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, spunky high school history teachers who don’t know any better, 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

 

 

 

 

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Roma Day 3: Holy History & Catholicism, Batman!

Today is the day we force my mother to atone for her sins which include waking my brother and I up for school by turning on the lights and leaving them on for over 10 years and for never understanding any of our obscure movie references. My mom always likes to say she is a good Catholic girl (I’m laughing along with the rest of you who know her well, don’t worry) so it was particularly exciting to continue her pilgrimage from last year where she received mass at Notre Dame to stepping into the Vatican itself–the holy capital of the Catholic Church and residence of the Pope.

We took an Uber since it looked like a bit too much of a walk to the Vatican City first thing in the morning sans coffee, so we enjoyed a pleasant little ride with our driver who told us about Queen Margherita when we passed the US Embassy. The location used to be the residence of her and her husband King Umberto according to our driver, and the famous margherita pizza was named after her because she had requested pizza in the colors of the Italian flag–basil, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. How true this is, I’m not exactly sure–but it certainly sounded cool to hear on International Women’s Day!

We planned in advance and booked a skip the line guided tour which we were very thankful for having done, because even though we are not visiting during the peak season (which we heard can see up to 28,000 people in one day–yikes) it was still very busy and the lines outside were incredibly long. Before getting started, however, we quickly filled up with a quick breakfast Italian style–espresso and a hazelnut croissant!

Our tour guide for the Vatican was a stylish and sassy Italian woman named Alessandra who is everything I want to be in the next 20 years. She got a degree in history and spends her free time leading tourists through a whirlwind romp of the Vatican museums cracking jokes and dishing on the sex lives of Raphael and Cleopatra to name a few, stopping for 10 minute espresso breaks, dodging Sistine Chapels guards so she can break the silence rules like a devil-may-care rebel, and topping the whole tour off by waving us into the Vatican so she could go get herself a bottle of wine. She’s my new role model. I need to get my dual-Italian citizenship so I can live that kind of hardcore history life.

Once inside, there is a fountain with fresh spring water that has been blessed by Pope Francis himself. I took a drink hoping to gain immortality or something, so that remains to be seen if it worked or not. See you in the year always and forever.

#BigMood

Next we toured around in the Vactican museums, ogling Medieval paintings with lapis lazuli and getting a crash course in refresher Christian history. Alessandra routinely opened the floor to questions to see if any of us knew the answers, and I got to show off a little if any of it overlapped with any prior knowledge I already had like why Peter was crucified (he wasn’t Roman, Caracalla was a douche and a half but at least he made everyone Roman and thus rendering crucification moot) or why he was buried upside down (because he didn’t believe he was worthy to die in the same way Jesus did, especially given that he had denied him). Or what led Constantine the Great to converting himself and subsequently the Roman Empire to Christianity (he had a vision, yo!). Other new tidbits we learned, however, included poor San Lorenzo who was executed via BBQ and is now the patron saint of cooks–but hey at least he gets to live on in eternity in paintings sporting a halo and the very grill that killed him.

Then we walked through the cartography room which was positively my favorite–I’ve always been a huge fan of maps, especially ones which have been painted to take up entire walls, and can easily spend hours inspecting every detail and location. My brain likes to visualize historical events by points of interest as well, so looking at a huge map for more than 10 minutes ends up turning into a History of the World for me. If there wasn’t tons of people packed along the halls and Alessandra wasn’t also eager to get her afternoon espresso dose, I could have spent all day there. Essentially, every region of the Italian Papal States and their territories were represented on those walls with a compass–and served as an early precursor to Google Maps.

My family hails from the Calabrian region!

Next, we made our way to the Sistine Chapel–the legendary commission of Michaelangelo which served as a back and forth headache between the church and artist integrity. Michaelangelo wasn’t about to go into that forced modesty thing and put any fig leaves over any private parts, and there is certainly many of that to go around in the chapel–which, unfortunately, I can’t show you. No pictures are allowed to be taken–which didn’t stop people from trying and prompted Alessandra to bark at them to cut it out and to not use flash because it can damage the art work (Seriously, she’s a hero). Suffice it to say, the Sistine Chapel is an experience everyone should have at one point in their life and I am unable to show you any of it here so you better get out there and make plans to see it for yourself!

The Holy Door, only opened during Jubilee. Pilgrims are able to wash away their sins when opened but otherwise the portal on the other side is encased in cement which can only be broken by the Pope.

We had to say goodbye to Alessandra (wine awaited, I understand) and so we headed on into the church of the Vatican and–holy opulence–the place is so massive and so grand, I definitely understood how different Christian sects in history rose up and started to complain about that (more on that later).

After I was done staring slack-jawed at the altar, we turned around and headed into the catacombs where we could spot the tomb of Peter (THE Peter, you know, Jesus’ numbero uno bro supreme, The Rock, the first Pope, etc. etc.) That was a wild experience. Unfortunately, another instance where pictures were absolutely not allowed but I will forever have his tomb seared into my brain. Among the catacombs are many other great Popes as well, the whole place felt like it was teeming with power and historical remanence.

Here is a small part of Peter’s Tomb from top level!

After looking at all those centuries old dead guys, we got super hungry and had to stop for a quick lunch before hitting Rome up again and chasing down the remainder of The Forums.

Artichoke the Rome way!

I’m a baptized Catholic but I eat meat on Friday’s during lent, whoops!

By the time we got to The Forums it was 5pm our time and they were unfortunately closed. Bummersville. We decided to walk up the small portion that happened to still be open and free and that’s when I started to notice the Stations of the Cross as we walked and realized, “We’re not in Ancient Rome anymore.”

At the top of the Palatine Hill is a church dedicated to Bonaventura–a Franciscan and philosopher–as well as a monastery where another famous Saint Leonard of Port Maurice resided. As with all things unplanned, we stumbled upon this little church and happened into a small, intimate tour with a volunteer who was excited to show us around the church and tell us more about its history. We learned that Saint Leonard was responsible for saving the Colosseum from further destruction when he consecrated it as a church. There is a glass mosaic dedicated to this event inside the chapel as well as a holy relic of Bonaventura himself. We were able to go inside and tour a little bit of the church itself and see where the friars who still live there today hang out.

Pretty sure this cat is a descendant from the ones Cleopatra brought back and introduced to Rome for her boyfriend Julius Caesar. Leave the jokes at home, please.

Franciscans may live modestly, but I’m pretty sure they have the best view of them all. I might have to give up my dream of becoming Alessandra one day and instead live the life of a tranquil friar in Rome.

Tiber River feels

In fact, I thought a lot about what it would be like to live here–what it must feel like to walk into a building called home with old, chiseled Latin in the doorframe. To start the day with a morning jog around the Circus Maximus, or to drink espresso with book in hand on a rooftop garden overlooking a piazza below. What does it feel like to walk down a street every day and witness the time lapse of multiple centuries down a single block?

Circus Maximus with The Forum backdrop

Before getting dinner and tucking in for the night where we’ll head to Florence in the morning, we tried to visit the Mouth of Truth but suffered the same problem as The Forum. It was closed. Apparently, Truth only has a certain window of time to be evaluated. Either way, I blame Audrey Hepburn for this somehow.

For dinner, we feasted on linguine with seafood and lobster–look at this insanity!

And finished it off with delicious tiramisu from Pompi!

I’m seriously contemplating hanging it all up and staying here forever, guys, just so I can eat tiramisu and gelato for eternity and bask in the glory of Roman History.

3 days was certainly not enough, but hey–Florence awaits!

Roma Day 2: Nero is a Great Big Jerk

Today is a brand new day in Rome and I woke up determined to tackle as much as I could. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t feel like getting up for another few hours–my mom likes to say this is because “he’s old.” We eventually made our way without a cornetto and cafe’–too late in the day now to justify ordering one as lunch menus were being put out on the sidewalk instead. We decided to try and continue our tour of the Palatine Hill area where we left off at the Colosseum yesterday. We made the mistake of wandering into The Forum with our ticket while still on empty stomachs, and I put in a very hangry mile before I insisted we stop and eat something instead. We’ll be back to The Forum to finish it out tomorrow–it’s all free!

Among the ruins of aqueducts and living quarters lies the ancient seat of the Roman Empire. The Senate and birth of The Republic resided here too as well as temples built during the old kingdom (including the remnants of the Vestal Virgin house where the women inside were tasked with keeping the flame of Rome lit). We managed to spot the Circus Maximus from afar–picture chariot races and, well, mass Christian persecutions because Nero is a terrible person.

With my tummy grumbling, it was 2pm when we finally made it back up to living civilization and turned off on the corner to visit Angelino–a restaurant I had the pleasure of experiencing the last time I was in Rome. We grabbed a table outside on the terrace where we could look out at more remains of the old Forum as we ate. We ordered a specialty ‘Angelino’ antipasti for the table and I got myself a plate of Cacio e Pepe as I’m determined to make my way through dishes of Roman cuisine!

Oh, and since it is technically winter here in Rome (but as I reside in the polar vortex of Minnesota, I find this distinction laughable) we were told to get hot chocolate here as the Italian version is much better than anything we have back home in America. And, I’ll say right now having tried some in Rome, much better than Angelina’s in Paris (which was fantastic too) but this stuff is no joke.

This is what heaven tastes like. Francis will surely back me up on this tomorrow, I’ll ask.

With pasta and chocolate in my belly, my body was able to momentarily forget that I hadn’t had the required 5 cups of coffee I typically consume in the morning to start my day, and we were on our way again!

Since we had the evening free, I proposed a small walking touring to some other historical spots not far from our hotel before we ate some more. (Most of the day spent in Rome seems to be dedicated to killing time before the next meal here because the food IS SO GOOD. 😘👌🏼) I took us back through the alley past the Trevi Fountain and off in the direction I thought The Pantheon to be located.

I don’t know how intentional this whole thing was, but I’m fascinated by this street art I found on the way

It wasn’t far before the telltale sign of Corinthian columns jutting up to the sky confirmed that we had stumbled upon Hadrian’s other famous contribution to Roman history aside from his walls in the UK to his deification of boytoy Antinous–The Pantheon. It’s a Roman Temple which was built over a much older one that had presumably been destroyed in a fire and was filled with statues of the Roman gods–supposedly dedicated to all of them which is highly unusual if true, as most temples had a single deity to worship to at the time. Much more of a personal touch assured to be more successful if you’re begging Mars specifically to come down and gut your neighbor Vinnius for eating up all your garum sauce.

Inside, however, The Pantheon is much different than what the old Romans had been used to. Sometime in the 7th century, the Byzantine Emperor gave it away to the Pope in Rome at the time and he converted it into a church. Now you can find crucifixes and altars inside as well as other Christian iconography. Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy, is also entombed inside.

Also on the list of Classical Roman things that have since been turned into Christian churches are the remains of the bathhouse of Emperor Nero. I had them marked on my map and when we walked by them, I got a good long chuckle when I saw what had eventually become of them. There is a great irony here for a man who had once blamed the fires in Rome and summarily executed a group of people who now had the sweetest revenge on his legacy–building a church on what little remained of his bathhouse ruins. Now we were on the hunt for dinner and famous gelato (another recommendation from Ileana!)

Pasquino, a talking statue in Rome. Tradition is to attach criticisms at its base (nor there is a board next to it to leave notes). I had a lot of catching up to do…

Not far from the statue was a restaurant we were all but ushered into by the friendly servers, and I was finally able to try some fried artichoke the Jewish way and chicken Saltimbocca the Roman way!

And last but not least, some gelato from Frigidarium. The greatest tragedy yet is knowing that nothing like it exists even remarkably similar to it back home.

Underneath this heavenly mound of chocolate (which Rome appears to have in plenty supply) are cherries and white chocolate and fudge and…

Alright, now to fall into the blissful tranquility of a sugary coma. Tomorrow, we see if my mother says a naughty word at The Vatican like she “accidentally” managed at Notre Dame.

Buonanotte!

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!

History is Incessantly Incesty (Part Duo)

Nero

Emperor Nero watching longingly as his mother out crazy him.

Moving right along down historical family trees much like the dating preferences of the people I will be focusing on in this series, I’ll be looking at one case in particular in the Julio-Claudian line fraught with power-grabbing, incest, and the occasional murder or two. Not unlike the Lannisters, one famous mother in history was willing to bang whatever and murder whomever if it meant she’d be sitting pretty on the Marble Throne. [1]

2) Agrippina the Younger

Nero and Agrippina

Joffrey and Cersei Nero and Agrippina

There is no shortage of lunatic Roman Emperors and Nero is certainly one of the more famous iterations. Remembered for his dramatics and flair for theatre, or the flare that engulfed Rome in 64 AD which Nero was accused of having caused himself, he will forever go down in history as the man who played the fiddle as Rome burned. [2]

For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy. – Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome [3]

But where there’s a fire-happy Mad King (Cersei Lannister certainly must have been inspired in her frequent use of wildfire), there’s usually a mom standing behind him totally responsible for it. Enter Agrippina the Younger, stage left.

Agrippina joins among the ranks of some of the most powerful figures in Roman History, born into the Julio-Claudian line descendant from Julius & Augustus Caesar. Now, as you can imagine, the family tree is a bit sticky with important folk, so for the purposes of this post and the dirty that follows, I’ll point out the relevant relations now before your eyes glaze over. Agrippina the Younger’s parents are Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus. From her mother, she is directly descended from Augustus, counting him as her great grandfather. Her father Germanicus was a popular and famous general whose younger brother Claudius would eventually become Roman Emperor. [4] Still with me so far?

Now, being descendant from the most powerful family in Roman History should prove nothing short of bearing considerable skill in political ambitions and intrigue. And Agrippina the Younger was certainly no disappointment on this matter. When she was just 22, her brother Caligula (yes, that one) became Emperor of Rome after their great uncle Tiberius passed away (Or murdered, semantics). Being a doting and loving brother, Caligula granted Agrippina and her sisters all sorts of honors and special privileges, which led their enemies to speculate whether there were other benefits being shared between them. Oh, brother. [5]

He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above. Of these he is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother Antonia, at whose house they were brought up in company. – Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars; Life of Caligula [5]

All good things must come to an end, however, and eventually Caligula dovetailed into a tyrannical spiral of insanity after the death of his favorite sister that only a well-conceived assassination plot could fix. With clear love lost between them, Agrippina and her other sister Livilla plotted with their cousin Lepidus to dagger Caligula into the annals of history forever. It didn’t work out though, and Caligula condemned them all to trial producing public letters supposedly written in their own hand writing as evidence of…more incestual bonding between the plotters because THIS FAMILY. Caligula got his way and his cousin Lepidus was executed with his sisters being sent off in exile. [5]

Julia Drusilla

The favorite Drusilla in question… Painted by John Godward in 1906

Agrippina didn’t have long to wait in exile though, for Caligula was swiftly murdered a year later at the measly age of 28 in a display of stabbing rivaling the death of Julius Caesar. With Caligula gone, Agrippina’s uncle Claudius became the new Roman Emperor and he invited the sisters back to Rome where Agrippina could begin using her feminine wiles to solidify her place among those in power and attempt to leverage her young son, Nero, into the line of succession.

Whether or not Agrippina had a proliferation for incest [6] as her accusers claim or she knew that getting close to her uncle was obviously the best way to the Empire, only one obstacle stood in her way–Claudius’ wife Messalina. Her aunt-in-law (and also second cousin because lol) already proved disastrous to her sister Livilla, who was exiled after being accused of an affair with Seneca and promptly starved to death. Agrippina was playing the long game though, and after the death of her second husband (some say at her hand in a classic Black Widow scheme), she became considerably wealthy and used it to leverage her position of sympathy into that of renown and popularity.

And suddenly, Emperor Claudius found himself a bachelor as Messalina tried and failed to murder him too, clearly backstabbing being the preferred recreational sport of the Roman nobility. Despite the disdain and disgust of the general populous, Agrippina married Emperor Claudius and became the first wife to obtain the title of Augusta despite the scary uncle that came with it. Agrippina had succeeded in claiming her place as Roman Empress. [3.1]

But Agrippina’s intrigues were still driving Claudius to the most brutal behavior. – Tacitus, Annals [3]

As Empress, she was frequently noted as conniving and ruthless. [3.2] When she wanted a beautiful garden, she’d accuse someone into committing suicide in order to claim it. She also accused a controller of a joint project of illicit profits to which he exclaimed that the accusations were nothing more than a byproduct of her “dictatorial, feminine excess of ambition.” Can I get that written on my grave stone, please?

Her joint rule was fraught with so many plots against anyone accused of disloyalty against her or inheritance of her son Nero, Claudius was said to have “remarked in his cups that it was his destiny first to endure his wive’s misdeeds, and then to punish them.” But Agrippina wasn’t about to allow him the chance.

Rochegrosse_Georges_Antoine_The_Death_of_Messalina_1916

The Death of Messalina, painted by Rochegrosse Georges Antoine 1916

In a scene straight out of The Beguiled or Phantom Thread, Agrippina planned the murder of Claudius by sprinkling poisonous mushrooms into his food which would have probably done the job if not for the fit of diarrhea that accompanied, and saved him, from his fate. Agrippina was pissed. Enlisting the help of Claudius’ doctor, Xenophon, she made sure the job was done with less fecal fanfare, ensuring his death ruled of natural causes. [3]

The story is that, while pretending to help Claudius to vomit, he put a feather dipped in a quick poison down his throat. – Tactius, Annals [3]

With the death of Claudius, Agrippina was an heir away from making sure Nero was the next Emperor. Locking up Claudius’ son Britannicus and letting everyone know whom Claudius had chosen for succession, her baby boy Nero finally became Roman Emperor and this time she didn’t have to sleep with anyone to do it. Unfortunately, her authority over her now powerful son wasn’t what she had hoped, since with the return of her dead sister’s lover Seneca as Nero’s tutor/adviser and with the slave girl Acte finding a place in his heart, Agrippina had a lot to complain about. [3.3]

This was unbecoming to Nero who attempted to appease his mother by sending her a nice jeweled garment as a peace offering. To which Agrippina scoffed at and demanded her rightful place by his side instead, after all, she orchestrated the damn thing, didn’t she? Upping the petty, Nero banished his mother’s side-piece Pallas from the estate and Agrippina started to wonder if maybe throwing her lot behind Britannicus wouldn’t be such a bad idea, despite, you know, the whole conspiracy thing. Like mother like son, though, Nero poisoned him at the family table before an overthrow could take place.

Fuming, Agrippina flounced around the palace trying to make powerful allies where she could but Nero wasn’t having any of it and withdrew her retainer of guards and ended her lavish receptions on palace grounds by sending her to a different residence altogether, seeing to the end of her court in the process. It’s here that her tactics shift and the sources drudge up accusations familiar, at this point, to her usual games. [3]

Agrippina’s passion to retain power carried her so far that at midday, the time when food and drink were beginning to raise Nero’s temperature, she several times appeared before her inebriated son all decked out and ready for incest. -Tactius, Annals [3] Also, yikes.

Witnesses observed kisses and intimate caresses between the pair and though no one could settle on which one was the initiator in the first place, Tacitus offers a shrug of doubtless commentary on the matter claiming, “In her earliest years she had employed an illicit relationship with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (her cousin, remember?) as a means to power. Through the same ambition she had sunk to be Pallas’ mistress. Then, she married to her uncle, her training in abomination complete.” [3]

This obviously proved to be disadvantageous to Nero as the accusations spread. He’d also fallen in love with Poppea, who was herself as cunning as his mother, who sought to rid them both of Agrippina and solidify a marriage between the pair. So, naturally, as Romans are want to do, they decided to murder her out the way.

How was the question. Agrippina was no fool, and as her supposed method of poisoning did the job for her own plots, she had taken measures to ensure the same could not be done to her. As Tacitus writes, she had by this point strengthened herself in resistance by a preventative course of antidotes. There was always stabbing too, but that was getting pretty old. Instead, an insane idea came to mind to fashion a ship with a removable section that could be rigged to come loose and hurl Agrippina to a watery death because that somehow sounds not at all planned, who could possibly suspect a thing, right? [3]

Shipwreck of Agrippina

It did not work. The section designed to come off was halted by a well-placed couch that Agrippina had been lounging on and when this part of the plan fell apart, the crew tried attacking with paddles. Needless to say, Agrippina swam away mostly unscathed and super suspicious of her son. Nero knew it too, and despite her feigned ignorance of the ordeal, he immediately sent men to her villa to finish her off. There, they bludgeoned her with a truncheon and killed her, but not before she told them to strike her in the womb first, her last act of revenge against her son.

And if you thought that was the end of the incest in this post, I’ll leave you with this one last anecdote. For upon her death and subsequent deliverance of her remains, accounts add that “Nero inspected his mother’s corpse and praised her figure.” [3]

Oh, for the love of–

Fact Check it, yo!

Primary & Secondary Sources:

[1] This is a pretty solid joke, if you don’t mind my bragging. Octavian Augustus Caesar was said to have claimed, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Suetonius Tranquillus, Divus AugustusFirst paragraph, first line.

[2] Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus all claim that Nero watched the fire rage while playing the lyre and singing of the destruction of Troy. (Dio, Epitome LXII; Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Tacitus, AnnalsRespectively)

[3] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome. (The Madness of Nero, Penguin Epics pg. 87)

  1. “Agrippina’ s public image was also much promoted under Claudius’ reign : she was in fact the first wife of a living emperor to adopt the title Augusta, and before her no living woman had appeared on gold and silver coins.” Kajava, M. (1998). L’Antiquité Classique,67, 492-494. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41659921 
  2. “…those writing about Agrippina, especially Tacitus, conflated her actions with the stereotypes of scheming women, partly to denigrate overly-ambitious women and partly to criticize imperial rule.” & “Tacitus depicts Agrippina as a woman whose every action was attributable to political ambition. Actions that involve step-motherly intrigue, hypocrisy, female jealousy and a public display of dominance all expose “her own desire for power.” Williams, K. (2007). The Classical Journal,103(1), 116-119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038666
  3. “ first, it highlights much more clearly what Agrippina was expecting from her son’s principate: the continuation of the partnership, which evidently Seneca and Burrus, with their insistence upon the ‘Augustan model’ of government, were determined to deny her. Such an aspiration inevitably irritated a son more than it had the husband.” David Shotter. (1998). Agrippina. The Classical Review,48(1), 117-118. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/713730

[4] Gallivan, P. (1974). Confusion concerning the Age of Octavia. Latomus,33(1), 116-117. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41528935

[5] Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars; Life of Caligula

[6“she was a living critique of the principate and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Claudius and the political system appear weak in allowing a power-hungry Dux Femina to flourish; the existence of a saeua nouerca (with all that stereotypes connotations of dysfunction) in the imperial family points to dysfunction in the state; and the incest theme critiques Julio-Claudian endogamy.” & “in this connection Dio’s uncertainty, absent in Tacitus, about the veracity of the incest theme, which he says might have been invented to fit the characters of Agrippina and Nero.”

Malloch, S. (2007). Agrippina the Younger. The Classical Review,57(2), 477-478. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4497627

King Slayers – That Nosebleed Attila the Hun

 

Mulan Huns

Legit still terrified of the Huns from Mulan. They didn’t call them the “scourge of God” for nothing!

I’ve been unintentionally focused on Roman history lately so we’re going to go in on one of the few successful outside threats to the stability of the Roman Empire and the colossally embarrassing reason that saw to the collective sigh of relief by the general populous that had nothing to do with Legionaries but everything to do with a ridiculous amount of bloodshed. So if anyone has a problem with more Roman things, ya’ll can just steppe off, okay? >crickets< Hunny, that was a joke.

If you’re like me, you’ve grown up knowing that the Huns were terrible menaces that could only be defeated by being sung into a man by Donny Osmond. Perhaps because there was a huge wall protecting China named Fa Mulan, the Huns decided the gettin’ was good somewhere else and started off a chain reaction of marauding nomadic assholery by descending upon the Roman Empire in its last legs of life in 4th & 5th century AD. The Romans didn’t know what was happening, or where these demonic barbarians came from–it probably didn’t help that other bands of groups joined in on the fun including the Goths, Alans, Scythians, and anyone else who could rock a ferocious blood-soaked beard. When the Huns and their warband associates began hammering away at Roman territory, the empire found itself stretched thin without a large enough force to defend against attacks along its borders. Rome capitulated some territory and even employed various groups of them as mercenaries to help defend against the Zerg Rush of barbarians. All in all, it seemed a confusing mess of splintered groups with different leaders fighting each other back and forth as long as everyone was well fed and paid while the Roman emperors nervously wringed their hands hoping nobody would depose them since they had been dropping like flies faster than a Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at this point. [1]

Leoattila-Raphael

Attila the Hun meeting Pope Leo I and also probably demanding the papacy too because why not.

It wasn’t until Attila that the Huns became a unified empire. Most historians assume he murdered the crap out of his brother Bleda before taking the reigns and charging all over the eastern half of the Roman empire in an assault that horse-whipped the once mighty Rome into paying off the Huns with an annual tribute of 2100 pounds of gold to let up a little bit, geez Louise. [2]

This wasn’t nearly enough for the insatiable Atilla, however, when Honoria, the sister of the Western Roman Emperor, sent him the Classical equivalent to a booty text in the form of a ring and offer of betrothal, and Atilla demanded half of the empire as his dowry proving he was pretty ballsy, if nothing else. He used the opportunity to justify an invasion, sacking and razing the roof all over the place. [3(Somebody remind me to do a write up of Honoria some day because she was pretty wild herself)

Attila

Swoon daddy OG

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with Honoria, and Attila the Hun eventually took another wife culminating in a raging night of drunken revelry in celebration. And like George R.R. Martin himself wrote it, it was this night that Attila the Hun met his end.

He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war.

Jordanes, the Gothic History [4]

A nosebleed?! I suppose, if you’re a subscriber to anime tropes being a thing that actually happens in real-life, perhaps Atilla was a bit too pleased to see his new wife. Most probably, something more akin to a hemorrhage caused by internal bleeding due to excessive drinking was the cause, but I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. 

Naturally, the Huns were super upset by this sudden death, and after they ripped out their hair and clawed at their faces, they went to work burying their great king in his riches and killing everyone who helped because why stop being dramatic now. This tactic seemed to work, however, because we still have no idea where he is today. [4]

It wasn’t long after Attila’s death that the Hunnic Empire collapsed. Turns out, it’s pretty tough to keep a bunch of bloodthirsty warriors in line. And Rome didn’t have that long to neener neener about it either. On September 4th, 476 AD, barely 25 years later, a different barbarian king, Odoacer, deposed the last Roman Emperor and declared himself king of Italy, effectively ending the western half of the empire.

Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Destruction_1836

Welp.

 

Cause of Death: giphy

 

Fact Check it, yo!

Secondary:

[1] Heather, P. (1995). The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. The English Historical Review, 110(435), 4-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/573374

[3] Bury, J. (1919). Justa Grata Honoria. The Journal of Roman Studies, 9, 1-13. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/295986

Primary source:

[2] Priscus, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum. Priscus at the Court of Attila. Retrieved from: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/priscus.html

 

[4] Jordanes, The Gothic History Retrieved from: https://archive.org/stream/gothichistoryofj00jorduoft/gothichistoryofj00jorduoft_djvu.txt

King Slayers – Emperor Caracalla and the Case of the Full Bladder

Emperor Caracalla

Seriously, bruh? Couldn’t wait until I was finished?!

 

Emperor Caracalla falls among a long line of dickish Roman Emperors who, if anyone recalls his name at all, will be forever remembered in infamy for good ol’ fashioned tyranny and the pathetic way in which he met his end.

But this same emperor made many mistakes because of the obstinacy with which he clung to his own opinions; for he wished not only to know everything but to be the only one to know anything, and he desired not only to have all power but to be the only one to have power. Hench he asked no one’s advice and was jealous of those who had any useful knowledge. He never loved anyone, but he hated all who excelled in anything, most of all those whom he pretended to love most; and he destroyed many of them in one way or another. [1]

-Cassisus Dio. On Caracalla but without the context, could easily be confused for a different modern leader of today.

Following the reign of his father Septimius Severus, the dude who JK Rowling probably named Snape after, Caracalla began a joint rule with his brother Geta in 211 AD until he had him murdered because he just didn’t like to share or settle differences in a reasonable manner because what Roman Emperor needs to possess sound judgment? But even before this moment, Caracalla had already started his laundry list of assholery that began with the exile and murder of his wife, whom sources aren’t entirely sure why he hated so much (and keep in mind divorce in Rome at this time was quite common), and her father for being responsible for half of her gene pool. [2] To make matters worse, after Caracalla had his younger brother gutted in the arms of their own mother, he went on to order a damnatio memoriae which attempted to erase his name and memory from public record and history. Anyone who had a problem with the murder or even spoke Geta’s name out loud was rounded up and murdered. All in all, an estimated 20,000 people were killed over an affair that could have probably been solved with a nice family chat over wine. [3] So clearly, Caracalla was a fun guy to be around.

When the Egyptian population was touched by Caracalla’s heavy handed politics, they rebelled by their sense of humor of making Caracalla the object of their satire. Jokes and puns were devised on his account, to which Caracalla was not a ready audience… [3]

Robert Morgan, History of the Coptic Orthodox People and the Church of Egypt.

(In response, Caracalla tricked the City of Alexandria into a display of extended respect by promising to pick from the city’s youth to back fill the employ of his legions. When the candidates had eagerly gathered to await their choosing, Caracalla ordered his soldiers to slaughter the entire crowd.)

Baths of Caracalla

I wonder how many people peed in these.

Not everything he did was entirely shitty, however. He built baths in Rome which are essentially the ancient equivalent of a YMCA, paid his military handsomely, and issued the edict of Constitutio Antoniniana which gave all freed men living in the borders of the empire Roman citizenship. [4] There were some exceptions of course, but this was a big deal because at this time Rome was at the height of its expanse, with only a small percentage of the population enjoying all of the benefits of being a true Roman, which included protection from being crucified as capital punishment.

 

Roman Empire 117AD

This is only one hundred years before Caracalla. That’s a whole lot of taxes.

But like all things in Carcalla’s life, when he was spurned, his immediate response was to kill things. So when he offered a marriage alliance between himself and the daughter of a Parthian king in an attempt to gain more territory for Rome but was rejected, he responded by launching a military campaign to take it by force with bloodshed. [1]

It was on one of these campaigns when Caracalla couldn’t resist the urge to urinate. Stopping off the side of the road to relieve himself, a disgruntled soldier unhappy by his lack of promotion approached him unnoticed. Apparently not even giving the emperor a chance to finish, the soldier stabbed Caracalla in the back shoulder until he fell dead, but hopefully not on his newly relinquished stream. [5]

Cause of Death: Inopportune bathroom break

 

Fact Check it, yo!

 

[1] Cassius Dio, Roman History; Epitome of Book LXVIII. Via URL: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/78*.html

[2] Dorothy King’s PhDiva. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2018, from http://phdiva.blogspot.com/2011/11/damnatio-memoriae-geta.html

[3] MORGAN, R. (2016). HISTORY OF THE COPTIC ORTHODOX PEOPLE AND THE CHURCH OF EGYPT. S.l.: FRIESENPRESS. URL: Google Books

[4] Benario, H. (1954). The Dediticii of the Constitutio Antoniniana. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 85, 188-196. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/283475?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[5] Herodian, History of the Roman Emperor Since the Death of Marcus Aurelius; Murder of Caracalla. Via URL: http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodian-s-roman-history/herodian-4.13/?