Who’s the Immigrant: The Romanian or the Roman?
The beggar spent our sestertius in a shop that sells bread, cheese, and other food items. We’ll never see him again; he and his family belong to those thousands of anonymous people who live, or rather, survive, on the streets of Rome.
A few minutes later, a slave comes into the same store to buy some bread and other food to eat during the day. Our sestertius is part of his change. He opens the purse that his master had given him for the day’s shopping and drops the sestertius in among the other coins. We’re back on the road again.
The young slave is walking at a brisk pace. He’s whistling because the errand he’s been sent on will take him outside the city of Rome, giving him a respite from the heavy load of things he has to take care of every day for his master. He’s on his way to Ostia. And he’s carrying just a few coins with him, including our sestertius.
Our coin is leaving Rome, where it has been for a long time now. But that’s normal, because the city of Rome is the largest marketplace in the world in this era, with almost a million people who buy something every day. Every day. Can you imagine the huge exchange of coins that takes place in twenty-four hours? Our sestertius ran the risk of never leaving Rome again.
But now it’s with this young slave with his shaved head. He’s not much more than a boy and he comes from Dacia. Today we’d say he was Romanian, but in the age of Trajan this part of Europe has only recently entered into Rome’s orbit, by way of one of the empire’s most violent wars of conquest, which lasted five years (from 101 to 106 CE). Now it is a province of the empire. This young man was one of the many prisoners taken by the Romans, and he’s been here for ten years. A lot of prisoners were put to work in the amphitheaters, to fight against wild beasts or as gladiators, and the citizens of Rome have been able to see the tough stuff that these proud enemies of Rome are made of.
The conquest of Dacia has brought a lot of gold to Rome, fattening the coffers of the empire. But history has forgotten the fate of thousands of men, women, and children torn away from their homeland. At war’s end, between deaths and refugees who fled to bordering lands, the population of Dacia was so depleted that Rome had to bring in new colonists.
And where did the new settlers of the future Romania come from? From Italy, southern Germany, and Gaul (France)—exactly the reverse of today’s migration pattern.
So many of the present-day inhabitants of Romania (not the Rom, who are originally from northern India and came later) are the descendants of those western Europeans who went there over nineteen centuries ago. Over the course of the generations, their DNA mixed with that of other populations who arrived later; we don’t really know how much of their original DNA is still present. But in any case something else has remained. Listen to a Romanian talk and you’ll notice immediately how similar his language is to Italian, Spanish, and French. Some dialects of Italian are much harder for Italians to understand than Romanian.
The young man continues along the Via Ostiensis—the road to Ostia. He left Rome early in the morning, just at the right time to see the arrest, during a raid, of the owners of a big bakery in Rome. It’s something that will make the news. In these big bakeries grain is milled into flour and then cooked to make bread. Near the bakeries the owners have built some taverns where people can drink, eat, and entertain themselves with prostitutes on the upper floors. But the bakery we’re talking about has a dark side. Numerous customers who came there to buy bread or have sex have disappeared. As was discovered later, they were kidnapped and forced into slavery, and made to turn the grindstones of the mill. The owners knew how to choose their victims—they were certainly not people who lived in the neighborhood, but strangers. Who would ever come to look for them there? They were desaparecidos, vanished in the chaos of Rome. The scheme turned sour when they tried to kidnap a soldier, who reacted by killing some of the would-be kidnappers. It’s a true story handed down to us by the ancient authors. This too is Rome.
How to Mail a Letter in the Roman Era
In modern times it takes about twenty minutes to get to Ostia from Rome, but in ancient times it is quite a long walk. Our slave has done some hitchhiking, taking advantage of the wagon traffic on the Via Ostiensis, one of the busiest roads of the empire. In fact, it is really the port of entry to Rome for anyone arriving in the capital by sea. It’s no coincidence that the neighborhoods to the south of Rome that have grown up alongside this important road are inhabited by lots of immigrants.
What is the errand the slave has been sent on? In a certain sense, he has gone to deliver some letters for his master and his master’s relatives and friends. In fact, he’s carrying a shoulder bag containing numerous pieces of mail.
In the Roman era, as we have seen, there is a very efficient postal service, the cursus publicus, which delivers official dispatches and letters anywhere in the empire in a very short time, thanks to couriers on horseback. But ordinary people, including the wealthy, are not allowed to use these government couriers for private correspondence. They have to make their own arrangements.
The simplest way is to take advantage of people you know who are leaving on a journey. So if you’ve got a friend who’s going to visit his son in Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul, you give him a letter to take to your aunt who happens to live there, and whom you haven’t heard from in ages. One letter from the second century CE reads, “Since I happened upon someone from Cyrene who was coming your way, I felt the need to let you know that I’m safe and sound.”
According to Professor Romolo Augusto Staccioli of the University of Rome, sometimes people form a consortium, by turns making one of their slaves available who follows a postal itinerary that’s useful for them all, with various stops along the way.
Even though it’s an ingenious system, there’s a problem: you have to wait until there are enough letters to be delivered to the same destination in order to make the trip worthwhile. And often it takes a long time. As Professor Staccioli points out, Cicero excuses himself for the delay in responding to his brother, Quinto, with a postscript that speaks volumes: “I’ve had your letter in hand for a number of days, waiting for the availability of the ‘postmen.’ … Then, as soon as one of these couriers appears on the horizon you have to scribble down a letter as fast as possible.” Again Cicero: “You’ve got some strange couriers … when they’re about to leave, they pester you continuously for letters but when they come back they don’t bring you anything. In any event, they’d do me a favor if they gave me two minutes to write, but instead they come in, don’t even take off their hat, and tell me their companions are waiting for them downstairs.”
So is this young slave carrying bundles of letters sealed in envelopes? Not quite—envelopes don’t yet exist. Usually the letter is written on a sheet of papyrus (more rarely parchment, that is, sheep, goat, or calfskin). But since sheets of papyrus are expensive, letters are usually very brief. They are then rolled or folded so that the writing is on the inside, a cord is tied around it and fixed with a drop of wax, on which the seal is impressed (at the knot or on the loose end of the cord). The seal, a little like the sticky edge of our envelopes, functions as a guarantee that no one has opened it and read it.
It’s easy to understand, therefore, why seal rings are so widespread among the Roman population (and in today’s museums). They are useful for letters; for signing documents; for closing jewel boxes, larders, and so on.
The address is written on the outside fold of the letter and is usually brief and direct: “To Ausonius from his brother Marcus,” for example, because it is assumed that the person who will be delivering the letter has been informed about how to get it there.
For very distant destinations, overseas, there are other ways to send letters. If, for example, you urgently need to send a letter to Alexandria, in Egypt, but you don’t know anyone who is planning to go there, you go to the port and look for a ship that is going to that city, entrusting the letter to one of the passengers. It would be like our going to the airport today to ask a passenger to deliver a letter for us. Usually, travelers never refuse to carry a letter for someone. It’s a time-honored practice; also, it gives the traveler a contact (the recipient) in the place where he’s going, in case he needs some help in resolving a problem.
Ostia: A Real Tower of Babel
The slave finally arrives in Ostia. He jumps off the wagon that has brought him here and bids farewell to his fellow slave, his head also shaved, who continues on his way toward a farm.
Before him is the monumental entrance to Ostia, the Roman Gate, consisting of an enormous white marble arch, fifteen feet wide with two large square masonry towers on the sides. These towers are part of the city’s defensive walls, built by Sulla generations ago.
In fact, Ostia is a very old city. Its name comes from ostium, or mouth, because of its location. It was founded in the fourth century BCE close to the shore, beside the mouth of the Tiber, near some salt marshes. We don’t realize it anymore, but salt, so easy to come by today, was a prized natural resource for thousands of years.
By today’s reckoning Ostia might be considered the main airport of ancient Rome. Goods and people bound for Rome from all over the empire arrive here by sea. It is a true economic, cultural, and ethnic funnel directed toward the city. It’s interesting to think that today’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport is just a mile and a half north of the site of ancient Ostia. A lot of arriving flights fly right over the ruins as they come in to land. This is one place where past and present really do overlap.
And to dwell for a moment on the airport analogy, just as the faces you see today at the da Vinci airport are of people from all over the world, so it was at the port of Ostia in ancient times. Entering the city and proceeding down the main street, the decumanus maximus, our slave encounters all the faces of the empire, faces we would refer to today as German, Spanish, English, French, Macedonian, Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan.…
It’s an enormous crowd of people, as diverse as can be. It’s not the first time the slave has been here, but every time he is struck by the people he encounters. Two blond-haired merchants, their fair skin reddened by sunburn, pass by him talking to each other in an incomprehensible Nordic language, whose sounds originate in their throats and not on their tongues like Latin. Right after them he passes three dark-skinned, curly-haired sailors. Their language is exactly the opposite: the r’s rumble in their mouths like so many drumrolls. Their words are drowned out by the rhythmic and metallic approach of a squad of soldiers; the first soldier has red hair and freckles, and with each step he takes you can hear the creaking of all the leather he’s wearing. Yes, even the clothing talks and indicates the disparate origins of the passersby. Before the eyes of our slave a veritable parade of fashion passes by with the long, colorful gowns of oriental traders, the plaid pants of the Celts, the ragged tunics of old salt sailors, the loincloths of slaves, and so on.
But the people’s origins are also betrayed by odors. For a second our slave comes under the scrutiny of a green-eyed woman wearing a veil. Her gaze is like a whiplash. Those green eyes against her dark skin are clearly those of a woman from the East. Her exotic perfume, sweet, intense, and penetrating, hits the slave like a tidal wave. But it’s better that he not return her look: she’s the slave and concubine of an oriental merchant, a small man who walks with a pompous strut. In an instant she disappears into the crowd, amid tunics and capes. All you can smell now is the sweat of the stevedores working on the docks.
Our slave has never heard so many different languages spoken at the same time. In this respect, too, Ostia resembles the check-in area of an international airport. It’s a true Tower of Babel. Maybe the only one that ever really existed.…
As the slave continues down the street, flanked by porticoes with all kinds of shops, we can make a few observations. All of these languages, from the African of Libya to the Germanic of northern Europe, continue to exist and flourish despite Roman domination. Nobody has imposed a language, eliminating local tongues. The Romans are very careful not to erase the traditions and cultures of the peoples making up the empire. Except, of course, those traditions that are against the law or the Roman sense of order.
Consequently, we discover a curiosity: if the mother tongues remain in use in the various provinces this means that wherever you go there are always two languages, the local one and Latin (except in Rome, where Latin is obviously also the mother tongue). Though there were those who spoke it perfectly, Latin being almost everyone’s second language, it was often spoken badly! Exactly like what happens today with English: it’s used by everyone but spoken with very different accents, pronunciations, and cadences all over the world. And in certain remote areas of the empire the people don’t speak Latin at all.
Beyond the local languages, Latin is not the only official language of the empire. There is also another one: Greek. The empire can be summarily divided like this: Latin is spoken from the British Isles to the Adriatic, while from the Adriatic to the Middle East, the dominant language is Greek. Greek is the language of the cultural elite; for this reason all the patrician families make their children learn Greek as well as Latin, and so they tend to be bilingual.
And the same thing is advisable for those who travel frequently in the Mediterranean. If you leave Ostia and go west, you’ll have to know how to read, write, and speak Latin; if instead you go east, the language you need to know is Greek.
A Cosmopolitan City
It’s clear that, just as there are different nationalities present in Ostia, there are also different religions. Besides the Roman ones, here in Ostia practically all religions of the world are practiced. Archaeologists have uncovered a number of Mithraic sanctuaries, temples where people venerated Mithra, a divinity from Persia (Iran). Excavations have also uncovered a synagogue, the oldest in Europe. There is also evidence that Christianity was practiced here. We know that the Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped, and we can say with certainty that there was a cult of Cybele, the great mother of Phrygia. She was very popular in Ostia where the Asian population was numerous. We even know the name of a priestess, Metilia Acte, and also her husband, Junius Euhodus, as they are inscribed on their sarcophagi.
All of this tells us that Ostia was an extraordinarily diverse and multiethnic city, where in this phase of the empire different languages and religions cohabited without problems. According to Carlo Pavolini, who has conducted excavations and studied Ostia for many years, “Until the twentieth century there didn’t exist anywhere in the world a society as open as Roman society.”
But apart from the people passing through, who are the inhabitants of Ostia? Ship owners and outfitters, freed men, slaves, laborers, dockworkers, artisans, shop owners, clerks who work in the offices of the huge warehouses, shippers by both land and sea, firefighters, restaurant owners, proprietors of small inns and hotels, and so on. Ostia could be described as a “little Rome.”
Identikit of a Migrant Population
Archaeologists have excavated the tombs of the inhabitants of the nearby town of Porto, in the necropolis at Isola Sacra. They uncovered eight hundred skeletons. In an interview published by National Geographic, Luca Bondioli of the Pigorini Museum in Rome, who coordinated the analysis of the skeletons, revealed a very interesting fact: teeth can be considered a sort of black box for human beings since their enamel conserves traces of isotopes of oxygen contained in the water a person drank when his or her teeth were coming in. A comparison of the data from the first and third molars (which begin to grow much later, between the ages of ten and seventeen) indicate that one-third of the people in the necropolis were born in some other part of the empire and came to Ostia in their adolescence, perhaps together with their families. And they lived here until they died. This would mean, according to Bondioli, that immigrants were not only single men but entire families. And since Ostia is almost a suburb of Rome, these eight hundred skeletons studied by Bondioli are also a kind of snapshot of the crowd we would have encountered on the streets of Rome.
At this site archaeologists also discovered the oldest-known amputation: the femur of a man was sawed off right above the knee, and he survived for years afterward. This is yet more proof of the great surgical skills of Roman physicians—amputation was a well-experimented technique not least because it was practiced on the battlefields—and of the tough constitution of people back then. Tough constitutions but not great stature. Analysis of the skeletons show that the average height was four feet, eleven inches for women and five feet, four inches for men. Walking through the crowd in Ostia, most of us would probably have felt very tall.
Our slave goes into a popina. He’s dying of thirst. While he’s waiting to be served he observes four men sitting at a table. They are of modest social status. One in particular surprises him. He doesn’t seem to ever open his mouth, as though he were holding something between his teeth. When he laughs his mouth remains rigid and the slave notices that his front teeth are missing. What happened to him?
The slave doesn’t know it, but that man has been struck by a rare congenital disease, called syngnathia. His jawbone remains fused to his cranium, with no articulation, making it impossible for him to open his jaws. To enable him to eat, his front teeth have been extracted, opening up a window in his otherwise locked teeth. Rather than eat, the man drinks and consumes mushy globs of food, like an infant. But his disease is not his life’s only misadventure. He’s part of the community of workers who work in the salt pans. It’s a very tough job.
A vast necropolis of salt workers was identified in modern times not very far from Ostia, after unauthorized excavations had begun to unearth skeletons and objects. Archaeologists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome, coordinated by Laura Cianfriglia, brought to light some 270 burials. They are what you might expect to find in a poor community: modest, simple, few or no precious objects (only one-third of them had something like a pitcher or a pair of earrings), but rich in information. There is a beautiful necklace, simple, almost primitive, but touching, found around the neck of a baby boy and propitiatory for the next life: it had animal teeth, rounded fragments of ceramic vases, seashells, amber, and a pendant with the Egyptian divinity Bes; objects perhaps found on the street rather than purchased. The excavations also dug up seventy coins, placed in the mouths of the deceased or next to the body, as an offering for Charon. Among the coins was, imagine this, a sestertius with the image of Trajan. It’s green from oxidation and the emperor’s head is worn away in the center, at the level of his cheekbones and temples, a sign of long wear owing to constant exchanges, rubbing, and clashes. Another story waiting to be told.
The dead talk to us and tell us about their hard lives through the scientific data that emerge from the ground along with their skeletons. According to Paola Catalano, director of the anthropological section of the Superintendency, many of the skeletons show signs of fractures, damage, and wear and tear to the spinal column. Also clear reactions to prolonged effort and mechanical stress in the areas where tendons and ligaments attach to bones; bone protrusions; traces of chronic inflammation.…
It’s easy to imagine the daily routine of the workers in the salt pans, with the heavy sacks of salt to carry, the shimmering glare that quickly consumes their eyesight, and the salt that makes even the smallest scratch or cut burn.
In 72 percent of the cases the skeletons are men, and few of them are young. Here, too, the age of death is striking: between twenty and forty for the men, even younger for the women, whom we could define as teenagers; in fact, most of the females buried here died toward the end of their adolescence. They are not slaves or liberti; they’re poor Romans. And among these skeletons the archaeologists have found the one belonging to this man at the popina, afflicted with syngnathia.
The pitcher has finally been served and our slave, with his shaved head, drinks avidly, leaning against the counter. His gaze wanders over the walls of the tavern where all he can see is vulgar drawings and phrases. Then he happens upon a series of portraits that embellish one of the walls.
It’s a very well-executed decoration, different from the ones on the other walls. It represents seven wise men, and under each of these so-called philosophers there is a motto that sums up their thought. His curiosity piqued, the slave sharpens his gaze, expecting to discover some illuminating teaching, some philosophical insight, and then he bursts out laughing. He laughs so loud that some of the customers turn to look. They are phrases that were unearthed intact by archaeologists and which synthesize quite nicely the atmosphere of this place: “The ingenious Chilone taught the art of farting without making noise.” “Talete advises the constipated to push hard.” “A good shit each day keeps the doctor away.”
The Great Port of Ostia: The Jugular of Rome
Now the slave is leaving the city. Ostia, contrary to what most people think, is actually only an administrative city. The real port in the imperial age is located about a mile and half north.
Once Rome’s dominion began to expand, it didn’t take long to realize that the small river port at Ostia was no longer sufficient. There was a constantly growing traffic of cargo ships loaded with foodstuffs and goods for Rome. Ships that transported the famous grain for the capital were too big to come into port, so they anchored offshore and then transshipped their cargo. Or they stopped in Pozzuoli, and from there smaller ships went up the coast to Ostia.
In brief, the capital of the empire needed a bigger port. And so the emperor Claudius began construction of a gigantic port north of Ostia, the port of Claudius. Two semicircular docks were built that “embraced” the sea, creating a basin with an area of 160 acres. It was able to hold as many as two hundred ships.
But the most impressive structure was probably the lighthouse. The engineers brought in an enormous ship, used by Caligula to transport a huge obelisk from Egypt, which is now in Saint Peter’s Square. These transport ships were used only once to transport something exceptionally large and then never used again. They were the Roman equivalent of Saturn V, the enormous rocket that carried man to the moon. And just as a Saturn V rocket is now on display in Houston to be admired by tourists, the same thing happened in the Roman era with one of these gigantic ships, in Pozzuoli. It was pulled up on dry land and left on display as a monument to Roman naval engineering.
At Ostia, the Roman engineers brought Caligula’s big ship offshore and sunk it, filling it with concrete. They used it to create an artificial island on which they could mount the lighthouse for the port, which was modeled on the lighthouse in Alexandria.
Today the coastline has advanced about two miles farther out than it was in Roman times. The port of Claudius has been incorporated into the coastal land area and is now part of the da Vinci airport. Some of its features can be seen among the meadows, streets, parking lots, and office buildings. There’s also a small museum, with the remains of Roman ships unearthed on the site.
The lighthouse island, this bold feat of engineering, is buried near an intersection not far from one of the airport runways. Hundreds of cars pass it every day, their drivers completely oblivious to the masterwork that lies nearby.
The port of Claudius turned out to be a fiasco. Storms sank ships inside the port and it filled in with sand continually, requiring huge expenditures for repair and maintenance. So Trajan decided to build a new port. And it was a jewel.
It was designed and built by his great architect, the Michelangelo of antiquity: Apollodorus of Damascus. The work lasted twelve years, but in the end everyone admired the project that was so original and innovative for the time. The new harbor, connected to the earlier one but farther inland, had the shape of a perfect hexagon, with over six hundred feet of dock space. It is a structure with an eighty-acre surface area that today, seen from the air, is still striking for its perfection and beauty. Not only does it perform its function perfectly, it also projects a bold and avantgarde image. We might compare it to the glass pyramid that marks the entrance to the Louvre in Paris.
A connecting canal was built between the Tiber and the sea and new warehouses were added. Now our shaved-head slave is passing in front of these immense buildings, which surround the docks of the hexagonal port in perfect order. They too are masterpieces in their own right. To keep the grain from going bad inside the sacks, little pilasters (suspensurae) raise the level of the pavement of the various cellae about a foot above the ground so air can circulate underneath and protect the sacks from moisture (and animals). Furthermore, the warehouses have small entrances, thick walls, well-sealed doors, little light, and a dry climate.
These warehouses are Rome’s strategic reserves; the city couldn’t live without them. The grain arrives from Egypt with the good weather. The ships that enter the port are tugged to the dock by a skapha, a small boat powered by oars, empty out their holds and then leave again. It is a continuous flow that is interrupted by the harsh winter weather. No ships, in fact, cross the Mediterranean between the months of October and March. Navigation simply stops. So once its great reserves have been accumulated the city goes into hibernation, like a bear that lives on the fat it has built up during the spring and summer. During the winter months the sacks of grain are sent regularly from Ostia to Rome so that there is always bread on the tables of its inhabitants, to prevent uprisings, famine, or even just simple speculation on the price.
On the Tiber there is continuous boat traffic, carrying sacks of grain all year long against the current. The grain is carried on big-bellied boats called naves caudicariae (from caudex, trunk). As the name implies, they are heavy and not very manageable, and they are used essentially as barges, pulled from the shore by oxen or men. The distance is not great, about fifteen or sixteen miles, but the voyage against the current takes two days.
The Atmosphere on the Docks
Now our slave has made it down to the dock. He can’t believe his eyes. The view is breathtaking. In the distance, out on the sea, he can see dozens and dozens of ships waiting to come into the harbor to unload their cargo. There are lots of sails unfurled and he can see the shape of the ships, bulging and elegant. The ones farthest away dot the horizon with their silhouettes. It seems to us like we’re looking at an ancient version of the Allies landing at Normandy.
The slave observes the activity on the docks; every imaginable kind of good is being unloaded from the ships. As he walks along he sees armies of amphoras and bales of who knows what products, strapped tightly with ropes all around. Some saccarii, or porters, are coming out of one ship in single file, carrying sacks of grain, and the boards connecting the bow of the ship to the dock bob up and down rhythmically under the weight of their steps.
In another part of the dock, other stevedores, with the help of special cranes that the Romans call ciconiae (storks), are accumulating piles of sealed ceramic goblets, protected with straw. You can see a lot of these in museums; they’re red, with stamped decorations. They are the good china of all wealthy families. Once they were the pride of Italy, from the Arezzo area to be exact. Now they make them in the south of Gaul—a little like what happens with our products today, copied in China and sold at lower prices.
In the middle of all this confusion is a young boy about twelve years old, with red hair and freckles, sitting on the dock fishing with his feet dangling over the water. He’s already caught two gray mullets, but now he’s aiming for octopus. He’s using some grapnels just like the ones that are used today.
The shaved-head slave stops. One of the ships is unloading some gigantic birds that he’s never seen before: ostriches. A slave holds one of them still as he walks down the boards in precarious equilibrium. They look like two ballet dancers trying out a new step. The ostrich gives a start, rears back its long neck, and slams its beak against the slave’s head. Then it wriggles out of his grasp and tries to get away. The slave wraps his arms around it even tighter and the two of them tumble to the ground, in a chaotic batting of wings that raises a cloud of dust. Other slaves immediately arrive on the scene to block the bird. But another man intervenes who beats the slave savagely with his cane: the ostrich is a rare breed, worth a fortune, and he is ruining it. The slave, bleeding from the blows, limps along, accompanying the ostrich toward a crate sitting on a wagon.
Our slave stops to look, amazed, at the stream of animals coming out of this ship. To us it looks like Noah’s ark. And it’s not the only one. Animals are coming down from two other ships, docked just a little ways off. We can see gazelles and antelopes (with pieces of wood wrapped around the points of their horns to avoid injuries and damage) and an elephant with its legs in chains. Its disembarkation is particularly difficult, with a lot of outstretched chains and servants ready to intervene. There is also a procurator ad elephantos, an imperial functionary specialized in the unloading of these animals, who is supervising the operation. He is standing next to the owner of the animals, a libertus who has become filthy rich with this commerce.
Next comes a tiger. He’s wearing a curious muzzle made of fabric or red leather wrapped around his lower jaw to keep his mouth wide open so he can’t bite anyone. It’s not easy to get him to walk down the gangway; he digs in his heels, puffs, swings his paws. He’s tied with ropes in front and back so he can’t use his legs to spring. The men in charge of unloading this beast are experts. But the deep scars that some of them have tell us that theirs is an occupation full of ugly surprises. Scenes like this one remind us of the ones represented in the mosaics at the archaeological site in Piazza Armerina in Sicily. At one point the villa there apparently belonged to an animal trader who commissioned an enormous mosaic representing all the different ways of capturing and transporting animals for the shows in the Colosseum. It is a truly extraordinary site, for all the other mosaics conserved there as well.
Our slave is observing some crates on the bridges of the ships that are waiting to be unloaded. Through the openings on the front he can see yellow eyes, immersed in a thick mane. They are lions. A sudden roar from one of the crates provokes an echo of other roars from the crates nearby. But from one of them there is no sound. The stevedores are pulling out the lifeless body of a lion. On the average, only one in five of the animals survives the voyage. We can understand, then, how the animal trade in the empire is causing a huge global reduction in the number of wild animals. And it’s all done in the name of more spectacular killing in the Colosseum.
The Great Roman Globalization
Our slave finally finds a ship leaving for Spain, where his letter is directed. He’s not the only one. There are six other slaves like him walking up and down the dock looking for the right ship for their masters’ letters. He spies a well-dressed man standing near the ship that’s being unloaded. The leather bag sitting beside him indicates that he’s a passenger. He must be a high-ranking officer in the imperial administration. With all the caution imposed on him by the difference in their social class, the slave approaches with his head bowed and asks him if he can carry some his master’s letters to Gades (Cadiz), where the ship is going. It’s a long voyage, well past the Pillars of Hercules. The city is in the south of the Iberian peninsula, on the Atlantic Coast.
The man stares at him for a minute, shoots a glance at his leather bag, and then looks at the slave again. He has blue eyes and a well-sculpted face. The only thing ruining the harmony of his features is a scar on his chin, but it gives him a lot of personality. He smiles and accepts the commission. The slave adds a small purse that his master gave him: a small indemnity. The man weighs it in his hand. And he opens it; there are sesterces inside. He’s about to refuse, but the slave, bowing his head repeatedly, has taken his leave and is already too far away to be called back.
As he watches him go away, the man feels a small hand squeeze his. The man turns around and sees the deep black eyes of a little girl: his daughter. His wife is standing behind her, smiling. The man bends down and stares at the little girl, tickling her chin with a finger. Clearly his family has come to say good-bye to him before his departure. Two slaves have accompanied them. The little girl is quite striking, especially for the way she’s dressed; she’s put on her best clothes for her papa. She’s wearing a lovely linen tunic, an amber ring, a splendid gold necklace with some little sapphires, and a small silk shawl. All very beautiful, costly, and elegant, indicative of the affluent status of the family.
But her outfit indicates some other things to us as well. The tunic was woven in Rome, with linen cultivated in Egypt. The amber comes from the Baltic, the sapphires from Sri Lanka, the silk from China. All by herself, this little girl is a symbol of Roman globalization.
We think of it as a typical aspect of modern society, but one need only consider this empire to understand that globalization began thousands of years ago, albeit, obviously, with slightly different characteristics, tied to the era. In all the countries around the Mediterranean, as far as the deserts to the south and east and the frozen plains of northern Europe, a single currency is used, a single body of laws, the same way of life, the same style of urban design. Even a single language (with the addition of Greek in the east). You can order the same wine in Alexandria and in London. People dress according to the same fashion, and as we have seen on the docks of Ostia, you can even find products that have been copied and resold (those sealed ceramic goblets).
Obviously there are also the same drawbacks of today’s globalization, like the loss of local traditions, architectural styles, and cultures absorbed by the new way of life. Its lifestyle and level of consumption, multiplied on a vast scale on three continents, resulted in the depletion of many natural resources, from the savage deforestation of entire coastlines for the wood needed to build ships to the disappearance of native flora and fauna, which were sent to patrician gardens or the various amphitheaters scattered throughout the empire. It even led to the extinction of curative medicinal plants such as laserpicium (also called silphium, a true panacea for lots of illnesses), which used to grow in Cyrenaica. Nobody today has ever seen this plant.
This place, the port of Ostia, is perhaps one of the most powerful engines of globalization. All you have to do is look around at the ships that are loading and unloading every imaginable kind of merchandise. And in an hour one of them is going to pull away from this dock on its way to the westernmost shores of the empire. Our sestertius will be on board.