Sunday, December 4, 2016

The glorious Caesars

History Extra


Augustus, Caligula and Tiberius, depicted (left to right) in contemporary busts. For all their despotism, Romans thanked their first three emperors for delivering them from the curse of civil war. © Getty/AKG Images

Almost 2,000 years after his death, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus remains the archetype of a monstrous leader. Caligula, as he is better known, is one of the few characters from ancient history to be as familiar to pornographers as to classicists. The scandalous details of his reign have always provoked prurient fascination. “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” So wrote Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, an archivist in the imperial palace who doubled in his spare time as a biographer of the Caesars, and whose life of Caligula is the oldest extant account that we possess. Written almost a century after the emperor’s death, it catalogues a quite sensational array of depravities and crimes. He slept with his sisters! He dressed up as the goddess Venus! He planned to award his horse the highest magistracy in Rome! So appalling were his stunts that they seemed to shade into lunacy. Suetonius certainly had no doubt about this when explaining Caligula’s behaviour: “He was ill in both body and mind.” But if Caligula was sick then so, too, was his city. The powers of life and death wielded by an emperor would have been abhorrent to an earlier generation. Almost a century before Caligula came to power, his great-great-great-great-uncle had been the first of his dynasty to establish an autocracy in Rome. The exploits of Gaius Julius Caesar were as spectacular as any in his city’s history: the permanent annexation of Gaul, as the Romans called what today is France, and invasions of Britain and Germany. He achieved his feats, though, as a citizen of a republic – one in which it was taken for granted by most that death was the only conceivable alternative to liberty. When Julius Caesar, trampling this presumption, laid claim to a primacy over his fellow citizens, it resulted first in civil war and then, after he had crushed his domestic foes as he had previously crushed the Gauls, in his assassination. Only after two more murderous bouts of slaughtering one another were the Roman people finally inured to their servitude. Submission to the rule of a single man had redeemed their city and its empire from self-destruction – but the cure itself was a kind of disease. Their new master called himself Augustus: the ‘Divinely Favoured One’. The great-nephew of Julius Caesar, he had waded through blood to secure the command of Rome and her empire – and then, once his rivals had been dispatched, had coolly posed as a prince of peace. As cunning as he was ruthless, as patient as he was decisive, Augustus managed to maintain his supremacy for decades, and then to die in his bed. Key to this achievement was his ability to rule with, rather than against the grain of, Roman tradition. By pretending that he was not an autocrat, he licensed his fellow citizens to pretend that they were still free. A veil of shimmering and seductive subtlety was draped over the brute contours of his dominance.




A detail from the Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to the goddess of peace. It was built under Augustus who, having butchered his way to power, recast himself as a prince of peace. © AKG Images

 Over time, though, this veil became increasingly threadbare. On Augustus’s death in AD 14, the powers that he had accumulated over the course of his long and mendacious career stood revealed, not as temporary expediencies but rather as a package to be handed down to an heir. His choice of successor was a man raised since childhood in his own household, an aristocrat by the name of Tiberius. The many qualities of the new Caesar, which ranged from exemplary aristocratic pedigree to a track record as Rome’s finest general, had counted for less than his status as Augustus’s adopted son – and everyone knew it. A diseased age Tiberius, a man who all his life had been wedded to the virtues of the vanished republic, made an unhappy monarch; but Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius after a reign of 23 years, was unembarrassed. That he ruled the Roman world by virtue neither of age nor of experience but as the great-grandson of Augustus bothered him not the slightest. “Nature produced him, in my opinion, to demonstrate just how far unlimited vice can go when combined with unlimited power.” Such was the obituary delivered on Caligula by Seneca, a philosopher who had known him well. The judgment, though, was not just on Caligula, but also on Seneca’s own peers, who had cringed and grovelled before the emperor while he was still alive, and on the Roman people as a whole. The age was a rotten one: diseased, debased, degraded.





A statue from first-century Pompeii showing Caligula on horseback. The emperor’s favourite horse was called Incitatus, and it was said that Caligula planned to make it a consul. © Alamy

 Or so many believed. Not everyone agreed. The regime established by Augustus would never have endured had it failed to offer what the Roman people had come so desperately to crave after decades of civil war: peace and order. The vast agglomeration of provinces ruled from Rome, stretching from the North Sea to the Sahara and from the Atlantic to the Fertile Crescent, reaped the benefits as well. Three centuries on, when the nativity of the most celebrated man born in Augustus’s reign – Jesus – stood in infinitely clearer focus than it had done at the time, a bishop named Eusebius could see in the emperor’s achievements the very guiding hand of God. “It was not just as a consequence of human action,” he declared, “that the greater part of the world should have come under Roman rule at the precise moment Jesus was born. The coincidence that saw our Saviour begin his mission against such a backdrop was undeniably arranged by divine agency. After all, had the world still been at war, and not united under a single form of government, then how much more difficult would it have been for the disciples to undertake their travels?” The price of peace Eusebius could see, with the perspective provided by distance, just how startling was the feat of globalisation brought to fulfilment under Augustus and his successors. Though the methods deployed to uphold it were brutal, the sheer immensity of the regions pacified by Roman arms was unprecedented. “To accept a gift,” went an ancient saying, “is to sell your liberty.” Rome held her conquests in fee, but the peace that she bestowed upon them in exchange was not necessarily to be sniffed at. Whether in the suburbs of the capital itself – booming under the Caesars to become the largest city the world had ever seen – or across the span of the Mediterranean, united now for the first time under a single power, or in the furthermost corners of an empire, the pax Romana brought benefits to millions.




A fourth-century relief shows Jesus with three apostles. One bishop of that era claimed that the Augustinian peace hastened the spread of Christianity. © Alamy

 Provincials might well be grateful. “He cleared the sea of pirates, and filled it with merchant shipping.” So enthused a Jew from the Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria, writing in praise of Augustus. “He gave freedom to every city, brought order where there had been chaos, and civilised savage peoples.” Similar hymns of praise could be – and were – addressed to Tiberius and Caligula. The depravities for which these men would become notorious rarely had much impact on the wider world. In the provinces it mattered little who ruled as emperor – so long as the centre held.



This etching shows the emperors Claudius (left) and Tiberius, with their wives Agrippina and Livia, respectively. © Alamy

 Yet even in the empire’s farthest reaches, Caesar was a constant presence. How could he not be? “In the whole wide world, there is not a single thing that escapes him.” An exaggeration, of course – yet a due reflection of the fear and awe that an emperor could hardly help but inspire in his subjects. He alone had command of Rome’s monopoly of violence: the legions and the menacing apparatus of provincial government that ensured that taxes were paid, rebels slaughtered and malefactors thrown to beasts or nailed up on crosses. An emperor did not constantly need to be showing his hand for dread of his arbitrary power to be universal across the world. Small wonder that the face of Caesar should have become, for millions of his subjects, the face of Rome. Rare was the town that did not boast some image of him: a statue, a portrait bust, a frieze. Even in the most provincial backwater, to handle money was to be familiar with Caesar’s profile. Within Augustus’s own lifetime, no living citizen had ever appeared on a Roman coin – but no sooner had he seized control of the world than his face was being minted everywhere, stamped on gold, silver and bronze. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Even an itinerant street-preacher in the wilds of Galilee, holding up a coin and demanding to know whose face it portrayed, could be confident of the answer: “Caesar’s.”




A first-century BC coin shows Augustus wearing a laurel wreath – symbol of military victory. © Getty

 No surprise, then, that the character of an emperor – his achievements, his relationships and his foibles – should have been topics of obsessive fascination to his subjects. “Your destiny it is to live as in a theatre where your audience is the entire world.” This was the warning attributed by one Roman historian to Maecenas, a close confidant of Augustus. Whether or not he really said it, the sentiment was true to his master’s theatricality. Augustus, lying on his deathbed, was reported by Suetonius to have asked his friends whether he had played his part well in the comedy of life; assured that he had, he demanded their applause as he headed for the exit.

 A good emperor had no choice but to be a good actor – as, too, did everyone else in the drama’s cast. Caesar, after all, was never alone on the stage. His potential successors were public figures by virtue of their relationship to him. Even the wife, the niece or the granddaughter of an emperor might have her role to play. Get it wrong and she was liable to pay a terrible price, but get it right and her face might appear on coins alongside Caesar’s own.

 No household in history had ever before been so squarely in the public eye as that of Augustus. The fashions and hairstyles of its most prominent members, reproduced in exquisite detail by sculptors across the empire, set trends from Syria to Spain. Their achievements were celebrated with spectacularly showy monuments, their scandals repeated with relish from seaport to seaport. Propaganda and gossip, each feeding off the other, gave the dynasty of Augustus a celebrity that became, for the first time, continent-spanning. Time has barely dimmed it. Two millennia on, the west’s prime examples of tyranny continue to instruct and appal.

 The exhaustion of cruelty

“Nothing could be fainter than those torches which allow us not to pierce the darkness but to glimpse it.” So wrote Seneca, shortly before his death in AD 65. The context of his observation was a shortcut that he had recently taken while travelling along the Bay of Naples, down a gloomy and dust-choked tunnel. “What a prison it was, and how long. Nothing could compare with it.” As a man who had spent many years observing the imperial court, Seneca knew all about darkness. He certainly had no illusions about the nature of the regime established by Augustus. Even the peace that it had brought the world, he declared, had ultimately been founded upon nothing more noble than “the exhaustion of cruelty”. Despotism had been implicit in the new order from its beginning. Yet what he detested, Seneca also adored. Contempt for power did not inhibit him from revelling in it. The darkness of Rome was lit by gold. Looking back to Augustus and his heirs from 2,000 years on, we too can recognise – in their mingling of tyranny and achievement, sadism and glamour, power-lust and celebrity – an aureate quality such as no dynasty since has ever quite managed to match. “Caesar is the state.” How this came to be so is a story no less compelling, no less remarkable and no less salutary than it has ever been these past 2,000 years.

 The first five Roman emperors 

The first emperor - Augustus (63 BC–AD 14, emperor from 27 BC) Born Gaius Octavius, his adoption by his great-uncle Julius Caesar left him with a commanding name and fortune. By his mid-thirties he enjoyed an unprecedented dominance over the Roman world. In 27 BC he took the title Augustus: ‘Divinely Favoured One’. By the time of his death, he had established an autocracy secure enough to survive as long as the empire itself.

 The iconic general: Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37, emperor from AD 14) His mother’s marriage to Augustus won Tiberius a place at the heart of the new imperial dynasty. Though an accomplished general, he was unpopular with the masses, and his respect for republican traditions ensured he was never entirely comfortable as emperor. His retirement to Capri in AD 27 fuelled salacious rumours, but by maintaining peace he won respect in the provinces.

 The witty sadist: Caligula (AD 12–41, emperor from AD 37) Properly called Gaius, as a young boy he was nicknamed ‘Caligula’ (‘little boots’) by soldiers serving under his father. “I am rearing a viper,” declared Tiberius – and so it proved. On becoming emperor, Caligula’s twin tastes for theatricality and hurting people fuelled attacks on the authority of the Senate. Even so, when he was assassinated by his own guards in AD 41 his death was widely mourned.

 The able ruler: Claudius (10 BC–AD 54, emperor from AD 41) The nephew of Tiberius was prone to twitching and stammering, which hindered his political progress. He became Caesar when his nephew Caligula was murdered. Though widely despised as being under the thumb of women and freedmen, he proved an effective emperor, invading Britain and commissioning a new port for Rome. His death was believed to have been caused by his wife (and niece), Agrippina.

 The showman: Nero (AD 37–68, emperor from AD 54) Known initially as Domitius, the son of Agrippina was adopted by Claudius; he later had his mother and wife murdered. He refined Caligula’s policy of appealing over the heads of the senatorial elite to the mass of the people; the more murderous his regime became, the more his showmanship flourished. Faced with rebellion, he committed suicide in AD 68 – marking the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

 Tom Holland is a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Making History.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Puzzling Roman-Era Remains Found in Switzerland

Ancient Origins



A team of archaeologists have discovered a peculiar Roman-era earthenware pot filled with 22 oil lamps, each containing a bronze coin, in Windisch, a municipality in the district of Brugg in the canton of Aargau in Switzerland. According to the Aargau canton archeology department , the pot was discovered under a street in the area as part of an archaeological investigation in order for the local authorities to proceed with the construction of an ambitious architectural project comprising apartment blocks and commercial property. The Romans Made It to Switzerland Almost 2000 Years Ago Experts believe that the pot has probably been buried there for nearly 2,000 years, dating it from the time of the Roman legion camp Vindonissa, which was located near where Windisch is now. According to most contemporary historians Vindonissa was probably established in 15 AD. The Legio XIII Gemina, also known as Legio tertia decima Gemina, was stationed at Vindonissa until 44 or 45 AD. It was a legion of the Imperial Roman army and according to most historical accounts it was one of Julius Caesar's most powerful and important units in Gaul and in the civil war. It was also the legion with which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC and what’s even more impressive is that the legion appears to have still been in existence in the 5th century AD. With the arrival of the 21st legion (XXI Rapax), the camp was reconstructed with stone fortifications. After the 21st legion had looted the countryside in 69 AD, it was replaced by the 11th legion (XI Claudia) which remained stationed until 101 AD. After this date, Vindonissa was a civilian settlement, with a castle built in the 4th century.


The Roman amphitheatre of Vindonissa, now Windisch, Switzerland ( public domain ) A Very Exciting but Also Mysterious Discovery Previous archaeological excavations in the area have exhumed clear confirmation of organized habitation and civilization dating from the Roman era, including the foundations of relatively big structures. This discovery, however, is considered by most archaeologists and experts a very special and puzzling one. Despite the pot being pretty common and representative of the cooking pots used by soldiers stationed at Vindonissa, the purpose of its contents – 22 oil lamps, each containing a carefully situated coin – is surrounded by mystery. Aargau cantonal archaeologist Georg Matter, describes the mixed feelings of his team after the fascinating discovery in the best possible way, “What astonished us was the quantity and the combination of coins and lamps” [via The Local.ch ]. Every single lamp is decorated with an image, including the moon goddess Luna, a gladiator, a lion, a peacock and an erotic scene. The bronze coins are not of value but demonstrate a symbolic gesture and date from 66-67 AD.


An extraordinary find: A Roman cooking pot filled with lamps and coins. Credit: Aargau canton archeology department Future Discoveries Might Reveal More about the Pot’s Content The pot also contained charred fragments of animal bones, ruling it out as an urn for human remains. Despite Matter not being sure about the nature of the pot and its content, he speculates that it could be a ritual burial. However, the fact that there have never been any other comparable or similar discoveries, makes things for Matter and his team even harder. “The intentions behind this burial are puzzling at the moment,” adds Matter, who hopes that additional discoveries will help him understand the use of the pot and its content a little better. From a historical point of view, it’s interesting to notice that the Romans made it right over the Swiss Alps with no modern conveniences, a fact that clearly shows that nothing was poised to stop the ferocious Roman Legions back then.




A researcher documents the Roman find. Credit: Aargau canton archeology department

 Top image: The recently discovered pot containing 22 oil lamps. Credit: Aargau canton archeology department

By Theodoros II

Friday, December 2, 2016

More Than 80 Exceptionally Rare Anglo-Saxon Coffins Found in Previously Unknown Cemetery

Ancient Origins



Archaeologists have made an exciting discovery in a river valley in Norfolk, England. They have unearthed a previously unknown Anglo-Saxon cemetery dating from the 7th-9th century AD. Moreover, they also found remarkably preserved tree-trunk coffins and rare ‘plank-lined’ graves. A Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) press release says that archaeologists found 81 dug-out coffins and six plank-lined graves in the waterlogged river valley when they were called in to excavate at Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. The excavations were funded by Historic England and took place as works began on a conservation/fishing lake and flood defense system. This is a rare discovery as previous Anglo-Saxon wood coffins have only been identified by stains on the ground from the decayed wood. As James Fairclough, archaeologist from MOLA, said in the press release: “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, revealing remarkable details of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices.”


 A reconstruction of tree-trunk coffin with lid from an early Anglo-Saxon grave at Mucking Cemetery II, Essex. Credit: Historic England and Judith Dobie The coffins are made of oak tree trunks that were split in two then hollowed out.

The MOLA press release says that while they are not decorative, the coffins certainly would have taken a large amount of effort to make – about four days of hard work. They note in the press release that this type of burial pre-dates Christianity and may be an example of mixing Pagan and Christian traditions.

 In contrast, the plank-lined graves are the earliest of their kind to be found in Britain to date. These graves were lined with timber planks (which are currently undergoing tree-ring analysis). The deceased person was placed on top of the timber, and a “cover” of planks was placed over them.



Aerial view of the archaeological excavations at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England. © MOLA

Although analysis has just begun, the discovery is already providing new information on the unknown Christian site and life in an early Christian rural community. As Tim Pestell, Curator at Norwich Castle Museum, where the discovered artifacts will be held, said in the MOLA press release: “This find is a dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground. Detailed analysis of the cemetery provides the hope of better understanding the actual people living according to this new religion.” Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Full of Grave Goods Discovered Near Prehistoric Henge Monuments Anglo-Saxon Royal Palace Unearthed Near Famous Burial Site Pestell also explained how the discovery may help to fill in some blanks about the history of the region. He said: “The site was in use in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and positioned next to a strategic river crossing. As with much of East Anglia at this early date, we have no documentary sources that relate to this site and so it is archaeological finds like this that are crucial in helping us to understand the development of the kingdom.”



A MOLA Archaeologists excavating the graves. © MOLA Sutton Hoo is another archaeological site located in East Anglia, England. It is found near the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk and is famous for its Anglo-Saxon burial mounds. The best known of the graves at Sutton Hoo is an elaborate ship burial which was believed to have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon king. The exquisite grave goods that were discovered in the ship’s burial chamber shed some light on the elites of early Anglo-Saxon England. But what about other individuals who lived more modest lives? Researchers from the Great Ryburgh site will perform a series of tests such as ancient DNA, stable isotope, and dental calculus analysis to try to learn more about the individuals buried in the Christian cemetery. In the future, the archaeologists hope that they will be able to say where the deceased came from and their relationships to each other, as well as their diet and health conditions while they were alive.

Top Image: A plank lined grave with human remains at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England. © MOLA By Alicia McDermott

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Happy Holidays from Whispering Legends Press


Wishing you the very best this holiday season.
Mary Ann Bernal
Whispering Legends Press

Archaeologists Uncover 9,000-Year-Old Underwater Stone Age Settlement

Ancient Origins


Six years ago, divers discovered the oldest known stationary fish traps in northern Europe off the coast of southern Sweden. Since then, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have uncovered an exceptionally well-preserved Stone Age site. They now believe the location was a lagoon environment where Mesolithic humans lived during parts of the year.




Stone Age fish straps. Source: Video screenshot / Lund University Other spectacular finds include a 9,000-year-old pick axe made out of elk antlers. The discoveries indicate mass fishing and therefore a semi-permanent settlement. "As geologists, we want to recreate this area and understand how it looked. Was it warm or cold? How did the environment change over time?" says Anton Hansson, PhD student in Quaternary geology at Lund University.


9,000-year-old Elk antler pick axe. Source: Video screenshot / Lund University Changes in the sea level have allowed the findings to be preserved deep below the surface of Hanö Bay in the Baltic Sea. The researchers have drilled into the seabed and radiocarbon dated the core, as well as examined pollen and diatoms. They have also produced a bathymetrical map that reveals depth variations. "These sites have been known, but only through scattered finds. We now have the technology for more detailed interpretations of the landscape," says Anton Hansson. "If you want to fully understand how humans dispersed from Africa, and their way of life, we also have to find all their settlements. Quite a few of these are currently underwater, since the sea level is higher today than during the last glaciation. Humans have always prefered coastal sites," concludes Hansson.



Publication: A submerged Mesolithic lagoonal landscape in the Baltic Sea, south-eastern Sweden – Early Holocene environmental reconstruction and shore-level displacement based on a multiproxy approach

Top image: Discoveries indicate mass fishing and therefore a semi-permanent settlement. Credit: Arne Sjöström

This article, originally titled ‘ Underwater Stone Age settlement mapped out’ , was published by Lund University.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

At home with the Romans

History Extra

A Pompeian wall painting from the first century AD shows ladies with their slave hairdresser. Excavations at the partially buried Roman city reveal that women played a prominent role in the home, and that they took personal grooming very seriously indeed. (AKG)
In AD 79 a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was smothered by 4 to 5 metres of volcanic debris while Herculaneum was entombed in 20 metres of volcanic ash that hardened into tufa rock.  
Pompeii was ransacked after the eruption, then the memory of the cities faded, only resurfacing in the 18th century. Herculaneum was first excavated in 1709, so deeply buried that the only way to proceed was by tunnelling. Over the next 40 years a warren of tunnels was driven through the site, yielding amazing discoveries, including wooden objects, foodstuffs, a papyrus library and many marble and bronze statues. 
In 1748 excavations began at Pompeii, much less deeply buried, and far easier to excavate. In contrast to Herculaneum’s gloomy tunnels, tourists walked along Pompeii’s streets, and explored houses and public buildings in the light and air.  
Pompeii was much larger, almost 66 hectares (163 acres); Herculaneum was a third of that size. Pompeii had around 12,000–15,000 people, with 4,000–5,000 at Herculaneum. Pompeii was busier, with administrative, financial and commercial interests of regional importance. There were slaves, merchants and soldiers from other parts of the Roman empire. The rich were easy to spot by their fine clothing and accompanying servants. Slaves and the free poor were readily recognisable by appearance, such as the simple short tunics that they wore, indicating menial or manual occupations. It was a young population, with most people in their 20s to 40s, and under-10s making up one in five of the population. 
Another feature of the human landscape was the visible presence of women. In streets, shops and public areas, women mingled freely with men, unthinkable in some other cultures – and they played a prominent role in the running of the home. Even more surprising was the huge number of ex-slaves – perhaps over half of the population. 
Although Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in an extraordinary way, they were ordinary cities, representative of many others. It is this ordinariness that makes them so important, for they give us an unparalleled glimpse into life in the average Roman home… 

Bricks and mortar

Some Romans loved to flaunt their wealth and status through the grandeur of their homes
Roman homes varied from single-roomed apartments to multi-roomed mansions.
The classic house – the rectangular, two-storeyed domus – was made of bricks and mortar with a tiled roof. Typical spaces in larger homes included the entrance hall (atrium), anteroom/study (tablinum), bedrooms (cubicula), the dining room (triclinium) and the garden (hortus). 
Larger, older houses had a masonry frontage with architectural details, or moulded stucco-imitating masonry. Great doors decorated with bronze bosses spoke of wealth and status, but windows were small, with metal grilles covered with shutters or sliding wooden panels.  
The domus housed master and household but others lived over and around it. Shops often fronted the house. Above these and in other parts of the upper storey were apartments with balconies and extensions (maeniana) jutting over the street. These were made of opus craticium – a light but strong structure of timber frame and rubble. 

The extended family

A posse of slaves was an essential cog in the well-run Roman household
Each domus housed a familia. More than ‘family’, this Latin word meant a ‘household’ of people linked by blood and marriage. This included the dominus, his wife and their children, but also members of the extended family, as well as slaves and ex-slaves (freedmen). Larger households probably contained dozens of people, with a high proportion of slaves and freedmen.
Slaves were indispensable to daily life. Some were acquired through auctions, while others, vernae, were born to slaves in the home and were brought up there. 
Slaves benefited from belonging to the household and probably had more comfortable lives than many poorer, freeborn citizens. Some slaves had particular skills, such as cooking, hairdressing or gardening but many worked generally at whatever was required. They bustled in and about, tending to the household’s daily needs. 
Women were an integral part of all areas of the home – which was certainly not the case in every ancient culture. The writer Cornelius Nepos wrote “Matrona versatur in medio” (“The lady of the house is at the centre of things”). 
From the wet-nurse in the cubiculum and the maid weaving in the atrium, to the cook in the kitchen, the same was true for all women in the home.

This fresco painting in the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto depicts a domestic scene in Pompeii. (Corbis)

Snails and stuffed dormice

While the kitchens of the poor served up mundane fare, the wealthy’s cuisine was far more exotic
Roman dining varied hugely – from fine meals in a grand house, to pies in a tavern or snacks in a small flat.
Romans ate breakfast (lentaculum) of bread, cheese and olives; lunch (prandium), at midday, possibly included meat, again with bread and vegetables. They sat down to dinner (cena), at around 6 or 7pm, a grand occasion in wealthy homes. The rich reclined on couches in the triclinium (in Greek, room ‘of the three couches’), while slaves served exotic food and wine with vessels of silver.
Slaves did all cooking in kitchens (culinae) that, even in wealthy houses, were small, dark, smoky and smelly. Many also housed the toilet. Food was cooked on a solid masonry structure in terracotta and bronze pans, cooking pots, jars and casseroles.   
Cena had three elements: appetisers (gustatio) included eggs, snails, fish and seafood, vegetables, cheese. There were also dormice, served stuffed with pork mince, dormouse meat, pepper, pine nuts and garum (fish sauce) and cooked under a clibanus, a two-part domed terracotta baking/roasting pot. Main course (mensae primae) was meat – kid and goat, pig meat of all types, prepared meats, game and poultry. Dessert (mensae secundae) comprised fruit, nuts and pastries.  
The less wealthy sat at tables and used vessels of pottery and glass. Graffiti from Pompeii shows monotonous diets of bread, oil, leeks, onions and cheese with fish and sausages as treats. But a drain in Herculaneum, serving both poor and rich houses, produced vegetables, including beans, olives and lentils, together with fruit and nuts such as fig, date, apple and grape and hazelnut. 
Seafood included scallops, mussels and sea urchins alongside fish such as sardine, eel and anchovy. Chicken, sheep and pig bones were also found, as were seeds of dill, coriander, mint and black peppercorns (imported from India) – an echo of rich sauces.

This fresco from a Pompeian kitchen shows fruit and a pot of water. (Corbis)

Cottage industries

Many Pompeians ran businesses from home – and some made a fortune in the process
Some homes hosted businesses. Many shops, workshops and bars were built into the fronts of even the wealthiest houses, and clearly no stigma was attached to commercial premises. They are instantly recognisable by their wide entrances, masonry counters with inset jars, and staircases leading up to living quarters. Businesses were a useful source of income to homeowners, through takings and rents, but were run by slaves and freedmen.
Shops sold local foodstuffs and goods, often made on the premises, as well as merchandise from all over the empire, including luxuries such as silk, perfumes and spices, lamps and glass vessels.
Businessmen could make massive fortunes. One man who did just that was the fish sauce magnate Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, owner of a mansion in western Pompeii, who put mosaics showing his fish sauce bottles into his floor.

Painted plaster from first-century AD Pompeii shows a baker distributing bread. (Alamy)

What went on in the bedroom…

It seems that the Romans’ idea of appropriate sexual imagery was very different to our own
Rich and poor homes alike provided opportunities to relax and unwind. Families sat and talked, read, played games, dined, drank and made music. For resting or sleeping, people retired to the bedroom, which was a small room sometimes with alcoves or floor patterning – indicating positions of beds – or recesses for a bed end or clothes chest.  
The bedroom (cubiculum) was regarded as an appropriate place for love and sex. The Romans were fairly comfortable with nudity and sexual images, and considered the phallus a lucky charm. Many frescoes show couples making love, and some were found on open display in gardens rather than in bedrooms or brothels. Slaves are frequently present in these scenes, reflecting the Romans’ very different ideas of privacy. More disturbingly, it reminds us that some slaves were unwilling participants rather than mere attendants.
In addition to these explicit depictions of human sex and love, there were representations of the gods and other supernatural beings, who influenced the love lives of mortals, such as Bacchus and his followers. Venus, goddess of love and beauty (and patroness of Pompeii), ruled the hearts of gods and men – but not always happily. “I want to break Venus’s ribs with sticks,” scribbled one unlucky-in-love Pompeian.
Cubicula were generally dark, so were lit by oil lamps of terracotta and bronze. The writer Martial gives a voice to such a lamp: “I’m the nice lamp who knows all about your bed – do what you fancy – I won’t say a word.”

Mars and the not universally popular Venus in a first-century AD Pompeian fresco. (Bridgeman)

Beauty and the beasts

Pompeians took their interior design very seriously, as the finest Roman frescoes ever discovered prove
Roman decorative styles changed through circumstance and fashion, and the chronological and stylistic diversity found in the cities is important.
Poor homes, smaller apartments and rooms such as kitchens and toilets had plain or simply painted walls and beaten earth or tile and concrete floors. In wealthy homes most rooms were finely decorated, in a unity of floor, walls and ceiling. Plasterers, painters and mosaicists collaborated in workshops (officinae). Recurring pictures and motifs indicate they worked from copybooks or catalogues. 
Floors were of crushed brick and tile in mortar (signinum), or of mosaic, patterned surfaces made of small cubes (tesserae) of stone and glass. A detailed mosaic panel (emblema) was an indicator of greater refinement. Ceilings of plaster or coffered wood were brightly painted.
Walls could be decorated with wall mosaics, marble veneering or decorative panels but wall paintings (frescoes) were the main feature, painted onto plaster that was wet or ‘fresh’ (‘fresco’ in Italian). The city’s frescoes, the finest and most numerous examples in the Roman world, are divided into four ‘Pompeian styles’. 
The first style, imported from the Greeks, used moulded, brightly painted plaster to imitate marble veneer. The second home-grown style had painted simulations of sculpture, and architecture in false perspective. The third style featured blocks of colour with central Greek mythological scenes. The fourth flanked these scenes with winged figures or roundels of still life and portraits. In vogue in AD 79, this style was the most common, partly due to demand from nouveau riche freedmen for fine domestic interiors. 
But the most striking frescoes ignored styles and filled walls with large-scale scenes of beast hunts or beautiful gardenscapes.

 

A lotion of lupin and broad beans

A lack of running water was no obstacle to looking good and smelling great
Most people only went to the public baths once or twice a week. What about other days? Rooms had no running water, even in wealthy houses, so people washed in the bedroom using a basin of water, heated, if necessary, in the kitchen.
In this period, most Roman men were clean-shaven and wore their hair short. This was done at home by a slave or outside by a barber (tonsor), using a distinctive folding razor called a novacula and one-piece shears.
Women washed and cleansed with sponges, cloth and abrasive cleansers such as pumice. Among skin lotions and softeners was a cream of broad beans, lupins and wine that made the skin ‘smoother than a mirror’. Unwanted hair was removed with tweezers (volsellae) or creams. Olive oil served as soap. Teeth were cleaned with soda or pumice using fingers or sticks, while breath was freshened with pastilles. 
Attention now turned to hair and make-up – for cheeks (white lead), eyes (crocus and azurite) and lips (red lead). Perfumes and oils made of violets, jasmine and roses scented body and hair. 
The hairstyles of wealthy women changed fairly frequently. Hair, sometimes dressed with the help of a hair slave (ornatrix) was dyed, curled, ringletted, waved, pinned and ribboned or arranged into a hairnet. Clothing and jewellery were donned and arranged. 
The members of the household were ready for the day.  
Paul Roberts is a senior curator in the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, and is head of the Roman collections.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A handbook to shopping in ancient Rome

History Extra

A fruit seller displays his wares on a wooden table, in this bas-relief from the second century AD. (Bridgeman Art Library)



Ancient Rome was a cosmopolitan city, drawing in people and products from across the Mediterranean world and beyond. By the late first century BC, there were as many as one million inhabitants in Rome, an urban population figure not reached again in the western world until London in around 1800.
Like most urban residents, the people of Rome relied on retailers to provide them with food, clothing and other goods. Our ancient evidence points to a thriving retail trade in the city and, for any ancient visitor, the sheer number of retailers and shoppers must have been one of the most striking aspects of the Roman cityscape.
Retailers were found in the busiest areas of the city. Small shops and workshops lined the main thoroughfares, spilling out over their thresholds into the streets and colonnades. The poet Martial remarked that until the emperor Domitian issued an edict banning this practice, Rome looked like one big shop.
Market traders, street sellers and ambulant hawkers also tended to be found in central areas. They clustered around temples, bathhouses, forums, circuses, amphitheatres and theatres, attracted by the commercial opportunities offered by large gatherings of people. Sellers at temples offered votive offerings such as flower garlands, while those at the amphitheatre may have sold gladiatorial programmes of the type mentioned by Cicero in the mid-first century BC. Perishable items that could be eaten straight away were also a common sight on Rome’s streets. Prepared foods such as bread, hot sausages, pastries, and chickpeas were perfect for a busy Roman on the run.
Reliefs and paintings, drawn mainly from Pompeii and from Rome’s port city of Ostia, are our best evidence for the appearance of Roman stalls. Temporary stalls are visible in a painting (shown right) from Pompeii of a riot in its amphitheatre – a depiction of a historical event that the historian Tacitus tells us took place in AD 59, when the residents of the nearby city of Nuceria descended on the doomed town. In the foreground of the picture, we can see stalls set up under awnings strung between trees or on stakes in the ground. Painted messages on the outside of the amphitheatre also record the location of stalls.
Another Pompeian painting shows a tableau of everyday events in the forum. Scattered within scenes showing legal judgements, the corporal punishment of school pupils, and people chatting and reading public notices, we can make out traders hawking their wares.
Some have their goods lying on the floor around them – such as a man selling metal vessels, or a hot-food trader standing by a large cauldron suspended over a fire.
A painting showing a riot in Pompeii’s amphitheatre in AD 59. The stalls of traders who operated around the building are visible in the foreground. (Bridgeman Art Library)

Caged animals

Others have more elaborate sales areas. A shoe seller sets out wooden benches for his customers and marks out his place of sale with curtains hung between columns. Bread and vegetable vendors display their wares on wooden tables and in baskets on the ground.
A marble relief from Ostia shows a vegetable seller with a large basket and a stall made up of a wooden trestle table, while another relief (shown on page 30) depicts a woman stood behind cages containing her stock of chickens and hares. On the counter are two bowls of fruit, probably containing figs, and a barrel containing snails. There are even two monkeys on the stall to attract and entertain customers. Other sellers were more mobile, carrying their wares on trays or in baskets around their necks, as shown in a funerary relief from Narbonne. Some pictures show retailers holding one hand aloft as though addressing a crowd, while the other hand touches their produce, inviting customers to do the same.
Not only were Roman retailers highly visible, they were also very audible, disturbing the residents of the city with their distinctive sales cries. Seneca, for example, complains about the hawkers who frequent the bathhouse below his apartment in first-century Rome, describing the noise of the “pastry-cooks with their varied cries, the sausage dealer and the confectioner and all the vendors of food from the cookshops selling their wares”.
Other writers liken the poor poetry or speeches of their competitors or enemies to the shouts of retailers, the proverbial ‘fishwives’ of their day. Martial likens the wit of a friend to that of a “vendor of boiled chickpeas”, or the slaves of the fishmongers, or the “bawling cook who hawks smoking sausages round stuffy bistros”.
Our ancient literary sources are written by upper-class Romans who almost universally condemn retail as a deceitful practice and repeatedly call the quality of goods into question. Galen is particularly scathing, claiming that some unscrupulous retailers had been known to use human flesh in dishes in place of pork. He observes that human and pig flesh must taste and smell remarkably similar, since the unfortunate customers were unable to tell the difference!
A fifth-century AD author also alleges that some retailers displayed food items such as eggs and onions floating in glass bowls of water so that they looked larger than their actual size.

Rome’s December shopping spree

The Christmas markets now so popular in British towns and cities may be a German import, but December markets were a tradition in ancient Rome too. Towards the end of the month, Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia in honour of the god Saturn, a time of year that the poet Catullus called “the best of days”. The toga was discarded in favour of more comfortable clothes, time was spent eating and drinking, slaves were allowed their liberty, at least temporarily, and friends exchanged presents.
Traditionally, gifts took the form of sigilla, small clay figurines. These gave the market its name, the sigillaria. Traders sold gifts from temporary stalls or canvas booths in the Campus Martius, the ‘Field of Mars’, in the centre of what would later become the medieval city.
We know that in the early empire the market was held in the Porticus Argonautarum, built by the general Agrippa in 25 BC. The satirist Juvenal writes that women, always anxious to keep up with their neighbours, demanded crystal vases and diamond rings from the stalls in this market. 
Just as today, the December markets must have added to the holiday atmosphere in the city, with adults giving children money to spend on treats. This tradition allowed Emperor Tiberius to dismiss his nephew Claudius’s political ambitions by giving him money to spend at the sigillaria market rather than political office.

This detail from a third-century AD floor mosaic shows three slaves with a torch during the festival of 
Saturnalia. One poet called this time of year “the best of days”. (AKG Images)

Selling to survive

Men and women mixed freely in the Roman retail environment, working as both buyers and sellers. There was, however, some economic segregation. On the one hand, street traders sold everyday food at low prices and probably catered primarily for customers of relatively limited means. Many of these traders would probably have themselves been poor, retailing on a small scale in order to survive.
On the other hand, wealthy shoppers who wanted to buy food to impress their dinner guests could visit the macellum, a purpose-built luxury food market. Here large single fish were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Prized items, such as red mullet, could command incredibly high prices. Bankers would even have been on hand to lend money to those who could not cover the costs of their bids. The imperial biographer Suetonius records the disgust of Emperor Tiberius that three mullets went for 30,000 sesterces – more than 30 times the annual wage of a legionary soldier.
Alongside fish, shoppers could also find meat for sale, some of which was sourced from animal sacrifices (Christian shoppers had to try to avoid this). Other Roman delicacies available from luxury markets included songbirds, dormice and snails.
The wealthy were visited by retailers in their own homes, sometimes speculatively. Ovid regarded this as a nuisance for the lover, since, he complained, sellers always seem to come when your mistress is in a buying mood, beseeching you to shower her with gifts. And claiming to have no money wasn’t always a defence, as the seller would often take a credit note. Poets also joked about the sexual threat posed by retailers calling on elite women desperate to relieve the boredom of their domestic lives.
The retail trade was one of the most visible sectors of the urban economy in ancient Rome, with retailers locked in a fierce competition to relieve customers of their money. In this sense at least, Rome was a very modern metropolis.
Claire Holleran is lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter.