Archive for the ‘Ancient Rome’ Category

A Foodie’s Feast in Ancient Pompeii

By: The Scribe on January, 2014

pompeii imageWhen people think of Pompeii, it’s often to conjure up images of violent destruction, or to ponder the fragility of life as so visibly showcased by the remains of Pompeiians who were caught by the wrath of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

But there was much more to this town than just its end, and for the past ten years, archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati have excavated a row of building plots located in the non-elite district of the city.

Some of these building plots—which represent a total of 20 store fronts near the Portia Stabia—date as far back as the 6th-century B.C.

The archaeologists learned that these store fronts were mostly restaurants, and researchers were able to take the finds of preserved, mineralized and charred food contents (found in drains and toilets… don’t think about that too hard) in order to analyze it.

The findings were surprising, because it was previously thought that the non-elites of Pompeii were more or less a “mass of hapless lemmings – scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel”, said Steve Ellis (University of Cincinnati Associate Professor of Classics), presenting the findings at the Archaeological Institute of America Annual Conference in Chicago on January 4th. This traditional vision “needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii.”

pompeii snackWhile archaeologists did find food remnants that would have been standard, inexpensive fare in ancient Italy (ie. grains, fruit, olives, fish, lentils, eggs, and nuts), they also discovered that ancient Pompeiians enjoyed a wide variety of exotic dishes featuring imported fare from outside of Italy.

It’s a foodie’s dream: sea urchins, shellfish, flamingos, and the team even uncovered a giraffe’s butchered leg joint (which is the first giraffe bone found in ancient Roman Italy).


Ellis commented on the giraffe bone, saying, “how part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

The archaeological team also found traces imported, exotic spices from far away regions such as Indonesia.

Cursing Senators Through the Ages

By: The Scribe on July, 2013

snakes-curses-2It’s not just senators in modern-day governments who appear to sit around and do nothing, angering taxpayers with their seeming lack of effort to do anything other than collect a paycheque.

No, in fact, senators throughout history have been the targets of angry citizens… such as the Roman senator Fistus. In ancient Rome, the senate was a very wealthy establishment, and for some time, held a considerable amount of power.

The Roman senator Fistus was likely an individual of great wealth, and perhaps due to some decision he made—or didn’t make?—he was cursed. Literally! A 1,600-year-old curse tablet, acquired by the Museo Arcaheological Civico di Bologna (Italy) in the late 19th century, was recently deciphered by Celia Sanchez Natalias of the University of Zaragoza.

Whoever wrote the curse definitely had no qualms about expressing their hatred for the senator. The Latin expression for “crush” is used four times in the curse:

“Crush, kill Fistus the senator … may Fistus dilute, languish, sink, and may all his limbs dissolve…”

It’s arguably worse than a present-day attack ad! And the wording is interestingly Greek in form.

The lead tablet containing the curse shows a depiction of the Greek goddess Hecate, who has serpents in her hair and an eight-pointed star covering her delicate lady parts.

Hecate is also directly invocated on the tablet… and sadly enough, we may never know if the senator got what the angry party believed he deserved!

An Ancient Roman “Where’s Waldo?”

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

(Credit: J. Bianca Jackson, Ph.D. and Dominique Martos-Levif)Advances in scientific technology are making it easier for historians and archaeologists to re-examine things like mummies, works of art, and ancient buildings, in order to look for things they may have missed the first time around—particularly things that are invisible to the naked eye, or hidden by centuries of grime, retouching, or decay.

Recently, archaeologists began using imaging technology much like that found in airport whole-body scanners… and they discovered a hidden face beneath the surface of a Roman wall painting.

The image they found is thought to be thousands of years old, and is literally underneath another famous painting at the Louvre. It’s not weird or strange to find one painting on top of another—plenty famous “master” painters are known to have re-used canvases, covering old paintings with new works or “wiping out” an old painting they weren’t happy with—because it was cheaper or a good way to enhance colors and shapes.

On walls, frescoes—which are paintings made as wet wall plaster is drying, allowing the artist’s paint to seep into the plaster as it sets—fade over time, so it wasn’t unheard of for a building owner to either commission a new work to replace the faded image, or just to have a new painting done if he got bored of the old one.

No one’s quite sure yet who the Roman man is in the image underneath the existing painting—guesses are swirling are to whether it might have been a Roman senator, a self-centered landowner’s portrait, maybe a well-known ruler—but you can be sure that historians are all over this one.

The image they’ve revealed so far with the imaging technology is an eye, nose, and a mouth, and the art style is ancient Roman—pegging its origins at several thousand years old.

So, now that they’ve found a “Waldo”, it’s time to find out who he actually is!

Move Over, Sunnydale… We’ve Got Your Hellmouth Right Here

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

Img Copyright Francesco D'Andria / Discovery NewsSorry, Buffy, but it looks like your small town problems were nothing compared to the real Hellmouth discovered by Italian archaeologists in southwestern Turkey!

Whether the Slayers of ancient times knew about it or not (Editor’s Note: Yes, we know Buffy is fictional. No, we don’t particularly care.), the ruins from Turkey are known as Pluto’s Gate or “Plutonium” in Latin, and during its time it appears that a cave among the ruins was known in Greco-Roman tradition & mythology as a portal to the underworld.

The cave ruins are located in an ancient Phrygian city called Hierapolis, and the ancient geographer Strabo described the site as being “full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.”

Writing sometime between 7-18 AD, Strabo says he conducted an experiment at this site during ancient times: “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

And now we know exactly where that hellmouth is!

The location was announced at an Italian archaeology conference in March 2013, with the find made by a team from the University of Salento. Lead archaeologist Francesco D’Andria says the team “found the Plutonium by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring.” During the excavation, they observed the death of several birds who died as they tried to get close to the opening’s warmth… and were immediately killed by the lethal carbon dioxide fumes.

plutoniumOnce excavated, the team found Ionic columns with a dedication inscription to two well-known underworld deities, Pluto and Kore—or perhaps better known by their Greek names, Hades and Persephone. The team also found temple remains, steps, and a pool that matched the ancient source material descriptions.

D’Andria mentioned that small birds were given to pilgrims at the cave opening so that they could test the deadliness at its mouth, providing a sort of ancient tourist attraction… and of course, there were priests at the location too. In this case, they did a lot of bull sacrificing to Pluto. While hallucinated, of course (would you expect anything less?)—the priests would drag the animals into the cave, wait for them to die, and then drag them out.


It’s thought that the groundwater pool at Hierapolis gave off fumes that caused a hallucinogenic effect similar to that at Delphi, which was another incentive for pilgrims to visit—they could see visions of their futures and receive prophecies by sleeping between the cave mouth and the water.

The site was a popular destination until sometime in the 4th-century AD, and infrequently afterward until its destruction in the 6th-century… was a Slayer responsible for closing this particular hellmouth, too? That’s for you to decide…

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