Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Elusive Search for Dionysus

My two great passions are writing and history. Melding them together provides me with an opportunity to escape from the worries of the everyday while venturing into the ancient societies of the Romans, Etruscans and Greeks. The exercise of trying to understand the emotions and plights of my characters is both exacting and rewarding. Sitting at my desk in 21st century Australia, I’m required to delve into the psyches of 4th century BCE women who survived in a masculine culture as the possessions of men, and whose worth was measured in how many warrior sons they could bear.

The novels in my Tales of Ancient Rome saga describe the ten year siege between the early Republican Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. These cities lay only twelve miles apart, separated by the Tiber River, but their societies were so opposite in their culture and beliefs that you could travel from a world similar to the Dark Ages to somewhere akin to the Renaissance simply by crossing a strip of water. 

Etruscan Banqueting Couple, Tomb of the Shields
In the era in which my books are set, Roman women were restricted to hearth and home in a rigid, insular and self-righteous culture. In comparison, the sophisticated Etruscans (known as the Rasenna) afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to females well beyond the constraints of cloistered Greek women or second class Roman matrons. Learning of such strikingly diverse societies in close proximity gave me the idea of exploring the differences between the pleasure-seeking people of Etruria and those of the austere emergent Rome. And so I created the story of Caecilia, a young Roman ‘treaty bride’, who is wed to an enemy Etruscan nobleman to seal a tenuous truce. At first she struggles with conflicting moralities, determined to remain true to Roman virtues as she lives among the sinful Etruscans. However, both her husband and his society’s freedoms seduce her. When war is declared at the end of the first book, The Wedding Shroud, she must choose between Rome and duty or Veii and love. In the second book, The Golden Dice, she grapples with living as an alien amid her former enemy as she strives to prove her loyalty to her adopted city. In the third book, Call to Juno, Caecilia realises survival depends on seeking her birthplace’s destruction. She also faces the final hurdle of converting to being wholly Etruscan by forsaking her Roman religious beliefs for those of her husband’s people.

The pantheons of the Romans and Etruscans contained equivalent divine counterparts. This did not mean their religions were the same. Roman faith and law were established in custom. There were no holy texts apart from the sacred verses contained in the Sibylline Books. In contrast, the Etruscans developed a sophisticated system of beliefs that were enshrined in a codex known as the Etrusca Disciplina. It consisted of various scriptures which established rules relating to prophecy and the afterlife. Indeed, the Etruscans raised the art of divination to a science, believing that they could defer destiny through observing the rigorous rites of their Book of Fate. They also believed in the concept of the ‘Beyond’ where a deceased’s soul remained intact and would feast with their ancestors. Achieving this salvation was obtained through following a death cult involving human sacrifice. Dionysiac worship, with its concept of rebirth, was also an alternative avenue to eternal life. This was in direct contrast to the early Romans’ belief in the Di Manes or ‘Good Ones’ who were a conglomerate of spirits who existed underground and needed to be appeased to prevent them from rising up en masse to torment the living. In other words, there were no individual souls in the Roman afterlife, or hope of resurrection.

My research into the Etruscans (which extended for over fifteen years) proved extremely challenging. The quandary of an historical novelist who writes about ancient times is the ‘elasticity’ of sources – the further you go back in time the more putative the history becomes. I was at pains to consult academics, archaeologists and historians to try to elicit answers to fill the ‘gaps’ in the evidence. What I ultimately concluded was that Etruscan and early Roman history is subject to considerable supposition from the experts and so offers the possibility for a writer to hypothesize. 

Dancing Greek Maenad 27 BCE
Despite this authorial licence, I was frustrated by the lack of certainty about Etruscan religious practices. I craved an answer as to the true nature of Rasennan worship to enable Caecilia to determine whether she should relinquish her belief in a soulless Roman afterlife or be reborn through orgiastic rites she finds both morally and physically confronting. I was able to obtain secondary sources which explored the Etrusca Disciplina, the death cult, and human sacrifice, but the nature of Dionysiac worship in Etruscan society remained elusive – particularly my quest to determine if the Rasenna believed in the wild Dionysism of the Greeks or instead observed a less intense form of the cult. (Please note that the Roman Bacchus was not yet worshipped during the period in which my novels are set). My problem was compounded by the fact that, although recent archaeological digs are revealing more about the Etruscans, their civilization is often dubbed ‘mysterious’ because none of their literature has survived other than the remnants of ritual texts. Consequently, most of our knowledge comes from accounts recorded by historians many centuries after Etruria’s demise. In effect, the conquerors of Etruria wrote about Etruscan history with all the bigotries of the victor over the vanquished. Some of these records are ‘fragments’ from contemporary travellers to Etruscan cities which were quoted by later ancient historians. These Greek commentators (who came from a society that repressed women) described the licentiousness and opulence of the Etruscans and the wickedness of their wives. One notorious example is Theopompus of Chios, a C4th BCE Greek historian, who expressed his shock at the profligacy of the Etruscans. He wrote, among other scurrilous observations, that his hosts had open intercourse with prostitutes, courtesans, boys, and even wives at their banquets. Furthermore, ‘They make love and disport themselves, occasionally within view of each other, but more often they surround their beds with screens, made of interwoven branches over which they spread their mantles’. The validity of such fragments is often criticized by modern historians because of their authors’ prejudices but the gossip does raise the possibility some Rassena may have, indeed, led flagrant sex lives.

Yet the world view of the Etruscans is not totally opaque. An insight can be gained by decoding their paintings, sculpture, furniture and votive statuettes. Yet the portrayal of the sexes in funerary art poses a further conundrum. Men and women are depicted in loving embraces that extend through a spectrum from tender and modest spousal devotion to erotic, and sometimes, pornographic coupling. So what were Etruscan women like? Faithful or wanton? Or both? Did they indulge in manic sexual worship or was their adoration of the wine god tempered?

Tomb of the Leopards Etruscan Banqueting Scene
If the primary sources were almost non-existent on the Etruscan Dionysus (known as Fufluns), modern secondary sources were just as scarce. The internet provided a tantalising glimpse of an American journal article by Larissa Bonfante, and one Italian essay by Giovanni Colonna. As I live in Australia, it was not possible to access out of print copies from our library system. And so I reached across the ether by adding a comment on Dr Bonfante’s Facebook page without any expectation of a reply. Six months later she contacted me on Academia to say she had uploaded the article to that site. And the eminent Etruscologist, Iefke van Kampen, was kind enough to obtain the Colonna essay for me. Alas, I don’t read Italian but the virtual world once again came to the rescue when I located an enthusiastic student on Upwork to translate it for me.

What was the result of my success in tracking down these obscure sources? Inconclusive. The historians’ analyses were fascinating but not definitive. Funerary art depicting symposium scenes of Etruscan women and men enjoying a world of wine and music are interpreted as evidence that inebriation connects participants to the ‘otherness’ of a divine dimension. Hedonism is therefore linked to the concept of exorcising death in a celebration of a passage to the afterlife. But this more decorous ‘Dionysism without Dionysus’ also sits side by side with Etruscan representations of maenads and satyrs (attendants in the wine god’s retinue) on bronzes, vases and sculptures that hint at more frenzied orphic mysteries reputed to include maenads eating raw flesh (omophagia) and flagellating novitiates.  I learned, however, that because the Dionysiac cult granted equality to women, slaves and foreigners, the Greeks invented a gruesome mythology to discourage this subversion of the social order. Such legends included the ‘Dying God’ driving mothers to tear apart their children and his opponents suffering the most horrendous retribution. This made it absolutely clear to me that there is a difference between mythology and cult which can cloud the truth as to the actual rituals that were followed. The use of the term ‘The Mysteries’ is very apt.

So how did I finally solve my dilemma concerning my character’s internal conflict? Did Caecilia decide to accept that the infidelity involved in communing with Fufluns was a sacred act? Was her desire to attain eternal life greater than her fear of dark, ecstatic worship? I’m afraid the answer will only be given to those who choose to read Call to Juno – A Tale of Ancient Rome.

As for connecting across the ether, I was thrilled when Iefke van Kampen asked to use the dialogue of my characters to voice an audio-visual exhibition of votive statues in her museum. As a result ‘Saga Storrs’ is now on show at the Museo dell’Agro Veientana outside Veio near Rome – a wonderful, passionate collaboration of writing and history.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at  
Images are courtesy of the MET project, Skira Colour Studio and Museo Dell'agro Veientano.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Inspirational homes (2) by Carolyn Hughes

“Inspirational homes” might suggest a strapline blazoned across the front of a glossy décor magazine. But the sort of inspiration I’m talking about here is where real-life ancient buildings “inspire” me in my descriptions of the homes of the characters in my novels, which are set in 14th century southern England.

Last month, I discussed two buildings, found at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex, that are my inspiration for the homes of rural peasants. Today, I am going to discuss two houses of somewhat higher standing: one the home of a well-to-do farming family and the other that of a wealthy Southampton merchant.

Both of these wealthier homes have two storeys, with a main “hall” downstairs and a “solar”, a private area for the family, upstairs. Both have additional rooms and, by comparison with the cottages, are really very spacious. Yet such homes would still be draughty and cold underfoot, the hearth might still be in the middle of the floor (though chimneys were beginning to be installed in wealthier homes), and the windows might still be pretty small and were almost certainly unglazed.

The Bayleaf Farmstead, again at the Weald and Downland Museum, is a reconstruction of an early 15th century hall-house, and is typical of “Wealden” houses, common in the Weald of Kent and East Sussex, which were mostly built by prosperous yeoman farmers or well-off craftsmen and tradesmen in towns.

Keith Edkins / Bayleaf wealden house / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bayleaf comes from Chiddingstone, about 10 miles (16 km) north-west of Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The house is timber-framed with a tiled roof, and is constructed with four bays, two of which form the central hall, full height to the rafters. The outer bays are both two-storey, and the upper rooms have “jetties” to the front of the house. To one side of the central hall is what is referred to as the “parlour”, with a solar upstairs. On the other side of the hall are ground floor service rooms, with a large chamber on the first floor.

The main door of the house opens into a cross passage, which separates the central hall from the service rooms, and has a door at its other end leading to the rear of the house.

The central hall is significantly bigger than the two peasants’ cottages I described last month. It is open to the rafters, and has a rather grand double-height – but unglazed – window, with hinged and folding internal shutters, that provides good light for the dining table. Overall the effect is impressive. Nonetheless, this hall does still have a central hearth, shown as a rectangle of bricks more or less in the middle of the floor. Because, I suppose, the room is bigger than the halls in the peasant cottages, the smoke from the fire – which was burning nicely when I visited – did not seem quite so unpleasant. The smoke was rising upwards (rather than billowing), escaping perhaps through the small gabled opening in the roof ridge, although, as I have read elsewhere, it is possible that much of the smoke simply finds its way out through gaps between the roof tiles.

While this central hall is still the main living area, there are other “living rooms” (in contrast to the peasant cottages): the parlour to one side of the hall and the solar above it. The family was not obliged to spend their whole lives in this one room, grand as it is. It would certainly be the dining room, and where the family would receive guests, and where everyday domestic tasks might be carried out. But sleeping would be done elsewhere – probably upstairs – and perhaps family members could escape from each other occasionally to the parlour.

It is thought that initially some cooking may have taken place on the fire in the hall but, by the 16th century, the kitchen, used for brewing and baking as well as cooking meals, would have been in a separate building, for safety’s sake.

The furniture and furnishing in Bayleaf’s hall reflects the relative wealth of the occupants. The wide trestle table is laid with a cloth, the bench and stools are well made. There is a decorated cupboard, with pewter ware displayed, and a solid storage chest. Curtains hang on the walls behind the table, presumably for decoration but also to combat draughts.

On the other side of the cross passage, doors lead into the service rooms: the buttery, used mainly for storing vessels and utensils, and the pantry, used for storing food. A stairway at the back leads up to the chamber above, its original use being unknown, but perhaps used as a bedchamber for servants and/or the older children of the family.

At the other side of the hall, an opening by the high table – closed with a curtain rather than a wooden door – leads to the “parlour”. The downstairs room may have been used for sleeping, storage and work, such as spinning for the lady of the house and accounts for the master. The room upstairs, the “solar”, was probably where the family slept, that is, the master, his wife and their younger children. Older children might have slept in the parlour or perhaps in the service chamber at the other side of the house.

Interestingly, the upstairs solar is shown with its own privy. The museum says that the reconstruction of this privy is conjectural, but it is not unlikely. A small jetty at the back of the room indicates where the privy might have been. Typically, the latrine emptied onto the midden heap or into an open cesspit or a covered conduit. Sometimes such privies were installed in a room referred to as a “garderobe”, essentially a wardrobe, on the principle that the odour of urine kept pests away from valuable clothing. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. However, if the reconstruction is anything to go by, this privy was exceedingly draughty, but perhaps preferable to finding your way outdoors to the privy in the garden!
Oast House Archive / Jettied Toilet of Bayleaf House / CC BY-SA 2.0

Oast House Archive / Toilet of Bayleaf House / CC BY-SA 2.0

The furniture in the parlour and solar reflects the rooms’ most likely use, with beds and storage chests. The “best” bed in the solar chamber is a wonderful robust four-poster, with a ceiling (a “tester”) and curtains for privacy and to keep out draughts. The bed in the parlour is of a simpler design without the posts or hangings. The principal bed is shown with a truckle, a bed on wheels that slides underneath the larger bed, often used by the younger children.

Bayleaf is a beautiful house. I often have it in my mind when I’m thinking about the homes of the more well-to-do in my novels.

I also love the late 13th century Mediaeval Merchant’s House in French Street, Southampton, managed by English Heritage. The shape and style of this house sometimes merges with that of Bayleaf in my head when I’m thinking about the homes of my wealthier characters, although this merchant’s house is clearly more of a town house than Bayleaf.

Medieval Merchant's House, Southampton
By Geni - Photo by user:geni, CC BY-SA 4.0

The house was built in about 1290 by John Fortin, a prosperous merchant, and has survived largely intact. The main walls of the house were built of limestone but the overhanging bay at the front of the house is timber-framed. The roof is of Cornish slate.

This house does have some similarities with Bayleaf: it is spacious, has private family rooms and its furniture is well-made and relatively elaborate. But this house also acted as business premises for the owner, for it has a shop at the front and a room at the back that was probably used as an office, as well as an undercroft beneath the house for the storage of the merchant’s goods: barrels of wine! A wooden sign in the shape of a wine barrel hangs from the projecting upper chamber, alerting potential customers to the goods on offer here.

The front door beside the shop front leads into a narrow passage, with a door off it into the shop, and a door ahead leading into the private accommodation. The shop has unglazed windows but also shutters which can be let down to form a shop counter to the street. The shop itself is kitted out as a wine store, but I think that customers probably did not enter the shop, making their purchases from the counter.

Beyond the inner passage door, the passage leads on to an opening to the central hall, which, as with all the other houses, was the main living room, where the family ate and entertained, and carried out their everyday tasks. As with all the houses, the room is open to the rafters. It has relatively large windows, unglazed but protected by shutters. It has a 14th century chimney, although when the house was first built it would have had a central hearth. But wall fireplaces were becoming more common by the mid-14th century, perhaps particularly in towns. Relatively spacious as this room is, one cannot help but wonder at the inconvenience of having a fire in the middle of the floor, especially for the mistress of the house, as she swept past it with her long skirts, never mind the unpleasantness of the smoke! The arrival of chimneys must have seemed a wonderful innovation.

Medieval Merchant's House - HallBy Hchc2009 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The passage continues on to a private room, probably used by the merchant as his office, which also has a fireplace. It is thought that a door led from this room to an external latrine.

The furniture in the hall consists of a long trestle table, a grand, painted throne-like chair for the master of the house, and a bench for his family. There is an elaborately carved and, surprisingly perhaps, brightly painted, cupboard, together with a couple of storage chests, hangings on the walls and an array of jugs and utensils on display. In the “office” is another table with stools, and yet another decorated cupboard and a chest.

Medieval Merchant's House - "Office"By Hchc2009 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Rising from the central hall, a substantial staircase takes you upstairs to the solar, where there are two chambers, located either side of the open hall and connected by a gallery that overlooks the hall below. The room at the back of the house is probably the bedchamber for the family, the one at the front for guests and perhaps also used as a day room by the women of the family, where the light from the relatively large window would be good for spinning or sewing.

The back bedchamber is furnished as a place for the whole family to sleep. The beds have testers and curtains, like the principal bed in Bayleaf, there is a very sturdy rocking cradle, a stool and elaborately carved and painted storage chests. There might have been a door leading to the external latrine tower.

Medieval Merchant's House - BedchamberBy Hchc2009 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

So Bayleaf and the merchant’s house in Southampton represent the homes of comparatively wealthy mediaeval people. They afforded a little more privacy for their occupants than the peasant cottages, although children still slept with their parents, or perhaps with servants, so privacy remained limited. These two houses are also much lighter than the peasant cottages, with their larger windows, but the windows were still unglazed and therefore draughty until the shutters were closed, plunging the rooms into gloom. Heating in the merchant’s house, with two fireplaces downstairs, would no doubt have seemed a great improvement over the smoky central hearth of Bayleaf. But there was no heating in any of the upstairs rooms and I assume that all the downstairs rooms would have had floors of beaten earth so I am sure these houses must have been pretty chilly for all their relative sophistication. 

Nonetheless, they surely represented luxury compared to the peasant cottages we saw last month. Next month, I will look at one house that represents the homes of the gentry – a manor house, if a fairly grand one. True luxury, perhaps?

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Curious Roman By L.J. Trafford

Given that my last two History Girls posts have concerned the very bloody assassinations of Roman emperors, I thought that this month I might tackle a more cheery subject. If only for my Mum who complained that part two of The Terminators was a tad on the gruesome side. I think it was Commodus decapitating ostriches that pushed her over the edge.
So here we are! Something more cheerful: Pliny the Elder's Natural History.

The Natural History is a treasure trove of facts, strange facts and ‘are you sure that’s right, Pliny?’ facts. A book that has given me hours of gleeful delight and probably most of the material for my new book. Frankly any book that has a chapter heading entitled: “About Cabbage” is worth devoting your time to.
I thought in this month's post I would extract all my favourite bits from Pliny and share them with you.

Pliny and Roman Knowledge Gathering 
The author's rather battered copy of Pliny's Natural History

Gaius Plinius Secundas was born in 23AD in northern Italy. Of equestrian class he served in the Roman army in Germany and held the procuratorships of Gallia Narbonensis, Africa, Hispania Tarraconensis and Belgica. We know of seven works that he wrote thanks to the letters of his nephew Pliny the younger, but the only one to survive to modern times is The Natural History.
The Natural History is in essence an encyclopaedia of 1st Century Roman knowledge. A glance over subject headings gives you a clue of the breadth of what Pliny was trying to achieve:
  • The Universe and the World
  • Zoology 
  • Botany 
  • Medicine 
  • Mining and Minerals 
Pliny is unequivocal in his statement that the Earth is a sphere. Of the planets he names Mars, Venus, Mercury Saturn and Jupiter. He states that Saturn is cold and frozen (which it is). That Mars only rotates every two years (which is correct, Mars has a 687 day orbit). That Saturn has a 30 year orbit (which is so nearly right as to be considered right, it has a 29 year orbit). That Jupiter has a 12 year orbit (another one we will let him have. Jupiter has an 11 year orbit). 
Elsewhere he cites Britain as being 800 miles long (sooooo close. It’s 874 miles). He also talks about the weather as being thoroughly divorced from the Gods. In fact Pliny is not at all God minded: “To believe in either an infinite number of deities corresponding to men’s virtues_ plumbs an even greater depth of foolishness”

All this makes it all the more surprising when Pliny comes out with ‘knowledge’ such as this on Indians: “it is known that many inhabitants exceed seven feet in height.”
He sees no reason to doubt the accounts of previous travellers’ tales on this sub-continent: “On many mountains there are men with Dogs’ heads who are covered with wild beast skins; they bark instead of speaking.”
In the mountains of Eastern India, Pliny tells us, there are satyrs (though my translation has a footnote that suggests these might actually be monkeys). Near the source of the Ganges were a tribe who had no mouths and who were all completely covered in hair. Apparently most Indians lived to between 130 and 200 years.

Yes, India is very far away. And no, Pliny had never been there. He’s relying on past sources which, to his credit, he quotes extensively. But it’s worth remembering that trade between India and Rome was fairly busy. Particularly since sailors had discovered how to use the monsoon winds to make sea crossings to India rather than travel the long arduous silk road.
Therefore there must have been traders knocking about the docks in Rome who were current travellers to India and who surely, at a bare minimum, could have sorted out the satyr/monkey confusion. 

Indian/Roman Trade routes

Pliny does use personal first hand information when it comes to India’s neighbour, Sri Lanka (known to the Romans as Tarpobane):
During the principal of Claudius, however more accurate information became available to us when an embassy came from Tarpobane.”

This embassy had come about following the adventures of a certain tax collector’s freedman. Pliny declines to name the freedman, instead naming his master (who did not have the adventures and was not there) as Annius Plocamus. This unfairly anonymous freedman was sailing around the coast of Arabia when his ship was caught in a terrible storm. Hopelessly thrown off course he was shipwrecked on the island of Tarpobane.
Here he somehow managed to ingratiate himself enough with the king for the ruler to offer him hospitality. Stuck for 6 months waiting for the monsoon winds to change direction and thus get him home, this anonymous freedman shows us something of his character by learning to speak the language thoroughly. The charming tongue that had sweet talked his way into a royal residence is clearly in full flow. The Tarpobanian king is so impressed by what the freedman tells him that he is moved to: ‘adopt a friendly attitude to the Romans and sent four envoys to Rome, led by Rachias.’

Rachias is Pliny’s source for his list of facts surrounding Tarpobane. Clearly a better one than the 300 year old Greek accounts that Pliny relies on for other sections. Or is he? For Rachias tells the Romans about the Chinese, whom his father had personally met.
They: “are above average height, have golden coloured hair, blue eyes and harsh voices.” 

Chapter Headings.
Aside from “On Cabbage” there are so many other great chapter headings that I defy anyone not to read further on. Such as:

The evil eye.
A short but glorious paragraph on the Illyrians amongst who can ‘kill those they stare at for a longer time, especially if it is with a look of anger.’  I’m picturing a Paddington hard stare.

Pliny describes a number of exotic trees. 
Yes, he does. I like something that delivers on what it promises. It’s satisfying.

Pliny gives a brief but entertaining description of apes.
Yes he does give a brief but entertaining description of apes. Best line: they “look like persons who understand they are being congratulated.”

The decay of morality is caused by the produce of the sea.
A political treatise that demands an instant read. It’s the sea sponges, isn’t it? I’ve always harboured suspicions about them. 

A sponge waiting silently to decay your morals. 

Famous wines of antiquity.
Which is followed by:
The physiological effects of wine - much in the manner of a disclaimer.

Mistaken ideas about olive trees.
I wasn’t aware I had any ideas floating about in my brain about olive trees. Yet I felt personally accused by this chapter heading and read on to see where I'd been mistaken in not thinking about olive trees.

Unrelated people sometimes look alike.
Yes, Pliny they do. But I suddenly have an overwhelming need to hear your take on the obvious.

The shortness of active life and the signs of impending death. 
OK. I might skip this one.

Pliny’s People

Amongst these fabulous chapter titles are some great stories relating to named people. Some are very famous, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar, Pliny tells us, "used to dictate to his secretaries four letters at once when dealing with important matters, or, if not busy with anything else, seven letters at a time."
If that makes you feel inadequate treat it as a warning against multi tasking. Had Caesar not been writing seven letters at once he might well have noticed that his best mates all loathed him and were plotting his murder. 
The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

Most people in The Natural History you will have never have heard of, and never would have heard of, had Pliny not immortalised them for history. And not always for a reason they would have liked.

  • First up Cornelius Gallus and Titus Hetereius, who Pliny records for all time as two men who died whilst having sexual intercourse with women. I’m presuming Pliny has in his head men who died whilst having sexual intercourse with men, else why distinguish it? Clearly he thought better of recording that, for it is never mentioned and we shall never know who they were. A thing that I never knew would annoy me. But it does.
  • A Praetorian Guard named Vinnius Valens who was able to hold up a cart loaded with wine-skins until the cart was emptied. He could also stop a wagon by grabbing it one hand whilst it’s horses pulled and pulled to go forward. Which is the kind of showing off that clearly indicates he had far too much time on his hands during guard duty.
  • The orator Marcus Corvinus who, in a chapter devoted to feats of memory, Pliny cruelly singles out as a man who could not remember his own name.
  • Marcus Sergius who was wounded 23 times in two campaigns, including a wound that severed his right hand. No matter. He had a replacement hand fitted made of iron and in his next campaign captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul.
  • Marcus Salvius Otho who taught the Emperor Nero to perfume his feet. Not to be outdone on the beauty treatment front, Nero’s wife Poppaea bathed in asses milk to aid with wrinkle reduction. “For this purpose she was always accompanied by a string of asses.” Pliny tells us, unforgivably failing to make a joke about this.
  • Sergius Orata, as well as being the first to introduce oyster farming, made his financial fortune from being the inventor of the “shower-bath, and then from selling country houses fitted with showers.” 

What Pliny likes
Bees. He really like bees. He writes more on bees than any other creature in his section on the animal kingdom. 
Photo by John Severns.
“What sinews or muscles can we compare with enormous efficiency and industry shown by bees? What men in heaven’s name can we set alongside these insects which are superior to men when it comes to reasoning?” 
“Their hygiene is amazing!” he cries.
“They note the idleness of slackers, reprove them and later even punish them with death.
” He repeats with admiration.
“After such considerations let us evaluate their natural intelligence.”
Err alright Pliny we’ll do that, if we must.
And just when you think there is nothing further to learn about bees, here comes another chapter heading: Further Observations about bees.

Conclusion. Pliny likes bees.
We might expect a similar appreciation of ants. After all ants have a similarly industrious life and organisational structure as bees. Ants get no mention. Probably because they don’t make “the sweetest, finest, most health-promoting liquid.” Lazy ants.

What Pliny doesn’t like.
Unnecessary expenditure and luxury. It is of a recurrent annoyance to him. He is annoyed that the extravagant colour purple is now the standard covering for dining-room couches.
He’s furious that, “Men have not been ashamed to adopt silk clothing in summer because of it’s lightness.”
He’s disgusted that people are spending money on perfume: “Perfumes are the most pointless of all luxuries.” He fumes of the story of someone, “with no Imperial connections [who] gave instructions for the walls of his bathroom to be sprinkled with perfume.”
And raving mad that:  “This extravagant behaviour has found it’s way even into our military camps!”
He simply cannot contain himself on the subject of perfumes and I’m afraid begins a sentence with a rather strong expletive. “But heaven’s alive – at the present time some people add perfume to their drinks and consider the bitterness worth it so that their body can enjoy the strong scent inside and out.”

Roman perfume bottle.
The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76
Though actually I’m with Pliny on this one. You what? Drinking perfume? What is wrong with you?

He also holds strong views on drinkers. “Careful investigation reveals that no activity takes up more of a man’s life than wine-making, as if Nature had not given us a perfectly healthy liquid to drink – namely, water – of which all other animals avail themselves!”
Much like the perfume rant above, this seems just a personal dislike of other people’s pleasures. But then it has another kicker of a final line. “We compel even our beasts of burden to drink wine!”
Do we? Or rather who does? Who is inebriating their pet dog or chicken? In the context of a city of animals keeling over in the street, vomiting into shop doorways and generally being a pest, Pliny’s dislike of drinking seems justified.

“Because of wine thousands of crimes have been committed, and drinking occasions so much pleasure that a huge section of mankind knows no other reward in life.” 
There we were thinking of the Romans as industrious, conquering types. When in reality Pliny knows them to be pissed half the time and the other half getting their pets pissed.

Strange but true?
These are all bits I’d file under a miscellaneous of, are you sure that’s right Pliny?

Such as, “That women have changed into men is not a myth.”
Which might elicit an instant shake of your head but Pliny has eye witnesses. He does. And one of those eye witnesses is himself:  “In Africa, I myself saw someone who became a man on his wedding-day.".
A line that for anyone else would be the starting point of one great anecdote. The sort that gets you drinks brought in the pub. Not Pliny though. No, that’s it. No further explanation offered. YOU CAN WRITE 14 CHAPTERS ON BEES BUT.... words fail me

Onions... “When used as a suppository they disperse haemorrhoids.” There is but one question here: sliced or whole onions? This is not something you want to get wrong. 
Photo by Jon Sullivan
*Do not try this at home*

“All other animals derive satisfaction from having mated: man gets almost none.” Which does make you wonder whether Pliny is doing it right.

There’s also this, “Man is the only animal whose first experience of mating is accompanied by regret.”
Now we know that Pliny has clearly spent a lot of time happily watching bees, gathering fourteen chapters worth of material. I can only assume he has dedicated a similar amount of time observing a variety of animals at it in order to reach such a firm conclusion.

Pliny is very clear that Rome is the most perfectly situated city. Particularly because of the climate which is a perfect mix of what is needed. “In the middle earth, because of a healthy mixture of fire and water, there are tracts that are fertile for all things_they are able to comprehend the whole of Nature.” 
And they have governments. Unlike those, “white, frosty skins with flaxen-coloured hair that hangs straight.” who have never had government because ”they are detached and solitary in keeping with the savagery of Nature that oppresses them.”
Which is as good a way of describing Britain as any.

The End
No piece on Pliny the Elder is complete without some mention of how he died, because it is the most well known thing about him. He was killed during the most famous volcanic eruption of all time, that of Vesuvius in 79 AD. How he came to die is so very Pliny. Fascinated by the strange plumes of smoke he witnessed from his villa, he ordered a boat to be launched so he could get nearer and see it for himself:

"He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them." 

Pliny the Younger

Cut off in a bay and unable to escape by sea, Pliny overcome by sulphur fumes and smoke, collapsed and died.
Good old Pliny, curious to the end. Let us raise a glass (or water) to him. What a gent.

Further Reading
Read Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Do. I promise you won't regret it. Though your nearest and dearest might, as you repeat your favourite Pliny facts to them every ten minutes.

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Emperors Series of books. Available from all good book retailers and Amazon.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Reflections on Notre Dame - Celia Rees

Key Ring from Notre Dame

I am following Penny Dolan and posting about Notre Dame. Like Penny and million of others, I had visited Notre Dame. I was with my husband and he bought a key fob that is still on the car keys. We aren't particularly religious but, the pull is still there, to take something of the place, carry a talisman for protection. A building like this holds huge significance, whether you are Catholic, Protestant, or of no religion at all. So we watched in horror, like millions of others, as catastrophic and seemingly unstoppable fire tore through Notre Dame. We were one with the people of Paris, watching hands on mouths, faces wet with tears, as the flames rose above the great medieval structure and we woke the next morning not knowing how much of the magnificent building would be left.  

Notre Dame, 15th April, 2019

By a miracle (I don't use the word lightly) although the roof was gone and the spire fallen, the hundreds of brave firefighters had prevented the fire from consuming the cathedral's main structure and the iconic twin bell towers still stood. 

Although much of the interior was damaged, a human chain had rescued many of the cathedral's irreplaceable treasures. The Crown of Thrones, one of Christendom's most sacred relics, and the tunic of Louis IX, who brought the relic to France, were saved, along with gilded candlesticks, artworks and many other precious objects. They are now safely stored in Paris City Hall. It is hoped that some, at least, of the wonderful stained glass windows might also have survived. Although it seemed impossible at the height of the blaze on Monday night, Le Monde reports that although some of the windows exploded because of the heat, "the large Rose du Midi overlooking the Seine, a masterpiece of the 13th century, seems to have been preserved".

It is too early to know what caused this to happen, even to assess the true extent of the damage, but this dreadful tragedy seems to have brought the French people together. Political squabbles have been forgotten, vestes jaunes protests put aside. Already hundreds of millions of euros have been pledge for the re-building. 

I was reminded of the past destruction of other great churches and cathedrals. St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg, destroyed in the firestorm of July, 1943. Marien Kirche in Lübeck, severely damaged in an RAF raid on Palm Sunday, 1942 and Coventry Cathedral left a roofless ruin by the Coventry Blitz.

Marien Kirche. Lübeck: Palm Sunday Raid, 1943

Coventry Cathedral, 15th November, 1940

St. Nikolai Kirche in Hamburg
Marien Kirche, Lübeck

Marien Kirche has been re-built. A new Cathedral stands next to the ruins of the old in Coventry. A new St. Nikolai Kirche was built in the district of Harvestehude; the old church left as a memorial to the immense destruction, loss of life and property caused by the Hamburg firestorm. There are messages of hope here. Even after near complete destruction, re-building and renewal are possible.

After all the photographs and footage of the destruction of Notre Dame, the most powerful image came the morning after as a shaft of sunlight illuminated the cross still standing on the Cathedral's altar. I was reminded of the burnt cross in Coventry, made from two charred beams found crossed on the floor of the cathedral the day after the raid. In this Holy Week, could there be a more potent message of indestructible faith?

Notre Dame, 16th April, 2019

Burnt Cross on the alter of the Old Cathedral, Coventry
Celia Rees