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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Oh, Picts!

We’re heading into the wilds of Caledonia in this week’s post.

I wanted to discuss a topic that is often neglected although it is very interesting: the Picts and Pictish art.

As I’ve been packing for a move, I discovered some of my old photos from my days in St. Andrews, Scotland. I came across a packet of prints from an outing with some of my MLitt colleagues to visit Pictish sites in Angus and Perthshire.

The main attraction for us was the wide array of ornate carvings on several Pictish gravestones, most of which are maintained by Historic Environment Scotland at the Meigle Museum which is itself an old school house on the A94 Coupar Angus to Forfar road (for those of you who are interested in visiting). This little museum is a true gem and well worth a visit.

Before looking at the carvings however, I suppose I should answer one simple (or not so simple) question. Who were the Picts?

In brief, they are the direct descendants of the Caledonii, the blanket name given to those tribes who lived in the lands north of the Firth of Forth.

We hear about the latter in relation to the Roman invasion of what is now Scotland by Agricola in AD 79. The action-packed movie Centurion, with Michael Fassbender, which came out in 2010, deals with Agricola’s operations north of the Firth of Forth and the presumed disappearance of the Ninth Legion. In the film, the Caledonii/Picti are portrayed as a society run by a warrior elite, the members of which paint themselves with blue woad. The film is very entertaining, if not violent, but the best thing is that it was filmed where much of the history presumably took place. It’s worth a gander for that, if anything.

But were the Picts simply a mass of blue barbarians as they’re so often portrayed? Likely not.

The Dunnichen Stone with typical Pictish symbols

Contrary to the usual portrayal, the Picts were not simply one enormous group living and fighting north of the Antonine Wall. They were indigenous Celts and the term ‘Picti’, like ‘Caledonii’ or ‘Maeatae’ is more of a blanket term that included approximately twelve Celtic tribes north of the Forth and Clyde rivers. These were recorded by the Roman geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Because of the military threat posed by Imperial Rome, the Celts in the area amalgamated into two larger groups. The Caledonii and the Maeatae and, in turn, came to be later referred to as ‘Picti’.

The tribal federation survived the various Roman incursions (the last one being the Severan invasion of Scotland in the early 3rd century – the setting for Warriors of Epona). As a result the Picts were able to develop mechanisms of kingship and by the 6th century there was a Pictish kingdom.

Meigle Museum – colleagues chatting with the curator

In Pictish art, there are certain recurrent symbols such as those found on the Aberlemno stone including the ‘serpent’, the ‘double-disc’, the ‘crescent’ and the ‘Z-rod’. When I visited the Meigle museum I was struck immediately by the amount of Christian imagery, having had in my mind typical images of paganism when it came to the Picts. The presence of crosses and other Christian images is due to the conversion of the Picts to Christianity after the Irish abbot of Iona, St. Columba, ventured into ‘Pictland’ in AD 565. Columba met the Pictish king, Bridei son of Maelchon in a fortress near the River Ness and thus began the conversion of the Picts, a process that was complete by about AD 700.

Artist impression of St. Columba converting the Picts

The Pictish symbol stones are one of the most important sources for information about the Picts, and the symbols, common from one end of Scotland to the other, were widely understood by all the tribes. Now, however, we know very little of their actual meaning except that they functioned as memorial stones or territorial boundary markers.

The church yard at Meigle contained a large number of Pictish stones, implying that Meigle was itself a very important centre of burial for the Pictish church and under the patronage of the kings of the Picts. Eventually however, Pictish rule, which had survived the onslaught of Rome in Late Antiquity, was taken over by the Gaelic-speaking settlers of Dalriadia (or ‘Dal Riata’ – modern Argyll) which led to the reign of the Scots King, Kenneth mac Alpin and his subsequent dynasty.

The ‘Vanora Stone’ – Cross-slab no.1 The Death of Queen Vanora

Before we bid farewell to the Picts however, there is an interesting Arthurian connection with Meigle and one of the Pictish stones (cross-slab no.1).

On entering the graveyard at Meigle, there is a grassy mound known as Vanora’s Grave. Local tradition has it that Vanora was actually Queen Guinevere, the wife of Arthur. Vanora was abducted by the Pictish king, Mordred, and held captive near Meigle. When she was returned to her husband after this forced infidelity, she was sentenced to death by being torn apart by wild beasts, hence the scene of Vanora’s death on the back of cross-slab no.1. Her remains were buried at Meigle.

Tradition also says that Vanora (and Guinevere for that matter) was barren and it is believed that any young woman who walks over her grave risks becoming barren herself. True or not, this is yet another interesting anecdote of history and legend.

Vanora’s Grave

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Once more, if you ever get the chance to visit Meigle’s museum and some of the stones in the surrounding area, it’s well worth it.

If Picts are your thing, then you may also wish to take a look at the map and pamphlet of Pictish sites released by the Angus Council by CLICKING HERE.

Thank you for reading!

One of the Aberlemno stones

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Gaius Asinius Pollio and the first Public Library in Ancient Rome

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

The Forum Romanum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

muses of Sicily, essay we now

a somewhat loftier task! Not all men love

coppice or lowly tamarisk: sing we woods,

woods worthy of a Consul let them be.

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung

has come and gone, and the majestic roll

of circling centuries begins anew:

justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

with a new breed of men sent down from heaven.

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

the iron shall cease, the golden race arise,

befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own

Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,

this glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,

and the months enter on their mighty march.

Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain

of our old wickedness, once done away,

shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.

He shall receive the life of gods, and see

heroes with gods commingling, and himself

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

reign o’er a world at peace.

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

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

The Second Triumvirate – Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus

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

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

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

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

The broils that from Metellus date,

The secret springs, the dark intrigues,

The freaks of Fortune, and the great

Confederate in disastrous leagues,

And arms with uncleansed slaughter red,

A work of danger and distrust,

You treat, as one on fire should tread

Scarce hid by treacherous ashen crust.

Let Tragedy’s stern muse be mute

Awhile; and when your order’d page

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

Again shall mount the Attic stage,

Pollio, the pale defendant’s shield,

In deep debate the senate’s stay,

The hero of Dalmatic field

By Triumph crown’d with deathless bay.

E’en now with trumpet’s threatening blare

You thrill our ears; the clarion brays;

The lightnings of the armour scare

The steed, and daunt the rider’s gaze.

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

A Roman Triumph

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

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

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

The poet, Virgil

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

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

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

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

Artist impression of an ancient library

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

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

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

Enter Gaius Asinius Pollio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Farnese Bull

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

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

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

Hadrian’s Library Athens

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

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

Thank you for reading.

Marrucinus Asinius, your left hand

you use not beautifully: in joke and in wine

you lift the napkins of the more careless people.

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

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

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

who wants to change your thefts

even for a talent—for he is a boy

stuffed of charm and wit.

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

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

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Ancient Everyday – Telling Time in the Roman World

Hi everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s have a look…

Sunrise over Roman Forum

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

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

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

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

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

Roman dinner party

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solarium Augusti on the Campus Martius

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

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

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

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

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

The obelisk that was the gnomon of Augustus’ solarium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tower of the Winds, Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

So, there you have it.

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

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

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

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

Ancient Everyday will be back!

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Ancient Everyday – The Days and the Weeks in Ancient Rome

Salve readers!

We’re back in the Roman world for the third part in this mini Ancient Everyday blog series about, you guessed it: Time.

In the last two posts, we looked at how Romans tracked the years, as well as the evolution of the calendar in ancient Rome.

Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the Roman days and weeks which, in addition to many things, are one of their legacies to us.

Portion of a Roman Calendar showing the Kalends, Nones, Ides, and some festivals etc.

The Roman days of the month were not numbered serially as they are today. They were numbered in relation to three specifically named days. It was from these three specific days that the other dates were counted retrospectively.

So, what were these special days, you might ask? They were the:

Kalendae

(the Kalends – first day of the month, and origin of our word ‘calendar’)

Nonae

(the Nones – the ninth day before the Ides, or the fifth day of the month; seventh in a 31-day month; originally, the Nonae corresponded with the first quarter moon of the lunar month)

and

Idus

(the Ides – the thirteenth day; or the fifteenth day in a 31-day month; the Ides originally corresponded with the full moon of the lunar month)

The Ides of March – the date of Caesar’s assassination

So, those are the ‘special’ days in the Roman month. But how did they count the rest?

This is where it gets complicated…

The day was numbered or named by its place so many days before (ante diem) the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides of the month.

But! The day immediately before one of the three named days was called pridie.

If you ever try to read Roman dates, you will also notice that they are always abbreviated.

Fragment of the Fasti Praenestini for the month of Aprilis (Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Rome, the official Calendar was drawn up by the pontiffs (priests) who ensured the inclusion of the dates for religious festivals – and in ancient Rome, there were many of those! These festivals would be indicated by a letter or abbreviation representing a particular celebration beside the date.

So, those are the days of the Roman calendar, but what of the weeks? Did they have the exact same weekdays that we do? Or rather, do we have the same ones as the Romans?

Not exactly.

A Roman market day

Early on, the Roman week was eight days long. The eighth day was a market day, or nundinae.

The market day was a day of rest from agricultural labour, a time to take the produce or livestock to market.

To confuse things a little more, the period of time between market days was known as a nundinum.

The eight-day week did not last however.

The seven day period that we are familiar with was used at first in the East, especially by Hellenistic astrologers.

In Rome, the earliest reference to a seven day week is supposedly from the time of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14). This was eventually officially adopted by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321.

Emperor Augusts

Finally, what were the names of the days of the week in ancient Rome?

Well, they were named after the gods and planets, and to this day the names used in the various Romance Languages preserve the Roman tradition. Beginning with Monday, they are:

Dies Lunae (the day of the Moon)

Dies Martis (the day of Mars)

Dies Mercurii (the day of Mercury)

Dies Jovis (the day of Jupiter)

Dies Veneris (the day of Venus)

Dies Saturni (the day of Saturn)

Dies Solis (the day of the Sun)

There you have it, the Roman days and weeks!

The legacy of the Romans never ceases to amaze me.

Next week is the fourth and final part of this Ancient Everyday blog series in which we will be looking at how the Romans told the time of day.

Until then, thank you for reading!

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Ancient Everyday – The Calendar in Ancient Rome

Salve!

Welcome to the second part in this mini, Ancient Everyday blog series about Time in the Roman world.

Last week we took a brief look at how the Romans tracked and organized the years. If you missed it, you can read it by CLICKING HERE.

This week, we’re going to take a look at what is perhaps one of their greatest legacies – the Calendar.

Now, the Romans did indeed do a lot for us – you can check out this wonderful series hosted by Adam Hart-Davis to learn what the Romans did for us – and it goes without saying that we take a lot of it for granted today.

The calendar ranks right up there, and even though we take time for granted, it is actually something that we are constantly aware of. Quite the conundrum, if you ask me!

Roman mosaic representation of the months from North Africa

The word ‘calendar’, as well as the names of the months we still use today are of Roman origin.

However, the calendar went through some reform before it got to the version we are now familiar with.

The original Roman calendar, known as the ‘Calendar of Romulus’, was an agricultural, 10-month year. There were ten irregular months with a total of 304 days from March to December.

The names of these months originated then, and the gap of missing months accounts for the period of time in which no agricultural work was carried out. This was also a lunar cycle, so there was a degree of ‘seasonal drift’ compared to the solar cycle.

Working the fields

It is believed that the change to a 12-month calendar occurred in the sixth century B.C.

In the year 153 B.C., January was made the first month of the year, named after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings.

But until Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, the Roman year was 355 days long, divided into 12 months. Four of these had 31 days (March, May, July, and October), seven months had 29 days, and February had 28 days.

Here are the names of the months on the Roman calendar:

Ianuarius (the month of ‘Janus’)

Februarius (the month of ‘Februa’, purgings or purifications)

Martius (the month of ‘Mars’)

Aprilis (uncertain meaning)

Maius (uncertain meaning)

Iunius (the month of ‘Juno’)

Quinctilis (the ‘fifth’ month – renamed ‘Iulius’ in 44 B.C. after Julius Caesar)

Sextilis (the ‘sixth’ month – renamed ‘Augustus’ in 8 B.C. after Emperor Augustus)

September (the ‘seventh’ month)

October (the ‘eighth’ month)

November (the ‘ninth’ month)

December (the ‘tenth’ month)

Notice how some of these names are a legacy of the 10-month agricultural Roman calendar year?

A reproduction of the Fasti Antiates Maiores (c. 60 B.C.) – Wikimedia Commons

There is apparently some evidence for ‘intercalation’, that is, the addition of days to adjust the year. This included the addition of 22-23 days every other year in February.

The act of intercalation was the domain of the pontiffs of Rome, but it was not accurate, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year that was in use.

Caesar extended the year 46 B.C. to 445 days to remove the discrepancy.

So, from January 1st, 45 B.C. he made the year 365 days long with the months at their current numbers. Quite the legacy, no? He also introduced the leap year.

Thus, was the Julian Calendar born.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Today, the most widely used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is basically the same as the Julian Calendar except for some small changes.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from the calendar year to adjust the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year. He also ordered that 3 days be omitted in leap years every 400 years.

So there you have it! A very brief look at the evolution of the calendar from ancient Rome to the one we use today.

Next week, in Part III of this series, we’ll be looking at the days and weeks in the Roman world.

Thank you for reading!

A Roman Calendar – this one showing the months of Iulius and Augustus

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Ancient Everyday – Tracking the Years in Ancient Rome

Salve!

This week on Writing the Past, we’re going back in time from the Middle Ages to ancient Rome once more.

I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Ancient Everyday blogs about something that concerned our ancient ancestors as well as ourselves. It’s something that, across the ages, we all wish we had more of: Time.

This isn’t going to be a philosophical series of posts on time, but rather a look at the practicalities of time and how ancient Romans organized it.

Saturn, among other things, the Roman God of Time

In this first post, we’re going to look at how years were counted and tracked in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Today, dating is something we take rather for granted, but at times during the Roman era, there was a lot of thought put into this and the development of a system around it.

Early in the Roman Republic, the years were usually dated by the names of the Roman Consuls, the highest rank for an elected Roman official, and the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorem, the tried and true path of public offices for anyone seeking political success.

Two consuls served at once and, conveniently, they served for just one year, so that could be readily used as a method of dating. The lists of consuls were called fasti, and they exist from about the year 509 B.C.

Fragment of the list of the Roman consuls known as the “Fasti Colotiani” (Museo della civiltà romana)

This practice of dating using the names of Roman Consuls stopped in about A.D. 537 when Emperor Justinian I (the ‘Great’) switched to the regnal years of the emperors.

Prior to that, there were other ways in which the years were tracked and counted.

Sometimes years were dated from the founding of the city of Rome – ab urbe condita was the wording used. Rome is generally thought to have been founded in the year 753 B.C., so the years would be counted from that point on.

I wonder how widespread this dating was, compared with the use of the fasti. There were even more dating systems across the Empire, systems which had a local flavour; say, for instance, years counted from a particularly big event in the history of a certain place etc.

Emperor Justinian I ‘the Great’

From the late 3rd century A.D., the practice of counting years by indiction, or indictio, was also used. This was the announcement of the delivery of food and other goods to the government. So, basically, indictio referred to the tax assessment which took place, at first, in five-year cycles, but in a fifteen-year cycle from about A.D. 312.

Indictio was also often used to date the fiscal years in the Empire which tended to begin on the first of September.

It’s thought that the general population may have tended to know the indictio years better than the consular years. This isn’t surprising as we’re all aware of the dates when the government slashes at our purse strings!

What is thought to be a relief showing Roman tax collectors

The Christian reckoning of years using B.C. and A.D. (for Anno Domini – ‘Year of the Lord’) in the Julian and Gregorian calendars was introduced in the mid-sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. In this reckoning, there is no year ‘0’, but rather 1 B.C. is immediately followed by A.D. 1. Nowadays, there is a movement toward using B.C.E (Before Common/Current Era) and C.E. (Common/Current Era).

Whichever method of dating you prefer today, it seems that the Romans had a variety of methods to choose from.

Were they as obsessed with time as we are today? I suspect not. But it was something they grappled with on certain levels.

Either way, ancient dates are likely less reliable before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 45 B.C.

I suppose we should thank the gods for circa, that is, ‘approximately’!

Thank you for reading!

If you are curious and want to check out a list of the consuls of Rome, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.

Come back next week for the next Ancient Everyday in this series on Time in which we’ll be looking at the Roman calendar and months.

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Caligula – From Little Boots to Maniacal Monster

Caligula…

The name conjures images, doesn’t it? Oh yes – more so than Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the full name of the Roman emperor we know as Caligula.

Caligula definitely has more power, largely due to the stories behind the name, stories of extreme debauchery, sadism, insanity and horror.

John Hurt as Caligula in I Claudius

You might envisage John Hurt in the television drama of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, his mouth bloody after eating the baby which he had put in his sister’s belly, believing himself to be the god, Jove.

Or, perhaps more disturbingly, the image of Malcolm McDowell cavorts into your thoughts amid flashes of naked bodies and the bloody bits and pieces of Caligula’s victims in the infamous, star-clad film originally scripted by Gore Vidal, Caligula.

These are the images that we have of Caligula today. They’re built on ancient sources and popular culture that described the reign of this most disturbing of Roman emperors.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula

But is the portrayal of Caligula as an insane, perverted, and brutal emperor accurate? Is it fair?

Caligula had an interesting life as a boy. He was with his father, the Roman hero Germanicus, and the army along the northern frontier camps. Among the men of the Legions, it’s said, he got his nickname. ‘Caligula’ is a diminutive version of the word for military, hobnailed boots called caligae. He became ‘Little Boots’ because of the smaller pair of caligae he wore around the camp.

Was Caligula a cute little boy? Odd to think after all the rumours. The troops seemed to have adopted him.

His life took a turn for the worst though, leaving him one of the sole survivors of his family.

The Death of Germanicus (Nicholas Poussin, 1627)

There were rumours that Tiberius or Livia, Augustus’ empress, may have been responsible, more or less, for killing Caligula’s family, including his hero father, Germanicus. However, most now seem to agree that this was unlikely, that it was due to natural causes in the East. Another rumour was that Germanicus was poisoned by Gnaeus Piso, who was put on trial for it.

Either way, ‘Little Boots’ ended up spending a lot of time with his great uncle, Tiberius, on the island of Capri. This island is where the Emperor retreated in his advanced years, and it’s rumoured that much depravity took place there, and that Caligula learned that behaviour.

Roman Caligae

Oddly enough, the first six months of Caligula’s reign as emperor were said to be good and moderate. He fell seriously ill around that time, however, and afterward the chroniclers speak of a young man who believed himself divine, and who became the most cruel, extravagant and perverse of tyrants. Did the illness alter his mind in some way? We may never know.

I’m not an expert on the reign of Caligula and, in fact, it seems that few people are.

Caligula

Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor is one of the most poorly documented in Roman history.

Since that is the case, it seems understandable that countless generations would cling to the tales told by Suetonius so many years after Caligula’s death: that he had sex with his sister on a regular basis, that he made his horse a consul, and that he forced senators’ wives to have sex.

If you can make it up, it probably fits the historical and pop-culture bill when it comes to Caligula.

The other side of the argument says that all of the salacious tales were invented, pure fabrications created by Caligula’s, and the Julio-Claudian’s, enemies.

Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri, where Caligula spent time with his uncle, Tiberius

Perhaps. But must not there be some basis in fact?

Certainly, the senatorial and Praetorian conspirators behind the assassination of Caligula (he was the first emperor to be assassinated) needed to justify their actions.

Some believe that Caligula had tried very hard to increase the power of the Emperor and further minimize the Senate. This would make him a lot of enemies – enemies who would write the history of his reign long after his death.

There is real power in writing after the fact – which is why we must approach any source, modern or historical, with a degree of caution.

Even our views of the most famous and popular (even well-documented) figures of history can be flawed. History is written by the victors, or at the least by the survivors. Everyone, especially emperors, had enemies, even if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rulers.

Reconstruction of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on Island of Capri (Weichardt, 1900)

Popular media, such as film and fiction, can reveal to us certain aspects of historical people, but we must take everything with a grain of salt. We have to accept that what we are reading or seeing might be based on subjective sources that had a particular goal in mind.

However, learning how a generation of people viewed a particular person (even though the stories may not be true) can also be useful. Their hatred, love or fear etc. must have come from somewhere!

Was Caligula as mad as they say or as we believe? Perhaps.

His depravity has made some good storytelling over the centuries. I suspect that some of it is true. But, like all good stories, things have been elaborated on for sheer entertainment value, especially when the man himself was safely dead.

I highly recommend Robert Graves’ I Claudius if you have not already read it. It’s a modern classic, as is its television dramatization starring John Hurt and Derek Jacobi. It’s a wonderful piece of fiction, if not entirely accurate.

On the other hand, if you have the stomach and libido for it, the film version of Caligula is a terror-filled, pornographic representation of Caligula that brings all of the most salacious tales of him to life. A warning: this film is not for the faint of heart.

Caligula’s Palace and Bridge, by Turner

But let’s get back to an original source…

We should end with a quote from Suetonius who seems to be one of the main sources of all the tall tales that have been passed down the ages:

…he (Caligula) could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.” (Caius Suetonius Tranquillus; Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

As I said, history is written by the survivors, and as it is, history remembers Caligula as a sadistic, incestuous maniac who thought he was a god, who made his horse a senator, cared nothing for the power of the senate, and went to war against the god Neptune. The damning list goes on and on…

On the other hand, he undertook several public building projects and expanded the Empire’s borders in North Africa.

But, in the end, Caligula was murdered by the Praetorians who immediately made Claudius the next emperor.

Will we ever know the true nature of Caligula?

Probably not, but this certainly is an instance in which the history, true or not, is highly entertaining and shocking.

Thank you for reading.

Emperor Claudius – (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871) – with the murdered Emperor Caligula on the floor at Claudius’ feet

What are your thoughts on Emperor Caligula? Was he as vile as portrayed? Or was he the victim of malicious gossip?

For those of you who want to read a bit more, check out this interesting article on the BBC website by CLICKING HERE.

 

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