Ready to Hike Hadrian’s Wall

Resting above Saanich Inlet

For our last Hadrian’s Wall training hike this past Sunday, April 29th, we hiked the Gowlland-Tod Park trails high above the Saanich Inlet on Vancouver Island. We’re now all heading off in different directions and will meet again in a couple of weeks for our eight day walk along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

Hiking in the Mist

The trail was more rugged than Hadrian’s Wall Path will be but the misty views were worth it. And because we hiked around 12 kilometers, I qualified for the Automattic Worldwide Word Press 5k.

Arbutus Tree above the Inlet

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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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New Digs

Many sites of ancient Roman ruins lie frozen in time. Not in the time of the Romans, but at the time when they were excavated decades ago. Fortunately others have active excavations that continue to expand our knowledge of the Roman world.

Six years ago I made a quick visit to Hadrian’s Wall and saw both Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda. When I visited them again last autumn, I found that Housesteads hadn’t changed at all but Vindolanda’s exposed remains had expanded considerably.

Vindolandais excavated every year by experts and volunteers. They have a unique program and anyone can apply to spend a week or two excavating at Vindolanda (

Other sites in Britain that are also experiencing a renaissance of excavation:

  • In Norfolk archaeologists are digging for three weeks this summer at the site of Venta Icenorumat Caistor-St-Edmund. When I visited this site four years ago, all that was visible were its earth covered walls. The excavations are open to the public until September 3, 2011 with a Family Day on Sunday, August 28th.
  • Archaeologists have been digging at Caerleonin Wales over the last year and have discovered the second known port of Roman Britain (the first one being in London). Here is a link to an article about this remarkable find that also includes a video with reconstructions of all of Caerleon’s Roman remains including the fort, amphitheatre and baths:
New Excavations at Vindolanda

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