Io Saturnalia! – Celebrating ‘The best of days’ in Ancient Rome

Happy Saturnalia, everyone! Or, as the Romans said, Io Saturnalia!

December 17th was the official start of Saturnalia in the Roman Empire, and for seven days the Roman world, and especially Rome itself, experienced what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere.

Just as Christmas is a time of year that many people look forward to, so too was Saturnalia for Romans, free and slave.

Today we’re going to take a brief look at some of the customs that surrounded this ‘the best of days,” as the poet Catullus called it.

The God Saturn

Saturnalia was basically a winter solstice festival in honour of the god Saturn, the chthonic (of the earth) Roman god of seed sowing, who was often equated with the Greek god Cronus. As an agricultural deity, his symbol was a scythe.

The primary temple for this Roman deity was at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, across from the Rostra, the Temple of Concord, and the arch of Septimius Severus.

The festival of Saturnalia was originally a single day, but eventually ran from December 17th to December 23rd, ending on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The three days from December 17th to the 19th were considered to be legal holidays on which no work was done. Schools, gymnasia and courts were closed, and no war was waged.

The Temple of Saturn (centre)in the Forum Romanum, Rome

Saturnalia was a sacred time of year in the Roman calendar, but oddly enough, there is no single, full description of the festival. What we know comes from various references in ancient sources, mainly Macrobius whose work on Roman religious lore is set during the festival.

So, what do we know about the festival of Saturnalia, and what traditions did people keep at that time of year?

A bit of public gambling during Saturnalia!

In ancient Rome, we know that the festivities began on December 17th with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Forum, in which the priest performed the ceremony in the Greek fashion, ritus Graecus, with his head uncovered. In the temple, the feet of Saturn’s statue were normally bound up with wool, but for Saturnalia, the wool was removed, and some believe this symbolized the liberation that many felt during the festival.

After the sacrifice, which may have been a suckling pig, there followed a grand public banquet, or convivium publicum, which was paid for by the state. A statue of Saturn was placed upon a couch for this event so that the god could preside over the festivities.

Candles, or cerei were a big part of Saturnalia

As a festival of light, or the solstice, wax candles, or cerei, were lit everywhere and given as gifts. The light may also have been considered a symbol of the quest for knowledge and truth, something to go along with this season of hope for many in the dark days of winter.

Another symbol of the season was holly, which was considered sacred to Saturn. Sprigs of this were also given as token gifts. Many other gifts were given at this time of year, mainly on December 19th, which was the day of the sigillaria, the day of gift-giving.

Holly was sacred to Saturn

In addition to wax candles, gifts could include pottery, writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, combs, toothpicks, hats, knives, lamps, balls, perfumes, and toys for children. If you were among the rich, exotic animals or slaves might even be given!

Figurines were also a gift that was given, and these have something of an interesting history. One thought is that this particular gift stemmed from the giving of toys to children. However, another, darker possibility for the giving of figurines is that they were intended as substitutes for the human blood offerings that may have originally been offered to the earth god Saturn, in the early days of Rome, perhaps in the form of gladiatorial combat to the death.

Sigillaria were similar to the gift we get in Christmas crackers today, but they could be much more elaborate too.

In addition to the public celebrations of Saturnalia, the festivities continued at home.

On December 18th and 19th, domestic rituals of the family were observed, such as bathing, and the common sacrifice of a suckling pig to Saturn.

Gifts were given among the family on the day of the sigillaria, but also in the days to come.

One interesting tradition was that the usual clothes worn by Romans, such as the toga or plain tunica, were discarded during Saturnalia in favour of colourful clothes known as synthesis, which were a mish-mash of patterns and colours. They were the Roman party clothes of Saturnalia! Along with the synthesis, Roman men also wore a felt or leather conical cap known as a pileus.

The pileus was a conical felt or leather cap worn by men during Saturnalia

Saturnalia was a time of role reversal, a time when the opposite of normal was acceptable.

For instance, during Saturnalia gambling was permitted in public, with the stakes being either coins or, oddly enough, nuts!

Overeating and drunkenness were common, as was guising, which was the wearing of masks or costumes to take on another persona.

Thou knowest not what evening may bring.
(Macrobius. Saturnalia)

However, perhaps the most commonly known tradition of Saturnalia was the role reversal of masters and slaves. Traditionally, masters would serve their slaves a meal of the sort that they would usually enjoy, sigillaria would be given, and the slaves were even at liberty to insult their masters without fear of retribution.

Citizens or slaves might even be elected the ‘King of Saturnalia’ at the banquet at which time they could give absurd orders that had to be obeyed.

Guising and the wearing of masks occurred during Saturnalia

If this seems like a hectic summary with myriad different traditions and goings on, you’d be right. Just as with Christmas today, everyone likely had their own unique take on the traditions of the season. Roman religion was highly customizable!

You’d also be correct in assuming that some of the traditions of Saturnalia feel very familiar. At Christmastime, people eat and drink more than is usual (if they are so fortunate), there are a couple of days off work, gifts are given, holly (and perhaps ivy) is hung, candles are lit, and more.

Around the winter solstice, it seems that many cultures and religions find cause to celebrate.

So, from December 17th this year and in the run-up to Christmas, spare a thought for the Romans who certainly knew how to through a good party this time of year.

Thank you for reading, and Io Saturnalia!

Io Saturnalia!

For a bit of fun, check out this video and song by from the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project and members of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics:

 

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The Colosseum: First Impressions and Edgar Allan Poe

We all have our memories of first impressions – of people, of feelings, of almost every activity we undertake or situation we encounter.

For me, the first impression of an historical site is always something that is seared onto the memory of my heart and mind. Some sites leave more of an impression while the memories of others linger for a short time before melting away to form part of my broader perception of a period or place.

Back in 2000, one such site that left a titanic, long-lasting impression upon me was the Colosseum in Rome.

I remember it vividly, walking along the thick paving stones of the via Sacra from the Forum Romanum, past the arch of Titus. I was busy talking with my wife when I looked up to find that most famous of Rome’s monuments staring down at me.

It literally stopped me in my tracks.

Prior to that, I had read much about Rome and the Colosseum, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you come face-to-face with such a creation.

It reached to the sky, arch upon arch, dominating the entire area. The moment I looked upon it, I could hear the cheering and jeering of the crowds, the clang of gladii, and the roar of wild beasts.

This monument of stone and bloody memory came to life, no…exploded into life!…before my very eyes.

It was at that moment that many parts in my books Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra began to take shape. In fact, my first visit to Rome to see the Colosseum, and indeed the vast ruins of the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill, helped me to truly understand the might and majesty of the Roman Empire.

I explored that ruin as much as I could from the outside to the interior corridors and sloping walls of the inside where upwards of 50,000 ancients once sat. I was ignorant of the masses of tourists, the myriad foreign languages being spoken, or the hucksters in cheap ‘Roman’ armour who charged unsuspecting tourists for a photo op while groping them.

It was the Colosseum that had us spell-bound.

It was a true wonder to me, and that first impression set me off on a journey into the past that has led me on many an adventure, both creative, cerebral and physical.

In a way, that first meeting made the world of ancient Rome my home.

Model of Ancient Rome

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of my first impression of the Colosseum when reading another work inspired by this magnificent relic of history.

I was reading from the works of that father of American Gothic poetry and literature, Edgar Allan Poe, and came across his poem The Coliseum published on October 26, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter.

I hadn’t read the poem before. In truth, I didn’t even know about it.

Of course, I read it and, well, it made me realize that the Colosseum has likely left an impression on everyone across time who has come across it since the inaugural games of A.D. 80.

I’m not going to analyze the poem here, but rather leave you to read it for yourself and experience a first impression through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe

I hope you enjoy…

The Coliseum

By Edgar Allan Poe

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length- at length- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now- I feel ye in your strength-
O spells more sure than e’er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls- these ivy-clad arcades-
These moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey stones- are they all-
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

“Not all”- the Echoes answer me- “not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone- not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown-
Not all the wonder that encircles us-
Not all the mysteries that in us lie-
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”

The Coloseum c.1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

Isn’t that wonderful?

If you have had the chance to visit the Colosseum yourself, please do tell us what your own first impressions of it were in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.

 

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Ancient Everyday – Oil Lamps in Ancient Rome

Salvete, dear readers!

My power went out the other night, and I found myself in darkness for a time but for the cold blue light of my phone.

Oddly enough, this made me think of another Ancient Everyday to share with you!

Lighting is something that we certainly take for granted today. We flick a switch and voila, we have light! If we want add to the atmosphere of a dinner party, we light candles for ambiance.

When banqueting, one needed a little light!

But in the ancient world, it was quite different. No switches, no electricity running through the walls of every domus.

The Romans, and the Greeks before them, used oil lamps.

Today, when we shop for lighting, there are myriad choices for size, quality and the amount of ornamentation upon a lamp.

The same can be said of oil lamps in the ancient world!

Oil lamps came in a variety of shapes and sizes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Oil lamps made out of bronze or pottery were in use in the Mediterranean world from about the seventh century B.C., and continued as such for centuries. Most consisted of a chamber for the oil, a filling hole in the middle, and another hole in the nozzle for a linen wick. Some lamps even had a handle for ease of carrying.

Most oil lamps were made in two-piece molds that were made of gypsum (calcium sulphate) and plaster. When the lamp was removed from the mold, it was dipped in a slip of clay (kind of a thick liquid clay mixture) to further coat the lamp and make it more impermeable to oil.

You can see how the molding process works HERE.

A Roman volute lamp with a gladiator or warrior depicted on the body and the producer’s name on the bottom

The oil that was usually used in oil lamps was, of course, olive oil. After all, it was widely available in the Mediterranean world.

Lamps of the second and third centuries B.C. that were used by Romans in Italy were more often than not imported from Athens where there was a significant ceramic industry. However, from the first century B.C. oil lamps used by Romans were mostly produced in Italy itself, and then exported around the Empire. Later on, these were then often copied by local producers in places such as Britannia.

From the Augustan period onward in Italy, high-quality volute oil lamps were produced. These were wide and flat with room for more ornamentation or scenery depicted in the middle, and curved ornaments to either side of the nozzle(s).

In the northern provinces especially, the Roman firmalampe became quite common. It was more plain than the decorative volute lamps, and purely functional. The firmalampe was made across the Empire.

My own Romano-British firmalampe – Imagine writing on your wax tablet by the light of one of these!

At one point in time in the northern part of the Empire, it’s believed that there was a disruption to the oil supply from the Mediterranean, and so oil lamp production in the northern provinces slowed to a standstill. Instead, candles made of tallow (beef and sheep fat), which the Romans had used to an extent since around 500 B.C., may have begun to replace oil lamps.

However, in the olive oil-producing regions of the Empire, oil lamps in countless different styles were still widely used to light the domus of many a Roman.

Thank you for reading.

A more ornate, double-nozzle, bronze oil lamp with stand and acanthus handle. Only the very best for these owners!

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The Warrior’s Homecoming

Today is Remembrance Day.

On November 11th, at the eleventh hour, I’ll be at my local cenotaph, standing alongside my fellow civilians, veterans and emergency services crews to honour and remember those have served, and those who have fallen in the line of duty.

I suspect that most of us have a connection to someone who has served in one of the many conflicts across the world since WWI and WWII to the present day. Or perhaps you know someone who battles to save lives on the streets of our cities?

For myself, one of my grandfathers served in both World Wars, and my other grandfather in WWII.

This is a time of year when I think of them more than usual.

The Normandy Landing – WWII

I write a lot about warriors in the ancient world, and the struggles they face on and off the battlefield.

My protagonists have fought long, bloody campaigns, far away from the comforts of civilization.

They’ve faced enemies that will not come out into the open, and sometimes must rely on supposed allies that they cannot trust.

For the warriors in my books, life is a constant fight for survival. They fight and kill and die for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Artist impression of Roman cavalry ala engaging Caledonians

Indeed, one of the themes running through all my books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar?

My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

Mother and son reunited

But what happens when it’s time for the warrior to ‘come home’?

How is it even possible after the life they’ve led? Can they really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some situations, it’s kill or be killed.

We’re back to primal instincts here.

Stepping from the world of war into the civilian world is an unimaginable transition.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors.

British Troops in WWI

Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

Many veterans are homeless when they come home…

Going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae for retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Thamugadi – A Roman colonia in North Africa for retired veterans

In my book Warriors of Epona, my protagonist is reunited with his family. He has to face peace time.

How does he deal with this? How does his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it’s in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace, and vice versa.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

I imagine that reconciling the two worlds can push a man or woman to their very limits.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real.

I’ve often thought that governments should step up more when it comes to helping veterans. How about free college education for veterans and their families? Or exemption from taxation for them and their families for all they have risked and sacrificed? What about a good pension?

Veterans today shouldn’t have to worry about finances or a roof over their heads. They have enough to deal with when the fighting is done.

I’ve read that Alexander the Great actually did these things for his veterans, and the Roman Empire granted lands to hers.

Any government people who happen to be reading this should take notes.

We can also do our part, whether it’s wearing a red poppy, thanking a veteran for their dangerous work, or donating to an organization that directly helps veterans and their families.

The very least we can do is be quiet for a minute at 11:00 a.m. on November 11th.

As ever, at this time of year, I feel like my words fall short, that they are not nearly enough. I’d like to close this by expressing my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the men and women in uniform who have risked, and are risking, their lives to keep us safe and free.

THANK YOU.

And thank you, dear readers, for following along.

In future, when you read a novel about warriors in the ancient world, do bear in mind that there are modern equivalents. The homecomings for many of them are far more difficult than we can imagine.

 

Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

This year, Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made donations to two organizations whom we believe are making a real difference in the lives of veterans.

Wounded Warriors Canada’s mission is “To honour and support Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, First Responders and their families.”

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has donated to the ‘Couples Overcoming PTSD’ program.

VETS Canada is committed to helping homeless and at-risk veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made a general donation to this wonderful, volunteer-led organization helping veterans in need.

 

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part VII : Ancient Demons – The Battle between Light and Dark

Welcome to the seventh and final part of this blog series on The World of The Carpathian Interlude.

In this post, we’re going to explore the some aspects of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest ‘revealed’ religions in the world (though this is debated) and from which sprang the mystery religion of Mithraism that so captivated the men of Rome’s legions.

The battle between the Light and the Dark is at the heart of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, just as it is in most religions. One could say it is a part of our own souls, our various beliefs as human beings, no matter our cultural background.

It’s also at the very core of the story of The Carpathian Interlude and the characters who inhabit that world.

Ahura Mazda – from the ruins of Persepolis

…May Right be embodied full of life and strength! May Piety abide in the Dominion bright as the sun! May Good Thought give destiny to men according to their works! (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.16)

In Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia which is still practiced in parts of modern Iran, Ahura Mazda is the supreme deity. It is he who created Mithras, a lord of Light and the all-seeing Protector of Truth, and Guardian of Cattle, the Harvest, and other divine aspects.

For more on Mithras himself, you can read the first part of this blog series.

According to the ancient scriptures, Ahura Mazda and Mithras are Yazads (or yazata), good divinities who are immortal in essence and inseparable from their bodies.

The oldest texts of Zoroastrianism, the Yasna Haptanghaiti (written in prose) and the Gathas (hymns written in verse) are attributed to Zoroaster himself, who is believed to have lived sometime around 1200 B.C. These texts were written in the language of Old Avestan, the language of Zoroastrian scripture, which has its roots in the Indo-European language group.

The hymns, which to me feel similar in nature to the ancient Greek Homeric Hymns, are believed not to teach people, but to invoke and glorify Ahura Mazda. They are not systematized and dogmatic. Their main messages are of the struggle between Good and Evil, of truth, friendship and benevolence versus greed, arrogance and non-truth.

Light versus Dark.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

As the holy one I recognized thee, Mazda Ahura, when Good Thought came to me, when first by your words I was instructed. Shall it bring me sorrow among men, my devotion, in doing that which ye tell me is the best. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.11)

When writing The Carpathian Interlude, I wanted Mithras and his Roman miles, those on the side of Light and Truth to be facing a very ancient evil, an antagonist that was much older than Rome itself.

I turned to the ancient texts of Zoroastrianism and there found the evil I had been looking for, the Darkness.

If Ahura Mazda and Mithras, the divine Yazads, were Goodness and Light, then it was the Daevas, wicked and uncaring gods, who embodied Evil and Darkness. These evil gods were something akin to demons.

ye Daevas all, and he that highly honors you, are the seed of Bad Thought — yes, and of the Lie and of Arrogance, likewise your deeds, whereby ye have long been known in the seventh region of the earth.

For ye have brought it to pass that men who do the worst things shall be called beloved of the Daevas, separating themselves from Good Thought, departing from the will of Mazda Ahura and from Right.

Thereby ye defrauded mankind of happy life and immortality, by the deed which he and the Bad Spirit together with Bad Thought and Bad Word taught you, ye Daevas and the Liars, so as to ruin (mankind). (Ahunavaiti Gatha, 32.3,4,5)

Ancient Persian manuscript showing a Daeva

The Daevas were the enemies of the Yazads, but they were still divinities. Then I read about another group known as the Usij.

The Usij were the false priests of the Daevas, those who worshiped them, the beloved of the Daevas. It is the Usij, or rather one in particular, who is the ultimate antagonist in The Carpathian Interlude. As a man, the Usij is mortal, immortal in essence but separable from the body. He is everything that is bad about men, and seeks to tear down the gods in any way he can.

Have the Daevas ever exercised good dominion? And I ask of those who see how for the Daevas’ sake the Karapan and the Usij give cattle to violence, and how the Kavi made them continually to mourn, instead of taking care that they make the pastures prosper through Right. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 44.20)

Artist impression of Zoroaster

Parts of the Yasna text suggest that Zoroaster himself often debated with the Daeva-worshipping priests who were devoid of goodness of mind and heart, and full of arrogance.

It has been theorized that the defining religious theme of Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Darkness, may have originated in ancient Zoroastrianism (which still has a minority of followers today in Iran) and then been absorbed by other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

So…

How do the Yazads, Daevas, and Usij fit into the world of The Carpathian Interlude?

You need to read the book to find out. However, as is illustrated in the ancient Gathas and Yasna of Zoroaster, where there is Good there too is Evil. Where there is Light, there is also Darkness.

These ideas are as old as the world itself, and they are at the very foundations of storytelling.

In The Carpathian Interlude, I’ve tried to explore the theme of Light and Dark in what I hope is a unique, thought-provoking, and entertaining way. If you read this story, I hope that you enjoy it, that it provokes some thought about this eternal struggle, and that you are inspired by it.

Thank you for reading.

Only when fear is at its most intense can true heroism come into the light.

For ages, an ancient evil has been harboured in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, an enemy of the god Mithras, Lord of Light.

In A.D. 9, when three of the Emperor Augustus’ legions are slaughtered in the forests of Germania, it becomes evident to a small group of experienced veterans that something more sinister than the rebellious German tribes is responsible for the massacre.

It falls to Gaius Justus Vitalis and a few warriors favoured by Mithras to hunt down and destroy the forces of undead spurred on by this ancient evil. Summoning all of their courage, they must wade through horror and rivers of blood to bring Mithras’ light into the darkness, or else see the destruction of Rome, the Empire, and all they hold dear.

The adventure begins with the appearance of a young refugee beneath the walls of a distant legionary base…

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part V : Monsters in the Dark – Werewolves in the Ancient World

 

In Part V of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we are going to explore one of the aspects of horror in the series, to meld ancient history and belief with fantasy.

As we know, Emperor Augustus’ three legions, under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, were slaughtered in the forests of Germania in an unprecedented defeat for Rome. Fear has a stranglehold on the Roman world at this time, including the emperor, and everyone looks to place blame, to find an explanation.

As Cassius Dio said, it… could have been due to nothing else than the wrath of some divinity.

Rome in a panic

What else could it have been?

The omens were terrible. According to ancient sources, the temple on the Field of Mars in Rome was struck by lightning, locusts invaded the city, and a statue of Victory in the north turned its back on Germania. Surely a bunch of German barbarians under the command of a traitor could not have done this alone? A god must have been involved!

Or something else…

Etruscan urn showing wolf man emerging from the Underworld

This situation is something that the historical fantasy novelist truly relishes. The opportunity to put hindsight and modern doubt aside, and step into the mindset of the ancient world, replete with all of its folk and religious beliefs, its strong superstitions and maybe, just maybe, some ancient knowledge of which we are completely ignorant.

What if Arminius and the Germanic tribesmen received help from someone…something…who also had an interest in halting Rome’s northern advance?

Lykoi is the Greek word for ‘wolves’, and in The Carpathian Interlude they are not the shy, intelligent, loyal, and enigmatic animals we know them to be today.

Throughout history, the wolf has been demonized and hunted to the point of extinction in most of Europe. Every child in the west has grown up with stories of evil wolves haunting the forests surrounding settlements, slavering beasts who slaughter livestock and people alike and who revel in the blood of their kills.

And what takes the horror of the wolf one step further? – A man who turns into a wolf – a Werewolf.

In doing the research for The Carpathian Interlude, I discovered that the legend of the Werewolf was not a medieval fabrication as I had previously thought. In the ancient world, there are also references to Lycanthropes, or Werewolves.

An ancient Greek wolf-man

In the 5th century B.C. the historian Herodotus wrote about a people known as the Neuri who lived in the Scythian lands:

The Neuri follow Scythian customs; but one generation before the advent of Darius’ army, they happened to be driven from their country by snakes; for their land produced great numbers of these, and still more came down on them out of the desolation on the north, until at last the Neuri were so afflicted that they left their own country… It may be that these people are wizards; for the Scythians, and the Greeks settled in Scythia, say that once a year every one of the Neuri becomes a wolf for a few days and changes back again to his former shape. Those who tell this tale do not convince me; but they tell it nonetheless, and swear to its truth. (Herodotus; Histories Book IV 105)

Herodotus could be a picky historian, so for him to include this reference in his work, while expressing his own doubt at the same time, speaks to the possibility that the belief of the locals where he obtained this story was strong indeed.

But there are stories of wolf men going even farther back. The Roman poet, Ovid, writing during the reign of Emperor Augustus (the period during which this series is set), recounts the tale of the Arkadian King, Lycaon, in his famous work Metamorphoses.

King Lycaon was a Peloponnesian king from c. 1550 B.C. He was an arrogant tyrant who tried to pull a fast-one on Zeus [Jupiter], the king of the gods, by feeding the immortal human flesh. Here is Ovid’s account in the god’s own words:

I traversed Maenalus where fearful dens abound, over Lycaeus, wintry slopes of pine tree groves, across Cyllene steep; and as the twilight warned of night’s approach, I stopped in that Arcadian tyrant’s realms and entered his inhospitable home:—and when I showed his people that a God had come, the lowly prayed and worshiped me, but this Lycaon mocked their pious vows and scoffing said; ‘A fair experiment will prove the truth if this be god or man.’ and he prepared to slay me in the night,—to end my slumbers in the sleep of death. So made he merry with his impious proof; but not content with this he cut the throat of a Molossian hostage sent to him, and partly softened his still quivering limbs in boiling water, partly roasted them on fires that burned beneath. And when this flesh was served to me on tables, I destroyed his dwelling and his worthless Household Gods, with thunder bolts avenging. Terror-struck he took to flight, and on the silent plains is howling in his vain attempts to speak; he raves and rages and his greedy jaws, desiring their accustomed slaughter, turn against the sheep – still eager for their blood. His vesture separates in shaggy hair, his arms are changed to legs; and as a wolf he has the same grey locks, the same hard face, the same bright eyes, the same ferocious look. (Ovid; Metamorphoses, Book I, 216)

In mythology it was not unusual to find the gods punishing humans by turning them into animals, but the example of Lycaon is noteworthy. His sacrilege to Zeus, his hubris, is unforgiveable. The king of the gods could have turned the wicked mortal into anything, any animal or insect, but Zeus chose to turn Lycaon into a wolf man, a being in pain who could not be satiated, who kept his awareness despite not being able to speak. Lycaon is turned into a beast who preys upon beasts, ‘terror-struck’ and yet also terrifying.

Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf

There was, it seemed, always a price to pay for being turned into a Werewolf, or Lykos. It was a painful, horrifying existence.

Another example from ancient literature that stands out is Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon, believed to originate from sometime during the reign of Nero in the 1st century A.D.

Petronius’ work is one of the few surviving Roman novels, and it is mostly a satire of life in ancient Rome. However, one of the episodes involves a character who heads-out one night to his woman’s home with a soldier friend who, as they walk along the road, turns into a Werewolf. Far from being a humorous episode, Petronius writes in detail about what happens:

I seized my opportunity, and persuaded a guest in our house to come with me as far as the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, and as brave as Hell. So we trotted off about cockcrow; the moon shone like high noon. We got among the tombstones: my man went aside to look at the epitaphs, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, then I went up to take his clothes; but they had all turned into stone. No one could be nearer dead with terror than I was. But I drew my sword and went slaying shadows all the way till I came to my love’s house. I went in like a corpse, and nearly gave up the ghost, the sweat ran down my legs, my eyes were dull, I could hardly be revived. My dear Melissa was surprised at my being out so late, and said, ‘If you had come earlier you might at least have helped us; a wolf got into the house and worried all our sheep, and let their blood like a butcher. But he did not make fools of us, even though he got off; for our slave made a hole in his neck with a spear.’ When I heard this, I could not keep my eyes shut any longer, but at break of day I rushed back to my master Gaius’s house like a defrauded publican, and when I came to the place where the clothes were turned into stone, I found nothing but a pool of blood. But when I reached home, my soldier was lying in bed like an ox, with a doctor looking after his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first. Other people may think what they like about this; but may all your guardian angels punish me if I am lying. (Petronius; Satyricon 62)

Petronius’ character was either drinking some heady wine that night, or else his soldier friend had other major issues.

The point of these texts is that there was an awareness of Werewolves in the ancient world, or of Lycanthropy, a psychological disease that the famous physician Galen apparently wrote about, in which a person believed they were part wolf and had the ravenous appetite to match that belief.

Now back to The Carpathian Interlude

The Varus disaster was an unbelievable event, behind which much darker powers are at play. Throughout this series, the powers of Light (Mithras and Rome) and Dark (the Carpathian Lord and the ‘Barbarians’) are locked a battle that has been raging for ages.

And Gaius Justus Vitalis, his men, and the boy, Daxos, are caught up in the middle of it. The war is waged on many fronts – in the dark of the forests of Germania and Carpathia, on the battlefields of the frontier, and mostly in the hearts and minds of Mithras’ own soldiers, his Heliodromus and his Miles, Gaius and his men.

This is a story that will haunt you and leave the screams of Rome’s dead and dying men ringing in your ears for a long time to come, just as it did for the people of Rome over two thousand years ago.

In Part VI of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we’re going into the heart of Dacia, home to some of Rome’s fiercest enemies.

Thank you for reading!

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The General Muleteer: Publius Ventidius Bassus

Those of you who have read the books in the Eagles and Dragons series will know that they are set during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus who waged a mostly successful war on Rome’s longstanding enemy, the Parthian Empire.

What you may not know, however, is that long before Severus, Verus, Trajan, and Mark Antony’s campaigns, there was a Roman who was the original punisher of the Parthians.

His name was Publius Ventidius Bassus.

Denarius of Publius Ventidius Basso – minted during Triumvirate of Mark Antony, showing Jupiter on right holding a scepter and olive branch (Wikimedia Commons)

We all hear about the big names of history often enough, but once in a while, I like to highlight some of the secondary and tertiary characters who played a role in the history of the ancient world.

If you missed the previous post on Gaius Asinius Pollio, the founder of the first public library in ancient Rome, you can read that one by CLICKING HERE.

But today, we’re going to take a very brief look at Ventidius.

When I came across Ventidius I couldn’t help but admire his rise from very humble beginnings to the heights of glory on the battlefield for Rome.

He was not from Rome, but rather from Picenum, the birthplace of Pompey the Great, and located in what is now Abruzzo, to the West of Rome.

When the Social War of 91-88 B.C. broke out – this was the war between Rome and the Italian allies – the young Ventidius was in the eye of the storm.

Romans against Romans

After the Samnite Wars, Rome basically controlled the Italian allies, and the terms that were reached eventually led to great inequalities around money, land ownership, foreign policy, troop levies and more.

This left the Italian allies in poverty, despite their having contributed so many men to Rome’s legions.

In 91 B.C. the Tribune of the Plebs, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed a series of fair reforms to remedy the situation with Rome’s allies, but for this he was assassinated.

When the Italian allies heard this, they declared independence and war broke out. Most of the Latin cities remained loyal to Rome, but a confederation of eight tribes joined forces (with their Roman-trained men) with the capital at Corfinium, in Abruzzo.

Ventidius and his mother were taken prisoner in the ensuing slaughter of that war and paraded through the streets of Rome in the subsequent triumph of the Roman general, Pompeius Strabo.

Ventidius began as a successful muleteer.

But Ventidius survived his ordeal, and as he grew up he became a skilled muleteer. Eventually, he joined the Roman army and after some time, came to the notice of Julius Caesar.

Once in the army, Ventidius caught the attention of none other than Caesar

During Caesar’s Civil War, Ventidius acquitted himself admirably and came to be one of Caesar’s favourites.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Ventidius threw in his lot with Mark Antony who, after the creation of the Second Triumvirate, sent Ventidius to hold the Parthians back.

When the Parthians invaded Cilicia in 40 B.C., along with some Roman mercenaries led by Quintus Labienus, Ventidius went to meet them head-on with several legions of his own.

The muleteer from Picenum now had a large command!

Ventidius crushed the Parthian forces in two major battles: the Battle of the Cilician Gates, and a battle at the Amanus Pass.

Antony heard the news in Athens and celebrated:

It was while he was spending the winter at Athens that word was brought to him of the first successes of Ventidius, who had conquered the Parthians in battle and slain Labienus, as well as Pharnapates, the most capable general of King Orodes. To celebrate this victory Antony feasted the Greeks, and acted as gymnasiarch for the Athenians. He left at home the insignia of his command, and went forth carrying the wands of a gymnasiarch, in a Greek robe and white shoes, and he would take the young combatants by the neck and part them. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

The Parthians were not to be deterred however. They proceeded to bring a massive force into Syria, this time led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes.

Parthian Cataphracts

Ventidius’ legions marched to meet the Parthians and utterly crushed them and slew Prince Pacorus at the battle of Cyrrhestica.

Because of Ventidius’ victory, the Parthians were held back in Media and Mesopotamia, and Rome attained a sort of vengeance for the horrible defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus and his legions years before at the battle of Carrhae.

After the battle of Cyrrhestica, Ventidius pursued the Roman allies who had sided with the Parthians – mainly Antiochus of Commagene – and laid siege to them at a place called Samosata.

When Antiochus proposed to pay a thousand talents and obey the behests of Antony, Ventidius ordered him to send his proposal to Antony, who had now advanced into the neighbourhood, and would not permit Ventidius to make peace with Antiochus. He insisted that this one exploit at least should bear his own name, and that not all the successes should be due to Ventidius. But the siege was protracted, and the besieged, since they despaired of coming to terms, betook themselves to a vigorous defence. Antony could therefore accomplish nothing, and feeling ashamed and repentant, was glad to make peace with Antiochus on his payment of three hundred talents. After settling some trivial matters in Syria, he returned to Athens, and sent Ventidius home, with becoming honours, to enjoy his triumph. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

When I read this passage from Plutarch, I can’t help but shake my head at Antony’s jealousy of Ventidius.

Parthian Horse Archers

It would obviously not do for Antony, who had always lived in the shadow of Julius Caesar, who was Triumvir of the East, to be outdone by a mere muleteer from Picenum.

But he was.

Publius Ventidius Bassus, a man who had worked his way up the ranks of the Roman army, had done what no Roman had done before, nor would do again for a long time.

He was the only Roman general (not an emperor) to celebrate a triumph for victory over the Parthians.

A Triumphal Procession – Ventidius would have celebrated in similar fashion back in Rome. The only general to be awarded a triumph for victory over the Parthians

And the sad thing is that we never hear of Ventidius again in history.

Ventidius… was a man of lowly birth, but his friendship with Antony bore fruit for him in opportunities to perform great deeds. Of these opportunities he made the best use, and so confirmed what was generally said of Antony and Caesar, namely, that they were more successful in campaigns conducted by others than by themselves. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

I’ve been told by some folks that people only like to read stories about the ‘marquee characters’ of history, people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, or Alexander the Great.

But I have to disagree with this. When I read about men like Ventidius, I’m captivated by their story, and because there are so few details about their lives compared with the big names of history, I find myself filling in the blanks, trying to figure out how they did what they did, how they might have felt when they achieved the heights of glory.

Now that makes a great story! Not only do I want to read about these secondary and tertiary characters, I also want to write about them, to tell their story as more than an anecdote of history whispered in the shade of a larger tree.

Thank you for reading.

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Ancient Everyday – Pee and Laundry in the Roman World

I had an urge this week to write about doing laundry in ancient Rome.

Why?

Because our laundry machine broke down and we are waiting to get it repaired.

As with many things, history geek that I am, it reminded me of ancient history. When I need to clean some piece of clothing without a machine, I use the sink with fresh running water and soap. If you lived in the 19th century, you might have used an old fashioned wash-board with some lye soap – plunge and scrub, plunge and scrub!

But the Romans didn’t have soap, or wash-boards.

How did the Romans get their whites, whiter than white?

So what was a Roman to do when their tunica or stola needed a good cleaning?

Oddly enough, they did not wash their clothes at home.

They took them to a fullonica, the ancient version of a laundry mat or dry cleaners.

Fullers, or fullones, were washers and scourers of clothing and new cloth, and they did a pretty good business in ancient Rome.

I mean, those streets were dirty! And with all the olive oil and garum stains on their clothing, their clothes would have needed a good scrubbing.

There were apparently many fullonicae in ancient Rome and other towns such as Pompeii and Ostia, but how did fullones get the clothes of their fellow citizens clean without any soap?

Why, with human pee of course!

This little guy would have been very helpful!

Ok, I’m sensationalizing this a bit, but urine was certainly a part of the process.

Basically, there were three steps to doing laundry properly in the Roman world.

First, the clothing or new cloth had to be washed by the fuller, the fullo.

Fuller’s stalls

This was done by putting the clothes in a small tub full with a mixture of water, nitrum or fuller’s earth (known as creta fullonia), some alkali elements, and of course, urine. Water and urine appear to have been the main ingredients of this ancient detergent.

Fresco from Pompeii of fullers working – from a fullonica in Pompeii

But how did a large prosperous fullonica get enough urine to do the laundry of Rome or Ostia? Well, they placed jars on street corners around the neighbourhood where they operated so that passersby could make a…donation.

I’m guessing the jars near tabernae might have been the most useful. You have to feel for the poor sod whose job it was to go and bring the full jars of urine back to the fullonica through the busy streets of Rome. Maybe people gave him a wide berth so as not to get splashed?

At any rate, once the clothes were in this cleaning mixture, the fuller would get in barefoot and stomp away, over and over, until the clothes were scrubbed of oil, dirt, and grease. This little dance was known as the saltus fullonicus, or the ‘fuller’s jump’.

Artist reconstruction of a fullonica at Ostia

The next step in the process was to rinse the clothing or cloth. This was done in a series of larger, interconnected wash basins into which poured fresh running water from the town water supply.

The fullo would start at the the dirty end, near the spout where the water exited, and then move up the basins toward the clean end where the water came out.

Large rinsing basins at a fullonica in Ostia

The final stage involved brushing the clothing (usually wool) with either thistly plants, or the skin of a hedgehog (insert sad face here). They were then hung to dry on a large upside-down wicker basket work with sulphur placed beneath it so as to allow the fumes to whiten the clothes.

Brushing and drying clothes – from a fresco in Pompeii. Note the wicker frame carried by one fullo.

High-end fullones, as part of this final stage in the process, might also have rubbed in cimolian, a fine white earth that was supposed to whiten the garment even further.

Once this was all done, your toga was ready to wear to your next imperial banquet!

Caesar and Vorenus had to clean their togas somewhere! (screen shot from HBO’s fantastic series, ROME)

I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful that we have soap and machines to do our laundry these days.

However, if you want to read more about ancient laundry, fullonicae, fuller’s earth, and the saltus fullonicus, our friends Pliny the Elder, Martial, Plautus and others do talk a lot about it. Apparently, laundry was a hot topic for Romans…

Right… Now I’m off to wait for the repair man!

Thank you for reading.

Relief of a fullo at work – from a grave stele.

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Gaius Asinius Pollio and the first Public Library in Ancient Rome

“he was the first to make men’s talents public property…” Pliny

The Forum Romanum

Once in a while, as I do my research for the next book or blog post, or as I’m reading for pleasure, I sometimes come across a person of history who grabs my attention.

Of course, there are many historical personages who give me pause, but not all of their names stay at the back of my mind, whispering, willing me not to forget.

Gaius Asinius Pollio (76 B.C. – A.D. 5) is one of those people.

In my career outside of writing, I’ve worked a lot with public libraries. In fact, I’m a huge fan of public libraries as an institution, and believe they are more relevant than ever, despite the existence of the internet.

Where else can anyone go to learn, get free access to books, music, information, new technologies and more?

As an historian who still laments the burning of the great library of Alexandria, I have nostalgic spot for libraries, but as a writer and historian who believes in making history accessible to everyone, I think the library is a crucial part of any civilized society.

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria

So… When I came across the name of Gaius Asinius Pollio in relation to the founding of the first public library in ancient Rome, I had to learn more!

Pollio lived during one of the most fascinating and pivotal times in Rome’s history. He saw the end of the Roman Republic and the Hellenistic Age, and the birth of the Roman Empire. He rubbed shoulders with some of the titans of Roman history, including Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Pollio was a soldier, a politician, an orator, a poet and playwright, a literary critic, and…wait for it…an historian! In fact, his work, though it does not survive, was supposedly influential on both Plutarch and Appian.

He was also consul in the year 40 B.C.

You could say that Gaius Asinius Pollio was something of an ancient Renaissance man.

The Roman Senate (A scene from the film, The Fall of the Roman Empire)

As part of Julius Caesar’s staff, he was there when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., and he occupied Sicily in 48 B.C. once the civil war was well underway. Also in 48 B.C. Pollio was apparently present as Caesar’s legate at the battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle in which Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey the Great.

After that, he held a command in Spain from 44-43 B.C. where he was engaged in fighting with Pompey’s son, Sextus. Things didn’t go so well in Spain for Pollio, but he managed to survive and threw in his lot with Marcus Antonius after the murder of Julius Caesar.

In 40 B.C. he was consul, along with Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, another Roman general and senator.

muses of Sicily, essay we now

a somewhat loftier task! Not all men love

coppice or lowly tamarisk: sing we woods,

woods worthy of a Consul let them be.

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung

has come and gone, and the majestic roll

of circling centuries begins anew:

justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

with a new breed of men sent down from heaven.

Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom

the iron shall cease, the golden race arise,

befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own

Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,

this glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,

and the months enter on their mighty march.

Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain

of our old wickedness, once done away,

shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.

He shall receive the life of gods, and see

heroes with gods commingling, and himself

be seen of them, and with his father’s worth

reign o’er a world at peace.

(The poet, Virgil, on Pollio – 4th Eclogue)

In his role as consul, Pollio was responsible for actively promoting the Treaty of Brundisium between Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. This was the Second Triumvirate.

The Second Triumvirate – Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus

In 39 B.C. Pollio became governor of Macedonia. While there, he fought a campaign in Illyria against the Parthini and for his victories, he received a Triumph at Rome, not to mention a small fortune in booty.

At this point he retired from the battlefield. Not a bad way to go out on top, after a Triumph that is.

After the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., that fateful battle in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian and the Hellenistic age came to an end, Pollio hunkered down to write and pursue his literary interests.

He had remained neutral during the Battle of Actium, not wishing to go against Antony who had shown him some kindness in the past – Pollio had been his legate in 41 B.C. when settling veterans in northern Italy.

The broils that from Metellus date,

The secret springs, the dark intrigues,

The freaks of Fortune, and the great

Confederate in disastrous leagues,

And arms with uncleansed slaughter red,

A work of danger and distrust,

You treat, as one on fire should tread

Scarce hid by treacherous ashen crust.

Let Tragedy’s stern muse be mute

Awhile; and when your order’d page

Has told Rome’s tale, that buskin’d foot

Again shall mount the Attic stage,

Pollio, the pale defendant’s shield,

In deep debate the senate’s stay,

The hero of Dalmatic field

By Triumph crown’d with deathless bay.

E’en now with trumpet’s threatening blare

You thrill our ears; the clarion brays;

The lightnings of the armour scare

The steed, and daunt the rider’s gaze.

(Horace, on Pollio’s Triumph; Ode 2.1 to Pollio)

A Roman Triumph

Gaius Asinius Pollio then wrote his Historiae, an account of the Civil Wars from 60-42 B.C., ending with the battle of Philippi, in seventeen books. Sadly none of this work survives, but it’s preserved in its use by both Plutarch an Arrian.

Previously, Pollio had been a literary critic of Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, and Livy to name a few. But he was also highly praising of those whose writings he admired and saw merit in. He became quite an important person on the Roman literary scene in his retirement.

He held public recitals for writers and poets, and was himself the first Roman writer to read his own work in public. At one of his gatherings, his young friend, an up-and-coming poet by the name of Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as we know him, did a reading of a piece he had been working on called The Aeneid.

The poet, Virgil

Well, it just so happened that some of Emperor Augustus’ family, or even the man himself, were at the reading and were very impressed with Virgil’s tale of the foundation of Rome and the role the Julii played in it. Thus, did Pollio help Virgil gain his most important patron!

With all of this, it should come as no surprise that Pollio would be responsible for the first public library in ancient Rome.

But, in a way, it is surprising, for until that time, any libraries that existed in Rome were purely private, the domain of the rich, those seeking to impress their peers or hoard knowledge.

In the past, Roman generals had been responsible for the destruction and looting of some of the finest libraries in antiquity. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla sacked the city of Athens in 86 B.C. he had burned the Academy of Athens and its library. When Lucius Aemilius Paulus defeated King Perseus in the Third Macedonian War, he took all of the kings books from the library and made them the first private library at Rome. And in the first century B.C., General Lucullus created a private library from the looted book collections of Mithridates and other Pontic Kings. Apparently, Lucullus did lend books from his private collection, the place ironically becoming a centre for literary Greeks in Rome!

Artist impression of an ancient library

But to that point, there had been no ‘public library’.

Julius Caesar, who is often accused of having burned the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in the ancient world, did see the value of a public library for Rome and, no doubt after his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, he got the idea to create one at the heart of the Empire.

However, Caesar was killed before the project could come to fruition.

Enter Gaius Asinius Pollio.

With the funds and booty Pollio had accumulated during his governorship of Macedonia and the Illyrian campaign, he decided to establish the first public library in Rome.

The public library was founded during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, to whom Pollio seems to have remained aloof, no doubt due to his previous ties to Mark Antony.

Papyrus fragment with text of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (Rylands Papyri Collection)

Pollio’s library seems to have had separate wings for both Greek and Latin texts, and is supposed to have been housed in the Atrium Libertatis, or the ‘Hall of Liberty’, the exact site of which is unknown.

Another interesting thing about the library was that it was supposedly the first to also be decorated with statues of heroes and literary greats. Pollio loved Hellenistic art, and so his library was also an art gallery, a sort of multi-use facility for the ancient world.

One of the most famous sculptures that was supposed to have decorated Pollio’s public library was the group known as the Farnese Bull.

The Farnese Bull

Eventually, it became fashionable for rulers to establish public libraries.

Emperor Augustus founded two more libraries after Pollio’s – one on the Campus Martius, and the other on the Palatine Hill, beside the Temple of Apollo.

Emperor Trajan built the Bibliotheca Ulpia, and Hadrian, philhellene that he was, made right the wrong Sulla had done to the city of Athens and built a new library there. You can still see the remains of Hadrian’s Library in the Plaka neighbourhood of Athens’ modern tourist district.

Hadrian’s Library Athens

Gaius Asinius Pollio may not have been the most well-liked person of his age, but he seems to have commanded respect from his peers and those in power – how else might he have survived so tumultuous a time in Rome’s history?

Despite being quite the soldier and politician, literary critic and author, it seems that he is most often remembered, today at least, as the man who established the first public library in the city of Rome, and that in and of itself, is a good thing.

Thank you for reading.

Marrucinus Asinius, your left hand

you use not beautifully: in joke and in wine

you lift the napkins of the more careless people.

You think this is witty? It escapes you, inept one:

the thing is as dirty and as un-charming as can be.

You don’t believe me? Believe your brother Pollio,

who wants to change your thefts

even for a talent—for he is a boy

stuffed of charm and wit.

(Catullus Poem #12; addressing Marrucinus Asinius, Gaius Asinius Pollio’s brother, who was known for tasteless practical jokes)

Fresco thought to be from Gaius Asinius Pollio’s Public Library

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Ancient Everyday – Telling Time in the Roman World

Hi everyone!

Today we have the fourth and final part in our Ancient Everyday blog series on Time in the Roman World.

I hope you’ve enjoyed all the posts thus far, and that you’ve learned a little something with regards to how the Romans tracked the years, developed the calendar, and numbered and named the days and weeks.

In Part IV, we’re going to look at how the Romans told time.

The time of day is something that most of us obsess about, whether we want to or not. Almost everyone has a watch on their wrist, or a mobile phone in their pocket to check the time whenever they want.

But what did they do to tell the time in ancient Rome? How did they divide the hours of the day? How did they keep their appointments whether with one’s hairstylist, fuller, patron, or with Caesar himself?

Let’s have a look…

Sunrise over Roman Forum

In ancient Rome, the day was divided into twelve hours of night, and twelve hours of day.

Because of this, a daylight hour was not the same length as a nighttime hour, except during an Equinox! For example, a daylight hour in mid-winter was about forty-five minutes long by our reckoning, and in midsummer, it was about one and a half hours long.

Time was told in relation to the hour of night or daylight. For instance, midnight was the sixth hour of night, and midday was the sixth hour of day.

Time was expressed in terms like ‘first hour’. E.g. ‘I’ll meet you at the temple of Venus and Rome at the first hour’ (after sunrise).

If you were invited to someone’s home on the Caelian Hill for a late night party, they might tell you to be there at the ‘eleventh hour’, that is two hours before sunset.

Roman dinner party

Midday was known as meridies, and this is where we get the notion of A.M. and P.M.

A.M. stands for ante meridiem (‘before midday’), and P.M. stands for post meridiem (‘after midday’). Another thing the Romans did for us!

But what if you were out at a late night orgy, or drinking and gambling in the tabernae of the Suburan slums? What if you woke up late and your whole sense of time was thrown off. How would you be able to tell what time it was, and whether you missed that all-important meeting with your patron?

If someone else wasn’t around who could tell you what hour of daylight it was, you could always go and check a clock.

Yes! The Romans did indeed have clocks, or horologia.

Horologia could come in two forms. They could be solaria (shadow clocks or sundials) or they could be clepsydrae (water clocks).

Solarium Augusti on the Campus Martius

Solaria were apparently introduced to Rome sometime in the third century B.C. They were by no means perfect for telling the time as they needed scale adjustment for latitude, required seasonal corrections, and most obviously, relied on sunshine, so they could not be used at night.

I’m guessing that solaria in the far-away province of Britannia might have been more finicky than one on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean Sea!

Perhaps the most famous of solaria in ancient Rome was the one erected by Emperor Augustus on the Campus Martius in 9 B.C.

The Solarium Augusti as it was known was basically a giant sundial that used an Egyptian obelisk brought from Heliopolis, in Egypt, as the gnomon or staff of the sundial. Augustus dedicated this solarium to the Sun, making it the first solar dedication in the city of Rome.

Today, you can see the obelisk in the Piazza di Montecitorio.

The obelisk that was the gnomon of Augustus’ solarium

Waterclocks, or clepsydrae, were also used in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Now, these also needed seasonal adjustment, but they could be used at night because they didn’t require sunlight. This made them especially useful in military camps for keeping the hours of the watch through the night.

A clepsydra was usually a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.

A 17th Century sketch of Ctesibus’ water clock from Ptolemaic Egypt

Of course, like watches and clocks today, clepsydrae came in varying levels of quality and accuracy, as well as extra features.

One had to keep an eye on the water level in the smaller vessels that made up some clepsydrae, as once the water ran out, it would stop working and have to be set up again. This might be akin to having to wind clocks every so often.

However, there were more elaborate clepsydrae that had a constant supply of water, and this would allow for twenty-four hour operation.

An example of this high-end ‘time piece’ is the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora of Athens, also known as the Horologion of Andronicus, which was built in the first century B.C.

Tower of the Winds, Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

So, there you have it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this four-part Ancient Everyday series on Time in the Roman world.

I have to say, I’ve found it very interesting and even learned some new things myself.

There will be other installments of Ancient Everyday in the future, and much more!

So, thank you for reading, happy Summer, and we’ll see you next time…

Ancient Everyday will be back!

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