Archive for April, 2007

Veni, Vidi… Vomit? (1st C BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

wall painting, Pompeii, ca. 70 AD]One of the common “facts” taught about ancient Rome, both by public schools and uninformed historians, is that Roman houses contained a special room called a vomitorium, which was set aside for the purpose of purging one’s insides from a recent meal… in order to make room to eat more. The word itself comes from the Latin word vomere, which means “to vomit”.

Fortunately for the Romans, this is simply a misconception. Vomiting, for those who have experienced such a phenomenon in the past, is typically not an event that any human wishes to endure any more than absolutely necessary – say, during illness – and thus it would be absolute falsity to claim that the entire Roman upper class was semi-bulimic.

Ancient Rome did have vomitorioums, however, but their purpose was entirely unrelated to the consumption of food! Vomitorium was the proper name for an architectural feature of ancient Roman theatres: it was a wide corridor situated below or behind a tier of seats, through which thousands of spectators could file in and out of quickly (or “spew out of”, to keep the nuance of the Latin word).

a  real vomitorium

The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were reportedly able to allow 50,000 people to enter and be seated within 15 minutes; presumably they would be able to exit in an equally rapid manner, thus earning the passageway its name. The misconception of meaning for this term probably came about in the early 1900s, when historians were writing history texts without a correct understanding of Latin… which meant that they could not read texts of the ancient authors… who, when writing about eating excessively and illness afterward, never once mentioned the existence of special room in which one could throw up.

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Tomorrow: A Minoan mystery!

Immortals in Persia (5th-century BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

The ImmortalsIn his description of the Battle of Thermopylae (link to a previous post) the Greek historian Herodotus mentions an elite corps of the Persian army called the Ten Thousand, or ‘the Immortals’. This group was known as ‘the Immortals’ because the division was always at full strength – never more, and never less – than ten thousand. If a warrior fell ill, or perished on the battlefield, another man would immediately be sent in to replace him, giving the illusion that strength of their force never wavered.

The Immortals were not only above the rest of the Persian army in skill, but were also kept at a physical distance from everyone else – because they also served as the personal bodyguards of the Persian king, the Immortals marched as a separate unit, and their own provisions were brought separately from those of the regular army, along with their personal slaves and concubines.

Herodotus describes: “ …every man glittered with the gold which he carried about his person in unlimited quantity. They were accompanied, moreover, by covered carriages full of their women and servants, all elaborately fitted out. Special food, separate from that of the rest of the army, was brought along for them on camels and mules…” (7.83)

As for weapons, the Immortals used the composite bow, spears, and short swords. In order to move quickly and efficiently, they wore very light armor – unlike the bronze greaves or helmets of the Greeks – and light, wicker shields were carried only by those in the front rank, who would use them as a defensive barrier if necessary.

Herodotus describes their clothes: “…the dress of these troops consisted of the tiara, or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers…” (7.61). Although this elite force was visibly impressive, and was used by the Persian kings for over a hundred years to conquer nation after nation, they were only sent in as a last reserve against the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae… where the small Greek and Spartan force inflicted heavy losses and actually caused the Immortals to retreat.

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Tomorrow: All  about vomitoriums

The Battle of Thermopylae… or, the ‘300 Spartans’ – Part 5 of 5 (480 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

LeonidasAfter the Persians recovered the body of Leonidas, Xerxes was apparently so enraged at the loss of thousands of his own soldiers that he ordered Leonidas’ corpse decapitated and crucified. This was highly unusual for the Persians, who typically showed great honor and respect for those who fought against them. However, Xerxes’ temper had a reputation: in 482 BC, he attempted to build two bridges across the Greek Hellespont, but when they were destroyed by a storm, Xerxes ordered the sea to be punished with 300 lashes. He also had the builders of the bridges decapitated, as if they had caused the storm themselves.

Soon after the Persian victory at Thermopylae, the Athenians gathered their naval forces and met the Persians in the Battle of Salamis. The Athenian navy was so strong that Xerxes was actually forced to retreat, leaving behind his land force. The remaining Persian army was later defeated in the Battle of Plataea by another allied Greek army, also led by the Spartans.

It is also interesting to note that in the Battle of Plataea, the Phocians who had retreated from their post during the Battle of Thermopylae had now shifted their allegiance to the Persians.

After the Persians were defeated and driven from Greece, the Greeks were finally able to collect their dead. The 300 Spartans were buried on the hill on which they had made their last stand, and a monument was erected in their honor. Forty years later, the Spartans recovered the bones of Leonidas from this gravesite and buried them in Sparta, where he was reburied with full honors and the establishment of an annual games competition in his memory.

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Tomorrow: The real Immortals

The Battle of Thermopylae… or, the ‘300 Spartans’ – Part 4 of 5 (480 BC)

By: The Scribe on April, 2007

LeonidasNear the end of the second day, Xerxes received a visitor that would change the entire course of the battle: a traitor named Ephialtes, motivated by the potential of reward from the Persian king, told Xerxes of a path around the Hot Gates. Ephialtes offered to lead the army through the pass – and so Xerxes, clearly unwilling to give up this opportunity, sent 10,000 more of his Immortals and 30,000 additional troops to flank the Greeks… at night!

Leonidas had stationed 1,000 Phocian volunteer troops along the path to guard it, and ensure that the Persians would not take the pass before reinforcements were able to stabilize the situation. However, the Phocians did not hold their position – they fell asleep, and upon hearing the Persian force approach, awoke startled and then retreated at the first sign of Persian arrows.

Just before dawn, Leonidas learned that the Phocians had failed to hold the pass. He called a council of war, where some Greeks argued for withdrawal in the face of seemingly inevitable loss. Though some Greeks pledged to remain with the Spartans, who refused to leave, Leonidas allowed all those allied Greeks who wished to leave – instead of fight a losing battle – to depart without consequence.

Having pledged themselves to fight to the death – indeed, the oath required of every Spartan warrior was to “stand in place, win or die” – the remaining Spartans and Greek allies moved away from the Phocian wall to a wider part of the pass, in an attempt to slaughter as many Persians as possible. They fought with spears until they broke, whereupon they switched to swords.

Upon learning the location of the Immortals, the Spartans withdrew from the pass and took their last stand on a small hill. Some Spartans still had their swords, others fought only with their hands and teeth… tasting victory, Xerxes tore down the wall, surrounded the 300 Spartans, and ordered arrows rained down upon them until every Greek was dead. Archaeological excavations have found evidence for this final shower of arrows, and it was in this place that a monument was later erected to honor the bravery of the 300 Spartans against Xerxes’ hundreds of thousands of warriors. It read:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

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Tomorrow: The aftermath

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