Oracle of History

Guiding you through the ages

Archive for the tag “Ancient Rome”

Painting Through Time

I’ve always been fascinated by paintings. Sometimes it feels like a portal into another world or time period. From an academic stand point, it makes sense, especially if they are paintings from a time when there were no photographs. It’s important to remember, however, that these paintings are what these people want us to see.

Can you imagine someone 100 years from now, judging our society from the memes we leave behind on the internet? Perish the thought!

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Go support the artist on Tumblr here

That being said, paintings can be an amazing source of knowledge about a time period. It gives us a visual reference of how they want to be portrayed. Here, I will list some of my favourite paintings and the historical importance behind it.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, by Claude 

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Seaport with Embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641 by Claude. Downloaded from the National Gallery website for non-commercial purposes. 

As someone who has studied the conversion of the Roman Empire from Paganism to Christianity, I love the retelling of Saintly stories. Religion is a very common theme in paintings, especially Christian stories in a Western world that relied on it for many of its values and morality.

The story of Saint Ursula is interesting because there is no confirmation of her even having lived. Unlike many male saints, there isn’t a collection of written work that we can point to as proof that she existed. The legend is based on an inscription at the Church of Saint Ursula in Cologne. What is even more interesting is that her martyrdom was taken out of the General Roman Calendar after it was revised in 1969. Maybe because it couldn’t be verified?

The story goes that the British Princess Ursula left to join her future husband, a pagan governor in Gaul (now modern-day France). She came across the channel with 11,000 virginal handmaidens, but before she married she decided to conduct a pilgrimage to Rome by traveling across Europe. According to legend, she met her untimely death in Cologne where the Huns, who were not known for the Christian charity, beheaded her along with all her handmaidens. The Church of Saint Ursula is supposedly located where some of these beheadings happened.

The painting fascinates me because, Claude, the artist, would have painting this over a thousand years later. It shows that not only the legend was thought valid, but it must have been part of the stories of martyrdom told in Church at the time. The painting itself is laced for foreboding since anyone familiar with the story will know that Ursula and her handmaidens would meet an unfavourable end.

Picture Gallery with View of Ancient Rome, 1757, by Giovanni Paolo Panini

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This painting was commissioned by Count Étienne François de Choiseul, the Ambassador of the French King Louis XV to Rome.  It is one of four paintings, meant to show the glory and beauty of Rome. The other paintings show St Pete’s Basilica as well as views of “Modern Rome” (well, modern for the 1750s).

I like this one because it shows the value that people put on the ancient monuments, even then. It makes me wonder if the history of Rome would have been harder to uncover if it hadn’t been for society’s obsession with the Ancients. The painting also shows how little these ancient monuments have changed since this was painting. A testament to historical preservation and priorities.

It’s also a testament to the artist who not only had to paint an art gallery, but had to create many smaller pieces of artwork in great detail. The longer you stare at it, the more is revealed.

A Regatta on the Grand Canal, about 1740, by Canaletto

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Canaletto was famous for his paintings of Venice, mostly sweeping tableaus of life in the city. One of the great events of Venetian life was (and still is!) the Carnival, but did you know that there is also a regatta that starts the festivities? This painting shows us just that.

It’s part of a series of twelve paintings about the Grand Canal, the Carnival being a very popular subject for painters. This painting showcases a race with colourful banners demonstrating people’s support for a particular team – not much different than how we show support for sports teams today. It also gives us a glimpse of what Carnival might have been like all those years ago. The Carnival regatta has been an institution since 1315. I wonder what it was like the first time they raced?

I particularly love this painting because it brings the Grand Canal to life, showing a colourful and joyous moment in Venice. It makes you want to jump right through the frame and join the celebration. On a personal note, one of my life goals is to be in Venice for Carnival and this certainly gives me the itch to travel.


Bonus Painting 

After looking at these paintings, I can’t help but think how strange it must have been to live in a different country and only know the world through paintings. What happened when they heard about a big international event? Maybe they said something like this….

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Ancient History Can Be A Killer

My guilty pleasure has always been historical fiction, but I also really like a good mystery/crime drama. So I was super excited when I first discovered historical mysteries!

Yes, you’ve read that right. Two of the very best of the entertainment genres mashed together. I’ll set the scene of the discovery for you. I was on holiday with my family, on a beach in the south of France. I am not a big fan of the beach since I am very pale with blonde hair and blue eyes. I would often bring reading material and hide under a huge umbrella. My dad, a huge history nerd like me, noticed my great love of the ancient roman world so he let me borrow his book – “Last Seen in Massilia” by Steven Saylor. For those of you who don’t know, Massilia was the Ancient Roman name of the town of Marseille in the south of France.

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Thus an obsession was born! From the age of 16, I devoured any historical mysteries I could find set in the world of the Roman Empire and Republic. It was so much more engaging than your standard history book because it looked at the fabric of everyday life in the ancient world. You could feel the streets of the cities come to life and the characters of the books seemed real.

What was most surprising was that I was actually learning from these books. When I got to University and took my first survey course on the ancient world, I knew a lot more than my peers did. I had a head start because I loved these historical mysteries.

So I thought I would share with the world some of my favorite historical mystery series set in the world of ancient rome

Roma Sub Rosa Series by Steven Saylor 

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This series follows the life of Gordianus. He is a finder, which is essentially a private detective for hire. The story spans from his beginnings as a young detective to his elderly years with his children (and grandchildren!). As with most historical fiction, he meets famous people like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. And he curries favor by solving mysteries along the way. Definitely not PG though – kiddies beware!

Marcus Didius Falco and Flavia Albia Mysteries by Lindsey Davis 

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The original series follows Marcus Didius Falco, an informer. He is an independent detective, but he is often asked to investigate things by the Emperor (and you can’t really say no to the Emperor). It is set during the reign of the Flavian dynasty, which means Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. What is so compelling about this series is that he is often sent to other parts of the Empire to solve mysteries. So you get to see the everyday life of romans in the provinces, which is not always common in this historical mystery genre. He is also a very sassy character and the writing has a lot of quick wit.

Lindsey Davis then recently started a new series, following the life of Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia. An orphan, found in a brothel in Londinium, she follows in the footsteps of her adopted dad and becomes an informer in Rome. There are only a couple books out in this series, but I look forward to the rest!

Plinius Secundus Series by Bruce Macbain

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This series follows Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, solving mysteries and bringing murderers to justice! Since the main character is an actual person who lived during that time, you’ll find that this series is more tame than the other two in terms of its artistic liberties. The story is fake though, so don’t be fooled by the real people!

SPQR Mysteries by John Maddox Roberts 

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Unlike many of the series I have mentioned before, this series is narrated by a Senator – Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, to be specific. It is written as a flashback and it gives us an “in” with the lives of the rich in Rome as an equal. So it shows you a different perspective of Roman life.

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I think you should have enough reading material now to last you awhile. For those of you who are more interested in Ancient Egypt or Ancient Greece, I apologize. I know this is very one sided, but Ancient Rome was my first love.

Please feel free to add historical mysteries in other time periods that you think I should check out or add your own favorites!

Let’s share the love guys.

Is Historical Accuracy Worth The Price?

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What would you pay for a historically accurate movie or TV Show? This is a question constantly asked by people involved in the production of historical entertainment for the big and little screen. It often costs quite a lot of money to make sure that everything is period perfect and this may be why a lot of productions cut corners in this department. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the need to adapt a story for entertainment purposes and in some cases it does make the historical figures more interesting. Maybe it’ll even inspire people to look up the real historical facts.

But what if putting a little extra work actually makes a difference?

Case study 1 – HBO’s Rome

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A cult favorite, this TV show is often cited as a reasonably good representation of what Ancient Rome would have been like. Even one of my professors at university recommended it to us. Not for the plot though, but for the attention to detail in the show. You must, of course, keep your skeptical goggles on, but the sets and props are pretty spectacular.

Unfortunately, it had a very short life span, with only two seasons under its belt. A shame for those who love ancient rome and quality entertainment. The main reason for the shut down seemed to be cost, which seems not to be a problem now for HBO with shows such as Game of Thrones. Rumors have spread that if Rome had been as popular then more “attention” would have been given to the show. However, this becomes a chicken vs egg debate that has been run into the ground for years.

Case study 2 – Showtime’s The Borgias 

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The Borgias follows the “reign” of Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish nobleman who rises through the ranks of the church to become Pope. We also see the lives of his children, estranged wife, and mistress in a decadent Renaissance Italy. Although nobody really knows what the Borgias were like, it does paint a pretty picture of the lives of Italy’s most notorious family. Let’s be honest here, it’s mostly costume and set porn, but it does reflect very much the time that we see in Boticelli paintings or the work of Nicolo Machiavelli (who was a big fan of Cesare Borgia, by the way). I can guarantee that they were able to do this with a substantial amount of investment. Is it historically accurate? Probably not, but at least it makes an effort to look like it. This is the same network that made The Tudors, after all.

The question is, would they have made such an investment if the story itself wasn’t so exciting.  The premise of the show is that the Borgias are “the original crime family.” This implies violence, sex, and intrigue. Would any network want to invest in an historical drama that didn’t have these things?

My point is that history can be exciting and it would be a shame if it got completely lost in the glitz of hollywood entertainment. If only all studios and networks invested a little more effort in historical accuracy then all of us would be happy.

Bonus – Historically Accurate Disney Princesses from Buzzfeed

What have the Romans ever done for us?!

Some people may have noticed that the scientific/archaeological/historical community has gone a little crazy recently due to the discovery of a large amount of lead in the ground in an archaeological area of the city of Rome.

What does this mean?

Nothing at all. To be honest, this discovery only serves to confirm what we’ve known for a very long time. Life expectancy was very short in the time of the Roman Empire.

Much like the Second World War and asbestos, lead was used on everything during the time of the Ancient Romans. This was before science could have informed them of the unhealthy effects – like death. That’s why I am so unsurprised by the findings. Lead pipes were an essential building material back then, especially for aqueducts and their elaborate plumbing system.

It really reminds me of this :

The argument seems to be that this is a main reason for the fall of the Roman Empire. Although I’ve seen plenty of  counter arguments, emphasizing that there is no indication of deterioration of mental or physical health as a result of leaded water.

Inbreeding within the senatorial elite took care of that.

Caligula : The poster child against inbreeding

Caligula : The poster child against inbreeding

This topic was of double interest to me because I’m currently reading the book Pompeii by Robert Harris. It’s about a young Aquarius, the engineer in charge of an aqueduct, and his quest to repair an aqueduct, while racing against the clock before Vesuvius erupts. The interesting part is the detailed description of how the plumbing system works.

Now, I know the book is fictional, but the research seems reasonably solid. I was struck by how impressive these structures were, but also how fragile the system was. One breach along an aqueduct and the whole thing goes down with a bang.

Quite a gamble!

The point is that everything back then was dangerous and finding extra lead in the ground is the not the Rosetta Stone to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Bonus

“Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life,” and other wisdom from Pompeii

The quote in the title is quite ironic, considering that we all know what happened to the city of Pompeii. It’s actually a graffiti preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius.

They were poets back then too!

If you didn’t realize already, last night I went to see the movie Pompeii, with Kit Harington and Emily Browning.

Let me just begin by saying that it was an entertaining movie. It’s a summer blockbuster…in winter. I’m not sure why they decided to release a fictionalized story about the last hours of the city, but there it is.

NOTE : If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, be ready to see Jon Snow all grown up – shiny 6 pack and all.

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Nothing wrong with a little bit of eye candy, but as a history nerd it is my duty to point out the major historical inaccuracies.

You’re welcome 🙂

S.P.Q.P – For the Senate and People of….Pompeii? 

One glaring thing that basically ruined the entire movie for me was the supposed warfare between the people of Pompeii and that of Rome.

Emily Browning’s character, Cassia, says “I am not a Roman – I am a citizen of Pompeii.”

Now it’s true that the Romans were not always appreciated, particularly in those provinces under direct Roman rule. However, if you were within the boundaries of the Empire, not a slave, and born to a Roman family – you were a Roman citizen.

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Her family was also very wealthy and her father was clearly the government official of Pompeii. This would have meant that he either was educated in Rome or was sent to Pompeii for his diplomatic posting.

So no matter how much you whine Cassia, you are still a Roman citizen!

That’s all I have to say.

Purple is more than just a color 

Purple was the color of the Emperor and Senatorial elite.

So why was this guy wearing it?

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This is the best photo I could find, but his tunic underneath his armour is purple.

NOTE: Senators wore white togas with a purple sash. Emperors could wear entirely purple outfits.

He seems to be neither.

 Just for fun 

If you haven’t already, I would highly suggest you look at this list of Pompeii Graffiti – it’s hilarious, but NSFW so beware!  The brothel graffiti is especially funny!

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All in all, the movie was entertaining, but the historical reality is so much more interesting!

How I Lost My Appetite Trying Ancient Roman Recipes

There I was, thinking about what I should do for my next blog post, when it struck me that I hadn’t seen anybody try out Ancient Roman recipes. Lots of websites listing them, but not many testing them.

Well, now I know why!

Ancient Roman Food

So what did the Romans eat? Well it turns out that they had a very basic diet – at least by modern standards. They didn’t have the array of spices or produce available to us on a daily basis unless you were rich (Ah globalism!).

However, much like Italian cuisine today, they made their food interesting by adding sauces to their meat or fish. A traditional meal was divided into three courses: gustus (appetisers), cena (main course), and secondus (dessert).

If you were unlucky enough to be born poor,  you were probably stuck with some form of porridge or bread. This would be made with your allotment of grain. Each Roman citizen was entitled to a certain amount of grain from the harvest collected from all over the empire, but mostly from Egypt.

Side note: Some historians believe that this was one of the main factors for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When Rome was deprived of access to Egypt – its “bread basket”- it became hard to feed the people and, more importantly, the army.

Fresco found in Pompeii

Fresco found in Pompeii

After my research, I thought it would be easy to replicate some of these dishes. I was also fortunate enough to find an entire website dedicated to modern versions of ancient recipes (which you can find here).

So here are my attempts at cooking, Ancient Roman style:

Mulsum (Honeyed wine) 

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Recipe:

1. Warm a half cup of clear honey

2. Add it to your mug of white wine and mix

You can either choose to drink it warm or let it cool. It should look a little something like this:

Modern Mulsum

Modern Mulsum

It actually didn’t turn out too bad. I finally understood why Romans were famous for their parties! You could get drunk quite easily if there were constantly flowing pitchers of this.

They might have also added honey to their wine because it would easily disguise the awful taste of bad wine!

Side note: The Romans often added water to their wine, which puts the whole drinking thing into perspective…

Pine nut sauce 

Romans were famous for their sauces and most of the time it was made with ingredients that were close to home. In this case, it’s pine nuts! They would serve it as a dipping sauce with hard-boiled eggs, but you could do it with anything really.

Pine nut sauce

What you’ll need:

2 ounces of pine nuts

3 tablespoons of vinegar

1 teaspoon of honey

Recipe:

1. Soak the pine nuts in the vinegar for 3-4 hours

2. Mix in the honey and use a blender

3. Add more honey according to your tastes and mix again

Serve it

Garum (Fish sauce) 

This was a very popular sauce in Ancient Rome and was a staple of most meals. It is essentially a sauce made from fermented fish.

Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?

Well I didn’t really think about it before trying to make it.

I was basing my experiment on a modern recipe provided by the PBS website (link earlier in the post). This was my clever way of skipping over the fermentation process…

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I looked up the recipe and it only listed 2 ingredients: grape juice and anchovy paste.

This should have been my first warning.

I should also mention that I did not pay heed to the skeptical glances from my cooking consultant, Bob.

So there I was cooking down the grape juice to a concentrated amount until it was finally ready for the anchovy paste……

…..my nostrils were violently assaulted by the putrid salty-fish smell.

This was when I realized that I had made a mistake.

Stupidly, I decided to taste it anyway….

Surprise!

Surprise!

You can imagine the rest…

Happy Dining!

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