Saturday, August 06, 2011

A Romantic Ten Roman Artifacts

Flavia admires herself in a bronze mirror   
by Caroline Lawrence

(this is a special "Americanized" version of an article I wrote for the Classical Association Blog)

Last month I blogged about a dozen of my favourite Roman artifacts. I love Roman artifacts because they are the talismans for my "Hero's Journey" back in time to first century Rome. Also, I use them as clues in my Roman Mysteries series for children aged 8+.

Here are another ten of my favourite artifacts. They are all replicas, but so skilfully made that they could be the real thing. Most of them are made by three clever re-enactors: Romano-celtic medicus Nodge Nolanscribus peritus Zane Green and Steve Wade AKA Audax the gladiator. In addition to making high-quality replica Roman artifacts, these three talented guys all visit schools to talk about their Roman roles and participate in re-enactment events.

These ten artifacts are all linked to love, beauty or romance.

I. Bronze mirror
In Roman times there weren't many opportunities for seeing yourself very clearly. Maybe if you were mega rich you would have a polished silver mirror, but it wouldn't be as good as even the cheapest pocket mirror today. Considering all the skin diseases and sun damage it might have been a mercy in many people's cases. This wonderful bronze mirror is based on a real one from Pompeii. It partly inspired a scene from the BBC TV adaptation of The Pirates of Pompeii where Flavia wants to impress an older man and imperiously orders her slave girl Nubia to do her hair. In the picture above you can see her admiring the effect in a bronze mirror like this one.

II. Blown glass perfume bottle
Did you know that Romans sometimes added perfume to their wine to sweeten their breath? Ugh. But in that day before mouthwash and deodorant, scent was important. The Roman poet Martial has several epigrams about a perfume-maker called Cosmus. He was obviously the Calvin Klein of first century Rome. I had fun researching poison and perfume for my 11th Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum. I discovered the ingredients for the most expensive ancient perfumes. I found out which scents men would have worn. I scoured museums for perfume bottles and found one shaped like a little bird. I loved it so much that I worked it into my most romantic Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum. At a symposium, a woman named Annia Serena begins a story thus: One day when I was seven years old, my mother received a new perfume in the shape of a bird: a delicate blue glass bird that fit in the palm of her hand. You had to snap off the tip of the beak to release the perfume. Serena goes on to tell the shocking result of what happened when she crept into her mother's bedroom to have a sniff and accidentally broke the perfume bottle. (You'll never guess.)
This replica perfume bottle from the Roman site of Empúries in Spain is not shaped like a bird, but I love it anyway.

III. Club-of-Hercules earring
The delightfully-named Nodge Nolan made this earring for me when I was working on my sixth Roman Mystery, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina. Again, it is based on a Roman or perhaps Scythian original. Why a club? Not very romantic, you say.

Oh, but it is. It's a love club. A club of lurve.

This is the female equivalent of the cave man clubbing his desired cave girl and then dragging her by the hair to his cave. There is even a myth that as punishment for a crime, Hercules had to wear women's clothes for a year and serve a nymph called Omphale and SHE got to wear his lion skin and wield his club.

Cartilia flushed slightly. 'Well,' she said. 'I do have to admit I find your father very attractive. Plus, he still has all his teeth.' Flavia giggled and reached up to touch one of Cartilia's silver earrings; it was a pendant shaped like a tiny club of Hercules. (from The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina)

IV. Beauty Set
I can't remember which re-enactor made me this beauty set, but he kindly engraved the name FLAVIA on the tweezers. Crude but useful, this would have been a poor person's kit for personal grooming. Designed to be worn around the wrist, it consists of (left to right) an ear-scoop, a fingernail cleaner and tweezers. Tweezers were used to pluck hair from underarms etc. Yowtch! The fingernail cleaner is self-explanatory. Ear-scoops were very popular in ancient Rome. Quite rightly, too. The alternative consists of something I saw when I was in Italy a few years ago: an old man who kept his pinky nail long for the express purpose of scooping out ear wax! Yuk.
The Roman poet Martial wrote a slightly naughty Saturnalia gift-tag epigram about an ear-scoop.
Auriscalpium - Si tibi morosa prurigine verminat auris, arma damus tantis apta libidinibus. 
Ear-scoop - If your ear-hole craves a good seeing-to, I've got a little tool that will satisfy such desires. (Martial XIV.23) Ew.

V. Broken oil flask
This broken (replica) oil flask is proof of why it would have been impractical to take a ceramic jar to the baths. Oily fingers are more liable likely to drop it on the mosaic or marble floor. For this reason some bath sets (see above) had little bronze flasks attached for scented oil. It wasn't just women who used scented oil, but men, too. Opobalsam, for example, was the ancient Roman version of Calvin Klein for men. Also known as 'balm of Gilead', its main ingrediant is juice from the exotic balsam tree. According to Pliny this tree is only found in Judaea, modern Israel. My pal Martial has a little epigram about this, of course:
Opobalsam. Balsama me capiunt, haec sunt unguenta virorum: delicias Cosmi vos redolete, nurus. 
Balsam captivates me! This is the oil for men! Gather round, girls and have a sniff of Cosmus's best.
(See? I told you Cosmus was the most famous perfume-maker in Rome...)
Hmm, I wonder if Flavia's groom wore opobalsam on their wedding day?

VI. Hair Pins
Roman women loved hair pins. You can get them in gold, silver, bronze, ivory, ebony or wood. They often have little objects carved or cast at the non-sharp end. Some represent feminine beauty and power: Venus or an empress. Some represent fertility: an apple or pomegranate. Some are apotropaic (they turn away evil) like a hand giving the mano fico, a gesture representing lady bits. (Don't ask) The hair pins shown here are from left to right, a brass hand holding an olive, a simple bone hairpin, a silver hairpin with decorative knob and a bronze stylus, which of course is not a pin but could stand in for one at a pinch.
Martial has a sweet epigram about a gold hairpin:
Acus aurea  - Splendida ne madidi violent bombycina crines, figat acus tortas sustineatque comas. 
Gold hairpin - Lest damp hair spoil brilliant silk, let this hairpin fix and hold up your twisted locks. (Martial 14.24)
I love that poem because I can see the girl fresh from the bath, doing up her hair in the Roman version of a chignon.

VII. Lead Curse Tablet
Steve Wade's beautiful replica curse tablet is made of lead, heavy and smooth and easy to bend. Defixiones, as they are called, have been found throughout the Roman world. You wrote a suitable curse on the lead (sometimes backwards or in code for extra power) and then you rolled it up and nailed it to a tree or door post near the person to be cursed, (hence the name defixio). However archaeologists have found curse tablets tossed in fountains or buried, especially as gods of the underworld were often evoked. Curses could be as mundane as cursing the person who stole your socks (like this one) or as vicious as wishing the death of a charioteer and all four of his horses. But the nastiest curse tablets must have been written by lovers against their rivals. Spirits of the underworld, I give you Ticene of Carisius. Whatever she does, may it turn out badly. I curse her limbs, her complexion, her figure, her head, her hair, her shadow, her brain, her forehead, her eyebrows, her mouth, her nose, her chin, her cheeks, her lips, her speech, her breath, her neck, her liver, her shoulders, her heart, her lungs, her intestines, her stomach, her arms, her fingers, her hands, her navel, her entrails, her thighs, her knees, her calves, her heels, her soles, her toes... (CIL 10.8249 edited)

Curse tablets make a guest appearance in my twelfth Roman Mystery, The Charioteer of Delphi.

VIII. Nubia's Flute
Music was an important part of Roman life, just as it is an important part of our lives. But we don't really know what it sounded like. Some clever scholars, like Susanna Rühling of Musica Romana, have done careful research to recreate the instruments and songs of ancient Rome. You can listen to samples on her website and see some of their beautiful reconstructions, like the double aulos, a twin flute. My replica flute is a monaulos (single pipe) from Egypt. It is just a cheap tourist version. In my books, Flavia's freed slave-girl Nubia is deeply musical and deeply romantic. Her flute is her most prized possession and she always wears it around her neck.  Nubia's handsome young Greek tutor Aristo plays the lyre and she realises she is in love with him when they are playing music together one day during the Saturnalia, in my sixth Roman Mystery, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina. (I wanted them to cast Robert Pattinson for the role LONG before he appeared in Twilight, so when you read my books, imagine RPatz as Aristo!)
Martial has a naughty epigram about a flute.
Tibiae. Ebria nos madidis rumpit tibicina buccis: saepe duas pariter, saepe monaulon habet. 
Flutes. The tipsy flute girl blows us with her moist mouth, sometimes two together, sometimes just one. (Martial 14.63)
Of course Nubia is not a tipsy flute girl. She is a good girl!

IX. Blank papyrus (because I don't have ivory tablets!)

Non est munera quod putes pusilla, cum donat vacuas poeta chartas, writes the poet Martial.
Don't consider it a small thing when a poet gives you blank sheets. (Martial 14.10)
One of my re-enactor friends, Zane Green, is skilled at preparing papyrus and ruling it and writing on it. But sometimes people gave blank stationery, especially if they were hoping for a letter in return. Here is Zane pumicing some papyrus to make it smooth. He has already ruled lines, ready for someone to write a love poem (or letter) on it. Papyrus comes from the famous Egyptian reed pounded flat and laid in two layers, one lengthwise and one widthwise. When my husband and I visited Egypt to research The Scribes from Alexandria, (in which Flavia and her pals go on a quest up the Nile to find Nubia) we were lucky enough to visit a papyrus factory and see a demonstration of how real papyrus is made.
Martial writes about other writing material and what it signifies. For example, small ivory tablets called Vitellian tablets are for love poetry.
Nondum legerit hos licet puella, novit quid cupiant Vitelliani.
A girl does not have to read these Vitellian tablets to know what they want! (Martial 14.8)
Flavia, 15, gets married

In my final Roman Mystery, The Man from Pomegranate Street, 12-year-old Flavia Gemina (now of a marriageable age) gets one of these Vitellian tablets from an admirer.
‘Who gave you the love-tablet?’ asked Tranquillus.
‘That.’ He pointed at the ivory booklet in her lap.
‘Why do you call it a love-tablet?’ she asked, aware that all the others were watching her, too.
‘Because it’s a love-tablet!’ he said. 
‘How can you tell?’
‘He’s right, Flavia,’ said Aristo gently. ‘It’s a love-tablet.’
‘Stop calling it that–’ she spluttered. ‘How can you possibly know–’
‘He knows because it’s small and dainty and made of ivory,’ said Tranquillus. ‘Did it come wrapped with a ribbon?’
Flavia nodded.
‘It’s the latest fashion,’ said Aristo. ‘For a man to give a woman he loves an ivory tablet with a poetic declaration of his feelings inside.'

X. "Carpe Diem" Scroll
Flavia's favourite motto is Carpe diem! Seize the Day! (Even though her father says her motto should be "Look before you leap!") The famous phrase comes from a Latin love poem by the famous poet Horace. This scroll is on papyrus, beautifully written out by Zane Green.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati. seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam, quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida. carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Want to know the translation? Here's my slightly free version:

You should not ask, my love - for it is forbidden to know - what the gods have decreed for me or you. Don't even check your horoscope. Much better to embrace whatever happens, whether the gods have granted us many more winters or whether this is our last, which even now dashes the Tyrrhenian sea upon the rocks we gaze out upon. Relax, pour the wine, and put your dreams on hold for just a little. Even as we speak, jealous time speeds past. Seize the day, and do not put your hope in tomorrow. 

Test your knowledge of Romance in Ancient Rome with this easy QUIZ.

[If you want to learn more about Roman artifacts and Roman romance, read my booksThe 17 books - plus supplementary titles - in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans. Americans will only be able to view DVDs of the TV series on computers but there is an interactive game.]

1 comment:

  1. Dear Caroline,

    What a lovely informative blog.
    Many thanks.