This Day in Ancient History: ante diem vi kalendas septembres

ante diem vi kalendas septembres

  • Volturnalia — rites in honour of a divinity associated with fountains/waters
  • 479 B.C. — Greek forces defeat Persian forces under Mardonius at Plataea (according to one reckoning)
  • 413 B.C. — lunar eclipse which caused hesitation amongst  Athenian forces under Nikias in Sicily; the subsequent delay  ultimately led to their destruction

Roman Socks and Sandals Rereredux

Newspapers in the UK are starting to get agog over a recent find … the Telegraph seems typical:

New evidence from an archaeological dig has found that legionnaires wore socks with sandals.

Rust on a nail from a Roman sandal found in newly discovered ruins in North Yorkshire appears to contain fibres which could suggest that a sock-type garment was being worn.

Now scientists are examining the remains in the laboratory to see if it is true.

The fashion faux pas was found in a 2000-year-old “industrial estate” excavated as part of a £318 million Highways Agency scheme to upgrade the A1 between Dishforth and Leeming in North Yorkshire.

The unearthed site includes the remains of a water-powered flour mill used to grind grain and produce food for the soldiers, clothes, food remains, graves and pottery.

It also contains the evidence of the socks in 14 graves on the outskirts of the area.

Blaise Vyner, an archaeologist heading the cultural heritage team on site, said: “You don’t imagine Romans in socks but I am sure they would have been pretty keen to get hold of some as soon as autumn came along.”


Harry Mount (also in the Telegraph) writes a good accompanying column, but without giving the journalists a much-needed  lack-of-research slap-on-the-wrist:

I can quite believe the story that Romans stationed in north Yorkshire 2000 years ago wore socks with their sandals, and so kicked off an unfortunate British fashion that’s survived to the present day.

Yes, the Romans were a fantastically tough martial race with great imperial ambitions. But they were also from the hot south; the Geordie weather of Hadrian’s Wall was not for them.

35 years ago, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, at the fort of Vindolanda, archaeologists found letters to and from the legionaries there – most of them hailing from Gaul. Like anyone far away from home, they missed their wives, and their food.

The letters talk fondly of Mediterranean food and drink: Massic wine, garlic, fish, semolina, lentils, olives and olive oil. When they can’t get their favourite food imported, they have to make do with local British fare: pork fat, cereal, spices, roe-deer and venison, all washed down with beer. Walk into your local pub – things haven’t changed much.

What really gets the legionaries down, though, is the cold of Northumberland. They are desperate for “subuclae” – or vests – and “abollae”, thick heavy cloaks. The most famous letter just lists the items sent from Gaul to one freezing soldier: “Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo”; that is, “socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants”.

Socks, sandals and pants. Without them Roman Britain would not have lasted nearly half a millennium, until 410AD, when they packed their smalls and headed down south to warmer climes.

Okay … before we get to some more responsible coverage, let’s note that back in 2003, back when rogueclassicism was but a babe among blogs, the BBC had a report about a dig in London which began:

Evidence for what, by modern standards, would be considered a lack of style has been uncovered at a major archaeological dig in south London, where a foot from a bronze statue appears to be adorned with both socks and sandals.

Here’s a photo:

A couple of years later, when rogueclassicism was a bit more mature, the BBC also had:

The sartorial elegance of the Italians has been shattered, with news that woolly socks helped their ancestors’ conquest of northern England.

The evidence has emerged among archaeological objects found in the River Tees at Piercebridge, near Darlington in County Durham.

Among the items was an unusual Roman razor handle, made of copper alloy and in the shape of a human leg and foot.

The 5cm high foot is wearing a sandal with a thick woollen sock underneath. […]

… here’s a photo:

Adrian Murdoch has responded to the present hype with a good post on other evidence for the practice: Roman socks and sandals

Dorothy King responds in a similar vein as I do, with some additional details: Socks and Roman Sartorial Sins ….

… and as long as we’re on the subject, we really should highlight the BBC’s responsible coverage of the current find, which is actually about a hitherto unknown ‘industrial estate’ which may have been home to a legion:

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman industrial estate near ruins which may once have been home to a lost legion.

The site has been excavated as part of a £318 million scheme to upgrade the A1 in North Yorkshire.

It is close to a fort at Healam Bridge, which might have been used by the Ninth Hispanic Legion, which disappeared some time in the 2nd Century AD.

The find includes evidence that the Romans may have worn socks under their sandals!

The unearthed site includes the remains of a water-powered flour mill used to grind grain and produce food for the soldiers along with clothes, food remains, graves and pottery.

Cultural heritage team leader Blaise Vyner said: “We know a lot about Roman forts, which have been extensively studied, but to excavate an industrial area with a mill is really exciting.

“We hope it can tell us more about how such military outposts catered for their needs, as self-sufficiency would have been important.”
Neil Redfern from English Heritage with the remains of a horse, found under a building. Image courtesy of COI Yorkshire & Humber

The industrial area comprised a series of large timber buildings, mostly on the north side of a beck, which powered the mill.

It would have supplied the fort with goods and provisions, probably processing meat and other food, as well as flour.

It could also have developed into something of a settlement in its own right.

There is also an indication that the Roman occupants may have worn socks. Rust on the nail from a Roman sandal appears to have impressions from fibres which could suggest that a sock-type garment was being worn.

Mr Vyner added: “You only have to look up the road to Catterick to see how garrison towns are serviced by local shops. Perhaps we have something similar here.”

Economic role

Neil Redfern from English Heritage said that the discovery of the site had given a “real insight” in to the industrial processes used by the Romans.

“The time span of the remains uncovered illustrates how the site developed from a frontier fort and settlement to a more settled site with strong local economic role relating to the presence of mills along the banks of the beck.

“The complexity and depth of deposits were unexpected and the excavation team has dealt with them very professionally.”

Very little is known about the Roman fort itself, which is now a scheduled monument.

It only came to light as a result of geophysical surveys carried out in the 1990s in readiness for the A1’s planned upgrading. The line of the new road was adjusted to avoid the main site.

Gary Frost, Highways Agency project manager, said the excavation, which began in July 2009 and was completed this summer, gave experts a unique window on the past.

cf: Roman ‘industrial estate’ unearthed in North Yorkshire | BBC

… they also have a video report at:

So the upshot is that we’ve known about the Roman socks-and-sandals look for quite some time; as for this new site, hopefully we’ll find some burials nearby which can tell us a bit more about the people who lived there.

On Latin and Getting Into College

Excerpts from a lengthy article in Bloomberg, which every high school Latin teacher will, no doubt, be posting on their door/bulletin board within seconds of reading it:

When Lena Barsky picked up her first Latin text in 2004, she couldn’t have known that memorizing the phrase “canes sunt in via” (“the dogs are in the street”) would help her win a place at Brown University six years later.

The book featured a family and its dog in ancient Pompeii, and led Barsky to “The Aeneid,” the epic poem composed in Latin more than 2,000 years ago. Her “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) passion drove her to teach fourth and fifth graders at Latin summer camp. As Barsky, of Arlington, Virginia, began to explore colleges, the language gave her “occasio,” or opportunity, to contact faculty members.

Students throughout the U.S. are finding that excelling in high school Latin can propel them to the most-selective colleges, including Harvard University, whose undergraduate admission rate was 6.9 percent this year. Because so few students these days master Latin, it can help an applicant, said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

“We certainly do take notice,” Fitzsimmons said by telephone from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It can end up tipping the student into the class.”

While half of public high school students a century ago took Latin, that portion fell to about 1 percent in 1974 and was even lower at last measure two years ago, according to records maintained by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Virginia.

A Latin scholar would have excited an admissions officer 38 years ago when Fitzsimmons began his career, and “such a student today would be even a greater rarity, standing out even more,” he said.

Classics Focus

Harvard, whose motto is “Veritas,” Latin for “Truth,” received more than 30,000 applicants this year and took 2,110, Fitzsimmons said. Of 4,873 Harvard sophomores, juniors and seniors this past school year, less than 1 percent concentrated their course load in classics — a field comprising Latin and Greek language and literature, ancient history, archaeology and philosophy — said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. That contrasted with the 14 percent who went for economics, the leading choice.


Seeking Scholars

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts; the University of Chicago; and Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, all want Latin scholars in order to keep up enrollment in classics departments, admissions officials at the schools said in interviews.

Barsky’s journey was “ad augusta per angusta”– through narrow to lofty places — for the funnel to Brown is circumscribed.

Barsky, 18, said she wrote to Brown’s Joseph Pucci, who teaches classics and comparative literature, during her junior year and also met with him on campus. She exchanged e-mails with him for nine months before applying in November for early admission, she said. She was accepted, and plans to study classics and physics.

‘Expand My Thinking’

She didn’t set out to study Latin in middle school as a way to help open the door to a selective college, she said in an interview.

“I knew it would help me expand my thinking,” Barsky said. “At the time, it didn’t really occur to me that people didn’t take Latin.”

Since 1996, Pucci has been writing to applicants who tell the Brown admissions department that classics could be their major. He sent an e-mail last October to 300 students.

Pucci estimates he spends 160 hours per annum meeting with applicants, responding to e-mails, reading admission files and commenting on students who impress him. While Brown had more than 30,000 applicants this year and 9 percent won offers of admission, the odds were better for Latin scholars, according to the university.

A total of 222 applicants said classics was their probable course of study, and 26 percent won acceptance, said Panetha Ott, Brown’s associate director of admission, in an interview.


‘Hunting Grounds’

Farrell said he talks each year with 5 to 10 high school students who have taken Latin, and who find him through a Latin teacher or through his department’s website.

“They tend to get in,” Farrell said in an interview. “Many of the good New York prep schools are good hunting grounds for these kind of students.”


I have omitted a lot … this is definitely must-reading …

Odysseus’ Palace Claim

As usual, the day I’m away from my laptop some major news manages to accumulate in mailboxes, twitterfeeds, and on Facebook. At this point, the ‘best’ coverage (note the scare quotes) of this story comes from the Telegraph; skipping the intro bit:

Nearly 3,000 years after Odysseus returned from his journey, the team from the University of Ioannina said they found the remains of an extensive three-storey building, with steps carved out of rock and fragments of pottery. The complex also features and a well from the 8th century BC, roughly the period in which Odysseus is believed to have been king of Ithaca.

The location “fits like a glove” with Homer’s description of the view from the fabled palace, the archaeologists claim.

The layout of the complex, where Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos and his team have been digging for 16 years, is very similar to palaces discovered at Mycenae, Pylos and other ancient sites.

The claim will be greeted with scepticism by the many scholars who believe that Odysseus, along with other key characters from the Homer’s epic such as Hector and Achilles, were purely fictional.

“Whether this find has a connection with Ulysses or not is interesting up to a certain point, but more important is the discovery of the royal palace,” said Adriano La Regina, an Italian archaeologist.

Further complicating the identification of the site is the doubt over whether the ancient kingdom of Ithaca was located on its modern day namesake, Ithaki.

A British researcher, Robert Bittlestone, has said Homer’s descriptions bear little resemblance to the island and that ancient Ithaca was in fact located on the Paliki peninsula, on the island of Cephalonia.

He believes that Paliki was once an island, separated from the rest of Cephalonia by a marine channel that has since been filled in by rock falls triggered by earthquakes.

Enlisting the help of geologists and ancient historians, he documented the controversial theory in a 2005 book, Odysseus Unbound – The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.

The Telegraph also presents the stupidest headline of all the coverage:

In any event, the Telegraph coverage has to be supplemented with some details from ANA, which expand and also confuse the issue:

To date, the dig has uncovered remains of a three-storey building with an interior staircase cut into the side of sheer rock. Remnants of Mycenaean-era pottery were also found, along with a fountain dated to the 13 century BC. Similar fountains have been unearthed at the related sites of the acropolis of Mycenae and Tiryns , in southeast mainland Greece , and specifically in the Argolida plain in the NE Peloponnese.

Slightly different again, is Ria Novosti, inter alia:

Thanasis Papadopulos, who has been carrying out excavations on the Greek hero’s home island for 16 years, said he had discovered the remains of a three-storey palace and a well, which date back to the 13th century BC, which is when the Trojan war, described in Homer’s Iliad, is believed to have taken place.

Similar wells have been unearthed in Mycenae, 90 kilometers southwest of Athens, and in Tiryns on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the two centers of the Mycenaean civilization, which flourished between 1600 BC and 1100 BC.

A final interesting detail from the coverage by something called Island Crisis, inter alia:

Thanasis Papadopulos, the lead archaeologist of the group, said that he knew the right place of the remains since 2006. The team found the ruins of a three-level palace with a staircase carved into the rock. A well dating back to the 13th century BC (around the Trojan War era) was also found at the site.

It was also announced that after the discovery, the Greek ministry of Culture provided more funding to the continuity of the Ithaca excavation project.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to look at so many variations in coverage to get close to the ‘full story’. The Telegraph report seems to have dropped the ball in regards to the date, confusing the time of the probable composition of the Odyssey with the dating of the remains. With that out of the way, we seem to be dealing with some probably important Mycenean remains on Ithaka that appear to include a palatial structure. That in itself is significant, as Adriano La Regina, has suggested. Obviously it doesn’t ‘prove’ the existence of Odysseus, but I suppose if you want to attach a name to a palace, that would be the one to attach if you want to attract tourists and government funding.

Now for the backstory: the Telegraph piece does sort of hint at the ‘politics’ lurking behind this discovery, though. Back in 2005 or so, Robert Bittlestone came out with his book Odysseus Unbound, which suggested that the geography of Kephalonia included a bit called Paliki (which was theorized to once have been an island) that ‘fit’ Homer’s description better than long-standing belief that Ithaka was on Ithaki. The book was hyped a bit, and it was clear that Bittlestone was yet another ‘outsider’ taking on the archaeological establishment. The book was panned by Mary Beard. Interestingly, coinciding with these early reports, there was a passing report that the tomb of Odysseus had been found on Kephalonia as well. Nonetheless, about a year later, the BBC was hyping the theory, because of plans to use geology to add weight to theory. The geological testing appeared to confirm the detail that the Paliki peninsula on Kephalonia had, in fact, once been an island although the dating of when it ceased to be an island is somewhat confusing (5000 B.C.? … there was some badmouthing of the study prior to its official release). Two years ago (today!) we began to hear of digs on Ithaka to ‘reclaim’ Odysseus, and complaints about funding …

I think that brings everyone up to speed; it does seem that potential tourism is driving the archaeology on this one, while an ‘outsider’s challenge’ is being kept alive for ‘nationalistic’ reasons (I suspect). Clearly this will soon be a documentary of some sort, if it isn’t already.

More coverage:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem viii kalendas septembres

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Image via Wikipedia

ante diem viii kalendas septembres

  • Opiconsivia — rites in honour of Ops, an old Italian earth deity and usually considered the spouse of Consus
  • 79 A.D. — death of Pliny the Elder in the wake of the eruption at Pompeii
  • 325 A.D. — Council of Nicaea comes to an end, having come up with the Nicene Creed, the ‘Twenty Canons’, etc..

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem ix kalendas septembres

A map showing the cities and towns affected by...
Image via Wikipedia
ante diem ix kalendas septembres

  • rites in honour of Luna at the Graecostasis
  • mundus patet — the mundus was a ritual pit which had a sort of vaulted cover on it. Three times a year the Romans removed this cover (August 24, Oct. 5 and November eighth) at which time the gates of the underworld were considered to be opened and the manes (spirits of the dead) were free to walk the streets of Rome.
  • 72 A.D. — martyrdom of Batholomew at Albanopolis
  • 79 A.D. — Vesuvius erupts, burying Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae
  • 410 A.D. — Alaric sacks Rome
  • 1971 — death of Carl Blegen (excavator of Pylos)
  • 1997 — death of Philip Vellacott

Pompeii and Sodom and/or Gomorrah

The July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has a very interesting article by Herschel Shanks about Jewish oracles relating to the destruction of Pompeii. A useful summary can be found in the Jerusalem Post, post alia:

[…] Shanks recently told The Jerusalem Post that the idea to examine a connection between the two events came to him on a tour of the ruins of the Roman city located in the vicinity of modern-day Naples.

“On my own visit to Pompeii, I tried to find out when the destruction of the Temple occurred,” Shanks relates. “When I learnt of the supposed date, I thought, ‘Hey I wonder if anyone has connected the two.’” Shanks, described by the The New York Times as “probably the world’s most influential amateur Biblical archaeologist,” said he called Harvard’s Shaye Cohen, who directed him to Book 4 of the Sibylline Oracles, a text composed by “mostly Jewish oracles” shortly after the eruption.

The book first mentions the destruction of the Temple, and then seemingly refers to the Vesuvius eruption: “When a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth [Vesuvius] In the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven It will burn many cities and destroy men.

Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky And showers will fall from heaven like red earth.

Know then the wrath of the heavenly God.”

The second piece of evidence cited by Shanks is ancient graffiti etched onto a fresco at a Pompeii building. The grafitti reads “Sodom and Gomorra.”

In Shanks’s opinion, the text is proof that a Jewish visitor to the ruins believed its fate followed that of the two sin cities that the Bible says were destroyed by God.

In any case, if the destruction of Pompeii was an act of divine retribution, then some Jews were also caught up in his vengeance. It is almost certain there were some Jewish individuals, perhaps a fullyfledged Jewish community in Pompeii, that perished along with the city’s gentiles.

Shanks said a fresco of King Solomon, the most ancient depiction of a biblical scene, is located not far from where the Sodom and Gomorra graffiti was found.

Also, relates Shanks, a vase with what some believe is an ancient kashrut stamp has been found in the famous ruins.

For Jews elsewhere, it is easy to imagine how news of the catastrophe at Pompeii would have been greeted with joy in light of the devastating defeat they had suffered only a few years earlier.

“It attacked the core of Roman society and, as if to emphasize the point, it extended all the way to Rome,” Shanks said. “You had the scary white and dark soot as far as Rome. There’s very good reason to conclude there was a perceived connection and in the eyes of some, God was clearly at work.”

It’s rather nice that the full article is also this particular issue’s freebie:

While I like the idea of the oracle as a retrojective prophecy, the thing I can’t buy into are the comments on the Sodom and Gomorrah graffito. The JPost summary gives the impression that people visited the site of Pompeii shortly after Vesuvius was done with its wrath. I didn’t think he really meant that but in the online version of the article:

One such person came back to a house in an area of Pompeii designated today as Region 9, Insula 1, House 26. After having walked through the desolation of the city, he (unlikely to be a “she”) looked about and saw nothing but destruction where once there had been buildings and beautifully frescoed walls. Disconsolate and aghast, he picked up a piece of charcoal and scratched on the wall in large black Latin letters:

... the citation for this is:

See Carlo Giordano and Isidoro Kahn, The Jews in Pompeii Heculaneum, Stabiae and in the Cities of Campania Felix 3rd ed., Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, trans. (Rome: Bardi Editore, 2003), pp. 75–76.

… which I don’t have at hand. Will someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always been under the impression that the site was covered with between four and six metres of ash and pumice. There was nothing to ‘visit’ and scratch graffiti on AFTER the eruption …

UPDATE (August 24): In addition to Mark Davidson’s comments below, see also Jim Davila’s coverage of this item over at PaleoJudaica, which includes a link to an article (also in BAR) from a few years ago by Theodore Feder about a fresco possibly depicting Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle. The excerpt from Feder (included at Paleojudaica, but not in the abstract at BAR) is much more realistic on this one …