Roman Links: from military to sorcery

Welcome to our regularly scheduled survey of ancient news, from archaeological discoveries to experimental archaeology. This time we cover anything from shipwrecks to deliberate wrecking equipment, from war to medicine.

Let us start with your classical bit of archaeology. This is an amazing find from the Danube: Probable Roman shipwrecks unearthed at a Serbian coal mine

A couple of points in regards to this. First, is that this was an accidental discovery, when mining equipment tore through the shipwreck (and accidentally damaging a third of it). Both of these are just so often the case: finds are often accidental, as a result of construction of otherwise unrelated digging. And, even when digging specifically, damaging finds happens. You can’t always tell there’s something a centimeter lower in the ground until you put an implement through it.

Still, this is very interesting, and sheds lights about river culture in the late eras of the Western Roman empire on the Danube. Exact dating is proving to be a challenge, due to unrelated global circumstances. Which brings me to my second anecdote. While reading the article, She To Whom The Books Are Dedicated walked behind me, and started asking what exactly am I reading with the title “Social distancing makes it hard to get a date”… Luckily, my dating is firmly in the past.

Moving on…

While we’re on the subject of the current rewriting of the global org-chart (on which subject I’d again recommend you read about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age — surprisingly highly poignant!), you’re probably inundated by Stuff You Can Do and Things You Can See from your isolated and socially distant armchair.

In reality, many of us around the globe lack the means of hopping on a plane to visit remote sites even on a good day. So these kind of virtual tours are always welcome. I’d like to draw your attention to a drone video of Pomepii.

The video is absolutely stunning! Narrated in Italian, but there are subtitles (probably easier to see if you view full screen). One of the most striking things is that we’re used to seeing individual fragments from Pompeii — a mosaic, a mural, some collapsed walls. This one gives you the sense of how big the whole city was when it was destroyed:

I actually came across this via The Smithsonian. The article there only contains the video without subtitles, but has a lot of interesting links. It also has an image of a Sorcerer’s Kit — a collection of finds from one villa whose occupier (whether the owner or one of their servants) had an obvious interest in the occult:

from recently excavated homes in Pompeii

I wish there were more details, and this is certainly something I would research in coming months. This article collects many more close-up shots of items, and is highly recommended.

I can recognise a few votive offerings (items you offer to a god with a vow — fix my broken arm, and I vow to sacrifice a lamb in your honour; genitalia were a perennial favourite), lamps, charms, etc. Similar items were mentioned in In Victrix, where Felix deals with a shady vendor, together with various creams and unguents. Still, I have a feeling Felix would know a lot about the usage of such items, and the difference between mere wishful thinking to powerful magics. This is certainly something I continually incorporate in my novels.

This whole rabbit hole of Pompeian findings started with this Smithonian article, which is heavy in links. One linked article in particular stood out, a lengthy one about discoveries from Pompeii. Outside of that, I’d only direct you to this one where Pompeii ruins show that the Romans invented recycling. This is primarily about construction materials, but it does put in contrast modern perceptions of trash against ancient worldviews. I’ve spoken before about how my Egretia is a bit more sanitary than the comparable period in Roman period — thus justifying a somewhat more stable society — and rubbish removal is one of those aspects. We all know that Felix can’t complete a major case without at least one trip down the sewers. While he’s been in the purgamenta (the city’s dump) once before in Murder In Absentia, I think it’s time he’ll have a ‘deeper’ visit there.

Moving on (well, sort of) to the subject of medicine (which was connected to sorcery), Gizmodo contacted five historians that specialise in ancient medicine about treatments in antiquity. The anecdotes might surprise you. Our perception of what the ancients knew and how they used is often coloured by modern misinformation. There is both less and more to their medicine, and often it is just different. I’d suggest you read this article: quite revealing about us as well: Ancient Medicine.

If you’d like to learn more on the subject, I mentioned before FutureLearn’s course on well-being in the ancient world, which I can’t recommend enough. It’s an excellent base to start.

Lastly, the image above was taken from an article about Roman Artillery. It’s a quick read, and once you read it you’ll be able to note that the image is an early model — it has the blocks in the middle, that prevented sighting along the shaft of the ballista bolt. Later improvements included the arch construction, for better sighting. You can see one in action in this Facebook video from The Smithsonian. A lesser known fact, is — again, due to modern perceptions — that while these were known from Greek and Roman times, they were used mostly against people, not buildings.

Contemporary sources talk about raining arrows and bolts at the defenders during sieges, not on the walls themselves. Even the catapultae — the rock throwers — were constructed similar to a ballista. They were all used very effectively in the field to break formations (and formation was key to an army’s success). What modern readers imagine at the word “catapult” is usually the medieval onager or trebuchet, which were used against walls — but at a later period of course. (Another prime example of a misconception — the medieval world saw a lot of technological innovation over antiquity. But that’s a subject for another day.)

It’s a lovely subject, a subset of my reading into Roman military practices. Not a subject I have much opportunity to cover with Felix, at least not unless I one day write about his past, before his investigative days. Still,


That’s it for now. I hope you find it entertaining and edifying, or at least a distraction from current and ancient plagues. If you need more, especially ones where ancient findings like the above act as inspiration, try the short stories or full novels.

Until next time, valete!

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