Archive for the ‘Ancient Rome’ Category

Solving the Pollution Problem with Human Sacrifice

By: The Scribe on April, 2013

Okay, so it wasn’t the kind of pollution you might see over the skies of a major city, but in ancient Rome, spiritual pollution was even more important—possibly important enough to sacrifice lives over!


One of the obscure ancient rituals from Rome was an observance called the Argei, which happened twice a year and which was so obscure that, well… by the time Augustus came to power, most of the people who observed Argei didn’t  even know what they were doing!

The Argei rituals were held in mid-March and mid-May. There were 27 shrines associated with the ritual—called the Shrines of the Argei, or sacra Argeorum—and during the March observance, participants visited all 27 shrines and are thought to have deposited puppet-like figures inside of them. These figures, or effigies, were thought to absorb pollution during the following months, and were then removed during the May observance.

And then thrown off a bridge into the Tiber River.

Tiber River

But the effigies weren’t always little figures made out of reed, straw, and rush and formed like humans… no, in fact it’s thought that one man for each of the families living near the banks of the Tiber were required to offer one man for sacrifice. However, this tradition was likely done so early that the original inhabitants of the area were Greek.

That said, Ovid wrote that the practice of human sacrifice during the Argei was put to an end by the hero Hercules and never actually practiced by the Romans themselves, so… take from that what you will.

Another writer, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, explained that the victims for these early human sacrifices were men over sixty—in other words, on death’s doorstep anyway—and that they volunteered for the ritual rather than were forced or chosen by outside parties.

There are many varied and differing opinions on what the Argei really were—another theory is that the effigies were representative of a very early mass sacrifice of humans, given in exchange for the river’s blessing to build a bridge across it—and even the early writers don’t agree on what it was!

Why would people celebrate something so obscure that they didn’t even know the origins of it anymore?

It’s not that strange, when you think about it… after all, how many modern holidays do you know the real origins of?

Why Spring Cleaning Your Cupboards is a Good Idea

By: The Scribe on March, 2013

Surely if they’re hired Molly Maid, they would have found this a lot sooner…

An archivist cleaning out a basement cupboard at a castle in southwestern England—Sudeley Castle, to be precise—discovered, or rediscovered, a depiction of Apollo Cunomaglos. This version of Apollo was a local Roman deity, and the sculpture is one of only seven known depictions of the god.

The sculpture is thought to be dated between A.D. 150-300, and it shows the god wearing a jaunty conical cap, tunic, and cloak, with a bow and arrow set on his person.

Originally, the statue was found in the 19th-century by the owners of Sudeley Castle, but apparently they did their own spring cleaning and shoved the dusty old thing in a cupboard somewhere… and, like most people who put important things someplace “so I’ll know where it is when I need it”, its location was promptly forgotten and it remained lost for decades.

According to Reverend archaeologist Dr. Martin Henig, author of a book on Roman sculpture that denotes this particular statue as ‘lost’, the “authentication of the subject as Apollo Cunomaglos with his bow and arrows is of major significance in furthering our understanding of Roman religion in Western Britian.”

The statue is currently on display at a Roman-themed exhibition at the castle. Now, that’s all well and good, but just make sure someone doesn’t put it in a cupboard once the exhibit is over so they can “find it later” for study…!

Graffiti Art in the Colosseum Stands at Attention

By: The Scribe on January, 2013

Although it has taken quite some time to get to this point, the Colosseum in Rome is finally undergoing restoration… and yielding some interesting tidbits about ancient history in Rome along the way. Recently, excavators and restoration experts discovered trades of ancient frescoes in red, black, green, and blue—but that’s not the most interesting part. Even better?

Apparently visitors to the Colosseum engaged in some tagging, Ancient Rome style—everyone’s favorite gladiatorial arena holds graffiti art of phallic symbols. Would you expect anything else?

The officials who unveiled the discoveries between the second and third levels of the Colosseum say that particular passageway won’t be open to the public until sometime during Summer 2013, as there is plenty of work to do to ensure the graffiti doesn’t fade or become damaged now that it’s exposed.

The images were hidden beneath decades and decades of calcified grime and rock, and the colorful traces of the discovered frescoes confirm the historical understanding of the Colosseum as a richly decorated, vibrantly colored stadium during its heyday. Currently, the belief is that less than 1 perfect of the Colosseum’s original painted surfaces remain—and despite the fact that the arena’s exposed seating was white marble, it was the inside that came alive with color.

Colosseum director Rosella Rea says that “the insides, the galleries, all the corridors and transverse hallways were completely colored. We need to imagine a building with extreme contrasts of color.” And many of the colored areas now discovered are covered with more recent graffiti art—including some drawings from dates as wide-ranging as 1620 and 1943.

But older still, officials have found graffiti that they believe dates from the 3rd century—a red palm frond and crown are believed to be the work of a gladiator fan as the individual traveled the hallway, and another area under restoration contains graffiti art of phalluses, which were often drawn as good luck charms.

How is it these things went undetected by historians for almost two thousand years? The simple answer is money, as until now there wasn’t enough funding to restore the hallway.

As restoration continues on the Colosseum, who knows what other secrets—or interesting drawings—this ancient building holds!

Fe-Fi-Fo-Fome, This Giant Skeleton Comes from Rome!

By: The Scribe on November, 2012

In 3rd-century Rome, giants roamed the earth… okay, maybe not, but at least one of them did! An archaeological excavation back in 1991 at an ancient Roman necropolis revealed the skeleton of a giant man, but it’s only recently that the bones were studied in any depth.

Found inside an abnormally long tomb, the man’s height measured 6 feet, 8 inches (202cm)—which would have been gigantic in ancient Rome, where the typical man averaged about 5.5 feet (167cm). For comparison, it’s worth noting that the modern-day “tallest man” is 8 feet, 3 inches high (251 cm).

But at 6 feet, 8 inches, this man would have been a giant to the people of ancient Rome, and researchers suspect that the individual had a While there have been two other ancient skeletons found in the past that have been suspected of the condition (in Poland and Egypt), the Roman skeleton is the first clearly identifiable case from ancient times, making its contribution to the historical record quite significant.

In order to learn whether this citizen of ancient Rome actually had gigantism, the study team looked at the bones and skull of the specimen. They found skull damage that’s known to be consistent with pituitary tumors (which disrupt the pituitary gland) that in turn cause the overproduction of HGH (human growth hormone). That, along with limb length and evidence of bone growth into adulthood, confirmed the gigantism diagnosis.

It’s also thought that this individual lived a short life, dying between 16-20 years old—not an uncommon occurrence for human “giants”, who struggle with respiratory issues and cardiovascular stresses. However, the exact cause of death is unknown, so researchers and archaeologists can only speculate.

Notably, the giant wasn’t buried with any funerary items, though the burial itself was typical of the period—so whoever he was, he seems to have been accepted as a member of society, though whether this came out of simple curiosity for his condition or as a normal human being, is another question entirely.

(IMG credit: Photograph by Simona Minozzi, Endocrine Society)

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