Wednesday 31 October 2012

A spooky Gallic day

Well, today is the end of the first fortnight in the Gaulish month of Samonius. Essentially, this was the month that marked change or death to the Gauls, when all the crops and trees began to whither in the face of the approaching what better time to have a festival. Weird? Look at it from a Gaulish point of view - all the hard work of harvesting was behind them, the larders were full and it was generally believed that as death approached it was the best time to communicate with the gods and the ancestors. In fact this is the very day when the living and the not-so-living were believed to be closest in time and place, so much so that those from either realm could move freely from one to the other. Sounds like a freaky kind of day, eh? But here's the important thing to remember about the Gauls is that they measured their days from dusk - rather than dawn - so a new day began with the going down of the sun - ever wondered why we say 'fortnight' instead of 'fortday'? So this festival where the dead and living mixed began at sunset...on this very night. Kind of makes you wonder what we'd do if we still celebrated it...doesn't it?

Find out if Calvus went trick or treating

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Steeling yourself

We know as far empires go Rome was a biggie (sorry couldn't help making a Life of Brian quote)...but not all empires are made equal - the Zulus and Persians had big empires too - but their economies fell far behind the Romans. In the end, how much money you have is what counts in making and sustaining a great empire, and if you have any doubts about the Roman era here's a snapshot of Imperial annual metal production during the 1st-century AD.

Pig iron; 82,500-tons. At the same time the Han Empire in China was producing about 5,000-tons and in 1759 Britain was producing 35,000-tons 

Copper; 15,000-tons. In 1860 the United States was producing 8,000-tons

Lead; 80,000-tons. Lead production in the United States in 1845 was 33,750-tons

Silver; 200-tons. Total Roman era silver stock was estimated at around 10,000-tons, ten times more than the combined holdings of medieval Europe. In 1995 the United States produced 1640-tons.

Gold; 9-tons. This is from just the two Spanish provinces. World-wide production between 1800 and 1850 averaged just 24-tons per annum.

The up-shot? The British Empire's economy probably didn't overtake that of 1st-century Rome until the late 18th-century, and the United States during the 1860s. Yep, the Roman Empire was a biggie.

Find out if Calvus watched the commodity market

Monday 29 October 2012

Making the best of your plot

If you've ever fancied a move to the country here's some practical tips on how the Romans decided to build their farmhouses...and the Greeks before them. Pliny quotes Homer (from 800-ish BC) that a country house shouldn't be built too close to a marsh or river. Homer thought that morning mists were unhealthy - although it was actually the mosquito born diseases that were the issue. As for climate, the house should face north in regions that are hot, south in places that are cold and east in middling temperate climates - you might want to reverse the souths and norths if you live south of the equator. So if you're planning that dream house in that dream location - and you want to keep that reverse cycle airconditioner turned off as much as possible - then make sure you're facing the right way.

Find out if Calvus ever faced the right way

Sunday 28 October 2012

A world before therapy

Face it, people have being displaying all the anti-social behaviours we've managed to put labels on during the last century since our first paleolithic ancestors decided little 'Runs-with-knifes' was a tad 'off'. Today we live in an age of having aberrant behaviour the past we might presume people of a particular disposition rushed off to have a war with someone else. However if Pliny is to be believed, he seems to have identified a group of men showing a lack of human empathy - and as a result potential psychopathy -  who didn't decide to pursue world domination or become the head of an ancient corporation. Nope...these guys founded Greek Schools of Philosophy. He describes Diogenes the Cynic, Pyrroh, Heraclitus and Timo as being 'apatheis'...which is Greek for 'unfeeling'. Timo apparently went as far as to declare he hated the entire human race. I guess this means you should take your Philosophy lecturer a whole lot more seriously now.

Find out if Calvus had a predilection for philosophy 

Saturday 27 October 2012

Getting your whites whiter than white

We've all been there. That schmuck comes on the TV telling us how much whiter our whites could be and just how bland that white we're wearing is. Naturally the solution is some suitably expensive glorified bleach with a lemon fragrance and some newly discovered super enzyme to turn bland to bling. Well, next time you reach for your favourite laundry liquid have a think about how Roman laundries went about getting those whites white. Step one was to go around the neighbourhood collecting chamber pots. If you were a good operator you could even get the chamber pots to come to you. Yep, for a couple of bits of small change, the urbane Roman could relieve himself of his...err, relief. That's right, we're talking the urine business here. Where money changed hands for the contents of your chamber pot...and then you paid to have your clothes washed in it. The process is pretty simple. Empty those chamber pots into a big vat, bring it to the boil and then add all those white togas and tunics that need a little brightening. This might seem pretty off-putting, but it's just basic chemistry. Boiling urine increases the concentration of ammonia - a normal component of our output, and, well, ammonia is the same thing we use in our modern day bleaches. Sure, that big vat wasn't lemon scented, but by the time the clothes came out of the vat the smell of ammonia would have replaced the less respectable smells the pot may have been making early on. So your clean toga would smell just like it would today if you'd soaked it in bleach. And it was just as white. Now, that's what I call something to think about....hmmmm, I wonder if there's still some money to be made in this business? 

Find out just how much Calvus thought his chamber pot was worth

Thursday 25 October 2012

It's a living

Did anyone take a second look at the Roman era advertisement in the post "Advertising, it ain't new"? Here it is again.


"Wild beast hunters and the twenty pairs of Gladiators of Marcus Tullius will perform in Pompeii between the Nones of November (4th) and seven days before the Ides of November (7th)"

This hoarding is advertising four days of gladiatorial combat in Pompeii's arena being put on by some cove called Marcus Tullius - possibly a distant relative of Cicero. Notice how his twenty pairs of gladiators (they'd have a value of at least 160,000 sesterces - $4-million) will be 'performing' for those four days. Doesn't sound like Mr.M.Tullius was expecting any combat casualties, does it? In fact this advertisement gives a fairly good insight into the Roman arena industry. These gladiators are 'performing' - not fighting to the death. They will be appearing four days in row, possible putting on the same show like a visiting circus, or maybe mixing it up for the punters who've bought season tickets. The point is, Marcus Tullius was running a weekend matinee. He wanted to make money and he had no intentions of letting his $4-million investment go to the sword - those gladiators were going out there to ham it up to the crowd, and they were going to the same thing the next day, and the day after that. So while it happened, don't get fooled into thinking that every gladiator went into the arena expecting to leave in a coffin. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

It's just a flesh wound

As a rule all Roman aristocrats were expected to complete some sort of military service. Most did so as teenagers, fulfilling a one year term of 'national service' as junior officers the year they turned eighteen. Those who found army life agreeable tended to come back for more, while circumstances such as a land invasion of Italy by Hannibal gave others no choice. One such patrician who enjoyed a battle or two was Marcus Sergius. He rose to fame during the Second Punic war against Hannibal between 218BC and 201BC. During this time he was wounded twenty-three times, losing his right hand completely, while his left hand and both feet were too badly injured to be of any use. Still, not one to let the team down, he fought four battles with only his disabled left hand, during which time two horses were cut down underneath him. According to Pliny, Sergius had a right hand fashioned from iron and using this prosthetic he "raised the siege of Cremona, saved Placentia and captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul." He in turn was twice captured by Hannibal, but escaped both times - despite his lack of mobility and being chained day and night for twenty months. Hard to believe no one's made a movie about him yet.

Find out if Calvus was that keen on swashbuckling

Tuesday 23 October 2012

A little perspective - the Replay

This is one of my favourite posts I've put together, so I thought it might be worth a visit...face it, history hasn't changed...

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.

Monday 22 October 2012

Advertising, it ain't new

We might think that annoying bank commercial blotting out our favourite you tube clip or the latest presidential "vote for me" campaign is just another symptom of living in the 21st-Century, but, frankly, when it comes to advertising, the message stays the same, only the medium changes. "Vote for me" and "Don't vote for the other guy" advertising campaigns have been around since some Athenian decided it would be fun to to see how popular he was. In the Roman era, things were no different. In fact, they were much more like today than we'd like to think. Every election season - November to December - hoardings were scrawled across the walls of the great Roman cities by professional sign writers encouraging "Vote for - ad candidate's name - he's a good man." And it wasn't just the candidates who paid for advertising. Just like today, certain interest groups got involved too. In Pompeii we see a group of women in the ummm...service industry...encouraging their customers to vote for their favoured candidate - who no doubt was a good customer too. And just like those personalised tweets and posts appearing in social media and pretending not to be advertising today - Roman sign writers were very keen on abbreviations. "A good man" was usually written as "VB." "I beg you to elect him" was "OVF."

Here's an example of a surviving advertisement in Pompeii...


Paid advertising Roman style - all you need is
paint, a wall and pedestrians

If you know your Latin SMS abbreviations this should read - "Wild beast hunters and the twenty pairs of Gladiators of Marcus Tullius will perform in Pompeii between the Nones of November (4th) and seven days before the Ides of November (7th)"

Wow, that's like OMG LOL


Saturday 20 October 2012

Anybody feeling cold?

While it's not too easy to explain why the temperatures in ancient Rome would be a good degree warmer than they are today, at least the Roman cold snaps are open to some exploration. For anyone who remembers the winters of 1991 and 1992, you might have noticed they were a bit colder than usual, and the sunsets at the time were a bloody red. These of course coincided with the Mt Pinatubo Eruption in the Philippines. It was the biggest bang in recent history, ejecting 16 cubic kilometres of material - not a lot on the scale of things, but enough to effect the global climate for several years once it had finished pumping millions of tonnes of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.

So, going back to the big freeze around 110BC - the one that sowed the seeds of destruction for the Roman Republic - mean temperatures fell by nearly two degrees Celsius in just a couple of years. If a volcanic eruption caused this, it must have been a big one, and it appears Mt Churchill in Alaska is a strong contender. Its eruption was considerably larger than Mt Pinatubo, producing 25 cubic kilometres of material (the famous 1883 Krakatoa eruption was 21 cubic km). Another smaller eruption (6 cubic km) from the Okmok Caldera in the Aleutian Islands may have occurred within a year or so too.

Then there's the long cooling period beginning after 56AD and bottoming out around 300AD. A lot can happen in 250-years (think what's happened since 1762). But it does coincide with a number of big volcanic eruptions. The first was Ambrym in Vanuatu, it occurred sometime around 56AD but was only half the size of the Pinatubo. It was followed in 79AD by the much smaller eruption of Mt Vesuvius (just 3.8 cubic km). And then in 186AD the Roman historian Herodian describes several weeks when the day turned to night and the evil portents - not to mention the cold and failed crops - would mire the reign of the Emperor Commodus (the one who got snuffed out a few years too early in the movie Gladiator) for the remainder of his life - he was strangled in his bath on December 31st, 192AD. This darkness most likely marks the Taupo Eruption in New Zealand - the biggest eruption during the Roman period, producing 120 cubic km atmospheric pollution - and no doubt cooling down the globe for decades. Then to cap off the 3rd-Century AD, the cold snap got colder with the eruption of Ksudatch in Eastern Russia, ejecting 26 cubic kilometres of material.

Anyone notice that apart from Mt Vesuvius all of those eruptions, which may or may not have changed Roman history, happened on the other side of the world, sometimes in places where no humans had even reached? Goes to show, that no matter how big an empire you have, nature can throw it all back at you.

Find out if Calvus invested in the evil portents industry  

Friday 19 October 2012

Anybody feeling hot?

Climate change and global warming have been one of the big debates of the last decade...although it's got a little overshadowed by the great debt meltdowns since 2008. However, since none of us live in a vacuum, I think we can still safely say that climate change - natural or assisted - is impacting on us one way or another...just like it did to the Romans. The Romans? Really? Well, they lived in the climate too, and just as the woolly mammoths found out, nothing stays the same forever. In fact the Roman era is the only other point in history where we can see man made atmospheric pollution spiking in ice cores. Did they change the climate? Look, I doubt the evidence is there to say that, but the absolute peak of the Roman economy does coincide with the warmest period measured for the last 2200-years. A report published in Global and Planetary Change using Scandinavian tree rings has found that the mean temperature between the years 27-56AD was a full one degree Celsius warmer than today. This is a time when more people lived in Britain than during the Elizabethan age. And after a long decline, there is a sudden dip between 299 and 328AD to almost a degree cooler than today, which coincides with the breaking up of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Empires as their economies collapsed under the weight of inflation, invasions and civil violence. Another little gem the graph shows is the last century of the Roman Republic coinciding with a climate recovery from a very sharp cooling period which bottomed out around 110BC. Apart from the five Roman civil wars that followed this cold snap, 110BC also marks - almost to the year - the mass migration of more than one million Cimbri and Teutons from modern day Denmark. Some ancient writers said these German tribes were driven south by floods that had destroyed their arable lands. They would spend the next decade devastating Gaul and several Roman armies. Victims of climate change? It would seem so.

Tomorrow we'll look at some of the reasons the climate changed in Roman times...and guess what, it might just involve greenhouse gases.

Find out if Calvus invested in renewable energy

Thursday 18 October 2012

The Roman Green movement?

We've probably all got that bookcase or faux-oak coffee table at home that looks a million dollars on the surface but is just a scratch or spilt glass away from revealing the cheap pine or particle board underneath. One hundred years ago we might have called this shoddy, today we call it cheap. Two thousand years ago Pliny was excited. Wood veneers appear to have been common place in 78AD when he wrote about them - Pliny describes how rare and expensive timbers such as citrus, turpentine, maple, palm, holly, holm-oak, elder root and poplar are cut into slivers to dress up cheap timber - probably pine just like today. He says veneers were invented to make a single rare tree go as far as possible - which suggests the ancient timber industry was doing its best to match demand and affordability with supply. It would be a big step to say Roman timber merchants were environmentalists, but the widespread use of veneer points toward an industry that - perhaps only for the sake of economic survival - was doing its best to be sustainable.

Find out if Calvus ever chained himself to a tree

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Lets go shopping

Fashion comes to Britain in the 1st-Century AD
Modern recreation of the a
1st-Century AD ladies sandal
The Caligae, the shoe
for everybody

The Calceoli - comfort that
has survived the ages

I'm sure there's quite a few people out there who judge other cultures by the kind of shoes they wear. Last month I covered footwear fashion for Roman men, today I'm taking the ladies shopping. As a whole, Romans were a pretty practical lot, their days usually involved a lot of walking here or there so not surprisingly women wore walking sandals such as the caligae muliebres that were much the same as those worn by men. However where style overcame comfort, they were not at all adverse to ballet-slipper styled calceoli - probably an around-the-villa or down-to-the-corner-tavern kind of shoe - as well as a multitude of similar easy wear comfort sandals similar to many leading brands still available today. 

Two thousand year old women's shoes
found in an ancient British rubbish dump
on the edge of the Roman world.

Some variations and recreations

And yes, there were heels. Roman fashionistas were just like those moderns of Paris, London and New York. For the ladies who wanted big shoes, they could certainly get them. Kothorni - some with twelve-inch heels usually made of cork or sometimes wood - were there for those who wanted to make a statement. A recently discovered skeleton of a wealthy 1st-Century woman who lived in suburban Rome exhibits the kind of bone wear around the ankle that suggests she wore high-heels almost everyday - sounds like a victim of fashion to me.    

Tuesday 16 October 2012

A Beacon of light

Pharos - the famous ancient lighthouse
We've probably all seen those seascape panoramas featuring a red-capped, whitewashed 19th-Century lighthouse gazing out towards the storm. For the last three hundred years lighthouses have been a big part of the seafaring and its hard to imagine the salty air without a lighthouse somewhere nearby. Did the ancients have that same experience? Well, I guess most of us have probably heard of the great 'Pharos' lighthouse that protected the entrance to the harbour at Alexandria. Built by Ptolemy in the 3rd-century BC, 400-feet high - that's around 36 storeys - at a cost of 800 talents (19.2-million sesterces for a Roman - $480-million for us) it was the granddaddy of ancient lighthouses, but it was far from the only one. In fact, during the Roman era, lighthouses may have been just as ubiquitous as they are today. Pliny notes that similar lighthouses to Pharos were built at Ravenna in northern Italy and Ostia - Rome's nearest harbour, but there were several more...with one remaining in operation after 1900-years - there's a good chance it is now fully depreciated. This survivor is the Tower of Hercules near A Coruna in northwestern Spain. Modelled after the tower of Pharos it is just under half the height of the Alexandrian monster at 180ft and has been in constant use protecting Atlantic Ocean shipping since the 2nd-Century AD. 

The Tower of Hercules, the Roman survivor still at work

Monday 15 October 2012

What happens when you're not the right hand man?

Face it, left handers have got the rough end of the stick for quite a while...even today the French word for left handedness means clumsy while those lucky righties are known as adroit or masterful. Things were even worse back in the day. The Roman word for lefties was 'sinister'...a word that tends to conjure up a whole lot of negatives when used in modern English. Even in Latin 'sinister' has a confusion of meanings - such as; on the left; left; unlucky; bad; perverted...but then also; lucky; auspicious; and favourable - obviously left handed Romans came up with the latter meanings. If you were right handed, you were 'dextera' - or dexterous, on the right, and skillful. Of course, that's not to say left handers in Rome couldn't get ahead, Julius Caesar is believed to have been left handed (as was his personal hero - Alexander the Great), and so was Rome's second Emperor, Tiberius, while the second heavenly twin, Pollux, was considered the patron god for those of the non-right persuasion - and he with his tricky left handed friend Odysseus did all right according to Homer.

Find out if Calvus was a sinister character

Sunday 14 October 2012

Is there another doctor in the house?

Even though most modern medical practices have developed in historic isolation to that of the classical era, it appears that the final outcome generally needs the same strategy. The Greeks and Romans were putting badly broken limbs into traction two thousand years before modern medicine returned to the same method for restoring fractured bones to their proper length. Likewise putting broken limbs into casts - made from bandages soaked in egg whites rather than plaster - dates back to the Egyptians at least 5000-years ago. But bones are bones, right? What about actual surgery? Well, we know that Roman law required at least one surgical procedure to be procured on a regular basis. Since the early 6th-Century BC, the Lex Regia (the Regal Law) required any pregnant woman who died prior to birth to have her unborn child removed. This on many occasions would have produced a successful delivery. However while it is accepted that this is the origin for the Caesarian Birth, the presumed outcome for Roman mothers was pretty negative...but remember, until this last century, childbirth was still one of the main causes of death for women. 

So this is the big question - were Roman surgeons capable of replicating modern Caesarian births where both mother and child are expected to have survive? The first successful modern Caesarian birth did not occur until 1881, however the conditions in which it occurred were little different to those that would have presented themselves two thousand years earlier - that is, it occurred in a private residence, it was completed with minimal anaesthetic and with only the most basic wound and instrument sterilisation. What's more, two years earlier, Ugandan villagers were observed completing successful Caesarian births in even more basic conditions. So all in all, there doesn't seem a lot standing in the way of ancient surgeons being able to do the same. Remember, with what would have been a fairly regular attendance to pregnant women who had died for any number of reasons, a Roman surgeon would have been familiar with the abdominal region, including where they should make incisions and what they would encounter beneath.

A Roman era 'dialator'
But just to add a little twist of evidence to the story, we may have an example of a successful Caesarian birth right under our noses...the namesake. The story goes that the Caeasarian birth is named after Julius Caesar - Pliny actually attributes the name to an earlier much less famous ancestor 'who was cut from the womb', and the question of Julius Caesar being born in such a manner is usually dismissed since his mother, Aurelia, lived to old age. Of course this could be a classic case of ignoring the trees for the forest. Perhaps her survival to old age should not be used as a denial of the legend but proof of it. Face it, Roman women would have been no more keen to give up their lives than anyone today so I am pretty sure that one way or another surgeons of the era would have been very interested in the rewards - particularly the financial ones - if they could keep mothers alive too. After all, they were certainly equipped with tools and fundamental standards to do maybe they did.     

Saturday 13 October 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 11 October 2012

Heart of Glass

Glass inside glass
By the beginning of the 1st-Century AD glass had been in production throughout the Middle East for at least 2,500-years. By this time colouring techniques, moulding and fusing had been got down pat, while glass blowing and the production of clear glass by adding manganese dioxide had been developed the previous century. It was these latter two technologies that revolutionised glass production in the Roman world...and affects us still today. Blowing into moulds is still used to this day for every bottle you buy, and if you're looking out a window at the moment then you're probably looking through a Roman idea. Clear glass meant glass panes and by the late 1st-Century AD, Roman houses were getting a whole lot more daylight and whole lot less damp thanks to the glass window. Of course the Roman style of window pane was somewhat different to ours, with molten glass being poured into flat moulds sitting on beds of sand. As a result one side of a Roman window pane always has a gritty translucent appearance thanks to those grains of sand it was poured over.  

Glass window pane from Pompeii

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Reaping what we sow

Obed Hussey's 1833 Reaping Machine

Grain harvesting has been the be all and end all of western farming for at least 10,000-years. For a goodly part of that time reaping has been the back breaking tradition of families in their fields gathering their crops with knives, sickles or scythes, with crop yields restricted by the size of the local labour force. It was only after 1814 that mechanical reapers began appearing - increasing harvesting rates - and therefore the amount of grain that could be reasonably sewn by one family. However the pressure to maximise grain yields is not a new one. In 78AD Pliny describes mechanical reapers being used on large estates in Gaul that come very close to matching the design patented by Obed Hussey in 1833. 

The 1st-Century AD Gallic reaping machine -
Pliny's descriptions suggest a slightly more
sophisticated machine than this artist's rendering

Pliny describes the Gallic machine as having a timber framed hopper slung between two wheels and pushed by a pair of oxen. On the front of the frame was a row of steel teeth that cut off the heads of wheat, which then fell into the hopper. And, voila, farming with minimal labour on an industrial the 1st-Century AD.  

Monday 8 October 2012

No gunpowder, but what about the musket?

So we've seen that a pre-Napoleonic army would have trouble standing up to a Roman legion's artillery, but post-Renaissance armies had muskets, that's got to make a difference, right? Maybe, maybe not. It all boils down to how those muskets are used. Right through to the invention of the machine gun, muskets and rifles were used in exactly the same manner the Roman legions used their pilums - a four foot long weighted javelin. Muskets and pilums were meant to break up infantry formations. In the case of the pilum it was a one shot weapon. Muskets did have an advantage of reloading for a second time...but that's just it...time.

Lets have a look at that gamers hypothetical of a Roman legion advancing on a European army from, say, the 1750s. The 'modern' army has some four thousand smooth bore muskets arranged in three ranks. Likewise the Romans are stretched into three ranks to keep the modern army from flanking them. The Romans are advancing at 4.5-miles per hour and have 4,800 pilums. Just one minute before the two sides are within hands reach of the other, the Roman lines come within range of the muskets at around 120 yards. The musket volley strikes the Romans' first rank, but their armour, shields and extreme range keep the second and third lines intact. The modern army begins reloading. They have forty seconds to fire a second volley before at least 3,200 steel tipped javelins strike at all their lines. Without armour or shields, the pilum volley could easily reduce the modern infantry by half. Twenty seconds later and the two sides - one armed with short stabbing swords and the other with bayonets come together. It all boils down to that second volley. If the 'modern' army can't reload before the Romans throw their pilums, then they will be outnumbered by the advancing Roman infantry who are better armed for hand to hand fighting. Of course, by the time of the American civil war, rifled muskets were hitting targets at 500-yards - facing multiple reloads was the game changer for all types of infantry - and the reason why so few traditional infantry advances actually succeeded by this time.

Find out if Calvus had much of a throwing arm

Sunday 7 October 2012

No gunpowder? So what

The standard 15lb ballistae, although larger models
 could fire 60lb projectiles the same distance

Considering the ancients had already invented the wheel, sailing ships, fine art and war on an industrial scale, most historians tend to claim the big jump made between the Roman era and the Renaissance was the invention of gunpowder. It is believed gunpowder made its way from China to Arabia, India and Europe during the 13th and 14th-centuries, revolutionising warfare where ever it went. What is largely forgotten about the medieval era, is that battlefield technology had fallen to a very low ebb compared to the Roman era of conquest, and despite the changes gunpowder wrought, in reality all it was doing was bringing a different means to the same end. It would take more than five hundred years of development before modern artillery could match the range and accuracy of Roman stand-off weaponry, and firing rates weren't matched until the twentieth century. The simple fact is, almost until the rise of Napoleon, a Roman legion with its ten torsion powered ballistae - firing 15lb stone or lead projectiles 500-yards every 30-seconds, and sixty torsion powered three-span scorpions - firing three-foot long darts 600-yards every 20-seconds - could out shoot and out batter any post-Renaissance army or fortress, gunpowder or not. Both the scorpion and the ballistae could be rotated and elevated to change aim in moments, and the ballistae could also fire wooden or clay mortars filled with 'Greek Fire', bringing similar devastation to exploding shells. So did gunpowder make a difference? Not as big as you might think. In many respects, Roman torsion technology remained the better choice of weapon in cost, transport, re-supply, accuracy, ease of use, firing rates, range and crew safety until the industrial revolution allowed the mass production of cannons and firearms.     

A Scorpion and Onager side by side...later known as the Mangonel - the Onager was the only Roman era torsion weapon to survive in use to the medieval period - despite being the least accurate and most basic artillery piece in the Romans used.

Friday 5 October 2012

The price of slavery - the end?

It's pretty easy to look back at the Romans with that big dollop of disdain...I mean, turning people into some sort of commodity, how plain evil is that, right? We're so much better...are we, really? The Atlantic slave trader John Newton wrote his battle hymn against slavery - 'Amazing Grace' - in 1748, having survived a horrific storm at sea...but he kept on slave trading for another six years after that lucky break. Britain officially abolished slavery in its territories on August 1st, 1834, however the 'Slavery Abolition Act' wasn't fully implemented until 1840 when the last 'British' slaves had served their time. And of course, the final decision on slavery in North America wasn't made until April 1865 - with the cost of 600,000 lives. So face it, we all have ancestors within eight generations of us that were touched in some way by the modern slave trade. But don't think for a moment world wide slavery ended with the American Civil War. There were still 300,000 slaves in Saudi Arabia in 1962 when the tradition was banned there. Mauritania didn't end slavery until 1981 - freeing some 600,000. As of today it's estimated that 2.7-million people are currently trafficked slaves, with another 25.7-million in forced labour or bonded and debt labour. And just because we might be living comfortable western lives, don't think for a moment there is nothing in your house that has been made by at least one of those 21st-century slaves. In fact, some might even be living your city. So are we that much better than the Romans? Or are we just better at pretending?

Find out if Calvus was unimpressed  

Thursday 4 October 2012

The price of slavery - the money makers

Just like anything else, slavery was a business in the Roman era - with a long chain of slavers, wholesalers and auctioneers taking their share of the trade as a person passed from their point of enslavement to their new owner's premises. Because of a central location in the Mediterranean basin, the cities of Ephesus and Sardis in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) became the major wholesale markets for the slave trade across the Roman world. Here, those slaves gathered from the Middle East, Greece, the Caucuses, Egypt and Ethiopia were onsold into the western markets. By the 1st-century BC about 40-percent of the Italian peninsular's population (around 3-million people) were slaves - suggesting the Italian slave trade alone had a total worth of around $150-billion (6-billion sesterces) and was probably generating about $15-billion (600-million sesterces) per annum. That's a whole lot of cash going into the pockets of those invested in the industry. As for who made the most amount of money out of the slave business, well, Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul - where a million men, women and children were eventually sold into bondage, no doubt glutting the market for several years - probably netted him a personal take of around $20-billion...not bad for him, since he was broke when he first became the Governor of the two Gauls...but not so good if you were a Gaul.

Find out if Calvus' family were in the business  

Wednesday 3 October 2012

The price of slavery - getting your head around it

The thing you've got to remember with slavery in the ancient world - and the modern one for that matter - is that this was a long standing institution. For the average Roman the act of giving up their slaves would be like us giving up our car...or smart phone, unimaginable. Slaves were a seemingly indispensable way for households, farms, and factories to get through the day - without them, for all intents and purposes the sky could fall in. And despite the extreme powers an owner held over them - freed slaves did not turn into rabble rousing emancipators or run underground railroads to get escaped compatriots back home - instead most became slave owners themselves, and some even owned slaves while still in bondage. So presumably the experiences of the average Roman slave - of course there would be exceptions - were not as negative as we might imagine.

There are probably several reasons why, but firstly we should explore the bluntest. Money. Apart from the very poor, virtually all Roman citizens owned at least one slave. For the everyday man in the street, his servant probably cost him three or four years worth of wages, which was almost certainly borrowed. Beating, injuring or killing their slave would be akin to us taking to the family car with a baseball bat. Sure, some of us might, but most of us wouldn't. It's what I call the 'Porsche' scenario. Most of us would have to give up a whole lot to afford a Porsche and once we owned one, we would do everything we could to make sure it never lost value. Of course, there'd be a few who are so rich they wouldn't care what happened to the car...wrapping it around a tree and walking away from the wreckage wouldn't matter one bit. Roman slave owners could be defined in much the same way and a slave's experience probably matched that of a car. The majority of owners who'd scraped together enough cash to buy another human wouldn't be in the mindset of setting out to devalue their investment...but then, some wouldn't have cared.

Added to this, slavery had some broader advantages we might not consider, but no doubt a Roman era slave did. A master with a trade meant an apprenticeship...and a career. An unmarried master might mean a marriage proposal - as might an unmarried mistress - oh, the scandal. Plus, working in a household meant eating just as well as those they lived with - chemical analysis of skeletal remains has shown this - not to mention free health care and a retirement plan. So perhaps we shouldn't look at Roman slavery quite the same way as we look at the modern era slave trade. In an extreme way it was more like a current day workplace agreement - with productivity schedules and get-out clauses. Sure, our employers don't have the power of life and death over us, but then again, we're chained to our banks - and our desk - for the next twenty years you've got to admit, we're not a whole lot better off, are we?

Find out if Calvus ran an underground railroad 


Tuesday 2 October 2012

The price of slavery 2.0

I'm going to be up front here...slavery is just about the worse thing someone has ever come up with. In the Roman era slave owners were entitled to do anything they wanted with their slaves, and I mean anything...torture, death and the other stuff people with power like to do to those who don't. Some slaves, such as those working the Spanish silver mines or those who found themselves in the arena had very short and awful lives. But - and this is a big caveat - on the whole, life as a Roman slave was a genuine improvement on the slavery cultures prior to and after the classical age. For one thing, Roman slavery wasn't hereditary or cultural - a child born into servitude had a good chance of earning their freedom and becoming a Roman citizen regardless of their cultural origin, their skin colour or choice of religion. And for many slavery meant learning Latin and a trade and being able to earn good money before and after they were granted freedom. In fact, for those tens of millions of provincials living outside of Italy, slavery was often their only means of economic improvement. The preponderance of Greeks who continued to arrive in Rome as slaves during the 1st-century AD - despite Greece having been peacefully ruled by Rome for the best part of two centuries, suggests the majority of 1st-century Greek slaves were selling themselves - or their children - into servitude rather than finding a way into slave markets via crime or rebellion. And from that, we should assume they were thinking life in a Roman household - despite what a Roman might do to them - had more long term rewards than the freedom they were giving up.

So what does that mean? Didn't these 'volunteers' have any pride in their freedom? Surely they were masochists to think life was better under the whip than in some dirt poor, muddy backwater? Perhaps, perhaps not, obviously their expectations weren't as pessimistic as our modern day tomorrow's post we'll explore why.  

Find out if Calvus had an opinion on masochists  

Monday 1 October 2012

The price of slavery

Everything has a price we're told. And as we know, the Romans weren't shy about putting a price on people. Just as the Greek world that preceded them, slavery ran the Roman economy. Slaves could easily make up half a city's population, and some households could afford dozens. But just how much did it cost to take away someone's freedom? What was the value the Romans put on their servant's labour? One account survives from Pompeii in 79AD, where a male slave was sold for 6,252 sesterces - $156,300 in today's terms. Around the same time a Gallic girl was sold in Britain for 2,400 sesterces - $60,000. By comparison a donkey cost 500 sesterces ($12,500), the average annual income was around 900 sesterces ($22,500), the weekly rent on a moderate inner city apartment was 38 sesterces ($961), a large bread loaf was 0.5 sesterces ($12.50), as was half a litre of wine. In other words, owning someone was no small matter. Just one slave could cost the same as a modern day luxury car, and social expectations meant most slaves were freed - or allowed to purchase their freedom - within a decade. Many Romans probably borrowed heavily to buy a slave...and considering bankruptcy could end in non-citizens having to sell themselves to pay down debts, the bizarre cycle of slave-owner to slave and back again would have been fairly common among the less fortunate...or perhaps it was karma.

But how's this for a little side note...if we fast forward to 1850, when Americans were earning $130 a year - the average slave was selling for $500 - which works out at $76,923 in today's values. So it seems commercial slavery managed to keep human worth pretty consistent - for the last 2000-years we've actually kept our value. Sad, but true.

Find out how much Calvus thought he was worth