What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us? Christmas Edition

Nice little feature on Classical elements in Christmas … according to Matthew Nicholls at Reading (so it’s got a scholar behind it!) … via the University of Reading:

When opening your presents or enjoying a night out this Christmas spare a quick thought for the Romans. We owe much of our festive fun to them.

The Romans celebrated the winter festival of Sigillaria on 23rd of December, part of their Saturnalia¹ festivities. Just like on Christmas Day, Sigillaria saw presents exchanged. So how does Sigillaria compare to a modern day Christmas? And can we say that the Roman’s invented Christmas?

Dr Matthew Nicholls, a senior lecturer of classics at the University of Reading, has explored the work of Martial² and Seneca, writers of the time, and found striking similarities including gifts of ugly but warm ‘jumpers’, ‘Kindlesque’ portable storage for books and even a Roman bah-humbug!

Dr Nicholls is the creator of Virtual Rome, an ambitious digital model of the entire ancient city of Rome.
Gifts

That’s just what I always wanted

“The poet Martial’s work indicates that gift recipients would have faced similar ‘reaction’ issues to our own. Quality of presents varied enormously. The traditional present for the Saturnalia was some nuts – not unlike old fashioned handful of walnuts in a Christmas stocking. Martial mentions ‘gifts given and received’ some of which sound rather familiar.

“Fish-sauce, jars of honey, bottles of wine, toothpicks, a pencil case, perfume, a flask encased in wicker-work and clothing – even an item that sounds like an ugly but warm Christmas sweater…a ‘shaggy nursling of a weaver on the Seine, a barbarian garment … a thing uncouth but not to be despised in cold December … that searching cold may not pass into your limbs … you will laugh at rain and winds, clothed in this gift’. (Ep. 4.19)

The Roman Kindle that could store the entire Iliad

“Many of us will be hoping for or a Kindle or similar come Christmas Day. Well carrying large amounts of literature was also an issue for the Romans. A scholar would have wished for a Kindle equivalent…which was available!

“Roman books were traditionally scrolls of papyrus – fragile, bulky, and not very practical for travellers. Martial sings the praises of a novel form of book, the sewn-leaf codex, made of tough parchment (ancestor of all of today’s books), and ideal for someone who wants to carry a lot of literature around in a small volume.

“He boasts that a single codex can hold the entire Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, or the whole of Livy’s multi-volume history ‘which my whole library does not contain’. These Roman ‘Kindles’ were ideal for taking on journeys -‘this parchment shall be your travelling companion. Imagine you are taking a journey with Cicero because they are light, tough, and pack a lot in’.”

It was still the thought that counted

“It’s warming to hear that the festive spirit was alive 2000 years ago. Martial tells us that the quality of a friendship can’t be measured by the value of the gifts, and even tells recipients of his cheap presents that he’s been ‘mean’ to save them the expense of buying something expensive in return (Ep. 5.59: ‘people who give much, want to receive much in return’). Simple presents were a token of friendship.
Party Time

Did the Romans get into the party spirit early too?

“Just like our festive season, it seems that the whole of Rome geared up early for Sigillaria. Seneca noted: ‘It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations’. (Ep. 18.1).”

What tipple might they have enjoyed on the 23rd?

“There was no ‘set’ seasonal beverage. Wine was very much to the fore. Martial tells of ‘raisin wine, wine flavoured with pitch, honeyed wine, a not very good wine for serving to one’s freedmen. Even a special wine for loosening the bowels’…”

A Roman Scrooge….

“Of course not everyone embraced the Christmas sprit. As today, some people found it all a bit too bit much. The elder Pliny, the bah-humbug of his time, even had a special set of rooms in his house he could retreat to in order to hide from the festivities! (Ep.2.17.24).

And did the Romans invent Christmas?

“The works of Martial and his contemporaries tell us that Roman festive celebrations were in some ways not that different to what we enjoy today. Indeed many of those traditions can be traced back to that period. We know that during the conversion to Christianity the Romans weren’t keen to end the fun and tradition enjoyed during their annual pagan festival, so traces of Saturnalia celebration may survive in the Christian celebration of Christmas – and many cultures celebrate a winter festival at this darkest, coldest time of the year.

“It’s hard to say definitively who invented Christmas but how about raising a glass to the Romans this year. We can be sure our Christmases would be very different if it wasn’t for them.”

Perhaps more interesting for us cynical types, the article has a “notes to editors” section after it explaining some of those names and big words …

Also Seen: Greek Roots

We don’t often see newspaper articles acknowledge the contribution of ancient Greek to the English language — especially in a Canadian newspaper … a taste in medias res of an item in the Globe and Mail:

[…] In the unlikely event that you are asked to strip naked in a gym by a philologist, don’t freak out. The word “gymnastics” descends from its Greek parent gumnazo, which means “train naked” and comes from the word gumnós – “naked.” In ancient Greece, exercises were often performed in the nude, and at one time Olympic track meets were run in the buff because it was believed that the sun was soothing to the nerves of the back. While in practice sessions, the modern gymnast performs calisthenics, vigorous exercises to improve muscle tone and fitness. This term blends the Greek stem kalli, which means “beauty,” with the Greek word for strength, sthenos.

The Greek word for contest is athlon, and this has bequeathed to us four Olympic sports: the decathlon (10 events), the heptathlon (seven events), the pentathlon (five events) and the triathlon (three events). The pentathlon, in which contestants compete in shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and cross-country running, has an interesting history. The choice of these sports was based on the legend of a warrior who, having to convey a message to the rear of the fighting forces, had to battle on horseback with his pistol and sword. However, because his horse was killed in the struggle, he had to swim and run to complete his mission. […]

… we appear to have been given license to tell people to strip naked; use it responsibly!😉

A Whispering Column of Jerash in Queens

Checking into a somewhat nutty item sent me to an interesting item from the New York Public Library a few months ago … some excerpts:

The Whispering Column of Jerash stands quietly in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. Many people walk pass this ancient treasure not realizing that it dates back to 120 A.D. Many do not know that this column is the second oldest outdoor antiquity monument behind the famed Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park.

The inscription on the plaque states:

“This column was presented to the New York Worlds Fair and the City of New York by his Majesty King Hussein of the Hachamite Kingdom of Jordan on the occasion of Jordan’s participation in the Fair. The column was received by the Hon. Robert Moses, President, New York World’s Fair 1964-65 Corp. This is one of many columns in a temple erected by the Romans in 120 A.D. that stood in the Roman City of Jerash. The columns are known as the Whispering Columns of Jerash.”

Details of the Column

The Whispering Column of Jerash stands 30 feet tall, topped with a Corinthian capital. The Column is located east of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. During the New York World’s Fair 1964-65, the Jordanian Pavilion stood adjacent to the column. The Kingdom of Jordan gifted the column so that the column would serve as a permanent monument in the post-Fair park (NY Worlds Fair records, 1964-65, box 278)

This tells only part of the story. The column was transported over 5,700 hundred miles from Jerash, Jordan, to become an attraction of the New York World’s Fair 1964-1965.

[…]

The Whispering Columns of Jerash are part of the temple of Artemis. Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, and the twin of Apollo. She is the goddess of the hunt, known to assist in childbirth.

When you stand in the middle of the temple and whisper, the sound of your voice reverberates. Whispering galleries or amphitheaters that are naturally curved may result in the effect of having your voice bounce off the walls.

[…]

Note to self: look into ancient ‘whispering galleries’ … I thought they were a Renaissance thing.

Whispering Column of Jerash: 120 AD

Whispering Column of Jerash: 120 AD (Photo credit: Rebexta)

Romans in China Redux

Folks who follow me on Twitter (for whatever reason) know that I spent much of yesterday returning to using Thunderbird as my email program of choice, during the course of which I came across assorted things which I had put aside to check out later, etc.. Among those items was the oft-repeated story about people from the Chinese village of Liqian being descended from Crassus’ troops. Every couple of years, we’d get a story — such as this one from ANSA back in 2005, this one from Xinhua from 2005, and this one from the Telegraph back in 2007 — in which we’d hear about genetic tests to prove or disprove such. It seems the testing was done and the results were published, but for some reason, the press doesn’t seem to have been interested in them (near as I can tell).

Here’s the relevant abstract:

The Liqian people in north China are well known because of the controversial hypothesis of an ancient Roman mercenary origin. To test this hypothesis, 227 male individuals representing four Chinese populations were analyzed at 12 short tandem repeat (STR) loci and 12 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). At the haplogroup levels, 77% Liqian Y chromosomes were restricted to East Asia. Principal component (PC) and multidimensional scaling (MDS) analysis suggests that the Liqians are closely related to Chinese populations, especially Han Chinese populations, whereas they greatly deviate from Central Asian and Western Eurasian populations. Further phylogenetic and admixture analysis confirmed that the Han Chinese contributed greatly to the Liqian gene pool. The Liqian and the Yugur people, regarded as kindred populations with common origins, present an underlying genetic difference in a median-joining network. Overall, a Roman mercenary origin could not be accepted as true according to paternal genetic variation, and the current Liqian population is more likely to be a subgroup of the Chinese majority Han.

… oh well.

Vatican

Something I’ve always wondered about, but never long enough to actually look up, is the origin of the word ‘Vatican’ … A piece in CathNews saves me a bit of trouble:

Sanctified by what is believed to be the site of Peter’s martyrdom and burial, this ground was numinous even in pagan days. First, it was a place where Etruscan prophets “vaticinated” (prophesied) which gave it the name “Vatican”. Then, it was sacred to the mother goddess Cybele, honoured by a corps of dancing eunuchs.

So it is the home of ‘vates’ … I won’t make the obvious comment about eunuchs …