Tag Archives: Rome

How our discovery of Julius Caesar’s first landing point in Britain could change history



File 20171129 29123 11p3qnw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Andrew Fitzpatrick, University of Leicester

During the nine-year-long Battle for Gaul, Julius Caesar fought his way across northwest Europe. He invaded Britain twice; in 55BC, and again in 54BC. But while archaeologists have found evidence of the war in France, there has been very little discovered in Britain – until now.

At a site called Ebbsfleet, in northeast Kent, my colleagues from the University of Leicester and I finally uncovered the site where Julius Caesar’s fleet landed in 54BC. A series of surveys and excavations, spanning from 2015 to 2017, revealed a large enclosure, defended by a ditch five metres wide and two metres deep.

What a find: pilum tip from Ebbsfleet.
University of Leicester, Author provided

We dated the ditch all the way back to the first century BC, by examining the pottery and using radiocarbon dating techniques.

At the bottom of the ditch, we found the tip of an iron weapon, which was later identified as a Roman spear, or “pilum”. Similar weapons were discovered at the site of Alésia in France, where the decisive encounter in the Battle for Gaul took place. What’s more, the defensive ditches at Alésia are the same size and shape as those we discovered at Ebbsfleet.

In Caesar’s own words

Our dig was situated next to Pegwell Bay, a large, sandy beach with chalk cliffs at its northern end. This striking landscape also helps to confirm that we really have found the location of Caesar’s base. Most of what is known about Caesar’s voyage comes from his own written accounts, based on his annual reports to the Roman senate.

When the Roman fleet set sail from France, they intended to use the wind to help them cross the Channel to find a large, safe place to lay anchor and prepare for battle. But the wind dropped, and the fleet was carried too far northeast by the tide.

We came, we saw, we excavated.
University of Leicester., Author provided

At sunrise, Caesar saw Britain “left afar on the port side”. Only high land would have been visible from a small ship far out at sea. And the only such land in northeast Kent are the cliffs near Ebbsfleet. Caesar also describes how he left the ships riding at anchor next to a “sandy, open shore” – a perfect description of Pegwell Bay.

Given Caesar’s own words seem so clear, it’s surprising that Pegwell Bay has never been considered as a possible landing site before. Instead, Caesar was long thought to have landed at Walmer, 15 kilometres to the south. One reason might be that, until the Middle Ages, Thanet was an island.

The Isle of Thanet was separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. But no one knows how big the channel was 2,000 years ago; it could be that whatever disadvantages it presented were offset by the presence of a large and safe beach, where 800 ships could land and disembark 20,000 men and 2,000 horses in one day.

Peace by force

Despite the imposing size of Caesar’s fleet, it was long thought that his landing had little lasting impact on Britain. Caesar himself returned to France immediately after the two campaigns, without leaving a garrison. Yet the discovery of the landing site gives us cause to question this assumption.

Making history at Ebbsfleet.
Andrew Fitzpatrick/University of Leicester, Author provided

Historical sources, royal burials and ancient coins indicate that from about 20BC, the kings of southeast England had strong links to Rome. But historians have found it hard to explain how these alliances came into existence. The suggestion that they sprung from diplomatic ties forged by the emperor Augustus at that time has never been convincing.

But Caesar tells us that he reached a peace accord with the Britons in 54BC, even taking hostages from the ruling families to ensure the agreement was respected. Perhaps the alliances which came to light in the 20s BC were originally established by Caesar, a generation before emperor Augustus asserted his authority over the Roman Empire.

The close ties between Rome and the kings of southeast England assured emperor Claudius of a relatively easy military victory, when he first set out to conquer England in 43 AD. So it seems Caesar’s earlier conquest could have laid the foundations for the Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted more than 300 years.

The ConversationFor Caesar, the consequences of his invasions were clear. In his day, Britain lay beyond the known world. By crossing the ocean and conquering Britain, Caesar caused a sensation in his homeland. He was awarded the longest public thanksgiving in Rome, winning great acclaim and glory in the process. Mission accomplished.

Andrew Fitzpatrick, Research Associate, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern-day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary video-game culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A video-game spin-off from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, executions of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, this analogy causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works, which deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the executions of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The executions of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seemed far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mythbusting Ancient Rome — did all roads actually lead there?



File 20170803 5637 1ry5c7q
The Peutinger Table. Reproduction by Conradi Millieri – Ulrich Harsch Bibliotheca Augustana.
Wikimedia Commons

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, The University of Queensland

We all know the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?

The power of pavement

There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 B.C, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and the most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.

And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.

In 20 B.C., the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.

The Golden Milestone.
Wikimedia Commons

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.

The centre of the world

Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the centre of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):

There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.

Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.

Roman Milestones in the Bologna Archaeological Museum.
C Davenport

The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century B.C., but from the first century A.D., emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.

More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.

Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances (Bronwyn Bishop would not have fared well in the Roman empire).

The surviving part of the Milion in Constantinople.
C. Davenport

The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century A.D., he built an arch called the Milion at its centre, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.

Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century A.D., even helpfully includes shortcuts for travellers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.

The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very centre of the known world.

Proverbial roads

Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:

A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.

The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):

right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.

The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.

In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.

A return to Rome

When the proverb started to become popular in 19th-century newspapers and magazines, however, the spectre of the city returned. Rome as the Eternal City struck a chord with this audience, which was reading and hearing about the exciting excavations taking place in Italy and Europe. Accordingly, the phrase took back a semblance of its original sense – Rome as the imperial metropolis – while retaining its proverbial import.

The idea of Rome as The Eternal City has long struck a chord.
Tony Gentile/AAP

For example, in July 1871, the Daily News’s Special Correspondent for the Times in India watched Victor Emmanuel II enter Rome in triumph as the King of (United) Italy:

“All roads,” says the old proverb, “lead to Rome,” and the proverb rose up with a strange force to my mind to-day … By what various paths has he at length reached the Quirinal [Hill].

Just as the King took various roads into the city, so his route to monarchy had been arduous and chequered. The Special Correspondent, on seeing the entrance of Emmanuel II, uses Rome as both an imperial city and an end point for achievement – the King both literally enters the city and takes a number of “roads” to achieve monarchical power. The double use of the proverb is perfect and irresistible.

For other commentators, Rome remained the spiritual centre of the western world. Katherine Walker, writing for Harper’s Magazine in 1865, described her journey from Livorno to Rome with a German Roman Catholic priest.

“We are inclined to think of the old proverb true that ‘All roads lead to Rome’,” she wrote. While the priest delighted in the city as the home of Pope Pius IX, Walker herself objected that her priestly guide could only see the Pantheon as the church Santa Maria ad Martyres, and not as Agrippa’s temple to the pagan gods.

The Pantheon was Agrippa’s temple to the pagan gods.
Stefano Rellandini/AAP

While both ancient and modern Italian roads all lead to Rome, to Walker the city itself had drastically mutated from the home of Augustus and Agrippa to that of Catholicism and the Pope. She finds this disappointing.

The idea of Rome

The expression “all roads lead to Rome” is a correct reflection of both the sophisticated Roman road network and its visualisation in Roman monuments and documents.

Later, however, the way in which Romans boasted of the centrality of their metropolis transformed into a proverb that had nothing necessarily to do with real roads or, for a time, the real Rome. In the 19th century, travellers revived the phrase as a way of melding the ancient past with their modern viewing experiences.

Why is this conception of Roman power accurate, when compared with other myths in this series? We assume that Romans were gluttonous or their emperors were crazy because such myths feed into our prejudices, which are then reinforced by popular culture.

The ConversationRoads are a much more mundane aspect of Roman life compared to Nero’s alleged excesses, which makes them a less obvious way to think about imperial power. But when we hear the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”, we do not think of paving stones, but of the larger Roman road network – with Rome, its characters, and its history at the centre.

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Roman History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary videogame culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A videogame spinoff from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works that deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the execution of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The execution of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seem far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse



Image 20170406 16603 clklxu
An equestrian statue of a Julio-Claudian prince, originally identified as Caligula.
©Trustees of the British Museum: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Shushma Malik, The University of Queensland and Caillan Davenport, The University of Queensland

When we think of the emperor Caligula, it is John Hurt’s wonderfully maniacal performance in the BBC TV series I, Claudius that usually comes to mind. Hurt dances in a gold bikini, sports a beard soaked with the blood of his progeny, and parades his favourite horse, clad in the toga of a consul, in front of shocked onlookers. He is the very model of a mad Roman emperor. The Conversation

The story that Caligula made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a consul has long tickled our imaginations. The internet is awash with articles and blogs chewing over whether it is really true. The horse has even made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: its definition for the name “Incitatus” reads “the name of Caligula’s horse, made a consul by the emperor”. Perhaps the greatest testament to Incitatus’ immortality, however, is the fact that he has his own Wikipedia page.

While the ancient evidence mentions a plan for making Incitatus consul, the repeated retelling of the story over centuries (in particular, as a snide way to suggest that a politician might be out of his or her depth) means we often forget that Caligula’s horse never actually sat in the senate at all.

The emperor’s favourite ass

The office of consul was the highest magistracy in the Roman Republic. Under the empire, the position still existed, though it was primarily an honorific office, which emperors used to reward loyal senators. On the subject of Caligula’s horse, the ancient sources are unambiguous in their testimony: he was not made a consul.

The biographer Suetonius does, however, report that the emperor lavished gifts upon Incitatus, equipping him with a marble stall, ivory manger, purple blankets, luxurious furniture, and his own slaves. At the climax of this passage, Suetonius writes:

…it is also reported that he designated [Incitatus] to the consulship.

Another ancient source, the historian Cassius Dio, gives a slightly different version:

…and he even promised to designate [Incitatus] consul. And he would most certainly have done this, if he had lived longer.

The story therefore probably owes its origin to an off-hand remark made by Caligula that he would make Incitatus a consul (though he never followed through with it).

Why would Caligula say this? One of the most popular theories is that the emperor was criticising the consuls: they were such “asses” that he might as well include his horse in this elite group.

The name of the horse is particularly relevant here. “Incitatus” means “fast-moving”. The historian David Woods has ingeniously suggested that the name was intended to be an insult directed towards one particular consul, Asinius Celer, whose name means “swift ass”. A joke by Caligula the comedian has been interpreted as historical fact.

A party fit for a horse

Caligula was a far cry from his imperial predecessors Augustus and Tiberius. We think of Augustus as the “first emperor” but he positioned himself as a leading Republican politician, not a monarch. His successor, the dour Tiberius, tried to refuse as many monarchical honours as possible.

Caligula, on the other hand, was a boisterous young man in his mid-twenties. He was keen to experiment with the opportunities his position allowed him, adopting ceremonies and dress that were more in keeping with eastern kings. In short, Caligula wanted to be – and be seen to be – a monarch.

The youth of Rome loved their horse-racing. The attention Caligula lavished on Incitatus went above and beyond that shown to prize steeds by other young aristocrats. He was the emperor, so bigger and better was the name of the game. Caligula did hold parties for his friends in the horse’s grand stables, where Incitatus himself was the “host”. But all the bling was really for Caligula and his mates, so they could live it up in style – it was not for the horse.

Caligula’s regal pretensions did not sit well with Roman aristocrats, who wanted their emperors to respect them and Republican institutions such as the consulship. We can easily imagine Caligula and his drinking buddies lampooning the stuck-up consuls as “asses”, and the emperor declaring that Incitatus would soon be joining their ranks!

The neighs have it

Caligula’s Horse (Dali’s Horses), Salvador Dali, 1971.
http://www.wikiart.org. Fair Use Licence.

The story of Caligula and Incitatus proved so irresistible as a paradigm of political abuse that it didn’t seem to matter that the horse never donned the consular toga. In particular, commentators through the centuries have had a great deal of fun in comparing contemporary politicians to the emperor’s favourite horse.

One of the cleverer examples of this is a piece from the London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer, printed on 6 February 1742. In a column entitled Common Sense, the subject for discussion is “Caligula’s Prime Minister”. The Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time was Robert Walpole, who, on 28 January 1742, had lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament. The author of this satire immediately lays his cards on the table, stating that Caligula was a good and able emperor who chose the best candidate for the job of “Prime Minister”:

What a happiness … must it have been to have liv’d under the auspicious Reign of the Emperor Caligula, who had so great a Regard to Merit wherever he found it, and took such a fatherly Care in providing for the Happiness of his People, that he made his Horse a Minister of the State.

Incitatus comes up trumps compared to Walpole, as the horse demonstrates all the qualities of a good Prime Minister. The real blow, however, is dealt at the end of the piece:

Whoever considers these Things with an unprejudiced Judgement, will upon an impartial Comparison with another whom I have in my Eye, be obliged to own, that the Horse was not only the honestest, but by far the wisest Minister of the two.

Caligula’s horse also appears in more serious contexts, such as a British response to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, entitled the “Rights of Great Britain Asserted against the Claims of America”. The author cites the story of Incitatus’ consulship as one of many examples from ancient Rome where the wrong people are given decision-making power:

The extension of the right of electing Magistrates to the people at large, was the principal cause of the fall of freedom in Old Rome. The prejudices and fears of the rabble were the steps by which ambitious men ascended to a power, which they converted into tyranny over their foolish Constituents…the grandsons of voters who placed Marius, Cinna, and Caesar at the head of the State, were employed by Caligula in raising his horse to the Consulship.

Here the story of Incitatus becomes a parable of what happens when a state abandons its founding principles at the behest of sycophants.

But there is a final twist in this horse’s tale. Cassius Dio states that Caligula made a horse – assumed to be Incitatus – a priest of the emperor’s cult. This has usually been overlooked, perhaps because Dio mentions it in a different section and does not explicitly name Incitatus.

As a result, we have been accustomed to interpreting this story as one about the abuse of political, rather than religious, power. Even though Caligula’s horse never actually got to sit in the ivory chair in the Roman senate (his ivory stable had to suffice), we still like to imagine a time when a politician literally was an ass.

Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland and Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mythbusting Ancient Rome – the truth about the vomitorium


Caillan Davenport, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, The University of Queensland

After gorging on a feast of sausages, blood pudding, young sow’s udder, sea bream, lobster, mullet, Attic honey, and Syrian dates, all washed down with a few glasses Falernian wine, it is little wonder that a Roman diner might begin to feel quite full.

It was once thought that a diner could, at this point in the meal, make a quick visit to the vomitorium – a room adjacent to the dining room replete with a basin and feathers to tickle the throat – in order to make room for the next course.

There is a delightful array of Latin words associated with the act of throwing up, from the verbs vomo (“I vomit”) and vomito (“I keep on vomiting”) to the nouns vomitor (“one who vomits”) and vomitus and vomitio, both of which can either refer to the actual business of chundering or the yucky stuff itself.

The vomitorium is clearly part of this group, but no ancient source actually employs the word to describe a place for post-prandial puking. It first appears in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, written in the 5th century AD. Macrobius uses the plural vomitoria to refer to the passages through which spectators could “spew forth” into their seats at public entertainment venues. Vomitorium/vomitoria are still used today by archaeologists as architectural terms.

This misconception of the vomitorium as a vomiting room is widely acknowledged in popular culture. Our aim is to explore how the myth arose and why it has proved to be so persistent.

A vomitous history

In 1929, Aldous Huxley wrote in his comic novel, Antic Hay:

But Mr Mercaptan was to have no tranquillity this afternoon. The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter, a haggard and dishevelled person…

This passage is commonly cited as the first time vomitorium was misused to mean a room used for vomiting. However, there are references in newspapers and journals that pre-date Huxley, going back to the 19th century. They reflect the confusion about whether the vomitorium was a passageway or a room for emptying one’s stomach.

In an 1871 account of Christmas in England, French journalist and politician Felix Pyat described the holiday meal as “a gross, pagan, monstrous orgie – a Roman feast, in which the vomitorium is not wanting.” By 1871, then, the vomitorium was already misunderstood as a chunder chamber.

In the very same year English writer Augustus Hare published his Walks in Rome, in which he assumed that the chamber adjacent to the dining room in the Flavian Palace on the Palatine was none other than a vomitorium, which he described as “a disgusting memorial of Roman life”.

In these rooms, Hare imagined, Nero poisoned his step-brother Britannicus, the concubine Marcia drugged Commodus, and Pertinax received rumours of revolt. We can almost see the knowing smile of the anonymous critic in an 1888 edition of Saturday Review when he described Hare’s account of the vomitorium as a “delightful blunder”. Roman archaeology, our critic warned, is after all too technical a subject to be dealt with by an amateur.

An illustration in a 1916 edition of The Washington Post got the myth slightly wrong, showing bowls at the meal rather than a separate room.

Not to be left out, the Los Angeles Times ran two articles (in 1927 and 1928) mentioning Roman feasting and the vomitorium, one of which was a precursor to the notable historian Will Durant’s work The Story of Civilization. Here, “graduate Epicureans” avail themselves of the vomitorium to “free themselves for more”. By the time Huxley’s novel was published in 1929, therefore, a visit to the vomitorium was entrenched in the popular imagination as an essential part of any Roman dinner party.

Gluttonous Emperors

Where did the idea of the vomitorium come from? Huxley’s novel alludes to the stories of outrageous gluttony in the pages of Roman courtier Petronius’ Satyricon (written in the 1st century AD). As it happens, Petronius’ novel doesn’t feature the vomiting room, merely an unfortunate description of one character’s laboured bowel movements over dinner. For stories of dinner-time barfing, we have to look elsewhere, to scandalous stories of imperial excess contained in Suetonius’ On the Lives of the Caesars and Cassius Dio’s Roman History.

According to Suetonius, who was secretary of correspondence to the emperor Hadrian, the emperor Claudius always finished his meals excessively bloated with food and wine. He would then lie down so that a feather could be inserted down his throat to make him disgorge the contents of his stomach.

Claudius’ excesses paled in comparison to the emperor Vitellius, who allegedly feasted four times a day, and procured exotic foods from all over the empire to satiate his enormous appetite, including brains of pheasants and flamingo tongues. He is said to have vomited between meals in order to make room for the next banquet. The historian Cassius Dio memorably remarked that Vitellius was “nourished by the mere passage of the food”.

Gold coin of Vitellius.
Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-ND

Suetonius and Cassius Dio included such stories not only to entertain their readers, but also to make a point about the fitness of individuals to rule the Roman empire. Greed and gluttony represented devotion to pleasure and the inability to maintain control over one’s desires. Claudius and Vitellius are both said to have abandoned official duties for the sake of their next feast.

Suetonius claims that Claudius once left the courtroom when he caught a whiff of food cooking in the temple next door and went to join in the banquet. When presiding over sacrificial rituals, Vitellius is said to have gobbled up the sacrificial meat and cakes himself. Both these examples constitute gluttonous derelictions of duties. Vomiting was the ultimate sign of profligacy and wastefulness for an emperor, who was literally chucking up the wealth of his empire.

The morality and reality of food

Romans would have understood the moral messages contained in these anecdotes. A proper Roman man was supposed to be devoted to the gods, his family, and to the state – not to his belly. Excessive consumption of food was a sign of inner moral laxity.

The philosopher Seneca the Younger memorably remarked that if Roman men desired anything more than basic food and drink for sustenance, they were fulfilling not their needs, but their vices. He reserved particular criticism for those who spent their fortunes on exotic dishes:

They vomit so that they can eat, and they eat so that they can vomit. They don’t even consider the dishes which they have assembled from across the earth worthy of digestion.

This statement, as with the stories of Vitellius and Claudius, does not reflect reality for most Romans, least of all suggest that actual rooms were reserved for such decadent practices. It is a moral criticism.

Vomiting was actually more commonplace in the Roman world as a medical treatment. Celsus advised that vomiting should not become a daily practice (for that was a sign of luxury) but that it was acceptable to purge the stomach for health reasons. The adjective vomitorius/a/um was employed to describe emetics into the Victorian period.

Bread seller in Pompeii mural.
via Wikimedia Commons

Most residents of the city of Rome could not be so cavalier about wasting their calories. Their subsistence diets consisted mainly of cereals, legumes, olive oil, and wine, which had to sustain them through their lives of manual labour. The food that Vitellius gobbled up at sacrifices to satiate his enormous appetite would have been gratefully savoured by the people of Rome.

Such foodstuffs were carefully controlled. Even at religious festivals, the best sacrificial meat was reserved for aristocratic participants or sold off, not distributed to the common people. The famous “grain dole” provided to Romans was in fact a privilege confined to a mere 150,000 eligible citizens out of the million plus residents of the city of Rome. Food was a privilege.

Of course, Macrobius’ own use of the term vomitoria was connected to vomiting, conjuring up the image of the amphitheatre spewing out people. The association between an architectural term and lurid stories of vomiting Romans found in ancient texts easily led to the misinterpretation of the vomitorium as a room for throwing up in the 19th-century imagination. Those who dined to excess were regarded as similar to Romans, a people popularly known for their luxury and decadence.

The myth of the vomitorium has therefore been shaped by our fascination with the antics of dissolute emperors and elites who loved a Technicolor yawn between meals. Since antiquity, we have derived pleasure from hearing about and criticising the overindulgent dining habits of others as a sign of their moral laxity.

(Mis)interpreting a suggestive word like vomitorium as a room intrinsically tied to such decadence was a mistake waiting to happen.

The Conversation

Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Mythbusting Ancient Rome – the emperor Nero


Caillan Davenport, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, The University of Queensland

If asked to think of a single individual who epitomises the decadence, destruction and debauchery of Ancient Rome, the name Nero would surely be on many people’s lips.

Attaining power in A.D. 54 at the tender age of 16, over the next 14 years Nero allegedly murdered his two wives, his mother, and his aunt while also marrying two different men and sleeping with his mother and a Vestal Virgin.

As if these sexcapades and murders weren’t enough to keep the youthful emperor busy, he is also supposed to have set fire to Rome, played (or fiddled) while the city burned, and then blamed the Christians in order to deflect attention from himself. The image of the capricious and crazed Nero is immortalised in films and TV series such as Quo Vadis and I, Claudius, not to mention in the computer software Nero Burning ROM.

Nero by Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen (1620)
Wikimedia Commons

But are any of these stories that feed our popular conception of the emperor Nero actually true? We’d like to tackle two of the most pervasive misunderstandings about Nero’s reign – that he was responsible for setting fire to Rome and that he had a sexual relationship with his mother, Agrippina the Younger.

These tales can be found in our ancient historical sources (all of which were written at least a generation after Nero’s death) but should not be taken at face value. This is because they are reported by sources as rumours, rather than facts.

Did Nero set fire to Rome?

Nero had a reputation as an arsonist even in antiquity, with rumours that he started the Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 appearing in the histories of Tacitus and Cassius Dio and the biography of Nero by Suetonius. While most scholars now agree that Nero was not responsible for the fire, the modern-day rumour mill (as represented by the Internet) is loath to exonerate the emperor.

There are two reasons usually given for why Nero set fire to Rome. The first is that he was a mad megalomaniac who burned down the city simply because he could. There is a story told by Suetonius that when a man said to Nero, ‘When I am dead, let the earth be consumed by fire’, the emperor replied, ‘No, while I live!’

The second reason often proffered is that Nero wanted to rebuild Rome according to his own plans, which included a sumptuous new residence for himself, the “Golden House” (Domus Aurea). There is a modern myth that the new palace was built solely for parties and orgies.

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785)
Google Art Project/Wikimedia

If we examine our historical accounts closely, the only evidence for Nero the arsonist comes from rumour and hearsay. This is freely admitted by the historian Tacitus: even though Nero was out of Rome when the fire started, a rumour spread that the emperor had sung of the destruction of Troy from his palace stage.

Cassius Dio describes chaos in the streets as the fire took hold, as people ran about asking each other how the blaze started. In such a desperate situation, without reliable channels of information, it is easy to see how rumours could start.

Did Nero commit incest with his mother?

Nero has not only earned an undeserved reputation as an arsonist, but also as an incestuous deviant. His alleged sexual antics with his mother Agrippina have earned him a place on a list of the “most sexually depraved things Romans ever did” and in news stories about his “pleasure palace”. As with the story of the Fire of Rome, this image of Nero derives solely from ancient rumours, not from facts.

Agrippina the Younger from Stuttgart
Wikimedia Commons

The Roman people loved to speculate about the emperors and their sex lives. One story involves Nero and his mother being carried through Rome in a litter (a portable couch concealed by curtains), only for the emperor to emerge with suspicious stains on his clothes. People started to whisper that the pair had been doing more than reviewing imperial legislation behind the curtains.

Even more scandalous was the fact that the emperor took a mistress who turned out to be the spitting image of his mother – a situation which got tongues wagging throughout Rome.

These rumours can be explained as responses to an unusual political situation. Nero was only 16 when he was acclaimed emperor, and his mother Agrippina asserted herself as the emperor’s guardian by appointing men loyal to her in key positions. Her extraordinary influence is demonstrated by contemporary coins with busts of both the emperor and his mother on the “heads” side. This coin made Agrippina look like she was Nero’s equal.

Gold coin showing facing busts of Nero and Agrippina.
Wikimedia Commons

Agrippina’s unprecedented position was the subject of continual speculation throughout the city of Rome, according to Cassius Dio, because the people could not obtain accurate information about affairs inside the palace. Without reliable information, rumours spread based on cultural preconceptions: in the Roman world, it was believed that a woman could not exert political power unless it was gained by underhanded or immoral means.

One particularly pervasive rumour developed after Agrippina began to lose influence over Nero, as he began to pay more attention to his comely courtier Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina allegedly dressed herself up to the nines and propositioned her son as he lay in a drunken stupor after a long liquid lunch.

Cassius Dio remarked:

Whether this actually occurred, now, or whether it was invented to fit their character, I am not sure.

The fact that our ancient historians do not believe such tales should give us pause.

The purpose of rumour

Sociological studies of rumours have shown that they develop in situations when people do not have good information to explain current events. The rumour that Nero started the fire of Rome can be explained as an attempt by people to make sense of a confused, traumatic situation during which little or no official information about what actually happened was available.

The sight of the Domus Aurea being built so soon after the fire undoubtedly fanned the flames of rumour, pointing the finger at the emperor himself. The same point can be made about Nero’s alleged incestuous relationship with his mother. The stories about the sexual relationship developed as a way of explaining both Agrippina’s extraordinary power and prominence as well as her fall from favour.

Our ancient sources are clear about the fact that they are reporting rumours and innuendo. Suetonius, the biographer of Nero, reports that the emperor was merely thought to have desired his mother, but was persuaded not to act on his feelings. Similarly Tacitus reveals that, while some believed in the rumour that Nero started the fire, there were also those who did not.

If our ancient authors knew these stories were just rumours, why did they record them? There are various reasons for this. There was certainly a tradition in ancient historiography of reporting different versions of events and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. The stories are also very entertaining: we should never forget that these histories and biographies were designed to bring pleasure to their readers.

Finally, the salacious rumours served a political purpose. An emperor’s sex life was not simply juicy gossip for the masses: his private peccadilloes were believed to reflect the character of his government. Rumours, even if ultimately untrue, helped to define the expectations of a good emperor in the minds of the readers.

Slightly different motivations underlie the circulation of these rumours about Nero as facts in the modern world. They are enjoyable and entertaining to read, appealing to our cultural preconceptions of ancient Rome and its emperors as corrupt and morally bankrupt.

But perhaps most significantly, they enable us to impose a moral distance between ourselves and our ancient forebears. Making the past seem strange and unfamiliar helps to forget that the same problems still exist in the present.

The Conversation

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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