
|A Roman era 'dialator'|