I Just Wanted to Write About Rome

I Just Wanted to Write About Rome

Michael Zacharatos

cw: crucifixion, self-inflicted punishment, bludgeoning, decapitation, blood rituals

In the two thousand odd years between Romulus suckling on the she-wolf and being crowned the first king of Rome, and Mehmed bringing down the walls of Constantinople in cannon fire, the Roman Empire is most admired for how long it endured. Holding onto territories from England to North Africa and the Middle East, Rome fought off incursions and civil war on every front, regularly reformed their economy and bureaucracy, amended the pantheon with every passing year, implemented surprising progressive immigration policies and career pathways for their conquered neighbours, and survived a long line of eclectic emperors. These emperors fluctuated between tyrants, philosophers, sex-fiends, those who role-played as gladiators, gluttons, puppets, romantics who created entire religions to worship deceased lovers, the occasionally competent ruler, and way, way too many child-emperors.

All of this is incredibly evocative — so evocative that there are Shakespearean dramas to never read and a low-budget HBO series to give up on when (spoiler!) Brutus shanks Caesar. However, in all these conquests and disasters it’s easy to dehumanise who these people actually were; it’s forgettable that there were ordinary citizens just looking out for their own, short-lived happiness while the politicians and generals left the forums painted in blood and intrigue. In light of this, I’ve elected to write about five disconnected but interesting facts and stories about Rome, for no other reason than I’ve spent the entire year telling my Vertigo comrades that at some point I would.

 

Rome had an effective, natural contraceptive — and fornicated it into extinction.

When Rome was still a small tribe on the seven hills, the Greek noble Battus Aristottle consulted with the Oracle of Delphi after his home island had weathered perpetual drought. Rather than telling him install a 375,000L Bluescope Steel watertank, she advised the next best thing — travel to North Africa and found a new city. Battus, not being a pushover, did just that. One trireme trip later and the local Libyans were leading Battus and his men to a place known as Apollo’s Fountain, where it rained so much it was as though there was “a hole in the sky”. Here, Battus founded the city of Cyrene and discovered the existence of an unusual herb: siliphium.

The siliphium herb had a range of uses, including as perfume, spice, and a very potent contraceptive. In fact, the anecdotal support for the herb was so great that in an essay that reads more like spam email promising to cure diabetes with green tea, ancient academic Pliny the Elder lists 39 remedial uses in The Natural History. He affectionately refers to the herb as “nature’s gift”, which it very well might have been, as it is further believed it contained aphrodisiac qualities.

However, as is the natural way of things, the older generations of Romans ruined the fun for everyone afterwards. Around 500 years after Cyrene began exporting the herb, all traces of it disappeared. Currently, blame is pinned on a combination of environmental shifts and rampant overuse which left almost no time for the seed stock to replenish. The final siliphium stalk was delivered as an “oddity” to Emperor Nero — one of the more villainous emperors — who promptly ate the stalk, dooming it to the annals of amorous history.

But siliphium wasn’t completely erased. Images of siliphium seeds have been discovered etched onto Cyrenese coins, and because of their uncanny resemblance and essential role in Roman sex lives, it is thought to be the source of one of the world’s most famous icons: the love heart.

 

Modern beef just isn’t as good.

It’s easy to believe we’re living in the high time of political beef when there are entire industries churning a profit from it. However, the reality is it doesn’t matter how many times the pollies stumble over their words — the cogs of their mind grinding away half a step behind their speech — or how banal their attempted witticisms are, because regardless Buzzfeed is sure to follow up with a listicle titled “Shorten SLAMMED Turnbull in the BEST POSSIBLE WAY”. Political beef just doesn’t compare to what it once was, such as what existed between Cicero and Mark Antony.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was an oratory mastermind whose tactics of persuasion remains a focus of linguistic studies today. Cicero was a vocal defender of the Republic even as Caesar began consolidating his dictatorship, and while he didn’t play a role in inflicting any of the 23 stab wounds on the would-be first emperor, he wished he had, saying to the conspirators, “How I wish that you had invited me to that most glorious banquet on the Ides of March!”

Marcus Antonius, commonly known as Mark Antony, served under Caesar as a general in Gaul before returning to Rome as his strongest political ally. Antony even unearthed the plot to assassinate Caesar, but was intercepted before he could warn his friend. Caesar had been extremely popular with the lower-class Romans, and after his death Antony exploited this support by seizing portions of Caesar’s property, inciting riots, and moving thousands of troops into the capital, even though Caesar had named his nephew Octavian as the true heir. Cicero then had the audacity to suggest Antony was taking unfair liberties in interpreting Caesar’s will, which for some reason upset Antony.

Cicero planned to pit Octavian and Antony against each other. In a series of fourteen defamatory speeches known as the Phillipics, each thousands of words in length, Cicero stood on the Rostra — the podium in the centre of the Forum — and began the careful character assassination of Mark Antony. He often referred to Antony as a “gladiator”, a typical insult hurled at military elites to infer they were no better than slaves given the job of killing. The bulk of his speeches focused on Antony’s moral depravity accusing him of being a careless gambler, a bankrupt, a coward, a thief, a lecher, and most prominently a drunk:

“You had swilled down so much wine at the wedding of Hippias that you had to vomit it all up the next day right before the eyes of the Roman people. What a disgusting performance, even to hear about, much less to see… [Antony] threw up and filled his own lap — and the entire dais! — with goblets of food and reeking wine!”

These tirades successfully led to Antony being declared an enemy of the state and Octavian being given the task of bringing him to justice, however in a cruel twist of fate Antony and Octavian ended up combining military forces and forming the Second Triumvirate. The Senate had no choice but to legislate their five year not-quite-so-but-essentially-was dictatorship. The Triumvirate then began the piecemeal process of proscriptions, where old enemies and political rivals were ‘removed’ — and Antony hadn’t forgotten about Cicero.

While Cicero was one of the most popular politicians of his era behind Caesar, and the public was reluctant to sell him out, he was eventually caught leaving his villa headed for a ship to spirit him to Macedonia. Cicero met his death gracefully, saying to the unknown mercenary who caught him, “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly”. He was beheaded, and his hands, the very same that penned the burns which still sizzle two millennia later, were nailed onto the Rostra for all to see.

Antony was a soldier who was by all accounts a classic schoolyard bully. Cicero, a politician and bookworm, underestimated (or correctly assessed, damning the consequences) how fragile Antony’s ego was. While Antony succeeded in eliminating Cicero, it would be Cicero’s son who would announce to the Senate the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt decades later, where he forbade anyone from the Antonii family to ever again adopt the name ‘Marcus’, decreeing, “In this way Heaven entrusted the family of Cicero the final acts in the punishment of Antony”.

 

It’s not a fad, Augustus.

Once upon a time, vegetarians used to keep the details of their diet to themselves.

People who abstained from eating meat in Rome were viewed as subversive and, by virtue of not being able to partake in various blood rituals, immoral. This was a problematic position to be in in a society where politicians murdered each other by the day. However, as surreptitious as they were, there did exist practicing vegetarians in Rome.

Vegetarianism in the Roman Empire was often an offshoot of the teachings of Pythagoras (the very same who helped you draw triangles). Pythagoras theorised that all living creatures had souls, and therefore it was a crime against nature to consume the flesh of animals and fish. However, he even puts the most faithful vegans to shame, as he insisted that many strands of beans also had a soul, and that it would be just as sinful to consume them.

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the tumultuous era when Republic transitioned into Empire, and he rose to superstar heights — complete with fixated fan girls — with his romantic and mildly erotic poetry. Ovid’s works were a reaction against the conservative sexual ethics and moral teachings imposed by Emperor Augustus, however his most controversial work happened to come from his Metamorphoses series, where he admitted to following Pythagoras’ teachings:

Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood

While the reasons for his eventual exile are not clearly understood, it’s nice to imagine that the Augustus tired of the ancient hipster when he banished Ovid to a villa by the Black Sea. Ovid spent the rest of his days — bean free — writing mournful poetry and letters to his family and adoring fans.

 

Count to ten.

There are few things more frustrating than being blamed for someone else’s mistake; it’s unfair, embarrassing, and it just feels wrong on a spiritual level. But compared to those employed in the legions two millennia ago, most of us have been getting off lightly.

Decimation was used as the most extreme form of punishment in the Roman military, typically reserved for acts of cowardice and insurrection. While it was seldom practiced, anyone serving in the legions was sure to have heard the stories of what might happen if orders were disobeyed. Even by the time of Caesar, the practice was considered out-dated and backwards, because even the nastiest generals could admit that it was an arbitrary, cruel, and self-inflicting punishment.

Arbitrary — because those selected weren’t necessarily involved in the offence.

Cruel — because the sentence was executed by their own comrades.

Self-inflicting — because a general was diminishing their fighting force by a tenth.

Decimation was a lottery system style of punishment, where the one-in-ten soldiers who drew the short straw were then bludgeoned to death by the remaining nine.

This was famously employed Marcus Licinius Crassus after he was ordered by Senate to subdue Spartacus’ slave revolt. The gladiator king defeated two of Crassus’ legions who then fled the field, leaving behind an army’s worth of weapons and supplies. As a rule of thumb, upgrading the tools of 70,000 rebellious slaves from sickles and pitchforks to military-standard weapons and armour is not in the best interests of the state. Crassus was a little more than upset; he decimated his legion, murdering up to 1,000 of his own men. While it’s difficult to comprehend the psychological impact this would have had on those who remained, they didn’t flee the next time, and by the end of the year 6,000 still-breathing crucified slaves lined the highway to Rome

 

No boys allowed.

Bona Dea was a goddess worshipped for agriculture, chastity, and paradoxically, fertility and virginity. The goddess was particularly revered amongst the slave and plebeian classes and rites were exercised exclusively by women. Not only were men forbidden from attending, they weren’t even allowed to know Her name. This meant that two times a year — for the summer and winter festivals — women were allowed to drink strong wine and hold animal blood-sacrifices. However, like any marketable and enjoyable idea, the nobility soon co-opted the festival practices, and thereafter the wife of the Senior Magistrate hosted the main ceremony, where only the wealthy matrons of Rome were invited to attend.

Festival rites were remarkably similar to any preparations for a viewing party of The Bachelor. Firstly, the hostess’ house was ritually cleansed of all men, meaning most busts, portraits, and manuscripts had to be removed, and the hallways were sprayed with ‘feminine’ perfume. Even male pets and depictions of male animals had to be hidden from plain sight. Then, the Magistrate’s wife (or more likely her slaves) made ornaments of vine-leaves and decorated the dining hall with blooming plants. After this point, little more is known. The entire festival is veiled in secrecy and without any female historians to elucidate what exactly happened behind closed doors, the rest is speculation.

According to Cicero, the rest of the evening was simple enjoyment — debate, games, and music performed by female musicians, where any discussion of men was forbidden. Other historians speak of unbridled hedonism, where early 3rd Century historian Juvenal recounts drunkenness, lewd dancing, which eventually devolved into “bestial orgies”. However, Juvenal was writing centuries after the festival had fallen from popularity, and without any corroborating evidence it seems references to these women-only orgies was nothing more than wishful thinking.

We can however be certain that male non-attendance was sacrosanct. In the winter of 62 BC, Julius Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, was tasked with hosting the festival. Scandal erupted when Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist politician, was caught loitering amongst the festivities dressed as a woman, allegedly with the intent of seducing Pompeia. Clodius was then brought before trial and charged with ‘desecration’, which carried the death penalty. However, after two years of legal proceedings, Clodius managed to escape any punishment, though he remained the butt of parliamentary jokes for many centuries. Julius Caesar nevertheless was resolute in divorcing Pompeia despite her proven innocence, famously declaring, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”.