Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Thunder of the Gods - Empire VIII by Anthony Riches

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017


When we left Marcus Valerius Aquila and the Tungrian auxiliaries in Book 7, they had returned to Rome to expose the corruption of Praetorian Prefect Sextus Tigidius Perennis. While there, Marcus also ferreted out the names of the Prefect's assassins responsible for the deaths of his family members and taken brutal revenge on all of them except the despicable emperor Commodus, himself.

Although glad to be rid of the "Emperor's Knives", the emperor's chamberlain Cleander considers Marcus to be a valuable but dangerous asset who might attempt to take ultimate revenge on the emperor as well. So, as Book 8 opens, Cleander has decreed that heretofore Tribune Rutilius Scaurus is promoted to Legatus and Marcus  is appointed his equestrian-level tribune. Together with any Tungrians who wished to accompany them, they have been ordered to Syria. There, Legatus Scaurus is ordered to take command of Legio III Gallica, root out the corruption that has flourished under the current governor, and relieve a Parthian siege of the important Roman stronghold of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey).

One of my favorite historical novels, "Fire in the East", by Harry Sidebottom, takes place in Roman Syria so I was already familiar with many of the obstacles Marcus and his Legatus would face there including the lethal armored cataphracts and the deadly archers with their perfected "Parthian shot".

The action is driven by the historical events of an uprising of Parthian client kings against both Rome and their own ruler, Vologases IV. Although I could not find a particular reference to a siege of the contested stronghold of Nisibis during this time period, it could have very well occurred during attempts by Osroes II, King of Media, to overthrow his father, the King of Kings, Vologases IV, and prevent the succession of his brother Vologases V. Osroes II, as well as his ally, Narsai of Adiabene were both historical figures that appear in this installment.  The author does an outstanding job of bringing this struggle to life since the ancient sources are rather sketchy on the details of events that transpired during this period.

File:Coin of Vologases IV of Parthia.jpg
Silver coin of Vologases IV

The first major battle that occurs while the troops make their way to Nisibis, is nothing less than thrilling as Legatus Scaurus uses every tactic he has read about to thwart destruction of his forces - specially laminated shields, improved body armor, portable bolt throwers, lengthened thrusting spears and, of course, deadly caltrops. Scaurus has left nothing to chance, drilling his men for weeks before they finally set out on the march. As it turns out, the Tungrians must use every ounce of that training to drive back the Parthians and keep them at bay until they can finally reach the relative safety of the stolid Roman outpost.

But, how will Scaurus and Marcus lift the siege and return this part of the Roman frontier to a respectful stalemate? It will take another valiant defense against almost impossible odds as well as the blessings of Fortuna on a clandestine attempt by Marcus to negotiate a settlement with the King of Kings himself!

Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Was the College of Augustales at Herculaneum founded to cope with the socio-economic impact of widespread fluorosis around the Bay of Naples?

By Mary Harrsch © 2017

Modern day school children living around Mount Vesuvius are suffering the effects of drinking ground water contaminated by naturally occurring fluoride generated by chemical changes to the volcanic debris present in the water-bearing strata just as their ancient Roman ancestors did over 2,000 years ago.

"Fluorine is present in its ionic form of fluoride in soil, water, plants, foods and even air. During weathering and circulation of water in rocks and soils, fluorine can be leached out and dissolved in groundwater and thermal gases. In groundwater, the natural concentration of fluoride depends on the geological, chemical and physical characteristics of the aquifer, the porosity and acidity of the soil and rocks, the temperature and the action of other chemical elements. Potentially fluoride-rich environments are mainly linked with Precambrian basement areas and those affected by recent volcanism...Long-term intake of high doses of fluoride can have adverse effects on human health, including dental, musculoskeletal, reproductive, developmental, renal, endocrine, neurological, and genotoxic effects [such as mutations]." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

Researchers point out that skeletal fluorosis from long-term exposure is characterized by calcification of tendons and ligaments and the fusion of bone structures in joints and the vertebrae of the spine.

"In advanced stages the entire skeleton may be involved by crippling deformities which can be found in the pediatric age group too," researcher Pierpaolo Petrone observes. "Despite the increase in bone tissue mass but not in density, fluorotic bones are thus brittle, of poorer mechanical quality and easier to break." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

In a 2013 effort to reveal the long-term effects of continued exposure to the contaminated groundwater of the Vesuvius region, a team of Italian researchers conducted studies on 76 human skeletons recovered in the 1997–99 excavations of the water-front chambers at Herculaneum to determine if they, too, displayed evidence of advanced fluorosis.

"In studies of ancient skeletal populations, this condition has rarely been considered in differential diagnoses of palaeopathological lesions, mostly concerning specific single cases showing excessive ossification and joint ankylosis [fusion]."  — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area
The pitted teeth of an individual with advanced fluorosis.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

"We analyzed 76 human skeletons aged 0 to 52 years old, excavated within the water-front chambers 5, 10 and 12 of the Herculaneum suburban area. The composition by age of the entire sample shows about 62% of adults vs. 38% of sub adults (24% infants and 14% juveniles), with a sex-ratio of 1.89 (36 males vs. 19 females) assessed on individuals > 15 years old. Sex and age at death, as well as the prevalence of linear enamel hypoplastic defects (LEH) and dental caries were assessed according to standard diagnostic procedures...The chest bones, spine, pelvis and long bones of each individual were examined for the calcification of ligaments, cartilage, and tendons, as well as the presence of healed fractures. " — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

A staggering 91.8% of the individuals tested showed ossification processes in at least one of the long or flat bones (femur, tibia, clavicle, pelvis), with clavicle as the most involved bone (88.2%). At least 39.2% of the individuals sampled exhibited ankylosis (fusing) of the vertebrae of the spine, toe joints and/or manubriosternal joint.

"In the appendicular skeleton, a 47.2% overall occurrence of osteoarthritic-like alterations of the joints appears particularly severe given the mean age of about 30 years of individuals ≥ 15 years old." — P. Petrone et al., Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area

Over 96% of the individuals were affected by dental defects with severe enamel alterations occurring in 34.4% of the victims. Although in modern times the intake of small amounts of fluoride in drinking water is associated with the prevention of dental decay, high levels of fluoride produce the opposite effect as seen in the Herculaneum victims whose caries occurrence was unusually high if compared with other Roman Imperial age communities.
The skeleton of a young woman known as
"The Ring Lady" found in a boat house in
Herculaneum. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The researchers also pointed out that the presence of fractures was also particularly high in comparison with other Roman and pre-Roman communities, even with those of low social status.

Since a poor diet can also result in similar pathology the researchers noted that a previous trace-element analyses of the excavated group indicated the victims consumed a well-balanced diet consisting of red meat, crustaceans, oysters, dry fruit and legumes.

Today, we have the technology to implement water treatment to reduce the levels of fluoride in the drinking water of communities in arid or volcanic areas where high fluoride levels are an issue. But, did the Romans associate dental disease and the early onset of disability in these areas with local water supplies?

We see from the treatments described by 1st-century Roman physician and encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus in his treatise De Medicina that Roman physicians had developed quite elaborate procedures for the treatment of tooth pain and extraction of teeth when treatments failed. But, I found no references to discolored teeth or to possible causes of dental deterioration in any of the eight books of his work still extant.

That's not to say the ancients did not attempt to identify causation when presented with such obvious deterioration. Galen certainly recognized a causal relationship between a damaging condition and disease.

"...nothing happens without cause, for if this is not accepted we would be unable to seek the cause of damage to vision or its complete destruction. But since this is clear to thought, having postulated that there is some cause of damage, we proceed to look for it. With respect then to this cause, it makes no difference, at least to present considerations, whether you wish to call it some condition of the body or the body being somehow affected. In all cases then you will either say the disease itself is this [cause], or if the disease is a damage of function, the damaging condition is the actual cause of the disease." - Galen, De methodo medendi X.51K.

But no identification of the cause of dental and skeletal deterioration in residents around Vesuvius is noted in any extant ancient medical sources. If there was some intervention, though, even if it was only applied to the upper strata of Roman society, there would be an absence of the condition in some skeletal remains. In fact, inconsistent findings of fluorosis in Roman remains recovered in Herculaneum had been noted in an earlier study.

In a 1995 study of remains found in Herculaneum, researchers Gino Fornaciari, M. Rognini and M. Torino reported in the British medical journal The Lancet finding a high percentage of  calcium-deficient tooth enamel — a condition often resulting from starvation at an early age but also found in well-nourished individuals suffering from fluorosis —  in six of eight individuals tested. However, the condition was not found uniformly throughout all individuals in the sample.

Researchers concluded that some of the sampled remains may have been visitors to the area, since the Roman aristocracy maintained vacation villas around the Bay of Naples. Although the explanation given by the researchers is quite plausible, I would offer an alternative explanation. Perhaps wealthier individuals drank imported wine frequently enough to avoid the ravages of the fluoride-contaminated water. Of course, without reference to this practice as a preventative measure in specific areas like those around Mount Vesuvius in any ancient sources we will never be certain if such avoidance was simply a fortunate side effect of a wealthier lifestyle or recommended by medical practitioners familiar with the disease patterns observed in these locations.

The researchers conducting the 2013 study point out the serious socioeconomic impact of a community with an ongoing permanent fluoride hazard. So how did the Romans respond to this problem?

Archaeological evidence has revealed that Herculaneum is among the very first communities in the Roman Empire to develop an organizational fraternity of freedmen known as the Augustales. Scholars have pondered why this organization officially dedicated to the cult of the emperor arose first in three communities (including Herculaneum) around the Bay of Naples in the Augustine period. In his paper, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth, Steven E. 
Ostrow points to a number of factors including a high concentration of slaves and freedmen due to the trading activities centered around the ports of Micenum and Puteoli as well as extensive agriculture in the rich volcanic soils around Vesuvius. Ostrow also points to the special relationship between these communities and Rome because Puteoli served as the main grain reception port for the city of Rome and the wealthy of Rome built numerous sumptuous villas around the bay to escape the heat in Rome during the summer months. But what if the Augustales were at least partially motivated to consolidate their resources to deal with a serious regional health issue?

Herculaneum membership in the Augustales numbered over 450 men based on recovered inscriptions.  Of that total about 400 were identified as freedmen with the remainder listed under the heading "ingenui". The individuals constituted some of the most successful men of their community.

"We have said that the Augustales were wealthy, and the evidence is abundant. If we simply glance at the kinds of public benefactions which they offered their fellow townspeople in the region of Campania alone — and these are fairly representative of the Augustales elsewhere — we are struck by the mighty expense that must have been involved (even if monetary sums are unfortunately, rarely specified). From the towns of Misenum, Puteoli, Abella, Pompeii, Teanum Sidicinum, Cumae Salernum, and Nuceria, we hear of the donation of ubiquitous statues, distributions of food, a set of awnings for shade in an open-air theater, gladiatorial games, highway repairs (at a cost of HS 2000), a public bath building (cost of HS 60,000), a basilica and — in the specifically religious sphere — an altar and three temples (dedicated to Pomona, to the Genius of the town of Stabiae, and to Victoria Augusta)." - Steven Ostrow,  "Augustales" along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

The remains of the Temple of the Augustales in Herculaneum. Image courtesy of Peter and Michael Clements. cc-by-nc-nd

Of the benefactions listed, I was particularly struck by the distributions of food and the public bath building, both related to the support of individual health. In addition, one of the statue bases found with an inscription referring to the Augustales held a statue of Asclepius, the god representing the healing aspects of the medical arts. In fact, even the sheer volume of statue dedications and constructions of temples may relate to attempts at addressing a health crisis through appeasing the gods, often considered a way to relieve disease in the ancient world.

So why did representation of the emperor's cult become the ordained purpose of the Augustales?

As Ostrow points out in his paper, Compania had a regional history of civil unrest.

"During the Republic, in the very years that two great slave rebellions swept across Sicily, Campania witnessed severe, if less serious, revolts of its own: at Minturnae and Sinuessa in 135 [BCE], and again in 104 [BCE] at Nuceria and Capua. And the greatest of all ancient slave wars, that led by Spartacus beginning in 73 [BCE], broke out right in the heart of Campania, at Capua. It lasted for two years, during which the slave army rose perhaps to some 100,000 persons and managed to defeat at least five Roman armies. It ended, of course, with the crushing defeat of the rebels, and their annihilation. Although nothing like this and the Sicilian rebellions ever touched Italian soil again, the memory of them in Campania must have remained vividly alive for a long time to come."
Ostrow observes that Augustus' establishment of the imperial fleet at Misenum posed a potential threat of social and even military discord. In fact in 69 CE, the "Year of the Four Emperors," the Misenum fleet actually did rebel.

Between 41 and 52 CE a political crisis is thought to have occurred at Pompeii and an incident of mob violence occurred at Puteoli in 58 CE, according to Tacitus. The next year Nero assassinated his mother after the failure of the collapsible boat debacle in the bay and later that same year rioting broke out during gladiatorial games at the amphitheater in Pompeii.

Fear of potential imperial misunderstanding was well-founded. Suspicion about the intent of group gatherings is clearly reflected in a letter from Trajan to Pliny when Pliny, serving as a provincial governor in Bithynia and Pontus in the early second century CE, asked imperial permission to form a fire fighting unit in Nicomedia.

"... we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province, particularly in towns. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club." - Trajan, Letter to Pliny the Younger, Ep.

What better way to deflect Imperial suspicion of gatherings of wealthy powerful men in the area, then, than to petition the emperor for status as his official designated priesthood?

"...in view of the critical importance of Campania to Rome, any role played by the very institution of the Augustales in easing social friction would have been highly prized — both by Rome, and by the governing classes in the towns," — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

Such a designation would also enhance the social standing of the wealthy freedmen involved as well.

"The freed Roman slave, though a citizen, was permanently disbarred (at least from the early Empire, if not before) from any active role in the 'official' political life of his town: he could neither hold a magistrate's post nor sit on the town council. For the average freed slave of modest means, this political disability must have mattered very little; his very freedom — limited as it was by all the ties of the patron-client relationship — may have satisfied whatever 'political' ambitions he felt, if any. But for the wealthy freedman — and some clearly became very wealthy indeed — this state of affairs must have presented a dilemma that could take on a major psychological and even sociological dimension. For such a freedman, the consciousness that his wealth — and perhaps his energy, wits, and ambitions — were equal to those of his fellow townsmen of free birth, but that his political path was blocked for all his lifetime, must often have been a painful experience indeed." — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

The Augustales' success in achieving this goal of social advancement is documented in hundreds of inscriptions testifying to the high status and remarkable prestige enjoyed by them.

"In the event of public celebration, when monetary gifts were customarily awarded to all the citizenry, the Augustales always received more than the plebs, even as the local Decurions gained the richest gift of all. Augustales were frequently granted the honors of a public statue, or of a public funeral, or of the so-called 'trappings' of a town councilor (Ornamenta decurionalia), even if they could not enjoy membership in the council itself." — Steven E. Ostrow, Augustales along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth

Although the college of Augustales could have been implemented from "the top down" through a program envisioned by the Emperor, I think it could have just as easily been a "grass roots" movement with the socioeconomic problems created by widespread fluorosis in the slave and freed populations around Vesuvius serving as the catalyst.

References:

Petrone, P., Guarino, F. M., Giustino, S., & Gombos, F. (2013). Ancient and recent evidence of endemic fluorosis in the Naples area. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, 131, 14-27. doi:10.1016/j.gexplo.2012.11.012

Torino, M., Rognini, M., & Fornaciari, G. (1995). Dental fluorosis in ancient Herculaneum. The Lancet, 345(8960), 1306. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(95)90952-4


Ostrow, S. (1985). "Augustales" along the Bay of Naples: A Case for Their Early Growth. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 34(1), 64-101. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4435911

Galen, De methodo medendi X.51K.

Celsus, De Medicina, VI.9

Pliny the Younger, Ep.




Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cannibalism in Roman Egypt

Historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Unas at Saqqara
Image courtesy of Wiimedia Commons.
King Unis is one who eats men and lives on gods,
Lord of messengers, who dispatches his messages;
It is ‘Grasper-of-Forelocks’ living in Kehew
Who binds them for King Unis. It is the serpent ‘Splendid-Head’
Who watches them for him and repels them for him.
It is ‘He-who-is-upon-the-Willows’
Who lassoes them for him.
It is ‘Punisher-of-all-Evil-doers’
Who stabs them for King Unis.
He takes out for him their entrails,
He is a messenger whom he (King Unis) sends to punish.

Shesmu cuts them up for King Unis
And cooks for him a portion of them
In his evening kettles (or ‘as his evening kettles = meal’).
King Unis is he who eats their charms,
And devours their glorious ones (souls).
Their great ones are for his morning portion,
Their middle(-sized) ones are for his evening portion,
Their little ones are for his night portion.
Their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning.
It is the ‘Great-Ones-North-of-the-Sky’
Who set for him the fire to the kettles containing them,
With the legs of their oldest ones (as fuel).
The ‘Dwellers-in-the-Sky’ revolve for King Unis (in his service).
The kettles are replenished for him with the legs of their women.
He has encircled all the Two Skies (corresponding to the Two Lands),
He has revolved about the two regions.
King Unis is the ‘Great Mighty-One’
Who overpowers the ‘Mighty Ones’


So, who is this bloodthirsty King Unas (Spelled Unis in the above translation)? As it turns out, he was the last of the fifth dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs. The above passage is part of the Cannibal Hymn included in the first copy of the Pyramid Texts ever found in his tomb in Saqqara.

I had never associated cannibalism with ancient Egypt before until I read about the sacrifice and consumption of a 2nd century CE Roman legionary serving in Egypt during the Boukoloi uprising of 171-172 CE. Our ancient source for this rather gruesome event is Cassius Dio.

"The people called the Bucoli [also spelled Boukoloi] began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. At first, arrayed in women's garments, they had deceived the Roman centurion, causing him to believe that they were women of the Bucoli and were going to give him gold as ransom for their  husbands, and was then struck down when he approached them. They also sacrificed his companion, and after swearing an oath over his entrails, they devoured them." - Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXII.4

2nd century CE Roman Centurion in Egypt
Image courtesy of weaponsandwarfare.com
I first read about this act of cannibalism in Adrian Goldsworthy's excellent book Pax Romana. I was quite literally astounded by his description of it and immediately began to wonder about the history of human sacrifice in ancient Egypt. The Cannibalism Hymn, quoted above, was among the first references to human sacrifice I encountered in my research. Like the spells in the Book of the Dead, though, I realized this hymn was probably mostly symbolic.

But as I researched further, I discovered that a cult grew up around King Unas, who was venerated as a local god of the Saqqara necropolis, that extended through the centuries all the way down to as late as the Late Period (664–332 BCE). This is attested to by the discovery of numerous scarabs bearing Unas' name found in Saqqara and dated from the New Kingdom (c.1550–c.1077 BCE) until the Late Period. Since King Unas lived and ruled during the mid-24th century BCE, there must have been something unique about his worship to endure over 2000 years after his death.

In his paper Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings, Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, director of Brigham Young University's Egypt Excavation Project, points out, based on epigraphic evidence, institutionally sanctioned ritual violence in ancient Egypt centered around interference with a religious cult or rebellion.  Muhlestein considered an event to have ritual trappings if it mirrored that which was regularly experienced in Egyptian cultic activities.

"In other words, if the language used to describe an action matches the language used to describe cultic activity, or if an action took place in the same way it would in a cultic setting, we will consider that text or action to have ritual trappings...While the lack of ritually charged terminology does not mean that ritual trappings were not present and thus we must be careful in assuming that there was no ritual aspect, if terminology or actions are employed that were routinely part of a ritual, we can be sure that a ritual aspect was intended," Muhlestein explains.

Muhlstein says evidence for ritual killings is well documented in the Early Dynastic Period. Muhlestein points to an ivory label of King Aha that appears to depict a ritual slaying of a human being. Such labels were found in retainer burials associated with Early Dynastic kings including Aha and Djer.

He considers the strongest piece of evidence that ritual violence was employed in the Middle Kingdom is an inscription attributed to Senusret I.

"Senusret claims to have found the temple of Töd in a state of disrepair and desecration. The "guilty" parties were killed in a variety of ways, including flaying, beheading, and burning. The language of the inscription draws an intentional parallel with animal sacrifices. It states that these punishments were inflicted as sacrifices." Muhlestein observes.

Muhlestein says Harco Willems points to numerous inscriptions from the First Intermediate and New Kingdom Periods that make it clear interference with funerary cults could be met with ritual slaying with references to having one's neck severed like a sacrificial bird's.

But, even though sacrificed animals were usually consumed by temple priests, did this apply to human sacrifices as well? Amenhotep III decreed burning for any who interfered with the funerary cult of one of his favorite courtiers. Muhlestein thinks this refers to just burning the corpse thereby totally destroying a person eliminating the possibility of an afterlife but admits there are inscriptions that point to more than mere destruction of the body.

"For instance, First Intermediate Period (ca. 2130-2010 BCE) Assiut Tombs III and IV have inscriptions that say a desecrator will be burned, or cooked..."

He goes on to describe two ritual killings described in the Petition of Petiese (a petition for redress from the early fifth century BCE).

"Petiese felt that while others had been involved, the death of these two would suffice for the sake of justice, and that others did not need to be burned in a brazier. Burning in a brazier carries strong ritual connotations,and in this case it was clear that the crime which demanded such action was murder," Muhlestein observes.

He also mentions a literary tale from the 4th century BCE in which a murderer is burned on a brazier at the door of the palace.

"While the tale is fictive, it surely drew from situations with which its intended audience would be familiar, strongly suggesting that it was known that murderers were burned in a manner similar to other sacrifices, but perhaps at the palace rather than at the temple. These two sources make it clear that at least during later time periods, murder was punishable by burning, likely with ritual trappings."

Ritualized sacrifices related to rebellion are also epigraphically documented.

"Amenhotep II reportedly slew seven princes at his coronation festival. Ramesses III records slaying captured Libyans using language that mirrored the descriptions of sacrificial birds...it seems extremely likely that there were a number of ritual slayings of rebellious enemies by the kings of Egypt," Muhlestein states.

I noticed in his discussion of prisoner executions by Prince Osorkon after a rebelliion in Thebes that once again braziers were lit. You don't normally incinerate entire human bodies on a brazier. Braziers were used for heat and cooking.

So, it appears human sacrifice and in some cases possibly cannibalism were indeed practiced in ancient Egypt. Dio's description of the fate of that 2nd century legionary could have definitely been based in fact.

Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa and Tomasz Polański of Jagiellonian University in their paper The Boukoloi Uprising, or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History, disagree, however.

They point to descriptions of the Boukoloi in the 3rd century Greek romances of Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa saying "The novelists’ evidence mirrors ethnical prejudice, historical resentments, the Greeks’ cultural and linguistic alienation in the Orient. Here and there it also resounds with the slogans and images coined for the needs of war propaganda."

Achilles Tatius describes a horrific scene of human sacrifice while the Boukoloi priest sings a ritual hymn in Egyptian. In it the Boukoloi want to kill the innocent and beautiful Leukippe, rip her stomach open, roast and eat her entrails, with every detail of the macabre ritual performed under the supervision of the Egyptian priest singing hymns to their barbaric gods.

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa point to how Dio's account of the sacrifice of the legionary in the uprising of 171 CE compares to that of the novelists. With no other corroborating ancient sources, they then examine what can be gleaned from a wider historical and cultural context.

"...we are dealing with the problem of peripheral communities and cultures, tribal groups living at a remote distance from the centre of power, with their own local histories, not very well known to the outside world, and developing ‘outside the Roman establishment’...The Boukoloi belonged to all those freedom-loving peoples, nomadic tribes or highlanders, who lived on the peripheries of the Graeco-Roman world or within the borders of the Roman Empire, but were never subdued and never controlled."

"...The image of the Boukoloi is strongly blended with the Hellenic literary lore populated with the wicked aliens, monsters and ogres like Busiris, Antaios or Cyclops.  It is clear, for example, that the opening scene of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica with the Boukoloi, was modelled on Euripides’ Iphigenia Taurica. In the above-discussed context we should not forget about the standard view of Egypt and the Egyptians in the Graeco-Roman letters, which is a blend of literary convention on the one hand and of cultural and ethnic prejudice on the other."

Polański and Bałuk-Ulewiczowa do not totally dismiss the possibility that ritual violence including cannibalism could have occurred but point out that wars involving a native minority population and a prevailing military force of a powerful state often result in cruel, if not bestial, behavior with intensifying brutality.

As for my opinion, I think the events related by Cassius Dio could have happened as described. Considering the numerous examples provided by Muhlestein, we have a long history of ritual killings in Egypt, especially in the context of interference with cultic practices. The Boukoloi, living on the fringe of Greco-Roman Egypt on boats moored along the banks of the Nile in the Western Delta, were an isolated group who spoke Egyptian despite their relative proximity to Alexandria where Greek had been spoken since the Ptolemaic dynasty was founded in 305 BCE.  Likewise, there was a strong likelihood they may have practiced Egyptian religion based in more archaic traditions as well. We know the Boukoloi were at least perceived as a group that conducted human sacrifice as evidenced by the novels of  2nd century CE authors Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus of Emesa.

We also know that the Romans despised any cult practices that included human sacrifice.

"... the killing of humans offerings to the gods as a regular, required part of worship was sacrifice and it was generally unacceptable. It was foreign to Roman practice or, if we accept what the Roman themselves claimed, foreign to Roman practice in the historical period. The Romans did not tolerate human sacrifice among the peoples they conquered, forbidding the Bletonesii [a Celtic tribe living in the central part of the Iberian peninsula] from performing it and seriously curtailing (if not actually eliminating it) among the Carthaginians and among the Celts. Even so, the Romans were willing on at least three occasions to offer human victims to the gods. This type of ritual was permissable but only just barely, within the Roman religious tradition because it was enacted only as an extraordinary, or ad hoc, response to an exceptional circumstance. It was not part of regular worship, but was ordered, as Plutarch points out, by the Sibylline books." - Celia E. Schultz, The Romans and Ritual Murder

It is not much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the Romans could have observed a religious ritual of the Boukoloi and intervened. To a Boukoloi priest, like Isidorus, the appropriate response would be to ritually sacrifice the offending soldier or even use one soldier as a representative of the offending body of soldiers.

Additional resources: The Pyramid Texts Online

References:

Sirry, M. (n.d.). The Pyramid Texts - Cannibal Hymn. Retrieved August 02, 2017, from http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/ancient-egyptian-mythology/pyramid-texts-cannibal-hymn
Translation by James Henry Breasted

Kerry Muhlestein. (2015). Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings. Near Eastern Archaeology, 78(4), 244-251. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.78.4.0244

Bałuk-Ulewiczowa , T., & Polański, T. (n.d.). The Boukoloi Uprising, Or How the Greek Intellectuals Falsified Oriental History [Scholarly project]. In Academia.edu. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.academia.edu/4434569/Tomasz_Pola%C5%84ski_Bukoloi

Schultz, C. (2010). The Romans and Ritual Murder. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 78(2), 516-541. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40666530

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome by J.C. McKeown

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

Galen, one of the ancient world's most revered physicians, once said, "The only difference between doctors in Rome and highwaymen is that the doctors do their work in the city, not in the mountains."

What a cynical viewpoint from one of the best of his profession! Obviously, attitudes toward health care were as controversial in the ancient world as they are now, judging from all of the anguish expressed lately by members of the U.S. Congress. It is with these controversies in mind that J.C. McKeown, Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison collected quotes from the ancient sources to produce A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome.

McKeown groups his quotes by category, including medicine, religion and magic, the doctor in society, attitudes towards doctors (that included the quote above), anatomy, sex matters, women and children, preventative medicine, treatment and diagnosis, and cures (many dubious if not outrageous.)
Much of the "wisdom" of the ancients he includes in his text leaves you scratching your head or, in some cases, outright appalled. Individuals whose teachings have been the foundation of medical ethics for centuries have expressed sentiments towards the healing arts that I certainly did not expect.

For example, Hippocrates himself once said "I shall begin with a definition of what I consider medicine to be, it consists of freeing patients from their disease, dulling the intensity of diseases, and not taking on hopeless cases, since medicine can do nothing for them."

He goes on to explain, "Some people criticize the medical art because of doctors who refuse to take on hopeless cases. They claim that those they do take on would recover by themselves, while they do not touch those who do need help. If medicine really is an art, they assert, it should cure all alike...But, whenever someone suffers from a disease that is too strong for the resources available to medicine, there should be no expectation that such an affliction can be overcome through medicine."

Hippocrates, the so-called "father of medicine" sounds like an ancient insurance company executive!

Two icons of health in the ancient world, Asclepius god
of medicine and healing and his daughter Hygeia
personification of health depicted as household gods. Roman
100-150 CE Bronze.Photographed at The Getty Villa,
Pacific Palisades, CA 
by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Other quotes, though, elicited a smile.  Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia opines, "It is better to have sexual intercourse infrequently, though it revitalizes sluggish athletes, restores a husky voice, and cures back pain, dull vision, mental problems, and depression."

Some even cloaked a hint of truth within their admonitions. In his On Medicine, Aulus Cornelius Celsus warns, "People with weak constitutions  —most city dwellers and practically everyone who is keen on literature belong in this category — need to monitor their health more carefully than other people, so that by taking precautions they may compensate for the deficiencies in their physical well-being or in their environment or in their activities."

Apparently, Celsus believed anyone who read much must obviously be the Roman version of a couch potato!

One reviewer pointed out that McKeown's little book is best consumed in small bites and I would tend to agree. It is not written as a page turner and McKeown has not made any effort to interpret the remarks or even provide some degree of context to them. But, it certainly raised my awareness of such issues as eugenics in the classical world (see my resulting blog post, Ancient Eugenics: Much More Than Just Selective Infanticide), the ancient practice of talk therapy (I thought it was a modern construct), and that the ancients, though famous for their culinary binges, even dealt with anorexia.  In other words, it made me think! 

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review: The Emperor's Knives, Empire VII by Anthony Riches

A historical resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 7 of Anthony Riches' Empire series of novels, the hero, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, formerly Marcus Valerius Aquila, finally gets the opportunity to return to Rome and take revenge on Praetorian Prefect Tigidius Perennis and his cadre of assassins who slaughtered Marcus' family to confiscate their wealth. But, the four men, referred to as "The Emperor's Knives," present quite a challenge to Marcus and his officer comrades, who have sworn to help him. One is a serving Praetorian officer.  Another is the leader of one of Rome's most vicious street gangs. The third is a powerful senator with a taste for salacious entertainment and the last is none other than Rome's reigning gladiatorial champion.




Closeup of the left side of Myrmillo-style bronze gladiator
helmet with bas-relief depicting scenes from the Trojan War
 found in Herculaneum 1st Century CE. Photographed by
Mary Harrsch © 2015
A senator whose son served with Marcus in Dacia has hired an informant to assist Marcus and his friends. But, the duplicitous informant, a ruthless former imperial grain officer Marcus encountered in Britannia,  has several employers with different agendas.  Although he seems to be providing accurate information, Marcus is certain he will ultimately lead them to a disastrous outcome. So Marcus recruits some of the Tungrians to become street-savvy spies themselves to ensure Marcus, Tribune Scaurus and Marcus' assorted barbarian companions  won't end up at the wrong end of Emperor Commodus' sword before their mission is completed.

The emperor Commodus, dressed as Hercules, admired
gladiators and even competed in "arranged" matches himself.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Capitoline Museum in
Rome, Italy. © 2005
In the other six novels, we have seen Marcus use his formidable swordsmanship to get out of almost impossible situations. Now we have a chance to see Marcus pit his skills against some of the best gladiators in the Flavian amphitheater in his final act of revenge.

Riches' vibrant descriptions of combat that even include details of which foot is used to pivot or launch an attack result in the reader feeling totally involved in the action. His descriptions of ancient Rome's back alleys and less than savory street life are also quite evocative.  As is the case in his other books, Riches maintains suspense with a well organized and fast-paced narrative while reserving a few surprises for the revealing conclusion.

I was surprised, though, that one loose thread was not addressed. Marcus had learned in a previous novel that his younger brother had been sold into slavery. However, he apparently makes no effort to locate his brother or ascertain if he still lives. Maybe this issue will be addressed in a future book.

Once again I highly recommend this entire series!

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