Thursday 25 November 2021

The Legend of Tarpeia - A Roman Morality Tale by Elisabeth Storrs

 The dramatic stories of dark deeds, love and power surrounding the foundation of Rome are hard to resist. What particularly intrigues me is that significant political change against oppressive rulers often eventuated as the response to the unjust death of a woman. One such woman was Verginia but the most famous of all was Lucretia. The tales of these Roman women serve to reinforce the stereotypes of the ‘matron’ and the ‘virgin’ as exemplars of Roman virtues. Both these women died tragically: one defending her family’s honour by suiciding, the other murdered by her father for the same purpose. Their deaths were seen as catalysts for rebellion against oppressive and corrupt rulers. However, these women were not the instigators of great social reform. They gained fame as victims while their men were hailed as heroes for spurring the Roman people to oust the defilers of their wife or daughter.


                                 The Rape of the Sabine Women by Sebastiano Ricci c1700

There is another girl of Roman legend whose death led to victory over one of Rome’s enemies. Her name was Tarpeia. Yet she is not remembered as a martyr but as a traitor; not as virtuous but venal.

Early regal Rome was a township located on a few of the seven hills which eventually comprised the great city. The Romans were always scrapping with their neighbours. The nearby Sabine tribe was at constant loggerheads with King Romulus as both peoples fought over the same territory. The conflict reached its climax when the Roman monarch devised a ruse whereby the Sabines’ daughters were abducted to provide wives to his men. The incident became known as the Rape of the Sabines. As a result, King Tatius gathered his army outside the Capitoline Hill to reclaim the women and conquer Rome.

Tarpeia was the daughter of the governor of the Capitoline citadel. One day, when she journeyed outside the city walls to fetch water for a sacrifice, she spied the enemy troops lying in wait. Legend goes that she was dazzled by the sight of the heavy golden bracelets and fine jewelled rings that the men wore. Sensing her greed, the Sabine king bribed her to open the citadel gates so that a party of his men could enter. The price she demanded for betraying her people was to be given what the soldiers ‘wore on their shields arms.’

Alas, poor Tarpeia. Her fate was to serve as a lesson to all who sought profit over loyalty to Rome.  After she allowed the Sabine warriors to gain passage into the city, they turned and killed her. Instead of showering her with golden bracelets and rings, they struck her with the shields they bore on their left arms, heaping the weight upon her until she was crushed. For even the enemy found her treachery repellent.

Once inside the citadel, the Sabines quickly overran the surprised occupants, forcing the Romans to retreat to the Palatine Hill. The girl’s perfidy, though, did not cause utter defeat. Stung by the duplicity, Romulus called upon the gods to deliver Rome’s land back to its rightful people. With renewed spirits his army advanced upon the foe.

Strangely enough, the bloodshed was stopped from an unexpected source. The kidnapped Sabine women, who’d now become Roman mothers, appealed to both sides to unite instead of waging war. Here, for the first time, women were the authors of change. The kidnapped women rose above the crime committed against them and persuaded their Sabine fathers and Roman husbands that there was advantage in joining forces. As a result, Rome’s population doubled and its defences were reinforced against the next wave of Latin tribes who sought to seize Roman land. However, we know none of these Sabine women’s names. They were anonymous even though influential.

Legend tells us that Tarpeia’s body was buried beneath a cliff on the southern summit of the Capitoline. Towering 25 metres above the Forum this site forever bears her name. And for centuries afterwards, all notorious traitors were thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a fate worse than death because it carried the stigma of shame.

                                                           The Tarpeian Rock

Historians have chronicled numerous, complex accounts of male Roman politicians, generals and traitors but there only a few stories of famous Roman women. Their stories are morality tales to be handed down from generation to generation. Whether a paragon of virtue or the epitome of disgrace, Tarpeia, Virginia and Lucretia will always remain cyphers – dying for Rome, not living to lead revolution. 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Learn more at

Friday 19 November 2021

Keeping our heritage alive

'I need to know its story!' declared my daughter one weekend recently, as she prowled about the house, picking up this and that ancient object that had first settled into her consciousness when she was small.

'Where did this come from?' she asked, holding up a black and white quill box.

Knowing the provenance of objects and their "story" is in her training as an archaeologist, and her working life, in a major British university's museum service.

‘Tell me.’ She didn’t add, 'Before it’s too late,’ but that of course is the subtext to her desire to “know”.

I’m not terribly ancient but time marches on, and I understand only too well what happens if you don’t ask questions when minds are lucid enough to recall the answers. They eventually become so dimmed that recall is impossible and then, at length, of course the minds have gone altogether and the opportunity for enlightenment is lost.

I know. I allowed it to happen with my own parents.

It’s easy enough, amidst the hustle and bustle of the present, and concern about the future, to let the past slip away into obscurity. Does it matter? On one level, perhaps not, not with all the crises and dilemmas of twenty-first century life occupying our consciences and jangling our nerves.

But, if we focus only on the present (and the future), and overlook the past, the day may come when there’s no one left with the memories to bring it back to life.

We have many artefacts in our house, most gathered over my lifetime and my husband’s. A number of them are truly ancient: my husband is a geologist with an enduring fascination for the form and wonder of rocks and fossils. Artworks of varying forms and old books have also been garnered over the years. The value of these objects is not of course measured in monetary terms but in their beauty, or in their particular fascination – in the sheer pleasure they give us, not in owning them but in simply being able to enjoy them.

All these objects will, I am sure, in time claim our children’s interest.

But, right now, it is the “old things” that arrived in our house through inheritance from earlier generations that are attracting my daughter’s particular interest. None are I think especially valuable monetarily, but several are pretty old, and are certainly intriguing. And my daughter wants to know where they came from, how and when they were acquired, both originally and by me, and how they fit into the family’s history. In other words, their “story”.

However, to my shame and deep regret, I don’t know all the answers, because I failed to ask the questions when I had the opportunity. 

Let me choose just three of these objects to tell what little I do know…

Ebony elephants

Ebony elephants

The rightmost elephant is not the largest of the elephants that I remember. When I was a child, they lived in my maternal uncle's house, parading across the wide brick hearth in his spacious dining room. Of course your perception of the size of objects as a child is distorted by your own small stature, but I am certain that a four-year-old could sit easily on the largest elephant in that room. Where that one went, I do not know.

But my mother, and later I, acquired these four. The largest, at 10.5 inches (27 cm) high to the top of his head, is very heavy. The tusks, toenails and eyes are ivory. Were they made in India? Possibly in the nineteenth century? I suppose so, but I regret to say that I don’t actually know. My maternal grandfather had a wanderlust as a young man. He was a hairdresser (“Monsieur Arthur, Coiffeur”) and chiropodist who travelled the world on ocean-going liners, tending to the feet and crowns of some famous people. (I have a photograph signed by Jan Smetana, the composer, addressed to M. Arthur! Not that Arthur was my grandfather’s name but I suppose it sounded hairdressery at the time?)

Anyway was it grandfather who brought the elephants back to England? It’s hard to imagine how, logistically. Would the “ride-on” elephant have even fitted inside his trunk? (Sorry, no proboscidean allusion intended.) Yet, how else did they get back to England? How frustrating it is not to know the answer! So my daughter has to be content to know that they have been in her family for at least a hundred years, and have lived in the consciousness of at least three generations, her grandmother, her mother and her. That is as much story as we have about these proud beasts. What a dreadful pity. And what a loss, not to know much more.


Quill box

Quill box

Here is another object that might (or might not) have come to England in the luggage of my maternal grandfather, the itinerant hairdresser. It has been in my consciousness since I was very small and is one of my daughter's favourite objects. I actually knew nothing of the origins of the box, but Wikipedia tells us:

 “Porcupine quill boxes are decorative trinket boxes, which are finely inlaid with ivory discs and porcupine quills between bands of ebony. They were highly valued for their rich timbers and intricate craftsmanship.”

The boxes were produced in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), largely between 1850 and 1900, originally made for English residents but, by the late nineteenth century, a thriving export trade for such artefacts had grown up. Apparently there is one in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, which was given to Queen Victoria.

The number of ivory dots and their close proximity together are a good indication of a valuable box. The finest boxes may have an ivory disc positioned every one fifth of an inch (0.5 cm) on all of the ebony borders. By contrast a lesser box may have dots one inch (2.5 cm) apart or more. I guess that’s ours! 

Wikipedia says that boxes with broader quills are less valuable than those with fine quills, and some quills have distinct dark and white bands and others are with plain white. 

Our box is 6 inches (15.25 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm), but they were commonly made up to 11 inches (28 cm), and some could be even larger. It was commonplace for the timber used to be poor and therefore warp, but this is not the case with ours. It is well over 100 years old but the wood looks as sound and blemish free as the day it was made.

Knowing that these boxes were made in Ceylon, we deduced that perhaps my grandfather picked up this box on his travels. But did he ever go to Ceylon? Might my third object give us a clue…?


Postcard album

Postcard album 

Postcard album

The three hundred cards in this postcard album date mostly from between 1900 and 1907, although the earliest I have spotted is 1899. They are a mix of postcards sent by my maternal grandfather to members of his family, those sent to him by relatives and friends, and postcards with interesting images but no addressee or message. Many are cards my grandfather sent to his girlfriend (my grandmother) then, later, his wife (same lady) and first child (that maternal uncle of mine with the elephants), from wherever he was working. Sometimes that was in England, and often abroad. So, to some extent, the cards are a record of his travels. The cards that were sent to him also contribute to the record, because the addresses given for him are in many different places around the world.

I will confess here (this blog post really is a sorry outpouring of guilt!) that I have not so far taken the time to curate, as they say, these cards. They are slotted into the album in no particular order, and have certainly been that way for decades… If I could at least organise them into date order, I would gain a better picture of my grandfather’s journeying.

Part of the “problem” of curating them, however, is that many of the cards’ messages are written in Danish. My grandfather was from Odense, in Denmark, my grandmother from Schleswig-Holstein. I don’t speak Danish… And the writing on the cards is often miniscule, as the writer strove to fit as much message as he (nearly all “he”, I think) possibly could around the image. In many cases it is also quite faded. Well, they are 120 years old… I really would like to know what they say, because quite a number of the Danish ones include family photographs. (Interesting that you could use such a photograph in those days to make a postcard…)  In this example, I do recognise some of the individuals: one of my grandfather’s brothers is standing on the left, and my maternal great-grandparents are in there too. But I don’t know what the message says… One day (!) I really should ask one of my Danish cousins to translate…

However, the Danish thing is a slight red herring, as the dates are not "in Danish" and I could at least take that first step...

Anyway, in my view, it is a rather wondrous thing, this album. In many cases, the messages aside, the pictures alone are intriguing, giving a window onto the differing cultural lives of the times and, in some cases, on the history of the place. Such as a series of cards from Switzerland and another series from Chinatown, New York, and a number of cards sent by my grandfather from Kingston, Jamaica in April 1907, showing the effects of the earthquake in January, which killed 1000 people.

Anyway, I introduced the postcard album to you with premise/promise that perhaps it might tell us if my grandfather went to Ceylon, where he could have purchased that quill box... So my daughter scoured the album for a card sent from Ceylon, and she found one! But, frustratingly, it wasn't from my grandfather at all but sent to him, and the sender was not I think a relative but a friend. Did that man bring the quill box back from Ceylon? Or is that postcard just another exasperating red herring... I will never know. 

The History Girls are writers, mostly, though not all, writing fiction, either invented (but historically authentic) worlds about entirely fictional characters (like me), or reimagined lives of real individuals. Basically, we are all storytellers. Which is what makes my tale here rather sad. Despite my being “a storyteller”, I have failed to keep my own story, that of my family and my predecessors, alive. I have permitted it to wither, not through lack of interest but simply lack of purpose. I must make an attempt to address some of the withering at least. And, just as importantly, I must ensure that the stories of those things I do know about, the artefacts that we have gathered together through our lives, are not lost. So when, decades hence, a grandchild asks the question about the 160 million-year old ammonite or the Greenlandic soapstone sculpture or the hardwood African mask, he or she can be told how it was they came into the family.

Friday 12 November 2021

Maybe it's because I'm a dreamer, By L.J. Trafford

A lion dreams of whatever it is lions dream of.

I have often felt the urge to start on this current project,” is the opening line of Artemidorus’ great work Oneirocritica. This fabulous book written in the 3rd century CE, which its author feared was an “overwhelming prospect” due to the scale and complexity of its subject, is a volume dedicated to the interpretation of dreams.
    It was probably just one of many such volumes available in the ancient world but Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica is the only complete book of dream interpretations that has survived to the modern day. We are fortunate indeed because it is quite stupendous.

The index shows the range of dreams Artemidorus covers

    In his work Artemidorus tackles an array of topics that might assault your mind in those hours of darkness, such as playing hoop & stick, cabbages, sundials, the gods, being struck by thunder and having sex with your mother. The latter of which you will be unsurprised greatly influenced Sigmund Freud. There is very little that he does not cover, except obviously television, space travel and portable communication devices that allow you to read super informative articles like this one and watch funny cat videos.

    The belief that your dreams held important information about your future was a view shared from the lowest in Roman society up to the highest. The biographer Suetonius tells us that the Emperor Augustus held great store by dreams, hardly surprising when one had once saved his life:

    "At the battle of Philippi, though he had made up his mind not to leave his tent because of illness, he did so after all when warned by a friend's dream; fortunately, as it turned out, for his camp was taken and when the enemy rushed in, his litter was stabbed through and through and torn to pieces, in the belief that he was still lying there ill". Suetonius

    Augustus was also the subject of a whole series of plot spoiling dreams foretelling his rise to prominence, starting with his parents:

    "Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia's womb." Suetonius

Augustus looking dandy
        That ought to have alerted the whole world that he was going to be a big cheese. But clearly nobody had a copy of Artemidorus to hand (probably because it wasn’t written until two centuries later) because nobody cottoned on to his imminent big cheeseness until after cheeseness had been obtained and there was a doh and a collective slapping of foreheads
Enough about cheese! (interesting and necessary aside, if you should dream about feeding bread and cheese to your penis you will die a criminals death according to Artemidorus.)

    In a world where the gods’ plans for you were unknowable and where it was highly likely you would lose relatives to disease and illnesses that are readily curable today, it is hardly surprising that people sought out dream interpreters for help and reassurance about their lives, Not that reassurance was always forthcoming, as we shall shortly see, Artemidorus’ interpretations often predict unhappy fortunes for the dreamer which is indicative of the toughness and often shortness of life in antiquity.

    Artemidorus did not pluck these dream interpretations out of thin air, he treated it almost like a science. Travelling extensively across the empire he interviewed people about their dreams and what happened to them subsequently. From these interviews he compiled his encyclopaedia of dreams and their meaning.
        As he says himself, “The benefits I have derived from this welter of material is that in any given case I can respond with the simple truth and no long rigamarole and give clear evidence for whatever my comments might be.”

    Throughout his work Artemidorus references those numerous interviews, such as this tale: “I know of a professional performer on the lyre who was about to compete in the sacred games of Smyra and dreamt that he was going to take a bath but found no water in the bath house. What happened was that he was caught attempting to rig the contest and was fined and thrown out the games. This was what the dream signified for him, that he would not find what he was looking for with the bathhouse symbolizing the auditorium.”
    This disgraced lyre player however can be considered fortunate compared with the fate of this fellow Artemidorus interviewed. “I know of someone who was castrated after having this dream.” Blimey.
That is certainly one thing to be aware of with Artemidorus, he will interpret your dreams but you might not always like what he has to say.
    Disclaimer issued let us crack on and see if Artemidorus can offer us some illumination in the 21st century by seeing what he has to say about the most common dreams people have today.

Your teeth falling out.

Dreaming about your teeth falling out is, according to Dr Google, one of the most common dreams experienced. Let us see what our 3rd century dream interpreter makes of this dream.
Artemidorus actually has a lot to say about teeth. “The mouth must be thought of as a house and the teeth the people in it.”
The teeth on the right side of your mouth signify the men in your house, the left side teeth are the women. Your front teeth, the incisors are representative of the young members of your household, the grinders at the back the older members of your house.
    “The sort of teeth lost will be followed by the loss of the corresponding type of person.” he says. Yikes. 
    It gets worse, should you dream of all your teeth falling out your “household will be completely berefit of all its members at the whole time.” Double yikes. 
    Although maybe they’ve only all gone out to Thorpe Park for the day.

    But hold on Artemidorus has a caveat from these grim outcomes, teeth can also signify property. So dreaming of losing a tooth doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of a relative, it could signify the loss of property. I prefer this interpretation, let’s stick with it.
    “For debtors any teeth falling out signify the repayment of their debt,” says Artemidorus. But how easily this debt is paid off depends on whether you dreamed of a painless loss of teeth (you will repay from your wages) or painful (you’re going to have to sell some of your stuff to repay the debt

Being unable to find a toilet

Joyfully Artemidorus has a whole chapter entitled “dung, defecation” which is most informative. Thus I can tell you that dreaming of having a poo in the toilet is “auspicious for all – it signifies great relief from the burdens of anxieties and anything troubling one, as the body does indeed become lighter after it has relieved itself”

        Artemidorus then lists the meaning behind defecating in various places – which I’m interpreting as being unable to find a toilet, else why would you be having a poo there?

To summarise:
  • Pooing in your bed – inauspicious and signifies a long illness.
  • Pooing on the floor – If it’s on the floor of your house it signifies ‘no further enjoyment of the house’ which I think we can all get behind. A domestic clear up of that nature is bound to linger in the memory and also likely on the rug.
  • Pooing in a temple – this is very inauspicious meaning you will encounter “serious disgrace and significant financial loss” and also “the wrath of the gods” which anyone with a passing knowledge of mythology will know is unlikely to be much fun.
  • Pooing on the seashore, on country roads/fields - profitable says Artemidorus because “these places are not harmed by the man defecating there and they give the man himself the opportunity to drop his load without embarrassment.” Although I guess this depends on what seashore you choose, Scarborough beach on a hot July afternoon is one to presumably avoid,


Icarus who had no fear of flying,
      Ok first up, no flying as in planes or other aircraft. The closest we get is to dream of flying with wings which is auspicious, but flying without wings is ”a danger and a source of fear for the dreamer.”
To dream of flying with the birds “signifies spending time in foreign parts” UNLESS you are a criminal, in which case “it means punishment, often even crucifixion for the guilty.” 
Which may be causing some panicked morning wakings from those of you with outstanding speeding fines.

     Other inauspicious flying dreams include “taking flight when pursued by a wild animal, man or demon” and dreaming of flying whilst sitting on a chair “signifies that the dreamer will contract some serious illness or be paralysed or no longer have the use of their legs”
    On the happier, auspicious side if you dream of flying high you will become a high flyer in life and be like properly prosperous.


Being married to Boris Johnson and wandering about the Conservative Party Conference in your dressing gown

    OK this is one of my dreams that my ever helpful subconscious provided for me knowing that I was writing this article. So let us turn to Artemidorus to unpick my strange, and it has to be said somewhat disturbing, dream.
    “If a woman who has a husband imagines herself marrying another man, [] she will bury her husband or be separated from him in some other way.”

    Oh dear, well I suppose at least it’s not crucifixion. But what about the dressing gown motif? The closest I can find from Artemidorus is a section on the meaning behind dreaming of wearing clothes inappropriately which a dressing gown at the Conservative party conference certainly is. He says to dream of inappropriate clothing is:
    “Malign for all and signifies that in addition to unemployment the dreamer will have to endure ridicule and mockery”

So to recap, my 2022 will involve divorce, unemployment and mockery. Well, I suppose that’s no worse than what the last two years have brought. Heigh ho!

List of Illustrations
1) Sleeping lion, Wikicomms
2) Index of Artemidorus' dream interpretations, author's own photo.
3) The Emperor Augustus from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Author's own photo.
4) Permanent teeth, wikicomms
5) A light box in Miaoli County, Taiwan using the less common term for "toilet", Wikicomms Hippietrial
6) Daedalus and Icarus. Engraving by AGL Desnoyers after CP Landon. Public Domain. Wellcome Collection.
7) Official portrait of Boris Johnson

L.J. Trafford writes about Ancient Rome. Quite a lot. She has written four fiction books covering the year of the four emperors, 69 CE and two non fiction works, How to Survive in Ancient Rome and her latest book, Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome. 

Friday 5 November 2021

Bonfire Night - Celia Rees

 I've been a History Girl since the very beginning and I've never landed on a really iconic date. That is about to change - I'm posting on November 5th! 

History Girls before me have pretty much covered the whole subject. You can read previous posts here, including my post on Lewes Bonfire in 2014. I confess to cheating a bit on that one because my posting date was 18th of the month but Lewes Bonfire was such a spectacle, I had to write about it.  

I was looking around, quite literally, for inspiration and found it on my kitchen wall. I have a Ravilious calendar and the illustration for this month is his painting November 5th. Painted in 1933, it is the view from the Kensington flat he shared with his wife, Tirzah. 

November 5th, Eric Ravilious, 1933

This painting immediately took me back to the garden of my parents' semi detached house in 1950's Solihull. After Christmas and my birthday, Bonfire Night, or Firework Night (the terms were interchangeable - we never called it Guy Fawkes Night) was the most important event in my calendar. Without in any way realising it, I was following the ancient festivals of the year's turning: my birthday is a few days before Midsummer, Bonfire Night is the Fire Festival that marks the start of winter and Christmas is the Winter Solstice. In those days, children seemed closer to the Old Ways. We played out all the time and were very attuned to the seasons. I would be looking forward to Bonfire Night as soon as summer was over. My friends and I would be making preparations from the beginning of September, buying fireworks as soon as they appeared in the shops. My favourite brand was Brock's. 

My favourite fireworks were Bangers,  Roman Candles, Mount Vesuvius Cones and Rockets. My brother's favourites were anything that made a very loud bang. I wasn't so keen on those, neither was the dog, but my brother was older than me and had more money, so he could afford Big Bangs. No-one liked Catherine Wheels, they were hard to light and fell off the fence. I also liked Sparklers and the strange and rather pointless Bengal Matches, does anyone remember them?

We would spend September and October collecting wood for the bonfire that my father built in the back garden. Adults would join in with this and donate any old wood that was lying about and any cuttings, clippings, pruning from the garden or the allotment. We would also collect clothes to make the Guy. An old pair of trousers and a jumper my mum stitched together and filled with newspaper, a stuffed stocking head and face and an old hat (it had to have a hat). 

 The bonfire would be constructed in the back garden, the guy perched on top. Dad would light the fire and when it was going well, all the conkers we'd collected through the Autumn would be thrown on to pop and crackle. It was a neighbourhood affair and everyone would be there. The dads let off the fireworks, we weren't allowed near them and we would wave sparklers. Last to be lit were the rockets and then we would have the sausages, baked potatoes and gingerbread that my mum had made. All over for another year. Well, not quite. We would spend the next day combing the streets for spent rockets, for some reason the sticks were highly prized. 

This year, I'll be staying in but I might make my mum's gingerbread, very dark and sticky with molasses, for old time's sake. 

Stay safe and look after the cats and dogs!

Celia Rees