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.

Hipposandals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

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.

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

Flexible Roman Glass?

Did an ancient Roman inventor come up with flexible glass? That’s one possible interpretation of a curious anecdote told by several Roman sources.

A Roman drinking glass

The evidence

There is no archaeological evidence for flexible Roman glass; nothing like it has turned up in any excavation. All the evidence we have is literary, three mentions from various sources. Here is what we have (my own translations):

In the reign of Tiberius, a kind of glass was invented that was concocted in such a way that it was flexible, but the entire workshop of its inventor was destroyed so that the price of bronze, silver, and gold would not be brought down (a rumor that has for a long time had more repetition than credibility).

Pliny, Natural History 36.66

There was once an artisan who made a glass drinking up that was unbreakable. When he was given an audience with the emperor to show off his invention, he made the emperor hand the cup back to him, then hurled it to the stone floor. The emperor could not have been more alarmed. The man picked the cup up off the ground, and it was dented just like a bronze cup, but he produced a small hammer from his pocket and with very little effort he made the cup good as new. With this performance, he thought he was in the throne of Jupiter.

The emperor then asked: “No one else knows how to make glass like this, do they?”

Now, look what happened. When the man answered “No,” the emperor ordered him beheaded, because if knowledge of this invention got out, we would treat gold like mud.

Petronius, Satyricon 51

[An engineer comes up with a novel way of renovating a collapsing building, for which the emperor Tiberius jealously exiles him.] Later this man came to the emperor as a supplicant and deliberately let a glass drinking cup fall to the floor in front of him, and although the cup was somehow damaged, after rubbing and beating it with his hands on the spot he showed the emperor that it was unbroken. He was aiming to get himself a pardon, but the emperor ordered him executed.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.21

Could it be true?

There are a few reasons to think these stories might be true, if not in all details then at least in the most interesting one: that some Roman crafter figured out how to make a material that looked like glass but didn’t shatter like it.

The fact that we have this story from three different sources gives it some credibility, especially since two of those sources, Pliny and Petronius, are roughly contemporary with the emperor Tiberius under whom the unbreakable glass was supposed to have been invented.

Flexible kinds of glass exist today, but they are recent developments. It is unlikely that a Roman glassmaker, even if they had stumbled on the right chemical formula, would have had a furnace capable of high enough temperatures with precise enough control to have achieved the same result. It is more possible to imagine that a Roman artisan came up with something like modern plastic. Early plastics developed in the 1800s used materials that would have been available to the Romans, such as cellulose from wood, the resin of the sweetgum tree, and proteins derived from milk, eggs, and blood. Some of the plastics derived from these materials are translucent and flexible, and might have appeared to onlookers unfamiliar with their source as flexible glass.

Despite these considerations, though, there are much stronger reasons to think that nothing like flexible glass was ever created in antiquity.

Probably not

First of all, we have to look at our sources critically. None of them is very good as evidence. Pliny straight out tells us that he doesn’t believe the story he is relating. Petronius puts the story into the mouth of a boorish and narcissistic fictional character, far from a reliable narrator. And Cassius Dio was writing about two centuries later and seems to have garbled this story with the tale of a later emperor, Hadrian, and his jealousy of a famous architect. Although it is interesting that we have versions of this story from three different sources, all that means is that, as Pliny notes, it was a tale widely told, not necessarily that there was any truth to it.

The fact that this story is connected with Tiberius also points to it being unreliable. Pliny, Petronius, and Cassius Dio were all part of the Roman elite, who generally disliked Tiberius. As the second emperor of Rome after the beloved Augustus, Tiberius had big sandals to fill and little of his predecessor’s charisma and social grace. The accounts of Tiberius as emperor that have come down to us describe him as tactless, cynical, cruel, and prone to paranoia. He also ruled Rome during a time of economic hardship, and his pragmatic concern for financial stability (including worrying about things like the prices of commodities and the steadiness of the gold and silver supply) came off as small-minded stinginess to the rest of the Roman upper crust. The idea of Tiberius responding to a wondrous new invention by destroying both it and the inventor appealed to existing prejudices about him, which helped the story spread. Romans like Pliny and Petronius already believed that Tiberius was cruel when he should have been magnanimous, tight-fisted when he should have been generous, and quick to apply violence to those who did not deserve it. The story of the wondrous glass cup not only made these qualities manifest, it served as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of such behavior. It was, in short, a good story, and good stories spread easily even when they aren’t true.

If there is any kind of truth behind the tale, it may be something less revolutionary. Glassmaking is a skilled art, and in antiquity it practitioners carefully guarded their secrets. To an uninitiated observer, the malleability of hot glass in a glass-blower’s workshop may have seemed quite wondrous, and the story may have spread from there without the crucial understanding that glass only flows so easily when it is fresh from the furnace. Additionally, around the time of Tiberius, new kinds of mold-blown glass were coming onto the Roman market that imitated the shapes of metal vessels. To the average Roman aristocrat shopping for luxury housewares, the idea that a material might exist combining the translucency of glass with the malleability of metal might not seem so far-fetched. If these ideas were already circulating in Roman literary circles, it is not strange to imagine that someone put them together with the existing negative perceptions of Tiberius and concocted a “What if” story that took on a life of its own as gossip and political mudslinging.

In the end, it is unlikely that any Roman artisan ever figured out how to make flexible glass. As interesting as the story is, it tells us more about the perception of Tiberius than it does about any fabulous ancient discoveries.

Further reading:

Champlin, Edward. “Tiberius the Wise.” Historia Bd. 57, H. 4 (2008): 408-425

Keller, Vera. “Storied Objects, Scientific Objects, and Renaissance Experiment: The Case of Malleable Glass.” Renaissance Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2017): 594-632.

Stern, E. Marianne. “Ancient Glass in a Philological Context.” Mnemosyne 4th ser. 60, f. 3 (2007): 341-406.

Image: Roman drinking glass (not flexible), photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Domvs Romana, Mdina, Malta; 1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE; glass)

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

A Contradictory Coin

Two faces of an ancient Roman coin, one showing a bearded man wearing a radiate crown, the other showing a young men wearing a wreath.



Palmyrene Antoninianus, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (270-272 CE; bronze and silver)

What’s so contradictory about this coin? Well, there’s a story behind it.

In the third century CE, the Roman Empire wasn’t doing well at all. Between 235 and 284, the empire suffered civil war and political chaos as numerous general claimed the imperial title with the backing of their troops, only to be assassinated and replaced with another general. At the same time there was an economic collapse and an outbreak of deadly disease that depopulated the great cities of the Mediterranean.

In this fifty years of crisis, the emperors were mostly concerned with securing their own power and fighting off rivals. People looked to more local powers to handle the ordinary business of governance. With such chaos and weakness at the top, some of these local powers began to operate as effectively independent states.

One such state was the empire of Palmyra. Palmyra was a city in the eastern Mediterranean, in what is today Syria. It had long been an important stop on caravan routes that connected the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and India beyond. The Palmyrene noble Odaenathus helped to support the Roman position in the region during a flare-up of conflicts with the Parthian Empire to the east. With weakness at the top of the empire, Odaenathus began to rule Palmyra with more and more independence over the course of the 260s. After his death in 267, his wife Zenobia, ruling on behalf of their young son Vaballathus, began an ambitious campaign of conquest that made Palmyra the ruling city of a de facto empire covering much of the Roman East.

While effectively operating as an independent power, Palmyra maintained a show of loyalty to the Roman Emperor at the time, Aurelian. In the early 270s, Zenobia issued coins like this one, bearing the image of Aurelian on one side and Vaballathus on the other. The text of the coin names Aurelian as emperor and calls Vaballathus only a general of the Romans. Since coins could circulate more widely than most other works of public art, these coins represented one of Zenobia’s best efforts to convey the message to Aurelian that she and her son were still loyal.

But the very existence of these coins belies the message they send. The minting of coins was an imperial prerogative, one closely tied to the power of the emperor himself. Rome allowed some of the cities under its rule to mint their own low-value bronze coinage for local trade, essentially small change to make it easier for people to do their day-today business in the market. Palmyra evidently had the right to mint such coins, although surviving evidence suggests that the Palmyrenes had never exercised that right on any large scale.

This coin is different. It is the type of coin known to scholars today as an “Antoninianus.” (We don’t know what, if anything, ancient people called them.) An Antoninianus was a high-value coin typically made of a combination of bronze and silver. Its face value was equivalent to several days’ pay for a legionary (although extreme inflation in the third century seriously eroded the coins’ actual value), and they were largely minted by the emperors to pay the troops who had put them into power. Coins of such value had a strong historical connection to the recruitment and pay of armies.

By minting coins of this type, Zenobia effectively declared her intention to lead armies independently of the Roman emperors. No matter what image she put on the coins, the very act of minting them was tantamount to announcing a rebellion.

Aurelian was not fooled by the display of loyalty. In 272 he attacked Palmyra, captured Zenobia, and reconquered the territory she had claimed. After another outbreak of rebellion in Palmyra the next year, Aurelian captured the city and destroyed it.

An object as seemingly simple as a coin can have complicated and even contradictory intentions behind it.

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Quotes: I Wouldn’t Want to Suddenly Make a Fool of Myself

How nice that you feel so sure of my affections.

I wouldn’t want to suddenly make a fool of myself

Go ahead, chase that cheap, wool-spinning

whore rather than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.

I have people who care about me, and their greatest worry

is that I might fall into bed with some worthless nobody.

– Sulpicia, Poems 4

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is among the few female writers whose work has come down to us from antiquity. She was a Roman poet writing in the late first century BCE. Her surviving poems chart a tempestuous love affair with one Cerinthus. Like the lovers described in poetry by her male contemporaries, we cannot be sure whether Cerinthus was a real person or just a literary invention.

Sulpicia’s poetry relates in interesting ways to the major philosophical movement among Romans of her time: Stoicism. Stoicism was an originally Greek school of thought that emphasized emotional steadiness through the ups and downs of life. This idea appealed to Romans, who traditionally valued discipline and dispassionate self-control. Many Romans among the elite espoused versions of Stoic philosophy as a guiding principle.

Controlling one’s emotions first requires observing and understanding them. This is where Sulpicia’s poetry fits in. Her poems are like little gems of precisely observed emotion. This one captures the cold, controlled anger that comes of holding in a rage that is about to explode. Another poem expresses the exasperation of a young person at well-meaning but clueless relatives.

While other Romans were exploring Stoicism as a philosophical idea, Sulpicia was turning it into art.

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