On Vomitoria and Decadence

Did they actually have vomitoriums (vomitoria?)  in their homes or was my Latin teacher just taking the piss?



In their homes, Cameron, No. That would be bizarre. But in their amphitheatres, absolutely yes! Here is a picture of one:



Now, being the big old smartypants that I am, I have a strong suspicion that this is a highly disappointing picture. This is clearly a passage, and not a place where people would gather to puke for fun. Especially not the Romans, who as we know preferred to do things indoors surrounded by pictures of dicks. Note the lack of dicks in this picture.

I'm sorry dear readers, but a vomitorium is not a place where Romans went to throw up during meals so that they could eat more. It's a passageway into/out of an amphitheatre so named because people spew out of it (broadly). It basically means EXIT. On top of that terrible news, the term only appears in the Late Fourth Century in Macrobius and hardly anyone has read Macrobius even though he's quite interesting. Cicero wouldn't have even heard of such a thing. The idea of the puking room was made up in 1961, around the time that everyone stopped thinking that the Romans were great civilizing force for good (because the Nazis ruined imperialism for everyone) and started thinking that they were just a bag of vile, gay, evil weirdos.


So why does everyone now think that Romans are decadent monsters? What happened to the civilizing geniuses in white togas idea? The answer is threefold. Because nothing is ever simple in history.


1. Morality Tales

The Romans were a didactic, pompous lot. They were almost the best ever at being incredibly judgy and gossipy about each other all the time. Even better, they were a rich and literate society where most of the gossips were rich in both money, time and motivation to write down all their moralising stories about each other and then publish them widely. One of the best sources for terrible tales of debauchery told to horrify and titilate a Roman audience is Suetonius's Twelve Caesars, a set of biographies of the first twelve Caesars of Rome -  from our friend JC to Domitian - told in thematic rather than chronological order. Just about every crazy, hilarious thing you've ever heard about an emperor came from Suetonius or a misunderstanding of Suetonius. Caligula made his horse a consuls? Misunderstanding of Suetonius. Tiberius and his sex grotto? Suetonius. Julius Caesar and the pirates? Suetonius. Nero fucking his mum? Suetonius. Caligula fucking his sister? Suetonius. All of it from one guy. Whose other best seller was called Lives of Famous Whore (now sadly lost).


Here's the problem: Suetonius had no desire to actually tell the truth about anything and is widely known among students as the Heat magazine of the Roman world. The whole point of Roman biography isn't to tell the capital T Truth  - that positivist, scientific, very modern, imaginary thing - about anyone, but to give the reader an impression of the general idea of a person. And if that means that sometimes a few incidents get invented, or inflated, or obvious gossip gets reported then that's not a problem. By reporting senatorial gossip and rumour, Suetonius is saying "everyone hated him so much that they said stuff like this about him." Everyone thought Tiberius was such a tosspot that they said he was a pederast. Everyone though Caligula was such a twat, they said he fucked his sister. What they're NOT saying is sisterfucking, pederasty and giant golden statues of yourself are totally cool behaviour in Rome. They're saying the exact opposite: we hate this guy so let's say the worst thing we can think of about him, accuse him the most unacceptable, anti-Roman behaviour.

And this is all fine as long as your work is only being read by Romans who get this context, who understand that the point of the story about Nero and his mum is to make one gasp and mutter about good Roman values.

Sadly, it isn't and these survived while perhaps more sober histories did not. And they survived for the second reason.


2. The Christians.

The early Christian, for reasons mainly centering on the fact that the Romans kept trying to kill them, were not fans of the Romans. And early Christian theology is very, very heavily focused on ideas of suffering, renunciation and asceticism and does not look kindly on things like giant global empires full of rich people who do art, spend 8 hours a day on their hair and own 5 houses. Early Christian theology, if you remember your gospels, are enormous fans of giving up all your possessions and cash as well as sex, food and fun in order to prepare appropriately for the second coming of Christ (happening any minute in the first 250 years of Christianity). Therefore, anything they can get their hands on that suggests that the pagan Romans likes things other than mortal suffering were pretty good for demonstrating how evil (in the Christian sense) the Romans were and how great Christianity was in comparison. Especially if they talk about sex.

Then the Christians win, surprising even themselves, and they have to come up with a reason why imperial Roman power in the West collapsed so easily in the face of (to the Romans) 9 pathetic men in furry trousers who couldn't read Greek. Their answer of course was that the pagan Western Romans were a bunch of filthy, depraved, over-paid, under-worked sex maniacs who were punished by God for all this with the loss of the empire. Western Christian writers of this period were particularly fond of pointing out the unshakable and imaginary moral goodness of the Vandals in comparison. And look! There's all this evidence that the Romans were gross in books like Suetonius! Urgh, Romans. Yay Christians.


And so, throughout the middle ages, because it's relatively poor and there are no lazy aristocratic classes to do art, literature exists only in the church and only ancient texts that support Church ideas tend to survive. Like Suetonius, who proved that the Romans were awful. And so it goes for a millennium or so, until the Renaissance happens (by magic I assume), Europe rises from the ashes via some process or another and start banging around all over the world oppressing and genociding everyone they come across and starting wars with each other. Which brings us to the last reason.


3. The Twentieth Century

WW2 has two major effects on the Romans: first the Nazis explicit association of themselves as the inheritors of Rome, adoption of the Roman salute and desire to build a new Roman empire squicks everyone out about the Romans; second the aftermath inadvertently kickstarts the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s onwards. This means that no one wants to be nice about Romans, and new sexual morals mean that all the filthy stuff can finally be translated. On top of the the Americans start getting really pushy and meddle-y about global affairs while having a senate and an eagle and all kinds of Roman paraphernalia in their iconography. That makes everyone start talking about New Romes again, in a bad way. Rome is once more associated with richness and decadence and immorality and imperialism.

Plus, the western world is still crazy rich and being crazy rich makes everyone feel bad. This means that we can all look back to the moralising tales of decadence of the Roman empire which have conveniently survived and see ourselves in them. "Ohh" we can sigh, while watching My Super Sweet Sixteen in our big centrally heated houses "it's like the last days of Rome" and we can all feel better about ourselves. Which - conveniently - is exactly what the Romans wrote all this stuff down for in the first place. Because everybody thinks they're a Suetonius, and no one wants to be a Nero. Except those kids on My Super Sweet Sixteen, who are awful.

In this climate, the idea that the Romans were as godawful as we think other people in our own society are (Germans, Americans, teenagers, not us) is terribly attractive and its just a little step from there to start openly making stuff up about how awful they were, like vomitoria. Just watch Caligula for further examples.


So there. Why do we think the Romans had vomitoria? Because they were moralising gossips, because the Christians thought they were bastards and because the events of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries have fertilised the ground for hating them. Easy. Now none of this should convince you that some Romans weren't astonishly decadent, big haired horror shows with too much money and not enough taste, merely that the Roman world was not the grab bag of normalised, horrifying, physical and sexual degradation that vomitoria suggests. They were much weirder than that.







On Being a Good Roman Woman

At a conservative estimate, there are 8 million books published about Roman women every month. I know this because I own most of them. Most talk about the same four issues on repeat, or are wrong. But I’m not here to tell you what historians think about the fanny­havers of the capital (you can find that out yourself, or I’ll do it another day); I’m here to tell you about what the Romans thought of the females. Which means, of course, what Roman men thought of  Roman women.Today we’re going to talk about the five women Roman men loved the best, the women who epitomised femininity and vaginal virtue and womanly excellence to the minds of Roman dudes, and who were presented as ideals and models of behaviour and attitude. One thing we're quickly going to notice about the very best Roman women is that they all look suspiciously fictional. Another is that none of them have any personality at all. And naturally, because this is the Romans, their excellence is all super disturbing.

Not Turia

Not Turia

 5. Turia


Turia is the star of the Laudatio Turiae, a first century BC epitaph found in Rome. At least we assume her name is Turia; her name is missing. Only the optimistic hope that both the epitaph and the Valerius Maximus are totally telling the truth have led to the identification of this – the most perfect woman to ever die – as Turia, wife of Quitus Lucretius Vespillo (which is a bloody great name).


Her husband was exiled for many years as a result of Augustus' rise to power, and so Turia spent much of her adult life alone in Rome.  Here is an incomplete list of Turia's good deeds according to her husband: not staying at home alone (bad for the reputation); a good dress sense; religiosity of the correct and non superstitious kind; wool-working; being good at advice; being good with money. She also physically defended her husband's home when his enemies tried to burn it down and argued in front of Augustus twice, to save her husband's life and end his exile respectively.


This is the best bit though: Turia and her husband were infertile (it was, naturally, assumed that this was the woman's fault) so she offered to divorce him so he could marry someone else, then have children with this other woman, then divorce her, and then remarry Turia so they could raise the kids together as her own. You see in Roman law, children belong to their fathers and the mother has no legal claim. Entire paragraphs of her epitaph are dedicated to this offer. How generous of her! To steal another woman's children! That angel! The kindness! The horror.

4. Sabine Women


This is a collection of ladies rather than just the one, but together they epitomise the main use and virtue of a vagina in Roman culture: helping men be friends.  Here's the deal: at the founding of Rome there was a desperate shortage of women, and the neighbouring Sabines wouldn't let their women marry Romans. So the Romans did the only reasonable thing: they decided to kidnap a collection of Sabine ladies and forcibly marry them. We'd all totally do the same, I'm sure. According to Livy there was definitely, definitely no raping, and the Sabine ladies were all delighted to be abducted because the Romans were so great. Just so that's clear. Definitely no rape. Ok? Good.


The Sabine dudes, however, were super pissed off and tried to get their women back through the manly, manly means of war. Grrrr. Led by Titus Tatius, which is another brilliant name. So the Sabine men and the Roman men are being manly and bleeding everywhere, until the Sabine women intervene by standing between the warring dudes and declared that they themselves should be murdered for causing all the deaths of their husbands and fathers. This is - as I’m sure you’ll agree, especially if you identify as male - the kind of infallible logic no man can reject. And indeed the Romans and Sabines couldn't., and so that was the end of the war, and the Roman and Sabine men ruled Rome together in peace for a whole five years. And what do we learn from this tale of kidnap, war and victim blaming? Women are well good at bringing men together, let's do political marriages.

3. Octavia Minor


This of course brings us to Octavia, who was one half of a very famous political marriage. This Octavia is known as Octavia Minor (the Younger) in order to differentiate her in scholarship from her sister Octavia. She had four daughters. They were called Claudia, Claudia, Antonia and Antonia. Sometimes the Roman lack of imagination with regards to naming is overwhelming.


Anyway, little Octavia is Augustus's sister (not his real name, of course. His real name was Octavian. Of course) and is a central part of Augustus's attempts to conquer the world by any means necessary. First, as a 29 year old widowed mother of three(!!!) she was married off to Mark Antony by her brother in order to provide a familial link between the two men, just like the Sabines. She was a good lady, so she spent the next few years following Antony around to the various miserable provinces he visited. As Romans viewed leaving Rome in much the same way that Londoners view the idea of moving to Bradford, but even worse, this was a big deal. Antony, however, was terribly ungrateful and disappeared off to Egypt to drink melted pearls, wear eyeliner and knob Cleopatra.


For 8 years, Octavia raised her three children by her first husband, her two children by Antony, and Antony's two kids by one of his other wives, while trying to persuade her brother that her husband wasn't that bad and advocating on his behalf. In gratitude for her efforts, Antony divorced her. Then killed himself. However, Octavia was the most patient woman who ever lived, and so she took in his children by Cleopatra and raised them.Then she died. And was given an enormous public funeral, and got a gate and a portico built in her name and a collection of coins with her face on them. And coins are the highest honour a lady can get, especially if she’s the perfect, obedient and loyal sister, wife and mother of famous men.

2. Cornelia


By now you should be noticing a trend: women who are good according to the Romans are only good when they’re useful to men in some way. Cornelia Africana adds a new dimension to that trend as she manages to be useful to both the men in her life - her sons - and the state of Rome. She was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, aka the man who destroyed Carthage and salted the earth, which was already a good way to be famous; a bit like being a royal baby. By the time she died, she was near deified in Rome for her many virtues, and a big statue of her was put up in the Forum.


It’s claimed by Plutarch that she had 12 children, which honestly is a bit suspect - not least because Plutarch was writing several hundred years after her death. But she definitely had three and two of them - the sons of course - decided that they’d like to cause a bit of a political crisis by attempting to reform agrarian law (no one said it was a sexy political crisis) and were both brutally murdered by mobs who opposed them. Cornelia played a very prominent role in their lives, acting as an advisor, a confident and an ally. She was renowned for her education, her beauty, and her choice to not remarry but to dedicate herself to her sons after her widowhood, even though a king definitely tried to marry her because she was so brilliant and beautiful and brilliant.


Most importantly she is remembered for the fact that when a friend asked her why she didn’t wear jewellery, she gestured to her sons and replied “these are my jewels.” Which, if we’re honest about it, is a total dick move. How is her friend supposed to respond to that? It feels like Cornelia would have been right at home at a middle class mums groups in North London, shaming women who work or don’t breastfeed or let their children eat sweets or whatever for not being as good as she is. She’s basically Gwyneth Paltrow, but worse. For all her perfect virtue and excellent motherliness, you definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with her.

1. Lucretia


Talking of women you wouldn't want to be friends with, we come to poor old Lucretia: star of many a tragic play, worryingly important in European art and, unbearably depressingly, the epitome of Roman female goodness.


Here’s what happened to Lucretia: her husband Brutus was out with his mates - including the prince of Rome (it was a monarchy), Sextus Tarquinius  - having a laugh and a bit of bants and that, which culminated in an argument about whose wife was the most virtuous. As men do. So they decided to check up on their wives to settle the argument, and rode around town peeping on their ladies, who were all being unwomanly in some way. All except Lucretia who, in her husband’s absence, was weaving him some clothes. Awww. So Lucretia won!


Unfortunately, her virtue is irresistibly arousing to the prince, who returns, breaks into her bedroom and rapes her. Because a virtuous lady is like catnip to depraved tyrants, as we all know from all fiction ever.


Rapes have consequences though, and the next day Lucretia summoned her husband and father, told them what happened and then - in quite a surprising twist - stabbed herself to death in front of them while declaring that she must die, because she has committed adultery. Yes dear Reader, the height of excellence for a Roman lady was to kill yourself instead of bringing shame on the honour of your husband and father by getting yourself raped. And the Romans were the civilised ones, apparently. Her hubby and dad took this quite badly, dragging her poor body out into the streets and using her as an excuse to start a revolution that overthrew the king (named Tarquin Superbus - I saved the best name for the end) and instituted the republic. Lucretia’s poor body was displayed in the forum the whole time, as apparently she hadn’t suffered enough indignity. Thus, Lucretia is Rome’s martyr because she restored her own honour by dying bloodily all over her dad.


And with that, I think we can all be very grateful that we’re not Roman.

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?

This is a question that was asked by just about everyone I have ever spoken to about Romans, because everyone thinks they're hilarious. You know when you're working in retail and you've served maybe 8000 people and asked each one if they'd like a bag and you've gone into autopilot thinking about taking up smoking for the extra breaks and then something won't scan properly and you're waving it about and the the jolly customer says "does that mean it's free?!!" with a big grin and they're the 7,999th person to say it that day and you smile far too hard and grind your teeth? This question is a bit like that. Except it happens more at parties and I'm never getting paid to answer it. But it's all cool, because I love talking about the Romans, and Monty Python.

For the young, the ignorant and the forgetful, this question of course refers to the Monty Python film The Life of Brian and this exchange:


This skit ends listing the benefits of the Roman presence in Judea as follows:  the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, public health, and peace. All perfectly reasonable answers and all true to a certain extent. It's also an old fashioned, somewhat colonialist 19th century viewpoint that depicts the Romans as a homogenising, civilising force bringing technology and advancement and nice things to the savages, which is obviously a little "problematic" to say the least. But that's Monty Python's list, and I am a willful contrarian and I like to make things difficult for myself (also super fun at parties), so today I am going to do my own list and I am going to be answering it from a different angle; not what did the Romans do for first century Judea, but what did they do for the twenty-first century west .


1. Latin

Those of you who went to decent schools, where kids probably didn't get stabbed, likely did Latin at some point. This means you'll know two things: first that Caecilius is in the garden, and secondly that Latin is a dead language that killed the Romans(1). But think about this for more than 10 seconds, and you'll realise that Latin is very much alive today, just not the Latin you learnt in school. Latin is the foundation of all Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian Portuguese, Romanian and a bunch of languages you've never heard of like Aragonese.(2) Which means that Latin vocab and certain aspects of grammar remain fundamental to western languages, and in a post-colonial world, huge amounts of Africa and all of America. Even in English, a Germanic language, Latin is important. Not only because of the strong French influence but also in formal language. As a result of classical renaissance, Latin is the language of law, medicine, science and academia. You've certainly written etc., et al.,n.b.,. and so on.(3) Broken your tibula? Fallen on your gluteus maximus? Picked any lavendula? Worked pro bono? Or devised an ad hoc solution? Had a long pub discussion about superhero alter egos? Latin is in your life, your life is steeped in Latin and you don't even slightly appreciate it. Ungrateful.

2. The Arch



When I was 17 I went on a college trip to Greece, including a visit to the ancient site of Olympia, where I got into my first stand up row with a moron about the ancient world.(4) It concerned The Arch, which I had been taught by my wonderful Ancient History A-Level teacher Gill Partington to pronounce with capital letters. Because The Arch is important. At the site of ancient Olympia, there stands two or three almost complete buildings and a covered walkway leading from the temple to the Olympic stadium. Each of these involves arches: an arched window, a doorway, an arched covering. As we - being 10 passionate, mouthy 17 year olds - walked towards the stadium we encountered a group of tourists. "Look" shouted one "look at the beautiful Greek arch!" "No no!" we interjected, drunk on history and teenage arrogance, "the Romans invented the unsupported arch. The Greeks never had the architectural ability! This is all Roman, built by Hadrian! Isn't that fascinating?" The tourists, sober, American, oddly unhappy about being corrected by English children, all of whom were suspiciously gothy, violently disagreed until we were politely separated by Gill. The Arch is everywhere in Roman architecture, and as a result is everywhere in western architecture. As is concrete, which the Romans also invented. And the unsupported dome, represented in religious architecture the world over. And where there's not an arch, there's a flying buttress, which the Romans also invented. Because the Romans were excellent at architecture, maths (even without having a zero) and building cool stuff.

3. Representative Democracy


Oh yeah, it's getting hot now. I know there's nothing internet kids enjoy more than discussion of the ancient roots of different forms of political structures. I'm with it. And so are you. Greeks invented democracy, everyone knows this, they've built an entire tourism industry on that fact. But Athenian democracy was direct, which meant that for every single issue every eligible citizen (men. Only some men) who wanted to have a say had to traipse up an enormous hill to debate and vote. Which is tedious, time consuming, exhausting and quite annoying. Russell Brand can't even be bothered to put a cross in a box once every four years, and I avoid Question Time because it's stressful, so I'm sure you can imagine how difficult getting people to climb a mountain every couple of weeks was.

So when the Romans kicked out their kings and instituted democracy, they decided to do it better -like they did everything. They developed a form of democracy that would work for enormous groups of people, which would be less time consuming and more likely to get people involved but still allow every man a voice. They invented the idea of voting for someone else to represent your views in the actual process of governing. They did this by developing a series of offices, each with very specific roles and responsibilities, lead by two consuls, and each officer was appointed by public vote. After the term of office, consuls could be prosecuted if they were deemed to have been corrupt. This system, which worked in its ideal form for about 2 hours before the political class emerged and corrupted it, forms the basis for all representative democracy today. Particularly, it ideologically underpins American government as the founding father borrowed not only the names of institutions but the ideas of limiting the power of each office and institution to prevent the outbreak of tyranny. That's going well too.

4. Christianity


I've talked previously about the enormous size and reach of the Roman empire. And earlier we noted that one of the major benefits of being a part of the empire was long lasting peace. These two attributes, plus a general wealth of the empire, allowed people to travel much more extensively than they otherwise could have, and thus allowed ideas to spread around the Roman world very fast. And for the modern world, the most significant of these ideas was Christianity. It was the Roman desire for conquest which allowed the conditions for Christianity to spread and grow. It was the empire wide persecution of Christians which really raised its profile as a movement. And it was the imperial adoption of Christianity which gave it the final push into full legitimacy. Interestingly, it was also the fall of imperial power in the west which allowed the church to gain the power and influence it enjoyed in the medieval world. It is because of the spread and influence of the Romans that Christianity, which now underpins western philosophy, morality and often law. One of the reasons we have Sunday Opening hours is because of the influence of Christian morality today. In the US, abortion debates which were hammered out in the Roman empire are being applied daily by powerful Christian Right. Without the Roman empire, the structures, peace and leisure that it provided, the church would have had a much harder time becoming the dominant moral and legal force in the western world for almost two millennia. And whatever your religious flavour, however you feel about Christianity or organised religion or whatevs, you have to be impressed by that.

5. Law


Roman law particularly the sixth century codification in the Justinian Code, enshrined the separation between private law like divorces, and public law like murders. I have no jokes about this. Because it's boring. Please see your local law professor for more. Though they wont have any jokes either.



6. Pithy Quotes



Finally, the Romans gave us all the pithy quotes a civilisation could desire. The kind of pithy quotes which get reused by people who don't even know who they're quoting. How many know that when they paint "who watches the watchmen?" wonkily on New York walls that they are quoting noted first century satirist and renowned misogynist and xenophobe Juvenal? I suspect many think that Alan Moore came up with this all by himself. How many more know that the horribly misused line about bread and circuses is also from Juvenal? The Romans also gave us "the die is cast" to be used ominously by ponces, and “Where there’s life, there’s hope” to be sighed in desperate times. The Romans gave us the last line of the only war poem you remember from school "Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori." Latin literature, and the morals and sentiments which they express, remain powerful in western culture, in our books and in out everyday speech. They also gave us the works of Catullus, who offers the best life advice I can offer (and a series of distressing poems about facefucking) “Let us live and love, nor give a damn what sour old men say/The sun that sets may rise again, but when our light has sunk into the earth it is gone forever.”

1. Latin is a language/as dead as dead can be/first it killed the Romans/and now it's killing me.

2. Spoken in Aragon, Spain. Also such fictional sounding languages as Extremaduran, Mirandese, Mozarabic, Norman, Picard and Romansch. The world is so much stranger than you think.

3. Meaning et cetera (and the rest); et alii (and the others); note bene (note well)

4. If you ever meet me, ask about my British Museum row that ended in my friend being on the receiving end of a series of anti-semetic slurs. It's quite the tale.

Where was the Roman Empire?

Where was the Roman Empire in relation to modern countries? @daveycam89

Another one for Cameron, because man that guy has a lot of questions. And because it's quick and that's important to me. Now, as we discussed previously, the Roman empire is not a static entity however much we try to insist it is by refusing to acknowledge how vast it was.  In terms of geography, the empire grows and shrinks over time by a variety of methods. Some by conquest, obviously, such as Gaul and some by more diplomatic means such as client kingships.(1) Judea is the most famous example of this, led by King Herod the babykiller but a Roman territory. And many rulers willingly entered the Roman empire, surrendering the autonomy because being in the empire was actually pretty enticing. I KNOW RIGHT! this is the opposite of everything the films taught us about imperialism!  Finally, a good conquest or two is always a fun way for an emperor to make a name for himself and a good excuse for some good architecture.(2) This means that the borders and boundaries of Roman power and influence are actually more porous and changeable than they first appear. But first off, a map. This is a very cool animated map showing the growth and shrinkage of the empire over 2000 years or so which I found on Wikipedia and wish I could take credit for.




As you can see the empire had a rapid growth. The Romans started crushing their Etruscan and Latin neighbours in the 4thC BC, and seemed happy with just that small amount of growth until some Gauls invaded and damaged their city. And that pissed the Romans off. For a really long time.(3) So they started messing up the rest of Italy to protect themselves. And once you control one area, well there's another bit just across there isn't there. What if they're dangerous?  And now you're drawing attention to yourself and pissing off locals by militarily crushing them and ruling their land. Better tidy up around here too so no one threatens you. And so it snowballs. Real fast. Then the annexing of Sicily brought them into conflict with Carthage, now Tunis, forcing them to develop a navy and fight a 120 year war with the North Africans which they EVENTUALLY won, giving them control of the Carthaginian empire. This covered Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Iberia, Libya, Cyprus,Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, Crete and Sicily. A huge expansion that set them on the world stage as the leading Western imperial force and in control of the seas and trade routes.

This gave them a foothold in Iberia (Spain and Portugal) and in Greece and Macedonia, allowing them to expand through the territories using a combination of military might and smart diplomacy. By this time the Romans were getting a little high on the thrill of conquest and beginning to fight for the joy and glory of winning all the time. So they start to turn on empires and kingdoms just for the fun of it marching happily through Europe, including Switzerland, Austria, the Dalmatian coast, now Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and all those other wee countries that do badly in Eurovision.

Naturally this couldn't last, and they were drawing attention to themselves and pissing off everyone around them. And as they were everywhere, there were a lot of people around them. There was constant trouble on the Western borders of Gaul and later the Eastern borders of Greek Turkey. After many long wars with Pontus, Pompey the Great(4) defeated Mithridates IV and gained control of the Pontic empire covering Turkey, Cyprus, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, the Nackchivan Autonomous Republic, Georgia and some smidges of where Russia and Ukraine border the Black Sea. At the same time, our friend JC is conquering Gaul, causing the deaths of millions, and bringing the whole of mainland France and Belgium and also invading Britain for the first time.

The Period of Empire

And there expansions broadly stopped for a while. After Antony and Cleopatra died, allowing Egypt to be absorbed into the Empire, and some low level skirmishes on the German frontier around the Rhine Augustus decreed that the empire's limits should not be expanded and nothing happened of significance for many decades. Until Claudius invaded Britain in 43AD and managed to control up to central Scotland on and off. Hadrian's wall marks almost the northernmost point which was ruled by the Romans.

After Claudius's great triumph, the Romans had to wait until Trajan became emperor in 98AD and worked relentlessly to expand the empire in the East until 117AD when he died. Under Trajan, who incidentally also had the silliest haircut of any Roman emperor and potentially any emperor ever, the empire reached its greatest extent. In particular he conquered the Dacians, centred in Romania, and their empire bringing Northern Macedonia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and the rest of the Balkans under Roman control. He also brought in Nabatea, which spread as far south as Petra in Jordan and Syria, conquered Mesopotamia (Iraq, a little of Iran, Syria and Kuwait), and Assyria (the rest of Armenia) and Judea (Israel and the Palestinian Territories) became a full Roman province after a revolt. Mesopotamia and Assyria were both lost upon Trajan's death and the empire shrank back to what felt like its 'natural' borders. 

The List

So here is the full, insane, very, very long, list of countries currently recognised by the UN (thanks Pointless) encompassed by the Roman empire at one point or another during this period:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Andorra
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Monaco
  • Luxembourg
  • Belgium
  • Netherlands
  • Germany
  • Switzerland
  • Liechtenstein
  • Italy
  • San Marino
  • Azerbaijan
  • Syria
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Cyprus
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Israel
  • Palestine
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • Libya
  • Tunisia
  • Algeria
  • Morocco
  • Malta
  • Austria
  • Czech Republic
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Croatia
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Hungary
  • Yugoslavia
  • Albania
  • Greece
  • FYR Macedonia
  • Romania
  • Bulgaria
  • Turkey
  • Georgia
  • Armenia

And for those of you who read this far, here is a picture of Trajan's laughable hair as a reward



From a marble bust in the British Museum.


(1) where a territory has the image of autonomy and it's own leader, but is politically and economically subordinate to the larger power.

(2) See Trajan's Column, Marcus Aurelius's column, The Arch of Titus (celebrating the subjugation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple) and so on and so forth.

(3)  They were still talking about it centuries later as though it were recent. This is how into their heritage the Romans were.

(4) You may remember him from such moves as being a member of the first triumvirate, marrying Julius Caesar's daughter and being beheaded on an Egyptian beach.

Did the Romans do fundamental math too, & if so, what kind?

This question comes from a philosopher (@PhiLoThough) and a physicist (@ThePhysicsMill). People interested in The Big Questions. Questions about the nature of reality itself. About the universe. About fundamentals. They think about gravitational waves and universal truths and everything in between. And both are (I assume, which I shouldn’t do but it fits where I’m going with this so I hope I’m broadly right) part of massive international academic systems, based on centuries old ideas of curiosity, inquiry, scientific philosophies and the unending desire of man to understand his world. And so, they wonder how the Romans thought about their questions and - perhaps - wondered why there are no Roman Pythagorases or Euclids or Archimedeses (there’s a word that was never meant to be a plural). Because there aren’t. You never learnt a formula in GSCE maths that was named after a Roman, or memorised a rule that was named in classical Latin. And why is that?


The short answer to this is very simple. They did no maths that wasn’t basically adding up, and literally did not care one bit beyond that. Indeed, a mathematician once said that if you read world history through contributions to maths, you’d not know that the Romans existed. And it’s true. The Romans had a staggering lack of interest in the fundamentals of mathematics, or of the universe or really of anything. The Romans were so poor at maths - and this is also the reason that we now use an Arabic number system and a Latin alphabet - that they didn’t have a zero. The mathematical concept of zero literally never occurred to them. No use for it. Admittedly the concept of 0 is bloody complicated. I’m certainly not touching it because - as I learnt from dating 2 theoretical physicists - maths scares me and makes me want to lie down under a blanket with a glass of wine and possibly cry a bit. But still, I’m just one woman with self diagnosed dyscalculia (like all the cool kids); an entire civilization and they didn’t even bother with it? That’s poor Romans. Poor.

Which answers that question doesn’t it. NOPE NO MATHS. Next. But there are two interesting things in that short answer. 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (don’t @ me) Romans so bad at it? And 2. If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?

So let’s deal with these shall we. Take up some of your afternoon.

Question 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (seriously, don’t @ me), Romans so bad at it?


The Romans were bad at maths because they absolutely didn’t care about it. The Romans were a staggeringly practical people. Just astonishingly uninterested in Big Questions. As far as the Romans were concerned, there was absolutely no need to question things because God did it. Or more specifically, innumerable gods did it. Infinite numbers of big and little gods and spirits. If gods couldn’t be immediately ascribed something, then it was probably magic.

This is something that is vastly underestimated now about the Romans, now we’ve reconceptualised them as either sex crazed, syphilis ridden knobbers or white toga'd British men with neat hair, paragons (*cough*) of the Glorious Empire (*cough*). In our imaginations, they’re still basically like us, by which I mean academics of western history. They’re white, they’re middle class and they’re pretty secular. They’re completely wrong. The Romans were religious and superstitious as fuck. To a weird degree. You know that woman your mum knows who wears a lot of purple and reads books about crystal healing and says she has an angel on shoulder and that some places have bad energy? She’d be considered to be borderline atheist by the Romans. Religion - by which I mean a true faith in the existence of supernatural, immortal beings, spirits, and powers who interacted with the physical world - permeated every facet of Roman life whether we acknowledge it or not.

Pliny the Elder wrote the greatest scientific work of the entirety of Roman civilisation: the Natural History - considered science simply because it's got no ACTUAL gods in it(1). It Does however contain 12 entire books on plants and trees, one on magic, one on how great painting is, and chapters titled things like“Remarkable Circumstances Connected with the Menstrual Discharge,” Instances of Striking Resemblance,” and “The Most Chaste Maidens”, and not one mention of numbers.(2) The Roman concept of science was pretty damn different to ours is what I’m saying, and included painting. And grammar. And cool anecdotes that predominantly come from mythology. But if you don't straight up say God Did It then it's science. As far as the Romans were concerned everything was already explained. Gods. Or magic. Or both. Probably both. The Roman view of the world is basically the same as that of Battlestar Galactica.  And why bother asking any more questions than that! The Romans mostly thought that the Greek preoccupation with such things that seemed to have no practical application was more than a bit suspect and probably bad for you.


Which brings us to question 2:

If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?


For all their embarrassing rubbishness at fundamental maths, Romans were spectacularly good at engineering and this is what I think is very cool and interesting about them. Without ever having the concept of 0 or any access to any maths higher than arithmetic, Roman civilisation invented spectacular feats of civil and military engineering, including aqueducts, dams, watermills, massive paved roads, hydraulic mining, and all kinds of mad shit for killing large amounts of foreigners as quickly as possible. In addition to this, they managed to work out some pretty impressive physics, basically inventing the freestanding arch and dome. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome, first built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian, is a staggering feat of architecture and engineering. It is a PERFECT 43.3m sphere made out of concrete. In order to reduce the load so it stayed up, the concrete gets progressively lighter as it rises, and hidden chambers throughout the dome support it. The Pantheon impresses civil engineers and physicists today as a work of brilliant engineering. But they did it without mathematically working out anything at all. Because fuck it, this is practical stuff, we can bludgeon our way through.


And just think of how COOL and impressive aqueducts are. Water is drawn out of a source - possibly many miles away - and run through miles of stone using gravity alone, supplied to homes through piping, then run back out again, put through a sewage system and dumped into a different body of water. The gradient were carefully worked out so that the flow of water didn't overwhelm the aqueduct and to keep the speed slow and steady. All done with finger arithmetic and a dodgy looking spirit level. Could you do that? I couldn't do that. I couldn't do that if you gave me a youtube tutorial and a scientific calculator. And not just because I'm afraid of all the buttons on scientific calculators.


Engineering is the kind of problem solving the Romans liked. Theory and abstract concepts and intangible things were fancy-pants things that only rubbishers got involved in. Engineering a way to move water or make something cool or fire flaming balls of stone at a disobedient city was failing to recognise how much better it would be for them to be ruled by the Romans was the kind of thing REAL MEN did. In a way, Romans are like the people who write tabloid headlines that say BOFFINS or a deeply stereotypical "working man" who doesn't see the point of university, deeply distrusts the concept of education or theory but by god can he put up a shelf. Basically, they're a certain type of reddit commenter who thinks that certain types of education are just a waste of everyone's time.  Not painting though, that's important.

So the Romans broadly ignored the underlying principles that allowed them to build arches and calibrate aqueducts and fling big flaming stones and small flaming clay thingys really far, they just worked out how to do them with knowledge of tools and materials and spaces and assumed it was magic if something confusing happened.






  1. The other that is often mentioned is Lucretius's Poem On the Nature of Things because it seems to have physics in it. Lucretius is an Epicurean and his aim was thus to demonstrate that the gods had no impact on human life or natural events (in contradiction with deterministic philosophies like Stoicism which denied free will). He does not argue against the existence of deities, merely that they don't impact humanity on the observable world. He is a naturalist and his science is broadly at the level of a 6 year old or an internet fan of Richard Dawkins.
  2. These are most of books 12-27, excluding the 5 about remedies; book 35; book 30. The chapters are 7.13; 7.10 and 7.35. It’s worth noting the Pliny himself was very sceptical of magic and astrology and considered it hokum, but the fact that he felt the need to include a discussion of it - and the striking similarities between the magic and medicine described - show how very pervasive it was amongst the Romans. The menstruation chapter is a great read for the ladies including insights about womb moles and the effects that menstruation have on women: