Tuesday, 30 April 2013
We tend to get blown away by the prices fetched by modern-era paintings these days - but in the Roman-era, those with cash weren't shy about spending it either. When the conqueror of Corinth, Lucius Mummius, brought captured artworks back to Rome for auctioning in 146BC, the King of Pergamum, Attalus, successfully bid 600,000 denarii (that's around $60-million) for a picture of Bacchus painted by Aristides (530BC-468BC). Mummius was so taken aback by the purchase price he withdrew it from sale and put it on display in the shrine of Ceres. Pliny says King Attalus wasn't particularly happy with this decision. For more on Roman Art, read 'Ad Lib' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Monday, 29 April 2013
I'm kind of starting to think old Pliny was a bit of an art snob - but he does give us an idea of what the insides of wealthy villa's looked like in 78AD, and to be frank, it sounds like nothing much has changed as we experience the same 'new money' world that Pliny was experiencing in the new Imperial Age.
"Meanwhile people cram the walls of their galleries with old pictures and revere portraits of strangers. As for likenesses of themselves, their concern for honour extends only as far as price."
Still convinced the Romans were nothing like us? For more on Roman art read 'Ad Lib' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Sunday, 28 April 2013
Here's a quote for you...
'Painting - it was once a celebrated art - much in vogue with kings and nations - which brought fame to those it thought worthy of being handed down to posterity. Currently, however, it has been supplanted by marble and gold: slabs of marble not only cover entire walls but are also engraved with patterns and decorated with twisting lines that represent objects and animals.'
Sounds like someone shooting off at modern art again, doesn't it? Someone lamenting the appearance of Cubism and wishing the national gallery was filled with Rembrandts - the old 'everything old is going out of fashion' argument we've heard for the last century right? Trouble is, this is Pliny giving his opinion in 78AD. I guess he had a problem with modern art. For more on Roman art read 'Ad Lib' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
Sunday, 21 April 2013
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon during the evening of January 10th, 49BC, he had nine legions spread throughout the two Gallic provinces and was in the process of raising another three. Of these there were his four famous Spanish legions - the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, plus his newer Gallic Legions the 6th (the Italian Draft from 52BC), 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th. Being January, the legions were in their winter camps, the 7th, 10th, 12th & 14th were in the Rhone Valley city of Decetia under the command of Caesar's Senior Legate, Gaius Fabius. The 6th, 8th, 9th &11th were in the lands of the Belgic Remi at Andematunnum under the other Senior Legate, Gaius Trebonius. Julius Caesar was in Ravenna, his Cisalpine Gaul base with just the 13th Legion.
So when Caesar is crossing the Rubicon he had just the 13th - but he was planning on backup. Trebonius had sent the 8th legion through St Bernards Pass (in the middle of winter) and it was just sixteen days behind the 13th, while Fabius had sent the 12th across the lower Alps. After subduing Northern Italy Caesar chased his conservative enemies to Brundisium with the 8th, 12th & 13th, plus his new recruits from Cisalpine Gaul and a few thousand Italian conscripts he'd shaped into the 16th, 17th and 18th Legions along the way.
Meanwhile back in Gaul - Trebonius was heading south during January with the 6th, 9th and 11th to wait at Vienna in the southern Rhone Valley to see if Caesar would need more help in Italy or if Fabius - who was moving towards the Spanish border with the 7th, 10th and 14th - ran into Pompey's Spanish Legions. At this stage the independent Greek city state of Massilia wasn't an issue. Things only changed there when Caesar was taking the 12th, 13th and 18th from Italy back across Gaul to join Fabius and Trebonius for a war on Spain in April.
He more or less came across Massilia in the hands of the enemy during what he intended to be peace negotiations. Luckily for him he had three legions with him (the 12th, 13th and 18th) but he wanted to go to Spain and have someone else take command of a simple urban siege...and since it was easier to transfer a Senior Legate than an army, he brought Trebonius over to Massilia. So by April 49BC the veteran Gallic legions, the 12th & 13th plus the newbie Italio/Gallic 18th Legion were besieging Massilia, while the 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 11th & 14th were the six legions in Spain. For more on the Roman world read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links.
Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Cleopatra get just about all the glory when it comes to acknowledging the great minds of the 1st-century BC. But there was at least one other chap who deserves an honourable mention, even though he slots into the stereotypical role as that century's 'evil genius'. His name was Mithridates the Sixth, the last king of Pontus. Born in 134BC, he claimed to be a direct descendant of the Persian king Darius I as well as some of Alexander the Great's generals. In 113BC he did the normal kinds of things most eastern potentates made when coming to power - like murdering his siblings, his mother and anyone else who might have tried to claim his throne. After this he settled down to various conquests around the rim of the Black Sea and Greece which eventually brought him into the line of fire of Rome. Once this happened he would spend the last thirty years of his life trying to bring down the Roman Republic - through the kind of direct and indirect methods that would make Dr No and Professor Moriarty proud.
But enough of the humdrum...what made this guy such a stand out in intellect?
Well, for starters, Pliny claims Mithridates could speak twenty-two languages (that's right, 22), a record our Roman historian believed unequalled. Through-out his 56-year reign, it is said that Mithridates never once used an interpreter. So the guy was a linguist, what else? For one thing, he was very interested in chemistry - poisons in particular - since he considered this the most likely method for his ultimate doom. Self-guided he began drinking small doses of various poisons to increase his resistance, but he also set out to find as many antidotes as he could - in fact, he was a pioneer in this field. He continued research into more mundane medicines as well, gathering a vast collection of chemicals and medicinal specimens from across the known world, a collection so large that when it was captured by Pompey it became an important resource for Roman pharmacists.
|Mithridates VI - 134BC-63BC,|
you've got to dig those sideburns
So how did it all end for Mithridates? Well, with Pompey's invading army close at hand, he decided to poison himself so as to avoid being paraded in a Roman Triumph. Unfortunately, his anti-poison regime worked a treat and he remained unaffected by the same draught that had quickly killed his wife and youngest daughters. Depending on which story you believe he died by a sword blow he had ordered from his body-guard, or by the first Roman soldiers to get to him. For more about Mithridates, read 'The Hitherto Unknown' - available from Amazon now, just follow the links
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
Monday, 15 April 2013
Okay, so it's night time in a Roman city. Just like your several thousand neighbours you want to read a book or at least see what you're eating. The corner wine-bar has the same problem, they've got to keep the patrons there after dark, so what to do? Light up the lamps of course. Almost every Roman home and business was lit with oil lamps. A modest two or three room apartment probably had a set of lamps in each room, but as oil didn't grow on trees - all right it did back then, but that's irony for you - the large room lamps with multiple nozzles were probably only lit when the room was in use, with smaller hand-lamps moving from room to room with the budget conscious home owner. The thing is...how to light all of these lamps? The match wasn't invented until 577AD - and that was by the Chinese - so it took another thousand-ish years for the idea to reach Europe. So what to do? Well, as it turns out, the idea for the modern Zippo lighter isn't a new one. Striking hardened steel against flint to create sparks has been around for goodly three thousand years - and that's just what the average Roman did. Most households would have had a fire-striker (or fire steel) handy. And using it wasn't much different to using a match - the steel was struck against a piece of flint, chert, jasper or obsidian - producing enough sparks to light an oil soaked lamp wick or some straw tinder in the fireplace, oven or furnace. The fire strikers could look like horseshoes or horseshoes folded in on themselves to produce rubbing surfaces - the latter were small enough to be carried in your purse or on the belt and used just like a modern lighter. Pretty simple really - but I guess not as easy as just turning the light on. For more on Roman households, read 'A Body of Doubt', available from Amazon - just follow the links
Sunday, 14 April 2013
It's kind of hard to imagine modern day England and Wales in the same way Hollywood has depicted the 19th-century American west, but for all intents and purposes, the two places would have seemed very similar to a 1st-century Roman. Those paved highways and stone buildings didn't pop up overnight. Yes, when the Romans arrived to stay in 43AD there were already some sophisticated trading cities and villas on the England's south coast, but British 'civilisation' didn't reach far in those days. Most Britons still lived in wattle and daub roundhouses - just as they had since the end of the last ice age - and about the only things built of stone were the already ancient bronze-age monuments such as Stonehenge. Of course, there's no doubt the Romans got to work pretty quickly to bring 'modern' urban life to Britain, but it was a big job. For at least the first forty years of this new Roman province, most of the new Roman towns looked like any Wild West Saloon street - houses and shops built out of slab or sawn timber, forts and stockades looking as ready for Union Cavalry as they did for a Roman cohort. Bars, shanties and tents surrounding the semi-permanent army camps as Romans, Gauls and Germans flocked to this new 'gold' rush province to make a quick buck. It might seem a stretch, but if everyone in HBO's 'Deadwood' series was dressed up in tunics and Celtic trousers, then you'd have a pretty credible take on life in early Roman Britain. For more on early Roman Britain you can read 'A Body of Doubt' available from Amazon - just follow the links
Thursday, 11 April 2013
We know as far empires go Rome was a biggie (sorry, couldn't help making a Life of Brian quote)...but not all empires are made equal - the Zulus and Persians had big empires too - but their economies fell far behind the Romans. In the end, how much money you have is what counts in making and sustaining a great empire, and if you have any doubts about the Roman-era here's a snapshot of Imperial annual metal production during the 1st-century AD.
Pig iron; 82,500-tons. At the same time the Han Empire in China was producing about 5,000-tons and in 1759, Britain was producing 35,000-tons
Copper; 15,000-tons. In 1860 the United States was producing 8,000-tons
Lead; 80,000-tons. Lead production in the United States in 1845 was 33,750-tons
Silver; 200-tons. Total Roman-era silver stock was estimated at around 10,000-tons, ten times more than the combined holdings of medieval Europe. In 1995 the United States produced 1640-tons.
Gold; 9-tons. This is from just the two Spanish provinces. World-wide production between 1800 and 1850 averaged just 24-tons per annum.
The up-shot? The British Empire's economy probably didn't overtake that of 1st-century Rome until the late 18th-century, and the United States during the 1860s. Yep, the Roman Empire was a biggie. For more on the Roman economy, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday, 10 April 2013
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 aqueducts 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. For more on Roman history you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon now, just follow the link
Tuesday, 9 April 2013
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, eh? For more on Roman History - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now
Sunday, 7 April 2013
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.
For more on Roman transport - check out 'To the Hitherto Unknown' - live on Amazon now
Thursday, 4 April 2013
The Romans were a pretty literate bunch, the sheer amount of signs and graffiti around Roman towns suggests the bulk of the population could read - and the Roman military machine ensured every soldier learnt his Ps and Qs. But those 100-million Romans spread across the Empire needed something to read, and that meant the ancient paper industry was at least as large as anything the world saw pre-industrialisation. Helpfully Pliny gives us a good run-down of paper making in 78AD, which at the time mostly used papyrus as feedstock.
The best paper was derived from the centre of the papyrus plant - this 'first quality' paper was known as 'Augustus' by the time of Pliny, although it had earlier been known as 'hieratic'. Working a little further out from the plant's centre, 'second quality' paper was named 'Livia' after Augustus' wife, while 'third quality' paper retained the term 'hieratic'. Roman paper was priced by quality, hence the need for these distinctions. Pliny notes that the paper maker Fannius had developed a technique for dressing lower quality paper to achieve the same finish as 'first quality', no doubt making more money in the process. He doesn't say how, but its possible the paper was smoothed with chalk in the same manner toga's were treated. From 'third quality' Pliny describes progressively cheaper paper such as 'Taeneotic' which was sold by weight rather than quality. And lastly he comes to the brown paper of the age - 'emporitica' or packing paper. Too course for writing, this was used for wrapping parcels and merchandise. So if you want to imagine Romans going shopping or getting a parcel in the mail...think of them holding something that would have looked a lot like the brown-wrapped parcels of the 19th and 20th centuries - before postpaks. For more on Roman History - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now
Wednesday, 3 April 2013
We can always rely on Pliny for some healthy tips for the fair-to-middling Roman. He lists physical exertion, voice exercises, anointing and massage as remedies for various troubles. The Romans went heavy on massage, typically they paid for a good pummelling every time they went to the bathhouse, however Pliny is careful to note that not all massage is good massage. In 78AD he suggests violent massage hardens the body while gentle massage softens it, and as such he considered only a moderate massage as a means for building up the body. So there you go, forget the gym, get a moderate massage instead. For more on Roman health - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now
Tuesday, 2 April 2013
We tend to imagine ancient households - if we imagine them at all - with the lady of the house spending her day by the millstone making flour for the day's bread. It was backbreaking work - it takes a lot of grain to make a loaf of bread. Roman soldiers on the march carried portable millstones as part of their tent kit - shared between ten men - bread was just too important to go without, even while you were marching twenty-five miles a day. But a snippet from Pliny gives the urbane 'daily grind' a totally new take. In 78AD he writes "...most of Italy uses a bare pestle and a millstone driven by a waterwheel." Not a whole lot to go on, but basically what he's saying is that most grain milled in Italy was done so in flour mills and factories. Just like today, flour milling was an industrial process - and most housewives weren't crouched around their grindstone making gritty flour - instead they were walking down to the shop to buy white or wholemeal, or even better, going to the bakery. For more on everyday life in Ancient Rome, check out "Mischance and Happenstance" - live on Amazon now
Monday, 1 April 2013
I guess most of us have seen Charlton Heston rowing his heart out as the galley slave Ben Hur. I'm sure some of us have even read General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel of the same name...again featuring our Jewish hero slaving away in the depths of a Roman warship chained to the floor and facing certain death if the ship should sink. It's a graphic picture of hardship and very important to Wallace's narrative. The trouble is...the Roman's didn't use galley slaves. Think about it - if you're going to take an expensive warship off to war (a trireme was worth 4.8-million dollars in today's terms), do you really want to trust its primary motive power to bunch of slaves who may well prefer the other side to win?
The Romans, like the Greeks and Carthaginians relied on trained professionals to row their warships. They were paid well and they trained hard. The Greek Trireme used 170 rowers while the Romans needed 280 for their Quinremes. But that's not to say they were at the drum all day long. These ships were under sail most of the time, or cruised with only some of the rowers working. The full crew only came into play during what we would call 'battle stations'. At this point the crew's full compliment would be at the oars in a 1 + 1 + 1 fashion on a three decked trireme or a 2 + 2 + 1 on a three deck Quinreme. The oarsmen were need for the explosive acceleration ancient warships relied on to approach the enemy, avoid the enemy or ram the enemy. The modern day trireme replica 'Olympia' has achieved nine knots with a largely untrained crew - so imagine what ten-year veterans would be capable of. For more history on the Roman navy - check out 'Mischance and Happenstance' - live on Amazon now