The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Major Roman Roads Subway Map Style

A very, very cool map of major Roman roads done in subway map style:

Shasha Trubetskoy roman_roads_24_jun

Made by Sasha Trubetskoy, statistics major and designer, artist, and geography and data nerd.

Really fascinating! I know there were also some Roman roadworks running at least partially across the land from east to west along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, but I don’t know whether there ever was a complete major road there.

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Know Your Barbarians

The word “barbarian” today conjures a fairly specific image: a large, muscular man or woman wearing leather or furs hefting an enormous weapon. They are ragged and dirty and if they have any kind of organization, it is as a rabble of warriors following whoever happens to be the strongest. This image has its roots in classical Greek and Roman literature, but Greco-Roman ideas about barbarians were broader and more complicated than this.

Greeks and Romans both had complicated relationships with the outside world. The economy of ancient Greece depended on foreign trade, especially with Egypt, but Greece was also on the northwestern frontier of the Persian empire, which often threatened Greek cities or interfered in their internal politics. Rome was an expansionist empire with ambitions of conquering the whole world, but the strength and stability of the empire depended on integrating conquered peoples into Roman culture.

Out of these historical experiences, Greek and Roman writers, artists, and philosophers developed a wide repertoire of narrative models for describing other peoples. These narratives ranged from the nuanced and admiring to the stereotyping and pejorative. “Barbarian” could mean many different things in different times and contexts. Among this repertoire, there were conventional archetypes that authors and artists could draw on and expect that their audience would recognize them.

These archetypes were nebulous conglomerations of tropes and stereotypes, not always consistent and liable to be manipulated, tweaked, and subverted in individual works of art or literature. They could be reduced to caricature or filled out with individual details. They functioned much like modern national and ethnic stereotypes. Imagine the caricature version of a British gentleman, replete with bowler hat and umbrella. We might expect such a character to have certain typical qualities, both positive (unflappable, chivalrous, witty) and negative (stodgy, proud, insensitive) and engage in typical behaviors (sipping tea, playing polo, driving a Jaguar). Of course, stereotypes don’t have to be followed. A Brit in a bowler hat with an umbrella may also turn out to be a tongue-tied chocoholic who raises miniature goats and likes to watch telenovelas, but the author who creates such a character and the audience that encounters them will recognize how the standard tropes have been played with.

Greeks and Romans had two principal archetypes for barbarians. One was based on small, materially poor, less well organized cultures mostly found to the west or north, such as Scythians, Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, and Dacians. The other was based on large, wealthy, sophisticated cultures mostly found to the east or south, such as Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans.

The northwestern barbarians are the ancestors of the modern “barbarian” image. They were portrayed as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. They had no idea how to behave in a civilized society and were almost like wild animals. They lived in poverty and with barely any kind of government except the ability of the strong to impose their will on others. They could also be shown with good qualities, such as generosity and honesty. The were the original “noble savages,” ignorant of the benefits of civilization but also uncorrupted by its temptations.

The southeastern barbarians were the opposite. They were portrayed as weak, decadent, devious, overwhelmed by luxury and tangled in arcane social hierarchies. They had given in to the corrupting effects of civilization and overindulged in every kind of physical pleasure. They lived like slaves under the rule of despotic tyrants, but they were so accustomed to the comforts of luxury that they lacked the will to resist. They could have positive qualities as well. Their cultures were ancient and sophisticated, rich in accumulated knowledge. We don’t have a good term for the opposite of “noble savages,” but we might call them “depraved sophisticates.”

Central to both of these archetypes is one of the key values of Greco-Roman society: self-control. The southeastern barbarians displayed too little of it, giving in every kind of indulgence and unable to resist the rule of a tyrant. The northwestern barbarians, by contrast, were too willful, unable to subordinate themselves to the structures of law and social order. By creating these archetypes, Greeks and Romans positioned themselves in the middle—sophisticated enough to enjoy the benefits of civilization, but strong enough to resist its corrupting effects.

Both of these archetypes have come down into modern literature. The northwestern barbarian has become the standard modern “barbarian,” but aspects of it can also be seen in modern Western stereotypes of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. “Darkest Africa” stories about wild cannibal tribes dumbfounded by modern technology and scientific knowledge play upon the same images of violence, savagery, and technological ignorance that Romans applied to the Gauls and Germans. The southeastern barbarian formed the basis for romanticized Western depictions of the Islamic world, China, and India. “Arabian Nights” fantasies of scandalous harems and treacherous palace politics, ancient secrets and fabulous treasures hidden in the twisting back streets behind markets filled with spices and gems evoke Greek tales about Egypt and Persia.

These archetypes have also found their way into fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien’s Elves reflect some of the more positive southeastern qualities of wisdom and sophistication while his Orcs display the violent, fractious, bestial traits of the northwest. Star Trek‘s Klingons and Romulans represent the tropes of warlike honor and treacherous sophistication. The people of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones face the rugged, wild, disorderly peoples of the north and the rich, old, devious kingdoms of the east.

Once you know your barbarians, you’ll recognize them everywhere.

Images: Hyboria, by Yan R. via Flickr. Sultan from the Arabian Nights, by Rene Bull via Wikimedia.

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Roman Dice Tower

People have been playing games with dice for a very long time, and for as longs as we’ve been playing with dice we’ve been worrying about how to make sure we (and everybody else we’re playing with) get a fair throw. One solution to this problem is the dice tower, a box you can toss your dice into and have them rattle out the bottom. Dice towers are nothing new, either. Here’s a Roman version.

Dice tower, photograph by Rheinisches Landesmuseum via Wikimedia (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn; 4th c. CE; copper alloy)

This tower was found on a villa in Germany, near the Rhine River. Dice tossed in the top cascaded through a series of baffles to randomize them and then down a series of steps a the bottom. On their way out, they would have knocked and rung thee little bells (only one of which survives).

The Latin text on the step face reads: “The Picts are defeated. The enemy is destroyed. Play in peace.” This text helps date the tower to the fourth century, when the Picts first emerged as a power on the Roman frontier in Scotland. The Rhine was an important trade route that connected across the North Sea to Britain, so it is no surprise that people in the German provinces might want to celebrate a victory over the Picts with a game of dice.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Roman Ducky, You’re the One…

You make the caldarium oh so fun.

Roman ducky, I sing of arms and you!

This cute little fellow wearing a legionary’s helmet and lorica segmentata armor comes from the British Museum shop, where you can also find his Egyptian, samurai, Viking, and Greek god pals.

Bathing was important in Roman culture, not just for personal cleanliness but as a social activity. Friends would meet at the baths to exercise, swim in the large cold pools, or relax in the hot pools. Some Roman baths had steam rooms similar to the Finnish sauna. Even at the farthest edge of the empire, Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain had bathhouses. Many were built with sophisticated under-floor heating to keep them toasty even in the winter.

One crucial piece of bathing technology the Romans, lacked, however, was the rubber duck. They never knew what they were missing.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Boudica

ENG151196034 01The story of Boudica, the British queen who led a rebellion against the Romans in Britain, is well known, one of the most celebrated acts of resistance against the Roman empire. It is also a useful case study in how imperial states and conquered peoples interact with one another.

Boudica was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a tribe in eastern Britain. Prasutagus was an ally of the Romans. Like many other local leaders, he had supported the Romans in their conquest of southern Britain in return for Roman support for his own position as king. Prasutagus wanted to secure the same relationship for his daughters when they inherited his position, but when he died the Romans did not follow his wishes and moved to take direct control of Icenian territory.

Starting in 60 or 61 Boudica led a revolt on behalf of her daughters that quickly gathered support from all around Britain. The main force of the Roman army in Britain was then campaigning in Wales. The rebels first targeted the city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester, in eastern Britain north of London) which had become a focus of British resentment because of the number of Roman army veterans settled there and the temple to the emperor Claudius which had been built with British tax money. The city was systematically destroyed and the small number of forces which had been dispatched for its defense were wiped out.

The rebels moved on to sack London and nearby Verulamium (modern St. Albans), two more important Roman centers. By this time, the Roman governor with his army was moving to oppose Boudica’s forces. Nevertheless, she persisted.

The two armies met somewhere along the main Roman road that connected London and the ports in Kent with the frontier in northern Wales. The precise location of the battlefield has not been identified. Despite heavy fighting, the British forces were defeated and the rebellion came to an end.

The conflict between Boudica and the Romans represents the kind of fundamental misunderstandings that happen between imperial powers and the peoples over whom they rule. Prasutagus expected the Romans to respect his wishes, accept his daughters as his heirs, and continue the client state relationship that the Iceni had enjoyed under his rule. He thought that he could deal with Rome in the same terms as he would deal with a rival British king and that the Romans would respect the same customs and practices that were common in Britain. The Romans, for their part, misunderstood the British. They did not conceive that Prasutagus’ daughters could be worthy partners in political matters or that Boudica could present a serious military threat. Further, they badly misjudged the level of discontent among the people of Britain. If they had grasped the speed with which Boudica would be able to assemble an army hundreds of thousands strong, they would not have risked leaving the core of the province so poorly defended.

Since no British account of the uprising survives, we are dependent on Roman sources for information about it and these Roman accounts show another layer of misunderstanding. The two principal recountings of the revolt offer two different reasons for its beginning. The historian Tacitus claims that the local Roman officials charged with taking control of Icenian territory beat Boudica and raped her daughters. The historian Cassius Dio instead asserts that Britain was driven into revolt when large loans that had been made to the local people were all called in at once. Both of these accounts are suspect. For Tacitus’ version, it was an old Roman custom to explain difficult political events with stories of mistreated women, from Aeneas’ callousness to Dido (which explained the enmity between Rome and Carthage) to Antonius’ infatuation with Cleopatra and abandonment of his marriage to Octavia (which explained the last Roman civil war). As for Dio’s story, money-lenders had a bad reputation in Rome and their underhanded practices were often blamed for fomenting unrest. In both cases, shifting blame away from the Roman administration itself—onto moneylenders or minor local officials—preserved the honor of the Roman state as a whole. The Britons weren’t really rebelling against the imperial system, these sources say, just venting understandable anger at individual acts of abuse.

The scope and swiftness of the revolt, however, suggest that there was much deeper and broader resentment in Britain than Tacitus or Dio was willing to recognize. Boudica’s uprising was the final push on a boulder that was ready to roll. While not all Britons had royal inheritances to contest, many people in the province must have faced problems not unlike Boudica’s. In the early 60s, Britain had been under Roman rule for a generation and, as in Prasutagus’ family, around this time the generation that had lived through the conquest was giving way to one that had grown up under the stresses of Roman rule. Generational experiences make a difference and the forces that one generation was willing to live with on negotiated terms, the next may find intolerable. Britain is not the only place where the Roman empire faced revolt in the post-conquest generation.

Image: “Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; 1793; oil on canvas; by John Opie)

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

In Which Our Heroes Go Clothes Shopping

161212dyingOur Heroes wake up naked and cold with the chickens in the alley out back of the inn after being on the losing side of a tavern brawl. Clearly this is part of the Call to Adventure that must not be denied, but first things first: they need clothes. What do they do?

We today live in an industrialized world in which consumer goods like clothes are readily available. If you need something to wear, it’s easy enough to go into a store and buy something. Unless you’re shopping for high fashion, it probably won’t cost you too much, either. All of this is possible because of factories, global transportation networks, and a modern economy, but none of these things existed before the last couple of centuries. Any time before then, buying clothes was a very different experience.

To begin with, a lot of clothing wasn’t bought at all. In many pre-industrial societies around the world, producing and maintaining the family’s clothing and other textile goods was one of the main occupations of the household. Although textile production was in many cultures traditionally counted as women’s work, men were involved in it, too, at every stage from shearing sheep or gathering flax to delicate finish stitching.

Only specialty items requiring expert work, like gloves, boots, hats, etc., were routinely made by professionals. As market economies developed, specialty processes, like dying and fulling, were also increasingly outsourced to professionals, but everyday wear was still largely made at home. (As a useful point of reference for the development of specialty production, notice how family names like “Glover” or “Dyer” are much more common than, say, “Shirter” or “Socker.”)

Of course, there were always people who didn’t have a household around them to help make clothes. Soldiers and travelers far from home might need to replace damaged clothing or buy new gear suitable to the local climate. In any reasonably well-developed settlement, those who needed to purchase clothes probably could. They might get lucky and find someone willing to sell off an older set of clothes, or, for the right price, they might be able to get someone to sew them up a new set to order, but the chances of finding a clothing shop with new garments ready to wear were very slim.

So, supposing Our Heroes do find someone with clothes to sell, what are they going to cost? It’s hard to estimate prices in pre-modern economies, but here are a few points for reference:

The Roman emperor Diocletian, during a period of economic crisis, tried to stabilize the Roman economy by issuing an edict dictating wages for many different kinds of workers and prices for a variety of commodities and services. Diocletian’s edict wasn’t very effective in practice, but it’s a useful snapshot of what someone in antiquity thought were reasonable wages and prices. So, for example, the edict prescribes a price of 2,000 denarii for a common shirt. Compare that with the daily wages of 25 denarii for a farm laborer, 50 for a carpenter, or 75 for a skilled terra cotta artist. Even a well-paid artisan would have to spend most of their wages for a month just to buy a shirt. Depending on how rich Our Heroes are, new clothes could set them back a lot of money.

Now, Diocletian’s edict was only one politician’s idea of what things should cost, not a record of what they actually did cost. For a glimpse of actual prices we can look to some of the letters from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern Britain, where some everyday letters and paperwork from the fort were preserved by chance in the local soil. Some of these documents mention tunics priced at 3 denarii, boots for 3.5 denarii, and cloaks for 11.5. These goods sound a lot cheaper, but, in this period before the economic crisis that Diocletian was trying to deal with, wages were a lot lower, too. Soldiers at the time were paid 300 denarii a year, less than a denarius a day, a portion of which was held back to cover expenses. At those levels, a soldier would still have to spend most of his pay for a week to buy a tunic, or half a month to buy a cloak.

What was true in Rome was true in most other parts of the pre-modern world. There was no just nipping into a shop to buy a new set of clothes. Even where you could find clothes for sale, they were not a small expense. Outfitting one of Our Heroes in a full new set of clothes could well cost them most of their income for a year.

Image: Linen working via Wikimedia (14th c.; paint on parchment)

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Cosplaying Hercules

Heracles on a black-figure pot, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (Currently Louvre; c. 520 BCE; pottery)
Heracles on a black-figure pot, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (Currently Louvre; c. 520 BCE; pottery)

Cosplay may seem like a recent invention, but the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t above dressing up like their favorite heroes. The Greek hero Heracles (better known to us by his Roman name “Hercules”) was easily recognizable with his lion-skin cloak and rough wooden club. While we don’t know that anyone actually did walk around dressed up like Heracles, a few works of art show that Greeks and Romans certainly imagined doing so.

One example is theatrical, from Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs. The play is about Dionysus getting fed up with the contemporary theatre and deciding to go down to Hades to bring back one of the great tragic playwrights from the past. Being a bit of a coward, Dionysus dresses up like the brave Heracles by putting a lion skin over his luxurious yellow robe and carrying a club while wearing an actor’s high boots, just to keep his spirits up. For extra comedy, Dionysus, dressed as Heracles, goes to visit the actual Heracles at the start of the play for advice on his adventure. Here’s what happens when Dionysus, accompanied by his smart-ass slave Xanthias, knocks on the hero’s door:

Heracles: Who banged the door? Someone pounded it like a centaur. Tell me who it is. (He opens the door and falls over laughing.)

Dionysus: I say, Xanthias!

Xanthais: What is it?

Dionysus: Didn’t you notice?

Xanthias: Huh? What?

Dionysus: How afraid I made him!

Xanthias: Afraid you’ve gone mad, more like!

Heracles: Oh, by Demeter, I can’t stop laughing! I’ll bite my tongue, but still I can’t help it!

Dionysus: Oh, pull yourself together. I’ve got something to ask you.

Heracles: I can’t stifle this laughter, though, at the sight of that lion skin over your saffron gown. Whose idea was this, the club and the high heels at once?

Aristophanes, The Frogs 38-46

(My own translation)

161208commodus
Commodus as Hercules, photograph by Sailko via Wikimedia (Currently Musei Capitolini, Rome; late 2nd c. CE; marble)

Over in the Roman world, the emperor Commodus decided he was not content with traditional portrait sculptures and had himself portrayed dressed up as Hercules. Here he is wearing the lion skin, carrying the club in one hand and the apples of the Hesperides (from one of the hero’s twelve labors) in the other. For an emperor who was obsessed with his public image, adopting the guise of a popular hero like Hercules made sense.

Just like we can recognize our modern heroes by their symbols and distinguishing attributes—an S on the chest and a curl of hair for Superman, a bow and a mockingjay pin for Katniss Everdeen—people of the past knew their heroes in the same way.

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

Memos Never Change

Memos. Inter-office memos never change.

161027legionThe Roman fort at Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain, is a special place. One reason it is so special is that a collection of wooden writing tablets were preserved there, accidentally, in waterlogged ditches. These tablets were used for everyday matters—personal letters, shopping lists, legionary paperwork—and give us a glimpse into the daily life of the Roman army in a way we rarely get. Here’s an example, a message from the leader of a detachment of cavalry back to his commander at the fort, which may feel depressingly familiar:

To Prefect Flavius Cerialis

From Decurion Masclus

Masclus to his lord, Cerialis, greetings.

My lord, please send us your instructions for tomorrow. Should we all return to the crossroads with our standard or just half of us?

Best of fortune to you and may you look on me with favor. Farewell.

PS. My fellow soldiers are out of beer. Please have some sent.

Tabulae Vindolandenses III 632

Sucking up to the boss. Not getting clear instructions. Needing beer. Some things just never change.

Image: Roman army reenactors, photograph by ChrisO via Wikimedia, text by Erik Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Recommended Reading: Apuleius, The Golden Ass

161017kantharosModern fantasy literature has taken a lot of inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Many people have noted how comic book superheroes play much the same role in modern culture that heroes like Hercules and Odysseus did for ancient readers. The important difference is that Greeks and Romans regarded their heroes as real, semi-divine figures of history. Modern fantasy knows it’s all made up. That’s one of the fundamental differences between myth and fiction: the poet who retells a myth wants you believe that the story is true; the fiction author knows they’re spinning a tale.

But modern people aren’t the first to tell stories just as stories. Ancient literature, in addition to myths that made claims to historical and religious truth, offered tales of adventure, romance, and comedy, just like modern fiction. It even had some works that we would class as speculative fiction. Metamorphoses—more commonly known as The Golden Ass—by Apuleius is one of them.

There are lots of translations available. Here’s one you can read online, but I particularly recommend the translation by Sarah Ruden (Yale, 2012), which expertly captures the wit and cheek of Apuleius’ original text.

The story is told by Lucius, a young man about town who gets in over his head with magic and accidentally turns himself into a donkey. He then has madcap misadventures—getting stolen by bandits, requisitioned by a soldier, displayed in the arena, and mutely witnessing all kinds of domestic comedy and tragedy as he tries to stay alive long enough to find the antidote to cure his transformation.

In this passage, Lucius the donkey has been bought by a local magnate and is being trained to perform tricks, which causes a bit of a tricky situation for the human mind in the donkey body:

He gave me to a favored freedman of his, a well-off man, having instructed him to take good care of me. This man treated me kindly and fed me well and, to please his patron, eagerly encouraged my tricks. First he taught me to recline at the dining table, then to wrestle and even dance with my forelegs in the air. Then—even more remarkable—to respond to words by tossing my head, signing “no” by throwing it back and “yes” by nodding. When I was thirsty, I could request a drink by alternately winking my eyes at an attendant. Of course, this was all perfectly simple for me to follow and I hardly needed a trainer, but I was afraid to behave in too human a way at the table uninstructed, or they might take me for an ill omen, set on me as a monster, and serve up my fat body to the vultures.

– Apuleius, The Golden Ass 10.17

(My own translation)

Lucius’ adventures range from the lewdly ludicrous, as when a rich lady takes him for a lover, to the tragic, as when he witnesses the death of a happy newlywed couple. On the way, just about every level of society, from poor farmers to rich landowners comes in for a bit of satirical skewering. There’s also a surprise ending, which I won’t give away here.

In transforming Lucius into a donkey, Apuleius also addresses the anxieties of his time, in a society where slavery was routine and barriers of language and culture often impeded communication. Romans of his time looked on some other peoples in their world as little better than animals, and must have worried about being seen the same way themselves by others. Sudden loss of status, whether by being taken captive in war or stripped of citizen rights in the court, was nothing strange. While no one had to worry about not behaving donkeyishly enough, as Lucius does, many Roman slaves probably faced the predicament of ingratiating themselves with their masters without seeming too clever or ambitious. The story of Lucius’ adventures, like much fantasy and science fiction of recent decades, provides a way to observe and comment on these anxieties and even, in the end, to offer some hope.

The Golden Ass is a good read and a nice example of how there’s nothing new in the human urge to make up fantastical stories, or to use that fantasy to contemplate contemporary problems.

Image: Donkey head kantharos, photograph by Pymouss via Wikimedia (Athenian, currently British Museum; late 6th c. BCE; black-figure pottery)

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