Sunday 22 September 2013

Did the Arverni have a distinct appearance?

We've covered the stylistic appearances of the Celtic Gauls before, so this answer is going to be more about the physical face the Arvernian people presented to the ancient world - and to attempt to describe the average inhabitant of central Gaul. For starters, we know the Romans and Arverni shared the same common ancestors, so many of the faces we see in Republican-era Roman busts will reflect in some way what an Arvernian looked like. Of course, by the 3rd-century BC the 'Celtic' Romans were mixing with Etrurians (who originated from Turkey) and pre-Celtic Italian populations, so tendencies towards darker hair and skin would have been changing the 'look' of the Republican Roman from that of Romulus and Remus. However this was most likely not happening in Celtic Gaul, where the population probably remained largely homogeneous - with some exceptions on the Mediterranean peripheries where Punic, Greek, Etrurian and later Roman colonies existed or in the borderlands of the Belgic Gauls whose general appearance may actually survive in the modern Flemish and Dutch populations.

So having said all that, here's my best guess of an Arvernian. With a higher protein diet than Romans, Arvernian men and women were generally taller - many would have stood at least 6'0", with average heights of men and women being somewhere around or above 5'6" whereas the Roman average was closer to 5'4" and Roman men rarely reached 6'0". The Arverni were not heavily built like the Belgics and Germans, instead they tended towards a lanky Scandinavian-like body shape - perhaps with a more rounded face, high cheekbones and eyes closer set as a result.

Their skin has been described as milky white so their complexion would be generally described as fair, although blonde hair and blue eyes may not have been as common as you might think. Even today the population of central France tends towards brown to black hair, so I think it's a reasonable assumption the Arverni did too, with brown eyes much more common, with red hair and freckled skin appearing occasionally (the latter appears far more common in post-Viking cultures than the pre-Viking populations of western Europe). What may have made an Arvernian distinctive (or at least some of them) was their nose. The coins of Vercingetorix exhibit a long straight nose diving downwards from the forehead, a family trait perhaps, but a shape that can still be seen in modern post-Celtic cultures in Britain and Ireland.

Okay, so is it possible to still see the 'Arvernian' look in popular culture? Off the top of my head I can think of two actors who offer a modern day resemblance to the people of Celtic Gaul. Liam Neeson and Tamsin Greig both share many of the traits that would have been common to the Arverni - in fact Tamsin was born in a part of England where Arverni refugees from the 'Great Rebellion' most likely settled - this is of course most likely coincidence, but an interesting one nonetheless. Lets hope next time a movie is made about Vercingetorix they both get starring roles.

For more Arvernian history check out 'The Hitherto Unknown' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 15 September 2013

The Arvernian Kingdom - was this the beginning of the French state?

As is usual with Gallic history, if the Greeks or Romans didn't write about it, we pretty much don't know what happened in Gaul other than what 2000-year old ruins can tell us. Add to this a few preconceptions the Romans in particular have provided modern scholars and we can have a lot of trouble nailing down exactly what was happening in central or 'Celtic' Gaul before 126 BC. At some point during the 4th or early 3rd centuries BC the Arverni began doing their own empire building - again roughly corresponding with Rome's rise in Italy. The neighbouring tribal states of the Cadurci, Eleuteti, Gabali and Vellavii - mostly to the southwest or across the Central Massif, were folded into a growing Arvernian Kingdom. In doing so, this probably made the Arvernian Kingdom the third most powerful 'nation' state west of Greece - behind Rome and Carthage. And the growth didn't stop there. By the end of the 3rd-century BC - around the time Hannibal was campaigning in Italy, the Arvernian Kingdom had expanded eastwards to swallow up the vital trading routes along the Rhone and Saone valleys, placing the powerful tribal states of the Allobroges and Aedui under Arvernian rule. At this point the Arvernian Kingdom stretched across all of southern France to the Alps, and almost as far north as Orleans, Paris and the borders of Belgic Gaul. At this point, the Arverni probably controlled more lands and people than Rome or Carthage. While understated, this point in history defines the long standing southern, eastern and western boundaries of  the proto-French state for the first time.

So how did they do it? Brute strength - like Rome - would be the easy answer, however luck and circumstance can't be ignored. As I've already mentioned, they controlled most of the land routes between Carthaginian Spain and Gaul for at least three centuries. By the 3rd-century BC, they controlled all of the land routes, not to mention the Rhone and any access to the Alps. Hannibal's journey across Gaul was almost entirely through the Arvernian Kingdom, and much of his Gallic troops and resources were provided by tribes controlled by the Arverni. What we can take from this is a strong alliance existed between the Arverni and the Carthage during the Second Punic war, something that has been overlooked in the past with most historians considering Hannibal's passage of Gaul as an event independent of Gallic approval. And on the back of this alliance, with Rome busy fighting off Hannibal and warriors from parts of the Arvernian Kingdom, the Arverni reach the height of their powers and wealth...coincidence? With Carthage behind them, the Arverni were too powerful to be stopped by Rome. But what would happen when Carthage vanished?

For more Arvernian history check out 'The Hitherto Unknown' - live on Amazon now

Thursday 5 September 2013

The Arverni - the also rans

Parallels are frequently made between the rise of Carthage and Rome - they were founded at roughly the same time and used different economic models to become the pre-eminent Mediterranean superpowers of the 3rd and 2nd-centuries BC. Ultimately we got to see the Roman model of 'world domination' by military might and financial trade trumped 'world domination' by controlling mercantile trade. However, often forgotten in this scenario is another western tribal state with again many parallels and connections to Rome and Carthage. This is the regional - rather than city - state of the Arverni.

Just as the Romans were arriving in Italy, the Arvernians arrived in central France around 700BC. The Romans and Arvernians both originated from parts of modern day Austria and these two Celtic cultures both replaced existing populations where they settled. In the area around Clermont-Ferrand the Arvernians displaced a much older European culture that was forced westwards to the Atlantic coast to become the Aquitani - who have since become the linguistically unique Basques. The Arvernians then established the tribal hilltop capital -  Gergovia - but unlike the Romans who settled for a single city, the Arvernians took control of a vast area of central Gaul west of the Loire River, south to and over the Central Massif and west into the Dordogne and Lot Valleys. In doing so they held almost all of the richest river valley's across western Gaul giving them prime agricultural ground and an ability to trade directly into the Atlantic.

The fact their trade routes were westward facing rather than eastward gives some big hints that as the Mediterranean power bases moved from Greece and Egypt to North Africa, Italy and Spain, early Arverni wealth was almost certainly derived from the British metal trade moving cross-country into Gaul or southeast to Etruria. However, as Carthage became more heavily involved in the Atlantic sea trade during the 5th and 4th-centuries it would seem the Arverni were in a perfect position to tax and profit from those growing Atlantic trade routes crossing Gaul, and new overland corridors to Carthaginian Spain. In other words, while later Arverni history was intrinsically shaped by Rome, the formative centuries leading to the creation of a Pan-Gallic Arvernian kingdom was most likely driven by Carthage.

For more Arvernian history - check out 'The Hitherto Unknown' - live on Amazon now

Tuesday 27 August 2013

So why didn't Rome have an industrial revolution?

One of those big 'ifs' of the Roman-era is how close did they come to having an 'Industrial Revolution' similar to that experienced in the 18th and 19th-centuries? After all, following the same time line that we have - if the atmospheric steam engine had been invented in 12AD, then the Romans may have ended up with nuclear energy in 245AD. Does that sound incredible? It shouldn't. We were no more technically advanced at the beginning of the 18th-century than 1st-century AD Romans, but we still managed to harness (or split) the atom by 1945. Thank goodness they didn't have the stationary steam engine, eh? Can you imagine a world beset with the best and worst of nuclear technology for the last 1800-years?

Well, trouble is, despite the first successful atmospheric steam engine being credited to Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the first 'usefully employed' steam engine was fired up around 40AD. This was when Hero of Alexandria demonstrated the closed-system steam-syphon engine to automatically open and close doors. Perhaps happily (or unhappily) for us, Hero was more interested in theatrics and urban automation rather than finding industrial uses for his steam engines. But the facts are pressurised steam boilers were common place in every Roman bathhouse and Hero proves an understanding for steam cylinders and water pumps...the trouble is, unlike Newcomen - who saw the machine as a solution to pumping water from flooded mines - Hero clearly never visited Spain where he would have seen miners beset with the same troubles as those in 18th-century England.

Perhaps if he had, our earliest steam engineer might have seen how an open-system steam engine could replace the dozens of slaves driving the pumps and water-wheels. Makes you think what might have happened, eh? For more on Roman History - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now 

Monday 26 August 2013

How does the Roman economy compare to our recent past?

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. For more on the Roman economy, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Thursday 15 August 2013

Pepper, nothing to sneeze at

If there's one thing that has stayed the same since the Mesopotamians invented the shekel five thousand years ago, its economics. At its most basic level economics relies on human nature - which has remained a constant throughout the history of civilisation. Consumers will always want to pay less...and the less they pay, the more they will consume.

Case in point...Romans and black pepper.

Originally from South East Asia, black pepper first arrived in Greece during the 4th-century BC - but having travelled the land route from India, it was incredibly expensive, and only the super rich were able to acquire a taste for the spice. By the 2nd-century BC black pepper was being cultivated throughout southern India, reducing some of the costs, but it remained more expensive than the 'long pepper' (piper longum - a spice virtually unheard of these days and not to be confused with chili) grown in northern India...simply because the 'long pepper' plantations were closer by road to Europe than those in the south.

But all that changed when Augustus annexed Egypt in 30BC. For the first time Rome controlled the shipping routes to India, and for the first time freight costs from southern India fell below those to the north. Black pepper's price dropped overnight and demand sky-rocketed. More black pepper was planted in India, and farmers began growing the spice in Java and Madagascar. The 78AD prices Pliny gives us says it all. The previously cheaper 'long pepper' - still being road hauled from modern Pakistan through Mesopotamia to the Nabataean trading cities like Petra - cost 15 denarii per pound ($1500), however the black pepper coming from southern India by ship was selling for 4 denarii per pound ($400). By this time black pepper was appearing in most Roman cooking...and at $25 an ounce (one sesterce) almost anyone could afford it. A classic case of supply and demand. Black pepper got cheaper, and 'long pepper' disappeared from recipes. For more on Roman transport - you can read 'The Hitherto Unknown' - available from Amazon, just follow the links 

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Roman Factories

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 a snippet from Pliny gives the urbane 'daily grind' a totally new take. 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. For more on everyday life in Ancient Rome, you can read "Mischance and Happenstance" - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 11 August 2013

Slaving in the navy

I guess most of us have seen Charlton Heston rowing his heart out as the galley slave Ben Hur. I'm sure some of us have even read General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel of the same name...again featuring our Jewish hero slaving away in the depths of a Roman warship chained to the floor and facing certain death if the ship should sink. It's a graphic picture of hardship and very important to Wallace's narrative. The trouble is...the Roman's didn't use galley slaves. Think about it - if you're going to take an expensive warship off to war (a trireme was worth $4.8-million in today's terms), do you really want to trust its primary motive power to bunch of slaves who may well prefer the other side to win?

The Romans, like the Greeks and Carthaginians relied on trained professionals to row their warships. They were paid well and they trained hard. The Greek Trireme used 170 rowers while the Romans needed 280 for their Quinremes. But that's not to say they were at the drum all day long. These ships were under sail most of the time, or cruised with only some of the rowers working. The full crew only came into play during what we would call 'battle stations'. At this point the crew's full compliment would be at the oars in a 1 + 1 + 1 fashion on a three decked trireme or a 2 + 2 + 1 on a three deck Quinreme. The oarsmen were need for the explosive acceleration ancient warships relied on to approach the enemy, avoid the enemy or ram the enemy. The modern day trireme replica 'Olympia' has achieved nine knots with a largely untrained crew - so imagine what ten-year veterans would be capable of. For more history on the Roman navy - check out 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available on Amazon, just follow the links 

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Ancient coins found in Northern Australia

Now some of you probably feel an Australian connection to the ancient trade routes is pretty unlikely, and, yes, if the Southern Continent had any participation in Classical-era shipping it was more about wrecks and castaways than Phoenician mines or lost Egyptian Pyramids. So did these ancient ship wrecks or occasional visits happen? The answer now appears almost certainly a resounding YES. In 1944 five 1000-year old copper coins were found on a Wessel Islands beach off the Northwest coast of Australia. An expedition is currently being undertaken by a Professor of Anthropology at the Indiana University, Ian McIntosh to conduct the first intensive search of the islands for more evidence of a wreck. The coins originated from the the Sultanate of Kilwa in modern day Tanzania - and a key player in the Trans-Indian ocean trade at the time. And while these coins confirm traders passing the Australian coast 1000-years ago, the point is, this unlucky ship or sailor was travelling along the same trade routes established by the ancient Egyptians, Tamils and Chinese perhaps 2000-years beforehand. So there's a chance Professor McIntosh might find some even older evidence during his search. Time, as usual, will tell.  For more on ancient ocean trade you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Did Australia play a part in the Classical World...

I guess you're wondering where this post is going to go? How could Australia have played any part in Roman history - it wasn't discovered until 1770, right? Well...not really. The concept of a Terra Australis (the Southern Land) dates back to the mid-3rd-century BC and Aristotle. Fisherman from the Indonesian archipelago have been travelling to the northern coasts of the continent for at least a thousand years. During the 15th and 16th-centuries Portuguese and Dutch traders likewise explored and named much of northern Australia. And we shouldn't forget that the sea-borne ancestors of Australia's First peoples discovered the southern continent at least 60,000-years ago.

Yeah, yeah, I know, so what about the Romans? Well, the simple fact is those Portuguese and Dutch traders were following the same trade routes established by the Roman-era Tamil and Sri Lankan traders between India and China - in fact Australia has been on the southern edge of these trade routes for at least 2300-years, and perhaps much longer. So why would those Tamils and Sri Lankans come to Australia? The reasons hadn't changed when the Portuguese, Dutch and British came along - either by accident, or for money. By accident was pretty common - seafarers daring the tropical monsoon season could have ended up anywhere along the vast north Australian coast when the storms blew in. And then there's the money. Economic imperatives haven't changed since paleolithic Siberians began trading beads with Europe thirty thousand years ago. Just as the post-Renaissance traders came to northern Australia looking for money to be made, Roman-era traders could well have done the same.

Australia in 1583 - that's Cape York Penninsular on the right,
the Northern Territory and the Kimberlys are on the left.
The ancient Roman-era Spice Islands are to the north.

Okay, so why isn't there any evidence? Well, there's not a lot of evidence of the Portuguese and Dutch explorers from five-hundred years ago either. In fact most of their reports, maps and discoveries were jealously guarded by their governments and have already been lost to history. And the few expedition camps that might have been established were probably impossible to find a year or two later - let alone now. The simple fact is that Northern Australia was utterly uninviting to the 15th-century European explorers. There was little cultivatable land and little permanent freshwater. The First Australian's they met had little or nothing to trade. There was no mining - so there was no copper, gold or iron to buy. In other words there was no economic imperative to stay and establish trading communities.

The situation was identical when Roman-era traders were passing too - and with no surviving written evidence from that period, the only way a Roman-era contact might be proven is if some day someone finds some broken shards of pottery or a couple of coins on a beach somewhere along the seven thousand kilometres of the North Australian coastline - and as researchers have just begun looking for this evidence there's an increasing possibility Australia's Classical Connection could soon be proved. And even in the absence of such evidence that shouldn't necessarily mean someone employed by Roman traders didn't wash up on a North Australian beach. What we need to understand, is that if the Portuguese or the Dutch tried to trade in Northern Australia, then they probably weren't the first. The colour of money - and how to make some for yourself - hasn't changed since the first coin was minted. A lack of physical evidence for something happening doesn't mean it couldn't have happened, so long as you can find an economic reason for someone trying. I think that economic reason did exist 2000-years ago, so I guess it's time to pull out the metal detector and put on the Aerogard.

Tomorrow I'm going to let you in on a story that might actually back up these claims...For more on Roman-era ocean voyages you can read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links   

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Roman technology versus the Ritual Object

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 thousand 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 object exhibits modern day characteristics, then there's a reasonable chance it is an ancient solution to the same modern day 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 objectsFor more on day to day Roman technology, you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance' available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday 22 July 2013

The Roman light bulb

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. For more on day to day Roman Technology, you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance', available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 21 July 2013

The Roman battery

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. For more on everyday Roman Technology you can read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Thursday 18 July 2013

What was ancient to the Romans?

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 Euphrates 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...
For more on Roman history, you can read 'Ad Lib', available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 7 July 2013

Was the Ninth legion wiped out by the Picts? Part III

Okay, so if the Pictones were most likely incapable of raising a force large enough to wipe out an entire Roman legion, then what's the story with the Ninth? Well, the problem for the Ninth is that after being listed in Trajan's legionary records in 108AD, the next listing of legions that survives to the present time is from 165AD - during the reign of Marcus Aurelius...and in the 165AD list, the Ninth Legion and the Twenty-Second Legion are both missing. So what's the story?

I'm tending to bureaucracy on this one, and thanks to Boudica we've got a good idea of the bureaucratic end of the Ninth. Remember the British uprising in 61AD wiped out the Ninth Legion? That means a new enlistment was undertaken the same year or 62AD. And this means the Ninth Legion was due for retirement and another enlisting in 86-87AD. Add another twenty-five years for the next enlistment and the Ninth Legion during Trajan's reign was due for retirement in 111-112AD, just three or four years after it's last mention in the 'official' records.

Is the year 111-112AD important? Well, we know several legions were retired during this period - including the Fifth, Eleventh and Fourteenth. So it appears that the entire Roman army was on the move during the 2nd-century 'teens'. The Sixth was moved from Spain to Britain to replace the Ninth, presumably upon its retirement, and with Trajan's military conquests at an end, his successor, Hadrian may have taken a more rationalist view of his forces and not raised another 'Ninth'. Is that what happened to the Ninth then, it was retired and never formed again? Well, it could be the case...but one thing is almost for sure, no matter what the movies say about the Ninth's disappearance, the Picts probably had very little to do with it.  For more on Roman legions you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Was the Ninth Legion wiped out by the Picts - Part II

All right, so if the Ninth Legion did march into the nether regions of the Scottish lowlands or highlands and disappeared, did the Picts actually have the capacity to destroy them? Thanks to the Vindolanda tablets found on the frontiers of pre-walled Britain, we can get a reasonable picture of life on the Pictones Border in the years leading up to the 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion. The Ninth Cohort of Batavians (modern day Dutch) manned the Vindolanda fort between 95AD and 105AD and operated under the command of the Ninth Legion. The letters moving between Vindolanda and the Ninth Legion don't appear to indicate much in the way of violent border transgressions by the Picts, and the wives of officers moved freely on road trips between York and Vindolanda, so even small groups of raiders couldn't have been a big issue.

Is there a reason for this?

Well, geography has always impacted on the Scottish peoples. Throughout history the highlands have restricted the movement of locals and invaders. And the highlands have also restricted population. Even in modern times England's population is ten times that of Scotland, and it's very unlikely the Pictone population was more than 250,000 at the time of the Roman occupation...and it was possibly much less. The highlands also meant much of this population was disparate and isolated. The point is, it would have been just as difficult for the Picts to have assembled an offensive force against a legion as it was for the Scots when they first faced an English invasion.

The facts as they are, it seems unlikely that the Picts could assemble an army large enough to destroy an entire legion, just as there is little evidence for them ever raising an army to invade the Roman territories where most cities and towns didn't even have walls or fortifications and would have seemed very easy pickings.

So was the Ninth wiped out by the Picts? It's pretty unlikely. But we know it disappeared. And we probably also know where. Stay tuned for the next post. For more on the Roman legions you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday 1 July 2013

Was the Ninth Legion wiped out by the Picts?

It's one of those enduring narratives of Romano-British history - and has been made the stuff of legend in novels and movies for at least the last sixty years, with two feature films produced on the topic in 2010 and 2011. I'm sure you've heard the story...a Roman legion marches off into the wilds of Scotland and is never heard of again - and it's always the mysterious Ninth Legion, whose missing Eagle inspires heroic efforts by subsequent Romans to find the truth...

So what is the truth? Did the Ninth Legion actually go missing?

Well, first a bit about the Ninth. We come across the Ninth as one of Julius Caesar's Spanish Legions sent into Gaul in 58BC. It subsequently sees action during Caesar's civil war and later under the command of Octavian. During the early years of the Empire the Ninth returns to home-ground in Spain, but by 9BC is up in the Rhineland as the 'Ninth Hispania' dealing with the aftermath of the Varro disaster in the Tuetoburg forest. With the abandonment of the German province the legion heads to Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) and finally it reaches Britain in 43AD as one of the four legions used in Claudius' invasion.

This is where the Ninth gets itself a bad name. In 61AD, the legion is virtually wiped out during the Boudica Rebellion as it marched to relieve the siege of the Colchester. Ten years later and now mostly likely filled with recruits from Gaul, the Ninth settles down in a permanent fortress at York to garrison the northern borders. In 108AD, the legion is still there...and then it disappears.

What happened? Well, that's going to be my next post. For more on the Roman legions, you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 23 June 2013

Death and taxes

It shouldn't be any surprise to you that the Romans paid taxes - all those grand infrastructure projects needed cash and the average Roman was the big contributor to all those roads and aqueducts. But what did they pay? Well, for one thing, the Romans didn't have an income tax like we're used to - in fact through much of Roman history, they had a Wealth tax instead. Throughout the Republic and up until 167BC, Roman citizens paid tax based on their wealth and asset value. This tax was usually around one percent, but rose to three percent when Senate spending was forced up.

This all ended for the Roman citizens of Rome in 167BC when they were given a tax exempt status and the tax collection was limited to the provinces. The change gave us the term Tax Farmer or Publicani...these were the bad guys who purchased the rights to collect taxes and keep some of the cut. Provincial tax rates rose to four percent per month for the next 150-years and left a lot of unhappy provincials.

Augustus made tax collection the role of government during the early Imperial-era and shook things up again. The citizens of Rome retained their tax free status, but the 'for profit' Tax Farmers were replaced by regional magistrates and bureaucrats who returned the Wealth tax to one percent and enforced a new fixed Poll Tax - a per capita tax which relied on the census to identify tax payers. The Poll Tax proved pretty unpopular in some regions - the Jewish Revolt has been partially blamed on it. But how much was it? In Judea it was two denarii - or about 7.5% of the average income. Of course even if you weren't earning money you still had to come up with those two denarii, which no doubt brewed a lot of trouble. Still, troubles aside, Augustus' Poll Tax actually outlived the Roman Empire - so I guess it worked. For more on the early Imperial-era you can read 'A Body of Doubt' available from Amazon, just follow the links     

Thursday 20 June 2013

Lock and Key

You probably take locking your house or car for granted. Not a second thought. If you ever wonder who invented those locks, chances are you think it's one of the big brands emblazoned on your key. But, hey, guess what? The mechanics for those locks was figured out more than two thousand years ago. Thanks to the Romans we have spring-loaded multiple tumbler locks, the classic key design we still use...and the padlock. Even the keyring dates to the Roman-era. And like us, they made their locks out of steel and bronze. So the next time you put your key in the door, take a moment to think someone else was doing exactly the same thing when Julius Caesar was the talk of the town. For more on Roman locks you can read 'A Body of Doubt' available from Amazon, just follow the links


Wednesday 19 June 2013

Finding the Roman Ice trade

If the Romans developed a commercial ice trade then where is the proof? Well, we may actually have some evidence for 'ice' refrigeration when we do a little lateral thinking. The Mediterranean cultures loved their seafood, and the Romans weren't any different. They began oyster cultivation on a massive scale...and some Roman-era oyster beds are still in use around the coast of Sardinia. So big was the demand for oysters across the Roman world, that Roman-era rubbish dumps are generally identified by the amount of oyster shell present. In fact oysters were the fast food of the Roman world. From Britain to Syria, roadside stalls sold oysters to famished travellers by the bucket.

The thing is, a lot of these places where oysters were sold in quantity are hundreds of miles from where the oysters were cultivated. Now a live oyster will survive about four weeks in transit - the reason oyster consumption became so widespread - but they must be kept cool. Without some way of keeping those oysters cool, a traveller in the Syrian desert would have been very brave to sample the local oyster shop. The same goes for any seafood consumed in Rome's landlocked cities - which includes Rome itself. Does this mean fresh goods were packed in ice? Or even evaporative coolers?

From a modern perspective, and presuming the Romans were just as keen not to die from food poisoning as us, then the answer once again points towards a large commercial trade of ice flowing from the northern Germanic lands, the Alps and other highlands in the Roman world...the kind of ho-hum and hum-drum of life the ancient writers never bothered to mention. But just because no one wrote about the Roman ice trade hardly excludes its explanation of the oyster industry. Food for thought, eh? For more on the Roman Ice Trade, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Roman Fridge

We've probably all heard the stories of crazy Roman emperors sending fleet-footed slaves to the mountains to collect snow for making icy wine gelatos to beat the summer heat. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but I've come to the conclusion that the savvy mass consumers of the classical age probably worked out a better way of making ice cream than this. There's not a lot of evidence for a Roman ice industry, but we do know they used ice-cellars similar to those used by the English during the 18th and 19th-Centuries. The Romans perhaps had even better technology available to them 400BC the Persians had perfected industrial sized evaporative coolers - conical apartment block-sized towers called 'Yakhchals' which could store up to 180,000 cubic feet of ice right through the year. Ice was either collected and brought on site, or was frozen on site during winter and then placed into storage.

For the Romans, getting industrial quantities of ice into city storages probably meant shipping in from northern Europe or the Alps. Again there's no evidence for this, but we know from the New England ice trade during the early 1800s that long distance ice shipping was more than possible. In fact, New England ice chipped from frozen lakes in winter was shipped 10,000-miles across the equator to the Australian goldfields - filling glasses at hundreds of hotels during the 1850s - and this was with storage technology no more advanced than that available to the classical-era. Romans wanting ice cream, sorbets and refreshing drinks would have almost certainly generated sufficient demand for this kind of trade - and I doubt ice was as rare in Rome as the crazy Emperor myths like us to believe. For more on the Roman ice industry you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The Druids - the last laugh?

Whether the Druids were actively pursued from the Gallic psyche or if they were gradually usurped by new Roman administrations, one thing is fairly certain - by the end of the 1st-century AD the idea of the Druid had ceased to be - despite all of the Druid-era Gallic deities still being worshipped in one way or another. In that way we know Druids were not important to the day-to-day worshipping in Gallic temples. So maybe - more than anything - they were victims of technology? Say what? Well, an increasingly literate Gallic and British population meant fewer people were reliant on each village having a 'wise' man. There's some suggestion the influence of the Druid-caste in Celtic Gaul was already in decline by the 1st-century BC, at the same time the Gallic populous were urbanising and actively reading and writing. The degree of Gallic literacy was not underestimated by Julius Caesar - during the Gallic Wars he relied on coded missives passed through enemy lines in the fear that anything written or Greek or Latin would be recognised immediately. So was it the pen that ended the Druids? If it was, history gives the Druids one last laugh at the Romans who replaced them.

After all, what happened when the Roman Empire declined and fewer people were able to read and write? Well, they turned to village priests again, both for spiritual and intellectual guidance. One religion may have replaced another, but the tasks of a village priest in France and England returned to what they had been prior to the arrival of the Romans.

And what's more - here we are again. We all have the Internet and don't need to ask a village priest for advice again - and guess, what? We're seeing that same decline in the role of the Church in western culture. It's another example of that little paradox - 'if you wait around long enough it all happens again'. The modern day decline in western religion might actually have the same cause as the decline of Druidism  2000-years ago - when religion becomes a purely spiritual adventure rather than an intellectual one - the roles of religious leaders always seem to change, and for some that means the end to a way of life. It did then, and it might now. For more on the Druids, you can read "Vagabond", available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday 11 June 2013

The Druids - just what did they do?

So if the Druids weren't wandering about looking like Gandalf terrorising the local peasantry with the threat of an impromptu liver divination - what exactly were they doing? Well, if we are to believe anything Caesar says about them, the Druids were probably a lot like a medieval parish priest - even sharing the same belief in an immortal soul (check out Pythagorean Theorem). The way I see it, these guys would have shared very similar community roles and tasks to the Christian priests and monks that were to follow several centuries later - they were the intellectuals of the town, able to proffer insights into life and the afterlife, as well as offer advice on legal, moral and criminal matters. In the latter they may have been more hands on than their Christian successors, but then again, medieval priests weren't shy about condemning crimes against God.

So if this is what they did, why was Druidism driven to extinction? Well, most likely their fields of expertise were in competition with the Roman bureaucracies that followed the conquest of Gaul and Britain. The Romans wouldn't have been to keen on having two sets of laws in a town - or the locals seeking the Druid as an adjudicator rather than the Roman Praefect. You can see similar results after the French and Russian Revolutions where civilian courts and tribunals locked the modern Church out of civilian matters - it's very likely the circumstances post-Roman conquest were very much the same. Whether the Druids were actively sought out and persecuted as Tacitus described events in Britain - or if the Gallic Druids simply faded away into obscurity isn't easy to say, perhaps it was both - thanks to Caesar's mentioning of their habit of human sacrificing. If one thing's certain they would have been quickly removed from any roles in passing out criminal judgements and sentencing.

As for the question of them dressing like a wizard with a penchant for bedsheets? There's nothing to say they did or not. The Priestly colleges of Rome weren't afraid to don some pretty crazy costumes - so it's possible the Druids did wear religious robes...but did they do so all the time? I'd be tempted to say not. Most Roman priests (during the Republic) were drawn from civic life - they did a bit of auguring one day and the next they were back at home in their favourite tunic. I suspect the Druids followed suit. In the 1st-century BC, just like most other Gauls, they were probably clean-shaven with short hair - they may have carried or worn some symbol of office, but the lack of sightings of Druids in Caesar's 'Conquest of Gaul' does bear out the fact they looked just like everyone else. For more on Druids you can read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday 10 June 2013

The Druids - murdering religious fanatics or judges and jury?

Okay, so we've seen the Romans drew a line in the sand with the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC - defining what they were prepared to do if a neighbouring culture was a 'little too barbaric' - such as performing human sacrifices. With Carthage gone, and with later Roman historians to be believed, that pretty much left the Gauls as public enemies number one. So, based on our modern day belief of Druid sacrifices you'd think Rome would have dealt with the question of Druidism quickly. But they didn't - Rome left the Gauls to themselves until 125 BC when the Roman Senate sent forces north to help the Massilians deal with Ligurian raiders. One thing led to another and by 121 BC the Arvernian confederation had been dragged into the conflict, resulting in an army of 180,000 Arverni and allies facing off with the six legions of Quintus Fabius  Maximus. The resulting battle destroyed the Arvernian army and the following year they sued for peace, losing all of their southern territories in the process. This peace treaty still stood at the time of Caesar's Gallic conquest - and the province of Transalpine Gaul he was governing was the result of it.

The thing is, the matter of Druid barbarity was never raised during the Gallic Wars of the 2nd-century BC. Rome agreed to peaceful terms that would stand another seventy years, and the Roman Senate never pursued any claims to the complete destruction of the Arverni at the time of their greatest potential weakness. This is pretty odd considering what had happened to the presumably more culturally sophisticated citizens of Carthage.  Do we know why? Well, for one thing, Greek historians writing about the Druids during the preceding century had never mentioned human sacrifices...and in fact, the first person to suggest this practice was Julius Caesar in 50 BC - a commentator we can reasonably believe had his own agenda.

So does this mean the 'barbarity' case the Romans would build against Druidism was fabricated? A-ha, you say, but what about those peat-bog bodies found across northern Europe and Britain? These are hard evidence, right? That National Geographic TV show I saw said these might have been ritual sacrifices? Well, hold on there. The Lindow Man from England is a classic case. Here's a young man who had been rendered unconscious for a period prior to his death by a blow to the head, then garrotted, his throat cut and left to die in a swampy boundary ditch. Many archaeologists have been quick to say, "Yep, this is a classic ritual sacrifice." But what's their basis for that assumption? We only believe Druids carried out sacrifices based on a claim made by Julius Caesar...if this claim didn't exist, perhaps we would have assumed something else. You see this a common problem for modern interpretations of unexplained ancient phenomena. If there's no easy answer something quickly becomes 'ritualistic'. This is bit like your toilet roll holder being dug up in 2000-years and being labelled, 'a votive offering' - this could actually happen.

All right, so if Lindow Man wasn't sacrificed, how did he end up with a garrotte around his neck in a ditch? This is where I'm going to apply some logic rather than assume the worst. Yes, someone went to a bit of trouble to kill Mr Lindow. Now, other than human sacrificing by a Druid, why would someone have wanted to make a point of killing him? Well, since the Romans had the same cultural background as the Celtics - and used garrotting for some executions, why don't we consider for a moment that Mr Lindow was a criminal the law caught up with? Not quite as exciting as a sacrifice, but a lot more likely. And at the risk of relying on one of Caesar's descriptions of Druids while discrediting another - how about this for a theory. Caesar said the Druids, "acted as judges in nearly all disputes." This probably included crimes requiring a capital punishment, an event they may have reasonably witnessed or even carried out. Could this be the origin of the human sacrifice story? More on this next time. For more on the Druids of Gaul, you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Druids - crazy wizards, scientists or judges?

History seems to mostly give the Druids a bad rap. Roman historians wrote endlessly of the hideous forest glades filled with the blood and gore of their ritual sacrifices. And if that's not bad enough, now modern culture has them dancing around Stonehenge every solstice dressed in funny clothes doing their best to impersonate a Tolkien wizard. Sadly the 19th-century revivalism and most of the Roman commentary is so wide of the mark we will probably never know what a true Druid looked like or how they acted. In truth these guys were the intellectual pinnacles of the Celtic world, they spent decades in training - studying complex mathematics, philosophy and various sciences while committing all of it to memory. By Caesar's account they paid no taxes and were exempt from military service - evidence enough of the sophisticated culture the Gauls had created prior to the Roman conquests. But is this possible evidence they weren't the blood-thirsty human auguries that history has saddled them with?

First of all, lets fix the Druids in a time and place. Druidism appears to have originated in Iron Age Britain sometime prior to the 4th-century BC and had spread into Gaul by the 3rd-century BC when Greek historians first began mentioning their 'Pythagoran' teachings. By the time Julius Caesar arrived in 58BC, the Druid class had cemented itself as the law-givers and legal adjudicators across all levels of Gallic life. Caesar himself doesn't seem to have much of an issue with them, in fact, he even befriended some, as one powerful priest (he was the Pontifex Maximus at the time) would another - which doesn't seem to suggest he thought their practices the abomination of human existence.

Okay, so what about these human sacrifices? Well, lets get into the 'Classical' mindset. You might be thinking that's hard, but essentially, the Judeo-Christian beliefs of morality that has shaped the modern world's lists of 'good and bad' originate from the Iron Are. What we think is bad, was mostly bad back then, just as what we think is acceptable now was mostly acceptable to a Greek or Roman as well. There were some exceptions, the Romans frowned on homosexuality while the Greeks didn't, but the big things like murder, rape, theft and human sacrifices were stock standard crimes. And in the case of human sacrifices, the Romans saw this as a primary motivation for attacking their neighbours if they believed it was being practiced - a slightly strange argument if we mention Gladiators - but we'll leave that alone today.

When the Romans besieged Carthage for the third time in 146BC, one of their driving ideological reasons for what was a largely an unjustified attack was to end the child sacrifices to the Punic god, Beelzebub - if that name sounds familiar that ought to show how well Roman PR worked at the time. Now considering the Carthaginians were an advanced sophisticated Classical society with similar geographic origins to the Judeans - the chances of them still carrying out child sacrifices in 146BC seem slim, and although a child necropolis has been found in the city, there hasn't been much convincing evidence the children were ritually slaughtered.

Fast forward to Caesar's conquests of Gaul between 58BC and 51BC, and the suggestion of human sacrifice occurs again. Coincidence? Or was this Caesar building a case for his actions in Gaul, which at the time were largely unsanctioned and held to be illegal in Rome. Was that little bit of bad press he wrote enough to see the total destruction of the Celtic world's religious, science and judicial class? I guess we'll look at that next time...For more on the Druids you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links


Sunday 2 June 2013

What was it to be Roman?

Face it, Rome was around a long time - it was a global player for almost 1000-years - so the concept of 'being  Roman' changes repeatedly. Take a look at a Roman living around 500BC, and this is a person identified with a tiny city state in the middle of Italy. This Roman is a descendant of the same Celtics who would become Gauls in Central France and speaks a similar Celtic language - one that is fast becoming Latin. Their world extends to the farms surrounding their walled city and they still only number in the tens of thousands. To the north the Etruscan Kingdom controls much of the trade in the region, while the Greek city states are facing off with the Persian Empire.

Fast forward to 89BC and a Roman is now very different - the small city state has extended its reach across all of Italy, into southern Gaul, Spain, Greece and North Africa. After a civil war to decide the matter - to be  a Roman is almost anyone born in Italy and in the veteran communities dotted around the western Mediterranean. A Roman might speak Latin, but many now speak languages that will eventually become Italian, while others speak Greek or Etruscan. Late Republic Romans might now recall Celtic, Etruscan and Greek ancestors and they already dominate trade across much of the known world. With the fall of Carthage they know they are part of the greatest superpower in the Mediterranean - even though the Roman Republic has a population of just six million people.

Two hundred years later and the Roman Empire means 'being Roman' is largely becoming a state of mind. By now nearly 100-million people from across the North, Mediterranean and Black Sea basins can call themselves Roman. Most of these will never visit Rome - or even know someone who has. To be Roman has become something more akin to being European - or even American. Romans are African, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Gauls, Britons, Germans, Jews, Arabs, Persian, Syrian, Armenian, Pontic and Slavs. They speak hundreds of different languages and rely more on Greek than Latin as a common tongue. This is the world most Roman watchers know - so this is the one that probably best explains what it was to be Roman. These were the people of the Empire - they may have felt stronger regional and language ties with their immediate neighbours, but they paid their taxes with Imperial coins, they walked on Roman built-roads, marched in Roman armies, and lived in Romano cities sharing such a common culture that someone from the northern England city of York would just as easily find and talk their way around Syrian Damascus. That was what it was to be Roman. For more on being Roman, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links     

Wednesday 29 May 2013

More health tips from ancient Rome

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. For more on Roman lifestyles you can read 'Ad Lib' - available from Amazon, just follow the link   

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Getting a Roman massage

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. For more on Roman relaxation you can read 'Ad Lib' - available from Amazon, just follow the link

Monday 27 May 2013

Rome and Africa

Well, part of this answer is easy. All the modern nations of North Africa were once parts of five Roman provinces, with Roman occupation beginning in 146BC during the final war with Carthage. Over the next two hundred years the Empire took over the kingdoms of Mauritania to the west and Egypt to the east. Great cities soon covered the fertile regions north of the Sahara and some Roman Emperors were even African-born. And apart from the highways and aqueducts still to be found across these former territories, one Roman influence remains very apparent to this day - the total absence of large African game and predators - with everything from lions and leopards to antelope and elephants driven to extinction in North Africa by Rome's insatiable need for bloody entertainment in the arena.

But what about south of the Sahara? The Niger and the Congo in the west or Kenya and Tanzania in the east? Did Rome make a difference in these distant places? Coinciding with their eastward push into the Indian Ocean, Roman merchants certainly began heading down the east coast of Africa. By 60AD, reports of trade with the African island of Menouthesias - modern day Zanzibar - were appearing in texts. African trade was mostly for ebony and ivory, with the Romans bringing ceramics, fabrics and glass in exchange. And thanks to the Phoenician voyages of discovery between the 6th and 4th-centuries BC - that may or may not have involved a complete circumnavigation of the African continent - the Romans were aware of considerable parts of the west coast to Guinea and east coast to Mozambique. The hardest evidence for trade beyond Zanzibar comes in the form of Roman coins, with 2nd and 4th-century AD Roman coins having been found in Zimbabwe and Madagascar and a 1st-century AD coin discovered in the Congo. Still, the coin finds have been pretty thin on the ground, so Roman visits to these regions were probably rare, and it's more than possible African traders brought them from further north. Still, Zimbabwe is 10,000-miles from Rome, yet even so, the ancient inhabitants of Southern Africa knew what a Roman Emperor looked like, and that's no small thing in this great big world. For more on Roman trade you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 26 May 2013

Rome and the Far East

So we know Rome was a big deal in India and India was big deal to Rome - but what about beyond? How much further did Rome reach into Asia? Well, we know the Romans and the Chinese knew about each other, so that's a start. The Romans drew maps of South East Asia, China and the western Pacific Ocean - and the Chinese report several visits from Roman officials and merchants during the second and third century-AD - however Chinese descriptions of Romans looking Chinese, and Pliny's 78AD assertion that the Chinese were blonde and blue-eyed leaves room for some doubt on 'official' contact. It appears almost all the silk and steel trade between Rome and China was carried out by Tamil and Sri Lankan traders.

The same could also be said about the fabulously profitable spice trade to the Malaysian Peninsular and the modern day Indonesian Archipelago - the former Spice Islands. The world's supply of cloves came exclusively from the Maluku Islands - and nutmeg from the Banda Islands. Roman pottery has been found in Sembrian on the island of Bali, still, whether a Roman left it there is pretty much up in the air. However, being closer to the Roman expats living in India - and being where most money was to be made east of India, ancient Europeans probably did visit South East Asia on a semi-regular basis, unlike their few trips to China.

And then there's Japan. Roman glass jewellery has been found in 5th-century AD Japanese tombs - so like the Chinese, the Japanese were probably aware of a 'Western Empire' but their contact too was fleeting and more than likely second or third hand. In the end, it looks like the world was just too big for the Roman Empire to be more than an ephemeral thought in the minds of those in the Far East. For more on Roman sea trade you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Thursday 23 May 2013

Ancient Rome and the rest of the world

We've got a pretty good idea of Rome's place in the world...from Syria and Morocco to Germany and Wales, everyone within this enormous conglomeration of cultures was considering themselves Roman by the 1st-century AD...well, nearly everyone. North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Europe - this was the Roman World. But what about the rest? What about the rest of Asia? What about the rest of Africa? What about...even the America's? How did Rome fit into their worlds?

Well, today we'll start off with the part of the world most influenced by Rome, yet never occupied as a Roman territory. Any ideas? It was a vast land, known to be around the same size as Gaul, populated by countless millions and irrigated by rivers measured miles across. Roman-era Jews and Christians lived there and it's southern tip was the trading hub that joined the shipping routes of the east with those of the west. And even today Roman coins are still found throughout the country. Bet India wasn't the first name you thought of.

Since the earliest beginnings of civilisation in the Middle East, trade between Mesopotamia, the Arabian
Peninsular and India has been recorded, so it should be no surprise that India was still a big part of the ancient global economy when Rome came along. Trade between the two regions exploded soon after Augustus annexed Egypt from Cleopatra and Antony - in fact the lovers had been planning an escape to India until Pro-Roman Egyptian rebels burnt their Red Sea fleet. With an independent Egypt removed as a middleman, direct trade between Rome and India was possible for the first time, and within a decade 120 ships were crossing the Indian Ocean between several Indian ports and Myos Hormos - Rome's principle
Red Sea port - each year. Not bad for a shipping season restricted to just seven months by the summer monsoon.

Roman traders settled along the sub-continent's east coast and southern Tamil states at places such as Barbaricum (now Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, and Arikamedu - the latter three all being Tamil. Pliny writes in 78AD that the Tamil economy was built almost entirely on international trade, where Tamil or Sri Lankan ships from Southeast Asia and China met Roman shippers arriving from Egypt. Commodities traded included frankincense, ceramics, gold and silver, coral, linen clothing, glass and wine coming from Europe. The Roman ships returned west loaded with silk yarn, cotton cloth, rice, wheat, sesame oil, spices and Chinese-made steel (goes to show nothing much has changed). Pliny conservatively estimated Rome's annual trade deficit with Asia was some 100-million sesterces ($2.5-billion). And this was no small deal. Two thousand years later India is still littered with the millions of coins shipped into the country during the reign of the Roman Emperors.

It is also likely India had the world's largest population of Roman expats at the time. The Apostle Thomas (the doubting one) travelled to the sub-continent in 52AD to convert a large Jewish population already established in the north and in the Tamil States. It has been suggested he even converted one of the northern kings, Gundaphorus, and established seven and a half churches in the south (yes, I know, I can't explain the half either), some of which continue as places of worship to this day.

So the next time you think of ancient India, think of it as a modern day Hong Kong or Singapore rather than some outpost Alexander the Great eventually got to. This was a place that really mattered to the Romans, and it goes to show the ancient world had just as big a picture as ours does today. For more on ancient international trade you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Paper study

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

The best paper was derived from the centre of the papyrus plant - this 'first quality' paper was known as 'Augustus' by the time of Pliny, although it had earlier been known as 'hieratic'. Working a little further out from the plant's centre, 'second quality' paper was named 'Livia' after Augustus' wife, while 'third quality' paper retained the term 'hieratic'. Roman paper was priced by quality, hence the need for these distinctions. Pliny notes that the paper maker Fannius had developed a technique for dressing lower quality paper to achieve the same finish as 'first quality', no doubt making more money in the process. He doesn't say how, but its possible the paper was smoothed with chalk in the same manner togas were treated. From 'third quality' Pliny describes progressively cheaper paper such as 'Taeneotic' which was sold by weight rather than quality. And lastly he comes to the brown paper of the age - 'emporitica' or packing paper. Too course for writing, this was used for wrapping parcels and merchandise. So if you want to imagine Romans going shopping or getting a parcel in the mail...think of them holding something that would have looked a lot like the brown-wrapped parcels of the 19th and 20th centuries - before postpaks. For more on Roman writing you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available on Amazon, just follow the links 

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Getting Colder

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. For more on how the Romans coped with the cold you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links 

Monday 20 May 2013

Getting Warmer

Climate change and global warming have been one of the big debates of the last decade - although it has 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. For more on the ancient Danes you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Sunday 19 May 2013

The Daily

As we face the possibility of the traditional newspaper disappearing within the next decade, maybe it's time to introduce the Acta Diurna to you (the Daily News or Daily Action). This was the Roman State's first official newspaper and was started by the king of spin doctors himself - Julius Caesar. It had a much better print run than most modern papers - surviving for some 500-years. In doing so it became the very first model for the  mass production of printed news - creating the news appetite we still feed today. And just to show nothing's new, this paper read just like today too - headlined with scandals and crime, plus sports results and the standard births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Initially it was handwritten onto white washed walls in the Roman Forum, but was soon converted to wooden tablets (in those day post cards and notebooks were written on cardboard-like wooden wafers). Paper copies were sold throughout Rome, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility the Action was block printed rather than hand copied...after all, hand copying a paper for a city of a million people - many of whom could read - seems a little beyond economic reality. Stepping out on a limb here, I'm pretty sure sooner or later someone must have noticed the local fuller's press was cheaper to use than a couple thousand 'handcopy' scribes...but maybe I'm reading too much into it. For more on the Daily Action you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Thursday 16 May 2013

The cost of Roman Infrastructure

It's all too easy to stare up at some great Roman building and ponder its engineering and its longevity, but how often do we consider how much it cost? The Romans, just like us, existed in a world of liquidity, needing to find money to build private and public infrastructure and buildings - and these things didn't come cheap. At the time of Pliny, Rome was served by nine aqueducts, the newest of which, the  forty-five mile long Aqua Claudia, had been completed in 52AD at the cost of 350-million sesterces - that's as much as $8.75-billion folks - which is an enormous amount of public money. Mind you, it could deliver 185,000 cubic metres of water to Rome each day, so it's drain on the public purse was symptomatic of Rome becoming the largest consumption city in the world would see until the rise of the modern European and North American consumption cities in the late 19th-century. For more on Roman consumption you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links