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Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire

“In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists”*…

But what is it for?…

In the first episode of Buck Rogers, the 1980s television series about an astronaut from the present marooned in the 25th century, our hero visits a museum of the future. A staff member brandishes a mid-20th-century hair dryer. “Early hand laser,” he opines. As an observation of how common knowledge gets lost over time, it’s both funny and poignant. Because our museums also stock items from the past that completely baffle the experts.

Few are as intriguing as the hundred or so Roman dodecahedrons that we have found… In 1739, a strange, twelve-sided hollow object from Roman times was discovered in England. Since then, more than a hundred dodecahedrons have been unearthed.. We know next to nothing about these mysterious objects — so little, in fact, that the various theories about their meaning and function are themselves a source of entertainment.

So, what do we know?

Roman dodecahedrons — or more properly called Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons — are twelve-sided hollow objects, each side pentagonal in shape and almost always contain a hole. The outer edges generally feature rounded protrusions.

Most of the objects are made from bronze, but some are in stone and don’t have holes or knobs. The dodecahedrons are often fist-sized yet can vary in height from 4 to 11 cm (about 1.5 to 4.5 in). The size of the holes also varies, from 6 to 40 mm (0.2 to 1.5 in). Two opposing holes typically are of differing sizes.

Objects of this type were unknown until the first one was found in 1739 in Aston, Hertfordshire. In all, 116 have been dug up from sites as far apart as northern England and Hungary. But most have been found in Gaul, particularly in the Rhine basin, in what is now Switzerland, eastern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries. Some were found in coin hoards, indicating their owners considered them valuable. Most can be dated to the 2nd and 3rd century AD.

No mention of the dodecahedrons from Roman times has survived. Any theory as to their function is based solely on speculation. Some suggestions:

• A specific type of dice for a game since lost to history. 

• A magical object, possibly from the Celtic religion. A similar small, hollow object with protrusions was recovered from Pompeii in a box with either jewellery or items for magic.

• A toy for children.

• A weight for fishing nets.

• The head of a chieftain’s scepter. 

• A kind of musical instrument. 

• A tool to estimate distances and survey land, especially for military purposes.

• An instrument to estimate the size of and distance to objects on the battlefield for the benefit of the artillery.

• A device for detecting counterfeit coins.

• A calendar for determining the spring and autumn equinoxes and/or the optimal date for sowing wheat.

• A candle holder. (Wax residue was found in one or two of the objects recovered.)

• A connector for metal or wooden poles. 

• A knitting tool specifically for gloves. (That would explain why no dodecahedrons were found in the warmer regions of the Empire.)

• A gauge to calibrate water pipes.

• A base for eagle standards. (Each Roman legion carried a symbolic bird on a staff into battle.) 

• An astrological device used for fortune-telling. (Inscribed on a dodecahedron found in Geneva in 1982 were the Latin names for the 12 signs of the zodiac.) 

The geographic spread of the dodecahedrons we know of is particular: they were all found in territories administered by Rome, inhabited by Celts. That enhances the theory that they were specific to Gallo-Roman culture, which emerged from the contact between the Celtic peoples of Gaul and their Roman conquerors.

Intriguingly, archaeologists in the 1960s have found similar objects along the Maritime Silk Road in Southeast Asia, except smaller and made of gold. They do not appear to predate the Gallo-Roman artefacts and may be evidence of Roman influence on the ancient Indochinese kingdom of Funan…

The first of many was unearthed almost three centuries ago, and we still don’t know what they were for: “Mysterious dodecahedrons of the Roman Empire.”

* Jhumpa Lahiri


As we ponder the puzzle, we might send compressed birthday greetings to Aaron “Bunny” Lapin; he was born on this date in 1914.  In 1948, Lapin invented Reddi-Wip, the pioneering whipped cream dessert topping dispensed from a spray can.   First sold by milkmen in St. Louis, the product rode the post-World War Two convenience craze to national success; in 1998, it was named by Time one of the century’s “100 great consumer items”– along with the pop-top can and Spam.  Lapin became known as the Whipped Cream King; but his legacy is broader:  in 1955, he patented a special valve to control the flow of Reddi-Wip from the can, and formed The Clayton Corporation to manufacture it.  Reddi-Wip is now a Con-Agra brand; but Clayton goes strong, now making industrial valves, closures, caulk, adhesives and foamed plastic products (like insulation and cushioning materials).



“All roads lead to Rome”*…

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity…

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity…

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.

Ancient transportation and travel: “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.”

* The proverb “All roads lead to Rome” derives from medieval Latin. It was first recorded in writing in 1175 by Alain de Lille, a French theologian and poet, whose Liber Parabolarum renders it as ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam’ (a thousand roads lead men forever to Rome)


As we plot our paths, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.


“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…


The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)


Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm


As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses



Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“‘For a while’ is a phrase whose length can’t be measured”*…



A reproduction of the fragmentary Fasti Antiates Maiores, an early Roman calendar (c. 60 BC) [source]



What year is it? It’s 2019, obviously. An easy question. Last year was 2018. Next year will be 2020. We are confident that a century ago it was 1919, and in 1,000 years it will be 3019, if there is anyone left to name it. All of us are fluent with these years; we, and most of the world, use them without thinking. They are ubiquitous. As a child I used to line up my pennies by year of minting, and now I carefully note dates of publication in my scholarly articles.

Now, imagine inhabiting a world without such a numbered timeline for ordering current events, memories and future hopes. For from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles…

Once local and irregular, time-keeping became universal and linear in 311 BCE. History would never be the same again: “A Revolution in Time.”

See also: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”*…

* Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun


As we mark time, we might recall that it was on this date in 293 that Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian appoint Galerius as Caesar to Diocletian, beginning the period of four rulers known as the Tetrarchy.  Although he was a staunch opponent of Christianity, Galerius ended the Diocletianic Persecution when he issued an Edict of Toleration in Serdica in 311.


Porphyry bust of Galerius [source]



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them”*…


Pundits who blame 21st-century-style moral rot for the decline of Rome miss the big picture, a new book by Kyle Harper argues. Against plague and drought, the empire never stood a chance…

At the empire’s peak, the human actors — the political, cultural, economic, and military leaders who set up its institutions — were more than equal to the task. Under Marcus Aurelius, emperor from A.D. 161 to 180, about a quarter of humanity lived under Roman rules and influence. The Roman population swelled, wages rose, cities flowered (at its peak, the city of Rome had perhaps a million inhabitants), and vast trade networks threaded across Africa and into Asia.

But at the time, it was easy for Rome to make successful moves: Nature dealt it an especially good hand. During much of the Roman Climate Optimum (about 250 B.C. to A.D. 150), the empire was blessed with stable weather, abundant rain, and warm temperatures. Romans grew and shipped prodigious quantities of grain, especially in North Africa, and their leaders sometimes went to great lengths to hold wheat prices down, offer subsidies, and make sure citizens could feed themselves.

Then, from the middle of the second century onward, nature began dealing out some rotten hands — in the form of natural disasters and vicious germs — and the empire couldn’t hold its winning streak.

The germs were the most violent and obvious destabilizing forces. For all of the society’s technological sophistication, Roman doctors had no notion of germ theory, and Roman cities hosted a robust resident population of waterborne and airborne diseases —especially malaria, typhoid, and various intestinal ills.

On top of this, the empire’s densely urbanized populations — connected by intricate trade routes — were excellent targets for major pandemics. Harper demonstrates that the Roman Empire was hit by at least three great plagues, each a powerful blow to both its population and civic institutions. During one wave of the second-century Antonine plague, which was likely a form of smallpox, as many as 2,000 people died every day. A century later, a disease that sounds, from accounts written during that era, a lot like hemorrhagic fever (the gruesome Ebola family of diseases) migrated from Ethiopia across the rest of the empire and took a similar toll.

Meanwhile, the climate grew more and more erratic. “In winter there is not such an abundance of rains to nourish the seeds,” wrote Cyprian, an early Christian writer of Carthage. “The summer sun burns less bright over the fields of grain. The temperance of spring is no longer for rejoicing, and the ripening fruit does not hang from autumn trees.”

Drought struck the empire’s breadbasket of North Africa. The combination sent the society reeling, but it was able to recover until the climate swung again. In the fourth century, when the Eurasian steppe also fell under drought, nomadic peoples like the Visigoths and Huns (whom Harper describes as “armed climate refugees on horseback”) began to antagonize and terrorize Roman territories in Europe. Famously, the Visigoth leader Alaric sacked Rome in 410, effectively sounding the death knell of the Western part of the Roman Empire, which eventually fragmented into small, feudal territories…

More of this cautionary tale at “When Rome Fell, the Chief Culprits Were Climate and Disease. Sound Familiar?

And further to Mark Twain’s remark that, while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, see also  1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed,  the story of the fall of the Bronze Age and the civilizations that had defined it– similarly driven by climate change (and the migration that it spawned).

* Livy, The Early History of Rome


As we ruminate on all of the meanings of “recycle,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1775 that a seminal event in the formation of the leader of the world’s current “imperial” regime took place, the “Midnight Ride”: Paul Revere and William Dawes rode out of Boston about 10 p.m. to warn patriots at Lexington and Concord of the approaching British.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

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