The Market Truce and the Origins of Rome

The site of Rome showing trading routes, marshy areas and the seven hills By Roma_Romulo via wikipedia.

The site of Rome showing trading routes, marshy areas and the seven hills
By Roma_Romulo via wikipedia.

The origins of Rome lie in its situation where two ancient trading routes cross. One is the Via Salaria which runs from the mouth of the Tibur to the Apennines and is the route by which salt was traded. The other route crosses the Tibur at Tibur Island and connects the Etruscan territories with those of the Latins and peoples further south. The site of Rome was a marshy area, prone to flooding in the winter when the Tibur was swollen with rain, especially at the low-lying sites of the future Campus Martius, Forum and Circus Maximus.

From March on the area would begin to dry and provide valuable grazing for nearby communities, especially useful in summer when higher ground would parch in the heat. However, because it was not suitable for arable crops it would probably not have be the particular territory of any tribe or clan. By late summer or early autumn then, it would be an ideal site for a seasonal market and temporary encampment of traders.

How would such a market have been organised in ancient times? The first requirement would have been a means of keeping the peace so that different peoples would feel confident that they could meet in safety and so that disputes could be resolved. It seems likely this would have been done by declaring a market truce. All wars, feuds and disputes would be in abeyance while the market lasted. This would be similar to the Greek Olympic Truce which was promulgated during the games. In historical times the Olympic Truce extended to all the territories of the Greek City States, but it is likely that, at first, it applied only to the site of the festival.

Traders attending the market would be required to swear by the Gods to up hold the truce and thus any breach of it would be not merely a crime but an impiety, punishable by the Gods. Those responsible for upholding the truce and dealing with any breaches or disputes would be acting with religious authority. This helps explain why the Roman magistrates were considered to be fulfilling a sacred role and their persons were held inviolate.

Grounding the origins of Roman institutions in the sacred truce of the market will also explain other peculiarities of Roman custom. If special laws apply to the market it will be important to know how far those law can extend and indeed the Romans had the concept of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome. This was set neither at the walls of Rome nor the limits of the built up area, being older than either of them, but was marked by cippi or boundary stones. Armed troops were not allowed inside the pomerium. Generals had to lay down their commands before entering and soldiers had to change out of uniform and into their togas. In order to make a declaration of war it was necessary to exit the pomerium and conduct a ceremony at the Temple of Bellona just outside of it.

The market place truce needed to be bounded in time as well as space, however. As the market became more necessary to the life of the communities round about, it seems to have extended it existence back from high summer into the spring and people began living permanently on the site. But this would cause other problems, if rogues and criminals were able to use the market truce to allow them to operate with impunity. The Roman calendar however is divided into dies fasti,  days on which it was lawful to do business and when the magistrates were active, and dies nefasti, which were frequently days on which festivals were held and when no official business was done and the magistrates did not sit.  Did these at one time represent days on which the market truce was not in force and the ordinary customs of the time could be reverted to – perhaps even allowing a bit of extra-judicial vigilantism on the neighbours if it was felt they deserved it?

Obviously, over time, as Rome became ever more a permanent and settled community, and the magistrates took on responsibility for dealing with all kinds of criminal and anti-social behaviour, this would not be such an issue. However, the Romans continued to assiduously note and announce their dies fasti and nefasti. And was a memory of this aspect of the developing Rome one reason it was said to have been founded by thieves and murderers?

A Flash of Fiction

Here is a piece of flash fiction for you today. Purely imaginary, I assure you.


Lessons from Latin

It was a conversation from a long time ago – 1974? 1975? Latin class, anyway.

Latin, in our comprehensive school, was a hangover from the grammar school it had been only a few years before. Those who took it were self-consciously the clever kids, interested in history, or with parents who valued the old grammar school ways. We followed the Cambridge Classics curriculum – Caecilius est pater, Metella est mater – but we were well beyond that text, discussing a story we had just translated.

“Eww, marrying a thirteen year old off to a man in his fifties, it’s disgusting.”

“However did those Roman girls bear it?”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Oh, it was very common, especially among the upper classes,” put in Mr Miller, our Latin master. “Pliny the Younger himself was over fifty when he married his third wife. She was fifteen. He writes very affectionate letters to her. There is one included in your set texts for next year.”

Several people made faces at this.

In the story the girl, Polla, confided her troubles to the young man she had hoped to marry. This Helvidius proposed a Romeo and Juliet style solution. Consulting a sinister drug-seller, he obtained a preparation that would let Polla fake her death. He then proposed to abstract her body from the family vault and carry her off to marry her himself.

Nobody raised any questions about the implications of that, though it would still leave a thirteen-year-old in a sexual relationship and totally in the power of her husband. It was the seventies after all. And Romeo and Juliet has a lot to answer for.

I had been thinking about the unlikelihood of a thirteen year old having that kind of a relationship, a would-be lover to turn to, whether in Roman times or the present day. But I wasn’t about to make any remark that would draw attention to my own boyfriend-less status.

The story had turned to tragedy when the drug failed to work as promised. Polla died in truth, Helvidius was left distraught.

Then Kim Harper spoke up.

“Well, I think it was a silly plan. The girl should have married the rich old senator. He couldn’t have lasted long and then she would have inherited much of his money. As a prosperous young widow she would have had a lot more freedom, could probably have married Helvidius then.”

“Ah, yes. A solution more in keeping with Roman mores,” said Mr Miller. “Mind, fifty is not that old, she could have been waiting twenty years for her widowhood.”

“But it wouldn’t have been particularly suspicious if he died, at that age. If she wanted to hurry things.”

“So, Kimberly,” said Mr Miller, with a kind of horrified fascination, “if he lingered too long you would have been off to the drug-seller for a dose of poison?”

Kim considered this.

“Buying poison is a fatal mistake,” she opined, “you’d either be caught or blackmailed for ever. I think I’d go for Lily of the Valley. Perfectly acceptable flowers to have on display, for all that they are poisonous. If you put them in a vase the toxins leak into the water. Then you could feed the water to your victim, in spiced wine for example.”

There was a reason Kim Harper was considered the weirdest girl in the whole school.

Yeah, I had remembered that conversation a long time, I thought, as I added three pots of Lily of the Valley to the garden centre trolley. Men in their fifties and thirteen year old girls, thirteen year old step-daughters, that wasn’t to be tolerated.


A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Having discovered the Wolf the Shepherds hang him. Woodcut via Wikimedia Commons

Having discovered the Wolf the Shepherds hang him.
Woodcut via Wikimedia Commons

The metaphor of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, used for a person whose apparently mild and gentle exterior disguises a dangerous and aggressive nature is an old one. Its earliest recorded occurrence is in the Gospel Matthew (7:15) where Jesus says Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.  It is usually assumed that Jesus was referencing an already well-known story or metaphor in this passage.

If the tale is indeed of pre-Christian origin, perhaps there is something to be learned from treating it not as a moral fable but as a riddle. If we ask the question “Who is the Wolf in Sheep’s clothing?” the answer must be  – the Shepherd. For a shepherd not only dresses in clothing made from sheep, wool and sheepskins, but gains the trust of the sheep, all the while preying on them even more effectively than a wild wolf.

Is this the reason that the Romans called their Shepherd’s Festival the Lupercalia or ‘Wolf Festival’?  Roman festivals and religious observances are a puzzle. We have, relatively speaking, quite a lot of information about them and how they were conducted. Often, however, the Roman writers who recorded this information claimed either that the origins and meanings of the practices were unknown or gave such fantastical and unlikely explanations as to make one think they were deliberately designed to mislead.

We know that the Lupercalia was celebrated on the Ides of February and that it involved the sacrifice of a Dog and a Goat. The skin of the sacrificed goat was then cut in strips or thongs. Teams of vigorous young shepherds, wearing only brief goatskin kilts, would run about the city whipping people with theses thongs. This was believed to both purify the city and promote fertility. Indeed barren wives were often encouraged to make sure they were stuck by these thongs at the Lupercalia.

Inevitably, of course, one wonders whether that bit of magic worked because the young, half-naked shepherds did rather more than symbolically strike the women with thongs. Male infertility being about ten times more common than female, the best cure for women’s barrenness, throughout history, has always been a new sexual partner. Certainly, the Lupercalia persisted in Rome well into the Christian period, but was eventually banned by Pope Gelasius around 495 A.D, not only on account of its pagan origins but because of its riotous and licentious nature.

Lupercalia by Camesei via Wikimedia Commons

Lupercalia by Camesei
via Wikimedia Commons

The Moon is made of Green Cheese

I admire Robert Graves, I really do – his poetry, his short stories, his historical novels and, of course, his work on Greek Myth. The Greek Myths, (Graves 1955) is a major reference for this blog. Yet, in many ways, what I am writing here is an extended argument with the premise of The Greek Myths. Graves was great proponent of the theory that all Greek myth, indeed myth in general, is based on the ritual drama and metaphor of the Year King, the sacred king that must die annually with the sun, the crops and the vegetation. That this sacrifice is needed to ensure that the sun and the crops and the King will return again, new, vigorous and fertile in the following year.

Moreover, the origins of these cults are seen as matriarchal, where powerful Queen-Priestesses ruled and Kings were ephemeral and expendable. It is supposed ,however, that the myths record how the rituals were adapted, so that Kings ruled for longer, either because the King was sacrificed less frequently or a substitution was made or the whole ritual became purely symbolic. Thus society as a whole became more male-dominated. The Great Mother Goddesses of the original myths were down-graded to consorts and sacred virgins and the priestesses brought under the control of male priests. This is the view of Bronze Age Greek culture and religion that informs Mary Renault’s re-telling of the Theseus myth The King Must Die.

There is little doubt that Greek culture underwent enormous shifts from the late Bronze age and into the Iron Age and that it became more male-dominated as a whole. The Great Goddesses of the cities and regions, Hera, Artemis, Athene retained their importance in cult and ritual, even while their roles in myth were brought into conformity with the male-dominated world. Yet explaining all myth in this fashion can begin to seem relentlessly dull, as well as unlikely. It can also lead to some apparently bizarre conclusions.

There is a passage in Graves’ Greek Myths where he is discussing Helen as tutelary goddess/priestess of Sparta, rather than the character in the story of the fall of Troy. The name, he states, means either ‘moon’ or ‘basket in which offerings are made to the moon goddess’. A ritual of well-born young girls carrying baskets of offerings to the goddess is a feature of a number of Greek cults, and the baskets were known as ‘helene’.  (Willow, from which the baskets are likely to have been made, is ‘helice’.) The contents of the baskets were a secret. Graves asserts that they would have contained phallic emblems, representations of the genitals cut from the sacred king at his sacrifice. I, however, would like to propose another possibility. I suggest that the baskets contained cheese!

There was a famous, or infamous, ceremony at Sparta where young boys were whipped before the altar of Artemis Orthia. The name Orthia means ‘upright’, possibly even in the sense of ‘phallic’ and it seems to have been a name or title of a Spartan goddess long before that goddess was identified as Artemis. The whipping were considered necessary in order to splash the altar of the goddess with blood and even ancient commentators believed they might have been a substitution for an original human sacrifice. The Spartan youths accepted the whippings willingly as tests of their courage, endurance and piety, even though from time to time youths died as a result.

Ivory offerings representing Artemis Orthia Excavated from the sanctuary at Sparta

Ivory offerings representing Artemis Orthia
Excavated from the sanctuary at Sparta

The Romans, in particular, were fascinated by this ritual. Wealthy Romans often visited Sparta, whose manners and customs they admired. An theatre was built so they could watch the ceremony, apparently with the same sadistic enthusiasm with which they watched gladiatorial combat. Focusing on the whipping however, means that less attention is paid to other elements of the rite.  The youths, in fact, were being whipped as they attempted to steal cheeses from the Goddess’ altar. This suggest that cheese was very important to the ancient Spartans.

Remains of the Roman theatre at Sparta Ancient sparta theater" by Κούμαρης Νικόλαος. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons -

Remains of the Roman theatre at Sparta
Ancient sparta theater” by Κούμαρης Νικόλαος. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons –

Cheese-making is, of course, a technological process, a ‘magic that works’. It requires knowledge and skill to carry out successfully and it is likely that, at least when the technology was new to an area, that certain parts of the process were trade or ‘sacred’ secrets. The most likely secret is the means to separate milk into curds and whey, whether by the use of animal or vegetable rennet or by other techniques such as heating. The curds are then strained, drained, pressed and matured in various ways to form cheese.

I expect that the cheeses were drained and matured in tightly woven baskets. In fact a cheese called Kalathaki or ‘basket cheese’.is still made using baskets, on the Greek island of Limnos. Cheeses made in such a way, round and white, would look very much like little moons. There is a reason that ‘the moon is made of green cheese’ is a common folk tale throughout Europe. Perhaps ancient peoples also felt that cheese is, in some sense, made of moon, sacred to the moon goddess who taught the secrets of its making? Thus you would certainly make the goddess offerings of cheeses, carried in their baskets, at the appropriate season.

Cheese can indeed look very like a moon

Cheese can indeed look very like a moon

Thoughts on Biblical Incest

I have briefly mentioned Numeira on the Dead Sea as one of the places where early evidence of the cultivated vine has been found. This site is often suggested as the biblical Gomorrah. While the probability of any such exact correspondence with the biblical account is small, the site certainly lies in the general area referred to in the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the escape of Lot.

This got me thinking about a later incident in the story of Lot. Having fled the cities, Lot and his daughters are living in the mountains with no other people nearby. The daughters despair of ever finding men to marry and give them children. They therefore decide to get their father drunk and on two successive nights lie with him and both conceive sons as a result. Notoriously, the authors of the Bible make no comment on the morality of this expedient but merely recount that, as a result, Lot’s daughters became the progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples.

It occurs to me that this story could be yet another example of a coded reference to the self-fertile grape vine, that has survived while its original meaning has been forgotten – that the incest referred to is not human but vegetative.  This may seem a far-fetched idea but it gains some support when we consider Lot’s name. Lot is derived from a root verb that means ‘to cover, to envelope’.  This could very well describe the flower or calyptra of the hermaphrodite vine which covers and envelopes the stamens and ovary until self-pollination takes place. Indeed our technical term calyptra is itself derived from a Greek word meaning ‘to veil, to cover’.

Lot and his Daughters by Albrecht Altdorfer via Wikimedia Commons

Lot and his Daughters by Albrecht Altdorfer
via Wikimedia Commons

Dionysus, God of the Vine

Dionysus is often referred to as the God of Wine and, and such he is equated with the Roman Bacchus and the Etruscan Fuflans. Other commentators have pointed out the complex and composite nature of the Greek conception of Dionysus. They can show the parallels with other ‘annually dying vegetation’ gods of the Adonis and Tammuz type. There are also connections with other ‘orgiastic release’ cults, that may have used other intoxicants, such as mead, ivy leaves or hallucinogenic fungi, rather than wine. It was this orgiastic aspect of the Dionysus cult that lead to his association with drama. The Greeks sought in their tragedies, not merely entertainment, but an immersive, emotional experience that led to the cathartic release of social tensions.

Dionysos and a Panther Mosaic from Halicarnassus James Lloyd CC 3.0

Dionysos and a Panther
Mosaic from Halicarnassus
James Lloyd CC 3.0

If, however, we look at the Dionysus myths from the perspective of technological innovations, the ‘magic that worked’ it becomes clear that he is uniquely associated not so much with wine, as with the vine. The wild grapevine (Vitis vinifera subsp. silvestris) is native to upland areas of the Near East, in particular the area between the Caucasus mountains of  Armenia, the Taurus mountains of eastern Turkey and the Zagros mountains of Iran. Here is where the first true wines were probably made. Chemical analysis of neolithic jars from Hajji Firuz Tepe in northern Iran has shown that they were used to store wine in a kitchen area of a settlement dated to 5400 – 5000 B.C.E. The real technical innovation, however, was the domestication and reliable cultivation of the vine.

The wild vine is dioecious, that is, it has male and female flowers on separate plants. In order for fruit to be set, both must grow in proximity, so that insects can gather pollen from the male flowers and fertilise the females. If neolithic farmers had planted male vines they would get no fruit. If they planted female vines they would get a crop, but only if there were male vines nearby to provide pollen for fertilisation. However, a small percentage of of grapevines are naturally hermaphrodite and therefore self-fertile. Selecting and cultivating these vines would ensure the farmer had a good crop and one, moreover, that could be introduced into areas where the vine did not naturally grow. Propagating the vines vegetatively, by layering or grafting, would ensure that they bred true and continued to to produce hermaphrodite plants. And indeed today, the cultivated vine (Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera) which is not only found all over the Mediterranean, but which man has introduced to all parts of the world with a similar climate, is a hermaphrodite, self-fertile plant.

A single cultivated grapevine flower.  The green petals  form a cap which hold the pollen bearing stamens over the central ovary, when the cap is shed the stamens spring out. Francis Renaud CC2.0 via Wikimedia

A single cultivated grapevine flower.
The green petals form a cap which hold the pollen bearing stamens over the central ovary, when the cap is shed the stamens spring out.
Francis Renaud CC 2.0 via Wikimedia

I assume, therefore, that the cult of Dionysus spread because of the ‘magic that worked’, the gift of the God that was the self-fertile grapevine. I see the priesthood and adherents of Dionysus, who introduced the grapevine to new regions, as acting rather like an ancient Monsanto – in order to get access to the new crop you had to buy into the whole package. In return they would probably have provided, not only the initial crop material, but  instructions and guidance for its cultivation. The followers of Dionysus would not have been without self-interest, they would certainly have expected a cut of the profits of the new crop, in terms of donations to the God and his priests. There was never an expectation, until very recent times, that technological advances should be made freely available to everyone. On the other hand they were not religious con men. what they were selling wasn’t snake-oil.

In pre-literate societies knowledge is often most easily passed on and preserved in the form of stories and narrative. There are a number of points in the myth of Dionysus where we can see correspondences between the story and the facts of vine cultivation. This is particularly true of the stories of the birth of Dionysus. Dionysus is said to be the son of Zeus and Semele, whom Zeus visited in secret. When jealous Hera heard of this she went in disguise to Semele and persuaded her to beg her secret lover to reveal his true nature. Zeus, having sworn to give Semele what she asked for, was therefore forced to reveal himself as the lightening and Semele was struck and burned away. She was already carrying Dionysus, however, and the half-divine child survived, though he was yet too young to be born. Zeus, therefore, had the infant sown into his thigh where Dionysus continued to grow until he was old enough to be birthed a second time.

Does this story refer to the secret self-fertilisation of the vine, which causes the grapes to swell without a male vine being required? Then, also, the domesticated vine is not reproduced by seed but by grafting, in which a piece of vine is cut from its parent and then bound into another vine – which can even be a male plant. Such stories would have allowed coded transmission of information about vine cultivation. If one had not paid ones’ dues as a member of the Dionysian vine cult one might hear the stories, but not be able to interpret them correctly.  Once the secrets of vine cultivation became common knowledge however, the stories would remain but might become altered or added to, in order to fit in with different ideas of the Gods.

Then there is the story of Lycurgus, a King of Thrace, and his son Dryas. Lycurgus opposed Dionysus and, like many others who denied the God, he was punished by being sent mad. He struck his own son Dryas down with an axe, in the belief he was pruning a vine. He proceeded to trim the corpse of nose, fingers, ears and toes before he was stopped and made to realise what he had done.  Some see this story as a simple metaphor for vine-pruning while others, noting that the name Dryas means oak, believe it includes references to ancient ‘king as Oak Tree’  sacrifices. However, it was not just vines that were pruned in ancient viticulture. Vines, rather than being grown on stakes as they are now, were typically trained up trees. Such trees, however, would have been severely pollarded and trimmed, both to keep them to a manageable size and to prevent their leaves from over-shading the ripening grapes.

Even in Roman times growing vines in such a manner was usual, as Cato describes:

“The trees should be trimmed as follows: The branches which you leave should spread out, should be cut straight up, and should not be left too thick. The vines should be well knotted1; and be especially careful not to bend them downward along any of the branches and not to tie them too tightly.” Cato, On Agriculture,XXXII

He also stresses the importance of the tree prunings, as fodder for sheep and cattle in the dry, Mediterranean summers, when the grass is shrivelled.

Thus, I believe, the story of Dryas refers to the pollarding of trees to provide support for cultivated vines. Perhaps, in Thrace, this did bring the vine growers into conflict with members of an older oak cult, for whom it was taboo to cut the sacred oaks in this manner?

It is not easy to determine exactly when this spread of the domesticated vine occurred. It has proved difficult to reliably distinguish wild from cultivated grape pips in archaeological contexts. Vinewood and grape residues from Lashish in Israel and Jericho and Numeira in the Jordan Valley, which are almost certainly from domesticated vines because the wild vine is not found there, have been dated to between 3400 and 3200 B.C.E.  However, the vine could also have been domesticated much earlier than this.  Certainly the vine seems to have been cultivated in the Aegean by this period, the Early Bronze Age, if the popularity of elaborate drinking and mixing vessels is anything to go by. Yet the form of the Dionysus myth, with the late-coming God being accepted as one of the twelve Olympians, only when Hestia, goddess of the hearth, steps down, suggests a memory of a time when Dionysus and his vine was unknown.

Dionysus with his followers

Dionysus with his followers

Ascanius and Iulus

Julius Caesar and, through him, his adopted son, the Emperor Augustus claimed descent from Iulus or Julus, the founding ancestor of the Julian clan. One of Virgil’s purposes in composing the Aeneid was to exalt his patron’s ancestry by showing how Iulus was descended from Aeneas and thus ultimately from the goddess Venus. Thus Virgil relates that Aeneas’ son Ascanius became known as Iulus in Italy and that the the two are in fact the same person.

Other commentators have told the story differently; Dionysius of Halicarnassus related that Iulus was a son of Ascanius, while Livy made him a son of Aeneas and his Latin wife Lavinia, and thus half-brother to Ascanius. The existence of different versions of the story seems to suggest both that the connections was generally accepted and that the details were obscure. Virgil’s suggestion of a name change, however, struck me as the least convincing possibility – at least, until I considered the possible meanings of the names.

Ascanius and Iulus are generally considered to be Greek names and are interpreted as deriving from that language – despite the fact that Aeneas and his family were believed to be Trojans. Ascanius is said to mean ‘tentless’ and to refer to the flight from Troy when he didn’t even have a tent to shelter in. Obviously, for this etymology to work, he would have had to adopt this name after leaving Troy. Iulus is said to mean ‘downy’ from the Greek ioulos and to refer specifically to the ‘downy beard of a youth’.

However, iulus, is also used to mean ‘down’ in Latin, though there it is specifically used of down of plant origin, such as thistledown. Now there are several words used for different types of thistle in Latin. but one of them is ‘acanus’.

Atractylis gummifera, the Pine Thistle This is probably the thistle the Romans knew as 'acanus' Photo by Fabio Ippolto  CC 3.0

Atractylis gummifera, the Pine Thistle
This is probably the thistle the Romans knew as ‘acanus’
Photo by Fabio Ippolto CC 3.0

Could it be that early Latins, meeting an individual with a name like Ascanius interpreted it as ‘thistle’? And then perhaps have nicknamed him, or a younger relative, ‘thistledown’?