Category Archive 'Rome'
13 Sep 2017

Silphium, the Lost Roman Herb

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Coin from Cyrene bearing the image of Silphium.

The BBC reported recently on the greatest botanical mystery of Antiquity: what was Silphium exactly, and what happened to it?

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).

Finally, silphium was required in the bedroom, where its juice was drunk as an aphrodisiac or applied “to purge the uterus”. It may have been the first genuinely effective birth control; its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day.

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.

With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

RTWT

07 May 2017

Two Chinese Skeletons Found in Roman Cemetery in London

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A reconstruction of Roman Londinium in AD 250.

Instapundit found a BBC report today, but the story actually originated last Fall.

The London Times reported last September 23rd:

It was an unremarkable Roman cemetery, containing the bodies of ordinary people. They lived and died on the banks of the Thames, making a living in the poorer and dirtier districts of Roman Londinium.

When an analysis of the skeletons came through, no one expected a result that could change our view of the history of Europe and Asia. But that is what they seem to have found, because two of the skeletons, dated to between the 2nd and 4th century AD, were Chinese.

Here at the most westerly point of the known world, in the cultural backwater of ancient Britain, lived people who came from its easternmost extremity. How did they get there?

To the Romans, the Chinese were a mysterious civilisation: technologically advanced, disquietingly powerful, and purveyors of, according to Seneca, obscene garments that corrupted the empire’s womanhood. To the Chinese, the Romans were a moderately intriguing civilisation with, according to one account, weak and pliant rulers.

It would be 1,000 years before the travels of Marco Polo would help properly to bring the culture of the east to the people of the west. Now, though, that history has to be revised.

After the excavation of a cemetery in Southwark, new skull analysis techniques identified a multicultural community containing four people who were ethnically African and two Asian, probably Chinese.

The find is spectacular but it is also mysterious, according to Rebecca Redfern from the Museum of London. She has no idea how they had ended up lying in this cemetery, so far from home.

———————

Kristina Killgrove (who is a Biological Anthropologist) expressed some reservations, in Forbes:

Several British news outlets today ran a story with headlines about Chinese people in Roman Britain. While there is no doubt that the Roman Empire was cosmopolitan, and it is entirely likely that people of East Asian ancestry will be found in all parts of the Empire, we need to take a step back from the hype and look at the data.

The new study in question is by Rebecca Redfern and colleagues, out in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The researchers looked at 22 skeletons from the Lant Street cemetery in the London borough of Southwark, dating to the 2nd-4th century AD. In order to figure out where people might be from, they examined oxygen isotopes from the teeth, carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the bones, and the shape of the skull, correlating those data where possible with burial evidence.

The data that Redfern and colleagues produced are really quite interesting. The oxygen isotope values, which were isolated from 19 of these people, range widely — too much to be explained by local variation in water sources. This means that many of them came to London from elsewhere, some time after childhood. Far fewer of the individuals produced good data for carbon and nitrogen analysis of diet — just half of the sample was testable, and those data reveal a diet similar to what was eaten in selected other parts of the Empire. (They did not compare the data to Rome itself, for example, only to Portus Romae, south-coastal Velia, and Herculaneum in Italy and to Leptiminus in Tunisia.)

But the new method that Redfern and colleagues use to figure out ancestry is not ancient DNA analysis, but a statistical modeling of variations in the skulls and teeth that could be linked to ancestral differences. In short, they employ a method similar to what forensic anthropologists use to figure out if an unknown skeleton is of Asian, African or European ancestry.

The shortcomings of this method, however, are considerable and are outlined by Redfern and colleagues in their article. For example:

    The fact that many of the samples were fragmented means that 41% of the sample had only two traits to score. As the researchers write, “This degree of missing data can affect classification accuracies, particularly among the sample having two or less (sic) traits.”
    “We recognise that this is a subjective approach… and that many of the individuals used to generate these methods derive from modern populations outside of the territories that formed the Roman Empire. […] The population affiliation divisions used here may disguise or fail to find many affiliations because they are subjective, and morphology varies between individuals and over time,” they further note. This is problematic because bioarchaeologists cannot be sure how much the skull and tooth shapes have changed over 2,000 years. Comparing an ancient population with a modern one may not yield accurate results. (For example, when I put metric data from skeletons from Rome into FORDISC, a software program that compares metric data from skulls, the program happily classifies them into Asian samples.)
    “The method development was particularly lacking in north African and southern Mediterranean populations, whose DNA shows a greater degree of genetic diversity compared to sub-Saharan and more northern ones. Therefore, the results must be understood in their temporal and spatial context, and the biases introduced by the methods acknowledged.” With few comparative samples from contemporary Africa and the southern Mediterranean, which are much more likely to be the origin of Roman Britons than is Asia, this means there may be bias introduced into the interpretation of the skull and tooth shapes.

This article is a remarkable attempt to correlate three different isotopes and skeletal morphology to answer questions about the diversity of Roman Britain in the later Empire, and it succeeds in showcasing that diversity even in this small sample. But it does not show, as the tabloids have been crowing, that there were Chinese in Roman London. The statistical results are intriguing, but the oxygen data from the two so-called Asians seem to be within the range of others in the sample, and only one produced dietary isotope data. For a slam-dunk, they need DNA. If and when they produce this, though, establishing a solid correlation between DNA from the Roman era and the results of the statistical method on the Roman skulls and teeth has the potential to help other bioarchaeologists assess ancestry without doing expensive destructive analysis.

RTWT

10 Apr 2017

Roman Settlement of Cataractonium Discovered in North Yorkshire

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Silver ring in the form of a snake.

Live Science:

A rare silver ring shaped like a snake that wraps around the finger hints at the great wealth of the people who lived at Cataractonium.

Construction work to upgrade Britain’s longest road into a major highway has revealed a treasure trove of rare artifacts from one of the earliest and wealthiest Roman settlements in the country.

The findings include ancient shoes, cups, a rare silver ring, keys, a high-relief glass bowl and an elaborately carved amber figurine, archaeologists with the public group Historic England announced yesterday (April 6).

Archaeologists uncovered the artifacts in North Yorkshire along the A1, which stretches 410 miles (660 kilometers) from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, during a major project to improve the existing roadway.

“It is fascinating to discover that nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans were using the A1 route as a major road of strategic importance and using the very latest technological innovations from that period to construct the original road,” Tom Howard, project manager at the government agency Highways England, said in a statement.

Indeed, the newly found artifacts include a plumb bob used to build straight roads, which was likely utilized in the construction of Dere Street, a Roman road following the course of the A1, the researchers said.

The excavations have also led to the discovery of a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner, one of the best-known junctions in the country.

Taking its name from an old Roman road called Scots Dyke, Scotch Corner links Scotland with England and the east coast with the west coast.

Right there, the archaeologists with the professional consultant group Northern Archaeological Associates unearthed the remains of a large settlement dating back to A.D. 60, thus predating settlements in York and Carlisle by 10 years.

The discovery proves that the Romans “possibly began their territorial expansion into northern England a decade earlier than previously thought,” according to Historic England.

The settlement at Scotch Corner was unusually large compared to others in northern England, and stretched over 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) from north to south — roughly the length of 13 football fields positioned end to end, according to Historic England.

Artifacts unearthed there suggest that the people who lived at Scotch Corner were rather wealthy. High-status imported items include the figure of a toga-clad actor carved from a block of amber, which is believed to have been made in Italy during the first century A.D.

“A similar example was found at Pompeii. Nothing like this has ever before been found in the U.K.,” representatives with Historic England said.

The archaeologists unearthed more than 1,400 clay fragments of molds used for making gold, silver and copper coins, thus making the site the largest known and most northerly example of coin production ever found in Europe, the researchers said. Those findings suggest that the settlement might have served as a sophisticated industrial and administrative center, the archaeologists said.

“It shows that the Romans were carrying out significant industrial activity in this part of England and potentially producing coins of high value,” Historic England representatives said in the statement.

But it was a short-lived glory. The settlement was occupied for just two to three decades. Its demise seems to coincide with the rise of Catterick, a town south of Scotch Corner known by the Romans as Cataractonium.

Finds at Catterick abounded. The archaeologists unearthed several well-preserved leather shoes, along with large sheets of leather, perhaps used for producing clothes. The artifacts suggest that Cataractonium was an important leatherworking center that likely supported the Roman military, the archaeologists said.

A rare silver ring shaped like a snake, which wraps around the finger, and a number of keys of various sizes suggest that the people who lived in Cataractonium were wealthy and that they locked up their valuable possessions, the archaeologists suggested.

Moreover, the many styli (Roman pens) and a pewter inkpot found at the site indicate that most of these ancient people were able to read and write, the researchers said.

“The sheer amount of exceptional objects found on this road scheme has been extraordinary,” Neil Redfern, principal inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, said in the statement. “This project has given us a unique opportunity to understand how the Romans conducted their military expansion into northern England and how civil life changed under their control.”

Photos

15 Mar 2017

Ides of March

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When I was in high school, I had Latin in 9th and 10th grade. Our Latin teacher had a curious personal custom. He sacrificed annually, in honor of Great Caesar, on the Ides of March, the male student in each class who had offended him by doing the least work and/or being the most disruptive. He sacrificed additionally one female student from each class whose selection, I fear, was based only upon his own capricious whim and covert sexual attraction.

The sacrifice consisted of the victim being bent over a desk and receiving three strokes of a paddle, delivered by a six foot+, 250 lb.+ Latin teacher laying on the strokes with a will and putting his weight behind them. (I won’t name him.) Mr. X’s paddle was a four foot long piece of 1 1/2″ thick pine, produced in our high school’s wood shop by General Curriculum students, who did not take Latin, but admired Mr. X. The paddle was roughly in the form of a Roman gladius, and its surface was scored by a series of regular lines, because it was generally believed that a blow from an uneven surface was more painful.

Mr. X had a fixed policy of assigning the duty of construing the day’s Latin assignment on the blackboard in strict and completely predictable order, going up and down the aisles of desks. Two or three of the smart kids would always actually do the Latin, (I was one of them) and it was our recognized duty to supply the translations in advance to the person who would be going to the blackboard.

Readiness to translate correctly was really vital, because Mr. X would apply his dreaded paddle to anyone who failed to write out the day’s assignment correctly on the blackboard. It was rare, but every once in a while some truly feckless idiot would neglect to seek out Kenny Hollenbach, Jack Rigrotsky, or yours truly, and would arrive at the blackboard, chalk in hand, unprepared.

Mr. X typically broke the current paddle over the defaulter’s posterior, and the mental defectives in shop class would gleefully commence the fabrication of a new, yet more elaborate, edition of the famous paddle.

Every March 15th, two 9th and 10th grade Academic Curriculum sections would look on with the same sadistic interest of Roman spectators at the gladitorial games, as Mr. X conducted his sacrifices. I can recall that he struck the pretty strawberry blonde with the well-developed embonpoint so hard that he raised dust from her skirt. We were a bit puzzled that girls actually submitted to being beaten with a paddle for no reason, but all this went on undoubtedly because the legend of Mr. X the fierce disciplinarian had enormous appeal in our local community. The whole thing was fascinating, and it all made such a good story that everyone, student and adult, in his heart of hearts, enthusiastically approved.

Mr. X would never be allowed to get away with that kind of thing today, alas! In Hades, poor Caesar must do without his sacrifice. And it is my impression that Latin instruction has rather overwhelmingly also become a thing of the past. Kids today learn Spanish. Modern languages are easier and are thought more relevant.

Teachers
My high school Latin teacher is the large chap wearing glasses. He also coached one of our sports teams.

————————–

An annual post in memory of my Latin teacher.

26 Nov 2016

Roman Shoe Hoard Found in Northumberland

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romanshoes

Ancient Origins:

A team of archeologists has discovered more than 400 ancient Roman shoes in the Vindolanda fort in Northumberland, England, including some that resemble modern-day shoe styles. The site, located just south of Hadrian’s Wall, was an ancient settlement for Roman soldiers and their families.

During the excavation work, which lasted the whole summer, the researchers were uncovering one shoe after another. It was a huge challenge, but every single piece is priceless. According to the researchers, every single shoe is like a time machine, and a window into the everyday life of the person who once wore it.

Some of the shoes even resemble today’s fashions. For example, Chronicle Live reports that one shoe that was unearthed is strikingly similar to the Adidas Predator football boot. Although Romans didn’t play football, the shoes offered them similar comfort and flexibility to the famous Predator model.

The shoes belonged to the different generations, ranging from tiny baby boots to small children’s shoes, adult female and men boots and bath clogs. The owners of the shoes lived inside the fort at Vindolanda. It was built c. 1,800 years ago by the Roman army. It was small but one of the most heavily defended forts in Britain.

Complete story.

15 Aug 2016

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus

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PortonaccioSarcophagus1
Portonaccio Sarcophagus, 2nd Century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano

Kuriositas profiles an exceptionally spectacular ancient sculpture featuring particularly realistic and fine battle scenes:

It was discovered in 1931 near Via Tiburtina, in the eastern suburbs of Rome. Its front depicts a symbolic picture of a battle which is on two levels. The carving remains to this day an incredible achievement – the dark and light contrast beautifully to produce a veritable chiaroscuro effect. This skill involved was superlative.

The sarcophagus was probably used in the burial of a Roman general who was closely involved in the campaigns of Marcus Aurelius. He is seen on the front of the sarcophagus, frozen forever in a charge against his enemies. Yet the face of the high ranking officer for which the sarcophagus was intended is left blank.

It is thought that it was left blank with the intention of the sculptor creating a death mask of the general in that position. Yet perplexingly it has been left unfinished and we can only guess at the reasons for that. We will never know if some form of shame descended on the general before his death or why it was his family or friends decided that he was to be left nameless and faceless for eternity.

Certainly it was not for expediency or money. This sarcophagus would have been incredibly expensive to create and would probably have taken over a year to create. Plus the rest of it (and thus his reputation) was left intact. You can see his troops laying in to their barbarian enemies with gusto. Some are already on the ground, others apparently beg for his mercy. …

The military insignia which can be seen on the upper edge of the casket allows us to try to figure out the identity of the man. It shows the eagle of the Legio IIII Flavia and the boar of the Legio I Italicai. Historians who have studied the casket have pointed towards Aulus Iulius Pompilius. He was an official of Marcus Aurelius who was in control of two squadrons of cavalry which were on detachment to both legions for the duration of the war against the Marcomanni (172-175AD).

PortonaccioSarcophagus2
Portonaccio Sarcophagus, 2nd Century A.D., Museo Nazionale Romano

13 Aug 2016

The Roman Legion

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Informative.

05 Jul 2016

The Ribchester Helmet

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RibchesterHelmet
The Ribchester Helmet is a Roman bronze ceremonial helmet dating to between the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, … now on display at the British Museum. It was found in Ribchester, Lancashire, England in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. The model of a sphinx that was believed to attach to the helmet was lost.

Wikipedia:

The helmet was discovered, part of the Ribchester Hoard, in the summer of 1796 by the son of Joseph Walton, a clogmaker. The boy found the items buried in a hollow, about three metres below the surface, on some waste land by the side of a road leading to Ribchester church, and near a river bed. The hoard was thought to have been stored in a wooden box and consisted of the corroded remains of a number of items but the largest was this helmet. In addition to the helmet, the hoard included a number of paterae, pieces of a vase, a bust of Minerva, fragments of two basins, several plates, and some other items that the antiquarian collector Charles Townley thought had religious uses. The finds were thought to have survived so well because they were covered in sand.

The helmet and other items were bought from Walton by Townley, who lived nearby at Towneley Hall. Townley was a well-known collector of Roman sculpture and antiquities, who had himself and his collection recorded in an oil painting by Johann Zoffany. Townley reported the details of the find in a detailed letter to the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, intended for publication in the Society’s Proceedings: it was his only publication. The helmet, together with the rest of Townley’s collection, was sold to the British Museum in 1814 by his cousin, Peregrine Edward Towneley, who had inherited the collection on Townley’s death in 1805.

In addition to the items purchased by Townley, there was also originally a bronze figurine of a sphinx, but it was lost after Walton gave it to the children of one of his brothers to play with. It was suggested by Thomas Dunham Whitaker, who examined the hoard soon after it had been discovered, that the sphinx would have been attached to the top of the helmet, as it has a curved base fitting the curvature of the helmet, and has traces of solder on it. This theory has become more plausible with the discovery of the Crosby Garrett Helmet in 2010, to which is attached a winged griffin.

02 Jul 2016

The Appian Way

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02 Jul 2016

The Firoconi Cista

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FiroconiCista1

FiroconiCista2
The Ficoroni Cista, Bronze, Late 4th century BC, National Etruscan Museum of Villa Julia, Rome.

Maddalena Paggi, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004:

Praenestine cistae are sumptuous metal boxes mostly of cylindrical shape. They have a lid, figurative handles, and feet separately manufactured and attached. Cistae are covered with incised decoration on both body and lid. Little studs are placed at equal distance at a third of the cista’s height all around, regardless of the incised decoration. Small metal chains were attached to these studs and probably used to lift the cistae.

As funerary objects, cistae were placed in the tombs of the fourth-century necropolis at Praeneste. This town, located 37 kilometers southeast of Rome in the region of Latius Vetus, was an Etruscan outpost in the seventh century B.C., as the wealth of its princely burials indicates. Excavations conducted at Praeneste in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century were primarily aimed at the recovery of these precious-metal objects. The subsequent demand for cistae and mirrors caused the systematic plundering of the Praenestine necropolis. Cistae acquired value and importance in the antiquities market, which also encouraged the production of forgeries. Four Praenestine cistae, out of a total of 118 specimens so far recovered, are in New York City (three in the Metropolitan Museum and one in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library).

Cistae are a very heterogeneous group of objects, but vary in terms of quality, narrative, and size. Artistically, cistae are complex objects in which different techniques and styles coexist: engraved decoration and cast attachments seem to be the result of different technical expertise and traditions. Collaboration of craftsmanship was required for their two-stage manufacturing process: the decoration (casting and engraving) and the assembly.

The most famous cista and the first to be discovered is the Ficoroni presently in the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, named after the well-known collector Francesco de’ Ficoroni (1664–1747), who first owned it. Although the cista was found at Praeneste, its dedicatory inscription indicates Rome as the place of production: NOVIOS PLVTIUS MED ROMAI FECID/ DINDIA MACOLNIA FILEAI DEDIT (Novios Plutios made me in Rome/ Dindia Macolnia gave me to her daughter). These objects have often been taken as examples of middle Republican Roman art. However, the Ficoroni inscription remains the only evidence for this theory, while there is ample evidence for a local production at Praeneste.

The high-quality Praenestine cistae often adhere to the classical ideal. The proportions, composition, and style of the figures indeed present close connections and knowledge of Greek motifs and conventions. The engraving of the Ficoroni cista portrays the myth of the Argonauts, the conflict between Pollux and Amicus, in which Pollux is victorious. The engravings on the Ficoroni cista have been viewed as a reproduction of a lost fifth-century painting by Mikon. Difficulties remain, however, in finding precise correspondences between Pausanias’ description of such a painting and the cista.

The function and use of Praenestine cistae are still unresolved questions. We can safely say that they were used as funerary objects to accompany the deceased into the next world. It has also been suggested that they were used as containers for toiletries, like a beauty case. Indeed, some recovered examples contained small objects such as tweezers, make-up boxes, and sponges. The large size of the Ficoroni cista, however, excludes such a function and points toward a more ritualistic use.

21 Jun 2016

Rome Has a Hill Made Up Entirely of Ancient Amphorae Shards

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MonteTestaccio

The Vintage News:

Monte Testaccio or also known as Monte dei Cocci (literally meaning “Mount of Shards”) is an artificial mound in Rome composed almost entirely of testae, fragments of broken amphorae dating from the time of the Roman Empire, some of which were labelled with tituli picti. It is one of the largest spoil heaps found anywhere in the ancient world, covering an area of 220,000 sq ft at its base and with a volume of approximately 760,000 cu yd, containing the remains of an estimated 53 million amphorae.

The huge numbers of broken amphorae at Monte Testaccio illustrate the enormous demand for oil of imperial Rome, which was at the time the world’s largest city with a population of at least one million people. It has been estimated that the hill contains the remains of as many as 53 million olive oil amphorae, in which some 61.3 billion imperial gallons/1.6 billion U.S. gallons of oil were imported. Studies of the hill’s composition suggest that Rome’s imports of olive oil reached a peak towards the end of the 2nd century AD, when as many as 130,000 amphorae were being deposited on the site each year. The vast majority of those vessels had a capacity of some 15 imp gal; 18 U.S. gal; from this it has been estimated that Rome was importing at least 1.6 million imperial gal/2 million U.S. gal of olive oil annually. As the vessels found at Monte Testaccio appear to represent mainly state-sponsored olive oil imports, it is very likely that considerable additional quantities of olive oil were imported privately.

Whole Story.

29 Apr 2016

Half a Ton of Roman Coins Found Near Seville

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SevilleCoins

RT News:

Construction workers repairing water pipes in Seville, southern Spain, have discovered 600kg of ancient Roman coins, covered with dirt and dust. The find is said to be worth at least “several million euros.”

Tens of thousands of bronze coins, dating back to the third and fourth centuries, were found inside 19 Roman amphoras in the town of Tomares near Seville, El Pais reported.

“This find is extremely important,” Ana Navarro, head of Seville’s Archeology Museum now looking after the find, told El Pais. “It is a unique collection, and there are very few similar cases,” she added.

The discovery of the jars full of coins happened on Wednesday during construction work about 10 kilometers from Seville.

“Those are not amphoras meant to store wine or oil. They are smaller and were used to transport other goods. Surprisingly [they were] used to save money,” Navarro told the newspaper.

AFP quoted Navarro as saying the coins, stamped with inscriptions of Emperors Maximian and Constantine on the reverse side, are worth “several million euros.”

“I could not give you an monetary value, because the value they really have is historical and you can’t calculate that.”

Although most coins are bronze, archaeologists say some appear to be silver-plated. “Most show little evidence of wear, which means they were not in circulation,” Navarro explained.

“It is surprising to have found 19 jars filled with coins. Out hypothesis is that the money was used to pay imperial taxes or paying the army,” Navarro told the newspaper, adding that the amphoras were probably hidden “because of social conflicts, violence [and other] threats.”

Local authorities have suspended work on the water pipes to carry out archaeological excavations at the site.

07 Apr 2016

A Veteran of the Gallic Wars

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RomanSkullwSpear
Skull of a Roman solider who died during the Gallic Wars, 1st century BC. Museo Rocsen, Argentina.

15 Mar 2016

The Ides of March

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When I was in high school, I had Latin in 9th and 10th grade. Our Latin teacher had a curious personal custom. He sacrificed annually, in honor of Great Caesar, on the Ides of March, the male student in each class who had offended him by doing the least work and/or being the most disruptive. He sacrificed additionally one female student from each class whose selection, I fear, was based only upon his own capricious whim and covert sexual attraction.

The sacrifice consisted of the victim being bent over a desk and receiving three strokes of a paddle, delivered by a six foot+, 250 lb.+ Latin teacher laying on the strokes with a will and putting his weight behind them. (I won’t name him.) Mr. X’s paddle was a four foot long piece of 1 1/2″ thick pine, produced in our high school’s wood shop by General Curriculum students, who did not take Latin, but admired Mr. X. The paddle was roughly in the form of a Roman gladius, and its surface was scored by a series of regular lines, because it was generally believed that a blow from an uneven surface was more painful.

Mr. X had a fixed policy of assigning the duty of construing the day’s Latin assignment on the blackboard in strict and completely predictable order, going up and down the aisles of desks. Two or three of the smart kids would always actually do the Latin, (I was one of them) and it was our recognized duty to supply the translations in advance to the person who would be going to the blackboard.

Readiness to translate correctly was really vital, because Mr. X would apply his dreaded paddle to anyone who failed to write out the day’s assignment correctly on the blackboard. It was rare, but every once in a while some truly feckless idiot would neglect to seek out Kenny Hollenbach, Jack Rigrotsky, or yours truly, and would arrive at the blackboard, chalk in hand, unprepared.

Mr. X typically broke the current paddle over the defaulter’s posterior, and the mental defectives in shop class would gleefully commence the fabrication of a new, yet more elaborate, edition of the famous paddle.

Every March 15th, two 9th and 10th grade Academic Curriculum sections would look on with the same sadistic interest of Roman spectators at the gladitorial games, as Mr. X conducted his sacrifices. I can recall that he struck the pretty strawberry blonde with the well-developed embonpoint so hard that he raised dust from her skirt. We were a bit puzzled that girls actually submitted to being beaten with a paddle for no reason, but all this went on undoubtedly because the legend of Mr. X the fierce disciplinarian had enormous appeal in our local community. The whole thing was fascinating, and it all made such a good story that everyone, student and adult, in his heart of hearts, enthusiastically approved.

Mr. X would never be allowed to get away with that kind of thing today, alas! In Hades, poor Caesar must do without his sacrifice. And it is my impression that Latin instruction has rather overwhelmingly also become a thing of the past. Kids today learn Spanish. Modern languages are easier and are thought more relevant.

Teachers
My high school Latin teacher is the large chap wearing glasses. He also coached one of our sports teams.

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