Archive for the ‘Ancient Rome’ Category

Locusta- Rome’s Professional Poisoner

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

Poisoning was often used in ancient times. Whether it was knocking off one’s siblings to put someone more in line for the throne or getting rid of an unfortunate spouse, poison was, in some areas, almost an art form. Many plants such as hemlock and belladonna were used frequently in order to kill of pesky rivals or those of higher social classes.There were over 7000 known poisons that were used in ancient times

While poison was used, and many ancient rulers utilized tasters in order to make sure they were not the victims, only Rome would have a professional poisoner. Her name was Locusta and it is believed that she caused the deaths of many important Romans including the Emperor Claudius and Britannicus, Claudius’ son. Locusta’s services were first employed by Agrippina the Younger, the final wife of Claudius, to permanently take care of her husband. The weapon of choice was a large dish of poisoned mushrooms.

Locusta was, of course, arrested and was sentenced to death. Agrippina was exiled. All seemed bleak for Locusta and it likely would have been if Nero had not taken over. Nero was a bit paranoid about his position and felt threatened by Brittanicus. After all, Britannicus was Claudius’ actual son, and Nero was only a nephew. Because he wanted to get rid of Britannicus, he was willing to cancel the death penalty if Locusta was willing and able to deal with the issue. The poisoning took place in the middle of a dinner party. Britannicus’ convulsions were passed off as an epileptic seizure and he was removed from the room. He was dead several hours later.

She was more than willing to do so. She managed to figure out a way to foil the food tasters by adding the poison to water rather than to the wine. The food taster didn’t bother tasting the water. Who adds poison to water after all? Locusta would, and she did. Britannicus ended up dead and Locusta ended up with a rather highly placed patron.

Nero was Locusta's main clientLocusta became quite rich as a result. She was given land, gifts and money. More importantly, even though she was known to have committed a series of poisonings she was fully pardoned. Many of her referrals came from the Emperor himself. Locusta was so good at her work that she even began to educate others in how to use the same toxins and poisonous herbs.

When you are known to be a poisoner and your prime patron was a much-hated emperor, your life expectancy is considerably shortened after your patron is deposed. Such was the case with Locusta. After Nero committed suicide, her life went sharply downhill. Suddenly she was called to account for the many murders she had committed. She was executed the same year in which Nero died.

The Praetorian Guard- Bodyguards or Political Players?

By: The Scribe on May, 2011

If you study the history of ancient Rome, you will likely have heard of the Praetorian Guard. This was an elite group of Roman citizens and others that had been handpicked to act as body guards for the Emperor and other important figures. Members of the Guard also acted as prison guards and carried out various tasks that were considered to be too sensitive to entrust to common soldiers.

imageBut who were they really? In their earliest days, it is true that they carried out the roles for which they had been chosen. In later days, however, members of the Praetorian Guard became more powerful in their own right and began to act in ways that influenced the political structure of Rome.

Many of the Caesars had a group of personal bodyguards who were chosen for their skill and their loyalty. The Caesars who had such a bodyguard included Julius Caesar, Octavian Augustus and Sertorius. Not all of the personal bodyguards were Romans. Some Caesars chose units of Basque soldiers and others chose to have legions of German troops protecting them. However, it was not until Octavian Augustus took command in 27 BCE that the Guard was formally recruited as a tool that could be used to influence politics as well as the outcome of a battle.

The Guard started out as a relatively small unit. In its earliest days there were only nine cohorts of men. Each cohort held 500 men. Over time, the size of each cohort doubled although only three of the cohorts were on active duty in the capital. There were also cavalry units that were later added to the Guard. These patrolled the palace and other major Roman buildings. At this time, because there did not seem to be much political threat from the Guard most Romans hardly even took notice of their presence.

Things began to change in 23 CE. The prefect at the time, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, was a man with ambition. Due to his urging the Emperor Tiberius decided to build a fort specifically to house the Guard. This structure became known as the Castra Praetoria, which means the fort of the Praetorians. They now were stationed closer to Rome and could now begin to control the political climate in the city much more easily.

The Praetorians were known for their assassination of several Emperors including Caligula (who was killed in 41 CE) and Galba (killed in 69 CE). They also were the force behind Claudius taking the throne after Caligula’s assassination. Emperors knew that without the support of the Praetorian Guard their reign was likely to be a short one.

Later Emperors were careful to limit the size and influence of the Guard. The number of The gate was part of the Castra Praetoria, the fortress of the Praetorian Guardcohorts was reduced back to nine and one clever emperor, Vespasian, made sure to appoint his son as the Prefect or leader of the Guard. In 284 CE, the Guard was no longer involved in palace life. The emperor at the time, Diocletian, no longer lived in Rome. He replaced the Praetorians with two other units that would act as his personal bodyguards.

The Guard was ultimately disbanded in 312 CE by Constantine the Great. He sent the soldiers to various corners of the empire and even demolished their fortress. Their influence on Rome was finally at an end.

2000-year old Saints’ Bones discovered in Italy

By: The Scribe on May, 2011

There are many stories and legends surrounding the deaths of early Christian saints. Early saints often came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. In some cases, their decision to become Christian led to their torture and execution. In other cases, their choice to convert others or (in the case of Saint Valentine) other actions during their lifetime caused them to meet unpleasant ends.

The two early saints were buried alive in a sand pitThe early saints were killed in a variety of unpleasant ways. According to legend, two early saints named Chrysanthus and Daria were buried alive. Chrysanthus was the son of an Egyptian patrician. He and his father lived during the reign of Numerian, a Roman Emperor who reigned from 282 to 284 CE. The family was moved to Rome from Alexandria and Chrysanthus’ marriage to a Vestal Virgin named Daria was arranged. Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta. She was a Roman goddess of the hearth. The priestesses kept a sacred fire burning and were also responsible for a number of other rituals as well.

Women were given to the priesthood before they entered puberty and were required to remain celibate and serve the priesthood for thirty years. After their thirty years were up they could then marry but this was quite rare. Many of the women had enjoyed their time of freedom from the social restrictions placed on women at the time and their life of luxury while acting as priestesses. It was because of this that they usually chose to stay on even after their term of service was up.

According to legend, Chrysanthus had remained a virgin after his conversion to Christianity despite his father’s attempts to tempt him with prostitutes and other secular pleasures. After his marriage, things did not change much for Chrysanthus or Daria. Chrysanthus did manage to convert Daria to Christianity but they continued to live in a state of chastity despite their marriage.

Chrysanthys didn’t end his converting ways after his success with Daria. Instead, he continued to work on other Romans, an act that was highly illegal. He was arrested and subjected to torture. Miraculously, his prison turned into a garden. According to legend his wife was sent to live as a prostitute but was able to remain pure due to the intervention of a lioness. When it was seen that this treatment did not break her faith, she was stoned and buried alive with her husband.

A skull, believed to be that of the Christian saint ChrysanthusThe legend of these two saints grew over time. Their grave was a sand pit near the Roman catacombs. Over time, as pilgrimages to the site increased, a church grew up over their grave. Recently, the remains of the skeletons were analyzed by scientists. They had been sealed off in the Italian cathedral that had been built over their grave.

Tests that were performed on the skeletons support many of the details surrounding Chrysanthus and Daria’s life and their death as well. The female skeleton showed she lived a life of ease and that she belonged to the upper class. The male skeleton was of a younger man and both dated from the period between 80 and 340 CE. While it is impossible to definitively identify the remains as being those of Chrysanthus and Daria, the results which were released in April of 2011 show that many of the details definitely support the information about their life and their death as well.

Historic Roman Military Losses- The Battle of Cannae

By: The Scribe on April, 2011

When you mention the Second Punic War, there is a good chance that few people will know what you are talking about. Mention Hannibal and his elephants, and you start getting many more people who have any idea what you are referring to. However, Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps is only part of what was known as the Second Punic War, which lasted from 218 BCE to 202 BCE. A first Punic War had taken place from 264 BCE to 241 BCE.

Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, was a military commander who led Carthaginian troops during a portion of the First Punic War. He also led Carthaginian troops successfully during several other battles and ultimately ended up dying in battle in 228 BCE. His hatred of Rome and his desire to defeat them in battle is believed to be one of the things which shaped Hannibal’s mentality and caused him to head from Carthage to Italy with his elephants in tow.

A statue depicting Hannibal, leader of Carthaginian troopsAfter crossing into Italy, Hannibal had managed to defeat the Roman military in several battles: the Battle of the Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene. The Romans were not used to being defeated in battle and were not overly pleased that Hannibal had managed to win two battles. Because of this, they decided to appoint Fabius Maximus, a Roman politician, to the position of Dictator in order to handle the problem. This meant that he was able to take measures beyond those normally allowed a military commander in order to deal with threats to the Empire.

Fabius decided he wasn’t going to take Hannibal on directly. After all, doing so had simply led to Roman defeat and Maximus was not interested in having that happen while he was in charge. He ended up cutting off supply lines and avoiding any pitched battles against the Carthaginians. As a result of these tactics, Hannibal was able to regroup and prepare for a fight. Hannibal was able to hang around in Italy, enjoying the terrain and preparing for battle against the Romans. After all, if they wanted to go home, they would have to go back over the Alps and no one was really interested in making that trek again.

Finally, the Romans decided to put an end to Hannibal’s Italian tour. They gathered eight legions together along with allied troops and members of the cavalry. Approximately 90,000 Roman troops took the field against Hannibal’s total of 45,000 troops. The battle was to take place in 216 BCE at a town known as Cannae.

The battle was brutal. According to some historical accounts, the Romans outnumbered the A diagram showing how Roman troops were surrounded and defeatedCarthaginian troops and were armed with typical Roman arms and armor. The Carthaginians were armed with a variety of different weapons and protected by a variety of different types of armor. Hannibal was able to encircle the Roman forces and catch them in a pincer movement. They trapped the Romans and were able to slaughter them. It was reported that only 14,000 Roman troops were able to escape the battle.

Cannae remains perhaps the most massive and terrible of all Roman military losses and ended up causing Rome to completely rearrange and rethink its military structure.

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