Hot off the… err… Scribe: Ancient News Roundup

A few things on the agenda today, from ancient Roman wine-making to expensive coins, from functional shields to decorative helmets, and even some ancient military humour!


Wines today and in Roman times

This article about ancient wine popped up in my feed: We Drink Basically The Same Wine As Ancient Romans — And That’s Not So Great

The title is, of course, misleading and a click-bait. The research talks purely about genetic variance of the grapes. That, as any vintner will tell, is not the full story of wine. For example, ancient wine was aged in clay jars that were lined with resin to make them waterproof, but might have also changed the taste to be similar to the modern Greek retsina.

Even without touching the feet of those who pressed grapes at ancient times, the raw must was heated in pots, some of which used to be made of lead. That led to a sweeter wine (and lead poisoning), and at some point someone figured that you could add crystalline lead acetate (known in antiquity as sugar of lead) to short cut the process and make bad batches into something the masses will drink…

And that’s before we deal with the habit of adding spices and water to wine!

Most expensive Roman coin

Allectus never dreamed his coin would be worth quite that much

Imagine walking in a field, and finding over half a million quid (over 700,000 US$). That’s — almost — what happened to one lucky guys nosing in the weeds with his metal detector:

You can the original article on The Independent, or a somewhat less annoying article on MSN, and my commentary below.

The gold coin was minted by Allectus, who at the end of the third century AD saw the Roman change emperors as often as socks. Even though he was only a treasurer in one of the most remote and desolate colonies (Britannia), he also saw his governor Carausius declare himself emperor of Britain (only a short while after the collapse of the Gallic Empire — told you, the third century was rough on those who wanted power). He figured what the hell, and went for it, I can do it too, and declared himself emperor of Britain in 293 AD.

It didn’t last long. Constantius Chlorus (father of Constantine the Great and currently Caesar of the West under Diocletian’s Tetrarchy) defeated him in 296. The Roman empire was more or less stable on that front after that, at least for a short while.

Not much is known about Allectus (any commentary in the article about Brexit is purely riding the populist wave), and no explanation (besides basic human irrationality) is given for the highly inflated price of the gold coin. Nonetheless, it’s now the most expensive Britain-minted Roman coin, and one of the most expensive coins of antiquity in general, and one lucky metal detectorist is having a field day (or rather, a country-club day from now on).

Diocletian, on the other hand, is dear to historian and fantasy authors alike. He’s the emperor that executed a certain military tribune named Georgios, whose later exploits against some garden lizards have been exaggerated to the point of elevating him to the status of St. George. Richard Knaak has made that into a wonderful series, the most recent addition to which I reviewed here.

Roman Locks and Security

Once in possession of gold coins, you’d naturally want to secure them, because thieves, robbers, and other scoundrels abound. It’s a problem Felix is intimately familiar with. Quoting from In Victrix:

I happen to have at home a variety of picks, tweezers, scalpels, scoops, small hammers, and even some medical equipment the original purpose of which I was unclear on — and preferred it that way. These have all come in handy in the course of my chequered career, when I had to gain access to places I was not, strictly speaking, invited. There was the one time at the temple of Venus… but I digress.

In Victrix, a work in progress

Since such access is often protected, I’d like to draw your attention to this wonderful introductory article about locks and locksmithing in Roman times. The whole site is actually dedicated for Roman locks, and there are other pages dedicated to specific usage.

Jackson gives a detailed yet very readable and approachable review of everything that went into locksmithing in ancient Rome. The extra pages are picture-heavy, which always induces a sense of wonder and sparks the imagination when I need to describe something in fiction.

This site is a wonderful resource, and will give any Romanophile or author of ancient-historical-fiction another layer of richness to work with when writing. As an example, instead of saying “The lock was complicated, but I cracked it”, some of the images inspired a little expansion of the text for In Victrix:

I took out a set of lockpicks from a belt-pouch I wore under my outer tunic, gave a brief prayer to Securitas and Ianus, and set to work. The lock was complicated, an ornate mechanism with brass filigree plates to match the door and the club’s general decor. I suspected the key probably had a fancy lion’s head or some such as a handle. It took precious minutes, but my utterly utilitarian, undecorated, bronze hooks got past the wards and rotated the levers to open the door.

Blood spatters

With riches, even behind lock and key, comes crime. And even cat burglary can turn nasty. So before we move on to the next section about arms and armour, I’d like to refer you to this article about Roman-era forensics. While the title is a bit grandiose and click-baity (These Three Forensic Science Techniques From Ancient Rome Reveal Shocking Gaps In Modern Methods), but it does quote ancient original sources about the use of blood spatter patterns, hand-prints, and teeth marks in resolving legal cases.

They also contrast them with the modern equivalences, their effectiveness (mostly criticisms thereof), etc. But it does provide a fascinating view into the minds of 1st century Romans. We tend to focus on how their medicine was completely “wrong” (from balancing the humors to believing wombs can go wandering about, from attributing malaria on ‘bad airs’ to using dung in ointments and fumigation as a treatment), that we forget how sophisticated they could be in other respects.

I’ve covered some of the intricacies of the legal system in In Numina, and naturally Felix’s cases tend to have a supernatural explanation behind them, but I find it amazing to see how they could approach cases and evidence logically (and logic was part of rhetoric, don’t forget) to draw conclusions. It might explain why and how Felix approached those haunted houses initially, before accepting that there were paranormal curses behind events.

Shield Technology

Bark shield

A phenomenal 2,300-year-old bark shield was recently unearthed in Leicestershire (see alternative article here, or the best, most comprehensive article is the one on Ars Technica). It’s predated Roman Britain, and is the only example of its kind ever found in Europe. What makes it so interesting is the technology used to produce it.

The shield is made from green bark that has been stiffened with internal wooden laths, surrounded by a rim of hazel, with a twisted willow boss. Fresh bark is pliant, but hardens as it dries and gives the shield both strength and a slight hourglass form. Previously, the only surviving artefacts of this technology were household items (organic matter doesn’t normally survive that long).

Battersea Shield

This is probably related to the bronze Battersea shield. Previously thought as unfit for battle, the Battersea shield is possibly a ceremonial or other cover on top of a real, functional shield. As the shapes match, it could have been a bark shield like the one discovered in Leicestershire.

What makes it interesting, though, is that it changes our perception of weapons and armour in the iron age. A bark shield can be 3mm thick, incredibly light, and still strong enough to provide functional cover in battle. Certainly fully functional if made thicker, and still significantly lighter than heavy wooden shields. The particular specimen found was damaged (remains to be seen if in battle or otherwise), but tests show that this technology could have stood up to iron-tipped spears and swords of the time.

A technology to produce cheap, durable, easy to carry shields would change our view about the population’s willingness to participate in fighting.

Ancient Military humour

Before we delve into the next, amazing find that I’ll actually be using in the next novel, let’s have an interlude.

These date to the 4th century BC, excavated in Athens and acquired by the British Museum in 1851. You can find his res images here.

Just goes to show that shields & helmets, swords & missiles — gruesome as fighting could be, soldiers throughout history dealt with it the same way, with dark humour.

Helmets: more than just a bucket on your noggin

Intricate decorations for those who are about to die

A gladiator helmet found in Pompeii might technically fall under the arms and armour discussion above, but I want to draw your attention to something else: the high-relief detail of the decorations. While the article linked is a bit disjointed in text, you can click through to see the high-res images. If you just want the picture see this Flickr album (with pictures from multiple angles) of a similar helmet.

We tend to think of helmets as functional and of gladiators as short-lived, but these highly ornate samples show that this wasn’t a simple case. We know that as popularity of the games rose so did the life expectancy of the gladiators. From analysis of historical records of some 200 bouts, only 19 deaths are recorded — less than 1-in-10.

We also know that gladiators achieved a certain public allure, not unlike UFC fighters these days. It’s rather hard to misinterpret graffiti like “Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls”, but even if you took a naive view then statements like “catches the girls at night in his net” are pretty explicit. Plus, there are other sources detailing how women might wear jewellery with gladiator’s blood or face-creams containing gladiator’s sweat — all as aphrodisiacs.

And so, naturally, these ancient celebrities got their bling in the form of wonderfully decorated equipment. It’s interesting to note as well how gladiators evolved over time: their public position, their equipment, when they performed, etc. While this will be the subject of a lengthier post (to coincide with In Victrix, no doubt), I’ll just give the mymillo as an example.

The helmet above has that definitive flat crest that’s made to look like a fish’s fin. Those belonged to the heavy fighters called mymillo (or murmillo), whose name was linked to the murmuros fish, the striped bream that is common in the Mediterranean. (At least, that’s the ancient etymology — and the ancients preferred symbolic etymology that was often wrong). They evolved from the earlier gallus — or Gallic — type, when the Gauls were better integrated into the empire and it wasn’t politic to use them for gladiators. Something similar happened with Samnites, although Thracians (think Spartacus — the man probably wasn’t Thracian himself, but rather trained as a gladiator of that class) remained in favour throughout the empire. Look at the Louvre for a wonderful gryphon crest on a Thracian gladiator’s helmet (requires flash), or here on Pinterest.

In Egretia, while I mostly based the culture on the late Middle Republican era, I did incorporate elements from other times. Games and gladiators have always captured the public’s eye, so I played around a bit. While moral attitudes reflect my chosen period (in respect to the permanent facilities available for games, who could become a gladiators, the and what were the consequences), the types of gladiators and the games they put on were more sophisticated and reflect the height of the empire. This is entertaining when I write beast hunts, but in general it gives me more freedom for dramatic performances and skills of practitioners when describing fight scenes.

Never forget, though, that as much as we moderns are fascinated by gladiatorial games, they were dwarfed in Roman times by the popularity of the chariot races. While the Flavian amphitheatre (the Colosseum) hosted up to 50,000 spectators, the Circus Maximus was older and could host from 150,000 to 250,000 spectators (depending on estimates; but even the conservative one is three times larger, and it was in use for far longer). Both races and gladiators are subjects I go into at depth in In Victrix. I’ve already added notes about the gladiatorial helmets, but I’m sure you’d appreciate the high-res images to go with it.


Like what you read? Why not try the full novels, and see how all this research and bits of trivia make for an amazing background for urban fantasy mysteries. Still not sure? Try the short stories — all the fun in a lunch-break-sized read!

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