Ancient Trivia

Did you know that the word “trivia” originates in Latin? Trivia is based on trivial, which in turn comes from trivialis. That pertains to trivium — three roads, or a crossroad, as something very commonplace that can be found anywhere.

Of course, Trivia was also an epithet of Diana, goddess of the hunt, wild animals, fertility, and the moon — but referred to her ominous guise as Goddess of the Underworld. The whole bit with aspects of gods can get complicated — Diana, Luna, and Hecate are the same yet different — and tracing how, when, and why were gods conflated with one another is a time-honoured academic exercise and one that I had lots of fun with when writing In Numina — but not the subject of this post 🙂

Today I just wanted to bring you a few random and trivial bits of ancient Roman lore, for your edification and entertainment, starting with…

You probably know of my love for ancient maps, so you might have heard my loud squealing when I found The History of Cartography from University of Chicago Press has been made free online! You can find all the tomes here:

These are excellent resources for anyone who’d like to understand how the ancients viewed their world, and how historical mapping has evolved. It also gives a lot of inspiration for anyone playing with fantasy maps. (Kudos:

Now that you know what lay between the cities, where the mountains and forests where, how about what lived in them? This article about Identifying the beasts in Caesar’s forest reviews Caesar’s Bello Gallico and Pliny the elder’s natural histories to identify what beasts roamed the countryside.

Bonus point: aurochs, as almost everyone knows, were the large, extinct ancestor of domestic cattle, relative of the European bison. More trivial, however, is that “aurochs” is both both the singular and the plural — a fact I learned soon after publishing In Numina… 😉

Why would people brave the wilds, with all these awful beasts and dangers? Why, to trade bright baubles, of course! Here’s The Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database. Shiny!

A bit more seriously, we know that Roman engineering, and roads especially, are a tremendous feat. Just how impressive? The longest man-made tunnel (by which I mean dug by man-power alone, not machinery), awaits visitors in Turkey: Ancient Roman Vespasianus Titus tunnel, world’s largest man-made tunnel, awaits visitors in Turkey.

Then there is the click-bait-titled article about how Romans may have built “invisibility cloaks” into structures. Somewhat less Harry-Potter-ishly, it talks about the propagation of waves after earthquakes and how some Roman structures seem to be particularly resistant. Of course, I subscribe to the cynics’ view that it’s just more likely that those building survived the millennia better, rather than upfront design.

Anyway, and back to the lighter side of life, I’ve mentioned before that we know a lot about Roman life from graffiti and other wall paintings. These are a couple of interesting examples: Ancient “comic strip” depicts the founding of a Roman city in Jordan, and the even juicier Ancient Roman toilet mosaic reveals the dirty jokes that kept men amused as they urinated 1,800 years ago.

For those reader who are too high-brow to admit enjoying ancient toilet-humour, these frescoes uncovered when Archaeologists find secret chamber decorated with centaurs and a sphinx inside Nero’s palace in Rome should be more appropriate. Pretty impressive artwork, but how impressive is a whole village? A 1,900-year-old Roman village unearthed in Germany.

Speaking of villages, cities, and graffiti, everybody who follows this blog knows that a prime source of graffiti is the city of Pompeii. However, most post tend to this about the people who died in the eruption and were buried in the ashes. While these give an invaluable window into their lives, there were a lot of survivors — it’s mostly Herculaneum that was destroyed immediately, and it took Pompeii three days to be completely wiped out. That means there were survivors, those who fled in time from Pompeii or who were on the verges of the eruption. Tracking the names of such people across graffiti and memorial steles gives us new evidence for what happened to people who survived Vesuvius.

That last is quite an interesting article. I’ll have a longer post coming soon about Roman naming conventions (and how to make sure not everybody in your historical fiction is called Gaius or Marcus — which is historically accurate but confusing), as well as a philosophically morbid discourse about death in literature and real life.

That’s it for now! If you see something interesting pertaining to antiquity, send it over! 😄

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