Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Computer Games set in Ancient Rome

I'm a geek, I have a special interest for Ancient Rome and I play computer games. Go figure. So here are my favorites, in several categories.


The ever-popular Caesar series (1 through 4) by Vivendi Universal, where you become a provincial governor within the empire and fulfill several missions, build your cities, from roads up, defend it against barbarians and deal with plagues, fires and other nuisances.
All in all, a nice game, though in the 4th part of the series I found the graphics too demanding (they're nice, but not that nice to justify the technical requirements) and the gameplay too easy. In the first part, I got stuck for weeks trying to pass a level, with the fourth, I was done completely before the week was over. Or maybe my geekiness level increased drastically in the meantime.


If you're into strategy games, Rome: Total War by Sega is simply the best. It's a combination of real time and turn based strategy; the real time battles are in 3D, with a great engine and beautiful graphics, that allow the display of hundreds of characters at the same time. The outcome of each battle greatly depends on your ability to maneuver your troops, which is quite unique, as far as I could find, and adds to the realism (we all know the winner of ancient battles wasn't always the one with the biggest army).

Instead of being just one character, you are the head of one of three major Roman families, each with unique features, and, as such, you can control all male members of your family, adopt new ones, issue orders for the commanders of your army and so on. Enjoyable, challenging, and not annoying at all from the historic point of view – give this game a try if you have the chance.

Dash/Time management:

Yes, I've played my fair share of dash games. I know, lame.

Roads of Rome from Realore Studios is one such fine example; you are the brave warrior Victorius who has to build the Roman road network system before marrying a certain Julia. Granted, not the smartest game in town, and doesn't make even the vaguest attempt at historical accuracy, but fun, if you have an hour to kill.

Match 3:

Oh, talk about time killers, dash games don't even begin to compare to their match 3 counterparts. This could cost you a few sleepless nights, as you're just trying to gather a few hundred more resources to pass to the next level. Cradle of Rome (1 and 2) was one of the big hits in its category, and for the good reason: extremely simple gameplay (hey, it's match 3. It' easier than Solitaire), nice graphics, amusing minigames, just everything you might expect.

Hidden object:

I wish I knew of a better Roman-themed game in this category, but I don't... so until I find something better, here it is: Romance of Rome, also from Realore Studios. Good game, as far as hidden objects games go these days, but, from my point of view, disappointing graphics. I was expecting something more... Roman.

There. Go play.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pierre Grimal

French authors stink. Especially brilliant French authors who manage not to get themselves translated into any other language. Like Pierre Grimal. I've just finished his “Tacitus”, and it's absolutely perfect, same as his “Roman Civilization”. His books are well balanced, don't get drowned in details, like most biographies tend to, these days, and, for me, at least, they contain the exact right amount of new information versus things I already knew, so they don't overload my tired brain, but are still interesting and stimulating.

And he has a ton of other books and articles, which seem great by the title, especially knowing that I like his work already, but they're available only in French – beautiful language, by the way, but I'd rather take a champagne enema than read history books in French.

The Dictionary of Classical Mythology
is the only one – as far as I could find – that was translated into English, which is all very nice, except that there are about a billion great dictionaries and books on mythology. But the niche seems pretty empty on other topics covered by Grimal, such as Agrippina's memoirs, the art of gardening, Roman villas, and a bunch of studies on Seneca, Horace, Cicero, Scipio, Virgil and so many more. In French. Gah.   

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II

The Melting Pot

I know it's no longer fashionable to refer to the United States as a melting pot, but the politically correct term of multiculturalism doesn't strike me as describing the process accurately.

It's actually been long discussed by the historians that a culture is stronger when it has more ethnic components, with bigger differences among them.

In Rome, the association of various cultures was eased by their tendency to consider that the same gods were worshiped all over the world under different names, leading to associations such as Venus – Aphrodite – Isis or Jupiter – Zeus – Serapis.

Cultural Complex

Both Rome and the United States owe a lot to other civilizations, from the cultural point of view. It has been said that there is no actual Roman civilization or culture, just the Greek one, popularized for the masses. For the Americans, the fact that they share the same language with the British doesn't help shake off the complex, either.

The Romans never managed to get over this completely. When the mad Nero wanted to make it big as an artist, he sought recognition in Greek towns, not at home. Even when the empire reached its height, the Greeks, now under Roman domination, still looked down on their conquerors, from a cultural point of view.


If you're going to dominate the world, it might help to turn your own mother tongue into lingua franca. American English made it by combining different channels – the Internet, probably the biggest factor of success, turning English into the primary business language and the entertainment industry, especially pop music. Various terms that denominate technological discoveries, business and stock market practices and showbiz words are borrowed by other languages all the time.

The Roman Empire didn't have the Internet, but had the next best thing – a written culture. Let's put it this way: Rome had a written culture at a time when the rest of the world was still relying on oral traditions, in the same way America had an electronic culture when the rest of the world was still relying on pen and paper. The entire empire was fundamentally bilingual, the two languages used being Koine Greek and Latin. Latin made it big after becoming the official language of the Catholic Church and its alphabet was adopted in many European territories.

The Balance of Trade

One of the causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire was its own unsustainable economy. Scholars argue that Rome kept importing very expensive merchandise, such as spices and fragrances, from the Far East, and had nothing to export, thus consistently decreasing its gold and silver reserves. Its inflation problem started pretty much when Rome became an empire, it was already visible in Nero's time – mostly because that was also the moment when Rome's territorial expansion slowed down until it stopped completely. Sometimes at a slow rate, sometimes in leaps, the inflation continued to undermine Rome's economy, despite various attempts to control it made by several emperors.

The United States is also facing a huge trade deficit today. It's inevitable, the more prosper a country is, the more it turns itself into a consumer, rather than a producer.

Home Defense

You see, Rome never invaded anybody else. I don't know what they taught you in school, but really, all they were doing was protecting their own city. This meant expanding the borders a bit. And when those borders were threatened, they had to be expanded a bit more. And so on, until the whole world was conquered and there were no more threats.

Just because it was an expansionist empire (which the US is not, territorially, at least), Rome didn't accept wars for the sole purpose of conquering new territories. Generals who wanted to start a conflict (which they always did, for their own personal profit) had to present home some very solid grounds, such as “a tribe of 300 members armed with big wooden bats were threatening to invade us and were planning on taking over Rome, so we had to invade them first”. Going to war in a territory at the other end of the world in search of mass destruction weapons which might, or might not, be used on your own home territory at some point in a hypothetical future would have made perfect sense for the Romans.

Go to:
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lectio difficilior

Lectio difficilior potior is fancy way of saying “let's make things as complicated as possible”.

It's a principle used by people who spend their lives trying to patch up and decipher manuscripts, and it basically means that, when there are several versions of the same text, the version that's more complicated and unusual is the right one.

It makes sense, when you think about it. When information gets transmitted from one to another (in this case, copied by people from different generations, with various degrees of knowledge and understanding of the language), somebody on the line may over-simplify because he doesn't understand any better.

Here's how in works in practice. In Tacitus, there's a passage saying “this is the best of luck's gifts, when the Empire is pressed by its destiny”. Some of the scribes who copied the manuscript later couldn't figure out whose destiny it was and why it was pressuring the empire, so they changed it into “when the Empire is about to be doomed”. This makes sense looking at the issue retrospectively, when they already knew the empire was doomed; from Tacitus' point of view, it surely wasn't the case, but it helped cement his reputation of being a pessimist (which he was anyway). Most scholars now agree that the initial reading is the correct one, and the “Empire pressed by its destiny” was a common expression (it can be found in other authors as well) that we just don't know how to interpret today.

Now, do you google words and names sometimes, when in doubt, to find out which is the correct spelling? I know I do. Well, guess what. The spelling with the highest number of occurrences is not necessarily the correct one. It might just be that the one that got simplified and spread as such.

(Yes, I know, I was supposed to do the continuation of Rome vs. USA today. Sorry, I've been awfully busy, I'm trying to watch all classic Betty Boop cartoons in one day, so tomorrow. If I finish with Betty Boop today, that is.)  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I

I firmly believe that history doesn't repeat itself. There are certain constants, because the human nature is fairly constant, and various coincidences, but no cycles or patterns. Therefore, the list below is just a collection of constants and coincidences, mixed together with a few things that were inherited naturally by contemporary civilizations from the ancients. I am perfectly aware that the things I list here can be found in many other countries, I just compared the Roman Empire to the United States for the fun of it.

The Founding Legend

Aeneas left behind the burning city of Troy, faced a bunch of maritime problems and found his way to Italy, where he founded a little village, and, more importantly, brought his family to safety. Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, would be born into this family. This was Rome's way of claiming direct heritage from a great, but decaying civilization.

Same as Mayflower left the once great British Empire to sail for new horizons. Survivors reached a relative safety, but that was the price to be paid for freedom (in a similar way, had he stayed in Troy, Aeneas would have been either killed or turned into a slave by the conquerors).

Throw some girls in the mix (Dido and Pocahontas, I'd say I just made Virgil twist in his grave), a bunch of not so cooperative locals, who see the light eventually (the Sabines and the native American Indians) and add more semi-mythical characters to your liking. (Start with Davy Crocket. He was cool.)

Of course, the Mayflower is real. Probably so was Aeneas in the beginning. America is slowly turning its origins into mythology: the Thanksgiving celebration, the larger than life founding fathers, the Western movies, the emphasis on a rather minor, anecdotal incident like the Boston tea party – these sketch out images destined to stir emotions, not to transmit facts. Well, granted, every country needs a decent founding legend. America is just creating its own as we speak.

The Army

Size matters. The biggest army in the world also means the biggest military budget, both Rome and Washington would discover, but hey, that's life. Having citizens rise up in arms to defend their homeland is good, but a professional army is even better.

There was another neat little trick the Romans discovered, and Americans are following, or re-discovering, today: having the biggest army doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it. Sure, it may seem like a huge waste to maintain it just for the show, but it's actually more expensive to put it to use in conflict. Conflicts, however, can be avoided if your opponent knows yours is much bigger than his. Army, I mean.

Here's where the propaganda comes in. The legionaries were presented as the ultimate fighting machines. Foreign rulers were invited to visit Rome's military camps and be amazed by their perfect organization and discipline. Parades were held regularly, and the veterans got so much respect, even the emperor would rise to meet them. Guess the company that owned the copyright for the G.I. Julius action figure made it big.

The Youth and Beauty Cult

Here's the thing: the classical European civilizations, Greek and Roman, had a real admiration for the perfection of the human body. This is why they made all those statues of naked people. Then, the perspective shifted. Christian Europe considered beauty a temptation, a sign of vanity and associated it with sin. Nakedness was out anyway – that's why they smashed the genitalia off the statues of naked people (seriously, why didn't they just put some clothes on them?) The beauty cult made a timid comeback only in the 19th century, but finally achieved its full potential after the television kicked in.

Romans were ambivalent towards youth. On one hand, they had strict rules that prevented young people from taking more responsibility than they could handle and from embarking themselves in adventurous enterprises. On the other hand, they enjoyed nothing more than watching those rules smashed to pieces.

In theory, you had to be at least 40 to get the highest positions in the state (and given the shorter life expectancy of the time, that was old). In practice, Romans cheered with great enthusiasm every time they got themselves a very young emperor. The result? Well, just like today. Children and adolescents who grow up in the spotlight cave in to the media pressure and end up in a hotel toilet, with a syringe in their vein. The young emperors I mentioned, that Romans loved so much in the beginning? Caligula, Nero, Commodus.

One more thing. This obsession with beauty had its consequences in politics, then just like today. Politicians of the time went to great lengths to present themselves as good-looking, with a nice wife on their arm and a set of perfect children. Fortunately for them, statues and portraits minted on coins didn't add ten pounds. This was never again in issue in the world's politics until television came into play.

The Infrastructure Issue

A big territory poses big issues. If you have a rebellion on your hands at your empire's borders, you don't want to wait six months to find out about it. The Romans are still famous for their impressive, and impeccable, roads – some of which are still in use in Europe today. The Roman postal system was the fastest Europe would know until the 19th century.

Likewise, America is famous for its system of roads and obsession with cars. And for its railroad system, which conquered the West. And for its electronic infrastructure, which turned the Internet into an English-language business before the rest of the world caught on. Networks. Where would empires be without them?

The Citizenship Issue

Romans had a very simple way of dividing humans: first, women and slaves aside. For the rest, there were just two categories: citizens and barbarians. Actually, there was a state of limbo, barbarians within the empire, but that was transient, they would either become citizens in due time, or stay barbarians, riot and be duly put to death.

A bunch of civil wars started, not because the rebels wanted the break free from Rome, but because they wanted to get in – meaning, to obtain the citizenship. Greencard, anyone?

Being a Roman citizen was... you know those movies, where, in the middle of an international conflict, the character suddenly starts weaving around his US passport like a magical shield, and yelling “I'm an American citizen”? Yeah, that's just how being a Roman citizen was.

Rome had its own 9/11 moment when a king named Mithridates of Pontus had a sudden fit and decided to throw the Romans out, but killing all the Roman citizens on his territory. Some say that 80,000 men, women and children were put to death. Rome was stunned. There was a general outcry that the Senate had to do something to protect the citizens living abroad, but they were so shocked, that the reaction was not nearly as tough as you would have expected. In fact, Mithridates survived a long time after his genocide – sure, he lost his territories almost immediately, but remained an important power player in the area. This could have something to do with the fact that Rome was torn apart by internal, political conflicts at the time – at such as strong opponent from outside made good grounds for political campaigns. Several generals claimed glorious and definitive victories over Mithridates – usually, just in time to serve them in the next electoral campaign. As I said in the beginning, any similarities to what's going on today are just coincidental.

To be continued...
(Currently I have about 20 points written down, so I estimate there will be four or five parts for this. Bear with me until I'm done.) 

Go to: 
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Things Ancient Europe did not have

Besides the obvious – anything powered by electricity, gas, steam and so on – what do I need to pack before traveling to ancient Rome? This is like trying to think backwards, so I'll just scribble whatever I can come up with for now, and maybe I'll update the list later.

Coffee. Now, this is bad. How could they possibly live without coffee? Was anybody ever awake in those times? Coffee comes from Ethiopia, so, technically, the Romans could have been in contact with it, but there's no evidence that anybody drunk coffee until the 17th century. Weird people.

But wait, it gets worse – there's no sugar. Fair enough, if there's no coffee, what would you need sugar for? This made honey extremely expensive at the time, and various (toxic) alternative sweeteners were used, such as lead. I'm going to guess it was a bit more toxic than today's artificial sweeteners.

And, yes, it's getting even worse. Since cocoa originates from South America, there's no chocolate, either. I'm not so sure I want to go to ancient Rome anymore.

Let's see, what else originates from the Americas:

  • turkeys (I won't miss them)
  • tomatoes – this is strange, I can't picture any Mediterranean cooking without tomatoes. And those Romans, they thought they owned the Mediterranean sea.
  • potatoes and corn – commonsensical, but this means no chips!
  • pineapples
  • tobacco – there was a wealth of articles at some point all over the Internet claiming that ancient Egyptians were smoking. Weed, maybe, but certainly not tobacco.
  • a bunch of berries (blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, farkleberries – ok, I'm just listing them for the fun of it, I'm pretty sure Europe had enough varieties of berries to over-compensate this shortage).
  • a bunch of nuts, including peanuts, pecan and cashew nuts
  • vanilla. Wait, what? No chocolate and no vanilla? What on earth were those people using to make ice cream?! (Bet you were going to say no ice cream either. Well, this is not entirely true. Emperor Nero had his crew mix snow and fruit juice for him, so that's sort of ice cream, we can't be too picky now.)

Ok, this is already very, very bad. What else is there that ancient Romans didn't have? Pills. Sure, they used all sorts of medicinal plants, but no pills... it's just odd. No syringes, either – so maybe doctors weren't as scary back then as they are today. I think they also had fewer illnesses, given that the life expectancy was shorter, probably many diseases associated with old age didn't exist, or existed only in a handful of people and could thus be ignored. Since mental illnesses were not considered treatable we can scratch those off the list, and there was a study suggesting that cancer didn't exist either, but I wouldn't go that far.

Forks. Romans ate with their hands, so no silver cutlery at the dinner. They had instruments shaped like today's forks, used to assist when carving meat. They also had spoons, in case you were wondering. And ladles.

Toothpaste, deodorant, soap and detergents. There is a reference somewhere about a mixture used by Spanish tribes to clean their teeth (which included urine, if I remember well), but no account of anything similar to toothpaste in Rome. Artificial detergents were not known, of course; soap didn't seem to be very popular in the Empire, though there are mentions that it was used in Germania and Gaul.

Ancient Romans obviously didn't have paper, and they managed the writing part well without it, but think of the implications... no toilet paper, no paper napkins, no cardboard boxes and no paper clips! What did they do during long, boring office meetings if they couldn't build paper clip figurines?

No plastic – ok, this is again something very obvious, but take a moment to think... can you imagine a world where nothing around you is made of plastic? No polyester, nylon, velcro or vinyl – guess no glam rock for the ancients.

I'd have to pack six pairs of eyeglasses, to include all possible changes in my prescription for the next years, though I have some doubts about this. They used magnifying glasses (they were called reading stones), how hard is it for anybody to figure out a way to attach them to a ribbon and tie them to the head?

No clocks, watches or pendulums – but I don't think this counts as a shortcoming. It would be nice to live your entire life without being pressured by the passing seconds.

Liquors and spirits. Ancient Greeks figured out how to get distilled water, and they stopped there. Figures, conceit wine drinkers. Alcohol was distilled for the first time in the 12th century, and fractional distillation appeared a century later. You know, I just figured out how I'm going to support myself while living in ancient Rome. I always thought I didn't have any skills marketable in an age where there's no electricity, but I lived all my life around home-made distillery devices, I can build one in ancient Rome. I know they were partial to wine, but it's a big empire, I'm sure I'll find a market. And no special taxes on alcohol either – this definitely has potential.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

More Dragons and Sphinxes in the Mix

I am a sucker for historical fiction, and not just for those set in ancient Rome, as you might think from this blog. Ok, ancient Rome comes first, but I read just about any age, and watch the occasional Hollywood blockbuster when it comes out.

My expectations when it comes to movies are relatively low: I want beautiful actors, armies, uniforms, horses, if appropriate, and I'm always grateful when they don't make the actors speak some obscure dialects (we all know ancients and aliens don't speak English. It doesn't add authenticity, it just makes it totally boring.)

With books, though, there's a different story. If a book is marketed as “serious” historical fiction, I expect it to be accurate in the tiny details, and coherent in the big picture. If a very small inaccurate detail sneaks in – let's say, Vespasian throws a dinner party and the main dish consists of peacocks, flamingos and turkeys – I'm going to rant about it for days.

Now, of course I understand what fiction is, I'm not stupid, on my good days. It makes perfect sense what Thornton Wilder did with Clodia in The Ides of March, he needed a strong female character, and, since there was none, Clodia was just as good as anybody else. What I don't understand is the type of historical fiction written by Conn Iggulden, for instance, where events are mixed up in all possible ways just to produce some flat cartoonish characters. I read one of his Emperor series a while ago, drove me nuts, I picked up another yesterday and... never thought I'd say this, but I'm not going to finish it. I'd rather read... hm... I need something nice to read after this.

What happened to all the good historical fantasy books? There was a trend a while ago, with some decent reads – most of them based on Celtic legends, but Rome was also starting to emerge as a cool place for wizards and witches – but it seems it went out of style before it took off.

Here's the deal: I want to read a nice, relaxing book, with dragons and sphinxes and legionaries in it. And a baby phoenix. Yeah, that should be cute. A baby phoenix that is kidnapped by a ruthless merchant, who wants to sell it to the game organizers in Rome. But his ship is attacked by a mob of sirens and tritons (yes, the trip has to be by ship, phoenixes only live in Egypt, duh), and the baby phoenix manages to escape from the shipwreck, but needs to find a way to return home. Oh, and we need a wizard now. I'm guessing... Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius, a mix between Tacitus and Harry Potter. There, now that's a plot line which makes the historical truth irrelevant. Why doesn't anybody write any good stuff anymore?  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Don't Mess with the Hangover God

Once upon a time, there was a king named Lycurgus of Thrace (not to be confused with Lycurgus of Sparta, Athens, Arcadia or Nemea – those are completely different Lycurguses). This Lycurgus thought his people spent too much time partying and not enough time fighting or plowing or doing other ancienty stuff, so he enforced his own version of the prohibition.

This posed a bit of a religious issue: since a major god, Dionysus, was in charge of drinking, his cult had to be banned as well. Not cool, and Dionysus was not happy. He made Lycurgus go mad (apt punishment, I could never understand how people who don't drink manage to stay sane), mistake his own son for a trunk of vines and kill him while trying to destroy all vineyards in the country. People of Thrace were fed up with the prohibition thing anyway, so they had Lycurgus dismembered by wild horses.

Bacchus - Statue from the Baths of Faustina, in Miletus.

In the 1st century BC, the tribes of Getae and Dacians were united under the centralized rule of a man named Burebista. He employed the help of a wizard-priest from Egypt, Decaeneus, who also had a personal vengeance against vineyards. Figures. Egyptians adopted wine at some point in their history, but, deep in the their hearts, they remained beer people. According to Strabo, Burebista and Decaeneus managed to convince people to cut down vines and stop drinking wine voluntarily (probably some weird Egyptian mind-controlling techniques were used there). A few years later, they were assassinated by political opponents; the state dissolved, and the Getae were happily drunk once more.

In the 1st century AD, Domitian ruled Rome with an iron fist. Pissed because the entire Italian peninsula depended heavily on grain imports, he ordered all vines to be uprooted from the provinces, and banned the plantation of new ones. The measure was never actually enforced, partly because it was massively unpopular and caused protests everywhere, partly because Domitian suddenly remembered what happened to other rulers, and didn't want to upset the god of drinking, now called Bacchus. Too late – Domitian was killed, his memory banned by the Roman Senate, and he went down in history as one of the worst emperors.

Ok, I understand that Dionysus / Bacchus kills those who disrespect him. What I don't get is why he punishes the rest of us with hangovers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ancient Roman Women – Claudia Octavia

So let's move on to the second special request generated by the overview of ancient Roman women - Claudia Octavia, daughter of emperor Claudius and wife of emperor Nero.

This is quite a fairytale, about a girl whose mother dies and is replaced by an evil stepmother, but our heroine faces all difficulties with bravery, and she eventually marries a prince. Then the prince chops her head off. End of story. Ok, our Octavia is anything but a heroine. I mean, even after we got used to the passiveness of Cinderella and Snow-white, Claudia Octavia still deserves a monument named after her, for being the most passive victim of all times.

She just didn't have any chances, with a family like hers. Claudius took everybody by surprise (including himself) by becoming emperor in 41 AD. He already had a daughter, named Claudia Antonia (and here we go), with his second wife, Aelia Paetina, but, as all Romans, desperately needed a male heir, so he married Valeria Messalina, who was also accidentally his second cousin. And yes, it's THE Messalina, the ultimate image of debauchery and promiscuity.

The happy couple had two children – Claudia Octavia and Britannicus – until Messalina decided to re-marry but forgot to inform her royal husband first, and was therefore put to death. Since all his marriages turned out so well, Claudius decided to try his luck one more time, with his first cousin, Agrippina, who already had a son, Nero, about the same age as Octavia and Britannicus (just a bit older than Britannicus, but those few extra months would prove crucial for the power transfer).

Messalina and her two children. Image CC via Wikipedia. 

So, let's review what we have so far: Octavia was the daughter of a man considered both mentally and physically challenged and of a woman who was just about to go down in history as the biggest prostitute of all times. She witnessed her mother being put to death, and then got Agrippina as stepmother, already famed for her intrigues and blood thirst.

Now let's watch things going from bad to worse. As all girls of her standing, Octavia got engaged very young to a guy named Silanus, as her father was looking for political alliances. When the situation changed, the engagement between Octavia and Silanus was dissolved, pushing Silanus to commit suicide on the same day that Claudius married Agrippina. Spectacular.


A new marriage was arranged for Octavia, this time to Nero. Of course, they were technically siblings, so Octavia was probably adopted into a different family – how much worse could a new family be, anyway?

Let's fast forward a bit among the next pile of corpses: Claudius died, possibly poisoned by Agrippina, Britannicus died, possibly poisoned by Agrippina and / or Nero, Agrippina died, on Nero's orders. We can reasonably assume that Octavia suffered from the loss of her father and brother, but it would be her stepmother's death that had the biggest impact on her life. Agrippina managed to keep Nero relatively under control for a while, and she insisted on him staying married to Octavia, to justify his claim to the imperial position. From the paternal side, Nero's family was not particularly illustrious, so the marriage to a Julio-Claudian was imperative.

But, with Agrippina out of the way, Nero could do what he pleased, and historians of the time are more than happy to report that he hated being intimate with Octavia. (That's Rome for you, no privacy for the famous, even in the bedroom. Feels so familiar, somehow.) There have also been allegations that Nero tried to strangle Octavia on several occasions – though he strikes me as mad, but not the kind of mad that would get violent on a personal level.

When one of Nero's mistresses, Poppaea Sabina, got pregnant, he finally decided to divorce Octavia, claiming she was sterile, and married Poppaea a couple of weeks later. The divorce caused a general outcry of sympathy, so Nero tried to hide Octavia from the public, by having her exiled to an island under an accusation of adultery. So... his mistress was already pregnant with his child, but Octavia was the one charged with adultery. The Romans thought so too, so the manifestations of sympathy for Octavia increased, and people demanded to have her back, thus forcing Nero's hand to use the ultimate solution: he had her killed. There was a pathetic attempt to make it look like a suicide, by opening her veins in a hot bath, but it was kind of hard to buy the suicide version, considering that Octavia's head was subsequently cut off and sent to Rome, as a gift for Poppaea.

If it's any consolation, Poppaea herself also had a gruesome death, a few years later. Then Nero reconsidered his alliance with the descendents of Claudius and tried to marry Octavia's sister, Claudia Antonia. She refused, and was also killed. Typical Julio-Claudian style: marry the emperor, get killed, don't marry the emperor, get killed.

Tacitus plays up the anti-neronian propaganda by describing Octavia as an “aristocratic and virtuous wife” - as if anyone needed more incentives to feel sorry for her. And there's that awful tragedy called “Octavia Praetexta”, which survived to this day, mostly because people believed it was written by Seneca. Seneca himself has a lot of sins to burden his memory, but this is not one of them.

Oh, and, while trying to do some research online about Octavia, I found very little useful information, of course, but my trusted search engine threw this back at me: “Claudia Octavia is on Facebook. Join Facebook to connect with Claudia Octavia and others you may know”. Maybe I should check my Facebook account more often.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ancient Roman Women - Octavia Minor

What do you know, I got a special request to write more about Octavia after yesterday's post. She would have gracefully accepted the attention she got, I'm sure, so today is her spot in the light.

Octavia was the sister of a guy named Gaius Octavius Thurinus, who'd became known later as Emperor Augustus. She's called Octavia Minor because there was another older half-sister, also named Octavia, of course (the Romans had that annoying habit – the result being that nobody could tell sisters apart; even ancient authors, like Plutarch, mix up the two, so we don't really need to know any more stuff about Octavia Maior).

When she was about 15, Octavia married a man of consular rank named Gaius Claudius Marcellus, who's of relatively little consequence to this story, but they had three children together – two daughters named, of course, Claudia Marcella, and a son - Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Yes, they were stunningly creative when it came to names. But this is about to grow even more confusing, so bear with me a while.

Julius Caesar had little reason to like Octavia's husband, who took the wrong side in the political debates of the troubled 1st century BC, so at some point he tried to get Octavia to divorce and marry Pompey in order to forge an alliance (Pompey was married to Caesar's daughter before – this is so much better than any desperate housewives plot). Anyway, Pompey declined the offer – probably because he didn't want a new alliance with Caesar rather than because of Octavia herself, who was said to be a real beauty, and already had a reputation of being a good and faithful wife (read: she was fertile and refrained from having children with anybody besides her husband).

Octavia Minor
Octavia Minor - Don't you think she looks a little like Lorelei Gilmore? 

So Octavia continued to live besides her inconsequential husband until his death (of natural causes, big surprise). In the meantime, both Pompey and Caesar were also dead, and the big names battling it out on the Roman power scene were Marcus Antonius and Octavian, Octavia's brother – so she drew the short straw again in the lottery of political alliances.

As luck would have it, Antonius' wife, Fulvia, died about the same time as Octavia's husband, so Octavian arranged a quick marriage between his arch enemy and his sister. It caused quite a fuss at the time – Octavia was supposed to be in mourning, and apparently pregnant with her previous husband, so a Senate decree was needed to allow the ceremony to proceed. The propaganda machine was put at good use to present it as a marriage that would guarantee Rome's safety and peace for the next thousand years – a little something that depended on Octavia's ability to bear a male child with her new husband. She was about 30 at the time – which means old, but she sure tried her best. The couple only had two daughters together, named, of course, Antonia and Antonia. To keep herself occupied, Octavia also took in and raised the son Antonius had from his previous marriage (or his sons, assuming he had two – this is a bit blurred, but there are so many children already, who's counting?)

Then things got messy. Antonius left to fight against Parthia, and he fought so hard, he had three children with Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen, creating a neverending supply of plots for Victorian playwrights and Hollywood screenplayers. (Antonius, by the way, didn't look anything like Charlton Heston or Marlon Brando. He was fat like a pig and had a neck like an obelisk.)

Octavia kept playing her part as a victim-wife. She gathered troops and money for her husband's campaign (not that he was actually taking part in any battles), but, when she tried to visit, Antonius instructed her not to set foot in Egypt. He did, however, accept the troops and money she brought him. Later he divorced her – by mail, by all means. Didn't even have the decency to come to Rome and tell her in person.

Marcus Antonius - What's with the hair anyway?

Octavia was probably messed up by the public scandal her life had turned into, but her brother Octavian found a window of opportunity, and he stepped up the propaganda, constantly playing Octavia, the good Roman wife, against the image of the exotic and lavish mistress, Cleopatra. All in all, this allowed Octavian to fight his war against Antonius and to present it to the general public as a war on Egypt, instead of the civil war it actually was.

So, Octavian won at Actium, effectively establishing his undisputed rule over the entire Roman territory, Antonius and Cleopatra both committed suicide, leaving three more children unattended – Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene and Ptolemy Philadelphus (don't assume they got more creative with names in Egypt, all of them had a long tradition going back at least 13 generations. For now, however, they are a convenient break from all the octavias and antonias).

Yay, more children. Octavia took them all in. This means she had at least nine, isn't that lovely. Actually, it's not lovely, but it's weird. Antonius had divorced Octavia before he died, and Roman women did not retain any rights over their own children after a divorce, let alone the children the husband might have had from a different woman. This was clearly Octavian's intervention, to enhance his sister's image and turn her into a saint. Well, he succeeded.

In fact, Octavian's initial plan played out well on the long term: the heirs of Antonius were effectively neutralized and became part of the imperial family, thus killing any serious opposition for the following Julio-Claudian rulers.

The results of the obsessive inbreeding in the imperial family were funny. Emperor Caligula sentenced to death people who celebrated the battle of Actium (because they were celebrating the defeat of his famous great-grandfather, Marcus Antonius) and also those he didn't celebrate the battle of Actium (because they weren't celebrating the victory of his famous great-grandfather, Octavian Augustus). Also, our Octavia was, at the same time, the maternal and paternal great-grandmother of Emperor Nero. No surprise they all turned out nutters.

Now, Octavia had a bunch of children, so her brother, now officially the big cheese in Rome, decided to adopt one, Marcellus, as his heir (remember Marcellus? Yeah, he was in the first litter, it's difficult to keep track). Marcellus died young, as it generally happened to the heirs to the imperial throne, so in the end, Octavia's daughters would have to take the political path that ran in the family and live up to the expectations. Both Antonias would become surprisingly powerful players on the Roman scene, apparently inheriting their mother's fierce loyalty and their father's appetite for power and blood thirst.

When Octavia died, she received public funerals and her brother built several monuments in her memory (including the Porticus Octaviae, which still stands today, and which should not be confused with Porticus Octavia, which was... never mind. He built stuff named after her.) However, he refused some of the honors the Senate tried to vote for Octavia – probably thought enough was enough, after all, she was just a woman. Still, Octavia was one of the first Roman women to have her image minted on a coin – but was in good company, since two of Antonius' other wives, Fulvia and Cleopatra, had their own coins too. The numismatic evidence now helps us establish beyond reasonable doubt that Octavia was the most beautiful of the three, and that Antonius was an ass.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Roles of Women in Ancient Rome

Yay, girl stuff!
Here's the deal with the roles of ancient Roman women: everybody's writing about them, trying to make the most of very limited resources, but the actual factual data is very limited. The history of Rome covers a huge timeline and a giant territory, but, since there are so few accounts of ancient Roman women, it's very tempting to take whatever bits and pieces of information survived and to force them together into creating a coherent image.

You cannot compare the situation of women in 200 BC with that of women in 200 AD, same as you cannot compare the life of a woman in Alexandria to that of a woman in Britannia. To add even more complications, most portraits we have from ancient literature are not of real women, but idealized images used to enforce the writer's point of view.

So, that being said, I'll do what everybody else is doing, create a very general image, and maybe get into the juicier details later.

Family Roles – Daughter, Mother and Wife

The place of a good Roman woman was at home (I'd say in the kitchen, but few houses had kitchens), or out in the open, but still promoting the values and the name of the family.
It probably wasn't a lot of fun in the beginning. Daughters literary belonged to their father until they were married, and then the authority was transferred to their husbands. If the husband died or divorced, the woman would return to her father. As the republic turned into an empire, growing richer and more tolerant, things changed, the way Romans liked to change things: officially everything remained the same, in reality everything was different. We know for instance about a law allowing daughters to inherit their mother's fortune, which means some women managed to acquire financial independence, and let's face it, financial independence means independence, period.
As for the family roles, accounts vary. In some, women were regarded as mere vessels for procreation. There is a story of a philosopher who thought it perfectly natural to “lend” his wife to his friend, because she was fertile and his friend couldn't have children with his previous wives, and then take her back once she fulfilled her mission. I think I've stated my opinion of Roman philosophers repeatedly on this blog.

Public Roles – Benefactors, Priestesses and Politicians

There were few public roles available for women in ancient Rome – the most famous, of course, being that of Vestals – the celebrated virgin priestesses. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, they got some of the best theater seats, and the contract was for a pre-determined duration; after a while, the Vestals were free to leave and get married. Most of them chose to stay even after their term expired (probably for the complimentary theater tickets).

In Pompeii we learn of a woman called Eumachia, who was a priestess of Venus and certainly belonged to the ruling elite. She commissioned and paid for several buildings, helped during the reconstruction effort that followed an earthquake, and the town rewarded her with a statue, so must have been a relatively prominent figure.
Those were the good public roles for women – the bad ones were those of politicians (well, not much has changed since). Romans hated women politicians. Agrippina's biggest crime is not that of having her husband poisoned, but that of attempting to greet ambassadors together with her son, Nero. Agrippina was a formidable character, but she ended up on the losers' side, so we don't hear many good things about her. Few women managed to get powerful and successful enough to force the Romans to bite their tongue and swallow their pride; most notable among them was Livia, Augustus' wife (it surely paid off to marry the founder of the empire, but also to live about ten times longer than the average life expectancy of the age).

Shady Roles – Witches, Enchantresses and Prostitutes

It's the extremes that draw the attention, so the roles we know most about today are either those in the spotlight or those from the gutters. Pompeii preserved a wealth of inscriptions detailing the prices of the local prostitutes, while the famous poisoner Locusta has a prominent spot among the women serial killers of antiquity.
Regarding the prostitutes, it's unclear how many were slaves and how many free women who chose this path (don't be too quick to judge them, the career options were limited, a dirty one is better than none at all).

Women of the Imperial Family

Being born or getting married into the imperial family was surely the quickest way to get noticed for the women in ancient Rome. Like dying your hair blonde and pretending to be a singer today. Trying to understand Roman women by looking at the imperial family is exactly like trying to understand today's society by looking at Paris Hilton.

Professional Victims

There was one certain way to get your fifteen minutes of fame – become a professional victim. Commit suicide together with your husband, raise children born by your husband's mistress, get yourself killed for something that wasn't your fault or your problem to begin with – and earn the immortal praise of the famous writers.
Octavia seemed to be the name of choice for professional victims in the first century, like Octavian's sister, married to Marcus Antonius for political reasons, then used by the augustan propaganda as an antithetic image for Antonius' mistress, Cleopatra. Another Octavia was the daughter of emperor Claudius, married to Nero (who was also her stepbrother, but those are just details) and then killed by the same – enough to turn her into the main character of a play attributed to Seneca (Seneca is obviously not the author, but that's a different matter).

Read more details about:

Foreign Rulers

If Roman women are presented as stereotypes in the literature of the age, then the foreign rulers are downright caricatures. Cleopatra of Egypt, Zenobia of Palmyra and Boudica of Britannia – images that fascinated the conservative Roman elite, in the same way that the legend of the amazons fascinated the Greeks – weird and scary things, outside the natural order. What we can do now is dust them off, try to figure out fact from fiction, and maybe shed a bit more light on the ancient Romans' concepts.

Regular Women

So, where does all this leave regular women, the millions who belonged to the middle classes and had a normal life? Pretty much nowhere. We can tell what they were wearing, eating and using for make-up, but not what they were doing or thinking.
There is enough data to figure out they were not locked in the house, like the Greek women, enjoyed a certain degree of freedom, were actively involved in the life of their cities; evidence from Pompeii shows that some could read and write and others were regular businesswomen, but there's no way of telling if these were exceptions or the rule. It's like being stuck in a huge warehouse full of colorful trinkets, in perfect darkness, and you can only light a match every half an hour to catch a glimpse of what's around you.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Flavian Propaganda

Short-lived as their dynasty was, the Flavians were effective. The Flavian propaganda is an example of how to build a brand the sells for the next 2,000 years by keeping everything simple and commonsensical.

When Vespasian rose to power in 69 AD, he knew he had a legitimacy issue – he had to base his claim to the throne on something more than just the sheer strength of his legions. So he gathered his team for a brainstorming session and came up with a concept for the emotional appeal (“I am emperor because I was destined to be.”) and a second one for the logical appeal (“I am simply better than those before me. You don't want to roll the dice again and replace me, because chances are, you'll do much, much worse.”). Clear and simple – it's advertising, not rocket science. Then he hired a good team of copywriters and designers and set to work.

Oracles, Prophecies and Gods

People from the city of Rome as well as those from the provinces were suckers for omens and prophecies, so it seemed like a good place to start. And prophecies were everywhere, it was just a matter of turning them in the right direction.

Titus, the good and ugly Flavian 

For instance, there was a lot of fuss about an ancient prophecy from the East, that the new ruler of the world would come from Judaea. Excellent, both Vespasian and his son Titus fought in Judaea, so they put this to use (and why not, others would do it as well).

The oracle on Mount Carmel told Vespasian he would succeed at everything he attempted. It's exactly the kind of informative and helpful answer you might expect from a fortuneteller, but it received a lot of attention after Vespasian's legions made it true.

And then we have Yosef Ben Matityahu, also known as Titus Flavius Josephus (notice that he's named Flavius? It's not a coincidence.) Josephus was a small-time leader in the Jewish rebellion, and, when captured by Vespasian, managed to save his life by predicting the general's future successes: “Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and emperor, thou, and this thy son. Bind me now still faster, and keep me for thyself, for thou, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind”. Yadda yadda yadda. Vespasian kept Josephus around (which must have been a drag, if the man talked like he wrote), and released him only after the prediction became true. If this incident is true, it makes you wonder whether Vespasian's ascension wasn't a self-fulfilling prophecy after all.

Domitian, the bad and slightly less ugly Flavian 

Then there was the issue of deification. The Julio-Claudians started to present themselves and their families as gods in the provinces, and were also deified in Rome after their deaths (the lucky ones, at least). Vespasian, with his bathroom humor, didn't seem to care much, but couldn't stop the spreading rumors that he was healing the sick and raising the dead in Egypt (right). Both his sons understood the importance of the imperial cult for the provinces, and enforced it consistently and coherently, though Domitian would not make it in the Pantheon. (Anyway, the position of taxation god was still open, and who better to take it than Vespasian?)

The Writing Team

Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and Flavius Josephus. Do I need to say more? Let's face it, it's a killer copywriting team. Though we know that Tacitus, Pliny and Josephus were deeply indebted to the Flavians, the portraits they paint and the descriptions of the era are just so good, you can't help but follow their agenda. So they were paid to write about a product. That doesn't mean they didn't believe it it, does it?

Suetonius also came from a family which, traditionally, was on the Flavians' side (his father fought against Vitellius), but he probably didn't need any incentives: he had such a blast trashing the emperors that preceded Vespasian, he could afford to take a break and praise someone for a change.

It's funny to watch Suetonius shredding Galba to pieces for being cheap, and then jumping through hoops to justify the same trait in Vespasian. And to see Tacitus saying that Vespasian was the first to become a better man after obtaining the supreme power. Hah. It must have been incredibly painful for Tacitus to admit that anybody or anything could change for the better.

With Titus they had fewer problems: he was a good emperor because he was young and died before he had a chance to mess up. A minor issue like one million dead in the siege of Jerusalem should not make us think otherwise.

As for Domitian, you'd think the propaganda failed – they called him the bald Nero and struggled to make him look like a paranoid tyrant, but modern historians fought really hard to rehabilitate his image – and I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that all Flavians appear as likable chaps today. Maybe we're not convinced any longer that they rescued the empire from total chaos and destruction, but we can certainly relate to their down to earth approach to ruling an empire. All three of them look like fiscal inspectors with a sense of humor.

Surely, not every piece of the puzzle fits in so smoothly. Some people must have been criticizing the Flavians – but we don't hear much of them these days. We know Vespasian banished philosophers from Rome, probably because they were over-complicating things, messing up his nice and simple concepts and confusing people. One convinced republican senator, Helvidius Priscus, was put to death, and later Domitian would complete the circle by killing Herennius Senecio, the man who wrote Priscus' panegyric.

The Images

Writers are good, but images are still worth a thousand words, even when those words come from some of the best writers in ancient times. Rome was pretty messed up after the recent fires and the destruction caused by riots and fighting on the city streets in the year of 69, so the Flavians undertook massive construction projects – what better proof that the empire was stable and peaceful than some huge entertainment venues?

They distanced themselves from the hated Nero by tearing down his infamous Domus Aurea and replacing it with the Flavian amphitheater, better known today as the Colosseum – the number one symbol of the Roman empire. Same as with everything else they did, the key was consistency: Vespasian clenched his teeth and provided the funds for the construction, Titus pushed forward with an early inauguration and Domitian finished it by adding a fourth level. The Arch of Titus, the Flavian Palace, a new stadium, the Temple of Vespasian and Titus and several other buildings added up and reinforced the main themes of the propaganda.

There's also much to be said about the carefully designed coins from this age, but I don't want to use up more than my fair share of Internet space today, so I'll just say this: they clearly show that all three Flavian emperors were massive, solid individuals, same as everything they did. And ugly as hell, too - which is a problem for Titus, who got so may praises on account he was charming. We can only hope he had an incredible personality, to compensate for that porcine look.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What if... in Ancient Rome

Awfully busy day today, so I'm afraid I don't have a proper post, just a series of what ifs. Here goes.

What if...

Ancient Romans had Caesar salad?

They'd call it Cato salad. Caesar deserves at least a McCaesar.

The letters of Agrippina (Nero's mother) survived to this day?

We'd be reading The Vagina Monologues in Latin.

Romans discovered America?

We'd have a president named Barack Augustus Caesar Parthicus Obama right now.

They had chocolate? (since they had already discovered America)

We'd read in Tacitus' Histories about the joyful years of Nero and the golden era of Domitian. Seriously, give the man a candy bar and watch the whole historical perspective shift.

They had tobacco and cigarettes? (since they had already discovered America)

We'd have a cure for lung cancer by now.

They had tomatoes? (since they had already... you get the point)

They'd make ketchup. Duh.

They had television?

Special effects would not exist. They'd use real blood, real corpses, real zombies, and you know that stuff about “no animals were harmed during the production”? Get real.

Romans went to the Moon?

They'd built aqueducts and thus the Moon would have water today.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

No Place in Rome for Socrates

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin displays the double herma of Socrates and Seneca (a herma, in case you're wondering, is the sculpture of a head, which makes a double herma a two-headed monster with no feet. Oh, and Socrates is the one with a beard. That's how you can tell Greeks from Romans until the end of the 1st century AD.).

There are some similarities between Socrates and Seneca, when you think about it. Beyond the obvious fact that they were both philosophers (or at least one was and the other claimed to be), they were both teachers for some rather controversial characters (Alcibiades and Nero), they both ended their lives in forced suicides, after having stepped on the wrong toes and they were both quite ugly.

But when Socrates is fizzy, influential, revolutionary for his time and challenging to this day, Seneca is... did I say he tutored Nero? I'm pretty much done talking about Seneca.

The Romans themselves had another character in mind when they thought of the “Roman Socrates”: his name was Gaius Musonius Rufus, and he lived roughly around the same time as Seneca. Very little of his work survives, which deprives us of some very exciting titles, such as “Is Marriage a Handicap for the Pursuit of Philosophy?” and “Should Every Child that is Born be Raised?”. Though, to give Rufus some credit, he also wrote “That Women Too Should Study Philosophy”, which probably caused some contemporaries to grind their teeth.

Of Rufus' most memorable deeds, we know that, in the troubled year of 69 AD, he tried to resolve the war by preaching to the troops to lay down their weapons, stop and smell the flowers, love each other with brotherly love and just chill out. The legions probably thought he was amusing rather than dangerous, so he survived.

Other than that, he spent relatively little time in Rome: he chose a self-imposed exile to protest against Nero's treatment of Plautus; then he was actually exiled by Nero for an alleged involvement in a conspiracy, returned to make his memorable contribution to the war, only to be banished again when Vespasian decided to kick all philosophers out of Rome.

Vespasian's decision troubled no one at the time, the consensus was that philosophers were a waste of time and space, breathing in the air of the responsible citizens. Not evil enough to be killed, but not worth keeping in Rome, either.

In describing the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus quickly mentions this:
I remember he was wont to declare, that in his early youth he studied Philosophy with more avidity than was allowable to a Roman and a Senator; till the discretion of his mother checked his spirit”. Well, good for Agricola's mother! I guess she wasn't one of the women that took Rufus' advice and studied philosophy.

Quintilian makes it even clearer:
Which of the philosophers, indeed, ever frequented courts of justice or distinguished himself in public assemblies? Which of them ever engaged even in the management of political affairs, on which most of them have given such earnest precepts? But I should desire the orator, whom I am trying to form, to be a kind of Roman wise man who may prove himself a true statesman, not by discussions in retirement, but by personal experience and exertions in public life.

There you go. Roman wise men were not philosophers. One or the other might have been occasionally compared to Socrates, but I'm not sure this was a compliment.

As for Gaius Musonius Rufus, he wasn't completely forgotten after all his efforts, I can see he's still extensively discussed on the site of the International Vegetarian Union.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Looking beyond the Resume

In 69 AD, a guy named Titus Flavius Vespasianus applied for the position of Roman emperor with an incredibly lousy resume.

The Romans had no real experience in hiring emperors – the job had been fulfilled only by the glitzy Julio-Claudians, so requirements were rather vague: an established aristocratic background, going back to the origins of Rome and consolidated by marriages and alliances with other aristocratic families; lots of family drama to fulfill the never-ending appetite for gossip; and lavish spending habits backed by personal wealth.

Vespasian came from a very modest background. His father was a customs officer and small-time money lender, and there was little chance of claiming any direct lineage to a god, or at least to Romulus, since the family wasn't even from Rome. Needless to say, such meager origins could not provide much entertainment: Vespasian got married, had three children (Titus, Domitian and Domitilla), never remarried after his wife died, end of story. No adoptions, no divorces, no poisoned uncles, where's the fun in that?

As for the wealth part, well, Vespasian was pretty much flat broke. He had to mortgage his properties and borrow money from his brother. Domitian would later recall that, growing up, he didn't see a single piece of silver in their home.

When looking at Vespasian's employment record – well, things go from bad to worse. Under Caligula, he held a minor position in Rome, in charge of street cleaning, and did such a poor job, that Caligula had him covered in mud, to demonstrate how dirty the streets were. He achieved some military success during the campaign in Britannia, under Claudius, enough to earn him a consulship, only to mess up later, when he pissed off Claudius' wife, the influential Agrippina. He survived probably because Agrippina had more important people to kill, and made a comeback as governor of the province Africa – where, what do you know, he messed up again. He did such a poor job that people pelted him with turnips, and Tacitus describes Vespasian's period in Africa as “infamous and odious”.

Whatever he did in Africa, Vespasian returned to Rome poorer than he left, a very remarkable achievement for a governor, and went to accompany Nero in his tour of Greece. If he was hoping to butter up the young emperor, he failed again, after falling asleep during one of Nero's performances. This lack of artistic sensibility could have been his death sentence, but he managed to retire from public life and disappear from the eyes of the emperor in time.

If the story above is true, then it seems Nero didn't hold a grudge, and appointed Vespasian in 66 to deal with the uprising in Judaea. Nero probably thought that somebody with so little appreciation for the fine arts had to be good at war, at least, and most certainly thought that Vespasian was so dull he couldn't pose any serious threat, and could be entrusted with an army.

For a change, Vespasian did a good job in Judaea, methodically crushing the rebellion, until he reached Jerusalem. Then he decided to stop. News came from Rome that Nero died, and Vespasian waited for orders from the new emperor to continue with the siege of Jerusalem – in other words, he could foresee a long and bloody campaign ahead, and didn't want to take all the blame for it. (It's questionable whether a decisive attack on the city at that point could have prevented the massive bloodbath that followed the next year. Then again, we're talking about Vespasian – he messed up so much with the things he did, let's give him some credit that he didn't mess up even more by not doing something.)

So, while waiting and thinking that Judaea was a dead end, Vespasian came up with the idea of submitting his resume for the top job in Rome. He mentioned, briefly, his main asset – the support of over 60,000 professional soldiers under his command. Perhaps he was too subtle about this, because Rome didn't seem to get the point.

Historians of the age go at great lengths to justify Vespasian's campaign in Italy, and how hard he tried to make it a peaceful transfer of power, since the standing emperor, Vitellius, was obviously incapable of ruling. (Peaceful meaning he was trying to starve the people of Rome, by cutting off their grain supplies from Egypt, rather than kill them with his army.) But all in all, it was just another act in a bloody, messy civil war, with the city of Cremona taking a hard hit for being on the wrong side.

And in the end, the Romans decided to take Vespasian's resume seriously. Partly because his Eastern legions proved so persuasive, and partly because everybody was sick of doing interviews, as the previous three candidates had already failed their probation periods miserably.

Vespasian ruled Rome for 10 years. At the end, he managed to fulfill two of the greatest challenges for an emperor: he died of natural causes (with his famous last words, “oh, dear, I think I'm about to become a god”) and managed to transfer the power to his son, Titus, peacefully and without much fuss.

And so, following in the footsteps of Tacitus, let me summarize the moral of the story: when you see a good job, always mail your resume, even if chances are slim. You never know how many people screwed it up before to make you look good by comparison.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Did Ancient Romans use Nail Polish?

Oh, this is one of the world's greatest mysteries for me. Just next to the Nazca lines and the Maya writing.

We know a lot about the make up in ancient Rome, mainly thanks to Ovid, the only one who approves of the use of make-up. All other ancient authors take every occasion to highlight how dangerous and immoral this can be. Archaeological evidence shows that make-up was used on a large scale, from the imperial court to the most miserable suburbs – and this, by the way, is a great example of how distorted the image of Roman women is in the surviving literature.

So women used make-up extensively in ancient Rome, and some men did that, too. A beautiful skin held a great value, so they used moisturizers and foundation; rouge for the cheeks and went pretty heavy on eyeliners. Raw materials used in producing cosmetics varied considerably, depending on the wealth of the buyer, from the famous baths in asses' milk employed by Cleopatra to crocodile feces and lead (yes, they knew it was toxic. Still, it looked pretty.)

The heavy eye make-up was probably introduced by the cultural contact with Eastern civilizations, and thus is was mostly based on kohl, though we know colored eyeshadow was also in fashion at some point, especially green and blue (and they probably used minerals to achieve that, such as malachite and azurite).

Eyelashes also received their share of attention. Pliny (the same who made the subject of yesterday's post, our ultimate authority on everything that matters) says that excessive sex causes eyelashes to fall off, and thus long and rich ones are a sign of a girl's chastity. Oh, really, now. Anyway, the mascara of the time was most likely based on kohl as well.

Since they paid so much attention to the eyes, it makes sense they didn't color the lips too much (that would be a serious fashion blunder even today). There's probably a bit of a cultural issue here, since red colored lips would imply the woman drank red wine, and this was frowned upon by the serious cast from the Senate (and that's exactly why nobody cared for the Senate's opinion after a while).

We know Roman women used wigs and died their hair black, blonde, red and even blue, if the lady so fancied. The most famous recipe for black dye was one based on bloodsuckers, left to rot in vinegar for sixty days. They used curling irons, too. You didn't think those elaborate curls were natural, did you?

As you can imagine, all these stank. There's a downside in using only natural products, which is they decay fast, and, after spending three hours in make-up, you end up smelling like a compost bin. Perfumes were the solution. Our friend Pliny mentions sixty different scents, and, around the beginning of the 1st century AD, Rome imported almost 3000 tons of incense per year. This led Cicero to say “The right scent for a woman is none at all.” Does anyone feel pity for how Cicero died? He had it coming, saying things like that, really. I mean, after all the trouble these women went to, you'd expect a little appreciation.

And a lot of trouble it was. Specialized slaves, called cosmetae, were employed to apply all these concoctions, and the price for a good such slave could rival that for a doctor or teacher. There was a different slave called ornatrix, who was (apparently) more of a hairstylist.

Ok, all good, but did Roman women use nail polish? All of these seem so close to what we do today. The only evolution make-up recorded in the past 2,000 years is that it went from all natural crocodile feces to artificial substances tested on bunnies. The nail varnish is the only piece that doesn't fit it. You can so easily picture Agrippina with long, red nails, causing Nero one more fetish to deal with in his adult years. Sadly, seems that was not the case. (Sadly, because of the nail thing. Not because of Nero. He had enough problems anyway.)

There was some investment in a good manicure and pedicure (barbers specialized in that), and a certain red dye produced from insects, imported from India, could have been used to paint nails. But no author mentions that, and no mosaic depicts women with painted nails. Oh, well, let this remain one of the greatest mysteries of history for the time being.