Friday 31 August 2012

Getting a learning

The sheer quantity of markers, graffiti and even gravestones left behind by the Romans suggests a very high level of literacy within their society. They literally wrote on anything - just like us. Even the provincials drafted into the legions were expected to be literate...and if they weren't, they had to do something about it. Needless to say, the Romans needed schools, and they had a reasonably sophisticated take on education. By the 3rd-Century BC, a three-tiered education system for both boys and girls had been developed. From the age of six children went to Literary school to learn reading, writing and mathematics. These private tutor run schools were often found on street corners or in rented rooms at gymnasiums, and formed the foundation of Roman literacy. Between the ages of nine and twelve, wealthier male students usually moved up to Grammar school, where focus was placed on the expressive reading of poetry and the analysis of poetry and writing. After this, those wanting to pursue a political or legal career headed to Rhetoric school for the study of oratory. By the age of sixteen the fortunate few to have passed through to the third level of school might then be thinking of visiting some of the Greek Universities in the east for a year or two more of rhetoric or philosophy study...and when they turned eighteen it was time to take up their first year long posting in the army to discover some 'real life' education.

Find out if Calvus knew his ABCs

Thursday 30 August 2012

Some more geography - Arabia

Even in antiquity the Arabian Peninsular was the centre of an international commodity trade that by the 1st-Century AD saw Pliny describing the Arab Kingdoms as the richest people in the world. Of course it wasn't crude oil back then. They were exporting Frankincense - an aromatic resin harvested from the Boswellia tree, and Myrrh - an aromatic gum taken from the Commiphora shrub. Incredibly expensive and sold to the Roman, Parthian and Chinese Empires by the shipload, frankincense and myrrh were one of those must haves for every household altar, temple and cremation - and they were worth more than their weight in gold. The Sabaean Kingdom in modern day Yemen appears to have been the world leader in the production and export of frankincense and myrrh, building dams and irrigation projects throughout their territory as early as 2000BC - and continuing new irrigation works until 325AD. The legendary Queen of Sheba was Sabaean and it's interesting to note the decline of the Roman Empire was mirrored in the Sabaean Kingdom due to the crash in demand for frankincense and myrrh. By the middle of the 6th-Century AD their irrigation canals and dams were falling out of use and the many Sabaeans were leaving their homelands for 'greener' pastures. The old rule of supply and demand just doesn't change.

Find out if Calvus was in to sticky business

Wednesday 29 August 2012

It's a great big world

Most of us probably think of the ancient Romans as a bunch of Latin speaking 'big noses' living it up while millions of foreign slaves toiled beneath their gilded sandals, right? Well, there's one thing we can say about the Romans, they were all for equal opportunity. Given time enough, virtually anyone in the Empire could become a good citizen of Rome. They might speak Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Semitic, Berber, Cushtic or Egyptian, and many of them never spoke Latin at all - Greek (particularly in the east) was usually the go to language for cross cultural communication during the Roman Era. So let's have a look at Rome from a modern map and see just who made the grade as 'Roman' in 68AD.

Heading east - the people of Rome came from; Wales, England, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy (of course), Malta, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and (take a breath) Morocco.

So when you think of Rome, don't just think of Italians...think of Europeans, Africans, and nearly everyone from the Middle East...the Roman world was pretty big.

Find out if Calvus had any clue where he was

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Nazareth - what was it really 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

Sunday 26 August 2012

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

Saturday 25 August 2012

A little computing

You might find it surprising - as you read this post on your favourite tablet, smart phone or laptop - that the idea for computers isn't a particularly knew one. Sure, the room-sized IBM card readers of the 1960s or the mechanical calculators from the 19th-century don't sit well with our current concept of a PC, but they were computers all the same, and as it turns out, the Romans knew a thing or to about generating computer data too. In fact, the Roman era saw the invention of the first handheld smart devices. Meet the Antikythere Mechanism...

The world's oldest computer

A modern recreation of
the Roman laptop

Recovered from a Roman shipwreck by Greek sponge divers in 1900 off the island of Antikythera, this device dates from 100-150BC and is the most complex machine ever found from the Roman era. It consists of 37 finely honed bronze gearwheels attached to various pointers representing the planets, the moon and sun. The machine uses a differential gear - previously believed invented in the 16th-century - and features a degree of miniaturisation and complexity unmatched until the 18th-century. The machine was used to path the various heavenly bodies through the zodiac and predict eclipses years in advance. Essentially the user could dial in individual or multiple variables such as a date, a month, a planetary or lunar position - after which rotating the machine by hand it would calculate the zodiac for a day almost anytime in the future. And the thing is, this is just a lucky find from the bottom of the sea, we can only imagine how much more complex Roman calculators and computers might have been. Still, I guess they didn't have facebook.


Friday 24 August 2012

Want a date?

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 - would 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. 

Find out if Calvus knew what day it was

Thursday 23 August 2012

Pompeii - is today the day?

Meet the locals, two of Pompeii's residents
 before the eruption of Mt Vesuvius
Around three in the afternoon on August 24th 79AD residents of Pompeii saw a 30km column of ash and volcanic debris burst from the tall conical summit of Mt Vesuvius. Most (if not all of them) had no idea the mountain was an active volcano - in fact Mt Vesuvius had not erupted since 217BC (nearly 300-years earlier) and during the slave rebellion of Spartacus, the 25,000-year old caldera had been the slave army's early base of operations. Yet within six hours the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis were buried in 70-feet of ash and pumice, killing around 16,000 residents - perhaps a third of the region's population at the time. Or did it?

There's no doubt the eruption happened, but the traditional date of August 24th - noted in a letter by Pliny the Younger - and mentioned in today's 'today in history' in newspapers around the world - appears to be off by a few months. For one thing, many of the preserved victims are wearing heavier winter clothing rather than something more comfortable for a steamy August day. The fresh fruit and vegetables on sale in the markets at 3 o'clock that afternoon would not have ripened until October, while the summer fruits were already being sold dried or as preserves. And I don't know if you noticed yesterday's first piece of graffiti - "Satura was here on September 3rd" - well, yes an untidy homeowner might have left the scribble there for a year, but if Satura wrote that in 79AD, he would have either needed a shovel or a different date for Mt Vesuvius' eruption.

The Mt Vesuvius eruption was more than a human tragedy -
a family pet left behind in the panic 

Needless to say, it's becoming increasingly apparent our traditional date for the Mt Vesuvius eruption is wrong, and in the future newspapers' 'today in history' will have to choose another day closer to winter. What will it be? Fortunately Pliny the Younger, can still help us. While one version of his letter dates the eruption as August 24th, another version gives us the date of November 23rd 79AD. Now we just need the newspapers to catch up.

Find out if Calvus knew anything about Mt Vesuvius

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Roman Graffiti - lives writ large

You might turn your nose up at graffiti, and sure most of it is pretty ordinary, both in content and style. But imagine if your city was suddenly snap frozen and all that messy scrawl etched on walls or toilet doors became the future's only connection with our present. Would it define us? Would it give hints of our lives? Would any of it be yours? 

Just such a thing happened on August 24th 79AD - to a wealthy seaside town on Neapolitan Coast. It was filled with the rich, those who could manage a few days away from Rome or Capua, and the thousands who worked in the Roman tourism industry. But most importantly for us, this was a town filled with those who could read, and better yet, write - many of them leaving tiny snippets of their day on the walls of taverns, brothels, and even those of the rich. Much of it was full of bravado and a little too wild for this 'PG' post, but here are some of the more mundane and less saucy, written by everyday people living everyday lives. So go ahead, meet someone living in Pompeii through just a few of their words...   

Outside House of Menander: Satura was here on September 3rd

Bar of Astylus and Pardalus: Lovers are like bees - they live a honeyed life

Gladiator barracks: On April 19th, I made bread

Outside House of Pascius Hermes: To the one sh---ing here.  Beware of the curse.  If you squat down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.

House of Caecilius Iucundus: Whoever loves, let him flourish.  Let him perish who knows not love.  Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.

Just outside the Vesuvius gate: Defecator, may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place

On column inside Barracks of the Julian-Claudian gladiators: Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls

On Mercury Street: Publius Comicius Restitutus stood right here with his brother

Outside House of Sextus Pompeius Axiochus and Julia Helena: Hectice, baby, Mercator says hello to you

Inside Bar of Salvius (this is an actual sign): Whoever wants to serve themselves can go on and drink from the sea.

House of the Large Brothel: Blondie has taught me to hate dark-haired girls.  I will hate them, if I can, but I wouldn't mind loving them.  Pompeian Venus Fisica wrote this.

Outside House of Caesius Valens and Herennius Nardus: Rufus loves Cornelia Hele

Outside House of Pinarius: If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girl friend

Outside House of the Vibii, Merchants: Artimetus got me pregnant

Outside House of Caprasius Primus: I don't want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world

Outside House of the Calpurnii: Crescens is sweet and charming

Small room of a possible brothel or tavern: Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urbana

Above a bench outside the Marine Gate: If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a scr--, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii (about $100)

In the basilica (the local government administration building - public servants haven't changed): No young buck is complete until he has fallen in love

In the basilica: Epaphra, you are bald!

In the basilica: Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!

In the basilica: Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!

In the basilica: O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

For more Roman history check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now

For more on Roman history check out 'Mischance and Happenstance' - live on Amazon

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Got a headache?

You get a headache you take a pill, right? Easy. I bet you don't spend a lot of time thinking how someone coped before the multi-national pharmaceuticals came along, but if you did I suppose self-medicating with medicinal brandy or something similar comes to mind. After all, all these modern painkillers we take for granted are just something that came along in the last few decades...and yes, some of them have. But not all of them.

Opium poppies have been farmed almost since the beginning of cultivation...and until the 19th-century, opium derivatives had been the go-to for pain relief across the Europe and Asia. For the Romans, poppy syrup was being taken in tablet form, which meant a big dose of all the opiate alkaloids - particularly morphine - with every pill. In the 1st-century AD, Pliny notes several leading medical authorities already campaigning against the use of raw opium, sighting blindness and fatal comas as a very real danger. So what was the alternative? It might surprise you, but it's probably something you've taken, and might even have in your medicine cabinet even now. What is it? Codeine - second to morphine as the most common alkaloid found in opium. Pliny describes the drug as 'well-known' but unfortunately doesn't elaborate on its production and refining from raw opium - presuming, I suppose - that most of his readers knew what he was talking about. What is interesting is that Romans were buying Codeine tablets in the 1st-century AD despite the alkaloid only being 'rediscovered' in 1832. Obviously Roman chemists were just as sophisticated as their 19th-century counterparts - and face it, if you've ever had a headache, you'd certainly be wanting to buy something to get rid of it - the Romans understood supply and demand.

Find out if Calvus caused his own headaches

Sunday 19 August 2012

The food is in the eating

We probably think we're doing okay in the western world. Most of us have rarely gone hungry for long, and even with a few dollars in the hand we can usually find a filling meal...even if it's not the healthiest. In fact, I bet you think it's never been this good. But maybe it has...and maybe it's been even better. As hard as it to believe, the bones of Oplontis and the sewers of Pompeii are telling us that 1st-century Romans ate extraordinarily well. Two thousand year old sewerage suggests those who could afford their own toilets and those who had to go public were all eating just as well as the other - with fish, meat, fruit and nuts high on agenda. Leafy and root vegetables would have been in the mix too...but don't preserve quite as well. Meanwhile, over in nearby Oplontis a large collection of skeletons reveals slaves and owners shared similar levels of nutrition - the servants eating just as well as their masters. In fact, when spread across all levels of their society, the Romans ate better than us - getting more nutrition per bite and eating a whole lot healthier. And this was despite eating out for most meals and enjoying food on the run just like us. Food for thought maybe.         

Find out if Calvus had enough fibre in his diet

Vercingetorix versus Arthurian Legend...the end?

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 geographically 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?

First of all, lets start with Vercingetorix. He wasn't born a king. He was appointed the King of Gaul by a federation of Gallic states during 52BC. Before that he'd been an Arvernian aristocrat. Now the Arverni had been functioning as a senate-run Republic for several decades prior to that and no longer had a royal family - and Vercingetorix makes no claim to royal blood. In other words, he was a lot like Napoleon...the king you have when you don't really have a king. The King of Gaul was a brand new title, with no hereditary tradition, and functional only as long as the Nation of Gaul existed - which was for less than a year. After that it was an empty title. Sure, someone could claim it, but the state of Gaul didn't exist - open grounds for Juvenal to joke or for 'Old King Cole' to be a merry old soul and little else. What's more, thousands of disaffected Gauls did move to 'free' Britain after the Gallic wars, so there's a good chance some stray Arvernian did pick up the title and throw it around a bit. It might have got some free dinners, but not much else...remember British tribal states already had their kings, and while they might have tolerated an Arvernian exile, they wouldn't have been giving up any of their powers to him. 

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 this. 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?
And imagine how things might have played out for Vercingetorix's or Napoleon's kids if they'd had any. A 'Bonny Prince Charlie' character trading off his ancestor's title could have easily been the basis of 'Old King Cole/Gaul' - written at a time when Rome had controlled Britain for fifty years. By that time even the British kings were disempowered or dead - so, which ever king this story was about was one with nothing else to do but enjoy himself, and perhaps...just perhaps he really was the King of Gaul, some half kept state secret that everyone knew about with a wink and a nudge, but only a single line from Juvenal preserves the story for us today.

Is this the end of the discussion? Probably not.   


Saturday 18 August 2012

Was King Arthur French...part two

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 was imprisoned 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 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.

Find out if Calvus could tell a good joke

Friday 17 August 2012

Was King Arthur French?

There's one thing we know about King Arthur - he was English, right? Okay, maybe he was Welsh...and then there's a chance he was Romano-Briton fighting against the Saxon invasion. Or perhaps he was a native Briton who fought against the Roman invasion. Frankly, no one can really nail him down, because he's a mythical construct handed down through the ages. He might be one man, he might be a thousand. And by the time the 12th-century French writer Chretien de Troyes added the romantic elements of Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the tale, the traditional origins of the story were at least seven hundred years old...or perhaps even much older. How much older? Well, when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his King Arthur story in 1136, the king was a native Briton who fended off the Roman invasions of the Emperor Claudius in 43AD...and his name was Arviragus. Now one handy thing about Arviragus, unlike the traditional King Arthur, his name comes to us through Roman sources...Juvenal refers to him in a satirical poem - "you will capture some king or Arviragus will fall from his British Chariot-pole" - which also dates the name to the late 1st-century AD. Of course this doesn't prove Arviragus existed, but it does mean Juvenal had heard the name.
And it's this name...Arvi-ragus. This is where I'm going to have a crack at myth busting. But first a little about my research. I've spent the last decade piecing together the Gallic Wars, particularly the year 52BC, when the Celtics from central Gaul finally got their act together and became a single nation for all of 11-months. The leading tribe in this short-lived federation was the Arverni, led by a 26-old who would become the King of Gaul - Vercingetorix (not his real name by the way, but a title bestowed upon him). And this is where a little bit of geography comes in. Avalon is in France. During the time of Vercingetorix it was called Aballo, and to its south was a city called Cavillonum (now Chalon-s-Saone) which has some phonetic context with now you might be seeing where I'm heading. Should I add by this time the Gauls had been throwing swords into lakes and rivers for the previous 1000-years and worshipped such water goddesses as Boann. Hmmmmm...I feel a wild theory coming on.

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 another blog... 

   Find out if Calvus ever met the Lady of the Lake

Thursday 16 August 2012

Going for a spin

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 be 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.   



Wednesday 15 August 2012

On the Road again

Most of us probably think that the great freeway systems built through Europe and North America just before and in the decades after World War Two as the beginning of super road history around the world. True, four-lane, six-lane and eight-lane freeways hadn't been seen before, nor had the vehicles designed to use them. But if you want to know when the world's first super highway was built, you've got to go a long way back before the internal combustion engine was 312BC to be exact.

Meet the Appian Way. Running 112-miles southeast of Rome, linking Italy's second largest city, Capua, to the capital, and then to the eastern port - and stepping off point for several invasions of Greece - Brundisium. Thirty-three feet wide, paved throughout and able to sustain a century's worth of road traffic between repairs. But this road was the just the beginning. Thousands of miles of paved two-lane highway (the Romans drove on the left) would be built across Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East - most of which continued to be the Western World's only land transport corridors well into the 19th Century.

And no, these roads weren't built by toiling slaves slashed by whips and chains...they were built by Roman soldiers, paid professionals who used complex surveying equipment barely bettered by today's laser technology to pour concrete and build pavements as good as anything we drive on. So if the Roman's had incredible roads, then their horse drawn road vehicles must have been a bit more complicated than the archaic contrivances we see in the movies...I guess that sounds like another blog.   

Sunday 12 August 2012

A bad day to be the Queen of Egypt

Today marks the 2,042nd anniversary of Cleopatra's death. She was just thirty-nine. The last Pharaoh of Egypt was the mother of Julius Caesar's only son - Caesarion - and mother of Mark Antony's three youngest children - Cleopatra Selene II, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus. The latter was just three when his mother and father died - tragic enough for the orphaned siblings, but it was also the end of a tragic and tumultuous decade for Rome, not to mention the end of Egypt's 3,100-years of uninterrupted Pharonic rule. In Octavian's Triumph the following year, the three Antonian children were paraded in gold chains, reportedly upsetting the Roman public to the extent the up and coming Emperor had his sister adopt and raise them.

Cleopatra VII Philopater, 69BC-30BC
Popular myth has Cleopatra holding an asp to her breast in a last act of heroic defiance against the arrival of Octavian's forces in her capital of Alexandria. But this is only a myth. What we do know is a wound was inflicted on her arm, either by a snake or by self-injected poison (yes, syringes, hollow needles and intravenous injections were available back then). If she did indeed choose to die by snake bite, it certainly wasn't an asp. Asp bites were well known for providing a very painful and prolonged death. Cobras, on the other hand, while not only being a symbol of the Pharonic crown, were quick and relatively pain free and had been used as a method of execution in Egypt for centuries - a fact, Cleopatra, one of the greatest minds of her age, would have been well aware of. Of course, there's also the ancient conspiracy theories her suicide was more murder than self inflicted, but to give Octavian his dues, he did organise attempts to save the Queen's life when he heard what she had done. In the end, it wasn't a good day for anyone involved...and to be honest, things haven't been the same since. In her death, Cleopatra gave us the Roman Empire, and, as a result, Western Civilisation.

Find out if Calvus was a snake charmer

Thursday 9 August 2012

Read all about it

As we face the possibility of the traditional newspaper disappearing within the next decade, maybe its time to introduce the Acta Diurna to you (the Daily News or Daily Action). This was the Roman State's first official newspaper and was started by the king of spin doctors himself - Julius Caesar. It had a much better print run than most modern papers - surviving for some 500-years...and it no doubt drove the mass production of printed news - and its spread around the Empire. And just to show nothing's new...this paper read just like today, headlined with scandals and crime, plus sports results and the standard births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Initially it was hand written onto white washed walls in the Roman Forum, but was soon converted to wooden tablets (in those day post cards and notebooks were written on cardboard like wooden wafers). Paper copies were sold throughout Rome, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility the Action was block printed rather than hand copied...after all hand copying a paper for a city of a million people - many of whom could read - seems a little beyond economic reality. Stepping out on a limb here, I'm pretty sure sooner or later someone must have noticed the local fuller's press was cheaper to use than a couple thousand handcopy scribes...but maybe I'm reading too much into it...

Find out if Caluvs went straight to the cartoons

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Breaking bread

Romans were famous for their bread - I'm sure everyone has heard the phrase 'Bread and Circuses' Juvenal coined in the first century AD. And like today, they ate an enormous variety of breads, with recipes and styles borrowed from dozens of Mediterranean, North African and Western European cultures. Like any good bakery you'd shop in now, there were loafs, flat breads, sourdoughs, boiled breads...some were sweet, some were cheesy, spiced or herb. And fortunately for us, some original recipes have survived to the present. Here's one for a more traditional country bread written by Cato the Elder in 160BC. This is Libum...or sacred bread - a cheese bread frequently made for household altars - and hungry teenagers who didn't mind pinching it from the altar while mother wasn't watching. Fortunately for us he wrote his recipe in metric (rather surprising since it wasn't invented for another 2000-years).

-120g of plain flour
-250g of ricotta cheese
-1 egg, beaten
-fresh bay leaves
-60g of honey
-A pinch of pepper

Sift the flour into a bowl, then beat the cheese until it is soft, then stir into the flour. Add the egg and mix until the mixture forms a soft dough. Divide the dough into four portions before moulding into a rounded bun shape. Place four fresh bay leaves on a greased baking tray and cover with the dough. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 220°C for 40 minutes until golden brown.When the breads are done, warm the honey and drizzle over the breads. Allow them to stand in the honey for 30 minutes, then serve.

beatus esus

Find out if Calvus was any good in the kitchen

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Building walls

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 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 blog.

Find out if Calvus ever had a tax audit         

Monday 6 August 2012

A touch of glass

Hand mirrors are one of those things often found in Roman era cemeteries...women were frequently buried with them. And more than most household items they can track the technological progressions of the classical era. For the best part of two thousand years bronze hand mirrors were the epitome of reflection, from the Egyptians through to the late Roman Republic in the first century BC. It was only in this later period that silver mirrors overtook bronze in the quality of reflection and the 'silvered' image became popular. However, as Pliny writes in the first century AD (100 years later), the 'modern' mirror was invented during his time, with results never seen with gold backing. For the first time the Roman world could see themselves as we see the world...a perfect reflection.

Find out if Calvus ever had a good look at himself

Sunday 5 August 2012

A little perspective

Most of us probably think last year is ancient history let alone what happened two thousand years ago. Geez, most of us think of the Romans barely being out of caves and eating boiled gruel for breakfast, lunch and tea. The Romans were a blip way back when, right? The Egyptians had just built the pyramids and the Sumerians had just invented writing. Well, the Romans were around for a while - they were a global super power for 800 years, twice as long as the British Empire and seven centuries ahead of where the United States is now, but they were far from being the first kids on the block. Civilisation was no more new to them than it is to us.

So let's try things from their perspective...what was ancient history for a Roman? Let's pick an easy date - 1AD. Rome's first emperor, Augustus, is 64 years old, Jesus Christ is seven.

By this time the city of Damascus has been around for 7000-years. The Pyramids of Giza are 2500 years old and getting a bit shabby, the volcanic destruction of Thera - and the Minoans - happened 1629 years ago and Tutankhamun has been dead for 1324 years.

The fall of Troy was 1185 years ago and Homer's epic poems of the event are 800 years old. Rome and Carthage were both founded more than 700 years ago. Western Democracy is 509 years old, the Battle of Thermopylae (the three hundred Spartans) happened 481 years ago, Alexander the Great has been dead for 324 years and Carthage (Rome's only real competitor) has been wiped from the face of the earth for 147-years.

More recently - Gaul was crushed 52 years ago, Julius Caesar has been dead for 45 years, while Anthony and Cleopatra both committed suicide 31 years ago...and ever since things have been pretty calm. In fact 1AD is a bit like now, but hey, it's all ancient history.

Find out what Calvus thought of ancient history

Saturday 4 August 2012

Staying healthy

Here's a quote for the day...

"Doctors learn by exposing us to risks and conduct experiments at the expense of our lives. Only a doctor can kill with impunity...Indeed the blame is transferred to the deceased, who is criticised for want of moderation."

Some highly paid lawyer in a recent malpractice suit? Nope...Pliny, 78AD. I guess the medical profession has had its detractors for a while.

Find out if Calvus ever went to the doctor

Friday 3 August 2012

Polishing the silver

Rome's constant craving for silver meant tributes imposed on defeated kingdoms and countries were usually paid in silver rather than gold. When Hannibal's Punic forces were overwhelmed in October 202BC, Rome imposed a war reparations tax on Carthage of 800,000lbs of silver spread over fifty was excluded from the deal. It was all about currency...that silver was worth the equivalent of $5.6-trillion to the Roman treasury and gold would not be used as coinage for another century.

Find out if Calvus knew anything about Carthage

Thursday 2 August 2012

Making money

The production of silver was not without its challenges. Pliny describes all silver smelting using the ancient process of cupellation (used since the early Bronze Age) where lead ore containing silver - usually Galena - was smelted at temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Celsius to oxidise the lead and retrieve the pure silver metal. Using this process the Romans were able to produce silver from low grade ores containing as little as 0.01 percent of the precious metal and the same techniques continue to be used for modern processing. However all that oxidising metal brought with it the same issues of pollution lead smelting has today. Hundred of tonnes of charcoal would have been needed to supply the mines each week - much of Spain's and Britain's forests went into the furnaces, and the fumes produced from the cupels (the smelting vessels) was described by Pliny as being "harmful to all animals, but especially dogs" - although I imagine the slaves working the smelter didn't fair too well either. In fact, as far as the bounds of slavery went in the Roman world, being sent to the silver mines was considered the worst possible scenario...and was often in lieu of a death sentence. Needless to say, when it came to making money in those days, there was always someone who had to do it the hard way.  

Find out if Calvus ever made any money

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Only second place?

It might be surprising to hear, but silver was far more important to Rome than gold...although, as today, its value was far lower. Silver set the standard for the finance trade and was pressed into the Denarius (the Roman equivalent of the $100 note in the late Republic) for several centuries. Because of its importance to the value of the Roman currency, silver - and the lead it was mined with - were state controlled by the First Century AD; over production would have decreased the value of the Denarius while under production would have driven inflation...concepts the Roman Treasury was just as aware of as today's modern Treasury officials. So the mining of silver (and finding new mines) was particularly important to the Roman Empire. Much of this mining was focused in Spain where some shafts produced over 300lb (around $2.1-million worth) per day...however as the Empire expanded, considerable production was shifted to Britain. It is quite possible the underlying reason Claudius committed to the invasion of Britain was to keep the Roman currency stable. Trajan's invasion of Dacia was also driven by mining...and the fact the Roman Empire went into a long inflation driven decline in the years after expansionism ended suggests the economy was unable to produce enough silver to sustain the currency's value. Goes to show nothing much changes...even if bankers have got more creative.

Find out if Calvus ever got his hands on any silver