Archive for October, 2007

Roman Racism, Or Lack Thereof (ca. 200 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

This is one of only 3 “head flasks” found from Rome, designed in the head of an African man. Evidently, Africans were living and working at Hadrian’s Wall alongside the Romans!A study done at Newcastle University in the UK revealed something about the Romans that was previously unheard of: it appears that the Romans had no qualms about Africans holding various positions within Roman society, regardless of whether that position was the Emperor of Rome or a domestic slave. Judging by the evidence… it appears that Romans were colorblind when it came to people with differently colored skin.

The University holds a rather substantial collection of what has been termed ‘Romano-African’ artifacts, and these objects point quite blatantly at the presence of Africans on Rome’s military frontier, especially along Hadrian’s Wall. One of the objects was a blue, mould-blown glass vessel that was shaped like the head of an African man – and while there are have only been three of these found thus far, the fact that it was made from a mould suggests that these kinds of vessel may have been popular items.

According to historical documents, out of all the people who helped to build Hadrian’s Wall, there were actually very few “Romans” involved – there were plenty of Spanish, Gallic, and Germans working on the project, while a number of auxiliary units that were stationed on garrison duty actually came from North Africa.

Aside from the privileges of thorough military training, well-known Africans in the Roman Empire included a man named Victor, who was a freed slave from Morocco, and even the Emperor Septimius Severus, who came to Rome from Lepcis Magna in Libya! Evidently, color and country of origin were moot points when it came to social participation in the Roman Empire.

Skin color aside, what the Romans were well known for was their deep-seated prejudices against a whole host of other kinds of people, such as those they called ‘barbarians’ – ie. anyone outside of the Roman Empire’s control – and… they weren’t particularly fond of men who wore earrings. But prejudices based on color? The Romans were far beyond that.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Early Humans Liked Their Beach Parties (ca. 162,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

Early humans in South Africa lived by the sea and apparently ate a lot of shellfish.

Inside of a cave in South Africa, archaeologists discovered a half-meter of ancient trash that revealed a surprising amount of information about the people who lived at the cave site about 164,000 years ago. The tens of thousands of years worth of garbage included things like brown mussel shells, animal bones, and other remains of marine invertebrates.

During ancient times, the cave on Pinnacle Point would have been only a few kilometers from the ocean’s shore, which means that whoever lived in the cave had very easy access to the water’s resources – and it’s not too far-fetched to consider that these people probably had open fires on the beach where they ate their meals in good weather.

One odd thing that was found in the garbage was a whale barnacle. However, it probably isn’t that unlikely that – while these people wouldn’t have been sailing out to the sea to hunt whales – if a whale had washed up onshore at a some point, they probably would have eaten the whale and used its parts for resources.

Another thing that was found in the cave was a collection of ochre pieces. Ochre is a soft stone that can be scraped in order to create powders with strong, colorful pigments. The presence of bright ochre in ancient cultures is often associated with things like ritual and symbolism – namely, body painting! Most of the ochre found at the cave was red, so it’s entirely possible that the people living here liked to give each other red temporary tattoos, although the meaning of such decorations is impossible to determine.

Finally, the South African cave also yielded some tiny, sharp blades, often referred to as ‘bladelets’. At less than 10mm wide, they were probably attached to the end of a long stick, in order to create spear points – or they could have been lined up along a piece of wood or rope to create a deadly, barbed weapon.

The pieces of ochre found at the cave suggest that the people who lived here 164,000 years ago were engaging in body painting… talk about a wild beach party.

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Tomorrow: a Peruvian drinking ritual & brewery burning

The Fortress of Kings (ca. 1500 – 1000 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

The fort of Tharo is one of the largest fortresses found from the Pharonic era in Egypt, and is approximately 3000 years old.

The fort of Tjaru, also called Tharo, was an ancient Egyptian fortress along the major road from Egypt to Canaan. Known as ‘the way of Horus’, the road was extremely important for both travel and trade – and in times of war, whoever controlled the road essentially controlled the territory. Previously known only through descriptions and images, archaeologists have finally uncovered the fort itself – and it turns out that this fort was one of the largest fortresses to have existed during the Pharonic era in ancient Egypt.

The walls of the fort were made with mud brick and were 13 meters thick! Twenty-four watchtowers were built above the parapets on the walls, and a deep moat was dug around the entire perimeter of the city – and this was only one fortress in a chain of 11 that spanned all the way from the Suez to the current Egyptian-Palestinian border.

Inside the fortress, workers discovered graves containing horses and soldiers buried together, attesting to the severity of the battles in this area during the Egyptian struggle against invaders known as the Hyksos. In the 17th century BC, the Hyksos had invaded Egypt and eventually took control of the country, ruling the entire Nile during a time known as the “Second Intermediate Period”. They managed to hold the country for approximately 100 years before the Egyptians took back control of their land – and in order to secure themselves against future Hyksos invasions, giant fortresses were built along the river.

Although clear evidence of this specific fortress had not been found until now, a depiction of Tjaru could be seen on the walls of Karnak Temple in Luxor – depicting everything from the moat around the fortress to the large, wooden beams that spanned areas of its construction. Tjaru was also mentioned under the name ‘Silu’ in one of the Amarna letters, which were a series of correspondences between the Egyptian rulers and their representatives – ie. diplomats – residing in Canaan during the 15th century BC.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Sometimes the Best History is Fiction (ca. 4th C AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

The cover of an edition of the Historia Augusta, a collection of fake biographies of Roman Emperors, written as though it was a factual and historical account of their lives.

While the scribes here at the Ancient Standard would never stoop so low as to fabricate history for the sake of the reader – there is more than enough interesting ancient history to begin with! – it seems that an author living during the Late Roman Period didn’t necessarily subscribe to this commitment of authenticity.

The Historia Augusta – or in English, Augustan History – is a collection of supposed biographies about a number of Roman Emperors who lived during the second and third centuries AD. The history is constructed as though it was written by six different authors during the reigns of Constantine and Diocletian, however the true nature of the authorship – not to mention when it was written and why – remains to be seen. The fact of the matter is, it’s not a history of the Emperors at all – most of the book is complete fiction, plain and simple, from the narrative details all the way down to the quotations included from supposedly ‘historical’ documents!

First of all, the most likely period in which the Historia was written was the 4th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, since it seems to quote some material from contemporary authors of this period. However, it’s rather difficult to say with any authority when it was written. The consistency of style throughout the text does reveal one thing – there certainly weren’t six authors involved in writing it, and in fact it was probably written by only one author, who for some reason felt the need to play this practical joke on future historians.

Why would an author in the 4th century AD feel the need to fabricate over 130 fake documents – quoting from them, using anecdotes and “facts” from them – and then use them to not only substantiate some claims but in many cases to disagree with them?! Was this intended to be a real history, but the historian was lazy? Or, as has been suggested by others, was this intended to simply be a work of fiction or satire to entertain readers? Some historians believe that this is an early case of historical fiction, produced by an author who wanted to make fun of the “antiquarian tendencies” of the period he lived in. In fact, in the introduction to one section of the book entitled ‘The Life of Aurelian’, the “author” Flavius Vopiscus has recorded a conversation he had with the City Prefect of Rome, in which Vopiscus is urged by the Prefect to write whatever he wants, and invent the parts he doesn’t know.

As much as it is a work of fiction, the Historia Augusta cannot simply be dismissed as a lacking any historical value, because as much as it isn’t a reliable source for the period it claims to document, it is one of the only sources of information available about the years 253-284 AD. The key is in separating the fact from the fiction, and historians agree that the book actually contains a number of important pieces of information about ancient Rome that no one else mentions – things that can be fit into the real line of history and that can be substantiated with comparison to other texts written about the time period.

In effect, the Historia Augusta is a work of historical fiction, written during a period of ancient history about ancient history! And like any good piece of fiction, real events have been combined with figments of the author’s imagination to create a good, compelling story, leaving it up to the reader to discern reality from fiction. After all, it’s not like ‘imagination’ was something invented recently – humans have always created stories. It just so happens that this author chose to do something a little more complex – and isn’t that what makes fiction interesting?

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Tomorrow: Egyptian fortress of kings!

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