Reading the Romans

For those interested more in what we can learn from funerary reliefs, Mary Beard wrote a great little summary on the British Museum blog a couple of years back as part of her Meet the Romans series on BBC Two. If you didn’t catch it, I’ll try and source a link to it as it was a brilliant watch.

British Museum blog

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one…

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Labour in Ancient Rome – The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker

A couple of weeks ago I began my new module in Old Labour – Working in the Ancient World at Birkbeck as part of my Masters study. One of the first assignments was to find a piece of evidence that epitomises labour in the ancient world. Luckily I had the perfect idea in mind from memory.


This fantastic (and admittedly slightly tacky) structure is a tomb. It belonged to Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces and sits by the Porta Maggiore (map here). Eurysaces was a baker, and we know this for two reasons. 1. the inscription on the tomb states he is (no brainer!) and 2. the tomb is designed to give this away to Roman eyes. What I mean by this is that the tomb was deliberately constructed to portray the characteristics of baking that would be more immediately obvious to a Roman than to the average person today. Let’s explore the tomb in more depth…

Looking at the image above, you will see various busy scenes. These scenes are friezes from around the top of the tomb (you can see them slightly on the top image, above the circle openings). The top panel here is from the west side and shows the weighing of bread. The second panel is from the South side and shows the consignment and grinding of grain and the third panel, from the North side, shows the kneading, formation into loaves and the baking of the bread.

In these panels alone we can get a good idea of what processes baking would have consisted of from start to finish. But why were they there? Let’s think about the audience of this tomb. The location of the structure is on a main road into Rome that itself would have been lined with the tombs of other city dwellers (tombs had to be placed outside of the city walls to prevent bad luck and disease, amongst other reasons; see reconstruction below). Travellers to Rome would have approached the gates and been welcomed by many tombs, including Eurysaces’. These panels would have been high up, around the top of the tomb, so for a traveller on the floor, they may not have been very clear. However, they are still legible so one could argue they just simply add to the message of the tomb as a whole, playing their part in telling the story of Eurysaces and the baking process he was so proud of. What else might the traveller have taken notice of? Well, as I’m sure you also have, they may have noticed the upright columns and the inverted holes in the walls of the tomb. These are also significant to the bakery trade; the columns and holes are representative of tools used for kneading bread.

Appian Way Tombs


With regards to the finding of the tomb itself, it was found in the Aurelian Wall, which had luckily for us served to preserve it. The excavation of a funerary relief of a couple holding hands (below) has also been suggested by some scholars to be Eurysaces and his wife, who is also mentioned on the tomb. A pot in the shape of a bread basket is also thought to be his wife’s final resting place, although this is also disputed. The close proximity of other tombs nearby, including that of bakers, has contributed to the skepticism of some, although we can’t deny it would be nice to have them all together and finishing the story. It would also help us to learn more about him if we knew it was him and his wife. Furthermore, there is more uncertainty surrounding this tomb. One of the main debates to come of the structure is whether Eurysaces was a freedman or not. The garishness of the building itself can be assigned to the typical nature of freedmen in funerary monuments, in which they would often be guilty of making up for status by being a little over-the-top with decoration (think Del Boy!) While we can definitely say this of this tomb, we can’t for sure know whether he was a freedman or just a guy with bad (Roman) taste (although I must say I absolutely love the tomb design!). There is no evidence in the inscriptions found on this tomb to suggest that he is a libertus (freedman), as it was fairly common (although against what basis it isn’t clear) for freedmen to declare their background. For example, one may say on his tomb ‘Marcus Vergilius, Freedman of Lucius So-And-So’ or have his previous master’s name incorporated into his own. Eurysaces does not do this. However, the freedman debate is further enhanced by his particularly Greek sounding name, often the indication of a previous life as a slave, but again we can’t be sure.

Either way, freedman or not, this guy had guts, and an abundance of pride for his career, not to mention a good amount of money to build it in the first place. The tomb is one of the best examples of Romans showing pride in their occupation and source of wealth that I think we have, and thus shows that despite Latin literature’s often biased nature for labour being a bad thing in Rome, and associated with the lowest, it can’t have always been a bad thing to associate oneself with. For example, what about the garum seller from Pompeii, he was hardly hard off! But that’s a story for another day…

Christmas in Ancient Rome (AKA Saturnalia)

Today we celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival, unfortunately commercialised by the West in more recent years. However, the falling of Christmas has fallen conveniently; in the same month as one of the highlights of the Roman calendar, Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was the 17th day of the month December in the Julian calendar, and celebrated the god Saturn. Later the festivities continued on up to the 23rd December (or Christmas Eve Eve to some of us!)


Thomas Couture captures Roman Saturnalia festivites that may look a familiar scene to modern readers!

“The Best of Days” (Catallus)

Saturnalia was a festival that many looked forward to, particularly slaves as it was the one day when they did not have to work and when they were treated to a banquet of the sort usually enjoyed by their masters. The day would begin with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn (in the Roman Forum) and then would continue with a large, public banquet at the temple, which we know thanks to Livy. After eating, individuals would give gifts to their loved ones and then the party would begin. The festival had a carnival atmosphere and overturned the norms of Roman virtues – gambling was permitted, among other normally taboo activities (including the virtual equality of slaves for the day, as previously mentioned). As History Extra describe it, “It was a topsy-turvy holiday of feasting, drinking, singing in the street naked, clapping hands, gambling in public and making noise.”


Gambling (dice games) portrayed in a Pompeiian image in the Osteria della Via di Mercurio

Carrying on the ‘topsy-turvy’ festival, the aristocracy would ‘put together’ any outfit they fancied, wearing colours and material outside of their usual conservative outfits. This was called the ‘synthesis’. Also, people would wear the pilleum, the hat worn by slaves who had been freed, to symbolise being free for the day. Thanks to Macrobius, we also know that the rowdy festival-goers would greet one another as we might on Christmas day, shouting “Io Saturnalia!” to one another.


Slaves celebrating the Saturnalia with a drink or two

Even more along the same lines as us, Aulus Gellius confessed to playing trivia games with friends as a student, and the public would play other silly games, such as bobbing for corks in icy water (much like apple bobbing at Halloween!) Chariot racing was also a large part of the day, with up to 36 races per day carried out by the late fourth century AD.

Not the highlight of everybody’s calendar

Seneca was known to have a moan about the mob getting out of control “in pleasantries”and Pliny the Younger revealed in a letter that he was not such a party animal, holing himself up while the rest of the household partied on the festival day.

As can be expected, early Christians objected to the festivities of the day too. Even though the Church fathers could not before decide on the official date of the birth of Christ, they at last settled on the date 25th of December in the late fourth century (yes, that late!) Now, I don’t intend to be controversial here, but it is to me not a coincidence that the Church Fathers decided on a time of year that was the time when the Roman world came together not only to celebrate a Pagan god but also to celebrate in a way that didn’t quite sit well with the value of the Church. The Church even complained when the festivities of the Saturnalia continued into the eighth century with the old Pagan values.

Moving into Greek realms…

Salve readers! I say I am moving into Greek realms, for the moment anyway; it is by no means permanent. So I have begun my MA in Classical Civilisation at Birkbeck, UCL in London and my first term is focusing on Ancient Greek civilisation, an area entirely new to me. Therefore, as a result of my MA and a very busy work life, I realised I had been neglecting my blog and decided this was a perfect time to take it up properly, documenting my educational journey.

We began with the study of the relevance of classics int he 21st Century and historiography, looking into the work of Herodotus and Thucydides. Please do read up on both of these figures, you will find them fascinating, I promise. They are credited with being the first ‘real’ (whatever that means) historians and the first to begin documenting events for preservation. True, they had their own agendas, but it is thanks to them both that we have good accounts of both the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, by Herodotus and Thucydides respectively. Herodotus was the predecessor of Thucydides and many scholars say that Herodotus had large influences on Thucydides’ writing, much to, I imagine, the distaste of Thucydides. I shall write about this more in a separate blog post so keep an eye out.

Then we moved onto the Presocratics, and have I fell in love, or have I fell in love! What a subject. Such a fascinating part of human history, or dare I say history as a whole, a time when suddenly, or perhaps not (which is the subject of much debate) humans began rationally thinking and questioning life and its beginnings, removing divine intervention from the solution for the beginning, and workings (rules) of, the universe and earth. This area of history has claimed a handful of arguably some of the greatest and most revolutionary thinkers ever to have existed and has been collectively named by historians as the Presocratics (before Socrates).  It is essentially the study of ‘mythos to logos’, or in other terms from myth to reasoned argument. We know much of what we do from this period thanks to doxographers (those who wrote about the work of the Presocratics, work of which we now often use as primary evidence, due to the lost of the real primary works) and fragments. We also owe large debts to Aristotle and Plato, of whom I shall also discuss in more depth in future blogs.

Which brings me on to my latest seminar subject: Socrates. I am due to go into this subject with my class on Tuesday and in my pre-reading can already begin to appreciate the transgression from one form of thought to the other. However, I am yet to understand the difference between the Presocratics and Socrates himself and how this line was defined – how was their thinking different and why was he chosen as a marker to describe the first rational thinkers as coming before him? Why was he so significant to mark such a turn in Western thought, or was it a turn at all? In other words, where did this term Presocratics come from and why was he used as a marker for his predecessors’ work; can they not stand alone or is he just the next step in movement towards a different stage in human history, thought and science as a whole?

I hope to answer these things in my study, so watch this space!


Pompeiian novel in progress!

Salve Rome lovers!

I thought I would dedicate this post to my first novel, of which I am currently in the process of writing (albeit fairly slowly). It’s really enjoyable but also really tough – sometimes, even though I’m a very creative person, getting ideas out of my brain on demand is like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’ (as Amy Farrah Fowler once said!) Therefore, I haven’t really got a precise deadline in mind although I would love to have it fully written by the end of September this year, even if that is a first draft.

I first wanted to write a novel based on this area thanks to the wonderful writer Conn Iggulden. When I first discovered my love of Ancient Rome, I was coincidently reading his novels at the same time. He is such a fantastic writer, bringing key characters in history to life, with artistic license of course. Some scenes are moving, others are violent; some are steamy while others are thoughtful. If you haven’t done so yet, take some time to give these novels a go – they are highly rewarding, although obviously don’t take them for historical fact – he says himself that was never the intention. They are named the Emperor series. Click here to go to the first book in the series.

So, my novel. Based in Pompeii (my favourite area at the moment), the novel follows the life of a slave girl who is thrust into the limelight unwillingly, changing her life forever. Here’s the blurb:

Declared the earthly embodiment of Venus at birth, Tullia Matidia is pushed into hiding by the forces of evil intent on destroying the faith of Venus. Taken in by her aunt, Tullia is renamed Latena (meaning hidden) and is brought up as a slave. When she finally discovers her true path and background, she begins her journey towards the destiny she was always meant to fulfill, winning the hearts of the Roman people along the way.

I have so far written 3 and a half chapters, in addition to an epilogue (which I might actually post later on), and have reached 12,000 words. I’ve heard the average is around 80,000 for a novel so I’m on track.

If you want to know more, let me know – I’d be really happy to share my journey with you all more.

Also, I must give credit to the wonderfully simple novel writing software, LitLift. You can sign up free and it provides everything you need to store your thoughts, book structure, chapters, scenes, locations, characters and even items. They even have an online library of books written on the site. If you’re hoping to write your own novel, I would highly recommend this free software!

Thanks for reading!

NB I own the right to any original material I post on my blog so I kindly ask that you please ask my permission before reproduction. Thanks!

If you want to get in touch with me, please do so here. It would be great to hear from you!


The Infamous Brothers Gracchi: Tiberius

Undoubtedly, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were instrumental in changing the early course of Roman history. When the two brothers began their reforms, it was during a crucial decade in which tensions were running high in Rome.

Tiberius, the older of the two, came from a family of 12 children and was the grandson of Scipio Africanus, a general in the Second Punic War. Thus, born into political and military (although skewing more towards the former in Rome) background, he was bound to follow in the same footsteps. He did however stand out from the political crowd in that he wanted more rights for peasants, namely with regards to land. There were many reasons for well-off elitists to be on the side of the poor, one being basically to piss the senators off.

A bit of background

In the 2nd century, a pattern emerged whereby peasants began giving up their land for settlement in the Po valley (an area above Italy). The sons of these peasants then went on to become soldiers for the state in many cases. With the pacifying of the area, there became less land for ownership and more people without land. This was partly due to the fact that the state had claimed more of the land for itself, either renting it out or taking it into private ownership, whereby slaves would work the land for the rich owners.

How does Tiberius come into this?

In 133 BC, Tiberius passed a bill, by-passing the Senate, which limited public land to 320 acres. Anything in excess of this would be given to the poor and this could not be taken away from them (Campania was omitted from the bill, presumably because it was so fertile). Tiberius was clever as he knew the Senate would veto this. Octavius, a senator at the time, did indeed do this and Tiberius called for a more sympathetic representative. He worked with the People’s Assembly to get around the Senate, even though they refused to finance the bill, and they funded it using money from Attalus, King of Pergamum. He did all this will he was tribune.

Tiberius’s downfall

Naughtily, Tiberius decided to run for re-election in 132 BC which was actually illegal (to prevent any one person having too much power for prolonged periods of time). A riot broke out in the People’s Assembly when they tried to pass a bill allowing candidates to run for consecutive terms (it was something the Roman’s felt very strongly about). Anyway, Scipio Nasica led a group of senators into the Assembly and clubbed 300 Gracchans to death, including poor old Tiberius.

Many felt that Tiberius was ruling with a mob and, as said, was becoming to close to having too much power. Others said he was giving too much power to the People’s Assembly.

Tiberius’s legacy

Tiberius became a figure for later politicians in favour of the people to base themselves upon. They were called the populares. In opposition of the populares were the optimates. Although Scipio had killed an inviolate tribune, he wasn’t ever dealt with and the Senate continued to attempt to eradicate the rest of the Gracchans. Census figures rose, more people join the military, which showed the positive effect of the bill. Allies were displeased with having their land taken from them and the Senate refused to give the allies Roman citizenship. This caused further tension.

Please come back in the next couple of days for the second part of this post about Tiberius’s little brother Gaius and how he too was just as influential as his sibling.


Book Review: Confronting the Classics

If you get a moment any time soon, pop down to your closest Waterstones and grab yourself a copy of Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard. Apart from being biased as I love Mary, her work and general outlook on life, I think this is a truly great read. The front of the book describes is as ‘a provocative tour of what is happening now in Classics – learned, trenchant and witty’. As someone who is about to attempt to enter the academic world of Classics, I found it was a great introduction to the area and affirmed to me that this is definitely my destiny.

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations

In Confronting the Classics, Mary smoothly takes the reader through the different areas of the subject, covering Greek and Roman history and critiquing in the most honest and refreshing way. In her usual manner, she attempts to debunk myths, find the truth in other’s writing and see the best, or the justified worst, in some others. Although some unfamiliar with the subject might find it hard going at times, it is worth persevering because Mary is very good at making one feel as though the subject she is discussing is indeed familiar, even if it isn’t in the slightest. She doesn’t go for all the fancy, academic sentences that some do – there’s no charade here.

For me this book not only highlighted how well read she is but also how boundless the subject is. At one point Mary herself mentions how there is far too much material for even the most well read classicist to make his way through, despite some people’s other impressions of the area.

The main reason I want to study Classics is to one day, I hope, change the appeal of the subject for the public and for future education. We all know how important Latin and Classical study was in previous years, even up to my own parent’s education, but I unfortunately am of the generation unfamiliar with the subject. I took only Spanish and French at school and had only heard of Homer. Therefore, on my ‘accidental’ discovery of this whole other world, I was delighted at the same time as miffed – why had it taken me this long, look at all the learning time I have wasted!

I’ve come to terms with the tragedy of it (just) and decided I wanted to change it for others one day. My mind has expanded so much since beginning my studies and I can honestly say that it is not only therapeutic when reading about it but also generally beneficial for my well-being. Therefore, when reading the introduction to Mary’s book, I delighted to hear that Classics was, in her opinion, not dead, just in need of re-purposing. This is why this book is so worth reading. For any Classics skeptics out there, prepare to realise the continuing relevance of Classics, even if it is just for personal development.


Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard (Profile Books) £9.99 (on offer at Waterstones)