Archive for the ‘Ancient Rome’ Category

Poop Scooping in Ancient Rome

By: The Scribe on October, 2012

How’d you like to be the person rooting through 2,000-year-old bags of poop? While it may sound distasteful and kind of disgusting, a research team from the University of Oxford begs to differ: “There’s absolutely no scent,” says Herculaneum Conservation Project director Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, “It’s exactly like earth compost.”

Around ten tons of ancient poop was unearthed and bagged from a cesspit in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, and dates back to about 79 AD. This is the same year that Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying both Herculaneum and its more famous neighbour Pompeii.

Roman Cesspit -- Photograph courtesy Domenico Camardo, Herculaneum Conservation ProjectWhat’s the point of poop? Studying the excrement from an ancient town can reveal a lot about the people, their diet, and their way of life—and it’s not just poop, for that matter. It wasn’t uncommon for Romans to toss other bits of garbage into their sewers too. Refuse like animal bones, shell fragments, and seeds or seed casings have led researchers to conclude that the residents of Herculaneum ate a well-rounded, diverse diet, including fish, mollusk, chicken, olive, fig, and fennel.

Wallace-Hadrill also added that “it’s a jolly good diet—any doctor would recommend it.”

The importance of understanding what the typical Roman ate can’t be overstated, because while much is known about the delicacies eaten by the Roman elite, we understand less about the “everyday” Roman.

What else did excavators find in the sewer? Things like coins, gemstones, jewelry, and more generic items like broken pottery and lamps.

But that’s not all—in the future, deeper analysis of the poop could show what kinds of diseases or parasites ancient Romans were susceptible to or were battling at this period in history. And since only 77 of the 774 bags of poop have been opened and examined so far, who knows what other secrets the waste might hold!

It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “pooping gold”…!

A Doomed Love Affair Ends at the Battle of Actium

By: The Scribe on June, 2012

Even by today’s standards, the love affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII was pretty scandalous. Queen Cleopatra of Egypt had already had relations with Julius Caesar in a political power move that solidified her status as Egypt’s leader and gave her a son, cleverly named Caesarion.

However, when Caesar was assassinated years later, neither Cleopatra nor Roman triumvirate member Mark Antony were very pleased with the ascension of Caesar’s legal heir, Octavian. Further making family get-togethers awkward was Antony’s decision to abandon his wife, Octavia Minor, who was Octavian’s sister. He left Octavia Minor in favor of the infamous charms of Cleopatra, becoming something of a stepfather to Caesar’s son with the Egyptian beauty in the process.

This did not go over well in Rome, where not only did Octavian probably not like his sister being kicked to the curb, but politicians worried that Antony’s newfound unity with Cleopatra (and thereby, Egypt) would be a threat to the Roman Republic.

See, Antony may not have been heir to the throne, but he was a famous military leader and had the loyalty of many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers. In fact, leading up to the Battle of Actium, Antony’s military might equaled that of Octavian. The final slap in the face was when Antony unsuccessfully tried to lobby for Caesar and Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, to take the throne instead of Octavian.

Things escalated, as they have a way of doing in these types of family dramas, and war was declared. The Battle of Actium was the decisive scrap between the two forces, as Antony’s large warships were outmaneuvered by Octavian’s smaller vessels. Also, Antony’s ships were undermanned due to a nasty outbreak of malaria preceding the battle. Finally, Quintus Dellius, one of Antony’s best generals, defected to Octavian’s side before the battle and gave away Antony’s strategies.

The sea battle turned out to be a disaster for Antony, and afterward many of his soldiers deserted him. Unfortunately, that wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to the famous loverboy, as he got some bad intel that claimed Cleopatra had been captured, and thus decided to end his own life in a Shakespearean twist. Even his suicide attempt (via stabbing himself with a knife) didn’t work out that well, and he had time to be taken to Cleopatra and die in her arms.

Cleopatra obviously did not take this development well, and she tried to work her charm one more time by attempting to arouse the pity of Octavian. She was not successful, and she ended up committing suicide as well, famously doing so by coaxing a poisonous asp to bite her. To add insult to injury, Cleopatra’s son with Caesar, Caesarion was killed under Octavian’s orders later on that year, allowing Octavian to know that he had vanquished all of his challengers in one fell swoop.

With these events, not only did the long line of Egyptian pharaohs end, but the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. If there was any good to come out of it in terms of Marc Antony and Cleopatra’s doomed romance, it was that their three children together were spared from the vengeance of Octavian and raised by Antony’s spurned wife, Octavia Minor. Obviously, she did not carry a grudge as well as her brother.

Cassius Chaerea: The Man who killed Caligula

By: The Scribe on July, 2011

Iimagef you know your Roman history, you know that Caligula wasn’t exactly the most well loved emperor. Oh sure, in the beginning he was moderate and won the love of the Roman people by building aqueducts and other structures in the city. The crowds called him their baby and their star due to the fact that he was the son of Germanicus.

In the beginning, he won the support of the powerful Praetorian Guard. He gave them bonuses and if there is one thing that professional soldiers like, its extra money. If you were the Emperor, the Praetorian Guard was definitely one group of people you wanted to have on your side. In their earliest days they simply acted as bodyguards for the Emperor. Later, however, the Praetorians decided to get political. They worked with the senate in order to remove Caligula and other emperors from power and were key political players during the Year of the Four Emperors.

Caligula then started to get a swelled head. After all, he was the Emperor, wasn’t he? The people loved him and he was able to make any of his detractors vanish. Many of them were accused of various crimes and were fined in order to get his hands on their estates. He also decided to raise money by auctioning off the lives of the gladiators who fought in the Coliseum. Suddenly, Centurions were told that they had to hand over the spoils that they had acquired during plundering and while on military campaigns. This did not sit well with the Praetorian Guard or the rest of the Roman population.

In the middle of all of this was Cassius Chaerea. He was known for his bravery and skill in battle. He had seen some hard action and was part of the military that managed to subdue a mutiny that popped up on the German frontier following the death of Augustus. Did Caligula honor this soldier for his deeds? No. Instead, he decided to mock Cassius Chaerea’s voice and to call him offensive names. That mockery, combined with Caligula’s increasingly unstable behavior helped Chaerea decide to kill Caligula.

Now, he wasn’t the only one to have planned this. There were quite a few plots that centered on ending Caligula’s life. Over time, the plots slowly melded into one larger plot that involved not only Chaerea but members of the senate, the Equestrians and other members of the Praetorian Guard.

imageOn the 24th of January, 41 CE, Caligula was in a cryptoporticus or underground corridor beneath the palaces on the Palatine Hill. Caligula was speaking with a troupe of young male actors when a group of individuals approached him. That group included Cassius Chaerea. The men surrounded Caligula and began to stab him. It is generally believed that Chaerea struck first. The position in the cryptoporticus made it impossible for Caligula’s loyal bodyguards to reach him in time. Caligula was dead.

After killing the Emperor, the men moved on. They searched out Caligula’s wife, Caesonia and a daughter named Julia Drusilla. Both were killed. They would have killed Caligula’s uncle, Claudius but he had already been spirited away to a Praetorian camp. Claudius later became Emperor of Rome.

Ancient Excrement Gives Clues To Daily Life of Romans

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

Archaeologists have been given a lot of information about what the daily life of Romans was like by unearthing the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The two sites continue to be excavated today in order to find out what life was like approximately 2,000 years ago. Now Herculaneum is the site of a new find that has helped answer a lot of the questions which previous digs brought up.

Scientists have been able to excavate a cesspit that was located beneath the town. It has unearthed ten tones of human feces and ancient Roman garbage. The garbage came from both residential apartment blocks and from shops. It is believed that much of the garbage dates from around 79 CE. That was the year that Mount Vesuvius erupted burying both Herculaneum and Pompeii in a thick layer of volcanic ash.

The cesspit was located beneath a district inhabited mainly by artisans and shop keepers. In addition to the remains of food and human waste, scientists were also able to find coins, semi-precious stones, broken lamps, pottery and lost jewelry. The cesspit measured approximately 230 feet (70 m) long, three feet (one meter) wide and seven to ten feet (two to three meters) tall.

When scientists first discovered the cesspit they thought it was simply another part of the town’s drainage system. They did find, however, that the area did not have an outlet. It was then that archaeologists began studying the area in greater detail. They found that by putting the mixture through a series of graded sieves that they were able to separate out objects ranging from pottery and bone fragments to the nuts and seeds that made up part of the Roman diet.

From this mixture they were able to determine that the Romans who lived in Herculaneumimage had quite a varied diet. They found evidence that the Romans of Herculaneum consumed meat such as chicken and mutton, seafood such as fish, mollusks and sea urchins and other foods such s fennel, figs and olives. Scientists are also hoping that they will be able to find microscopic evidence of disease or to be able to find microscopic evidence of parasites that may have affected the people of Herculaneum.

Herculaneum has been a rich source of archaeological information simply because the town and its residents were well preserved by the fast moving mixture of ashes and hot gas. Remains were well preserved because the layer of ashes was so thick. It created an air tight seal which was not broken until 1738 CE. It is a valuable archaeological site as it is one of the only areas where Roman bodies were found. It was difficult for archaeologists to find evidence of Roman bodies anywhere else as cremation was a popular way of disposing of dead bodies. While Herculaneum did give archaeologists a lot of information about ancient Roman life it has been largely unexcavated. This was because archaeologists preferred the Pompeii site as it was much easier to find bodies and excavate the city.

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