The Amber Merchant
A small wagon train is making its way through a forest of tall, dark trees. The wind wraps itself around the overhanging foliage and sends it swaying to the rhythm of an unheard tune. The sinuous dance is accompanied by a relentless high-pitched hum, as if all the wolves in this endless forest had decided to howl in unison.
The man driving the last wagon has a tense look on his face. He keeps casting worried glances overhead, both right and left. But then his dark eyes come back down to the level of the tree trunks and scrutinize the forest darkness to see if there’s anything moving.
An ambush of Germans is always possible in these parts, because we’re traveling south, parallel to the border, which is not far from here. But it’s not very likely. This road is constantly patrolled, plus there are small stations with guards and horses placed at short intervals in strategic points.
The man knows that; he’s traveled this road many times. But what’s making him so anxious is less what might be out there and more what he’s carrying in his wagon: lots of amber. This man is an amber merchant. But he’s never transported such a precious cargo, a real treasure.
Our sestertius, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, now belongs to him. He was given it as change when he bought a new pair of sandals from a shopkeeper in Mogontiacum, who in turn had received it from a centurion who had come in to buy a beautiful pair of embroidered women’s sandals. “For my betrothed,” he had said.
The amber merchant went into the shop a few minutes later, on his return from a long journey beyond the frontier, during which he had completely worn out his old shoes. But it was worth it; on that journey he had succeeded in acquiring some pieces of amber of a quality and size that he had never seen before.
Why Are the Romans So Wild About Amber?
Amber comes from the Baltic. The local populations gather it on the sea’s icy shores. No Romans ever venture there—it’s too dangerous. But there is a large network of local small traders and “shippers” who, like so many ants, carry the pieces of amber toward the empire. They use a series of mule trails and back roads that only they know and that together are called the Amber Road. It’s the European equivalent of the Silk Road. It is the conduit for millions of sesterces worth of amber, a true stream of red gold, winding its way to the Roman Empire. The destination is Aquileia, a key military outpost of the empire, not far from present-day Trieste, where raw pieces of fossil resin are transformed into masterpieces of art and jewelry.
Amber was not discovered by the Romans; it was already known and highly valued more than six thousand years ago. Even the Mycenaean kings and their women adorned their bodies with amber jewelry, as did the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Etruscans.
Amber is used to make pendants, necklaces, rings, gaming dice, women’s toiletries (jars for colored powders used as makeup, or shell-shaped dishes with brushes for facial creams). Also little statuettes, whose high price was the target of a barb from Pliny the Elder: “A statuette in amber, no matter how small, is more costly than living, and robust, human beings!”
Why is amber so prized? For its color and scarceness, but most of all for its electrostatic properties, which in antiquity must have seemed magical. When rubbed, amber discharges electricity and becomes a magnetic attractant for hair and body hair, a clearly supernatural property. The Greeks called amber electron, a term that gave us the word “electricity.”
This precious commodity sells so well among the Romans because they are also convinced of its healing powers. Pliny the Elder, the great naturalist who had a long and distinguished military career (probably including at least one battle against the Chatti) and died during the volcanic eruption in Pompeii, confirms this belief. In Naturalis Historia, his famous almost encyclopedic naturalistic treatise, he writes: “Still today the peasant women who live beyond the Po use amber objects as jewelry, to beautify themselves, but also for their healing properties. It is believed, in fact, that amber cures tonsillitis and sore throats.”
Amber fascinates us still today, mainly because of the insects that it holds captive.
These insects died 45 million years ago, when drops of resin produced by evergreen trees enveloped them in an eternal embrace. We know this thanks to scientific studies carried out by paleontologists. But what was the Romans’ explanation for these insects?
It is indeed surprising how accurately Pliny the Elder analyzed the mystery:
Amber is born of the lymph exuded by a genus of the pine tree.… That it is a pine is proved by the smell that amber gives off when it is rubbed and by the fact that it burns exactly like a resinous torch and with the same aroma. That amber was liquid in its nascent state is also proved by some bodies which, when it is held up to the light, can be discerned inside as ants, mosquitoes, and lizards which became stuck in it and were then imprisoned when it hardened.
This is the explanation of a rational Roman. Many of his fellow citizens, however, would give you a mythological explanation. The pieces of amber are the tears spilled by the Heliades, the daughters of the sun-god Helios, over the death of their brother Phaëthon, who had used the sun’s chariot and then crashed and drowned in the Po. (The Po is the destination point of the Amber Road that departs from the Baltic.)
Our merchant, obviously, couldn’t be bothered with these questions. All he’s interested in is selling and making deals. And he is very capable. Thanks to a German emissary and some excellent contacts, he has succeeded in obtaining some very rare pieces of raw amber by arranging for them to be “detoured” off the classic amber road and brought to him at a location near the frontier of the empire. And it was worth it. The amber is of the best quality, the variety known as falernum because it has the same color as this highly prized wine. It is transparent and reminiscent of cooked honey.
When the Goods Are Human: The Slave Wagons
Now the merchant has only one thing on his mind: get to Italy as soon as possible to sell his precious cargo. And he doesn’t like this road through the forest at all. So he has hooked up with a convoy of slave traders, with their wheeled cages crammed with dozens of barbarians. The guards escorting and overseeing the wagons with the human merchandise should be enough to discourage possible attacks.
Let’s take a look at these wagons. If we wanted to draw parallels to modern highway vehicles we might put them in the category of tractor-trailers full of livestock that you drive by every now and again. How many times have you asked yourself: what’s going to become of those sheep, those cows, those pigs? You can be pretty sure that they don’t have much life ahead of them, and that they’ll soon end up—in another form—in some supermarket or butcher shop. Then your car accelerates, the truck vanishes behind you, and you forget all about them.
For a Roman it’s pretty much the same story. How many times has the average Roman man, woman, or child seen one of these wagons full of human goods pass by their house? Plenty of times. And they’ve probably entertained themselves for a minute or two in observing them, curious to get a look at the slaves’ faces. Then they go back to their daily routine. Slavery is a totally normal part of life. Nobody is scandalized by it. And this is one of the biggest differences between today’s world and the Roman Empire.
We approach the convoy of four slave wagons. The first thing that strikes us are the wagons themselves. They creak and rock, turning even the smallest mound or dip in the road into a jostling bounce. Their wheels have no spokes but are full, as they say, and look like round tabletops. Their bars are iron, but on the wagon full of children they’re made of wood.
Let’s take a look at the occupants. They are Germans. Their hair is filthy and disheveled, especially the women’s. But they look like they couldn’t care less. Their bodies are half naked, dirty. Even the few clothes they do have are torn and grungy. They’ve been on the road for days now, and nobody has thought to wash them. They are merely living cargo, nothing more. And then there’s the smell. That may be the dominant sensation: the wagons give off an acrid, pungent stench. Not only have the slaves not washed for days, but once the caravan starts up in the morning there is no stopping for bodily needs, which are done in the wagon.
Our eyes naturally seek out those of the slaves. But they all have their backs to the bars, as though they wanted to shut themselves off from the world. Some are standing and others are sitting down. Nobody is talking. They’re all looking at the ground, overwhelmed by a fate that has suddenly transformed them from free men and women into objects. And they know that from now on their lives will be full of suffering.
Especially striking is the silence of the children. We go over to their wagon, the smallest. Nobody is crying or whining. They too have used up all their tears. One of them is lying on the floor in the back, motionless. That little body lying in that position, with nobody helping him, sums up all the inhumanity of slavery. It is a lacerating pain that pierces your heart. It may be the most horrible sight that we have seen on our journey. It’s as though the future has been extinguished; not only that child’s but all of humankind’s.
The men, women, and children proceed in silence toward their fate. We can’t help but think of other convoys in this same region almost two thousand years later that will make the same journey in reverse, on train tracks, with human cargo destined for extermination.
The Slave Trader
We will never get used to this sight. But how can it be that Romans abide the trade in human beings? Actually, the one person who is hated by the Romans is the mango, or slave trader. Slave traders can become immeasurably wealthy, as we can now see. The door opens on a wood-covered wagon, similar to a trailer, and out comes the mango, who shoots a glance at the little wagon train. Through the open door we get a glimpse of a small traveling apartment, with a fur-covered bed, on which is sitting a blond-haired girl, undoubtedly a slave.
The man has beady, ruthless eyes, a long nose, and thin lips. He has the prominent belly of someone who eats a lot, if not well, and some rings that betray the prosperity of his business. He never stops working. He’s often on the frontier, where he takes delivery of the goods from his German correspondents, who capture people from other tribes and then sell them to him. Or else he follows the legions on their police actions along the border or during invasions. It’s not only captured enemy soldiers that he fills his wagons with but also women and children kidnapped during military raids on villages across the border. And when there are no big military operations in progress, he has other sources for his supply of slaves: he sends his collaborators into cities to round up children abandoned by their parents. Every urban center has a place where such children are left at night or in the early morning hours—a temple, a column on a street corner, a garbage dump. Why do these parents abandon their children? Because they are unable to keep them, or don’t want to. They are too poor and their family is already numerous; or they are children born to prostitutes. Or they are children of good families who are undesirable because they are thought to be the offspring of infidelity or simply not the right sex. Their owners often put them to work begging for alms, after breaking one of their arms or maiming them—a very common practice to make them better earners.
Then there are citizens of Rome who are sequestered—that is, free citizens who are suddenly disappeared, perhaps while they are away on business—in order to augment the slave market. We will have the occasion to discover this aspect of the trade later in our journey, in another part of the empire.
Several days later, the convoy has crossed the Alps and is about to descend into the Po River valley. They have come through the mountains, through high-altitude passes where it’s freezing cold and snowy. But in the Roman era nobody climbs to the top: mountain climbing is an alien concept. High altitudes are considered hostile environments, dangerous and extreme—a little like the ocean depths are considered today. Except for the occasional hunter of wild goats or chamois, nobody ventures up to the peaks. It’s amazing to think that up there on the glaciers, in another part of the Alps, lies the mummy of Otzi the Iceman, the Similaun man who lived in prehistoric times, waiting to be discovered, with his ax, bow, arrows, and clothes. Just think that in the Roman era he has already been there among the glaciers for thirty-five thousand years—longer than the time that separates us from the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. But another two thousand years will go by before his remains will be found and studied.
By now the wagon train has left the mountain passes. Although the barbarian captives are used to extreme weather, three slaves have already died from the cold, hunger, and atrocious living conditions in the wagons. Others have sores on their ankles and necks from the iron rings and collars that are used to keep them from escaping.
The mango has taken out his rage for his lost profits on his servants by brutally beating them, knowing full well they are not to blame for the deaths. A certain number of slaves are always lost on every journey.
Now, however, that they have just begun their descent, there is one more obstacle to overcome: customs.
Getting Through Roman Customs: Tricks and Checks
Roman customs stations are placed at strategic points throughout the empire, not only on its external borders as might be expected, but also between one province and another. Any kind of merchandise that enters a Roman province must be taxed even if it comes from inside Roman territory. You can imagine the long lines with the customs officers looking for any pretext at all to increase revenues. And that’s what’s happening now. The convoy has been stopped for hours.
The law is very simple: anything that is used for the journey is not taxed. So, wagons, oxen, mules, horses, baggage filled with clothes, plus anything that is for usum proprium—personal use—such as rings, personal jewelry, documents, or a pocket sundial, are tax-exempt. For everything else duty must be paid. Absolutely everything. A pair of brothers driving a small wagon are arguing with the customs officer who wants to tax the urn containing their father’s ashes, which they are taking home to be buried in the family tomb. Even a dead body is taxed. It remains to be established how much the person is worth. And that is precisely what they are arguing about now.
The first thing you are asked by the customs officers, called portitores, is to provide a list of the goods you are carrying, the so-called professio. The taxes applied are actually quite reasonable, from about 2 percent of the value of the goods to a maximum of 5 percent.
For luxury goods it’s altogether different. Silk, precious stones, and prized fabrics are taxed at 25 percent. Our amber merchant is going to have to hand over a sizable sum. But he has, as they say, budgeted for it, because he is a man of the world: he has made it understood that he would like to speak privately with the chief customs officer. As soon as the officer climbed into his little covered wagon, the merchant paid him a handsome sum in gold coins for the amber that had been checked up to that point, and then he put a nice big chunk of amber into the officer’s hand, by way of suggesting that the check should end there. “To make a beautiful piece of jewelry for your wife,” he told him. Obviously, the largest and most valuable pieces of amber are on the bottom, well hidden, and have gone unnoticed by the officers, who have so far checked only the pieces of average quality that have been placed out in the open by the merchant.
Actually, it’s all a sham. The customs officers know full well that if they kept on checking, the more valuable pieces would pop into view, but this way everybody is happy: officially, the officer in charge has made the merchant pay a handsome sum for the customs duty (and there’s even enough for a sizable tip to split with his colleagues). For his part, the merchant knows that he has only paid a part of the taxes due, for a sizable savings. Finally, the customs officer’s young wife will have a lovely chiseled jewel.
To tell the truth, it’s not the first time that the two have met, and there has always been this tacit agreement between them not to finish the baggage check. It seems as though nothing has changed in two thousand years.
The officer in charge gets down off the wagon and gives the order to his subordinates to affix to the professio with a seal, the permission for the merchant to leave. They understand right away and signal to the little wagon to leave the convoy and continue on its way.
Immediately afterward, one of the customs officers shouts for joy. At the bottom of one of the bags of a mule driver he has discovered some beautiful silver plates. It’s clear that the mule driver was trying to take advantage of his humble appearance in order to smuggle in some luxury goods. Are they stolen? Is he doing it on behalf of his master who is trying to avoid paying customs duty? We don’t know the answer. All we know is that in this case the customs officer’s instinct has paid off. Years of experience enable them to understand that some apparently humble and anonymous travelers can be the source of surprises and satisfaction. And they have learned how to pick them out.
Now what’s going to happen? The law is simple: all the goods will be seized. But the violator will be allowed to buy back the seized goods at a price, naturally, established by the customs officers. Which means at least double the value of the items in question.
Hiding the Slaves
The situation of the slave wagons is much different. The mango is walking up and down nervously, pressing the customs officers to hurry because his goods are perishable in the cold. But this accomplishes nothing except to accentuate the meticulousness of the checks. Annoyed by his brusque, arrogant tone, they start rummaging through everything, even his personal baggage, in search of undeclared items. They even start searching the escort guards and all the personnel of the wagon train.
The mango is not worried about their checking. He’s clean. He knows they’re not going to find anything. Actually, he’s cheating on another matter. The death of those slaves has reduced his take at the market, so he’s trying to pass off two of the survivors as members of his family. One of them is the blond girl that we got a glimpse of on the bed in the wagon. The other is a little girl with the blank stare. He’s dressed them in decent clothes and has them sitting in the front of the wagon, next to him. He’s pretending they’re his wife and daughter.
He has chosen them because they are his most prized goods, and they’ll get him a very good price in the market; they are young and beautiful. And then because he can count on their silence. The first is terrorized and totally dominated by the mango, who has threatened her with death. The second never speaks. It’s a trick that has worked in the past. But it’s risky.
Roman law on this issue is clear. Lionel Casson, a noted expert on travel in antiquity, stated that if someone smuggled a slave through customs, pretending that the slave was a member of his family, and the slave revealed his true identity, that slave would be freed immediately, never to be a slave again.
The customs chief looks at the blonde and the little girl … and he gets suspicious. It’s normal that a wealthy slave trader should have a good-looking wife and a daughter. But the story doesn’t add up because of one detail. When he goes inside the wagon he sees only one bed. It’s already small for one person; imagine for a couple. And where does the little girl sleep? There’s no room, even on the floor.
He realizes that something’s amiss. He observes the two of them sitting on the driver’s box and he’s struck by the blank stare of the little girl. It’s a look that you don’t forget. The customs chief has understood everything. Yes, but how to free her? She has to be the one to say she is a slave.
He gets an idea. He takes off his helmet and walks over to the little girl. He smiles at her and starts humming softly a lullaby in the Germanic language. It’s one that his wife (the young woman who is going to receive the amber jewel) sings to their newborn daughter. The woman he married is a liberta, a freed slave. She comes from Germany too. It’s hard to say, though, if she comes from a tribe close to the little girl’s. The German populations are so numerous and their dialects and customs are very diverse. But the languages have a common source. Perhaps it will work to get the little girl to talk.
The customs chief looks the little girl in the eye and starts singing the first verse, but nothing happens. He intones the second … nothing. He tries to sing the third, whispering it into the little girl’s ear. Gradually, she hugs him with her little arms. Now her eyes have begun to sparkle. And she calls out the name of her mother.
Like a daughter adrift on the current, her fate has suddenly changed again. The customs chief takes her into his arms and then holds out his hand and drags the young “wife” into the customs office too. The mango tries to stop them and rushes after them, cursing and threatening, but he clams up when two more officers, who had been looking on at the scene, pull out their swords and hold them against his chest and throat. The mango holds up his hands and backs up all the way to the wagon. He’s understood that the game is over.
The wagon train is issued a formal order to stop and pull over onto the side of the road to let the other wagons through. The wife of the customs chief is called. When she comes into her husband’s office she finds the little girl with dark blue eyes and ruffled blond hair wrapped in a blanket.
All it takes is a few words of affection from the woman in her native language and the little girl comes running toward her, looking for refuge in the folds of her long skirt. It doesn’t take much to get her to say that the mango is not her father and that the blond girl is not her mother. It’s harder to get the older girl, still paralyzed by fear, to talk. But this time, too, the wife of the customs chief, and the language the two women share, gradually break the ice. They were both captured in the heart of Germany by “people hunters” from their same tribe, who then sold them to this slave trader.
After consulting his colleagues, the customs chief goes to the mango and officially removes the two slaves from his custody, freeing them on the spot, as prescribed by the law. The man can’t believe what’s happening to him and turns red with anger, but he can’t react. After paying his customs duty he orders the column of wagons to get back on the road.
Rocking and creaking and jostling their way along, the wheeled cages set off again for the plains of the Po Valley. Behind the bars nobody moves. They are all waiting to find out what fate has in store for them at the first slave market, which by now is not far off—just a few days hence. And so the wagon train, with its fated cargo, creaks on down the road, turns around the bend, and disappears. Watching it all the way are the deep blue eyes of the little girl who is clutching the skirts of her new mother. Yes, the customs chief concludes, his family has added a new member today.
What Milan Was Like in Those Days
The amber merchant has finally made it to the Po Valley. He could have gone to Aquileia, which has a flourishing amber market, but he has decided to come this way because he has some excellent customers here for his pieces of raw amber. They are one of the best-known families in an old city called Mediolanum, that is, Milan.
The dimensions of Milan in the Roman era are certainly not what they are today. In Trajan’s time, the site of the future Sforza Castle, now in the heart of the city, was still outside the walls, in the countryside. Nevertheless, Mediolanum is a very important city on the checkerboard of imperial Rome. It was a useful behind-the-lines military base during the campaigns of Julius Caesar, and later on Augustus built a long defensive perimeter wall around the city.
Its size? If you were to measure the area of present-day Milan’s cathedral square and multiply it by a factor of 6 or 7, the result would be the area enclosed by the city’s republican walls. So Mediolanum is not immense, but it has everything: a forum, baths, a nice theater. It even has a long arena for horse and chariot races inside the perimeter of the city. This is unusual for a Roman city; generally, the races are held outside the walls. On the other hand, the stadium—the amphitheater where gladiator fights are held—is outside the walls. So the Milanese have to go out through one of the city gates if they want to see the show.
Mediolanum is a Romanized version of a Celtic name. In fact, Milan was founded seven centuries ago by a Celtic tribe called the Insubres.
According to some scholars, the name Mediolanum derives from its location in the middle of an extensive network of roads. And right from the start, its center corresponded more or less to the center of the current city, including the cathedral square. Back then, obviously, there was no dome-top statue of the Blessed Mother. In her place, however, the city already had another outstanding sacred female figure, inside an important temple. She was Belisama, the goddess of the arts and of the professions related to fire. Polybius, the Greek historian who lived about two hundred years before the birth of Christ, compares her to Minerva. In her temple, the cathedral of the Celtic age, were kept the venerated battle flags of the Insubric Gauls, known as the “unmovables.”
For those arriving here after many days of traveling, Mediolanum has a familiar profile: a long line of low walls, surmounted at regular intervals by towers. The plumes of smoke rising up behind the old defensive wall are the signs of a city rich with life; something that is not at all displeasing to the amber merchant, tired from this long journey and yearning for a nice bath. He quickens the pace of his wagon until it becomes a mere speck in the distance, soon to be swallowed up by one of the city gates.
Mediolanum’s Upscale Trendy Atmosphere
Here we are on the streets of Milan, in the neighborhood of the theater (the future opera house La Scala will be built just a few blocks from where we are now). Our sestertius has changed hands again. Now it’s inside the purse of one of the members of the wealthy Milanese family called on by the amber merchant. There were quite a few of them sitting around the table when he displayed his precious collection of samples. Already at that moment, however, he no longer had the sestertius. He had paid one of the family’s slaves to keep an eye on his wagon parked at the entrance to the city, and that was all it took for the sestertius to enter into someone else’s possession. Now it is in the purse of one of the daughters of the wealthy Milanese man who has bought some pieces of amber to have them made into jewelry.
She is a beautiful woman, tall and thin. Her black hair is wrapped in a complicated chignon on the nape of her neck and arranged in a pharaonic hairpiece that towers over her forehead, forming a tall structure reminiscent of a papal tiara. It was made out of a light wooden frame covered with black hair brought from Asia; a true Roman-era hair extension.
The most notable feature, however, is her clothing, excellently tailored and certainly very costly. Nobody else on the street has such precious garments; today we would call them designer clothes.
She’s with another woman, her friend, who is also from the same social class, as demonstrated by her similar dress. Her shoes are made of decorated and perfumed leather (the Romans knew how to tan leather so that it had a very pleasing smell, an idea that no one seems to have taken up today). The two women are wearing extremely fine tunics that wrap their bodies seductively. Bright red ribbons, crossing between their breasts and around their waists, highlight their youthful feminine charms. It is evident that the two women belong to the cream of Mediolanum society, as we can also intuit from the two elegantly dressed bodyguard-slaves who follow close behind them.
If the men who pass them on the street admire them primarily for their attractive physiques, the other women who spy them from windows or from the back rooms of shops where they work focus on the quality of their clothes. And theirs are looks of envy. What they admire most is the palla, the shawl that the merchant’s daughter is wearing around her shoulders. It’s made from the finest silk. Acquiring silk of this quality is very difficult, and only the wealthy can do it. As we will discover later in our journey, it comes from very distant places, beyond the Roman Empire, directly from China. And it has come all this way thanks to an extensive chain of merchants who have crossed distant sun-baked deserts, snow-capped mountain ranges, and vast tropical oceans. Given its rarity, this garment should be in a museum, not here in the middle of the street.
One cannot help but be impressed by the women’s free and easy manner, their infectious laughter, the way they stop to examine and then purchase the veils on display in a shop or the jewels of an artisan on the corner of the street. And they pay for them with a nonchalance and a sense of security that betray their affluence. They know it and they take pleasure in it: they are the ones who manage their money, not their husbands or their brothers.
To us today it seems like an all too familiar scene, one that can be observed every day on the elegant streets of modern Milan or any other big city. But how normal is a scene like this one in the era of Trajan? We are accustomed, in fact, to thinking about the rigid rules that regulated women’s behavior in the Roman era. These two women, on the other hand, don’t fit that scheme at all. Is their independence a rule or an exception?
An Emancipated Woman
Actually, such carefree behavior is the result of a long process of emancipation for Roman women that gradually evolved over recent generations. Much has changed since the archaic era, when the wife sat in silence on a stool while her husband, stretched out on a triclinium, enjoyed the banquet with his invited guests.
Now Roman women are allowed by law to manage their inheritances and family money without intrusion by their husbands or brothers. They can stretch out on couches to eat at banquets, go to the baths and—horror of horrors—drink just like men, thus provoking the ire of some misogynist authors. Juvenal was particularly venomous in his judgments of independent women who, in his view, were too free. In his Satires VI he writes of some women: “She drinks and then vomits like a snake that has fallen into a cask. And her husband, totally nauseated, squeezes his eyes shut, struggling to keep down his bile.”
During the empire, female independence actually reached levels that were comparable to those of Western society today. It’s astounding to see how many resemblances there are to this aspect of social life in our own time, even regarding relationships between couples. Consider divorce, for example. It is by no means a contemporary phenomenon, and in Roman times it was very common. It was absolutely normal, for example, to meet men and women who were divorced not once but several times. Getting a divorce was so easy that many women had several husbands over the course of their lives. And because there was always a dowry involved, the stories got as involved as the plot of a soap opera. Let’s take a closer look at this twenty-first-century world from two thousand years ago.
Lots of Divorces … and No Children
The two women continue walking down the street until they are joined by a handsome man. Well-dressed, with an engaging manner and a captivating smile, he takes the black-haired woman under his arm and walks along with her and her friend. This man is her new fiancé.
After years of marriage to an older man, the black-haired woman has “exacted” a divorce and found a new companion, whom she now wants to marry. He is indeed younger and more vigorous than her former husband, but in the eyes of many he is a dowry hunter. He has only recently been divorced as well, and he’s been on the lookout for a good match.
Dowry hunters were very common in Roman society and they prowled like sharks in search of prey, to the point that even Martial (I,10) mentions them.
Gemellus wants to marry Maronilla;
he desires it, he urges her, he implores her, and sends her gifts.
Is she so beautiful?
Nay, no creature is more disgusting.
What then is the bait and charm in her?
By cough he obviously means poor health, an illness that will probably take her to her grave so that Gemellus, the dowry hunter, will inherit all of Maronilla’s estate.
The trio vanishes at the end of the street, laughing and talking in loud voices, still followed by the two silent shadow-slaves. As we have said, such a group is not at all a rarity in Roman society, and even less of a rarity is the fact that none of the three has any children. They don’t want them.
Nobody has children and everybody gets divorced. Why? It’s a phenomenon whose roots go far back. In the time of the republic, Roman marriage was always favorable to the husbands and not to their wives. In the cum manu marriage, the hand (manus) or legal control of the woman passed from the father to the husband. Hence the tradition of the man asking his future father-in-law for the hand of his daughter. The decision to marry was not up to the woman, but to her father. A Roman woman in this type of marriage could not decide to leave her husband. She was under his patria potestas, his absolute power, as were their children, slaves, and servants. The husband, on the other hand, could repudiate his wife for any reason whatsoever, even the most banal.
Gradually, with the end of the republic, this form of matrimony disappeared, to be replaced by marriage sine manu, in which power over the woman remained with her family of origin. This meant that the wife could also repudiate her husband at any time. And if the woman came from a wealthy family while the man did not, he might find himself from one day to the next without the means to support himself. This change gave Roman women an immense power and a remarkable independence from their husbands. Under the Roman Empire the Senate approved a law that allowed women to control and manage all the money and property they inherited from their fathers. Previously, her husband and brothers managed her inherited property. This also greatly liberated Roman women. With the fall of the republic, therefore, women became economically independent and had the same rights as men in marriage.
To get a divorce it was sufficient for one of the two to pronounce certain phrases in the presence of witnesses and the divorce was effective instantly—a much faster procedure than what we have today. Divorce became so simple that it spread like wildfire. And society was hit by an “outright epidemic of conjugal separations,” in the words of Jérôme Carcopino, a French historian and one of the most renowned experts on ancient Rome.
Indeed, if we look at a list of the “big names” of ancient Rome, we discover that many of them were parties to multiple divorces, something that the history books seldom mention. Here are a few:
• After four divorces, Sulla married for a fifth time, in his old age: a young woman who was also divorced.
• Julius Caesar was divorced once.
• Cato Uticensis, commonly known as Cato the Younger, divorced his wife, Marcia. She remarried, and her second husband died, making her very wealthy. Subsequently, Cato remarried Marcia, primarily for her money.
• After thirty years of marriage and several children, Cicero repudiated his wife, Terenzia, in order to marry Publilia, who was much younger and very rich. Terenzia didn’t take it too hard, however: she remarried twice.
Underlying all these matters of the heart, as you have no doubt guessed, was very often a healthy sum of money, partially because, in cases of divorce, the woman could take back all of her dowry except for those assets that a judge held should justly remain with her husband for the care of their children or as an indemnity.
Free to Have Multiple Husbands
So, in the imperial age and under the reign of Trajan, a wealthy woman has considerable social power: she is financially independent, legally authorized to manage her own property, and in the end capable of keeping her husband (even a famous one) on a leash, especially if he married her for her money. It is no coincidence, then, that women often decide to do as the men do and marry more than once.
For the first time in history, they marry by choice, for love, for convenience, but not by imposition, as it used to be for their foremothers. In the necropolis discovered in the Vatican, there is the case of a woman, Julia Threpte, who lined up the funeral altars of her two husbands. For her first husband she built an altar of very high quality, a sign of her love. For the second, she settled for a much smaller altar, with a curt and dismissive epitaph. (Who knows how the third husband must have felt, if indeed she had a third.)
In describing this society, which in certain respects seems almost more advanced than our own, in De Beneficiis Seneca wrote: “No woman need blush to break off her marriage since the most illustrious ladies have adopted the practice of reckoning the year not by the names of the consuls but by those of their husbands.”
With a bit of sarcasm, in his Daily Life in Ancient Rome Jérôme Carcopino described the changing status of Roman women from the republic to the empire this way:
Then, the woman was strictly subjected to the authority of her lord and master; now she is his equal, his rival, if not his imperatrix. Then, husband and wife had all things in common; now their property is almost entirely separate. Then, she took pride in her own fertility; now, she fears it. Then, she was faithful; now, she is capricious and depraved. Divorces then were rare, now they follow so close on one another’s heels that, as Martial says, marriage has become merely a form of legalized adultery.” (1940; 100. Translated by Emily Overend Lorimer)
The Declining Birth Rate
Another feature of this period is the declining birth rate, which accompanied women’s liberation. For generations, Roman society has been plagued by chronically declining births, identical to what Western societies are experiencing today.
In our case, the cause has been attributed to the rise in the marriage age and the increased difficulty for the wife to become pregnant, but also to the high cost of living that makes it hard to maintain a large family. And then there is influence of the consumer lifestyle, in which money is invested more in the quality of life than in children (contrary to our grandparents, who considered children an economic investment for the future, a sort of pension plan). And what are the reasons for the low birth rate in the Roman era?
We’re not sure. Several hypotheses have been advanced, such as widespread poisoning from the lead contained in wine, though that is not very credible for an entire population. Or perhaps merely a deliberate refusal to have children on the part of Roman women (of the upper classes), in order to maintain both a lifestyle free from the restraints of maternity and a young, seductive body not debilitated by repeated pregnancies, which, as we shall see, were also quite risky. To be sure, in the social pinwheel of marriages and divorces, children might seem like a cumbersome burden.
All of these explanations, however, are difficult to reconcile with the emphasis placed on fertility and motherhood in this age. The reasons for the declining birth rate are not clear, but the issue was real. As Carcopino has shown, the funeral stelae in honor of the deceased erected by, for lack of children, his or her freed slaves, are amazingly numerous.
Naturally, the empire has its antidotes. To make up for the shortage of children, the practice of adoption becomes more and more popular among the upper classes. So in their old age, a lot of wealthy people adopt already mature adults in order to continue their “line.”
And to compensate for the low birth rate, the practice of manumitting slaves, either while the master is still living or by testament, gives new blood to Roman society, which by nature is multiethnic (but monocultural—that is essential).
The Profile of the Emancipated Roman Woman
But what sort of people are these women who are so liberated for their time? If we were able to invite them to our homes for dinner, what kind of guests would they be? Certainly, many centuries lie between us, but there may still be a way to find out. If we read between the lines of Juvenal’s caricatures of Roman women, we may be able to design their profile.
What we discover is a woman who is extraordinarily forthright, witty, intelligent, capable of conversing at table on all subjects, from poetry to international politics: a woman who is informed, who strives to understand her time, and who, above all, speaks her mind. That’s why men are so frightened (and critical) of her.
In the sixth of his Satires, Juvenal writes that women have stopped embroidering, playing the lyre, and reading aloud. Now they have a passion for politics, keep themselves informed about the news arriving from all over the empire, avidly seek out information about trials going on in the courts, about rumors going around the city and high society gossip, “weighing the gravity of the dangers threatening the king of Armenia or of Parthia; with noisy effrontery they expound their theories and their plans to generals clad in field uniform … while their husbands silently look on,” as Carcopino says.
Roman women, in other words, open themselves up to society, leave their homes without bothering anymore to cover themselves in their mental and social burkas. They walk on the streets, go to the theater, to the Colosseum, to the circuses to cheer on their favorite driver in the chariot races. And they go to the baths, where they undress and take baths together with men, something that was inconceivable in the archaic period.
They are modern women, real women, even when it comes to sex. Why should only men be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of life now that women have economic independence and are able to divorce whenever they want to? Now that they are so free, say some observers, in many cases women have become nothing more than housemates of their husbands. Perhaps, but at that very moment the husband is amusing himself with a concubine in another room of the house, something totally legitimate and accepted in Roman society. And so? So maybe the lives of these women can be summed up in two words: vivere vitam, live life.
But how many women participated in this liberation? A lot, as we have said, but not everyone. It’s accurate to say that this revolution in social customs involved primarily the wealthy classes in the major cities. Elsewhere, among the poor and in places removed from high society, the old rules still governed the family.
Naturally, the information that come down to us about the situation of women were for the most part written by men. It would be interesting to know what the women themselves would have said.
Getting Married at Age Ten
The trio, the two women and the young man, have just gone around the corner. As they were walking by, they didn’t notice the young woman walking in the opposite direction, hugging the wall. From her clothes we can tell that she is of humble origin. She walks with her head down, wrapped in a palla much more modest than that of the women she has just passed. She’s following a man, staying six feet or so behind him. Her husband is walking ahead of her without deigning to say a word to her. He is much older than she; he could easily be her father. What kind of world does this woman live in? It’s as though the Roman woman were a coin: on one side there’s the portrait of the emancipated woman, whom we have just described; on the other, there’s the traditional one. Two faces of the same society.
Life isn’t easy for these women who are tied to tradition. Under Trajan, as in all eras of the empire, their childhood is very short. At a very young age, they are pledged in matrimony to their husbands—sometimes at around thirteen, sometimes less, even as young as ten.
In such cases, however, detailed agreements between the parties prohibit the new spouse from having sexual relations with his child wife. This tradition will be a constant in the Roman world and will also continue in the Byzantine Empire (though, sadly, there is ample evidence that many men did not respect this obligation).
This horrible practice of making girls marry at such a young age, even before puberty, before they are capable of procreating (a custom still today widely practiced in many third-world countries, especially Islamic ones), may be shocking for those of us who are accustomed to women marrying much later—often at an age when Roman women were already long dead.
Why are they made to marry so young? There are a lot of reasons, but essentially because they have to bear a lot of children, knowing that many of their offspring will die and that they themselves will have short lives. Very short.
Infant mortality in the Roman era is extremely high, 20 percent or even higher. That’s what emerges from a study of the Isola Sacra necropolis near Portus in Ostia, which has provided one of the largest Roman samples ever examined (two thousand deceased, of whom eight hundred still had a complete skeleton). The researchers estimated an infant mortality rate on the order of 40 percent within the first year of life. So every Roman couple knows that they must have a lot of children if they want to be certain that at least some will survive. The law also points in the this direction. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus, responding to a dramatic demographic decline, established that in order to benefit from certain economic subsidies and tax incentives a Roman woman had to have given birth to at least three children (and a freed slave at least four).
Even if she wanted to, this would not be easy for a Roman woman. And she is certainly not helped by the chronic difficulty in having children that, as we have seen, seemed to be spreading in Roman society. Anxiety about the ability to procreate among women tied to the traditional principles of archaic Rome is visible in all those sanctuaries related to feminine fertility (usually connected to water or some fountain with miraculous powers) and in the votive offerings found by archaeologists. One can sense the social pressure that these women were subjected to. Sometimes poor nutrition, which was very widespread at the time, was the cause of infertility. But women didn’t know it and there was not very much they could do about it.
Childbirth: Russian Roulette
In the absence of the medical knowledge and hygienic practices that we have today, bringing a child into the world in this era was a heroic enterprise. A Roman woman was a thousand times more likely to die during childbirth than an Italian woman today. The data speak volumes: today in Italy, one woman in ten thousand dies in childbirth; in the Roman era (as indicated by several estimates) the ratio was one woman in ten. Real Russian roulette.
Complications that kill women in labor, such as placenta previa, which prevents the baby from exiting the uterus and causes massive hemorrhaging, anomalous positions of the baby, and so forth, are usually resolvable today. To all of this must be added lethal infections that arise in the days following the birth. If we consider all of these risks, as well as the fact that women give birth many times over the course of their lives, it is no wonder that few of them reach advanced age or survive their husbands.
A grave stone found in Salona, near Split on the coast of Croatia, is quite eloquent. Under the name of a slave woman, it reads: “She suffered for four days to give birth, but she did not give birth and her life ended. This stone placed here by Giusto, her companion in slavery.”
If giving birth was comparable to going to war, the rest of life for many Roman women was just as hard. Alongside the emancipated women who, as we have seen, have attained a relationship of parity with men, there is a multitude of women whose lives are determined by others.
A little girl marries because it is so decided by her father. At a young age she is promised to a much older man, not infrequently an old friend of her father’s. The age difference between them can be thirty years or more. It is not unusual for the wedding date to be set for when the girl turns fourteen (the minimum age as established by law). But even before that she may be sent to live in the house of her future husband. Needless to say, in this case (and in all cases of arranged marriage) women do not marry their husbands for love.
And then what happens? Roman law and morality dictate very precise behavior for women: absolute fidelity to their husbands and unobtrusiveness in public—like the girl who is walking behind her husband. Now he has entered the front door leading to their small apartment on the third floor of a nondescript building. She follows him and enters her “prison.”
Renting a City Car in the Roman Era
It’s dawn. A young woman and her gigantic servant are hurrying down the main street of the city. It is semideserted. Passersby are few and far between. In the middle of the street two dogs are fighting over a bone thrown there last night from a tavern at closing time. The young woman covers her head with her long shawl to keep out the cold. Her servant, on the other hand, doesn’t feel cold; all he’s wearing is a tunic that reveals glimpses of his powerful chest. He’s a kindly looking German, whose hair and beard are prematurely gray. He is effortlessly carrying two enormous bags filled with everything necessary for their journey. The young woman is leaving for a short trip accompanied by her servant.
So, what do you take with you when you leave on a trip in the Roman era? This same question has been asked by Lionel Casson, the author of a monumental study on the subject. Here is what the Romans preferred to put in their baggage:
The bulkiest items are kitchen implements, because during the journey the traveler will cook for himself. Then there are toiletries, a blanket, a towel, some changes of underwear, comfortable sandals and heavy shoes for rain and snow, and, naturally, a hat for the rain or sun, depending on the season. Beyond that, the traveler has to bring along the appropriate clothing for the regions he will be traveling through: a light cloak (lacerna) for warm weather, a long wool cloak with a hood for cold weather (the birrus, identical to the Arab burnoose), the Roman poncho (paenula) for the rain, etc. The traveler must also not forget to put in his bags gifts for the person he intends to visit or who will be offering him hospitality. And a few other items. Actually, except when they travel with their own wagon, Romans travel light.
And what about money? Roman travelers hide it in purses tied to their belt or in little leather bags tied around their neck and kept under their tunic, just like travelers do today. (Next time you’re in an airport just look at the extra thin pouches and purses on sale at the duty-free shop.) Along with their money they put in any other items of value.
Women, naturally, are advised not to wear jewelry in plain sight: rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces are to be kept hidden. Some women put them in the lining of their strophium, or girdle, and some sew them inside the folds of their clothes, as the young woman who has our sestertius has done.
But that’s not enough. Travelers have to prepare another kind of baggage: their psychological baggage. Romans have a strong belief in omens. They are messages to be taken seriously, even if they are brief. And so, like the Neapolitan cabala, every sign has a precise meaning and constitutes a true traffic light for the departure. Here are a few of them.
Green light if you dream of a clear sky with stars, or the goddess Aphrodite, or the god Mercury, protector of travelers.
Donkeys and mules are good signs too; they mean your trip will be safe, but slow!
Yellow light if a gazelle shows up in your dream. You have to take into account its state of health. If it’s up and running, the trip will go fine. If it has a limp or is lying down, it could be a bad omen.
Red light if you dream of a wild boar (violent thunder storms), an owl (storms and bandits along the road), or a quail (you’ll be the victim of a scam or robbed by brigands). Dreams of Dionysus or Castor and Pollux are also bad signs.
Finally, a good sign: if in your dream you see a statue of the gods that appears to be moving you can take heart because the gods are with you.
We’ll have another occasion to return to these premonitory signs when we embark on a sailing ship at Ostia to cross the Mediterranean, because there we will discover some other superstitions connected with travel.
As they make their way along the nearby streets, the two travelers meet up with small groups of people heading out of the city: lines of servants carrying packages, bags, and purses. They are followed by their master, who has to leave on a trip. Since it is prohibited to use wagons in the city after dawn, many people have their own slaves or porter-slaves carry their baggage to their vehicles waiting for them at the city gates. In some cases they have themselves carried there too. One fat woman is stretched out languidly on a litter transported with a certain amount of strain by four slaves. Luckily, she doesn’t have far to go.
When they get to the city gates, the young woman and her slave head in the direction of some stables that are already open. They stop to read the prices on some signs and then go inside. These stables are the ancient equivalent of Avis and Hertz, where you come when you need to rent a wagon. As soon as they are inside, the clerk, a Greek slave, shows them the available vehicles.
There is a small birota, that is, a two-wheeled cart for two people at the most. Or there’s an essedum, bigger and more elegant. We could compare the first to a small compact and the second to a luxury convertible. The Greek recites the names of some well-known personalities in the city who have rented these vehicles recently (which may or may not be true).
Some other possibilities are a raeda, a four-wheeled open wagon, and a carruca, similar but with a canvas cover (identical to the covered wagons of the Wild West), the equivalent of a seven-seater minivan for a big family. Some carruca models are even outfitted so you can sleep in them, the campers of the Roman era.
For the larger vehicles, however, in addition to the driver you also need someone on the ground who holds the horses by their bridles and walks beside them. Do you know the technical name for this unlucky fellow? Cursor, a term that we use today in reference to the little pointer that flashes when you write on a computer.
The young woman chooses a wagon at the back of the stable: a two-seater, a covinnus. It’s small and easy to drive; we could think of it as a Roman-era city car, the equivalent of a Smart car, and you see a lot of them on the roads of the empire. But this one is designed for use outside the city and not for use in urban traffic. Indeed, the urban centers of many cities are actually large pedestrian malls because, as we have said, during the day the circulation of carts and wagons is prohibited.
Having negotiated the price and paid the rental fee for the wagon, the two climb on board. The slave will be doing the driving. The horses nod their heads and then set off. As soon as the covinnus is outside the city gate, the slave gives the horses a brisk lashing and they break into a trot. Through their dark, wind-tossed manes the young woman can see the unpaved road stretching out toward the horizon. She smiles. The journey has begun.
Traffic on Roman Highways
The two travelers pass by a small wagon train. It’s a rich man’s convoy. Apart from the enormous number of bags, the wagons also carry what amounts to an apartment to be assembled every evening. The wealthy, in fact, don’t sleep in wayside inns. Instead they carry everything they need with them. The slaves will set up a big tent with chairs, tables, a comfortable bed, carpets, etc. Naturally, they also have pots and pans and food to cook (in addition to the food they’ll purchase along the way). The whole thing is reminiscent of today’s luxury safaris, where, after riding around all day guided by a ranger in an off-road vehicle, the tourist comes back to the camp for a sit-down dinner served by waiters in livery and then sleeps in a big tent replete with a bed, tables, and even a shower and toilet.
They go by another traveler, a lawyer, stretched out on a litter. He’s reading the text of the closing argument he is going to give in the next town. He gestures and speaks out loud. The eight slaves carrying him on their shoulders don’t seem to be paying any attention to his jabbering. People like him, who prefer using a litter to a wagon, do so for just one reason: the smooth ride. Of course the journey takes a lot more time. But who’s in a hurry? In Roman times, contrary to today, there’s no need to run. It’s not out of the question, however, that at the first postal station, he’ll replace the slaves with two mules attached to a shaft.
Who does one see on the highways of the Roman Empire? The travelers are decidedly different from the ones we see on our modern highways. Romans travel for different reasons than we do. There are very few tourists, and there are no reentry traffic jams after long weekends. The vast majority of travelers are people who have to travel for work, government workers most of all. There is a constant movement of all kinds of state employees: from public officials to tax collectors and couriers, all the way up to the heads of imperial power, such as provincial governors. Their entourages, composed of advisers, assistants, soldiers, assorted employees and slaves, are impressive mostly for their dimensions. They almost give you the impression that they are the emperors.
But when the emperor really is on the road, it is an event. Everything comes to a standstill, just as when we close roads to traffic for a cycling competition or a road race. An emperor on the move is a real parade, comparable to what happens on Independence Day in the United States or Bastille Day in France. Everybody lines up on the side of the road to get a look at the most powerful man in the world.
There is only one parade that’s longer than the emperor’s and that one you never want to run into: the legion. A legion on the march, with thousands of soldiers, all the supply wagons, and the wagons carrying the disassembled war machines, can keep you blocked for hours. And if your luck is so bad that you run into an entire army, best to pull off the road and pitch your tent. You won’t be going anywhere for several days. And it really happened, when Trajan decided to invade Dacia and called up large numbers of legions. Try to imagine the congestion on the roads, the curiosity and the fear of the inhabitants of the small towns in the provinces at the sight of that constant stream of soldiers and vehicles. And the profit turned by merchants and shopkeepers providing for the needs of thousands of men on the march.
But there are some analogies with the modern era. There are vehicles comparable to our tractor-trailers (slow wagons pulled by oxen), our utility vehicles (wagons and carts), our buses (coaches), our motorcycles (men on horseback), our bicycles (people on mules), and finally, lots of people on foot. Walking was the most common means of transport throughout antiquity.
One curious detail concerns the horses. They were much smaller than the horses we know today, not much bigger than ponies. So it seems appropriate to think of them as the motorcycles of the time because of their size and maneuverability. In the cities there were no horses like the ones tied up in front of the saloons in westerns. A Roman would have thought they were giants, not to mention hard to handle and lacking in endurance, and with limbs and joints more vulnerable to rough terrain.
Another interesting fact is that you don’t see many horses on the road. They were used primarily for war, the postal service, and hunting. Moreover, most people couldn’t afford the expense of buying and maintaining them. So there were many more mules on the road than horses. And people who traveled on foot also hitchhiked. Most of the time they got rides on farmers’ wagons. It was slow, boring, and annoying for people with sensitive ears; the squeaking and creaking were unbearable.
Service Areas and Motels
At mile 9 on the journey from Mediolanum some red tile roofs come into view. In the modern era this area will be the site of the town of Melegnano, and it is highly likely that the original nucleus of the town was formed by these very houses. Now it is amutatio, an imperial postal station.
Our two travelers stop and get down off the cart. The slave gets some water for the horses and checks their shoes. The woman goes into the courtyard in the middle of the houses.
We could compare a mutatio to a roadside service area with gas pumps and a mechanic as well as a restaurant. There are stables where you can change tired horses (thus the name mutatio, or “change”) and get fresh ones (in other words, fill your tank with gas). There are stable boys, veterinarians, horseshoers, artisans who can repair broken wagons (in all respects, the equivalent of a mechanic’s garage). And, just as on a modern highway, you can get something to eat. There are fully outfitted kitchens preparing a full menu of simple and inexpensive meals, from lamb and pork to ricotta cheese and hot focaccia.
There are almost always some taverns that spring up nearby, replete with beds and prostitutes. The people who stop there, however, generally don’t sleep there. Just like we do at our service areas, they get a light snack, change horses, and then get back on the road. In the course of a day’s journey, you’ll come across one or two mutationes along the way before the sun goes down. And then, as if by magic, before nightfall a big motel will appear on the side of the road. The Romans call it a mansio. The distance between one way station and the next is never more than twenty-five to thirty miles, or the average length of a day’s journey. Here, travelers can eat and sleep, change horses, and have a nice bath: the mansiones almost always have small bath complexes. Not only that, they will even offer a free change of clothes for postilions and couriers (in case they’re soaked with rain or splattered with mud).
To make travel safer, police stations, called stationes, will be added over the years, with guards to keep watch on the roads. Finally, in some areas, there were checkpoints every mile or so manned by a sentinel.
The Cursus Publicus
But not all travelers can take advantage of the service areas and the way stations; at least not without paying. Free access to these traveler assistance stations is reserved for public officials, that is, for those who are traveling on behalf of the government, like couriers carrying official messages. Each time they stop to change horses or go to the baths, couriers have to present a special letter (diploma) displaying their credentials and authorization to use the services.
This is the system of the so-called cursus publicus, instituted by Augustus primarily to carry government mail (not that of private citizens) throughout the empire. The couriers (speculatores) can thus change horses quickly and get some sleep before getting back on the road. A winning idea, especially considering that the postal service did not get any faster than this until the invention of the locomotive. In Egypt, for example, it took only six hours to cover the same distance and there were four deliveries per day.
Private travelers are not allowed to use these services and have to rely on inns and taverns. Naturally, many powerful people would like to have a diploma at their disposal to travel comfortably, but one has to have authorization from the emperor. A lot of people pull strings to get one. Others officially request that the emperor make an exception for them. One such example is Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, a province in Asia Minor, who in 111 CE (just a few years before the era that we are exploring) asked this favor of Trajan, who responded: “My Lord, until now I have not granted a diploma to anyone.… However, my wife has learned of the death of your grandfather. Since you wished to rush to the side of your aunt, it seemed excessive to me to deny you thediploma.”
Naturally, there was a great deal of abuse by big shots, with bribes and even sales of diplomas (in theory, a crime punishable by death). Today we might compare it to an authorization to use an official car and driver for private purposes. There are even some cases where public officials are known to have blatantly disregarded the rules, trying to requisition the horses assigned to the mansiones (they had as many as forty mounts, including both horses and mules) or demanding that their friends or relatives be given lodging in their rooms.
As the young woman and her slave are leaving the mutatio in their fast, light cart to head back toward the road, they happen upon a man on horseback approaching at a gallop. He comes into the courtyard and jumps down off his horse in a rush. He is an imperial courier (speculator). The stationmaster can tell it’s an emergency from the worried look on the courier’s face. The courier is a young lad with freckles; his cheeks are red from the strain of the long ride. He pulls out a diploma from a leather tube he keeps around his neck and hands it still rolled up to the stationmaster, asking for his fastest horse. The man immediately orders that the stable’s best horse be prepared and purely for formality unrolls the document, without even reading it. Then he looks the young man in the eye: “Everything all right?” He is drinking avidly from a pitcher, and rivulets of water are streaming down his chest. The stationmaster’s wife has offered him the water and she urges him to drink slowly. She has a maternal smile. He reminds her of her sons who are now enlisted in a legion stationed in the north, the XXII Primigenia. The parents heard about the battle on the frontier from another courier who rode through here some days ago. Then nothing more. The couriers are not supposed to give out any information, but inevitably some of the news of a big victory against the barbarians leaks out. The lad, a little excited, declares that commendations and promotions are on the way for everyone involved, and that the document he is carrying is on its way north, to Mogontiacum, to the commandant of the legion.
The stationmaster smiles, puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and offers him a nice canteen of wine. “Take this and use it well, but only when you’ve finished galloping!” A little intimidated, the young man thanks him and then bites ravenously into a ricotta cheese focaccia that the stationmaster’s wife has prepared for him. He doesn’t have time to finish it. His horse is ready, already saddled. He jumps up into the saddle without using the stool that the stable boy had put in place for him. Then he turns, smiles, and waves to the man and his wife. In an instant he is already outside the gate in a cloud of dust.
The average speed of a Roman courier (literally a pony express) is 7 kilometers (4.2 miles) per hour, including stops to change horses. This means about 70 kilometers (42 miles) per day, compared to 20 to 30 kilometers (12 to 18 miles) for those who travel on foot and 40 to 50 kilometers (25 to 30 miles) for those going by wagon. Lionel Casson has calculated that a courier can make it from Rome to Bari in seven days, to Constantinople in twenty-five, to Antioch (Syria) in forty, and to Alexandria in fifty-five days.
Actually, when they “floor it” couriers can triple their average speed and cover up to 210 kilometers (125 miles) in just one day, maybe riding through the night. They do it with the system that we have seen, with breathless rides and rests that seem more like pit stops. So in 69 CE, when the mutiny of the legions stationed in Mainz, Germany (where the XXII Primigenia is now), occurred, it took only eight or nine days for the news to reach Rome.