Roman History

For Roman Men Only

A belated nod to International Men’s Day (November 19) and a salute to Movember — a post about the mystery cult of Mithras. Its rituals were conducted in man-caves, included wing-men and were for men only!

The cult of Mithras began in Persia and became popular among both soldiers and officers of the Roman army. According to legend Mithras was a sun god from heaven. Some traditions have him born from the living rock and others say he came from the Cosmic Egg.

Mithras in Cosmic Egg found at Housesteads, Great North Museum Newcastle
Mithras in Cosmic Egg found at Housesteads, Great North Museum Newcastle

Mithras is said to have slayed the first creature on earth, a bull, and from its blood all life flowed. His temples were designed to resemble caves with a statue or relief of the scene of Mithras killing the bull (the scene is called the tauroctony) at the far end of the temple behind the altars. His companions, Cautes and Catopautes, stood at the entrance of the inner sanctum of the temples.

Tauroctony Relief from Housesteads, Great North Museum Newcastle
Tauroctony Relief from Housesteads, Great North Museum Newcastle

On this vivid relief, notice the snake and the dog lapping up the bull’s blood, and hidden behind the cosmic egg, a scorpion pinches the bull’s testicles. Strange and mysterious imagery.

With many soldiers from around the Roman Empire posted to Britannia from AD 43 to AD 410, several temples have been found along Hadrian’s Wall. One at Housesteads (Vercovicium), one at Rudchester (Vindobala) and one at Carrawburgh (Procolita). The last is the best preserved and open for viewing.

Carrawburgh Mithras Temple
Carrawburgh Mithras Temple

I also visited remains of a Mithraeum in London in 2011. It has since been moved and is not on display at present.

Temple of Mithras, London
Temple of Mithras, London

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Fusion Temples for Fusion Gods

When Romans invaded they brought their gods with them but these rarely displaced the local gods. What happened was people would equate local gods with Roman gods. It might have gone something like “oh, Maponus has the same attributes and sphere of influence as Apollo so they must be the same god but with different names.” Dedications have been found to Apollo-Maponus in northern Britain and Gaul, as well as to Mars-Cocidius near Hadrian’s Wall, to Sulis-Minerva at Bath and other similar hybrids.

In Britain, temple remains found are often those of little Romano-Celtic structures. They were fusion temples for fusion gods.

Romano-Celtic Temple at Caerwent, Wales
Romano-Celtic Temple at Caerwent, Wales

The temple foundations at Caerwent include a little apse on one end, a common feature of Romano-Celtic temples. A dedication to the god Mars-Ocelus was found here.

Maiden Castle Roman Temple
Maiden Castle Roman Temple

Romano-Celtic temples were often built in the groves and on the hilltops sacred to Iron Age Celts. They could be square, rectangular or circular with a main room or cella, and surrounded by a covered ambulatory or walkway. This is true of the Roman-era temple atop Maiden Castle Iron Age hillfort in Dorset built in the late 4th century. A bronze plaque with Minerva depicted on it was found here.

Jordan Hill Roman Temple
Jordan Hill Roman Temple

All that remains of the 4th century temple at Jordan Hill near Weymouth, Dorset is the square outline of the stone foundation walls. What can’t be seen at the site is a 13-foot deep shaft in the centre of the temple that archaeologists found. It held sixteen layers of ash and charcoal alternated with roof slabs and the bones of a bird and a small coin in each layer. At the bottom was a stone cistern with two urns, a sword and a spearhead. This type of feature is believed to have been common to prehistoric Celtic religious sites.

Benwell Roman Temple
Benwell Roman Temple

Benwell Roman Temple near Newcastle is dedicated to Atenociticus who is thought to have been a local god. Two cement copies of altars that were found during excavation of the temple bear these inscriptions:

To the god Antenociticus and to the Deities of the emperors, Aelius Vibius, centurion of the 20th Legion Valeria Victrix, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

To the Antenociticus, Tineius Longus (set this up) having, while prefect of cavalry, been adorned with the (senatorial) broad strip and designated quaestor by the decrees of our best and greatest Emperors, under Ulpius Marcellus, consular governor.

In Roman religion people entered into a contract with a god – “if you do this for me, then I will do this for you”. The altars and dedications found at the temples are fulfillments of this type of vow.

Classical Roman temples were known in Britain but little of these has survived. One, the temple of Claudius in Colchester destroyed by Boudica in the 1st century, was massive by all accounts. Its foundations were used as a platform for the largest Norman Keep in Britain.

Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle built over the Temple of Claudius

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Cena Romana

Wall Painting from Pompeii

Last Saturday night my Hadrian’s Wall hiking group got together for a Roman feast potluck. We dined well on dishes based on ancient Roman recipes adapted in the book, The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.
Our menu included:

Honeyed White Wine

Garlic Cheese with Bread


Parthian Chicken

Shoulder of Pork with Sweet Wine Cakes

Barley with Figs

Tomato and Cucumber Salad

Patina of Nuts

Pineapple Upsidedown Cake with Cream (not Roman but very good)

Figs and Dates

We began our dinner by mingling over the Honeyed Wine aperitif, which was sweet, peppery and surprisingly very good, followed by the very, very garlicky and very popular Garlic Cheese.

The Shoulder of Pork with Sweet Wine Cakes recipe included a barley and fig side dish which was also a surprise hit. When discussing our experience with the recipes, we decided honey and wine were prominent ingredients in most of them. Fortunately there weren’t too many ingredients we couldn’t source, although I failed to get any rue for my red wine sauce so I am not sure how it was really meant to taste.

Not having the space for dining couches nor the slaves to serve the dishes, we dined as poorer Romans might by sitting on chairs and stools. Nor were there any dancing girls for after dinner entertainment but I did my best to bore (I mean amuse) my guests with a slideshow lecture on Roman life along Hadrian’s Wall.

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Let’s party like it’s AD 85!

Two thousand years ago Romans didn’t hold back celebrating. Especially during December. According to a book I’ve just read, Roman Timetable by Simon James Young, here is a list of Roman festivals just for December:

3/12/11 – Bona Dea (the good goddess) for women only; games, music and dancing.
5/12/11 – Faunus (god of the wild countryside)
8/12/11 – Tiberinus (spirit of the river Tiber) and Gaia (Earth)
13/12/11–24/12/11 Saturnalia (god Saturn) gift-giving, feasting, decorating.
13/12/11 – Tellus (ancient earth goddess)
15/12/11 – Consualia (Consus, god of the granary connected with safekeeping of the harvest)
19/12/11 –Iuventas (goddess of youth,a celebration for all boys coming of age (14)
19/12/11 – Opalia (Ops was the personification of abundance)
21/12/11 – Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun, festival held on the winter solstice)
23/12/11 – Larentalia (possibly related to the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus).

Saturnalia was by far the biggest celebration lasting many days and giving people the excuse for many excesses. Here’s how Seneca the Younger described it, in a Scroogy way, in the late first century AD:

“This is the month of December, when the whole city is aglow with excitement. License has been given for intemperate behaviour by the general public. Everywhere you can hear the sound of elaborate preparations, as if there were some differences between the Saturnalia and regular business days. The distinction is fading. I think that man was quite right who said, ‘December used to be a month; now it’s the whole year.’”

This festive season waned during the bleak Middle Ages with the advent of Christianity and the banning of Roman gods and festivals. But the human spirit can’t be kept down and we have revived winter celebrations to Roman proportions in the last couple hundred years. Now we call it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza; whatever we call it, let’s embrace the joy of the season.
Bring on December!

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No TV? No Internet? Trajan had an app for that.

Trajan erected his famed column in AD 113 and it was an original and memorable way to broadcast his success in defeating one of Rome’s long-time enemies, the Dacians and their ruler Decebalus. The column was covered in carved depictions of events that happened during his campaigns in Dacia (modern Romania) on the Danube frontier in AD 101-102 and 105-106, and these have been very useful to historians, leaving behind a wealth of visual details about Roman military and social history.

Trajan’s Column Base

The column stood between the two libraries of the Forum in Rome and people could read the painted graphic scenes almost the entire height of the column. These scenes wind up for a total length of 656 feet (200 m) and include 2500 figures. The column was built of Parian marble and has a height of 125 feet (38 m) and a base diameter of 13 feet (3.83 m).

The story goes round and round

Trajan’s column still stands today in Rome and I must have seen it 30 years ago when I last visited, though I don’t remember because I didn’t know what I was looking at then. But I recently saw a life-size reproduction of the column at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Of course it is on my list of must-sees when I return to Rome. The pictures here are from the V&A.

Victoria and Albert Trajan’s Column Copy

You have to love the V&A – it looks like there is some kind of medieval pajama party going on beside the column!

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Roman Witches

Hideous women performing strange and perverse nocturnal acts, summoning the power of the demons who dwell between the earth and the underworld, between life and death. Witches haven’t changed much in 2000 years and we have no trouble recognizing the witches of Roman literature.

Canidia and Sagana– Horace wrote two poems about these witches, one slightly humorous and the other quite sinister.

In Satire 1.8, Canidia and Sagana are dressed in black, have pale skin, long nails and wild hair. They shriek and cackle. They come to a graveyard at night when there is a full moon and pick herbs, tear apart a lamb and pour blood on graves to conjure up spirits. They bury a wolf’s beard and the fang of a spotted snake and burn a wax doll. But everything turns slightly farcical when the Priapus statue, who is narrating the poem, farts. The startled witches run away, one losing her false teeth and the other her wig.

In Epode 5, the two witches are uglier still. Canidia has locks entwined with twisting vipers and Sagana’s hair stands on end like the bristles of a charging boar. They are about to kill a boy in order to make a love potion. Canidia wants to ensnare Varus and needs a powerful potion using the liver and marrow of a boy.

As well as these, the witches need many other bizarre items for their potion: barren wild-fig wood that sprouts from gravestone cracks; cypress from a dead man’s door; screech owl’s eggs besmeared with gore of poison-toad; herbs produced in Iolchos and Hiberia abundant in the weeds of bane; and bones snatched from the jaws of starving dogs.

Erichto– In the Pharsalia, Lucan created Erichto to be the most hideous of all witches, who frightens the very gods themselves. Erichto shuns other witches for being too tame. Not only does she desecrate dead bodies, she creates her own. Lucan lists her crimes against humanity: she steals the bloom off the face of a child; she cuts the hair of a dead adolescent; she snatches babies from their mothers’ wombs; and she bends over a dead body to kiss it, opening the mouth with her teeth, biting the tongue, then sending a hissed message of terror down the throat to the shades of Styx.

Dido– When Dido, in Virgil’s Aeniad, is abandoned by Aeneas, she enlists the help of a priestess who can control the desires of others and the forces of nature. The priestess chants spells to stop the flow of rivers, to make stars move backward and trees walk down mountains. Dido herself puts a curse on Aeneas and all his descendants by calling on both gods and demons, including Juno, Hecate and the avenging Furies, to do her bidding.

Simaetha– Simaetha in Virgil’s Eclogue 8, drones incantations to bring her lover, Daphnis, back home to her. She carries out rituals around a fire, twisting three strands of three threads around his image and carrying it three times around an altar. She puts clay and wax figures of Daphnis into a fire, sprinkling barley meal and laurel twigs, so Daphnis will return to her again.

Pamphile – In Apuleius’ The Golden Ass,Lucius is curious about magic and travels to Thessaly in Greece, famed for its witches. He stays at the home of Pamphile, a woman reported to be a witch and skilled in all forms of necromancy. She can plunge the light of heaven into darkness simply by breathing on twigs or pebbles. Lucius drinks one of her potions and turns into an ass.

Happy Halloween!


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