Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Dirty Dozen Roman Artifacts

by Caroline Lawrence
(this is a longer and "Americanized" version of an article I wrote for the Classical Association Blog)

Whenever I visit schools to talk about my books set in Ancient Rome, I bring along some of my favorite artifacts. Most of these aren't real antique objects, but convincing replicas made by my re-enactor friends or bought in museum gift shops. But they are close enough to the original to give children a visible, tangible idea of how 1st century Rome differed from 21st century Britain or America. I let the kids look at them, sometimes handle and sniff them, even taste them. The Roman poet Martial mentions some of these artifacts in his fourteenth book of Apophoreta, poetic Saturnalia gift-tags. In these charming two-line epigrams the gifts sometimes speak in first person. e.g. the bedroom lamp which promises that no matter what it sees, tacebo: 'I won't talk.'

These artifacts help me get a little closer to the mindset of a first century Roman. Quite a few of them end up appearing as clues in my Roman Mysteries series of books. Here are a dozen of my favorites.

I. Clay oil-lamp
A clay oil-lamp like this reminds us that Romans had no electricity. Roman houses would have been dimly lit at night and smoke-streaked during the day. Fire was a constant risk. This fun oil-lamp in the shape of a sandalled foot is a replica of an oil-lamp found in Londinium. I bought this particular lamp at the Museum of London and as you can see from the scorched big toe, I've tried it out. It even has hobnails on the bottom. In my third Roman Mystery, The Pirates of Pompeii, Jonathan tells oil-lamp jokes (the ancient equivalent of light-bulb jokes) to cheer up children captured by pirates.

II. Strigil
This strigil or scraper reminds us that Roman bathing habits were very different from ours. They didn't use soap, but oil (hence the bottle) in a public ritual of oiling up, exercising, steaming, sweating and then scraping with the strigil. As you pulled the strigil across your sweaty skin, it would remove the oil, and along with it the layer of dead skin cells, dirt and sweat. You would get a bath attendant or slave to do your back. In Martial 14.51, a strigil tells us that if you regularly use him you won't have to take your towel to the cleaner's so often. Even more exciting is the claim by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History that some gladiators collected their scrapings (charmingly called gloios) and sold the disgusting mixture to rich Roman ladies.
To find out how rich Roman women used gladiator scrapings, read the sixth Roman Mystery, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

III. Wax-tablet
Wax tablets like this one remind us that Romans didn't have email or text messages, or even a cheap version of writing paper. You had to use parchment, papyrus, thin sheets of wood, or re-usable wooden tablets with wax in a shallow depression. You would use a tool called a stylus with a sharp end for writing and a flat end for rubbing out. The wax on the famous tablets from Vindolanda has long gone, but clever archaeologists can still make out traces of letters and words in the wood underneath. In my fourth Roman Mystery, The Assassins of Rome, my mute character, Lupus, figures out how to retrieve a life-or-death message which disappeared after blazing summer sunshine melted the wax on an open tablet.

IV. Bleeding cup
This large bleeding cup (they also come in small) reminds us that Romans had a different concept of medicine and health. Bronze bleeding cups were used for both ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cupping. In dry cupping, a flaming piece of lint was put in the cup and then applied to skin. The flame immediately went out and a vacuum sucked out the "bad humor". In wet cupping the doctor made an incision in your arm and drained a cupful of blood. This was the Roman equivalent of taking two aspirin. There must have been some benefit, people have been doing this since Roman times. A few years ago, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow was seen with distinctive marks of 'dry cupping' on her back. In my seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, there is a plague in Rome. Nubia and her friends see first-hand how bleeding is done by both experts and quacks. Not for the squeamish!

V. Roman spoon
A spoon like this reminds us that food was a constant preoccupation of the Romans. The strange kink in this spoon is a relic of spoons that could be folded in half for easier carrying in a belt-pouch. If invited to dinner, you took your own spoon. Some Romans took their own napkins, too. As well as dabbing your mouth, you could use it to carry home leftovers as a sort of 'doggy bag'. The sharp end on the spoon is for spearing goodies previously cut into bite-sized pieces by helpful slaves. Some spoons had little hooks on this end; they were snail-spoons. Martial's snail-spoon says, "I'm useful for eggs as well as snails, so why do they call me a 'snail-spoon'?" (Martial 14.121) There were no forks in Roman times, apart from the big ones used by gladiators, that is. I had fun with a dinner party scene from my first Roman Mystery, The Thieves of Ostia.

Alma proudly carried in the first course and set it on the table: sea snails fried in olive oil, garlic and pepper. The snails had been placed back in their shells and Alma handed each diner a special spoon with a small hook at one end to extract the snail...Flavia showed Jonathan how to extract a snail and then watched as he gingerly picked up one of the shells between finger and thumb and hooked out its contents. He paused to examine it: the snail was small and twisted and rubbery and brown. Jonathan closed his eyes, took a deep breath and put it in his mouth. (The Thieves of Ostia, p 37 )

VI. Nuggets of gum mastic
These little nuggest of mastic resin from the Greek island of Chios remind us that in many ways the Romans were just like us; this is their version of chewing gum.  I bought these in a small shop on the island of Kos, famous for its medical sanctuary. To me, mastic tastes like a combination of cumin and carrot, only sweeter. Pop one of these in your mouth and chew for a few minutes then take it out. It will have gone white, just like modern chewing gum. In fact you can still buy mastic gum today in Greece or in specialist shops. They say chewing it is good for stomach complaints. And of course it freshens your breath, like the fennel seeds in the bowl above. We know from Martial 14.22 that you could even get toothpicks made of gum mastic. In my ninth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes, Flavia meets a good-looking, rich Roman patrician on his "gap year". He makes a bad first impression by ignoring her and also by chewing gum:

Gaius Valerius Flaccus rested his forearms on the polished stern rail and chomped his gum. 'My father left me a nice legacy,' he remarked, 'and I thought I'd see the Seven Sights before I begin to practise law in Rome.' (The Colossus of Rhodes, p14)

VII. Phallic amulet
This fascinum or charm reminds us that the Romans were deeply superstitious. This little willy flanked by two big ones wasn’t rude; it was designed to avert the evil eye. You can see a few tiny phallus amulets in the Roman Life Room of the British Museum, they were specially for babies and young children, who were particularly vulnerable. You can also see bigger "wind chime" versions with wings and bells on, to protect the whole house. I bought this particular replica at a Roman site (Emp├║ries) in Spain. I had fun introducing this on the very first page of The Colossus of Rhodes:

Lupus stared in amazement at the little bronze pendant hanging from its linen cord. 
It was shaped like a part of the body. 
Part of a boy's body. 
A very private part of a boy's body. 

VIII. Glass ‘chariot beaker’
Beautiful glass beakers like this remind us that Romans had the ancient equivalent of souvenir mugs. This authentically-made mold-blown cup by Roman Glassmakers David and Mark is a replica of one from Colchester in Britannia (known as the "Colchester Cup"). Although none of this exact type have been found in Italy, versions of it must have been sold in the Circus Maximus, for it shows the spina (central barrier) of that arena in the middle band. Below the spina are four quadrigae. Right at the top, the charioteers are named: Antilochus, Hierax, Olympas and the winner Crescens, who holds his right hand up in triumph.
Naturally this beaker makes an appearance in my chariot-race-themed Roman Mystery, The Charioteer from Delphi, where Flavia and her friends meet an ancient Roman version of David the Roman Glassmaker. And of course all the charioteers named in the beaker make appearances, too.

IX. Wooden dice
Dice remind us that the Romans adored board games and games of chance, even though gambling was illegal apart from during the Saturnalia. When I visit schools, I bring cheap wooden dice in a wooden shaking cup. What I'd really like to bring is this beautiful rock crystal die from room 69 – the Roman Life Room – in the British Museum. I love this artifact so much that I made it a vital clue in my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, about dog-murder in Rome's ancient port. Martial's die claims to be better than knucklebones, which were also used for gambling (Martial 14.15) I also have an amusing scened at the beginning of The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, where the Geminus household are throwing dice to see who will be crowned 'King of the Saturnalia'. When Flavia's turn comes she uses one of Lupus's special 'shaved dice' to ensure that she wins. Cheat!

X. Brass seal box for wills
This little teardrop-shaped bronze seal box reminds us that Romans were concerned with law, order and munus (duty). It was every Roman’s duty to make a will and have it properly witnessed and stored. Wills were written on wooden wax-tablets, then bound and sealed, often with a small bronze box like this. You dripped sealing wax into the open box and it would stick to the wood and twine wrapped around it. There would be no way of opening the will or altering it without disturbing the seal. In this picture we see the underside of the seal box with holes for the wax to leak through. My unlucky thirteenth Roman Mystery, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem, has lots to do with will-making, death and funerals.
You can buy a seal box like this and in different models online at Armamenta.

XI. An ‘as’ of Domitian
This bronze coin reminds us that Romans were among the first to use the idea of a product brand in the picture of the emperor… on money. This as (a coin worth a fourth of a sestertius) is a genuine first century artifact. I bought it at the antique dealers opposite the British Museum. I'd prefer a coin of Titus who was the emperor when my books are set, but he reigned for a brief 26 months, so coins with his face are quite hard to find. In the final book of the series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, I try to solve the mystery of whether Titus's sudden death was natural or not. And if not, was he murdered by his younger brother Domitian?

XII. Sponge-stick
This delightfully disgusting object, a soft sea sponge on a stick, reminds us that the Romans were both fastidious and revolting to our modern sensibilities. This was a spongia, a bottom-wiper. You can read more about it HERE. The sponge-on-the-stick appears at the beginning of Lupus's special book, The Dolphins of Laurentum, and also features in the first of my new spin-off Roman Mystery Scrolls for early readers, The Sewer Demon


  1. From # 3, "You would use a tool called a strigil with a sharp end for writing and a flat end for rubbing out." - I think you accidentally had the word "strigil" sneak in from # 2!

  2. Thanks, Carolina! You spotted a goof. I have fixed it now! :-)