Thursday 29 November 2012

The Christmas Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's three theories why.

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

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

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

Find out if Calvus has an opinion

Wednesday 28 November 2012

A close shave

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

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

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

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Keeping up appearances

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

Find out if Calvus got a hang nail

Monday 26 November 2012

Roman Technology versus Ritual Objects

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

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

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

Find out if Calvus was in the electrical business

Sunday 25 November 2012

Romans and the light bulb - say what?

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

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

Find out if Calvus saw the light

Thursday 22 November 2012

Romans and electricity

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

Find out if Calvus had a light bulb moment 

Wednesday 21 November 2012

By the Rivers of Babylon

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

Find out if Calvus read Psalms

Tuesday 20 November 2012

More Roman Health tips

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

Find out if Calvus kept out of the sun     

Sunday 18 November 2012

Health tips from the Roman world

We can always rely on Pliny for some healthy tips for the fair-to-middling Roman. He lists physical exertion, voice exercises, anointing and massage as remedies for various troubles. The Romans went heavy on massage, typically they paid for a good pummelling every time they went to the bathhouse, however Pliny is careful to note that not all massage is good massage. In 78AD he suggests violent massage hardens the body while gentle massage softens it, and as such he considered only a moderate massage as a means for building up the body. So there you go, forget the gym, get a moderate massage instead.

Find out if Calvus enjoyed gentle massage

Friday 16 November 2012

Going for a spin - Rewind

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

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

So what kind of vehicles did they use?

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

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

The Cisium - the Roman SUV and Taxi

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

Roman Raeda  

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

Thursday 15 November 2012

Going up...getting cheaper

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

The other great mind of the late Republic

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

Putting the Colosseum out to tender

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

Birthday Revelations - Rewind

Here's another rewind from the vault...just for all those conspiracy theorists out there...

Julius Caesar was born on July 13th, 100BC (or the year 653 if you were Roman). The month July is named after him - if he hadn't been around we'd be calling it Quinember, and we'd probably be using a calendar that alternated between twelve and thirteen months...just like it was before he became Dictator for Life. Yes, this was a man who left a big mark on his time - he was declared a god by his people and a century after his death he was still a divisive world figure. So much so that in 69AD he became one of the most recognised characters from the Book of Revelations and a symbol for all things evil still used today.

Say what? Yep...Julius Caesar is the Second Beast John of Patmos described with the number 666. I know this is a big call, but John admits '666' is a code for a man's name, and well here it is. Julius Caesar was born 653 years after the foundation of Rome. He was born on the 13th. Add the two together...and well, I don't think John - an exiled Roman citizen living in an island cave - was trying to be too tricky. There are other clues in Revelation's Chapter 13 too - namely the grotesque First Beast John says the man '666' controlled. This was a creature with ten horns, seven heads - one of which was mortally wounded - and appeared as a leopard, a bear and a lion. Very bizarre stuff, but let's break it down from the perspective of 69AD. The seven heads represents the seven Caesars to have ruled since Julius (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba and Otho) - the mortally wounded head was Nero, who had committed suicide the year before and had begun the Christian persecutions. The leopard, bear and lion were all furs worn by the various standard bearers who marched at the head of each legion. And the ten horns? This could mean the ten legions Julius Caesar crushed Gaul with...but most likely means the Tenth Legion - Julius Caesar's favourite and also known as Caesar's Legion. In 69AD the Tenth Legion was in Judea putting down the Jewish Revolt, and was most famously involved in the siege of Masada three years later.

So why did John of Patmos include all this in his book? Julius Caesar had been dead for more than one hundred years, right? The best I can tell, John saw all of the legions and subsequent Caesars as a creation of just one man. And this meant every terrible deed committed in the name of Rome was a deed committed in the name of Julius Caesar - a false god to boot. I get the impression John of Patmos didn't like him - but then sitting in a remote cave for two years could leave anyone a little upset. Needless to say he wouldn't be wishing Julius Caesar 'Happy Birthday' today.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Ancient Italy - it's not that simple

This may be a surprise to a lot of people, but prior to the Roman conquest of Italy, this peninsular was a hodge-podge of languages and cultures from throughout the Mediterranean - there was no common language and there was no 'Italian' people as we would recognise them today. In 400BC the Latin speaking Celts living around the small city of Rome made up a tiny part of the Italian population - they had migrated from the Danube region during the 1st-millennium BC. To their north in modern Tuscany was the Etrurian homeland. Like the Latins, the Etrurians arrived around the beginning of the 1st-millennium BC, but unlike the Latins they spoke an eastern language with Lidian origins - historicaly and ethnographically the Etrurians were or were closely related to the Trojans and that part of modern Turkey. North of Etruria along the modern day Po valley, the towns that would become Milan and Turin were populated by Celtic Gauls - similar in language and culture to their Latin cousins around Rome. East of Etruria and south of Rome were the Umbrians, Samnites and Lucanians who spoke the Osco-Umbrian language that is considered the origin for modern Italian. Culturally and linguistically distinct from the Latins and Gauls, these guys began building cities in the 9th-century BC, but are believed to be the descendants of Italy's bronze and iron age inhabitants prior to the 1st-millennium BC. But, hey, that's not all, most of the coastal cities south of Rome - and all the way to Sicily - were Greek colonies founded during the 8th and 7th-centuries BC - and many of these were still speaking Greek even after the fall of the Roman Empire. As for Sicily - it's western side was filled with Punic speaking Carthaginians, the east was Greek and in the middle were relatives of the Lucanians. So if you're thinking of Italians before all of Italy became 'Roman', then it's important you know exactly what part of Italy you're thinking about.

Find out if Calvus knew any Italian    

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Milling about

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 

Tuesday 6 November 2012

The 6th Legion...who were they?

The Sixth Legion is one of those bits of history that typically take one and one to get three. The whole story of the Sixth gets very confusing between the late Gallic wars and the subsequent Civil Wars (52BC-46BC) - where it famously became the legion Caesar took to Alexandria and then later Pontus. However a lot of the confusion appears to extend to the fact that at certain points in time the Sixth seemed to be fighting on both sides. While the obvious answer implies there were two Sixth legions at the same time - one being a Gallic legion raised by Julius Caesar and the other, one of Pompey's - some quite elaborate alternatives have been created that often almost need time travel to explain. However I'm a keen proponent of the obvious answer. Let's go to the beginning.

Pompey began numbering his legions in 65BC when he had seven legions established in Spain - 1 to 7 - as logic would have it. Obviously a Spanish 6th was one of these. The 8th and 9th were drafted the following year and in 61BC Julius Caesar raised the 10th while he was a Spanish Governor. As Caesar's Gallic campaign began in April 59BC, the 7th, 8th, 9th & 10th were moved to Gaul, leaving the Legions 1 to 6 still in Spain. Then Caesar has a major set back losing almost two legions in 54BC resulting in him 'borrowing' the 1st from Spain. And this is where things get interesting...I promise. At the end of 53BC - having already raised six Gallic legions (the 14th twice) - Caesar began recruiting for a seventh while he was wintering in his eastern Gallic province of Cisapline Gaul. However the Great Rebellion of Vercingetorix began before this legion was fully formed and it departed with Caesar known only as the 'Italian Draft'. After joining with a provincial garrison in southern Gaul this 'draft' dug its way through snowdrifts to reach the majority of the wintering legions and then it disappears from Caesar's writings. What happened to the Italian Draft? As far as most historians seem to think, just up and disappeared. The thing is, it didn't of course.

A Roman legion was formed at one moment in time...the new recruits signed up and retired on the same day sixteen years later...there were no new recruits added later on, which meant a fighting legion could start off with 4800-men but only a few hundred might be left at the end. So the Italian Draft had to become their own legion at some point during 52BC - and after the battle of Gergovia where Caesar lost the best part of another two legions, it certainly did. Filling out the rest of its numbers with Roman refugees or local Roman militia from central or southern Gaul, the 'Draft' legion was most likely named at Agendencum during August 52BC - prior to the Caesar's planned evacuatation of the province. Failing that he named it and the end of the year before winter quartering - and, yes, it was named the '6th'. The fact this was his newest Gallic legion from the Gallic wars and he knew what they had achieved single-handedly during winter of January 52BC probably explains why Caesar used this legion for the Alexandrian and Pontic campaigns. And quite frankly, suggestions of him using Pompey's 6th Legion captured after the battle of Pharsulus instead of one his own trusted legions bends credibility a little too much.

Yep, you read it right...there were two 6th Legions in the Greek campaign - on different sides. So why did Caesar create this clash in numbers? It was probably unintentional, the 'Spanish 6th' was due to retire in 50BC and Caesar's intention appears to have been filling in the lower numbered legions as they
retired - he was going to have to do the same with the 7th as well. It may even have been a bit of insurance to force the retirement of the older legion on time. Pompey probably did retire this legion in early 50BC, reforming it again at the beginning of 49BC when the Senate decreed some 170,000 Italian men were to drafted for the civil war against Caesar, and as the numbered legions were his idea, Pompey probably didn't care if Caesar had already used the number 6, as only a Pompeian 6th would be the real 6th. Chances are Pompey's enormous Greek army had several legions with the same numbers as Caesar's.


Monday 5 November 2012

Which Legion was where?

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

Sunday 4 November 2012

Roman era cannons?

You've probably heard of Archimedes 'super weapons' - there's the ever present 'Solar Heat Ray' that 'Mythbusters' keep trying to perfect, the troublesome 'Claw' or 'ship-shaker', which did exist but no one has a clue how it worked, and then there's the 'steam cannon'. All of these were supposedly used by the Sicilians against Roman invaders in 212BC, but with the death of the inventor during this campaign - and no doubt many of those who'd built and operated these machines - their use or effectiveness was largely forgotten. Even the Romans who had been confronted by these 'super weapons' appear to have been quick to eschew them - perhaps more concerned with the designs falling into Carthaginian hands than any advantages they might bring to Classical era warfare. But the question is, what if some of these weapon designs were perpetuated? Is it possible?

Well, it's by no means conclusive proof, but during the siege of Massilia (April 19th-September 6th 49BC) Julius Caesar makes mention of a weapon that may have come from Archimedes arsenal. First of all, who were the Massilians? In 49BC, Massilia - now modern day Marseilles - was the largest independent Greek city state left in the world. Around 400,000 Ionian Greeks and Gauls lived within the walls of the largest city west of Rome and despite nearly one hundred years of conquests in both Gaul and Greece, various Roman generals, including Julius Caesar had left this place well alone. Massilia wasn't necessarily a military city, it was an economic hub - a Gallic Hong Kong - through which much of Gaul's export and imports had been funnelled for some 400-years. But this had made the city rich, which meant it could afford the best in defensive weapons from its fellow Greeks - weapons that remained untested on Roman armies until Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. As the civil war expanded, Massilia sided with the Pompeians, which made it a serious thorn in Caesar's supply lines between Northern Italy and Spain.

Now, to overtop Massilia's massive walls, Caesar reports his Senior Legate - Gaius Trebonius - had to build 80-foot high seige walls, and it was during this construction the Caeasarian legions were attacked with 'ballistae' firing twelve-foot long timber poles tipped with spikes - these enormous darts were capable of piercing four layers of wicker work the Romans were working behind. Okay, a standard ballistae could have fired such a dart, although traditionally they didn't. However, one aspect of Archimedes steam cannon involves the cannon not only firing the cannon ball, but also a long length of timber. Why a long length of timber? Well, a steam cannon is pretty simple, a bronze or copper barrel - much like any muzzle loading gunpowder cannon - has its solid end placed over a fire. A spherical stone or metal projectile is loaded down the muzzle, a piece of timber the length of the barrel - minus the size of the ball - is then fitted down the barrel, holding the ball in place and in turn being held in place by a timber slat that stretches across the muzzle. Now the cannon is loaded. To fire, a valve is opened that feeds water into the red hot barrel end still sitting over the fire. The water turns to steam and at a set pressure, the timber slat breaks - releasing the timber pole and the ball. Being lighter, the timber pole might actually travel further than the ball - and there's no reason it couldn't be weaponised with an iron spike. Was this what Trebonius' troops came up against? Well, I think it is safe to say it can't be fully ruled out. With no moving parts, immense power and restricted only by an army's supply of fuel and projectiles, the steam cannon could have been the reason why the Massilians stayed independent as long as they did.


Thursday 1 November 2012

Getting Romans hot

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 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