~ Roman Inventions ~

The Dawn of a Long Journey

The soldier gives a whistle. Husky white horses begin pulling on thick ropes tied to the big twin rings of a double wooden door. The hinges, inactive for too long, first start creaking, then emit little explosions of dust, and finally give way with a long metallic groan.

The two sides of the double door open slowly, like the arms of a still-sleeping giant. With the help of the dawning sunlight, they project ample black shadows on the lichen-encrusted walls of the fort. The sinister sounds of the creaking hinges are echoed by the barking sound of military orders, spoken in Latin with a strong Germanic accent. Indeed, the little fort is occupied by a detachment of auxiliaries from Tungria, who come from the lands to the north of the Ardennes plateau, a tribe of Gauls who have been “Romanized” now for generations.

The heavy double door is still not completely open when a turma, that is, a squadron of thirty horsemen, comes riding out at a gallop. They are military couriers. They’re all carrying large saddle bags, draped over the flanks of their horses, containing newly minted coins. They are transporting them to the northernmost parts of the empire: forts, provincial capitals, governors’ seats, the empire’s key economic centers, strategic military outposts.

This is routine practice: every time a new coin is minted, it must be shipped immediately to the four corners of the empire. In an age in which television, radio, and the telephone do not exist, the coin is not only an economic instrument; it is also an instrument of propaganda and information. Even more than that, the coin amounts to a sort of public address by the emperor, complete with its own publicity poster and policy achievement.

One side of the coin, in fact, bears his profile. Emperor Trajan is serious, his head crowned by a laurel wreath, always facing right, as tradition warrants. The subliminal message to his subjects is reassuring: the most powerful man in the empire (the only one with a lifetime appointment) believes in the classic values; he is a soldier, a “son” of the Senate, chosen by the emperor Nero, a champion of tradition and continuity.

The other side of the coin shows an accomplished objective. Sometimes it’s a monument, which he has built for the Roman people (the Circus Maximus or the new port at Ostia, a colossal bridge across the Danube, a great aqueduct for Rome, the forum in the heart of the city, etc.). Sometimes it’s a military victory and pictures a nation, such as Dacia (the future Romania), represented by a defeated foot soldier.

Other times, instead, there is a deity with a very specific symbolic meaning (Abundance, Providence, Harmony, etc.), so as to underline that the gods are favorably disposed to this leader.

Every conquest, every new monument, appointment, or acclamation must reach the ears of all the subjects of the empire: the task performed by radio broadcasts in early-twentieth-century regimes. Coins performed this same exact function: through them, the most powerful man in the empire spoke to his subjects.

You can imagine how important this all is when a new emperor comes to power. In the span of a few hours, new coins stamped with his portrait are already being serially produced, in order to be sent throughout the empire. Sometimes they are made by way of a simple alteration of the portrait of the previous emperor, deceased just a few hours before, making changes directly on his die (a sort of Photoshop for classical antiquity). Usually, however, the job was entrusted to true geniuses of the art of engraving, who rushed to chisel out a new die with the profile of the new sovereign so that everyone could get to know his face, thus making his rise to power official.

The importance of image for political leaders is not a modern invention. The Romans were among the first to understand the effectiveness of good images and used them on a large scale. They made the best possible use of the media that were available to them: from coins to statues, from inscriptions on plaques and buildings to bas-relief sculptures on monuments, and so on.

In normal situations, like the one we find ourselves in now, the sestertius was designed and made with great care, and there is a lot of satisfaction in the mint. Now, this little masterpiece, duplicated in the hundreds of thousands, is ready to be put in circulation throughout the empire.

The coins we are now following are a small example of coins being used for propaganda, as we have already described. The thousands of other look-alike coins will follow a much more orthodox distribution channel. From the mint they will be delivered to the treasury, and from there they will begin to circulate, mostly in Rome, passing from hand to hand in the markets, in the shops, in the taverns. Then they will arrive almost everywhere, following the streams of commerce, land journeys, sea voyages, and so on. Their capillary circulation will also be made possible by figures such as the argentarius, or money changer, antiquity’s living version of our banks.

Naturally, not all of the coins will travel about in the same way. The silver coins will be the fastest; having a greater value and being smaller in size, they are ideal for travel. A few of them are enough to add up to a good amount of money, taking up less space and weighing less (a little like today’s fifty- and hundred-euro bills).

Gold coins, on the other hand, will travel even farther because gold is sought after and accepted as tender everywhere on the planet. It’s amazing to think that archaeologists have come across Roman gold coins as far away as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and on the northern tundra of Afghanistan. The Romans themselves will not get that far, but their coins will, transported by local merchants.

The career of our sesterce will be altogether different. Given their lower value, sesterces tend to be used mostly in and around their place of origin. But many will travel far, like the one that we are following now.

The cavalry squadron has been on the road now for several days. These couriers passed through the Alps, went through Gaul, and crossed the English Channel on boats. Then they landed at Dubris (Dover), in Britain and spent the night in this small fort in the hinterland, unaccustomed to visits of this kind (the noise made by the great double door is evidence that it isn’t opened very often). Along the way, each time they arrived in an important city or fortress, they delivered, in accordance with their orders, small quantities of coins to the commanders or functionaries in charge. And then they were on their way.

Now the squadron of horsemen, with their flowing red capes, is galloping away again, heading north, with their final destination the northern boundary of the empire, what today we call Hadrian’s Wall. Later on, the boundary will be moved even farther north, with a second wall, the Antonine Wall, named for Antoninus Pius. But before they reach the border they have to make an important stop: London.

The auxiliary on watch in the fort they’ve just left squints to follow them as they ride off into the distance; the cavalry squadron has become a small colored cloud floating away on the long gravel-topped road.

When they disappear beyond the horizon, the soldier looks up to scrutinize the clouds in the sky. They’re running low, almost as though they were chasing after the couriers. They are heavy with rain and don’t promise anything good for the near future. He pulls his helmet down tighter on his head and grimaces. In Britain the weather never changes; winter or summer it’s always rainy.

London: A Roman Invention

The cavalry rode along for hours, passing by small wagons driven by merchants and groups of people on foot. The soldiers figured they had to be nearing the city because the traffic on the road was gradually getting thicker. Then the first wooden houses appeared, essentially log cabins, scattered here and there along the side of the road. Minute by minute, these houses became increasingly more numerous, until they finally formed a continuous wall on both sides of the road. Proceeding along this urban corridor, the horsemen expected to end up in the heart of the city, perhaps in the forum. But they were in for a surprise. Now they all come to a halt and are looking around in amazement. The road has come to an end and in front of them is an enormous river. It’s the Thames. Beyond it, on the opposite bank, lies London.

Now, at the beginning of the second century after Christ, London is truly unrecognizable. It’s the size of a small town. None of the horsemen can even imagine the metropolis that will rise up here in two thousand years.

There is already something, however, that makes it resemble modern London: a long bridge across the Thames, with the center span that opens to let ships pass through. It is a true ancestor of London Bridge, and the surprising thing is that it was built in almost the same place, as some English archaeologists discovered just a few years ago. Unlike modern bridges, it’s made of wood, not iron. And now, thirty horsemen are riding across it.

The clopping hooves of an entire cavalry squadron make the bridge resound like a gigantic tom-tom, attracting the attention of the fishermen on the banks and the sailors on the boats tied up at the docks. Everyone stops what they’re doing to stare at the red capes of the soldiers crossing the bridge. But the horsemen are surprised too: none of them have ever been here before and their eyes are fixed on the approaching city.

We are about to come ashore on the side of the river that will be the future home of London’s financial district, the City, but it really seems as though we’re on a different continent. There are no large buildings at all, just low-level houses made of wood. The skyline of the modern era is still far off into the future. And that’s not all. The sites of all the city’s future landmarks, like Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, and Big Ben, even Number 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British prime minister, are still part of the open countryside, crisscrossed by little streams and rivulets. The same goes for the other modern tourist attractions like Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Regent Street.

London, or Londinium, as it is called, is truly a Roman invention. Before the legions arrived here there was nothing but countryside, with little islands of sand sticking out of the Thames.

We can’t exclude the possibility that there were some small hamlets of log cabins like the ones that tend to rise up, from time to time, on the banks of large rivers. But one thing is certain: it was the Romans who founded the city of London.

From here, halfway across the bridge, you can understand why they chose this spot. At this point the Thames narrows (facilitating the building of a bridge), but it is still deep enough to allow cargo ships to dock along the shore. The city has a very long dock area where dozens of cargo boats, big and small, many of them sailboats, are tied up.

The constant operations being carried out along the docks make the area a beehive of activity. One ship is unloading amphoras of wine from Italy, another, just arrived from Gaul, delicate “sealed” pottery, the color of red wine, with reliefs of figures and decorations, to be used at important banquets. And we get a glimpse of lots of other products, like fabrics and linen tunics from Egypt, fine blown-glass pitchers from Germany, amphorettes of garum from southern Spain.

Oddly enough, there aren’t any large warehouses (archaeologists will find only two of them along the entire waterfront). This means that the goods were not stored here but were shipped out again right away. The long loading areas of London, in other words, were more like an airport than a river port, with goods in perennial movement toward the hinterland.

All of these things are evidence of a city in the midst of rapid development, in accordance with the typical Roman model and in contrast to Celtic cities. But they also tell us something else: London was built up from nothing, not for military reasons, but essentially for commerce. Archaeologists have not found any evidence of a military camp that could have served as a base for the birth of the city, as was often the case in other places.

It was money, or more precisely the sestertius, that brought about the foundation of London. Indeed, the city is located in just the right place to bring in goods by sea from points all over the empire, and to send them from here by land to places throughout Britannia.

In exchange, Britain supplies the empire with a host of products: slaves, hunting dogs, minerals.

It is curious to think that London was born for mercantile reasons and that its nucleus rose up in exactly the same place occupied today by the City, the financial heart of London and all of Great Britain. Its economic spirit seems to have been a part of it from the very beginning.

The “Prefabricated” Houses of London

We’ve arrived on the other side of the bridge and, together with the horsemen, we’re making our way into the city. The most striking thing is that London looks like any other little country town, very anonymous. The houses are all made of wood and very low, two stories at most. The streets are muddy in winter and dusty in summer. The traffic is composed of horses, pedestrians, wagons, and carts. We’re a long way from the marble and brick cities of the Mediterranean world. In these parts, in fact, masonry buildings are few and far between.

The horsemen pass by a house under construction and are curious to see that it is in large part “prefabricated.” Londinium has been built with a really modern construction technique. Almost every house has a framework of oak beams that fit together perfectly. The beams are made elsewhere and transported here, and all the workmen have to do is assemble them on site.

The system is simple. Have you ever seen the way a wooden ladder is made, the ones from the old days that had rungs rather than steps? There are two long pieces of lumber with a series of holes where the rungs are inserted; all the parts fit together without nails or screws.

The walls of the houses in Londinium have a very similar structure. The workmen lay a predrilled beam on the ground, insert the smaller crosspieces into the holes, and then close the whole thing off at the top with another predrilled beam.

Each wall, in other words, is reminiscent of a huge ladder sitting sideways on the ground. By joining together a number of these wooden frames, the skeleton of the house is put in place. At this point the walls have to be filled in with bricks made from mud or horizontal wood strips (the end result looks something like a trellis) that are thatched with reeds or straw. Care is taken to leave openings here and there for doors and windows. A smear of plaster covers everything and gives it a uniform surface. An ingenious system of joints to hold the beams together, some of them laid diagonally, inside the thickness of the wall, makes the structure of the house quite resistant and stable. Finally, this jigsaw puzzle of Legos is topped with a wide roof supported by a rigid framework of trusses. Most of the neighborhoods of Roman London were built with this Ikea-style assembly system.

But it’s not only the buildings of London that impress the horsemen from Rome. It’s also their inhabitants. The people come rushing outside to see these soldiers in their red capes. Their facial features are those of a Celtic population: fair skin and freckles, blond or copper red hair. Very seldom, on the other hand, do they see someone with a dark complexion and curly hair: essentially only slaves, merchants, or soldiers. Just the opposite of what you see in the Mediterranean cities of the empire.

An Eighty-Year-Old Youth with a Tragic Past

By Roman standards, London is a very young city, less than eighty years old. It’s astonishing how late it was that Britain became part of the empire. To put it in perspective, when Jesus was crucified, Britain was still only a large island, beyond the boundaries of the empire. Another ten years went by before Claudius, in 43 CE, decided to invade it, a sort of D-day in reverse. After that the Roman legions and merchants spread out slowly over the island.

London was born shortly thereafter (the remains of a wooden drainage ditch, on the sides of a Roman road, indicate that it was founded in 47 CE). But it took a lot of courage to live in the city in those days. It was a frontier town, surrounded by very hostile populations. In fact, a little more than ten years after its founding, London was totally razed to the ground by a woman, Boudicca, at the head of a tribal army that rebelled against the Romans.

It was the year 60 CE, and as Tacitus recounts in Book XIV of The Annals, the rebels had already destroyed Camulodunum (present-day Colchester), defeated a legion, and were marching on London. The legionnaires sent to defend the city were too few to fight off the massive forces of the enemy, so they decided to sacrifice the city to save the rest of the province. They opted for a strategic retreat. “Steadfast in the face of the supplications and protests, [the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus] gave the order to leave. The inhabitants were authorized to follow him. Those who remained, because they were women, old men or too attached to the place, were massacred by the enemy.”

The Roman reaction was not long in coming. In a big battle, the legions of Suetonius overwhelmed the rebel tribe, and Boudicca, it seems, killed herself by poison. Tacitus reports that seventy thousand rebels were killed, a veritable slaughter.

So the London that we are visiting accompanied by the cavalry, though still quite young, has already gone through a reconstruction.

A Meeting with the Governor

The turma, now on the other side of the city, has reached the palace of the governor, the Pretorium, overlooking the Thames. With their customary precision, the soldiers on horseback have lined up in typical muster formation: three rows of ten, with their respective commanders, the decurions, on the ends.

In accordance with classic Roman military rationality, the first decurion to be selected commands the other two. And indeed it is he, together with his deputy commander, a giant blond Batavian (that is, a Dutchman), who heads toward the entrance to the palace where two guards are standing at attention.

After exhibiting his credentials, he hands over to the chief guard a sealed scroll to be delivered to the governor. While he waits to be received by a member of his staff, he observes the palace, totally out of line with the simplicity of the rest of the city.

The building sits high over the banks of the Thames in a spectacular setting, developing internally on several levels, with long colonnades, indentations, reflecting pools and terraces. From where he is standing, the decurion is able to see one wing of the palace, but there must be another one, symmetrical to it, on the opposite side. The eye of the decurion studies the capitals, columns, and statues of white marble, brought here from the most famous quarries of the Mediterranean. Imagine the cost of building such a beautiful palace in such a faraway place.

The only place he’s seen something like this is in Cologne, when he was stationed in Germany. That was the governor’s palace too and it overlooked the Rhine, in a very similar setting. “Is it the same architect or the same intent to inspire awe?” he asks himself.

He breaks into a smile, interrupted, however, by a man at his back, who salutes him, stamping the floor with his foot. The noise from the metal studs on the bottom of his sandals betrays his military identity. As the decurion turns around, his blue eyes transfix the soldier. He’s one of the governor’s bodyguards. He asks the decurion to follow him.

Passing through a heavy oak door, the two cross through an elegant series of rooms and small courtyards. Their footsteps resound through empty spaces, occupied only by imperial statuary and small fountains. In other rooms, offices, they pass by members of the administrative staff with scrolls under their arms.

The decurion walks shoulder to shoulder with the governor’s bodyguard. He can’t stand walking behind him, not least because of the dreadful smell of perfume he leaves in his wake. If a soldier uses perfume it can only mean he’s going soft on the life of the palace. The days of Boudicca are long gone! By now London is a pretty cushy assignment.

The two men climb a wide staircase, at the top of which two guards snap to attention. Beyond them a large garden opens up, surrounded by a lovely colonnade. By the decurion’s eyeball estimate, it’s about forty yards long and twenty yards wide. The center is dominated by a huge tub with rounded edges. The decurion notices some water-spurting statues, bushes, carefully clipped small hedges, and large grottos housing water lilies. A real paradise compared to what he has seen riding through the city.

The bodyguard signals him to stop. In front of them is a man standing with his back to them. He’s looking out at the Thames, his hands resting on the balcony ledge. His gaze is fixed on a sailing ship coming into port with all its sails unfurled. He lets out a sigh and turns around, exclaiming, “What’s the word in Rome?”

He’s a handsome man, tan, with salt-and-pepper hair kept unusually long given the responsibilities of his office. His wide-set eyes are deep blue. But what strikes you is his smile, open, sincere, with lines on the sides of his mouth and gleaming white teeth. He is Marcus Appius Bradua, appointed to this post only recently. The decurion is surprised and also a little intimidated by the openness of a governor that he’s seeing for the first time. He knows only too well that these people can be deceitful and ruthless. But this time he feels an immediate sympathy for the man.

Governor Appius Bradua has been in London for a very short time. His tan is left over from years past and another post on the shores of the Mediterranean. And his nostalgia for those warmer climes is all in his admiring gaze at the tall ship coming into port. He stares at the decurion and then raises his hand: his fingers are holding a shiny coin. It’s our sestertius that the turma has brought all this way.

On a marble table, under a colonnade, the decurion spies one of the open sacks filled with more coins. The governor has beat him to the punch, having his coins delivered to him directly, without waiting for the bureaucratic protocol. That’s one of his powers.

The decurion is surprised and a little annoyed; he realizes that it is thanks to this capacity to surprise and anticipate the moves of his adversaries that Marcus Appius has risen so fast in the hierarchy.

The governor senses the decurion’s discomfort and immediately snaps his fingers, ordering two cups of wine to be brought in. This is not according to protocol. During this unusual and rather informal meeting, the governor plays host to the decurion, asking him for news about Rome, about the halls of power, about some of the people who count, but also about the atmosphere in the city’s back alleys, in the Circus Maximus and along the roads that have brought him here. As they are chatting, he turns the sestertius in his fingers and holds it up to his face, tapping his lips with it instinctively.

When their chat is over he looks the decurion in the eye, tells him to open his hand, lays the sestertius on his palm and closes his fingers around it, crowning it all with a big Mediterranean smile, showing all his pearly white teeth, “in memory of our meeting.” Then he turns around and goes back to watching the ship in the harbor. Now its sails have been lowered and it has begun to unload its cargo.

The decurion takes his leave, accompanied by the same perfumed bodyguard. Before leaving the garden he glances distractedly at the sestertius in the palm of his hand. It seems a little heavy for a bronze coin; and actually he notices that it’s not alone. The governor has also given him a silver medal, with the symbol of victory on it. Yet another magic trick from this man who never fails to surprise. He smiles and heads down the stairs.

When the City Was Just a Frontier Town

The thirty horsemen have found lodging in the fortress of Londinium on the north end of the city, where its mission in this period of peace is not so much defending the territory as providing housing for the troops. And now they can all enjoy a well-deserved visit to the baths. It is one of the city’s few large building complexes, and it’s located right along the Thames, below the Pretorium, where the meeting with the governor took place.

The best time to go is during the lunch hour, when the water, in everyone’s opinion, is warmest. After sharing some laughs in the water and the ritual massage, many of the soldiers head out to the city’s bordellos in search of pleasure. The chief decurion, on the other hand, together with his deputies, goes for a walk around the future city.

After the luxury of the Pretorium and the perfect hydraulic technology of the baths, the city looks to the three of them like a very simple place, akin to a frontier town in the Wild West. And the analogy is not at all far-fetched: like the European pioneers who settled the American continent by moving farther and farther west, the Romans carried out their own brand of westward expansion on the continent of Europe. And Britain is indeed one of the destinations of Europe’s “far west.”

So, just as the pioneers introduced into the lands of the native Americans technologies, cities, and ways of life typical of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century western civilization, the Romans introduced their own civilization into the lands of the Gauls, Britons, and Germans. With problems and solutions, all things considered, often quite similar.

In a lot of ways, in fact, the Londinium of the age of Trajan resembles those small frontier towns of the old West: in addition to the mainly wooden houses, the products of very simple construction techniques, in this land where it was difficult to procure everyday tools and instruments there are stores that sell all sorts of things, exactly like the general stores in the pioneer villages. There are also saloon-like taverns and inns, where the girls who wait on tables may also bed the customers. Not unlike Dodge City, Kansas, or Tombstone, Arizona, there were also stables and blacksmiths, barbers ready to pull a tooth when the occasion arises, and even some native Celts crossing the street decked out in the typical symbols of their culture: tattoos and ornamental jewelry, and instead of a tunic, an overshirt and striped or checkered plaid pants.

Walking Around the City:
The World’s Oldest Washing Machine?

One of the three decurions has stopped to buy a splendid torque, the horseshoe-shaped collar worn by Celtic warriors, that a street vendor has been showing him, along with other bronze and iron ornaments, including a lovely misshapen dagger. These are all objects commonly found in, and evidently stolen from, the tomb of a Celtic male; the swords and daggers of the deceased were bent so they couldn’t be used anymore.

In the meantime, the other two decurions have gone to look into a doorway where they’ve heard the strange sound of water, clanking iron, and creaking wood. The whole place is enveloped in darkness; the only thing they can discern is that it’s a large space. Their eyes adjust quickly to the dark and they begin to make out, on one side, a whole lot of little tubs, and on the other, men who seem to be walking in slow motion, under the feeble light of oil lamps. They are slaves and they’re walking at a slow pace inside two large wooden wheels, a lot like the ones you might find inside a hamster cage, except these have a diameter of ten feet!

As they turn, these wheels set in motion other wheels that wind up long chains with buckets full of water. This system makes it possible to draw water continuously from wells that are fifteen feet deep. It’s a movement that never stops because the chains, like the ones used on bicycles, form a ring that keeps on turning incessantly. But to what end? The decurions, standing in the doorway of this strange place, are asking themselves that same question.

Then an obsequious little slave boy asks them to let him by. He’s carrying a small mountain of clothes to be washed. He empties his load into a tub. At this point the decurions realize that what they are looking at is an enormous laundry. None of them has ever seen anything like it. And even in modern times this place piques our curiosity.

In September 2001, when some English archaeologists announced their surprising discovery of this site, a lot of observers immediately dubbed the structure the “oldest washing machine in history.” It was a little cumbersome, certainly, but capable of satisfying the needs of thousands of Roman-era Londoners.

Not everyone agreed that this is what it was, however. When you think about it, what sense did it make to invent a washing machine in an era when there were thousands of slaves ready to do the same job? Moreover, even today, even though there is electricity available almost everywhere in the world, you can still see hundreds of laundrywomen at work along the river banks of India and Pakistan, wringing out clothes all day under the hot sun. I was once told that if you ask one of these women what they think of the washing machine, they answer, shrugging their shoulders, that they are an invention without a future.

It can’t be ruled out, therefore, that this strange site with all those tubs is actually a place for tanning leather, like the ones that can be seen in modern-day Marrakech. We reserve judgment, in part because according to a recent hypothesis the water wheel might have had a different purpose: to supply the city with water. From where we are we can’t figure it out. It’s too dark and we’re too far away. All we know is that it’s a surprising technological structure.

Our Inventions? Actually They’re Roman Ideas

But the washing machine hypothesis is intriguing. How many of the inventions or habits that we think of as modern were actually thought up by the Romans? Lots of them, from the characters that we use in our computers to many of the laws that contain the principles of our jurisprudence; it would be impossible to describe them all.

Here are a few, however, that may surprise you: the bikini, stockings, cured ham or prosciutto, ball bearings, candles, the pulley, glass marbles, baloney and grilled sausage, scissors, room heating (the baths), election campaign posters, the screw press, fritters (frictiliae, a popular sweet on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras), concrete, sewers, curling irons, the magnifying glass.

Even the names of the week, which come from the names of the planets, already known in antiquity, are products of the Roman system: Luna (Moon) for lunedì (Monday), Marte (Mars or Tiw) for martedì (Tuesday), Mercurio (Mercury or Woden) formercoledì(Wednesday), Giove (Jove or Jupiter or Thor) for giovedì (Thursday), Venere (Venus or Frigg) for venerdì (Friday). In modern Rome, Saturday and Sunday have been Christianized into sabato for the Sabbath and domenica for the day of dominum or the Lord’s Day, while in English their names still derive from Saturn and, of course, the Sun.

It must be said, however, that some of these inventions are not properly Roman. Actually, they had already been sketched out in even more ancient times, but the Romans acquired them, modified them, and made them more efficient.

One example is the lens used for eyeglasses. The lens was already known to the ancient Greeks, but it was used primarily for lighting a fire by concentrating the rays of the sun. The Romans were the first to use lenses to see better. Pliny the Elder, in fact, claimed that Nero used to look through the concave section of a precious stone (perhaps an emerald) to get a better view of the gladiators in the arena. Many thought that this was his way of correcting for myopia. While the benefits of lenses were already known to the ancient Romans, the first eyeglasses would not come onto the scene for over a thousand years. They will make their appearance at the end of the 1200s, at the height of the Middle Ages, and they are an Italian invention.

The Romans’ inventions include more than machines and tools that we still use today. There are even some very widespread superstitions, like, for example, not spilling salt at the dinner table (or olive oil, they would have added). Actually the reason behind it was quite practical: in Roman times salt was very costly.

The Slave Who Bought Himself a Personal Slave

What’s the population of Londinium? It’s difficult to make an estimate. It has been calculated, however, that in 60 CE it was between five thousand and ten thousand. Now, under Trajan, it should be closer to twenty thousand. But it’s a third-world–style population, with lots of young people and very few seniors.

In Roman-era London, as in many other cities of the empire, as many as half of all newborn children died before making it to adulthood, and only a quarter of the population made it to old age. And don’t think in terms of today’s life expectancy; for the Romans anything beyond age forty qualified as “old age.”

The three decurions have gone back to their walk and are promptly bumped into by a laughing couple. She looks almost like a little girl. They are really an unusual couple. During the collision a waxed tablet falls on the ground. One of the decurions picks it up and opens it. He shows it to his two comrades-in-arms and reads the names on it out loud: Vegetus and Fortunata. The couple turns around, surprised to hear their names and, alarmed, come back to the three soldiers.

What fell to the ground is a contract for the purchase of the girl! She is a slave and the man who is holding her by the hand has just bought her.

This tablet will be discovered by archaeologists (who will date it to between 80 and 120 CE, hence, in our same period) and it will constitute a big surprise for scholars. The contract reads, in fact, that Vegetus, the man who is holding her by the hand, bought Fortunata for 600 denarii (€4,800 in today’s money, or about $6,000).

But there is also another curious contract clause: Vegetus is in turn the “assistant” slave of a certain Montanus, who is also a slave of the august emperor (that is, he works in some public service, in the public administration, or as a manual laborer, etc.). The surprising thing about this document, therefore, is that it demonstrates the existence of three different levels of slavery, making plain just how complicated and stratified this world was.

As we will discover during our journey through the empire, there are many categories of slaves: from the most downtrodden and mistreated, who work in the fields, to those who are treated very well because they are cultivated and educated, who perform very delicate functions in the heart of the public administration or in the most powerful families. Evidently, the latter (such as Montanus) can decide they need to have assistants (such as Vegetus), who in turn manage to save up a little nest egg to buy a slave girl (such as Fortunata).

We don’t know what use Vegetus will make of this slave girl, but we like to imagine, given how much he paid for her, that the purchase is the happy ending to a tormented love story in which a slave has finally been able to embrace the woman he loves, ransoming her from her owner. The Roman era had plenty of stories like that.…

“Flip Him the Bird, Sextillus!”

The decurions give the tablet back to the couple and turn off the main street down a little alleyway. The smell of fresh-baked bread draws them like an invisible magnet. After opening a door made of three vertical pieces of wood held together by two slabs of oak nailed crossways, the decurions are presented with a scene quite common in all Roman cities: the back room of a bakery. Some slaves are standing over a table, turning small grindstones by hand to make flour. Others are kneading dough into thick round loaves of bread with deep grooves radiating from the center (the precut “slices” of the future).

Over in a corner, two slaves are using sieves to separate out the impurities from the flour, creating a beautiful effect: the light pouring down into the room from some small windows up above hits the flour suspended in the air, forming bands of light that cut all the way across the room, akin to what one used to see in movie theaters when smoking was still permitted. All the slaves are covered with this thin layer of white flour. But they are also very sweaty, because along one side of the room two ovens are engaged nonstop in baking loaves of bread; some very shaky shelves nearby hold piles of freshly baked loaves.

The bread is sold at the other end of the house. The decurions have opened up the back door, the one that leads out to the alley. Our visit will lead us through the entire house: in some neighborhoods of London, many houses are arranged adjacent to one another, with the front opening onto one street and the back onto another. The decurions buy some loaves and walk off, savoring the taste of the bread fresh out of the oven. As they leave they close the door to the back room again.

One minor but interesting thing that has almost certainly escaped your notice, because it is so familiar to us, is that Roman doors always open toward the inside of the house, never toward the outside, onto the street. The reason for this is simple: otherwise they would use a portion of public property for private purposes. In effect, the area in front of the entrance to the house is used for the movement of the door, “robbing” it from the public. Only a rich or powerful Roman can afford to do that. No one else. This rule has been handed down through the centuries. The same thing happens with the street doors of our houses, from the doors to single apartments to the main doors of apartment buildings. Check it out: go see how the door to your house works.

Among the many Roman legacies that we have conserved there is another, rather vulgar one, which may surprise you. The three decurions are now standing in front of the London amphitheater. It is one of the city’s prized possessions. After a morning of fights between wild animals and after the lunchtime executions, it’s probably time for the gladiators to fight. And in fact the decurions can hear cheers and chiding coming from the spectators in the grandstands. But the noise of the crowd is nowhere near as loud as what the three men are used to hearing in Rome. The Colosseum holds between fifty thousand and seventy thousand spectators, but here a capacity crowd is only six thousand, one-tenth the size. Furthermore, the London amphitheater is still made of wood. The fans will have to wait until Hadrian’s reign before it will be rebuilt in brick and marble.

Turning a corner, the three decurions happen onto an argument. A man is pulling his friend away from a dispute with another man who keeps insulting him. And he says to his friend: “Look, Sextillus, just laugh in the face of anyone who insults you, and flip him the bird.” His friend follows his advice: turning toward his adversary, he spits at him and shows him his middle finger. The argument then turns into a brawl, one of the many that can be seen every day on the backstreets of London. The decurions walk away. They don’t want to be involved.

But this scene has been very interesting for us. We’ve discovered that one of the most offensive gestures of our own time, the raised middle finger, is not the product of our own vulgarity, but comes down to us from antiquity; it was already used by the ancient Romans. Confirmation of this comes from the Roman poet Martial, in his epigrams.

We rejoin the three decurions. They have just turned a corner onto the decumanus, one of the main streets of the future city of London. We lose ourselves together with them in the crowd of “Londoners.”

An Ancient Feast of Purification

The cavalry squadron has gotten back on the road toward the northern boundary of the empire. This means several more days of riding. Their destination is Vindolanda (present-day Chesterholm), one of the farthest-flung forts in the Roman system of defense, the stronghold of what will become Hadrian’s Wall. They will be entering what is still a hot zone of the frontier, where frequent skirmishes and battles break out with tribes who inhabit all of Caledonia (present-day Scotland) beyond the boundaries of the empire.

The soldiers on horseback are excited by this prospect and they’re on alert. But there is still no need; although the cities, the villas of the wealthy, and the hovels of the poor are steadily thinning out, Rome is still in complete control of this part of Britain.

With the passing days the weather has gotten cooler, and by now it’s fairly cold at night. Even the lowest hilltops are covered with snow. The sky is constantly overcast with thick layers of gray clouds, almost like a winter fur coat. The horsemen are hit by rain every day, and the cold wind transforms the raindrops into freezing needles that sting their hands and faces.

The turma has passed through the city of Lindum (now Lincoln) and then Eboracum (York), where an entire legion is based, the Legio VI Victrix (Sixth Victorious Legion). At every stop they deliver the new sesterces, and the next morning they climb back into the saddle and get on the road again.

Now they will spend their last night in a town before reaching their destination. They’ll be staying in the small city of Cataractonium (now Catterick, in North Yorkshire), which is located next to a military fort.

While the soldiers have been scattering about town in alleyways, taverns, and bordellos, the three decurions have been accompanied by a colleague to participate in a feast of the local tribe to celebrate the advent of summer. We are now about midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, sometime around May 1.

The sun has gone down and the small group of soldiers are walking single file in the still snow-covered countryside. Summer arrives late at these latitudes. The trees in the forest still seem to be wrapped in in their winter torpor. They stop at the top of a hill where a lot of people from nearby villages are starting to gather with their farm animals. Many of them are shirtless, despite the cold. The decurions remain aloof from the crowd, but they observe the scene with curiosity.

There is a big pile of firewood and tree branches in the middle of the hill where the arriving crowd converges, as though attracted by it. Oil lamps and torches combine to form a myriad of lights that seem to be hovering in the darkness like fireflies. The same thing is happening on hilltops all around in a mesmerizing scene. In the crystalline cool night air the hills are topped with crowns of shimmering light that rival the stars in the sky.

Suddenly the crowd falls silent. One man speaks. He is the druid. In the semidarkness of the night all faces are turned toward this aged man, who intersperses his words and phrases with many pauses.

The Romans don’t understand a word, but they can sense perfectly the solemnity of the moment. Their guide explains that they are looking at a feast of purification in honor of the sweet season that is approaching. The druid will light a big bonfire and the farm animals will walk by it to be purified by its smoke. Then it will be the people’s turn.

The druid surveys the surrounding hills; on one of them you can see a torch swaying back and forth rhythmically. It’s a signal. He points his bony index finger at the stack of firewood and pronounces some sacred words. Some bare-chested young men carrying torches go over to the pile and set it on fire. In the torchlight the Romans can make out the elegant tattoos wrapped all around their torsos like vines of ivy.

This is it; the fire rises up, envelops the pile of wood, and becomes a cathedral of flame. The decurions observe the crowd, whose faces are gradually illuminated in the rising glow of the fire; they all have such intense looks in their eyes.

The animals are pushed and prodded to get them to file past the bonfire. It’s not easy because they are understandably frightened. As they pass by, torches are waived over their backs in symbolic purification.

The chief decurion looks out at the other hilltops. They are lit up like volcanoes and the snow reflects the flashes from the bonfires, projecting them out into the darkness. It looks like the world is on fire. From all those hills comes the sound of savage yelling and screaming. It is a true feast that now, once it has moved beyond the sacred and solemn phase, explodes in a great collective euphoria. Winter is behind us; now comes the growing season.

“It’s a ritual to summon the fertility of life,” one of the decurions thinks to himself. He still hasn’t completed his thought when a swarm of torches carried by naked young men springs up from the base of the hill. Their muscles seem to seethe under their skin. And they are shouting. With them are a lot of young girls, also without clothes but with glimpses of ritual body painting. Their only clothing is leather stockings with laces. They run about shaking their torches; their shining bodies look like living flames defying the cold and the snow.

At the top of the hill, they push people in the crowd to make them jump, one by one, over little fires lighted in the snow. It’s part of the ritual: you have to jump the fire to purify yourself. Old people and children are spared the jump in favor of a symbolic wave of the torch over their heads.

A small group of young people breaks away and run toward the Romans. Leading them is a girl with hair down to her shoulders. Behind her is another, with big hips, a bit less agile. Their breasts bounce with each step. Their torches light up their bodies, with a reddish orange light that softens their shape. When she gets within a few feet, the girl shouts something at the Romans, throwing open her jaws as though she wanted to bite them. She stares at them for a second, hints at a smile, and then “unsheathes” her torch and waves it at them before turning to vanish back into the darkness.

The flames from the torch pass in front of the Romans’ eyes like a banner of fire. By the time they’ve gotten used to the darkness again, the group of girls and boys has gone back to their people, pushing, shoving, and laughing at those who hesitate to jump the fires.

To the chief decurion the girl’s “bite” contained the roar of the tribal culture subjugated by the Romans. The empire has won the conflict of arms, certainly, but the tribal traditions are still strong. How far away Rome seems in these parts of the empire.

The tradition of lighting bonfires on hilltops and mountains has been conserved in modern times. There are still traces of this ancient tradition in many small-town feasts and festivals. It is difficult, however, to establish how much they are descended directly from ancient purification rituals and how much they are derived from more recent influences and propitiatory feasts to welcome the new season (by burning what is old or, symbolically, “burning” the harsh weather of winter), not least because many of these celebrations are held in the summer time.

Time to Say Farewell

With the coming of dawn the sky has gradually grown lighter, but the thick cover of gray clouds keeps everything colorless, wrapped in a cold metallic tint, including a little log cabin, with moss-covered walls.

Then, suddenly, the first rays of sunlight burst onto the horizon. It’s like a breach in a wall; the bright beams of sunlight cut through the cold air, fend off the gelid wind, and come to rest on the roof of the cabin, like tired birds. Then, slowly, they slide down to the door, caressing it, almost wanting to knock. It’s incredible how the sunlight makes the door change color. It’s as though it has come back to life. From black it turns lighter and lighter, until it takes on the color of wood. Now the sun is a bright shiny ball, sitting on the horizon. Soon it will disappear, devoured by the thick gray clouds that seem to be eternally present in these climes.

Just then the door bursts open. The chief decurion comes out, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, ready to use. He looks around, then relaxes, turning his face to the sun and nearly closing his eyes, savoring this magic moment that will soon be gone.

He’s not alone. A woman comes out the door, wrapped in a warm blanket of brightly colored plaid. On her pale white legs she walks over to the decurion. The man turns and puts his arm tenderly around her, pulling her to him. She looks at him smiling, her face leaning against his chest. It’s the girl from last night; the one who almost bit the Romans. Evidently, the decurion had tarried a while on the hilltop, and the two of them had taken advantage of the confusion of the feast.…

But now he has to be ready before his cavalry squadron is given the order to muster outside the fort in Cataractonium. The two of them wrap themselves in a passionate embrace before saying farewell. Both of them know that it is highly unlikely that they’ll see each other again. After a last, long look from the girl, the decurion heads off toward the place where the unit is to assemble. Then he stops, turns back toward the girl, and launches a last, intense look, with a smile that lights up his face. The girl’s cheeks are lined with tears and she pulls the blanket tighter around her.

What the two of them don’t know is that part of the decurion will be staying here. In nine months the girl will have a baby, who over time will display one of his father’s characteristic features: two mischievous lines on the sides of his mouth, the same ones that are now framing his smile. The decurion closes his eyes and goes off again to join his unit.

As he is walking he feels something inside the little purse on his belt that keeps knocking against his hip. He thought the purse was empty. He sticks his hand in it and finds the sestertius that the governor had given him. He looks at it, smiles, and gives it a squeeze before starting to walk again.

When he gets to the parade ground, his gigantic blond attendant has already saddled his horse and is waiting at attention, confirming for him that the other two decurions have already picked up the last load of sesterces to be delivered, which they had deposited in the fort for safekeeping.

It takes just a few minutes for the squadron to assemble, all present, outside the fort. Some of the soldiers cough. One blows his nose with his fingers. The rain and cold of the last few days have taken their toll. And it’s not just the weather: One of the soldiers has a swollen face from a fight. Another, looking glum, is still hung over from an epic night of drinking. Most of them are going to remember this layover in Cataractonium for a long time.

The decurion smiles, knowing, however, that now he’s going to have to be on alert for the threat of possible attacks. He looks at his men, then puffs up his chest and shouts the order to march. The squadron moves slowly down the main street, its insignias andvexilla in plain sight, attracting glances and curiosity.

Then, in just a few minutes the squadron exits the city and follows the road to the top of a rise. A gaze follows the squadron until the last purple cape vanishes beyond the hilltop. It is veiled in tears. It’s the gaze of the girl.


It has been a march where even the slightest sound was reason for alarm, especially when they were moving through wooded areas, but now the final destination of their long journey is near. The fort appears on the horizon, a long line of towers and rooftops looming under a blanket of enormous gray and white clouds. All around it the woods have been cut; all that’s left are acres of intensely green grass. Snow is still hunkered down in the shady patches of the landscape, not willing to accept the fact that the season for nasty weather is over.

Next to the fort, on one side, a small village extends outward, home to the soldiers’ families, a few craftsmen, and so on. Officially, the soldiers are not allowed to marry before the end of their period of service (which lasts twenty-five years), but inevitably bonds of affection are created, especially in faraway posts like this, where soldiers can be holed up for years. Children are born, giving rise to “spontaneous” families, which the army administration agrees not to notice.

The squadron presents itself at the entrance to the fort, and the chief decurion provides his credentials to the commander of the guard. Procedures have to be followed; the column is waiting for permission to enter. The chief decurion takes the opportunity to have a look at this frontier outpost. The walls are made of wood and they are not all that high (about twenty feet), but in case of attack it’s difficult to get over them because the fort is surrounded by a deep moat, which makes the walls much higher. The walls are also topped by a layer of earth and grass to protect against attacks by fire. It’s interesting to note that as far back as the Roman era there were already battlements with alternating merlons and crenels, like we associate with medieval castles.

Overlooking the walls are some wooden towers with naked structures. They look like trellises supporting a sort of square terrace, where the soldiers stand guard. They are placed at regular intervals, and the distance between them is not left to chance. Each terrace is within the firing range of a Roman war machine so that, in case of attack, one tower can protect the next.

The fort has a square floor plan with a fairly big surface area, about the size of four football fields. From where the chief decurion is now, you can see the roofs of the barracks, the stables, and all the buildings that make up this large frontier garrison.

One final curiosity: the camp has four entrances, one on each side, and it’s easy to see where they are, even from far away, because there are always two paired towers keeping guard over each entrance. This is something that can still be seen today in many cities with a Roman design, including Rome itself. The main gates to the city, located along the defensive perimeter walls, can always be recognized from the two rounded towers that watch over them like sentinels. This is the case at the beginning of the famous Via Veneto, near the Pincian Gate in Rome. Two cylindrical towers indicate that this was the starting point of the ancient Via Salaria, which then flows into and follows the Salaria Nova.

The chief decurion is given permission to enter with his squadron. He dismounts and orders his men to go to the lodgings that have been reserved for them. He and the other two officers have to report to the commander and deliver the sesterces. The three of them make their way down the main street of the fort, together with the Batavian giant, who is carrying the last bag of sesterces with such ease it looks like a sackful of dry leaves.

The fort looks like a little city of soldiers, full of life. A stable boy passes by leading a horse. The sound of laughter can be heard coming from the open doors of the barracks. Some soldiers, their backs leaning against the wood columns of a shelter, are listening to some other soldiers explaining with gestures the maneuvers of a recent battle they fought in. After so many days in armor, the decurion finally meets up with some groups of soldiers in regular uniforms: no more chain mail and helmets; just a tunic and a belt from which are hanging, naturally, a short sword (gladius) and a dagger, ready for use (we’re still in an operations zone).

As he passes he hears some unusual names. Names that are surprising to us too because they’re foreign, certainly not Latin. Some of them are of German derivation: Butimas (the first part of the name means “booty”), Vatto, Chnisso, Chrauttius, Gambax (from the ancient Germanic gambar, “vigorous”) and then Hvepnus, Hvete. Other names are typically Celtic: Troucisso, Catussa, Caledus, Uxperus, Acranius, Cessaucius, Varcenus, Viriocius. (Archaeologists have actually found all these names in the Vindolanda fort.)

After a long period of operation by Batavian soldiers, the fort is now occupied by the first cohort of Tungrians (from the northern part of the Ardennes plateau, in what is now France, Belgium, and Luxembourg). This is an important detail, for these soldiers are not legionnaires but soldiers recruited from peoples conquered by the Romans generations ago. These peoples, now faithful to the empire, are asked to provide soldiers who will serve alongside Roman legionnaires. They are usually under the command not of a Roman but of a member of the nobility of their nation. So they are units that are very unified from a cultural and linguistic point of view, but who fight and sacrifice themselves for the cause of Rome. Indeed, the forts manned by legionnaires are located well behind the front lines. So it is actually these “colonial” troops who suffer the first impact of an enemy attack, whether in battlefield formations (they are always in the front line) or in frontier forts. The legendary legionnaires are always ready to intervene, but only after the initial engagement. That’s how the Roman army is organized.

As soon as they finish their military service, the prize for these auxiliary soldiers (so-called, to distinguish them from the legionnaires) is a piece of land, permission to legalize their marriage (and their offspring), and above all Roman citizenship, the most desired compensation. From then on they will no longer be Romanized ex-barbarians but fully legitimate citizens of Rome and the empire, as will their children. It’s a sort of golden parachute that pushes these soldiers to grit their teeth and fight to the end. If indeed they make it to the end: on the front line, as we have seen, death is a daily occurrence.

The fort has a number of quarters, low buildings covered in white plaster with a long dark green stripe running all around the base. These are the barracks of the soldiers, their centurions, and their officers. But they are also used by the horses of a detachment of soldiers from the first cohort of Varduli, from northeastern Spain. As we can see, the frontier forts are the homes of the true “foreign legions” of Rome.

Sandals and Socks from Almost Two Thousand Years Ago

The meeting with the commander of the fort was intense and cordial. He spoke to the chief decurion in his typical Batavian accent—Nordic with a bit of a drawl. And he couldn’t help but shake his head when he saw the sack of sesterces sitting on the table. He’s a practical man and considers it a true waste of military energy to use an entire squadron to transport a simple supply of coins all this way. But he smiled when he saw the emperor’s new conquest represented on the back of the coins. Another victory for Rome. As a good soldier, he views Trajan as one of his peers, that is, a man who has earned his stripes in the army. And he and all the other soldiers feel the utmost respect for him.

Some days ago, news reached the fort that a small group of Caledonians, a band of commandos, had infiltrated the Roman lines. The tracks of their wagon had been found in the snow, but then they disappeared near a river. “They are demons that come from the cold,” he said. “They move with surprising skill through the most impervious terrain, and then they attack our positions behind the lines, with sneak attacks.” The only way to stop them would be to build a wall from one coast to the other, with forts at regular intervals. “It’s the only way; everybody who’s been stationed here is convinced of it. That way we could put a stop to the infiltrations and get better control over trafficking in goods.”

His view of the problem was adopted just a few years later, with the next emperor, Hadrian, who built a single wall, 20 feet high, 7 to 10 feet thick, and 108 miles long, across the entire width of northern Britain, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. A true European “great wall,” with guard towers every 1,500 feet and small forts placed at every mile to guard little passageways through the wall: a real “filter” for the passage of goods and people. In front of the wall, on the side facing the barbarians, there was a parallel ditch, 10 feet deep, to impede enemy attacks. Behind the wall, on the Roman side, there was a road connecting the forts and, curiously, another defensive ditch, reinforced by an embankment, showing that attacks were also feared from inside “friendly” territory. Numerous other large forts (like the one in Vindolanda) served as strongholds along Hadrian’s Wall, like guard dogs ready to spring. The work was so well executed that a large part of this long stone snake is still visible today.

Exiting the commandant’s room, which looks out onto the main courtyard of the general quarters, the decurion happens upon a scene that is in breach of protocol. A little boy with long blond hair and big bright eyes runs toward the commandant, shouting, “Papa, Papa.”

A servant woman tries futilely to stop him, but the little boy is too fast for her. Nimble and quick, he runs up the three stairs to the wooden portico where the two men are standing and jumps into the arms of his father, who gives him a hug and picks him up. “Here’s my little Achilles. Ready to do battle.”

The decurion notices that the little boy’s shoes have cleats on the soles, exactly like those of the legionnaires. He also notices the boy’s heavy and colorful socks. Here almost all the soldiers wear heavy socks under their sandals (caligae).

Even though today a similar combination (which some designer fashion houses like Burberry, Givenchy, and Dior have recently brought back) might make people turn up their noses, a cold day like this one is enough to make you immediately opt for the “socks and sandals” style (udones et caligae, as the Romans would have said).

The commandant’s wife also makes an appearance. She’s an elegant woman with delicate features, almost certainly the daughter of an aristocratic family. She hands over a few of her letters to one of the commandant’s secretaries, who nods and will see to their being sent. Writing and receiving letters from here might seem like a routine activity but for archaeologists it has turned out to be a true gift for the information that it has allowed them to discover, as we will see shortly.

The decurion bids farewell to the commandant. The difference in rank between the two is nearly unfathomable, similar to the gap between a corporal and a general. Yet the farewell, despite its martial nature, is quite cordial.

Heading toward the lodging he shares with the other two decurions, he quickens his step, having felt in his bones the cold and the humidity that has penetrated the fort. The climate here may be the true enemy of the Roman soldiers; it attacks them every day. And not only that, it attacks their buildings too.

As we have already noted, the fort is made of wood; not until a few years from now will it be replaced by a smaller one made of stone. And these buildings don’t hold up very long in the humid air and damp terrain—less than ten years. Each time a building is torn down or part of the fort is restored, everything is covered, ruins and detritus, with a layer of impermeable clay, and the new structure is built on top of it. But this layer of clay has suffocated the terrain. Without oxygen, bacteria have not been able to act on and decompose objects underground, where they have thus been perfectly conserved by the high humidity of the layers of soil (which, in certain points, is almost muddy). As a result, over the last forty years the archaeologists and volunteers of Vindolanda, led by the tireless Robin Birley, have dug up thousands of intact objects, after a big sleep of almost two thousand years.

Many of these finds are on exhibit today in the museum on the site, and their uniqueness has made Vindolanda one of the most interesting areas of the Roman world. All kinds of artifacts have been found: from gold coins with the portrait of Trajan to precious rings with engraved seals, but also rings that are quite simple and emotionally moving, one of which, small and made of bronze, bears the inscription MATRI PATRI (“To Mom and Dad”).

It’s not possible to describe all of the finds: they range from a comb in its flat leather case (identical to the ones a lot of men carry in their pockets today) to dishes sent from France and never used because they were damaged en route, from fragments of wine amphoras to a glass cup with fighting gladiators etched on the sides, from a medallion with a Roman couple kissing (exactly like you might see on the cover of a gossip magazine) to sacrificial altars.

In addition, the archaeologists discovered more than two thousand sandals and shoes of all shapes and sizes. They are incredibly well preserved; you can even see the latching mechanisms and decorations. It has thus been ascertained that during their military service soldiers often wore midcalf boots, just as ours do today. A lot of them had metal cleats on the soles to keep them from wearing out and to ensure better traction. The clay-protected terrain has even yielded up socks used by soldiers to keep their feet warm. But the most striking finds are a baby’s shoe (it too has cleats) and a little wooden gladius. They were found in the home of the commandant of the fort, Flavius Cerialis. Maybe they belonged to his son.

Another strange find is a wig made with long, dark, vegetable filaments (it may have been a woman’s hairnet for use against insects, but it’s not certain). It probably belonged to the commandant’s wife, Sulpicia Lepidina. We know quite a bit about this couple, thanks to the archaeologists’ discoveries. They lived here in the fort for ten to twelve years before the decurions’ arrival, and now they are somewhere else in the empire. We know they have at least two children. The archaeologists have found buried under the house several small shoes for children ages two to ten. They couldn’t have been the shoes of only one child as he grew, because the family lived in the fort for just four years, at which time the entire cohort of Batavians under the command of Cerialis was sent to Dacia to help conquer it for Trajan. (It seems that this transfer of the cohort caused numerous desertions by soldiers who didn’t want to leave their “spontaneous” families behind without any means of support.) But the most complete news about this family comes from the letters that it sent and received.

“Send Me Two Pairs of Underpants”:
Letters from the Edge of the Empire

The Vindolanda site earned its honored place in the history of archaeology for the nearly two thousand letters and documents found there by researchers. They give a vivid description of life on the edge of the empire, supplying us with information about the Roman military organization, from logistical systems for supplying the troops to the costs of tents, wagons, and clothing. The letters even bring to light a crime, perhaps a case of corruption inside the fort, in which the guilty party was deported from the province in chains. An exemplary punishment for a very serious crime.

In the case of the commandant, the letters and various documents that he sent and received were supposed to have been destroyed. His aides lighted a fire to burn them but a providential storm extinguished the flames, permitting their conservation.

Before we look at what is written in the letters, let’s examine how they were written. First of all, what did the Romans write on? On wooden tablets with raised borders around a layer of wax where the text was written, or scratched, with a long metallic pen. Or else on thin wood strips about six-hundredths of an inch thick, made from trunks of alder and birch trees. These strips, about seven inches long and four inches wide, were written on with ink. The pens were cigarette-size wooden cylinders with a metal ring on the tip that stuck out like a filed fingernail. It was a very effective system. Modern experiments have demonstrated that one dip of the pen in ink was enough to write three or four words. Even more impressive is the fact that the little wooden cylinders are often hollow, which raises the possibility that they could be used much like our fountain pens, with a small supply of ink on the inside (but as of now this is only a hypothesis). In all, more than two hundred pens have been rediscovered.

The Romans had an interesting system for “folding” their letters. Envelopes did not exist. The wooden strips were put in a row, like dominoes, and tied together with a little cord through holes. Most of the time there were two of them and they closed like a restaurant menu. But sometimes there were more than two, and in such cases they were folded in on one another much the way we do with road maps (or did, before the arrival of digital navigators). On the first “page” they wrote the name of the recipient, just as we do today on the front of the envelope.

These delicate letters have been miraculously preserved for centuries, thanks to the humid terrain that was free of bacteria and—at the time they were discovered—some twenty to twenty-five feet underground. At first, the archaeologists didn’t understand what they were. In some cases the writing was faded. Using infrared light they managed to read the texts in their entirety.

Here is an extract from a letter sent by Solemnis, a solider at the edge of the empire, to a fellow soldier named Paris.

Report of 15 April on the IX cohort of Batavians: all the men are present and their equipment is in order!

I’m sending you a few pairs of socks, two pairs of sandals, and two pairs of underpants.

The Britons don’t have armor; they have a good cavalry that doesn’t use the spear, however. These poor little “Britoninnies” don’t even know how to launch a javelin on horseback.

The men are out of beer. I ask you to order someone to go get some more.

Thanks for giving me such a splendid vacation.

I inform you that I am in excellent health, and I hope the same is true for you, lazybones; you haven’t sent me even one letter!

But the most touching letter, perhaps, is the birthday party invitation from Sulpicia Severa, the wife of the commandant of another fort, to Lepidina, the wife of Cerialis. It’s the most ancient letter we have from one woman to another.

Sepulcia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings! The third day before the ides of September [September 11], sister, for the day of my birthday celebration, I’m sending you my heartfelt invitation to see to it that you can come be with us, so that by your presence you can make my day even happier, if you come (?).

My best to your Ceriale. My Elio and our son send their regards to him. I await you, dear sister! Be well, sister, my dearest soul, just as I hope to be well too, and farewell.

To Sulpicia Lepidina [wife] of Ceriale, from Severa.

What’s more, the back of one letter has a dictation exercise written by the son of Commandant Cerialis! There is a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (IX, 473) that his tutor, the “erudite” house slave (perhaps named Primigenius) had dictated to him. And there are some mistakes made by his student. It is easy to imagine the voice of the slave, enunciating slowly: Interea pavidan volitans pennata per urbem nuntia Fama ruit matrisque adlabitur auris Euryali. (“Meanwhile, winged Rumor, flying through the frightened city, reaches the ears of his mother Euryalus.”)

Today, from a distance of nearly two thousand years, we can discover what the student wrote: Interea pavidam volitans pinnata p’ubem. We can’t help but sympathize with this lad who had to study the Aeneid in such a godforsaken place. But we can also appreciate the effort his father made to give him a good education, even while living on the edge of the known world of the time.

All this is beneath the floor of the Pretorium, the house of the commandant, which our decurion has just left. Now, chilled to the bone, he may go for a dip in the hot water of the baths, which are located right outside the fort. He deserves a little relaxation after all these days on the road. Plus, don’t forget, these are the northernmost baths in the entire empire—something to tell his friends about when he gets back to Rome.

To see how far it is to the bath complex, the chief decurion climbs to the top of the fort’s defensive walls, but when he gets to the top of the stairs a glacial wind hits him right in the face, forcing him to take cover behind a merlon. Two young soldiers on guard duty, numb, observe him, their eyes tearing up from the cold.

The chief decurion takes a quick glance outside. Just forty or fifty feet from the walls of the fort a group of soldiers are practicing with a scorpio, a sort of enormous dart launcher mounted on a tripod. Their target is the head of a cow that’s standing about seventy-five yards away.

The dart takes off, whistles through the air, and strikes the cow square in the head, which is already full of holes from previous launches. The precision of these weapons is astounding, as we will discover in subsequent chapters. As the crew reloads, executing the orders barked by a centurion, the decurion notices something lying in a ditch off in the distance. It’s a man’s body, mutilated, and he realizes that it must be one of the Caledonians involved in the attack on the mansio. He had heard that the soldiers had captured a warrior who had managed to escape from the scene of the assault. They interrogated him, tortured him, and killed him. Now his body is lying in that far-off ditch.

The chief decurion doesn’t know it, but many centuries from now, during an archaeological dig, two skulls will be found: one of a cow riddled by projectile blows and, in another location, one of a young man between twenty and thirty years old with evident signs of other kinds of blows.

The chief decurion casts a glance northward, into the territory of the Caledonians. The low-lying hills are lined up from here to the horizon, covered with patches of snow and woodlands. Out there it’s no longer the empire. The known world ends here. He is truly on the edge.

From the world of the barbarians a sudden gust of ice-cold wind rises up, hitting him like a slap in the face. The chief decurion instinctively takes a step backward. Then he narrows his eyes and launches a grimace of defiance toward the horizon.

This place is really damned by the gods, he thinks to himself. Far away from the warmth of Rome and the Mediterranean, far away from the cities, from the inhabitants of the empire who don’t even know that these forts and these men are here. It’s a world inhabited only by the hatred of the populations beyond the frontier and the harshness of the climate.

He turns around and quickly descends the stairs to go to the baths: the last sign of Roman civilization in these parts; beyond them only nothingness.

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