Dec 152019
 

Today is the birthday (37CE) of the Roman emperor Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius (on the urging of his mother Agrippina the Younger), who was Claudius’ fourth wife, and became Claudius’ heir and successor. Agrippina may have hastened Nero’s inheritance by poisoning Claudius, but the evidence is not clear. Nero became emperor at the age of 16, and during the early years of his reign, Nero was content to be guided by his mother, his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and his Praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. There is no question that Agrippina was a scheming, powerful woman, and her ambition seems to have been to rule Rome by making sure her son became emperor at a young age, so that she could hold sway as dowager. After five years of this, however, Nero had her killed so that he could rule in his own right.

I had to mull things over for several years before deciding in favor of celebrating Nero on his birthday because I have a tacit rule against posting about unpleasant people. In reviewing Nero’s life and career carefully, I have decided to give him his moment in the sun, not because he was a wonderful man and emperor, but because he was not all bad, and he was certainly not as bad as history paints him. He was about average for his time and culture.  The main contemporary historians, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassio Dio associate Nero’s rule with tyranny and extravagance. They offer overwhelmingly negative assessments of his personality and reign. Tacitus, for example, claims that the Roman people thought him compulsive and corrupt. Suetonius reports that many Romans believed that the Great Fire of Rome http://www.bookofdaystales.com/great-fire-of-rome/  was instigated by Nero to clear the way for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.

If you read my post on the fire you will see that I believe that Tacitus tried to be even handed about Nero and the fire, although his dislike of him shows through.  He does acknowledge that the legend of Nero playing the lyre whilst the city burned was certainly false, and he notes that he opened up his own personal lands for the dispossessed, and prevented the price gouging of food in the aftermath of the fire to protect the poor. Yet Tacitus also seems to accept the belief that Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city to his own liking, including a massive palatial structure and gardens.  According to Tacitus, Nero was said to have seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty.

Modern judgment of Nero is more measured.  There is evidence of his popularity among the Roman commoners, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, where a popular legend arose that Nero had not died and would return. At least three leaders of short-lived, failed rebellions presented themselves as “Nero reborn” to enlist popular support. It seems to be the case that Nero made many enemies among the ruling classes, but was mostly liked by the average citizens.  It is not average citizens who write histories, however, nor do they have great influence over the opinions of high-born historians.

After his mother’s death, Nero started to play a more active and independent role in government and foreign policy. During his reign, general Corbulo conducted a successful war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire. His general Suetonius Paulinus crushed a major revolt in Britain, led by the Iceni queen, Boudica. In 59, Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni, and a client king of Rome’s during Claudius’ reign, died. The client state arrangement was unlikely to survive the death of Claudius. Prasutagus’ will leaving control of the Iceni to his wife Boudica was denied, and, when procurator Catus Decianus scourged Boudica and raped her daughters, the Iceni revolted. They were joined by the Trinovantes, and their uprising became the most significant provincial rebellion of the 1st century CE. Under Boudica the towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) were burned and a substantial percentage of legion infantry killed. Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia, assembled his remaining forces, defeated the Britons, and restored order. But for a while Nero considered abandoning the province. Julius Classicianus replaced Decianus as procurator. Classicianus advised Nero to replace Paulinus, who continued to punish the population even after the rebellion was over. Nero decided to adopt a more lenient approach to governing the province, and appointed a new governor, Petronius Turpilianus.

Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade and the cultural life of the empire, ordering theatres built and promoting athletic games. He made public appearances as an actor, poet, musician and charioteer. In the eyes of traditionalists, this undermined the dignity and authority of his person, status, and office. His extravagant, empire-wide program of public and private works was funded by an increase in taxes that was much resented by the upper classes. In contrast, his populist style of rule remained very popular among the lower classes of Rome and the provinces until his death and beyond. Various plots against his life were revealed; the ringleaders, most of them Nero’s own courtiers, were executed.

In 68 CE, Vindex, governor of the Gaulish territory Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled. He was supported by Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Vindex’s revolt failed in its immediate aim, but Nero fled Rome when Rome’s discontented civil and military authorities chose Galba as emperor. Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of Ostia and, from there, to take a fleet to one of the still-loyal eastern provinces. According to Suetonius, Nero abandoned the idea when some army officers openly refused to obey his commands, responding with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?” Nero then toyed with the idea of fleeing to Parthia, throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba, or appealing to the people and begging them to pardon him for his past offences “and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt”. Suetonius reports that the text of this speech was later found in Nero’s writing desk, but that he dared not give it from fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.

Nero returned to Rome and spent the evening in the palace. After sleeping, he awoke at about midnight to find the palace guard had left. Dispatching messages to his friends’ palace chambers for them to come, he received no answers. Upon going to their chambers personally, he found them all abandoned. When he called for a gladiator or anyone else adept with a sword to kill him, no one appeared. He shouted, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber. Returning, Nero sought a place where he could hide and collect his thoughts. An imperial freedman, Phaon, offered his villa, located 4 mi (6.4 km) outside the city. Travelling in disguise, Nero and four loyal freedmen, Epaphroditos, Phaon, Neophytus, and Sporus, reached the villa, where Nero ordered them to dig a grave for him.

At this time, a courier arrived with a report that the Senate had declared Nero a public enemy, that it was their intention to execute him by beating him to death, and that armed men had been sent to apprehend him for the act to take place in the Roman Forum. The Senate actually was still reluctant and deliberating on the right course of action, as Nero was the last member of the Julio-Claudian family. Indeed, most of the senators had served the imperial family all their lives and felt a sense of loyalty to the deified bloodline, if not to Nero himself. The men actually had the goal of returning Nero back to the Senate, where the Senate hoped to work out a compromise with the rebelling governors that would preserve Nero’s life, so that at least a future heir to the dynasty could be produced. Nero, however, did not know this, and at the news brought by the courier, he prepared himself for suicide, pacing up and down muttering Qualis artifex pereo (“What an artist dies in me”). Losing his nerve, he begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself first.

At last, the sound of approaching horsemen drove Nero to face the end. However, he still could not bring himself to take his own life but instead he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to do the deed. When one of the horsemen entered and saw that Nero was dying, he attempted to stop the bleeding, but efforts to save Nero’s life were unsuccessful. Nero’s final words were “Too late! This is fidelity!” He died on 9th June 68, the anniversary of the death of his wife, Octavia, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, in what is now the Villa Borghese (Pincian Hill) area of Rome. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, sparking a brief period of civil wars known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

It is the third Sunday of Advent today (2019), so I have hauled out this quasi-recipe from when I was living in Lombardy at this time of year.  Lentils were common in ancient Rome, and this would have worked for Nero’s chefs:

I had no idea what to make for dinner this evening, so I went out to the market to get some ideas. By chance I found a piece of meat called “reale di vitello” which is obviously veal, but I had no idea what cut. A lot of digging eventually uncovered the fact that “reale,” which can mean “real” or “royal,” is a cut of veal similar to chuck in beef. So I treated it the same way with slow braising. To make it suitable for Christmas I used a braising stock laced with allspice and ginger. For accompaniment I made lentils with the usual additions – mushrooms and leeks – but I added sultanas, as well as some allspice, ginger, and hot pepper. It’s just a spur of the moment thing, but may give you some ideas.

Feb 242018
 

For religious reasons, when the Romans began to add days to some years to bring their calendar into line with the solar year, some time in the late 8th or early 7th century BCE according to legend, they created an extra month called Mercedonius to insert in their special leap years. They chose not to add Mercedonius after February, which was the final month of their year, but within it. February 24—known in the Roman calendar as “the sixth day before the Kalends of March” (a.d. VI Kal. Mart.) —was replaced by the first day of this month because it followed Terminalia, the festival of the Roman god of boundaries: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/boundary-day/ . After the end of Mercedonius, the rest of the days of February were observed and the new year began with the first day of March.

The Roman religious festivals of February were so complicated that Julius Caesar opted for a compromise to maintain the actual dates in February while still adding a leap day to the year one year in four in his 46 BCE calendar reform. The extra day of Julius Caesar’s leap year system was located in the same place as the old 1st of Mercedonius (after February 23rd) but he opted to ignore it as a date. Instead, the sixth day before the Kalends of March was simply said to last for 48 hours and all the other days continued to bear their original names. (The Roman practice of inclusive counting initially caused the priests in charge of the calendar to add the extra hours every three years instead of every four and Augustus was obliged to omit them for a span of decades until the system was back to where it should have been.) When the extra hours finally began to be reckoned as two separate days instead of a doubled sixth (“bissextile”) one, the leap day was still taken to be the one following directly on from the February 23 Terminalia.

Although February 29th has been popularly understood as the leap day of leap years since the beginning of sequential reckoning of the days of months in the late Middle Ages, in Britain and most other countries, no formal replacement of February 24 as the leap day of the Julian and Gregorian calendars has occurred. The exceptions include Sweden and Finland, who enacted legislation to move the day to February 29. This custom still has some effect around the world, for example with respect to name days in Hungary. Confused yet? Technically, in the Gregorian calendar, in leap years February 24th is the extra day, not the 29th. You are excused if you believe that this point is rather abstractly philosophical. Think of it this way. You have a line of 28 blue counters and you insert a red one in the line in the 24th position. You now have 29 counters, but the inserted one is the 24th and not the 29th.

Numa Pompilius

Mercedonius or Mercedinus was also known as Interkalaris or Intercalaris. The leap year into which it was inserted was either 377 or 378 days long. It theoretically occurred every two (occasionally three) years, but was sometimes avoided or employed by the Roman pontiffs for political reasons regardless of the state of the solar year. This month, instituted according to Roman tradition by Numa Pompilius, was supposed to be inserted every two or three years to align the conventional 355-day Roman year with the solar year. The decision on whether to insert the intercalary month was made by the pontifex maximus (chief high priest), supposedly based on observations to ensure the best possible correspondence with the seasons. Unfortunately the pontifex maximus, who would normally be an active politician, often manipulated the decision to allow friends to stay in office longer or force enemies out early. Such unpredictable intercalation meant that dates following the month of Februarius could not be known in advance, and, in addition to this, Roman citizens living outside Rome would often not know the current date.

The exact mechanism for when to insert Mercedonius, and how long it was, is not clearly specified in ancient sources. I do like to focus on calendars other than our Gregorian calendar once in a while, because ours is generally so regular and predictable (and is corrected every so often by leap seconds to keep it synchronized with the solar year to a degree that ordinary people have no need for). Not to mention the fact that the Gregorian calendar has completely swamped all other calendars in the world, although they still show up – mostly for religious purposes. Easter, and allied celebrations from Lent to Pentecost, does give us one shot at being a little bit fast and loose with dates, but most of our celebrations are a little too routine for my tastes. An orderly calendar is comforting, but I am not unfailingly committed to order.

To help create some uncertainty here is an ancient Roman recipe for fried veal from Apicius:

Vitella fricta: piper, ligusticum, apii semen, cuminum, origanum, cepam siccam, uvam passam, mel, acetum, vinum, liquamen, oleum, defritum.

Fried veal: pepper, lovage, celery seed, cumin, oregano, dried onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, wine, liquamen, oil, defrutum.

Ancient Romans ate with their fingers without knives at the table, so after frying your veal you should cut it in strips, and serve it with the sauce. The ingredients for the sauce are straightforward except for liquamen and defrutum. I use Asian fish sauce for liquamen, which was a salty, fermented fish sauce. Defrutum was made by mixing red wine and fresh fruit (often figs), and boiling until the liquid was reduced by a half, straining and bottling. It is a syrupy sauce.

If you mix all of the sauce ingredients together in proportions of you choosing and then marinate the veal in the sauce before frying, you will have a complex dish. It should have a balance of sour, sweet, and salty along with the complex herb and spice mix.

 

Jul 152016
 

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According to Roman historians (most notably, Livy), the first temple to Castor and Pollux in ancient Rome was dedicated on this day in 484 BCE. It was originally built in gratitude for victory at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini (Dioscuri), sons of Zeus/Jupiter and Leda were believed to have played a role in the battle. Their cult came to Rome from Greece via Magna Graecia and the Greek culture of Southern Italy.

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Both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus state the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), and his allies, the Latins, waged war on the infant Roman Republic some time around 496 BCE. Historical details are a bit cloudy and mixed with legend. Supposedly, Tarquin had been expelled as king in 509 BCE and a republic established. The battle of Lake Regillus was his last ditch effort to regain his throne. Before the battle, the Roman dictator Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis vowed to build a temple to the Dioscuri if the Republic were victorious. According to legend Castor and Pollux appeared on the battlefield as two able horsemen in aid of the Republic, and after the battle had been won they again appeared in the Forum in Rome watering their horses at the Spring of Juturna and announcing the victory. The temple was built on the supposed spot of their appearance. One of Postumius’ sons was elected duumvir (magistrate) in order to dedicate the temple on 15 July (the ides of July) 484 BC.

In Republican times the temple served as a meeting place for the Roman Senate, and from the middle of the 2nd century BCE the front of the podium served as a speaker’s platform. During the imperial period the temple housed the office for weights and measures, and was a depository for the state treasury.

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The archaic temple was completely reconstructed and enlarged in 117 BCE by Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus after his victory over the Dalmatians. Gaius Verres restored this second temple in 73 BCE. In 14 BCE a fire that ravaged major parts of the forum destroyed the temple, and Tiberius, the son of Augustus by a previous marriage of Livia and the eventual heir to the throne, rebuilt it. Tiberius’ temple was dedicated in 6 CE. The remains visible today are from the temple of Tiberius, except the podium, which is from the time of Metellus.

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The temple was probably already falling apart in the 4th century CE, when a wall in front of the Lacus Juturnae was erected from reused material. Nothing is known of its subsequent history, except that in the 15th century only three columns of its original structure were still standing. The street running by the building was called via Trium Columnarum (three columns street).

In 1760, the Conservatori, finding the columns in a state of imminent collapse, erected scaffolding to effect repairs. Both Piranesi and the young English architect George Dance the Younger were able to climb up and make accurate measurements. Dance reported to his father that he had “a Model cast from the finest Example of the Corinthian order perhaps in the whole World.”

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Today the podium survives without the facing, as do the three columns and a piece of the entablature, one of the most famous features in the Forum. Originally the temple had eight Corinthian columns (octastyle) at the short sides and eleven on the long sides. There was a single cella (inner chamber) paved with mosaics. The podium measures 32 m × 49.5 m (105 ft × 162 ft) and 7 m (23 ft) in height. The building was constructed in opus caementicium (Roman cement) and originally covered with slabs of tuff (volcanic ash rock) which were later removed. According to ancient sources, the temple had a single central stairway to access the podium, but excavations have identified two side stairs.

I could provide another Roman recipe to celebrate the day but the sources are from the late imperial period at best and so are not especially relevant to the cuisine of the early Republic. Instead, I thought I’d be a little more creative. Gemini (Castor and Pollux) is an astrological sign and, as such, people born under this sign have been assigned traditional qualities. Among these qualities, which tend to be reasonably well agreed upon, are food suggestions, which are, at best, fanciful, and range far and wide depending on who you read. This list is far from definitive, but appeals to me for purely aesthetic reasons:

Meat: Poultry

Fruits: Apricots, Pomegranates

Vegetables: Beans, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery

Nuts: Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Filberts, Pecans, Pistachios

Herbs & Spices: Anise, Cardamom, Chamomile, Chicory, Cinnamon, Citron, Cloves, Ginseng, Licorice, Maple, Nutmeg, Sage, Sarsaparilla, Sassafras, Saffron, Sesame, Spearmint, Thyme

There’s certainly plenty to choose from here. I decided to pick chicken and apricots as the main ingredient, flavored with thyme. If you wanted to spice it up a little you could use a mix of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and saffron instead. Almonds could also be added. Whatever you choose, I suggest adding balsamic vinegar to contrast with the sweetness of the apricots. Such a balance of sweet and sour accords with ancient Roman recipes (although they would have used liquamen) and is also in keeping with the oppositional duality of Gemini.

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©Apricot Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (3 lbs) cut in 8 pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
20 small apricots, halved and pitted
½ cup apricot preserves
1 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the chicken pieces to a golden brown on all sides. If necessary you can do this in batches.

Add the onion and balsamic vinegar to the chicken pieces and let the liquid reduce for about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, preserves, apricots, and thyme and stir to make sure everything is thoroughly mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer covered for 10 minutes, then uncover and let the sauce reduce. You can add a little cornstarch dissolved in water if the sauce is too thin, but reduction is a better option.

Serve with plain boiled white rice.