Wednesday 29 May 2013
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
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
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
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
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.
Wednesday 22 May 2013
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday 15 May 2013
We seem to think all the problems with a modern consumer economy are something new...something that hasn't happened before. The traffic jams, the damage to the environment, the almost pointless moving of something somewhere just because it can...well, take heart, in 78AD Pliny didn't think things were any better.
'Nature is levelled. We carry off materials which were meant to be a barrier between nations, ships are built and thus mountain ranges are carried here and there over the waves, Nature's wildest domain. When we hear the prices fetched and the volume's transported by sea and road, let each of us reflect how many people's lives would be happier without these!'
Sounds like someone had just got stuck behind a slow wagon on a long road. For more on Roman transport you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday 14 May 2013
I'm annoyed, really annoyed. All right maybe just a little bit peeved. Why? Well, I just can't believe that every time someone does a documentary, movie or TV series on the fall of the Roman Republic - supposedly awing us with their incredible level of details and research - they give us a black-haired Julius Caesar with a five o'clock shadow at two in the afternoon. I mean really, how much credence can we put in a show when they're not even bothered to get the basics right. Stanley Kubrick got it wrong in 1960 with Spartacus and it's been a downhill slope ever since. So let's get this settled, Julius Caesar was fair skinned, he was at least six feet tall, he had dark brown eyes and his hair was blonde...although by his forties it was receding. Now would it be that hard to find an actor that looks like that? That's half of Hollywood right there.
And here's the bigger problem, most of us have a preconception of what a Roman looks like...short, beak-nosed, olive complexion with a constant need to shave. The trouble is, the Italian peninsular was populated by all kinds of people, including the Romans who originated in Celtic Austria. So to put things bluntly, the average Roman probably looked a lot more like the present day French and Irish, while those with black hair and darker skin had Etruscan origins. So who were the Etruscans? Well, that's another movie, involving a big horse and Brad Pitt...but don't get me started. You can find out more about the Romans by reading 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Sunday 12 May 2013
Two thousand years down the track we don't often hear anything good about the Romans, do we? They threw Christians to the lions, they watched violent and bloody spectator sports, they kept slaves and they had orgies. Not a good cultural position, I admit, but are we just throwing stones around our own glass houses?
Think about this. There were some Roman Christians executed by the various Roman authorities, probably hundreds, perhaps thousands. But since the end of the Western Roman Empire, Christians have been killing millions of other Christians, many of those in just the last century...but we don't focus much on that, do we?
The Romans had a callous disregard for life - sending men and women to die in the Arena. Well, what about the twelve school and college kids who die each year playing football? Or the 32, 885 people killed on US roads (and the 2,239,000 who are maimed) each year? Not a whole lot of condemning modern society for our own callous disregard for life is there?
The Romans kept slaves, lots of them, but at least they had a culture that gave their servants and workers their freedom. We might call low wage workers something else these days, but will the tens of millions toiling away in Asian sweatshops to make our high-end clothes and fashions be given their freedom from poverty any time soon?
And those rich and famous Romans who had orgies? Anyone read a tabloid lately? Wealth and behaviour outside of social norms is still happening, it never went away, and it was around a long time before the Romans showed up.
So even though we might think we're so much better than the Romans, I'm sad to say they thought and reasoned with the same minds we use today, and what ever they did, we still do - all we've done is change the time and place. For more reading on the ordinary Roman lifestyle - checkout 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Thursday 9 May 2013
Comparing ancient currency values with modern money is a rocky ride. A frequently used model for present day comparisons is the 'Big Mac' principle, where the cost of a certain internationally available burger can be compared by country to country and by each country's currency...in this way we can roughly guesstimate the buying power of our currency in a foreign environment. Obviously the Romans didn't have Big Macs, but we can still find parallels with some of the pricing. For starters, the Romans bought bread, just like we do - by the loaf. They also drank wine by the glass, just like we do. They also paid rent.
In the 1st-century BC a family-sized loaf of bread cost half a sesterce (2-as). My local bakery charges $5.60, suggesting one sesterce is worth $11.20.
A cup of Roman wine also costs 2-as. In my town, a glass of wine usually starts at about $8.00 suggesting one sesterce is worth $16.00.
Renting a Roman apartment would cost 38-sesterces/week, in this part of the country $400/week is common. This would suggest one sesterce is worth $10.50.
On that average of three prices, it looks like a 1st-century BC sesterce was worth $12.56 (relevant to me) - which would mean one denarius was worth $50.26, and one talent of silver was worth $251,333.33. Now in your part of the world your own currency might have different cost comparisons, and just like us, the Roman economy had inflationary pressures, which changed values from era to era. By the 1st-century AD when Pliny the Elder was around, it looks like the sesterce may have been worth something closer to $25. So considering how much our own currencies can change in value over the course of a few decades, don't underestimate how much the value of a sesterce changed over a few hundred years. For more on Roman currency read 'Ad Lib' available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday 8 May 2013
They hang around most corporate headquarters and seats of government, but speech writers never seem to get the acclaim their speeches often do. But the ancients weren't shy about purchasing 'oratory art' - Isocrates, one of the ten Attic orators once sold a speech for 20-talents (that's 100,000 denarii or...$10-million). Not bad for a 3rd-century rhetorician who started out as courtroom speech writer for hire. For more on Roman law, read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday 7 May 2013
As a rule all Roman aristocrats were expected to complete some sort of military service. Most did so as teenagers, fulfilling a one year term of 'national service' as junior officers the year they turned eighteen. Those who found army life agreeable tended to come back for more, while circumstances such as a land invasion of Italy by Hannibal gave others no choice. One such patrician who enjoyed a battle or two was Marcus Sergius. He rose to fame during the Second Punic war against Hannibal between 218BC and 201BC. During this time he was wounded twenty-three times, losing his right hand completely, while his left hand and both feet were too badly injured to be of any use. Still, not one to let the team down, he fought four battles with only his disabled left hand, during which time two horses were cut down underneath him. According to Pliny, Sergius had a right hand fashioned from iron and using this prosthetic he "raised the siege of Cremona, saved Placentia and captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul." He in turn was twice captured by Hannibal, but escaped both times - despite his lack of mobility and being chained day and night for twenty months. Hard to believe no one's made a movie about him yet. For more on Roman warfare, read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Monday 6 May 2013
Ever wondered what the average Roman soldier ate on the march or what most Romans ate at home? Follow this recipe to find out...
250g of white flour
250g of wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon of salt
4 teaspoons of yeast (14grams)
Enough warm water to make dough
- Mix the white flour, wholemeal flour, salt and yeast in a bowl
- Add warm water to make a firm dough, knead until the dough is smooth and stretches
- Break dough into four small loafs and place on baking tray, cover tray with clingwrap or a damp tea-towel and place in a warm part of the room so the dough can rise. It should take around an hour for the dough to double in size.
- Bake in a hot oven at 220 degrees Celsius for 20-25 minutes
- Serve how you like your bread, but traditional Roman bread should be dipped in olive oil instead of spread with butter.
For more on Roman meals, read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Thursday 2 May 2013
So how do we know about Hero's (also known as Heron) robotic inventions? Well, thanks to the action of Arabic scholars who stepped in to save much of the classical science literature that survives to present day, we know Heron wrote several books on his subjects of interest. His most famous is 'Automata', which includes his steam engine operated machines for producing temple 'miracles', such as ghostly opening automatic doors, thunder machines, his various robot designs, not to mention describing pneumatic and automatic astronomical devices from the previous three centuries.
He also wrote 'Catoptrica' exploring the 'linear propagation of light, reflection and the use of mirrors' and the book 'Dioptra' for designing machines to determine distance. In this book he describes the modern day Theodolite and the Odometer. Not bad for 60AD. For more on everyday Roman machines read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday 1 May 2013
Programming Roman robots? Say what? This might sound a little bit like the Roman light bulb story, but the idea of robots that could be programmed - and have those programmes modified - is the honest to goodness real deal. The ancient Greeks were more than a little taken with the concept of the robot or automaton - as early as 322BC, Aristotle was speculating how robotic machines could bring an end to slavery. And by 60AD, Hero of Alexandria was more than running with this idea. After inventing the first coin operated vending machine and the steam powered rocket, he took his hand to building robotic machines, and then worked out a way to programme them. Getting a machine to move was hard enough in those days, but getting it to do different things at the same time - well, that was mind boggling.
So how did he do it? Hero built numerous types of robots and most were for entertainment, such as life-sized human replicas that could dance and move on a cart as it was pulled along the road. The motion of the cart drove the machines, and the motion also drove their linear programming. The programme was a length of string for each movement with knots tied in specific sequences. Each knot was mechanically detected by the machine which resulted in a desired reaction - and it might take several strings running concurrently to control a complicated series of movements. Smaller robots were driven by stone or lead weights like a cuckoo clock, but the string programme invented by Hero remained the constant. Think about that next time you're reading Isaac Asimov. For more on Roman machines, read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links