Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Who invented trousers?

This time, it was not a Roman invention, but the Greeks relate it back to a powerful barbarian woman. According to 'ancient Greek traditions', 'the origin of this exotic attire' was referred to a series of different warrior queens of the East. In one of these legends, it is claimed 'that trousers and long sleeves were first introduced by Medea, the mythic sorceress-princess of Colchis who became the lover of the Argonaut Jason' (A. Mayor, The Amazons, Princeton, 2014).
In fact, trousers were more complicated to produce than a tunic or a toga. The latter were roughly a rectangle piece of cloth, draped and mostly fastened with pins and belt (as we can see them also in the wrap-around skirt of the Egyptians or the ancient and modern sari of Indian people).
Trousers, however, had to be invented, and they served a particular purpose - not far from their use in modern times, linked to riding, in antiquity they were produced for sitting on horses and fighting wars. Indeed, 'the earliest preserved trousers have been excavated in burials of horse-riding men and women in the Tarim Basin, dating to 1200 to 900 BC'. And in more recent excavations, 'two pairs of trousers fashioned more than three thousand years ago' were made from 'three pieces of wool with complicated zigzag and other woven patterns and featuring an inset crotch gusset for freer movement' (Mayor, 191). Again, it points to them having been used for sitting on the back of a horse.
What is interesting to note: They were not originally made for men, but used by both sexes, and it seems curious that what was once produced for hunting and warfare has been retained as the standard cloth for men today, even though there is now a general acceptance of trousers by women, while old tunica, skirts and sari are still not common as dresses for men.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hugh Moore: Challenging history lessons

Hugh Moore wrote a good article on how to create challenging history lessens:
If you wrote a diary entry for a Roman soldier, would you really know what he had for breakfast? If not, perhaps your history lessons should involve developing more authentic expertise, suggests Hugh Moore...

Monday, 13 April 2015

Underwear at night time?

In a rather recent article, Neil Adkin asked 'Did the Romans Keep Their Underwear on in Bed?' (The Classical World 93 [2000], 619-20) and admits that, unfortunately, we have very scant evidence to answer this question. 'The Romans, unlike the Greeks, were prude' (ibid. 619 n. 7), if we follow what archaeology gives us, yet, there are a few hints in texts that are of some help. Martial 11.104.7-8 writes: 'a breast band and tunic and opaque band hide you, but no girl lies naked enough for me'. A. C. Dionisotti ('From Ausonius' Schooldays? A School-Book and Its Relatives', JRS 72 [1982], 83-125), concluded from Martial that 'night-clothes as such were not then current, but retaining (a little) underwear probably was'. Rightly, one did not trust this suggestion too much. And yet, Malcolm Heath ('Was Homer a Roman?, in F. Cairns and M. Heath [eds], Papers of the Leeds International Latin Seminar, vol. 10 [Leeds, 1998], 47-48; the passage of Eustathius in question is his commentary on Od. 1.121) pointed to Eustathius that a night sleep being fully naked 'was one of the Greek customs mentioned by Homer which was supposedly transmitted to Italy by colonists from Greece' (N. Adkin, p. 619-20). Adkin himself pointed to a wonderful story, told by Jerome (4th. century AD):
'Once, when a sudden earthquake in this province in the middle of the night awoke us all out of our sleep, you, the most prudent and the wisest of men, began to pray without putting your clothes on, and recalled to our minds the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise; they, indeed, when their eyes were opened were ashamed, for they saw that they were naked, and covered their shame with the leaves of trees; but you, who were stripped alike of your shirt and of your faith, in the sudden terror which overwhelmed you, and with the fumes of your last night's booze still hanging about you, showed your wisdom by exposing your nakedness in only too evident a manner to the eyes of the brethren. Such are the adversaries of the Church; these are the leaders who fight against the blood of the martyrs; here is a specimen of the orators who thunder against the Apostles, or, rather, such are the mad dogs which bark at the disciples of Christ.'
Jessica van 't Westeinde (Durham) who drew my attention to this passage, is working on Jerome, and it is clear that Jerome is talking about a southern province, hence Adkin's conclusion that we could draw from Jerome that Romans did not wear anything at night time, seems to neglect the temperature people are facing in Bethlehem or Jerusalem (although nights can be very cold in desert areas) at night might be different from what people experienced in say Rome, Milan, Bordeaux or York. Nevertheless, it is interesting that with the scant evidence we have, sleeping naked seems to have been known whereas no evidence to the contrary, as far as we know, has yet come to light.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Abundantia, Goddess

Goddess Abundantia

The Roman goddess Abundantia brings prosperity and abundance

In Roman mythology, the Roman goddess Abundantia was the personification of abundance. A cult in the form of temples or altars is not attested. However, she was frequently depicted on coins of the Roman Empire as a symbol of general prosperity, abundance of goods and their free availability. While she is wearing mostly a cornucopia showing valuable gifts which she pours out of her horn. Sometimes she keeps ears in the other hand. In just a few, late Roman coins, the Roman goddess Abundantia occurs also as image which scatters coins among the people.


Abundantia is the symbol of well-being and success

 In Medieval mythology, Abundantia is still present. Now she is Lady Abundantia, in old French called Dame Habonde. According to this legend, Abundantia is a kind of being that brings prosperity and abundance, when she enjoys together with her night ladies food and drinks, which have ben offered to them at night. Abundantia is thus both a Roman and a Nordic goddess of prosperity, success and abundance. The legend says that she helps all who seek her help to gain gold and wealth. And Abundantia always carries a cornucopia full of gold coins, which she lets drop behind her on the way, where ever she goes. A sign for her assistance are coins found in the most amazing places. But Abundantia brings more than just pocket money! She also gives prosperity and abundance!


The benefactress on coins

On the right, Abundantia faces Emperor Traian.

(Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Abundantia coin

Abundantia did not need temples or altars, but the Roman goddess of prosperity and wealth was abundantly present on her own symbols – on coins. In her the difference between religion and mythology are blurred. While Abundantia is represented always as a beautiful woman, in one hand a cornucopia and in the other hand corn ears, she wears a wreath of flowers. On later Roman coinage Abundantia distributes coins among the people. According to the legend the Roman goddess visited the houses at night to bring prosperity to the people. Abundantia is a goddess who is especially kind to women, supports them and helps them to achieve and maintain leadership for inner wealth. Yet, she also looks after financial institutes. Warsaw has set her a monument in the famous Wilanów Palace Road. She holds a cornucopia as a symbol of abundance, food, and good harvest.


Monday, 1 December 2014



Roman Emperors at the “Games”

Like Emperor Commodus (180 to 192). Commodus was popular with the Roman people, especially because he showed himself often and ensured there was enough bread and games (panem et circenses). Because he wanted to reorganize the state finances – which had been strained by his father’s wars – by increasing the senators’ taxes and gave the commanders in the Praetorian Guard a great deal of influence, tensions soon arose with the Senate. It is also possible that the emperor’s love of elaborate public chariot races – as well as private gladiator fights – reported by historical sources might have played a role.
It is questionable, however, whether Commodus himself appeared publicly as a gladiator, as claimed by Herodian and the Historia Augusta and often adopted by modern authors. The most reliable source, the contemporary and eye witness Cassius Dio, reports explicitly (Cass. Dio 73,17,2) that the emperor appeared as a chariot driver and participated in venatio; Commodus only acted privately without an audience as a gladiator and never appeared as one publicly: “Moreover, he used to contend as a gladiator; in doing this at home he managed to kill a man now and then […]. But in public he refrained from using steel and shedding human blood.” The emperor fought publicly in the circus against people armed at most with a wooden sword.
It was mostly during his final years of rule that Commodus engaged in the exalted policies and self-glorification that characterized his legacy. While even before this a month had been renamed in Commodus’ honor, in 192 he renamed all the months after his various honorific titles (with Commodus for April, all the other months also received new names after Commodus such as Lucius or Aelius). Roman legions and other military units received the new name Commodiane, the city of Rome was renamed as Colonia felix Commodiana. In December 192, a conspiracy against the emperor began within his closest circle for unclear reasons. On the last day of the year 192, he was strangled in his bath at court by an athlete named Narcissus. With his death, the Antonine Dynasty, founded by Antoninus Pius, came to an end, and Commodus then received a damnatio memoriae. The Year of the Five Emperors followed.

The History of the Gladiators: The Path to the “Free Gladiators”

The “games” became increasingly important in the Roman Empire. The history of gladiator fights had begun with slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war who were forced into the role of gladiators. This changed throughout the time of the Roman Empire. Starting already in the 1st century, free men also volunteered as gladiators. Some were former soldiers, some wanted admiration and glory, and some needed money to pay their debts. Gladiators were not allowed to keep any prizes or gifts they received during the gladiator fights.
These free gladiators were called Auctorati. Although gladiators were lower than slaves on the social scale, at times interest in becoming a gladiator was so great that the Senate wanted to limit entry with a law. Towards the end of the Republic, for example, almost half of the gladiators were formerly free citizens who gave up their freedom upon their entry into the ranks of the gladiators. This goal can be better understood when taking into consideration the generally short life expectations of the time. A gladiator only had to fight between one and three times per year and was well-cared for the rest of the time. Even some female gladiators (some noble and well-to-do) appeared in the arena. Free gladiators played a surprising role in gladiator history.
The medical treatment gladiators received was exemplary. One of the most famous doctors of antiquity, Galen, collected his experiences during the time in which he cared for fighters at the gladiator school of Pergamon. The historian Fik Meijer even draws parallels between those who volunteered for gladiator service and the nobles who volunteered for service in the French Foreign Legion in the 19th and 20th centuries:
“Their situation can perhaps best be compared with some of the poorer aristocrats of the 19th and 20th centuries who signed up for service in the French Foreign Legion. Just as the legionnaires of the modern times, these Roman aristocrats wanted to get away from their former lives and decided to take on a role in which their previous status was irrelevant. From that point on, they shared their lives with proletariats and slaves who they wouldn’t have spared a glance for previously.”

Gladiator Diversity – Overview of the Types

Gladiators were often divided into different types depending on their weapons and style of fighting. In all, there were almost 30 different gladiators - and 42 different Roman emperors watched the bloodbaths in the Colosseum. The relative rarity of the elaborate and expensive gladiator fights remained mostly constant throughout the centuries. In 354 AD, 102 of the 176 festival days were used for theater performances, 64 for chariot races, and only 10 for gladiator fights. It was Emperor Honorius who ended the gladiator fights in 399. The last known gladiator fight in Rome was on January 1, 404.
In the Roman arenas, a series of different gladiator types that had developed throughout the centuries fought. The allure of the fights lay partially in having the various types fight against one another.
We can attribute most of our knowledge about the gladiators’ weapons from excavations in Pompeii, where a great deal of equipment from gladiator barracks was found. Today, the equipment is in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Statues and representations of gladiators on gravestones, frescoes, reliefs, mosaics, and oil lamps also give clues.
The first gladiators, who performed at funeral ceremonies or burials of noble Romans and were named bustarii after the funeral pyre (bustum), had very simple equipment. Each gladiator carried a shield and sword and was protected by a helmet and greaves. Throughout the centuries, several gladiator types developed which differed greatly from one another in terms of their equipment and fighting styles.
The earlier gladiators probably fought with weapons similar to those of the peoples who had been conquered by Rome. Later, though, a gladiator fighting as a Gaul did not necessarily have to come from Gaul. Because of the sources, the exact equipment of these earlier types is unclear.
Livius reports in his work Ab Urbe Condita (9, 40) that the Campanians allied with Rome armed the fighters who performed at their banquets with the weapons of their defeated enemies, in this case the Samnites. According to Livius, they were equipped with a plumed helmet (galea cristata), a long shield, and a left greave.
Little is known about the armor of the gladiators who fought under the name of the Gauls.

Types in the Imperial Period

Augustus reformed the gladiators, and types such as Samnite or Gallus no longer appeared. However, he took on older types such as Provocator, Thraex, and Murmillo.
The Equites opened the gladiator games with their fight. They were armed with a plumed helmet with a visor, a flat, round shield, a lance, and a short sword (gladius). In contrast to all other types of gladiators, who were clothed with only a loincloth (subligaculum), they were tunics. They began their fight on horseback but then dismounted and continued with their swords. In pictorial representations, they are usually shown in the final phase of the fight, that is, on foot and fighting with swords.
The Murmillo is a very old type of gladiator that existed in the first century BC. The armor of the Murmillo, with their short sword (gladius) and large, square shield (scutum) is comparable to the Legion infantry. As protective clothing, they had an armguard (mania) and a greave on their left leg which went up to just below the knee. They wore a visored helmet with a high, straight crest that was decorated with colorful feathers and looked like a fish (mormylos = little fish). They fought against the Thracians.
This type of fighter carried a weapon designed to point to his Thracian origins. The Thraex had a sword with the curved blade (sica) and a small, rounded square shield (parmula) and wore a visored helmet with a griffin on the front of the crest. As protective clothing, he wore a quilted armguard (manica). On both legs, he wore quilted thigh-length leg guards, and on top of these were greaves which reached above the knee.
As an alternative to the matching of Murmillo against Thraex, there was the matching of Murmillo against Hoplomachus. In weaponry and protective clothing, Hoplomachus was similar to Thraex. Instead of a round shield, he had a very small form of a Greek hoplite round shield as well as a spear (hasta). For close combat, he also had a gladius. In exceptional cases, he could also fight against Thraex.
The Special Retiarius
The Retiarius was an unusual gladiator who was only mentioned starting with the reign of Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD). His exceptional weaponry was made up of a throwing net (rete), a trident (tridens, also called fuscina), and a short sword or dagger (pugio). He had neither a shield nor a helmet. His only protective clothing was a shoulder shield (galerus) and an armguard (manica) on his left arm. At first he tried to throw the net over his opponent. Once it was thrown unsuccessfully, he tried to attack him with the trident; if this failed, he still had the sword for close fighting. His opponent was usually the Secutor.
The Pontarius was a kind of game for the Retiarius. He defended a bridge (pons) with two ramp-like ends. On each side, a Secutor attacked and tried to get up on the platform. In addition to his usual equipment, the shoulder shield (galerus) and the armguard, the Pontarius had a large stockpile of throwing objects, probably rocks.
The Secutor (pursuer) was a Murmillo specialized in fighting the Retiarius. In order to avoid his opponent’s attack with the throwing net, he wore an egg-shaped helmet which only had very small eyeholes. This limitation in his vision also protected his eyes from being poked out by the Retiarius. His weapons were the short sword and a large, square shield (scutum).
This rare type of gladiator could fight against Retiarius. Just as the Secutor, he had an egg-shaped helmet with eyeholes, he also carried the short sword (gladius) in his right hand, and his right arm was also protected by an armguard. The special characteristic of the Scissor was that he had no shield, and instead his left arm was put in a rounded tube that encased his entire lower arm. At the end of the tube was a short shaft with a blade shaped like a mincing knife. With this weapon, he could cut the Retiarius’ net or parry his trident. He could also cut open his opponent with a slice of the blade. As he couldn’t protect his body with a shield, he wore knee-length chainmail called lorica hamate or scale armor (lorica squamata).
The Provocator (Challenger) is known starting in the late Republic and fought, like Equites, against others of his type. In the 1st century AD, he wore a helmet similar to a legionary helmet. Only in the 2nd and 3rd centuries did he have a helmet without a crest and with a steeply descending neck guard but with a visor. He was armed with a mid-sized square shield (scutum), a crescent-shaped breastplate (pectoral), and a gladius. As protection, he had a greave on his left leg and a manica on his right arm.
There were a few women who fought in the arena, although it was hardly commonplace. A relief from Halicarnassus (Turkey) shows their equipment. They could have fought in all types, but the two female gladiators (gladiatrices) shown are equipped the same as the Provocators.
The Essedarius was another type of gladiator that only fought against its same type. The name is derived from the term for a Celtic chariot (essedum). It is assumed that the Essedarii opened the fight on their chariots and then, similar to the Equites, dismounted and continued the fight on foot. The Essedarius had an armguard on his swordarm, a short sword, and gaiters or short bandages on both legs. In addition, he wore a helmet which in early times was similar to a legionary helmet and later to the Secutor helmet.
Very Rare Gladiators
There were also other types of gladiators who are mentioned only rarely. For example the Dimachaerus, who fought with two blades, that is, daggers or swords like the gladius. He wore padded protection on his body, bandages on his dagger arm and on the legs, and sometimes also greaves, but no helmet. His name is made up of the Greek words for “two” (dio) and “knives” (machaera). The Sagittarius (archer) is only depicted on a relief in Florence where two armed and helmed archers shoot at each other in an arena. Andabates is mentioned by Cicero but does not appear again in the imperial period. His eyes were bound, and he therefore had to rely on his hearing since only the reaction of the crowd or the sounds of breathing could give him clues as to where his opponent was located. Laquearius (lasso fighter) was only mentioned by Isidor of Sevilla. There is also little known about Paegniarius.
The Paegniarius was not armed with deadly weapons. A scene on a mosaic in Nennig is often interpreted as a representation of this type of gladiator. The fighters carry a whip in their right hand and a wooden board bound to their left arm. According to a description from Sueton, Emperor Caligula had fathers with physical handicaps fight as gladiators in the arena for entertainment. Since there are Roman representations of people of small stature with all types of weapons, these may have also appeared as Paegniarii with dulled weapons for entertainment. It is likely that the Paegniarii appeared in preliminary fights (prolusion) and venatio.
The Veles, on the other hand, was a type mentioned only by Isidor of Sevilla as well as in several inscriptions with the abbreviation VEL. The name comes from the most poorly armed Roman soldiers, velites (skirmishers), during the time of the Punic Wars. It is assumed that their style of fighting was similar to this type of soldier. The Crupellarius was mentioned by Tacitus as a Gallic fighter. A bronze statuette from France could be a representation of this fully armored fighter. The Scaeva was a gladiator who fought left-handed. Emperor Commodus, who like to privately fight as a gladiator – not in the arena -, fought as a secutor scaeva. If two left-handed gladiators were matched, it was called a left-handed fight (pugna scaevata). The Venator fought against wild animals. That is why it does not belong in the true gladiator typologies. 

Friday, 28 November 2014

Roman Clothings

All in all, Roman clothing was similar to the Greek.
The tunic was a piece of clothing for everyone. It was usually made up of two square woolen cloths which were connected at the shoulders and hung down to the knees. They were most commonly made out of uncolored wool and were therefore the color of oatmeal. - The tunic was held together at the waist with a belt. Those who were more well-to-do wore longer tunics.
The most famous piece of clothing for men was the toga, which was worn over the tunic. All freeborn were legally allowed to wear a toga. Usually, however, only men of the upper class – the “elected people” – wore a toga as a sign of an official mission: magistrates and senators wore them when they were carrying out their state obligations. But putting on such a toga was not an easy task - the material was folded and artfully draped over the shoulders! That is why they were often replaced with a cloak (pallium), but this was frowned upon in some circles.
Roman Toga
The piece of clothing that was more popular than the toga in the end was the simple tunic, which was worn by men as well as women: a simple shirt, usually of white wool or linen made up of two parts sewn together. They were worn day and night. If you wanted to relax at home, you loosened the belt. In winter, people would wear up to four tunics layered on top of one another!
A special kind of tunic for women was the stole: it was favored in particular by matrons from the upper class and was characterized by a purple border on the lower hem. Of course women wore something like underclothes under the tunic: an apron and chest band. Women of the common classes were not allowed to wear stoles and probably didn‘t have the money for such elaborate clothing.
In the imperial period, the tunic was replaced by a cloak called pallium for men and palla for women. The cloak, which was taken from the Greeks, was easy to throw over the shoulders and usually went down to the ankles. The most popular color was purple.
If the weather was bad, there was also a poncho (paenula) with a hood, made of a rough woolen material. It was a funnel-shaped all-weather cloak without sleeves. Even simple folk could afford it!
In a society like that of the Romans, in which social position was put on display with status symbols and external signs, the discrepancy between rich and poor manifested itself in the clothing and in particular in the cloak. This was done with outward splendor, opposition, attracting attention, or a purposefully unkempt appearance – just like today!
Roman clothing

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Roman Bookseller

Booksellers in Ancient Rome

In antiquity, the author wrote the original manuscript of his work himself or dictated to a scribe slave. The manuscript was then given to a publisher, who had it copied by professional scribes, who were usually slaves. Before distribution, the ancient Roman books were proofread by an editor (lat. corrector) for mistakes. However, sometimes this was done rather poorly, as the geographer Strabon (63 BC – 19 AD) complained about error-ridden copies in Rome and Alexandria’s bookstores. From an exchange of letters between Cicero and his publisher and friend Atticus, it can be seen that Atticus even recalled books that were already at the booksellers upon Cicero’s request in order to make late corrections.

Roman books - bookseller

For early Christianity, we are given indications for the entire process of editing, publishing, distributing and selling of books in the city of Rome and beyond. In the so-called Shepherd of Hermas we read:

(2) The elderly woman came and asked if I had already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. 'You have done well', she said, 'for I have some words to add. Then, when I complete all the words, they will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. (3) And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.[1]
If this short note reflects a typical praxis, then books were published and distributed by the author, once they had been read by a few insiders and amendments had been made by those first readers. But the publishing remained the author’s responsibility, as did the first copying and sending out of the book. The first copies, then, went to specifically commissioned people, as in this case to Clement who was the agent for foreign cities. These agents made further copies (as otherwise Clement could not have sent the book to a number of foreign ‘cities’), while others, as here Grapte, used their copy for instruction. The reading out of the book to the leading people in the community, the presbyters, without handing it out, lay with the author. Books, therefore, did not simply make their way into the public domain. As today, there existed proper structures and procedures for writing, correcting, proof-reading, revising, publishing, copying and distribution processes that led to a diverse readership with regards to location, purpose and intent.

[1] Herm. vis 2.4 [8], trans. B.D. Ehrman, Loeb Library.