Romans left London because of the weather?

From Dailymail:

Their huge empire stretched all the way from northern Britain to the Egyptian desert.

But it seems the all-conquering Romans had an unexpected Achilles’ Heel in the grim British weather.

Settlers suffered from poor health due to a lack of sunlight and a poor diet after they established Londinium in the 1st century AD, according to scientists.

Researchers at the Museum Of London are carrying out forensic tests on some of their 22,000 carefully-preserved skeletons of Londoners through the ages.

Lead scientist Dr Jelena Bekvalac said her team is focusing on the declining health of settlers during the 400 years of the Roman occupation.

She told the Times: ‘You’d think in civilised Roman society, there would be buffers to aid you, but the climate is still going to have an effect and we see some signs of that.

‘There may also have been illnesses that they were more susceptible to than the local population.’

The Romans’ advanced standard of living has been well-chronicled and included building cities next to waterways, under-housing heating and public baths.

But settlers succumbed to malnourishment, due to a lack of fruit in London at the time, and illnesses caused by their damp environment, such as the flu.

The Romans buried their dead outside Londinium’s city walls in the Western Cemetery, located under St Bartholomew’s Hospital near St Paul’s, and the Southern Cemetery, along the south side of the Thames in Borough.

Archaeologists at these sites unearthed skeletons buried next to personal items including coins, toys and jewellery.

The Museum Of London researchers found that 18 per cent of men buried in the Southern Cemetery suffered from gout, brought about by a lack of Vitamin C, as well as excessive consumption of alcohol and meat.

Eighty per cent of the remains at the Western Cemetery showed pits and furrows in tooth enamel.

The condition occurs when the natural process of tooth growth is interrupted, leading scientists to the conclusion that growing up in Londinium left settlers malnourished and suffering from general ill-health.

The Museum Of London’s skeleton collection is the largest in the world for one city.

Earlier this year, scientists revealed how climate change could have been responsible for bringing down the Roman Empire.

Researchers studied ancient tree growth rings to show links between climate change and major events in human history such as migrations, plagues and the rise and fall of empires.

They discovered that periods of warm, wet weather coincided with period of prosperity, while droughts or varying conditions occurred at times of political upheaval such as the demise of the Roman Empire.

To match the environmental record with the historical one, researchers looked at more than 7,200 tree fossils from the past 2,500 years.

The study, published in the journal Science, said: ‘Increased climate variability from AD 250 to 600 coincided with the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Migration Period.

‘Distinct drying in the third century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman Empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces in Gaul.’

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Romans were addicted to fashion

From Spiegel:

When the prefect Flavius Cerialis hosted a banquet at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in what is now northern England, the aroma of grilled chicken, goose and venison, seasoned with pepper from India, filled the air. Plenty of beer was also on hand for the festivities.

The only thing dampening the mood of the occupying forces was the wet weather, and the clammy fort’s select guests were forced to bring their foul weather wear to the feast. On such occasions they favored a garment known as the paenula — a wide, draping mantle made of wool, or sometimes leather or felt — and wrapped a type of large shawl, called a laena, around their neck

The Romans at Vindolanda compiled lists of the textiles they used, writing in ink on thin wooden tablets, and these descriptions offer insight into their clothing habits. Now, for the first time, experts are taking a closer look at samples of the textiles described in those historical documents, mud-brown scraps of cloth that have surfaced from the swampy ground beneath the ruined fort.

To keep their wooden buildings from sinking into the mire, the legionnaires trampled unneeded household objects and trash into the soggy earth. This practice of fortifying the ground beneath their dwellings now yields a rich source of artifacts for today’s excavators.

Archeologists are delighted with their Vindolanda finds. “It’s an explosion of sources,” exults Michael Tellenbach, director of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum (Rem) in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. Together with other European researchers, Tellenbach is at work unraveling the world of Roman fashion.

Soft and Comfortable

These textile researchers have been searching museums and gravesites for traces of antique fabrics. Even corroded coins have revealed impressions of textile structures. Rem, the museum complex in Mannheim, has also acquired a scanning electron microscope, which allows researchers to view the fabrics used in the Roman wardrobe with an unprecedented level of detailed accuracy.

These fabric scraps, it turns out, provide evidence that Rome developed an unparalleled textile industry. Romans established factories throughout their empire, having learned effective loom building from the Egyptians. Dyes allowed the creation of riotous color compositions popular with the Roman people. Gradually, these techniques grew into mass production of a type not seen again until the High Middle Ages, a millennium later.

Materials were thoroughly prepared before manufacturing began. Experts combed out sheep’s wool to make the fibers more uniform. “Extremely professional production allowed for astonishingly high quality,” reports archeologist Annette Schieck. “The fabrics were very soft and comfortable.”

Some 1,500 years later, clothes found in the deserts of Egypt and Syria are “still so intact and flexible, some of them could still be worn,” Schieck says. As recently as the 18th century, she adds, poor fellahs in Egypt regularly looted Roman graves in search of ancient garb.

New discoveries concerning the cut of these garments may also unseat long-held notions in the field. While examining clothing fragments from the collection at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz, Sylvia Mitschke, a restoration expert in Mannheim, discovered pieces of fabric called gussets sewed inside underwear to make them more comfortable.

Monogram or Logo?

Until now experts believed Romans did not use the technique, which places triangular inserts along seams to strengthen and expand a garment. They assumed instead that the size and shape of their garments were determined by the dimensions of the loom, since the search for evidence of any type of ancient sewing patterns had proved fruitless.

The prevailing opinion was that form-fitted tailoring was a foreign concept to the Romans, with both genders wearing similarly sack-like garments. Women accented their femininity by fastening a belt directly beneath the bust, while men buckled their own belts at the hips.

The latest findings from Mannheim point archeologists in a new direction, though. “This has definitely thrown us off a bit,” Mitschke says. It looks as if the Romans might have understood the art of textile design after all.

Now, textile experts are on the hunt for the ancient world’s equivalent to modern fashion labels. It’s possible that previous clues and signs in this direction weren’t sufficiently appreciated. For instance, Kolumba, the art museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, holds a tunic with the letter kappa embroidered onto it in red thread. Is it simply the owner’s monogram — or could it be the logo of a fashion designer?

Despite scholars’ best efforts, the Romans’ relationship to underwear remains an open question. Mosaics laid in the floor of the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which dates from the late Roman period, show shapely women exercising in a sort of bikini, but textile evidence of the use of anything resembling underpants or bras is scarce.

Experts in Mannheim are aware of only three items of surviving Roman clothing that bear a resemblance to underwear. Legionnaires, for example, had to protect their genitals with a type of underpants, since the tunics they wore were about the length of mini dresses. Farm workers, on the other hand, wore loincloths wrapped like diapers.

Unwieldy Togas

Their simple daily wear suggests that Romans placed a great deal of value on the comfort of their clothing. This makes it all the more mysterious that the toga, one of the most impractical garments in human history, attained such popularity in Rome.

Senators and other rich Romans inflicted themselves with these cloth burdens that could reach up to six meters (20 feet) long, meaning the wearer was often unable even to don the garment without the help of a house slave. To wear the toga in a dignified manner, the gentry were also required to keep their lower arm extended to hold its folds. The free citizens of Rome crept about the streets thus swaddled, hardly able to leave their homes without assistance.

But perhaps here, too, established notions are in need of some updating, says archeologist Schieck. “In many cases we owe much of our insight into the practical application of historical clothing to reenactors,” she explains. That is, the subculture whose members don historical outfits as a recreational pastime. Upstanding family men in England, for example, have been striding around the countryside in Roman legionnaire costumes during their free time since 1972, when the country’s first Roman reenactment society formed. The group, called the Ermine Street Guard, takes its name from a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman road in the country.

Bits of Roman legionnaires’ uniforms found near a hill called Kalkriese in northwestern Germany suggest a different picture of these troops than is commonly accepted, though. It seems the imperial army wasn’t nearly as smartly dressed as reenactors and Hollywood historical dramas would have us believe. Researchers believe the mighty Roman army looked more like a ragtag bunch of boys who’d just barely managed to agree on the same color shirts and shorts for a game of pick-up soccer.

The idea of soldiers draped in red cloaks, meanwhile, is absolute nonsense. Lustrous crimson robes worn by centurions are an invention of the 20th century. In reality, the military probably favored grays and earth tones.

“Red was a feminine color reserved for women,” Schieck explains. Wealthy ladies owned exorbitantly expensive dresses and coats dyed with secretions from murex sea snails found in Tyre, now in Lebanon. This dye, Tellenbach explains, withstood any amount of washing. Still, women wearing it were quick to seek shelter when it rained, though for a different reason — when wet, the purple-red wool stank horribly of fish.

Cheap Knockoffs

But not everything red was made from the Tyrian snail. Because such luxury items were prohibitively expensive for the average citizen, counterfeiters brewed up cheaper versions of the dye in secret.

The poet Ovid expressly endorsed the discount advantages of such replacement dyes in “Ars amatoria,” his instructional volume on love. “Don’t ask for brocade, or wools dyed purple with Tyrian murex,” the poet wrote. “With so many cheaper colours having appeared, it’s crazy to bear your fortune on your back!”

Yet many luxury addicts set out to do precisely that. Newly wealthy merchants strolled the streets draped in necklaces, covered in perfume and wrapped in the finest Chinese silk. This penchant for fine fabrics even caused an imbalance in Rome’s budget, with considerable sums flowing east for imported clothing. Emperor Diocletian established maximum prices for foreign textiles in an attempt to keep the empire from going bankrupt.

 Manufacturers responded to the crisis with innovation. The researchers in Mannheim have discovered indications of production techniques long since forgotten. For example, Romans evidently wove garments from nettles that matched the quality of exotic products from China.

Still, turbans and other foreign garb made their appearance on the streets of the multicultural city. Even barbarians in trousers were tolerated. In fact, it would have been difficult to find clothing that would provoke a negative reaction on the streets of Rome. Only unmanly men were unacceptable.

Ovid, the beauty expert of the antique world, warned against metrosexual proclivities: “Don’t delight in curling your hair with tongs, don’t smooth your legs with sharp pumice stone,” advised the poet, whose 2,000-year-old writings document an eternal truth: “Leave that to (eunuchs). Male beauty’s better for neglect.”

Legio IX Hispana – The Lost Legion

From BBC News:

One of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain concerns the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.

The theory that 5,000 of Rome’s finest soldiers were lost in the swirling mists of Caledonia, as they marched north to put down a rebellion, forms the basis of a new film, The Eagle, but how much of it is true?

It is easy to understand the appeal of stories surrounding the loss of the Roman Ninth Legion – a disadvantaged band of British warriors inflicting a humiliating defeat upon a well-trained, heavily-armoured professional army.

It’s the ultimate triumph of the underdog – an unlikely tale of victory against the odds. Recently, however, the story has seeped further into the national consciousness of both England and Scotland.

For the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown “Davids” successfully taking on a relentless European “Goliath”. For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency – freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists.

The legend of the Ninth gained form thanks to acclaimed novelist Rosemary Sutcliff, whose masterpiece, The Eagle of the Ninth, became an instant bestseller when published in 1954.

Since then, generations of children and adults have been entranced by the story of a young Roman officer, Marcus Aquila, travelling north of Hadrian’s Wall in order to uncover the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion’s battle standard, the bronze eagle.

The historians have dissented, theorising that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, arguing both book and film are wrong. Their theory has been far more mundane – the legion was, in fact, a victim of strategic transfer, swapping the cold expanse of northern England, for arid wastes in the Middle East. Here, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.

But, contrary to this view, there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It’s just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty. Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain.

But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes. They do not prove that the Ninth left Britain for good.

In fact, the last certain piece of evidence relating to the existence of the Legion from anywhere in the Roman Empire comes from York where an inscription, dating to AD 108, credits the Ninth with rebuilding the fortress in stone. Some time between then and the mid-2nd Century, when a record of all Legions was compiled, the unit had ceased to exist.

But what happened to the Ninth?

Theories on the Ninth

  • Ambushed in Caledonia while fighting revolt
  • Destroyed in the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt
  • Wiped out in battle against the Parthians

The early years of the 2nd Century were deeply traumatic for Britannia. The Roman writer Fronto observed that, in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117 – 138), large numbers of Roman soldiers were killed by the British.

The number and full extent of these losses remain unknown, but they were evidently significant. The anonymously authored Augustan History, compiled in the 3rd Century, provides further detail, noting that when Hadrian became emperor, “the Britons could not be kept under Roman control”.

The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.

The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.

It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.

It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.

The loss of such an elite military unit had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day. When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain at the head of a major troop surge, he realised that there was only one way to ensure stability in the island – he needed to build a wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep invaders out of Roman territory as well as ensuring that potential insurgents within the province had no hope of receiving support from their allies to the north. From this point, cultures on either side of the great divide developed at different rates and in very different ways.

The ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain. The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions.

From BBC News.

Colosseum to open gladiator tunnels to public

From Telegraph:

The dark stone tunnels in which gladiators prepared to do battle in the Colosseum are being opened to the public for the first time.

But archeologists are concerned about the impact that millions of tourists will have on the subterranean maze of tunnels and galleries as they seek to experience their very own Gladiator moment, re-enacting scenes from the Ridley Scott blockbuster starring Russell Crowe.

From next week, visitors will be able to venture into the bowels of the amphitheatre, the largest ever built by the Romans, exploring the cells and passageways in which wild animals such as lions, tigers, bears and hyenas were corralled.

They were forced into cages and raised with a system of winches and pulleys to just beneath the floor of the sand-covered arena, emerging from rope-operated trap doors to do battle with other animals or with gladiators.

The largest animals – elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses – were too big for the hoists and would have entered through a gate directly into the arena.

Tourists will be able to see the remains of a sophisticated sewerage system which provided the Colosseum’s enormous crowds with dozens of drinking fountains and lavatories and even enabled the arena to be flooded for mock naval battles involving hundreds of gladiators on ships.

Roman bricks still line the floors of the dungeons and tunnels and stone stairways connect the two underground levels.

An underground passageway, which still exists, linked the Colosseum with a nearby gladiator barracks, the “ludus magnus”, the remains of which are also still visible.

Gladiators – who were mostly common criminals, slaves and prisoners of war – would emerge into the arena to the applause of 50,000 spectators.

Those that were killed in combat were carried out of the amphitheatre through the Porta Libitina – the Gate of Death.

“You can imagine being a gladiator and listening to the roar of those 50,000 people coming through the floorboards – that is what is magnificent about being down here,” said Darius Arya, the director of archaeology of the American Institute for Roman Culture.

“The animals would have been prepared for slaughter, or slaughtering: there were bears, boars, lions, tigers, even crocodiles. People would have been working on hoisting 20ft tall stage sets into the arena – there was more backstage pressure than for a Broadway show. The smell and the heat would have been incredible, especially in summer, and it would all have been done by candlelight.”

Opening up the underground area is intended to relieve crowding at one of Italy’s most popular ancient monuments – an average of 20,000 people converge on the Colosseum each day. Until now, only about 35 per cent of the vast stone-built stadium has been accessible.

The newly opened areas will be open to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time.

“It is the first time people will have the chance to go down into the places where games and shows were organised,” said Rossella Rea, the director of the Colosseum.

However, Dr Arya said: “It’s great that these new areas are open but I’m concerned because there’s going to be a lot more traffic and a lot more wear and tear.

“They need to make sure that it is not trampled on. The conservator in me asks what guarantees are there that the place will still be in good shape in five or 10 years’ time.”

Visitors will also be able to access, for the first time in about 40 years, the third highest of four tiers of seating, which in Roman times was reserved for poor citizens, freed slaves and foreigners.

The Colosseum was started by the emperor Vespasian in AD70 and completed 10 years later by his son, Titus, who held a 100 day inauguration festival in which 9,000 animals were killed.

From Telegraph.

Latest Recovery of Looted Art at the Colosseum

A police officer looks at some of the hundreds of ancient artifacts recovered during an operation against looted art, at the Colosseum in Rome (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

From ArtDaily:

Italian police have recovered hundreds of ancient artifacts in their latest effort to crack down on the looting of art, and have looted art, and they chose a unique setting to display them Friday: the Colosseum.

The 337 pieces displayed in the ancient Roman arena include vases, bronze tools and marble statues of Venus, some dating as far back as the 8th century B.C.

Police said the pieces are worth some euro15 million (about $20 million) overall. They said the pieces were returned from Switzerland in June after a two-year investigation.

Italy has aggressively pursued the return of art it says was illegally looted from its soil and sold to museums or private collections worldwide.

This probe grew out of an investigation into an Italian art dealer later convicted of art trafficking.

The objects were seized in Geneva, part of a massive haul of some 20,000 artworks from all around the world, the art squad of the Carabinieri police said.

The pieces returned to Italy also include “kraters” — huge vases used to mix wine and water — statuettes and drinking cups. Police say the objects were looted mostly from southern Italian regions and, after their spectacular display Friday at the Colosseum, they will return there.

As part of its campaign, Italy has secured the return of dozens of Roman, Greek and Etruscan artifacts in deals with museums including the Met and California’s J. Paul Getty Museum. In exchange, Italian art officials have agreed to give the museums long-term loans of equally significant treasures.

From ArtDaily

The parlous state of the Colosseum

From Telegraph:

Interior of the Colosseum, Rome. Thomas Cole, 1832

The three chunks of mortar plummeted to the ground around dawn on Sunday, a few hours before thousands of tourists tramped through the gladiatorial arena.

They crashed through a wire protection net which was supposed to have prevented such accidents, but which is more than 30 years old.

Archeologists warned that disaster had only narrowly been averted and that visitors could have been badly injured or even killed by the debris.

The plaster, which dates from Roman times, fell from a 10 square foot section of roof in one of the stone entrance ways through which spectators used to file to watch gladiators take on wild animals, prisoners-of-war and each other.

A 23 million euro restoration and cleaning project is meant to get under way in the next few weeks, but Rome city council is still trying to raise funds from the private sector in Italy and abroad to finance the work.

Authorities said the loosening of the plaster may have been caused by recent heavy rain, humidity and temperature changes.

Archaeologists said the near miss should act as a wake-up call for the parlous state of the arena, which was started by Emperor Vespasian in 72AD and subsequently suffered damage from earthquakes and centuries of pillaging.

“Once again we’ve come close to tragedy,” said Giorgia Leoni, the president of the Association of Italian Archeologists.

“If the collapse had happened during opening hours, it could have hit one of the thousands of visitors who, especially on Sundays, crowd into the Colosseum.” Attempts in the past to strengthen the Colosseum had been woefully inadequate, said Andrea Carandini, the president of the Council for Culture and Heritage.

“Decades and decades were lost,” he said. “The problems of the Colosseum and of other ancient monuments in Rome were never taken by the horns. Sooner or later something was going to happen.” The Colosseum, which attracts 3.2 million visitors a year, is not the only ancient monument in Rome that is crumbling.

In March this year, the roof of the Domus Aurea, a magnificent palace built by Emperor Nero but covered up by succeeding emperors, caved in, damaging the interior.

In 2001, a section of the Aurelian Wall, the stone ramparts which were built to defend Rome from barbarian invasion in the 3rd century AD, collapsed as a result of heavy rain and subsidence.

From Telegraph