Thursday, 16 May 2013
It's all too easy to stare up at some great Roman building and ponder its engineering and its longevity, but how often do we consider how much it cost? The Romans, just like us, existed in a world of liquidity, needing to find money to build private and public infrastructure and buildings - and these things didn't come cheap. At the time of Pliny, Rome was served by nine aqueducts, the newest of which, the forty-five mile long Aqua Claudia, had been completed in 52AD at the cost of 350-million sesterces - that's as much as $8.75-billion folks - which is an enormous amount of public money. Mind you, it could deliver 185,000 cubic metres of water to Rome each day, so it's drain on the public purse was symptomatic of Rome becoming the largest consumption city in the world would see until the rise of the modern European and North American consumption cities in the late 19th-century. For more on Roman consumption you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
We seem to think all the problems with a modern consumer economy are something new...something that hasn't happened before. The traffic jams, the damage to the environment, the almost pointless moving of something somewhere just because it can...well, take heart, in 78AD Pliny didn't think things were any better.
'Nature is levelled. We carry off materials which were meant to be a barrier between nations, ships are built and thus mountain ranges are carried here and there over the waves, Nature's wildest domain. When we hear the prices fetched and the volume's transported by sea and road, let each of us reflect how many people's lives would be happier without these!'
Sounds like someone had just got stuck behind a slow wagon on a long road. For more on Roman transport you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
I'm annoyed, really annoyed. All right maybe just a little bit peeved. Why? Well, I just can't believe that every time someone does a documentary, movie or TV series on the fall of the Roman Republic - supposedly awing us with their incredible level of details and research - they give us a black-haired Julius Caesar with a five o'clock shadow at two in the afternoon. I mean really, how much credence can we put in a show when they're not even bothered to get the basics right. Stanley Kubrick got it wrong in 1960 with Spartacus and it's been a downhill slope ever since. So let's get this settled, Julius Caesar was fair skinned, he was at least six feet tall, he had dark brown eyes and his hair was blonde...although by his forties it was receding. Now would it be that hard to find an actor that looks like that? That's half of Hollywood right there.
And here's the bigger problem, most of us have a preconception of what a Roman looks like...short, beak-nosed, olive complexion with a constant need to shave. The trouble is, the Italian peninsular was populated by all kinds of people, including the Romans who originated in Celtic Austria. So to put things bluntly, the average Roman probably looked a lot more like the present day French and Irish, while those with black hair and darker skin had Etruscan origins. So who were the Etruscans? Well, that's another movie, involving a big horse and Brad Pitt...but don't get me started. You can find out more about the Romans by reading 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Sunday, 12 May 2013
Two thousand years down the track we don't often hear anything good about the Romans, do we? They threw Christians to the lions, they watched violent and bloody spectator sports, they kept slaves and they had orgies. Not a good cultural position, I admit, but are we just throwing stones around our own glass houses?
Think about this. There were some Roman Christians executed by the various Roman authorities, probably hundreds, perhaps thousands. But since the end of the Western Roman Empire, Christians have been killing millions of other Christians, many of those in just the last century...but we don't focus much on that, do we?
The Romans had a callous disregard for life - sending men and women to die in the Arena. Well, what about the twelve school and college kids who die each year playing football? Or the 32, 885 people killed on US roads (and the 2,239,000 who are maimed) each year? Not a whole lot of condemning modern society for our own callous disregard for life is there?
The Romans kept slaves, lots of them, but at least they had a culture that gave their servants and workers their freedom. We might call low wage workers something else these days, but will the tens of millions toiling away in Asian sweatshops to make our high-end clothes and fashions be given their freedom from poverty any time soon?
And those rich and famous Romans who had orgies? Anyone read a tabloid lately? Wealth and behaviour outside of social norms is still happening, it never went away, and it was around a long time before the Romans showed up.
So even though we might think we're so much better than the Romans, I'm sad to say they thought and reasoned with the same minds we use today, and what ever they did, we still do - all we've done is change the time and place. For more reading on the ordinary Roman lifestyle - checkout 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Thursday, 9 May 2013
Comparing ancient currency values with modern money is a rocky ride. A frequently used model for present day comparisons is the 'Big Mac' principle, where the cost of a certain internationally available burger can be compared by country to country and by each country's currency...in this way we can roughly guesstimate the buying power of our currency in a foreign environment. Obviously the Romans didn't have Big Macs, but we can still find parallels with some of the pricing. For starters, the Romans bought bread, just like we do - by the loaf. They also drank wine by the glass, just like we do. They also paid rent.
In the 1st-century BC a family-sized loaf of bread cost half a sesterce (2-as). My local bakery charges $5.60, suggesting one sesterce is worth $11.20.
A cup of Roman wine also costs 2-as. In my town, a glass of wine usually starts at about $8.00 suggesting one sesterce is worth $16.00.
Renting a Roman apartment would cost 38-sesterces/week, in this part of the country $400/week is common. This would suggest one sesterce is worth $10.50.
On that average of three prices, it looks like a 1st-century BC sesterce was worth $12.56 (relevant to me) - which would mean one denarius was worth $50.26, and one talent of silver was worth $251,333.33. Now in your part of the world your own currency might have different cost comparisons, and just like us, the Roman economy had inflationary pressures, which changed values from era to era. By the 1st-century AD when Pliny the Elder was around, it looks like the sesterce may have been worth something closer to $25. So considering how much our own currencies can change in value over the course of a few decades, don't underestimate how much the value of a sesterce changed over a few hundred years. For more on Roman currency read 'Ad Lib' available from Amazon, just follow the links
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
They hang around most corporate headquarters and seats of government, but speech writers never seem to get the acclaim their speeches often do. But the ancients weren't shy about purchasing 'oratory art' - Isocrates, one of the ten Attic orators once sold a speech for 20-talents (that's 100,000 denarii or...$10-million). Not bad for a 3rd-century rhetorician who started out as courtroom speech writer for hire. For more on Roman law, read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links
Tuesday, 7 May 2013
As a rule all Roman aristocrats were expected to complete some sort of military service. Most did so as teenagers, fulfilling a one year term of 'national service' as junior officers the year they turned eighteen. Those who found army life agreeable tended to come back for more, while circumstances such as a land invasion of Italy by Hannibal gave others no choice. One such patrician who enjoyed a battle or two was Marcus Sergius. He rose to fame during the Second Punic war against Hannibal between 218BC and 201BC. During this time he was wounded twenty-three times, losing his right hand completely, while his left hand and both feet were too badly injured to be of any use. Still, not one to let the team down, he fought four battles with only his disabled left hand, during which time two horses were cut down underneath him. According to Pliny, Sergius had a right hand fashioned from iron and using this prosthetic he "raised the siege of Cremona, saved Placentia and captured twelve enemy camps in Gaul." He in turn was twice captured by Hannibal, but escaped both times - despite his lack of mobility and being chained day and night for twenty months. Hard to believe no one's made a movie about him yet. For more on Roman warfare, read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links