Tuesday, October 21, 2008


A program I saw on one of the educational channels challenged the long held belief that Cleopatra killed herself with an asp, claiming her mausoleum was too close to the palace where Octavian was staying for her to have died from a snake bite in the less than 20 minutes it took for Octavian to receive her message and rush to her death bier. Now that Dr. Zawi Hawass thinks he has discovered her mausoleum on the outskirts of modern Alexandria, much farther from her seaside palace as originally thought, perhaps the timing issue is now discredited. Anyway, I still find information about ancient poisons and the ancient drug trade fascinating. I thought this paper's mention that Nero started a School for Poisoners particularly interesting!

By L Cilliers & F P Retief

The history of poisons and poisoning goes back about 5 000 years to the earliest
written records of the human race. Menes, first of the Pharaohs, approximately 3 000
years BC studied and cultivated poisonous and medicinal plants – an interest retained
by the Egyptian court (Smith 1952:153), until the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra, probably
died of suicide by poisoning (Retief & Cilliers 1999:8-11). The cuneiform writings of
early Mesopotamia mention the use of poisons – a topic also dealt with in the written
records of ancient India and China. Early Greek myths tell of poisoners like Medea
and Hercules’ wife Deianira, and in the 5th century BC execution by poison was
accepted in Athenian law courts. In the Hippocratic oath, nevertheless, the students of
the great master are made to swear that they will not use poison (Lloyd 1983:67). The
Persian court was proficient in the art of poisoning (Smith 1952:155), while
Mithridates VI, king of Pontus at the turn of the first century BC and Attalus III, last
king of Pergamum in the second century, experimented with poisons on condemned
prisoners (Bloch 1987: 761-763).

In Rome the first record of poisoning dates back to 331 BC when a large
number of women were executed for suspected mass poisoning. Although we shall
never know its true incidence, there is good evidence that poisoning occurred more
and more frequently among all levels of society, reaching a peak in the 1st and 2nd
centuries AD. In 80 BC the dictator Sulla promulgated strict laws against poisoning.
At the end of the 1st century AD the satirist Juvenal and others denounced their
decadent society, claiming that poisoning had become a status symbol, an accepted
way for mothers to get rid of husbands and stepchildren, and for children to get rid of
rich fathers who lived too long (Juv. 1.73-76; 6.133 and 602-643; 7.169; 14.250-255).
Kaufman (1932:156) states that the word venenum (venom) is derived from
Venus and originally meant a love potion. In actual usage it later had three meanings:
remedy, poison and magic drug or abortive; in fact, venenum is such an ambiguous
word that jurists demanded that “the user of the word venenum must add whether it is
beneficial or harmful”.2 The Greek word pharmakon likewise referred to herb or drug
in general without distinguishing between its beneficial or harmful effects
(Horstmanshoff 1999:43). Veneficium meant poisoning or practicing sorcery, while
veneficus or venefica referred to a poisoner or preparer of drugs. The word scelus
(crime) is actually used by historians like Tacitus to indicate murder by poison (Ann.
1.5.2; 4.10.2; 6.33.1; 12.66.3). Poisons were also used for suicide – royalty in
particular kept a supply for emergencies (Kaufman 1932:160). Pliny considered it
quite proper for the infirm elderly to end his or her miserable life by taking poison,
and opium in particular (NH 2.197; 20.197-199).

Differentiation between producers of drugs (including poisonous substances), sellers
and prescribers of drugs in antiquity was much less clear cut than today. There were,
however, distinct intermediaries in this drug trade who played specific roles, as
summarised by Nutton (1985:138-145).

The Marsi or “travelling people” were at one end of the production chain.
Inhabiting the Abruzzi (central mountainous area of Italy), they had a reputation of
being wild and warlike with strange and archaic religious practices. They lived in
poverty, were excellent soldiers in the Roman army, but their only civilian attributes
lay in almost legendary magical powers as snake hunters and charmers, and druggists.

In many ways they were marginal people, who paid periodic visits to the cities,
selling their wares in the markets and performing daring acts as snake charmers. They
were reputed to have immunity against snake venom, and Galen admits to consulting
them on the value of drugs and antidotes. The Psylli, Nasamones and Palaeothebans
were similar peoples living elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, respected for their
skills with drugs, but frowned on by the early Christians who felt that they should not
be admitted to the flock without the greatest circumspection.

The so-called rootcutters (rhizotomoi) were much more acceptable to society
as true herbalists who knew and collected plant products, which were sold to
physicians and other interested parties. Some of them were recognized experts,
including the respected 1st century BC pharmacologist, Crataeus, assistant to
Mithridates. Most large cities had quarters frequented by the sellers of drugs
(including those inducing euphoric trances and poisons) and hawkers (called an
agurtês, “the man who attracts a crowd” or ochlagôgos, “seducer of the crowd”), as
well as physicians in search of remedies, and a motley crowd in search of pleasures
associated with the variety of ointments, perfumes and spices. Gradually the drug
trade became very lucrative and expanded by way of contact with the Far East, Egypt,
Arabia, North Africa and Spain. In Rome these imported products were stored in
apothecae (derived from a Greek word which literally means “storeroom”), where the
storeman (apothecarius) would list them.

Eventually the lucrativeness of the drug trade led to widespread fraud and
incompetence. Galen and others insisted that physicians should prepare their own
medicines, and not rely on herbalists to do so. As poisoning increased, there was a
growing trade in mithridatum, theriac and other so-called antidotes to poison.
However, Nutton (1985:144-145) points out that wide-spread and basic ignorance
about the action of medications led to the situation where the drug trade was
financially profitable, but from a medical point of view ineffective and even

As from the late 1st century BC certain persons (mostly women) became
infamous as dispensers of poison. The poet Horace (Sat. 2.1.56) tells of Canidia who
terrorized her opponents with her efficiency at poisoning.

Tacitus (Ann. 2.69-74; 3.7) relates that when the emperor Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus died under suspicious circumstances (AD 19), it was suspected that the notorious poisoner, Martina, a close friend of Plancina, the wife of governor Piso who had quarreled with Germanicus, was partially responsible. Martina was sent to Rome where the Senate planned an
investigation into Germanicus’ death. She suddenly died on the way. Her body bore no signs of suicide, but poison was found hidden in a knot of her hair.

[Image: Death of Germanicus by Nicholas Poussin. 1628 CE]

Apollodorus, a rhetorician of Pergamum, was convicted as poisoner, but he escaped to Massilia
where he opened a school (Kaufman 1932:165). Locusta was the most infamous of these poisoners (Suet. Nero 33.3; 34; Claudius 44). Convicted of many crimes during Claudius’ reign, she was not immediately executed, and subsequently approached by Agippina, second wife of Claudius, to prepare a poison for her husband. When Claudius died, he was immediately succeeded by Nero, Agrippina’s own son – who then engaged Locusta to prepare a poison for his younger half-brother, Britannicus.

After the latter’s murder, Nero suspended Locusta’s death penalty and kept her as the emperor’s adviser on poisons. He even organized a school of poisoning where she could train others in her art. Locusta was allowed to test her poisons on animals and convicted criminals. - More

Monday, June 16, 2008

Analyzing Ancient Polychromy on Greek and Roman Sculpture

I just returned from southern California where I was privileged to view the "Color of Life" exhibit at the Getty Villa about the use of polychromy to enhance ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Although I must admit that I personally prefer the "classical" look of the unadorned stone, I find it interesting to view sculptures as they would have appeared to ancient residents of Rome and Athens. This head of the Emperor Caligula originally was thought to be painted with a dark red skin tone, almost the color of terracotta. But further research indicates the sculpture of "Little Boots" was more lifelike.

As a computer graphics enthusiast, I like to take an image of a colorless ancient sculpture and apply color and image maps to it to see what the real person the sculpture represents might have looked like. I used this technique on the sculpture of Alexander the Great on the right. I used Photoshop to apply color lightly with the transparency set to about 12% so the facial structure of the sculpture can "show through" and applied image map eyes. The best recreation using this computer technique I have ever seen was an image of Constantine complete with luminous blue eyes and a five o'clock shadow! I tried to find it again to link to it but alas it has been lost to internet history.

I was curious about the pigment analysis process that has been undertaken in the last few years to identify the colors and materials used by ancient artists and was pleased to find this brief article on such a project conducted in Denmark:

"A Greek marble sculpture (inv. No. 2830), dating from c. 425 BC (see archaeological comments) [1], from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek was examined to locate, analyze and document any remains of polychromy. Since only a few sculptures from this period with paint fragments have so far been examined there were no particular preconceptions about what might be found or identified [2]. Although it might be expected that some of the 15 to 20 pigments known and described in ancient sources, and which have been identified in previous studies, would be present, the nature of the binding medium used was less obvious. The methods of examination, analysis and documentation used are those commonly applied to polychrome sculptures from antiquity and medieval times.

A variety of methods was employed in this project, beginning with an examination of the stone surface by microscopy, followed by documentation using black and white, colour, infrared and ultraviolet fluorescence photography. On basis of these results, four areas on the sculpture were identified as promising areas for taking samples of paint.

One paint samples was taken from each of the four areas. Half of each sample was kept for further analysis while the other half was made into a paint cross-section. These were studied by dark field and ultraviolet microscopy, and photographed. This examination of the layer structure led to a further discussion of the possible composition and to the determination of the relevant analytical methods to be used in the next stage.

The cross-sections were studied in the scanning electron microscope and analysed using energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDX). Backscatter images provided further information about the layer structure and EDX analysis provided information about the chemical elements present in the samples. The four cross-sections were further examined by Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy with attenuated total reflectance (ATR) microscopy, providing further information about the chemical composition and structure of the paint samples.

The visual examination of the surface, combined with photographic documentation, revealed that there were only very small fragments of paint left on the sculpture. Three types of paint were identified. First were minute flesh-coloured areas on the face, mainly on the left cheek just below the eye, on the right cheek next to the chin and beneath the left ear. Second, brown areas in recesses in the hair and, third, an area at the edge of the hair above the forehead with a dark brown colour on top of a grey-white layer — an area that is superimposed on a break in the surface.

Ultraviolet fluorescence revealed that the eyes had been painted. A prominent fluorescence in the white part of the eye bore witness to this, although no traces of colour, pigments or binding medium could be found. Furthermore, a yellowish ultraviolet fluorescence was seen on the marble surface where the flesh colours had been.

Three of the cross-sections, two flesh-coloured samples and one from a brown area of the hair, contained two layers, a calcium-containing ground (c. 20–40 μm thick) beneath a coloured top layer that mainly comprises a calcium-containing material with an iron compound and charcoal as the colourants. The main difference between the samples from the flesh and hair was in the proportion of charcoal and iron compound. The crosssection from the hair contained one large grain of charcoal.

Of note is the similarity between the paint structure for the sculpture’s flesh colours and that of analogous structures in mediaeval polychromy. The samples also show high homogeneity within the layer and relatively thin paint layers.

The fourth cross-section, from the hair above the forehead, contained a very thick, white calcium-containing layer. The colouring matter appears in lumps within, and on top of, the white layer, and contains iron, barium and sulphur. The presence of barium probably implies that this layer was applied to the sculpture within the last 200 to 300 years.

One of the questions that has yet to be answered is the nature of the binding medium used for the paints in this sculpture.

This 23 cm high fragment of a female head was acquired in Athens in c. 1910. The marble is Parian Lychnites and the statue is thought, on stylistic grounds, to be a Classical Greek original made in Athens around 425 BC, although an attribution to a later, Roman imperial, date cannot be ruled out.

Compared to the Greek Archaic and Early Classical periods, the sculptural polychromy of both the Classical Hellenistic Greek and Roman periods remains very poorly documented. The results related above have a particular bearing on one of the most contested issues, namely how the naked parts of marble sculptures were dealt with, either on Classical originals or Roman imitations. It should be pointed out that the traces of polychromy documented here may theoretically be later additions. Further comparative data must be accumulated in order to reach a firmer conclusion. In this regard, co-ordinated, systematic and, not least, interdisciplinary studies of museum collections are needed. Just as important is an increased awareness among archaeologists and conservators working in the field of possible, usually minute and very fragile, remains of polychromy on finds of sculpture and architectural elements. The need for an international forum dedicated to the subject of ancient sculptural polychromy is evident." - Mikkel Scharff, conservator and head of department at the School of Conservation of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen

See video "Tracing Colors of Ancient Sculpture"

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Greek/Latin Bilingualism in the Roman Empire

As I continue my parallel study of the Greeks and the Romans, I learned some interesting aspects about the use of Greek language by elite Romans during the Republic and in the early Imperial period.

Dr. Robert Garland, in his lecture series " Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean ", related that one of the first efforts of Roman ambassadors attempting to speak Greek was met by derision by the Greeks of the Greek colony of Tarentum just prior to the war with Pyrrhus. Dr. Garland says the ancient sources point to this humiliation as one of the reasons for the war.

But as Roman exploits extended into mainland Greece and the Hellenistic Kingdoms where Greek was the lingua franca of business and law, and thousands of highly educated Greek slaves flooded Rome, including teachers, the elite of Rome began learning Greek in earnest.

By the late Republican period, most Roman senators spoke Greek and only a few "boorish" exceptions, as recounted by Cicero, required a translator. However, Cicero still claimed that Latin provided the ability to be more precise in formal rhetoric. Dr. Garland said there were no Greek or Roman dictionaries at the time but such dictionaries have since been compiled and the actual tally of words is about 90,000 for Latin and over 130,000 for Greek so he felt this disproved Cicero's assertion.

Bilingualism continued until the separation of the empire into East and West. Then Dr. Garland points out that bilingualism died out quite quickly in the West. I found this puzzling as interaction with the Greek East still continued. But, I have read in other sources that formal education was no longer emphasized as much among the elite in the west during the late imperial period leading up to the Dark Ages and perhaps this is the reason.

Dr. Garland pointed out one other interesting effect continuing Roman conquest had on the speaking arts. By Augustus' reign, there were so many different languages spoken by the common people in Rome that when mime and pantomime theater was introduced, it became far more popular than the traditional Greek theater presentations.

Friday, May 16, 2008

How to read Cicero's gobbets and the problem of context when studying the ancient sources

I found this extensive review of Andrew Lintott’s new book, Cicero As Evidence: A historian’s companion, very interesting from the perspective of someone who tries to understand the historical context of works written by ancient sources:

An abstract:

"Andrew Lintott’s new book, Cicero As Evidence: A historian’s companion, treats the multi-volume writings of Cicero, from the private letters to the philosophical treatises, as if they were one big gobbet..."

"...He wants, on the one hand, to warn the novice against a naive, gullible approach to this material. You must not imagine, as he explains very clearly, that what have come down to us as "Cicero’s speeches" were in most cases anything like what were actually delivered in courtroom, Senate House or Forum. This is not just a question of Cicero improving what he had said on the day, when it came to circulating the “published” version. Some were outright confections, never delivered at all. This is well known to be the case with, for example, the later speeches in the series "Against Verres"; for Verres had seen the writing on the wall and scarpered when the trial was only part way through. But the idea that his famous fourth speech against Catiline is almost as much a retrospective invention is not so widely acknowledged. More than this, however, Lintott hammers home the obvious, but often neglected, point that the speeches as we read them make no sense in terms of the courtroom procedure of Roman law. If they reflect anything of what was said at the trial, it is only because Cicero has stitched together elements of various separate phases of the proceedings (including witness interrogation) to make something that would be handed to posterity as a single, coherent "speech"..."

"...He is impressively at home with the whole body of Cicero’s writing and has a sharp eye for some interesting and evocative passages. He is particularly good at unravelling the niceties of senatorial debate, as they are hinted at by Cicero in his letters. And he has an elegant few pages on the strange work known as the Commentariolum Petitionis (Handbook on Electioneering) written by Cicero’s brother Quintus to advise him on how to get elected to the consulship. Many have suspected this to be a first-century ad forgery, one of those imaginary historical exercises that Roman rhetoricians so loved. Lintott is not, for once, on the suspicious side, and uses the Commentariolum to capture the atmosphere of a Roman election, the handshaking, the canvassing and the streetwise PR campaign. Cicero, as we know, was to prove extremely successful at this. Not so the effete aristocrat Scipio Nasica in his own attempt at a charm offensive in an earlier election campaign. Surprised to find that the peasant’s hand he was shaking was so horny, he asked the poor man if he used his hands to walk on. Scipio lost that election..."

"...But there is also a “wood and trees” problem with the idea of history as gobbet. The finely honed analysis of individual passages is all well and good. But ancient writers did not write in three-line chunks, nor (despite the modern vogue for “sourcebooks”) did they write to be “sources”; nor, of course, did they write to be “Evidence”. By keeping his nose so close to the micro-problems, Lintott can miss out the bigger picture of the world in which Cicero operated, of what he thought he was doing and why that has been of such interest ever after.

So, for example, a carefully crafted section of Lintott’s book dissects Cicero’s philosophical writing and its relationship to his political life more generally. But there is nothing on just how extraordinary it was for a Roman politician to be analysing the world in Greek philosophical terms in the first place, or on the revolution in Roman thought (of which Cicero was part driver, part beneficiary) that made this possible. Another few pages offer a sensible analysis of the politics behind one of Cicero’s, now little read, religious speeches. This is Cicero’s own response to an enigmatic priestly interpretation of a strange rumbling sound that had been heard outside Rome and was assumed to be a message from the gods. But Lintott offers little to help us understand what difference this made, or how important the gods were in a world that might otherwise seem to be governed by hard-headed realpolitik and philosophical scepticism."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Berkeley's Plato a genuine Roman copy of Greek original

I was contemplating a trip down to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California - Berkeley and came across this fascinating article about a herm of Plato that was acquired in 1902 and had been subsequently (and erroneously) termed a fake.

"A portrait herm of the Greek philosopher Plato is emerging from a century of obscurity and disrespect to assume its rightful place in ancient history, thanks to the sleuthing of a University of California, Berkeley, classics professor.

Stephen G. Miller today (Wednesday, April 9) publicly outlined his research and scientific test results that he said shows the sculpture purchased for UC Berkeley and brought to its anthropology museum in 1902 is not a contemporary fake.

Additionally, Berkeley's Plato turns out to be a rare depiction of Plato not as a famous philosopher, but as a just and virtuous citizen, said Miller, a specialist in Greek and Roman archaeology and art who leads a UC Berkeley excavation project in Ancient Nemea, Greece.

nitial museum catalogue records at UC Berkeley note that the herm's significance was in doubt. But the crowning blow came in 1966, when UC Berkeley graduate student R.J. Smutney, studying Latin inscriptions, inspected the writings on Plato's shaft - it had been separated from the head, which couldn't be found -and declared it a fake.

Miller said today that he can now prove the opposite.

The sculpture, brought by ship and then overland by rail to the museum in 1902, dates back to approximately 125 A.D., Miller said. While it is a copy, it is an elegant replica of a Greek original from about 360 B.C., he said.

What's more, he said, it provides a glimpse of what Plato really may have looked like.

Paul Zanker, Sather professor at UC Berkeley a decade ago, has suggested that previously identified portraits of Plato were unsatisfactory because they attempted to force a prototype into the later mould of "philosopher" types.

"The Berkeley Plato," said Miller, "not only proves that Zanker was on the right path, but it gives us a much sharper and more accurate image of Plato's appearance. It takes us closer to that non-philosopher prototype. What a thrill to think that our contacts with the historical Plato are much more direct now than a few months ago."

Miller said he bases his conclusions on his inquiries into several topics, including:

  • Ribbons that adorn the sculpture
  • Plato's writings and what's known of his life
  • Quotations inscribed on the UC Berkeley Plato
  • The source of the marble and the quarry's known time of use
  • Lettering on the shaft

The ribbons on the UC Berkeley Plato are significant for many reasons, Miller said. One is that modern artists typically have depicted Plato with long tresses, not ribbons.

The ribbons also underscore Plato's known love of athletic competition and visits to Olympic games, his training as a wrestler, his competition at the Isthmian Games, and the ribbons' association with gymnasions - the schools of ancient Greece, the dramatic setting for at least four of Plato's dialogues.

The UC Berkeley Plato also depicts the philosopher with a puffy, deformed lobe on the left ear, and Miller noted that in Plato's "Protagoras," he referred to admirers of Sparta, who bound their hands in order to box so that their consequently deformed ears would be like those of their heroes. The UC Berkeley Plato's bad left ear may indicate the impact of a ferocious swing by a right-handed opponent, Miller said.

Also supporting the case for the UC Berkeley Plato as an antiquity, Miller said, is that the ribbon reflects Plato's belief in a need for the state and the individual to train both the intellect and the body without over-emphasizing either one.

"But the ribbons of the (UC) Berkeley Plato have an even greater pertinence to the man and his work," said Miller. "The Republic," probably written between 380 and 370 B.C., when the philosopher was in his 50s, and largely regarded as Plato's masterpiece, presents Plato's notion of the immortality of the soul.

One quotation inscribed on the base of the UC Berkeley sculpture states, "Every soul is immortal." While Plato first advanced the idea in the "Georgias," he more fully developed the concept in "The Republic," Miller said.

Plato argued that every soul is immortal, and the total number of souls immutable, with lives spent in cycles of 100 years on earth and the next 1,000 years in heaven or hell, depending on the justice and virtue of that first century lived. The first quotation on the UC Berkeley sculpture advises caution in choosing that next soul: "Blame the one who makes the choice, God is blameless." This quotation from "The Republic" reinforces the idea that the UC Berkeley Plato is a copy of a portrait sculpted during or after "The Republic" was written.

"The Republic" ends with an admonition that, if people live their 100-year lives in a just and virtuous manner, they will come to the end like victorious athletes going on their victory lap to collect their ribbons.

"We are looking at Plato's own definition of the good citizen," said Miller.

He reported that tests of samples of the bust and pedestal by the Demokritos Laboratory of Archaeometry in Athens prove that both pieces are Parian marble, the stone of choice for ancient sculptors.

Even more significant, Miller said, is that the Parian quarry ceased production in the late Roman period, and there is not a single example of a Renaissance or early modern forgery or copy of an ancient statue made with marble from the island of Paros.

Heavily encrusted portions of the herm reflect its old age, as does the presence of miltos, a red pigment used in ancient inscriptions to make them more legible, he said. Miltos is found in every inscribed line on the herm, and encrustation has formed over the miltos.

Unique theta and square omicron letterforms on the UC Berkeley Plato also are found on other ancient portrait herms, Miller said."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Pompeii Timeline

Current Archaeology Magazine's website offered this great timeline of development for the city of Pompeii:

8th century BC Iron Age agricultural settlement
6th century BC City founded by Oscans, Greeks or Etruscans
City walls built. Street grid laid out
First masonry building on site of House of Amarantus
4th century BC Second phase of building on site of House of Amarantus
First settlement on site of House of the Vestals
Rome conquers the Bay of Naples
3rd century BC First masonry buildings on site of House of the Vestals
218-201 BC War against Hannibal
2nd century BC House of the Vestals doubles in size
146 BC Destruction of Carthage and Corinth
91 - 87 BC Social War; Pompeii besieged
80 BC Roman colony founded
Early 1st century BC House of the Vestals doubles in size and is substantially rebuilt
Late 1st century BC House 12 constructed on the site of House of Amarantus
30 BC - AD 14 Reign of first emperor, Octavian-Augustus
20s AD House of the Vestals substantially rebuilt with fountains
AD 62 Earthquake strikes Pompeii
70s AD House of the Vestals substantially rebuilt without piped water
House of Amarantus becomes a run-down bar
AD 79 Pompeii destroyed by Vesuvius

Go to the link for an extensive article on Pompeii. Their interactive map of the site is also very interesting. For additional images of Pompeii, check out my Flickr photo set

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vitruvius - Roman Architect and Engineer

born around 84 B.C., died after 27 A.D., Roman architect, military and hydraulic engineer, art theorist

The name Vitruvius Pollio was reported by the epitomist Faventinus, but only the gentile name Vitruvius is assuredly correct. Vitruvius served as military engineer in the armies of Caesar and Augustus and worked with Marcus Aurelius, Publius Minidius and Gaius Cornelius to build projectile artillery and other war machines. It is highly probable that he belonged to the circle around Marcus Vipsanius Aggrippa from 33 B.C. and that he was involved in the construction of public plumbing in Rome. The only building that can be attributed to Vitruvius with certainty, which was designed by him and constructed under his direction, is no longer standing: the basilica of Fanum Fortuna in Umbria [should be Marche instead of Umbria], (presumably Vitruvius’ hometown, called Fano today). The very precise description of this building in De architectura libri X (V 1, 6 – 10) suggests that this basilica was similar to the basilicas in Pompeii and Ardea near Rom.
Vitruvius began writing his famous work De architectura libri X, which he dedicated to Augustus, even before 33 B.C. and apparently completed it before 22 B.C. Unfortunately this book is full of gaps and many of its passages are unclear and ambiguously formulated, but it is of outstanding importance for us today because it is the only Ancient textbook on architecture and technology that remains preserved today. In Book I Vitruvius deals with architectural training and elucidates general aesthetic concepts as well as the planning of cities and fortifications. In Book II he describes the construction materials used at the time and explains the technology of building walls. Books III and IV deal with the construction of temples and the orders and proportions of columns. Book V is dedicated to the erection of public buildings; Vitruvius deals in particular with the construction of markets, basilicas, theatres, halls and water installations. The different types of private buildings and the design of individual rooms in such buildings are discussed in Book VI. This book also deals with agricultural buildings and the influence of climate on the type of construction. The interior décor of buildings, such as stucco and plasterwork, colours and decorative murals, are the subject of Book VII. The installation of waterworks, for example, the construction of the aqueducts, is described in Book VIII. Because the main subject of Book VIII is the construction of sundials and water-clocks, the beginning of this book presents general astronomical observations about the measurement of time. An introduction to the mechanical engineering of that time, which was primarily concerned with the construction of lifting machines and guns, is given in the final Book IX. Vitruvius bases his purely technical data primarily on his own experience; on occasion he also refers to that of older Roman practitioners, otherwise he mostly refers to late Hellenistic authors such as Hermogenes, Pytheos and Varro, whereby, however, he does not always quote accurately and barely mentions buildings from the Augustan era. The compilatory character of his book also influences his linguistic style. In the introductions to the individual books, Vitruvius’ style is quite circumlocutory and rhetorical, whereas the language in the technical descriptions is extremely dry and concise. Vitruvius’ style is quite often criticized in Ancient philology, but what he writes does not actually amount to vulgar Latin. In Classical archaeology the concepts and schematic ground plans handed down by Vitruvius have often been used to reconstruct excavated buildings with great success. Vitruvius’ characterization of the Classic orders of columns (Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, Tuscan) remains part of architectural history even today. In his own day Vitruvius had no important influence. Not until the late Ancient period and the early Middle Ages did an intensive reception history of Vitruvius commence, whereby it is difficult to determine what influence Vitruvius actually had on the Middle Ages. By far the greatest influence was exerted by his book De architectura, in the period of the Renaissance, when his theory of proportion and his description of Ancient architectural orders became fundamental components of architectural theory. Whether his theory of proportion was actually used in practice can hardly be determined today. The ambiguity of Vitruvius’ text made many different interpretations possible, which was apparently quite advantageous for Renaissance architects and allowed them to integrate the architectural principles and aesthetic theory of the Ancients into their own architectural practice on the basis of Vitruvius’ writings. Many important artists of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci and L.B. Alberti, studied Vitruvius thoroughly and found diverse sources of stimulation in his work. Approximately 55 hand-written manuscripts of Vitruvius’ De architectura are known. Vitruvius is one of the first Ancient authors whose work was printed (Editio princeps around 1486) and was translated into many European languages. The numerous sixteenth-century editions are important not only because of their commentaries and translations, but primarily because of the illustrations they contain. These editions are of particular value for art historians: because the original Ancient illustrations for De architectura were not preserved, all illustrations for Vitruvius’ De architectura are always interpretations from the period of the given edition. The commentaries on the editions of Vitruvius from the sixteenth century codified the system of the ancient forms of buildings; this codification was soon elevated to dogma and continued to exert an influence well into the nineteenth century (Vitruvianism).
- From The Archimedes Project

Digital images of a 1567 edition of his work

(contains beautiful architectural illustrations)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dacian Achievements Far From "Barbaric"

I'm always glad to have readers update me with information they have discovered in their own research on topics I have mentioned. Some time ago I mentioned a lecture I attended on Trajan's column and the conquest of Dacia. Today I received a fascinating summary of facts about the Dacians from high school student Alex Popescu.

Alex writes: Hi, I am a high school student currently working on an end of term project on Dacia. While searching for information I stumbled upon your blog and I saw that you were told that Dacia, a civilization that preceded Rome and the first unified kingdom in Europe ( Greece had independent city states) , was barbaric.

The lecture you attended was unfortunately biased. Dacia is an old civilization that was not documented because of Communist rule over the countries that were once this great civilization.

Quick list:

These "Barbarians" ,as Dr. Christina Calthoon called [them], were:

The inventors of writing. Common knowledge was that the earliest form of writing comes from Mesopotamia. Google "Tartaria Tablets" if in doubt.

The colonizers of Europe. The Caucasian population of the world first migrated into Europe through what is modern day Eastern Russia, north of the Black Sea. They settled in the Carpathian Basin ( modern day Transylvania). Due to overpopulation, they migrated west. Italy was colonized by the ancestors of the Dacians.

They originally shared gods with the Thracians and Greeks. Later on they abondoned these gods and became some of the first Monotheistic people in the world believing in the god Zamolxis.

Dacians received tribute from the Roman Emperor Domitian in return for Dacia not raiding the Roman Province of Moesia. Domitian also gave the Dacian king Decebalus engineers to build them fortresses and infrastructure. You never mentioned, but if the Dacian fortress that you saw was barbarian in appearance, it is important to know that it was probably Roman made.

Dacia was never fully conquered. One third to half of the territory was taken. In fact, Dacia was the last province to be added to the Roman Empire and the first to be lost.
England was conquered with Dacian legions in the service of Rome after part of Dacia was taken.

The word "rock" originates from the Dacian word "rocka"."

Thanks, Alex!!!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Women's roles in Roman society and as objects of Plautus' wit

I noticed that Roman scholar Judith Hallett has released a new article assessing the writings of Plautus' Phoenicium on Roman love talk. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a copy online to include much of an abstract so here's the official news release:

"A University of Maryland Classics professor has suggested Roman ways of expressing your affection for that special someone.

Ancient Romans knew all about love, and weren't afraid to talk about it. So, professor Judith Hallett has offered a research on ancient Roman 'love talk'.

The study focuses on the writing of Plautus , a 2nd century BCE playwright.

In his work Phoenicium, Plautus looks at the different ways in which two men of very different social classes assess the erotically-charged words of one specific woman.

"Plautus, in his characteristically funny way, illustrates that social class, that of the critic and that of the writer, plays a major role in how Roman women's writings, and in this case erotic Latin writings, were judged by men," said Hallett.

But in my online research for more information about Hallett's work I did find a website by Associate Professor Ann R. Raia, The College of New Rochelle that included excellent supporting material about the roles and lives of women in ancient Rome. The first page I encountered listed all of the plays in which Plautus used women for comedic stereotypes:

Philaenium: Plautus, Asinaria
Bacchis, Plautus, Bacchides
Gymnasium: Plautus, Cistellaria
Acropolis: Plautus, Epidicus
Erotium: Plautus, Menaechmi
Philocomasium, Acroteleutium: Plautus, Miles Gloriosus
Pasicompsa: Plautus, Mercator
Philematium and Scapha: Plautus, Mostellaria
Lemniselenis: Plautus, Persa
Phoenicium: Plautus, Pseudolus
Phronesium: Plautus, Truculentus

Further exploration led me to a website that was a companion to her text "The Worlds of Roman Women. It included lists of both classic and modern references, images, and commentary. Well worth exploring! She is also a contributor to the excellent website Vroma and the Juvenal Project.

Was Apicius a Roman gourmet or glutton?

"The oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria ("The Art of Cooking") is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, the famed epicure who flourished during the reign of Tiberius early in the first century AD. (Renaissance humanists mistakenly ascribed the book to a "Apicius Caelius" from an attempt to reconstruct the letters API and CAE that appear on the damaged title page of one of two ninth-century manuscripts that preserve the document.) The recipes themselves were not compiled until late in the fourth or early in the fifth century and derive from a variety of sources, although about three-fifths are Apicius' own, some of which are quite elaborate. Apicius was said to have discovered how to treat the liver of sows, just as those of geese, stuffing them with dried figs and, then just before the animal was killed, giving it honeyed wine (mulsum) (Pliny, VIII.209, cf. recipe 259).

The ten books are arranged, much like a modern cookbook, by the ingredient to be prepared and include recipes for meats, vegetables, legumes, fowl, meat, seafood, and fish. Almost five hundred are given, presumably to be used by an experienced cook, as there is little indication of the quantity of ingredients, their proportions, or how they should be used. Over four hundred of these recipes include a sauce, invariably made with fermented fish sauce (garum). The preparation of most sauces began with pulverized spices and herbs, usually pepper, which often was combined with cumin, although it sometimes is difficult to determine whether spices or herbs were to be fresh or dried, leaf or seed. After being ground in a mortar, fruits (plums, dates, raisins) and nuts (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts) were added (and often pounded as well) and then liquids, including garum, water, stock, milk, honey, oil, vinegar, and wine, both plain and reduced to increase its sweetness. Thickening usually was by wheat starch but also included the yolks and whites of eggs, pounded dates, and steeped rice or the water in which it had been boiled. Fish sauces tended to be particularly elaborate; boiled murena (likely eel), for example, called for pepper, lovage, dill, celery seed, coriander, dried mint, and rue, as well as pine nuts, honey, vinegar, wine, and oil (451)...."