Let Them Eat Cake

“Eat the Rich!” is certainly a common refrain these days. Pandemics and economic recessions aside, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has only seemed to widen for decades. The anger of people tired of the way things keep going is starting to seem palatable, riots and protests a weekly occurrence, and with the recent tone deaf renovation of the White House’s Rose Garden on the taxpayers dime–the resemblance to the 18th century French Revolution is starting to feel a little uncanny. That comparison also brings up the inevitable article headlines shameless in their failure of quick fact checking–Let Them Eat Cake! and Marie Antoinette are once again dragged through the street and scorned in the name of reform. But it’s time to put this misattribution to the guillotine. 

If you’ve heard the name Marie Antoinette, there’s a strong chance you might know her only as the queen who supposedly said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to her citizens being unable to afford bread and who was later decapitated for it. Though the latter is an unfortunate reality, there is no record, witness, or biographical assertion that traces this phrase to her. In fact, the first time Marie Antoinette became associated with the phrase is in Alphonse Karr’s satirical magazine Les Guepes in 1843. 50 years after she was killed by revolutionaries. [1]

So how in the world did a queen who had written, “It is at the same time amazing and wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues. It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.” instead get associated with a flagrant disregard for her people and unwillingness to humble herself to the plight of the common folk? [6]

“She is an amiable and honourable woman, rather young and unreflecting; but she has a core of honour and virtue which has often surprised me.”

Emperor Joseph II in 1777 upon visiting the queen. [4]

First, let’s trace the origin of the phrase. Let Them Eat Cake isn’t even the original words. The French version is explicitly, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Brioche is eggy and delicious but not cake or gâteau. This sentence makes its first appearance on record in the autobiography of famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Confessions, Rousseau recalls a time when he had stolen some wine and had been looking for some bread to go along with it, because what kind of insane person wouldn’t. Apparently, while dressing up a little too fancy for the bakery, he recalled these words–”At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioches.’”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau started writing in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9-years old and the 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa. To say she was an inconsequential princess at the time would be a hilarious understatement. No one would have thought those words could have been hers. There were likely candidates, however, ranging from various French elite to The Sun King Louis XIV’s wife. [1]

So why was the phrase given to Marie Antoinette almost 100-years later? A lot of that has to do with how Marie was perceived and later scapegoated as a harbinger of disenfranchisement to France during her reign.

When Marie Antoinette first arrived to the Palace of Versailles, she was a 14-year old Austrian princess who was to be married off to the grandson and heir of King Louis XV of France in an attempt to solidify an alliance between the two rival nations. At first, the people of France were taken by Marie–her innocence and beauty celebrated. [4]

“I cannot tell you, dear Mother, the transports of joy and affection they displayed. What happiness in our station to win the friendship of a whole people at so small a price! Nothing is so precious, and I shall never forget it.”

Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother describing her first visit to Paris. [4]

But opinions soured over time. The Palace of Versailles was a viper’s nest of political intrigue and an unassuming teenager without any care for the obfuscated etiquette at court led Marie to unintentionally snub and offend many. Of the elite among the court were also those who were critical of the alliance between Austria/France, potential rivals for the throne, and other threatened influences like the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These rumormongers were the first to leak stories and scandalous accusations against Marie to the smut-peddling pamphlet publications that were like today’s version of tabloids. One of the more disastrous claims was the lack of consummation in her marriage with Louis XIV–of which was true. It took the couple 7 years to finally get busy–but during that time, all of the blame was placed squarely on Marie Antoinette. [2]

Without motherhood and an heir of France to keep her position secure, Marie Antoinette spent most of her time in Versailles in a constant battle against neverending boredom. If she wasn’t sleeping with her husband, these gossipers reasoned, then she must be getting around somewhere else. Accusations of promiscuity were leveled against her, attendance of masked balls questioned, her close friendships with duchesses presumed sexual–even when she did give birth to Louis XIV’s first child in 1778, the pamphlets guessed it was the product of an illicit affair. The people of France started to think of their new King as a weak, infantile man–impotent and worthless. But as much derision as was foisted his way, came the misogynistic characterization of Marie Antoinette as a controlling, deceitful wife who could move her husband to her will. Who was ruling? Recall the tenuous at best relations between Austria and France, was an embedded Austrian spy running the show? With France becoming embroiled into disastrous wars at the behest of Austria, it certainly started to seem that way. [2]

“Sire, I speak to you in friendship; believe me, we never let ourselves be led around by our wives. I have one who is sweet as a lamb, because, foutre, I always showed her the fist when she wanted to play the mistress. It’s even more deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women. Women have caused throughout time the misfortunes of France…Remember the hideous reigns of the abominable Medicis; recall Henry IV always ready to do some stupidity for his mistresses…tell your wife that you took her to breed your children, not to mix in affairs of state and turn your kingdom upside down. Among your people, these people who adore you, you will find your security.”

Jacques-Rene Hebert 1790 in his newspaper Le Pere Duchesne. Like Rupert Murdoch of the day, 14% of his published headlines between 1791-1794 were spent disparaging Marie Antoinette and trying to rally the people against her. [3]

France at the time was no simpering fawn. Revolution has no single defining moment, and for the 18th century there’s decades of falling dominoes that will eventually lead to the end of the monarchy of which Marie Antoinette was precariously sitting, giggling at the card tables and ignoring the gossip as she gambled away with her friends. Why should she pay any mind to rumors that she knew were hilariously untrue? They drew her as a salacious bestial monster, half woman half tiger. They wrote of her and her friends throwing lesbian parties in the Petit Trianon, the epitome of depravity. And there was the Diamond Necklace Affair–something Marie herself had nothing to do with–in where Comtesse de La Motte attempted to get a necklace worth around $2 million by pretending it was requested by the queen. After forging letters and dressing up a prostitute as the Queen, La Motte’s plan failed and yet she still blamed Marie Antoinette. Considering the state of the economy in France at the time, people were pretty upset to hear that their queen supposedly had her eye on millions worth in jewelry rather than their inability to afford bread. Needless to say, the hatred for Marie Antoinette escalated. [2 & 3]

This is supposed to be Marie Antoinette. How lovely!

“Women! Women! Especially princesses, and worst of all queens.”

Madame La Motte [2]

When a series of revolutionary events ignited in quick succession–Storming of the Bastille in 1789 followed by the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family attempting to flee to Austria in 1791, and the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792–the writing was already on the wall. It was too late to sway public opinion, the people wanted Marie’s head. She knew it too. There is the story of the march on Versailles where revolutionaries had sieged the palace and the Queen, humbled, came to them on the balcony. Prostrating herself on the railing after 10 minutes of silence, while the crowd leveled muskets, the revolutionaries were momentarily warmed by her act of courage. Cries of “Vive la Reine!” reached her ear but this sentiment was temporary and spoken in vain. Death would come to her soon. [5]

“Kill! Kill! We want to cut off her head, cut out her heart, and fry her liver. There she is, the filthy whore! We don’t want her body, what we want is to carry her head to Paris.”

– An unnamed participant in the Women’s March. [2]

Eventually captured by revolutionaries and kept in abusive confinement for weeks, Marie awaited the same fate her husband had met only nine months before. There was little hope for her on trial, despite insisting that every treasonous action she was accused of was in the interest of protecting her children and husband. When the libelous newspaper publisher Hebert testified against her, claiming that she had committed incest with her son, Marie’s response seems tired and even subdued. “If I have not responded it is because nature refuses to respond to such a charge made to a mother. I call upon every mother here.” But reason didn’t matter. [3]

Marie Antoinette was sentenced to face the guillotine on October 16th, 1793. 

“More bloodthirsty than Jezabel, more conniving than Agrippina…her life was a calamity for France…her fall a triumph for liberty…the widow Capet…died under the guillotine. The globe is purified! Long live the Republic!”

[2]

So, an attempt to answer the question of how Marie Antoinette came to be associated with a phrase that there is no evidence of her ever having uttered seems more or less a tragic realization of how someone can be destroyed by the trial of public opinion. A constant victim of lies and malice, Marie’s crime was perhaps not paying enough heed to the words spoken of her. Perhaps if she had come to her own defense sooner, she would be remembered more today for her lavish acts of giving to numerous charities like founding Maison Philanthropique with Louis XVI or how she sold royal objects to support families struggling during the famine of 1787. Maybe she’d be remembered for the simple white dress she requested to be depicted in for modesty which later became a fashion symbol for revolutionary women. Or she could be thought of fondly for how many children she adopted and supported financially when their parents passed away. Or perhaps she would be given more due credit for helping to secure France’s aid in the American Revolutionary War which helped lead the colonists to victory against the British Crown. [7]

Instead, we have the life and memory of a queen who, persistent through time, continues to be lambasted by those who don’t know her at all. The image of a rich, unsympathetic queen who is out of touch with reality was created over 200 years ago by people meant to do her harm and was peddled by those who needed an idol to rally revolutionary fervor against. [2 & 3]

I suppose the continued pattern into modern day of Marie Antoinette being accused of saying something she didn’t is just the icing on the cake of her tragic story.

Fact Check it, Yo!

[1] Temerson, Catherine (2000). Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. St. Martin’s Griffin. pp. 63–65

[2] Barker, N. (1993). “Let Them Eat Cake”: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. The Historian, 55(4), 709-724. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24448793

[3] Colwill, E. (1989). Just Another “Citoyenne?” Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793. History Workshop, (28), 63-87. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288925

[4] Gooch, G. (1949). MARIE ANTOINETTE. History, 34(122), new series, 221-234. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24404219

[5] Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage Books/Random House. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.

[6] Lettres De Marie-Antoinette (in French). 1. Nabu Press. 2012. p. 91. ISBN 978-1278509648

[7] Vidal, E. M. (2012, February 18). A Reputation in Shreds. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from http://www.marie-antoinette.org/articles/reputation/

Cicero versus Cleopatra

What happens when two colossal figures of history, famous for their power and influence, meet at a party for the first time?

At the age of 60-years-old, Cicero had lived quite a full life in Roman politics by the time 46 AD sluggishly rolled around. In fact, the famous orator shared a lived experience similar to that of the Roman Republic up to this point. Both had become disillusioned by frequent civil unrest, battered by enemies foreign and at home, and had both struggled with financial hardships. And like the newly minted dictator of Rome Julius Caesar, Cicero had also just dumped his long-term partner in favor of a wealthy teenager. He needed the money, I suppose.

“During the long flow of success he met grave setbacks from time to time–exile, the collapse of his party, his daughter’s death and his own tragic and bitter end. But of all these disasters the only one he faced as a man was his own death…However, weighing his virtues against his faults, he was a great and memorable man. One would need a Cicero to sing his praises.” Livy

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 318

But unlike Cicero, Julius Caesar’s paramour wasn’t just any rich young woman. [1] She was the sovereign ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt–Pharaoh, Queen, and Goddess Isis–and now at the age of 22-years-old, Cleopatra was the last thing standing between her people and absolute Roman rule (her sniveling little brother nothing more than a bedazzled ornament with no real power). She did all she could to secure her life and kingdom a place of assured ‘independence’, going so far as to give birth to Julius Caesar’s only son Caesarion just to cement the deal. Or not, as some sources believed, presuming the child could be another’s as Julius was thought to have been infertile. Either way, Caesar was sure the child was his (and so did Mark Antony and Octavian when it mattered later). So when Julius brought his new mistress and baby back to Rome, the elite were in quite a stir–who was this foreign woman who had captured the heart of Caesar? 

And perhaps none were more curious than Cicero, a man who until this point had been the one known to enrapture a room. 

“Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible: and there was an attractiveness in her person and talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice.” – Plutarch

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 225

Cleopatra certainly had an image to uphold and upon her arrival in Rome, unleashed an arsenal of exotic creatures and treasures: Egyptian fabrics, mosaics, gold beakers, cinnamon, leopards, fragrances, leopards, most things the people of Rome had never seen before. And yet, despite this, she still kept a seemingly low profile. Caesar lived with his wife Calpurnia near the Forums while his sovereign mistress resided in a villa on the Janiculum Hill–deliberately taking no part in Caesar’s Triumph procession of his ‘conquest’ of Egypt (instead allowing her rival and sister Arsinoe to be paraded around as a prisoner). And Cleopatra, for all her wit and influence, was still a fish out of water. Changing temporary address from the beauty and extravagance of Alexandria to that of a backwater Rome and finding herself a woman in a culture where that idea inspired little confidence or respect compared to her own, she was perhaps rightly disenchanted by the whole ordeal. She also had to deal with the fact that everyone knew who she was (or thought they did) where she knew no one at all. Rome was a city of gossips and few secrets, afterall, and none were more eager to talk than Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari 1889

As his recent marriage showed, Cicero was a bit desperate to change his fortune. And with the gilded benefits of a new young wife, he was also seeking to add friendships with the elite and famous to the retinue of his network like he was some kind of Classical Instagram influencer. Among them would have surely been the exotic Queen of Egypt who took Rome by storm and with her sparked fashion movements, political reforms, and cultural intrigue. So it’s no surprise that Cicero would have attempted to ingratiate himself with the woman everyone in Rome was talking about. The only problem was, Cleopatra would have been less than admissible to any overtures from a man who talked so much shit about her father before her and her current beau Caesar, she’d have wrinkled her nose at the smell of such fakery and desperation wafting off of Cicero.

“I detest the Queen.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 130

Perhaps he thought it would be cute to ask her for the favor of giving him a book from the glorious library of Alexandria. To which Cleopatra, perhaps like any woman at a party trying to get away from the incessant chatter of a dude she wants to stop talking to, appeased him with a ‘sure’ and tried to move on with her life–you know, like trying to keep the last vestiges of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt intact. The girl was kinda busy. 

Banchetto di Cleopatra, Alessandro Allori 1570-71

But if no follow through from Cleopatra on the book situation was enough to spur the cynical pettiness Cicero was most famous for, it was surely the perceived snub of the Classical equivalent of neglecting to call the next day that killed her in Cicero’s eyes forever. Also perhaps with the intent of rubbing salt in the wound, Cleopatra sent an emissary to Cicero’s home (and without that stupid book) and called upon not Cicero, but his best friend instead–who was a fairly smart and interesting person himself. Cleopatra basically went all Mean Girls ‘and none for Gretchen Wieners, bye!’ on Cicero and made a show of it. This was surely meant to scald Cicero and it got the job done, how dare this insolent foreign queen not recognize the brilliance of the greatest orator in Rome?! Cleopatra was dead to Cicero from then on. Something tells me she didn’t really care.

Gretchen Wieners, the original conspirator

As insurmountable as his hate was for Cleopatra from this point on, Cicero didn’t have the gumption to talk any shit about her until she had already left Rome. Like any gossipy bitch, he waited until her back was turned before the vitriol was poured. It also must be noted that this is when most people would be eager to hear it, as the Queen found herself fleeing home to Alexandria after a bunch of Caesar’s friends got together for a good ol’ stabbing and left her baby daddy bleeding to death in Pompey’s Theater. She was probably never going to come back after that, either.

“The arrogance of the Queen herself when she was living on the estate across the Tiber makes my blood boil to recall.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 121

With the death of Caesar, the frenzied revenge of rioting and murder led by Mark Antony, and the general mystery around Cleopatra’s purpose in Rome altogether–she was still the talk of the town, even while back home in Alexandria. This could also largely be due in part to the fact that Cleopatra was visibly pregnant when she left. If Caesarian being the son of Julius Caesar secured any legitimacy of a claim, Cleopatra giving birth to a child that had been conceived in Rome was surely to be an even bigger problem in what was soon to erupt into a civil war over the rightful heir to Caesar’s power. It would seem a lot of people were worried about the potential for a new son to be born. Unfortunately, poor Cleopatra seemed to have experienced a miscarriage which prompted Cicero to remark in a letter to his friend Atticus: “I hope it’s true about the Queen and that Caesar of hers” about the possibility of her loss. What a dick. 

I suppose parting as enemies, there was never much hope for reconciliation. Cleopatra was back to square one politically and had to forge a new pathway and position, which happened to be one practiced repeatedly, hey-o, with Mark Antony. And Cicero continued to rail against the dissolution of the Roman Republic crumbling around him–making his opinions known far and wide despite whoever he angered. So it should come as little surprise that Cicero ended up a named enemy of the Second Triumvirate by Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus and a retinue of killers were dispatched to Cicero’s place of residence to shut him up forever. [2]

Fulvia y Marco Antonio, o La venganza de Fulvia, Francisco Maura y Montaner 1888

But for those who know their history, Cleopatra’s fate wasn’t about to fare much better. So I guess losers do go to parties after all.

  1. Modern estimates have Cleopatra remembered as the 22nd richest person in history with a net worth of $95.8 billion (putting her just behind Jeff Bezos today). This is, of course, impossible to calculate with complete accuracy.
  1. As the story goes, after his death, Cicero’s head was given to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia who was said to have pulled out his tongue and repeatedly stabbed it with a hairpin as the last act of revenge against his critical speeches.  

Fact Check it, yo!

  • Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print.
  • Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Reinhold, M. (1981). The Declaration of War against Cleopatra. The Classical Journal, 77(2), 97-103. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3296915
  • Jones, P. J. (2006). Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

The World in the 4th Century BC

The beginning is the most important part of the work – Plato, The Republic [1]

How do you sum up over 4,000 years of recorded human history in one short blog post? The answer is, you can’t.

If you think about it this way, you and I are a mere 2,375 years removed from the moment in time when Alexander drew his first breath. For people living in the 4th century BC, they were even more further removed from the past than that. Someone from that time period might be looking at the Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 c. BC, as old crumbling relics of history no different than a local Roman might view The Colosseum today. It’s just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. The history of the world by the time of the Iron Age was vast, complex, and in some cases, already lost. The game board in which history had played out over centuries had already seen its share of blood and decay–but perhaps what we can do is look at the score card of the pieces already positioned, the ones primed for Alexander’s taking. Most of these players should already be well known to you.

Let’s start first with the world of the Greeks, of which Alexander’s home, Macedonia, is a part of. But perhaps not without some contention, which we’ll get into.

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse (1859)

Most of the famous history of Ancient Greece had already come to pass. The legends of famous warriors and the tales of the Trojan War are of a time long ago. A hundred years prior, the Greek city states found themselves facing invasion from the Persians led by Darius the Great and then followed by Xerxes I. Many well-known stories came from these events. Athenians and their allies defended Greece in the Battle of Marathon in the first invasion. Spartan King Leonidas I and his army died failing to defend Thermopylae in the second. The wars eventually culminated in a resounding strategic victory for the Greek city-states lead by Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis and then the decimation of the Persian army in Platae by the Greek allied forces. During these wars, Macedon was a vassal kingdom of Persia, having pledged allegiance early on in Darius’ invasions when a general commiserated with the then king of Macedon Amyntas I. Prior to the invasions, according to Herodotus, there was already some sense of xenophobia when it came to recognizing the Macedonians as Greek–one of their athletes was unable to participate in the Olympic Games for this very reason. It wasn’t until the lineage of the Macedonian Kings was traced back to Argos, and thus the demi-god Heracles, were they accepted as one of their own and the athlete could compete in the Olympics. [2] Following Persia’s defeat in the Greco-Persian wars, however, Macedon became an independent kingdom once more.

Prior to the Persians being expelled from Greece, the Delian League had been established by Athens which formed an alliance between city-states in opposition to Persia and their continued incursions on Greek territory. This ended up giving Athens a considerable amount of power when they started collecting tributes and using the funds for their own purposes which prompted outcry from their rival Sparta. Soon the Greek world fell back into war but this time they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta sought assistance from the Persians, bringing them back into the foray. Though some parts of Macedonia were tributaries to the Delian League, the kingdom of Macedon ultimately sided with Sparta and waged war against Athens. After 27 years–a plague in Athens that killed Pericles and a disastrously embarrassing defeat in Sicily by Alcibiades–the war was officially over in 404 BC with the Spartans emerging victorious. [3]

File:Plague in an Ancient City LACMA AC1997.10.1 (1 of 2).jpg

Plague in Athens, Michiel Sweerts (c.1652-c.1654)

The Spartans, however, ruled with an iron and tyrannical fist. Their control was short lived when the Corinthian War broke out in 395 BC and those meddling Persians once again gave their assistance–this time to Athens and its allies. The Spartans were finally crushed by the end of 362 BC during the Theban-Spartan war. Again, the tides of power had shifted to another and the city-state of Thebes became top dog in Greece. [4] Constant years of war and destruction, shifts of hegemony, and broken alliances left the Greek world a smoldering landscape ripe for the taking. The slumbering lion of Macedon was about to emerge with Phillip II leading its charge…

You might be wondering about another spunky, imperial up-start lying in wait across the Ionian Sea. The Romans at this time were still playing as a Republic and were busy conquering their neighbors and expanding their military power. They had yet to even see the start of the famous Punic Wars, beginning in 264 BC, which pitted them against Hannibal and his Alps conquering elephants. That reminds me though, Carthage must be destroyed. [5]

Taking a journey now to the Anatolian peninsula (or modern day Turkey), we quickly see the far reach of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Greeks weren’t the only people these conquerors had been antagonizing–by this time in the mid-4th century BC, the Persian Empire had taken control over the entirety of Western Asia. This included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula (though Egypt having recently rebelled, became temporarily free from Persia’s grasp), the Caucasus, and, of course, the Iranian Plateau. Many Kingdoms and Empires had fallen to the Persians–from the Medians (who toppled the Assyrians), to the Phrygians, and the Babylonians. The Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever yet seen and set the stage for other expansive empires like the eventual Roman one centuries later. In fact, what many credit as successes for the Roman Empire at the height of its power, were modeled after the Achaemenid Empire’s practices. With many different cultural backgrounds and religious faiths in its borders, the empire incorporated all of them with the freedom to continue practicing but unified under an official language with an intertwining system of road ways and an ancient postal service. It became the template for a successful massive empire and by this time, despite any losses in war or recent rebellions, was still incredibly strong and centralized. Prior to the birth of Alexander, the current king of the Achaemenid Empire was Artaxerxes II–who was involved with a number of the conflicts with the Greeks noted above, in particular, the Theban-Spartan war in which he ultimately sided with Thebes. [6]

Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus the Great, Mattia Preti (1680’s) This legendary founder of the Achaemenid Empire is said to have met his end to the equally legendary Scythian queen Tomyris.

Moving past the borders of the Achaemenid Empire lay powers unfamiliar to some in the western world. The Indus valley had already seen thousands of years worth of human history, Siddhartha Buddha had already walked the earth, and, hell, they were so advanced at this time, they had already invented plastic surgery centuries earlier. [7] In this region, there were 16 kingdoms and republics that were known as the Mahājanapadas and the Vedic orthodoxy was falling out of fashion with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. But there wasn’t exactly a sense of unity between them, as the kingdoms frequently warred with each other for dominance. One of these kingdoms, the Magadha, were perhaps the most imperial out of the bunch, conquering swaths of territory and forming a dynastic rule. It was within this kingdom that Siddhartha Buddha was said to have lived and gained enlightenment. The Magadha were a fiercely devout people with a penchant for using early examples of tanks in the form of mace-wielding chariots to get their way and, as usual, marked the end of a dynasty with a bloody affair. For our purposes now, we see the Shaishunaga Dynasty at the seat of power having emerged victorious among the Magadha with King Mahanandin as their leader. [8] However, a certain bastard son named Mahapadma Nanda was ready to make his violent claim…

If we look a bit further, the Chinese were too busy partaking in the epic Warring States period to pay too much attention to the potential of a dashing Macedonian conquering around next door..

With the stage set and the match lit, what is about to befall all of this territory and history other than something spectacular and shocking? A Macedonian King will soon sweep across the land like a raging fire but, first, we start with his maker.

For a man is nothing without his father.

On to Part 2

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Plato, The Republic. Book I. 377-B [x]

[2] Herodotus, The Histories. Book 5. 22

[3] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

[4] Xenophan, Hellenica Book 7, ch. 5 [x]

[5] Beard, M. (2016). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

[6] Axworthy, M. (2016). A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind.

[7] Sushruta Samhita, Book 1, Ch. 9 [x]

[8] Singh, Upinder. (2008) A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century [x]

What’s so Great about Alexander?

 

Alexander the Great fighting Darius III mosaic found in the ruins of Pompeii, House of the Faun (100 BC)

 

Imagine that everyone knows your name.

It doesn’t feel that intimidating, right? If you’re sitting in a bar called Cheers or you are perhaps from a small town, everyone knowing your name isn’t that unusual or profound. But now try to think about what it might be like for the whole world to know your name. Suddenly, we can envision the weight a name like Queen Elizabeth II or Brad Pitt carries, but now try to consider an entire world collectively remembering one for more than a few decades. Not just the names of a handful of villains in the past century with weird facial hair, or a line of presidents or monarchs centuries before. This name has been permeating in the collective memory of the planet’s inhabitants for thousands of years. Think beyond religious figures, before emperors. Keep going back further, this is a name that has never been forgotten. The world has hoisted this name on its shoulders since it was first spoken, it is perhaps the most famous one ever given. All of us have heard it.

Maybe now we can imagine a little bit of what it might be like to leave behind a legacy like Alexander the Great.

“…after reading some part of the history of Alexander, he sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?‘” – Plutarch describing Julius Caesar learning about Alexander the Great. [1]

There is perhaps no figure in history that has left a mark quite like Alexander did. The scar of his exploits some 2,000+ years ago can still be found today. Visible in Greece and Egypt, stretching through the Middle East, and reaching its tendril as far as India. As if a god had stabbed a dagger into the Earth and tore it across the world.

Alexander was not the first great warrior in history. The likes of Narmer, Leonidas, and Sun Tzu all having fought their way on the planet before him. He was also not the first to forge an empire, many like the Zhou Dynasty or the Achaemenid Empire were already dying of old age by the time Alexander was born. He was also not the first conqueror or the first man to be named ‘the Great’, even Cyrus who lived hundreds of years before could not claim this honor for himself either. Alexander cannot even be called the first to be immortalized into legend, kings like Gilgamesh or Achilles living on in fable long before.

So, then, what exactly makes Alexander so Great?

That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this series. Who was Alexander and why is he perhaps the most famous figure in world history? Are his achievements worthy of our admiration, does he deserve the pedestal centuries worth of other successors have bestowed on him? Is his legacy mourned as a tragic figure having died so young like the ancient world’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, or Kurt Cobain? Is there truth at all to the much derided theory that Great Men shape human history?

To find these answers, we should start from the beginning…

Stay tuned for Part 1, where we’ll look at the state of the world in the 4th century BC, the Kingdom of Macedon in context, and life before Alexander became king.

La Voisin and the Affair of the Poisons

© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY, photo by Jean-Marc Manaï

What a beautiful palace you have, would be a shame if there were witches

Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–then maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.

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Pissing off the Romans: Vespasian’s Urine Tax

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You can’t spell Vespasian without ‘P’

It’s that time of year, folks. Some of us dread tax season, while others have already excitedly processed our W-2 forms and gotten our refund checks already snugly cushioned in our savings account where they will soon be pilfered and turned into euros for next month (Rome and Athens here I come!). No matter how you feel about it, what all of us likely have in common is combing through any possible tax refunds available–and sometimes we stumble across some truly confounding tax laws in the process. Around the world, you can find a “Fat Tax” on junk food or a “Cow Flatulence Tax” on…well. But one of my favorite ones, of course, brings us back to a time when things were so much more delightfully weird thanks to the ever bizarre behaviors of the people living in the Roman Empire.

When they weren’t busy guzzling putrid fish sauce, the practice of collecting pee from urinals in Rome was so popular that some Roman Emperors saw a golden opportunity to cash in. Among them was Vespasian who ruled the empire in the 1st century AD and would otherwise be most famous for starting the construction of The Colosseum, but will now forever be immortalized instead as the guy who taxed the piss out of Rome. [1]

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Shootin’ the shit at Roman latrines. Oh come on, this joke is solid!

The Urine Tax (Vectigal urinae) specifically targeted public collection of urine that was done in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima or great sewer system. The Cloaca Maxima was one of the earliest examples of a sewage system built in the world proving that the Romans certainly knew how to ‘keep their shit together’, which perhaps is a credit to how long the Roman Empire managed to last for as many centuries as it did. These collectors or cleaners would take what urine was left behind in public latrines (the how is a process I’m less inclined to know for the sake of my own innocence) and would sell it to a buyer which is where the taxation came into play. The individual looking to purchase the urine for who knows what purpose is the one who would be charged the additional tax. You’re probably asking yourself, why in the great stabbed Caesar would anyone need a batch of random pee? Well, you’re in for a treat, I guess.

Turns out the use of urine was an industry in and of itself back then and urine was quite the lofty ingredient for all kinds of chemical processes. Urine was primarily included in the uses of tanning, wool production, or even as a whitening product (seems counter-intuitive, I know) with the ammonia helping clean togas. [2] Even more extensive were its supposed medical uses…

 

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Sigh, this beer tastes like piss doesn’t it?

According to Pliny the Elder, essentially the father of encyclopedias and good friend of Emperor Vespasian, urine could be used to cure all sorts of ailments like sores, gout, dog bites, skin irritations, burns, rectum diseases, chaps on the body, head ulcers and scalp diseases, and whatever else could likely be submerged in the yellow elixir. [3] Before we completely write off the old crazy man and thank Mount Vesuvius for taking him and his pee-cures off this planet forever, every single one of us has heard that if you’re stung by a jellyfish the best way to deal with the pain is let it all out on the sting spot like a Coldplay song (It was all yellllowwww) despite doctors telling us not to do this–so apparently urine’s reputation as a cure-all has persisted through history with or without Pliny’s personal contribution. Hey, it’s still better than what the Ancient Egyptians used for contraception.

The loathsome character of a few, such as dung and urine, may originally have been due…to the conviction that life-essence was in them in a concentrated form. …it is just possible that the use in medicine was partly due to the obvious value of manure as a fertilizer. –H.S. Jones, Ancient Roman Folk Medicine [4]

So why is Emperor Vespasian so strongly associated with this Urine Tax since it seems not unusual to a people that see nothing wrong with slathering pee all over their heads, especially since it was unsurprisingly the madman Nero who started the tax in the first place? That would be thanks to a common phrase that goes, “Money Does Not Stink” which is attributed to Vespasian and can still be found referenced in popular works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example. According to Suetonius, as the story goes, Vespasian’s son and future Roman Emperor Titus lamented to his father on how disgusting it was to consider a taxation on waste from public toilets. Vespasian’s response was to hold a coin under his son’s nose and ask if the smell of it offends him as well. Titus admitted that it did not, to which Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine.” Born then was the Latin Pecunia non olet or “money does not stink” which essentially means to say, despite where it came from or how it was accumulated, wealth retains its value. [1]

Thanks to Emperor Vespasian’s continued efforts toward the taxation of urine from Roman latrines, his name is still used today to denote public urinals which can still be found all over Italy (Bagni Vespasiani!) and France. I suppose his son Titus got the last laugh in this regard–perhaps if Vespasian had listened to Titus, his eternal legacy would have been his name on all built amphitheaters instead.

 

Fact Check It, Yo!

[1] Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum–Divus Vespasianus, c. 110 C.E., P. XXIII, Translated by J.C. Rolfe, The Loeb Classical Library, Obtained via Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/suetonius-vespasian.asp

[2] Witty, M. (2016), ANCIENT ROMAN URINE CHEMISTRY. Acta Archaeologica, 87: 179-191. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0390.2016.12170.x

[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History; 28.19, chap. 18 – Remedies Derived from the Urine: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=PerseusLatinTexts&getid=1&query=Plin.%20Nat.%2028.18

[4] Ancient Roman Folk Medicine Author(s): W. H. S. JONES Source: Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October, 1957), pp. 459-472 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24619369

Tutankhamun the Boy King and My First History Crush

When I was 8-years old and most girls were decorating their bedroom walls with posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, I was busy ogling thick textbooks filled with images of sinewy, mostly-shirtless pharaohs. This childhood interest of mine was not at all helped by the release of the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt that same year which was similarly filled with plenty of cartoon biceps. And as a little girl, it made sense to me that I should aspire to be Evelyn O’Connell in The Mummy (1999) and nab myself a sort of walking Curse Bae with regenerating abs who wants to make-out a little and maybe sacrifice you in some kind of ancient ritual or whatever. I’m not sure why Evie didn’t go for that, personally.

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Deliver us from your thirst trap, Ramses

So when I learned in school about the existence of an Egyptian pharaoh that was my age, I totally thought I had some kind of chance here–despite the fact he’d been dead for 3,000 years or so. But what’s a minor inconvenience in love, right? King Tut was my boy king! Unfortunately, my Catholic school girl self was in for a rude awakening on just how hot this dream barge probably was. Hold on to your chariots, folks!

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Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

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Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904

The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.

But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.

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Histastrophe’s barometer of historical accuracy as determined by an ego-maniacal Hercules impersonator.

If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!

According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down. [1] We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:

“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria [2]

We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.” [3] Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.

“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. [1]

Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. [1]

“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius [4]

With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. [1]

So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?

Medaillon de Cavillargues –  The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. [1]

Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!

“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne [4]

Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.

How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?

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Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.

[2] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html

[3] Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt

[4] Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

The Roman Vomitorium – A Regurgitating Myth

Colosseum

The Colosseum should just be renamed ‘The Vomitorium’ so people finally get it.

Nothing makes me want to hurl more than oft repeated historical misunderstandings. ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ is a saying that forces me to eat copious amounts of cake to feel sane, hearing “Napoleon Bonaparte was really short” and I can be seen adding glasses of wine to the mix, and listening to another geographical wizard exclaim that “Cleopatra was Egyptian” and now I’m trying to find the nearest room to chuck it all up in–which if I were living in the Roman Empire would be convenient, right? Except they didn’t actually have a room for this as is popularly believed.

An illustration found in The Washington Post before Google existed.

‘Vomitorium’ sounds like one of those words one could easily decipher. It’s Latin and clearly using the root word for ‘vomit’ and ‘orium’–so a functional place to vomit. The mind puzzles over what exactly a ‘vomit place’ could be and knowing the extravagant splendor of Roman indulgences of the elite class–wouldn’t it make sense that in between all of those supposed orgies, Emperor assassinations, and dishes slathered with garum sauce, the Romans would require a room in which to purge their feast-ly contents just so they could go back to eating and partying anew?

Sure, if there was any evidence of it.

Unfortunately, the reality of what a ‘vomitorium’ actually is amounts to a much more mundane truth. The term does derive from the same root of the word vomit, in this case “to spew forth” which is exactly what the function of a vomitorium serves as, just not in keeping a toga party raging until dawn. In Roman amphitheatres and stadiums, it became necessary to create a passage way in which a large crowd of people could leave as quickly and efficiently as possible–exactly like the contents of a stomach after consuming those questionably cooked fish tacos from last night. When you’re a civilization of bread and circuses, evacuating a stadium like projectile pea soup ala The Exorcist certainly becomes a high priority in architectural ingenuity. [1]

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Don’t even think about puking in me, culus

So where did this retched misconception come from other than a misunderstanding of architectural terminology and why did it continue to be hurled around as a ‘fun fact’ of Roman history? First, let’s start with the primary sources.

…but all naked and panting as they are, the instant they leave the bath they seize hold of large vessels filled with wine, to show of, as it were, their mighty powers, and so gulp down the whole of the contents only to vomit them up again the very next moment. This they will repeat, too, a second and even a third time, just as though they had only been begotten for the purpose of wasting wine, and as if that liquor could not be thrown away without having first passed through the human body. – Pliny the Elder on ‘Drunkenness’, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES. [2]

The usage of the word ‘vomitorium’ doesn’t appear until the 5th century AD when it is used by the Roman writer Macrobius in his work The Saturnalia to describe these passageways in stadiums as being designed to ‘disgorge’ an audience from the venue. Seems as if the word itself should have been able to survive into modern times intact with its original meaning then, but instead it was muddled with other accounts and hurled together into the misconception it is today. [3] We can look at the works of Seneca the Younger, a lucrative philosopher of Stoicism (A philosophy also noted for it’s teachings in discipline and freedom of passions), in which he lambasted the indulgence of certain Roman’s in a letter to his mother Helvia where he metaphorically implied that “They vomit so they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” which seems to have been taken as a literal source of evidence by later centuries of writers who believed this to prove the need of a purge room like the infamous ‘vomitorium’. [1]

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Yo, Dickus Manickus–you gonna eat that?

This misunderstanding is not helped either by satirical works such as the Satyricon which scholars believe was written by Petronius, a courtier of Nero, in the 1st c. AD. Yeah, that guy of reputable shenanigans. Petronius describes a dinner celebration in which the patrons were not only busy fornicating in an orgy but also throwing up the contents of their feast. Even if this were a work of non-fiction, and one that would have been applied to a particularly abominable Emperor, he does not mention a specific room where these events would have supposedly taken place. Other writers such as Cassius Dio, Cicero, and Suetonius mention specific stories in which vomiting after excess had taken place (Julius Caesar was said to partake in purging antics) but, again, no mention of a puke room specifically. [1]

Sure, there is also Aulus Cornelius Celsus who recommends vomiting as a medicinal treatment where he suggests that “…after a dinner of many courses and many drinks of diluted wine a vomit is even advantageous” but continuing to clarify “When anything in the dinner is felt to disagree, he should provoke a vomit, repeating it the next day“. So this is not necessarily meant to suggest that one should be purging the contents of their dinner just so they could resume ingesting as much as they desire immediately after. Also, not to mention, Celsus is a practitioner of the imbalances of humors and prescribes vomiting to ease in the plethoric and bilious. And even then, he specifically states -“I allow that vomiting should not be practiced for the sake of luxury…no one who wants to keep well, and live to old age, should make it a daily habit.” So this supposed practice of binging and purging wasn’t exactly one that was encouraged either. [4]

Yet, despite ‘vomitorium’ clearly being used to describe architecture in its first usage and the lack of a ‘purge room’ being mentioned in sources detailing acts of vomiting among Romans, we get to the 20th century where Aldous Huxley publishes his novel Antic Hay in 1923 which serves as a comical narrative lampooning the lifestyle of exorbitance among the London elite.

“The door of his sacred boudoir was thrown rudely open, and there strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter…”  Ch. 18 [5]

It’s here that Huxley calls back to the Satyrion as mentioned earlier and applies the term ‘vomitorium’ incorrectly to the salacious acts of binging and purging described by Petronius. From here the association of a room in where Romans would purge their food and resume their feasts enters into the pop culture lexicon and Aldous Huxley is credited with creating a brave new world of alt-historical realities. [6] Almost one hundred years later and people are still regurgitating the same misconception–an idea further perpetuated by any clever writer who thinks the concept of a ‘vomitorium’ a sick one to include in their works or just passed around by people who heard it secondhand.

Clearly, the misuse of ‘vomitorium’ is about as contagious as the stomach flu. Let’s do us all a favor and keep the myth down so we don’t all get sick with a case of ‘being wrong’, yeah?

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Partying it up Bacchus style

Fact check it, yo!

[1Alice P. RADIN Fictitious Facts: The Case of the Vomitorium: 

https://web.archive.org/web/20030320192257/http://www.apaclassics.org/AnnualMeeting/03mtg/abstracts/radin.html

[2] Pliny the Elder, BOOK XIV. THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE FRUIT TREES, Ch. 28: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:phi,0978,001:14

[3]  Macrobius, The Saturnalia: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Macrobius/Saturnalia/home.html

[4] Celsus, On Medicine, Book III: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Celsus/3*.html

[5] Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay, Ch. 18: https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/huxleya-antichay/huxleya-antichay-00-h.html

 

 

 

 

Volstead’s Emporium: A Hidden Speakeasy in Uptown, MN

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Plan your visit (and reservation requests) accordingly!

The given address goes to a Steampunk cafe specializing in games and coffee–another novelty era ripe for nostalgic yearning but not the one we were looking for. Where the hell is this place? The first time I had visited Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, Minnesota I was accompanied by a friend who was already privy to the location. Half the appeal of a secret speakeasy hidden away in a niche part of town already known for it’s fanciful coffee-shops, coin operated video game arcade clubs, and ‘hot yoga’–is that it’s a destination prided on the fact that you kind of already need to know where you’re going. Like being a member of an Eyes Wide Shut sexy, Eleusinian Mysteries kind of cult meeting or a pirate marauding around the Caribbean looking for the Isla De Muerta–an island that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Being ‘in the know’ about Volstead’s Emporium adds a lot to its notoriety. Going to their website offers no assistance–there is no address, no online menu, no pictures or an extensive proselytizing ‘About’ page. It’s tough to know this place even exists, or what it is, unless you become one of the initiated via word of mouth.

We were driving around Uptown one evening where, during a traffic stop, I recognized the location we were at–and that down that seedy, familiar-looking alleyway nestled behind the Steampunk cafe was the secret speakeasy I had wanted to take my boyfriend to for ages. It felt like a re-discovery and I hastily tried to remember where it was for next time, when we would plan our visit and get to transport ourselves to a faux, 1920’s era den of libations.

~

For those who need a quick History lesson to refresh–the Temperance movement in the United States won a political victory from 1920-1933 when the entire country went “dry”. Meaning, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was banned. To enforce this draconian rule, the government passed the Volstead Act (Where our friendly Emporium likely took its name from) which went a step further in defining the intoxicating substances that were banned and the punishments that came with breaking these laws. The rise of bootlegging, gangsters, and speakeasies–secret law-breaking establishments selling banned booze–became a direct consequence and the 1920’s is forever remembered with these associations. 

~

Unfortunately, memory is only as good as it is served. Turns out, when the summer construction is hazardous and the Happy Hour besought motorists are honking more persistently than a skein of geese, it can be a bit frustrating to try and remember a scattering of location markers after finally getting lucky finding a parking spot. Had I known that the large, neon gleaming sign for beer and bratwurst king New Bohemia resided across the street from our desired crime scene alleyway, our journey on empty stomachs might have been easier to bear. Once found, walking down said alleyway gives off an appropriate air of sleaziness, and as sweltering as the heat often gets in the summer, I was just thankful it wasn’t garbage from the line of dumpsters that marked our path. Hanging a left midway, there’s a smattering of apartment balconies claustrophobic-ly clustered together and in the small back of the building obstructed by vents, there resides a large bolted metal door with a creepy red serial killer light hanging above it. A most welcoming destination, if I ever saw one.

 “It’s all you, babe.”

I took this initiative with the fervent composure of a Flapper girl, who had likely already spent most of the evening dancing the Charleston to extinction, and rapped the door with my knuckles like I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. The slot in the door opens and a pair of eyes greets you–“Yes?”

“We have a reservation for two!”

“Name?”

The door is unbolted and we entered into a stairwell devoid of any identifying features aside from the bookie wearing a surprisingly dapper get-up. “Enjoy” is all he says as he goes back to manning the door. It’s up to us to take ourselves down the stairs and to the basement where we stand momentarily confused, there are at least three doors to choose from–not one of them marked with a sparkling Go Here to Drink sign to help us out. We could just make out the muffled sound of chatter and glass clinking enough to try Door Number 1–which ended up leading us into a time machine.

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Managed to capture before the place got packed!

An oft overlooked aspect of any dining experience is the ability to transport a patron. This can happen with really good food–it’s much easier to feel like you’re on the coast of Sorrento enjoying a bowl of pasta in a white wine sauce when the spaghetti is al dente and the clams are cooked to perfection and you’re even given a shot of limoncello to chase it all down with. But atmosphere is just as important too and at Volstead’s–you do feel like you just stepped into a 1920’s speakasy which would make even the most classy of bathtub gin stirrers proud.

There are no windows and the establishment is dimly lit, there’s a piano and a jazz player in the back corner strumming soft melodies with the tempered line of the bartender shaking drinks. People are laughing uproariously all around, likely amplified by the low ceiling and general jovialness that comes with a really well mixed cocktail. It’s welcoming–and cuts the tension had while trying to find the place to begin with.

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The Old Fashioneds here are one of my favorites in the state: Bourbon, applewood smoked demerara, and house blend bitters.

We were seated at a booth across from the parlor tables, draped with curtains we could easily pull for more privacy. It felt like we were only missing poker chips and the acrid smoke of cigars hanging in the air to set the mood into one in need of a police raid. For another brief moment, I felt like a femme fatale who was clandestinely meeting with a surly detective across from me, who was cloaked in a make-believe fedora and interrogating me on my whereabouts the night Tommy the Gun was murdered–all under the veneer of a heavy sepia filter. Or that was just the Old Fashioneds talking.

Volstead’s is a novelty experience, a way to feel like you’re in a piece of history for the night–surrounded by good drinks and food to boot. There’s a library room where you could sit and partake in a re-imagined game of Clue wearing monocles and dinner jackets, a large dial safe loitering under the stairs where surely the funds of nefarious mobster money ventures is well hidden, and there is even a telephone booth in the back by the restrooms for even the most ardent Doctor Who fan to enjoy. Voldstead’s is straight up cool so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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The scene of the crime, where Mrs. Peacock allegedly bludgeoned Colonel Mustard with a copy of Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

No one warned us about the framed mirror on the wall of our booth, that it would swing open and the waiter would grin as we jumped in surprise, serving as a portal in which to take our food and drink orders. I think the waitstaff probably finds most of their amusement in this gimmick–and it’s certainly a fun experience to team up with your waiter on. There is a buzzer under the mirror when you’re ready to order and there was at least one more incident where the frame creaked open like a horror movie prop with no waiter to be found, only for him to pop up into view a second later and ask what we’d like–to more jump scares from us. It’s hilarious.

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Bwaaaahm

Now all of this is fine and dandy, right? But the main attraction of any dining establishment is the food. And oh boy, does it not disappoint. The first time I went to Voldstead’s, I chose a guilt-free zucchini carbonara with added shrimp that was surprisingly complex and topped off the evening with warm, gooey bread pudding. This time, I went with the usual favorites my boy detective and I usually partake in at other restaurants–the first test for us being the charcuterie plate. I finally learned how to properly pronounce “charcuterie” when I embarrassingly ordered it incorrectly and my windowed waiter set me straight–not sure whether he was smirking at my inability to speak French or because I was recovering from another fun jump scare. Not to be a gerkin (no old fashioneds were consumed in the making of this dad joke), but I’m pretty easy to satisfy when it comes to charcuterie plates–the server had me at spicy salami, spec, and capicola. I was so excited I didn’t even pay attention to what the cheeses were.

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Mmmm, gerkins

Next, I ordered the most basic sounding ‘Steak & Potatoes’ which was anything but and I got it cooked a beautiful, medium-rare despite ordering it just medium, but hey–they were just looking out for me and my philistine steak preparation ordering ways. This is one of the better steaks I’ve eaten and I didn’t need to drop a $500 tab at Manny’s to enjoy it–this gorgeous hunk of meat is up there with the bavette I had at 112 Eatery and the steak I had at a (now closed) restaurant outside of New York City I had visited in high school that was apparently one of Elvis’ favorites.

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8oz Bavette, herb potatoes and grilled asparagus with peppercorn cognac sauce. #NeverForget

Though any sane person would be full at this point and I was working on my second cocktail (Like Clockwork–Cognac, Bourbon, Dolin dry, Amaro Nonino, Orange Bitters, Expressed Orange–definitely got me all good and “bezoomny”!), a place can’t be sufficiently done and tried until you order a dessert and a regular, black coffee. Now, it should shock no one to know that I can be a bit of a pedant about certain things–and coffee is one of those things. I’ve worked in and out of the coffee industry for the better part of 8 years as a barista and on the corporate level slinging office work. It’s not particularly hard to find quality, well-sourced beans and it is even easier to brew them right. A restaurant can tell me a lot about how much they care about every aspect of their commitment to quality and food by how good their regular brewed coffee tastes. I’ve been disappointed in establishments that otherwise provide good meals but then serve up bitter, black water mudd that tastes like it had been sitting for more than 2 hours in back. I move from disappointed to irritated when this crime is committed by an authentically-declared French or Italian restaurant where ending your meal with a good coffee is tantamount to the cultural experience. One sip from Volstead’s chosen brew and I knew this place really was every bit as great as I knew it to be.

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Tiramisu because I’m ‘basic Italian’

The tiramisu I ordered for dessert wasn’t bad either–and as your resident swarthy Italian-American, I’ve had plenty of tiramisu in my day. The only thing about it I found particular to note, was how the lady fingers weren’t soggy and absolutely drowning in booze and/or coffee. Unlike me this evening, of course.

So, dear reader, consider yourself well and in the know about Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, MN. I’ve now passed on the secret to you–and if you’re in the area or visiting the Twin Cities, I hope that you take a moment to stumble around W. Lake St. attempting to find it. But shhhhh–don’t tell your dinner companion(s) about the mirror window.

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