Tuesday 9 February 2016

Did Ancient Romans have...?

by Caroline Lawrence

As a History Girl, one of my obsessions is Detailing the World. 

In an historical novel it's not crucial to the reader what kind of hinges you put on the door or if your hero passes a rodent that hasn't been imported yet, but I like to get it right. 

I've been studying the Classical world for over forty years, but I'm always learning something new. As I was making a final pass over my forthcoming book set in first century Roman Britain, a couple of details brought me up short. Here are six questions I asked myself: 

1. Did Romans have inches?
2. Did Roman doors have hinges as we know them?
3. Did Roman tombs have doors?
4. Were there rats in Roman Britain?
5. Did Romans shake hands the way we do today?
6. Did Romans have pancakes?

Classicists, how would you have answered those? 

We can never be 100% sure of anything, but here are the answers I came up with. 

1. Did Romans have inches?
Yes. They're called unciae
cf. Pliny NH VI.39, 214

gnomonis C unciae umbram LXXKKVII unciarum faciunt:
A gnomon 100 inches long throws a shadow 77 inches long. 
We know Romans had plumb lines, but they probably didn't have a Roman Ruler like this: 

2. Did Roman doors have hinges?
Yes, they had the butterfly hinges as we know them but more common was the cardo. This type of Roman hinge was a dowel added to (or built into) one side of the door. The protruding ends — pivots — fit into sockets, one in the threshold at the bottom of the door and one in the lintel at the top. So one whole side of the door was a hinge. cf. Virgil Ciris, 222 sonitum nam fecerat illi marmoreo aeratus stridens in limine cardo: For the bronze hinge made a sound, squeaking in the marble threshold.

3. Did Roman house tombs have doors? 
Yes. One Pompeian tomb still under construction when Vesuvius erupted featured a door made of a single piece of marble, but carved to resemble the sort of folding wooden doors typical in Roman houses. (pictured: the Tomb of the Marble Door from Pompeii)

4. Were there rats in Roman Britain? 
No. According to my research, the black rat didn’t reach Europe until the 3rd century AD and the earliest evidence for them in Britain is from material in a well on Fenchurch Street, London dating to the late 3rd century. I came upon this fact when I tried to find the Latin word for rat. Rattus doesn't exist until the late Antique period, so mus has to do service until then. 

5. Did Romans shake hands?
Yes. Especially in farewell. We have hundreds of depictions of Greeks and Romans shaking hands and not a single instance of the forearm grasp, used by Hollywood and many writers of historical Roman fiction. The forearm grasp is totally bogus! 

6. Did Romans have pancakes?
Because this blog post is going out on Shrove Tuesday AKA 'Pancake Day' of 2016, I thought it would be fun to see if Romans had pancakes. I went to my shelf and pulled down the indispensable Classical Cookbook and sure enough, they did. Author Sally Grainger quotes the second century Latin author Galen (AD 129-199) and gives a recipe. Essentially it's pancake batter without eggs and substituting clear honey for sugar and with the addition of a very Roman ingredient: sesame seeds! The recipe goes right back to ancient Greece where actors on the Athenian stage speak of warm pancakes steaming over a brazier at daybreak with honey drizzled over them. It might have been a kind of fast food as it is in parts of the world today.   

Little details like these are just one of the many factors that go to making an historical novel good. Now I just have to get plot, character and pace right...

Escape from Rome, the first in Caroline Lawrence's new Roman Quests series, launches in May 2016. 


Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how much I enjoy this but number 5 and the bogus man hug thing - of course the Romans wouldn't be so gauche made me laugh aloud !

Caroline Lawrence said...

You can find a whole page of bogus Roman handshakes on my Bogus Roman Handshakes page!

ed said...

If the Romans had pancakes, using 2nd C AD Galen as a source, and rats reached W Europe in 1st C AD, then surely Romans had Rats? Quod Erat Demonstratum! (Logic, Greek)


Caroline Lawrence said...

Good point! I guess I'm thinking of Roman Britain where the first evidence of rattus rattus does not occur until late 3rd C AD! Fenchurch Street Excavation Report

Sue Bursztynski said...

My Greek library technician says they still make those pancakes. I think I know the book you mean; there's a copy in my local library and I copied that recipe, must try it.