Friday, October 29, 2010

How to Build Your Own Empire

Ever fancied quitting your day job and living on spoils of war and taxes from provinces? Others have done it, so it should be possible. I've researched very hard (ahm... not really) and came up with a list of 10 things you need in order to build your own functional empire - Roman style. 

1. Roads

About 400,000 km would do, as long as about one quarter of them are super-highways. You know, the kind that would still be in service 2,000 years from now. Ok, let me rephrase that: if your contractor suggests funds are needed for major repairs after less than 1,000 years of use, crucify them. (I guess these days it would be safer to hire Germans than the heirs of the Republic.)
Romans were so serious about their roads, that the first collection of laws they ever published, the famous Twelve Tables, regulated the punishment for parricide, the rules for bankruptcy and the width of roads. Analyzing the accomplishments of other empires, the Romans compared their road system with the pyramids of Egypt – and concluded that they'd take the roads over the pointy tombs at any time.

Roman road from Pompeii. Get yourself more of these. Image source here

2. Boats

If you plan to turn a sea into an inner lake for your empire, you'll need boats, and some people who can sail – more or less. If your invasion of Britannia gets stuck because your people don't know how to sail across the English Channel, then you're going to be the laughing stock of Europe.

3. Ports and lighthouses

The boats mentioned in paragraph 2 can be used for a lot more than invasions. Despite your excellent roads, sea transportation is still cheaper, and having a global empire means you'll have to move massive amounts of stuff from one end of the world to the other. Need blueprints? Follow your predecessors, Claudius and Trajan – excellent administrators, by the way, both of them – and check a computer reconstruction of Ostia Antica, Rome' man-made port, or its ruins, how they look today.

4. A Senate

Useful for faking legitimacy, passing laws, drawing the hate of the local mob when you have to pass unpopular measures, and, in general, providing a pleasant way to spend long afternoons talking about nothing. Just make sure you keep an eye on the senators, they're too close to the power source to be trustworthy. Kill about a dozen a year and you should be safe.

5. An army

A big one. About half a million professional soldiers should cover your needs, as long as they're equipped with the latest technological developments. Just don't forget it's vital to keep it under control. Generals are sometimes too effective for their own good, so you might want to have a few cups of poison ready, in case they become excessively popular with their troops.
One way to become popular with the soldiers is to start wars. During the long, cold winter nights, enjoy a glass of wine in your golden palace and study the maps for a new Barbarian area that may be invaded.
Another option is to give them money whenever you can, and land when they retire. Good way to spread Latin in Europe, too, and thus insure that Titus Livius would continue to torture generations of students for the following millennia.
Losing control over the most important part of your army, the one garrisoned in your capital city, is a big no-no.

6. A system of transferring power from one generation to another

Would be a good idea to have such a system in place if you want to start a dynasty, not just to play emperor by yourself. But you might have to look to other empires for details on how to do that, the Romans... kind of failed.

7. Slaves

Somebody has to get some work done, to keep the system going. If you think slavery is politically incorrect, you might call them “employees” or something similar, it doesn't really matter, as long as you make sure they depend exclusively on one owner / employer and they don't have the right to vote (so you don't have to worry about winning them on your side).
Slavery is good for your empire because it turns every household / company into a miniature autocracy, thus making it easier for people to accept you as the ultimate leader, no questions asked.

8. Deification

Being the ultimate ruler is good, being a god is even better. You get to marry a goddess (well, she might be the same hag you've been married to for the past 50 years, but still, a goddess... neat!). Having a certified god among your ancestors helps.
The first Roman emperors thought they'd have to die before being deified. Wrong. All you have to do is organize an office of priests, paid by the state – that is, you – whose only task is to organize your cult. They'll do the job, if they want the money.

9. Mob control methods

Bread and circuses, theaters, chariot races, soap operas and Champions League matches – anything to keep the people occupied. The downside to having slaves is that you, as an emperor, have to deal with millions of people who don't have to work for a living – and thus are bored to death. Boredom is a dangerous thing for the empire, they might want to get a career in politics.
Just remember that you don't need to control every single person from your empire. Focus on what matters – people who vote and who are close enough to throw you in the river Tiber, if you piss them off. For the rest – delegate, delegate, delegate.
The boats from paragraph 2 will help bring in food when needed. You might also want to take a moment and build some aqueducts while you're at it, they make people happy and clean. You don't want bubonic plague spreading around, this is a civilized empire, not bloody Medieval Europe!

Circus Maximus could entertain a quarter of Rome's population. Beats cable TV. Image source here.

10. Good propaganda

Conquering Barbarians is the easy part, getting them to stay put is a different matter. You don't want your provinces rebelling all the time – it will just give your sleazy generals a chance to show off in ways you cannot control.
You have to convince the Barbarians they want in. Give them what they didn't have before, baths, good wine, amphitheaters, a stable currency, career opportunities, fast food joints and blockbusters, and they'll never want to leave your beautiful empire, not even when you want to throw them out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review – The Sons of Caesar by Philip Matyszak

The Julio-Claudian dynasty is the darling of authors who write about ancient history – both fiction and non-fiction. There's so much drama, murders, backstabbing and gossiping, and at the same time, so many great achievements were recorded during this ages – the kind that changed Europe forever. In addition, the period is very well documented, both in surviving ancient texts and from the archaeological point of view.

So, one more history book about the Julio-Claudians? What for? We all know the basic plot, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Caligula made his horse a senator and Nero killed his mother while watching Rome burn... or something like that.

Well, that's the problem. There's too much unverified information about this period, there have been too many movies and fiction books, which managed to turn ancient gossip into modern day facts. So, I think it was time for a new book on the Julio-Claudians, one that takes into account the latest archaeological discoveries and the newest methods of interpretation, focuses on clear facts only and presents an overview of the period, without all the minor details that abound in books that focus on each of the family members separately.

And that's just what Philip Matyszak does in The Sons of Caesar.

General information:

Author: Philip Matyszak
ISBN-10: 0500251282
ISBN-13: 978-0500251287
Price range: starting from $1 (used) up to $35 (new, hardcover)

Philip Matyszak discusses the usual suspects, Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero in chronological order, including clear and detailed family trees to shed some light over the very complex family relations of the first Roman dynasty. The author has a coherent and well-presented view of the power transfer in ancient Rome, from Republic to a (more of less unofficial) ruling family, and then to other dynasties, stressing the key moments when the Republic could have been restored – and why the circumstances were never right for that move.

As always, Philip Matyszak has a clear, concise and enjoyable writing style, and his approach is very well documented, avoiding controversial and unverified claims. The book is well organized, so you can skip to the chapters about your favorite Julio-Claudian, though I would recommend reading it from the beginning to the end, in order to get a full image of the author's argumentation.

For those familiar with the period, The Sons of Caesar does not bring any new facts or epiphanies, but it sets the known details into the right sequence, with a moderate point of view, which avoids the common trap of starting to develop sympathies or antipathies for some of the characters. For those who know only what Hollywood had to share about the 1st century, it's a good place to start, since it's an easy read, without the tedious minor details of the over-documented accounts.

About the author

Philip Matyszak is a reputed author of history books on ancient Rome and ancient Greece. He teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University and has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. He has immersed himself into the ancient world so much, he admits feeling “a bit uncomfortable in the 21st Century” at times. You can also check out Philip Matyszak's blog.

Now what?

Have you read it already?
Try another book by the same author:

Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual (Unofficial Manuals)
Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day (Traveling on 5)
Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus (The Chronicles Series)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ancient Link of the Day

Go to YouTube to watch a 4-minute history lesson about make-up.

The History Channel - An Ancient Roman Make-up Lesson 

Pretty cool. And don't worry, I'll post my own take on the subject in the near future.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Challenge of the Day

This is the Julio-Claudian family tree, at least according to Wikipedia (there are several minor variations, but let's not get too technical).

Now, the challenge is to re-create the entire family using Sims characters. How far can you go? I managed to get to Claudius, but I cheated Caligula – couldn't find a horse for Sims 2, and avoided any reference to his relations with his sisters.
The trick is to figure out when to marry couples that will later on become relatives by adoption – because the game wouldn't let me marry two Sims that were related, even if they weren't blood relatives. Bleah. That's why the Sims never conquered the world.
Also, killing Sims is way more difficult than killing your own family members – when you belong to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, that is.  

Roman Emperors and their Veggies

Emperor or no emperor, you still need to eat your spinach when your mother tells you to. We all know about the lavish dinners these guys enjoyed, with mice dipped in honey, flamingo tongues and stuffed udders, but they still had to get their daily intake of vitamins, right?

And some emperors liked their veggies more than others.

Tiberius, "the gloomiest of men”, as Pliny puts it, was a harsh ruler, but a brilliant general and an effective administrator. Before becoming emperor, he conquered Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia and obtained significant victories in Germany, pretty much establishing the Northern border of the Empire for the rest of its existence.
His military victories were based on cucumbers. Tiberius loved cucumbers so much, he couldn't go through a day without them. So, during his military campaigns, his slaves brought along mobile greenhouses, in with cucumbers were planted in layers of prepared soil put in carts, and then covered to protect them against the harsh weather of the North.
Who knows, maybe he would've never made it as Augustus' successor without cucumbers.

Diocletian reorganized the Empire, saving it from total chaos, standardized taxation, stabilized the economy, reduced the inflation, reached record levels of military growth, persecuted the Christians and still found time for his cabbages.
Well, he was a weird one – because he retired, something unthinkable for an Emperor. He took his complimentary gold watch and moved to Dalmatia, where he enjoyed the sun and the sea in his last years, and took up farming as a hobby.
He lived long enough to see his carefully implemented ruling system fall apart, and the Empire torn by civil wars once again. People came to his palace to beg him to return to work – you know, to be emperor'n stuff, to which he replied: "If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of never-satisfied greed."
Some reports suggest that Diocletian committed suicide three years later. Maybe due to a bad crop season.

Caesar was a frugal man, capable of enduring the long and hard military campaigns on the same ratios as his soldiers. One famous image depicts him while giving a motivational speech to his army before invading Gaul, with a half-eaten radish in his hand. Unfortunately, the author forgets to mention whether Caesar actually liked radishes and finished eating it while delivering his speech, or the radish was just a prop for the comic relief.
Others say that both Caesar and his infamous mistress Cleopatra enjoyed pickles. You'd hope they invited their guests to the luxurious palaces in Alexandra to something more than a pickle party.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

10 Things you don't need to know about Augustus

If you have any interest in the period, there's lots of stuff you need to know about the founder of the Roman Empire, and tons of good books out there to keep you entertained and informed. But I've compiled a list of things you don't need to know about Augustus, so be my guest to forget them as soon as you read them. If you can, that is. I'm willing to bet that the first thing you're going to remember from now on about Augustus is that...

1. He applied red-hot nutshells on his legs, in order to make the hair grow smoother. Interesting technique, I wonder why it hasn't made it to the modern age.

2. He married Livia Drusilla when she was already six-months pregnant with her previous husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. Augustus had already gone through two failed engagements and one divorce when he forced Claudius Nero to divorce Livia, and married her almost instantly. Love madness? Political calculations, since Livia was a descendent of a highly-regarded patrician Roman family? Hard to tell, after all these years.
What we know for sure is that the couple never had any children together, though both had children from previous marriages. Allegedly, Livia got pregnant once but she miscarried. This is unusual, considering Augustus' obsession with large families, but it's possible that Livia tried to reduce the number of potential heirs to the family fortune, protecting in this way the chances of her first born – and with great success.
The certain thing is that the pair formed a formidable team, and Livia continued to influence the Roman political life even after her husband's death.

3. Augustus was a monobrow. So much about realism in ancient Roman portrait sculpture.

Augustus of Prima Porta, probably the most famous representation of the first Roman Emperor. Here's another thing you don't need to know: the statue was designed to stay in one niche, so it uses an optical illusion: the raised hand is longer than it should be, in order to dominate the scene. The back of the statue is left unfinished, as it was going to be against the wall. 

4. He wasn't a morning person. Well, coffee was not available, so whenever he knew he had duties to attend to in the morning, he slept at a friend's house, closer to the location where he had to arrive the next morning.

5. It seems unlikely that the man had any sense of humor, but it's hard to live almost 80 years without cracking a single joke, so here goes one, as reported by Quintilian: Augustus was informed that a tree was growing on an altar in his honor – which was probably supposed to be interpreted as a good omen. His reply was: “Well, this is clear proof of how often you use the altar to honor me”.

6. He was superstitious. All Romans were, but Augustus more than the average. If he put on his shoes the wrong way in the morning, the left instead of right, he would consider it a bad omen and avoid making major decisions during the day.

7. He died in the same room as his father Octavius, and stands out as the only emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty who managed to die peacefully in his own bed, without significant suspicions of foul play. His last words were to his wife: "Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell". (What? Did he expect her to re-marry or to start throwing orgies in her 70s?)

8. He wasn't a heavy drinker, but we know that his favorite wine was Raetian.

Yep, it's still Augustus. In disguise. 

9. Augustus left us with a memorable comment on one of the events that would traumatize Christianity for the following centuries. Upon hearing that King Herod of the Jews had ordered boys under the age of two to be put to death, he said: "I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son."

10. He was obsessed with simplicity in his daily life, to the point where you might call him cheap. His house was modest, his furniture barely met the standards of a common citizen, and he insisted on wearing clothes made by the women of the house (Livia and his daughter, Julia. They were less thrilled with the joys of frugal living, and this escalated into several domestic conflicts, culminating with Julia's exile and death.)

Ancient Link of the Day

I just stumbled upon this Squidoo lens yesterday, and it's one of the most interesting I've seen in a long time. There are several web pages out there about ancient Roman games, but this guy has taken the time to re-create a game board and explain the rules - and it seems a pretty nice game to play. So go check it out:
How to Play the Game of Rota (Ancient Roman Tic-Tac-Toe)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ancient Roman Cameos

When and why did cameos fall out of style? I still have a couple in my jewelry box, and I find them beautiful, just that they scream “crazy old lady with ten cats and a persistent scent of moth repellent”. Ah, well. The ancients knew better, as usual, and the ancient Roman cameos were great works of miniature sculpture, valuable pieces of jewelry and means of imperial propaganda. A lot of meaning in such a small gem.

So, what on Earth is a cameo anyway? It's an engraved gem, or a piece of jewelry that contains a relief image on a negative background, called intaglio. Pretty intricate pieces of work, as you can see from the ancient Roman cameo below, which displays their famous eagle carved in onyx, on two layers, to obtain the contrasting color effect.

Augustus in particular, and the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty in general, enjoyed these minor sculptures and commissioned a lot of them – and, fortunately, some survived to this day, after being integrated into various pieces from the Middle Ages.

Ancient Roman cameos were made mostly of semi-precious stones, such as agate, onyx and sardonyx, and are known today as “hardstone cameos”. The Romans also created glass cameos, made of a colored base layer, which was then dipped into white glass, and the ensemble was blown together to create the final piece.

Most of the ancient Roman glass cameos were broken in time, and the most famous piece that survived to this day is actually a vase. Known as the Portland Vase, it's currently on display in the British Museum, and worth mentioning as a fine example of the technique described above.

The Great Cameo of France

Grand Camée de France is the largest of the ancient Roman cameos that has survived. It's 26 cm wide and 30 cm tall, which means that it's safe to assume it was never used as a piece of jewelry, and it was probably displayed as a small sculpture or work of art in its own right.

It's made of five layers of sardonyx, and it was first attested in the inventory of Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, in 1279. The piece itself was created around 20 AD, though we cannot be certain of the date. As it was heavily modified both in ancient and in medieval times, there's a lot of speculation about the characters depicted. The most commonly accepted interpretation today is that the central figure is Emperor Tiberius, accompanied by his mother Livia and his designated heir at the time, Nero Drusus.

In the upper level, we have the dead ancestors, Augustus himself, Drusus II and Germanicus, and in the lower levels, captive barbarians or symbols of conquered peoples. Truth is, the cameo may well depict any of the Julio-Claudian emperors receiving one of their successful generals. Normally there should be enough detail in the lower level of the cameo to identify the nation conquered, and thus the time and the general in question, but here it's not the case.

Gemma Augustea

Gemma Augustea is clearly the most famous of the ancient Roman cameos. It's made of Arabian onyx, and it's commonly believed that we can identify the artist who made it, either a rather famous one named Dioscurides or one of his apprentices. Either way, the work was clearly done in the first half of the first century AD.

The central figure, on the throne, is generally accepted as being Augustus. He is represented as a god, and we know that Augustus was not deified during his life; so this work was either commissioned after this death, or by him, as a work of propaganda to be sent as a gift to a ruler from the Eastern provinces (deification was not ok within the Italic peninsula; in other parts of the Empire, Augustus and his heirs had no problem presenting themselves as living gods).

Other identifiable images are the goddess Roma, the helmeted figure sitting next to Augustus, and Oikumene, the goddess of the entire inhabited world, behind Augustus, crowning him. There has been some discussion that Roma resembles Livia, Augustus' wife. Also notice the eagle under the throne, symbol of Jupiter. That's what's so neat about these ancient Roman cameos, they are so rich in symbols, you can spend days trying to figure out what's shown on these tiny carvings – and some scholars actually do that for a living.

Gemma Claudia

My personal favorite, Gemma Claudia, same as Gemma Augustea, can be found today in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

It was probably done to celebrate the controversial marriage of Emperor Claudius to his niece, Agrippina (both of them are shown on the left side). On the right side, the cameo shows Agrippina's parents, Germanicus and (duh) Agrippina.

The propagandist aim of the cameo was to stress Agrippina's illustrious family (as if anybody in Rome would've forgotten that) and to imply that Germanicus, one-time heir to the imperial throne and a favorite of the Roman mob and army, would have approved of his daughter's marriage. (Germanicus was long dead at the time, most unfortunate for the Romans themselves, who insisted on having his heirs on the throne, with the worst possible results).

Propaganda aside, the artist did a wonderful job on this ancient Roman cameo: there are no less than five alternate layers, but the material still has a wonderful transparency effect because they are incredibly thin, only 2 mm in some places.

Other ancient Roman cameos

The Blacas Cameo, cut in three layers of sardonyx, shows another majestic image of Augustus, and was probably part of the larger piece. As in all such works, the headband was added later, as it was a symbol of Hellenistic royalty – and Augustus himself would not have made such a mistake in his days.

There's also a well-known cameo featuring Messalina, one of the many poor choices made by Emperor Claudius in marriage. The two children are, of course, Octavia and Britannicus, to underline Messalina's image as mother of the future emperor. Not only she didn't make it that far, but both children were assassinated by Nero (being part of the royal family was tons of fun, but also very dangerous).

The last example also comes from Vienna (in case you didn't get it until now, let me spell it out for you: the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna has the best collection of ancient Roman cameos in the world. Go check it out.) Not as beautiful as the rest, but still a nice piece of imperial propaganda, showing Livia, a ruthless and effective politician in her own right, with a bust of Augustus.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Pergamon Musem

The Pergamon Museum is THE reason why you should visit Berlin (otherwise, a pretty dreary city). I don't even want to think about the fact that we should be visiting the actual town of Pergamon instead, but, I have to admit, Berlin is far easier to reach. And, while I agree that the German archaeologists made massive contributions to the wold's heritage, it's still a bit unsettling to see entire walls and buildings relocated inside the Berlin museum.

Located on Berlin's museum island, the Pergamon Museum opened for the general public in 1930, and, despite suffering serious damage during the Second World War, it's still a safe place for some of the most impressive masterpieces from several areas.

The Pergamon Altar

As the name implies, this is the reason why the museum was built in the first place, to provide a proper setting for the display of the massive Pergamon frieze.

The Pergamon Frieze

In judging the value of the structure from Pergamon, you have to keep in mind that its basic function was propaganda. It was built by the Attalid dynasty, after a series of military successes, to consolidate and justify their position in the area, and to overshadow the previously dominant Seleucids. That being said, it's not beautiful or inspirational, it's just huge.

The Pergamon Frieze

So, the frieze stays away from any controversial or confusing subjects, and depicts one of the most popular theme for monumental art in classic Hellenistic history: the gigantomachy, the fight between giants, generic representatives of the forces of chaos and destruction, and the Olympian gods aided by Hercules, as defenders of order and stability.

The Pergamon Frieze

The gigantomachy theme, besides various representations on pottery, can also be found on the east metopes of the Parthenon and on several friezes from Delphi. All in all, a pretty “safe” theme to go with, especially as it offers generous options to the artists working on it.

The names of the sculptors who worked on the giant frieze from Pergamon did not survive to this day; however, scientists generally agree that the general plan was the work of just one man, who did everything in great detail, insuring the individual appeal of each group, different hairstyles and clothes for each figure, and so on.

Pergamon Mosaic

Detail of the floor mosaic from the Pergamon altar

There's a secondary frieze on the altar, from the inner courtyard, the Telephos frieze. A lot smaller than the gigantomachy, I found it to be more interesting. First, the theme is not as common – it's the story of Telephos, son of Hercules, mythical founder of Pergamon. And second, it includes some innovations that made career in the following centuries, such as very detailed landscape, and the inclusion of details, such as furniture, when the action on the panel took place indoors. That's a great source of information about how people actually lived in those days.

The Ishtar Gate

Built in about 575 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, the Ishtar Gate was considered one of the seven wonders of the world in antiquity, until it got booted off the list by the great lighthouse in Alexandria.

Ishtar Gate

The Pergamon Museum displays only the smaller, frontal part of the gate, while keeping the rest in storage for the time being. As the authorities announced plans to add new buildings to the museum in the near future, we can only hope that we'll get to see the full beauty of the Ishtar Gate soon.

Ishtar Gate

The glazed bricks that decorate the gate and the processional way depict a variety of creatures, and museums all over the world took a bite, with dragons being the rarest (you can find them in the museums in Istanbul, Gothenburg and Detroit) and lions the most common.

The Market Gate of Miletus

Had enough of gates and walls? Well, it's worth checking out the market gate of Miletus, just to think if you know any entrances into today's malls that could make it into the history museums of the future. I wish we could ask people from 120 AD whether the addition of the new gate had any impact on their spending habits and increased their interest and consumer confidence.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ancient Link of the Day

Sacred Destinations is a richly illustrated site dedicated to places that were or still are sacred for certain cultures.

It has Buddhist temples as well as cathedrals, Egyptian and Greek temples, Byzantine mosaics and many more. The collection of pictures is indeed noteworthy and very neatly organized, so the site is easy to browse and enjoy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Roman Ruins in Trier

Before I go to the cool part, about the ancient Roman ruins, bear with me while I tell you a few words about Trier: it's cute. It's the fluffy kitten of the tourist attractions in Germany. It has an attractive combination of history and bustling modern activity and, most unusual about a German town, it seems to have a sense of humor about itself (don't ask what that means, just trust me on this).

I guess you'd have to keep high spirits and a constant good mood, when you're that old: Trier is the oldest city in Germany, founded probably around 3,000 BC, as a small Germanic village. It started its successful career in 16 BC, when the Romans founded Augusta Treverorum on the banks of the river Moselle. The place had been under Roman domination since around 50 BC, when Caesar meddled with the local affairs.

Colonnades on the upper level of Porta Nigra

The first major building project the Romans undertook in the area was a wooden bridge over the Moselle River, which was replaced by a stone one in 150 AD. The ancient stone foundation still bears today's modern bridge in Trier.

The Romans considered the strategic importance of the city location, and Emperor Augustus made Augusta Treverorum into the capital of the province Belgica. Fortified walls were added, as the situation in the area got more and more confusing in time.

Porta Nigra

The only part that survives today from those ancient walls is the famous Porta Nigra. Built around 180 BC, it was one of the four access gates to the city, embedded in massive walls. The other tree gates, destroyed during medieval times, are known as Porta Alba (the white gate), Porta Media (the middle gate) and Porta Inclyta (the famous gate). It is however not clear whether Porta Nigra had its current name (black gate) during ancient times, as it seems more likely it was called like that after a series of fires blackened its surface.

The gate's imposing aspect was designed mostly to shock and awe traders, to make them spread the word that the city's defenses were impenetrable. Fact is, the fortifications were built during relatively peaceful years, and we know for sure that Porta Nigra remained unfinished (possibly other parts of the walls as well), since the mechanism for movable gates was never installed. Maybe that's the reason why Trier was a rather easy prey for the Germanic tribes, who invaded and sacked the city on several occasions, and for Roman armies, who moved to and fro several times during the conflicts from the 3rd and 4th century.

Porta Nigra is most famous for its construction style, which did not use mortar, the stuff that made other Roman constructions the best in the world: instead, the sandstone blocks are held together by iron clamps, fastened into the stones with molten lead. The unusual building method would ultimately lead to the downfall of the fortifications, as, during the Middle Ages, the locals would tear them down in order to re-use the precious metal. Stones, of course, were re-used as well.

The metal clamps that made Porta Nigra such a famous building 

Porta Nigra avoided becoming a victim of the scavengers thanks to a hermit monk, by the name of Simeon, who made it his home. As Simeon was sanctified after his death, Porta Nigra was transformed into a church and the Simeonstift monastery was built close by. The former windows of the Roman structure were enlarged and turned into access gates to the upper levels, which now contained rooms for monks.

Christian addition to the inside of Porta Nigra 

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte's army invaded Trier and destroyed most churches and monasteries; however, instead of destroying the church located inside Porta Nigra, they decided to tear down the later additions and restore the building to its original Roman form. That's pretty much what today's visitors can see.

Aula Palatina

Trier continued to grow and became more important during the third century, when the Roman empire faced one of its worst crises. Various minor usurpers and ephemeral break-away leaders made Trier their residence, until Diocletian's reorganization of the Empire. Trier became the residence of the Western caesars, first for Maximian and then for Constantius Chlorus, but it was Constantine the Great who undertook the biggest construction projects and brought fame and glory to the city.

The most famous of Constantine's buildings in Trier is Aula Palatina, also known as the Basilica of Constantine. Built around 310 AD, part of the palace complex at the time, it has the largest extant hall from antiquity. It's just one huge room, 67 m long, 26 m wide and 33 m tall, but the Romans still had style, even when constructing such massive single-room structures.

First of all, the gigantic room was endowed with a hypocaust – which is a heating system for the walls and floor. I don't even want to think how much fuel you had to burn to heat up that room. Then, they used an optical illusion: all windows are progressively smaller, to create the impression of depth (as if the building wasn't big enough already).

During Roman times, when it was used as the throne room, the building was surely richly decorated with statues, paintings and mosaics, but nothing survives to this day. The basilica was turned into the residence of the bishop in Trier during Medieval times, and it is now a stern and austere Protestant church – style that actually seems to suit the building, as it underlines it's huge dimensions.

The Imperial Baths

Constantine the Great continued to pay attention to Trier, as it was the chosen residence of his mother, Helena. More buildings were added, such as a new stadium, built close to the existing amphitheater, to host chariot races.

Still standing today from the same period are the ruins of the Imperial Baths, the largest ancient Roman bath structures to be found outside of Rome. The construction project was probably started by Constantius and finished during the reign of Constantine.

Next to the actual baths (thermae) there's the mandatory field (palaestra) for athletic exercises and the occasional gossip that had to be taken in the open, far from obnoxious eavesdroppers. The total surface covered is of 260 by 145 m. The surviving masonry work proves that special attention was paid to details and aesthetics, with bricks and limestone blocks arranged in various patterns.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ancient Pets

Ancients kept pets, just like we do, though perhaps the line between working animals and pets wasn't always as clear as it is today. For the best documented civilizations, such as Egypt, Greece and Rome – we have quite a bit of info about the ancient pets – especially those of the rich and famous.

Pets in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is the best source of research, though we're still far from fully understanding how many of the mummified animals found were pets and how many were ceremonial offerings for the gods. It's probably safe to assume that animals buried alone or with their owner, who were treated with special attention, were kept as pets when they lived.

Based on the paintings found on walls in tombs and temples, cats seem to be the most popular pets in Egypt – which is rather weird, as dogs were domesticated thousands of years before. Cats are often painted as standing next to the owner's feet or under the chair, a clear indication that they were kept as pets and not just for the obvious purpose of catching rodents.

The Egyptian goddess Bastet had the head of a domestic cat and the body of a woman. She was a benevolent deity, protector of children, mothers and, well, cats, and many cities organized yearly festivals in her honor.

Numerous cat statues and figurines were recovered by archaeologists, as well all sorts of other items depicting cats – amulets, earrings, pendants and so on. It seems at some point the ancient Egyptians introduced the death penalty for anybody who killed a cat.

Dogs were also extremely common in Ancient Egypt, but it seems they were used mostly for hunting and guarding, rather than kept as pets. Anubis, by the way, does not have a dog-head, but a jackal-head. However, part of a cemetery in Abydos was reserved for dogs, and there are also many inscriptions that indicate the names of the dogs, such as The Brave, The Trustworthy or even Blackie.

Trying to trace the origins of our contemporary pets, archaeologists concluded that ancient Egyptians had at least one breed of dogs that was very similar to the modern greyhound.

Paintings also indicate the monkeys were relatively common pets, though it's difficult to say for how long they could survive in captivity. Pliny the Elder mentions that, during the Ptolemaic dynasty, the baboons kept in Egyptian palaces could play dice and even understand written words.

There's also evidence that Egyptians kept various birds as pets, and even gazelles.

Pets in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks, unlike Egyptians, were not at all fond of cats. Dogs and birds were the most common pets, with an occasional mouse and goat here and there.

In the 5th century BC, Athenian statesman Alcibiades is reported to have purchased a wonderful dog for the price of 7,000 drachmas. By comparison, a regular worker could expect to receive 1 drachma in return for a full day's work.

Stories of faithful dogs abound in Greek tales. We all know how Odysseus' dog waited to see his master return home before passing its last breath (which, by the way, means the dog was at least 20 years old when passing away). There's also a story about Xantipus, Pericles' father, who once left Athens to go to the island of Salamis, almost 2 km away, but forgot to take his trusted dog with him. The desperate animal jumped into the water and swam the entire distance, following his master's boat.

A breathtaking mosaic of a parrot, from Pergamon. 
On display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Pets in Ancient Rome

Like Greeks, Romans favored birds and dogs as pets, and ignored cats, though it is said that Spartacus chose cats as a symbol of his rebellion, since they were associated with the goddess of freedom, Libertas, for their independent spirit.

Same as Egyptians, Romans had various breeds of dogs, including the one that resembled today's greyhound. Another popular breed was called Molossus, a huge animal, probably the ancestor of the modern mastiff, used for guarding, and probably for dog fights. Same as today, smaller breeds were mostly kept for company, especially by ladies.

Similar to the Greek literature, there are many stories of faithful dogs. In 28 AD, a dog jumped into the river Tiber to rescue his master, senator Sabinus, who had been pushed in the river by an angry mob. Unfortunately, his master was already dead before the body was thrown away. It's also said that the soldiers who killed Emperor Galba had to kill his dog too, as it wouldn't leave his master's side for anything in the world.

And speaking of faithful animals, ancient Romans had their version of Flipper. During the time of Emperor Augustus, a boy named Hyacinthus, who lived in Baiae, found a wounded dolphin and nursed it back to health. The dolphin would then return everyday, and accompany the boy on his way to school. The boy, however, caught a cold and died. The dolphin waited for him for many more days, until he died too, of grief and sorrow, according to Pliny.

Horses were rarely kept as pets (Caligula's favorite, Incitatus, was still a racing horse, albeit a luxury one, as I've pointed out in the post about Ancient Horses). Emperor Trajan, however, received a pet horse, which was useless for anything except bow down and make pretty pirouettes.

Ancient Romans were especially fond of birds that could be taught to speak. Siblings Britannicus and Nero (who went on to become the famous mad emperor) had several nightingales and starlings who could speak Latin as well as Greek. Pliny claims to have seen these precursors of Google Translate with his own eyes.

Augustus launched the fashion of parakeets and ravens who could speak, and used to pay large amounts for such birds. A poor Roman citizen managed to get his hands on a raven, and tried to teach the bird a few words, hoping the emperor would reward him handsomely. However, the bird was stubborn, and the man kept saying to it “Oh, you're such a waste of time and money!”. Eventually, the bird managed to learn to utter “Ave, Caesar”, or something similar, and was brought before Augustus, only to hear the emperor say that he had enough of such birds already and was not interested in purchasing more. At that point, the bird showed that education always pays off, and said to the emperor “Oh, you're such a waste of time and money!”. Augustus had enough sense of humor to purchase the bird on the spot.

There's also a story about a man who paid an amount that would've fetched a vineyard with slaves and wine-making devices in place for just one white nightingale, which he presented as a gift to Caligula's sister, Agrippina.

Fish make unlikely pets, but the Romans were weird. Of course, fish ponds were generally created and maintained to insure a steady supply of fish for the owner's meals, and were immensely expensive. A certain Publius Vedius Pollio, however, friend of Emperor Augustus and famous for his wealth and cruelty towards his slaves, managed to keep moray eels as pets. Some of the older and bigger specimens were fitted with jewelry and gems, and they were fed with human slaves who had misbehaved, in their master's opinion. It has been reported that one of the moray eels in his ponds lived to reach the venerable age of 60. Probably none of his slaves managed that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Plumbing and Toilets in Ancient Rome

Our humble water toilet may be a modern invention, but plumbing existed as early as 2700 BC for the civilizations of the Indus Valley. But among the ancients, the Romans perfected the use of plumbing and toilets into an art, so much that a modern traveler to Ancient Rome would find everything in good order, even if the lack of intimacy might be unsettling at first.

Romans, as we know, had a bit of an obsession with aqueducts and baths, kind of hygiene freaks, they were. Because of this, plumbing was a profession in its own right, and the ancient plumber was called, duh, plumbarius.

Indoor plumbing was not for everybody, only the richest could afford it, and they were charged for the use of the public water network with a fee based on the size of their pipes.

Public latrines in Ostia. Image source here.

Romans were a social bunch, there was a lot of gossip to be dealt with before the social networks appeared online, so latrines were build so as to allow conversation, in case anybody had a bad case of constipation and needed to spend some time in there. There are reports of various emperors (in particular Claudius) who conducted public business from their royal “thrones”.

Public latrines along Hadrian's Wall. Image source here

Water flowed under the latrines to pick up the mess. Since toilet paper was not available (what do you expect? paper was not available at all), Romans used a sponge on a stick to wipe. Sponges were not disposable, they just dipped them in water to clean the remains of the previous user. (Funny story here: Seneca tells us about a gladiator who was so afraid of his first fight, that he decided to commit suicide before entering the arena. Since gladiators were supervised at all times, the man found a bit of privacy only when going to the loo, so he pushed the sponge down his throat and suffocated himself with it. Death by toilet paper.)

The waste water from latrines, along with what came out of private homes, was collected into a giant sewerage system called Cloaca Maxima. Originally built by Etruscan engineers, it was constantly improved by the Romans. The main drain channel was so big, that a chariot with four horses could be driven through it, if it ever dried up. At some point, the Romans had to cover up their sewers with vaults made of stone, to contain the foul smell.

Interior of Cloaca Maxima. Image source here.

There was even a goddess to preside over the good functioning of the sewerage system, named Cloacina. How cool is that? Though it's unwise to let something of such importance exclusively at the mercy of the gods, so the Romans had city officials, called aediles, who were in charge, among other things, of supervising and improving the sewerage system. It was actually a pretty important position, and people fought to obtain it.

Since the luxury of a water toilet was not available to everybody, the poor population in Rome used regular pots. But, since those ancients were all about recycling and being eco-friendly, nothing was thrown away. People called fullones (meaning cloth launderers) collected pots full of urine from the streets, and used it to launder the citizens' clothes. Well, soap wasn't a common commodity, so they had to use something.

Now, of course, I can't end this quick tour of the Roman toilets without mentioning the anecdote about Emperor Vespasian, the one who introduced fees for the use of public toilets. No credit cards accepted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ancient Link of the Day

Google Earth - Rome 3D - maybe you've seen it before, but I can't get enough of it.

If you haven't checked it out yet, do it as soon as possible. Download Google Earth 5 and select Ancient Rome 3D in from the gallery, then sit back and dream of being there, and, most importantly, then.

Plagiarism - an Ancient History

A man named Aristophanes lived in the beautiful city of Alexandria, around 250 BC. He was the biggest bookworm you could think of, and Alexandria was the ultimate place to be if you had such hobbies, given that the great library was up and running, eating up funds that would give nightmares to any of today’s finance ministers.
So, this Aristophanes spent most of his life trying to read everything in the library, including the new entries.

One day, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt decided to hold a poetry contest. Poets poured in from all over the world, and the King admitted he was lost among so many great works, so he decided to call in Aristophanes to judge on the winner.
Aristophanes listened carefully to all the works recited, then, to everybody’s surprise, he picked the least acclaimed poem as the winner, declaring that all the rest were just copies of previous works. He went to the library and started producing parchments to justify his statements.
The King ostracized the poets (a punishment much nastier than you might imagine today) and Aristophanes landed his dream job, as curator of the great library in Alexandria.

The concept of plagiarism is not as new as we might think. The word itself comes from the Latin plagiarius, meaning kidnapper. Famous poet Martial, from Ancient Rome, is credited with the first usage in the modern sense, when he accused another poet of having “kidnapped his verses”.

Copyright infringement issues, as we know them today, only entered in use in the 18th century, when book distribution and trade became an issue. King Ptolemy's poets were unfortunate to have stumbled upon a pre-search engine plagiarism checker, and even more so to be punished for something everybody was doing in those days.

To copy or compile another's work was considered homage to a great master, and improvisation was frowned upon, as a sign of meaningless pride.

Originality was useless, the ancients decreed, all words have already been spoken, everything worth saying has already been said. Tough to argue, but I'm still going to check these paragraphs with a plagiarism tool before making my post, to make sure I haven’t accidentally recited a phrase I didn’t know I memorized. Just my five minutes of meaningless pride. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ancient Link of the Day

How to Become a Roman Emperor

Yes, it's shameless self-promotion. It's one of my older articles, but I still think it's seriously funny. So read it already!

What’s in a Cognomen?

That whom we call CAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR
By any other name, would’ve been less famous?

There have been lots of suppositions, since ancient times, about the origin of the cognomen Caesar. The ancients took a passing interest in etymology, though, we have to admit, they were not very good at it.

What we can say with a relative amount of certainty today is that Caesar was probably of foreign origin, since its -er ending is quite unusual in Latin. This led to speculations that it might derivate from the Punic word for elephant – which was probably something like caesai - and to the legend that one of Julius Caesar’s ancestors got this name after killing an elephant in one of the confrontations in the first Punic War.

Caesar used the image of an elephant on some of his early coins, but the image bears lots of possible interpretations, being a symbol of absolute force and domination. Knowing how Caesar turned everything into political propaganda, it’s surprising that he didn't use his brave ancestor more often when talking of his lineage. Maybe an elephant killer was not fancy enough for someone descending directly from gods, or maybe Caesar knew better that there was no foundation for this legend.

The man, the name, the legend.
Apologies for the poor quality of the picture, my hands were shaking in front of such majestic power. Also, the curators from Berlin museum didn't mind the sub-zero temperatures.

Sextus Pompeius Festus says the name comes from a caesaries (referring to someone with thick, curly hair), because children in the family were born with heads covered in hair. The thought must've been painful to Caesar, balding at a young age and painfully conscious of it.

According to Historia Augusta, the etymology is related to a caesiis oculis (“due to the blue eyes"). We know for a fact that Caesar's eyes were black – not that this cancels our this hypothesis, but still, rather funny.

And here is my favorite suggestion: the ultimate encyclopedic authority, Pliny the Elder, thinks the name comes from a caesus (meaning “cut”, thus alluding to a child born by a caesarian intervention). It’s the most tempting of them all for us modern people, because of the clear association we can make between Caesar and caesarian today.

Without a trace of doubt, Julius Caesar himself was not born by a caesarian section – women did not survive after such an intervention, and Caesar's mother was still alive 30 years after giving birth to him. It's not impossible, however, that one of his ancestors was born this way.

Another interpretation that has been given was that a certain Julius Caesar of the 2nd century BC might have been the promoter of the law which allowed doctors to perform a caesarian intervention on mothers, when it became obvious they could no longer save both mother and child, thus sparring the doctors from possible murder charges - considering that the intervention was without a doubt brutal and merciless in those times.

Just as well, the name made a huge career, and became synonymous with the ruler of the Roman Empire, of the German Empire (Kaiser) and Russian Empire (Tsar, also spelled csar).

And in the end, just to clear up a few facts, in the unlikely case the posterity will be faced with the same dilemmas: Caesar’s salad is not directly named after the Roman dictator, but after a US restaurateur named Caesar Cardini. There is however a drink called Bloody Caesar which gives credit to the ancient ruler. It’s made with vodka, clamato juice (a sort of concentrated tomato juice), beef bullion, lime, Worcestershire sauce and horseradish.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ancient Link of the Day

Cleopatra: a Multimedia Guide to the Ancient World presents a neat collection of images and stories from ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy.
It is in fact an interactive guide to the ancient art collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, very well organized and easy to browse. I only wish that all museums had sites like this.

Famous Ancient Horses

Caesar, master of doing anything on grand scale, couldn’t ride just any normal horse. Here’s what Suetonius (who’s just as reliable as any other tabloid writer out there) reports:
"He rode a remarkable horse, too, with feet that were almost human; for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own place, and since the soothsayers had declared that it foretold the rule of the world for its master, he reared it with the greatest care, and was the first to mount it, for it would endure no other rider. Afterwards, too, he dedicated a statue of it before the temple of Venus Genetrix”

According to Aristotle, there was a documented case of a horse that lived to be 75. A much younger (by comparison) stallion of just 40 years was still used for breeding, but the keepers had to use scaffolding to support the front legs during the act.

The most infamous of them all: Incitatus, Caligula’s beloved horse, Roman citizen, senator and would-be consul. The horse had a marble stable, as well as its own slaves, furniture and rooms to receive house guests. It was invited to dinners at the palace and drank water from golden buckets.
Incitatus was a race horse (the name means “swift”) and it’s was said to have never lost a race (though there’s no way of telling if that happened because it was indeed the best of the best or because it was the emperor’s darling. Chariot drivers and breeders would know, for sure, that it wasn't wise to mess with Caligula's favorite).
Allegedly, Caligula wanted to marry Incitatus, but, for the sake of the dynasty, decided to take a woman instead, hoping to produce a male heir as soon as possible. The emperor considered that Incitatus was devastated by this decision and sunk into depression.
There's bound to be lots of exaggeration in all this. For one thing, it’s very likely that Caligula appointed the horse as senator mostly in an attempt to humiliate the Senate and to display his power over the senators, then because he was actually mad enough to believe the horse could rule the empire. (Though it's rather possible the horse would have done a better job than Caligula himself.)

There was a saying in Latin - "Ille homo habet equum Seianum.", translating as “The man has the Seian (or Sejan) horse”. This goes back to the 1st century AD, when a man called Cneius Seius had a horse of incredible beauty, big, strong, and with a very unusual purple color.
The horse had a long history of unlucky owners: Seius was killed by Marcus Antonius, and the horse was bough by the year's consul, Cornelius Dolabella, who was killed in combat. His arch-enemy, Gaius Cassius, took the horse, only to be killed by Antonius a bit later. Antonius took the horse, and, as we all know, his love story with Cleopatra went well for a short period of time, but then things turned sour and Antonius died as well.
Looking back, though, it’s difficult to say whether the horse was indeed bad luck, or it was just living in a period when the rich, famous and politically-involved had a very short life span.

Pausanias writes about the statute of a mare, located close to the temple in Olympia. According to him, the statue was neither good looking nor very lifelike, but that wasn't the opinion of the horses themselves. All stallions passing by went mad and tried to mount the statue, and considerable effort was needed from their caretakers to keep them moving.

It pays to be in the service of a great conqueror, even for a horse, and Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse, got his place not only in history, but also in legends and myths.
Bucephalus was described as a massive, black animal, with a star on his forehead. Alexander won the worse while still a teenager, being the only one who could tame the wild animal. As legend goes, the horse was afraid of his shadow, and thus could only go towards the sun - this being the reason behind Alexander's conquests: he could not go back, because the horse wouldn't take him.
Apelles painted a portrait of Alexander the Great, riding Bucephalus. Alexander himself was not very happy about the painting, but the horse seemed to have taken quite a liking to it, to which Apelles had the audacity to declare that the horse had better taste than its master.
Alexander the Great and Bucephalus
Alexander the Great and Bucephalus. Source: Wikipedia

According to various sources, Bucephalus died either of old age, at 30, or due to injuries sustained in the battle of the Hydaspes. Either way, Alexander did what he knew best, he founded a city called Bucephala to honor the horse, probably close to modern-day town of Jalalpur Sharif, in Pakistan.

During the times of Emperor Septimius Severus, the Romans, who thought they had seen every possible creature in their amphitheaters, were presented with “the horses of the Sun”. Judging by the surviving descriptions, they were most likely zebras.