Monday 31 December 2012

Is there a doctor in the house

Some of the instruments a
Roman doctor might carry

A hoard of surgical instruments from Pompeii

Many of the standard surgical procedures we take for granted have only been pioneered in the last one hundred years. The lack of anaesthetic was a stumbling block, but an even bigger issue was the risk of infection. The use of the antiseptics and heat sterilising surgical equipment dates only to the 19th-Century - the autoclave wasn't invented until 1879. However one of the curiosities of history is that Roman surgical equipment bears many striking similarities to 19th and 20th-century surgical tools - which begs the question - if their tools were as sophisticated as the modern era, then how sophisticated was their surgery? Well, we know the Roman era surgeons understood infection and how to avoid it. Two thousand year old terracotta 'autoclaves' have been found in Roman military hospitals where surgical equipment was heat treated after use. We also know Roman surgeons were capably of sewing up some pretty horrific wounds gladiators and soldiers often found themselves with, including disembowelment and deep muscle injuries. But could they do even trickier stuff? Well, tomorrow we'll take a look.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Finding evidence for the Roman ice trade

If the Romans developed a commercial ice trade then where is the proof? Well, we may actually have some evidence for 'ice' refrigeration when we do a little lateral thinking. The Mediterranean 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. But just because no one wrote about the Roman ice trade hardly excludes its explanation of the oyster industry. Food for thought, eh?

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Wednesday 26 December 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 - filling 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.   

Tuesday 25 December 2012

What was Nazareth like? Part 2

Okay, so now we've seen Nazareth at the time of Christ was actually a small village on the outskirts of a brand new cosmopolitan city, but how does that affect us? Well, one of the big biblical debates around at the moment is just what language did Jesus speak - a question that is generally given a simple answer, but one that is a bit more complicated when we can see Nazareans learning or working in Sepphoris were doing so in a multilingual environment.

It's generally accepted that Christ spoke Aramaic, although there's a big push in biblical circles for him to have spoken Hebrew instead. For a quick breakdown on Middle Eastern languages; Hebrew, Arabic, Punic and Aramaic are all related - belonging to the Northwest Semitic family, which is a bit like having a modern day argument about someone speaking French versus Spanish. In the end, there's ample justification to believe he could have spoken Aramaic and Hebrew - after all, he was able to give sermons throughout Judea, and just like modern multilingual Europeans, speaking more than one language would have been almost a necessity in an area where many languages and dialects were spoken.

Oddly, the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth never seems to factor into the 'Language' argument. Most scholars dismiss the possibility Nazareans had a reason to speak anything but their native Aramaic, but this is a bit like saying First Americans hadn't learnt any European languages three hundred years after 'foreign' settlers arrived in the Americas. And this was just the case for a village like Nazareth. The area had been controlled by Greeks, or at least influenced by them for more than three hundred years before Christ was born. Meanwhile Sepphoris had been inhabited by Roman-supported Judeans for 150-years. Greek and Latin, both spoken and written, would have been pervasive within Sepphoris' wealthier society - and those employed by them. For a carpenter like Joseph, doing business in the city would have necessitated a broader understanding of languages than he and his family have so far been given credit for. And as Christ has proved himself to be the most able of communicators, I think we can say with some reasonable logic, his time living near Sepphoris must have equipped him for speaking to a wider audience than those who only understood Aramaic. His world was just as multicultural and multilingual as ours is today, something that seems to get lost in arguments that will never be adequately answered anyway.        

Find out if Calvus could speak more than one language

Nazareth - what was it really like?

This isn't meant to be a controversial post or to tread on anyone's beliefs, but simply to put the years a young Jesus Christ spent in Nazareth into a historical - rather than purely Biblical - context. It's all too easy to assume his childhood was one of living in a Galilean town far from foreign spheres of influence, but this is just not the case. For a start - Judea had already been 'Helenised' through two hundred years of rule by the Greek Seleucid and Ptolemaic Kingdoms. Roman backed Jewish 'Traditionalists' wrested back control of their state in the middle of the 2nd-Century BC, but to cut a long story short, these 'Hasmoneans' eventually supported the wrong side in Rome's civil war after the murder of Julius Caesar and were replaced by Herod in 37BC - who had been backed both by Mark Antony and Octavian.

Yep, you might be yawning by now and saying so what? How did this impact on Nazareth? Well, in a big way, actually - because throughout Christ's life (approximately 8BC-25AD give or take a few years) the 'town' of Nazareth was a small village on the edge of the large Hasmonean-Roman city of Sepphoris. And in fact, Sepphoris may have even been the reason Joseph and Mary settled their family in Nazareth.

A mosaic from Roman Sepphoris -
just 3-miles from Nazareth 

Here's some more dull facts - coinciding with Herod's death in 4BC, the Traditionalist citizens of Sepphoris had revolted against Roman rule. The resulting attack by Syrian based Roman legions completely destroyed the city - with most of its anti-Roman inhabitants sold into slavery. Herod's son, Herod Antipas was immediately made Governor of the region and, as such, he set about rebuilding Sepphoris - all around the same time Joseph moved his family to the area. As a carpenter, it's almost certain that Joseph and his sons then spent the next two decades working on various building projects in this new Roman city. What all this appears to mean, then, is that Christ and his family grew up on the outskirts of an increasingly Romanised city, and in an area where traditional Jews had largely been supplanted by pro-Roman or Greek leaning factions. Just how might this have shaped his childhood? I guess that'll have to be another post.

Find out if Calvus ever visited the near east

Thursday 20 December 2012

Rome's Wild West

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.

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Wednesday 19 December 2012

Putting some light in a Roman's life

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 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

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Rome and the rest of the World - the Americas

In the last post in this series, here's one of those 'out there' conspiracy theories, X-Files or 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 had been undertaken by the 1st-century AD. 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.

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Monday 17 December 2012

Rome and the rest of the 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 in 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 Danish Cimbri into Gaul. 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.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Rome and the rest of the 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

Saturday 15 December 2012

Rome and 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

Friday 14 December 2012

Rome and the rest of the 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 the 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.    

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Sending a postcard from the edge

So we know Claudia Severa was able to post her postcards, but 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 there was 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 paid 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    

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 - and was the headquarters for the Ninth Legion at the time. This is 92 miles south of Vindolanda - 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.

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 of German speaking Batavians (about 480) 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 the 9th Legion's headquarters further south, 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."

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Building Walls - Rewind

You might remember a previous blog about how the Roman finance world used military expansionism to feed its liquidity and manage currency values. Similar imperial expansions seen since the 1600s - and into the 1940s - were not too distant from this model either. But what happened when the Roman legions stopped marching towards the horizon? Did the Roman economy collapse as it ate out the resources trapped within its borders? The short answer is - yes - eventually, but it took two hundred years, and the initial end to expansionism was better planned than a knee jerk populist decision of wanting to bring the legions home.

For a long time we've looked at Hadrian as the wall builder - and perhaps a little defeatist in attitude when compared to the conquests of Dacia and Arabia by his predecessor and second cousin, Trajan. What we've got to remember is that both of them were businessmen at heart - from the same Spanish olive oil family. Now in those days, olive oil was an industrial product, and it would be best to compare these two Spaniards to today's Texan oil families - olive oil plantations weren't about salad condiments, they kept the lights on at night. The fact, is Trajan and Hadrian both understood money, and they both understood the need to make it. Trajan followed the well-trodden path of keeping the state in cash by acquiring more resources. But the more conservative Hadrian decided to try something different. He built walls.

Now, we really have the wrong perspective of these walls. We take the medieval view that a wall is to protect you and to keep ideologically-opposed armies out of your town. But this wasn't really the case in Hadrian's time. By the second century AD, most Roman cities had no walls, or had extended far beyond those built in the early Republic four or five hundred years prior. Romans didn't have such a defensive attitude, simply because they understood no one beyond the border lands had the capacity to threaten more than banditry on the empire's edges. Hadrian's most famous wall, his namesake in Northern England, was ostensibly to keep the woad-painted Picts out of the towns and farms of Roman Britain, but lets take a more realistic view...what was the actual threat the northern tribes posed? At this time Roman Britain had a population of six million. The Picts, with far less arable land, and living in isolated pockets could not have numbered more than a few hundred thousand. There's no doubt they had the capacity for border raids, but the Roman legions also had the capacity to make sure there wasn't a Pictish community within a week's ride of the Roman territories. So why build an 80-mile wall (at enormous cost) to stop a few northern bandits?

Money. Remember, Hadrian was an oil man, he wasn't sitting in his Tivoli Gardens sucking his thumb worried the world was about to end. What that British wall meant, just like a similar structure across southern Germany between the headwaters of the Rhine and the Danube, was that he could make money by just sitting in his garden. With those walls in place, all those commodities (including Roman coinage) that had previously been able to cross the Roman borders freely, could now be taxed and monitored. Free trade, per se, was at an end. Hadrian could now impose tariffs and restrictions on imports and exports that land traders had been able to avoid. Suddenly the mule caravans were put on the same taxation footing as seaborne traders who had been taxed since time and immemorial. There was no more smuggling through Scottish ports from Ireland or Scandinavia. Just as there could be none through central Europe. In one fell swoop, Hadrian was able to control international trade and know about every last coin or commodity leaving or entering the Roman economy.

So I guess the next question is, which worked better, Trajan's free trade expansionism or Hadrian's tariffs? That sounds like another post.

Find out if Calvus ever had a tax audit       

Monday 3 December 2012

Making paper

The Romans were a pretty literate bunch, the sheer amount of signs and graffiti around Roman towns suggests the bulk of the population could read - and the Roman military machine ensured every soldier knew his Ps and Qs. But those 80-million Romans spread across the Empire needed something to read, and that meant the ancient paper industry was at least as large as anything the world saw pre-industrialisation. Helpfully Pliny gives us a good run-down of paper making in 78AD, which at the time mostly used papyrus as feedstock.

The best paper was derived from the centre of the papyrus plant - this 'first quality' paper was known as 'Augustus' by the time of Pliny, although it had earlier been known as 'hieratic'. Working a little further out from the plant's centre, 'second quality' paper was named 'Livia' after Augustus' wife, while 'third quality' paper retained the term 'hieratic'. Roman paper was priced by quality, hence the need for these distinctions. Pliny notes that the paper maker Fannius had developed a technique for dressing lower quality paper to achieve the same finish as 'first quality', no doubt making more money in the process. He doesn't say how, but its possible the paper was smoothed with chalk in the same manner 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.

Find out if Calvus knew his Ps and Qs  

Sunday 2 December 2012

The cost of living

The cost of living isn't a new thing, the moment someone figured out what a shekel was, was the moment someone figured out there was no such thing as a free ride. In the 1st-century BC, Rome was the already the world's super city, with inflated living costs just like those we see in Manhattan or down-town London. At a time when the Roman soldier's annual salary was 900-sesterces ($22,500)...

Living in Rome an average rent could set you back 38-sesterces/wk ($961)

A family sized loaf of bread cost half-a-sesterce (2-as or $12)

Entry into a bathhouse was 1-quadranus (one-sixteenth of a sesterce or $1.56)

A wet-nurse cost 40-sesterces per month ($1000).

A woollen tunic (the Roman equivalent to a pair of Levis and a T-shirt) was worth 30-sesterces ($750)

A pair of army boots was 50-sesterces ($1250)

Half-litre of high-grade fresh olive oil cost 20-sesterces ($500)

Half-litre of beer was 2-sesterces ($24)

Half-litre of aged wine was 12-sesterces ($300)

Half-litre of wine with wormwood (Roman Vermouth) - 10-sesterces ($250)

Half-litre of ordinary wine  was 4-sesterces ($100) - this seems pretty steep, but a jug of wine was usually diluted with three or four parts water once served - a cup of diluted wine would actually cost about 2-as or $12

Some of these dollar values seem pretty high, but remember this was an era before mass manufacturing of cloth, with most wine and oil imported at considerable expense from the furthermost parts of the Roman world.  What we see here is the reflection of how much it could cost to be an Empire.

Find out if Calvus was fiscally conservative

Thursday 29 November 2012

The Christmas Paradox

I found myself in an historical argument yesterday - a rare event for someone who lives in a city of only 200,000 on the far side of the world. But an argument it was, and an argument was had. Naturally it was an old chestnut - historical fact versus Christian tradition. And this is where the paradox came in. Generally historians eschew the Bible as an accurate dating tool - while true Christian beliefs tends to eschew anything those historians have to say - after all, to the believer the Bible is the word of God. However there is one place in the Bible where a keen-eyed historian can point to dating evidence, while traditional Christian belief chooses to glance over this particular "word of God". What is it? Well, it's a biggie, it's the birth date for Jesus.

And this was my argument - through his mention of an Imperial census and 'shepherds watching their flocks by night' the Gospel of Luke gives us some strong hints to the year, and the time of year Jesus was born. We known an imperial census was conducted during the summer of 8 BC - which corresponds with the time of year shepherds would be out in the pastures with their sheep. As such, just like it is used to date Easter, the Bible says the date for Christ's birth is during June, July or August.

Yet, unlike the Bible's dating for Easter, I found Christian belief makes Luke's word entirely contestable. As the argument went on, I was told repeatedly that, "You can't say that, Jesus was born on December 25th. You'll offend a lot of people if you say he wasn't."

"But Luke says he wasn't born in December, how is that offensive?" I said.

"It doesn't matter, people believe Jesus was born on December 25th...and no one will convince them he wasn't born on Christmas day."

Point taken, his birthday is the whole point of Christmas - but that doesn't mean it is the exact day he was born. In Australia we have a 'Queens Birthday' public holiday several months after the Queen's birth date. And what's more, while western Europe celebrates Christ's birth on December 25th, in eastern Europe it's the 6th of January. Okay, so the 25th of December isn't as hard and fast as we'd like to why do we use it to celebrate Christ's birth?

Well, it appears Christ's birth was not celebrated at all until the 4th-century AD - prior to this many early Bishops believed it was a pagan act to celebrate Christ's birth in the same manner as the Romans celebrated the birth dates of the Imperial deities. And even then, the date of his birth was still open to conjecture. Around 200AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote that scholars were arguing Christ's birth was either April 20th/21st or May 20th. He made no mention at all of December 25th. However one hundred years later when Christmas became acceptable practice - the dates of December 25th and January 6th were quickly adopted by the various churches.

There's three theories why.

1. December 25th and January 6th correspond with the two week Saturnalia festival held by the Romans for centuries. In Gaul, a similar time for feasting centred around December 21st.

2. December 25th was chosen by the Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to celebrate the cult of Invictus Sol (the invincible sun), later to be replaced by Christmas when the Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to that of Rome's state religion.

3. And the theory preferred by the current Pope, has December 25th falling 9-months after March 25th (the Feast of Annunciation) the day of Christ' immaculate conception, which is connected to the belief Christ was conceived and executed on the same day.      
I guess in the end, as our argument ended, it's up to the individual to decide what they're more comfortable with. We can choose to believe the Gospel of Luke or we can choose to believe church tradition. Is either side wrong? I don't think so. Christmas is what we make it.

Find out if Calvus has an opinion

Wednesday 28 November 2012

A close shave

A Roman steel razor - going to the barber for a scrape
Of course, Romans didn't just have their nails to worry about, throughout much of classical history, the clean-shaven look was the in thing - until Hadrian came along with a bad case of acne scars and grew the first all-over Imperial beard. There was a practical point to shaving in ancient times too - Roman soldiers shaved so enemy combatants didn't have any whiskers to grab during hand-to-hand combat. And, as a whole, Roman society eschewed all body hair below the scalp (and I mean all hair), initially to combat body lice, but no doubt, as now, because it was fashionable. That's not to say Romans invented shaving, a flint razor dates the first smooth face to at least 18,000BC, and by 3000BC copper razor blades were doing the rounds. As for what passed as a razor blade during the age of Rome, there appears to have been a number of avenues. Flat-faced steel razors that look more like a paint scraper - and developed from much earlier copper and bronze designs - were certainly in vogue. But, as many men carried small folding pen-knives with a cut-throat shaped blade, the latter may have been the budget alternative to a trip to the barber.

The blade from a Roman folding pen-knife -
sharp enough for a smooth finish

Find out if Calvus shaved as close as a blade or got his money back

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Keeping up appearances

A replica of a Roman soldier's manicure kit
from the 1st-century AD
We probably take managing our finger and toe nails for granted these days, but have you ever wondered how we might have gone about it two thousand years ago? Well, with nail clippers of course. And in Europe such devices weren't restricted to the Romans either. The baddest of the bad barbarians the Romans faced during the late Republic, the Germanic Cimbri from the Jutland Peninsular wiped out several Roman armies whilst quaffing their hair and manicuring their nails. In fact, judging by skeletons found at a 108BC battle site in Switzerland, these Germanic warriors went into battle carrying their hair-scissors, combs and nail clippers as part of their marching kits - just like the Romans. Guess those barbarians weren't as barbaric as we've been led to believe.  

Find out if Calvus got a hang nail

Monday 26 November 2012

Roman Technology versus Ritual Objects

Antikythera computer - no chips,
but lots of gears,
just like a 19th-century calculator
It's a pretty standard thing in archaeology, something is dug up in a farmer's field that doesn't quite fit in with the standard crockery of a particular era and suddenly it becomes a 'ritual object'. And, yes, a lot of the odd bits and bobs from early history probably do have some sort of ritual or religious connection...but of course, that's not to say they all do. Think about it, if someone digs up a cassette tape in two thousands years time, it might just as easily be described as a ritual object - I mean, geez, there's already a whole generation who don't know what a cassette tape is. So how many things dug up from the Roman era - currently classified as a 'ritual object' - could be an example of everyday classical age technology? The Baghdad batteries and the Dendera light bulb have both been largely dismissed as 'ritual objects' by the mainstream - and yes, perhaps they are, but we're not talking computer chips here, both contain pretty basic technology that could have been developed long before the Napoleonic wars. And then there's a long standing 19th & 20th-century attitude that "everything we've invented is brand new so nothing like it could have existed before." A good example of this was the excavation of Caligula's pleasure yachts in Lake Nemi during the 1930s. Several bronze water taps were recovered from the wrecks that so closely resembled modern day faucets they were dismissed as recently dumped rubbish. The fact is, a solution to an ancient problem is going to end up looking very similar to the solution for a modern problem - this is why ancient ship anchors look the same as modern ones and why the 2000-year old Antikythera clockwork computer looks identical to 19th-century mechanical calculators. In the end, mainstream archaeology needs to be more open minded - if a mystery objects exhibit modern day characteristics, then there's a reasonable chance it is an ancient solution to the same modern day problem.

A 2000-year old Roman anchor -
same solution to the same problem 

So where does this leave the Dendera light bulb? There's no way every Roman household was crammed with batteries and light bulbs...but that's not to say this technology didn't have some important alternatives to household lighting - and that could at least explain the lack of physical evidence for an ancient light bulb in Roman cities. Think tunnels. During the Roman era more road and water tunnels were dug than at any time before the 1800s. Mining was booming and shafts were going ever deeper - and ever darker. Logically lighting these shafts was with oil lamps, but air quality would have been appalling - to the point where excavations may have become impossible. And, well, that would have cost money. The Dendera light bulb may have been a solution - and probably an expensive one. But was it? I don't know, maybe we should look more closely at Roman mines or tunnels for glass, copper rings and iron spikes. However, chances are, if these objects have been found, they have probably been described as...ritual objects.      

Find out if Calvus was in the electrical business

Sunday 25 November 2012

Romans and the light bulb - say what?

Okay, so it looks like the Romans may have had batteries and did a bit shock therapy or gold electroplating to mug the less wary jewellery shoppers, but as we know, there's a lot of different uses for electricity. And there's one thing that pretty much put electricity on the map for 19th-century society and gave every household the reason to invest in copper wires...this of course was Thomas Edison's light bulb. I mean, wow, what an invention, right? Well, here's where history gets a little bumpy. Edison didn't invent the light bulb, his patent for a carbon filament light bulb in 1880, was simply an improved filament for an existing light bulb design. In fact, the first vacuum glass light bulb was tested in 1820 by Warren De La Rue, but unfortunately his platinum filament made the bulb too expensive to produce commercially. Prior to that, the first carbon arc lamp was demonstrated by Humphrey Davy in 1809.

So, as it stands the carbon arc lamp has been around for a long time, and all it needs is a strip of carbon as a filament - Davy used a thin slice of charcoal, Edison used carbonised bamboo - which could burn for 1200-hours. The one thing you will notice is that the light bulb is pretty simple. Glass and various kinds of carbonised wood were available during and well before the Roman age, as was, it appears, batteries of similar power to those Davy used. Did these ingredients all end up with an ancient glowing filament? Well, it appears, just possibly, it did. Within the ancient Dendera Temple complex in Upper Egypt the walls of the 2nd or 1st-century BC Hathor Temple reveal something of a mystery. A long transparent vessel containing what appears to be a snake stretched lengthwise is held at one end by a man. Is it a mythological image, or is it a very large carbon arc light bulb with wires running from it to a battery? The carving does date to a time just when glass blowing was becoming mainstream, it does date to the same era as the Baghdad batteries, and this was the age of classical invention by the Greek scholars living to the north in Alexandria. Does this make a light bulb? Well, I don't think it can be completely ruled out.

Find out if Calvus saw the light

Thursday 22 November 2012

Romans and electricity

Electricity, it's a child of the 19th-century, right? The Romans might have been pretty clever but they never mastered putting a D cell in a torch...or did they? There does seem to be at least some evidence of wet-cell batteries being used on the peripheries of the Roman Empire. The famous Baghdad Battery is more closely related to the post-Persian Parthian Empire, but these two ancient super powers shared borders, Greek culture and technology. Okay, so what was the Baghdad battery? Several five-inch tall clay jars have been found around Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) containing hollow copper cylinders and iron rods that appear to function as anodes and cathodes when the jar is filled with acid. Voltages of up to 0.5-volts have been recorded from modern copies of these vessels using vinegar, and their performance could certainly be boosted if a stronger acid were to be used - the Romans and Parthians would have been quite capable of manufacturing sulphuric and hydrochloric acids which should be able to boost these wet-cells into the region of 4 or 5 volts. All right, so they had a battery...what was it used for? There's a couple of theories. During this period the Romans and the Egyptians were using bio-electric fish - such as the Torpedo Fish (the electric ray) - to numb severe pain; including gout, child birth and migraines. One could imagine an electric ray would be hard to find in the Mesopotamian deserts, so a 'clay ray' battery might have been a worthy alternative. Then there's the jewellers. Just as we dress up silver by electroplating it with gold, the ancients probably cottoned on pretty quickly to the same game. Importantly, both pain relief and fiddling the jewellery would have provided sufficient cash equity to experiment with battery technology if nothing else. But is that all? Well, maybe. These 'batteries' don't show up in Roman or Parthian rubbish dumps like an Eveready or Duracel would these days...but, maybe, just maybe, Thomas Edison wasn't the first guy to invent the light bulb...more on that later.

Find out if Calvus had a light bulb moment 

Wednesday 21 November 2012

By the Rivers of Babylon

Founded in 1894BC, the place where Hammurabi's Code of Laws were first handed down - the old eye for an eye - where much of the Bible's Old Testament was written by imprisoned Judeans, and where on the 10th of June 323BC, Alexander the Great died. This was Babylon. By the time Pliny writes about this great city it is nearly 2000-years old. He describes a city ringed by two walls with circumferences of 60-miles, standing 200-feet high and 50-feet thick. This sounds like a city never meant to fall. But it was already in a fast decline when Pliny described it in 78AD. A victim of 'modern times' many Babylonians were moving to the much newer Greek city of Seleuceia as the Eurprhates and Tigris Rivers pushed the Persian Gulf further and further south. With a population of 600,000 Seleuceia was fast becoming the new hub of eastern Mesopotamia. It went on to be destroyed in the sixth-century AD. Goes to show nothing stays the same. And to think, just as Pliny was writing about Babylon 2000-years after its founding, I'm writing this post 2000-years after Pliny. Makes you wonder who'll be writing about our present world in 2000-years...  

Find out if Calvus read Psalms

Tuesday 20 November 2012

More Roman Health tips

Pliny doesn't restrict himself to helpful massage hints. Trouble with your stomach or hips? He suggests walking, carriage rides - of any type - and horse-riding. For tuberculosis he says a sea-voyage could help - bracing and clean air was prescribed for TB well into the 20th-century, so he was probably onto something. Chronic diseases needed a change of locality plus self-treatment with bed-rest, sleep and occasionally induced vomiting - remember this was a time of urban air and water pollution, so removing yourself from a possible source of disease or poisoning, and, yes, even the purging may have worked in a practical sense. Lying on your back is good for the eyes, your face and coughs apparently, while lying on your side for nasal congestion and mucus accumulations. But his favoured remedy for everything? Sunshine, which once administered, should be followed up with a good skin scraping and the vigorous use of towels. So there you go - get some sun - in moderation of course, and make sure you don't get burnt.

Find out if Calvus kept out of the sun     

Sunday 18 November 2012

Health tips from the Roman world

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.

Find out if Calvus enjoyed gentle massage

Friday 16 November 2012

Going for a spin - Rewind

At its height the Roman Empire maintained 266,700-miles of roads - 53,700-miles of which were paved highways. After its conquest Gaul saw 14,000-miles of its locally built road network improved by the Roman Army, while in Britain another 2670-miles were built or upgraded. Rome itself had 29 paved highways funnelling into the wonder they said all roads led to Rome. 

So, what we can take from all those vitally important and very large statistics? Well, the average Roman traveller had a lot of roads to choose from. But just how did they use this ancient interstate system? Well, obviously the poor used a lot of shoe leather, just like the Roman legions when they transferred from one part of the Empire to another. Of course there were also horses, mules and donkeys to choose from for those who wanted saddle sores. However most importantly to the land trade of an empire...the spoked wheel had been invented some 1,700 years before the Roman highway network and the Romans were just a keen as us to ride on cushioned seats. These guys weren't building roads just to be walked on. 

So what kind of vehicles did they use?

At the most basic levels were farm carts - known as Plaustrum - with timber board or wicker sides. Sometimes with one axle, sometimes with two, these were the trucks of the age. They were very basic and could be just about built at home by anyone who already owned a mule or an ox. Depending on their standard of construction, the cheapest had solid timber wheels, however spoked wheels were used by those travelling longer distances or making more money.

Roman Carrus - what a real Roman Chariot looked like
Around the city, many of the wealthy would have gone for the sports car of the age - the Carrus - what the Romans called a chariot, but bearing no resemblance to the Egyptian style machines we tend to imagine. It was a two seater, with a small wooden tray suspended by leather shock absorbers over a single axle and pulled by one, two, three or four horses depending on whether the driver was a rev-head or not. With racy spoked wheels and steel tyres these were the Ferrari of the day - and whether racing or commuting, these were the must have of the driving elite. And out on the highway these machines could really fly - the young Tiberius is known to have covered five hundred miles of highway in 24-hours on one occasion - albeit, with a quite a few horse changes along the way.  

The Cisium - the Roman SUV and Taxi

For those in less of a hurry and more practically minded, the Cisium was the Roman SUV. Larger than the Carrus, and usually fitted out with a roof the Cisium was the equivalent of the 19th Century gig. Again leather suspension kept the tray separate to the axle, allowing the traveller to float above the road. Steel tyres again were the standard, so these vehicles probably wouldn't sneak up on pedestrians. They were popular as taxis in their day, and cab drivers were actually known as Cisiani.

Roman Raeda  

For long distance travel, the stage coach of the Roman era was the Raeda - two axles, leather suspension, steel tyred and drawn by teams of mules or horses, these machines weren't out for a plod. Designed to carry several people and licensed (yes, the Romans had road rules) to carry 1000lbs of baggage, these vehicles could cover 200-miles a day if their horses were changed frequently enough. Journeys of 100-miles between nightly layovers were probably more common.