Fun with Ancient Graffiti! (No, not the Pompeii dicks)

Ah ancient graffiti. Thousands of years later, we know who had intercourse with whom where, who consider themselves to be best friends forever, and who was the best endowed in all of Rome. Unfortunately, of all the archaeological sites which contain remnants of society’s ponderings, only that which decorates the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneam has been both translated and made widely accessible.

Here are some of my favorites:

“Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.”

“We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”

“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.”

“The city block of the Arrii Pollii in the possession of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available to rent from July 1st. There are shops on the first floor, upper stories, high-class rooms and a house.  A person interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius.”

“I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world.”

“Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before!”

“The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian.”

“We have wet the bed, host.  I confess we have done wrong.  If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot.”

“Serena hates Isidorus.”

“O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”



A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.


“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).


Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

Chanukah and Historiography, or, the Hasmoneans are Rly Embarrassing

You know, I was going to try to be unpredictable and not make a Chanukah post, but lol @ that tbh.

Today, Chanukah is kind of a cute holiday about god saving the Jewish people from cultural genocide with lots of songs about candles and spinning tops. With presents. But at its barest of bones, Chanukah is a celebration of the fact that a bunch of guerilla fighters beat the Greek establishment out of Judea while using spinning tops as an instrument of subversion. Which begs the question: how did candles and spinning tops come to dominate this holiday which arose from the ousting of an empire of the hands of a few Jews?

First we have to ask what actually happened. Modern scholars fall into two main camps on this issue. One camp views the uprising told of in 1 and 2 Maccabees not as a revolt against the Greeks, but as the result of a civil war between orthodox and reformist Jews. Meaning, there was a civil war between Jews who did not wish to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life, and Jews who did. The Greek leadership responded to this war by punishing the Orthodox camp (by doing stuff like letting their pigs defecate in the temple). The Maccabean uprising, according to this theory, was the result of Greek intercession in the civil war.

The other camp argues that the revolt began as a religious one, and simply grew into a nationalistic one. Now, because this isn’t my field of study within Jewish history I cannot argue in favor of either camp. I will, however say that, in light of subsequent inter-Jewish conflicts, and in light of conflicts within the present day global Jewish community, the first theory—the one which states that the revolt began with a war between orthodox and modernized Jewry—rings true to me.

The Maccabees, who founded the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, ruled the land independently from 140 BCE to 37 BCE, at which point it was completely dominated by Roman power.*

It would seem that an event of this magnitude would have been deemed worthy enough to merit inclusion in the Biblical canon, but instead, 1 and 2 Maccabees were banished to the Apocrypha.** For, the Hasmoneans were actually pretty corrupt leaders whose policy led directly to the Roman conquest of Judea, and thus the destruction of the Second Temple.

For this reason, later rabbinical scholars, not wanting to glorify the Hasmoneans, relegated 1 and 2 Maccabees to the Apocrypha and emphasized the role of god and miracles in the uprising over the Maccabees themselves. That is why, today, we have a holiday about latkes, dreidels, and candle lighting.

*Rome conquered and divided the land in 63 BCE, but the Hasmoneans retained a semblance of independence until Herod the Great strengthened his rule in 37 BCE.

**These books are apocryphal in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Protestant scriptures; they are canonical within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox texts.

Hannibal and the Battle of Cannae

On August 2, 216 BCE, Hannibal’s army defeated the Roman troops in the Battle of Cannae, 250 miles away from Rome. It was their third victory in a row, and the second greatest defeat ever suffered by a Roman army up until that point in time.

For millennia, historians—including Livy—have argued that Hannibal should have used the momentum gained from that victory to launch an attack on the city of Rome itself and decisively win the Second Punic War.

But he didn’t. Instead, Hannibal marched into Campania and lost the Second Punic War. Though baffling on the surface, Hannibal’s decision comes down to something extremely practical: numbers, supplies, and logistics.

Before beating the Romans at Cannae, Hannibal’s troops had had to trek through the Alps, make their way through the marshes of the Arno River, and down through the Italian Peninsula.

Map depicting Hannibal’s route of invasion; courtesy of the Department of History of the United States Military Academy

Major landmarks and theaters of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (for the purposes of this post). Map from The Punic Wars: 264-146 (Essential Histories) by Nigel Bagnall

Huge amounts of men, animals, and supplies were lost along various points of this journey, and the remaining men were so weak that their only choice was to operate on a schedule dictated by supply. Their victories over Rome may have given them a word-of-mouth advantage, but it certainly did not magically alleviate their supply-related concerns.

As noted above, Cannae is about 250 miles away from Rome. The quickest pace at which Hannibal’s army could have possibly marched was twenty miles per day. If they were to keep a pace of twenty miles per day, every day, they would have been able to reach Rome in a little more than twelve days. However, that is not a pace at which they logically would have been able to travel.

Hannibal would have required about 544,920 pack animals to carry all the food needed by his men; this calculation does not take into account the fact that pack animals had to carry their own food. Theses animals were often underfed due to the amount of time needed to gather their food, meaning that they would have been too weak to march along at a sustained rate.

In addition to the slow march of the pack animals, the army needed time to rest and gather supplies, which would have slowed them down even more; it is also likely that they would have been delayed by attacks sustained en route, as they were operating deep within enemy territory. When all of these lags and delays are taken into account it becomes clear that the maximum possible speed at which they could have marched comes to about eight miles per day. At that pace, it would have taken them almost thirty days to reach Rome.

Hannibal knew that his army lacked the resources to be able to sustain that march and then carry out a successful attack on Rome. So he did not attack Rome.

The historians who do understand this tend to put their efforts into arguing over what Hannibal should have done following his victory. I tend to think he was right in proceeding into Campania with the goal of dismantling the Roman system of alliances within that theater, but erred in his misunderstanding of local politics and power dynamics.

But obviously, we can never know what would have happened. We can only know what did happen, and why it happened. Hannibal did not march on Rome because he knew that his supplies would not sustain such an endeavor.

Zenobia Rebelled Against Rome, and Aurelian gave her a Villa.

In the third century CE, between the years 235 and 283 CE, the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined weight of invasions, civil war, plague, and economic depression. By the year 258, the empire had split into three states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the Roman Empire between them. The three were not reunited until the rule of the Emperor Aurelian.

The Roman Empire as of 271 CE; Rome is in red, the Gallic Empire is in green, and the Palmyrene Empire is in yellow.

During this period, the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were governed by a man named Septimus Odaenathus. He chose to use the legions under his command to defend the provinces he controlled instead of committing them to the defense of the Roman Empire. Though he never officially rebelled against Rome, he held the title of “King,” and by 260 CE, he was the definitive ruler of the area which would be known as the Palmyrene Empire between the years 267 and 273 CE.

Septimus Odaenathus was assassinated in 267. He was succeeded by his infant son Vaballathus, with his wife Zenobia (240-?) ruling in their son’s stead. Zenobia quickly assumed the honorific title of Augusta.

Coin baring Zenobia’s likeness; on the left you can see her name and the title “Augusta,” and on the right you can see the word “Regina” indicating the fact that, though she used the Augusta title, she generally presented herself as a queen.

She was of Arab descent, with her immediate ancestors being primarily highly placed generals and officials within the Roman Empire. However, Zenobia styled herself as the descendant of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Cleopatra VII of Egypt, showing her strong sense of history and literature and a clear understanding of the fact that people are easily impressed by the suggestion of illustrious ancestry.

Contemporary sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent, and, though ancient sources have a tendency to describe all notable women as “beautiful, intelligent, and chaste,” she was undoubtedly intelligent. In addition to her mastery of history and literature, and her understanding of the human psyche, she was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, with Latin as her native tongue.

Zenobia justified her rule by claiming to be acting in protection of Rome’s Eastern provinces from the Sassanid Empire. However, it was clear that her military operations served primarily to increase her own power at the expense of Rome. Because she was outwardly cooperative, and because Aurelian had his hands full in the Gallic Empire, he chose to recognize her authority for the time being, which allowed her to operate fairly unimpeded for about six years.

And what a six years they were. She conquered Egypt, and followed that up with conquests of Anatolia, and the Levantine provinces. With these conquests came the extremely valuable trade routes embedded within those territories.

However, after finishing up in the Gallic section of the Empire in 271, Aurelian turned his eyes to the reunification of the rest of the Empire. Aurelian’s forces met Zenobia’s in Antioch, and there the Palmyrene Empire suffered a crushing defeat and was rapidly re-incorporated into the newly reunited Roman Empire.

1717 painting by Giovanni Tiepolo titled “Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus” currently on display at the Museo del Prado.

Zenobia attempted to escape down the Euphrates to the Sassasnid Empire with Vaballathus, but they were quickly intercepted by Aurelian’s troops and taken to Rome as hostages; Vaballathus died along the way. Aurelian had a great victory parade through the streets of Rome to celebrate the reunification of the Empire, and he had Zenobia marched through the streets in chains as a part of this celebration.

1888 painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz titled “Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra” currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

However, Aurelian was so impressed by her dignity, intelligence, beauty, desire to be forgive for her transgressions that he not only allowed her to live,* but gifted her a villa in Tivoli. There she lived in luxury, and became a great and sought after philosopher and socialite. She remarried a Roman governor, had several daughters—all of whom married into great families—and had recorded descendants up into the fifth century.

If you’re going to rebel against the Roman Empire, that’s the way to do it.

*There is, in fact, some debate as to her actual fate. A few sources record that she died of starvation or beheading, however, the multitude of sources which suggest that she was allowed to live outweigh the sources which contain information to the contrary.

Images Courtesy of the Museo del Prado, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and; map courtesy of wikipedia.

Boudicca: Rebel Queen of the Iceni

Deep beneath London is a layer of reddish-brown ash, with burnt piece of Roman pottery strewn about. Archaeologists call this “Boudicca’s Layer.”

This statue of Boudicca currently stands outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was commissioned by Prince Albert, and was completed in 1905.

She was queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in the early first century CE. Her husband Prasutagus ruled the tribe independently of Rome who, in turn, viewed him as an ally and left him alone. When he died he left the tribal land to Boudicca and their two daughters. However, the Romans—hostile to the idea of cooperating with a female ruler—chose to disregard his wishes and seized the land for themselves.

They raped Boudicca and her daughters to demonstrate their lack of power. In 60 CE, Boudicca retaliated. She rallied thousands, some estimates put the figure at 100,000, of Britons and sacked three Roman cities: Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (St. Albans). The ashes from her fire can still be seen in London.

Here’s a map to give you an idea of where all of this took place:

Once she had satisfied herself, she committed suicide with her two daughters to avoid being captured and further humiliated by the Romans.

Her actions persuaded Nero to install a more conciliatory governor in Britain, and her story was preserved in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.

Rome did not fall in 476 CE

The thing about the decline of a massive empire is that you cannot pinpoint the time at which it ceases to exist. You can pinpoint when it has ceased to exist, but determining when it fell is much more inexact endeavor.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a process which took place over the course of centuries.

First, we must remember that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire in the fourth century. The Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) endured into the fifteenth century until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. So in discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, we must remember that we are only discussing the Western Roman Empire.

Here is a map showing the East/West division (please note that this map shows the height of the Empires; within the fifth century time-frame being discussed in this post, the West controlled a significantly smaller amount of territory than is pictured below):


By 476, the Western Roman Empire had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen. Yet at the same time, it would continue to live on for centuries.

What happened in that year was the deposition of the last traditional emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, by Flavius Odoacer (historians are unsure as to whether he was a Goth or a Hun). That’s all. And it was hardly a tumultuous event; the peoples the Romans referred to as “barbarians” had, in fact, been major political players in Rome for over 100 years prior to the date of the perceived fall. Many of those tribes were fully assimilated into Roman society, and it was often the case that they functioned as the true powers behind the imperial throne. We can only assume that Odoacer grew tired of the charade and decided to make it official.

By the fifth century, these tribes—the Vandals, the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks—had assimilated to the Roman way of life and were exporting it to areas outside the bounds of the Empire. Western Roman culture outlived the Western Roman Empire as a result of these tribes.

For at least two centuries after the generally accepted time of the fall of the empire, the Roman culture lived on. However, by around time of Charlemagne (late eighth, early ninth century), most of the populace had come to view the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire with suspicion and disdain. Thus, we can probably say that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist by the mid or late seventh century.