Some of the most timeless stories in western literature are about the heroes of ancient Greece.
For millennia people have been inspired by Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Achilles and Odysseus. Many an ancient king and warrior has tried to emulate the actions and personae of these heroes, and even claimed descent from them.
Far and away, the greatest hero of all was Herakles.
There are so many stories related to Herakles (‘Hercules’ of you were Roman) in mythology that it’s impossible to cover all of them in a simple blog post. A book would be required for that.
So, this post is going to be the first in a two-part series on the hero. There are countless triumphant deeds associated with Herakles, but for our purposes here, I’m going to cover the most famous of all – The Twelve Labours.
The Twelve Labours of Herakles have been the subject of art, sculpture and song for ages. Their portrayal decorated the ancient world from the images on vases to the metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In our modern age, we’ve seen him in comics, television shows, and movies.
But who was Herakles? Where did he come from?
Herakles was born in the city of Thebes. He was the son of Zeus who begat him on Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Zeus came to her in the guise of her mortal husband, Amphitryon, and so Herakles was born.
From the beginning, Herakles showed that he was not a ‘normal’ person. Out of jealousy, Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, sent two snakes to kill the baby Herakles in his cot. Herakles strangled the snakes with his bare baby hands.
When he was 18 years of age, Herakles began to really make a name for himself by slaying a lion on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron after hunting it for fifty days. During that time, he stayed with the king of Thespiae who was so impressed with the youth that he had him beget children on all fifty of his daughters.
Herakles was a man of extreme prowess, deeds, emotion and appetites.
King Creon of Thebes rewarded Herakles for helping him against his enemy, Erginus, king of the Minyans by giving him the hand of his daughter Megara, with whom the hero had several children.
This is where things sour for the young hero. After all, this is a Greek story, and tragedy is never far behind to bring even the mightiest of heroes back to Earth.
Hera stepped in to afflict Herakles with madness, causing him to kill his wife and children. When his sanity returned, he was overcome with grief and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice.
The Oracle told him to go to Tyrins and serve its king, Eurystheus, for twelve years, as punishment for his brutal crime. He had to complete all tasks set for him by the king, and this is the origin of The Twelve Labours.
It’s curious that the name ‘Herakles’ means ‘Glory of Hera’, since she persecuted him so much throughout his life. Then again, perhaps as Hera is the root cause of his Labours, his triumphs reflect on her?
I – The Nemean Lion
This first labour is probably his most famous, and takes us to the ancient land of the Argolid peninsula. The lion that was terrorizing the hills about Nemea had skin that was impenetrable to weapons and so Herakles, when he faced it, choked it to death with his brute strength and then used the claws to skin it. It’s this skin, which he used as a hooded cloak, that the hero became known for in art. If you see someone with a lion’s head on their own, it’s likely Herakles, or someone trying to emulate him.
As a side note, Nemea was thereafter the site of the Nemean Games, one of the four sacred games of the ancient world, which also included the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games, and the Olympic Games. You can read more about ancient Nemea by CLICKING HERE.
II – The Lernean Hydra
When he faced the Hydra in the Peloponnesian swamps of Lerna, it’s a good thing that Herakles brought along his nephew and companion, Iolaus. Facing the monster, he discovered that when he cut one head off, two more grew back in its place. And so, after each head was cut, Iolaus would cauterize the stump before it could grow again. When the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the blood which was poison, even to Immortals. These arrows would come in useful in later episodes of the hero’s life.
III – The Ceryneian Hind
Eurystheus, this time, thought he would set Herakles against Artemis with this third labour by telling him to capture a deer with golden horns that was sacred to the goddess. But Herakles pursued the hind for a whole year until he finally captured it and brought it before Eurystheus who, by this time, was always hiding in a jar whenever his cousin would return. The hind was allowed to go once it was brought before the king and so Herakles was able to avoid Artemis’ wrath.
IV – The Erymanthian Boar
Around Psophis, in the Arcadian region of the Peloponnese, a massive boar had been giving the locals trouble and so Herakles was sent to capture it. He did so by pursuing it through deep snow in the mountains until it was so exhausted that he was able to capture it. Such a massive specimen would have made quite a sacrificial feast!
V – The Stables of Augeas
Augeas was the King of Elis, and he had a cattle stable that had never been mucked out, EVER! In this case, it was not a monster that terrorized the locals, but rather the monumental stench. In this very different labour, Herakles was told he had to clean out the stables. So, what did he do? What all heroes would do, he diverted the rivers Alpheius and Peneius so that they flowed through the stables and washed the titanic stink away. It’s no wonder the land thereabouts is so fertile!
VI – The Stymphalian Birds
In Stymphalia, there were flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks that infested the woods around the Lake of Stymphalus, again in Arcadia. Herakles was told he had to get them out. So, he scared them all from their hiding places and then shot them down with his great bow. No more birds.
VII – The Cretan Bull
For his seventh labour, Herakles had to leave the Peloponnese for the Island of Crete to capture and bring back the Cretan Bull. This was no ordinary bull. This was the bull that Poseidon sent to Crete for King Minos to sacrifice. When Minos refused, Poseidon made his wife, Pasiphae fall in love with it and from that union was born the terror that was to become the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull rampaged all over Crete until Herakles arrived, wrestled it to the ground, and brought it back to Greece. The hero’s friend, Theseus, would come back to Crete years later to take care of the Minotaur.
VIII – The Mares of Diomedes
Once more, Herakles was forced to deal with another group of man-eating animals. But this time they were not birds, but rather horses! The mares of Diomedes were in Thrace.
When Herakles arrived in that northern kingdom, he had a run-in with Diomedes himself and so, to tame the horses, Herakles fed them their own master. After that, the mares followed him back to Eurystheus.
IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte
Near the River Thermodon, just off the Black Sea, Herakles and his followers, including Theseus, went to the Amazons and their Queen, Hippolyte. The story goes that Herakles just asked this lovely daughter of Ares for her girdle, or belt, and she said ‘Yes’. Hera decided to step in and whispered to the rest of the Amazons that their queen was being abducted.
The Amazons attacked Herakles and his men who fought back, and in the bloody engagement, Hippolyte herself was killed. Herakles managed to get the girdle, but the cost of this labour was indeed heavy.
X – The Cattle of Geryon
The tenth labour is a sort of epic cattle raid. Herakles was told he had to bring back the red cattle of the three-bodied giant, Geryon, from the Island of Erytheia which was far, far to the west. This took the hero on a long journey into the Atlantic. On his way, he set up the Pillars of Hercules to mark his way.
But Herakles began to grow weary with the heat, and so Helios, God of the Sun, lent Herakles his great golden bowl or boat so that he could sail the rest of the way to Erytheia. Herakles succeeded in raiding the cattle and sailed in Helios’ boat back to Spain. From Spain he travelled to Greece and had many adventures on this mythic cattle drive.
There is a whole list of adventures he had on his way home, but the one I would like to highlight brings him in touch with the Romans. When Herakles arrived in Rome he came into conflict with a monster named Cacus after the beast killed some of the cattle. Herakles killed Cacus in what must have been a great battle of strength.
It’s interesting that in Rome, there are some steps leading off of the Palatine Hill called the Steps of Cacus which is where the monster is said to have lain in wait for passers-by. In the Forum Boarium, or cattle market, near the banks of the Tiber, there is a round Tholos temple dedicated to Hercules, commemorating the hero’s time in Rome.
XI – The Golden Apples of Hesperides
Hesperia was the garden of the gods, and Herakles must have been exhausted when he discovered that he had to go back to the Atlantic. Some believe Hesperia was located on the Atlantic side of the North African coast. The garden was said to be beyond the sunset, where Atlas, the Titan, was holding up the sky.
The labour was to pick the golden apples that were guarded by a giant snake. In some stories, Herakles asks Atlas to pick the apples for him while he holds the heavens in his stead. In others, Herakles picks the apples himself and kills the serpent.
XII – Cerberus
There is one archetype that is common to most hero stories, and that is the journey to the Underworld. And this is where Herakles must go in his final labour, to bring the three-headed hound of Hades back to Eurystheus.
To get to the Underworld, Herakles gets help from the god Hermes, who travelled there regularly. Supposedly, they entered through the gate at Taenarum, in the southern Peloponnese.
There is a fascinating episode when they arrive in Hades’ realm. The shades of the dead flee from Herakles who wounds Hades himself with one of his poison arrows. The only shades who do not flee are Meleager, famed for bringing down the great Calydonian Boar, and Medusa, the Gorgon slain by Perseus.
Herakles drew his sword against Medusa, but Hermes told him to leave her be. But Meleager told the hero his sad tale. Herakles, inspired by Meleager, said that he would marry the sister of such a noble man. And so, the shade of Meleager named his sister, Deianaira, to be Herakles’ wife. This at the end of his long penance for killing his family. Was it a new beginning?
Hades told Herakles that he could take Cerberus if he could bring him to heel without using his weapons. In true Heraclean fashion, he wrestled the hell hound and then brought it to Eurystheus.
Afterward, Hades got his dog back.
The Labours of Herakles are not just adventure stories. They are stories of atonement, of courage, of strength of mind and body. Over and over, the hero is taken to extremes until he attains his final triumph, and his debt is paid.
But this is a Greek story. There is no celebration. For laurels dry out on the brow of even the greatest of heroes.
There is much more to Herakles’ story. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these tales.
Next week, in the second part of this series, we are going to be looking at the tragedy of Herakles.
Thank you for reading, and until then, stay Strong!
We’re changing pace for this next blog post, leaving the world of Roman Britain behind for the moment.
Over the holiday season, I managed to watch a bit of television – something that I don’t really do that often.
Like most people nowadays, I headed over to Netflix to see if anything caught my eye, and sure enough, there was a title that promised some great historical drama: MEDICI.
The show was only eight episodes, and certainly called to my love of history, Tuscany, and Italy in general. So, I sat down to watch.
I was not disappointed.
If you want a peak at Florence and the era that really gave rise to the Italian Renaissance, this is something you should watch.
I love Florence, and have been there a couple of times.
It’s one of the most beautiful, culturally-rich cities I’ve seen, and I would go back there in a heartbeat.
If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this city is for roaming and enjoying. From the Duomo and Baptistery, to the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, to the hallowed halls of the Uffizi Gallery where countless masterpieces hang, there is so much to see and do (and eat!) in this beacon of art and culture on the banks of the Arno.
When anyone thinks of Florence, they think of late medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, of the greats of history such as Dante, Da Vinci, Machiavelli, the Medici and many more.
When one thinks of Florence, the Roman Empire is not usually the first thing that comes to mind.
The truth is that Florence was originally established as a Roman camp. It was called ‘Florentia’, and beneath the façade of Renaissance grandeur that we see today, this city has Roman roots.
Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the Roman origins of Florentia.
Before the Romans overtook this land, the Etruscans ruled here, and they had established a centre at Fiesole, up the hill a short distance from the Arno River.
The Roman settlement of Florentia was established, most agree, by Julius Caesar around 59 B.C. as a military camp intended to guard the ford where the Via Cassia, the main road through Etruria, crossed the river.
It was just prior to this that Catiline led a rebellion against the Republic, and it seems that perhaps he, and many of his supporters holed up in nearby Fiesole.
Around 60 B.C., Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer, one of Rome’s consuls at the time, marched out to meet Catiline’s forces.
Now, here is where the story gets a bit blurry.
There appears to be some confusion around the origins of the name, ‘Florentia’.
Some believe that the word stems from ‘fluente’ which may refer to the flowing of the Arno river itself.
However, there is another, more romantic tale regarding the foundation of Florentia.
There is a story that accompanying Metellus against Catiline’s forces in Fiesole was a praetor or other high-ranking person named ‘Fiorinus’ who led several actions against Catiline and his conspirators.
This Fiorinus apparently fought very bravely, but was killed in an attack on the Roman camp along the Arno.
Why was this man, Fiorinus, important?
Well, some believe that Julius Caesar, who joined the battle against Catiline at Fiesole shortly thereafter, named Florentia after Fiorinus.
Here, Machiavelli writes about the two different theories about the origins of the name:
There are various opinions concerning the derivation of the word Florentia. Some suppose it to come from Florinus [Fiorinus], one of the principal persons of the colony; others think it was originally not Florentia, but Fluentia, and suppose the word derived from fluente, or flowing of the Arno… I think that, however derived, the name was always Florentia, and that whatever the origin might be, it occurred under the Roman empire, and began to be noticed by writers in the times of the first emperors.
(Niccolo Machiavelli, History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy)
As with many ancient tales, it’s difficult to ascertain the truth.
The important thing, and that which is more generally agreed upon, is that Florentia was established as a camp by Julius Caesar, who later made it a colonia for veterans of his legions.
When we walk around Florence today, it is clearly a medieval and Renaissance city. However, if you know where to look, you can see the remains of Colonia Florentia.
In the image above, you can see the main Roman roads on today’s Florentine streets.
The main north-south street of Florentia, the cardo maximus, followed the line of the Via Roma today. On the east-west axis, the former decumanus maximus ran the length of the current Via degli Speziali, and the Via degli Strozzi.
Like all thriving Roman settlements, the beating heart of the city was the forum, and Florentia’s was located in what is now the Piazza della Republica.
Apart from being the commercial centre of Florentia, the forum was also the administrative and religious centre of the colonia. There was no antique carousel, as there is today, but there was a temple to Mars, as well as a temple to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
The curia itself, which was also located in the forum, was where the town council, made up of decurions, met to discuss the business of the colonia. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the governing body of Florence, known as the Signoria instead of the Curia, met in the Palazzo Vecchio, located in the current Piazza della Signoria.
Archaeologists, over time, have discovered other Roman structures beneath the streets of this city, ghostly shades of Florentia’s past.
There were Roman baths located outside the south wall of the original fort along the current Via delle Terme. After all, what Roman settlement did not have a bath?
The same goes for a theatre.
As if echoing the artistic future of this great city, Florentia had an 8-10 thousand seat theatre in the southwest precinct of the colonia. The Palazzo Vecchio is partially built over top of this.
If you walk behind the Palazzo Vecchio today, and cross Vie dei Leoni, you will find yourself outside the line of the original Roman walls.
Along Borgo dei Greci lies Piazza san Firenze where, during the Roman period, there stood a temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose cult had become quite popular across the Roman Empire.
Continue on Borgo dei Greci to the curve of Via Bentacordi and you will find yourself on the site of the amphitheatre of Florentia, just near the current Piazza Santa Croce.
The amphitheatre was, of course, where the troops would have drilled and paraded, and the populace would have enjoyed gladiatorial combats and other entertainments popular in the Roman world.
Sadly, most of Roman Florentia is hidden from our eyes, but there are a few other places where the Roman past is hinted at.
For example, just before the Bargello, outside what was the ancient east wall, there is a brass half-circle in the street that marks the foundation of a Roman watch tower. Archaeologists have also found the remains of cloth dying vats which indicate that Florence’s pre-eminence as a textile-producing centre may have originated much earlier than in the Middle Ages.
There are other remains dotted around the city too – the remains of baths, private villas and homes – but most are inaccessible, or require permission from property or business owners to view.
Beneath Florence’s most prominent monument, Santa Maria del Fiore, or the ‘Duomo’ as it is known, was the site of an ancient Roman temple and other buildings (both Roman and early Christian). These can be viewed in the crypt of the Duomo, which was opened to the public, I believe, in 2014. Sadly, that was after I had visited!
And finally, across from the entrance to the Duomo, is the famous Baptistery of San Giovanni, which was built in the 11th century. This magnificent, octagonal building is one of the oldest standing buildings in Florence today, and it is believed that much of the marble facing used to decorate the walls of the Baptistery was taken from the ancient buildings of Roman Florentia.
I often daydream about the places I’ve travelled to, and Florence is certainly at the top of that list – the history, the art, the architecture, the food, and the surrounding Tuscan countryside are the stuff of dreams.
If you ever get the chance to visit Florence, or to go back, by all means, soak up the Medieval and Renaissance worlds to your heart’s content. Those are the reasons to go in the first place!
However, while you’re strolling the streets, enjoying your gelato from Festival del Gelato or any other gelateria there, take a few moments to think about where this magnificent city of art and culture came from.
The Etruscans had built on the hill, away from the river, but it was the Romans who set up camp here. And whether it was erected by Julius Caesar or not, or named after a fallen hero of Rome, the Florence of today owes its past to the Florentia of the ancient world.
The remains of Florentia may not be easily visible now, but they are there, in the shadows cast by ancient Rome.
Arrivederci e grazie!
Salvete readers and Romanophiles!
This week on Writing the Past, I’d like to welcome fellow author, A. David Singh, who has written a fantastic piece for us about slavery in ancient Rome.
You probably know that slavery was widespread in the Roman world, but what you might not know are the ins and outs of slaves’ lives.
Check out David’s post below for a brilliant introduction to this topic…
In the first century A.D., over a million people lived in Rome — and a third of them were slaves.
Ancient Romans considered their households to be a microcosm of the state of Rome, and slaves were an integral part of their households. Slavery was such a key foundation of their society that if an ancient Roman were to time-travel to the present day, he would be surprised to see a society function just fine without slaves.
In addition to cooking, cleaning, and carrying loads within their master’s household or country estate, slaves served another important function — that of elevating the social status of their masters. This is much the same prestige that a champion race-horse confers upon its owner.
How did one become a slave?
Being born into slavery was the commonest way. Children born to a women slave automatically became slaves to her master.
Another way was by capturing enemies. As Rome waged wars far beyond its borders — in Europe, Asia and northern Africa — a steady supply of prisoners of war poured in, who, in lieu of their lives being spared, were sold to the slave-traders. During his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar is rumored to have captured over a million prisoners of war in Gaul and sold them into slavery.
Criminals too could be enslaved, but their masters had to be careful about their violent streak. Unwanted babies who were thrown into rubbish dumps outside the city, though technically free, could be picked up by slave dealers or surrogate parents who would sell them into slavery. A similar fate awaited children kidnapped by pirates and other shady elements of society.
Finally, free Roman citizens, if deep in debt, could be forced into slavery. Some of them voluntarily chose to become slaves to repay their debt. However, Roman citizens submitting to slavery was considered illegal.
Where were slaves sold in Rome?
The slave market was commonly held behind the temple of Castor and Pollux, and also near the Pantheon. Men, women and children were displayed on raised platforms, just like fruit stands in a bazaar. They wore dejected looks, being resigned to their fates.
The slave trader adorned them with signboards around their necks with information like place of birth and other personal characteristics. It was a common spectacle to see signs like: Gaul, cook, specializes in making spicy fish and the use of Garum or Greek, ideal for teaching philosophy and reciting verses during parties.
Those who came to buy slaves found it in their interest to ensure that the slaves had no physical or mental defects. So, a thorough examination of their bodies was a common occurrence, and putting them on raised platforms helped to do just that.
A young male, 15 to 40 years old, cost 1,000 sesterces, while a female was priced at 800 sesterces. Much younger slaves or those older than 40 years went cheaper. Of course, prices would have been higher for slaves with special skills like reading and accounting.
The slave market had different days allocated for selling different types of slaves. There was a day for selling strong, muscular slaves meant for heavy labor. Another day for those specializing in trades like bakers, dancers and cooks. Boys and girls meant to work in houses and for banquets had their own day of sale, as did those with physical deformities.
What happened afterwards?
Once they started their lives of servitude, not all slaves had the same luck. The best deal that a slave could hope for was becoming a house slave to a kind master — even better, if the master was an important man in Rome. Moreover, there was also the possibility of being freed one day.
Then there was a class of slaves who worked in shops, under the command of an ex-slave. In addition to lugging heavy loads, they had to contend with the emotional baggage of their boss’ recently concluded life as a slave.
Those less fortunate were sold into miserable hovels of brothels, used pitilessly till they broke down or became useless. But a worse fate awaited those slaves who worked in country estates and mines. They lived in pathetic conditions with little food, frequent beatings, and were even locked in filthy prisons at night. It’s no wonder that they had very short life expectancies.
Wealthy Romans were not the only people to own slaves. The state of Rome had its own collection. These slaves were of another class — public slaves. They worked in public baths, food warehouses, or constructed roads and bridges, or worked in public administration offices. They helped in running the economy of Rome. Life was probably kinder to them than to their counterparts who worked in the mines and country estates.
The conditions for slaves were extreme during the Roman Republic. But it is believed that they eased later on. During the Empire, slaves could earn money, get married (informally) and have children. Killing of slaves was banned.
What were master-slave relationships like?
In rigid households, slaves were considered nothing more than objects that could talk and walk. They could be sold, rented, or replaced, just the way we do nowadays to our inanimate possessions. The master always decided the level of relationship permitted to their slaves. They could be friendly, or exploit their slaves, or in extreme circumstances even kill them.
On the other hand, if a slave killed his master, then all the other slaves in the household were slaughtered under the charge that they failed to protect their master from the rogue slave.
However, many masters considered slaves as human beings, worthy of moral behavior, and hence treated them with a degree of respect.
Each master had to balance how he treated slaves with the need to keep them working. Brutal treatments were rare because they would wear out the slaves.
Home-born slaves were most likely to remain loyal to their masters, considering him like their own father (which, in many cases he really was). However, barbarians captured from distant lands took some time to be broken into their new, reduced station in life.
Most often, masters incentivized slaves to work hard and stay loyal. Firstly, they rewarded hard work with generous rations of food and clothing. At times, even allowing them to have children, and occasionally organized sacrifices and holidays for them. Such acts of generosity went a long way in ensuring their slaves’ loyalty.
Secondly, slaves had clearly defined job roles, suitable to the their mental and physical attributes, like cooks, door-keepers, or food-servers. This division of labor generated accountability, as the slaves knew that they could be punished only for jobs that they were responsible for, and not for duties outside their job descriptions.
But the most important incentive for slaves to work honestly and with diligence was the possibility of gaining their freedom and becoming Roman citizens.
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans took a liberal view of slavery, regularly incorporating slaves into their own society. Thus slavery was viewed as a temporary state, after which, if the slave had shown the right attitude, they could be set free and become a Roman citizen.
This process of leaving the shackles of slavery and becoming free men and women was called ‘manumission’.
If a master was happy with a slave’s services and felt him worthy of being free, the slave could be set free by appearing before a magistrate. Once the magistrate had confirmed that the slave was a free man, the master would often slap the slave, as a final insult, before he started his new life.
Often, a master would bequeath his slaves’ freedom in his will. This is how most slaves got their freedom. In rare cases, slaves could also buy their freedom, if they could raise enough coin — or get another freedman to buy their freedom.
Manumission was generally practiced in urban regions, where it was possible for slaves to form meaningful relationships with their masters and be in their good books. Those working in country estates or mines did not have direct contact with their masters, and were usually worked to death.
Those slaves who gained freedom became citizens of Rome, enjoying all civil rights. But this freedom came at a cost: they were obligated to their former masters, who now became their patrons, and the slaves became their clients. As clients, the former slaves had to provide ongoing services, stipulated by their patrons before manumission.
In return for their services, the freedmen received patronage from their former masters in the form of helping them set up businesses, giving them financial assistance, and providing them with contacts, or opening doors in the Roman society.
However, freedmen, though Roman citizens, were ineligible to hold political offices. This rule did not apply to any children born to them after manumission. Such children were freeborn citizens and hence could hold political office.
Sadly, any children born before manumission were not so fortunate, because they remained as slaves in their former master’s household — but as was often the case, the parents bought their freedom once they were rich enough.
Even though freedmen moved out of their former masters’ house, they were still considered part of the household. Some patrons even allowed their former slaves — now clients — to share in their family’s tomb.
In essence, manumission was truly the lifeblood of Rome. It provided generations of new citizens hungry to make their way up in society. Since they could not hold political office, the only way to fulfill their ambitions was by acquiring wealth.
Later, it became a cultural norm that rich freedmen married into traditional, but impoverished, Roman families. This proved to be of mutual benefit — the old Roman families became richer, thanks to the nouveau riche, while the freedmen improved their social standing and circle of influence.
In today’s world, the concept of slavery is outrageous because of the prevalent traditions of civilized society. However, in ancient Rome, slavery was a well established institution. In fact, Rome would have collapsed had there not been any slaves because the Romans did not have complex machinery, like we do, to replace human muscle.
The notion of slavery in ancient Rome should, therefore, be viewed within the context of a different era, where society was entrenched in another set of values.
What practices in our current times, do you think, will be considered outrageous, even barbaric, by future generations? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
About the author:
David Singh is a neurosurgeon and author. He has written Caesar: Escapades in Rome & coauthored Ignite: Beat Burnout & Rekindle your Inner Fire. In his free time, David loves to cook, play with dogs, and explore the magical world of ancient Rome.
If you haven’t read Caesar: Escapades in Rome, pick up your FREE copy at:
This ebook will be delivered to you with its companion book — Rubicon, that contains the key to Caesar’s secret map.
I’d like to thank David for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. More often than not, writers focus on the great people of the Roman world, but just as the legions were the backbone of Rome’s military might, so were slaves that of Roman society.
Even though the thought of slavery is definitely unsavory, we can’t forget that it was a major part of the Roman world. Thanks to David for reminding us of that.
Everybody, be sure to sign-up to his mailing list and get the Free books he is offering. It’s always good to have more ‘Ancient Rome’!
As ever, thank you for reading…
We’re going to a different sort of place in this instalment of The World of Killing the Hydra.
In Part I, we explored the beauty of Leptis Magna which is where the book begins, and which was also the home of Emperor Septimius Severus.
But the Roman Empire was not all about beautiful monuments, lavish banquets, and the adoration of the people for the ruler of the time.
In fact, the Roman Empire had its own maze of back streets and alleyways where life was seedier, and more visceral. It wasn’t all polished marble, but rather slick brick and stinking cells.
WARNING: This post is not suitable for readers under 18 years of age. Also, if you are easily offended, some of the pictures of Pompeian frescoes in this post might be a bit too saucy for you. Just a word of warning for the innocent-minded.
We’re going to take a very brief look today at prostitutes and brothels in the Roman Empire.
Now, if you’re suddenly hoping that Killing the Hydra is my attempt at historical erotica, well, you’re looking in the wrong place. The book is not an orgy extravaganza. If you want that, check out the film Caligula with Malcolm McDowell in the title role.
However, you can’t really write about the Roman world without touching on the long-standing role that prostitution and brothels had to play in society.
They existed, and they most certainly flourished. People of all classes, mostly men, made it a normal practice to visit their favourite brothel from time to time.
If you liked the HBO show ROME, you might have an image of Titus Pullo whoring his way through the Subura with his jug of wine in hand. Certainly, this sort of behaviour was not uncommon, especially for troops fresh back from the wars and looking for a good time.
The flip side might be the richer, upper class nobility who may have believed visiting prostitutes was fine, as long as it was done in moderation and didn’t cause a scandal.
The prostitution scene in the Empire was as large and varied as the workers and clients who kept it running. There was something for everyone!
But let’s look at things a bit more closely.
One could say that prostitution has ties to the founding of Rome itself.
You may have read about Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome and were suckled by the She Wolf, or Lupa.
We have heard of lost children being raised by wolves before, but in the instance of Romulus and Remus, many believe that they were actually raised by a prostitute who found them on the banks of the Tiber. The slang word for prostitute in Latin was lupa.
And the word for brothel was in fact lupanar or lupanarium.
Clients were drawn in by the sexual allure of displayed ‘wares’, sometimes lined up naked on the curbside, and the various experiences to be had within. The latter were sometimes illustrated in frescoes or mosaics on the walls of the lupanar. These were intended to add to the atmosphere, or were a sort of menu of pleasures to be had.
There were of course ‘high-class’ prostitutes who catered to wealthy and powerful patrons, women who were skilled at conversation, music and poetry. These high end lupae provided an escape, or a feast with friends, in lavish surroundings coupled with a sort of blissful oblivion. Some might have been purchased by their wealthy clients to keep for themselves, and if that was the case they might have ‘enjoyed’ a relatively easy life compared to the alternative.
The truth for most, however, was that they were slaves. And slaves in ancient Rome, as we all know, were objects, property to be used and disposed of on a whim.
Prostitutes – women, men, boys, girls, eunuchs etc. – were at the bottom of the social scale, along with actors and gladiators. They could be adored by clients one moment, and shunned the next. And if a lupa was no longer profitable, the leno (pimp), or the lena (madam) might sell them off as a liability, sending them to a life that was possibly even worse.
In ancient Rome, prostitution was legal and licensed, and it was normal for men of any social rank to enjoy the range of pleasures that were on offer. Every budget and taste was catered to, and because of Rome’s conquests, and the length and breadth of the Roman Empire in the early 3rd century, there would have been slaves of every nationality and colour. Clients of the lupanar would have had their choice of Egyptians, Parthians and Numidians, Germans, Britons, slaves from the far East and anywhere else, including Italians.
However, even though prostitution was regulated, don’t kid yourselves. This was not a question of morality, or curbing venereal diseases. This was about maximizing profit – prostitution was also taxed!
In Pompeii, prostitution became a sort of tourist trade. On the street pavement you just had to follow the phalluses to find the nearest brothel! There were something like thirty-five brothels in the town, and that’s not counting the small curbside cells or niches where the cheapest lupae provided quickies to passers-by.
The biggest brothel in Pompeii however, was the ‘Great Lupanar’ located at a crossroads two blocks from the Forum. Many of the frescoes pictured here are from that building which had ten rooms, where most lupanars had just a few.
But we’ve only been looking at prostitution and brothels in Rome and Pompeii. What would they have been like on the fringes of the Empire?
In Killing the Hydra, Lucius finds himself alone and in trouble in the Numidian town of Thugga. This is where he meets one of the secondary characters of the book, Dido.
Dido is a Punic girl who has lost her family and is all alone in the world. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted. But in a world where people were desperate to survive, those who didn’t have protection had few choices. For a young beautiful Punic girl on the North Africa frontier, there would not have been many places that offered a roof, a bed, food and clothing.
Dido is a prostitute in the Thugga brothel known as the ‘House of the Cyclops’, and she spots Lucius, a young, good-looking Roman walking by – a sure bet in her eyes, and perhaps better than her usual clientele.
But she doesn’t know Lucius yet. He’s not the average man out for a good time. He has much more pressing issues on his mind as he walks the streets of Thugga.
When I was doing my research for Killing the Hydra in Thugga (in central Tunisia), Lucius and Dido’s meeting played out in my mind as if they were walking alongside me.
Without giving too much away, Lucius ends up needing this young lupa’s help because he has no one else he can trust.
Can he trust this unknown, Punic girl? Will he go into the lupanar and seek her behind the curtain of her tiny cubiculum?
You have to read the book to find that part out. It is funny how one can find help in the most unexpected places!
One might think that the subject of this particular post was rather fun to write, that the images above are titillating. And sure, they are to an extent. I don’t mind a bit of risqué material on occasion. Why not?
But then, I can’t help thinking of the lives that these female and male prostitutes had to endure. Very few enjoyed the favour of kind wealthy clients, living in luxurious surroundings.
Prostitutes were slaves and most were probably pumped and beaten for a bronze coin or two before having to receive their next tormentor. These people were objects to the rest of the world, not human beings. They were people’s daughters and sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In many cases they’d been taken from their homes on the other side of the world. Perhaps they were all that was left of their family?
For most prostitutes in the Roman Empire, life was a living Hades – just something to remember when looking at this aspect of the larger world of Killing the Hydra.
If you are interested in learning more about prostitution in the Roman Empire, the video below is an excellent documentary that will give you an inside look at the Great Lupanar of Pompeii.
Thank you for reading.
It’s been a while since I last posted in the Ancient Everyday series.
Last year we looked at the ritual of going to the public baths, the interesting experience of using a public toilet, and the use of mirrors in the ancient world.
Today, we’re going to take a very brief look at childbirth in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Now, as a man, my input and views on childbirth are somewhat limited, so I would invite my female readers out there to jump in with their comments at any time. I’m a father, and I’ve been present at the birth of my own children, but I would never presume to fully comprehend mysteries, and agonies, that women go through when it comes to bringing a tiny human into the world.
Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky today as far as obstetrics and the technologies we have to help mothers and children safely navigate the process of pregnancy and birth.
That was not the case in the ancient world. Pregnancy and birth were risky affairs, and as with many aspects of life, the ancients called on specific gods and goddesses for help when it came to childbearing and birth.
The Egyptians offered prayers to the god Bes, a god of marriage and jollity, but also a protector of women and children in childbirth. Bes was not your typical Egyptian god. He is portrayed as an ugly dwarf with a feather crown, sometimes holding a tambourine.
His consort, Tauert, was also prayed to as someone who assisted all females, regardless of station, in childbirth. Tauert was portrayed as a pregnant, female hippopotamus.
In ancient Greece the goddess two whom prayers and offerings were made was Artemis, under her two epithets Kourotrophos (nurse) and Locheia (helper in childbirth).
Now it might seem odd that people prayed to the virgin goddess for protection in childbirth, but in myth, Artemis was said to have been present when Leto, her mother, gave birth to Apollo on Delos. She was considered, in some ways, the first midwife.
It is interesting to note ancient Greeks believed that women who died suddenly in childbirth were helped to a painless death by Artemis who showed them mercy by piercing them with one of her arrows.
The ancient Greeks also prayed to Hecate as a goddess of women and nurturer of children, as well as Hera, the Queen of the Gods who sometimes served as a goddess of childbirth in her capacity as goddess of marriage.
The Romans had many gods and goddesses to whom they prayed for help, and Juno, Queen of the Gods, was first and foremost under the epithets of Lucina, and Opigena.
Another goddess with a major role to play was Carmentis, a water goddess who was also a prophetic goddess of protection in childbirth. Carmentis had her own festival, the Carmentalia, and a temple on the Capitoline Hill.
A third goddess whom the Romans prayed to for a safe and successful childbirth was Matuta, the goddess of dawn and young growth.
It must have been a comfort to have so many gods to pray to, but that may also be indicative of the high risks involved.
Because it was so dangerous to bring a child into the world, and because families could not always afford to feed or provide dowries for all their children, contraception was something that was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Most of the methods used seem to be herb and plant-based, and included things like acacia, honey, Queen Anne’s Lace, date palm, willow, Artemisia, myrrh, and the now extinct silphium plant, among others. Some of these are apparently used in spermicides today.
The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from c. 1850 B.C. actually contains a lot of information on birth control and is the oldest known gynaecological treatise.
But we are talking about having children in the ancient world. Today, most husbands (I would hope) are in the room to support their wives and be there when their child are born. It happens at the hospital or birthing centre (most of the time), and there is a doctor/obstetrician to help the delivery.
In the ancient world, births took place at home. There were no hospitals, except for those at healing centres like Kos and Epidaurus, and oftentimes, anyone who had been ‘in touch’ with childbirth was not permitted to enter sacred sanctuaries anyway for fear of contaminating the place.
In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwifes were a constant. Today, midwifery seems to have made a big comeback, but in the ancient world, the midwife was always the one who helped women through childbirth. Their skills and knowledge were considerable. The only time a doctor might have been called in ancient Greece and Rome was if there were complications.
It appears that in most cases, no men were present at the birth of a child, though there were often several people in attendance, including the midwife, the women of the household (mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc.), and any female slaves that were needed to help.
It was not considered proper for men to be present, and the only man who might have been there was the doctor if he was called.
What about the position for giving birth?
Well, in Egypt, it seems that women often knelt in a shaded spot or shelter to give birth.
With modern hospital beds, women are in more of a lying-down position, with their backs propped up to give birth.
Interestingly, in ancient Greece and Rome, and in later centuries, birthing chairs were used. This was basically a wooden chair with arms, but no seat.
The midwife would kneel on the floor before the chair and help the woman from there, her hands wrapped in linen or papyrus so that the baby did not slip when she caught it.
It may be that couches were also used for giving birth, but I do wonder if midwives in ancient Greece or Rome might have had birthing chairs as part of their professional kit.
Mortality rates for women and children in pregnancy and childbirth were high in the ancient world, and from the little that I’ve read, the risk of death was extremely high in ancient Egypt. Many women died in pregnancy and childbirth, and infants who were born often did not survive the first few months.
Once a child was born, there was usually a ceremony for the naming and blessing of the child.
I could not find information on the specifics of an Egyptian ceremony (Egyptology is not my area of expertise), but I have read that water and ritual washing may have been a part of such a ceremony for newborns since water played a large part in Egyptian religious rituals. Perhaps my Egyptologist friends out there can shed some light on this subject?
In ancient Greece, on the fifth or seventh day after a child was born, there was a purification ceremony and feast called the amphidromia, at which the child received its name. This involved a ritual and an evening feast to which guests brought presents for the child. If a boy was born, the house was decorated on the outside with olive branches. If it was a girl, the outer decoration consisted of garlands of wool.
In ancient Rome, the naming ceremony was called a lustratio, and this took place nine days after the birth of the child. At this, offerings were made to the gods, there was a feast, and the child was introduced to guests.
In chapter twenty-one of my book, Killing the Hydra, I write about a Roman lustratio.
Most people today cannot view the successful birth of a child with anything but gladness. And rightly so! It’s a beautiful thing, and most parents are happy when their child is born healthy, no matter if it is a boy or a girl.
However, in the ancient world, views of family and children could be quite different from our own.
It seems that ancient Egyptians were devoted to their families and that they loved their children. This can be seen in the many images that survive of happy families, babies in their mothers’ arms, and children playing.
In ancient Greece and Rome, children were meant to be less visible, and stayed inside with the women. At birth, a Greek father or guardian decided whether to keep a child. In Rome as well, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members, and this included newborn infants whom the father could deny the right to be reared.
Children could be exposed or killed in ancient Greece and Rome, and had no place in public life.
Practices also differed by place. For instance, in ancient Athens, if a child was kept, it was swaddled, whereas in Sparta children were not swaddled at all, presumably to start toughening them up, or cull the weak.
It certainly seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, but the truth is that if a child managed to survive birth, decisions about their usefulness and whether to keep them were more often based on the sex, the number of children the family already had, ability to provide for that child, the future need for a dowry, and general health.
It’s odd, but most of the time, I tend to think that the past was much more exciting and interesting, more beautiful than our chaotic, modern society. I think most historians feel they were born in the wrong age!
But when I read about things like pregnancy, health, childbirth, and children in the ancient world, it makes me grateful we live in the age we do.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as far as childbirth, I would give that part of the ancient everyday a miss.
And let’s not think that all children in ancient Greece and Rome were treated badly. It is my hope that, despite the social mores of those sometimes harsher societies, Nature instilled in the mother and father of most children a love and need to care for their offspring that is timeless and powerful.
As ever, thanks for reading!
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