Sep 182018

Today is the birthday (53 CE) of the Roman emperor, Trajan, emperor from 98 to 117. The Senate officially declared  Trajan as “optimus princeps” and he is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death. He is also known for his philanthropic rule, overseeing extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which led later historians to call him the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.

Trajan, birth name Marcus Ulpius Traianus, was born in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (in what is now Andalusia in modern Spain), in the city of Italica (now in the municipal area of Santiponce, in the outskirts of Seville). Trajan’s non-patrician family was of Italian and Iberian origin. Trajan rose to prominence during the reign of emperor Domitian. Serving as a legatus legionis in Hispania Tarraconensis, in 89 Trajan supported Domitian against a revolt on the Rhine led by Antonius Saturninus. In September 96, Domitian was succeeded by Marcus Cocceius Nerva, an old and childless senator who proved to be unpopular with the army . After a brief and tumultuous year in power, culminating in a revolt by members of the Praetorian Guard, Nerva was compelled to adopt the more popular Trajan as his heir and successor. He died on 27th January 98 and was succeeded by his adopted son without incident.

You can read about Trajan’s illustrious reign in numerous places. Here I’d like to talk a little about the nature of history itself. How do we know that Trajan’s reign was so successful, and why has his name and legacy endured intact for so long? As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured, and he is one of the few Roman rulers whose reputation has survived, mostly undamaged, for nineteen centuries. This is largely due to the fact that primary sources are so rare.

Every new emperor after Trajan was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (that he be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a virtuous pagan. In the Renaissance, Machiavelli, speaking on the advantages of adoptive succession over heredity, mentioned the five successive good emperors “from Nerva to Marcus” – a trope out of which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Trajan was the second.

An extant continuous account of Trajan’s reign does not exist in ancient sources. An account of the Dacian Wars, the Commentarii de bellis Dacicis, written by Trajan himself or a ghostwriter and modeled after Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, is lost with the exception of one sentence. Only fragments remain of the Getiká, a book by Trajan’s personal physician Titos Statilios Kriton. Likewise, the Parthiká, a 17-volume account of the Parthian Wars written by Arrian. Book 68 in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, which survives mostly as Byzantine abridgments and epitomes, is the main source for the political history of Trajan’s rule. Besides this, Pliny the Younger’s Panegyricus and Dio of Prusa’s orations are the best surviving contemporary sources. Both are adulatory perorations, typical of the late Roman era, that describe an idealized monarch and an equally idealized view of Trajan’s rule, and concern themselves more with ideology than with actual fact. The 10th volume of Pliny’s letters contains his correspondence with Trajan, which deals with various aspects of imperial Roman government, but this correspondence is neither intimate nor candid: it is an exchange of official mail, in which Pliny’s stance borders on the servile. It is certain that much of the text of the letters that appear in this collection over Trajan’s signature was written and/or edited by Trajan’s Imperial secretary. Therefore, discussion of Trajan and his rule in modern history cannot avoid speculation, as well as recourse to non-literary sources such as archaeology and epigraphy. In short, we know very little about Trajan’s rule except what remains as physical evidence, which is plentiful.

Walk around the area of Trajan’s forum in Rome nowadays and you will see abundant evidence of Trajan’s massive building projects in Rome. Who wouldn’t be impressed, and think he was a great emperor? Museums in the area are also vast, with massive collections of sculptures and other artefacts accompanied by fawning descriptions. But what is the truth concerning his reign? What do we actually know about living conditions at the time? Very little. We know, for example, that he did not persecute Christians in the same ways as Diocletian and Nero, but he was not easy on them. He left them in peace as long as they were quiet about their activities. But he had explicit orders to execute any Christians who were discovered and publicly refused to recant. This state of affairs would have been normal for an emperor whose ancestors had been deified and whose authority rested on a state religion that Christianity called into question.

Lauded rulers in history come and go in their assessment, but Trajan’s reputation has survived almost undiminished for nearly nineteen centuries probably because so little is known about him from contemporary accounts. Ancient sources on Trajan’s personality and accomplishments are unanimously positive. Pliny the Younger, for example, celebrates Trajan in his panegyric as a wise and just emperor and a moral man. But, apart from being something of a today, what was Pliny’s definition of “wise and just”? Didn’t execute too many people? Killed only his enemies? Made life great for rich Romans, and who cares about the people he conquered? Cassius Dio added that he always remained dignified and fair. A 3rd century Emperor, Decius, even received from the Senate the name Trajan as a decoration. After the setbacks of the 3rd century, Trajan, together with Augustus, became in the later Roman Empire the paragon of the most positive traits of the Imperial order. As already mentioned, at the inauguration of later Roman Emperors, the Senate would say the phrase Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano.  Be better than Trajan eh? The Christianizing of Rome resulted in further embellishment of his legend: it was commonly said in medieval times that Pope Gregory I, through divine intercession, resurrected Trajan from the dead and baptized him into the Christian faith. An account of this features in the Golden Legend.

Some theologians such as Thomas Aquinas discussed Trajan as an example of a virtuous pagan. In the Divine Comedy, Dante, following this legend, sees the spirit of Trajan in the Heaven of Jupiter with other historical and legendary figures noted for their justice. Also, a mural of Trajan stopping to provide justice for a poor widow is present in the first terrace of Purgatory as a lesson to those who are purged for being proud.

I noticed that the inner bank of the curve…
Was of white marble, and so decorated
With carvings that not only Polycletus
But nature herself would there be put to shame…

There was recorded the high glory
Of that ruler of Rome whose worth
Moved Gregory to his great victory;

I mean by this the Emperor Trajan;
And at his bridle a poor widow
Whose attitude bespoke tears and grief…

The wretched woman, in the midst of all this,
Seemed to be saying: ‘Lord, avenge my son,
Who is dead, so that my heart is broken..’

So he said: ‘Now be comforted, for I must
Carry out my duty before I go on:
Justice requires it and pity holds me back.’

He also features in Piers Plowman. An episode referred to as the justice of Trajan was reflected in several art works.

In the 18th-century, king Charles III of Spain commissioned Anton Raphael Mengs to paint The Triumph of Trajan on the ceiling of the banquet hall of the Royal Palace of Madrid – considered among the best works of this artist.

It was only in the 18th century that this legacy began to be contested, when Edward Gibbon expressed doubts about the militarized character of Trajan’s reign in contrast to the “moderate” practices of his immediate successors. Mommsen adopted a divided stance towards Trajan in his posthumously published lectures, even speaking about his “vainglory.” Mommsen also speaks of Trajan’s “insatiable, unlimited lust for conquest”. Although Mommsen had no liking for Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, who, in his estimation had “a repellent manner, and a venomous, envious and malicious nature,” he admitted that Hadrian, in renouncing Trajan’s conquests, was “doing what the situation clearly required.” There is the crux of the matter. Trajan’s expansive conquests enriched him and Rome at the expense of the conquered, both in terms of money and blood.

It was exactly this military character of Trajan’s reign that attracted his early 20th-century biographer, the Italian Fascist historian Roberto Paribeni, who in his 1927 two-volume biography Optimus Princeps described Trajan’s reign as the acme of the Roman principate, which he saw as Italy’s patrimony. Following in Paribeni’s footsteps, the German historian Alfred Heuss saw in Trajan “the accomplished human embodiment of the imperial title” (die ideale Verkörperung des humanen Kaiserbegriffs). Trajan’s first English-language biography by Julian Bennett is also a positive one in that it assumes that Trajan was an active policy-maker concerned with the management of the empire as a whole – something his reviewer, Lendon, considers an anachronistic outlook that sees in the Roman emperor a kind of modern administrator.

During the 1980s, the Romanian historian Eugen Cizek took a more nuanced view as he described the changes in the personal ideology of Trajan’s reign, stressing the fact that it became ever more autocratic and militarized, especially after 112 and towards the Parthian War (as “only an universal monarch, a kosmocrator, could dictate his law to the East”). The biography by the German historian Karl Strobel stresses the continuity between Domitian’s and Trajan’s reigns, saying that Trajan’s rule followed the same autocratic and sacred character as Domitian’s, culminating in a failed Parthian adventure intended as the crown of his personal achievement. It is in modern French historiography that Trajan’s reputation becomes most markedly deflated: Paul Petit writes about Trajan’s portraits as a “lowbrow boor with a taste for booze and boys.” For Paul Veyne, what is to be retained from Trajan’s “stylish” qualities was that he was the last Roman emperor to think of the empire as a purely Italian and Rome-centered hegemony of conquest. In contrast, his successor Hadrian stressed the notion of the empire as ecumenical and of the emperor as universal benefactor and not kosmocrator.

As a civilian administrator, Trajan is best known for his extensive public building program, which reshaped the city of Rome and left numerous enduring landmarks such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Column. Early in his reign, he annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, creating the province of Arabia Petraea. His conquest of Dacia enriched the empire greatly, as the new province possessed many valuable gold mines.

Trajan’s war against the Parthian Empire ended with the sack of the capital Ctesiphon and the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia. His campaigns expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest territorial extent. In late 117, while sailing back to Rome, Trajan fell ill and died of a stroke in the city of Selinus. He was deified by the Senate and his ashes were laid to rest under Trajan’s Column. He was succeeded by his adopted son Hadrian.

An anachronistic recipe seems fitting for today’s celebration of Trajan, given that historical accounts of him are inevitably colored by the times in which historians live. Seville, near Trajan’s birthplace, is noted for its numerous tapas bars, and so any tapas recipe would fit the bill. I’m a big fan of pork cheek, braised in sweet Spanish wine. Pork cheek is a cut you are going to have to hunt for if you do not live in the Mediterranean region. It is really tasty and lean, but requires long, slow cooking.

Carrillada de Cerdo


1 kg pork cheeks
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 shallots, peeled and sliced
1 green apple, peeled, cored and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 chile, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups sweet red wine
24 small potatoes
1 bay leaf
2 tbs honey
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cups beef or chicken stock


Crush the garlic in a mortar and pestle and add in the thyme, honey, parsley and a tablespoon of water. Work the mixture until you have a well mixed paste. Dry the cheeks with paper towels and coat them with the paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and let them rest for at least an hour at room temperature. Before cooking, lightly sprinkle flour over the cheeks.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat, and quickly sear the cheeks on all sides in batches. Transfer the oil used to sear the meat into a large, heavy pot. Add a little more oil if necessary to completely cover the bottom by about 1 cm. Heat over low heat and sauté the onions, chile, shallots and carrots for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Add the pork cheeks and the 2 cups of wine. Add the bay leaf and allow the liquid to reduce 50% over medium heat, stirring regularly to prevent sticking. Add the stock and cook over a low heat for about 2 hours, or until the cheeks are completely tender. Twenty minutes before serving, add the potatoes and apple to the pot.

Serve with crusty bread.

May 042017

Today is the birthday (1852) of Alice Pleasance Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice the fourth child of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and his wife Lorina Hanna Liddell (née Reeve). She had two older brothers, Harry (born 1847) and Arthur (born 1850, died of scarlet fever in 1853), and an older sister Lorina (born 1849). She also had six younger siblings, including her sister Edith (born 1854) with whom she was very close and her brother Frederick (born 1865), who became a lawyer and senior civil servant. At the time of her birth, Alice’s father was the Headmaster of Westminster School, but in 1856 he was appointed to the deanery of Christ Church, Oxford. Soon after this move, she met Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who met the family while he was photographing the college’s cathedral on 25 April 1856. He became a close friend of the Liddell family in subsequent years.

Alice was three years younger than Lorina and two years older than Edith, and the three sisters were constant childhood companions. She and her family regularly spent holidays at their holiday home Penmorfa, which later became the Gogarth Abbey Hotel, on the West Shore of Llandudno in North Wales. When Alice Liddell was a young woman, she set out on a grand tour of Europe with Lorina and Edith. One story has it that she became a romantic interest of Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, during the four years he spent at Christ Church, but the evidence for this is sparse. It is true that years later, Leopold named his first child Alice, and acted as godfather to Alice’s second son Leopold. It is far more likely that Alice’s sister Edith was the true recipient of Leopold’s attention). Edith died on 26 June 1876, possibly of measles or peritonitis (accounts differ), shortly before she was to be married to Aubrey Harcourt, a cricket player. At her funeral on 30 June 1876, Prince Leopold served as a pall-bearer.

Alice Liddell married Reginald Hargreaves, also a cricketer, on 15 September 1880, at the age of 28 in Westminster Abbey. They had three sons: Alan Knyveton Hargreaves and Leopold Reginald “Rex” Hargreaves (both were killed in action in World War I); and Caryl Liddell Hargreaves, who survived to have a daughter of his own. Alice denied that the name ‘Caryl’ was in any way associated with Charles Dodgson’s pseudonym. Reginald Hargreaves inherited a considerable fortune, and was a local magistrate; he also played cricket for Hampshire. Alice became a noted society hostess and was the first president of Emery Down Women’s Institute.

After her husband’s death in 1926, the cost of maintaining their home, Cuffnells, was so high that she decided to sell her original manuscript copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (Dodgson’s earlier title for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). The manuscript fetched £15,400, nearly four times the reserve price given it by Sotheby’s auction house. It later became the possession of Eldridge R. Johnson and was displayed at Columbia University on the centennial of Carroll’s birth. (Alice was present, aged 80, and it was on this visit to the United States that she met Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the brothers who inspired J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan). Upon Johnson’s death, the book was purchased by a consortium of American bibliophiles and presented to the British people “in recognition of Britain’s courage in facing Hitler before America came into the war.” The manuscript now resides in the British Library.

For most of her life, Alice lived in and around Lyndhurst in the New Forest. After her death in 1934, she was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes were buried in the graveyard of the church of St Michael and All Angels Lyndhurst.

On 4 July 1862, in a rowing trip on the Isis from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow for a picnic outing, 10-year-old Alice asked Charles Dodgson to entertain her and her sisters, Edith (aged 8) and Lorina (13), with a story. As the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed the boat, Dodgson regaled the girls with fantastic stories of a girl, named Alice, and her adventures after she fell into a rabbit-hole. The story was similar to those Dodgson had spun for the sisters before, but this time Liddell asked Mr. Dodgson to write it down for her. He promised to do so but did not get around to the task for some months. He eventually presented her with the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in November 1864.

The relationship between Liddell and Dodgson has been the source of much debate, with some biographers supposing that Dodgson had a pedophilic attraction to the girl. But there is little to no evidence of this assertion. You’ll have to read the voluminous works on this debate if you want to form your own opinion. I’ll just say a few words about it. The biggest problem to overcome in drawing a conclusion is chronocentrism. As Leslie Poles Hartley wrote, “the past is a foreign country.” If we start imputing motives to people who lived 150 years ago we can easily run into grave error. The photo (above) of Alice as a gypsy girl, is frequently seen as erotic. But that is a modern view. Victorian photographers routinely took portraits of little girls in costume, sometimes naked, and they were generally seen as pictures of innocence. Some of them were even reproduced on Christmas cards.  Are we to assume from this that all Victorians were rank pedophiles? I suppose you could draw that conclusion, but . . . are all ancient Greek nudes evidence of their sexuality? I hardly think so.

The Alice in Dodgson’s tales and Alice Liddell are clearly not the same, and recent research has contradicted the long-held assumption that he based the character on her. Dodgson himself said in later years that his Alice was entirely imaginary and not based upon any real child at all. Dodgson’s own drawings of the character in the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures under Ground show little resemblance to Liddell.

There are at least three direct links to Liddell in the two books. First, he set them on 4 May (Liddell’s birthday) and 4 November (her “half-birthday”), and in Through the Looking-Glass the fictional Alice declares that her age is “seven and a half exactly”, the same as Liddell on that date. Second, he dedicated them “to Alice Pleasance Liddell”. Third, there is an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass. Reading downward, taking the first letter of each line, spells out Liddell’s full name. The poem has no title in Through the Looking-Glass, but is usually referred to by its first line, “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky”.

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

In addition, all of those who participated in the Thames boating expedition where the story was originally told (Carroll, the Reverend Duckworth and the three Liddell sisters) appear in the chapter “A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale.”

According to her grandson, Lorinda Liddell (Alice’s mother), gave the recipe for orange marmalade to Frank Cooper’s wife who then produced Cooper’s Oxford marmalade. I can’t say whether this is true or not, but it’s as good an excuse as any to dribble on about marmalade for a while. In Alice’s time, the word “marmalade” was not restricted to preserves made with citrus fruits, just as cognates in Romance languages (marmellata in Italian or  marmelada in Spanish) refer to jams in general. But the word eventually became restricted to preserves of bitter oranges when used on their  own, and more generally to other citrus fruits such as lime or grapefruit. For many years I made huge batches of marmalades in January after Christmas was over and before I had to return to lecturing in February. I experimented with lemons, limes, kumquats, and grapefruit year by year, but they often failed to set properly because those fruits do not have as much natural pectin in them as Seville oranges. Seville oranges are very hard to find in the US, but there rally is no substitute for proper orange marmalade. Regular oranges will not do. The peel must be bitter and laden with the right aromatics. Here’s Mrs Beeton’s discourse followed by one of several different recipes.

  1. Marmalades, jams, and fruit pastes are of the same nature, and are now in very general request. They are prepared without difficulty, by attending to a very few directions; they are somewhat expensive, but may be kept without spoiling for a considerable time. Marmalades and jams differ little from each other: they are preserves of a half-liquid consistency, made by boiling the pulp of fruits, and sometimes part of the rinds, with sugar. The appellation of marmalade is applied to those confitures which are composed of the firmer fruits, as pineapples or the rinds of oranges; whereas jams are made of the more juicy berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, currants, mulberries, &c. Fruit pastes are a kind of marmalades, consisting of the pulp of fruits, first evaporated to a proper consistency, and afterwards boiled with sugar. The mixture is then poured into a mould, or spread on sheets of tin, and subsequently dried in the oven or stove till it has acquired the state of a paste. From a sheet of this paste, strips may be cut and formed into any shape that may be desired, as knots, rings, &c. Jams require the same care and attention in the boiling as marmalade; the slightest degree of burning communicates a disagreeable empyreumatic taste, and if they are not boiled sufficiently, they will not keep. That they may keep, it is necessary not to be sparing of sugar.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—Equal weight of fine loaf sugar and Seville oranges; to 12 oranges allow 1 pint of water.

Mode.—Let there be an equal weight of loaf sugar and Seville oranges, and allow the above proportion of water to every dozen oranges. Peel them carefully, remove a little of the white pith, and boil the rinds in water 2 hours, changing the water three times to take off a little of the bitter taste. Break the pulp into small pieces, take out all the pips, and cut the boiled rind into chips. Make a syrup with the sugar and water; boil this well, skim it, and, when clear, put in the pulp and chips. Boil all together from 20 minutes to 1/2 hour; pour it into pots, and, when cold, cover down with bladders or tissue-paper brushed over on both sides with the white of an egg. The juice and grated rind of 2 lemons to every dozen of oranges, added with the pulp and chips to the syrup, are a very great improvement to this marmalade.

Time.—2 hours to boil the orange-rinds; 10 minutes to boil the syrup; 20 minutes to 1/2 hour to boil the marmalade.

Average cost, from 6d. to 8d. per lb. pot.

Seasonable.—This should be made in March or April, as Seville oranges are then in perfection.

Decades ago I began with this recipe as a guide, but then played with it over the years. First I boiled the fruit very slowly for a very long time over low heat.  For many years I filled a big stock pot with oranges (or other citrus fruit), covered them with water, and set the pot, covered, on my wood stove overnight. The water barely simmered, but in the morning the fruit was completely cooked. I then took the fruit out, weighed it, chopped up the peel into thin slices, and returned them to the cooking water while discarding the seeds. I added as much in weight of sugar as the weight of oranges, and brought the mix to a boil on the stove on high heat. At first you need to stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to make sure the sugar dissolves, but as the marmalade thickens you must stir more often to avoid scalding or burning. Determining when you have achieved the right temperature and consistency for the marmalade to set you must take a very little in a teaspoon and drop it on a cool, clean saucer. If it flows at all, it is not ready. If it forms a concave droplet, or “bead,” it is ready. I used to use small canning jars, place the marmalade in them hot from the stove almost to the brim, and cap them. They formed a hermetic seal and would keep like that, unrefrigerated, for a year or more. With some fruits lacking in adequate pectin, such as kumquat or lime, I added a little extra pectin to be sure. Be careful, though; too much pectin makes a set well enough, but the product can have a weaker flavor.