Aug 022018

On this date in 1868 as part of the Meiji reforms in Japan, the strict social codes enacted during the Edo period, also called Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868 CE), were officially abolished. The Edo social regulations were intended to promote stability, and for some time they did. But careful examination of the system indicates that it was not quite as rigid as portrayed in media and popular thinking, and it contained the seeds of its own destruction in the face of internal and external pressures.

The Tokugawa shogunate intentionally created a social order called the Four Divisions of Society (shinōkōshō), that was meant to stabilize a country torn for centuries by warfare. The hereditary nobility and emperor were nominally at the top of Japanese society, but they were figureheads only, and were not included in the actual social structure that the shoguns enforced (except as puppets). The real social structure was composed of samurai (侍 shi), farming peasants (農 nō), artisans (工 kō) and merchants (商 shō). Samurai were at the top of society, acting as moral examples for others to follow. The system reinforced and justified their ruling status. Peasants came second because they were food producers, and, therefore, produced wealth, (in the basic terms of Wealth of Nations). Artisans came third because they produced wealth, but their products were considered nonessential (as opposed to food). Merchants were at the bottom of the social order because they generated wealth without producing any goods. The classes were not arranged according to access to wealth or capital – some samurai were poor, and some peasants were rich – but according to what Japanese philosophers described as their relative “moral purity.”

In actuality, shinōkōshō does not accurately describe all of Tokugawa society. Buddhist and Shinto priests, court nobles (kuge), and outcast classes including eta and hinin, were not included in this description of the hierarchy. The eta and hinin were people whose work broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people .

Also, shinōkōshō is a highly idealized and generalized description. In some cases, a poor samurai could be little better off than a peasant and the lines between the classes could blur, especially between artisans and merchants in urban areas. Still, the theory provided grounds for restricting privileges and responsibilities to different classes and it gave a sense of order to society. In practice, rigidified social relationships helped create the political stability that defined the Edo period, and was also the cause of its demise.


Samurai traditionally functioned as the warrior class in Japan; they constituted about 7–8% of the population. The other classes were prohibited from possessing long swords such as the tachi or katana. Carrying both a long and a short sword became the symbol of the samurai class. During the feudal period, samurai were warriors that fought for a lord in a feudal relationship. The Edo period, however, was largely free from both external threats and internal conflicts. Instead, the samurai maintained their fighting skills more as an art than in order to fight. Samurai were paid a stipend from their lord, and, samurai could not own land, which would have given them income independent from their duty. Samurai generally lived around their daimyō’s castle, creating a thriving town or city environment around the middle of a domain.

There were social stratifications within the samurai class. Upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyō and could hold his most trusted positions. Some achieved a level of wealth that allowed them to retain their own samurai vassals. Mid-level samurai held military and bureaucratic positions and had some interactions with their daimyō if needed. Low-level samurai could be paid as little as a subsistence wage and worked as guards, messengers, and clerks. Positions within the class were largely hereditary, and talented samurai could not rise more than a few social steps above their positions at birth. Outside the traditional samurai–lord relationship were the rōnin, or masterless samurai, who were generally accorded very low levels of respect, had no income, and often became gamblers, bandits, or the like.

Western perceptions of the samurai class are either anachronistic or misleading. Depictions of the samurai in media, such as The Last Samurai, tend to miss the point. Former samurai who refused to change their ways under the Meiji Restoration were not just attempting to preserve traditional culture; they were also trying to maintain their heredity social status in a changing world – a world based more on meritocracy than on inherited positions. It is also misleading to project the samurai as warriors skilled in traditional Japanese martial arts only. Their traditional martial arts skills were largely ceremonial. When they fought towards the end of the Edo period, they frequently used rifles and other Western weaponry.


Life for rural peasants was focused on their villages. Peasants rarely moved beyond their villages, and journeys and pilgrimages required a permit. However, young peasants occasionally sought seasonal employment outside of their village. Social bonding was critical to the survival of the whole village and was constantly reinforced through patterns of kinship, formal customs, and seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective; there were strong pressures to conform and no room to deviate from custom. Individuals had no social or legal standing; the family was the smallest social unit. Though there were conflicts, they were seen as disruptive to the village and order and were to be limited as much as possible. Villagers were highly suspicious of outsiders

The peasant class could own land, but the daimyō had rights to tax this land. Peasants worked to produce enough food for themselves and still meet the tax burden. Most farming during this time was centered on families living on their own land, in contrast to the plantation or hacienda model (where peasants did not own the land). Peasants could amass relatively large amounts of wealth but nonetheless remained peasants. Wealthier families and those that held their own land and paid taxes were held in much higher regard and had more political influence in village matters. However, the survival of the village depended on every household cooperating to meet the tax burden and overcome natural disasters such as famines. During the reign of the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo and then wait for him to give some back as charity.

Merchants and artisans

By 1800, as much as 10% of the population of Japan may have lived in large towns and cities, one of the highest levels in the world at the time. The daimyōs and their samurai did not produce any goods themselves, but they used the tax surplus from the land to pay for their consumption. Their needs were met by artisans, who moved to be around the castles, and merchants, who traded local and regional goods. Each class in the city was restricted to living in its own quarter.

Merchants grew increasingly powerful during this period. Wealthy merchant houses arose to organize distributors and hold legal monopolies. As their wealth grew, merchants wanted to consume and display their wealth in the same manner as the samurai, but laws prevented them from doing so overtly. Still, their consumption combined with that of the samurai served to reinforce the growth of the merchant and artisan classes.

The foundation of this period was its stable social order. However, as wealth became increasingly concentrated outside of the samurai class, social conflict grew. The fixed stipends on which samurai lived did not increase despite the rising cost of commodities and the increasingly burdensome cost of proper social etiquette so many samurai became in debt to wealthy merchant families. The wealthy merchants, in turn, were restricted from showing their wealth for fear of violating the laws that restricted privileges to the samurai class. That created deepening resentment but also increasing interdependence between the two classes. Some scholars began to question the Confucian beliefs that provided the foundation of society.

Changes in rural areas were also creating conflict. New technology increased productivity and allowed some families to produce a surplus of food that could be used to support ventures beyond farming. Some peasants also became indebted to their wealthier neighbors, and more families lost ownership of their land. This sparked resentment that sometimes erupted in violence towards landlords and village elite. The challenges laid the foundation for the changes that would follow during the Meiji period.

I have discussed the cooking of the Edo Period several times before. When foreigners think of “Japanese cuisine” they typically think of Edo Period dishes such as sushi and sashimi. There’s a lot more to Edo Period cooking than sushi and sashimi, and a great deal more to Japanese cooking than Edo Period recipes. But this post focuses on Edo Period culture, so a traditional recipe is in order.

Here is a video on how to prepare hiyayakko, a perfect dish for hot summer days, and extremely easy to prepare. It is perfectly in keeping with dishes served to all classes in the Edo Period. I am giving you a video out of sheer laziness. The dish is simply tofu cubes topped with grated fresh ginger, sliced green onion, and dried bonito flakes with a little soy sauce splashed on.

Oct 152016


Today is the birthday (1542) of Abu’l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar, popularly known as Akbar I  and later Akbar the Great (Urdu: Akbar-e-Azam; literally “Great the Great”), Mughal Emperor from 1556 until his death. He was the third and one of the greatest rulers of the Mughal Dynasty in India. Akbar succeeded his father, Humayun, under a regent, Bairam Khan, who helped the young emperor expand and consolidate Mughal domains in India. Longtime readers know that I am not crazy about celebrating warriors and emperors, but I will make an exception with Akbar because his impact was so vast and he was a strong believer in creating harmony through diversity.


Akbar was a strong personality and a successful general who gradually enlarged the Mughal Empire to include nearly all of the Indian Subcontinent north of the Godavari river. His power and influence, however, extended over the entire country because of Mughal military, political, cultural, and economic dominance. To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar established a centralized system of administration throughout his empire and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. To preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects. Akbar avoided tribal bonds and Islamic state identity, and sought to unite far-flung regions of his realm through loyalty, expressed via a Persianized culture, and a cult of personality as an emperor who had near-divine status.

Mughal India developed a strong and stable economy under Akbar, leading to commercial expansion and greater patronage of the arts. He was fond of literature, and created a library of over 24,000 volumes written in Sanskrit, Hindustani, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri, staffed by many scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders and readers. Holy men of many faiths, poets, architects and artisans from all over the world came to his court for study and discussion. Akbar’s courts at Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri became centers of the arts, letters, and learning. Perso-Islamic culture began to merge and blend with indigenous Indian elements, and a distinct Indo-Persian culture emerged characterized by Mughal style arts, painting, and architecture. Disillusioned with orthodox Islam and perhaps hoping to bring about religious unity within his empire, Akbar promulgated Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic creed derived from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. A simple, monotheistic cult, tolerant in outlook, it centered on Akbar as a prophet, for which he drew the ire of the ulema (Islamic scholars) and orthodox Muslims.


Akbar’s reign significantly influenced the course of Indian history. During his rule, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. He created a powerful military system and instituted effective political and social reforms. By abolishing the sectarian tax on non-Muslims and appointing them to high civil and military posts, he was the first Mughal ruler to win the trust and loyalty of the native subjects. He had Sanskrit literature translated, participated in native festivals, realizing that a stable empire depended on the co-operation and good-will of his subjects. Thus, the foundations for a multicultural empire under Mughal rule was laid during his reign.

On 3 October 1605, Akbar fell ill with an attack of dysentery, from which he never recovered. He is believed to have died on or about 27 October 1605, after which his body was buried at a mausoleum in Sikandra, Agra. Akbar was succeeded as emperor by his son, Jahangir.


I could go on for pages and pages about Akbar because there is so much written about him. His reign was chronicled extensively by his court historian Abul Fazal in the books Akbarnama and Ain-i-akbari. Other contemporary sources of Akbar’s reign include the works of Badayuni, Shaikhzada Rashidi and Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi. I leave that to you to work on. You will discover he had extensive contact with foreign governments, especially Portugal and Britain, was exceptionally well read, and did a great deal to create a sense of Indian identity out of cultural plurality. Here’s just a personal footnote.

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Akbar beside being an emperor and general was an animal trainer (reputedly keeping thousands of hunting cheetahs during his reign and training many himself), and theologian. Many scholars believe he was dyslexic, but he was read to every day and had a remarkable memory.  According to his son, Jahangir, Akbar was “of the hue of wheat; his eyes and eyebrows were black and his complexion rather dark than fair.” Antoni de Montserrat, the Catalan Jesuit who visited his court described him as follows:

One could easily recognize even at first glance that he is King. He has broad shoulders, somewhat bandy legs well-suited for horsemanship, and a light brown complexion. He carries his head bent towards the right shoulder. His forehead is broad and open, his eyes so bright and flashing that they seem like a sea shimmering in the sunlight. His eyelashes are very long. His eyebrows are not strongly marked. His nose is straight and small though not insignificant. His nostrils are widely open as though in derision. Between the left nostril and the upper lip there is a mole. He shaves his beard but wears a moustache. He limps in his left leg though he has never received an injury there.


Akbar and other Mughal emperors left their mark on cuisine, of course. What is now known as Mughlai cuisine consists of dishes developed in India at the time of the Mughal Empire. It represents the cooking styles now used in North India (especially Uttar Pradesh and Delhi), Pakistan (particularly among Muhajir people), and the Indian cities of Hyderabad and Bhopal. The cuisine is strongly influenced by Central Asian cuisine, the region where the Turco-Mongol Mughal rulers originally came from, which, in turn, strongly influenced the regional cuisines of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Koftas, meatball dishes, are a well-known component of Mughlai cooking. Early recipes (included in some of the earliest known Arabic cookbooks) generally use seasoned lamb rolled into orange-sized balls, and glazed with egg yolk and sometimes saffron. This method was taken to the West and is referred to as “gilding” or “endoring.” Many regional variations exist, notable among them include the unusually large Azerbaijani (Iranian) Tabriz kuftesi, having an average diameter of 20 cm, (8 in). and may encase inside it an entire roasted chicken stuffed with dried fruits, nuts and boiled eggs.

Koftas were most likely introduced into South Asia following the Turkic conquests in the region, particularly by the Mughals. Koftas in South Asian cuisine are normally cooked in a spiced gravy, or curry, and sometimes simmered with hard-boiled eggs. Vegetarian koftas are eaten by a large population in India. The British Scotch egg (boiled egg encased in sausage meat and deep fried) may have been inspired by the Mughlai dish Nargisi kofta (“Narcissus kofta”), where hard-boiled eggs are encased in a layer of spicy kofta meat. In Bengal koftas are made from prawns, fish, green bananas, cabbage or goat meat. In Kashmir, mutton is often used in the preparation of koftas, as opposed to beef or lamb.

Lamb Kofta


For the meatballs

1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 cm fresh ginger, peeled
1-2 green chilles, chopped
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
4 tbsp desiccated coconut
350g ground lamb

For the curry sauce

vegetable oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp ground turmeric
400g can chopped tomatoes


natural yogurt
lime wedges


Toast the fennel seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they are fragrant. Blend the garlic cloves, ginger, chilles and shallot to a paste in a blender or food processor, then mix the paste with the toasted fennel, coconut, and ground lamb. Roll into 20 balls, and chill for at least one hour.

Sauté  the shallot, fresh ginger, garam masala and ground turmeric for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes, adding a little water if necessary. Add the meatballs, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Drizzle a little natural yogurt over the sauce and serve the kofta with lime wedges, steamed rice, flat bread and extra yogurt.

Sep 182016


On this date in 96 CE, the Roman emperor Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy involving members of the Praetorian Guard and several of his freedmen, and on the same day, Nerva was declared emperor by the Roman Senate. This was the first time the Senate had elected a Roman Emperor. Nerva is not exactly a household name, like Caesar or Nero, but he played an important role as emperor for a little over a year, even though he was a generally ineffective ruler. If he had been a Christian he would now be the patron saint of stop-gaps. He kept the seat warm between Domitian who was, among other things the scourge of Christians, but also a vile and cruel dictator, and Trajan who greatly expanded the empire and ushered in a long period of peace and prosperity.

Marcus Cocceius Nerva was born in the village of Narni, 50 km north of Rome, to the family of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, Suffect Consul in 40, and Sergia Plautilla. Ancient sources report the date as either 30 or 35. He had at least one sister, named Cocceia, who married Lucius Salvius Titianus Otho, the brother of the future Emperor Otho.

Like Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty, Nerva was a member of the Italian nobility rather than one of the elite of Rome. Nevertheless, the Cocceii were among the most esteemed and prominent political families of the late Republic and early Empire, attaining consulships in each successive generation. The direct ancestors of Nerva on his father’s side, all named Marcus Cocceius Nerva, had been associated with imperial circles since the time of Emperor Augustus.

His great-grandfather was Consul in 36 BCE, and Governor of Asia in the same year. His grandfather became Consul Suffect in July of either 21 or 22, and was known as a personal friend of emperor Tiberius, accompanying the emperor during his voluntary seclusion on Capri from 23 onwards, dying in 33. Nerva’s father attained the consulship in 40 under emperor Caligula. The Cocceii were connected with the Julio-Claudian dynasty through the marriage of Sergia Plautilla’s brother Octavius Laenas, and Rubellia Bassa, the great-granddaughter of Tiberius.

Not much of Nerva’s early life or career is recorded, but it appears he did not pursue the usual administrative or military career. He was praetor-elect in the year 65 and, like his ancestors, moved in imperial circles as a skilled diplomat and strategist. As an advisor to Emperor Nero, he successfully helped detect and expose the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. His exact contribution to the investigation is not known, but his services must have been considerable, since they earned him rewards equal to those of Nero’s guard prefect Tigellinus. He received triumphal honors — which was usually reserved for military victories — and the right to have his statues placed throughout the palace.


According to the contemporary poet Martial, Nero also held Nerva’s literary abilities in high esteem, hailing him as the “Tibullus of our time.” In hindsight we’d probably call this damning with faint praise. The suicide of Nero on 9 June 68 brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end, leading to the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors, which saw the successive rise and fall of the emperors Galba, Otho and Vitellius, until the accession of Vespasian on 21 December 69. Virtually nothing is known of Nerva’s whereabouts during 69, but despite the fact that Otho was his brother-in-law, he appears to have been one of the earliest and strongest supporters of the Flavians.

For services unknown, he was rewarded with a consulship early in Vespasian’s reign in 71. This was a remarkable honor, not only because he held this office early under the new regime, but also because it was an ordinary consulship (instead of a less prestigious suffect consulship), making him one of the few non-Flavians to be honored in this way under Vespasian. After 71 Nerva again disappears from historical record, presumably continuing his career as an inconspicuous advisor under Vespasian (69–79) and his sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96).


Nerva re-emerges in histories during the revolt of Saturninus in 89. On 1 January, 89, the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, and his two legions at Mainz, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XXI Rapax, revolted against the Roman Empire with the aid of members of the Chatti. Domitian opened the year following the revolt by sharing the consulship with Nerva. Again, the honor suggested Nerva had played a part in uncovering the conspiracy, perhaps in a fashion similar to what he did during the Pisonian conspiracy under Nero. Alternatively, Domitian may have selected Nerva as his colleague to emphasize the stability and status-quo of the regime. The revolt had been suppressed, and the Empire could return to order.


On 18 September, 96, Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy organized by court officials. The Fasti Ostienses, the Ostian Calendar, records that the same day the Senate proclaimed Nerva emperor. Despite his political experience, this was a strange choice. Nerva was old and childless, and had spent much of his career out of the public light, prompting both ancient and modern authors to speculate on his involvement in Domitian’s assassination.

According to Cassius Dio, the conspirators approached Nerva as a potential successor prior to the assassination, which indicates that he was at least aware of the plot. Suetonius by contrast does not mention Nerva, but he may have omitted his role out of tactfulness. Considering the works of Suetonius were published under Nerva’s direct  successors, Trajan and Hadrian, it would have been less than politic of him to suggest the dynasty owed its accession to murder. On the other hand, Nerva lacked widespread support in the Empire, and as a known Flavian loyalist his track record would not have recommended him to the conspirators. The precise facts have been obscured by history, but modern historians believe Nerva was proclaimed Emperor solely on the initiative of the Senate, within hours after the news of the assassination broke. My reading, based on these limited sources, is that he was deliberately chosen as emperor  precisely because he was an ineffective leader (which he demonstrated admirably, albeit briefly) who could be manipulated by the Senate. He was also considered a safe choice because he was old, in poor health, and childless (precedent for later choices of a number of popes). Furthermore, he had close connexions with the Flavian dynasty and commanded the respect of a substantial part of the Senate. Nerva had seen the anarchy which had resulted from the death of Nero. He knew that to hesitate even for a few hours could lead to violent civil conflict. Rather than decline the invitation and risk revolts, he accepted.

Following the accession of Nerva as emperor, the Senate passed damnatio memoriae on Domitian: his coins and statues were melted, his arches were torn down and his name was erased from all public records. In many instances, existing portraits of Domitian, such as those found on the Cancelleria Reliefs, were simply recarved to fit the likeness of Nerva. This allowed quick production of new images and recycling of previous material. In addition, the vast palace which Domitian had erected on the Palatine Hill, known as the Flavian Palace, was renamed the “House of the People”, and Nerva himself took up residence in Vespasian’s former villa in the Gardens of Sallust.

The change of government was welcome particularly to the senators, who had been harshly persecuted during Domitian’s reign. As an immediate gesture of goodwill towards his supporters, Nerva publicly swore that no senators would be put to death as long as he remained in office. He called an end to trials based on treason, released those who had been imprisoned under these charges, and granted amnesty to many who had been exiled. So far, so good.

All properties which had been confiscated by Domitian were returned to their respective families.[22] Nerva also sought to involve the Senate in his government, but this was not entirely successful. He continued to rely largely on friends and advisors that were known and trusted, and by maintaining friendly relations with the pro-Domitian faction of the Senate, he incurred hostility which may have been the cause for at least one conspiracy against his life.

Having been proclaimed emperor solely on the initiative of the Senate, Nerva had to introduce a number of measures to gain support among the Roman populace. As was custom by this time, a change of emperor was expected to bring with it a generous payment of gifts and money to the people and the army. Accordingly, a congiarium of 75 denarii per head was bestowed upon the citizens, while the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard received a donativum which may have amounted to as much as 5000 denarii per person. This was followed by a string of economic reforms intended to alleviate the burden of taxation from the most needy Romans.


To the poorest, Nerva granted allotments of land worth up to 60 million sesterces. He exempted parents and their children from a 5% inheritance tax, and he made loans to Italian landowners on the condition that they pay interest of 5% to their municipality to support the children of needy families; alimentary schemes which were later expanded by Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Furthermore, numerous taxes were remitted and privileges granted to Roman provinces. Namely, he probably abolished the Fiscus Iudaicus, the additional tax which all Jews throughout the Empire had to pay: some of his coins bear the legend FISCI IUDAICI CALUMNIA SUBLATA (abolition of malicious prosecution regarding the Jewish tax).

Before long, Nerva’s expenses strained the economy of Rome and necessitated the formation of a special commission of economy to drastically reduce expenditures. The most superfluous religious sacrifices, games and horse races were abolished, while new income was generated from Domitian’s former possessions, including the auctioning of ships, estates, and even furniture. Large sums were obtained from Domitian’s silver and gold statues, and Nerva forbade the production of similar images in his honor.


Because he reigned only briefly, Nerva’s public works were few, instead completing projects which had been initiated under Flavian rule. This included extensive repairs to the Roman road system and the expansion of the aqueducts. The latter program was headed by the former consul Sextus Julius Frontinus, who helped to put an end to abuses and later published a significant work on Rome’s water supply, De Aquis Urbis Romae. The only major landmarks constructed under Nerva were a granary, known as the Horrea Nervae, and a small Imperial Forum begun by Domitian, which linked the Forum of Augustus to the Temple of Peace. Little remains, partly because the Via dei Fori Imperiali cuts across it.

Despite Nerva’s measures to remain popular with the Senate and the Roman people, support for Domitian remained strong in the army, which had called for his deification immediately after the assassination. In an attempt to appease the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard, Nerva had dismissed their prefect Titus Petronius Secundus—one of the chief conspirators against Domitian—and replaced him with a former commander, Casperius Aelianus.

Likewise, the generous donativum bestowed upon the soldiers following his accession was expected to swiftly silence any protests against the violent regime change. The Praetorians considered these measures insufficient, however, and demanded the execution of Domitian’s assassins, which Nerva refused. Continued dissatisfaction with this state of affairs would ultimately lead to the gravest crisis of Nerva’s reign.

While the swift transfer of power following Domitian’s death had prevented a civil war from erupting, Nerva’s position as an emperor soon proved too vulnerable, and his benign nature turned into a reluctance to assert his authority. Upon his accession, he had ordered a halt to treason trials, but at the same time allowed the prosecution of informers by the Senate to continue. This measure led to chaos, as everyone acted in his own interests while trying to settle scores with personal enemies, leading the consul Fronto to famously remark that Domitian’s tyranny was ultimately preferable to Nerva’s anarchy. Early in 97, a conspiracy led by the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso Crassus Frugi Licinianus failed, but once again Nerva refused to put the conspirators to death, much to the disapproval of the Senate.


The situation was further aggravated by the absence of a clear successor, made more pressing because of Nerva’s old age and sickness. He had no natural children of his own and only distant relatives, who were unsuited for political office. A successor would have to be chosen from among the governors or generals in the Empire and it appears that, by 97, Nerva was considering adopting Marcus Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatius Maternus, the powerful governor of Syria. This was covertly opposed by those who supported the more popular military commander Marcus Ulpius Traianus, commonly known as Trajan, who at the time was a popular general of the armies at the German frontier.

In October 97 these tensions came to a head when the Praetorian Guard, led by Casperius Aelianus, laid siege to the Imperial Palace and took Nerva hostage. He was forced to submit to their demands, agreeing to hand over those responsible for Domitian’s death and even giving a speech thanking the rebellious Praetorians. Titus Petronius Secundus and Parthenius, Domitian’s former chamberlain, were sought out and killed. Nerva was unharmed in this assault, but his authority was damaged beyond repair.

He realized that his position was no longer tenable without the support of an heir who had the approval of both the army and the people. Shortly thereafter, he announced the adoption of Trajan as his successor, and with this decision all but abdicated. Trajan was formally bestowed with the title of Caesar and shared the consulship with Nerva in 98. Cassius Dio wrote:

Thus Trajan became Caesar and later emperor, although there were relatives of Nerva living. But Nerva did not esteem family relationship above the safety of the State, nor was he less inclined to adopt Trajan because the latter was a Spaniard instead of an Italian or Italot, inasmuch as no foreigner had previously held the Roman sovereignty; for he believed in looking at a man’s ability rather than at his nationality.

Actually, Nerva had little choice in the matter, and later historians give him too much credit. Faced with a major crisis, he desperately needed the support of a man who could restore his damaged reputation, and the Praetorian Guard made their choice obvious. The only candidate with sufficient military experience, consular ancestry, and connexions was Trajan.

On 1 January, 98, at the start of his fourth consulship, Nerva suffered a stroke during a private audience. Shortly thereafter he was struck by a fever and died at his villa in the Gardens of Sallust, on 28 January. He was deified by the Senate, and his ashes were laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Nerva was succeeded without incident by his adopted son Trajan, who was greeted by the Roman populace with enthusiasm.


I celebrate Nerva today, not because he was a great man (in any respect), nor because he did anything notable. By the standards of his own time he was weak and indecisive. For most of his life he was a bog standard jack in office who got by without attracting attention, and then got thrust into the limelight precisely because of those qualities. The people were tired of Domitian’s tyranny and needed someone banal and controllable to keep the seat warm until a new emperor could be installed. Leaving the throne empty for even a few hours could have precipitated civil war. So Nerva got the short straw. Today let’s celebrate nobodies who end up as celebrities without either the desire or the talent for it.

I’ve combed ancient Roman recipes quite a bit in past posts and could do the same here. But I thought I’d deviate a little from that path. Contemporary Italian cooking does, in many respects, resemble the cooking of ancient Rome, although there are some obvious changes, such as the addition of tomatoes, zucchini, and beans from the Americas. But underneath these changes, some dishes have not changed all that much as best as we can tell. One such dish is testaroli.

A form of testaroli is attested in Etruscan times in northern Italy in the region formerly called Lunigiana, between Tuscany and Liguria, and is still a regional specialty. Whether what is served now bears much resemblance to the Etruscan dish is impossible to say. But ancient descriptions suggest a connexion. Here’s the question: Is it pasta, a crepe, or bread? It’s not really any of these things exactly. It’s not conventional pasta because it is baked before being boiled. But being boiled means that it is not a crepe or bread either. Wheat flour that is made into a paste, hardened, then boiled, sure sounds like pasta – and gives the lie to the idea that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China. But it’s not conventional pasta. The initial baking gives testaroli a unique taste.

Testaroli’s name comes from the testo, a terra cotta or cast iron cooking device with a hot, flat surface that testaroli is traditionally cooked on first. Making testaroli involves two steps (usually). First it is baked on a hot surface, then cut into pieces and boiled.

Here’s my recipe in photos (this morning’s breakfast).

Make a thin batter from flour and water with a little salt. It should be the consistency of heavy cream so that it will pour easily.


Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. You can use a dry surface if you wish.


Pour in enough flour batter to cover the bottom evenly — the same thickness as a crepe.


When the bottom has cooked and browned, flip the pancake.


Repeat as needed. Keep the pancakes distinct, do not stack them. Let them dry for a few hours, then cut them into small pieces on the diagonal.


Heat a pot of salted water to boiling.


Turn off the heat and plunge in the testaroli.


When they have heated through fully, remove the testaroli and serve hot with olive oil, basil leaves, and grated cheese. Nowadays, a pesto sauce is also very common.



Mar 292015


On this date in 1974 “The Terracotta Army” or the “Terracotta Warriors and Horses,” a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, was discovered  by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province who were digging a well. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots, and horses. Estimates from 2007 were that the three pits containing the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.


The Terracotta Army was discovered approximately 1.6 kilometers (0.99 mi) east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li (Lishan), a region riddled with underground springs and watercourses. For centuries, occasional reports mentioned pieces of terracotta figures and fragments of the Qin necropolis – roofing tiles, bricks and chunks of masonry. This discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate, revealing the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China.

In addition to the warriors, an entire necropolis built for the emperor was found surrounding the first emperor’s tomb mound. The earthen tomb mound is located at the foot of Mount Li and built in a pyramidal shape with Qin Shi Huang’s necropolis complex constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace or compound. It consists of several offices, halls, stables, and other structures placed around the tomb mound, which is surrounded by two solidly built rammed earth walls with gateway entrances. Up to 5 metres (16 ft) of reddish, sandy soil had accumulated over the site in the two millennia following its construction, but archaeologists found evidence of earlier disturbances at the site. During the excavations near the Mount Li burial mound, archaeologists found several graves dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where diggers had apparently struck terracotta fragments. These were discarded as worthless and used along with soil to back fill the excavations.

According to the writings of historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE), work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE soon after Emperor Qin (then aged 13) ascended the throne. The project eventually involved 700,000 workers. Geographer Li Daoyuan, writing six centuries after the First Emperor’s death, recorded in Shui Jing Zhu that Mount Li was a favored location due to its auspicious geology, “famed for its jade mines, its northern side was rich in gold, and its southern side rich in beautiful jade; the First Emperor, covetous of its fine reputation, therefore chose to be buried there.” Sima Qian, in his most noted work, Shiji, finished a century after the mausoleum’s completion, wrote that the First Emperor was buried with palaces, towers, officials, valuable artifacts and wondrous objects. According to this account, 100 rivers had their flow simulated by mercury, and above them the ceiling was decorated with heavenly bodies below which were the features of the land. Some translations of this passage refer to “models” or “imitations,” however those words were not used in the original text, which makes no mention of the terracotta army.


The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using local materials. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled. Eight face moulds were most likely used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual facial features. It is believed that the warriors’ legs were made in much the same way that terracotta drainage pipes were manufactured at the time. This would classify the process as assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to crafting one solid piece and subsequently firing it. In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying which workshops were commandeered to make tiles and other mundane items for the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.


The terracotta figures are life-sized. They vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank. Most originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows. Originally, the figures were also painted with bright pigments, variously colored pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac. The colored lacquer finish, individual facial features, and weapons used in producing these figures increased the figures’ realism. Most of the original weapons were looted shortly after the creation of the army, or have rotted away, while the color coating flaked off or greatly faded when the tomb was opened and exposed to air.

The emperor’s personal tomb appears to be an hermetically-sealed space the size of a football pitch. The tomb remains unopened, given concerns about preserving its artifacts. The lacquer covering the paint can curl in fifteen seconds once exposed to Xi’an’s dry air and can flake off in just four minutes.

Four main pits approximately 7 metres (23 ft) deep have been excavated. These are located approximately 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) east of the burial mound. The soldiers within were laid out as if to protect the tomb from the east, where all the Qin Emperor’s conquered states lay.


Pit one, which is 230 meters (750 ft) long and 62 meters (203 ft) wide, contains the main army of more than 6,000 figures. Pit one has 11 corridors, most of which are more than 3 meters (9.8 ft) wide and paved with small bricks with a wooden ceiling supported by large beams and posts. This design was also used for the tombs of nobles and would have resembled palace hallways when built. The wooden ceilings were covered with reed mats and layers of clay for waterproofing, and then mounded with more soil raising them about 2 to 3 meters (6 ft 7 in to 9 ft 10 in) above the surrounding ground level when completed.


Pit two has cavalry and infantry units as well as war chariots and is thought to represent a military guard. Pit three is the command post, with high-ranking officers and a war chariot. Pit four is empty, perhaps left unfinished by its builders.

Some of the figures in pit one and two show fire damage, while remains of burnt ceiling rafters have also been found. These, together with the missing weapons, have been taken as evidence of the reported looting by Xiang Yu and the subsequent burning of the site, which is thought to have caused the roof to collapse and crush the army figures below. The terracotta figures currently on display have been restored from the fragments.


Other pits that formed the necropolis also have been excavated. These pits lie within and outside the walls surrounding the tomb mound. They variously contain bronze carriages, terracotta figures of entertainers such as acrobats and strongmen, officials, stone armor suits, burials sites of horses, rare animals and labourers, as well as bronze cranes and ducks set in an underground park.


Weapons such as swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads were found in the pits. Some of these weapons, such as the swords are sharp and were coated with a 10–15 micrometer layer of chromium dioxide and kept the swords rust-free for 2,000 years. The swords contain an alloy of copper, tin, and other elements including nickel, magnesium, and cobalt. Some carry inscriptions that date manufacture between 245 and 228 BCE, indicating they were used as weapons before their burials.


An important element of the army is the chariot, of which four types were found. In battle the fighting chariots form pairs at the head of a unit of infantry. The principal weapon of the charioteers was the ge or dagger-axe, an L-shaped bronze blade mounted on a long shaft used for sweeping and hooking at the enemy. Infantrymen also carried ge on shorter shafts, ji or halberds and spears and lances. For close fighting and defense, both charioteers and infantrymen carried double-edged straight swords. The archers carried crossbows, with sophisticated trigger mechanisms, capable of firing arrows farther than 800 metres (2,600 ft).

In 2007, scientists at Stanford University and the Advanced Light Source facility in Berkeley, California reported that powder diffraction experiments combined with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and micro-X-ray fluorescence analysis showed that the process of producing Terracotta figures colored with Chinese purple dye consisting of barium copper silicate was derived from the knowledge gained by Taoist alchemists in their attempts to synthesize jade ornaments.

Since 2006, an international team of researchers at the UCL Institute of Archaeology have been using analytical chemistry techniques to uncover more details about the production techniques employed in the creation of the Terracotta Army. Using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry of 40,000 bronze arrowheads bundled in groups of 100, the researchers reported that the arrowheads within a single bundle formed a relatively tight cluster that was different from other bundles. In addition, the presence or absence of metal impurities was consistent within bundles. Based on the arrows’ chemical compositions, the researchers concluded that a cellular manufacturing system similar to the one used in a modern Toyota factory, as opposed to a continuous assembly line in the early days of automobile industry, was employed. Grinding and polishing marks visible under a scanning electron microscope provide evidence for the earliest industrial use of lathes for polishing.

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Shaanxi Cuisine, also known as Qin Cuisine, is represented by Guanzhong, south Shaanxi and north Shaanxi cooking styles. Shaanxi Province occupies an important position in the development of Chinese culture. Its cooking techniques can be traced back to the Yangshao period. In the Han and Tang dynasties, Shaanxi‘s cooking techniques reached a zenith. Thanks to its central position in Chinese history and geography, Shaanxi chefs were able to gather cooking styles from all over the country, and fuse them into a unique cuisine.

Local chefs of Shaanxi Province are good at using local materials to prepare delicious dishes, such as hump and hoof of a camel, fat sheep from north Shaanxi, Qinchuan oxen, carp from the Yellow River and black rice from Hanzhong. Through boiling, stewing, braising, frying and cooking, they produce a wide variety of dishes of different tastes. Chrysanthemum Hot Pot is one of my favorites. Hot pots are found all over China with all manner of ingredients and methods. The basic idea is to bring a pot of simmering stock to the table to keep warm over a burner. It can either be full of ingredients and diners help themselves; loaded with ingredients in order, typically meat then vegetables; or diners add their own and cook them individually like a meat fondue.


The ingredients here are just suggestions; use whatever meats and vegetables you want as long as you have chrysanthemum blossoms. Quantities are cook’s choice too.

Chrysanthemum Hot Pot


Dipping Sauce

¾ cup light soy sauce
½ cup Chinese sweet cooking rice wine
¼ cup dark sesame oil

Hot Pot

chrysanthemum flowers
1 whole boneless chicken breast, sliced in thin pieces
½ pound beef tenderloin, sliced in thin pieces
½ pound firm white fish, cut in bite sized cubes
½ pound center cut pork loin, sliced in thin pieces
½ pound medium shrimp, deveined and butterflied
8 to 12 shucked oysteres or a dozen to a dozen and half shucked clams
1 bok choy, chopped
1 package tofu, cut in cubes
1 pound spinach, stems removed
5 cups good quality chicken stock
4 ounces cellophane noodles, softened per package directions and cut in manageable sections.


Make the dipping sauce by whisking together the ingredients and pouring it into individual bowls

Place all the raw meats on one platter and the vegetables, tofu, and cellophane noodles on another.

Right before serving, bring the chicken stock to a rolling boil in a pan on the stove.

Pour it into fondue pot or pot with a flame under it that can be placed on a table and keep the stock at a simmer.

Allow guests to drop whatever meat they wish into the simmering liquid using forks or chop sticks.

Remove the meat after a few minutes in the simmering stock and dip in the dipping sauce.

When all the meat is finished put a good handful (or more) of Chrysanthemum flowers and vegetables into the remaining stock and simmer about one or two minutes. Ladle into bowls for guests to eat.

If you prefer you can add some flower petals to the stock at the beginning and the rest with the vegetables.