Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Seen at a Roman market that was obviously way over on the "touristy" side of the spectrum.  But what a great opportunity to ponder the origins of an interesting word!

What is being referred to here is a small bottle.  Or if you prefer, a little flask.  Flask is from flasco a Medieval Latin word for bottle.  How it snuck into Latin is unclear, it might have been a Germanic word or even a word borrowed by the Germans from the Celts.

Fiasco in the sense of a disaster or an embarrassing mishap is said to be "theater slang" first noted in 1855 and having the meaning of "a failure in performance".  

My go to source on such matters is The Online Etymology Dictionary.  It tosses out various theories as to the origins of this phrase but has to admit nobody really knows. The best candidate appears to be the Italian phrase "fare il fiasco" which means to play a game in such a way that the loser will have to buy the next bottle.  

No particular relevance to our recent trip to Italy.  We had the expected minor mishaps but nothing I would call a fiasco.  And, to the lasting disappointment of our friend Anthea back in the UK, we never ordered a second bottle of wine.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Vatican Obelisk

You could do a pretty good one day "History in a Place" feature within a short stroll of this spot.  This is looking across the Tiber river to Castel Sant' Angelo, which originally was the Mausoleum of Hadrian.

A view from on the bridge.  It is by the way another Roman original, the Pons Aelius. It was built by Hadrian at the same time (AD 134 - 139) as the Mausoleum.

Hadrian and his wife Sabina were buried here, as in fact were subsequent Emperors at least as far as Caracalla in 217.  It fell on hard times along with the late Empire, in 405 Honorius incorporated it into the "across the river" section of the city Walls.  This did not prevent it from being sacked by Alaric's Goths five years later.  It is said that they tossed out the urns and scattered the ashes.  The Goths were a recurring problem of course, and Procopius records that in the Siege of 537 a surprise attack was repelled when the Roman defenders of this now fortress resorted to throwing the statues down off the roof!

Once a magnificent edifice it now has the look of what it spent most of its career being, a fortress.

In fact it was the refuge of last resort for the Pope when things got tough.  Because St. Peter Square is right behind it.

That's as close as I felt like getting on a busy Sunday.  But if you look at the exact center of the picture you will notice yet another obelisk.

This is the so called "Vaticano" obelisk and is noteworthy for being the only obelisk that has never fallen.

This obelisk is what I would consider Egyptian/Roman.  That is it was made in Alexandria in the 1st Century BC but for the Romans.  It was dedicated to Augustus. It is bare of hieroglyphics or other markings.

The open space you see in the above picture is in fact approximately where the Circus of Caligula once stood.  That Emperor in fact brought the obelisk over to decorate the circus. (Later called the Circus of Nero).  Although it has never fallen it has been moved a bit in the Middle Ages.  One reason the obelisk was preserved is that it was the traditional place where St. Peter was martyred "inter duas metas" which is between the two turning points of the circus...where the central obelisk would have stood.  The other legend, that the ashes of Julius Caesar himself were contained within a bronze ball at the top, has since been disproven.

By the way this is the other obelisk for which we have an ancient source regards its installation.  None other than Pliny the Elder discussed its transport by a huge "obelisk ship" which was subsequently sunk to form part of the base of the light house at the port of Portus.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mussolini Memories.....

For most dictators fame is but fleeting.  This is especially true for those deposed by military action.  Usually the first thing that the populace does when freed is pull down all the statues.

Fascism being particularly out of vogue these days I did not expect to find much in Italy to remember Benito Mussolini.  I was wrong.

The biggest surviving monument is at the Foro Italia, which under the Previous Management had been called the Foro Mussolini. Here's a modern obelisk engraved Mussolini Dux.

Dux, or Duce as it was often said, was another attempt by Mussolini to recapture the Glories of Rome in the modern era.  It was a title going back to Republican days that meant "leader of troops".  In the latter Empire it became formalized in variations such as "Dux Brittanica", the Duke of Britain, indicating the commander of troops in that province.  

The Foro Mussolini was primarily a sports complex.  It was begun with the hopes that Rome would get the Olympics in 1944. Deteriorating political conditions caused Rome to lose out in the voting in 1939.  Hmmm, what is it with Sports and Authoritarian Regimes?  Berlin 1936.  The cancelled Tokyo 1940 Games, along with with Rome's near miss....

By the way, it is known that under the obelisk is a time capsule.  It contains a few gold coins, a medallion showing Mussolini wearing a lion skin reminiscent of Hercules, and a 1200 word manuscript in Latin extolling Mussolini, the Fascist movement generally and the construction of the sports complex specifically.

Here's an odd building.  It was along one of the bus routes we traveled.  It seemed to have active young people generally around it so I started calling it "Fascist High". The text translates roughly to: "If Victory is Necessary then Battle is Necessary".

Because I actually do a little research after arriving home I can report that this is not a school but another sports complex.  The message while not specifically political does have a bit of the old goose step about it.

Now imagine my surprise when I saw this:

Near the river Tiber, not far from the famous Boca Veritas we find a substantial public building with a surviving dedication to Benito Mussolini Duce.  The next line appears to memorialize somebody named Petrus Colunna as "Praf Ubs" I assume this means Prefect of the City. (Odd spelling aside this is certainly a reference to Piero Colonna, twice Mayor of Rome and once Governor of same (1936-1939)

It looks to me as if everything else has been removed in a sort of modern "damnatio memoria" but this part is nice and clean as if it has been until recently covered up by some other signage. Rome being Rome it will likely be years before anybody does anything about this.

The building is on the busy Via Luigi Petroselli.  It is still the Town Hall for the Municipio of Central Rome, i.e. the historic central city.

If brutal cement dystopias are your thing -  and hey, I'm not here to judge - the EUR center is the place to go.  I did not make it out there but one of our fellow travelers did and has some swell photos of same including a depiction of Mussolini in a modern version of Trajan's column.  Go visit MooseandHobbes

Damnatio Memoriae

(sorry for reposting this offering from 2015.  On occasion when I go back to update things they reload as new posts. T)
The Romans combined dynastic ruthlessness with a real hankering for gaudy, monumental architecture.  Obviously this caused a few problems.  Once you had banished your Imperial rivals - usually by sending them packing to the shades of the Underworld - you were sometimes stuck with temples, arches, statues and so forth that were still extolling the fine virtues of your previous competitor.

Sometimes a live and let.....well, let them stay dead, attitude prevailed.  Coinage does not seem to have been universally recalled and melted down for instance.  Maybe it would have just been too difficult to do this.  Or maybe the new wearer of the Purple never stooped to handling grubby money and it was sufficiently out of sight, out of mind.

But for the big stuff you could always resort to the "Damnatio Memoriae".

Literally a damnation of the memory of a public figure, this was not officially done as often you might expect.  But it did happen.  And the nastier the spat the more wide ranging the Damnatio. Family problems that got out of hand seem to have been particularly bad.

Consider the family drama of Septimus Severus.

Oh, we have dropped in on this bunch before.  Septimus and his wife, Julia Domna, had a couple of squabbling sons named Caracalla and Geta.  After Septimus died in York  his two sons supposedly returned to Rome where they occupied opposite ends of the palace.  They and their adherents plotted and schemed, quite literally with knives drawn, until Caracalla managed to dispatch his brother Geta.

This is what is called the Arch of the Argentii.  It stands near the Forum Borium or cattle market in Rome near the river Tiber.  Argentii by the way were bankers.  In any case, here we have on one side of the arch Septimus and Julia looking across.  No doubt the sculptor was trying to capture their sentiments...."now boys, you two get along now.  Share your toys.  And the Empire..."

And how did that work out?  Well, on the other side of the arch facing the parents we find:

Caracalla standing next to a chiseled off empty space.  The figure now missing may well have been Geta, but one can't be quite sure.  Caracalla had quite a few people eliminated physically and allegorically,  including the Praetorian Prefect Plautianus and his daughter Plautilla.  Since Plautilla was Caracalla's wife there would be a little extra Damn in that Damnatio one supposes....

Some inscriptions got clobbered quite thoroughly.  This example from Ostia dug out some offending name with diligence.  But left what seems to be a reference to Pertinax, a fellow whose three month reign in AD 193 was a troubled time indeed. One coup attempt was actually discovered while he was on an inspection tour...right here in Ostia.*

You just can't tell when you will run across a Damnatio.  When excavating up at Vindolanda we had a day off.  On a visit to the nearby fort site of Chesters we dropped in to their museum.  They have a very nice example of a modius, which is an official grain measure.  Take a look:

The first part of the name has been rubbed out.  Oh, and the measure has also been checked and found to be intentionally short.  Official cheating in Roman times...
*Pertinax was the first in a flurry of Emperors that year.  The last man standing was Septimus Severus.  Septimus thought highly enough of Pertinax to restore his name as a legitimate Emperor and even to add it to his own official title.  So just maybe the extant inscription is some variation on: Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Eusebes Pertinax Augustus.

If so the blasted out part would likely be another "damnatioed" reference to his son Geta.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Lateran Obelisk

Obelisks in Rome often have "nicknames" based on their current location.  So this one, the Lateran Obelisk, obviously stands near San Giovanni in Laterano.  If you are only casually familiar with Rome that name might still ring a bell.  The Lateran Palace stands next to the Lateran basilica, and was the site of several "Lateran Councils" in medieval times.  But back to the obelisk.

This one has a lot of superlatives attached to it.  It was the tallest obelisk brought to Rome.  Also the last one.  It is perhaps the best preserved.  It was the last one to be restored and re erected.

The obelisk was originally put up by Pharoah Thutmose IV at Karnak.  It was brought to Rome by Constantius II when he made his only trip there in 357 AD.  By that point Rome was no longer the unquestioned center of the Empire, Constantinople or wherever the Emperor and his army were at the moment tended to be the true capitol.

The obelisk sat in the spina of the Circus Maximus until the end of the Empire.  At some point it fell and was buried under silt and debris.

Pope Sixtus V had it restored and moved to its current location in 1588.

There is actually an ancient account of the transportation of the obelisk from Egypt to Rome, found in Ammianus Marcellinus.  Its a bit long to cut and paste here but worth the read.  It sounds as if the obelisk came into the city via the Porta San Paulo, then known by its earlier name Porta Ostiensis.

Monday, July 17, 2017

With aplomb

To do something "with aplomb" is to it with poise, self confidence and assurance.  On the other hand, if something is "leaden" it is dull, heavy, slow.  Like lead.  Oddly, these words come from the same source.  Not quite brothers, these words are first cousins.

They both branch off the Latin plumbum which was the word for the metal lead.  As pipes were often made of this the men who worked with them were, and still are, called plumbers.  Its a bit of useless medical trivia but lead poisoning is called plumbism. 

Aplomb comes from the French a' plomb which meant "upright, straight, balanced". It was a reference to the unwavering straight line you could define with a plumb bob, which is to say the lead weight at the end of a string commonly used by stone masons.

I once dug a Roman plumb bob.  It was one of my early years at Vindolanda so I don't have a decent photo.  Like all things lead it came out of the ground with a light coat of lead oxide that looks a bit like a dusting of flour.  And of course as soon as you pick it up its weight tells you what you have.  Here's a photo of a Roman plumb bob that was dug at Catterick, about a hundred miles further south. A modern example is helpfully along side.

And here's a brief history of the plumb bob courtesy of Wonkee Donkee Tools!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ostia Antica - Digging up and Wrapping Up

Ostia Antica is a marvelous site, an absolute delight for lovers of things Ancient and Roman.  But it is also a very frustrating place.  It could be so much more.  Part of the explanation lies in the rather unique way it was excavated and conserved.  More about that in a moment but first - in keeping with the History in a Place series - the practical advice.

Although it is fifteen miles outside of Rome Ostia is a very easy place to get to.  Cheap too.  I will have a few things to say about Roman public transportation by and by.  But for a single transit ticket (1.5 Euro) you can hop a bus in Trastevere or anywhere else in town, get to the Porta San Paulo Train Station (also known as Pyrimide) and use the same ticket to ride all the way to Ostia Antica.  It would be difficult to get lost, you are at the terminus of the line.  Trains run regularly.  

It is about a five minute walk to the gates of the site.  The site is closed on Mondays. The first Sunday of the month entrance is free.  For detailed info go HERE.

You could take a short stroll into the little town to buy sandwiches and such.  There is also a cafeteria on site that is pretty good, albeit a hive of busy school kids both times I visited.  Bring a water bottle, it gets thirsty out there in the ruins.  I would not visit on a rainy day, the whole site is open air.

I have skipped over the "major" features of the site, most of them are not far from the entrance.  Don't let my admonition to visit the far corners of Ostia Antica cause you to miss the Theater, the Baths of Neptune and the amazing mosaics in the square behind the theater.  The museum is small but nice.  It is exclusively sculptures, Ostia had some first rate stuff dug up and not all of it got whisked off to the big museums or to private collections.

There is a major problem with the site.  It is huge and the chronically underfunded Italians can't afford to keep it up.  So there is little to no signage which makes finding and understanding things very, very difficult.  Also, lots of interesting things such as underground Mitraeums are closed off.  Why, they don't even have the money to keep the things above ground from falling down...

I would strongly encourage serious visitors to visit THIS SITE and read up.  To the extent that you can generate maps that show your specific sites of interest, do it. Paper print outs or for the modern digital types some sort of device that will be readable in the blazing sunlight.  

So how did Ostia, the excavation, become far too big to handle?  Oh, its a fascist thing to some extent.

Excavations at Ostia were sporadic before 1800.  In the 19th century things got going a bit, with prisoners held at the nearby medieval fortress supplying the work force. In the early 20th century the rail line from Rome was under construction, again with a captive labor pool of Austrian POWs.  Mussolini inaugurated the Ostia Antica train station in 1924.

Benito as il Duce was very keen on promoting Italy to the status of Great Power, and was always trying to link the modern state to the Glories of Ancient Rome.  So it was natural for him to start a very ambitious program of excavations at Ostia, hoping the site would be a centerpiece of international events such as the Olympics or the EUR exposition.  (neither happened).  But in the late 30's up into the early days of WWII excavations went on at a frantic pace.

It is usually not careful, scientific excavation when you have set up a miniature railway to haul away the spoil!

They just bit off way more than they could chew.  Late antiquity and medieval stuff was simply bashed away.  Considerable liberties were taken with reconstructing things not as they were but as they could be portrayed as Most Glorious.  Record keeping was minimal.  The above photo for instance is one of a series that provides most of what is known of the excavations on this part of the site.

So, gee thanks Mussolini.  You created a gigantic archaeological Disney Land for we lovers of Roman stuff.  But you rather made a hash of it and what remains might be unrecognizable to some ancient inhabitant were they able to Time Travel forward.

Oh, its still great.  Worth a visit.  But it would be so much better with a hundred more explanatory signs and a pool of ready volunteers willing to roam the site and explain things.

I'm available btw for that duty.