Cleopatra’s Death: Another Theory

The incipit of a brief item in the Telegraph:

The Queen of the Nile ended her life in 30BC and it has always been held that it was the bite of an asp – now called the Egyptian cobra – which caused her demise.

Now Christoph Schaefer, German historian and professor at the University of Trier, is presenting evidence that aims to prove drugs and not the reptile were the cause of death.

“Queen Cleopatra was famous for her beauty and was unlikely to have subjected herself to a long and disfiguring death,” he said.
He journeyed with other experts to Alexandria, Egypt, where they consulted ancient medical texts and snake experts.

“Cleopatra wanted to remain beautiful in her death to maintain her myth,” he says on the Adventure Science show screened by the German television channel ZDF.

“She probably took a cocktail of opium, hemlock and aconitum. Back then this was a well-known mixture that led to a painless death within just a few hours whereas the snake death could have taken days and been agonising.” […]

via Cleopatra died of drug cocktail not snake bite – Telegraph.

Hopefully we’ll hear more about this … back in 2004 there was an item in the Times in which a forensic expert suggested it would have likely taken two hours for Cleopatra to die by the bite of an asp:

Feature: Cleopatra and the asp

… and a year later there was an item in Acta Theologica Supplementum 7 (not sure who the author is; the link is a pdf) on the subject which also suggested aconite as a possibility.

Garum Festival

Are Classicists aware of this event in Tunisia?

The Garum summer festival was held on June 26 at the Sidi Slimane Cultural Center in Nabeul, at the initiative of the Safeguarding Association of the city. It is a gastronomic and scientific event highlights yet an unknown aspect of the ancient Roman city, Neapolis (Nabeul).

Gurum or Garon, as it was known among the Greeks was a culinary preparation made mainly of “fish, salt and herbs” and was in use in Greek cuisine from at least the 5th century BC. The production and trading of Garum lasted for at least one millennium.

On the agenda of the festival, buffet and tasting of Garum dishes, an ancient condiment made in Neapolis, in Roman times, as a sauce made from pickled fish (tuna, mackerel, sardines).

An exhibition was also scheduled to present a variety of fish sauce may be related to garum, such as Vietnamese “nuoc mam” and “pissalat niçois”.

Lectures were presented on “the benefits of Garum sauces and nuoc mam”, “the Garum amphorae and the trade of cured products”, “The Garum, the salting and the purple in Djerba, as well as the analysis of industry index of Garum and curing in Neapolis.

The festival was inaugurated with a visit to the archaeological site of Neapolis to give an overview of the industry of Garum and salted fish manufactures in Roman times.

Excavations at the site between 1995 and 2006, covering 2000 square meters carried out by a Tunisian-French team was also showcased in Neapolis, hosted salted manufacturers which date back to a time was estimated between 1st and the IV centuries AD.

These factories are second in the world after those found in Spain. They have large pools of salting with production capacity up to 138 m3. The Garum was packaged in amphorae whose remains found at the archaeological site of Neapolis, represent edifying testimonials.

The development of fishery activities in the region was facilitated by the proximity of tuna migration routes, the presence of shoals for growth of wildlife marine and numerous lakes forming natural pools.

Tunisia Online News » Nabeul organizes Garum summer festival.

Citanda: How Did the Victims of Vesuvius Die?

PLoS ONE logo
Image via Wikipedia

Since I seem to have a wonky internet connection this a.m., I’ll link to this very interesting blog post based on:

a study just published in PLoS ONE by Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, Pierpaolo Petrone, Lucia Pappalardo and Fabio Guarino, entitled Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii.

Lowell Edmunds in the Top Five!

A gin martini, with olive, in a cocktail glass.

Image via Wikipedia

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the top five books on alcohol, and Lowell Edmunds’ Martini book is there … inter alia:

5. Martini, Straight Up

By Lowell Edmunds

Johns Hopkins, 1998

In the midst of his distinguished career as a classicist, Lowell Edmunds paused to focus his critical talents on a cultural artifact packed with just as much meaning as a Minoan terracotta or an Ionic capital. Originally published in 1981 as “The Silver Bullet: The Martini in American Civilization,” Edmunds’s book finds seven meanings in the martini (among them: “The Martini Is Optimistic, Not Pessimistic,” “The Martini Is the Drink of Adults, Not of Children”) and four ambiguities (“The Martini Is Sensitive—The Martini Is Tough”). He’s not quite the cocktail snob that I am—he is willing to consider that a martini can be made from vodka—but one suspects that Edmunds does prefer his bullets straight up and very dry.

via Five Best Books on Alcohol –

… and I’m sure he doesn’t consider the horror of the ‘Appletini’ and its ilk in the Martini category either; just because it’s in a Martini glass doesn’t make it a ‘tini’ …

Infanticide at Buckinghamshire Brothel? I Doubt It …

As is typical, when life is most hectic comes the time when the most interesting bloggables start flashing past me on Twitter, Facebook, and in email. I can’t get to them all today, but I do want to quickly comment an item from the Telegraph regarding possible evidence of infanticide associated with remains of a Roman ‘brothel’ in Buckinghamshire:

An extensive study of a mass burial at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley suggests that the 97 children all died at 40 weeks gestation, or very soon after birth.

The archaeologists believe that locals may have been killing and burying unwanted babies on the site in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire.

Unwanted pregnancies were common in Roman brothels due to little contraception and Romans also considered infanticide less shocking than it is today.

Infants were not considered to be human beings until about the age of two and were not buried in cemeteries if they were younger than that.

Consequently, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.

“The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel,” Dr Jill Eyers, of Chiltern Archaeology, told the BBC.
Experts say that the number of children killed at Yewden villa in Hambleden is unusually large.

“There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials,” said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.

There is possibly some compression of thought going on here, either by the archaeologist or the journalist or both. The brothel suggestion is likely connected to a similar sort of find at Ashkelon over a decade ago, although in that situation the remains were found in the drainage system beneath a bathing complex. But there seems to be a bit of circularity going on here, no? A pile of dead babies suggest a brothel nearby. A brothel nearby suggests the babies must have been unwanted, and so killed on purpose. What I don’t understand is why if these babies were unwanted ‘ab initio’ as it were, why they wouldn’t simply have been aborted. It’s not as if the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t aware of abortion.

The babies were all found to be of roughly the same size, suggesting systematic infanticide at birth rather than death from natural causes, which would have struck infants at different ages, Dr Mays added.

… which is not really the Roman practice; not sure about native Briton-types. As far as we can tell from our sources, unwanted Roman infants were “exposed” and wouldn’t likely have been buried at all if they died.

The Hambleden site, close to the River Thames, was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman villa.
Alfred Heneage Cocks, an archaeologist, reported the findings in 1921. His report, along with photographs, and hundreds of artefacts, pottery and bones were recently rediscovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum.

The records gave precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other.

The remains are now being tested for the first time by English Heritage.

The team plans to carry out DNA tests on the skeletons in a bid to establish their sex and possible relationship to each other.

The Hambleden investigation features in a new BBC TV archaeology series, Digging for Britain presented by Dr Alice Roberts, to be broadcast on BBC Two in July and August.

An important detail which is left out of all this is the date of the Hambledon site … presumably this is the Yewden Roman Villa, as the Mill End Villa doesn’t seem to have been excavated. A page on the site tells us the date: the site was used from the first to the fourth centuries A.D.. Hopefully there is enough information in the notes from the original excavation (1912) or datable organic materic material to establish some dates for the remains. 97 infant burials sounds like a lot, but when you spread it over three centuries it isn’t so sensational. As such, while an epidemic seems unlikely,depending on how the remains are dated, one could speculate that these are all stillborn remains …

via: Romans killed babies at brothel | Telegraph

UPDATE (06/27/10): David Keys in the Independent provides a good summary of the possible explanations:

Some argue that the Hambleden complex might have been a Roman imperial agricultural administrative and processing centre serving a relatively large area. The dead infants could represent a mixture of still births, natural perinatal deaths and infanticide victims, born to women employed at the centre. Some of the infants may have been born with deformities – a fact that would have made them particularly vulnerable to infanticide.

Some archaeologists have suggested the infants were children of prostitutes serving the potentially large staff at the complex, although it would be archeologically unprecedented to find a brothel in a non-urban context.

Alternatively, the site could have had a partly religious function with the infants being the subjects of illegal rituals or even human sacrifice. Certainly newborn infants were sometimes buried as ritual foundation deposits in Roman Britain – though never in such large numbers.

… and a tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for drawing our attention to the excellent blog post on the subject over at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (Rosemary Joyce), which delves into the claims about lack of contraception and the identity of the site as a brothel:

For some background on prostitution in the ancient world:

More coverage: