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 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 VI : Sarmizegethusa – Fortress of the Dacians

Of the many peoples conquered by Rome throughout history, few conjure such wild and barbaric images as the Dacians.

Perhaps it was because they gave Rome such a hard time of it on the other side of the Danube frontier, or crossed over to harass the Romans? Was it their vicious ways in battle or their barbaric appearance? It’s hard to tell, for as we know, history is written by the victors.

And in this fight, Rome was indeed the victor.

Roman Dacia (Wikimedia Commons)

In The Carpathian Interlude, the Dacians are at the heart of the story, physically and geographically.

In the story, some of our Roman protagonists end up having to go into the heart of the capital of the Dacians – a place known as Sarmizegethusa.

When I hear the name of the Dacian capital, I hear the sounds of bloody battle with Rome pounding on her gates.

Sarmizegethusa…

But before we explore this magnificent fortress/capital of the Dacians, we should look briefly at who the Dacians actually were.

Rome vs. Dacia

The Dacians, also known as the ‘Getae’ by the ancient Greeks, were an Indo-European people inhabiting the region of – you guessed it! – the Carpathian Mountains.

They were related to the Thracians, and it has been suggested that the name ‘Dacian’ actually means ‘wolf’. This is a reference to early rituals ascribed to the Dacians in which youths had to act like wolves for a period of time.

This ritual has in turn tied the Dacians to tales of lycanthropy, or the legendary werewolves of the Carpathian region in which a large part of our story is set.

Dacian man – statue from 2nd century A.D.

The Dacians, or ‘Getae’, were a warlike people who fought the Persians, as well as Alexander the Great in 335 B.C. on the banks of the lower Danube. Their kingdom covered a vast, mountainous area dotted with gold mines, forests and fertile fields and valleys.

It’s also said that Julius Caesar contemplated a campaign against the Dacians because of the threat they posed, but it’s the Emperor Trajan’s (reigned A.D. 97-117) campaigns against the Dacians that are really remembered.

Trajan invaded Dacia in two wars from A.D. 101-102, and 105-106.

After the first war, a treaty was struck, but both sides seemed to know it was temporary.

The second war was the Roman siege of Sarmizegethusa itself, and the subsequent death of King Decebalus who, being pursued by the Roman cavalry, committed suicide rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome in Trajan’s triumph.

The war and the death of King Decebalus are immortalized on the monument we know today as ‘Trajan’s Column’.

Trajan’s column detail

The Carpathian Interlude, however, takes place long before Trajan’s final defeat of the Dacian people. It takes place during the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Sarmizegethusa was not yet a word on the lips of the average Roman.

Sarmizegethusa, in present-day Romania, became the capital of the Dacian kingdom under King Burebista (82-44 B.C.), and reached its peak as a rich and vibrant capital city during the reign of its last king, Decebalus.

This capital was the military, religious, and political capital of Dacia, the beating heart of the kingdom.

Plan of Sarmizegethusa

Sarmizegethusa was located on a 1200 meter high mountain and consisted of a fortress with six different citadels with a river below. Apart from the defensive network encompassing the citadels, there were also residential quarters on the terraces of the mountain below the citadels, a large sacred quarter with several temples to the Dacian gods, and workshops, including smithies, indicating metalworking skills. Some of the finds from the latter included tools and blades of the long curved Dacian sword known as a ‘phalax’.

The sacred or religious zone had circular and rectangular temples, including a large sort of solar disc which some scholars believe is indicative of contact with ancient Greeks who may have influenced their religion.

Ruins of Dacian Temples in the religious quarter of Sarmizegethusa (Wikimedia Commons)

Religion was important to the Dacians, and it appears that the priest of their chief deity, Zalmoxis, played a large role in the life of the people at Sarmizegethusa. It has been suggested that the people were co-ruled by a king and a priest-king.

There were also supposedly many levels or grades of priests, just as there were levels in Mithraism.

The main gods of the Dacians, some of which are mentioned by Herodotus, were Zalmoxis (the chief god), Gebeleizis (a god of storm and lightning, sometimes equated with Zalmoxis), Bendis (the goddess of the moon and the hunt who also had a cult in Attica, Greece by order of the Oracle of Dodona), Derzelas (god of health, abundance and the Underworld), and Sabazios (a sort of horse god). The Dacians apparently also worshipped Dionysos.

Votive statue showing Bendis wearing a Dacian cap (British Museum)

Dacian beliefs were quite staunch, some of their practices no doubt barbaric to Greeks and Romans.

Herodotus explains:

Their belief in their immortality is as follows: they believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him.

Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs; and this is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men; others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and swing and toss him up on to the spear-points.

If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favor; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message.

(Herodotus, The Histories Book IV, Chapter 94-96)

Solar Disc religious structure at Sarmizegethusa

The size of the religious sanctuary at Sarmizegethusa is substantial, their faith and practices quite old by the time of our story during the reign of Augustus.

From fact to fiction now, in The Carpathian Interlude, the Dacians have been overpowered by an evil far more ancient than their gods, one that dwells deep in the teeth of Carpathian Mountains.

When our Roman protagonists arrive in Sarmizegethusa, they must find their way to the religious quarter of the settlement and find the one man they believe can help them.

Dacian warriors from Trajan’s Column

Today one can visit the site of Sarmizegethusa, listed on UNESCO’s world heritage site list.

If you do go, you may wish to go during the day when the sounds of slaughter from Trajan’s siege are muted by sunlight on the trees.

If you decide to go in the evening, or at night, be cautious, for you will be headed for a place of strange gods and of men who became wolves.

You never know what lurks in the dark of the Carpathian Mountains.

Thank you for reading.

Walls of Sarmizegethusa (Wikimedia Commons)

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part IV : Rome’s Nightmare – The Varus Disaster

Have you ever wondered why forests are so often the setting for nightmares?

Think about it. It’s true.

Ready for a fight – a scene from the movie, Centurion

I remember a recurring nightmare that I had when I was a child: I’m in a dark forest, walking by myself. My feet crunch on a carpet of dead leaves in a slow, steady rhythm. Then a second set of footsteps, comes into my hearing, only they’re faster. They’re pursuing me. I begin to panic, and run. I yell but the woods devour my cries. I believe someone is chasing me, and my heart is close to bursting… And then I wake up.

That might not seem scary now, but when you are 6 it’s another story.

Nightmares are fascinating and curious. As a child I didn’t know that the quickening steps of my forest pursuer were really the sound of the blood pulsing in my ear as it pressed into my pillow. Those woods were terrifying to me.

The Forests of Germania

Think about the woods again. How many of you have read or heard scary stories that take place in a forest? For ages, the woods or any kind of forest, have been shadow realms of the unknown, places of magic and nightmare, of beasts and death.

But there is a reason why forests have become such monsters in and of themselves. Not all tales of horror in the woods are fabricated by active, childish minds.

The Carpathian Interlude series revolves around a particular event in Roman history known as the Varus Disaster. It took place in A.D. 9, during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and it was truly the stuff of nightmares.

Public Quinctilius Varus was a patrician Roman general and member of the imperial circle who had been put in charge of the administration of Germania, which had only recently been tentatively subdued by Rome. Varus had previously had success governing provinces in Africa, Syria, and Judea, so it was believed he would be more than capable of handling Germania.

Marching through the Teutoburg Forest

Varus is said to have also had a reputation for being a tyrant who inflicted brutal punishment on the people he was governing and squeezing taxes out of.

It’s safe to say that Varus thought he was quite secure in his position. He was a skilled administrator by Roman standards, had a proven track record, the bloodline to back it up, and a staff of trusted advisors.

Among the people on Varus’ staff was a man named Arminius. Does that name ring a bell?

Arminius was the son of Segimerus, the chieftain of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe that had bent the knee to Rome. As surety for their father’s good behaviour, Arminius and his younger brother Flavus were sent to Rome when they were just boys. We’ll focus on Arminius.

Arminius grew up in Rome, learned the ways of Roman life, and politics, and martial prowess. He began to make a name for himself and was admitted to the Equestrian order to become a cavalry officer.

When Varus was assigned to Germania, Arminius went with him as one of his most trusted advisors and skilled officers. In fact, it’s said that Varus and Arminius regularly dined together; no doubt Varus valued Arminius’ advice in governing the lands of his former people.

This is the seed of the nightmare of which I spoke earlier.

Map used for research and writing of The Carpathian Interlude

In the late summer of A.D. 9, Publius Quinctilius Varus led three legions (the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Legions) deep into Germania to collect taxes and tribute. Varus also had with him six auxiliary cohorts, three cavalry alae, slaves, and camp followers consisting of women, children, merchants and tradesmen. This was a large, slow-moving army. Because they were in a dense forest, the line of march was thin, and stretched over 15-20 kilometres.

But Varus felt he had little to worry about and was so confident that he didn’t event send scouts ahead.

Then Arminius brought word of an uprising to Varus who sent the former to take care of it. Varus was warned against Arminius by another German advisor, Segestes, who was actually a relative of Arminius. But Varus ignored Segestes’ warnings not to trust Arminius and so the nightmare really began.

Rather than supressing the uprising, Arminius instead disappeared into the forest to rally the allied Germanic tribes and attack the Roman forces.

The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them… For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed-in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all. (Cassius Dio, The Roman History 20)

I thought my nightmare in the forest was horrifying.

Artist impression of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

For three days the Romans were ambushed by the Germanic tribesmen. Three days in the tangle of the Teutoburg Forest, the bogs and brambles, the rivers, and marshes, violent storms and…the dark.

Varus, the legions, and the camp followers had no chance. Arminius had learned how Romans fought, how to weaken them, and how to defeat them. He had laid his plans well, and after three days of desperate fighting, the Romans may have made their last stand at a place known today as Kalkriese.

In the end, Varus and some of the other officers took their own lives rather than fall into the enemy’s hands. Perhaps, as well as fear, it was Varus’ shame that let him to do such a thing. The total number of Roman dead? – about 20,000.

three legions were cut to pieces with their general, his lieutenants, and all the auxiliaries… they say that he [Augustus] was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning… (Suetonius; Life of Augustus 23)

There is no mistaking that this was indeed a real-life nightmare for Rome, and this crushing defeat struck fear into the hearts of everyone from the lowest Suburan sewer rat right the way up to Augustus himself.

Kalkriese – the possible site of the Legions’ last stand

Years later, when Germanicus went into Germania to find the remains of the fallen legions, he came to the site of the struggle.

…they [Germanicus and his men] visited the mournful scenes, with their horrible sights and associations. Varus’s first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions. Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. (Tacitus, Annals 1.61)

People must have thought that the gods had turned their backs on Rome.

So how does this fit with the Carpathian Interlude?

When I think of the nightmare of the Varus disaster, what it must have felt like for the troops and camp followers who knew that the barbarians would kill them at any moment, I feel terror for them. The shock, the surprise, the desperation as people were dying all around them in such horrible ways must have been truly overwhelming.

Death

I wanted to take the terror one step further. What if Arminius had more than just the element of surprise on his side? What if he had allied himself with a darker, more powerful enemy in his desperation to crush Rome and assume hegemony over the Germanic tribes?

This is the path I’ve taken in turning this historic event into historical horror.

Cassius Dio describes the omens that Rome witnessed in the aftermath of the disaster, the fearful belief of Augustus and others that the gods were indeed angry:

For a catastrophe so great and sudden as this, it seemed to him [Augustus], could have been due to nothing else than the wrath of some divinity; moreover, by reason of the portents which occurred both before the defeat and afterwards, he was strongly inclined to suspect some superhuman agency. (Cassius Dio, The Roman History 24)

The Kalkriese Mask – worn by one of Varus’ doomed troops

In the next part of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we will explore the ancient beliefs that helped to shape the terrible beasts that are ally to the Germanic tribes in the story.

Thank you for reading…

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part III : Roman Armour and Clothing

Welcome back to The World of the Carpathian Interlude!

In the previous post, we looked at the main weapons used by Roman troops. However, if you are not clothed and protected, you may not last long on the field of combat. In The Carpathian Interlude, I mention some of the articles of clothing and armour that the characters wear. After all, it wasn’t just a Roman’s weapons that kept him alive!

Optio’s helmet

Pretend you are a Roman soldier getting dressed for the day or that you’re preparing to go on campaign and need to stuff some extra clothing into your satchel which you will have to carry on your back along with two sharpened stakes, pots, a shovel and pick axe. When the Legions were reorganized and equipment standardized by Gaius Marius, there was a reason why the men became known as ‘Marius’ mules’!

Replica of a common legionary tunic and belt, or cingulum

The Roman soldier would have a standard issue tunica which was like an over-sized shirt, belted at the waist by a cingulum. You wouldn’t leave without pants or trousers in the morning, and neither would a Roman go into battle without bracae which were made of wool, just like the tunic. This basic outfit was completed with a pair of caligae which were standard issue Roman military sandals with hobnails.

As an aside, the Emperor Caligula was so nick-named because of the little pair of army sandals he wore as a child. He was called ‘Little Boots’.

Bracae and caligae

New archaeological evidence shows that contrary to what was thought, Roman soldiers did in fact wear woollen socks. Makes sense to me – I can‘t imagine trekking through Caledonia or Germania in bare feet.

A cloak was also an important piece of the outfit and could serve as a blanket on the march, a shield against the elements.

Roman phalerae

If you were a decorated officer such as a centurion, you would be wearing a leather harness over your chest that was decorated with phalerae, a series of gold, silver, bronze or iron discs with images of gods, goddesses and other symbols that were decorations for deeds of valour on the field. The images also served as protection, as most soldiers were extremely superstitious.

Replica of the lorica segmentata – the standard issue breastplate of an imperial Roman legionary

All that clothing however, is not going to help you if you’re not protected by a certain amount of armour. This brings us to the lorica segmentata, the standeard breastplate of the Roman legionary of the Empire. The design of the lorica is ingenious, providing good shoulder, chest and back protection while providing for ease of movement and flexibility due to the segmented style of the steel plates. If you were an auxiliary trooper, you more likely had chainmail. Aside from the leather straps hanging from the soldier’s cingulum, the lorica was the only protection on the torso.

Officer’s pteriges

An officer’s armour would vary from the ordinary trooper’s. Commanding officers or tribunes would be wearing a cuirass which was a breast/back plate made of iron and/or hardened bull’s hide, often ornamented with patron gods and goddesses of their family. Beneath these would be a full skirt of leather straps hanging down to the knees called pteruges. These leather straps also sometimes protected the shoulders of an officer.

A centurion or other high-ranking officer may also have worn ornamented greaves which protected the shins, but these were often cumbersome and not always in use during the Empire.

Finally, when it comes to protection, few things mattered so much as the helmet. The standard legionary helmet was perfected over hundreds of years, improving upon ancient Greek, Thracian and Macedonian models. There was a rim to protect the face from downward slashes from an enemy, a large, fan-like neck protector at the back, cheek guards, and holes for the ears so that the soldier could hear what was going on.

Centurion’s helmet with horizontal crest

Helmet crests were used to denote rank as well. For instance, a centurion would be known by the horizontal, horse-hair crest on his helmet where an optio (one step down from a centurion) had a crest going from front to back with feathers on either side of the helmet. A legate or other commanding officer might add a flourish with a very large horse-hair crest and highly ornamented cheek pieces to denote their own rank and wealth. Later on, parade helmets for cavalry prefects and other auxiliary officers included face masks, giving them an otherworldly look.

Auxiliary cavalry helmet

There you have it, a quick look at the clothing and armour of the Roman army. Not much to it, but, it was highly effective and utilitarian and certainly gave the soldiers of Rome an edge when combined with their weapons.

Whether or not the armour provides enough protection against Rome’s enemies in The Carpathian Interlude…well…that is another thing entirely.

Tune in next week for Part IV of The World of the Carpathian Interlude when we’ll be looking at the historical event this series focusses on – The Varus Disaster.

Thank you for reading.

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Writing Ancient Religion

Mithras

Why is it that a lot of writers steer clear of ancient religious practices in fiction?

Is it because it’s awkward and clashes with their modern beliefs, religious or otherwise? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t feel comfortable writing about something so strange, practices they really know very little about?

There is a lot of good fiction set in the ancient world and I’m always trying to find new novels to entertain and transport myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the religious practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, they are often (not always) portrayed as half-hearted, greeted with a good measure of pessimism. It might be a passing nod to a statue of a particular god or goddess, or a comment by the protagonist that he or she was making an offering even though they didn’t think it would do any good.

There is often an undercurrent of non-belief, a lack of mystery.

A relief of Demeter at the Elefsina site museum

Now, I’m not full of religious fervour myself; it’s difficult for anyone who has studied history in depth to be so. However, I see the value of it and respect its meaning for people across the ages. Religion is not necessarily at the forefront of our thoughts in modern, western society, but, in the ancient and medieval worlds, faith was often foremost in people’s thoughts.

It’s easy, blinded by hindsight, to dismiss ancient beliefs in the gods and goddesses of our ancestors.

As a writer, why would I want to dismiss something that is so important to the period in which my novels take place, something so important to the thoughts and motives of my characters?

The Door to Hades – part of the sanctuary of Elefsis, where the Elefsinian Mysteries were carried out

People in ancient Greece and Rome (for example) believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed every aspect of life. From the emotions one felt or the lighting of a family hearth fire, to the start of a business venture or a soldier’s march to battle, most people held their gods and goddesses close. Indeed, there was a god or goddess with accompanying rituals for almost everything.

Religion enriches the ancient world in historical fiction and sets it apart from today, transports the reader to a world that is foreign and exotic. And the beauty is that there is so much mystery, so little known, that the writer can spread his or her creative wings.

Mars – Roman God of War

Of course, it’s always important to do as much research as possible – if the primary texts don’t tell you much, then look to the paintings on ceramics, wall frescoes, statues and other carvings. If you can get to the actual sanctuaries of the ancient world, even better, for they are places where even the most sceptical person can feel that there is (or was) indeed something different going on.

When I write, I try to do something different by having my main characters in close touch with the gods of their ancestors. Since it is historical fantasy, I can get that much more creative in having characters interact with the gods who have a clear role to play and are characters themselves.

The beautiful thing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome is that they are almost human, prone to the same emotions, the same prejudices, that we are. From a certain point of view, they’re more accessible.

The Pythia

Despite this however, their worship, be it Apollo, Venus, Magna Mater, Isis, Jupiter, Mithras or any other, is still shrouded in mystery, clouded by the passage of time. Thousands and thousands of ancient Greeks and Romans flocked to Elefsis to take part in the mysteries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, but little is known because devotees were sworn to secrecy. Oaths then were ‘water-tight’ as the saying went. Also, at one point, most of the Roman army worshiped Mithras, the Persian Lord of Light and Truth. Do we know much about Mithraism? Some, but there is still much that is not known and perhaps never will be.

In one of my books some of the characters pay a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was still revered in the Roman Empire. Today, if you watch a documentary on Delphi, you will hear about how the oracle was used by politicians to deliver fabricated answers to those seeking the god’s advice. It is true that politics and religion in the ancient and medieval worlds were frequent bedfellows, but one can not dismiss the power of belief and inspiration. If the Athenians had not received the famous answer from the Delphic Oracle about being saved by Athens’ ‘wooden walls’, then they might not have had such a crushing naval victory over the Persians at Salamis.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

There is a lot of room for debate on this topic and many, I suspect, will feel strongly for or against the exploration of ancient religion in fiction. If we feel inclined to dismiss ancient beliefs, to have our characters belittle them, to explain them away, we must ask ourselves why.

Do we dismiss ancient beliefs because we think they are silly, quaint, barbaric or false? Or do we stay away from them because we just don’t understand? Taking an interest in them, giving them some space on our blank pages, doesn’t mean we dismiss our own beliefs, it just means that we are open-minded and interested in accurately portraying the world about which we are writing.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo himself pouring a libation

I like my fiction to be vast and multi-hued. Like the Roman Empire, all gods and goddesses are welcome to be a part of the whole and it is my hope that, being inclusive, my own stories will be more interesting, more true to life, more mysterious.

I suppose, at the end of the day, we each have to decide whether to take that leap of faith.

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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