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

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

 

 

 

 

Roma Day 1: Espresso, per favore?!

I have a tendency to weep over beautiful things. If I happen to witness a tender moment between two people who love each other–be it family or partners–I’ll get choked up. The same thing happens to me when that Warner Brother’s logo zooms in among fog and John William’s Hedwig theme starts playing. Crying over things that deserve our appreciation is nothing new to me it would seem, so it should have come at no surprise to anyone that I began tearing up the moment our plane from JFK finally touched down in Rome. Or that when I first got to stand in the open air outside, a beautifully sunny 65+ degrees with the smell of Spring in the air, I wanted to hold my mother and cry tears of joy. And, of course, the moment our taxi driver took us through and under the first walls of Rome my eyes started brimming–because I knew I was back again.

Everything here is Art

Two years ago, I barely got to see Rome and it broke my heart ever since. I remedied a similar circumstance with Paris just this last year with my mother in tow and wanted to do the same this time around as well. My father overheard our plans to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice, however, and decided that he wanted to be apart of it as well–to see the things of the Roman Empire and to stand at the Colosseum where gladiators once stood. I’ve been versed in the history of Rome since I was a child thanks to my father’s general interest while growing up, so a part of me thought it only right that he should get to see these things with me too.

Our hotel in Rome is pretty darn swanky

First things first, after finding our way to our hotel courtesy of our lovely taxi driver Luca (my mother made sure to loudly proclaim how cute she thought he was. Don’t worry, we’re sending her to Francis on Friday to atone for her brazenness), we decided to check out a restaurant he recommended to us as having the best pasta in all of Rome–Brazilai Bistrot. Now, we were running on precisely two hours of sleep and had been awake for more than 24+ hours at this point so we were also determined to cram in as much as we could along the way to help stay awake. Before we got ourselves all full and fed, we took a quick stop to say hello to my old friend the Trevi Fountain. I tossed a coin in last time I was in Rome, so I wanted to make sure to let it know that I held up my end of the bargaining fortune.

Afterwards, we started the long walk to our food coma destination. Since our hotel is located in such a prime location here in Rome, I thought we should try to walk everywhere as much as we could. I’m an idiot though and I resented myself pretty quickly into the walk when I was reminded of how exhausted I was from traveling, but we trekked on somehow. Stumbling into the restaurant after a good half hour of shuffling our way around cobbled streets and trying not to pass out, we took a seat and were immediately recognized for the tourists we are! I was determined to practice the Italian I’ve been learning these past few months though and asked if I could try in Italian when our server spoke to us in English. We proceeded to have the rest of our ordering conversation in Italian, so I hope I made my favorite Roman and teacher Ileana proud!

Amatriciana sauce in Rome!

Good and wined, it was hard to miss the lure of the Colosseum poking out and waving at us from down the street after existing our restaurant, so we decided to go pay the Flavian Amphitheater a visit too. We learned from our family in Italy that this whole week is Cultural Week–which means every museum is free except The Vatican. We figured the Colosseum would be insanely busy, especially considering the timing when we decided to stroll up (2 hours before close? Nah maaaan). But even though we weren’t intending on going in for a tour today, we ended up running into a guide who was able to help us skip the line (which was disgustingly long and stuck at over capacity). We figured we had all that pasta to walk off anyway so we went along with his group and decided to do the Colosseum, despite how sleep deprived we were feeling.

I ended up not taking many pictures inside because it was so busy in there with people and I was too distracted listening to our tour guide, but a lot of it was under renovation anyway (which is awesome!). I’ll have to do a proper write-up of the Colosseum some day, but suffice it to say–I thought our guide did a fantastic job bad mouthing the inaccuracies of the movie Gladiator. And I wasn’t about to pick a fight with him when he said the Roman Empire collapsed with the sacking of Rome (though the Eastern half was just fine with Constantinople kicking, k thanks) All in all, it was a good nerdy time.

Lastly, I stuffed my face with pizza and more wine which helped a little bit but now I really need to sleep for like 10 hours so I’ll let you all know how tomorrow goes!

On the Agenda: Lots of Gelato!

A domani!

All Roads Lead to Rome

 

The Appian Way, Rome’s ancient super highway

I’ve wanted to visit The Eternal City since I was old enough to think–when my days were filled with old Hollywood sandal-flicks and my first books consisted of illustrated Biblical scenes with bad guys wearing plume-y galea helmets. Growing up Italian-American, there is a sense of worship-fullness when it comes to Rome–it was the seat of the Roman Empire for centuries and, in generalized terms, my motherland. Rome was where the idea of an Italian was truly born (Quite literally with the Congress of Vienna and in 1871, Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy) and it’s history my own. I wanted to be Roman and feel the experience of thousands of years of living in one place in time all around me. In 2016, due to a sudden change in travel plans, I had only enough time in Rome to stand and marvel in front of The Coliseum and to take a quick walk to the Trevi Fountain before hopping into our rental car and cruising to the airport to fly back home. I’m excited to say that I will soon find myself back in less than a week. For, as they say, all roads lead to Rome–including my own.

”Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can image in its full and awful grandeur! We wandered out upon the Appian Way, and then went on, through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls, with here and there a desolate uninhabited house: past the Circus of Romulus, where the course of the chariots, the stations of the judges, competitors, and spectators, are yet as plainly to be seen as in old time: past the tomb of Cecilia Metella: past all inclosure, hedge, or stake, wall or fence: away upon the open Campagna, where on that side of Rome, nothing is to be beheld but Ruin. Except where the distant Apennines bound the view upon the left, the whole wide prospect is one field of ruin. Broken aqueducts, left in the most picturesque and beautiful clusters of arches; broken temples; broken tombs. A desert of decay, somber and desolate beyond all expression; and with a history in every stone that strews the ground.”Charles Dickens [1]

So where does the idea that ‘All Roads Lead to Rome‘ come from, anyway? It’s an idiom that’s been passed down from generation to generation essentially meaning–doesn’t really matter how you do it, everything will arrive to the same conclusion. How inspired was this phrase and is there any truth to it?

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Giovanni Paolo Pannini The Roman Forum (1755)

If we go back far enough, we find the idea appearing in Medieval writings from Chaucer to theologians. Appearing nothing more than a stray observation by French theologian/poet Alain deLille in the 12th century: “Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam” or for those not fluent in dead languages, “A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome.” [2] And, of course, Chaucer being a poet of renown was sure to take inspiration in his work as well to include a mention of the Roman city–

And god wot, that in alle thise langages,

and in many mo, han thise conclusiouns ben suffisantly lerned and

taught, and yit by diverse rewles, right as diverse pathes leden

diverse folk the righte wey to Rome

-Geoffrey Chaucer, Treatise on the Astrolabe [3]

But even here, it seems the idea of roads leading to Rome is similar, in a sense, to my own experience that there is simply a calling to the city–one that many of us–as lovers of History, or food, or vibrant culture, or awe-inspiring art–cannot resist. And even through its long life–from kingdoms to republics, to empires and upheavals, from religious institutions to repeating the order of things all over again in tandem–as history has shown us, there has always been a sense of desire to reclaim the city as one’s own.

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The Milliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone

However, there may be some truth to the phrase as from Cassius Dio [4], Plutarch [5], Seutonius, and Tacitus–we do learn of a column that was commissioned by Augustus Caesar to serve as the convergence point of the Roman Empire. A point where all roads began from and all distances there-in were measured by it, linking the network of the Empire together like a spiderweb. So, in a sense, all roads in the Roman Empire certainly did lead back to Rome.

All roads pointed towards the Imperial City, and started from its Milliarium Aureum. [6]

Either way, I’m pleased to share that my journey once again leads me back to the beating heart of Italy. As with my other travels, I’ll be updating my blog daily with pictures and tidbits so stick around and hit that follow button if you want to keep up with my quick romp through Rome, Florence, and Venice–typically posted at unreasonable hours, of course.

And as the saying goes, I hope that one day, dear reader, your road leads you to Rome as well.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Cosmo, L. (2017). Rome: Poetic Guide to the Love City of Romulus. Lulu Press.

[2] Alain de Lille, Liber parabolarum (c. 1202AD)

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer: A Treatise on the Astrolabe (c. 1391 AD)

[4] “Now all this was done later in commemoration of the event; but at the time of which we are speaking he was chosen commissioner of all the highways in the neighbourhood of Rome, and in this capacity set up the golden mile-stone, as it was called, and appointed men from the number of the ex-praetors, each with two lictors, to attend to the actual construction of the roads.” – Cassius Dio, Book 54, paragraph 8, line 4

[5] “With the remark, then, that he had bought an old house and wished to show its defects to the vendors, he went away, and passing through what was called the house of Tiberius, went down into the forum, to where a gilded column stood, at which all the roads that intersect Italy terminate.” – Plutarch

[6] Schaff, P. The Ante-nicene fathers / the apostolic fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. (1993). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

In Defense of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

 

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Bitches get stitches

In 2016, when Civilization 6 was announcing leaders that would be present in the game, there was a vocal uproar from the video game community over the selection of Gorgo as a leader of Sparta/the Greek civilization. And though she was accompanied with other Greek historical darling Pericles, her announcement was met with anger for being chosen over her husband Leoniades and for, well, being a woman. While that particular complaint has arisen, transparently, along with any female leader announced for the game (I see you, haters), I’d like to offer a polite reminder that though a large portion of boys suffering from an inferiority complex (and who’ve been collectively creaming themselves over Leoniades’ painted abdomen since the release of 300 in 2006) might be remiss in knowing, Queen Gorgo of Sparta was a badass in her own right too, k thx.

Gorgo Hate

YouTube being YouTube

It’s no surprise that the Spartans have a particular sheen of cultural mythos surrounding them, holding a torch of fascination since pretty much the inception of obsessive interest. Laconophilia, love/admiration of Sparta, began as a cultural phenomenon as far back as the Persian Wars–when Spartans were still readily punting dignitaries–and carried on through much of history, re-surging along with other movements of Classical reclamation as during the Renaissance (or through the assholery of Heinrich Schliemann). And much of that famous Spartan toughness comes from their culture of Exemplum, a concept I do have plans to cover while on my Greek kick. (Yes, I do actually have an outline/plan for posts, don’t quote me on this). Keeping all this in mind, Gorgo of Sparta emerged in the annals of western history (one in which, at this time primarily written by Greek scholars, tended to exclude women) as a legendary figure who exemplified the sassy rough-edges of the perfect Spartan and fostered intrigue amongst their frenemy Athens.

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A Touch of Classical Wisdom XII

“Always be the Best, my boy, the bravest,

and hold your head high above the others.”

Homer II VI 247, Glaucus tells Diomedes his father’s words of advice.

These words inspired Cicero and, were said, to have motivated Alexander the Great. An ancient lofty quote such as this would have probably been tattooed on calves, penciled on to school notebooks, or stickered on the bumper of a car if it were to remain as popular today. #BringBackGlaucus

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, Anthony Everitt.

[2] Harries, Byron. “’Strange Meeting’: Diomedes and Glaucus in ‘Iliad’ 6.” Greece & Rome, vol. 40, no. 2, 1993, pp. 133–146. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/643154.