Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gambling in Ancient Rome

We know man has been fond of gambling since the beginning of civilization, based on the archaeology, but, most likely, he has been gambling since his intellect developed the capacity. What is it that drives the human desire for gratification achieved when you combine game playing with the award of a prize based on chance? Is it the thrill of earnings without labor? Whatever the motivation, gambling remains a popular human pastime across the ages and into the present day.

In the ancient world, the Romans were inveterate gamblers. All classes participated, from slave to emperor, artisan to Senator. During the time of the Republic, gambling was prohibited except during the festival of the Saturnalia which was held in December of each year. The Saturnalia was a celebration in honor of the Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and, according to Roman myth, there existed a time when Saturn reigned over the earth and provided a bounty for mankind, who lived in a state of innocence. The festival was an attempt to relive that time by turning convention on its head. Featured was a day of public revelry followed by two days of private celebration within the Roman household. The private celebrations included a “reverse meal” where slaves dined as their masters, possibly even served by them. Dice playing was permitted as another kind of reversal because that which was normally unlawful was now permitted.

What were these dice games? Generally there were two types: games with dice only and games with dice and a board containing pieces that were moved by throws of dice. The boards typically had 36 squares with various symbols such as squares, leaves, letters, and crosses marked on them. Three die, identical to the six sided type we use today, were thrown. The luckiest throw was three sixes or eighteen “spots”. Fines were paid or pieces moved backward if the dice thrown showed one or more single dot.

Outside of the Saturnalia, and despite the official government position, gambling was a daily activity for the Roman people. The ruins of a tavern near the praetorian camp held a sign that said, “Good food and gambling within.” Tables have also been found with wording inscribed on them – “make room for better players.”

One imagines “loaded” dice being employed by professionals who made a living taking other people’s money and frequent fights must have resulted from attempts at cheating. There is graffiti on a wall in Pompeii where the writer states with pride, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” The ruins of a tavern in the same city have a cartoon painted on the floor. In the first picture, two men sitting on chairs with a game board sitting on their knees. The first man says “EXSI” (I am out). He’s thrown the dice. The second man points and says “NON TRIA DV AS EST” (not three points but two). In the second picture, the men are standing up as if to fight over the score, but the tavern keeper steps in. “ITIS FORIS RIXSATIS” (Leave my place if you want to fight).

Augustus was a joyful gambler and made a practice of playing during all Roman festivals. A letter written to his son-in-law, Tiberius, states “We have passed, my dear Tiberius, the feast of Minerva, in great merriment, gambling every day and warming up to the occasion. Your brother distinguished himself by the great noise he made, and, after all, he did not lose very much, for fortune turned in his favor just as he faced ruination. I have lost thirty thousand sesterces, because, as usual, I was liberal to my guests and partners. Had I taken all that was due to me I would have cleared fifty thousand.”

After Augustus, the rise of imperial Rome produced a drop in moral standards. Horace states that “the young Roman is no longer devoted to the manly habits of riding and hunting; his skill seems to develop more in the games of chance forbidden by law.” We know of at least three laws forbidding gambling, the most notable being the Lex Talaria, but we don’t know when these laws were passed. We do know, however, that the Roman term for gambling was “Alea” and early, when the pretense of morality mattered, “Aleator” was used to describe a despicable person.

Laws or no laws, the Roman people played on because nothing could dent the attraction its people had for games of chance.

From a gender standpoint, women would have been excluded from any gambling activities with men but one can assume the richer ones played in groups like the men did.

If you’re interested in reading more about women and gambling, check out the following link:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Roman Fighting Techniques

I wrote an article on July 26th 2011 called Roman Battle Tactics Versus the Phalanx, and last week, a reader commented on that post in a very thoughtful and reasoned way. You would not be able to see his comment unless you looked back at the original article, so I decided to post it here. I will have more to add about this subject shortly.

Posted as a comment by M. Teague

Your points are good but they are strategic advantages, not tactical. To continue, the Romans were full-time professional soldiers who carried an enormous variety of tools and gear to allow them to march far, fast, and fight almost anywhere. Barring dense forest and cliffs, on any sort of open ground and not having to deal with cavalry archers the Romans seemed invulnerable. And I wondered for the longest time why.

I knew that the Roman legion was much more flexible and maneuverable than phalanx, could accommodate men in various positions but that still doesn't account for trying to get past a head-on collision with a (very strong) pike formation. But it sort of came to me when a few months ago I learned that the Roman Gladius is actually only a half-decent stabbing weapon. It is relatively fast, but compared to other weaponry (as actually tested against other swords) it is poor in stabbing. But this was how the Romans were taught to fight. Why would the Romans equip their troops with a poor stabbing weapon and tell them to stab with it all the time? There are even curved swords not designed for thrusting that do better against the gladius. The gladius is a fat sword and it can only penetrate up to a specific point.

Then just recently I saw the documentary (view-able on Youtube) Conquest: Roman Weapons. Peter Woodward in conjunction with reenactors made an excellent examination. A longsword is a better all-around weapon but it required room to wield and the techniques are either tiresome and you fare better with a smaller shield. A spear was good for holding off infantry charges but while cheap is useless afterwards in the thick of a fight. A large ax requires both hands, and a smaller ax while a good tool, requires swinging. The gladius is small and allows a lot of quick thrusts. A falcata or heavy sword was great at chopping and cutting but that is not only tiresome, it is slow compared to rapid short thrusts.

But beyond this was a technique for battle I never considered. The Roman legion was a highly offensive force. Contrary to what I believed (a counter-attack force that received the enemy) they push and drive into an enemy with that large scutum shield, preventing enemies from properly mounting their large attack. It as a weapon drove enemies into the ground and pushed them back into enemy lines. Romans were not tight-fitted in fighting formation, but had a little space 3 feet from man-to-man) between each other which never made sense to me until the demonstration as why.

AND THE BIG conclusion was this: the Romans at the front would use their large curved shields to hold off the initial bunching of a spear formation. Lots of people don't realize the scutum uses a horizontal grip, so when your arm is hanging loosely at your side, you're holding the scutum. This means you didn't have to hold up your arm across your chest or stomach to support that large shield; your shoulder did it for you. Two scutum close together curving around you could hold off 10 thrusting spears. The rank interwoven from behind moved forward, while the spears are planted in or busy working the front Romans, allowing the second rearward to step into gaps (remember, 2 scutum Romans are holding off 10 spears) and then use their gladius to hack apart the spears or drive them out of the way. No more phalanx. If the Romans had a dedicated thrusting weapon, this tactic would be impossible.

The Roman legion could fight the phalanx head-on and decimate it. Playing straight into the phalanx preference of fighting and force it into buckling destruction. The phalanx is a tightly packed bunch of men in which, almost irregardless of your weapon (you can pick any one of 100 around the world in any combination) you were destined to loose. The tight formation is used against itself and loses all advantages from the first advance.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This Blog named one of 10 History Blogs to Follow

Recently, The Ancient History Encyclopedia named us one of 10 history blogs to follow. See the following link:


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Inland Navy of the Roman Empire

In modern times, we think of great navies patrolling the oceans of the world. The British Empire, for example, owes the advent of its naval superiority to its victory over the Spanish Armada and the subsequent focus on providing protection for its trading partners and colonies. In Roman times, the naval landscape was principally the Mediterranean Sea, or as the Romans liked to call it, Mare Nostrum.

As I have discussed in other posts, the Romans came late to the game of sea trade and naval power following the successes of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians. They had no navy until the first Punic War (264 B.C.) when it became an important instrument for the capture of Sicily. By the time the empire began, naval power was a critical element of Roman strategy.

A remarkable yet mostly obscure part of the Roman naval story concerns the fleets of the inland frontier. I know of no other case in history where a large scale power deployed a navy for the control of rivers. By accident or design, the northern boundary of the empire would be marked by the great rivers of Europe; the Rhine and the Danube, so a naval force was required to act in support of the army. The Rhine was the western boundary of the empire from the time of Julius Caesar with the Danube following during the time of Augustus, who sought to move the boundary north to avoid attacks emanating from the Alps. Augustus had Drusus and his brother Tiberius push east from the Rhine as far as the Elbe, but following reverses like the Massacre at Teutoburg, Rome retreated to its
old boundary on the Rhine.

With rivers as a physical boundary, Rome needed a naval force to protect it: protect merchant traffic, quickly ferry the army to vulnerable locations, and control any adversarial movement on the waterways. Below is a map of the Rhine and Danube Rivers showing where the Roman fleets were located.

The Iron Gates are a physical landmark in the Lower Danube which divides the river. Its waterfalls and rapids made ship navigation during antiquity problematic, and it was not until 1831 that a successful channel was dug. See the photograph below.

The Roman solution to this Iron Gates problem was to deploy two navies. Classis Moesica on the eastern side and Classis Pannonica on the western side. These fleets were responsible for supporting the volatile Balkan frontier. The upper Danube, running from the Alps through modern Hungary was a more stable boundary which did not require a naval force during the first two centuries AD. A third naval force, the Classis Germanica was based near modern Bonn and was responsible for the Rhine region.

These Roman frontier fleets used a smaller class of ships than those used in the larger bodies of water, principally the Liburna, which was essentially a bireme with two rows of oars, possibly similar to the old Greek pentekontor. The crew was organized as a century like the army but not subdivided into cohorts because there was no tactical movement necessary at sea. A centurion was responsible for training the crew and took orders from a Praefect who acted as an administrator for the navy. These men were of high standing usually members of the equestrian class. The naval administration linked ships and sailors directly to Caesar rather than acting through the army chain of command. This peculiarity was an artifact of the time of Augustus when he placed so much trust in Agrippa as his naval commander and then assumed personal control following the death of his friend.

Actions undertaken by the northern fleets were sporadic and depended on the whether there were pressing threats to the frontier. For example, there were significant actions from 20 B.C. to 10 A.D. under Augustus when he was trying to establish provinces in the Balkans, but peacetime idled the navy from 15-69 A.D. After 85 A.D, the Dacian Wars occupied the fleets of the lower Danube for twenty years. 

There are no real descriptions of the northern fleets in battle, only their support of the efforts of the army. Lack of historical detail and the fact that the indigenous people lacked navies, leads one to believe there few independent actions that one could label noteworthy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Roman Empire and Dacia

The history of Rome and Dacia is another example of friction at the edge of the Empire causing a confrontation with people who refused to be subjugated. It took the Romans nearly twenty years to defeat Dacia once hostilities broke into the open.

With the eastern European frontier the Romans employed, as elsewhere, the same strategy. First, they required that the frontier facilitate traffic flowing between the various parts of the Empire. Second they rejected areas that were difficult to settle. Third they specified that the frontier include lands that could provide food and natural resources for the Romans settled there.

The tribe of Dacians was located north of the Danube River in southeastern Europe in what is today Romania and Moldova. At various times in their history, The Dacians, called Getae by the Greeks, expanded south of the Danube to the edge of the Balkan Mountains in what is now modern Bulgaria. The Dacians had a propensity for centralization which was rare for the peoples of the region and this trait made them a dangerous adversary for any power operating in the vicinity of the Danube.

During the first century AD, before Trajan, the Roman frontier in southeast Europe had its northern boundary at the Danube River stretching from Vienna all the way to the Black Sea. The Danube was fortified along its entire length with large forts, watchtowers, and auxiliary units assigned to reconnaissance, while two naval fleets, the Classis Pannonica and Classis Moesia, patrolled the river itself.

The map above shows the geography of the Balkans area.

Dacian raids against Rome were somewhat controlled under Augustus through reprisal operations. Tiberius tried diplomacy but was unsuccessful, possibly because the Dacians possessed gold and refused to be bought off. Then, during the middle of the first century AD, the Romans used Sarmatian Lazyges as a buffer by having them occupy areas Between the Tisza River and the Danube. The Lazyges, a nomadic people, were willing to take as payback for their territorial commitment Roman help in suppressing internal rebel activity.

In 85/86, during the reign of Domitian, the Dacians came together under the rule of Decebalus and became more belligerent. A Dacian attack on Moesia in 87 led to a Roman pursuit across the Danube and a serious Roman defeat, later avenged by Roman victory at Tapae in 88. Domitian had designs on attacking the Dacian capital at Sarmizegethusa but delays caused by matters needing Roman attention elsewhere resulted in a lost opportunity. By the time Rome turned its attention back to Dacia, the client kingdoms of the Danube had crumbled, making a large scale attack no longer possible. Uncertainty in the region required that Domitian treat with the Dacians, including the offering of a technical aid program, so things remained quiet along the eastern Danube up until the time of Domitian’s assassination in 96 AD.

Trajan attacked Dacia in the 101-2 period, defeated Decebalus, and exacted severe concessions on the losers. Almost immediately, the terms of the treaty were abused and a second war commenced in 105. This time Trajan laid siege to Sarmizegethusa and destroyed it. Decebalus committed suicide to avoid Roman capture.

Trajan made Dacia a Roman province extending its land as a deep wedge north from the Danube, a design intended to separate the local tribes and decrease their ability to organize together. This Dacian wedge survived until 270, when Aurelian abandoned the territory to conserve military resources.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Roman Assault on Carthage and the Role the Great Harbor played in it.

The Third Punic War was the inevitable result of treaty that was too restrictive and a long standing feud that couldn't be mitigated.

After defeat in the Second war in 202 B.C, Carthage was prohibited from attacking any friend of Rome and also required to pay reparations to the victor. But, over time, the Roman Senate saw hawk and dove factions emerge during arguments over the future of Carthage. The Punic council, looking at Rome from a position of weakness, saw similar factions argue over the risk of provoking their longtime adversary. Adding to the mix, neighbors of the Carthage began to attack her thinking she would not fight back. But she did and finally, in 149 B.C, the efforts Carthage made to protect herself were seen as violations by the hawks in the Roman Senate and war was declared.

The years of 149-148 B.C, were unsuccessful from the Roman standpoint as multiple attempts to assault the city failed. Then, after Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul in late 148, he proceeded to Carthage intent on finishing the war. Aemilianus spent the summer of 147 B.C. getting his army in shape and then in the fall built a double wall 3.2 miles across the Isthmus separating the city of Carthage from the rest of the Tunisian Peninsula. The inner wall would starve the Carthaginians into submission while the outer wall served to protect the Roman army from being attacked from behind. The inner wall was twelve feet high with parapets and towers. A central tower was high enough to provide a view into the city.

To help you understand the geography involved in this battle, I have constructed the following map which shows the city of Carthage and its critical landmarks.

Aemilianus came to realize, soon after the siege began, that closing the land route to Carthage was only a partial solution because the Carthaginian port was still open. Moreover the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, had his army stationed between the city walls and the port (labeled 2 on the map). Aemilianus wanted to move Hasdrubal so he created a distraction by sending a night raiding party of 4,000 to an area north of the Utica Gate, labeled 1 on the map, where scaling the wall was easier. The raiders had free reign over wealthy neighborhoods and an alarm went up immediately.

When Hasdrubal got word of the attack, he abandoned his position at 2 and brought his army back inside the city walls to counter the Romans, but they abandoned their positions the same night and retreated. The Romans overran the vacated position 2 and moved on to position 3 where they could devise an attack on the port. Meanwhile, parallel trenches were dug close to the city was with cross trenches connecting them. The trenches were filled with sharpened spikes.

Next, the Roman army began to construct a “mole” or sea wall to block the entrance to the commercial harbor (labeled 4). The mole was ninety six feet wide at the bottom, twenty-four feet wide at the surface, and constructed of heavy stones. The Roman army worked twenty-four hours a day on the construction until the mole was completed.

When the Carthaginians saw what the Romans were up to, they began a desperate construction project of their own to make a hole in the seaside wall of the commercial harbor so their ships could escape to the sea. The location of this hole was between 4 and 5 on the map. Since the majority of the project was conducted under cover, the Romans were unaware of what the Carthaginians were doing until 50 Triremes from the Carthaginian fleet emerged through the newly created opening. A more resourceful commander could have used the element of surprise to inflict a great deal of damage on the Roman fleet but the Punic commander was content to make a parade of his ships and engage in some training exercises before retiring for the night. When they emerged again three days later, the Roman fleet was prepared for battle. In the confusion of ships, the opening into the harbor was blocked by ships so the Carthaginians had to tie up along the outer break wall and absorb repeated Roman attacks. By nightfall they were able to return to the harbor. Before the end of the campaign season, the Romans attacked and took control of the outer break wall but put off attacking the city to direct their attention to raids on the interior and wait for the end of the year elections. With his choke hold on the city in place, Aemilianus knew it was just a matter of time before the city would starve.

During the spring of 146 B.C, Aemilianus returned to Carthage to finish the job. The final assault was focused on a point near the military harbor labeled 5 on the map. The Romans fought their way over the wall and despite Hasdrubal’s attempt to block them by setting fires, they were able to work their way into the city. The Carthaginians retreated to their citadel at Byrsa shown (rectangle on the map). The citadel was on top of a hill and between that point and the harbor sat three or four blocks of multi-story apartment buildings, so, in order to reach the citadel, the Romans had to engage in the worse kind of urban combat imaginable. Aemilianus ordered the neighborhood to be set on fire and the conflagration lasted for six days.

At that point, 50,000 civilians from the citadel where allowed to leave and be delivered into Roman hands to be sold as slaves, while Roman deserters and the remainder of Hasdrubal’s army fought on. But it wasn't long before the Punic general surrendered and threw himself at the mercy of the Romans. We know nothing of his fate other than he was paraded in Rome during the triumph celebrating the end of Carthage. The city itself was leveled and salt was poured on the arable land to prevent its use. No doubt this was the residue of hatred the Romans felt for Carthage going back to the time Hannibal embarrassed them during the second war.

Later Carthage would have a new life when Julius Caesar built a colony there in the mid-40s B.C. By the first century A.D, Carthage would become the second largest city in the western empire.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Great Harbor at Carthage

What is a Cothon?

A cothon is a man-made harbor found in the ports of ancient Phoenicia. In actuality, cothon refers to a man-made island at the center of a harbor, but because this island was typically included in the harbor design, its name eventually became the general term for the type of harbor. The great harbor of Carthage is the most well-known example, although others existed in Cyprus and Sicily.

The relationship between Carthage and Phoenicia is much deeper, of course, than the mere copying of a harbor design. Carthage, circa 814 B.C, began as a Phoenician colony at the start of the first millennium B.C. later to become independent of its mother country. The name Carthage is Phoenician for “New City”. As the Carthaginians moved forward to build their own nation, they used the Phoenician model of building an economy based on trade. After the Greek settlements in the Italian peninsula caused the Phoenicians to retreat to the eastern Mediterranean, Carthage was in position to dominate the western Mediterranean, which she accomplished by 650 B.C. Carthage remained a maritime power until she was crushed by the Romans at the end of the third Punic War in 146 B.C.

We don’t know when the great harbor was built because the history is lacking. The best information about it comes from Appian, far removed from the events he writes about. Polybius would have been a great source because he was eyewitness to the Roman attack on Carthage at the end of the third Punic War, but his writings are lost.

Here is what Appian had to say:

The harbors had communication with each other, and a common entrance from the sea twenty meters wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships' tackle. Within the second port was an island which, together with the port itself, was enclosed by high embankments. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. Above them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbor and the island. On the island was built the admiral's house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself overlooked everything. The island lay near the entrance to the harbor and rose to a considerable height, so that the admiral could observe what was going on at sea, while those who were approaching by water could not get any clear view of what took place within. Not even the incoming merchants could see the docks, for a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards.

Above is a drawing of the harbors of Carthage.

The architecture of the military harbor was stunning as you can see from the drawing below by RadoJavor, copyright 2012-2014.

The photograph below shows the harbors today.