Friday Archaeology Blogging
Yeah, yeah, I know...
Have you ever noticed that Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and other cinematic archaeologists have very few adventures that deal with ancient Roman relics? My own theory about this is that the Romans do not, in general, possess that elusive air of mystery that is enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, and others. For one thing, one of the Romans' main accomplishments was an efficient bureaucracy, and Indiana Jones Successfully Figures Out The Cost Of Olive Oil In 4th-Century A.D. Gaul is not likely to bring the box-office dollars rolling in. However, there are darkly mysterious things associated with the Romans, and this here is one of them:
That, in fact, is the underside of this (click the image for a larger version:
That is a thing called the "Lapis Niger" (literally, "Black Stone"), an enormous slab of black marble placed overtop of a very old altar and the inscribed stone block in the top picture above. The Lapis Niger is located, as the bottom picture indicates, right in the middle of a main street running through the middle of the Roman Forum. What it is, precisely, is a matter of conjecture, although the Romans seem to have believed that it marked the spot where the city's legendary founder Romulus died. The inscription on the stone block is the oldest known piece of inscribed Latin, and it contains both a curse and a threat of legal sanction against anyone messing with the site. The inscription has been reconstructed and translated as follows:
Whosoever defiles this spot, let him be forfeit to the shades of the underworld, and whosoever contaminates this spot with refuse, it is right for the king after due process of law, to confiscate his property. Whatsoever persons the king shall discover passing on this road, let him order the summoner to seize their draft animals by the reins, that they may turn out of the road forthwith and take the proper detour. Whosoever persists in traveling this road, and fails to take the proper detour, by due process of law let him be sold to the highest bidder.
Note that the inscription refers to a "king." The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is believed to have been overthrown in a coup d'état in 510 B.C., which gives some idea of how ancient the Lapis Niger must be.
The Romans did like curses. Typically, curses and similar supplications to the gods were scratched onto lead sheets and and buried or hurled into sacred springs, from which a great number of them have been recovered. The subject matter of these "curse tablets" tends to be fairly ferocious; the tablet pictured below has been translated as follows:
"Biccus gives Mercury whatever he has lost (that the thief), whether man or male (sic), may not urinate nor defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he bring (it) in the temple of Mercury; nor gain consciousness (sic) of (it) unless with my intervention."
Another ancient Roman got extraordinarily specific with his or her request for vengeance against one Ticene:
"Spirits of the underworld, I consecrate and hand over to you, if you have any power, Ticene of Carisius. Whatever she does, may it all turn out wrong. Spirits of the netherworld, I consecrate to you her limbs, her complexion, her figure, her head, her hair, her shadow, her brain, her forehead, her eyebrows, her mouth, her nose, her chin, her cheeks, her lips, her speech, her breath, her neck, her liver, her shoulders, her heart, her lungs, her intestines, her stomach, her arms, her fingers, her hands, her navel, her entrails, her thighs, her knees, her calves, her heels, her soles, her toes. Spirits of the netherworld, if I see her wasting away, I swear that I will be delighted to offer a sacrifice to you every year."
Curses were also invoked in sporting contexts, as a tablet from North Africa shows. I was unable to find a picture of this one, but it has been translated as follows:
"I charge you demon, whoever you are, and demand of you from this hour, from this day, from this moment that you torture the horses of the Greens and Whites. Kill them! The charioteers Glarus and Felix and Primulus and Romanus, kill them! Crash them! Leave no breath in them! I charge you by him who has release you from the bonds of time, the god of the sea and the air, Iao Iasdao. Oorio aeia!"
And, as one might imagine, there are any number of curses directed at romantic rivals, the following being one of my favourites, if only for its simplicity:
May he who has stolen Vilbia from me become as liquid as water...
And, speaking of ancient Roman sexual matters, I noted this a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to mention it:
Pompeii's erotic lair reopens its doors
THE "wolves' lair" — ancient Pompeii's biggest, best-planned and most richly decorated brothel — has reopened to tourists after extensive restoration.
The lupanar at Pompeii is quite famous, particularly for the pictures, each showing a different sexual act in progress, located over the doors of each of the building's small bedrooms. On my very first visit to Pompeii, many years ago, and group of friends and I set off to find the brothel, only to discover that it was, inevitably, closed for restoration. So... we tracked down a site guard, some money changed hands, and we were allowed in to admire the artwork. It is, actually, quite spectacular, although the brothel itself must have been unbelievably squalid when it was actually in operation: dark, crowded, and not allowing much in the way of privacy. Anyway, I leave you with one of the infamous pictures: