10 things the Romans invented

1. Rugby – in 90 B.C. the Roman emperor Sulla invented a game where gladiators ran around the Colosseum passing a pig’s bladder to each other, in a game which very closely resembled the modern game of Rugby.

2. Cigarette lighters – the Roman leader Nero was inspired by the small flames around the temple of Juno during the Great Fire of Rome, to create small metal “fire chambers” which he used to light his cigars and cigarettes.

3. Skis – when he arrived in Britain in 43 B.C. Emperor Julius Caesar was impeded by snow along Hadrian’s Wall. One of his slaves suggested putting planks of wood on his feet to move quicker through the snow, and skiing was invented.

4. Swedish cars – on a trip to Scandinavia to fight the Vikings, the Roman leader Alexander the Great invented a large sturdy cart with revolving wheels. He called it “Volvo” which is Latin for “to turn”.

5. Video cameras – the Romans had video cameras, you know. But they had to watch them in black and white. Like on Ben Hur.

6. Buses – the Latin word ‘motorbus’ means ‘everyone’ and this comes from when everyone got on a big chariot drawn by elephants, as would be taken to the amphitheatre to watch a Greek play.

7. Balloons – the Roman emperor Elagabalus frequently filled his enemies with carbon dioxide, and then floated them off into the air during feasts as an entertainment.

8. Spaghetti bolognese – the Romans were from Italy, so they must have eaten spaghetti bolognese. In fact I know they did. They ate it with forks. On Christmas Day.

9. Boomerangs – the Roman emperor Caligula used bendy sticks to kill sparrows and flies, which he fed to his horse, Incitatus.

10. Air-conditioning – the Roman general Scipio Africanus drilled holes in the wall of his tent and sent horses up into the mountains to breathe in freezing air. They then came down and blew cooling air through the holes and kept the cunning general comfortable in the hot Libyan summers.

[do let me know if I have accidentally stumbled upon anything that is actually true in any of these!]

Roman ice-cream

The following quote, which appears on a website which ranks highly on Google when you type in “Roman ice cream”, amused me for several reasons…

During the Roman Empire, Nero Claudius Caesar (A.D. 54-86) frequently sent runners into the mountains for snow, which was then flavored with fruits and juices.

At least they spelled Caesar right… But Nero died in A.D. 68, and the rest of that story is also apparently without any sort of historical veracity whatever. From some very brief research, I think I have discovered that Suetonius and Pliny the Elder mention Nero as having a liking for very cold water, used as a mixer with wine, and it is quite reasonable to suggest that the best place to get this cold water, especially during the hotter months when colder water might be more pleasant, would be the mountains.

Someone on a blog somewhere refers to someone else on an uncited blog somewhere (game of Chinese whispers anyone?) says something about Fabius Cunctator’s grandfather liking to eat snow with nuts, fruit and milk. But as with this story about Nero, which seems to be as accurate as the stories of him playing the violin while Rome burnt, this appears to be merely a wish. When someone asks about the history of ice-cream, the answer “oh the Romans probably had it, because they apparently used iced water in their drinks, so it makes sense to suggest they also mixed ice with milk and fruit” just isn’t as exciting as a proper story (or ‘lie’) with names, details and (sometimes incorrect, as above) dates.

Of course, there is a place for speculation, and even for extrapolations on speculations, creating a valid and unverifiable but reasonable environment for the imagination. That place is historical fiction (and brilliant some of it is).

It seems that some, particularly on the internet, are set on blurring the lines between fictions that have been made up on the spot to sound knowledgeable in the pub and attested details. I’m not suggesting that we should believe the likes of Suetonius just because he lived shortly after the events he’s describing. But it’s no good just making things up to sound impressive. Because it doesn’t. And that goes for quiz-makers too…

Which Roman emporer [sic] made his horse a senator?

Did he really? Well, probably not. As Mary Beard pointed out in her recent documentary on Gaius (Caligula, by the way, QuizUp, is neuter plural, not singular) it is most likely that he joked that he might as well have made his horse a senator, for all the good the current senators are doing…

Roman ice-cream? If you can find a proper reference to anything resembling it, please do let me know. Anyway, it’s quite clear that it would have melted when Nero left it on the side during the Great Fire of Rome, so that he could play his violin.

Court on a beach

When I was at school, one of the teachers who inspired me most was my Latin and later Greek teacher Nick Munday. I believe he is no longer teaching now.
At one stage he taught me Lysias, On the Murder of Eratosthenes, on which he was a bit of an expert.
I had a foggy recollection of his telling us about a Greek law that said that if a Greek man gets exiled, but later on (while he is out of Greece in exile) he is required as part of another court case – as defendant or witness – the problem of readmitting him to Athens while in exile was solved by holding the court case on a beach, and making the exiled man give his evidence from a ship moored just off shore.
It sounded rather impressive and amusing, and I have told students about it in my own teaching, but then I realised I had no idea whether it was true (or whether I misunderstood or got it muddled) and if so what evidence we had for it – was there a text of a case where it happened? And when?
Fortunately a brilliant ex-student of mine posted the answer on Facebook, from Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution chapter 57:

Trials for deliberate murder and wounding are held in the Areopagus, and for causing death by poison, and for arson; for these only are tried by the Council, whereas involuntary homicide and plotting to murder, and murder of a slave or resident alien or foreigner, come before the court at the Palladium; and one who admits homicide but declares it to have been legal (for instance when he has killed a man taken in adultery), or who in war has killed a fellow-citizen in ignorance, or in an athletic contest, is tried at the Delphinium; but if, when a man has taken refuge in exile after an offence that admits of satisfaction, he is charged with homicide or wounding, he is tried at the Precinct of Phreatus, and delivers his defence from a ship anchored near the shore.

Thank you Helena!
Andy (Keener / Mr Keen)

Have we upset Jupiter again?

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses… (Sound familiar?)

Jupiter’s anger is not satisfied with only his own aerial waters… Overflowing, the rivers rush across the open plains, sweeping away at the same time not just orchards, flocks, houses and human beings, but sacred temples and their contents.


Virgil on Twitter

(with apologies to Virgil, Book IV)

…Twitter, the swiftest of all evil things, Twitter that feeds on movement, gathering strength as she goes. Small and nervous at first, she soon sprouts up into the air, and while still treading the earth carries her head cloud-high. She was the last of the children of Earth… swift on her feets and wings, a terrifying monster. Incredible as it may sound, every feather on her body has a snooping eye beneath it, and a whispering mouth and tongue, and an ear ready to eavesdrop. At night she flies through the dark, wings whirring, midway between earth and sky, never closing her eyes in sweet sleep. By day, like a look-out, she perches on the roof of a house or high tower, intimidating great cities, for she’s as ready to spread warped lies as to blurt out the truth.