A Roman Holiday (with Crocodiles)

When you go on vacation, you want to make sure you get the best experience. If you’re rich enough, other people will do it for you. That was just as true in the past as it is today. Here’s a fragment of a letter that has survived on papyrus from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt about preparations for a tour of the Faiyum oasis.

A Roman senator, Lucius Memmius, was touring Egypt in the late second century BCE. Someone in Alexandria wanted to make sure that Memmius had a good trip, so instructions were sent on ahead to make sure everything was ready for the important guest.

From Hermias to Horos, greetings. Attached is a letter to Asclepiades. Make sure that these instructions are followed. Be well. Year 5, 17th of Xantikos, 17th of Meikheir (March 5, 112 BCE)

To Asclepiades.

Lucius Memmius, a Roman senator who holds a position of great worth and honor, is making a grand expedition from the city [of Alexandria] to the Arsinoite nome to see the sights. See that he is properly welcomed, and take special care to see that lodgings are furnished along with landing places at the proper locations […] Make sure that the welcoming gifts listed below are ready to be handed over to him at the landing places, and that the furnishings for the lodgings, the usual morsels for Petesouchus and the crocodiles, the equipment for visiting the Labyrinth, the […] and the offerings and supplies for the household sacrifice are provided. In all respects, take the greatest care that everything should be prepared for his enjoyment, and be zealous […]

P. Tebt. (Papyri from Tebtunis) 1.33

(My own translation)

It looks like Memmius’ itinerary included watching crocodiles being fed and visiting the Labyrinth, a sprawling ancient temple complex whose walls and passageways were famous in antiquity.

It’s also interesting to note that, although Hermias wanted to make sure that special care was taken for Memmius’ visit, Memmius was evidently following an established tourist route. Hermias does not need specify where lodgings should be prepared for him or what equipment is needed for visiting the Labyrinth. The crocodile feeding was apparently a customary spectacle. Asclepiades clearly knew what to do to receive an important visitor, Hermias just wanted to make sure he did it. Faiyum tourism was evidently an established practice at the time.

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


A Little Martial for Those Sick of the Dating Game

If this Valentine’s Day has you feeling bitter about romance, take some heart in knowing that love has always been a rough ride. Here are a few deliciously nasty little snarks from the Roman poet Martial to laugh at over your dinner for one.

Truth Comes Out

He used to be your lover, Paula, but you said there was nothing between you.

Now you’ve married him. Can you still claim there’s nothing between you?

Martial, Epigrams 1.74

Left on Read

I wrote to Naevia. She didn’t write back. So she won’t have me.

But I think she read what I wrote. So she’ll have me.

Martial, Epigrams 2.9

Too High a Pedastal

You want to be revered, Sextus; I wanted to love you.

You’ll get what you demand, Sextus, and be revered,

but if I revere you, I won’t love you.

Martial, Epigrams 2.55

In Vino Veritas

Lyris wants to know what she does when she’s drunk? The same thing she does sober: she sucks cock.

Martial, Epigrams 2.73

Slut Era

You don’t say no to anyone, Thais, and you’re not ashamed of it.

You should at least be ashamed that you don’t say no to anything.

Martial, Epigrams 4.12

Hard to Get

Say “No,” Galla. Love gets cloying if its pleasures come too easily.

But don’t say “No” for too long.

Martial, Epigrams 4.38

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

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.

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.

Quotes: No Call for Nastiness

The Roman orator Quintilian has a thing or two to say about making jokes at the expense of groups of people:

I have already noted, when talking of jokes, how unworthy it is to go after someone’s circumstances in life, and there is no call for nastiness against classes, ethnicities, or nations, either.

Quintilian, The Institute of Oratory 11.1.86

(My own translation)

Now, Quintilian is specifically speaking here about how to comport oneself as an advocate in court, and he goes on to say that if your opponent comes from a group whose moral qualities might seem dubious to a Roman jury, like soldiers or tax farmers, it may sometimes be appropriate to make a joke at their expense. His advice is tactical, not moral: this is how you sway a jury and win your case. Still, it’s good advice in general that “just joking” about people’s ethnicities, origins, or life circumstances is not a great way to get people on your side, in ancient Rome or today.

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

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.


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.

Rome Was Not Good

People sometimes argue that the Roman Empire was a good thing for the people of the Mediterranean, Europe, even the whole world. You will especially hear this argument made in connection with claims about the unique value of European (or, even more bluntly, “white”) civilization. Those who make this claim often, implicitly or explicitly, extend the argument to later history, implying that if the Roman Empire was good for the world, then so was all other European-led imperialism in world history.

This argument is wrong. The Roman Empire was not a force for good.

I am not speaking here of the moral qualities of any individual Roman or of the ancient Romans as a whole. People are people, and always have been; some are good, some are bad, and most of us are a mix of both. That is as true of the ancient Romans as of anyone else. My point is rather that the net effect of the Roman Empire on humanity as a whole was not one for good.

Pax Romana

The most typical claim made for the benefits of Roman imperialism is that it created peace in the lands it ruled. This is, in fact, the claim that Romans made for themselves. In the words the poet Vergil put into the mouth of the spirit of Anchises, revealing the future to his son, Aeneas:

Remember, Roman, that you shall rule the world’s peoples by your power.

These will be your arts: to impose the laws of peace,

to be merciful to the conquered and subdue the arrogant.

Vergil, Aeneid 6.851-853

(My own translations)

This claim is, at best, exaggerated. The history of Rome is marked with numerous revolts, civil wars, and other internal conflicts. The first century BCE and the third century CE were particularly blood-stained by the struggles of would-be dynasts and their personal armies. Many provinces saw revolts in the generations after their conquest, and some remained turbulent for centuries. The Roman response to provincial unrest was often a violent reconquest.

It is true that in some parts of the Roman world and in some eras of history, generations of provincial subjects lived free from the threat of war and other large-scale violence, but even this limited peace came at a cost. Roman peace was always the product of violence. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in the mid-first century BCE has been estimated to have cost the lives of a million Gauls and the freedom of a million more forced into slavery; the population of Gaul may have been decreased by as much as half as a result. By any definition, Caesar committed genocide. Other Roman conquests may have been less thorough in their devastation, but Rome was never shy to apply overwhelming force. The Greek historian Polybius’ eyewitness account of Roman siege warfare is chilling:

When Scipio judged that enough soldiers had entered the city, he gave the order that most of them should kill everyone they chanced upon and spare no one, according to the Romans’ custom, and not to begin looting until the signal for it was given. They do this, I suppose, for the sake of terror. Because of this custom, you can see in cities captured by the Romans not only people slaughtered, but even dogs hacked in two and other animals with their limbs hewn off. Because of the numbers who were in the captured city, there was a lot of this sort of destruction there.

Polybius, History of Rome 10.15

The Roman historian Tacitus, imagining what the victims of Roman conquest would say of it, put things even more bluntly:

They falsely call stealing, slaughtering, and ravaging “empire,” and where they have made a wasteland they call it “peace.”

Tacitus, Agricola 30

To the extent that Roman rule created areas of peace inside the empire, it did so in part by creating more violence outside of it. The frontier was a militarized zone in which Roman soldiers had effective license to harass, extort, and plunder locals and travelers. Roman commanders appeased restless troops by letting them raid neighboring settlements for booty, and used the threat of attacks to extract tribute from peoples beyond the frontier, whether for the empire or their own personal enrichment. The Roman market’s demand for enslaved labor spurred increased volatility and raiding outside the empire as some people took advantage of the opportunity to sell their neighbors to the Romans.

The world before Rome had not been one of peace and harmony. Roman violence had ebbs and flows, the worst contained in times and sites of expansion and civil war. Some people lucky enough to live in quiet provinces in orderly eras could indeed thank Rome for a life free of the threat of war. On the large scale, though, Rome can take no credit for making the world more peaceful, only for changing the distribution of violence.

Law and order

In connection the claim of creating peace, Romans (like Vergil above) often also justified their empire by its ability to impose law and order on a chaotic world. Like Roman peace, Roman law was real and beneficial for some, but it makes a poor argument for the value of the empire.

Law was hardly a unique Roman creation. All ancient societies had legal traditions because every complex society has to deal with fundamental problems such as the ownership and inheritance of land and other economic resources or the destabilizing effects of interpersonal violence. Societies that had not had to deal with specific kinds of problems may not have developed legal principles for them and so may have gained some marginal benefit from the introduction of Roman law, but this was not particular to Rome; the Romans themselves, inhabitants of an inland city, had imported large portions of maritime law from Greek cities (particularly Rhodes) as they came to terms with ruling a Mediterranean empire. Just because the laws of many of the people Rome conquered have not been recorded does not mean that they did not exist or that Rome was bringing anything new to them by conquest.

Roman law could be helpful to some. It conferred certain rights and privileges on particular groups of people, primarily freeborn Roman citizens, a group to which some portion of the population of the empire belonged. At the same time, it codified many kinds of inequality, most prominently the exploitation of enslaved people, but also several kinds of non-citizen status, each of which had limited rights under law, if the law of the empire recognized their rights at all. The fact that citizenship conferred such privileges as freedom from torture and the right to appeal for the emperor’s intercession should remind us of how many of the Roman empire’s subjects lived without those guarantees.

In practical terms, there were also serious limits on who could effectively exercise the rights that the law theoretically granted them. Roman law operated on a basis of self-help, meaning that a court only pronounced a judgment; enforcement was entirely up to the winning litigant, so the poor and powerless had no meaningful recourse against the rich and powerful. Even gaining access to the processes of law could be difficult. In the city of Rome itself, where elected praetors oversaw the courts, citizens of adequate wealth and social standing could be reasonably confident of getting their case before a judge with a hope of a fair hearing. In the provinces, legal proceedings were under the purview of appointed governors who were famous for their corruption and disinterest in local affairs. The letter of complaint directed to the provincial governor of Britain written by a merchant who had been roughed up by a soldier gives us an idea of how ineffective Roman justice could be:

He beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away. I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods. Furthermore, my lord Proculus, I couldn’t complain to the prefect because he was detained by sickness, and I complained in vain to the adjutant and the other centurions of his unit. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

Tabulae Vindolandenses, II 344


Another claim sometimes made for the value of the Roman Empire is that it brought superior technology from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. Like other claims for the empire’s virtues, this one is exaggerated at best.

The areas of the world that would eventually fall under Roman rule had long been connected by the movement of people and goods. Such movement carried technological developments in all directions. By the time of the Roman Empire, there was relatively little that Romans could do that the people they conquered could not.

The major differences between Roman and non-Roman material culture had more to do with economics than with technology. The Mediterranean held large cities whose populations demanded goods and public works at a scale not needed in other parts of Europe. To meet these demands, Romans and other Mediterranean peoples developed large-scale manufacturing that depended not on technological advances but on the widespread exploitation of enslaved workers.

Archaeological research has identified few cases in which Roman technology was actually superior to the technology of the conquered. Even at the northern edges of the empire, which lagged in economic development compared with the Mediterranean, Roman products were not necessarily superior. A study of Roman-made and locally-made knife blades in Britain, for example, found that the British blades were equal or superior in quality to the Roman examples. Similarly, research on Roman-period architecture in Britain finds that many buildings that looked Roman in style were built using methods and techniques already well known in Britain before the conquest.

Some Roman technologies were unknown in the farther reaches of the empire. These included glass-blowing, the smelting of brass, and the production of concrete. These technologies, however, were not freely shared with the subjects of the empire but were held as proprietary secrets either by the Mediterranean artisans who knew them or by the imperial administration itself. Conquest brought little to the wider European and Mediterranean world that could not have come through peaceful trade.

Rome in the balance

There is no denying that the Roman Empire was a good thing for some people in some times and places. It was particularly good for the Roman elite who gained access to new sources of wealth, enslaved labor, and prestige through conquest, but some of the conquered benefited as well. Individuals and communities who aligned themselves with Rome’s interests could reap the rewards, and some were simply in the right places and times to enjoy periods of peace, stability, and economic growth.

All of these benefits, however, came at a cost. For those in the empire, there was the brutality of conquest, and the frequent need for reconquest in future generations, the violent side effects of Rome’s unstable politics, and the costs that came with the disruption of traditional social and economic organizations. Outside the empire, the ripple effects of Rome created volatility and violence whose effects were felt hundreds of kilometers from the frontier. Some people lived richer, happier, more peaceful lives because of Rome, but many others suffered war, deprivation, and enslavement to make these benefits possible.

Those who claim that Rome was good for the world align themselves, consciously or not, with the conquerors, and the reveal much about their view of both history and the world today by assuming that the benefits to the victorious matter more than the sufferings of the defeated.

Image: Gemma Augustea, lower register, photograph by Andreas Praefke via Wikimedia (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria; early 1st c. CE; onyx)

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

Lion-Slaying Women in the Roman Arena

Performing in the Roman arena, whether as a gladiator, a beast-hunter, or some other kind of violent entertainer was mostly a man’s job, but that doesn’t mean women never took part. The poet Martial celebrated a woman (or women, Martial is vague on the details) who slew a lion as part of the games put on the emperor Domitian.

Warlike Mars, unconquered in arms, serves you, Caesar,
but this is not enough: Venus herself serves you, too.

Martial, On the Spectacles 7

Fame used to sing the tale of how great Hercules
laid low the lion in Nemea’s wide valley.
Enough of that old legend: now after your games, Caesar,
we have seen such things done by women’s hands.

Martial, On the Spectacles 8

(My own translations)

Some scholars think these are two separate poems, others that they were originally one poem and the first two lines got accidentally split off at some point when manuscripts were being copied out. In any case, it seems pretty clear that women also took up arms to perform for the crowds in Rome.

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

Rules-Lawyering Monarchy

How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.

I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.

In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.

We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.

This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”

Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.

Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.

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