Roman “Love”: Getting The Girl No Matter What

A meme not created by me. Unfortunately, I can't find the site again to give credit where credit is due.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Valentine’s Day.  While most of us associate the holiday with Hallmark and florists and guilt, the roots of today’s festivities, like so many of our modern holidays, stretch back to ancient times.  Here’s a short article from National Geographic that briefly explains how St. Valentine’s Day may have grown out of the Roman tradition of the Lupercalia, in which naked young men who were members of an association called the Luperci (from Latin word for “wolf”) ran around the Palatine hill in Rome striking young women with whips made from goat skin.  The event, which took place on February 15, was a purification rite and was also designed to promote fertility in the women.  The purification aspect of the rite was the oldest part, a very ancient tradition called the Februa, from which we take the name of our month.  At some point, it was combined with the Lupercalia.

What the Nat Geo article does not address is that the goat skin came from sacrifices performed earlier that day.  A dog and some goats were slaughtered in the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of the Palatine hill in which Roman tradition said that a she-wolf reared the twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Coin from the reign of Constantine (minted 322-323 AD) showing Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf. You can buy one of these on Ebay for $45.00, "used." Caveat emptor, as always.

The association of the cave with the wolf suckling the twins, a popular motif in Roman art, explains the fertility aspect of the Lupercalia.  Following the sacrifice, the bloody knife was wiped on the foreheads of two laughing youths (they were required to laugh), then cleaned with a piece of wool dipped in milk – another reference to the wolf nursing the twins.  Only then did the Luperci make their naked way around the Palatine with their whips.

The last year in which we know the Lupercalia was celebrated was 494 AD, after which the Church banned Christians from participating.  The fact that the Church had to make such a law tells us, of course, that up until then Christians were involved.  The bishop of Rome at the time, Gelasius I, transformed the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, thereby turning the fertility aspect of the rite completely on its head while retaining echoes of the older original purification rituals.

That’s the story of the Roman Lupercalia and its association with modern Valentine’s day.  But I’d also like to share with you today another aspect of ancient “romantic” life.  Many of us are familiar with the beautiful love poems of Roman authors like Ovid or the delightfully off-color (but still deeply romantic) Catullus; if you have never read any of their poetry, do yourself a favor and find some.  But many people are less aware of another type of love writing from the Greek and Roman world: romantic spells.

Many ancient magic spells, which were engraved on lead tablets, aimed to do harm to others – to spoil their crops or cause them bodily harm, for instance. But some spells enlisted the aid of outside powers to ensnare or otherwise control an object of desire.  For example, one ancient spell issues commands to Myrrh.  Myrrh was a spice strongly associated with lovemaking in the ancient world, and it was often burned to “set the mood” for an amorous encounter.  It is addressed as a magical force here.  The spell reads (in Greek): “Myrrh, as you burn, so also will you burn her…arouse yourself, Myrrh, and go…” (PGM 36 333-60).  Whoever wrote the spell told Myrrh to “arouse” itself.  He (or she) likely intended a double meaning.  The command is that Myrrh should get a move on and get the job done, but the phrase is also probably a reference to the known quality of myrrh as a sexually arousing scent.  This lovesick individual orders Myrrh to physically enter the body of their beloved, to take them over completely, to infect their very bones.  I leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not such a controlling, consuming passion is romantic.



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Building a 14th-century courtyard in 21st-century New York City

Silk, gold and velvet Floral Tent Panel from the Reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58). Created about 1635 in India. Metropolitan Museum of Art accession number 1981.321. On display in Gallery 464.

As readers who are interested in the international art scene or are supporters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York know, last November marked an important milestone in the museum’s history: the Department of Islamic Art reopened its 15 galleries to the public after a major $50 million overhaul.  The purpose of the project was to rethink the way the objects are displayed – the context in which they are presented, the curatorial order that is applied to them, and the message the museum wants to send about the history of Islamic art and its relationship to Western art.  It had been many years since such extensive work was undertaken at the museum, and the project was widely debated by scholars and patrons, and was closely watched by the governments of Islamic countries.  The curators knew that when the galleries re-opened their doors on November 1, 2011, visitors would be flocking to the rooms not only to admire 1500 years of breathtaking art, but also to examine and critique how a Western cultural institution had chosen to interpret and display the material culture of  the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.  Though not as obvious as the words of politicians or the actions of military leaders, the handling of these reworked galleries would be perceived by some as a pronouncement on the relationship between Islamic culture and the West.

Something that has been less discussed is the actual physical restructuring of the gallery space.  As part of the re-design, the curators chose to construct a historically accurate replica of a Maghrebi-Andalusian-style medieval courtyard.  In order to do so, they hired a crew of Moroccan artisans whose families have been creating traditional architecture for generations.  Nine months ago, the New York Times ran an excellent piece on the project.  Yes, I realize that I am far behind in sharing this but I am, after all, an archaeologist – it’s my job to “dig up” history, in this case fairly recent history!  This article is really worth a read, not only because it gives fascinating detail on the centuries-old techniques for creating the glowing, almost overwhelmingly intricate decoration that characterizes much medieval Islamic architecture, but also because it shines a light on the cultural understanding (as well as occasional misunderstanding) that was necessary to produce the finished galleries.  The work of the Moroccan artisans and their relationships with the curators also raised political and gender issues, both of which played a role in the dealings between the skilled craftsmen of Arabesque (the Moroccan company that produced the work) and the curatorial staff of the Met.

I’d be very pleased to read comments from any readers who have had the opportunity to visit the new galleries: what were your first impressions?

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Tea, Travel and Trade

My tea box. Thrilling, isn't it?

This morning a package arrived from my hometown in Texas with a birthday gift from my grandmother: a tea box.  Drinking tea is something I have only taken up relatively recently.  At first I used the occasional cup of tea as a social substitute for coffee, to which I am allergic (I know, I know – the horror!).  But while living in Istanbul a few years ago, daily cups of tea became a ritual – a pick-me-up in the morning with a warm simit (a bagel-like bread), the center of an afternoon break for a blisteringly hot, liberally sugared treat served in a delicate rose-shaped glass – I became addicted to tea not just for the caffeine but for the flavor and the aroma.  Now I seek out new teas to pick up as souvenirs during my travels.  When I sit down with a cup here in my home in Los Angeles, the smell of it can transport me back to the place where I first tasted that particular variety.  In the tea box I filled this morning, I have English and Celtic breakfast teas as well as nana (spearmint) tea from Jordan and a super-aromatic blueberry tea from the coast of Croatia.  If I want to take a quick mental trip, I  let a cup sit on my desk to steep while I read or write.

One of the truly amazing things about our modern world is how easy it is to acquire foodstuffs from foreign lands, whether we pick it up while visiting, buy it at a specialty market, or order it on the Internet. We have kobe beef from Japan, coffee from Hawaii and South America, or pistachios from the Middle East literally at our fingertips.  We often value these ingredients more highly than their domestic counterparts because it’s true that some products are simply better when they come from a certain environment.  Although it is much easier now than at any other time in the history of the world to acquire such luxury goods, the trade in food items from exotic locations is far from new.  As part of my research on the sensory experience of the ancient world, I have had the opportunity to learn very interesting facts about the history of some of the foods and spices that we now take for granted.  Just as I enjoy searching for local teas on my travels, ancient people carried their own savory souvenirs home from abroad to consume or sell, and the trade in food items and perfumes was a vital part of the ancient economy.  I thought readers might enjoy some of these interesting “tidbits” we know from archaeological and written sources about ancient trade in food and spices:

The Greeks and Romans used cilantro (coriander) in their cooking.  They certainly weren’t the first though –  archaeologists recovered samples of cilantro from the tomb of Tutankhamen, dated to about 1352 B.C.!

King Tut's tomb. Cilantro not pictured.

Ginger and pepper were also used in Rome, but they were incredibly expensive.  One Roman writer (Pliny the Elder) compared their prices to those of gold and silver. In fact, the same black pepper that we keep as an inexpensive staple of our pantries was so valuable in antiquity that Roman emperors stockpiled it in the treasury as an alternate form of currency.

In addition to using saffron in food, the Romans also occasionally mixed it with wine and sprayed it over the crowds at the theatre.  I haven’t tried this myself, but I imagine that it would have coated everyone in a slightly yellow, sticky, aromatic, and VERY expensive film.  Talk about conspicuous consumption!  Pound for pound (or, really, ounce for ounce), saffron is still the most expensive spice in the world.

Very rare spices became symbolic of their place of origin in the ancient world, which made them political tools.  Balsam of Mecca, also called Balsam of Palestine, which was used as a medicine and as a men’s grooming item, was said to grow only in two royal groves in Palestine.  As the Roman army approached the Jewish capital in the first century A.D., the defenders attempted to destroy the groves to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.  They were unsuccessful, and the Romans transplanted some of the trees to Rome.  The political message was clear; as Pliny noted, “The balsam-tree is now a subject of Rome, and pays tribute together with the race to which it belongs.”  Sadly, the transplanted trees did not survive in their new environment.

The demand for some spices in the ancient world was so great that it may have caused their extinction.  Silphium, a spice used as a digestif and to ease the pain of toothaches, seems to have disappeared in the first century A.D.  Roman writers say that the last stalk found growing in the wild was given to the emperor Nero as a gift, and we know of the plant only through images of it struck on ancient coins minted in the area where it grew.  Recently, however, the Italian archaeologist Antonio Manunta compared the plant Cachrys ferulacea that grows only in eastern Libya to the ancient coin images and suggested that it may, in fact, be silphium.  Unfortunately, Libya is not the easiest place to conduct further research at the present time.

Silphium on a coin from Cyrene (modern Libya), late 6th or early 5th century B.C.

Ambergris was another rare and popular trade item.  What is it?  It’s a dried form of something that is secreted or regurgitated by sperm whales.  That’s right, it’s either whale vomit or whale feces that floats around in the ocean until it washes up on shore where it can be collected.  The Romans used it in perfumes.  Think it sounds like something you absolutely would not want to put on your body?  Better read your labels closely then, because it’s still a major component of many fine perfumes, such as Miss Dior.

Nero, the big spender

The Romans spent massive amounts of money on frankincense, which did and still does come from the Arabian peninsula, much of it from the area now occupied by the nation of Oman.  Pliny reports that when  Nero’s wife Poppaea died in 65 A.D. (possibly kicked to death by Nero himself), the emeperor sprinkled and burned  more than a full year’s worth of the spice production of Arabia (which surely included frankincense) over the course of one day of the public rites of mourning!  An exaggeration perhaps, but it does give us an idea of how lavishly the Romans spent on exotic spices and perfumes.


These are only a few examples of the ways some ancient cultures employed spices and perfumes in their daily lives, and as trade items.  There are many questions that historians and archaeologists have been unable to answer – we know, for example, that many ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Hebrews and Romans used cinnamon, but we don’t know where in the ancient world cinnamon came from.  In the fifth century B.C., the Greek writer Herodotus wrote that giant birds used cinnamon sticks from some unknown source to build their nests, but Pliny later claimed that that story was a bunch of hooey cooked up by cinnamon traders to inflate prices.  Modern cinnamon is native to Southeast Asia and it is likely that that was the source in antiquity as well, but the closely-guarded secret of its origins remained a mystery for millennia to all but those who cultivated and sold it.
Speaking of cinnamon, a nice cup of cinnamon tea sounds good right about now.  Luckily, I can pick up a packet at my local grocery store, no giant bird-corralling necessary!

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Two Labyrinths, Two Mysteries: The Palace at Knossos and the Winchester House

This past weekend, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams when I visited the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.  Some children dream of a trip to Disneyland,  but as a youngster I yearned to wander the halls of the sprawling, 160-room Victorian mansion constructed non-stop over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of “The Gun That Won the West.”

Standing in front of the Winchester Mystery House. My glasses are straight - it's the house that's crooked! (right?)

Convinced that if she ever stopped expanding and altering the structure for even one day her life would be forfeit to the angry spirits of the restless multitude slain by bullets from the barrel of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, Sarah hired a dozen workmen to labor around the clock, at astronomical cost, building and rebuilding according to designs delivered directly to her by the spirits during nightly seances.  The fruit of those bizarre labors is a gorgeous but stunningly confusing structure with third-floor doors straight to the outside, closets that open into elevator shafts, and narrow stairs that climb multiple flights only to reach the beams of the ceiling.  During my hour-long tour that covered more than a mile, all of it inside the walls of the mansion, I was reminded of another, more famous, labyrinth that I visited a few months ago: the Minoan palace at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, long claimed to have been the royal residence of the mythical (though perhaps also historical) king Minos, as well as the prison for his wife’s freakish half-man, half-bull offspring, the flesh-eating minotaur.

Looking down on part of the "labyrinth" at Knossos

At both of those historical sites, it is difficult to fully appreciate the labyrinthine nature of the construction.  Only a fraction of the palace at Knossos is open to the public.  What is visible was reconstructed with a famously heavy hand by the British archaeo-adventurer Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, permanently obscuring or even destroying some original details.  The Winchester Mansion has been damaged in several earthquakes and as a result of both this and of its massive size, its caretakers have also opened only some sections to curious guests.

Clearly the Minoan labyrinth and the Winchester Mansion are different types of things.  The complex at Knossos is of greater historical importance because it is the richest existing source of our knowledge about an extinct civilization.  Still, the modern house is impressive, especially noteworthy for having been built entirely based on the designs of one woman, and by a team of only 12 workmen (one wonders why Sarah did not hire 13 laborers, obsessed as she was with the spiritualistic importance of that number, which she incorporated in every possible way in the design details of the house; perhaps she considered herself the 13th workman – the spiritual foreman?).  The point of this post is not to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two very different sites, but rather to ruminate on the nature of historical mysteries.

The so-called Throne Room at Knossos

There are many things we will probably never know about the palace at Knossos and about its builders and inhabitants, though it seems certain that it was a hub of an advanced culture; it’s possible that it was a mercantile and administrative center rather than a royal residence, as was originally thought.  But despite the best efforts of archaeologists and other researchers,  we have unfortunately lost much of the cultural information created by the inhabitants in the form of written texts and records, works of art, and other tangible and intangible remains of their daily lives.  The advance of Greek peoples into the area millennia ago gradually erased knowledge of the Minoan written language, so even some of what does remain has to this point proven inscrutable.

The Winchester house, in clear contrast, was constructed within living memory of my grandparents’ generation, and we have a wealth of information on its history and development.  Despite this, many questions remain about the details of the structure, the answers to which Sarah Winchester took to her grave.  Walking through the house I couldn’t help but think what an archaeologist investigating the site hundreds or thousands of years in the future might make of the astonishing, illogical structure.  This question reminded me of David Macaulay’s 1979 book “Motel of the Mysteries“, which I loved as a child and would probably appreciate even more as an adult (note to self: a trip to the bookstore is in order).  That satirical book reports the results of the discovery in the year 4022 of the long-dead civilization of the country of Usa.  In a classic moment that I think I am recalling correctly, the intrepid archaeologist Howard Carson enters a 20th century “throne room” complete with porcelain “throne” and interprets the toilet seat, long since detached from the base, as a ceremonial necklace.

Macaulay’s book issues an amusing challenge to all of us to consider the conclusions to which we sometimes leap in the excitement of discovery and out of a desire to make things make sense when dealing with partial information, in this case in an instance in which basic cultural knowledge has been lost.  What my visits to both the Minoan palace and the Winchester mansion have compelled me to contemplate are the incredible changes in social memory that have taken place over the last 3000 years, a shocking amount of it in the last two decades.  Consider the fact that very little about our modern and contemporary culture will remain mysterious for future generations, barring some type of awesome cataclysm in which every form of record-keeping, physical and digital – yes, even the ever-present “cloud” whose name always evokes a stir of science fiction-fueled paranoia in me – were  eradicated.  Most terrifying to contemplate, a complete loss of cultural information would also require that all personal experience be wiped away before individuals had the chance to pour it once more into the great pool of collective knowledge.

Modern visitors tour the partially-restored Minoan "palace."

I assume that the Minoans never imagined a future in which their culture and its “secrets” would be largely lost, but perhaps it is more than mere hubris to suggest that for such a thing to happen now would be, barring the complete annihilation of the human race, effectively impossible.  This is true in a much broader sense than it ever has been.  We lovers of the past have often lamented the loss of the details of silent lives, the millions of “unimportant” individuals who have always made up the greater part of societies, but who have often lacked their own voices, their data (to use the modern term) going largely un-stored.  But now, even those aspects of society are carefully archived and shared in almost obsessive detail.  Yes, we Tweeters and Bloggers fall, by and large, into the category of the “unimportant” masses of our own generations (though we hate to admit it), but now we have a voice that was long denied to those in our position in earlier historical periods.  Of course there are still many individuals who live and die silently in our world, but it’s worth considering the incredible increase in the volume of the voice of the common man in the last decades – the social amplifier of anyone with access to a computer has been turned up to eleven.

All of this leads me to a few questions that I will be considering for awhile, and I welcome your thoughts on them in this forum: How, in modern times, is knowledge stored, and how might it be accessed by researchers in the future?  Perhaps more interestingly, how does it degrade and how is it destroyed –  is its destruction, in fact, even possible?

It has been popular for some time for archaeologists and historians to muse about how their future counterparts will view the times in which they themselves live, but now the greater question might be: Will we give them any choice in the matter?

A silent statue welcomes visitors to the Winchester Mansion. Don't blink!


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5 lectures, 8 countries, 14 days

So clearly I was not able to update my blog during my most recent cruise lecture tour.  It is always difficult when spending time at sea, as there are many variables that determine internet access on a ship.  I am pleased to report that I had a fantastic time as the Smithsonian Speaker on the Celebrity Constellation.  Although it is great to be back home, I will miss the ship and the wonderful new friends I made while onboard.  I hope that some of them may stop by here and share a comment or two.

Please stay tuned for trip-related posts in the near future, as soon as I recover and get settled.

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Headed out on another Mediterranean adventure

Just a brief entry as I am preparing to leave for the airport: heading to Amsterdam to catch a ship. I’ll be traveling as a Smithsonian Speaker on Celebrity’s ship Constellation, giving talks on archaeology and art history of the ancient and medieval world. Ports of call include cities in Belgium, France, Spain, Gibraltar, Sicily, Greece and finally Istanbul. I hope to blog about my adventures once again, so stay tuned!

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A Painted City Under Rome

NOTE: WordPress seems to be having difficulty handling images taken on my older camera.  Please click on the placeholder icons that appear in this post to see the full-size images.  I am inserting their captions in bold in the body of the text.

Also, because of the fragility of the ancient painting, my photographs of the fresco were taken in low-light conditions.   I have adjusted the last two  images in Photoshop in order to make the details more readable.

Excedra of the Baths of Trajan

My friend and colleague Angeline Chiu of the University of Vermont sent me a link today to a nice piece of reporting on the restoration efforts on a mosaic discovered in the tunnels beneath the Baths of Trajan, near the Colosseum in Rome.

(To see that piece, go here:

View to the Colosseum from the Baths of Trajan

This reminded me that in the summer of 2005, I also had the opportunity to visit the baths and the tunnel beneath them, with a group from the American Academy in Rome.  The main purpose of our visit was not to see the mosaics, which I believe had not yet been uncovered, but to visit an incredible fresco, known to archaeologists only as Città Dipinta, the Painted City.

Tunnel beneath the Baths of Trajan, 2005.  Photo by author.

This magnificent fresco was first discovered in 1997, and study and restoration work have continued for some years.The fresco actually predates both the mosaics discussed in the video above and the Baths of Trajan themselves.

Professor Nic Terrenato (University of Michigan) by the "Painted City" fresco. Photo by author.

Based on archaeological evidence, it was probably painted during the reign of the emperor Vespasian, between 69 and 79 A.D.  At that time, the area was a bustling sector of the city; only during later construction was it buried and used as part of the supporting substructure for Trajan’s massive baths.  The fresco was painted high on an exterior wall of a house, facing the street, where it undoubtedly would have impressed the crowds passing by.

Detail of the "Painted City." Photo by author

The fresco is large – 10 meters square (about 108 square feet).  It depicts a birds-eye view of a city, in which many structures can be seen clearly: temples, porticoes, theaters, houses and even statues are visible.  The city also has a port with docks and a series of canals.  There has been much debate about the identification of the city.  Suggestions have included London, Antioch, and even Rome itself, but none of those ancient cities match precisely what is depicted in the fresco.  It is possible that the scene is of an ancient Italian port with which we are not familiar, but it is also possible that it shows an imaginary, ideal city.

Detail of the “Painted City” fresco.  Photo by author.

Whatever the subject matter, the fresco is unusual.  Classical wall painting tended to represent bucolic landscapes, not city streets.  Eugenio la Rocca, former Superintendent of Cultural Heritage for the Municipality of Rome, has called it a “unique survivor.”  Perhaps when it is completely stabilized, along with the structure of the tunnel in which it was found, it may be made accessible for tourists to enjoy.

Detail of the “Painted City” fresco.  Photo by author.

Those who would like more information on the tunnel and the fresco can consult Rocca’s 2001 article “The Newly Discovered Fresco from Trajan’s Baths, Rome” in the journal Imago Mundi, volume 53, pages 121-24.

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