Friday, January 30, 2004

Scholarship and historical anachronisms

My son called me yesterday to ask about a reference to naval battles in the Colosseum. This surprised me a bit because his interest in writing has always focused on science fiction but I was, of course, pleased that he might be interested in a period of history closer to my own heart. I explained to him that yes, such battles were held and how they managed to flood the Colosseum. I was careful to point out, however, that mock naval battles sponsored by Caesar and later, Claudius were obviously not held in the Colosseum since it was not built yet. Then he asked me about a reference in a book he had read (hopefully fiction) that mentioned Nero stocked the flooded Colosseum with crocodiles. I told him that Nero was dead before the Colosseum was even built but that there were ancient sources that described the zoological gardens of Nero’s Golden House as having pools stocked with crocodiles. I then gave him a background on the Great Fire, the construction of the Domus Aurea and the resulting charges of Nero starting the fire to clear space for his palace.

Later, I was reading my e-mail and one of my news alerts about the Roman Empire brought an article to my attention about the history of spas and bathing which was part of a website of a Spa Manufacturer. Now, normally, you would think that if you are in the business, you would be at least somewhat authoritative about its origins, especially if you were going to post an article about its history. But there it was in bold black and white – the first public Roman bath was built by the Emperor Agrippa (what?!!!) in 25 B.C.. I was a little surprised by the lateness of the date as well so I thought I should check with Lacus Curtius (always a reliable scholarly source) and found the following reference:

It is not recorded at what precise period the use of the warm bath was first introduced amongst the Romans; but we learn from Seneca (l.c.) that Scipio had a warm bath in his villa at Liternum; which, however, was of the simplest kind, consisting of a single chamber, just sufficient for the necessary purposes, and without any pretensions to luxury. It was "small and dark," he says "after the manner of the ancients." Seneca also describes the public baths as obscura et gregali tectorio inducta, and as so simple in their arrangements that the aedile judged of the proper temperature by his hands. These were baths of warm water; but the practice of heating an apartment with warm air by flues placed immediately under it, so as to produce a vapour bath, is stated by Valerius Maximus (ix.1 §1) and by Pliny (Plin. H.N. ix.54 s79) to have been invented by Sergius Orata, who lived in the age of L. Crassus, the orator, before the Marsic war. The expression used by Valerius Maximus is balnea pensilia, and by Pliny balineas pensiles, which is differently explained by different commentators; but a single glance at the plans will be sufficient in order to comprehend the manner in which the flooring of the chambers was suspended over the hollow cells of the hypocaust, called by Vitruvius suspensura caldariorum (v.11), so as to leave no doubt as to the precise meaning of the invention, which is more fully exemplified in the following passage of Ausonius (Mosell. 337):—

"Quid (memorem) quae sulphurea substructa crepidine fumant
Balnea, ferventi cum Mulciber haustus operto,
Vovit anhelatas tectoria per cava flammas,
Inclusum glomerans aestu exspirante vaporem?"

By the time of Cicero, the use of baths, both public and private, of warm water and hot air, had become general (Epist. ad Q. Frat. iii.1); and we learn from one of his orations that there were already baths (balneas Senias) at Rome, which were open to the public upon payment of a small sum (Pro Cael. 25, 26).

The time of Cicero was the first century B.C.E. but an entire generation before Agrippa. I sometimes wonder if cultural icons like the Colosseum, gladiatorial games, and Roman baths are so representative of the Roman culture that authors (and people in general) just naturally assume they were always a part of Roman society so they never bother to check. Now days with the text search capability of the internet and so many scholarly articles on line, it does not take hours of digging through dusty volumes at the library to check out such things but I guess people have to realize the need for accuracy before they will expend even that much effort.

It can happen to scholars as well. I noticed that in the novel The Spartan, Manfredi wrote that Kleidemos (Talos) planned to attend a Persian banquet and was curious to find out how so-called "barbarians" actually lived. This casual comment would seem relatively unimportant unless you know that the usage of the word "barbarian" in ancient Greece only meant someone who did not speak Greek and did not connote crudeness or lack of "civilized" behavior. It appeared to me that Manfredi implied the modern connotation.

Fayoum Portraits' Cultural Source Debated

"The so-called Fayoum portraits, more than 1,000 of them, are the largest body of ancient portable paintings to have survived. The use of the word 'Roman portrait' was rejected by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie after his discovery of 300 portraits in excellent condition from a massive cache of mummies in Fayoum in 1888. At once the term 'Fayoum portrait' was coined. This was an acceptable but not accurate term, as they were not to be found in Fayoum alone. The extraordinarily beautiful 2,000-year-old portraits have been found on mummies in Egyptian burial grounds not only in Fayoum but also in 'middle' and Upper Egypt and even on the Mediterranean coast, all dating to between the first and fourth centuries.

Still they did not escape controversy. Specialists in Graeco-Roman art regarded them as Egyptian, but Egyptologists considered them to be works of the early years of the Christian era when Egypt was under Roman occupation, and therefore out of their sphere. For too long art historians neglected these masterpieces. Today they are receiving their due, with one startling fact to emerge being the possibility that the portraits inserted into the wrappings of mummies may not be representative of Roman provincial art, as earlier described, but created by Egyptians for Egyptians. In other words, they may not be portraits of the Mediterranean aristocracy who controlled Egypt in Roman times, but of Egyptians themselves. "

Letters from the Roman Front in Egypt Discovered

"Nearly 2000 years ago a young Roman soldier wrote home, asking his father's permission to marry his girlfriend. In another letter, he asks for boots and socks to keep his feet warm during a cold winter. And he tells how he must violently put down those who revolt and riot in Alexandria.

All this - and more - about life for Tiberianus, who lived in Roman Egypt, is being advanced through the work of a Princeton High School graduate now attending the University of Michigan.
Last fall, Robert Stephan (Class of 2001) found some papyri - ancient writings on papyrus, made from the reed plant - stored but forgotten in the university's vault. The papyri had been collected during UM excavations at Karanius, southwest of Egypt's Nile River delta, in the 1920s and '30s.
Unbeknown to today's scholars, 15 papyri collected from the original excavation had been catalogued by the university but never examined or translated."

I wish these scrolls actually referred to the riots that occurred during Julius Caesar's Alexandrian Wars. It would be fascinating to read a common soldier's opinion of Caesar's command in the field.

Into the Hands of the Shades - Death in Roman Cumbria

A new exhibition at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, called 'Into the Hands of the Shades - Death in Roman Cumbria', will seek to explain the Romans' beliefs about death and burials.

Hilary Wade, museum and arts manager at Tullie House said: 'We are delighted at the announcement of a 24,000 pound grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for this project... [it] will allow us to produce an exciting exhibition based around murder, mystery and intrigue - not something Museum's are traditionally associated with!
'We are bringing together a 3rd Century mystery with 21st Century technology and it is sure to capture the imagination of Cumbrian residents'. "

A highlight of the exhibit will be a reconstruction of the face of a skeleton found in a well in the city during the 1980s - he had been shot in the head and attacked with a sword. Archaeologists named him 'Duncan'.

Thursday, January 22, 2004


By Walter Scheidel of Stanford University

"The intention to marry one's own former slave justified her manumission before age 30 (the minimum agelimit set by the lex Aelia Sentia); the fact that a slave was the owner's biological child (filius/filia naturalis) activated the same exemption (Gai. Inst. 1.19). And indeed, in some inscriptions the owner of a slave is also the father (Herrmann-Otto 1994: 42-6, 88-90). Filii naturales of this kind are frequently referred to in Roman law: blood ties between owner and slave become a factor in legal discussions of manumission, damage assessment, and inheritance (Rawson 1989: 23-9). The legal anomaly that a slave woman's children were not included among her fruits (unlike in the case of livestock) made it easier for a putative owner/father to retain a child even if the mother was sold (Watson 1987: 103-4). According to Ulpian, one might happen to inherit an estate comprising one's own biological father, mother or brothers (Dig. 30.71.3). Such heirs must have have been the children of testators by their slave women. In his study of Roman wills, Champlin 1991: 137 speculates that slaves instituted as heirs 'may have had a sexual liaison with the testator' or 'may have been an illegitimate child of the testator'. However, even though slaves and ex-slaves could be made heirs (Iavol. Dig. 28.2.11), this often involved adoption (Herrmann-Otto 1994: 85-6 n.179). Slaveowners had no legal obligations to children they fathered with their own slaves. At the same time, they were free to choose to acknowledge, manumit, institute as heir, and adopt any of these children. In this way, Roman slaveowners retained the greatest possible degree of control over the allocation of their material resources: while they were unconstrained in disseminating their genes amongst their slaves, it was also left to them to decide whether or to what extent to match gene flow with the flow of paternal investment: in this regard, their options ranged from the sale of such offspring on one end of the scale to adoption on the other. In short, the Roman slave system optimised 'marginal reproductive success'. Syme 1960/79: 511 notes the 'singular dearth of evidence about aristocratic bastards', which he attributes to a pervasive code of silence. This silence will best be taken as powerful testimony to the masterful efficiency of the Roman elite in separating acknowledged from marginal progeny, and in regulating paternal investment accordingly."

Monday, January 19, 2004

University of Nottingham sponsors conference on the Oath in Greek Society

"In spite of the fundamental importance of oaths across an enormously wide range of social interactions throughout the ancient Greek world, there has been very little research dedicated to this topic. This international conference is designed to remedy this omission and to kick off a major project on the theme intended to last several years. More than twenty papers will be presented on many aspects of the oath in Greek-speaking societies in antiquity, including the employment and functions of oaths in political, military, juridical, cultic and wider social contexts, their deployment in literary texts, theoretical discussion of them, and developments in oath practices resulting from Greeks' contacts with other cultural and religious traditions."

Beautiful illustrations prove hazardous to ancient texts

While studying first-hand sources, George Saliba, former chair of the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University and a researcher studying ancient scientific texts, noticed that when illustrations became so precious in themselves to historians, key sections of the texts were dismissed through the ages and went missing.

Saliba presented the case of Dioscorides' text on the Mandrake plant. Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 AD) was a Greek physician who traveled extensively through the Roman empire while serving with the army.
During his travels, he sought medical substances from all over the Roman and Greek world. Probably between 64-77 AD, he wrote his fundamental work known in Latin as De Materia Medica (the world's first pharmacopoeia). This five-volume book became the standard reference on pharmacology for more than 1,500 years.

According to Saliba, Dioscorides' texts suffered more than others because they were so heavily illustrated. Although the original Greek manuscript was not illustrated, the versions that followed, whether in Arabic, Latin or Syriac, were. And all of them are missing a crucial part of the text.

"Indeed, if one were to leaf through an illustrated Dioscorides manuscript, and reach the part about the Mandrake plant, the reader would see an illustration of the Mandrake, which root is depicted as having the shape of a human body to convey that it has what we could call today the Viagra effect," Saliba says "or an invigorating effect.
But the Mandrake is also poisonous, and so strongly that it was used as a surgical anesthetic."

So this is where the danger of beauty lies: manuscripts' illustrations have captured so much of the attention of art historians, librarians and curators over the centuries that they were often ripped out to be framed and hung in libraries, while their texts were left in archives.

See also the history of pharmacology

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

USA Network plans new Spartacus

"...a new Spartacus will be a tough sell to viewers who know the 1960 film and its strong cast, including Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov in an Oscar-winning performance. The miniseries features Angus MacFadyen in the Olivier role, Rhona Mitra of The Practice in the Simmons part and Alan Bates, who died last month, in his final screen performance.

Visnjic, who plays Dr. Luka Kovac on ER, acknowledged the risk of assuming a role so linked to another actor. 'Kirk Douglas is my father's favorite actor,' he says. 'So when I told my father I'm going to be doing Spartacus and I've made my decision, he was like, 'Better be good.' '

Beyond his personal challenge, Visnjic says the story of slavery in 72 B.C. and rebellion against the Roman Empire needs to be told again. 'For Spartacus to create the uprising and to do something was so extraordinary,' he says. 'I would compare it with inventing the theory of relativity. It was such a huge issue.'

It will be a huge miniseries, with 32,000 extras and major battle sequences staged in Bulgaria."

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Even the Ancients Criticized Unconventional Weapons

One of my news alerts brought this interesting article about early unconventional weapons to my attention:

The first recorded instance of poisoning an enemy's water supply, for example, appeared in the sixth century BC in the Sacred War, when a number of city-states, Athens among them, attacked the Greek harbor town of Kirrha.

"They were besieging this town for having taken advantage of a sacred site, for not respecting the sacred site of Apollo," Adrienne Mayor, author of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, says. And since the aggressors called it a sacred war, she adds, the label lent a certain justification to the use of the unconventional warfare.

The attackers poured poison into the water supply, sickening its inhabitants and leaving them easy marks for the ensuing full-scale slaughter of defenders and civilians alike. But the victory was tainted by a fair amount of soul-searching throughout Greece.

"The Greeks were horrified after this happened," Mayor says. "They actually agreed not to interfere with the water supply of other Greek city-states."

Roman historians responded similarly to other "unfair" battles, writing that dipping arrows or spears in poison disgraced the very iron used to forge them.

"One of the more gruesome instances occurred in AD 198, when the Romans besieged Hatra, a fortified city between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq.

The citizens of Hatra would not be overcome so easily.

"They prepared two forms of surprise weapons on the Roman besiegers," Mayor says. "The first was that they gathered petroleum from the oil fields around Hatra, a substance that would have been virtually unknown in Italy. They would pour burning petroleum down on the Romans, and these fires are unquenchable, there's no way to put them out." The petroleum burned the Romans' weaponry, melted their armor, and incinerated the attackers, forcing the emperor to withdraw his troops. When the Romans returned, the people of Hatra already had gathered scorpions and other poisonous creatures such as assassin bugs from the desert. They filled terra cotta pots with their biological arsenal, in effect creating crude scorpion bombs.

"In a sense, it doesn't even matter how many times the scorpions stung the soldiers," Mayor says. "It's just the horror of having these pots break on your head and having the scorpions crawl on you."

Monday, January 12, 2004

Last Days of Pompeii

I see Arts & Entertainment Network is jumping into the ancient arena:


Gladiators ... gorgeous young lovers ... orgies ... a truly evil villain ... AND the most famous volcano of all! In 79 AD, the luxurious and often corrupt Roman city of Pompeii was frozen for eternity when Mount Vesuvius erupted in a violent volcanic explosion. Based on the classic novel by Edward Bulwer Lytton, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII is the story of man's insignificance against the forces of nature, as well as testimony for the heroic deeds of mankind. This film will capture the love story, murder mystery, stunning acts of betrayal, and physical courage against the exotic background of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. With enhanced computer generated visual effects, the explosion of Vesuvius will be a cataclysmic event unlike anything TV audiences have seen before. The adaptation is by Benedict Fitzgerald (Moby Dick, In Cold Blood). Delia Fine serves as the executive producer for A&E Network. The producing team behind A&E's Benedict Arnold and The Magnificent Ambersons includes Norman Stephens (Bang, Bang You're Dead) and Jonas Bauer as producers and Guido de Angelis and Franz Landerer as executive producers. This is a co-production with The DeAngelis Group.

The book by Lytton is available online through the Gutenberg Project.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Eels in Roman Gardens

I am presently reading Pompeii by Robert Harris and was intrigued by his references to the fish farm activities of the novel’s villain. I was particularly surprised to read about the cultivation of moray eels. I always thought of moray eels as a deepwater species. I found this wonderful extensive article on Roman aquaculture by Kirk Johnson including specific information about their cultivation of eels:

"I expect that many of the people who visit Pompeii imagine that the pools in Pompeiian gardens were stocked with goldfish. Actually, goldfish are native to China and the Chinese seem to have domesticated the goldfish about a thousand years ago, so you shouldn't picture them in Pompeii's pools.
Goldfish (Carassius auratus) are members of the carp family and are closely related to common carp (Cyprinus carpio). Ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with common carp, so I was surprised that James Higginbotham didn't mention carp in his book Piscinae. Brightly colored Japanese koi are really just common carp which have been selectively bred. Common carp often produce brightly colored mutants; you would think that the ancient Romans would have noticed this characteristic and bred brightly colored carp, but this doesn't seem to be the case.
Professor Higgenbotham was focusing on the fish with ancient Roman authors mention in connection with Italian fishponds, and carp were not among them.
I expect that many of you will be surprised to learn that the fish which ancient Roman authors mention most often as being kept in fishponds are eels."

"Eels were a popular food among wealthy Romans, but a number of Romans seem to have really loved their pet eels. The orator Quintus Hortensius was very was very fond of the eels which he kept in the fishpond of his villa, he is reported to have wept when one of his eels died. Antonia (the daughter of Marc Antony and mother of the Emperor Claudius) is said to have fastened earrings to the pectoral fins of her favorite eel. This was probably a moray or conger eel, since they are the only eels which have pectoral fins that earrings could be attached to.

According to Pliny the Elder, L. Licinus Murena "invented" the fishpond early in the first century B.C.E. I am not sure what he meant by that, since the ancient Egyptians had been raising fish in ponds for centuries. Marcus Terentius Varro (116 - 27 BCE) said that Murena got his cognomen (meaning eel) because of his fondness for eels, but he doesn’t seem to have specialized in the raising of eels. Pliny the Elder said that it was C. Hirrius who first used fishponds solely for the raising of eels.

"Wealthy Romans were often accused of loving their fish more than they did their servants. Varro tells us that Quintus Hortensius "was no less disturbed over his sick fish than he was over his ailing slaves. And so he was less careful to see that a sick slave did not drink cold water than that his fish should have fresh water to drink". Vedius Pollio was a very extreme example of this attitude. According to Seneca the Younger (c.4 BCE - c.65 CE), Vedius Pollio would fatten his murenae on human blood, and order those slaves who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond. He may have actually done this; Pliny the Elder and Tertullian repeat the same story."

Kirk Johnson has also written interesting articles on

Pompeiian Yard Art

Venus in Pompeiian Gardens

Gardens of Nudes –How statues were displayed in the gardens of Imperial Rome

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Laelianus - Roman Emperor

I was reading David Meadow's very interesting blog rogueclassicism and noticed a reference to the UNRV website. This website was initially established as a resource for Roma Victa gamers. As David points out, it has an extensive index of Roman legions from the time of Julius Caesar to the 4th Century C.E. including their foundation, their bases, and battles and events in which they were involved. I was also intrigued by its Emperor index that covered a number of relatively unknown emperors from the 3rd – 6th centuries C.E. including Ulpius Cornelius Laelianus (269 C.E.).

"Laelianus shared the same nomen as a prominent Spanish noble family, the Ulpii, that included Trajan among its members, and may have been a relative. This is supported by the strong allusion to Spain on an aureus he struck, which featured the design of Hispania reclining with a rabbit to her side. If he indeed was a relative, this may be the reason Spain allied itself with Claudius II, after the death of Postumus, seemingly without a struggle.
Laeilianus was an usurper against Postumus, himself another usurper, who was unable to rout the incumbent when their forces met in battle. Laelianus thus had a tenure lasting from near the beginning of the year 269 through no later than that summer. Although his exact position is unknown, he is believed to have been a senior officer under Postumus. Laelianus represented a strong danger to Postumus because he was believed to be governor of Germania Superior and therefore had the command of two legions. (Legio XXII Primigenia, Legio VIII Augusta at Argentorate -Strasbourg-)."

Monday, January 05, 2004

Foundlings provide source for Roman Slavery

"When Tiberius and his successors followed in general Augustus' advice of confining the empire within its present frontiers (Tac. Ann. 1.11.7), one of the principal sources of slaves i.e. prisoners of war, seriously decreased. However, as far as we are aware, no major emergency in the replenishment of slave numbers occurred. The reason surely is that the considerable range of other slave sources already available were together able to make up sufficiently for the shortfall. Yet, of these sources, only two, vernae and foundlings, could, we are convinced, have been major contributors. Vernae certainly were important, yet, if the arguments and estimates given above are sound, vernae would have fallen well short of supplying the full yearly requirement. That leaves foundlings. Since we know that child exposure was a widespread phenomenon - urban as well as rural - over a considerable section of the Greek world, Asia Minor, Egypt, Italy and elsewhere in the West, we may conclude that enslaved foundlings were more or less able to make up for the shortage in the slave supply caused by the drop in the numbers of prisoners of war in the first century and a half of the empire - a shortage which vernae and the other sources could not offset. "