Sunday 24 March 2013
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