The Misunderstood Vomitorium

Content note: bodily fluids and disordered eating

Latin, like any foreign language, can be confusing sometimes, especially when so many Latin words have been adopted into other languages and often changed in the process. Still, it’s hard to think of a Latin word more misunderstood than vomitorium. The popular image is that Romans had rooms in their houses where they went to purge themselves mid-orgy so they could go back and keep eating. It’s an entertaining image (for certain values of entertainment), but it’s also completely false.

The word vomitorium is a form of vomitorius, derived from the verb vomo, meaning “to vomit.” In normal usage, vomitorius refers to emetics, substances used to induce vomiting for medical purposes. Pliny the Elder uses the word in this sense to describe the medicinal properties of some sort of plant (the exact plant is unclear, but it seems to be something in the allium family).

There is a plant with leek-like leaves and a reddish bulb that the Greeks call “bulbine.” It is considered very effective in treating wounds, so long as they are recent. The bulb that is called “vomitorius” because of its emetic effect has dark, glossy leaves that are longer than those of other types.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 20.40

(My own translations)

Only one extant source uses the word vomitorium in reference to an architectural feature, and it was not a room for vomiting. The passage is from the Saturnalia by Macrobius, a late Roman writer. The Saturnalia is a fictional account of a dinner party conversation, a popular genre among Greek and Roman writers. In this case, the diners spend a good deal of time talking about the origins and usage of various words, particularly those connected with eating and digestion. Vomitorium comes up in a discussion of metaphorical and poetic uses of vomo:

Lucilius said in his fourteenth book:

“If there were no praetor hanging around bugging me

that wouldn’t be bad, I tell you. He’s the one disemboweling me.

In the morning every house vomits a wave of sycophants.”

That’s well said, and it’s an old expression, too, for Ennius says:

“And the Tiber river vomits into the salt sea”

And so nowadays we talk about “vomitoria” in the theatre, through which crowds of people pour in to get to the seats.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 6.4.2-3

Macrobius is describing the monumental entrances of public buildings that were built to accommodate large flows of people, such as we typically find on Roman theatres and amphitheatres. They look something like this:

Vomitorium of the Colosseum looking outward, photograph by Ank Kumar via Wikimedia (Rome; 80 CE; stone)
Vomitorium of the Roman amphitheatre in Bordeaux looking inward, photograph by Michaël Van Dorpe via Wikimedia (Bordeaux; 3rd c. CE; stone)

It’s hard to say how formal or widely used the term was. We don’t have any mention of it from Roman texts on architecture. It certainly carries more than a whiff of aristocratic disdain for the crowds of ordinary folks who had to jostle their way into the seats, unlike Macrobius and his upper-crust set who could count on reserved seating. Still, it must have been a word that late Roman aristocrats like Macrobius would recognize, or else there would be no reason to bring it up in a discussion of etymology and poetry. In modern times, architectural historians have taken Macrobius’ bit of upper-class slang and turned it into a technical term for describing the wide entry passages of Roman public buildings, and you’ll find it in more than one scholarly work on Roman architecture, but there’s no evidence that the people who designed, built, or used those structures referred to them as such.

Now, it’s not entirely clear how we got form a misapplied architectural term in historical scholarship to the idea of upper-class Romans pausing mid-party to go to a separate room and throw up, but somewhere along the way there are probably a couple generations of bored school kids enlivening their Latin lessons with overactive imaginations and gross-out humor. They may well have gotten inspiration from some of the more revolting passages in Latin literature. In one such passage, the philosopher Seneca laments the maltreatment of enslaved household workers who are made to stand silent and hungry while the man of the house overindulges:

For this reason, I laugh at those who think it is unseemly to share a meal with their slaves. Why should it be, when it is only haughty habit that has a crowd of slaves standing around while the lord dines? He eats more than he can handle and in his overpowering greed stretches out his belly until it can no longer do its job, then he has to work harder to get it all out than he did to put it in. And all this time, the poor slaves cannot move their lips, not even to speak.

Seneca, Moral Letters 47.2

Another, even more explicit example comes from Suetonius’ biography of the emperor Claudius:

He rarely left the dining table until he was gorged and sloshed, and as soon as he was on his back and snoring, a feather was slipped into his mouth to get him to unburden his stomach.

Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, “The Deified Claudius” 33.1

Both of these passages pretty clearly describe elite Romans overeating and then inducing themselves or being induced to vomit. It would be a mistake, however, to take either of these passages as evidence that self-purging was a normal enough part of Roman life to require a dedicated room.

Seneca is condemning the greed, vanity, and inhumanity of wealthy Romans. The point of his imagery is the revolting contrast between the master who eats more than he can handle and the slaves who get nothing to eat at all. Seneca is not describing the real behavior of a real person but concocting a repulsive mental image to make a philosophical point. Suetonius, on the other hand, is describing a real person’s real behavior, but that person was not a typical Roman. The Roman elite found Claudius eccentric and off-putting, a fact Suetonius illustrates with multiple anecdotes. What Suetonius describes here is not the lifestyle of an average Roman aristocrat but a weird, gross habit of a weird, gross person.

Both of these passages are meant to disgust the audience, but neither was written with modern sensibilities in mind. They were meant to be disgusting to an audience of elite Romans. Seneca and Suetonius wrote about self-purging Romans not because it was something Romans did but because it was something their Roman readers would cringe at. If a mid-feast vomit had been a common enough practice to warrant making it a special feature of the home, these passages would have had no force.

Now, none of what I’ve explained here should be taken to mean that no Roman ever induced a post-feast hurl, nor even that there were no Romans who made a habit of it. People do a lot of strange things, and people of any culture or time can have a troubled relationship with food, but a few people acting strangely does not amount to a cultural practice. The idea of the vomitorium as a purging room is a bizarre pile-up of misunderstood slang, schoolkid humor, and a pruriently selective reading of sources. The ancient Romans weren’t any more likely to be intentionally losing their dinners than anyone is today, and they certainly didn’t build rooms for it.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool, from worldbuilding to dialogue.

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Light Magnifier out of a Spherical Water Bottle

I stumbled upon a Tumblr post by Peter Morwood on non-electric light sources in period and/or fantasy writing and screen adaptations, and found out about a brilliant (no pun intended!) historical lighting aid. It’s simply a spherical water bottle or a glass globe arranged in front of a candle to concentrate the light.

It’s surprisingly effective as a magnifier: placing a candle behind the bottle does diffuse much more light around than placing a candle beside it. Morwood tried it in his kitchen with good results.

Tumblr Peter Morwood Light Magnifier Comparison

The principle works with electric light bulbs, too, as the photo below with a woodcarver shows.

Tumblr Peter Morwood Wood Carver

Similar to for instance burning glasses or reading stones, these light magnifiers are apparently often called lacemaker’s lamps, (glass) focusing lamps, or magnifying globes or condensers. If interested, you can read more e.g. at LaceNews blog post Collecting: Lighting for the Lacemaker.

Morwood even refers to one in Peter Jackson’s movie Fellowship of the Rings:

Tumblr Peter Morwood LotR FotR

Well, what do you know! From the extensive making-of documentaries I already knew how carefully the Weta teams worked on the Lord of the Rings props. This just proves it again. Great job!

Found and images via Peter Morwood on Tumblr.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool from worldbuilding to dialogue.

Calendars and Their Discontents

Our Western calendars will soon be moving on from 2022 to 2023. Since most of us are used to living with calendars that count forward inexorably year after year, it may be hard to grasp that the idea was, at one time, revolutionary and even provocative.

In the ancient world, most peoples’ ways of tracking time were cyclical rather than linear. Observing the natural cycles of day and night, the moon’s phases, and the turning of the seasons led people to construct methods of tracking time that always returned to the same starting point. In small-scale agrarian societies, there was rarely a need to keep track of time periods longer than a year or to know exactly how long ago events out of living memory had happened. Larger, more organized societies began to think on longer time scales, but still within a cyclical framework. Monarchic states like Egypt, Babylon, and Persia dated events by regnal years: the year in which a new king acceded to the throne was year 1, the next year was year 2, and so on, until the king died and the cycle started over again with year 1 of the next king.

Sometimes the idea of the cycle was even more important than the reality: some Egyptian inscriptions record thirty-year celebrations for kings whose reigns lasted only ten or twenty years. A king was expected to celebrate his thirtieth year, so it was recorded in inscriptions whether it had happened or not. The cycles of regnal years were thus treated as if they were as natural and dependable as the rise of the sun and the waning of the moon. These calendars had no defined beginning or regular way of determining how far back events of the distant past were.

For those with an interest in the past, these cycles could be organized in order. Many states, from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman republic, kept annals, records of reigning figures and significant events on a year by year basis. The structure of the calendar in which these events were recorded, though, continued to prioritize the regular return of cycles rather than linear movement forward.

The first Western calendar to have a defined beginning and a linear count of years was initiated by the Seleucid dynasty after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was appointed governor of Babylon under Alexander’s successor in 311 BCE. A few years later, Seleucus broke away and declared himself king of a new kingdom stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of India. Rather than use regnal years like earlier kings, Seleucus instituted a new calendar that was backdated to begin with his appointment as governor and continued numbering the years from then on, never resetting when a new king came to power.

The novelty of Seleucus’ calendar was a response to the unusual nature of the kingdom itself, a cobbled-together empire of diverse peoples, many of whom had traditions of civic life and imperial rule thousands of years older than the upstart Macedonian warlords now running the show. Seleucus’ calendar was meant to unify the many peoples of his realm but also to mark a definitive break with the past. The Seleucid dynasty was to be unique, its claims to power not dependent on anything that had come before. Its subjects should not be allowed to imagine that the Seleucid kings might have their time and then fall to be replaced by new cycles of native rulers. The Seleucid era was intended to be eternal, and the way it counted endlessly into the future, never cycling back, was a key part of the regime’s propaganda.

Like all imperial propaganda, however, the Seleucid calendar met resistance. Local people throughout the empire continued to use their own traditional ways of marking time alongside the official calendar. Other powers responded by creating their own linear calendars with different starting points. An inscription from Greece known as the Parian Chronicle takes the idea of a definitive turning point and inverts it, recording historical events in terms of how far in the past they happened before a defined date. This chronicle made an implicit challenge to the Seleucid kings in two ways. First, the date from which it counted back was the date of a major treaty between Greek cities and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, one of the Seleucids’ major rivals. More subtly, by looking backwards rather than forwards, it emphasized the antiquity and historical importance of the Greek cities in contrast to the parvenu status of the Seleucids.

Other peoples found other ways of challenging the Seleucids’ claims to authority. Among the Jewish people, who struggled for freedom from Seleucid rule, the new calendar inspired a rethinking that made the shift from cyclical time to linear time a rallying point against oppression. If time could have a definitive beginning, it could also have a definitive end. Apocalypticism, the belief that the end of the world was foreseeable, even imminent, became one of the unifying ideas of Jewish resistance to Seleucid rule. Apocalyptic narratives gave an urgency to resistance: if the world was coming to an end, then the time to act in the name of justice was now. They also inspired the hope that no matter how powerful the Seleucid king and his armies might seem, the divine plan for the world was greater.

This apocalyptic thread remained part of Jewish thought, if not always in the mainstream, even after the defeat of the Seleucid kings. It saw a revival when the Jews faced another imperial intrusion under Rome. Rome had its own linear calendar, counting years forward from the supposed founding date of the city in 753 BCE, and apocalyptic narratives were as useful in organizing anti-Roman resistance as they had been in the face of the Seleucids. The early Christian movement took shape in the turmoil of this time and took on the idea of a foreordained end to time as part of its own narrative.

Something as seemingly straightforward and utilitarian as a calendar can have complicated layers of meaning. Enjoy 2023!

Image: Ancient sundial, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Currently Side Archaeological Museum, Side, Turkey; Roman period; stone and metal)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Atlantis Is Not a Myth

Atlantis is not a myth. And I don’t mean it’s real, either. Atlantis is something neither mythic nor real: it’s fiction.

Atlantis is an old Greek story, but not all old stories are myths. Myths are stories passed down and retold over time as part of a culture’s collective tradition. They have no identifiable author and no original, canonical form. Every version of a mythic story is a retelling of something older and usually already familiar to its audience. The stories of the Trojan War, for example, are myths. They were part of the common oral tradition of ancient Greece, reimagined in particular versions by the Homeric poets, Athenian dramatists, the Roman poet Virgil, and countless other storytellers and artists in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Every version of the story represents just one person’s imagination playing with existing ideas, characters, and motifs.

Modern attempts to find some truth behind the story of Atlantis often approach it as if it were a myth, something from deep in Greek history with an unrecovered truth behind it. It isn’t. There is no myth of Atlantis, no long tradition of reinterpreting a shared narrative like the tradition of the Trojan War. Stories about Atlantis appear in only two ancient texts, Timaeus and Critias, both written by Plato.

Plato was a philosopher who liked to create thought experiments and fictional stories to illustrate his ideas. He told a story about people chained up in a cave watching shadows on a wall to describe minds unenlightened by philosophy. He imagined a magic ring that made its wearer invisible as a way of talking about how people behave when they have the power to do what they want without fear of consequences. He made an analogy between the human soul and a charioteer trying to manage unruly horses. None of these stories were myths; they were invented to get philosophical ideas across. There was no deep oral tradition about people trapped in a cave. Plato just made it up.

Atlantis is the same. Plato made up a story about an ancient rival to Athens as a vehicle for philosophical discussions about law, society, and human nature. There is no deeper history behind Atlantis. No writer or artist before Plato had ever depicted the city; no one after him told any stories about it either. Some later authors discussed Plato’s Atlantis story and its meaning, but no one in antiquity independently told their own story of Atlantis the way that Greek poets and playwrights created their own versions of the Trojan War. Folks today looking for some historical reality behind Atlantis are missing the point just as much as if they were to go looking for an actual cave with people chained up watching shadows.

Now, this does not mean that Plato’s imaginary city has no connection to the real world. When people make up fictional stories, they often draw on actual things they know about. When Tolkien invented Middle Earth, he based the Shire on his childhood memories of the English countryside, the Dead Marshes on the horrific battlefields of the Great War, and the Riders of Rohan on his knowledge of early English history and legend. Elements of the real world found their way into Tolkien’s imaginary world, but these do not make Middle Earth real. You could go out and explore English villages and country pubs, even the very same ones that Tolkien knew from his youth, but that doesn’t mean you’ve found the Shire.

The same is true of Plato’s Atlantis. When Plato was imagining his fictional city, he probably drew on details of the world and history that he knew. Plato described Atlantis as the home of a powerful empire based in a circular city with concentric rings of land and sea that was ultimately destroyed by earthquakes. The idea of a powerful empire was not much of a reach for an Athenian; in the century before Plato, Athens had fought against the expansion of the Persian Empire before becoming an imperialist power itself. The idea of a city with a circular plan suited Plato’s philosophical allegory, but it might also have been suggested by real-world settlements he had seen or heard about (possibly translated through the imagination of other Greeks, such as Herodotus’ rather fantastical description of the city of Ecbatana). The idea of concentric harbors may have been suggested by the island of Thera (modern Santorini), which has a core island nearly surrounded by outer islands. The Greek world in Plato’s day had plenty of experience with earthquakes, landslides, and coastal floods from which he could imagine a land sinking beneath the water. Given Greek trade connections with the eastern Mediterranean, he may well have also heard flood myths from the Levant or Mesopotamia that he drew on for his tale of destruction. While Plato’s fictional Atlantis may have drawn on some preexisting real or mythic features for its details, that does not mean there is any more substance to the story. Thera is not the “real” Atlantis any more than a house with a green door is the “real” Bag End. We can’t use the Atlantis story to learn anything about actual history any more than we can learn the history of England from Tolkien.

Our desire to find a truth behind a myth can lead us to dismiss the intelligence and creativity of people in the past. Ancient people were just as complicated and imaginative as we are. Every story we tell does not have some shadowy reality behind it; sometimes we just make stuff up. So did they. In the case of Atlantis, we’re not even dealing with a mythic tradition handed down from previous generations. It’s fiction. Plato just made it up. There is no reality to find behind the story. There isn’t even a myth behind it.

Image: Fictive map of Atlantis from Mundus Subterraneus via Wikimedia (1664; engraving; by Athanasius Kircher)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Writing Prophecies

Prophecies are a staple of fantasy fiction, and for good reason: they are a convenient way of providing the heroes with information to get the plot moving while also imparting an aura of ominous mystique. How do you write a good prophecy for your story or game? Let’s start by looking at how prophecies worked in historical cultures.

Nearly every people in history has believed in some way of communicating with supernatural forces in order to gain special knowledge or insight, but the methods, purposes, and results of that communication could vary widely from culture to culture. By “prophecy” we usually mean something more particular: statements about specific future events which impart the necessary knowledge for the recipient to avert, influence, or at least cope with the effects of those events. Numerous cultures in history believed in some way of gaining these kinds of insights.

The problem that historical oracles faced, of course, was that predicting the future doesn’t actually work. The priestesses at Delphi or the authors of the Sibylline Books at Rome had no special insight into the future any more the authors of modern horoscopes and fortune cookies do. Nevertheless, many people believed in the power prophecy. The Histories by Herodotus, a work which makes frequent references to oracles, gives a useful view of the ways in which people coped with the unreliability of prophecy.

Reasonable guesswork. Prophets may not have special knowledge of the future, but they can make reasonable guesses about what is likely to happen, the same as anyone else. When the small Greek city of Miletus led a rebellion against the powerful Persian Empire, it didn’t take much special foreknowledge to predict that things were going to go badly for Miletus. The Delphic oracle produced this prophecy: “Miletus, you who scheme at evil deeds, will be a feast and splendid gifts for many. Your wives will wash the feet of long-haired men. Strangers will tend my shrine at Didyma.” (Herodotus, Histories 6.19, my own translations) This prophecy turned out to be true, but plenty of other Greeks claiming no connection to the gods also knew that things were going to go badly for Miletus, and so refused to join the revolt.

Vagueness. The standard dodge for prophets from Delphi to Nostradamus is to give an answer vague and cryptic enough that it will seem to suit whatever actually happens. The most famous example is perhaps the Delphic oracle’s response to the Lydian king Croesus, who asked whether he should invade Persia. The oracle replied that by doing so, Croesus would destroy a great empire, neglecting to mention which empire would be destroyed. As it happened, Croesus’ attack on Persia led to the Persian conquest of Lydia, but if things had gone the other way, the oracle would still have been right. (Herodotus 1.53)

Unspecificity. Some prophecies, like the one given to Croesus about his war with Persia, gave vague information about a specific event; others gave detailed information without specifying what event it related to. For example, a little-known Athenian seer named Lysistratus predicted that “The women of Colias will cook with oars,” which came true when wreckage from the naval battle of Salamis washed up on Cape Colias and was used as firewood by the locals. (Herodotus 8.96) This prophecy is unambiguous about what will happen, but says nothing about when or why. Colias was downstream of an important harbor and shipping channel; it was not hard to predict that wreckage from some significant event would wash up there and be salvaged sooner or later.

Selection bias. People tend to remember things that confirm their beliefs and forget things that don’t. People who believed in the power of oracles accordingly tended to remember prophecies that turned out to be true or could be interpreted to be true. Almost all the historical prophecies we have recorded were written down only after they had apparently come true. A number of recorded prophecies from the Delphic oracle begin with the word “But,” suggesting that some preceding part of the oracle has been left out, possibly because it turned out to be wrong or not relevant, such as in another Delphic reply to Croesus: “But when a mule becomes the king of the Medes, then flee, soft-footed Lydian, by the pebbly Hermus, and do not be ashamed to be a coward.” (Herodotus 1.55) This part of the prophecy was interpreted after the fact to refer to the Persian king Cyrus, whose ancestry was both Persian and Median, analogous to a mule, which is the progeny of a horse and a donkey.

Intrigue. Sometimes prophecies were manipulated in order to achieve the results some party wanted. It was an open secret that the priests at Delphi could be bribed to give particular answers. Other oracles and seers were no doubt similarly open to influence. The Alcmaeonid family of Athens were known to have bribed the Delphic priests to encourage the Spartans to help them against their rivals in Athens. (Herodotus 5.63) Another kind of manipulation is exemplified by Onomacritus, a collector of oracles who tried to encourage the Persian king Xerxes to invade Greece by sharing only those prophecies in his collection that seemed positive for him and hiding any that seemed negative. (Herodotus 7.6)

Now, as an author with full control over the world of your imagination, you don’t have to resort to any of these dodges. If you want your ancient prophecies to come true, then they will. The problem with prophecies in fiction, though, is they risk undermining the agency of the main characters. If prophecies predict the threat or its resolution too reliably or in too much detail, opportunities for drama are lost. If your work is for a game or some other setting where other people will have input to the plot, you can bet your dice that as soon as you hand them a prophecy they will try to exploit, invalidate, or weasel out of it in some way.

Uncertainty is a source of drama. When your audience already knows how everything is going to end, it’s harder to keep them interested in the story. Prophecies risk diminishing drama by introducing too much certainty. How do you keep the uncertainty in a story when there’s a prophecy involved? The techniques mentioned above are a good place to start because they serve the same function for a different reason: historical prophets had to keep uncertainty in their predictions because they didn’t actually know what was going to happen. You can use the same ideas in order to avoid tipping your hand too much to your audience or players.

Reasonable guesswork. If an in-story prophecy confirms something your heroes already suspect or adds useful detail to a picture that was already becoming clear, it can add impulse to the plot without dominating it. Conversely, a prophecy that doesn’t provide answers but spurs your heroes to ask important questions can be a good way to get things moving.

Vagueness and unspecificity. Both these techniques are good ways of keeping a prophecy from overwhelming the agency of your characters. If the prophecy refers to a specific event but doesn’t give clear details about it, or gives a clear prediction without specifying when, why, or how it will come about, there’s more room for your characters to work around it.

Selection bias. Lean in to the fact that prophecies can be wrong. If your characters (or their players) are aware that prophecies are unreliable or only seem true after the fact, their doubts about the truth or usefulness of the prophecy they’ve received can be a good source of drama.

Intrigue. There’s even more drama to be mined out of the fact that a prophecy might have been tampered with or invented, or that an authentic prophecy might have been delivered to your characters in such a way as to influence their understanding of it. Such puzzles open up interesting possibilities for side plots and interactions with antagonists.

As an author, the future is in your hands, a power that historical prophets never had. Still, you can learn from their examples how to make your prophecies sufficiently portentous without overwhelming your characters and plot.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Roman Leather Toy Mouse from Vindolanda

The Roman fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in Britain has been a source of many remarkable finds. The unusual conditions at the site preserved many examples of the kinds of organic material that usually disappears to decay, including wood, textiles, and leather. When the onset of the covid-19 pandemic delayed the start of the excavation season, researchers at Vindolanda used the time to reexamine some leather scraps that had been turned up in earlier seasons and came across an unexpected find: a toy mouse!

Toy mouse, image via Vindolanda Charitable Trust (Vindolanda; 1st-2nd c. CE; leather)

The mouse is cut from a flat scrap of leather and has markings on the body to indicate eyes and fur. Mice would have been a common sight around the fort and the nearby village, a constant nuisance to a community that depended on stored grain to survive through the winter. Since we know there were families and children in and around the fort, this mouse might have been a child’s toy. Or perhaps it was made to be slipped into some unsuspecting legionary’s bedroll for a practical joke. Whatever the original intent for this mouse, it’s still cute two thousand years later!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Gold and Silver in Fantasy Coinage

Are your fantasy characters in the market for a loaf of bread? A new suit of armor? A mercenary army? Then it’s time to think about how people in your world buy and sell things. Of course, the beauty of fantasy is that you can do anything. Do you want to write a world where the common currency is bolts of silk and songs of youth? Go for it! But if you want your world to be more grounded in the familiar, coins stamped out of gold and silver are both historically accurate and staples of the genre.

Gold and silver are both relatively soft metals that were easy to work using pre-modern technology. They are unreactive and resistant to corrosion, so coins will not lose weight over time and use. They are also metals that are rare and highly valued for creating objects of beauty and prestige, which gives coins struck from these metals intrinsic value not dependent on confidence in the state that issued them, unlike modern paper money. Gold and sliver coins were worth something no matter where you carried them, even if just to be melted down as bullion.

In the modern economy, with prices driven by industrial demand and market speculation, the relative values of gold and silver can vary widely. In pre-modern times, the values of these metals was more stable, shaped by the productivity of mining and refining on one hand and cultural demand on the other. Geological research has found that silver and gold ores occur naturally at a ratio of about 19 to 1, which is to say that for every 19 grams of silver in the earth waiting to be dug up, there is about 1 gram of gold. Ancient mining techniques were of limited efficiency, however, and it is likely that the ratio of metals actually put into use was closer to 10 to 1. Where we are able to compare the historical values of gold and silver coins in use by the same culture, we tend to find them falling within these brackets: one gold coin was typically worth 10 to 20 times its weight in silver coins. Bear in mind also that gold has about twice the density of silver, so a gold coin will weigh about double what a silver coin of the same size weighs. When gold and silver coins are struck at the same size, that means that we would expect one gold coin to have a value of anywhere from 20 to 40 silver coins.

Assigning an actual value to an individual coin is a trickier proposition. Pre-industrial economies are hard to compare directly with the modern world. Some things are much cheaper in real terms for us today than for our ancestors, like clothes and books; others are much more expensive, like labor. We rarely have good, comprehensive evidence for what a given amount of money could buy in any historical context (and when we do, it is often hard to tell whether the values and prices quoted are realistic or an expression of what someone in authority thought things ought to be worth).

In many cases, our best way of estimating the worth of a coin is to put it in terms of daily wages for a soldier. Military pay was a pressing matter of state finance that was important to get right—you definitely don’t want to forget to pay the people hanging around your castle with swords. That leaves us with reasonably good evidence for soldiers’ pay in many historical contexts (of course, not all soldiers are paid in money).

Gold coins are classic standbys for fantasy currency, but historically gold was too valuable for everyday use. The value of any specific coin depended on its weight, with heavier coins naturally worth more, but even a small gold coin was typically worth a great deal. Examples like the Persian daric or the Roman aureus had a value of approximately a month’s wages for a soldier or a skilled crafter. Most people in their daily lives would never even have seen a gold coin, let alone had occasion to spend one.

Silver was the standard metal for coinage in most places and times. Silver, like gold, could be minted at whatever weight the issuing state wanted, from large, high-value coins to tiny small change. Often, however, the basic silver coin in circulation, like an Athenian drachma or an early Islamic dirham, amounted to about a soldier’s daily wage.

The difference in value between gold and silver helps explain why gold coinage was rarely debased (issued at lower purity by mixing precious and base metals or applying a precious coating over a base metal core), but silver sometimes was. Gold coins were used for major state expenses and usually only came into the hands of people who could cause real trouble if they felt stiffed; silver was used for routine purchases and changed hands among people with limited recourse except to treat their debased coins as being worth less than face value.

Now, if you remember your classic Dungeons and Dragons coin charts, you may be wondering “What about platinum, electrum, and copper?” All of those metals do appear in pre-modern coinage, but they all have their limitations.

Platinum is extremely rare and hard to work by pre-industrial means. At least in the eastern hemisphere, it was not identified as a distinct metal until the 1500s. There is some evidence that metalworkers in pre-Columbian South America created alloys of platinum and gold, but the process is poorly understood, and they weren’t making coins with it. Traces of platinum are found in some ancient and medieval gold coins, but only as impurities not refined out of the metal. Moneyers in any pre-industrial world are unlikely to have the technology to deliberately produce platinum coins, and even if they did, the expensive and labor-intensive process would make it impractical.

Electrum is an alloy of gold and silver, either naturally occurring or produced by smelting. Some early coins were minted out of electrum, but a problem arose: because the ratio of gold to silver in a particular batch of electrum coins could vary, it was hard to be confident of its real value. Too much silver in the mix, and people might be reluctant to accept a coin at its stated value; too much gold, and it would be more profitable to melt coins down for their bullion value than to spend them. Most monetary systems moved away from electrum to pure gold and silver for the sake of stability.

Copper, usually in alloyed form like bronze or brass, was used for low-value coinage in many places. These coins could be useful for paying wages to ordinary workers or buying everyday goods like a mug of ale or a loaf of bread. Since copper is a much more common metal than silver or gold, its intrinsic worth was much less by weight. As a result, for copper alloy coins to have enough worth to be useful, they had to either be made much larger and heavier than contemporary silver and gold coins or else be issued at a face value significantly higher than their worth as raw metal. Most states that issued copper alloy coinage chose the latter route, making their copper coinage essentially a token whose value was guaranteed by the state’s promise to accept it at the issued value for taxes and fees rather than its metal content. For this reason, copper alloy coinage rarely circulated beyond the reach of the state that originally issued it, while gold and silver were useful as international means of exchange.

As always, you have the flexibility in building your own worlds to make the money work however you want, but for historical verisimilitude you can’t beat gold and silver for your coinage.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Unspoken Messages of an Unswept Floor

This floor mosaic comes from the dining room of a Roman house. The central parts of the floor have been lost, but the edges of the room were decorated to look like the untidy remains of a banquet. We can identify leaves, fish and poultry bones, nut shells, bits of fruit, and the shells of a wide variety of shellfish. This may seem like an odd choice for home decoration, but mosaics in this style were popular in well-to-do Greek and Roman households. To contemporary guests, mosaics like this sent a number of messages about the people who dined on them.

On one level, this mosaic simply reflected the reality of the room it was in. Diners at an ancient banquet could toss their refuse on the floor with abandon because they were not the ones who had to clean it up. The widespread use of enslaved labor for domestic service meant that the rich could lob greasy chicken bones and half-eaten olives around the place without caring about the time and effort involved in cleaning up afterward. In that sense, this mosaic identified the owners of this house as the sorts of people who had other people to do the cleaning up after them.

On the other hand, the evident abandon with which the detritus is strewn around the room is deceptive. The individual pieces are precisely placed so that there the space between them is relatively even. Larger items are spread out with smaller ones between them. They are positioned in loose diagonal lines with a subtle aesthetic regularity; similar objects repeat to help unify the image, but are spaced out and given different orientations to avoid any sense of pattern. This mosaic is an extremely fine one made of very small tesserae in many different shades that must have taken a substantial amount of work by a skilled mosaic artist and a team of workers. The details of this Roman mosaic also imitate a famous Greek predecessor created by the mosaic artist Sosos of Pergamum. The effect was meant to project wealth and power: only the very rich could afford to put so much care into looking so careless.

The choice of food to show in this mosaic is also significant. Meat had a religious, even moral, significance in Greek and Roman culture. Large land animals like cattle, sheep, and pigs were typically eaten as part of a communal religious sacrifice, and religious custom dictated how they could be cooked and served as well as who should partake in the feast. Fish, shellfish, and poultry were not constrained by similar rules and could be eaten when, how, and in any company one liked. As such, this sort of food was associated with indulgence, even decadence. To say that a fellow Greek or Roman dined on fish had a sting of moral judgment akin to declaring that someone today enjoys champagne and caviar. The variety of fish bones, chicken claws, and shells in this mosaic makes a statement that this room is not one for solemn sacrificial meals but a place where the diners can indulge in their favorite delicacies free of any religious scruples or moral condemnation.

A great deal of meaning is packed into a mosaic of an untidy floor. These were messages that the original guests in this dining room would have implicitly understood in same way that we today grasp the status-signaling meaning of a four-car garage or a water view.

Image: Detail of unswept floor mosaic, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (currently Gregorian Profano Museum, Vatican; early 2nd c. CE; glass tessera mosaic; by Heraclitus, copied from work by Sosos of Pergamum)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Hipposandals

This strange-looking contraption is a Roman hipposandal, a forerunner of the horseshoe (from the Greek word “hippos,” meaning horse). It could be applied to a horse’s hoof, with the side pieces bent around to hold it in place or tied on with leather straps. Hipposandals like this one were known in the ancient Mediterranean (examples have been found in Greece and Italy), but archaeological evidence for them is concentrated in Roman contexts in northwestern Europe.

The function of hipposandals has been debated. They were not practical for long-term wear and were designed to be temporary and removable. One use may have been to protect injured hooves from further deterioration while healing. Some versions were also made with spikes on the bottom that could have given a horse extra traction while walking on loose or icy ground. Either use might explain why they appear to have been more common in the colder, wetter parts of the Roman world. In places like Britain and the Gaulish Alps, horses were exposed to soft, wet ground in summer and frozen roads in winter, which took a greater toll on their hooves than the hard, dry ground more typical in the Mediterranean.

One reason we are so uncertain about how exactly hipposandals were used is because no ancient source talks about them in any detail. Hipposandals are one little piece of material culture that would have been part of the everyday experience of people in the past, so mundane and unremarkable that nobody thought it was worth writing down just what they were for or how they were used. This is one more example of the paradox familiar to historians: the more typical and ordinary a thing was for people in the past, the more mysterious it is likely to be to us.

Image: Roman hipposandal, photograph by G. Garitan via Wikimdia (currently Musée de Saint-Remi; Roman period; iron)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Herodotus and the Upside-Down World of Egypt

The ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus was impressed by many of the things he saw in his visit to Egypt. He wrote about ancient monuments like the pyramids (already thousands of years old by the time he saw them), great temples, and the works of kings. But he was equally interested in the habits and daily life of the people around him. He noted a number of things in the daily life of Egyptians that struck him as unusual.

Just as the Egyptians have a unique climate, and the nature of their river is unlike any other, they have established customs and norms that are different from any other people. Among them, the women haggle in the market while the men stay home weaving. While other peoples weave by pushing the weft up, the Egyptians push it down. Men always carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pee standing up, men sitting down. They relieve themselves in their homes but eat outside in the street, saying that what is embarrassing but necessary should be hidden away, but what is not shameful may be done in the open. No woman serves as priest either for a male or a female deity; men serve each and every god. No son is obliged to care for his parents if he does not wish to, but daughters must whether they wish to or not.

Herodotus, Histories 2.35

(My own translation)

Herodotus’ perspective on Egypt was shaped by his background as a Greek. These details he lists are things that were the reverse of typical Greek habits: in Greece, men usually went out to the market while many women stayed in the home doing textile work. Greeks customarily ate their meals inside their homes but went outside to relieve themselves. In the Greek world, women served as priests of female gods while men served as priests of male gods.

Two factors are at work in Herodotus’ perception of the Egyptians, factors familiar to anyone who has spent time in a foreign culture. In the first place, we tend to notice things that are different more than things that are the same. When you visit a new place, you tend to notice that people speak differently than you are used to or eat foods you haven’t tried before, not all the little things that are just like at home. Secondly, when we notice these differences, they tend to blow up to exaggerated proportions in our minds. We may come home from a vacation thinking “Wow, everybody there likes to sing a lot,” when the reality was that it was one or two people who busted out a song at a time you just weren’t expecting it.

Some of Herodotus’ observations actually do align with our evidence for ancient Egyptian culture in the period when he visited. For example, it seems it was not unusual for Egyptian women to do business outside the home or for men to work as weavers. Some are simply false: at least some Egyptian women did serve as priestesses. Others are harder to pin down—no one has yet come up with evidence for Egyptian women habitually standing up at the toilet, but it’s not the sort of thing we have much documentation for at all.

Herodotus was a sharp-eyed observer of culture, but even so he wrote from a partial and biased perspective, not just as a foreign visitor trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world, but as an educated Greek who knew something about history and literature. Greeks had a long tradition of writing about Egypt as an alien world, a kind of magical Neverland where nothing was as it was in Greece. We credit Herodotus with inventing the genre of history in the Western tradition, but he saw himself as following in the footsteps of epic poets like Homer. In the details he provides about his time in Egypt, we see how he both tried to ground his account in the facts he observed and also fill out an existing Greek picture of Egypt as an upside-down world where everything was different.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.