Jun 132015
 

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Today is the birthday (40 CE) of Gnaeus Julius Agricola,a Gallo-Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. The De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae (Concerning the Life and Death of Agricola or, more usually, simply Agricola), written by his son-in-law the Roman historian Tacitus, is the primary source for most of what is known about him. (see http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/tacitus-agricola.asp )There is also detailed archaeological evidence from northern Britain.

Agricola began his military career in Britain, serving under governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Subsequently he served in a variety of positions. He was appointed quaestor (financial officer) in Asia province in 64, then tribune of the plebs (largely a ceremonial position) in 66, and praetor (state legal and military official) in 68. He supported Vespasian during the Year of the Four Emperors, and was given a military command in Britain when the latter became emperor. When his command ended in 73, he was made patrician (noble) in Rome and appointed governor of Gallia Aquitania. He was made consul and governor of Britannia in 77. While there, he completed the conquest of what is now Wales and northern England, and led his army to the far north of Scotland, establishing forts across much of the Lowlands. He was recalled from Britain in 85 after an unusually lengthy service, and thereafter retired from military and public life.

Agricola was born in the colonia of Forum Julii, Gallia Narbonensis (now Fréjus in France). Agricola’s parents were from noted Gallo-Roman political families of senatorial rank, his ancestors were Romanized Gauls of local origin. Both of his grandfathers served as imperial governors. His father, Lucius Julius Graecinus, was a praetor and had become a member of the Roman Senate in the year of Agricola’s birth. Some time between August 40 and January 41, the Roman emperor Caligula ordered his death because he refused to prosecute the Emperor’s second cousin Marcus Junius Silanus.

His mother was Julia Procilla. Tacitus describes her as “a lady of singular virtue”. Tacitus states that Procilla had a fond affection for her son. Agricola was educated in Massilia (Marseille), and showed what was considered an unhealthy interest in philosophy: one of his father’s passions.

He began his career in Roman public life as a military tribune, serving in Britain under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus from 58 to 62. He was probably attached to the Legio II Augusta, but was chosen to serve on Suetonius’s staff and thus almost certainly participated in the suppression of Boudica’s (Boadicea) uprising in 61. Returning from Britain to Rome in 62, he married Domitia Decidiana, a woman of noble birth. Their first child was a son. Agricola was appointed as quaestor for 64, which he served in the province of Asia under the corrupt proconsul Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus. While he was there, his daughter, Julia Agricola, was born, but his son died shortly afterwards. He was tribune of the plebs in 66 and praetor on June 68, during which time he was ordered by the governor of Spain, Galba, to take an inventory of the temple treasures.

In June 68, the emperor Nero was deposed and committed suicide, and the period of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors began. Galba succeeded Nero, but was murdered in early 69 by Otho, who took the throne. Agricola’s mother was murdered on her estate in Liguria by Otho’s marauding fleet. Hearing of Vespasian’s bid for the empire, Agricola immediately gave him his support. Otho meanwhile committed suicide after being defeated by Vitellius.

After Vespasian had established himself as emperor, he appointed Agricola to the command of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, stationed in Britain, in place of Marcus Roscius Coelius, who had stirred up a mutiny against the governor, Marcus Vettius Bolanus. Britain had suffered revolt during the year of civil war, and Bolanus was a mild governor. Agricola reimposed discipline on the legion and helped to consolidate Roman rule. In 71, Bolanus was replaced by a more aggressive governor, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, and Agricola was able to display his talents as a commander in campaigns against the Brigantes in northern England.

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When his command ended in 73, Agricola was enrolled as a patrician and appointed to govern Gallia Aquitania. There he stayed for almost three years. In 76 or 77, he was recalled to Rome and appointed suffect (replacement) consul, and betrothed his daughter to Tacitus. The following year, Tacitus and Julia married. Agricola was appointed to the College of Pontiffs, and returned to Britain for a third time, as its governor (Legatus Augusti pro praetore).

Arriving in midsummer of 77, Agricola found the Ordovices of north Wales had virtually destroyed the Roman cavalry stationed in their territory. He immediately moved against them and defeated them. He then moved north to the island of Mona (Anglesey), which Suetonius Paulinus had failed to subjugate in 60 because of the outbreak of the Boudican rebellion, and forced its inhabitants to sue for peace. He established a good reputation as an administrator, as well as a commander, by reforming the widely corrupt corn taxes. He introduced Romanizing measures, encouraging communities to build towns on the Roman model and educating the sons of the native nobility in the Roman manner.

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He also expanded Roman rule north into Caledonia (modern Scotland). In the summer of 79, he pushed his armies to the estuary of the river Taus, usually interpreted as the Firth of Tay, virtually unchallenged, and established some forts. Though their location is left unspecified, the close dating of the fort at Elginhaugh in Midlothian makes it a possible candidate.

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In 81, Agricola “crossed in the first ship” and defeated peoples unknown to the Romans until then. Tacitus, in Chapter 24 of Agricola, does not tell us what body of water he crossed, although most scholars believe it was the Clyde or Forth. The text of the Agricola has been emended here to record the Romans “crossing into trackless wastes”, referring to the wilds of the Galloway peninsula. Agricola fortified the coast facing Ireland, and Tacitus recalls that his father-in-law often claimed the island could be conquered with a single legion and auxiliaries. He had given refuge to an exiled Irish king whom he hoped he might use as the excuse for conquest. This conquest never happened, but some historians believe the crossing referred to was in fact a small-scale exploratory or punitive expedition to Ireland, though no Roman camps have been identified to confirm such a suggestion.

Irish legend provides a striking parallel. Tuathal Teachtmhar, a legendary High King, is said to have been exiled from Ireland as a boy, and to have returned from Britain at the head of an army to claim the throne. The traditional date of his return is 76–80, and archaeology has found Roman or Romano-British artifacts in several sites associated with Tuathal.

The following year, Agricola raised a fleet and encircled the tribes beyond the Forth, and the Caledonians rose in great numbers against him. They attacked the camp of the Legio IX Hispana at night, but Agricola sent in his cavalry and they were put to flight. The Romans responded by pushing further north. Another son was born to Agricola this year, but he died before his first birthday.

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In the summer of 83, Agricola faced the massed armies of the Caledonians, led by Calgacus, at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Tacitus estimates their numbers at more than 30,000. Agricola put his auxiliaries in the front line, keeping the legions in reserve, and relied on close-quarters fighting to make the Caledonians’ unpointed slashing swords useless as they were unable to swing them properly or use thrusting attacks. Even though the Caledonians were put to rout and therefore lost this battle, two thirds of their army managed to escape and hide in the Highlands, or the “trackless wilds,” where they engaged in continuous guerrilla war. Battle casualties were estimated by Tacitus to be about 10,000 on the Caledonian side and 360 on the Roman side.

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A number of historians have reckoned the battle to have occurred in the Grampian Mounth within sight of the North Sea. The site of the battle may have been Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill or other knolls near the Raedykes Roman camp; these points of high ground are near the Elsick Mounth, an ancient trackway used by Romans and Caledonians for military maneuvers. However, following the discovery of the Roman camp at Durno in 1975, most scholars now believe that the battle took place on the ground around Bennachie in Aberdeenshire.

Satisfied with his victory, Agricola took hostages from the Caledonian tribes. He may have marched his army to the northern coast of Britain, as evidenced by the discovery of a Roman fort at Cawdor (near Inverness). He also instructed the prefect of the fleet to sail around the north coast, confirming (allegedly for the first time) that Britain was in fact an island.

Agricola was recalled from Britain in 85, after an unusually long tenure as governor. Tacitus claims Domitian ordered his recall because Agricola’s successes outshone the Emperor’s own modest victories in Germany. He re-entered Rome unobtrusively, reporting as ordered to the palace at night. The relationship between Agricola and the Emperor is unclear; on the one hand, Agricola was awarded triumphal decorations and a statue (the highest military honors apart from an actual triumph). On the other hand, Agricola never again held a civil or military post, in spite of his experience and renown. He was offered the governorship of the province of Africa, but declined it, whether due to ill health or (as Tacitus claims) the machinations of Domitian. In 93, Agricola died on his family estates in Gallia Narbonensis aged fifty-three. Rumors circulated attributing the death to a poison administered by the Emperor Domitian, but no positive evidence for this claim was ever produced.

Tacitus wrote as a eulogy (underscoring the notion that Agricola was an honest man in a corrupt world):

Under Domitian, it was the principal part of our miseries to behold and to be beheld: when our sighs were registered; and that stern countenance, with its settled redness, his defense against shame, was employed in noting the pallid horror of so many spectators. Happy, O Agricola! not only in the splendor of your life, but in the seasonableness of your death. With resignation and cheerfulness, from the testimony of those who were present in your last moments, did you meet your fate, as if striving to the utmost of your power to make the emperor appear guiltless. But to myself and your daughter, besides the anguish of losing a parent, the aggravating affliction remains, that it was not our lot to watch over your sick-bed, to support you when languishing, and to satiate ourselves with beholding and embracing you. With what attention should we have received your last instructions, and engrave them on our hearts! This is our sorrow; this is our wound: to us you were lost four years before by a tedious absence. Everything, doubtless, O best of parents! was administered for your comfort and honor, while a most affectionate wife sat beside you; yet fewer tears were shed upon your bier, and in the last light which your eyes beheld, something was still wanting.

If there be any habitation for the shades of the virtuous; if, as philosophers suppose, exalted souls do not perish with the body; may you repose in peace, and call us, your household, from vain regret and feminine lamentations, to the contemplation of your virtues, which allow no place for mourning or complaining! Let us rather adorn your memory by our admiration, by our short-lived praises, and, as far as our natures will permit, by an imitation of your example.

The Romans introduced a great many foods to Britain including garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus. They also domesticated wild fruits such as apples, and imported cherries, mulberries, and grapes. Amongst the many herbs that they introduced to Britain were rosemary, thyme, bay, basil and savory, and the spices pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. Famously, they cultivated oysters at Colchester.

Oysters were in very high demand in Rome and, because of this, supplies became limited. The Roman chef Apicius reports that oysters were shipped to Rome from all over the empire although his description for preserving them for travel would not have worked. He gives several recipes for oysters including a sauce that appears to be a kind of mayonnaise. Ingredients are pepper, lovage, egg yolks, vinegar, broth, olive oil and wine, with honey optional. He also gives one that is a kind of vinaigrette using pepper, lovage, parsley, dried mint, cumin, honey, vinegar and broth. His recipe for oyster croquettes could easily be replicated:

Cook the firm parts of oysters, remove the hard and objectionable parts, mince the meat very fine, mix this with cooked spelt [or flour] and eggs. Season with pepper, shape into croquettes and fry. Underlay a rich fish sauce.

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The mayonnaise from Apicius would make a good dipping sauce. For me, I’ll stick with a dozen Colchester oysters on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon.

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Jul 192013
 

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Nero

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Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Great Fire of Rome.  The origins of the fire and its course have been the subject of considerable controversy because there were only two eye witnesses who have written anything about it: the historian Tacitus, who was 9 years old at the time, and Pliny the Elder who mentions it in passing (using it merely as a benchmark to indicate the age of some trees). The account by Tacitus is riveting and detailed but archeology has not entirely borne out his account, and there has to be a question, given his age at the time, concerning the degree to which what he writes is based on what he saw versus what others saw and he heard about. Clearly his account is drawn from other eyewitnesses, probably in the main. All other accounts of the fire were written by people who were not there at the time, and in many key points conflict with Tacitus.

I thought for a change of pace I might give Tacitus’ account in its entirety (Loeb translation):

Tacitus Annals XV

38 There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign (Nero) is uncertain — for each version has its sponsors — but graver and more terrible than any other which has befallen this city by the ravages of fire. It took its rise in the part of the Circus touching the Palatine and Caelian Hills; where, among the shops packed with inflammable goods, the conflagration broke out, gathered strength in the same moment, and, impelled by the wind, swept the full length of the Circus: for there were neither mansions screened by boundary walls, nor temples surrounded by stone enclosures, nor obstructions of any description, to bar its progress. The flames, which in full career overran the level districts first, then shot up to the heights, and sank again to harry the lower parts, kept ahead of all remedial measures, the mischief travelling fast, and the town being an easy prey owing to the narrow, twisting lanes and formless streets typical of old Rome. In addition, shrieking and terrified women; fugitives stricken or immature in years; men consulting their own safety or the safety of others, as they dragged the infirm along or paused to wait for them, combined by their dilatoriness or their haste to impede everything. Often, while they glanced back to the rear, they were attacked on the flanks or in front; or, if they had made their escape into a neighboring quarter, that also was involved in the flames, and even districts which they had believed remote from danger were found to be in the same plight. At last, irresolute what to avoid or what to seek, they crowded into the roads or threw themselves down in the fields: some who had lost the whole of their means — their daily bread included — chose to die, though the way of escape was open, and were followed by others, through love for the relatives whom they had proved unable to rescue. None ventured to combat the fire, as there were reiterated threats from a large number of persons who forbade extinction, and others were openly throwing firebrands and shouting that “they had their authority” — possibly in order to have a freer hand in looting, possibly from orders received.

39 Nero, who at the time was staying in Antium, did not return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the Gardens of Maecenas. It proved impossible, however, to stop it from engulfing both the Palatine and the house and all their surroundings. Still, as a relief to the homeless and fugitive populace, he opened the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own Gardens, and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces. Yet his measures, popular as their character might be, failed of their effect; for the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had mounted his private stage, and typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung the destruction of Troy.

40 Only on the sixth day, was the conflagration brought to an end at the foot of the Esquiline, by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing to the unabated fury of the flames a clear tract of ground and an open horizon. But fear had not yet been laid aside, nor had hope yet returned to the people, when the fire resumed its ravages; in the less congested parts of the city, however; so that, while the toll of human life was not so great, the destruction of temples and of porticoes dedicated to pleasure was on a wider scale. The second fire produced the greater scandal of the two, as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name. Rome, in fact, is divided into fourteen regions, of which four remained intact, while three were laid level with the ground: in the other seven nothing survived but a few dilapidated and half-burned relics of houses.

41 It would not be easy to attempt an estimate of the private dwellings, tenement-blocks, and temples, which were lost; but the flames consumed, in their old-world sanctity, the great altar and chapel of the Arcadian Evander to the Present Hercules, the shrine of Jupiter Stator vowed by Romulus, the Palace of Numa, and the holy place of Vesta with the Penates of the Roman people. To these must be added the precious trophies won upon so many fields, the glories of Greek art, and yet again the primitive and uncorrupted memorials of literary genius; so that, despite the striking beauty of the re-arisen city, the older generation recollects much that it proved impossible to replace. There were those who noted that the first outbreak of the fire took place on the nineteenth of July, the anniversary of the capture and burning of Rome by the Senones: others have pushed their researches so far as to resolve the interval between the two fires into equal numbers of years, of months, and of days.

42 However, Nero turned to account the ruins of his fatherland by building a palace, the marvels of which were to consist not so much in gems and gold, materials long familiar and vulgarized by luxury, as in fields and lakes and the air of solitude given by wooded ground alternating with clear tracts and open landscapes. The architects and engineers were Severus and Celer, who had the ingenuity and the courage to try the force of art even against the veto of nature and to fritter away the resources of a Caesar. They had undertaken to sink a navigable canal running from Lake Avernus to the mouths of the Tiber along a desolate shore or through intervening hills; for the one district along the route moist enough to yield a supply of water is the Pomptine Marsh; the rest being cliff and sand, which could be cut through, if at all, only by intolerable exertions for which no sufficient motive existed. Nonetheless, Nero, with his passion for the incredible, made an effort to tunnel the height nearest the Avernus, and some evidences of that futile ambition survive.

43 In the capital, however, the districts spared by the palace were rebuilt, not, as after the Gallic fire, indiscriminately and piecemeal, but in measured lines of streets, with broad thoroughfares, buildings of restricted height, and open spaces, while colonnades were added as a protection to the front of the tenement-blocks. These colonnades Nero offered to erect at his own expense, and also to hand over the building-sites, clear of rubbish, to the owners. He made a further offer of rewards, proportioned to the rank and resources of the various claimants, and fixed a term within which houses or blocks of tenement must be completed, if the bounty was to be secured. As the receptacle of the refuse he settled upon the Ostian Marshes, and gave orders that vessels which had carried grain up the Tiber must run down-stream laden with débris. The buildings themselves, to an extent definitely specified, were to be solid, untimbered structures of Gabine or Alban stone, that particular stone being proof against fire. Again, there was to be a guard to ensure that the water-supply — intercepted by private lawlessness — should be available for public purposes in greater quantities and at more points; appliances for checking fire were to be kept by everyone in the open; there were to be no joint partitions between buildings, but each was to be surrounded by its own walls. These reforms, welcomed for their utility, were also beneficial to the appearance of the new capital. Still, there were those who held that the old form had been the more salubrious, as the narrow streets and high-built houses were not so easily penetrated by the rays of the sun; while now the broad expanses, with no protecting shadows, glowed under a more oppressive heat.

To my mind Tacitus is being fairly even handed here towards Nero, and has clearly done his homework about the course of the fire and its aftermath.  He points out, for example, that Nero opened up his own lands for the homeless and organized shelters for them, quickly brought in food supplies, and kept the price of wheat low so that people could eat.  Yet Tacitus also acknowledges that many people thought Nero started the fire in order to remodel the city featuring a gigantic palace and estate for his own pleasure.  He is skeptical about Nero “fiddling while Rome burned” (it would have been the lyre), and seems to believe that the rebuilt city is more glorious than the old one, whilst acknowledging that some older people preferred the way it used to be.  I find it a most compelling and complex account.

We know a fair bit about classical Roman foodways from multiple descriptions of meals, banquets, and so forth in contemporary writings.  We even have a cookbook, of sorts, from the late empire (4th to 5th century), De Re Coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) by an anonymous author given the pseudonym Caelius Apicius. The recipes are very short and not enough in themselves to reconstruct the original.

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Here is one:

IX. In mitulis: liquamen, porrum concisum, cuminum, passum, satureiam, vinum, mixtum facies aquatius et ibi mitulos coques.

9. Mussels: liquamen, chopped leeks, cumin, passum, savory, wine. Dilute the mixture with water, and boil the mussels in it.

This reminds me an awful lot of the classic French Mediterranean dish moules marinières, so I think it is easy enough to make something of it along those lines.  Two ingredients need explaining.  Liquamen was a ubiquitous seasoning.  It was a sauce made from fermented fish, and was used primarily for its salt content.  You’ll see it in Apicius as often as salt in modern recipes. As a substitute you can use a SE Asian fish sauce such as the Vietnamese n??c m?m (nuoc-mam). If you have nothing else you can just use salt to taste without great harm done. Passum was a sweet white wine, a variety of which, vino santo, is still produced in Italy. The cumin adds a surprising twist to a classic dish. I prefer to eat this dish with my fingers as the Romans would have done. One useful tip is to eat the mussel from a nice springy shell and then use the empty shell like tweezers to remove the meat from the others. Use bread like a sponge to sop up the sauce.

Mitules in genere Romanae (Mussels in the Roman manner)

1.5kg (3 ¼ lb) or 4 liters (7 pints) mussels
1 leek, white part sliced in thin rings
½ cup (100 ml) dry white wine
½ cup (100 ml) vino santo or sweet white wine
1 cup (200 ml) water
1 tbsp roughly chopped fresh savory (divided in two)
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp liquamen substitute

Instructions:

Wash the mussels in plenty of cold water. Scrape away any barnacles with a short-bladed knife as best you can without damaging the shell. Pull off all the beards and wash the mussels again. Discard any that are open and do not close when tapped sharply.

Take a large lidded pot that is big enough to hold all the mussels. Add the mussels, liquids, leek, cumin, and half the savory, and set over high heat, tightly covered. Turn the mussels over every now and then as they start to open. Keep the lid on the pot in between turning them. When they are all open, remove the pot from the heat and leave for 30 seconds or so to let all the grit settle.

Scoop out the mussels with a slotted spoon and divide them between four large, deep soup plates. Pour all the juices from the pan over the mussels, but pour gently and stop before the last tablespoon, which will be gritty. Sprinkle the rest of the chopped savory over the mussels and serve.

Good crusty bread is a must.  The Romans ate sourdough bread made with a mix of two different flours.

Serves 4