Naughty Roman Mice

Let’s start this week with toys, though we have much larger things in store for you.

Over at Vindolanda, while closed to the public their curators have been going over some of the existing collections. They have been slowly releasing information, like this article on combs and articles and videos about broaches in the collection, but one whimsical recent find is a toy mouse amongst the hundreds of other leather scraps and offcuts.

Why do I say these mice were naughty? Read on!

While this article is dedicated to various small finds, the ones that seemed trivial but still greatly affected people’s lives, let’s start with something big. Really big. This one isn’t small. It’s a whole buried city! If you follow modern trends in archaeology, you’ll know that a lot is going on before a shovel is even picked up. Digging is actually very destructive (you can only do it once), so a lot of consideration, care, preparation are done before there’s a decision to start digging. Fun as Indiana Jones or The Mummy are to watch, those days of yahoo archaeologists are gone, and for a good reason.

To see what modern technology brings to archaeology, consider this: An ancient Roman city has been fully mapped using ground-penetrating radar. (There’s a somewhat shorter and less techy article on Gizmodo). The level of detail generated with these non-obtrusive scans is impressive, and in fact the scientists involved only released a “preliminary” report because the amount of data is just so vast that it will take years to analyse. Consider the town, Falerii Novi, is located only 50km north of Rome, if Vindolanda-style excavation are taken place I am sure that the amount of discoveries would be staggering.

And, of course, one cannot mention buried cities without talking about Pompeii. You’ll be happy to note that the British Museum to bring back record-breaking Pompeii exhibition with screening of live event, which is now available on YouTube. That’s an hour and a half of prime documentary, for your edification.

One interesting theory, though, is that this isn’t the first time volcanoes have impacted the Roman empire: Volcanic Eruption in Alaska May Have Sparked Political Turmoil in Ancient Rome. I wouldn’t say ‘sparked’, but in the year following Julius Caesar’s murder a volcanic eruption in Alaska may have contributed to weather patterns that impacted how Romans saw and interpreted the will of the gods after that momentous act. (In Felix’s world, of course, such climatological phenomena are the expressed view of the Numina. I had a hair-raising experience writing the scene at the top of the Kebros mountain in Murder In Absentia, which I hope carried into the novel).

Back to the “small stuff” (if you’re here for the naughty bits, read on), an Ancient Roman Board Game Found in Norwegian Burial Mound. It’s interesting to see this distributed so far outside of areas formally controlled by Rome, but such boards are found all around the empire. Heck, there’s one scratched on the steps of the Basilica Julia in Rome, when the common people, obviously bored from the political debates, sat down for a friendly game to pass the time.

The exact rules are unknown – the name Ludus Latrunculorum translates as ‘game of robbers’ – though there are a few text description of the game. It’s played on a square (most often) board, though sizes vary from 7×7 to 10×10. There’s also seems to potentially be a variable number of pieces. I imagine part of the complexity is that such games were played for centuries, and like everything else they evolved and changed over time and available resources and people.

You can find a simple reconstructed variation of the rules here, or a very in-depth, highly recommended, article here. This is certainly something that was part of every person’s life in Roman times, and as such needs to make it into historical fiction when we depict such moments of daily interactions. One can easily imagine all the associated activities that go with such friendly games: drinking, betting, knifing…

And finally, the naughty bits! Betting over money, of course, would have been natural. I’ve talked before about coinage, but there are some interesting coin-like tokens that are sometimes found together with other 1st century AD Roman coins.

These are called Spintriae, and look like other copper or bronze coins. One side shows a number in the range 1 to 16, and the other side… well, the other side is quite explicit.

There have been several theories about what they were used for, but since most surviving written records were written by and for the educated elite (and even those are infuriatingly broken) we don’t have a lot of details.

Suetonious used the term ‘spintria’ in the sense of male prostitutes, and over the centuries this seems to have been applied in general to outrageous sexual acts and then these token that symbolise them. Still, the tokens themselves depict hetreosexual acts, so the etymological link is not necessarily justified. Were they tokens for usage in brothels? Were they locker-room tokens? Was there some other usage?

Who can tell? That’s the point that historical fiction (and historical fantasy) authors can go wild filling in the blanks.

Speaking of blanks, our last one for today is a bit of a lark. the Roman Dodecahedra have been found all over the empire, and their usage has stumped scientists. While it’s not nearly as risqué as spintriae (I certainly hope not! Although with the differently sized holes one could theorise that… NO! Just, no.) they have been assigned the usual “ritual or astronomical purposes” explanation.

Just like a lot of other unknown discoveries. “Ritual purposes” is archaeological shorthand for “we don’t have a clue”. This naturally led to a variety of more or less crackpot conspiracy theories associated with them, e.g. this dedicated site which postulates, at length, about the astronomical usage.

All of this led some smartass to give it to his grandma, which resulted in this:

Image may contain: text

If you’re interested in knitting, you can watch the actual video in action here:

No idea if it’s true, but it’s certainly convincing. Enough for it to feature in a future Felix’s novel, right alongside the other discoveries above.


That’s it for now! Hope you find all these small but crucial discoveries about ancient life fascinating. If you’d like to see how I use them to enrich my Roman-inspired fantasy detective, check out the free short stories or the full novels (including the free introductory novella).

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