Saturday, April 26, 2014

And History for All

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” (Cicero)

Ive run into a few history haters of late. Yes, they DO exist!

Someone recently said to me that ‘history is just boring. Whats the use? I live in the present, not the past.

After a few deep breaths, I got control of my outrage. How could someone say such a thing? To me its such an obviously ignorant statement.

But then I asked myself ‘What turned that person (like so many others) so completely off of history in the first place?Ill bet that anyone who hates history loves a good story, loves to watch movies set in the past, likes to hear about peoples victories, defeats, great love affairs, suffering, loss, adventures, beliefs etc. etc.  Whats not to like?

“History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them.” (Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller)

History IS about people. Its about the reasons and motivations behind all those dates, and wars, and places. And because its about people, there is always something that other people, in any age, can relate to and learn from.

I think the root of the problem for all those folks who despise history is that it was badly taught or presented. When you think about it, weve all had a bad teacher in one subject or another, history being no exception.

In high school, I had one good history teacher. The others, I dont even remember. That history teacher told us those personal anecdotes of people during the periods we were studying. He brought history to life using not only stories, but also props, movies, and artifacts.

Isnt history a record of human life as it has been played out?

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” (Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works)

Mr. Kipling hit the nail on the head there. If history were taught in an interesting way, the number of naysayers would be far less. Ive always believed that good historical fiction should be a part of every history curriculum.

Sadly, not one of my elementary, high school, or university history courses ever included historical fiction on the reading list. On the contrary, the teachers often slammed historical fiction, especially at the university level.

Big mistake! Imagine the possible classroom conversations about an historical person or topic that the students might have read about in a fascinating or gut-wrenching novel!

That would have been much better than “This general marched with his army in such and such a date to such and such a place,” or “On such and such a date, such and such a tyrant was defeated in this battle.”

Honestly, that sounds like the history of nowhere to me. Every era taught the in the same boring way, oftentimes without any passion for the subject. How are you supposed to hook your audience?

“The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”  (Stephen E. Ambrose)

I think its also important to encourage diversity of interest in various periods of history, and what better way to do that than through fiction.

Among history loverscircles, Ive also run into what can only be called ‘period snobbery.

If history is really about people, and people of the past are how we can most easily relate to history, then there is something to be learned or gained from every period of history, in every place.

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” (Aldous Huxley)

In my studies, I found something interesting in every period of history to clamp onto. Again, the common denominator of the ages is people - flawed, impassioned, messy people.

The Gods must truly be having a laugh, or a good cry, when they watch us mortals. History is an eternity of entertainment.

Its not to say that history lovers dont have their favourite periods to which they gravitate. I love the ancient and medieval worlds; these span thousands of years, so I suppose that my tastes are pretty varied.

However, I can still remember being rapt by my American history course when it came to the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. I never thought industrialization could be interesting, or Regency England for that matter, until I studied them a little.

Medieval Japan? Very cool. Learning about cuneiform in Mesopotamia? Brilliant!

Another good example is movies or Television shows. Of course, I loved Gladiator, The Fall of The Roman Empire and other ancient-themed movies. I also enjoy watching The Tudors, and the BBCs Pride and Prejudice alongside I Claudius.

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.” (Michael Crichton)

Myth and Legend are also a part of history, a deep-rooted part of human existence.

What I find amazing and unfortunate is that there are some people who make a career for themselves out of trying to disprove what is history and culture to others.

Often Ill read a quote from one of these folks that belittles even the greatest beliefs or achievements of the ancients, be it about their gods, their rituals, their cures, and their stories.

I think history and the people of the past require and deserve a bit more respect and attention than that.

 “Fiction is written with reality and reality is written with fiction. We can write fiction because there is reality and we can write reality because there is fiction; everything we consider today to be myth and legend, our ancestors believed to be history and everything in our history includes myths and legends. Before the splendid modern-day mind was formed our cultures and civilizations were conceived in the wombs of, and born of, what we identify today as "fiction, unreality, myth, legend, fantasy, folklore, imaginations, fabrications and tall tales." And in our suddenly realized glory of all our modern-day "advancements" we somehow fail to ask ourselves the question "Who designated myths and legends as unreality? " But I ask myself this question because who decided that he was spectacular enough to stand up and say to our ancestors "You were all stupid and disillusioned and imagining things" and then why did we all decide to believe this person?” ( C. JoyBell C.)

I love this quote, and it's so true. In man's search for scientific reasoning and advancement, he has, at the same time sought to explain away so many rich aspects of our actual history.

Myths and legends ARE history. They were not mere fireside tales intended to entertain the drunken masses, or stories whose sole purpose was to lull children to sleep after suckling at their mothers' breasts.

Perhaps this is one reason that history classes today tend to be so boring for many students? If myths and legends were taught as history and not as pure fabrication that is so easily explained away, those classes would be riveting. We would be inspired by the past, and not bored by it.

If history is about people, then we would do well to try and look at things as those people did if we really want to understand them.

Hindsight can be useful when studying the past, but it can also be a poison that leads our modern minds to think we are superior to all that has gone before.

History is for all - every person, every period, every aspect has value.

“Everyone who wants to know what will happen ought to examine what has happened: everything in this world in any epoch has their replicas in antiquity.” (Niccolò Machiavelli)

Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Medicus! – Physicians in the Roman Empire

Going to the doctor’s office is never something one looks forward to.

For most, me included, it gets the heart rate and stress levels up to step into a building that’s full of ‘sick people’.

Sitting around in a waiting room with a group of scared, nervous, fidgety folks, is enough to drive you mad, and the sight of a white coat and stethoscope makes one want to run screaming from the building.

It was probably the same for our ancient Greek and Roman ancestors. Most civilians would have been loath to visit with a physician. It might not have been someone you wanted around, in case they looked at you and thought your colour was a little off.

‘Oh dear. That cough doesn’t sound good, my dear Septimius!’

Not so for the soldiers in the field.

I’m not an expert in ancient medical history, but I do know that the level of injury on an ancient battlefield would have been staggering. The sight or sound of your unit’s medicus would have been something sent from the gods themselves.

Imagine a clash of armies – thousands of men wielding swords, spears and daggers at close quarters. Then lob some volleys of arrows into the chaos. Perhaps a charge of heavy cavalry? How about heavy artillery bolts or boulders slamming into massed ranks of men?

It would have been one big, bloody, savage mess.

Apart from the usual cuts, slashes, and puncture wounds, the warriors would have suffered shattered bones, fractured skulls, lost limbs, severed arteries, sword, spear and arrow shafts that pushed through armour on into organs.

If you weren’t dead right away, you most likely would have been a short time later.

This is where the ancient field medic could have made the difference for an army. He would have been going through numerous patients in a short period of time. He would have had to decide who was a lost cause, who could no longer fight, and who could be patched up before being sent back out onto the field of slaughter.

The medicus of a Roman legion was an unsung hero whose skill was a product of accumulated centuries of knowledge, study, and experience.
Asklepios and Igeia

Many of the physicians in the Roman Empire were Greek, and that’s because Greece was where western medicine was born. Indeed, the ancient Greeks had patron gods of health and healing in the form of Asklepios, Igeia, and sometimes Apollo.

The greatest medical school of the ancient world was in fact on the Aegean island of Cos, where students came from all over the Mediterranean world to learn at the great Asklepion. Hippocrates himself, the 5th century B.C. ‘father of medicine’, was from Cos and said to be a descendant of the god Asklepios himself.

When it comes to Roman medicine, much of it is owed to what discoveries and theories the Greeks had developed before, but with a definite Roman twist.

The fusion of Greek and Roman medicine in the Empire consisted of two parts: the scientific, and the religious/magical.

The more scientific thinking behind ancient medical practices is a legacy owed to the Greeks, who separated scientific learning from religion. The religious aspects of medicine in the Roman Empire were a Roman introduction.

Because of this fusion of ideas and beliefs, you could sometimes end up with an odd assortment of treatments being prescribed.

‘To alleviate your hypertension over your new business venture, you should take three drops of this tincture before you sleep. You should also sacrifice a white goat to Janus as soon as possible.’

Many Roman deities had some form of healing power so it depended on one’s patron gods, and the nature of the problem, as to which god would receive prayers or votive offerings over another. Amulets and other magical incantations would have been employed as well.

Ancient surgical instruments
Romans had a god for everything, and soldiers were especially superstitious.

Greek medical thought rejected the idea of divine intervention, opting more for practicallity in the treatment of wounds, and injuries; cleaning and bandaging wounds would have been more logical than putting another talisman about the neck.

All the gods were to be honoured, but in the Greek physician’s mind they had much better things to look after than the stab wound a man received in a Suburan tavern brawl.

For the battlefield medicus, things must have been much simpler than for the physician who was trying to diagnose mysterious ailments. They were faced mostly with physical wounds and employed all manner of surgical instruments such as probes, hooks, forceps, needles and scalpels.

Removing a barbed arrowhead from a warrior’s thigh must have required a little digging.

Of course, in the Roman world, there was no anaesthetic, so successful surgeons would have had to have been not only dexterous and accurate, but also very fast and strong. Luckily, sedatives such as opium and henbane would have helped.

When it came to the treatment of wounds, a medicus would have used wine, vinegar, pitch, and turpentine as antiseptics. However, infection and gangrene would have meant amputation. The latter was probably terrifyingly frequent for soldiers, many of whom would end up begging on the streets of Rome.

It is interesting to note that medicine was one of the few professions that were open to women in the Roman Empire. Female doctors, or medicae, would also have been mainly of Greek origin, and either working with male doctors, or as midwives specializing in childbirth and women’s diseases and disorders. When it came to the army however, most doctors would have been male.

Army surgeons played a key role in spreading and improving Roman medical practice, especially in the treatment of wounds and other injuries. They also helped to gather new treatments from all over the Empire, and disseminated medical knowledge wherever the Legions marched. Many of the herbs and drugs that were used in the Empire were acquired by medics who were on campaign in foreign lands.

Early on, physicians did not enjoy high status. There was no standardized training and many were Greek slaves or freedmen. This did  begin to improve however when in 46 B.C. Julius Caesar granted citizenship to all those doctors who were working in the city of Rome.

This last point really hits home when it has become common knowledge that foreign doctors who come to our own countries today find themselves driving taxis or buses because they are not allowed to practice.

Modern governments, take your cue from Caesar!

Galen of Pergamon
One of the most famous physicians of the Roman Empire is Galen of Pergamon (A.D. 129-c.199). Galen was a Greek physician and writer who was educated at the sanctuary of Asklepios at Pergamon in Asia Minor.

After working in various cities around the Empire, Galen returned to his home town to become the doctor at the local ludus, or gladiatorial school. He grew tired of that work and moved to Rome in A.D. 162 where he gained a reputation among the elite. He subsequently became the personal physician of the Emperors Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and for a short time, Septimius Severus.

Galen’s work and writings provided the basis of medical teaching and practice on into the seventeenth century. No doubt many an army medicus referred to Galen’s work at one point or another.

Ancient surgical instruments
I’ve but barely scratched the vast surface of this topic.

For some, there is this assumption that ancient medicine was somehow false, crude and barbaric. The truth is that modern western medicine owes much to the Greeks and Romans, civilian and military, who travelled the Empire caring for their troops and gathering what knowledge and knowhow they could.

The fusion of science, religious practice, and magic provides for a fascinating mix. In truth, medical practices in medieval Europe might have been more barbaric that their ancient predecessors.

Thank you for reading, and may Asklepios, Igeia and Apollo grant you good health!

12th century medieval fresco of
Galen and Hippocrates talking

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The World of Killing the Hydra - Part II - Prostitution in the Roman Empire

We’re going to a different sort of place in this instalment of The World of Killing the Hydra.

In Part I, we explored the beauty of Leptis Magna which is where the book begins, but which was also the home of Emperor Septimius Severus.

But the Roman Empire was not all about beautiful monuments, lavish banquets, and the adoration of the people for the ruler of the time.

In fact, the Roman Empire had its own maze of back streets and alleyways where life was seedier, and more visceral. It wasn’t all polished marble, but rather slick brick and stinking cells.

WARNING: If you are easily offended, some of the pictures of frescoes in this post might be a bit too saucy for you. Just a word of warning for the innocent-minded.

We’re going to take a very brief look today at prostitutes and brothels in the Roman Empire.

Now, if you’re suddenly hoping that Killing the Hydra is my attempt at historical erotica, well, you’re looking in the wrong place. The book is not an orgy extravaganza. If you want that, check out the film Caligula with Malcolm McDowell in the title role.

However, you can’t really write about the Roman world without touching on the long-standing part that prostitution and brothels had to play in society.

They existed, and they most certainly flourished. People of all classes, mostly men, made it a normal practice to visit their favourite brothel from time to time.

If you liked the HBO show ROME, you might have an image of Titus Pullo whoring his way through the Subura with his jug of wine in hand. Certainly, this sort of behaviour was not uncommon, especially for troops fresh back from the wars and looking for a good time.

The flip side might be the richer, upper class nobility who may have believed visiting prostitutes was fine, as long as it was done in moderation and didn’t cause a scandal.

The prostitution scene in the Empire was as large and varied as the workers and clients who kept it running. There was something for everyone!

But let’s look at things a bit more closely.

Romulus, Remus and
the 'Lupa'
One could say that prostitution has ties to the founding of Rome itself.

You may have read about Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome and were suckled by the She Wolf, or Lupa.

We have heard of lost children being raised by wolves before, but in the instance of Romulus and Remus, many believe that they were actually raised by a prostitute who found them on the banks of the Tiber. The slang word for prostitute in Latin was lupa.

And the word for brothel was in fact lupanar or lupanarium.

Clients were drawn in by the sexual allure of displayed ‘wares’, sometimes lined up naked on the curbside, and the various experiences to be had within. The latter were sometimes illustrated in frescoes or mosaics on the walls of the lupanar. These were intended to add to the atmosphere, or were a sort of menu of pleasures to be had.

There were of course ‘high-class’ prostitutes who catered to wealthy and powerful patrons, women who were skilled at conversation, music and poetry. These high end lupae provided an escape, or a feast with friends, in lavish surroundings coupled with a sort of blissful oblivion. Some might have been purchased by their wealthy clients to keep for themselves, and if that was the case they might have ‘enjoyed’ a relatively easy life compared to the alternative.

A lupa's 'office' a cement bed
covered with a mattress and pillows
The truth for most, however, was that they were slaves. And slaves in ancient Rome, as we all know, were objects, property to be used and disposed of on a whim.

Prostitutes – women, men, boys, girls, eunuchs etc. – were at the bottom of the social scale, along with actors and gladiators. They could be adored by clients one moment, and shunned the next. And if a lupa was no longer profitable, the leno (pimp), or the lena (madam) might sell them off as a liability, sending them to a life that was possibly even worse.

In ancient Rome prostitution was legal and licensed, and it was normal for men of any social rank to enjoy the range of pleasures that were on offer. Every budget and taste was catered to, and because of Rome’s conquests, and the length and breadth of the Romam Empire in the early 3rd century, there would have been slaves of every nationality and colour. Clients of the lupanar would have had their choice of Egyptians, Parthians and Numidians, Germans, Britons, slaves from far East and anywhere else, including Italians.

However, even though prostitution was regulated, don’t kid yourselves. This was not a question of morality, or curbing venereal diseases. This was about maximizing profit – prostitution was also taxed!

In Pompeii, prostitution became a sort of tourist trade. On the street pavement you just had to follow the phallus’ to find the nearest brothel! There were something like thirty-five brothels in the town, and that’s not counting the small curbside cells or niches where the cheapest lupae provided quickies to passers-by.

The 'Great Lupanar'
The biggest brothel in Pompeii however, was the ‘Great Lupanar’ located at a crossroads two blocks from the Forum. Many of the frescoes pictured here are from that building which had ten rooms, where most lupanars had just a few.

But we’ve only been looking at prostitution and brothels in Rome and Pompeii. What would they have been like on the fringes of the Empire?

In Killing the Hydra, Lucius finds himself alone and in trouble in the Numidian town of Thugga. This is where he meets one of the secondary characters of the book, Dido.

Dido is a Punic girl who has lost her family and is all alone in the world. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted. But in a world where people were desperate to survive, those who didn’t have protection had few choices. For a young beautiful Punic girl on the North Africa frontier, there would not have been many places that offered a roof, a bed, food and clothing.
The streets of Thugga

Dido is a prostitute in the Thugga brothel known as the ‘House of the Cyclops’, and she spots Lucius, a young, good-looking Roman walking by himself – a sure bet in her eyes, and perhaps better than her usual clientele.

But she doesn’t know Lucius yet. He’s not the average man out for a good time. He has much more pressing issues on his mind as he walks the streets of Thugga.

'House of the Cyclops' in Thugga
When I was doing my research for Killing the Hydra in Thugga (in central Tunisia), Lucius and Dido’s meeting played out in my mind as if they were walking alongside me.

Without giving too much away, Lucius ends up needing this young lupa’s help because he has no one else he can trust.

Can he trust this unknown, Punic girl? Will he go into the lupanar and seek her behind the curtain of her tiny cubiculum?

You have to read the book to find that part out. But, if you are interested in an excerpt, I posted one describing the moment when Lucius and Dido meet in a previous post which you can read HERE.

One might think that the subject of this particular post was rather fun to write, that the images above are titillating. And sure, they are to an extent. I don’t mind a bit of risque material on occasion. Why not?

But then, I can’t help thinking of the lives that these female and male prostitues had to endure. Very few enjoyed the favour of kind wealthy clients, and lived in luxurious surroundings.

Prostitutes were slaves and most were probably pumped and beaten for a bronze coin or two before having to receive their next tormentor. These people were objects to the rest of the world, not human beings. They were people’s daughters and sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In many cases they’d been taken from their homes on the other side of the world. Perhaps they were all that was left of their family?

For most prostitutes in the Roman Empire, life was a living Hades – just something to remember when looking at this aspect of the larger world of Killing the Hydra.

Thank you for reading…

Killing the Hydra has been doing very well in the Ancient History and Historical Fantasy categories on the Kobo and Amazon charts the last couple of weeks, so my sincere thanks to all of you who have gone out and purchased a copy. If you enjoyed it, please do leave a review.
In a few weeks I’ll post the next installment of The World of Killing the Hydra.

If you are interested in learning more about prostitution in the Roman Empire, especially in Pompeii, the video below is an excellent documentary that will give you an inside look at the Lupanare Grande in that ancient city. 

For those reading on mobile, click HERE for the video.