Race in Antiquity: Identities

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In this and some other posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 2: Identities

Race as we know it today is an invention of European imperialism in the last five hundred years. Because most of the world was touched by European imperialism, whether directly or indirectly, race has become a vital category of identity for people in many parts of the modern world. Race creates distinctions that benefit some and disadvantage others, and—whether we agree with its effects or not—we cannot ignore or escape them. Most of us can readily identify ourselves and the people around us in racial terms, and we often have cause to do so.

There are many other categories through which we define our identities, such as gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, language, occupation, and so on. Being a white straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller is different from being a black straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, but so is being a black straight female Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, or an Asian asexual trans male atheist Spanish-speaking Peruvian piano tuner, etc.

The rules that govern racial identity are perceived to be less flexible than the rules that govern other categories of identity. In most (though, notably, not all) of the modern West, these rules are defined by an ideology that is problematic and not always compatible with lived experiences or scientific thinking, but whose components are grounded in three fundamental assumptions. According to these assumptions, race is:

Biological. We recognize race primarily in terms of physical features like skin color and facial geometry. Science defines certain genetic and physical features as characteristically “Caucasoid,” “Negroid,” “Mongoloid,” or other categories.

Hereditary. Our race is defined by the race of our parents. A person with two black parents is automatically and necessarily black. Even people of mixed racial heritage can parse out their racial identity into specific proportions.

Immutable. We cannot choose or change our racial identity; a person born white can never be any race other than white, and the same is true of other races.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, also recognized that identities are complex, made up of different categories, and that some identities have advantages over others. An ancient Greek sage (the quote is attributed to both Thales and Socrates) said:

I thank fortune for three things: first, that I was born a human, not an animal; second, that I was born a man, not a woman; third, that I was born a Greek, not a barbarian.

– Hermippus of Smyrna, frag. 13

(All translations my own.)

In addition to these categories—humanity, gender, and culture—other categories were important for ancient identity, such as legal status (freeborn, freed, or slave), language, occupation, citizenship, and family affiliation, but race, as we recognize it today, was not among them. No category matching the modern racial assumptions of biology, heredity, and immutability existed in Greek or Roman culture.

There is no word in Greek or Latin that corresponds to “race.” The nearest equivalent is “gens” in Latin or “genos” in Greek, both of which imply a group of people with a coherent cultural identity and a common ancestry. It is better translated as “tribe” or “extended family.” The idea of dividing people up on the basis of skin color would have made no sense to a Greek or Roman, nor would the idea of a category of humanity that did not differentiate between people from Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Ukraine.

Greek and Roman authors were aware of variations in physical features. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, for instance, noted that different peoples imagine the gods as resembling themselves:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.
– Xenophanes of Colophon, frag. 16

The Roman historian Tacitus similarly made suggestions about the origins of the Britons based on their physical characteristics:

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.
– Tacitus, Agricola 11

Nevertheless, physical features were not regarded as sufficient to divide people into categories. Languages, customs, and ways of life carried far more weight. When the Greek historian Herodotus argued that the Colchians of the Black Sea region were related to the Egyptians, he dismissed the similarities of their appearances as unreliable and based his argument instead on similarities in their cultures:

It is evident that the Colchians are Egyptians… I guessed this myself since they are both dark-skinned and thick-haired, but that amounts to nothing since others are as well. A better proof is that the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians are the only peoples who have always practiced circumcision… [The Colchians] and the Egyptians produce linen in the same way; plus their ways of life and their languages resemble one another.
– Herodotus, Histories 2.104-5

Heredity mattered for defining identities, but not in the same way as in modern racial thinking. When Greeks and Romans looked to their ancestry for claims of identity, they discussed it in terms of descent from a specific (historical or mythical) individual, not collective ancestry. King Alexander I of Macedon (the great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) argued that he ought to be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games, which were open only to Greeks, on the grounds that he was a descendant of the Greek hero Heracles. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22) This kind of ancestral argument could even bridge cultural divides. When the Persian king Xerxes was preparing to invade Greece in 479 BCE, he sent emissaries to the Greek city Argos to persuade them to remain neutral and not join the other Greeks resisting his campaign. He based his argument on the claim that the Persians were descended from the Greek hero Perseus, who came from Argos, and so Persians and Argives, as distant relatives, should not fight one another. (Herodotus, Histories 7.150)

For many ancient authors, culture was far more important than heredity in assessing people’s identities. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared:

For, in my opinion, Greeks are not distinguished from barbarians by name or language, but by intelligence and the inclination to proper behavior, and more than this by the fact that they do not behave inhumanly to one another. Those whose natures are of this kind, I think, ought to be called Greeks; those who are the opposite, barbarians.
– Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 14.6

Furthermore, identity was not always assumed to remain stable across generations. The last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, was identified as a Roman, but his father, Tarquinius Priscus, was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus of Corinth, was a Greek. (Livy, History of Rome 1.34; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 3.46) This same instability applied on a collective basis. Many people in the ancient Mediterranean claimed descent from other peoples. Most famously, the Romans claimed to be descended from the Trojans, but some also claimed the Romans were descended from Greeks. Gauls likewise claimed descent from Troy. Jews asserted that the Spartans of Greece were their long-lost kin, while Tacitus declared that the Jews were descended from Ethiopian exiles. (Vergil, Aeneid; Livy, History of Rome 1.1; Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities 1.31, 41-44, 60, 72, 89; Lucan, Pharsalia 1.427-8; 1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 12.225-7; Tacitus, Histories 5.2)

Even individuals might change their identities over time. The Greek physician Galen described his Roman clientele as:

… those who are born barbarians but cultivate the ways of Greeks.
– Galen, On the Preservation of Health 1.10

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their identities in many different ways, but none of these ways corresponds to race as we define it today. These differences in how ancient peoples thought about identify shaped how they wrote about themselves and others. The things that mattered to them in defining identities were not always the same things that matter to us.

When we ask what race the ancient Greeks and Romans were, we are applying concepts that the people we are investigating would not themselves have understood. Acknowledging this fact is essential when we look to the primary sources to try to answer our questions. We cannot simply read ancient sources as if we were reading a modern newspaper or Twitter feed and assume that we can identify the people they describe as surely as if we met them on the street today. Looking for evidence of race in antiquity requires understanding what the ancient sources don’t say as much as what they do.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater, via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco).

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.


Magic Words

From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:

A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.

Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.

Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.

Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy

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.

Race in Antiquity: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In this and some upcoming posts, I’ll dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 1: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

As simple as it may sound, almost every word in this question hides layers of assumptions. It assumes that race is a valid category for describing human beings, and is equally applicable to ancient societies as to modern ones. It assumes that we can reconstruct ancient demographic information in some comprehensive way. It assumes that “Ancient Greeks and Romans” are definable groups of people, and that we know who we mean by that designation.

These are not trivial issues, and I’ll take them up in future posts, but today I want to address an even more fundamental and persistent assumption: that the racial identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans matters.

Now, I am an ancient historian and a geek. I’ve spent my entire life, both at work and at leisure, being told by people that the things I care about don’t matter. (The title of my field, “ancient history,” is even used as a synonym for “irrelevant.”) That’s never stopped me from trying to figure things out and it shouldn’t stop us from thinking about race in antiquity, but it should make us step back and ask: Why do we want to know?

When we ask questions about the race of ancient peoples, we are not posing these questions in a vacuum. There is, in fact, a long history of people arguing about the answer, and if we don’t understand their reasoning and motivations we may fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes that they did.

We can start around 1500 CE when the Western concept of race was taking on its modern contours. Variations in physical and genetic features—from skin color to blood type—are part of the reality of human biology, but the belief that these features can be used to divide humanity into distinct and meaningful categories, along more or less the terms we recognize today, was a product of European imperialism and colonialism. The European powers that were busy conquering and colonizing the rest of the world had to define themselves as superior to the people they were displacing, exploiting, or massacring. The idea of a “white” race—a superior “white” race, no less—began with the need to justify European activities abroad.

Once Europeans had defined themselves as both white and superior, history had to fall in line. On one hand, the roots of white superiority had to be found in the depths of history; on the other hand, any great accomplishments in history had to become the property of white people. Any evidence that could be interpreted as suggesting that white people had made significant achievements before anyone else were celebrated, such as Piltdown Man, a hoax that got out of hand because it conformed so perfectly to what archaeologists expected: the crucial first steps towards modern humans happened in northwestern Europe. The achievements of non-European peoples were denied or claimed for Europeans wherever possible, like the “dynastic race theory” in Egypt or the assertion that major centers of African civilization like Great Zimbabwe must have been built by white (or white-ish) settlers. Civilizations that could be neither denied nor claimed for whiteness, like those of ancient India, China, and Mesoamerica, were denigrated or dismissed.

European Christian culture had long idolized the civilization of ancient Greece, a habit that went back as far as the Roman Republic. The Romans had had an uneasy relationship with their Greek neighbors and subjects, as they tended to elevate the great literary, artistic, and philosophical works of the classical Greek past while sneering at contemporary Greeks as unworthy of their ancestors. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, as Greek and Latin became learned rather than vernacular languages, Greek and Latin literature collectively acquired an aura of cultural authority. This aura of authority was further supported by the association of Greek and Latin learning with religious authority in the Christian church.

By the imperial age, when European nations were asserting their racial superiority over their colonial subjects and slaves, ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had come to be perceived as the peaks of intellectual, philosophical, and artistic culture. A defense of European superiority therefore required the assertion of a direct link to Greece and Rome. Since race was the accepted currency of identity, that link had to be defined in racial terms. It therefore became essential that the ancient Greeks and Romans should be white.

Various strategies existed for making the argument that the ancient Greeks and Romans were white, but one of the most influential was the Aryan invasion model. According to this model, the Aryans were a primordial superior white race whose origins lay somewhere in northern or northeastern Europe. At various times in history, individual branches of this race would explode outwards, traversing great distances and conquering all the “inferior” peoples in their path, eventually colonizing a swath of Eurasia stretching from England to northern India. These Aryan invaders could be credited with cultural achievements anywhere they went, but most importantly they were hailed as the ancestors of the classical Greeks. Western and northern Europeans who claimed descent from other branches of Aryan settlers could therefore claim an ancestral connection to the glories of Greece and its Roman successors.

It was not enough for the ancient Greeks and Romans to be white. Since Europeans looked back to Greco-Roman culture as a source of authority, those who wanted to validate imperial projects required that the opinions of the great ancient authors should support their sense of racial superiority. Scholars searched ancient texts for passages congenial to the imperialist drive and elevated these as the true beliefs of the Great Thinkers of antiquity. Any passages which expressed a different perspective were dismissed or reinterpreted. Through the centuries of this scholarly activity, the ancient Greeks and Romans became not only “white” but the very founders of white supremacy.

Modern scholarship recognizes that the “Aryan race” was a figment of the imagination (the term “Aryan” is now reserved for certain historical peoples of northern India). Both the ethnic identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans and their opinions about that identity are now seen to be far more complicated issues with no easy answers, but the insights of the past several decades of scholarship are only slowly coming into wider public consciousness. The relics of the racially-determined Aryan invasion model are still all around us, some of them stripped of the most obvious racism of the older scholarship but still grounded in the urge to assert the fundamental whiteness of the ancient Mediterranean.

When we ask questions about the race of the ancient Greeks and Romans, this is the context we must be conscious of. Much older scholarship is suffused with its ideas, and even more recent popular discussions of the subject tend to be unknowingly aligned with the Aryan model.

The mistakes of the Aryan model and other arguments that asserted the whiteness of the ancient Greeks and Romans arose from the desire to made the past reflect the concerns of the present. The past does not exist to make us feel better about ourselves or validate our contemporary politics. This is the assumption we must guard against most carefully in any historical research. If we assume that the Greeks and Romans are a measure of civilization and that any similarities we can find between ourselves and them prove our own worth, our arguments will go hopelessly askew.

Instead, if there is any use in examining Greek and Roman ethnic identity, it is as part of the larger work of history: to help us understand our own society better by giving us useful examples for comparison. We will not prove our own value by showing that the Greeks and Romans were like us, but we may better grasp the complex forces at work in forming our own identities by understanding how they were different from us.

(Further parts to come.)

Image: Janifrom kantharos, via People of Color in European Art History (Etruria, currently Villa Giulia; 6th c. BCE; ceramic)

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.

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.


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.