Sunday, 25 April 2021

pecunia non olet

Via the always engaging Everlasting Blรถrt, we find ourselves educated in the rather fascinating and sensical history of the Roman taxation scheme on human urine. Left to mellow and oxide, the substance undergoes a chemical transformation into ammonia not only useful for nitrogen-fixing in fertilisers but also as a cleaning-agent and detergent for laundry, oral hygienic and the dyeing of textiles. Levied during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian, the collection garnered the titular phrase that money does not stink, though the onerous and unpopular Vectigal Urinรฆ soon garnered detractors and has the lasting legacy in the public pay-toilets in some Romance-language places—France, Italy and Romania—referring to urinals, pissoirs as vespasiennes. The emperor’s son Titus objected to funding the Empire by such means and presented him with a gold coin, asking does this offend—to which Titus replied in the negative, “Atqui ex lotio est”—Yet it comes from the cesspool.

Saturday, 17 April 2021


cortรจge: the custom Land Rover hearse that will convey Prince Philip on his funeral procession

whiter-than-white: ultra-reflective coating (previously) could help cool the climate—via Slashdot  

eboracia: housing developer Keepmoat Holmes discovers sprawling Roman ruins in North Yorkshire  

elenctic debate: honing one’s critical thinking with the Socratic method 

emojinal rescue: the Unicode subcommittee reconvenes, heralding the coming of new glyphs  

ramshackle: illustrations of antient structures that survived the Great Fire of London before they were ultimately demolished  

pleurants: bright and bold floral urns for cremains

Sunday, 4 April 2021

they are not long—the days of wine and roses

Though separated by a considerable distance in the north and the southern part of modern Germany, it’s interesting to note, via the always engrossing Futility Closet, the kindred relationship between the oldest known rosebush and the oldest known uncorked bottle of wine. The Millennium Rose (der Tausendjรคhriger Rosenstock) grows in the apse of the Hildesheimer Dom—dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, and is a non-domesticated variety known as the wild dog, Rosa cainina. Hardier by degrees that cultivated garden varieties that usually only thrive for decades, this especially long-lived specimen is legendary, with Louis the Pious (Ludwig der Fromme), heir to the Holy Roman Empire after the death of his father Charlemagne, happened upon this rosebush after becoming separated from his hunting party. Sacred to the Saxon goddess Hulda, the lost emperor sought shelter there but offering a prayer to the Virgin Mary through a reliquary he carried with him. Ludwig rested and upon waking, he found his icon irretrievably stuck among the branches—taking this as a sign from the pagan goddess that she was to be replaced in veneration. The emperor’s entourage found him and Ludwig pledged that his city should be founded in this spot and constructed the cathedral around the rosebush. In March of 1945, Hildesheim was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid which razed the cathedral as well. The rose’s extensive root system was intact and began to flourish again the next season as the city was rebuilt. The Speyer wine bottle (Rรถmerwein) was recovered from a Roman tomb outside of the city (see also) in the mid 1800s and since dated to the fourth century of the common era. This grave good is contained in a glass vessel and is one-and-a-half litres in volume, two modern standard bottles and is shaped like an amphora with dolphins ornamenting the handles. There is no intention of opening it.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

marcus didius julianus

Reigning for a scant nine weeks, Didius Julianus was the second to hold imperial office during the Year of the Five Emperors (see previously), submitting the winning bid and acclaimed by the Prรฆtorian Guard on this day in the year 193 as the elite troops auctioned off the throne, having just assassinated the previous incumbent Pertinax. A promising government and military career sidelined by Emperor Commodus—ostensibly afraid that the prรฆtor in charge of Mogontiacum (see link above)—Didius Julianus was recalled from Dalmatia and Germania Inferior and put on tax-collecting and charitable duties and never quite recovered from this impolitic slight but for the bargain of promising each soldier twenty-five thousand sesterii (๐†˜, the silver coin having the purchasing power of a sextarius, roughly half a litre of good wine or a little more than double a year’s pay) he was able to restore his honour. Rivalry amongst generals angry to see high office sold ensured civil war and competing claims and Didus Julianus did not help his popularity by immediately reversing monetary policy which significantly devalued the currency, and was executed in the palace on 1 June by a soldier. His successor Severus disbanded the Prรฆtorian Guard and the Senate passed a damnatio memoriรฆ motion to erase his legacy and strike his rule from history.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Though we told that the astrological sign for the planet Jupiter is supposed to symbolise his thunderbolt or eagle, I’ve always thought it was a stylised number four for the fourth heavenly body in the firmament and just today learned that—unconnectedly—that in the subtractive notation for Roman numerals IV (four) is also an abbreviation for IVPITTER. To avoid blasphemy in inscriptions, it is postulated that the convention of additive notation (IIII) is used instead and preserved on most modern clock and watch faces and dedication, though by no means is this universal. The value 499, for instance, occurs as either ID, XDIX, VDIV, LDVLIV or CDXCIX and sometimes the Latin numerological terms—99 as undecentum—that is, one from a hundred or IC, set the standard.

Monday, 5 February 2018

mensis intercalaris

Previously we’ve discussed how the sixty days or so that mark the dreariest winter season went by without record until King Numa Pompilius (in the days pre-Republic) instituted calendar-reform measures to augment the fair-weather ten month calendar that the Romans had been using since the city’s founding, recognising that dates were being constantly recalculated as the seasons drifted into one another and that the civic uses of a calendar expanded beyond its agricultural roots, but we didn’t know the whole story nor of their superstitious aversion to round numbers.
Ianuarius and Februarius (from the word februum, a device for ritual purifications and figuratively marked the time when fallow fields were tended to and when olive trees could be pruned) were added as the last months of the year, and to coincide as closely as possible to the passing of the lunar year, they assigned each month either twenty nine or thirty-one days on an alternating basis. To mathematically align with the 355 days of the lunar year and the twelve observed cycles of the Moon, however, one month would have to have an even number of days, so February became the odd one out. The insertion of intercalary time was still necessary to manage the procession of the seasons but instead of a leap-day like we award February with on a regular basis, the Romans adopted an entire leap-month called Mercedinus—“work month”—which should have been used judiciously every other year to keep everything in sync. All time-keeping decisions, however, were invested in the pontifex maximus, and as an active politician usually held this esteemed position it was not unheard of exercising this prerogative as a punitive or prolonging measure to increase or curtail the administration of consul members, at the expense of accuracy in tracking time. When Julius Caesar took power in 46 BC, he decreed that Rome stop this caprice and adopt a solar calendar that is more familiar to the modern civil calendar, based on Western traditions. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: gonzo & camille

Before entering into battle—or committing to any course of action for that matter, the Romans had many rituals that required strict observance. As military maneuvers especially were by and of the polity any breech of custom and reverence was an affront against one's neighbours and directly threatened public security and not just one's survival on the battle-field or the success or failure of any given mission. There are several war stories related about armies on the the march having to make a u-turn or at least pause over the auspices not being properly consulted. The actual ritual is shrouded in mystery, although the Romans were against exclusive cults in the main—including those up-start Christians, as they represented a threat to the State and public order, but seemed to be arm-wrestling the gods to secure a blessing. There are quite a few occasions when otherwise competent, successful and loyalty-inspiring generals were turned public-enemy for transgressing the divination-process, being distracted and tempted by targets of opportunity before the auspices were read and marching could resume.
Another grave transgression took place during the first engagement with Carthage, known as the Punic War (Punic being the Roman exonym for the Phoenicians who founded the north African naval and commercial power). Fearless about taking risky ventures outside of their element, Rome resolved to learn the art of seafaring to counter Carthage's strength and dominance. Such abandon was almost unheard of, but Rome, relying on perhaps the apocryphal tale of Athens countering Sparta in the same manner, was willing to take that risk. Although the first iteration of the wars general proclaim Rome the victor—only affording the chance to address attacks and revolts on other fronts, and more pain was to come, Rome became a tested and certified naval power. This prosperity came about by chance and mostly due to a spectacular failure in their first showing. In order to save time when it came to consulting the oracles, the sacred chickens were carried on board as the flagships made their way across the Mediterranean. The sacred chickens were to be consulted before advancing into enemy-waters (though Carthage had helped Rome over-throw the Greeks just a few years before but now constituted a threat to their trade-routes) and the ritual began—it is imaging this scene that makes me think of Gonzo and his harem of hens. If the chickens ate the feed they were tossed, then it was a sure sign of the gods' support for battle, however if they did not (and I find it rather hard to believe that chickens would not peck at something even if not hungry) then it was a sign to refrain. Having no time for such superstitions, the admiral proceeded to dump the coop overboard, proclaiming that if the sacred chickens were not hungry, maybe they were thirsty instead. That first encounter did not end well for the Romans, but Carthage dismissed Rome's prowess in subsequent engagements and grew over-confident in their own abilities, to their distinct disadvantage.