Thursday, March 3, 2011

Go Read a Book

Take a day off from history and unplug with a smart book.

And what can be smarted than a book about the human mind? Find a wide selection of books and reviews available on Mind Stories - a site that showcases books on the altered mind, including hypnosis, psychedelic experiences and other things I can't pretend I understand.

When's the last time you put yourself through a real challenge? Go read a book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nero's Bowel Movements

History is all about finding pieces of the great puzzle, answers to fundamental questions, and solutions to timeless problems. Like constipation. What, you think emperors don't get constipated? And poor Romans didn't even have fiber supplements, digestive yogurt or bran muffins. Come to think of it, maybe they had bran muffins, I should check. And yogurt – I mean, how difficult is it to add whole grains to it?

Oh, dear. So many questions, so few answers uncovered until now. Let me get back to what we know for sure: what did Nero eat when he was constipated?

Oxyporium or oxyporum was a product designed to help digestion, based on vinegar or pepper – or both, for really stubborn cases. The name is a transliteration from ancient Greek, as I'm sure you've figured out already. Nero's favorite recipe included quinces, pomegranates, rowan berries (you'd say an emperor so obsessed with poisoning would be more careful about those), boiled in must with saffron and tanner's sumach (which, by the way, is also very toxic. Maybe emperors didn't get poisoned because somebody wanted them dead, they were just trying to regulate their bowl movements). Come to think of it, must is already a very strong laxative and diuretic; adding more laxatives to the combo makes me think Nero had a very, very bad case of constipation. Couldn't that explain some of his rather controversial decisions?

That's a rowan berry bush. I had to look it up.

Apicius gives a gentler recipe, calling it oxygarum:

“1/2 ounce of pepper, 3 scruples of Gallic silphium, 6 scruples of cardamom, 6 of cumin, 1 scruple of leaves, 6 scruples of dry mint. These ingredients are broken singly and crushed and made into a paste bound by honey. When this work is done or whenever you desire add broth and vinegar to taste.”

(Translation from Walter M. Hill, because I'm already lost among all the spices; text is public domain.)

I think (but don't quote me on that) you're supposed to add this mixture to the previously prepared garum, and use everything as a sauce. Or take a spoonful after each meal. Or you know what? Go get a bran muffin.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Differences between Hades and Pluto

The relationship between Hades and Pluto is a bit more complicated than the simple association between a Greek god and its Roman counterpart. The ancient Greeks weren't too fond of Hades – the Unseen - so much so, that they even avoided mentioning his name – and for the world, I can't imagine why. Well, he was god of the Underworld and spent his time among the dead, but still, there's nothing spooky or ruthless about Hades, quite to the contrary, he was a just and reliable ruler, and got a bad name just because he wasn't in the habit of allowing people to leave his kingdom and return to earth... which, putting things into perspective, seems fair enough to me.

Still, the Greeks always fancied the glitzy Zeus or Poseidon against the reliable and just Hades, so the god of the dead didn't even have myths of his own. He's only mentioned in the story of how Persephone was kidnapped – which belongs to the cycle of legends related to Demeter – and in another story in which Herakles descends in the Inferno, wounding Hades in the process. Of course, this second story belongs to the cycle of legends related to Herakles – leaving poor Hades with very little to say for himself. He does make some cameo appearances in the stories that involve all gods, like the battle against the titans – but those don't really count, do they?

Still, every now and then the Greeks had to mention Hades, and when this happened, they preferred to use a euphemism instead of his real name, and one of their favorites was Pluton – meaning “the rich” - which later was Latinized and ended up as the Pluto we know today. Now, Hades / Pluto was in a way the god of riches, especially those that came from underground – silver, gold and gems. Also, during the winter, the seeds of plants, being underground themselves, were in the care of Hades and especially of his wife, Persephone / Prosepina. For these reasons, both these gods were often represented with a cornucopia, symbol of abundance and riches, and, in the classical tradition, also a symbol of Demeter, Persephone's mother (family ties... nothing like them, in myth and in life).

Now, Pluto the rich should not be mixed with Ploutos, god of riches... oh, well, the similarities are striking, so let's talk a bit about this Ploutos, even if he doesn't technically belong here. He was the son of Demeter, and initially a companion of his mother and sister (the sister being Persephone, in case you've lost track of relatives). As society evolved, wealth increased, and Ploutos gained the right to become a proper god, not just a mere companion. But responsibility came at a price, and Zeus blinded him, to make sure he didn't see which humans were good and which ones were bad – and thus riches were distributed to all, randomly, and not based on their merits. See? Nothing to do with the just Hades / Pluto, who distributed rewards and punishments according to the merits and deeds done in life.

Before becoming Pluto, the Latin god of the dead was Dis Pater – father of all riches – an agrarian deity. There was also an Etruscan god named Orcus, originally ruler of the underworld, who was later on demoted to punisher of people who broke their oaths. Accidentally, Orcus may be the root which led to the word orc.