By harking back to Greece and Rome we are winking at the Spynx.

Common (ish) perceptions of the ancient world.

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What’s Your Civ?

Back in 2012 I offered my small pool of followers the chance to take part in a small experiment I called “What’s Your Civ?”. A kitch hashtag I thought up which tells you as much about my own social media naivety back then as it does anything else. But the idea was to then do a post about the results, highlighting people’s perceptions of past civilisations. Continue reading

Farthest South part 3.

Into the unknown.

Nero’s Nile expedition of 62 AD was a small affair, part geographic philanthropy part Reconnaissance for conquest. Lead by two Praetorian Centurions it had travelled down the Nile through Egypt into modern Sudan, which was as war torn then as it is now, and reached the prosperous capitol of the Kingdom of Kush, Meroe. It was a time of stabilising relations between Rome and Meroe. After sporadic conflicts, it is known that trade was already beginning to flourish again between the province of Egypt and Kush. The Romans were well treated by Kandake Amanikhatashan, who had only recently ascended the throne and wished friendly relations with her powerful Roman neighbour in Egypt. This was fortuitous for Nero had sent the mission not just to find the source of the Nile but to suss out Kush for conquest. The centurions gathered supplies and information and were once more on their way into the unknown. Continue reading

Farthest South: Part 2.

The Journey to Meroe.
In AD 62 Nero sent two Praetorian Centurions to Egypt to explore the Nile, and scout out the land for possible conquest. They arrived in Egypt and gathered a small, well equipped expedition, kitted out with military equipment from local Legion bases and hired civilian boats to carry them, and guides to lead the way. Thus prepared they set off on the journey to Meroe.

Continue reading

How to Survive as a Roman Gladiator.

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In many ways a Roman Gladiator was a bit like a Big Brother Contestant. By which I don’t mean that in the Big Brother household they are battling to the death with Gladius in hand (although perhaps they should be, Channel 5 take note). Instead I mean that Gladiators were both loved and despised just like the fast fading celebrity who finds themselves in the midst of the Big Brother household. You can’t help but think of the average BB contestant as being someone you totally dislike but at the same time you just can’t bring yourself to turn the TV off (even when they’ve just spent the last 10 minutes screaming at someone for eating the last of the coco pops).

Gladiators were idolised. They were the sporting hero of their time. A baby oiled titan. And yet they were hated in the same breath, they were slaves, and much lower status than virtually everyone else in Roman society (apart from the actors, they were real scum). If you were unfortunate enough to become a Gladiator (unless you wanted to be one, free Romans were often drawn to the danger and excitement of the arena although they would of course keep their identities a secret so as not to embarrass their families) then you had to work hard to survive. Balancing both being really good at fighting with having the charisma necessary to win over the crowd.

How did they do this? What top tips would they have shared in order to be triumphant?

Fortunately for you, I (Captain Max Virtus – expert in Bizarrchaeology) have the answer for you. I didn’t discover this answer by reading dusty and forgotten text books or frantically scanning a Gladiator article on Wikipedia, Oh no, I LIVED the life of the Gladiator! Yup, in one of the halls in my castle I built a miniature Flavian Amphitheatre, hired a bunch of highly skilled trainers and then I practised being a Gladiator. I did it all;

  • Took on the role of a Venatore Gladiator and punched a hippo in the face (don’t worry animal lovers, the hippo got to punch me in the face too, and they can punch hard).
  • Practised using a lasso whilst training as a Laquerarii gladiator (don’t try to lasso the hippo you just punched, they really don’t like it and it all goes a bit horribly wrong when they try and lasso you back, having no opposable thumbs).
  • Fought with a Samnite, Provocator and Murmillones Gladiator types, gladius to gladius
  • I even rode on my war chariot as a Essedari gladiator (Unfortunately space was rather limited so this did involve a great deal of awkward reversing).

So what are the most important lessons that I leant? What things can I share with you, dear reader, so if you ever were to be thrust back in time, due to a freak accident with a crazily over excited doctor and a DeLorean, and found yourself living the life of the Gladiator in ancient Rome that you could survive (perhaps even thrive) too?

Top Tip 1 – Never become an Andabatae Gladiator

Imagine the scene, you’re a new Gladiator and you’ve just arrived at the Ludus (Gladiator School) for your first day. Suddenly, the biggest, baddest and brutalist (new word) Gladiator rocks up and starts hanging out with you. You are totally flattered because he is one of the cool Gladiators. He’s then being all friendly and says something along the lines of;

‘Hey dude, you know you would be major awesome as an Andabatae Gladiator. Would you like to be one at the next games?’

Don’t be tempted, don’t even pause to consider the question, just say NO!

First of all, I have no idea why the Gladiator was speaking like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Secondly, Andabatae gladiators were terrible, as your chances of survival were virtually zero.

To become an Andabatae you would have to commit a crime (this could be something major, like murder, or something relatively minor, like not being able to repay your debts) and sent to the arena to die. When you got there, you and a bunch of other criminals would be given;

A Gladius (things are looking up, a sword!)

No armour (that’s not so bad, at least your opponents don’t have any either)

And a helmet (yay!) with no eye holes so you are rendered completely blind (you what?!)

Once your helmet is on your head you would be sent out into the area to frantically wave your sword around, hoping by Jupiter’s left toe, that you hit your opponent before they hit you. Even if you are hit but are only injured you are still going to die anyway, because a friendly chap dressed as Charon (the ferryman to the underworld) will come along with a hot poker to check you’re dead, if not, expect him to wallop you over the head with a hammer until you are (it probably won’t take long, it’s a big hammer).

Maybe you might get lucky and end up being the last man standing and get to live. But your chances are not even half as good as a regular Gladiator. In actual fact, most Gladiators had the best health care in all of Rome, with few battles resulting in death (after all, which self respecting event organiser would want to pay out a fortune to the owner of the Gladiator if they were to die in battle?)

Top Tip 2 – Don’t get the Emperor’s thumb the wrong way around

So, you’ve just won your first big fight in the Colosseum with Emperor Commodus himself watching, exciting stuff! Your opponent lies exhausted at your feet and your stand above him, Gladius raised and ready to strike. The crowd chant around you in an incomprehensible wall of noise. You look up to the Emperor, he’s stood there looking pensive (the lion’s head he is wearing looks slightly pensive too – Commodus wore one as he desperately wanted to emulate his hero Hercules). Then with a nod the Emperor has decided, he extends his arm with his thumb pointed down towards the floor. You respond and with a neat swing of your blade your opponent is dispatched.

WHOOPS! You just disobeyed the request of the Emperor. You are in trouble.

Don’t make this rookie mistake. A downwards thumb means let your opponent live (the direction of the thumb indicates that the blade should be lowered) An upwards pointing thumb means kill them (the thumb is pointing towards the neck, where they should be stabbed).

Don’t forget lest you really embarrass yourself and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Top Tip 3 – Don’t bring Kitchen implements to a Sword Fight

Being a man of wonder I don’t make many mistakes (unless you count letting a Hippo punch me in the head) but one I did make was bringing the wrong weapon to one of my duels. My trainer had explained that in the next fight we would be battling as Scissors Gladiators. So off I went to the kitchen and fetched my finest Kitchen Scissors (they even have golden handles, to go with the theme of my kitchen) only to return and discover my trainer had a metal gauntlet on his right arm, attached to it were two large blades. It’s then that I realised my trainer had said Scissores Gladiators rather than Scissors Gladiator. Suffice to say I lost the fight. Badly.

Go Forth Gladiator, Rome salutes you.

So there you have it, Max Virtus’ Top 3 Tips to survive as a Gladiator in Ancient Rome. With these lessons learnt you stand a good chance of getting your hands on the wooden sword known as a Rudis and earning your freedom. But don’t worry, if you find yourself missing the danger and excitement of the arena once you are free you can always go back for one last big payout. Just be careful, without an owner to have to pay back you’ll find the event organiser won’t provide you with nearly as good healthcare as before. After all, what better way for the crowd to remember the event than with the death of a famous Gladiator?

(Content Provided by the intrepid Max Virtus, as fun a Historyland guide as one could wish for, see his website below)
https://bizarrehistory.wordpress.com/

Thanks Max,
Josh.

The Greatest General.

I don’t care whether it’s reliable or not. One of the greatest stories of the ancient world is that of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus meeting before the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, and their subsequent meeting in Ephesus years later when Hannibal was in exile under the protection of Antiochus III King of Syria. As part of a diplomatic embassy to Syria, sometime around 194 or 7 BC Scipio talked with Hannibal, the Roman asked the Carthaginian who he thought the greatest general in the world was, the answer is priceless, and at the same time extremely gracious. If it is true, then it shows the respect these two great Generals had for one another, if not, then it’s still a great story.  

“Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied: ‘Alexander, King of the Macedonians, because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands. Merely to visit such lands transcended human expectation.’ Asked whom he would place second, Hannibal said: ‘Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side; so that the Italian peoples preferred the overlordship of a foreign king to that of the Roman people, who for so long had been the chief power in that country.’ When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this, and said: ‘What would you have said if you had defeated me?’ ‘In that case’, replied Hannibal, ‘I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus – in fact, before all other generals!’ This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety, and this unexpected kind of flattery…affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him (Scipio) apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation.
Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXV.14″

The Historian Appian also tells this story in his History of the Rome.

” It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”

Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”

As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.”

Hannibal was a man of dry wit and great intelligence. And it fits his charachter to reply in such a subtle way. For he names Scipio as a greater general than Alexander by not mentioning him. Had I defeated you I would have been greater than Alexander says it all. Yet Livy may have wanted it to read that way, Hannibal would never have put a Roman above himself which gives the story credibility, yet between the lines he admits to Scipio’s greatness, which would doubtless please a Roman audience. Why be so subtle? Well if it’s just a story, then it’s because the Romans had a grudging respect for Hannibal, they saw in him a worthy opponent who had brought out the best in them, by bringing them so low, and outright slander would have been seen as unworthy.

So there is a case for both reality and fiction, given that ancient writers almost never quoted actual words, rather they took the basis and embellished from it, we will probably never know. But for me, it happened and it’s one of my favourite stories of the ancient world.

Josh

How many Mules does it take…?

Knowing my grasp of maths and arithmetic this will probably go pear shaped. But here’s some thoughts on Roman legionary supply trains from around the 1st Century AD.

There were 9 contubernium in each Century.
And that means 9 tents per century and one Centurion’s tent so 10, there’s no evidence where the Signifer or Optio slept, Goldsworthy say’s that The cramped leather (waterproof goatskin) tents used by the Contubernium’s where carried by Mule’s, which where tethered to the rear of the tent when in camp, assuming that “Marius’ Mules” carried all their personal equipment on their back’s They would probably have needed two real mule’s to carry the tent and poles for them and the centurion and heavy equipment such as axes, pickaxes, mallets, spades, turf cutters and quern stones for grinding grain, and possibly the large caltrops (tribuli), and Cowan say’s that the mule’s was taken care of by muleteer’s (military slaves called Calones). I gather then that each century would have a considerable baggage train.

So let’s have a go at breaking it down here.
1 Century has 10 tents, carried by 18 Mules based on two Mules for each contibernum in the care of either 9 or 18 muleteer’s (calones) who where probably assigned by the, prefect Castrorum.
Providing that enough animals where available, a nightmare of a job no doubt, this means that on paper one cohort of six centuries would have a baggage train of 108 Mules and a similar or double number of calones.
A legion of 10 cohort’s thought to number over 5,000 men, would have some 1,080 Mules and similar number of Calones coming after it. That is some supply train when you consider an army could consist of over three legions, plus double that number of auxiliaries. This also bearing in mind that Marius reformed the army so that each soldier carried more equipment on his back to cut down the amount of mules required, hence the soldiers were nicknamed with customary Latin wit, “Marius’ Mules”

Josh