Jan 242016


Today is the birthday (76 CE) of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus, known in English as Hadrian, Roman emperor from 117 to 138. He is included in a group called the “Five Good Emperors” by later historians: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, noted because they became emperors through adoption and not biological succession, and because they were noted for fair government. Perhaps in a later post I’ll take issue with the second statement.

Hadrian was born into a Hispano-Roman family. Although Italica near Santiponce (in modern-day Spain) is often considered his birthplace, his actual place of birth remains uncertain. However, it is generally accepted that he came from a family with centuries-old roots in Hispania. His predecessor, Trajan, was a maternal cousin of Hadrian’s father. Trajan did not officially designate an heir, but according to his wife Pompeia Plotina, Trajan named Hadrian emperor immediately before his death.

During his reign, Hadrian traveled to nearly every province of the Empire. He was an ardent admirer of Greece, sought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire, and ordered the construction of many opulent temples in the city. He used his relationship with his Greek lover Antinous to underline his philhellenism which led to the creation of one of the most popular cults of ancient times. He spent a great deal of time with the military, and usually wore military attire even though much of his rule was peaceful.


Upon his accession to the throne, Hadrian withdrew from Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia and Armenia, and even considered abandoning Dacia. One of his great strengths as emperor was to put a stop to expansion of the empire and instead consolidate and strengthen what existed. Typical was his suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judea. The Jews had rebelled against Roman rule in 70 CE and been crushed (and the temple destroyed). Many Jews had been killed or dispersed, but many remained under Roman rule. Hadrian visited Judea in 130 CE and initially appeared sympathetic towards the Jews. Hadrian promised to rebuild the Temple, but the Jews felt betrayed when they found out that he intended to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter upon the ruins of the Second Temple.


Between 132 and 135 Simon Bar Kokhba led a revolt which resulted in the amassing of between 60,000 and 120,000 Roman troops in Judea, called from all across the empire, and resulting in catastrophic losses on both sides. As many as 580,000 Jews were slaughtered in the conflict with Hadrian ultimately successful. He forbade circumcision forbidden, had the Torah publicly burned, and Jewish intellectuals executed. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina. By destroying the association of Jews to Judea and forbidding the practice of Jewish faith, Hadrian aimed to root out a nation that had inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman Empire. Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem, but now as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it, except on the day of Tisha B’Av.

Hadrian was noted for his extensive building program, aimed at consolidating the empire, and no project is more famous than the wall he had constructed in northern England: Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, also called Vallum Aelium, the Roman Wall, Picts’ Wall, or Vallum Hadriani in Latin, was begun in 122 CE. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. It had a stone base and a stone wall. When in use it was effectively the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

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[Click to enlarge maps]

Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles or 117.5 km (73.0 mi) long; its width and height varied according to the construction materials that were available nearby. East of the River Irthing, the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 meters (9.8 feet) wide and 5 to 6 meters (16 to 20 feet) high, while west of the river the wall was originally made from turf and measured 6 meters (20 feet) wide and 3.5 meters (11 feet) high; it was later rebuilt in stone. These dimensions do not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 3 m (10 ft) base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 3 m (10 ft).


Immediately south of the wall, a large ditch was dug, with adjoining parallel mounds, one on either side. This is known today as the Vallum, even though the word Vallum in Latin is the origin of the English word “wall,” and does not refer to a ditch. In many places – for example Limestone Corner – the Vallum is better preserved than the wall, which has been robbed of its stone.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain along the route, though much has been dismantled over the years to use the stones for various nearby construction projects. Although the curtain wall ends near Bowness-on-Solway, this does not mark the end of the line of defensive structures. The system of milecastles and turrets is known to have continued along the Cumbria coast as far as Risehow, south of Maryport.


The A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the wall from Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then along the northern coast of Cumbria (south shore of the Solway Firth). It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. In fact Hadrian’s Wall lies entirely within England: while it is less than 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) south of the border with Scotland in the west at Bowness-on-Solway, in the east it is as much as 110 kilometres (68 mi) away.


Although Hadrian’s biographer wrote “[Hadrian] was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians,” proposed reasons for the construction of the wall vary. Contemporary historians tend to agree that the wall was mostly an expression of Roman power and of Hadrian’s policy of defense before expansion. Scholars disagree over how much of a threat the inhabitants of northern Britain really presented and whether there was any economic advantage in defending and garrisoning a fixed line of defenses like the Wall, rather than conquering and annexing what has become the Scottish Lowlands and defending the territory with a loose arrangement of forts.


The limites of Rome, various border structures throughout the empire (singular: limes), were never expected to stop groups from migrating or armies from invading, and while a frontier protected by a palisade or stone wall would help curb cattle-raiders and the incursions of other small groups, the economic viability of constructing and keeping guarded a wall 72 miles (116 km) long along a sparsely populated border to stop small-scale raiding is dubious.


Primarily Hadrian’s wall provided a degree of control over immigration, smuggling and customs. Limites did not strictly mark the boundaries of the empire: Roman power and influence often extended beyond the walls. People within and beyond the limites travelled through them each day when conducting business, and organized check-points like those offered by Hadrian’s Wall provided good opportunities for taxation. With watch towers only a short distance from gateways in the limites, patrolling legionaries could have kept track of entering and exiting natives and Roman citizens alike, charging customs dues and checking for smuggling. There is also the simple fact that Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in part to reflect the power of Rome and was used as a political point by Hadrian. Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed: its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around.


It is well known that Hadrian periodically slept and ate with his soldiers. Roman armies were provisioned with daily rations of wheat, wine, and oil. For the rest they lived on what was available locally. Each soldier ideally received a ration of about 830 grams (1.8 lb) of wheat per day in the form of unmilled grain, which was then mostly turned into bread as a staple. Ancient sources imply that sometimes stale bread was used up in soup, which, in turn, reminds me of the Tuscan ribollita which I’ve had as a hearty first course many times throughout Italy. The modern version uses tomatoes and beans that originate in the Americas, but there are records of Medieval versions that are basically vegetable soup with stale bread. Here’s a serviceable recipe of my own. Obviously this gives you the basic idea, which you can vary to suit what you have on hand. Kale or other hardy greens would serve well for a garrison in northern England at Hadrian’s wall.


© Ribollita

Bring a rich broth (chicken or beef) to a simmer and add shredded kale, chopped onion, and diced celery and carrots. Cook for about an hour along with what flavorings you prefer. I usually add nothing more than pepper and parsley. Refrigerate overnight to marry the flavors.

Next day reheat the soup. Take slices of day old bread, spread them with olive oil, rub with cut garlic, and sauté until golden on both sides. Lay a slice in the bottom of a shallow soup bowl, and ladle the soup on top. Top with grated cheese.

Alternatively, you can place the fried bread on top of the soup, put shredded cheese on top, and melt the cheese under the broiler for a few minutes.

Sep 272013


Today is the birthday (1389) of Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici founder of the Medici political dynasty, de facto rulers of Florence during much of the Italian Renaissance. He was also known as “Cosimo ‘the Elder'” (“il Vecchio”) and “Cosimo Pater Patriae” ( ‘father of the nation’). Cosimo was born in Florence and inherited both his wealth and his expertise in business from his father, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, founder of the Medici bank. Cosimo used his vast fortune of an estimated 150 000 gold florins to control the Florentine political system and sponsor a series of artistic accomplishments. His power over Florence stemmed from this wealth, which he used to control votes. As Florence was proud of its ‘democracy’, he pretended to have little political ambition, and did not often hold public office. Aeneas Sylvius, Bishop of Siena and later Pope Pius II, said of him:

“Political questions are settled in [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office. . . He it is who decides peace and war…He is king in all but name.”

In 1433 Cosimo’s power over Florence, because it was exerted without occupying public office, began to look like a menace, so in September of that year he was imprisoned under trumped up charges. But he managed to turn the jail term into one of exile. He went to Padua and then to Venice, taking his bank along with him. Prompted by his influence and his money, others followed him. Within a year, the flight of capital from Florence was so great that the ban of exile had to be lifted. Cosimo returned in 1434, and controlled the government of Florence from then on.


In foreign policy, Cosimo worked to create peace in Northern Italy through the creation of a balance of power between Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan during the wars in Lombardy, and discouraging outside powers (notably the French and the Holy Roman Empire) from interfering. In 1439 he was also instrumental in convincing pope Eugene IV to move the Ecumenical council of Ferrara to Florence (a council designed to heal the schism between the Eastern and Western churches). The arrival of notable Byzantine figures from the Empire in the East, including Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, started the boom of culture and arts in the city.


Cosimo was also noted for his patronage of culture and the arts during the Renaissance, liberally spending the family fortune to enrich Florence. According to Salviati’s Zibaldone, Cosimo stated:

“All those things have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it.”

His patronage of the arts both recognized and proclaimed the humanistic responsibility of the civic duty that came with wealth. He hired the young Michelozzo Michelozzi to create what is today perhaps the prototypical Florentine palazzo, the austere and magnificent Palazzo Medici.


He was a patron and confidante of Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Donatello, whose famed bronzes, David and Judith Slaying Holofernes, were Medici commissions.


Cosimo’s patronage enabled the eccentric and bankrupt architect Brunelleschi to complete the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the “Duomo”) which was perhaps his crowning achievement as sponsor. Florence’s cathedral had been begun by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 and was still unfinished in Cosimo’s day. The principle concern was designing a dome that could span the 140 foot octagonal barrel already built to support it. No dome then existed that was this wide except the ancient Roman Pantheon which spans 142 feet but is made of concrete and is supported on massive walls. In the end, Brunelleschi’s ingenious design would allow the lantern above the dome to rise 375 feet above the pavement (the Pantheon’s dome is 125 feet high and well as wide) and would be built without the Pantheon’s massive walls or the buttressing that medieval architects had relied upon to counter the huge outward thrust created by arches (and domes) of this size.

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In the realm of philosophy, Cosimo, influenced by the lectures of Gemistus Plethon, supported Marsilio Ficino and his attempts at reviving Neo-Platonism. Cosimo commissioned Ficino’s Latin translation of the complete works of Plato (the first ever complete translation) and collected a vast library which he shared with intellectuals such as Niccolo Niccoli and Leonardo Bruni. He provided his grandson, Lorenzo il Magnifico, with an education in the studia humanitatis. Cosimo had an inestimable influence on Renaissance intellectual life.


Although Cosimo’s father founded the Medici bank it was Cosimo who developed it into the largest in Europe and put his stamp on the family as rulers and patrons of Florence. The House of Medici produced four Popes —Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), Pope Pius IV (1559–1565), and Pope Leo XI (1605); two regent queens of France—Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610); and, in 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. The dynasty survived well into the 18th century.

One of the most famous and oldest soups from Tuscany is ribollita, conventionally made from leftover soup and day old bread. There are many variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables such as carrot, kale, and onion. Its name literally means “reboiled.” Some food historians date it to the Middle Ages when the servants gathered up food-soaked bread trenchers from feudal lords’ banquets and boiled them for their own dinners. The soup is quite thick, almost like a stew. It is common to use ciabatta (a crusty bread with a porous texture), but any crusty bread will work.




¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling on bread
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 cloves garlic, 1 minced and 1 whole
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½ pound cooked kale
1 (15-ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained
1 tbsp thyme
3 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
4 to 6 ciabatta rolls, halved lengthwise or 1 loaf, sliced
grated Parmesan, for serving


Heat the oil in a heavy, large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, pancetta, minced garlic, salt, and pepper and cook until the onion is golden brown and the pancetta is crisp (about 7 minutes).

Add the tomato paste and stir until dissolved.

Add the tomatoes and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits. Add the spinach, beans, herbs, stock, and bay leaf.

Bring the soup to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.

Drizzle the ciabatta halves with olive oil and toast in the oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven and rub the top of the toasts with the whole garlic clove.

Place the toasts in the serving bowls and ladle the soup over them. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve immediately.

Serves 6