Thursday 29 November 2012
I found myself in an historical argument yesterday - a rare event for someone who lives in a city of only 200,000 on the far side of the world. But an argument it was, and an argument was had. Naturally it was an old chestnut - historical fact versus Christian tradition. And this is where the paradox came in. Generally historians eschew the Bible as an accurate dating tool - while true Christian beliefs tends to eschew anything those historians have to say - after all, to the believer the Bible is the word of God. However there is one place in the Bible where a keen-eyed historian can point to dating evidence, while traditional Christian belief chooses to glance over this particular "word of God". What is it? Well, it's a biggie, it's the birth date for Jesus.
And this was my argument - through his mention of an Imperial census and 'shepherds watching their flocks by night' the Gospel of Luke gives us some strong hints to the year, and the time of year Jesus was born. We known an imperial census was conducted during the summer of 8 BC - which corresponds with the time of year shepherds would be out in the pastures with their sheep. As such, just like it is used to date Easter, the Bible says the date for Christ's birth is during June, July or August.
Yet, unlike the Bible's dating for Easter, I found Christian belief makes Luke's word entirely contestable. As the argument went on, I was told repeatedly that, "You can't say that, Jesus was born on December 25th. You'll offend a lot of people if you say he wasn't."
"But Luke says he wasn't born in December, how is that offensive?" I said.
"It doesn't matter, people believe Jesus was born on December 25th...and no one will convince them he wasn't born on Christmas day."
Point taken, his birthday is the whole point of Christmas - but that doesn't mean it is the exact day he was born. In Australia we have a 'Queens Birthday' public holiday several months after the Queen's birth date. And what's more, while western Europe celebrates Christ's birth on December 25th, in eastern Europe it's the 6th of January. Okay, so the 25th of December isn't as hard and fast as we'd like to believe...so why do we use it to celebrate Christ's birth?
Well, it appears Christ's birth was not celebrated at all until the 4th-century AD - prior to this many early Bishops believed it was a pagan act to celebrate Christ's birth in the same manner as the Romans celebrated the birth dates of the Imperial deities. And even then, the date of his birth was still open to conjecture. Around 200AD, Clement of Alexandria wrote that scholars were arguing Christ's birth was either April 20th/21st or May 20th. He made no mention at all of December 25th. However one hundred years later when Christmas became acceptable practice - the dates of December 25th and January 6th were quickly adopted by the various churches.
There's three theories why.
1. December 25th and January 6th correspond with the two week Saturnalia festival held by the Romans for centuries. In Gaul, a similar time for feasting centred around December 21st.
2. December 25th was chosen by the Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to celebrate the cult of Invictus Sol (the invincible sun), later to be replaced by Christmas when the Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to that of Rome's state religion.
3. And the theory preferred by the current Pope, has December 25th falling 9-months after March 25th (the Feast of Annunciation) the day of Christ' immaculate conception, which is connected to the belief Christ was conceived and executed on the same day.
I guess in the end, as our argument ended, it's up to the individual to decide what they're more comfortable with. We can choose to believe the Gospel of Luke or we can choose to believe church tradition. Is either side wrong? I don't think so. Christmas is what we make it.
Find out if Calvus has an opinion
Wednesday 28 November 2012
|A Roman steel razor - going to the barber for a scrape|
|The blade from a Roman folding pen-knife - |
sharp enough for a smooth finish
Find out if Calvus shaved as close as a blade or got his money back
Tuesday 27 November 2012
|A replica of a Roman soldier's manicure kit |
from the 1st-century AD
Find out if Calvus got a hang nail
Monday 26 November 2012
|Antikythera computer - no chips, |
but lots of gears,
just like a 19th-century calculator
|A 2000-year old Roman anchor - |
same solution to the same problem
So where does this leave the Dendera light bulb? There's no way every Roman household was crammed with batteries and light bulbs...but that's not to say this technology didn't have some important alternatives to household lighting - and that could at least explain the lack of physical evidence for an ancient light bulb in Roman cities. Think tunnels. During the Roman era more road and water tunnels were dug than at any time before the 1800s. Mining was booming and shafts were going ever deeper - and ever darker. Logically lighting these shafts was with oil lamps, but air quality would have been appalling - to the point where excavations may have become impossible. And, well, that would have cost money. The Dendera light bulb may have been a solution - and probably an expensive one. But was it? I don't know, maybe we should look more closely at Roman mines or tunnels for glass, copper rings and iron spikes. However, chances are, if these objects have been found, they have probably been described as...ritual objects.
Find out if Calvus was in the electrical business
Sunday 25 November 2012
So, as it stands the carbon arc lamp has been around for a long time, and all it needs is a strip of carbon as a filament - Davy used a thin slice of charcoal, Edison used carbonised bamboo - which could burn for 1200-hours. The one thing you will notice is that the light bulb is pretty simple. Glass and various kinds of carbonised wood were available during and well before the Roman age, as was, it appears, batteries of similar power to those Davy used. Did these ingredients all end up with an ancient glowing filament? Well, it appears, just possibly, it did. Within the ancient Dendera Temple complex in Upper Egypt the walls of the 2nd or 1st-century BC Hathor Temple reveal something of a mystery. A long transparent vessel containing what appears to be a snake stretched lengthwise is held at one end by a man. Is it a mythological image, or is it a very large carbon arc light bulb with wires running from it to a battery? The carving does date to a time just when glass blowing was becoming mainstream, it does date to the same era as the Baghdad batteries, and this was the age of classical invention by the Greek scholars living to the north in Alexandria. Does this make a light bulb? Well, I don't think it can be completely ruled out.
Find out if Calvus saw the light
Thursday 22 November 2012
Electricity, it's a child of the 19th-century, right? The Romans might have been pretty clever but they never mastered putting a D cell in a torch...or did they? There does seem to be at least some evidence of wet-cell batteries being used on the peripheries of the Roman Empire. The famous Baghdad Battery is more closely related to the post-Persian Parthian Empire, but these two ancient super powers shared borders, Greek culture and technology. Okay, so what was the Baghdad battery? Several five-inch tall clay jars have been found around Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) containing hollow copper cylinders and iron rods that appear to function as anodes and cathodes when the jar is filled with acid. Voltages of up to 0.5-volts have been recorded from modern copies of these vessels using vinegar, and their performance could certainly be boosted if a stronger acid were to be used - the Romans and Parthians would have been quite capable of manufacturing sulphuric and hydrochloric acids which should be able to boost these wet-cells into the region of 4 or 5 volts. All right, so they had a battery...what was it used for? There's a couple of theories. During this period the Romans and the Egyptians were using bio-electric fish - such as the Torpedo Fish (the electric ray) - to numb severe pain; including gout, child birth and migraines. One could imagine an electric ray would be hard to find in the Mesopotamian deserts, so a 'clay ray' battery might have been a worthy alternative. Then there's the jewellers. Just as we dress up silver by electroplating it with gold, the ancients probably cottoned on pretty quickly to the same game. Importantly, both pain relief and fiddling the jewellery would have provided sufficient cash equity to experiment with battery technology if nothing else. But is that all? Well, maybe. These 'batteries' don't show up in Roman or Parthian rubbish dumps like an Eveready or Duracel would these days...but, maybe, just maybe, Thomas Edison wasn't the first guy to invent the light bulb...more on that later.
Find out if Calvus had a light bulb moment
Wednesday 21 November 2012
Founded in 1894BC, the place where Hammurabi's Code of Laws were first handed down - the old eye for an eye - where much of the Bible's Old Testament was written by imprisoned Judeans, and where on the 10th of June 323BC, Alexander the Great died. This was Babylon. By the time Pliny writes about this great city it is nearly 2000-years old. He describes a city ringed by two walls with circumferences of 60-miles, standing 200-feet high and 50-feet thick. This sounds like a city never meant to fall. But it was already in a fast decline when Pliny described it in 78AD. A victim of 'modern times' many Babylonians were moving to the much newer Greek city of Seleuceia as the Eurprhates and Tigris Rivers pushed the Persian Gulf further and further south. With a population of 600,000 Seleuceia was fast becoming the new hub of eastern Mesopotamia. It went on to be destroyed in the sixth-century AD. Goes to show nothing stays the same. And to think, just as Pliny was writing about Babylon 2000-years after its founding, I'm writing this post 2000-years after Pliny. Makes you wonder who'll be writing about our present world in 2000-years...
Find out if Calvus read Psalms
Tuesday 20 November 2012
Pliny doesn't restrict himself to helpful massage hints. Trouble with your stomach or hips? He suggests walking, carriage rides - of any type - and horse-riding. For tuberculosis he says a sea-voyage could help - bracing and clean air was prescribed for TB well into the 20th-century, so he was probably onto something. Chronic diseases needed a change of locality plus self-treatment with bed-rest, sleep and occasionally induced vomiting - remember this was a time of urban air and water pollution, so removing yourself from a possible source of disease or poisoning, and, yes, even the purging may have worked in a practical sense. Lying on your back is good for the eyes, your face and coughs apparently, while lying on your side for nasal congestion and mucus accumulations. But his favoured remedy for everything? Sunshine, which once administered, should be followed up with a good skin scraping and the vigorous use of towels. So there you go - get some sun - in moderation of course, and make sure you don't get burnt.
Find out if Calvus kept out of the sun
Sunday 18 November 2012
We can always rely on Pliny for some healthy tips for the fair-to-middling Roman. He lists physical exertion, voice exercises, anointing and massage as remedies for various troubles. The Romans went heavy on massage, typically they paid for a good pummelling every time they went to the bathhouse, however Pliny is careful to note that not all massage is good massage. In 78AD he suggests violent massage hardens the body while gentle massage softens it, and as such he considered only a moderate massage as a means for building up the body. So there you go, forget the gym, get a moderate massage instead.
Find out if Calvus enjoyed gentle massage
Friday 16 November 2012
Thursday 15 November 2012
In this day and age of high-rise penthouses and glassed urban panoramas we're pretty used to the idea of paying more for the loftiest floors in an apartment block - of course, we can thank elevators for that. But in the days when shoe-leather was the only thing to keep you upwardly mobile, the higher floors in multi-storey buildings were almost always the cheapest. Case in point was Rome, probably the world's second high-rise city after Carthage. Eight-storey apartment blocks were common, and they weren't class exclusive - anyone who couldn't afford a villa ended up in them - one such tenant was the future 1st-century BC Dictator, L.C.Sulla, who was just another face in the crowd in his younger years. And this is where a story comes to us from Plutarch, painting a picture of inner city expense for the middle income earners. Having come to power after a bloody partisan conflict, Sulla was in the throws of having many of his political enemies and adherents (the Marian Populists) executed, when one marked man, a former slave, complained to the Dictator that not so many years before they'd rented in the same apartments. Sulla, the young aristocrat could afford the 3000-sesterces (that's about $1440/week) to live downstairs, while the slave was living on the floor above for 2000-sesterces ($961/week). The man's point was that once only 1000-sesterces had separated them so how about a bit of leniency. Whether the point was taken or not, we don't know...Sulla was the kind of autocrat who dealt out cruelty and kindness in equal measures, and usually only on a whim. It's a fifty-fifty whether the unfortunate ex-neighbour's fast talking got him off the hook.
Find out what floor Calvus lived on
Tuesday 13 November 2012
Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Cleopatra get just about all the glory when it comes to acknowledging the great minds of the 1st-century BC. But there was at least one other chap who deserves an honourable mention, even though he slots into the stereotypical role as that century's 'evil genius'. His name was Mithridates the Sixth, the last king of Pontus. Born in 134BC, he claimed to be a direct descendent of the Persian king Darius I as well as some of Alexander the Great's generals. In 113BC he did the normal kinds of things most eastern potentates made when coming to power - like murdering his siblings, his mother and anyone else who might have tried to claim his throne. After this he settled down to various conquests around the rim of the Black Sea and Greece which eventually brought him into the line of fire of Rome. Once this happened he would spend the last thirty-years of his life trying to bring down the Roman Republic - through the kind of direct and indirect methods that would make Dr No and Professor Moriarty proud.
But enough of the humdrum...what made this guy such a stand out in intellect?
Well, for starters, Pliny claims Mithridates could speak twenty-two languages (that's right, 22), a record our Roman historian believed unequalled. Through-out his 56-year reign, it is said that Mithridates never once used an interpreter. So the guy was a linguist, what else? For one thing, he was very interested in chemistry - poisons in particular - since he considered this the most likely method for his ultimate doom. Self-guided he began drinking small doses of various poisons to increase his resistance, but he also set out to find as many antidotes as he could - in fact, he was a pioneer in this field. He continued research into more mundane medicines as well, gathering a vast collection of chemicals and medicinal specimens from across the known world, a collection so large that when it was captured by Pompey it became an important resource for Roman pharmacists.
|Mithridates VI - 134BC-63BC, |
you've got to dig those sideburns
So how did it all end for Mithridates? Well, with Pompey's invading army close at hand, he decided to poison himself so as to avoid being paraded in a Roman Triumph. Unfortunately, his anti-poison regime worked a treat and he remained unaffected by the same draught that had quickly killed his wife and youngest daughters. Depending on which story you believe he died by a sword blow he had ordered from his body-guard, or by the first Roman soldiers to get to him.
Find out if Calvus got into the pharmacy business
Sunday 11 November 2012
You might find this surprising, but the Flavian Amphitheatre - more commonly referred to as the Colosseum - wasn't something the Emperor Vespasian just dreamt up one day and ordered constructed forthwith. This was a complicated structure built to the most modern standards of the time - and it was, above all, being built in a commercial Roman world. This was a state-funded project, but it wasn't a state-built project. That's right, this was something for the lowest bidder to build. Planning began in 71AD, tenders were written, and to speed up the construction process, four successful bidders were each given a quarter of the 50,000-seat concrete stadium to build. Work began in 73AD and was completed seven years later...a time line we still often see for structures on this scale. Many of the design elements were standardised so much of the work was done in workshops off-site, with the completed sections being brought together in an ordered fashion. Ever the canny businessman, Vespasian made sure each of the bidders had to buy their work force from the state auctions, which at the time were overflowing with war captives from the Jewish revolt in Judea...and brought to Rome by...guess who, yep, Vespasian. He probably even made money on the deal.
Find out if Calvus ever got to be the lowest bidder
Saturday 10 November 2012
Thursday 8 November 2012
Wednesday 7 November 2012
We tend to imagine ancient households - if we imagine them at all - with the lady of the house spending her day by the millstone making flour for the day's bread. It was backbreaking work - it takes a lot of grain to make a loaf of bread. Roman soldiers on the march carried portable millstones as part of their tent kit - shared between ten men - bread was just too important to go without, even while you were marching twenty-five miles a day. But Pliny gives a snippet that the urbane 'daily grind' was not as tough as we might like to dreamily pretend. In 78AD he writes "...most of Italy uses a bare pestle and a millstone driven by a waterwheel." Not a whole lot to go on, but basically what he's saying is that most grain milled in Italy was done so in flour mills and factories. Just like today, flour milling was an industrial process - and most housewives weren't crouched around their grindstone making gritty flour - instead they were walking down to the shop to buy white or wholemeal, or even better, going to the bakery.
Find out if Calvus ever put his nose to the grindstone
Monday 5 November 2012
Okay, so Gaius Trebonius had three legions at the siege of Massila in April 49BC...but which ones were they? An easy question? Well, not so fast. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon during the evening of January 10th, 49BC, he had nine legions spread throughout the two Gallic provinces and was in the process of raising another three. Of these there were his four famous Spanish legions - the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, plus his newer Gallic Legions the 6th (the Italian Draft from 52BC), 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th. Being January, the legions were in their winter camps, the 7th, 10th, 12th & 14th were in the Rhone Valley city of Decetia under the command of the Senior Legate, Gaius Fabius. The 6th, 8th, 9th &11th were in the lands of the Belgic Remi at Andematunnum under the other Senior Legate, our Trebonius. Julius Caesar was in Ravenna, his Cisalpine Gaul base with just the 13th Legion. So when he crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy he had just the 13th. Trebonius has sent the 8th legion through St Bernards Pass (in the middle of winter) but it was sixteen days behind, while Fabius had sent the 12th across the lower Alps. After subduing Northern Italy Caesar chased his conservative enemies to Brundisium with the 8th, 12th & 13th, plus his new recruits from Cisalpine Gaul and a few thousand Italian conscripts he'd shaped into the 16th, 17th and 18th Legions along the way. Okay, so who ended up at Massilia? Well, Trebonius headed south during January with the 6th, 9th and 11th to wait at Vienna in the southern Rhone Valley to see if Caesar would need more help in Italy or if Fabius - who was moving towards the Spanish border with the 7th, 10th and 14th - ran into Pompey's Spanish Legions. At this stage Massilia wasn't an issue. Things only changed when the Caesar was taking the 12th, 13th and 18th from Italy back across Gaul to join Fabius and Trebonius for a war on Spain in April. He more or less came across Massilia in the hands of the enemy during what he intended to be peace negotiations. Luckily for him he hand three legions with him (the 12th, 13th and 18th) but he wanted to go to Spain and have someone else take command of a simple urban siege...and since it was easier to transfer a Senior Legate than an army, he brought Trebonius over to Massilia. So which legions were at Massilia? Drum roll for those who've managed to stay with me this far.
It was the veteran Gallic legions the 12th & 13th plus the newbie Italio/Gallic 18th Legion.
Find out if Calvus has any idea what I just said
Thursday 1 November 2012
In the recent post 'Steeling Yourself' you may have noticed that Roman metal production was barely matched anywhere else in the world until the beginning of the 19th-century. But the thing is 80,000-tons of lead and 82,500-tons of pig iron needed a whole lot of heat. In modern steel production you need two tons of coal to turn a ton of iron into steel...so presumably, the Romans had to find 165,000-tons of hot stuff just to make all that smeltered iron useful. But what kind of hot stuff was it? Traditionally it's believed Roman metal makers - and bathhouses for that matter - relied on wood and charcoal for their furnaces, just like the other contemporary iron age empires. Much of central China and India remain largely denuded of forests because of their charcoal industries. However there's increasing evidence the Romans turned to another well known heat source during the 1st and 2nd-centuries AD. Coal. In Britain several Roman villa excavations and some ancient smelters have turned up traces of coal dust or broken coal on site - some of which have previously been dismissed as glacial deposits by traditionalists. There's also evidence of bituminous coal being used in the Roman Rhinelands by Germanic steel-makers. British coal was also being shipped across the North Sea to the ports the Rhine iron workings as well. So it looks like the global seaborne trade of coking coal is nothing new and Roman industry was just as complex as the Industrial Age we've just had. And perhaps...just perhaps, this explains why European forests survive to the present day. After all, if the charcoal industry was Rome's only way of making steel and water pipes, then its hard to explain why the demand-supply cycle didn't see the Black Forest disappear - no matter what the Germans said or how many legions it took.
Find out what Calvus stoked his fire with