Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last day of the year, 66 bc

It's the last day of the year and many of us look back on past events, me too, even if it's going to be a little further back normally. Here's what was going on in Rome on this day more than 2000 years ago.

Happy new year!

The comitia in Rome is long gone, but the one in Paestum. You'll find more pictures from the site earlier on in the blog (temple of Hera I, temple of Hera II and the temple of Athena)

"Can the limit of this life, O Catiline, can the breath of this atmosphere be pleasant to you, when you know that there is not one man of those here present who is ignorant that you, on the last day of the year, when Lepidus and Tullus were consuls, stood in the assembly armed; that you had prepared your hand for the slaughter of the consuls and chief men of the state, and that no reason or fear of yours hindered your crime and madness, but the fortune of the republic?"

Cicero - in Catilinam I.15.3
Translated by C. D. Yonge & Henry G. Bohn

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I hold thee fast, Mother Earth!

I couldn't resist presenting another quote from Frontinus Stratagems. You might want to compare the quote below to Suetonius - De Vita Caesarum, Divus Julius 59.

A rostrum, ship beak, from a tomb monument just outside of Porta Marina in Ostia.

"Gaius Caesar, having slipped as he was about to embark on ship, exclaimed: "I hold thee fast, Mother Earth." By this interpretation of the incident he made it seem that he was destined to come back to the lands from which he was setting out"

Frontinus - Stratagems XII
Translated by Charles E. Bennett

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Blood and leadpipes

Metaphors can be more or less common. Here's a rather unexpected one (compare it to this picture):

A lead water pipe from Pompeii.

"-"now receive" he said "the flow of my blood too" and he thrusted the sword, which was at hand, it into his groin and with no further delay would he pull it out, dying, from a bleading wound not very different from when a lead water pipe bursts [...]"

Ovidius - Metamorphoses IV
Translated by P. Klingborg and J. Ålander

Monday, December 28, 2009

How to avoid bad omens

A great deal of random events could be seen as signs from the gods. Here's one way to "misinterpret" a bad omen into a good one.

Ancient tombs on the Athenian Agora.

"Epaminondas, the Theban, when his soldiers were depressed because the decoration hanging from his spear like a fillet had been torn away by the wind and carried to the tomb of a certain Spartan, said: "Do not be concerned, comrades! Destruction is foretold for the Spartans. Tombs are not decorated except for funerals.""

Frontinus - Stratagems XII
Translated by Charles E. Bennett

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How Augustus passed away

Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

"On the last day of his life he asked every now and then whether there was any disturbance without on his account; then calling for a mirror, he had his hair combed and his falling jaws set straight. After that, calling in his friends and asking whether it seemed to them that he had played the comedy of life fitly, he added the tag:

"Since well I've played my part, all clap your hands
And from the stage dismiss me with applause."

Then he sent them all off, and while he was asking some newcomers from the city about the daughter of Drusus, who was ill, he suddenly passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: "Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell," thus blessed with an easy death and such a one as he had always longed for."

Suetonius - De Vita XII Caesarum, Augustus 99
Translated by J. C. Rolfe

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Athena and the Iliad

Notice that Athena is referred to by her Roman name in the passage below (Minerva).

Athena, 2nd century Ad,

"Then Pallas Minerva put valour into the heart of Diomed, son of
Tydeus, that he might excel all the other Argives, and cover
himself with glory. She made a stream of fire flare from his
shield and helmet like the star that shines most brilliantly in
summer after its bath in the waters of Oceanus--even such a fire
did she kindle upon his head and shoulders as she bade him speed
into the thickest hurly-burly of the fight."

Homer - The Iliad V
Translated by S. Butler

Friday, December 25, 2009

Military banner

Banners have more or less always been a part of the battle field. Here is one example from the Gallic wars and a Roman relief.

part of a Roman monument. Notice that some pieces nowadays are to be found in Naples, others in Rome.

"Our men, raising a shout, quickly throw their javelins at the enemy. They, when, contrary to their expectation, they saw those whom they believed to be retreating, advance toward them with threatening banners, were not able to sustain even the charge, and, being put to flight at the first onslaught, sought the nearest woods; Labienus pursuing them with the cavalry, upon a large number being slain, and several taken prisoners, got possession of the state a few days after; for the Germans, who were coming to the aid of the Treviri, having been informed of their flight, retreated to their homes."

Caesar - De Bello Gallico VI 8
Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sol Invictus, Christmas and Sweden

Well it's the 24th of December today, which is the day when we celebrate Christmas in Sweden, this post is thus scheduled to magically appear. Now, I have, in honour of this special day, decided to present Sol Invictus today, and the reason is going to be a little bit confusing so stay tuned; in Rome was the 17th through 24th of December celebrated as the Saturnalia, a very important festival to Saturn. The 25th of December was possibly (From the reign of Aurelian 270-275 Ad) a day when the invincible Sun was celebrated. The Christians may have taken this date to serve as Christmas, or the pagans might have taken it from the Christians to prevent them from celebrating it properly.

Anyhow, Sol Invictus is traditionally connected to Christmas (Normally the 25th of December , here in Sweden the 24th) and I simply want to say happy dies natalis Sol Invictis!

A man (or the god himself) with the characteristic sun ray diadem. Compare the epithet (invictus) to this altar to Hercules. Mosaic from Ostia.

"One morning when Aurora had quenched the fires of night, and the sun’s rays had thawed the frosty grass, they came to their usual places. [...] They were satisfied with their plan, and the light, slow to lose its strength, was drowned in the waters, and out of the same waters the night emerged."

Ovidius - Metamorphoses IV
Translated by A. S. Kline

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The small guy

It's sometimes easy to forget about the little guys in history; the working freedman, the butcher, the carpenter or the slave. Here's a small testimony to their existence.

Ca 0-50 Ad. A similar inscription can be found here.

Germanus / mulio Reguli
Garmanus, multe driver slave, of Regulus

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cupid and Psyche and a feast for the Gods

The myth of Cupid and Psyche describe how a very beautiful mortal girl meet Cupid (Eros). The mortality is a problem but she'll get to marry the god in the end but only after a number of trials, troubles and turns.

Cupid and Psyche. I'm quite sure that it originate from Ostia, Domus di Amore e Psiche (I,XIV,5. This is however a Roman copy and the type was widespread.

"Incontinently after, Jupiter commanded Mercury to bring up Psyche, the spouse of Cupid, into the palace of heaven. And then he took a pot of immortality, and said: "Hold, Psyche, and drink to the end thou mayst be immortal, and that Cupid may be thine everlasting husband."

By and by the great banquet and marriage feast was sumptuously prepared. Cupid sat down with his dear spouse between his arms: Juno likewise with Jupiter, and all the other Gods in order. Ganymede filled the pot of Jupiter, and Bacchus served the rest. Their drink was nectar, the wine of the Gods. Vulcan prepared supper, the Hours decked up the house with roses and other sweet smells, the Graces threw about balm, the Muses sang with sweet harmony, Apollo tuned pleasantly to the harp, Venus danced finely, Satyr and Pan played on their pipes: and thus Psyche was married to Cupid, and after she was delivered of a child, whom we call Pleasure."

Apuleius - The Golden Ass IV 8
Translated by W.Adlington

Monday, December 21, 2009


Obelisks has been a part of Rome for the last 2000 years or so. Here's a modern example from the fascist era (see also here (same one) and here). For an ancient obelisk look here.

"Monarchs, too, have entered into a sort of rivalry with one another in forming elongated blocks of this stone, known as "obelisks," and consecrated to the divinity of the Sun. The blocks had this form given to them in resemblance to the rays of that luminary, which are so called in the Egyptian language.

Mesphres, who reigned in the City of the Sun, was the first who erected one of these obelisks, being warned to do so in a dream: indeed, there is an inscription upon the obelisk to this effect; for the sculptures and figures which we still see engraved thereon are no other than Egyptian letters."

Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (the Natural History) XXVI.14
Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley

The Cloaca Maxima

The Cloaca Maxima is one of the most impressive constructions that's left from antiquity. It has however lost some of it's charm during the last century as the entrance now serve as the home of the unfortunate homeless. Notice the clothes drying.

Here you see the (not so) small opening.

”He [Tarquinius] also began the digging of the sewers, through which all the water that collects from the streets is conveyed into the Tiber — a wonderful work exceeding all description.”

- Dion. Hal., Ant. Rom. III, 67 5.
Övers. E. Cary.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Boxing in ancient Rome

Bowing in ancient Rome was more of a gladiatorial discipline than a real sport. Gloves, or rather leather stripes, were worn by the combatants but not to prevent serious injuries - they were instead designed to inflict maximum
damage and could even be filled with lead and iron spikes. The passage below come from Vergilius's epid "The Aeneid" and describe the funeral games of Anchises. The story line is clearly inspired by the Illiad (the funeral games of Patrocles) at this point and you might want to compare it to The Illiad XXIII, 650-700.

The boxer Helix in a fight against Alexander (not seen here). Notice the victory palm placed between the opponents. Mosaic from Ostia, early 3rd century ad. Two pictures of the famous so called seated boxer can be found here and here.

"the son of Anchises brought out gloves of like weight and with equal weapons bound the hands of both. Straightway each took his stand, poised on his toes, and, undaunted, lifted his arms high in air. Raising their heads high and drawing them far back from blows, they spar, hand with hand, and provoke the fray, the one nimbler of foot and confident in his youth, the other mighty in massive limbs; yet his slow knees totter and tremble and a painful gasping shakes his huge frame. Many hard blows they launch at each other to no avail, but many they rain on hollow flank, while their chests ring loudly; hands flash about ears and brows, and cheeks rattle under the hard strokes."

Virgilius - The Aeneid V 424
Translated by Fairclough, H R.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On the weakness of donkeys

A Roman oil lamp.

"The ass is an animal which is unable to endure cold, for which reason it is that it is never produced in Pontus [...]They will not pass over a bridge either, when the water can be seen between the planks beneath[...]They ought always to have plenty of room for sleeping; for they are very subject to various diseases in their sleep[...] An ass, after witnessing the death of another ass, survives it but a very short time only.

Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (the Natural History) VIII.68
Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It is not necessary to live...

Desperate times makes for desperate measures. Here is one very famous qoute;

Pompeius magnus, first Caesars allied and then his opponent.

"Having thus been set over the administration and management of the grain trade, Pompey sent out his agents and friends in various directions, while he himself sailed to Sicily, Sardinia and Africa, and collected grain. When he was about to set sail with it, there was a violent storm at sea, and the ship-captains hesitated to put out; but he led the way on board and ordered them to weigh anchor, crying with a loud voice: "To sail is necessary; to live is not." By this exercise of zeal and courage attended by good fortune, he filled the sea with ships and the markets with grain, so that the excess of what he had provided sufficed also for foreign peoples, and there was an abundant overflow, as from a spring, for all."

Plutarch - Life of Pompey 50
Translated by P. Bernadotte

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to find your way in a Roman city

It wasn't easy to find your way in an ancient Roman city. here is a passage that describe how Martialis new book should finds it's way to Proculus's halls.

The temple of Vesta (on the Forum Romanum).

The last three standing columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux.

"Do you ask the way? I will tell you. You will go along by the temple of Castor, near that of ancient Vesta, and that goddess's virgin home. Thence you will pass to the majestic Palatine edifice on the sacred hill, where glitters many a statue of the supreme ruler of the empire. [...]"

Martialis - Epigrams I 70
Translated by Bohn

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Pliny the younger is today mostly know as a writer, foremost from his description of the Vesuvian eruption 79 Ad - he was however also among many other things a governor of Bithynia-Pontus for some time. Many of the letters that he wrote during his time there are preserved and below you'll find a passage where he ask the emperor (Trajanus) about how to deal with Christians. Notice that the crime discussed is not that some inhabitants in the area have been accused of being Christians but how they act as Christians.

An early Christian grave stone. It is not directly related to the passage below.

"Having never been present at any trials
concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not
only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their
punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination
concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually
made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed
between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them
to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing
to desist from his error; whether the very profession of
Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes
themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these
points I am in great doubt."

Pliny the younger - Epistulae (letters)XCVII
Translated by Melmoth, W.


Scorpions are not really insects. We know that today, but the Romans wouldn't agree. Plinius the elder for one count them as insects.

A scorpion at the Ara Pacis.

"WE [sic] shall now proceed to a description of the insects, a subject replete with endless difficulties;1 for, in fact, there are some authors who have maintained that they do not respire, and that they are destitute of blood. The insects are numerous, and form many species, and their mode of life is like that of the terrestrial animals and the birds. Some of them are furnished with wings, bees for instance; others are divided into those kinds which have wings, and those which are without them, such as ants; while others, again, are destitute of both wings and feet."

Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (the Natural History) XI.1
Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Zeus and Europa

This vessel illustrate how Zeus, disguised as a white bull, abducted the Phoenician princess Europa.

"The royal virgin even dares to sit on the bull’s back, not realising whom she presses on, while the god [Zeus], first from dry land and then from the shoreline, gradually slips his deceitful hooves into the waves. Then he goes further out and carries his prize over the mid-surface of the sea. She is terrified and looks back at the abandoned shore she has been stolen from and her right hand grips a horn, the other his back, her clothes fluttering, winding, behind her in the breeze."

Ovidius - Metamorphoses II
Translated by A. S. Kline

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Battle chaos

The passage bellow describe a part of the Battle of Alesia where Vercingetorix was defeated by Caesar.

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus, ca 190 Ad (Not related to Caesars wars). Full version here.

"A shout being raised by both sides, it was succeeded by a general shout along the ramparts and whole line of fortifications. Our troops, laying aside their javelins, carry on the engagement with their swords. The cavalry is suddenly seen in the rear of the Gauls; the other cohorts advance rapidly; the enemy turn their backs; the cavalry intercept them in their flight, and a great slaughter ensues. Sedulius the general and chief of the Lemovices is slain; Vergasillaunus the Arvernian, is taken alive in the flight, seventy-four military standards are brought to Caesar, and few out of so great a number return safe to their camp."

Caesar - De Bello Gallico VII 88.2-4
Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn

Friday, December 11, 2009

Odysseus and the Ram

"Thus, then, did we wait in great fear of mind till morning came, but when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, the male sheep hurried out to feed, while the ewes remained bleating about the pens waiting to be milked, for their udders were full to bursting; but their master in spite of all his pain felt the backs of all the sheep as they stood upright, without being sharp enough to find out that the men were underneath their bellies. As the ram was going out, last of all, heavy with its fleece and with the weight of my crafty self"

Homer - the Odyssey IX
Translated by Samuel Butler

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Dwarf riding a pig or boar. Fresco from a columbarium.

"In the reign of the same emperor [Augustus], there was a man also, remarkable for his extremely diminutive stature, being only two feet and a palm in height; his name was Conopas, and he was a great pet with Julia, the grand-daughter of Augustus. There was a female also, of the same size, Andromeda by name, a freed-woman of Julia Augusta."

Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (the Natural History) VII.16
Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The love of an Emperor

Hadrianus loves quite a lot of things; domes, architecture, Greek culture and a young man called Antinous. Here's a a quote describing how this young man died.

Antinous, Hadrians lover who presumably drowned in the Nile.

"Antinous was from Bithynium, a city of Bithynia, which we also call Claudiopolis; he had been a favourite of the emperor and had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice."

Cassius Dio - Roman History LXIX 11.2
Translated by Earnest Cary

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Horatius and Mercury

It's time to celebrate Horatius again, this time as it's his birthday today - he was born on the 8th of December 65 BC.

Mercury with the characteristic heralds staff. He's however not having winged feet here. Compare to this, somewhat more offensive, version.

Grandson of Atlas, wise of tongue,
O Mercury, whose wit could tame
Man's savage youth by power of song
And plastic game!
Thee sing I, herald of the sky,
Who gav'st the lyre its music sweet,
Hiding whate'er might please thine eye
In frolic cheat.

Horatius - Odes X
Translated by J. Conington

Monday, December 7, 2009

Daedalus and the Minotaur

"Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Daedalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Daedalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that."

Ovidius - Metamorphoses VIII
Translated by A. S. Kline

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Testudo

Detail of the column of Trajanus, depicting his Dacian wars. Here we see soldiers in a Testudo formation (tortoise). The section below should be an account of the end of the third Macedonian war (ca 168 Bc).

"Heracleum was taken in a peculiar manner. The town had a low wall of no great extent on one side, and to attack this the Romans employed three picked maniples. The men of the first held their shields over their heads, and closed up, so that, owing to the density of the bucklers, it became like a tiled roof."

Polybius - Histories XXVIII.11
Translated by W. R. Paton

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Vitruvius and siege weapons

Detail from the column of Trajanus - Dacians defending them self with a scorpion.

"I shall now proceed to an explanation of those instruments which have been invented for defence from danger, and for the purposes of self-preservation; I mean the construction of scorpions, catapultæ, and balistæ, and their proportions. And first of catapultæ and scorpions. Their proportions depend on the length of the arrow which instrument is to throw"

Vitruvius - de Architectura (On Architecture) X.10.1
Translated by J. Gwilt

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fishes and prophecies

Pliny the Elder and fish continue to amuse me:

A Roman mosaic depicting a fish. You can find more on fishes here: fauces mosaic, sea monster fauces mosaic, marine style vessel, fish and squid, an ugly fish from Ostia, marine fresco, fish mosaic from the baths of Caracalla, a dophin from Ostia.

"Auguries are also derived from this department of Nature, and fishes afford presages of coming events. While Augustus was walking on the sea-shore, during the time of the Sicilian war, a fish leapt out of the sea, and fell at his feet. The diviners, who were consulted, stated that this was a proof that those would fall beneath the feet of Cæsar who at that moment were in possession of the seas-it was just at this time that Sextus Pompeius had adopted2 Neptune as his father, so elated was he with his successes by sea."

Pliny the Elder - Naturalis Historia (the Natural History) IX.22
Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sanitation and spill water

Some of you might have notice that Frontinus said "the water may flow without interruption, day and night". That kind of behaviour seems strange today and led to a huge loss of water during the nights. To the Romans however, overflowing fountains were appreciated as the water could flush away some waste from the streets.

"I desire that no one shall draw 'lapsed' water except those who have permission to do so by grants from me or preceding sovereigns; for there must necessarily be some overflow from the reservoirs, this being proper not only for the health of our City, but also for use in the flushing of the sewers."

Frontinus - The Aqueducts of Rome II.111
Translated by Charles E. Bennett

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Water in a Roman city

The water supply was as important in ancient cities as in modern and well guarded by the authorities. Here's a short passage from Frontinus book The Aqueducts of Rome where he explain that the fountains, aqueducts and reservoirs needs to be maintained.

A Lacus, public fountain in Pompeii (Reg VI ins 14 South-East corner)

"Frequent rounds must be made of channels of the aqueducts outside the City, and with great care, to check up the granted quantities. The same must be done in case of the reservoirs and public fountains, that the water may flow without interruption, day and night."

Frontinus - The Aqueducts of Rome II.103
Translated by Charles E. Bennett

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gladiators on the walls

Gladiators could be seen not only in the arena but also on the walls in the cities and the every day discussions. Here's two examples.

A graffito from Casa de Ceii.

"And in good sooth what has the other ever done for us? He gave a show of twopenny halfpenny gladiators, such a rickety lot,--blow on them, they'd have fallen flat; and I've seen better bestiaries."

Petronius - Satyricon 45.11
Translated by A.R. Allinson