Sunday, 23 June 2013

Death and taxes

It shouldn't be any surprise to you that the Romans paid taxes - all those grand infrastructure projects needed cash and the average Roman was the big contributor to all those roads and aqueducts. But what did they pay? Well, for one thing, the Romans didn't have an income tax like we're used to - in fact through much of Roman history, they had a Wealth tax instead. Throughout the Republic and up until 167BC, Roman citizens paid tax based on their wealth and asset value. This tax was usually around one percent, but rose to three percent when Senate spending was forced up.

This all ended for the Roman citizens of Rome in 167BC when they were given a tax exempt status and the tax collection was limited to the provinces. The change gave us the term Tax Farmer or Publicani...these were the bad guys who purchased the rights to collect taxes and keep some of the cut. Provincial tax rates rose to four percent per month for the next 150-years and left a lot of unhappy provincials.

Augustus made tax collection the role of government during the early Imperial-era and shook things up again. The citizens of Rome retained their tax free status, but the 'for profit' Tax Farmers were replaced by regional magistrates and bureaucrats who returned the Wealth tax to one percent and enforced a new fixed Poll Tax - a per capita tax which relied on the census to identify tax payers. The Poll Tax proved pretty unpopular in some regions - the Jewish Revolt has been partially blamed on it. But how much was it? In Judea it was two denarii - or about 7.5% of the average income. Of course even if you weren't earning money you still had to come up with those two denarii, which no doubt brewed a lot of trouble. Still, troubles aside, Augustus' Poll Tax actually outlived the Roman Empire - so I guess it worked. For more on the early Imperial-era you can read 'A Body of Doubt' available from Amazon, just follow the links     

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Lock and Key

You probably take locking your house or car for granted. Not a second thought. If you ever wonder who invented those locks, chances are you think it's one of the big brands emblazoned on your key. But, hey, guess what? The mechanics for those locks was figured out more than two thousand years ago. Thanks to the Romans we have spring-loaded multiple tumbler locks, the classic key design we still use...and the padlock. Even the keyring dates to the Roman-era. And like us, they made their locks out of steel and bronze. So the next time you put your key in the door, take a moment to think someone else was doing exactly the same thing when Julius Caesar was the talk of the town. For more on Roman locks you can read 'A Body of Doubt' available from Amazon, just follow the links


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Finding the Roman Ice trade

If the Romans developed a commercial ice trade then where is the proof? Well, we may actually have some evidence for 'ice' refrigeration when we do a little lateral thinking. The Mediterranean cultures loved their seafood, and the Romans weren't any different. They began oyster cultivation on a massive scale...and some Roman-era oyster beds are still in use around the coast of Sardinia. So big was the demand for oysters across the Roman world, that Roman-era rubbish dumps are generally identified by the amount of oyster shell present. In fact oysters were the fast food of the Roman world. From Britain to Syria, roadside stalls sold oysters to famished travellers by the bucket.

The thing is, a lot of these places where oysters were sold in quantity are hundreds of miles from where the oysters were cultivated. Now a live oyster will survive about four weeks in transit - the reason oyster consumption became so widespread - but they must be kept cool. Without some way of keeping those oysters cool, a traveller in the Syrian desert would have been very brave to sample the local oyster shop. The same goes for any seafood consumed in Rome's landlocked cities - which includes Rome itself. Does this mean fresh goods were packed in ice? Or even evaporative coolers?

From a modern perspective, and presuming the Romans were just as keen not to die from food poisoning as us, then the answer once again points towards a large commercial trade of ice flowing from the northern Germanic lands, the Alps and other highlands in the Roman world...the kind of ho-hum and hum-drum of life the ancient writers never bothered to mention. But just because no one wrote about the Roman ice trade hardly excludes its explanation of the oyster industry. Food for thought, eh? For more on the Roman Ice Trade, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Roman Fridge

We've probably all heard the stories of crazy Roman emperors sending fleet-footed slaves to the mountains to collect snow for making icy wine gelatos to beat the summer heat. I'm not saying this didn't happen, but I've come to the conclusion that the savvy mass consumers of the classical age probably worked out a better way of making ice cream than this. There's not a lot of evidence for a Roman ice industry, but we do know they used ice-cellars similar to those used by the English during the 18th and 19th-Centuries. The Romans perhaps had even better technology available to them 400BC the Persians had perfected industrial sized evaporative coolers - conical apartment block-sized towers called 'Yakhchals' which could store up to 180,000 cubic feet of ice right through the year. Ice was either collected and brought on site, or was frozen on site during winter and then placed into storage.

For the Romans, getting industrial quantities of ice into city storages probably meant shipping in from northern Europe or the Alps. Again there's no evidence for this, but we know from the New England ice trade during the early 1800s that long distance ice shipping was more than possible. In fact, New England ice chipped from frozen lakes in winter was shipped 10,000-miles across the equator to the Australian goldfields - filling glasses at hundreds of hotels during the 1850s - and this was with storage technology no more advanced than that available to the classical-era. Romans wanting ice cream, sorbets and refreshing drinks would have almost certainly generated sufficient demand for this kind of trade - and I doubt ice was as rare in Rome as the crazy Emperor myths like us to believe. For more on the Roman ice industry you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Druids - the last laugh?

Whether the Druids were actively pursued from the Gallic psyche or if they were gradually usurped by new Roman administrations, one thing is fairly certain - by the end of the 1st-century AD the idea of the Druid had ceased to be - despite all of the Druid-era Gallic deities still being worshipped in one way or another. In that way we know Druids were not important to the day-to-day worshipping in Gallic temples. So maybe - more than anything - they were victims of technology? Say what? Well, an increasingly literate Gallic and British population meant fewer people were reliant on each village having a 'wise' man. There's some suggestion the influence of the Druid-caste in Celtic Gaul was already in decline by the 1st-century BC, at the same time the Gallic populous were urbanising and actively reading and writing. The degree of Gallic literacy was not underestimated by Julius Caesar - during the Gallic Wars he relied on coded missives passed through enemy lines in the fear that anything written or Greek or Latin would be recognised immediately. So was it the pen that ended the Druids? If it was, history gives the Druids one last laugh at the Romans who replaced them.

After all, what happened when the Roman Empire declined and fewer people were able to read and write? Well, they turned to village priests again, both for spiritual and intellectual guidance. One religion may have replaced another, but the tasks of a village priest in France and England returned to what they had been prior to the arrival of the Romans.

And what's more - here we are again. We all have the Internet and don't need to ask a village priest for advice again - and guess, what? We're seeing that same decline in the role of the Church in western culture. It's another example of that little paradox - 'if you wait around long enough it all happens again'. The modern day decline in western religion might actually have the same cause as the decline of Druidism  2000-years ago - when religion becomes a purely spiritual adventure rather than an intellectual one - the roles of religious leaders always seem to change, and for some that means the end to a way of life. It did then, and it might now. For more on the Druids, you can read "Vagabond", available from Amazon, just follow the links

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Druids - just what did they do?

So if the Druids weren't wandering about looking like Gandalf terrorising the local peasantry with the threat of an impromptu liver divination - what exactly were they doing? Well, if we are to believe anything Caesar says about them, the Druids were probably a lot like a medieval parish priest - even sharing the same belief in an immortal soul (check out Pythagorean Theorem). The way I see it, these guys would have shared very similar community roles and tasks to the Christian priests and monks that were to follow several centuries later - they were the intellectuals of the town, able to proffer insights into life and the afterlife, as well as offer advice on legal, moral and criminal matters. In the latter they may have been more hands on than their Christian successors, but then again, medieval priests weren't shy about condemning crimes against God.

So if this is what they did, why was Druidism driven to extinction? Well, most likely their fields of expertise were in competition with the Roman bureaucracies that followed the conquest of Gaul and Britain. The Romans wouldn't have been to keen on having two sets of laws in a town - or the locals seeking the Druid as an adjudicator rather than the Roman Praefect. You can see similar results after the French and Russian Revolutions where civilian courts and tribunals locked the modern Church out of civilian matters - it's very likely the circumstances post-Roman conquest were very much the same. Whether the Druids were actively sought out and persecuted as Tacitus described events in Britain - or if the Gallic Druids simply faded away into obscurity isn't easy to say, perhaps it was both - thanks to Caesar's mentioning of their habit of human sacrificing. If one thing's certain they would have been quickly removed from any roles in passing out criminal judgements and sentencing.

As for the question of them dressing like a wizard with a penchant for bedsheets? There's nothing to say they did or not. The Priestly colleges of Rome weren't afraid to don some pretty crazy costumes - so it's possible the Druids did wear religious robes...but did they do so all the time? I'd be tempted to say not. Most Roman priests (during the Republic) were drawn from civic life - they did a bit of auguring one day and the next they were back at home in their favourite tunic. I suspect the Druids followed suit. In the 1st-century BC, just like most other Gauls, they were probably clean-shaven with short hair - they may have carried or worn some symbol of office, but the lack of sightings of Druids in Caesar's 'Conquest of Gaul' does bear out the fact they looked just like everyone else. For more on Druids you can read "Vagabond" - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Druids - murdering religious fanatics or judges and jury?

Okay, so we've seen the Romans drew a line in the sand with the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC - defining what they were prepared to do if a neighbouring culture was a 'little too barbaric' - such as performing human sacrifices. With Carthage gone, and with later Roman historians to be believed, that pretty much left the Gauls as public enemies number one. So, based on our modern day belief of Druid sacrifices you'd think Rome would have dealt with the question of Druidism quickly. But they didn't - Rome left the Gauls to themselves until 125 BC when the Roman Senate sent forces north to help the Massilians deal with Ligurian raiders. One thing led to another and by 121 BC the Arvernian confederation had been dragged into the conflict, resulting in an army of 180,000 Arverni and allies facing off with the six legions of Quintus Fabius  Maximus. The resulting battle destroyed the Arvernian army and the following year they sued for peace, losing all of their southern territories in the process. This peace treaty still stood at the time of Caesar's Gallic conquest - and the province of Transalpine Gaul he was governing was the result of it.

The thing is, the matter of Druid barbarity was never raised during the Gallic Wars of the 2nd-century BC. Rome agreed to peaceful terms that would stand another seventy years, and the Roman Senate never pursued any claims to the complete destruction of the Arverni at the time of their greatest potential weakness. This is pretty odd considering what had happened to the presumably more culturally sophisticated citizens of Carthage.  Do we know why? Well, for one thing, Greek historians writing about the Druids during the preceding century had never mentioned human sacrifices...and in fact, the first person to suggest this practice was Julius Caesar in 50 BC - a commentator we can reasonably believe had his own agenda.

So does this mean the 'barbarity' case the Romans would build against Druidism was fabricated? A-ha, you say, but what about those peat-bog bodies found across northern Europe and Britain? These are hard evidence, right? That National Geographic TV show I saw said these might have been ritual sacrifices? Well, hold on there. The Lindow Man from England is a classic case. Here's a young man who had been rendered unconscious for a period prior to his death by a blow to the head, then garrotted, his throat cut and left to die in a swampy boundary ditch. Many archaeologists have been quick to say, "Yep, this is a classic ritual sacrifice." But what's their basis for that assumption? We only believe Druids carried out sacrifices based on a claim made by Julius Caesar...if this claim didn't exist, perhaps we would have assumed something else. You see this a common problem for modern interpretations of unexplained ancient phenomena. If there's no easy answer something quickly becomes 'ritualistic'. This is bit like your toilet roll holder being dug up in 2000-years and being labelled, 'a votive offering' - this could actually happen.

All right, so if Lindow Man wasn't sacrificed, how did he end up with a garrotte around his neck in a ditch? This is where I'm going to apply some logic rather than assume the worst. Yes, someone went to a bit of trouble to kill Mr Lindow. Now, other than human sacrificing by a Druid, why would someone have wanted to make a point of killing him? Well, since the Romans had the same cultural background as the Celtics - and used garrotting for some executions, why don't we consider for a moment that Mr Lindow was a criminal the law caught up with? Not quite as exciting as a sacrifice, but a lot more likely. And at the risk of relying on one of Caesar's descriptions of Druids while discrediting another - how about this for a theory. Caesar said the Druids, "acted as judges in nearly all disputes." This probably included crimes requiring a capital punishment, an event they may have reasonably witnessed or even carried out. Could this be the origin of the human sacrifice story? More on this next time. For more on the Druids of Gaul, you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Druids - crazy wizards, scientists or judges?

History seems to mostly give the Druids a bad rap. Roman historians wrote endlessly of the hideous forest glades filled with the blood and gore of their ritual sacrifices. And if that's not bad enough, now modern culture has them dancing around Stonehenge every solstice dressed in funny clothes doing their best to impersonate a Tolkien wizard. Sadly the 19th-century revivalism and most of the Roman commentary is so wide of the mark we will probably never know what a true Druid looked like or how they acted. In truth these guys were the intellectual pinnacles of the Celtic world, they spent decades in training - studying complex mathematics, philosophy and various sciences while committing all of it to memory. By Caesar's account they paid no taxes and were exempt from military service - evidence enough of the sophisticated culture the Gauls had created prior to the Roman conquests. But is this possible evidence they weren't the blood-thirsty human auguries that history has saddled them with?

First of all, lets fix the Druids in a time and place. Druidism appears to have originated in Iron Age Britain sometime prior to the 4th-century BC and had spread into Gaul by the 3rd-century BC when Greek historians first began mentioning their 'Pythagoran' teachings. By the time Julius Caesar arrived in 58BC, the Druid class had cemented itself as the law-givers and legal adjudicators across all levels of Gallic life. Caesar himself doesn't seem to have much of an issue with them, in fact, he even befriended some, as one powerful priest (he was the Pontifex Maximus at the time) would another - which doesn't seem to suggest he thought their practices the abomination of human existence.

Okay, so what about these human sacrifices? Well, lets get into the 'Classical' mindset. You might be thinking that's hard, but essentially, the Judeo-Christian beliefs of morality that has shaped the modern world's lists of 'good and bad' originate from the Iron Are. What we think is bad, was mostly bad back then, just as what we think is acceptable now was mostly acceptable to a Greek or Roman as well. There were some exceptions, the Romans frowned on homosexuality while the Greeks didn't, but the big things like murder, rape, theft and human sacrifices were stock standard crimes. And in the case of human sacrifices, the Romans saw this as a primary motivation for attacking their neighbours if they believed it was being practiced - a slightly strange argument if we mention Gladiators - but we'll leave that alone today.

When the Romans besieged Carthage for the third time in 146BC, one of their driving ideological reasons for what was a largely an unjustified attack was to end the child sacrifices to the Punic god, Beelzebub - if that name sounds familiar that ought to show how well Roman PR worked at the time. Now considering the Carthaginians were an advanced sophisticated Classical society with similar geographic origins to the Judeans - the chances of them still carrying out child sacrifices in 146BC seem slim, and although a child necropolis has been found in the city, there hasn't been much convincing evidence the children were ritually slaughtered.

Fast forward to Caesar's conquests of Gaul between 58BC and 51BC, and the suggestion of human sacrifice occurs again. Coincidence? Or was this Caesar building a case for his actions in Gaul, which at the time were largely unsanctioned and held to be illegal in Rome. Was that little bit of bad press he wrote enough to see the total destruction of the Celtic world's religious, science and judicial class? I guess we'll look at that next time...For more on the Druids you can read 'Vagabond' - available from Amazon, just follow the links


Sunday, 2 June 2013

What was it to be Roman?

Face it, Rome was around a long time - it was a global player for almost 1000-years - so the concept of 'being  Roman' changes repeatedly. Take a look at a Roman living around 500BC, and this is a person identified with a tiny city state in the middle of Italy. This Roman is a descendant of the same Celtics who would become Gauls in Central France and speaks a similar Celtic language - one that is fast becoming Latin. Their world extends to the farms surrounding their walled city and they still only number in the tens of thousands. To the north the Etruscan Kingdom controls much of the trade in the region, while the Greek city states are facing off with the Persian Empire.

Fast forward to 89BC and a Roman is now very different - the small city state has extended its reach across all of Italy, into southern Gaul, Spain, Greece and North Africa. After a civil war to decide the matter - to be  a Roman is almost anyone born in Italy and in the veteran communities dotted around the western Mediterranean. A Roman might speak Latin, but many now speak languages that will eventually become Italian, while others speak Greek or Etruscan. Late Republic Romans might now recall Celtic, Etruscan and Greek ancestors and they already dominate trade across much of the known world. With the fall of Carthage they know they are part of the greatest superpower in the Mediterranean - even though the Roman Republic has a population of just six million people.

Two hundred years later and the Roman Empire means 'being Roman' is largely becoming a state of mind. By now nearly 100-million people from across the North, Mediterranean and Black Sea basins can call themselves Roman. Most of these will never visit Rome - or even know someone who has. To be Roman has become something more akin to being European - or even American. Romans are African, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Gauls, Britons, Germans, Jews, Arabs, Persian, Syrian, Armenian, Pontic and Slavs. They speak hundreds of different languages and rely more on Greek than Latin as a common tongue. This is the world most Roman watchers know - so this is the one that probably best explains what it was to be Roman. These were the people of the Empire - they may have felt stronger regional and language ties with their immediate neighbours, but they paid their taxes with Imperial coins, they walked on Roman built-roads, marched in Roman armies, and lived in Romano cities sharing such a common culture that someone from the northern England city of York would just as easily find and talk their way around Syrian Damascus. That was what it was to be Roman. For more on being Roman, you can read 'A Body of Doubt' - available from Amazon, just follow the links