Arbeia (present day South Shields) was at the Eastern extremity of Hadrian's Wall. The modern town could be described as "post industrial" , with the re-created fort gate and barrack blocks of the fort sitting on a dig site within a late victorian townscape. At Arbeia A T Croom (of Tyne and wear Museums) has worked on the re-creation of Roman furniture , and indeed published a work of that name which i am presently annotating. I would like to show some interesting items that may elicit comment and questions.
Firstly we have a baby couch/bed (best to use these terms interchangably in all references to Roman "beds" as the purpose was nearly always twofold)with a simple restraining rail to prevent rolling:
We move along to a more prosperous rom with a substantial couch , enclosed to protect the user. Do not forget that the Romans did not use backed chairs in any quantity , either one reclined or sat upright on a stool:
Thirdly ,wardrobes and chest storage..looking very modern indeed. Again the rich were the only people with storage problems for clothes , the relative cost of clothing meant that ordinary folk had little choice and of course other household ephemera (childrens toys as a prime example ) were a virtual unknown in Roman times, so putting the kids stuff into a cupboard would be unheard of (or falling over train sets and barbies).
There is more to say on the buildings as well.Please check my msn blog for an Arbeia entry.
Hello to everyone after my unfortunate absence , here is a short blog to get me back into the swing of things.
A long European jorney took me via Koln, Frankfurt, Zurich and Innsbruck to Verona and the Venetian Carnival. Verona has the second largest surviving amphitheatre outside of Rome, and what a joy it is to behold in mellow sunlight. One might imagine that Theatre is worn and fragile with antiquity, however under a patina of weathering the massive structure retains its basic integrity and is used as a major venue for opera. I sat alone in the upper rows of the theatre on one of the huge stone blocks that constitute the visible inner finish of the auditorium, the sheer weight of the structure is impressive , its beauty is sublime.Here we have a shot of the interior, (quite suitable for an appearence by Caldrail id say) http://www.unrv.com/forum/index.php?automo...si&img=2132
This is a shot of the surviving part of the outer curtain wall, even without this structure the remaining edifice is impressive. The whole mood of the place is one of mellow maturity, I have attached some general shots of the Town which give a good idea of the relaxed ambience. Also extant are remains of the Roman town gates, two such exist , the Porta Leoni http://www.unrv.com/forum/index.php?automo...p;img=2129(with exposed groundworks showing the usual considerable change in levels from the original construction to modern street level) and the Porta de Borsarii ( a later medieval name for an early structure)
Well worth a visit.Oh the carnevale?
Some more to follow I think.
I have encountered a case today of a person suffering systemic poisoning by antimony trisulphide. This is fairly unusual , but not impluasible as he has been working with heavy machine bearings which contain an alloy of antimony .Antimony has a very strange history as a medicine, a cosmetic , part of a weapon system and a medieval re-usable laxative. Antimony is toxic if one has more than 100 milligrams in the body, indeed 2 mg is the norm for an adult. Rather unfortunately it has had a long vogue as a medication, and indeed in some modern contexts is used in the eye as a granular powder by certain devout Muslims emulating the Prophet (I am told that its stings unpleasantly).
It is not a true metal rather a metalloid and its sister element is our old friend arsenic, but unlike arsenic it is not easily lost from the body.Antimony converts to a far more deadly gaseous form , stibine (a hydride of antimony, SbH3).Dioscorides was familiar with the sulfide stibi as it was then known , which was used for skin complaints and burns. The vogue for medication gathered pace in the 16th C , doctors and vets using it abundantly as an antimony salt of tartaric acid ..inducing instant vomiting and purging "ill humors" from the body At this time wine was often left overnight in an antimony receptacle to achieve a similar purpose.It is suggested that Mozart died (or hastened his own end) by being fond of using antimony tartrate , his death throes being identical to those caused by antimony poisoning.
Stibinite (the sulphide mineral compound) was used by the Ancient Egyptians as mascara, kohl being the term you may well be familiar with, and the pigment "Naples yellow" made well into the 20th C is from the same mineral base (if precipitated out of solution the mineral is orange red rather than black as the natural mineral).
So how does Greek Fire get into the equation? The suggestion is that , given the impossibility of extinguishing this ordnance once the siphons had launched it, that the possible admixture was crude oil , stibinite and saltpetere. This mix is highly flammable and cannot be extinguished with water.Once stibinite ignites it produces a great deal of heat. We cannot know the recipe as, of course, divulgence meant death. In modern warfare oddly enough the sulfide is used in paints to reflect infrared , so your camo paint contains antimony.
And the laxatives? In the middle ages antimony metal pills were sold as "re-usable" pills..the constipated person swallowed one (about pea size) vomited and otherwise discharged effluvia, and the pill was retrived from said discharge for future use.It is said that such pills were passed down from generation to generation...
As can be seen we are in the period 75 CE -125 CE or thereabouts. Once again we have excellent attention to authenticity , from quotidian detail of carried (Centurion) marching gear :
and camp implements :
some robust noble born persons:
and a hawking party:
here is the great falconry authority Gemima Parry-Jones in appropraite dress (alas with modern microphone)
to the overall appearence of the soldiery (in a wide selection of segmentata and hamata, with some fine personal flourishes in the way of Roman bravado:
This is the unit to which the noted classical scholar (and re-imaginer of artillery) Alan Wilkins lends his gravitas with his painstakingly rebuilt weaponry (check my Ballisate gallery for his "Polybolus"
Primus Pilus kindly sent me a copy of "Justinian's flea"
Which I intend to review in full shortly.I have however been receiving pms from forum members regarding both the Antonine and Justinian episodes, and I now wish to give a short summary of additional information regarding possible causation.
Of the fascinating transformation of Yersinia psuedotubercolosis into Y.pestis (the actual "plague") I will leave you to discover from the book , save to mention that bacteria are (unknowingly) smart , and they will achieve their mission!
My previous blog entry ""Plague and Rye" (just scroll back a little way) expounds on the plausibility of Ergot of Rye predisposing a population to auto immune deficiency , thence making any aggressive viral incomer more effective in its epidemic effects (or indeed tipping gross morbidity into epidemic status). Ergotism flourishes when grain suffers a cool damp summer, and is compounded by poor storage (lack of ventilation) and processing of infected grain. Remember that Ergot was not even recognised as a parasitic fungus till very late in the history of cereal production.
The vectors that brought the Justinian episode to a head are quite remarkable, but most crucially the enabling factor that lead to a "critical mass" of black rats as the instruments of contagion was cool, damp, summer weather. So ergotism and rat population both thrive in such circumstances, an unhappy coincidence especially as they are also related to the storage of grain in proximity to population centres. Most unhappy indeed because humans are not actually the desired host for the parasite flea, the rat is its most desired target .The flea that hosts Y pestis is Xenopsylla cheopsis, and was so chosen because it is easily blocked by pathogenic bacteria, ie: it fails to digest harvested blood, goes into a biting frenzy and dies.this is of course the desired vector operating most efficiently from the Y pestis point of view, propogating its sisters in the medium of rat blood.
Not any old rat of course but particularly Rattus norvegicus (black) as opposed to Rattus rattus (brown).Now R norvegicus hitched its way from India with ocean traffic delivering pepper, but its favourite food is grain, and it does not care to move far in search of it (being a coastal type) , so a comfortable grain ship moving from Egypt to Byzantium was in essence a mobile home with all mod cons.Now X cheopsis didnt originally care for R norvegicus, it actually jumped ship from the egyptian nilotic rat for reasons unknown (tasted sour perhaps?).The chain of causation grows ever more complex.
The problem for humans is if a very abundant rat population is parasitised by the flea containing the plague bacterian, and it is too efficient in killing its hosts The flea is fooled into thinking it is starving by action of the plague bacteria, (a coagulant in its gut does not allow it to digest harvested blood). the flea is impelled to bite more to seek blood .This is fine if the biting is just done to rats, they are smitten with plague,( they die-that being the apotheosis of the bacterian), but not until the fleas have also breed to maintain a reservoir of the virus.Sadly when rat populations hit demographic peaks, having an abundant supply of grain in a concentrated area (Byzantium say) , fleas can then "jump off" searching for hosts and land on (and bite) humans. This is the only method of contagion , one cannot cough bubonic plague onto another human for example. So a huge die off of infected rats leaves humans grossly susceptible to contagion, if weakened by ergot poisoning the fatality rate exceeds the basic likely plague fatality rates considerably.
The book itself is not just about this episode, though the impact of the Justinian plague on the course of world history is enormous.
The three versions of the plague depend on how it affects a person: Bubonic plague is the most common form and results in flu-like symptoms and the swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin into large, painful cysts called buboes.That is the form that the event in Justinians reign took. Pneumonic plague is the least common but most dangerous form of plague. In this form of pneumonia, plague bacterium gets into the lungs of the victim, causing the coughing up of bloody sputum. Septicaemic plague occurs primarily as a secondary disease, Gage says, when pneumonic or bubonic plague is left untreated and the bacterium gets into the victim
A name to strike dread into the heart of many UNRV posters. Not as you may assume the Queen of Bythinia , rather we are talking downtown Bronx and Queens. Some recent members will not be aware of the dread shadow that this name casts over such a staid and scholarly forum , a man capable of posts varying from DaDa-ist "happenings" to "stream of consciousness" psychadelica. If Sigmund Freud had a darkest fear I suggest it would be Gaius Octavius, dressed as a giant chicken, perching on the headboard of his bed.
It is my joyful obligation to relate that , although not amongst us here , GO is still amongst us , we can but hope that he will unleash his diabolical wit and bizzare emoticon fuelled expressionism onto the heads of the unsuspecting public soon.
One theme that runs through my blog is the appearence of things in the modern world that were well known in antiquity , but are almost forgotten today. Black Bryony (Tammus communis) is in glorious fruiting condition ,prompted by the warm weather as Britain enjoys a very belated indian summer. This is the plant known to Pliny (The Elder, as usual), as Uva Tamina.
If you had been a wealthy person suffering from gout, chilblains or ulcerated legs in Pliny's day, the macerated sap of this plant would have been applied to the seat of your discomfort.The berries act as a strong emetic , a child could die from eating them. The juice from the root mixed with a little wine was used as cure or palliative for gravel, however as regular readers will not be surprised to hear , an overdose results in an agonising death due to the steroidal glycosides it contains.
Nearby the Bryony I found the Dead Yellow Nettle (called dead as the leaf does not sting ), Pliny recommends this as a cure for scrofula , and rightly so , European peasants have known of this property for centuries , the plant is full of vitamin c and the poor used to scour the hedgerows for early growth to add to a dull winter diet
It is still possible to buy a strong Nettle beer in Britain which is a good digestive aid for an acidic stomach or for constant gastric bloating , though I should warn against excessive use as the beer does produce "a stronng wyndde".
Here is a local recipe for the beer if you must tempt fate.
900g (2lb) Young Nettle Tops
4.5lt (8 pints) Water
450g (1lb) Demerara Sugar
25g (1 oz) Cream of Tartar
At Chester Zoo there has been an attempt to re-create a Roman garden , or certain elements of types of garden. The medicinal, the rustic (cottage garden) and the ornamental are represented in an overlapping reconstruction.
The problem with visiting a Zoo is of course the spectacle of large , dumb animals wandering aimlessly and displaying semi-psychotic behaviour , whilst their offspring are never allowed to live in freedom (nor experience a healthy diet). The animals look pretty pissed off as well.
The garden is a small part of the whole thing and whilst its original execution was reasonable , maintenance does not seem to be particularly good. Certainly I was able to visualise the gardens of Pompeii on an overcast day in Deva , but the original is still the greatest.
The medicinal garden contains:
Marshmallow (Althea officianalis)..usually used as a poultice for bruises and sprains
Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) ..for hypochondria and freckles (that is a new one to me as well!)
Wormwood (Artemesia absinthum) ..of which I have written copiously , flavouring (absinthe), worm killer (internal parasites) , and relief for aching feet on the march (as an application).
Bear's breeches (Ursus please note) (Acanthus mollis) the roots were cooked and used as a dressing for burns
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) the standard Roman cough medicine
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) ..used as a fragrant herb in rooms , but also an abortifactant (still used so)
House Leek (Sempervivum tectorum) the sap is good for burns (as one might use Aloe Vera now) , also placed on the roof of a house to protect from lightning and fire (being a gift from Jupiter Folgore).
Borage (Starflower) (Borago officianalis)..as used by the Celts as a pre-combat beer( its name being borrach meaning "glad courage") and used for rheumatism and delerium.Nowadays used for PMT because of its huge linoleic acid content, and for prostaisis.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officianlis) another useful cough medicine , still so used today.Usually boiled with figs and honey.
The "decorative" garden was in poor shape , though the collected quinces and medlars were attractive. The bee skips (hives) were well done , set in a bed of hyssop to make honey with a useful expectorant quality.
As I move about the countryside , I find that my mind occupies two different temporal co-ordinates; the present and sometime circa 50 BCE to 125CE . These function as two fixed points between which strange things seem to happen as regards the flow and movement of medical thought, Great modern "discoveries" turn out to be not quite as modern nor undiscovered as first appears. The form and consistency of pre-prepared medicaments has certainly improved apace, but the mis-use and overuse of these same goods by industrialised and post-industrial populations seems to know no bounds.
I was examining some mature Hemlock which is (after a very wet summer) in a particularly ripe and robust condition, likewise the very ancient horsetail fern (a very primitive plant and a useful if slightly dangerous source of the mineral silica). However the one herb that has flourished mightily in the damp "meadowy" conditions has been Filipendula ulmaria or Spirea ulmaria. This is an attractive plant known commonly as Meadowsweet which , in the Middle Ages was very popular as a house rush (ie: as disposable flooring , to be swept up and burnt along with food scraps , fleas and the like when its fragrance faded). It was one of the sacred Druidic herbs along with water mint and vervain (mistletoe and the oak occupy a rather more specialised niche in the Druidic canon).
The Druids were aware of the curative power of the plant , the active principle being salyciylic acid (amongst others, but that predominates) which Hoffman of the Bayer chemical company synthesised into acetylsalicylic acid in 1897. Hoffman decided to call his new product Asprin after jumbling the older latin name "Spirea" . If you are familiar with the product "Germaline" you would recognise the smell and taste of Meadowsweet..because they are the same thing.
And I add this quote especially for Lost Warrior:
"Magical Uses: used in divination, and in spells and charms for peace, happiness, love. It was a sacred herb of the Druids. Fresh meadowsweet should be arranged on the the altar when mixing love charms or performing love spells. Strew around the house for love and peace. At Lammas garlands of meadowsweet are worn to join with the essence of the Goddess"
I think that altogether has more romance than taking an asprin.
Post Scriptum: on the subject of Thin Ladies in 1694 from ther Ladyys Dictionary..
"Thin women are scragged, sad-looking and not comely".
How odd that another brief stroll should , this time without a hangover , should present me with what is now a commonplace weed in Britain that has a very exotic origin. Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus) is a threat to any small grazing animal and non-too kind to humans . Immature animals can die from consuming the plant and humans can have a nasty reaction to contact on account of the toxins it contains.The toxic priciple is alkaloid and tends to poison by causing the liver to fix too much copper in the host.The main alkaloids are the wonderfully named Jacobine, Jacodine and Jaconine.Inclusion in fermenting silage is a particular problem.
In folklore Fairies are said to fly on the ragwort twigs, though this is mainly confined to folktales in Scotland and Ireland.
Senecio squalidus is actually of hybrid origin. Its parents are two other species of Ragwort, Senecio aethnensis and Senecio chrysanthemifolius which are both presently only found on Sicily , on the slopes of Mt Etna and Vesuvius in Campagnia . It appears that the occur at different heights on the mountain and in between these points on the mountain the hybrid occurs. Now a strange thing has happened , some suggest diffusion of seedlings due to volcanic eruption (quite feasible) others point to the Botanic Gardens at Oxford.
In the early 1700's the plant was brought to the Gardens as an exotic, the later spread of railways on gravel beds proved an ideal medium for the propogation of the species.
What is the best method of control ? The caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth.which is ironic because these fellows have enjoyed a bumper year.
Bees adore Ragworts of all types, so harking back to some older treads about toxic honey I wonder if this plant was implicated in some of the poisonings mentioned regarding Antony's troops in particular?
I have written previously about Hemlock Conium maculatum (and its main poisonous principle the virulent alkaloid coniine, which essentially makes its victim "forget" to breathe), coldness of the flesh moving from the feet toward the chest with a gentle numbness being its significant property. It is said no pain attends this death.
I was taking a gentle stroll to relieve a modest hangover when I happened upon two items , lying by the wayside, that a maleficium would have ceased upon with glee: a toad and some young Water Hemlock.
Water Hemlock Cicuta virosa is sometimes mistaken for the gentler instrument of oblivion, but its venomous cicutoxin (an aliphatic alcohol mainly in the roots) causes a hideous convulsive death after roughly 20 minutes of agony (respiratory failure being the actual cause). You might think that this would be enough for some people (by which I mean career poisoners) , but I found a most interesting snippet of information the other day . There was a vogue for the force feeding of toads with deadly plants, (we are speaking of the era of that most celebrated poisoner Catherine De Medicii) , arsenic being a favourite, but cicutoxin and coniium likewise. What profit does this have? Well obviously the toad is probably not too happy, but venin de crapaud the distilled essence of the luckless animals body was a powerful multiple envenomed poison.The bufotenin in a toad's flesh being a powerful hallucogen (hence a spate of toad licking in the Americas ("The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonaran Desert" by A Most if you simply must put your tongue on an amphibian).
Before you rush to feed your pet toads with an assortment of narcotics I must just mention that the urine of schizophrenics yields a very high level of bufotenin , so mental stability might be a problem here.
Which just goes to show what handy things are lying around in the countryside.
As many of you will know I maintain a morbid interest in toxic items from ethnobotany , and likewise the animal kingdom where its creatures were known and "utilised" in a known (or fabled ) historical context...Cleopatra's asp as our most prominent , recent televised suicide in Rome 2.
I intend to revise my list of plant poisons (previous blogs) and add some spiteful animals (and fish).
However a scale of toxicity is needful if we are to determine the relative efficacy of our assassination tools, how do we gauge the Claudian mushrooms versus Socratic Hemlock? Quite neatly as it transpires by using a dosage per kg bodyweight index, considering of course that a small woman has a small liver and might be an easy "client" to deal with.
here we are:
6. supertoxic ...less than 5mg per Kg ...that is a mere taste (six or seven drops)
5. extremely toxic...5-50 mg per Kg...still not much, maybe a teaspoon for a smallish "client".
4. very toxic...50-500mg per Kg..between a teaspoon and an ounce , not much really.
3. moderately toxic...0.5-5 gm per Kg...maybe one ounce up to a pint (so not as disguisable).
below this levels 1 and 2 are sub fatal , but nasty.A sick person might succumb, but not a healthy one given a reasonably timely antidote.
To give some understandable benchmarks :Formaldehyde is a level 6 , particularly deadly when inhaled , but it has a vile smell( though widely used in cosmetics as a stabiliser) . Hemlock , Aconite and Oleander are all sixes as is liquid nicotine.Mandrake is a 4.
And before you take a swim , some Octopii can bite you to the tune of level 4....
and heres a link to some nice sweeties..
Thats just to set the scene for some toxicological history.
The cavalry unit of the Legion was present at the Bremmetenacvm event. Only four horsemen in all (not the regulation 40) , and even then the logistics of moving , preparing and saddling the animals was by no means easy. One of the animals in particular was a complete newbie to the event and bridling was a rather tense experience. The Commander also had to improvise a mounting block from a nearby stone wall as his mount ws a little nervy.
Anyway everyone made it into the arena without being unhorsed, the immediate thing which struck everyone was the higher seat of the cavalrymen because of the horned saddle (and lack of stirrups). The Cavalry performed a number of drill evolutions which amply illustrated the precise control that can be achieved by a discipline man and mount , the use of seat and leg pressure predominantly being involved in the control of the animals at certain junctures. Shooting a bow from the saddle and using the kontos in an overhead position are near handsfree activities (you khold the reins really so they dont fall away) , and it was also noticeable that carrying a shield and spatha (and wielding them ) needed greater emphasis on lower body control.
The images posted are not as "natural" as the shots one can take at Hadrian's Wall , as Ribchester is a rather smart upmarket densely built village, so bits of the 21st Century keep intruding no matter where you point the camera.
We saw drill that illustrated the accuracy of javelin attack from horseback, direct sword attack, kontos attack , use of the bow and harassing of footsoldiers (one man to distract an opponent into raising his shield another to nip in and strike him down with a lance).
The animals in full flow looked very good, remembering that these were just the cobby types favoured by Roman Cavalry for working in this province in particular. I suspect we are seeing New Forest blood here mixed with Welsh cob.It was actually very exciting to watch, and even this good natured display made one realise real nerve and discipline would be needed to face the mobile threat of horsemen.
As always I picked up one or two interesting asides about commonplace re-enactment experience, the most interesting was the not unsurprising observation that the scutum is the most annoying bit of kit carried by the soldiery, even the Marian "backpacks" though heavy were not as awkward and demanding on the physique.The load by the way compares to a modern bergen -say 40 lbs , with armour and scutum in adition you begin to grasp the wieght being carried . We have chatted on the forums about the grips for shields and swords previously, the upshot of re-creating the kit was that these men had wrists like oak trees carrying the scutum year in year out and some pathological evidence shows moderate elongation of the left arm of soldier's skeletons.Ballistae could not be displayed and operated becaus eof the damp conditions, so always attack the Romans when its raining, so they cant deploy torsion weapons.
The annual visit of the II Augusta to Ribchester (their furthest North from their south coast HQ) is taking place this weekend .
I was able to get some more useful shots of the proceedings which will appear in the gallery and then also in bulk on my external blog.This year the event was enlivened by the presence of the Legion's sub-unit of horsemen . As always the re-enactors make a good fist of trying to convey the reality of soldierly life to a largely uncomprehending (though friendly) audience . Im always impressed by the amount of effort and determination put in to these things. Alas this was the first return to Ribchester without the late John Davies (Architectus) whose untimely death I mention earlier in this blog.
I got a useful shot of John the Medicus with his authentic eqipment for the cauterisation of haemerroids , namely a robust set of iron tongs (to be heated over a brazier) and a rams horn cut-out to prevent damage to the patients seat and the Doctors hands:
I will have more to say on the cavalry in a further blog, and will let everyone know when I have a bulk upload into a dedicated gallery on msn.
Exhausting but worthwhile. The various reports are being posted in the Forum, the images are going into the Gallery. A tremendously eclectic meeting with specialisms ranging from unusual dietary and sexual behaviour in Rome via detailed knowledge of construction techniques, medicinal practice , gladiatorial fashions, military engineering etc. This was one of those rare events where everything actually went right, and I just hope we can follow this up with additional UK meetings and a Forum meet (one day) in Italy. Everyone contributed wholeheartedly, the debate and arguments over topics great and small was continuous without any ill will. The first night set the tone, a noisy warm hearted dinner party consuming wine in abundance.I cant praise the UK members enough, for the spirit in which the meeting took place. Also I cant believe how much they drank.
"Plague" as an event in altering the possible course of history looms large in the Roman and Medieval Worlds. Elsewhere on this blog and in the Forum discussion has occurred touching "what the plagues might have been?"That is can we be sure that bubonic plague is the identifiable catastrophic disease? The short answer is no we cant. Bubonic plague might well be a co-factor in a given incidence of plague, a taker of life and a causative factor in economic ruin , but certain other possibilities suggest themselves to us.
Several factors suggest that in the medieval plague two morbid strains of disease were immanent, namely the very visible bubonic element (gross lymphatic swellings in particular) from which some persons survived ; and a further pneumonia like respiratory infection which was possibly co-terminus with the buboes (and possibly not) but nearly always fatal.Hence we might have the appearence of death from an ostentatiously visible disease actually caused by another invisible vector.
One of the most widespread and easily percieved toxins in nature is Ergot of Rye (actually a resting stage in the life of Claviceps purperea )It is actually a sclerotium ie: a dormant hibernating form.As many of you will know the ergot replaces individual ears of rye and was for most of history not recognised as being a separate biological entity(1850 in fact).
One may find ergot everywhere, there are more than 30 species afflicting grasses and there are a lot of grasses! All these species form mycotoxins(as all poisinous fungii), but they dont normally get into the food chain at all. So far so good , what of LSD you ask then ? Well lysergic acid amides can be produced from ergot along with ergotamine and ergocristine, ergot as such holds no "true" LSD but can nevertheless trigger hallucinatory convulsions.
Regrettably happy hippy trips can also be partner to gangrenous ergotism from direct ergot consumption.Ergonovine another ergot product may cause spontaneous abortion (either by accident or design) and also is highly toxic to nursing infants , indeed skilled Germanic Midwives used it from the 16C to ease labour though obviously dosage calculation had to be most exacting. Matossian of the Maryland University has done extensive demographic work into the Medieval era :
but her findings resonate justifiably to earlier time frames.Ergot produces upward of twenty different alkaloids in different mycotoxinal mixes, infecting host populations in different ways.Given that such a large ,but variable ,range of toxins might be produced by a common, but unrecognised , fungus can we interpret any historical patterns where populations have been weakened (and left in a "morbid" state ) where advetitious infections could thus have been rendered far deadlier ?
Anthropologist James Woods has argued that the Black Death was not in fact bubonic plague, on statistical grounds.The mortality rate recorded from Parish registers shows a 45 fold increase in morbidity, a factor way in excess of the known fatality rate for Plague. Even if the disease had hit a non-immune population the death rate is colossal.Modern plague (and we must infer from the modern as best we can) reaches a high morbidity in the rat population before it spills over into the human sphere.Modern epidemics are always preceeded by a noticeable die off of rodents, and the Black Death attracts no such commentary (and I would be pleased to hear if someone can find any source commenting on the like regarding the Plague of Justinian).Clue patterns are reflected geographically also. cold dry areas tend to be immune.The geographic spread of the Black Death also appears to follow a dissemination pattern in relation to transportation routes.According to Woods the Bubonic Plague can only be reliably identified as late as the early 19th C, the original "Black Death" was a massive killer with a very patchy morbidity distribution...so were those who died actually weakened by some underlying common factor? Hence I offer you immunosuppression by mytotoxins on the commenest of foods...rye. Ergot tends to flourish in damp conditions and the modern disaster of 1666 followed two apallingly wet winters.
So could the early Classical Era plagues be of multiple causation? We have 1. a staple crop(s) subject to various forms of (sometime) toxic parisitism 2. Poor weather , ie: damp winter in a warmish climate 3. Poor storage (ie: partial fermentation). 3. A heavy reliance on the affected crops as a staple for the poor 4. Immune system suppression on a wide scale, spontaneous abortion, infant deaths via toxin ingestion 5. Viral infection from a previously isolated source on top of (4) above ....heavy morbidity.
Food (or mycotoxin) for thought.
ref: Macinnis "The Killer Bean of Calabar"
an excellent ripping yarn collection for the toxophagus.
PS: I was just perusing some toxicology notes regarding the Justinian "episode" and the "episode" was not a single event rather a series of diminishing epidemics spread over a period of (at least ) 100 years starting in 541 CE , this "ripple effect" is evident in all major outbreaks of "Plague" .Epidemologists suggest that the arrival of the second major event (1340 CE ) echoed on for a 300 year epoch of "plagues". Both these episodes profoundly changing social, religious and demographic dynamics.
Lax "Toxin" OUP refers.
Hemlock was the poison used to execute Socrates for corrupting youth and neglecting the Gods...it contains two poisonous alkaloids coniine and coniceine (the plant is named Conium maculatum). These block the transmission of nerve impulses which cause death by failure of respiration (ie: one ceases to try to breathe).
The actual execution (as described by Plato) has the executioner examining the victims legs and feet , pressing them to see if the sensation is lost in these extremities , the numbness that Socrates felt traveled slowly up his body (which became cold to touch) and as it made toward his heart he expired.
A similar plant is Water Hemlock which contains cicutoxin (the plant is Cicuta maculatum which I have seen growing abundantly near Mediobogdum) , the root resembles a turnip and if partly ingested is fatal in at least 30 percent of cases.The action is one of violent seizures affecting the spine and brain.
A further related toxin is nicotine from tobacco.This is very similar to coniine and it is the essential addictive element that draws smokers.In sensory terms the initial ingestion causes euphoria and nerve stimulation, thence desensitisation and depression.The leaves were originally "tobago" possibly first found by Columbus and brought by Raleigh from America to England.Nicotine is from the name Jean Nicot de Villemain an explore who sent seeds of the plant back to Europe in the 16th C.Nicotine is very toxic and can be used as a potent insecticide , indeed two drops of the pure substance dropped on to a small mammals tongue (a dog for example ) will kill outright.So an addiction to nicotine is actually related to the ingestion of the Athenian state poison .
Of course the Roman soldier in Africa and the Syrian provinces might well have known this plant as anaesthesia and recreational adjunct:
ref Timbrell "The Poison Paradox".
Some of you will have noticed that "Another Roman Recipe to Delight All" thread had a recent burst of life, when I decided to try out a "Roman Army Bread" recipe ( which I found on a bag of spelt flour I bought).
Im well aware that I should be baking flat loaves in a field oven , or in the ash of a windblown campfire, however I prefer to use the modern medium of a breadmaking machine in case my experiments go awry and I set fire to a sizeable area of countryside.
I strongly recommend trying this type of bread at least once, the difference between it and a store bought loaf is vast. Its one of those things that hints at how different everyday items might have been in reality whilst appearing to be very similar in appearence. As I commented in the thread the spelt loaf doesnt rise very much, and would actually be more favourably produced as a flat "slipper" bread.A conveniently dense and nutritious item to slip into a bread bag. The taste is excellent, theres no point in trying to describe it other than to say "rich and dense" , the opposite of a baguette id say.
I have been experimenting with the breadmaker , but I havent quite hit a winning formula for a honey flavoured loaf , when I do ill post in the food thread. So far my observations are, the loaf needs a generous amount of olive oil to give sufficient moisture, dont use sugar if you can get a quality honey -failing that use a rough demerera/cane rather than white processed sugar. It is possible to let down the spelt with some wholemeal flour, (as I mentioned previously Roman bread from Late Republican times onward was a mix of grains depending on availability of stocks rather than desired recipe), this will give a bulkier loaf. Use sea salt.
For an authentic taste of rustic life try some aioli as a spread -without butter unless you are a Germanic barbarian type.It goes very well with a rough country red wine.
If you have never varied your bread consumption from "standard" whites I urge you to give this bread a try . In the UK as some of you know , high quality spelt loaves can be bought (at some cost) from Booth's Supermarket chain.
A coincidence of two items leads me to post a little about grain conssumption in the ancient world. Northern Neil fortuitously got hold of some spelt (red wheat) bread from a local (to ourselves) supermarket chain, this particular loaf is very different to any off the shelf product in mass usage.I am presently also writing a review of grain supply vis a vis famine in the classical world, and was struck by the frequency of grain shortages (as opposed to outright famine)
A couple of slices of spelt loaf are very filling , but do not leave the consumer either bloated or tired ie: complex protein endosperm and slow burn long chain carbs , the grain is impermeable to pests and (nowadays) insecticidal pollution. It struck me that the working man (or slave) who ate this bread along with aioli (garlic/olive oil ) spread would be well set up to avoid any sort of systemic poisoning, especially via amoebic/flagellate/nemotode parasitic incursion (nemotode=worms).
This most basic of dietary regimes would be beneficial also for the modern obsession with "fibre" to make the peristaltic action of the gut wall easier , and teeth would be less llikely to be carious. I now also understand why the Army used barley as a punishment ration-it was the fallback staple for the peasant in hard times , and to have to subsist on this grain would be both tedious and a humiliating reminder of rural poverty. So the observation that the Roman soldiery "just" ate porridge and bread and then marched all day does not now strike me as totally ridiculous , especially if rich Imperialist tidbits could be added to this basic fare.
"True Roman bread, for true Romans".
What better time of year to add another toxicological entry?
Nicotine: alkaloid insecticidal chemical, can be toxic if ingested through the skin or inhaled.
Ordeal bean (Physostigma venemosum) a member of the pea family, a west African native.One quarter bean can be fatal to an adult.
Oxygen: poisinous to anerobic bacteria Which is why exposing a gangrenous wound to the air (ie: oxygen)
helps the cleansing of that wound. Essential to metabolism -many poisons work by impeding its progress to our blood.Botox is of course a derivative of Clostridium botulinum a virulent anerobic bacteria which is now routinely pumped into womens faces, killing the surrounding flesh and relaxing frown lines (leaving neat pockets of anerobic hapiness).
Quinine: very poisinous in a large dose, anti malarial in a controlled one.
Ricin: castor oil seed cake residue -only a few seeds are needed to kill.
Rotenone: a pesticide made from the root of Jamaica dogwood (fish poison tree) .
Strychnine: from the dried ripe Nux vomica seed.
Wormwood: atremisia, which kills helminths (human intestinal/encysted worms).
Thats it for the abbreviated glossary, I hope to add some notes on the historical use of these items particularly in relation to the classical world.
Another festive toxicological glossary:
Datura : Thorn apple/jimsonweed, the fruit and leaves (which Arabs smoke) have a high concentration of alkaloids (atropine and scopolamine) , in small doses a specific for asthma, otherwise deleriant and hallucogenic.
Digitalis: foxglove , full of semi toxic cardaic glycosides. You may have a relative who takes digoxin for his heart? Slows a damaged heart to allow steady systole/diastole movement, too much and it stops..
Dioxins: organic compounds containig chlorine , damaging to DNA- hence exposed persons may have damaged offspring .
Ergot: a fungal infestation of sveral grasses -lysurgic acid ring a bell? Produces mania and can lead to gangrene by cutting off blood supply to extremities.
Hemlock :Conium maculatum an umbillifer that causes a drowsy gentle death, unlike Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe) which causes a paroxysmic one.
Laudunum: tincture of Opium freely available in many Victorian medicines , used recreationally but poisinous in strong doses.
Lead :toxic heavy metal , breaks the disulfide bridge in proteins hence distorts them and alters proper function. Can be removed by steady countermeasures especially by sulphur based compounds.\
Levant nut: Cocculus , a stupifier used by thieves and assasins to render a victim incapable.
Mercury: heavy metal curse of the modern world, friend of parasites and disease.
Several members of the Forum have a well developed (and probably deeply unhealthy) interest in a number of plant toxins used in the ancient world, (sometimes for medicine, other times for the removal of offensive relatives/political opponents).Here I offer a small guide to some common toxic principles (having previously blogged on the main toxic categories.
Aconite: two plants actually have this name (daisy and buttercup families respectivley), the name is used to refer to the alkaloid derived from the buttercup (monkshood/wolfbane).
Agaric: 1. a fairly harmless tree fungus 2.fly agaric a deadly mushroom
Alkaloid A nitrogen base compound (usually biologically active), an anti herbivore grazing "countermeasure" (includes morphine, nicotine, hyoscyamine,ephedrine, strychnine, atropene...good thing we arent herbivores)
Antimony Toxic heavy metal
Arsenic ditto, usually the oxide -used to be a common cosmetic, (a lot of dead husbands in Napoli ring a bell?).
Belladonna :atropine, overtaxes the cardio system.
Calabar bean: "ordeal bean" of Africa , a type of pea contains the deadly phyto stigmine.
Cantharides: aka Spanish Fly -provoker of uncontrollable lust and deadly poison: macerated pre-bruised beetle in chloroform (Pantagathus would you imagine anyone starting that formula from scratch? :pimp:
Cardiac glycosides: steroid compounds that damage heart and kidneys , another anti-ruminant countermeasure.
Colocynth :the bitter apple of Palestine , a specific for malaria but take care!
Cyanide: hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid) essentially stops oxygen transmission from the blood to the cells-hence proving fatal . Zyklon B was a derivitive.
only A to C so far -any fatalities in the Senate during Saturnalia and I will be most suspicious.
I have been keeping notes to try and produce a handy recipe that would be both beneficial to modern users , and whilst not attested , be understood by our Roman forbears.
I think I have one such ready for the forthcoming Saturnalia, no part of it was unknown in Rome (though some ingredients would be for the rich alone) this mix would be both cleansing and pleasant .
take 1 pint of maderia wine ( so we are talking sweet and rich hence adjust your choice to taste).
1 sprig of wormwood ( those bracing thujones!)
1 sprig rosemary (digestive )
1 small bruised nutmeg
1 inch of fresh bruised ginger root
ditto cinnamon bark ( very pricey in Ancient Rome)
12 large raisins
place all the herbs in the wine , keep in the cool and dark for a week or two .Strain off the herbs,combine this medicated stock with another bottle of madeira -mixing thoroughly! This will settle a jaded stomach nicely if sipped from time to time.
Done with discretion this should make a useful tonic, myself I will aim for a less sweet base and fewer raisins , whilst perhaps adding one (yes one) drop of frankincense.
Reference acknowledgment : Hoffman "Holistic Herbal".
Chester's Fort (that is on Hadrian's Wall not Deva the Fort at Chester!) is the subject of a second visit. The collection of artefacts in the site museum repays scrutiny , many are altars and inscriptions of great value saved by local antiquarians working only with private resources and a love of history. That these items are now in the custody of English Hertiage at least means theft and dispoilation cannot befall them.
I dont intend to post the majority of shots in UNRV , rather a selection with a bulk upload off-site at my msn blog, otherwise I will clog up the plumbing here.
Some of the artefacts have been taken by myself previously, this time though I have gone equipped for indoor work as well as site photos.So if you think youve seen the item before, I hope I have improved on my previous gallery shot. I will be loading a "Cilvirnvm Secvndvs" gallery on msn shortly.
Scrolling down this blog will lead you to the first entry and assorted links. Augustus' "Hadrian's Wall site " is under construction , but watch for a future ntry for this important Fort.Find him here:-
Just to remind readers that this is the crossing point of Wall over River Tyne, and I have placed a shot showing the remains of the southern bridge structure across the Tyne.
The bathhouse fascinates me with its wonderful setting , so I took one or two more shots of it in autumnal colours.
If you have keen eyes you may notice that finds are not just from this site but a number of adjoining localities (Proccolita, Vindolanda).
Post Scriptum: I forgot to add this link to a blog entry on the concept of thoroughly hating your enemies in the Ancient World , as an appropriate aspect of virtue.
The whole Blog is a joyful plunge into a deep, evil smellin, weed choked pond of curmudgeonly excellence.
Here are a few images from an obscure, or perhaps overlooked, Fort . Some work was done after the First WW , but thats about it and we have few artefacts to look at In the present the remains of the fort are quite meagre and tucked away to the rear of a small park area in a major Lake District resort.
Ambleside is the head of the Lake (Windermere) , and it would seem that we have a Fort with granaries tha are conspicuously overlarge for its likely size.
The area is not noted for having been a major area of conflict as the Legions pushed north toward the Stanegate, as it has always (until recent centuries) been sparsely populated.
Nowadays you cant move for tourists , in , on and around the lake itself.
It would seem that we have some species of strategic supply depot or staging post here, the ease of waterborne transport along the length of Windermere from (possibly, the "lost" Fort at Urswick, which itself could have been water served from Deva (I suggest only!)) the south to allow a strategic stockpiling in this location.
Certainly the foundation was of Flavian origin, later a Trajanic-Hadrianic rebuild was placed on a raised platform, one assumes with such close proximity to the largest open body of water in Britain flooding may have occured.
Glannaventa and Alavanna (previously blogged and photographed ) are its nearest neighbours. The short lived Mediobogdvm is not too far away either.
The veracity of the name , is as usual, not entirely clear -but everyone still calls it Galava!