Friday, January 30, 2004

Roman bathing, naval battles and historical anachronisms

My son called me yesterday to ask about a reference to naval battles in the Colosseum. This surprised me a bit because his interest in writing has always focused on science fiction but I was, of course, pleased that he might be interested in a period of history closer to my own heart. I explained to him that yes, such battles were held and how they managed to flood the Colosseum. I was careful to point out, however, that mock naval battles sponsored by Caesar and later, Claudius were obviously not held in the Colosseum since it was not built yet. Then he asked me about a reference in a book he had read (hopefully fiction) that mentioned Nero stocked the flooded Colosseum with crocodiles. I told him that Nero was dead before the Colosseum was even built but that there were ancient sources that described the zoological gardens of Nero’s Golden House as having pools stocked with crocodiles. I then gave him a background on the Great Fire, the construction of the Domus Aurea and the resulting charges of Nero starting the fire to clear space for his palace.

Later, I was reading my e-mail and one of my news alerts about the Roman Empire brought an article to my attention about the history of spas and bathing which was part of a website of a Spa Manufacturer. Now, normally, you would think that if you are in the business, you would be at least somewhat authoritative about its origins, especially if you were going to post an article about its history. But there it was in bold black and white – the first public Roman bath was built by the Emperor Agrippa (what?!!!) in 25 B.C.. I was a little surprised by the lateness of the date as well so I thought I should check with Lacus Curtius (always a reliable scholarly source) and found the following reference:

It is not recorded at what precise period the use of the warm bath was first introduced amongst the Romans; but we learn from Seneca (l.c.) that Scipio had a warm bath in his villa at Liternum; which, however, was of the simplest kind, consisting of a single chamber, just sufficient for the necessary purposes, and without any pretensions to luxury. It was "small and dark," he says "after the manner of the ancients." Seneca also describes the public baths as obscura et gregali tectorio inducta, and as so simple in their arrangements that the aedile judged of the proper temperature by his hands. These were baths of warm water; but the practice of heating an apartment with warm air by flues placed immediately under it, so as to produce a vapour bath, is stated by Valerius Maximus (ix.1 §1) and by Pliny (Plin. H.N. ix.54 s79) to have been invented by Sergius Orata, who lived in the age of L. Crassus, the orator, before the Marsic war. The expression used by Valerius Maximus is balnea pensilia, and by Pliny balineas pensiles, which is differently explained by different commentators; but a single glance at the plans will be sufficient in order to comprehend the manner in which the flooring of the chambers was suspended over the hollow cells of the hypocaust, called by Vitruvius suspensura caldariorum (v.11), so as to leave no doubt as to the precise meaning of the invention, which is more fully exemplified in the following passage of Ausonius (Mosell. 337):—

"Quid (memorem) quae sulphurea substructa crepidine fumant
Balnea, ferventi cum Mulciber haustus operto,
Vovit anhelatas tectoria per cava flammas,
Inclusum glomerans aestu exspirante vaporem?"

By the time of Cicero, the use of baths, both public and private, of warm water and hot air, had become general (Epist. ad Q. Frat. iii.1); and we learn from one of his orations that there were already baths (balneas Senias) at Rome, which were open to the public upon payment of a small sum (Pro Cael. 25, 26).

The time of Cicero was the first century B.C.E. but an entire generation before Agrippa. I sometimes wonder if cultural icons like the Colosseum, gladiatorial games, and Roman baths are so representative of the Roman culture that authors (and people in general) just naturally assume they were always a part of Roman society so they never bother to check. Now days with the text search capability of the internet and so many scholarly articles on line, it does not take hours of digging through dusty volumes at the library to check out such things but I guess people have to realize the need for accuracy before they will expend even that much effort.

It can happen to scholars as well. I noticed that in the novel The Spartan, Manfredi wrote that Kleidemos (Talos) planned to attend a Persian banquet and was curious to find out how so-called "barbarians" actually lived. This casual comment would seem relatively unimportant unless you know that the usage of the word "barbarian" in ancient Greece only meant someone who did not speak Greek and did not connote crudeness or lack of "civilized" behavior. It appeared to me that Manfredi implied the modern connotation.
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Thursday, January 08, 2004

Hippocrates the first to understand causes of mental illness

"The ancient Greeks viewed mental illness as the work of good or bad spirits: If someone’s disturbance appeared to be mystical and mild, with pleasant overt symptoms, such as the ones witnessed in the schizoaffective disorder, manic type, then the ancient Greeks believed that such patients were possessed by ‘good’ spirits. On the other hand, they were thought to be possessed by ‘bad spirits’ if they manifested dark moods or showed a markedly diminished interest in everyday life, as in the case of the depressive type of the schizoaffective disorder."

"The Egyptians and the Hebrews held similar views. The ‘visitations’ of ‘good spirits’ were viewed with respect and admiration and the patients were treated accordingly. And the ‘visitations’ of the ‘bad spirits’ were thought to be ‘disturbances’. Some very unpleasant modes of treatment were adopted to drive the ‘bad’ spirits away from patients, including starvation, prolonged chanting over the person, flogging, and even drilling a hole in the skull of the ‘possessed’ to allow the spirit to escape from the body."

"It was, however, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who formulated the theory of abnormal behaviour, putting forward the view that mental illness, like other illnesses, was caused by an imbalance in the chemicals in the body, rather than by good or bad spirits. He recommended certain drugs, purgatives, and exercises to restore the balance of the body as treatment. He was therefore perhaps the first ‘doctor’ Europe may be proud of; his diagnosis and treatment were based upon empirical evidence, systematic observations and not upon heresy and obscure views."
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Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Gangs looting Afghan 'Pompeii'

"Warlords and thieves are stripping bare a recent archaeological discovery described as 'the Pompeii of Central Asia' while the central government and Western scientists are powerless to intervene, authorities say."

"The ancient city stretching 25 miles across was recently discovered at Kharwar, in remote central Logar province. From a trickle of confiscated artifacts, archaeologists estimate that the city dates from the seventh century shortly before the arrival of Islam though some pieces suggest it might be as much as 500 years older."
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Egyptian Tourists Search for Cambyses Lost Army

"Hisham Nessim, manager of Aqua Sun Resort, is giving tourists a chance to participate in solving the ancient mystery of the lost army of Persian king, Cambyses."

"Nessim, a former desert rally driver, leads the Egyptian Exploration Desert Team (EEDT), an exploratory 'archaeological' mission funded entirely by private tourism firms. The plan, approved by the Ministry of Tourism, is to comb the Western Desert in 4WD vehicles packed with paying tourists hot on the trail of Cambyses' army."

"In 523 BC, according to legend, Persian King Cambyses II dispatched an army of 50,000 men to destroy the sacred oracle in Siwa that had been bad-mouthing him since his conquest of Egypt two years earlier. The soldiers marched into the desert never to be seen again."

"According to an account related by the 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus, the army left Thebes (Luxor) and after seven days reached an inhabited oasis, probably Kharga. The 50,000 soldiers continued with their guides into the Great Sand Sea towards Siwa, but met their demise in a massive sandstorm."
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Dynastic Mayan King found to be native of Yucatan

"At the start of the fifth century AD, Copán was a modest village set in a fertile, mountainous valley on the eastern fringe of the Maya world. Within decades, the village embarked on a remarkable rise to become, at its zenith in the eighth century, among the most accomplished Maya cities in art, architecture, and astronomy.
The transfiguration's instigator was a man named Yax K'uk Mo."

"Despite their calendrical exactitude, the terse carvings are vague about Yax K'uk Mo's origin or where and by whom he was crowned. Like ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, the Maya world consisted of independent city-states linked by trade and vying for hegemony. Conceivably, any one of the rival cities could have been Yax K'uk Mo's hometown and source of power."

"Copánec artisans certainly depicted Yax K'uk Mo with Teotihuacáno trappings. This image shows the king wearing goggles that form part of a characteristically Teotihuacáno war helmet. And in his tomb, which was discovered in 1995, archaeologists found pottery from Teotihuacán."

"But the tomb also contained pottery from Tikal, a Maya city north of Copán, as well as pottery from Copán itself. As for the goggles, it's understandable that a local magnate would want, if only through symbols, to draw authority and legitimacy from the region's preeminent power."

"By analyzing isotope ratios in Yax K'uk Mo's teeth and bones, a team led by Jane Buikstra of the University of New Mexico has ruled out Teotihuacán as Yax K'uk Mo's place of birth and early childhood. Instead, it appears the king grew up in central Yucatán, the heart of the Maya world."

But the tomb also contained pottery from Tikal, a Maya city north of Copán, as well as pottery from Copán itself.

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