Thursday, 9 September 2021


By modern calendars and scholarly concensus the ambush described by contemporary historians as Clades Variana (the disaster of General Publius Quinctilius Varus) and familiar to subsequent generations as the Battle of the Teuotburg Forest occurred on this day in the year nine when an alliance of Germanic peoples routed three Roman legions under the leadership of Arminius, the defeat seen as a pivotal moment in the course of history as Roman ambitions and imperial expansion were checked.

Thoroughly Romanised, after the advances of Drusus I two decades earlier, Arminius’ father, chieftain of the Cherusci, called Segimerus the Conqueror sent his sons to Rome as tribute, hostages where he received a military education and citizenship. Eventually becoming a trusted advisor to Varus and familiar with the terrain, Arminius returned to the frontier and in secret negotiated a pact among tribes that were generally hostile to one another out of collected grievance about how the Romans were treating the native population. No truce was ever reached in part because the winning alliance had captured the legions’ aquilae, the eagle standard, and the Romans, with no other territorial or material gains, spent years in retalitory skirmishes and recovery missions. The monument to the victory, the Hermannsdenkmal, erected some one thousand eight hundred and sixty-four years later, became a symbol for German nationalism and focus of anti-Napoleon sentiment (see also), provocatively facing France.

Monday, 6 September 2021

ฤlea iacta est

Via the ever excellent Everlasting Blรถrt, we are directed to this pair of Roman anthropomorphic dice, silver squatting figurines weighted (equitably presumably) to fall in one of six (tesserae, though usually in games in the Empire tossed in threes) positions.

The above phrase attributed to Julius Caesar by the historian Suetonius when the general brought his provincial army into the capital is like other quotations a likely translation from the Greek borrowing from the humorist Menander, «แผˆฮฝฮตฯฯฮฏฯ†ฮธฯ‰ ฮบฯฮฒฮฟฯ‚», let a die be cast in either form the phrase meaning metaphorically reaching a point of no return from whose juncture the decisions are irreversible.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

second triumvirate

Of course while the lurch towards despotism by the government and the governed did not go unnoticed, Rome never acknowledged that it shifted from being a republic to an imperial power and maintained the trappings of democracy amid tyranny and some aspects of the transformation were gradual and inuring but one pivot point is the Battle of Actium, which took place on this day in 31 BCE, with the fleets of Octavian, ambitious politicians and grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and adopted ‘son,’ and Cleopatra VII Philopator and Mark Anthony fighting in the Ionian sea. First allied (read more), Octavian had a falling out with Mark Antony after he abandoned his wife Octavia Minor, Octavian’s sister, to go to Egypt and foster a long-term liaison with Cleopatra, raising the son of Julius Caesar, Caesarion by the Pharaoh, as his own. Octavian convinced the Senate that the couple were a threat to Rome and were forming a separatist faction that would undermine Roman unity, installing a child king and moving the capital to Alexandria, and with this propaganda campaign and was able to gather his forces. With superior numbers, Octavian was able to claim victory, pursuing Antony and Cleopatra and their defeated ships for nearly a year back to the Egyptian capital where trapped they both dispatched themselves, and consolidated power ubi et orbi, adopting the title Princeps, Number One Citizen, and awarded the title of Revered One—Augustus—by the Senate for saving Rome.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

genesius of arles

Conflated with a contemporary saint of the same name in Rome who was a stand-up comedian and spontaneously converted to Christianity in the middle of a routine satirizing these Jesus-y upstarts (let that be a warning) and with a pooled patronage, Saint Genรจs as he is known in French was a personal secretary of the magistrate of Gaul and is venerated on this day on the occasion of his martyrdom in 303 under the persecutions of Maximian and Diocletian (see previously) for objecting to a legal writ that would sanction further maltreatment of the religious sect. Together with his Roman counterpart, Genesius is patron and protector of notaries, secretaries, stenographers, clowns and comedians.

Monday, 23 August 2021


Held annually to propitiate the deity with bonfires and sacrifice at a time when crops and granaries were most prone to burning, the Roman fastus to Vulcan falls on this day in what was originally Sextilis and was part of a larger cycle of agrarian holidays of the summer and the beginning of the harvest season, a human commission as opposed to placating untamed Nature observed in July. Games were held with the additional rituals of hanging clothes on a line out-of-doors and beginning to work after sundown by candle-light darkness already coming noticeably sooner and harnessing the potentially destructive nature of fire for something productive. The tubilustria ceremonies were also held at this time—the ritual purification of trumpets and similar instruments which were considered sacred to Vulcan.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

wadi musa

Familiar to only a few locals and unknown to the West until its rediscovery on this day in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the capital of the Nabataeans called Raqmu by its denizens is commonly referred to Petra (Al-Batrฤสพ) after its designation as a client state of the Empire after Rome annexed their kingdom as Arabia Petaea.

The settlement in southern Jordan between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqada is only accessible via a narrow gorge and was a major regional trading hub in antiquity, controlling routes from Gaza to Damascus and onto the Persian Gulf. Accustomed to privation and periods of drought and deluge, the Nabatean city includes advanced methods of gathering and storing rainwater and flood control, allowing the population to thrive and supporting numbers approaching twenty-thousand residents at its height. A marvel of engineering and with many cameos in popular culture, in most years, Petra greets over a million international tourists annually.

Thursday, 12 August 2021

fava beans and a nice chianti

Our gratitude again to Nag on the Lake for the update on this incredibly, impeccably preserved ancient thermopolium (see previously) excavated on the site of Pompeii is opening to the public. With only the wealthy cooking at home, most Romans would have patronised such snack bars, with more than eighty found in the rubble of this ill-fated city alone. Much more to explore at the links above, including an amazing gallery of frescos advertising the menu.

Saturday, 7 August 2021


Due to the above titled iconoclasm movement that left many Catholic churches bereft of their religious symbols and saintly relics from Protestant furore that sought to destroy what was regarded as idolatrous figures (see previously) during the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Vatican ordered suitable replacements be found and promptly installed.

Thousands of skeletal remains were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome, lavishly dressed and decorated, like this day’s celebrant, Donatus of Mรผnstereifel, reportedly a second century Roman soldier and martyr. Quickly rising through the ranks after enlisting, Donatus (sharing his feast day with several other liked-named saints) was part of the famed XXII. Legion—known as Fulminatrix, the thundering ones, and was assigned to the personal security detail of Marcus Aurelius (previously). Engaged in the Marcomannic Wars on the Danube march, the legion was outnumbered and nearly defeated until saved by a sudden storm that frightened off the Goths and Samaritans. Although the emperor wanted to credit his magician with summoning the storm, Donatus insisted it was his Christian prayer circle and gave thanks to God. The emperor had them all killed. Said to have been entombed in the Catacombs of Saint Agnes, Donatus’ remains were re-discovered by Pope Innocent X in 1646 and translated to the town on the Rhein near Bonn, acclaimed patron and protector from lightning strikes and invoked for a good grape harvest. Popular throughout the Rhineland as well as Donauland, Donatus also enjoyed a cultus in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Luxembourg, Slovakia and Austria.

Sunday, 25 July 2021


The Gentle Author of Spitalfield’s Life directs our attention to a new, epic mosaic along the Thames path that illustrates two millennia and more of human history with the estuary’s natural course at the inlet named ‘the Queen’s Harbour’ after Matilda granted around 1104 the establishment of a dock there and the excise of duties on goods delivered. Learn more at the link above, including a treasury of panels from the procession, pictorial chronicle of the ages.

Friday, 23 July 2021


The ancient Roman festival with games (ludi) honouring the god of the seas was held on this day as a propitious act in the middle of the hot summer and drought to coax back the waters and escape the oppressive heat of the city by repairing to the countryside and sheltering under umbrรฆ for a shaded repast. At first not enjoying the universal acclaim of his Greek counterpart Poseidon, Neptune was not broadly regarded as the patron and protector of maritime affairs but rather as a guarantor of personal agricultural success, though was later held in more esteem as Rome developed as a naval power and the holiday came to be marked with the flooding of the Pantheon to return and tame the waters.

Friday, 2 July 2021

poena cullei

Via Strange Company’s Weekend Link Dump, we learn all about a Roman punishment meant to fit the crime codified by the lex Pompeia, emperor and the aristocracy of course being the worst offenders, that the punishment of the sack was meted out to those found guilty of the murder of a close relative who is one’s elder, a parricide, but not a fratricide, mariticide or uxoricide, involving stuffing the guilty party into a bag sewn shut with a rambunctious menagerie, usually consisting of a dog (for whom the Romans felt little fidelity), snake, monkey and a chicken and tossed into a river. Eventually expanded to include the intent, attempt, Seneca noted that by the time of the reign of the Claudian dynasty one saw “more sacks than crosses,” crucifixion of course being a preferred method of execution. More on capital crime and punishment and our fortunate distancing from it at the links above.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

lectori benevolo

Writing for Public Domain Review, Alex Tadel imparts some insight on classical literary culture through the lens of the brilliantly illustrated rarity Vergilius Vaticanus, a fourth century anthology containing Virgil’s Georgics and The ร†neid—itself one of the oldest sources of the text (see also), though we would still have that material without this deluxe, prestige bound folio crafted and bound at a time when most reading was circulated on papyrus scrolls but be denied the privilege of enjoying this one of a kind commission, acquired by the Vatican Library in 1600 and hence the latter part of the name. Much more on being well-read in Antiquity and the bookish set of the times at the link up top.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

fors fortลซna

Here depicted in the Carmina Burana manuscript, the Roman personification of fortune and luck often includes in her iconography a gubernaculum—that is a ship’s rudder for steering rather blindly for boon or for bane, the name of the goddess and what she represents seems to derive from vortumna—she who revolves throughout the year and whose temple was dedicated on this day, marked by celebrants floated downstream on the Tiber to the Forum Boarium for the event only after secret rituals were expected to row back to the city, bedecked with garland. The goddess has numerous aspects that were celebrated throughout the year and during life-events, including Fortuna Annonaria, luck in harvest, Fortuna Virilis, a lucky match, Fortuna Redux, to return home safely, Fortuna Huiuse Diei, luck of the moment and Fortuna Barbata, good luck in adolescents becoming adults.

Monday, 7 June 2021


glass menagerie: a Murano bestiary on display in Venice  

glow up: beauty tips from Ancient Roman—via Strange Company’s Weekend Link Dump  

coconuรŸritter: a short about Foley artists and creating soundscapes  

happy little clouds: explore a relaxing gallery of Bob Ross paintings (previously), via Nag on the Lake’s Sunday Links   

culaccino: a database of words that do not readily translate succinctly, like this Italian term from the mark left on a table by a cold glass—via Swiss Miss 

electrobat vi: antique electric forerunners side-by-side with modern EVs  

the perils of everybody: a ‘mistake waltz’ that illustrates the pratfalls all ballet recitals are prone to  

where the buffalo roam: restoring the ecosystem of the North American Great Plains by reintroducing charismatic megafauna  

kitchenette: re-examining Liza Lou’s beaded exhibits

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.