Saturday, 6 August 2011

[Web : blog] The Dirty Roman Dozen by writer Caroline Lawrence

Whenever I visit schools to talk about my books set in Ancient Rome, I often bring along some of my favourite artefacts. Most of these aren’t real antique objects, but convincing replicas made by re-enactor friends or bought in museum gift shops.  But they are close enough to the original to give children a visible, tangible idea of how 1st century Rome from 21st century Britain. I let the kids look at them, sometimes handle and sniff them, even taste them.  The Roman poet Martial mentions some of these artefacts in his fourteenth book of Apophoreta, poetic Saturnalia gift-tags.  In these charming two-line epigrams the gifts sometimes speak in first person. e.g. the bedroom lamp that promises no what it sees,tacebo: “I won’t talk”. 
These artefacts help me get a little closer to the mindset of a first century Roman.  Quite a few of them end up appearing as clues in my Roman Mysteries.  Here are a dozen of my favourites.
I. Clay oil-lamp in the shape of a foot
reminds us that Romans had no electricity. Their houses would have been dimly lit at night and smoke streaked during the day. Fire was a constant risk. This fun oil-lamp in the shape of a sandalled foot is a replica of an oil lamp found in Londinium.  I bought this particular lamp at the Museum of London and you can see form the scorched big toe, I’ve tried it out.  Martial 14.39 talks of a bedroom lamp that won’t tell what you’ve been getting up to.

II. Strigil
reminds us that Roman bathing habits were very different from ours.  They didn’t use soap, but oil (hence the bottle) in a public ritual of oiling up, exercising, steaming, sweating and then scraping with the strigil.  As you pulled the strigil across your sweaty skin, it would remove the oil, and along with it the layer of dead skin cells, dirt and sweat.  You would get a bath attendant or slave to do your back.  In Martial 14.51, a strigil tells us that if you regularly use him, you won’t have to take your towel to the cleaner’s so often.

III. Wax-tablet
reminds us that Romans didn’t have emailor text messages, or even a chea version of writing paper.  You had to use parchment, papyrus, thin sheets of wood, or re-useable wooden tablets like this one, with wax in a shallow depression.  You would use a tool called a stylus with a sharp for writing and the flat for rubbing out.  The wax on the famous tablets from Vindolanda has long gone, but clever archaeologists can still make out traces of letters and words in the wood underneath.

IV. Bleeding cup
reminds us that Romans had a different concept of medicine and health. Bronze bleeding cups like this one were used for both ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cupping.  In dry cupping, a flaming piece of lint was put in the cup and then applied to the skin.  The flame immediately went out and a vacuum sucked out the bad humour.  In wet cupping, the doctor made an incision in your arm and drained a cupful of blood.  This was the Roman equivalent of taking two aspirin.  There must have been some benefit, people have been doing this since Roman times.  A few years ago, the actress Gwyneth paltrow was seen with distinctive marks of ‘dry cupping’ on her back.

V. Snail spoon
reminds us that food was a constant preoccupation of the Romans. If invited to dinner, you took your own spoon, and sometimes your own napkin, too.  As well as dabbing your mouth, you could use it to carry home leftovers as a sort of ‘doggy bag’.  The sharp end on the spoon is for hooking a snail out of its shell and probably also for spearing other goodies.  Martial’s snail-spoon says, “I’m useful for eggs as well as snails, so why do they call me a snail-spoon? (Martial 14.121)  There were no forks in Roman times, apart from the big ones used by gladiators, that is.  I have long since lost the spoon.  A hazard of letting primary school children handle your artefacts.

VI. Nuggets of gum mastic
remind us that in many ways the Romans were just like us; this is their version of chewing gum. I bought these in a small shop on the island of Kos, famous for its medical sanctuary.  To me, mastic tastes like a combination of cumin and carrot, only sweeter.  Pop one of these in your mouth and chew for a few minutes then take it out.  It will have gone white, just like modern chewing gum.  ion fact can still buy mastic gum today in Greece or in specialist shops.  They say chewing it is good for stomach complaints.  And of course, it freshens your breath, like the fennel seeds in the bowl above.  We know from Martial 14.22 that you could even get toothpicks made from gum mastic.

VII. Phallic amulet
reminds us that the Romans were deeply superstitious.  This little willy flanked by two big ones wasn’t rude; it was designed toavert the evil eye .  You can see a few tiny phallus amulets in the Roman Life Room of the British Museum.  They were especially for babies and younger children who were particularly vulnerable.  You can also see bigger “wind chime” versions with bells on, to protect the whole house.  I bought this particular replica at a Roman site in Spain.
VIII. Glass ‘chariot beaker’
reminds us that Romans had the ancient equivalent of souvenir mugs. This authentically-made mould-blown cup byRoman Glassmakers David and Mark is a replica of one from Colchester in Britannia (known as the “Colchester Cup”). Although none of this exact type have been found in Italia, versions of it must have been sold in the Circus Maximus, for it shows the spina(central barrier) of that arena in the middle band.  Below the spina are four quadrigae.Right at the top, the charioteers are named: Antilochus, Hierax, Olympas and the winner, Crescens, who holds his right hand up in triumph.

IX. Wooden dice
reminds us that the Romans liked board games and games of chance, even though gambling was illegal, except during the Saturnalia.  I bring cheap wooden dice in a wooden shaking cup but what I’d really like to bring is this beautiful rock crystal die from the room 69 – the Roman Life Room – in the British Museum.  I love this artefact so much that I made it a vital clue in my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, about canicide in Rome’s ancient port.  Martial’s die claims to be better  than knucklebones, which were also used for gambling. 

X. Brass seal box for wills
reminds us that Romans were concerned with law, order and munus (duty). It was every Roman’s duty to make a will and have it properly witnessed and stored.  Wills were written on wooden wax-tablets, then bound and sealed, often with a bronze teardrop-shaped box like this.  You dripped sealing wax into the open box and it would adhere to the wood and binding.  There was no way of opening the will or altering itwithout disturbing the seal.  In this picture, we see the underside of the seal box with holes for the wax to leak through.

XI. An ‘as’ of Domitian
reminds us that Romans were among the first to employ the concept of a recognizable brand in the picture of the emperor… on coins.  I bought this as (a coin worth a fourth of a sestertius) at the antique dealers opposite the British Museum.  I’d prefer a coin of Titus who is the emperor when my books are set, but he only reigned for just over two years so coins with his face are hard to find.  In thefinal book of my series, I try to solve the mystery of whether Titus was murdered by his younger brother.

XII. Sponge-stick
reminds us that the Romans were both fastidious and disgusting to our modern sensibilities. This was a bottom-wiper. You can read more about it here.  This is my piece-de-resistance and is so popular in schools that it spawned an international short story writing competition for kids, the Golden Sponge Stick Competition, created and run by Jeremy Pine at Burgess Hill School for Girls. Details to be announced in September. For news of it, “like” the Roman Mysteries Facebook Fan page.

Caroline Lawrence won the 2009 Classical Association Prize for her Roman Mysteries series.  You can read more about her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter: @CarolineLawrenc

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