Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Vox Pop

Now we've seen the Gauls were more sophisticated than Caesar ever admitted to his adoring public - we have to wonder why he painted them as simple uneducatededs. After all, doesn't it make his victory even greater if he defeated a far more capable enemy than he writes about? The answer is not that simple. Firstly, this was a man with an estimated IQ of 181, so I'm not going to pretend I can get inside a head like that - all I can do is make some best guesses and hope they're not too far off the mark.

Firstly we have to consider the geopolitical situation in 58BC when the invasion of Gaul began. By this time Rome's previous threats, the Greek city states, Carthage and the Pontic Kingdom had all been warred into oblivion and their lands folded into the Roman Republic. The Gauls, and to a lesser extent, the Germans, were the only peoples left on the Roman frontier with the proven capacity to invade the Italian peninsular and threaten Rome. Destroying their ability to do this was the primary reason Caesar received so much unspoken support from the Senate.

The same logic had been used in the destruction of Carthage a century before - and so was the underlying belief that subjugating Gaul and destroying the Punic Empire (Carthage) was morally acceptable as both peoples were barbarians. In fact, with the possible exception of the Greeks, the Romans' greatest enemies were always labelled barbarians. Carthage is the best example of this 'labelling' or desensitisation of the Roman public. Despite inventing concrete, building the world's first 'high rise' apartment blocks, circumnavigating Africa and developing some of the most advanced water storage systems ever seen, Roman literature paints the Carthaginians as blood thirsty heathens who sacrificed their own children to Beelzebub (a name still seen as evil to this day). This process was repeated a century later when the Gauls were the new threat to Rome - suddenly the Druids were murdering their own countrymen to read their entrails...seeing a pattern here?

So it became important to the Roman sense of right that subjugating the barbarians could bring civilisation to these lessor peoples and make them new and upstanding citizens. But this only works if the Roman public are convinced these are, indeed, barbarians. If Caesar had written he'd fought an equally advanced and capable enemy, it is very likely he would have alienated his public supporters...after all, it would have been immoral to subjugate a civilised Gaul, parts of which had had long standing treaties with Rome prior to the Caesar's arrival there...treaties he chose to ignore. So in the end, we can see the book we still base most of our contemporary knowledge of Gaul on - Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul - is all about painting Caesar in the best possible light...not the Gauls. Proof again that only the victorious get to write our history. Remember that next time you're reading a former power broker's autobiography.

For more Roman History in Gaul - check out 'Vagabond' - live on Amazon and on YouTube

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Roman diving helmets?

So if these 'gladiator' helmets were actually stylised versions of 'diving' helmets, how might a Roman diving helmet work? To be honest we have only hints. For one, we know divers were nicknamed 'Urinatores' - I'm pretty sure I don't need to supply a translation for that. It's generally accepted the term arose from divers using air-inflated animal bladders as buoyancy devices - these would allow a diver weighted with stones to dive to a greater depth and return to the surface faster when the stone weights were removed. But that's the accepted thinking. We know the larger diving bells the Romans used for underwater engineering could be fed by air pumped from the surface, which suggests that the Romans had a reasonable idea of pneumatic forces just as they understood hydraulics. So let's look at it this way. A Roman diver, wearing an air-filled helmet is standing on the sea-floor with pressurised bladders filled with air - could these have been connected to the helmet to equalise pressure and various depths and to supply several minutes of breathable air underwater? Modern bronze taps, spring-loaded pressure valves and piping were all available in the Roman tool-box - so methods to control the flow and storage of air in bladders and helmets was possible. But most of all, remember, there was an economic imperative to harvest half-a-billion sea sponges every year - an imperative that required someone to figure out how to maximise dive times and exploit as much of the seabed as possible. Roman diving helmets might be something we haven't heard of, but they shouldn't be something we should dismiss as impossible. If you want to read more about Roman diving helmets - check out a 'Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now or on YouTube

Sunday 24 March 2013

Sponge Divers

We know the Roman sponge industry was a big business - face it, with 100-million Roman bottoms each needing a personal sponge, we can pretty much guess sponge divers needed to gather perhaps half a billion sponges (or maybe more) every year. Clearly an industry of that scale is going to drive new technology and increasingly sophisticated methods for sponge collecting. There's no doubt a lot of divers were free-diving, perhaps reaching depths of over fifty feet and staying a minute or two to collect a handful of sponges from rocky seawalls or the sea floor. But with a free-diver having only minute or two at a time to collect sponges, would that be an effective collection method? Beyond the sponge industry we can see a lot of Roman below-water engineering required extended periods under water preparing the sea-floor for new harbours and breakwaters - some of this was done with diving bells, but, like the sponge industry, there's a distinct possibility it was done using more sophisticated diving equipment. Where am I heading?


It sounds bizarre, but gladiators might help me explain how sponge divers could spend more than a few minutes on the sea-floor. The heavy bronze helmets worn by the Murmillo and Hoplomachus gladiators bear no resemblance to any helmets worn on the battlefield by Romans or any of their enemies. They're hard to see out of, unnecessarily massive and frequently decorated with fish. Perhaps some gladiator agent thought they would look spectacular in the arena, but could they be more than that? Think about it, seal the face plates, put glass in the two eye-holes and suddenly these helmets look a lot more like a 19th-century diving helmet than something you'd take onto the battlefield.

So is it possible gladiator helmets could have actually been diving helmets? Only if you can get air into them, and that's what we'll look at in the next post. For more on Roman deep sea diving, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now and on YouTube   

Thursday 21 March 2013

Roman toilet paper

Life is all about taking little things for granted. Little things go unnoticed and these are the little things that get lost to history. Here's one, toilet paper...or at least the Roman version. Bleached toilet paper seems to be an international standard today, and despite it's ultimate end, we seem to prefer our toilet paper to be bright and white rather than the dull browns of natural paper. Well, it seems the Romans liked their 'toilet paper' white too. Thanks to Pliny we know that sea sponges - collected in their millions for Roman toilets - were bleached white by being soaked in salt foam and then being laid out at night to dry slowly. As I said, it's the little things - but the sponge industry was worth tens of millions of dollars in today's terms, so maybe it deserves a little bit of modern historical attention. How were those sponges collected? That'll be coming to this blog soon. For more on Roman History, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now or on YouTube

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Take the lead

Like to be one for all things natural and organic? It seems the Romans had a taste for healthy living too. Now a lot has been written about how their lead pipes poisoned the bally lot of them - dulling their minds and delivering terrible premature deaths. Oddly, skeletal analysis doesn't seem to suggest much in the way of heavy metal poisoning for the ancients, and nor were they oblivious to the danger. The famous 1st-century BC architect, Vitruvius, began recommending terracotta pipes, writing, "Water from clay pipes is much more wholesome than that which is conducted through lead pipes - since lead is found to be harmful as white lead is derived from it, which is said to harmful to the human system." Something to think about next time you pour some water from your organic clay water filter.

Mind you, it has been suggested the levels of soluble lead fell as pipes aged as they tended to gain a crust of calcium carbonate from the concrete aqueducts - which then reduced the amount of lead leaching into the water. Either way, there are still Roman lead pipes carrying water to this day...and being used. For more on Roman History, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now or on YouTube

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Shameless self promotion

I'm guessing you've noticed me mention the name 'Calvus' a few times by now. Who is Calvus? I see him as the embodiment of the average Roman. He doesn't wage war on distant peoples, he doesn't work as a gladiator...he can't even afford a slave. Calvus is 99% of real Roman life, not the one percent we see in the latest Sword and Sandal drama from HBO. That doesn't mean he's boring. This guy's got all the issues any struggle-street character should have. He's an unemployed actor...enough said. Put him in a tweed jacket and he's Bored to Death's Jonathon Ames. An accidental detective who finds he discovers trouble and doesn't get the credit for it. We shouldn't forget Rome was just like New York on any normal day - full of complicated people who have...well, complications. For more about the adventures of Calvus, check out 'Ad Lib', 'The Hitherto Unknown' and 'Mischance and Happenstance' - all live on Amazon now

Monday 18 March 2013

The food is in the eating

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

Sunday 17 March 2013

Roman family planning

The pharmacological and industrial manufacturing breakthroughs of the 20th-century have meant that these days modern families take planning for kids pretty much for granted. It's as easy as popping (or not popping) a pill or relying on various devices provided by the plastics industry. But what about two thousand years ago? Did women just go with the flow and risk the distinct possibility of death at every birth? As it happens, no. Just as we've seen in the last century where developed societies have seen decreasing birthrates as families become more affluent, the same can be seen during the Roman-era, with families usually 'choosing' to have only two or three children.

In fact Roman-era women had access to a number of effective birth control methods. There were chemical treatments that could be applied, such as a paste made from alum and olive oil or a thorough washing with vinegar, both of which, if used every time, would prevent almost all pregnancies. What you may find surprising is that Egyptian women were using intra-uterine devices (IUDs) made from small copper plates at least one thousand years before Rome even existed - and this technology almost certainly remained in use during the Roman-era. The same technique was even used for animal husbandry for female pack animals. So once again, don't underestimate the Roman woman's desire to live life with the same certainties as anyone in the 21st-century. For more on women in Roman History, check out 'Vagabond' - live on Amazon now or on YouTube

Thursday 14 March 2013

Beware the Ides of March

Well, it's the Ides of March in my part of the world, so it's a bit hard to ignore today's famous victim. Julius Caesar took his last breath on the Senate steps and the Roman world - not to mention ours - was changed forever. There's only one problem. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 15th, 44 BC, the Senate House no longer existed. The old timber senate building had been burnt to the ground in early 52 BC when angry supporters of Clodius made the building his funeral pyre. So - the long and short of it - Julius Caesar did not die on the steps of a building that did not exist.

So where did the end of Caesar come? For several years the Senate had been meeting in Pompey's theatre, several blocks away. It had a prominent entry, but like most theatres it had a back door leading out to a lane-way. And guess who got knifed coming through the back door? Julius Caesar more or less died in an alleyway. Not quite what you see in most documentaries or movies. Et tu, Brute! For more on Roman History, check out 'Vagabond' - live on Amazon now  and YouTube 

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Finding the silver

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

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Rome's most precious metal

It might be surprising to hear but silver was far more important to Rome than gold...although, as today, its value was far lower. Silver set the standard for the finance trade and was pressed into the Denarius (the Roman equivalent of the $100 note in the late Republic) for several centuries. Because of its importance to the value of the Roman currency, silver - and the lead it was mined with - were state controlled by the 1st-century AD; over-production would have decreased the value of the denarius while under-production would have driven inflation...concepts the Roman Treasury was just as aware of as today's modern treasury officials. So the mining of silver - and finding new mines - was particularly important to the Roman Empire. Much of this mining was focused in Spain where some shafts produced over 300lb (around $2.1-million worth) of silver per day...however as the Empire expanded, a considerable percentage of production was shifted to Britain. It is quite possible the underlying reason Claudius committed to the invasion of Britain was to keep the Roman currency stable. Trajan's invasion of Dacia was also driven by mining...and the fact the Roman Empire went into a long inflation-driven decline in the years after expansionism ended suggests the economy was unable to produce enough silver to sustain the currency's value. Goes to show nothing much changes...even if bankers have got more creative. For more on ordinary Roman life, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now  and on YouTube

Sunday 10 March 2013

Going for gold

Ever wondered how the ancients refined precious metals? This is Pliny's explanation for the production of pure gold - "Gold is first heated with twice its weight of salt, three times its weight of copper pyrites, and then heated again with two parts salt and one of alum (most likely iron sulphate rather than potassium aluminium sulphate in this case). This process removes the impurities when the other substances have been burnt away in an earthenware crucible." For more Roman history check out 'Vagabond' - live on Amazon now or on YouTube

Thursday 7 March 2013

Road trip

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

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

A Gallic road map from the 1st-century BC
And no, these roads weren't built by toiling slaves slashed by whips and chains...they were built by Roman soldiers, paid professionals who used complex surveying equipment barely bettered by today's laser technology to pour concrete and build pavements as good as anything we drive on. So if the Roman's had incredible roads, then their horse drawn road vehicles must have been a bit more sophisticated than the archaic (and completely wrong) contrivances we see in the movies...I guess that sounds like another post.  For more on Roman History, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now and YouTube 

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Out of this Roman world again

In an era when few people would have travelled more than a 1000-miles from their place of birth, the Greeks and Romans could still get their heads around vast distances. By the 1st-century AD the popular belief was that some clouds reached a height of 103-miles above the earth's surface (the very highest actually only reach 53-miles). But 100-years earlier, Posidonius of Rhodes (even though he was born in Syria) was far more conservative when he concluded that clouds and winds were only five miles high - his calculation is very close to the maximum height of the Troposphere, where most clouds do exist. His other number crunchings were also much more accurate than his contemporaries. In 90 BC he estimated the Sun's enormous diameter, and in doing so realised the vast distances of space. He reasoned the moon was 230,000-miles from the earth (it actually varies between 237,600-miles and 271,100-miles) and from the Moon to the Sun was 575,000-miles. Pythagoras had previously produced a distance of only 29,000-miles. The actual distance is 93-million miles, so they were both a little out, but when all said and done, in a time when most people measured a long way as the next town, Posidonius realised there was a whole lot more beyond the horizon. For more Roman history checkout 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now and on YouTube

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Out of this Roman world

The recent release of the almost blockbuster 'John Carter' provides an interesting taste of the early 20th-century's ideas of living 'off' world. For us, one hundred years later, it seems hard to believe that someone living before World War One could accommodate the idea of existing beyond earth. But the idea is much older than we might think. Pliny is able to define the planets as 'worlds' rather than stars or suns, and contemplates their spherical surfaces as being hot or cold. He doesn't necessarily agree with Leucippus' theory (from the 5th-century BC) that countless other worlds existed around countless other suns...but he does, at least mention it - and then he states, 'Men are not concerned to explore the extraterrestial', in that he understood in the 1st-century AD there was no capacity to do so. Just goes to say that our understanding of the universe goes back a lot further than we 'moderns' would like to admit. For more history of 1st-century Rome - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now and on YouTube

Monday 4 March 2013

Breaking Roman bread

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

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

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

beatus esus

Sunday 3 March 2013

Everything old is new again

Now I have to admit, in this age of the global economy and the high-speed internet it can be hard to see any point dwelling on the past, particularly one so distant that it can't possibly impact on the futures market. I mean, Decatur and Texas are a long way from Caesar and Sulla - there's nothing those guys did two thousand years ago that impacts on day traders, right? Well, okay, apart from one inventing the modern calendar and the other holding together the Roman Republic long enough for that to happen. Oh, and producing the first currency based 'European Union' that like the modern one also relied on Asia for most of its imports. No parallels there. Even the peoples of the Arabian Peninsular grew incredibly rich on a single 'must have' commodity...frankincense. The fact is, although the technology has changed, basic economics haven't. What worked then worked now. And what didn't work then doesn't work now. We've got to stop trying to invent the wheel everyday, some other guy's already done it. For more on the Roman economy check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now

Saturday 2 March 2013

The Ordinary Roman

I know the Romans get a lot a bad press. Face it, all we hear about is Gladiators, throwing Christians to the lions and invading Britain. But these are hardly the big picture, they're just the sexy stuff. It's like looking at our society as if it were just Las Vegas, World War Two and football. We don't read about the average Roman family sitting down after dinner and flicking through some good books - but an awful lot of them did - their literacy levels were about the same as ours. We don't hear about them playing draughts, dominoes, dice and ludo - but they did - they invented most of those games. And then there's the food - much of which we still enjoy - they developed oyster farming and champagne, and French cuisine owes a lot to the previous leaseholders of Europe. It's the ordinary that makes a people, and believe me, they were just as ordinary as us...although they spoke Latin better. For more about ordinary Romans, check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now