Better to be Rich than to be Roman

The aim of this peace is not restricted to espousing the merits of the seemingly inane statement made in the title, but will instead dedicate much of its character count to the discussion of citizenship and the rights thereof within the Roman Republic and how they changed under the Empire. The titular statement will be further explained in the conclusion. 

The Roman Citizenry

To begin there must be a discussion of the condition of citizenship itself, and who were subject to it. In the modern world, the majority of residents in a country are citizens, making the word applicable to nearly all of the domestic population. This ubiquity does not characterize citizenship in Rome until 212 CE, when the Emperor Caracalla issued the Constitutio Antoniana (pictured below), which granted citizenship to nearly all free residents of the Empire.1 For a sense of the rarity of citizenship prior to the edict, note that it is estimated that between a tenth and a fifth of the population was a Roman citizen in the census year 14 CE.2 

The “Constitutio Antoniniana” after restoration in 2009
Photo: University of Giessen Library

Birthright citizenship was granted so long as the parents were wed by a legal Roman marriage, or if the mother was an unmarried Roman citizen. The condition prerequisite for a legal marriage was that both parents must either be a Roman citizen or a foreigner granted ius conubii, the right to marry.1 

The Constitutio Antoniana followed an established history of mass citizenship grants by Rome, such as when enfranchisement of all of Italy was secured following the conclusion of the Social War in 87 BCE. In the time of the Principate, citizenship continued to offered to former enemies of Rome, sometimes in large grants to communities, but also in extensions of citizenship to individuals, often as a reward for service to the Empire.3 

Ius Civitatis

The rights of citizenship (ius civitatis) were divided in the Roman legal tradition into those pertinent to public law, and those pertinent to private law. These ideas of private and public law map loosely onto the concepts of civil and criminal law in the United States, with private law concerning itself primarily with the interactions between individuals, and public law governing the interaction between individuals and the state.1

These rights are as follows:

  • Private law:
    • ius conubii: right to contract a legal Roman marriage
    • ius commercii: right to enter into and conclude legal transactions and contracts
    • right to litigate before the Roman courts
  • Public law:
    • ius suffragii: right to vote in the popular assemblies
    • ius honorum: right to stand for public office
    • right to occupy military offices in the Roman legions

Another modern idea of citizenship – that is again not fully applicable to citizenship in Rome – is the equality of the condition. Access to the rights enumerated above were dependent on age, gender, position within a Roman family group, and mental capacity. Citizens who possessed all the rights of citizenship were referred to as cives optimo iure.1

Many people were not cives optimo iure. Women, for instance, did not have the ius honorum nor the ius suffragii. Women also lacked the ius commercii if they were under the authority (manus) of their husband. Whether or not they under the manus of their husband was dependent on the type of marriage they were wed under: cum manu or sine manu.

During the Principate, marriage sine manu became customary, eventually leading to all existing and future marriages legally declared sine manu. This change occurred as women gained increased independence and family relationships became less rigid, social progress which has been attributed to the influence of Greek individualistic ethics.1 

As noted previously, citizenship was a rare condition prior to the Constitutio Antoniana. Its inherent legal value aside, it’s rarity contributed to its value as a prerequisite for elite rank and social status. Following the Constitutio Antoniana, the value of citizenship was largely derivative of the privileges it gave with regard to criminal punishment, as other rights began to decay.4

The Degradation of the Humiolores

The terms humiolores and honestiores refer to “the lesser sort” and “the better sort,” respectively. Their use in legal texts to refer to proletarian Roman citizens prior to the Constitutio Antoniana is suspect, as these documents were edited into their present form after the edict, when there was no longer a distinction between Roman citizens and provincials.5 They were, however, codified as legal terms delineating the citizen population in constitutional law by the time of Hadrian’s reign, where they were prescribed different treatment before the law, with lighter criminal punishments for honestiores.4

The imperial constitutions lacked clear definitions for those who were humiolores and those who were honestiores, but did provide a threshold rank for honestiores: at or above the level of decurions (Roman cavalry officers) and veterans. Whether or not a citizen was of the lesser of better sort often fell to the discretion of the judge overseeing the case, who, largely by their own standards, would take measure of the person’s ordo (rank) and dignitas (social status).4 

Scholars offer differing times for when the degradation of the humiolores began (Knapp suggests the process of marginalization in the court system was “in full swing as early as the first century AD” 5), but the sources consulted generally agree it did occur and conclude that it greatly reduced the station of the citizen within Roman society. Sherwin-White is notably the voice of opposition to both these positions arguing that there is evidence that the decline did not begin until the end of the Principate, and that it did was not so severe as to reduce citizens to near legal equality with the common folk among non-citizens, as is claimed by the other authors consulted here.

Citizenship’s Value

It must at the start be noted that here marks the division between the work of accredited scholars and the opinions of the author (though those instances of citation mark facts that are of the former category). I wish to here expand upon the seemingly inane remark which has entitled this piece (it should be of no shock that those who prosper within a society are better off than those who do not) and in contextualizing it in the scholarship on Roman citizenship, perhaps make it less so. Throughout the research I have done here, among those scholars who discuss the decline in rights and status of the Roman citizen (with the noted exception of Sherwin-White), there has been in common a sense that the emergence of the honestiores as a legal class represents a dramatic shift in Roman citizenship. I do not find this position wholly satisfactory, and humbly submit that Knappe approaches my own conclusion – the source of my discontent – though does not make direct argument for the case I will here, in brief, attempt to make.

“One might imagine that the marginalisation would be ameliorated, if not prevented, by the rights and privileges common to all Romans citizens. This does not occur, however. The status of citizen does not seem to have ensured access to the legal system, or equal treatment once within it. It is the dignitas/position of the person, not the status as citizen that counts.”

Robert Knappe, “Legally Marginalized Groups”

To provide some context to this quotation, Knappe is an advocate of the position that the degradation of the humiolores was such a profound change that the condition of the average Roman citizen was reduced to near legal equivalence with the average non-citizen, and states the quotation above in reference to the condition of humiolores under the Empire. I do not take fault with the idea that the legal rights of humiolores were greatly reduced, but instead the idea that the common citizen was greatly affected by this change, an idea which necessitates the belief that they had and could exercise substantially greater legal rights during the Republic. Even prior to the Constitutio Antoniniana, prior to the loss of rarity in the condition of citizenship (of which Taylor concludes that the social status – not legal status – conferred legal advantage during the Republic), the average citizen was not enabled beyond the capacity granted to them by their wealth, and their resulting status. 

Despite the rights nominally granting citizens involvement in governance – the right to vote and the right to stand for public office – the average citizen was not a part of the ruling class (a claim most robustly defended by Nicolet). One could not pursue public office without having served ten years in the cavalry, which itself had large property requirement to join (fixed toward the mid-second century at 400,000 sesterces).2  What value citizenship did hold was, before and after the Constitutio Antoninana, of greatest worth to the propertied, as with their wealth and status, it was only a lack of citizenship which could prevent their participation in the social elite’s monopoly on the application of the law and on governance.

In this light the degradation of the humiolores and the entitlement of the honestiores isn’t seen as an enormous change to the station of the common person of Rome as much as it is a shift in the mechanism of their exclusion from political involvement. As an example specific to the interaction of a common Roman citizen and the court system, when they had the right to go to Rome for trial their economic status would prevent them from being able to afford to do so. With the reforms of the second century, the humiolores were simply denied that right, achieving the same result, and not altering the interaction between common citizen and state.This, and the property requirement mentioned previously, are demonstrative of an inability for the average Roman citizen to utilize the rights granted to them. For what, except hollow display, did the common Roman citizen enjoy these rights which seem to have never ensured their access to the political and legal systems?

In full consideration of the material I have read and compiled for consideration here, I believe that Knappe’s quote above is as applicable to Rome during the time of the Republic as it is to its intended subject: Rome during the time of the Empire.


  1. Mousourakis, George. “The Law of Persons.” In Fundamentals of Roman Private Law. Springer, 2012.
  2. Nicolet, Claude. The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome. Translated by P.S. Falla. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  3. Ando, Clifford. “Citizenship, Roman.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press,, 2010. 
  4. Taylor, Tristan S. “Social Status, Legal Status and Legal Privilege.” In The Oxford Hand book of Roman Law and Society. Oxford University Press, 2016.
  5. Sherwin-White, A.N. The Roman Citizenship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. 
  6. Knapp, Robert. “Legally Marginalised Groups—The Empire.”In The Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and Society. Oxford University Press, 2016-10-06.

The Problems with Scholars’ Roman Time Periods

By Bernardo Hasbach

            To make studying history easier, scholars label time periods so that the categorization, comparison, and context of events is less difficult. They are defined by something that is significant enough to have everything in that time period grouped together. Scholars mark those periods with a starting point and an end point, signifying when it is no longer that period of time. The era of the Roman Empire has many examples of a labeled period of time. One such example is the Pax Romana, a period of peace, and prosperity that lasted from 27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E.[1]Another is the Crisis of the Third Century, a 50-year period of time where Rome almost fell apart due to a constant abundance of problems, that lasted from 235 C.E. to 284 C.E. Defining periods like these help scholars view causes and effects of smaller incidents, like Assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 C.E. and all of its effects on Rome, like its effect on Rome’s economy, culture, and society. 

            I believe that scholars try to create starts and end of time periods that directly correlate to a big event, like the changing of Emperors, to make labeling easier. However, I propose that using Emperors to define the start or end of an era can lead to problems. The periods created, and their respective pieces of evidence, can conflict with other time periods or pieces of evidence, and can be misleading. Looking at the same examples as before will showcase some of these issues.

            The first example that illustrates the issues that come from the way scholars assign the starts and ends to time periods is the Pax Romana. Pax Romana, to reiterate, was a period of peace and stability that lasted a little over 200 years. Scholars use Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death and the start of Emperor Commodus’ reign in 180 C.E. as a marker for when Pax Romana ends and when the kingdom began its shift “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”[2]This period of time being labeled as a time of peace and stability implies that overall, there were no large problems occurring in the empire, and that the issues began to arise afterwards. However, this is not the case. From 165 C.E. to 180 C.E., a sickness called the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome. Rome’s army suffered massive losses. Many in the empire died, with up to one-third of some cities’ populace dying. Overall, the disease claimed “an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population.”[3]The plague also heavily affected Indo-Roman trade relations.[4]Finally, the plague may have killed Lucius Verus, Rome’s, and Marcus Aurelius’, co-emperor. So, everything wasn’t completely stable during this time. That wasn’t the only problem occurring in Rome at the time. There were also the Marcomannic Wars that lasted from 166 C.E. to 180 C.E. Even though Rome was the victor, they still suffered losses and casualties, and combined with the plague, it cost Rome greatly. Yet this is a time scholars consider to be a period of peace and stability. I believe scholars attempt to use the start of a new reigning emperor to create a simple timeline, but this creates problems with the events contained within, and with what they imply. 

            Another example that shows problems with the way scholars designate starts and ends to time periods is the Crisis of the Third Century. The Crisis of the Third Century was a 50-year period of constant foreign invasions, civil wars and rebellions[5], and the decline and crisis of the monetary economy.[6]Scholars state it started in 235 C.E. after the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander, performed by his men[7]. This implies that these problems started after the assassination, or didn’t happen at the same time until then. However, looking at events before this crisis shows that these problems were already occurring. Before his assassination, Alexander was fighting off German foreign invaders. He bribed them, which led to the insubordination of his army, which led to a revolt, which then led to the assassination. Even before the crisis we have a combined effect of internal strife and foreign invaders. The monetary economy declining wasn’t a new problem either. Previous emperors had been debasing the currency to pay for the increasing cost of the army.[8]All the problems described in the definition of the Crisis of the Third Century were seen before Alexander’s assassination, and at the same time too. Yet this period of time is said to start after the assassination of Alexander. I believe that scholars attempt to use the death of an emperor to create an easy to understand start, but this creates conflicts with the events contained inside those time periods, and with what they imply.

            After conducting my research, I believe that scholars need to review the time periods created to check if the starts or the ends convey conflict with other pieces of information. There are issues that are being caused due to the inaccuracies created by scholars, and hopefully they eventually agree on a new, more precise definition for the start or end of a period. Scholars should still label time periods, because it does make studying them easier, but that’s only if it is done without errors that mislead, or don’t match other pieces of evidence.

[1]Aaron X. Fellmeth and Maurice Horwitz, ed., Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2nded., (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2010).

[2]Cassius Dio, Vol. IXp11 Epitome of Book LXXII, Arch of Augustus,*.html(Accessed December 10, 2018).

[3]Michael Gagarin, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4]Raoul McLaughlin, Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India, and China, (London & New York: Continuum, 2010), p. 59-60.

[5]Paul Freedman, lecture for “The Early Middle Ages, 284-1000,” Yale University, 12 Apr. 2012.

[6]Jeff Desjardins, “This infographic shows how currency debasement contributed to the fall of Rome,” Business Insider 10, Dec. 2018).

[7]Richard Valentine Nind Hopkins, The Life of Alexander Severus, (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1907), pg. 240.

[8]Kenneth W. Harl, Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, (Baltimore, MD, and London: H=Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pg. 125-136.

Roman Aqueducts

The typical image of a Roman Aqueduct is a massive arched structure carrying a river of water hundreds of feet overhead to the city. While these sections of aqueducts do exist, most of the Roman aqueducts were underground tunnels that carried water inside. For example, the first Roman aqueduct, the Appian, was built in 331 BC.1 The Tiber river was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of Rome. The Appian carried clean spring water 10.2 miles into the heart of Rome. By 144, the population of Rome had doubled and the Marcia aqueduct was built to deal with the increasing demand for water. Both of these aqueducts were nearly all underground with only a small percentage of the total length being above ground.

One of the best primary sources for aqueducts comes from Frontinus in 97 AD. He was appointed to the position of water commissioner for Rome. To prepare himself for this job he learned about all of the aqueducts and wrote two books on the topic.1 In his two volumes, Frontinus give the details about each one of the 9 aqueducts present at the time of writing. He goes over the story of each one, recording when it was made, where it sourced water, how long it was, and when it was repaired. He also addresses the laws regarding the tapping of aqueducts for personal use. Water was typically stolen by taking pipes and pounding them through the walls to drain off the water. This would cause damage to the aqueduct allowing water to leak out. Other causes of damages included trees roots breaking apart the tunnels, sediment buildup, deposits coating the channels, and storms.

Typically Romans tried to build the aqueducts underground, but when there was a valley that needed to be crossed, the Romans came up with a couple different solutions. A common way to cross small valleys was to create a bridge across them. However, if the valley was too large for a bridge to be practical, the Romans used a technique called the inverse siphon.2 They would run a lead pipe down through the valley and up to the other side. The pipe was watertight so as long as the side closest to the source was higher than the other side, water would flow through the pipe and get pushed back up due to the pressure from gravity in the pipe.

Distribution Center2

Along the path of the aqueduct, settling tanks were placed to allow the water to slow down and drop out dirt and rocks that were swept along the channel. As the aqueduct reached the city, screens filtered out debris in the water. Then, the water would flow into a distribution center. These had an inlet for the water from the aqueduct and a few outlets that led to different parts of the city. They could be for private use, public fountains, and baths. The outlet channels would be at different heights where the higher the channel, the earlier water to it would be cut off in the case of a drought. This was an ingenious way of making sure people could get access to drinking water even in the case of a water shortage.

Making Lead Pipes2

From these distribution centers, the water flowed through underground lead pipes to its destination. The pipes were made by pouring molten lead into a sheet, letting it cool, bending it into a cylinder, and welding the top seam with more molten lead. The pipes were then buried under the main streets leading to more distribution centers, baths, fountains, or straight into people’s homes.

With all of the lead making up the Roman water system, it is natural to wonder if they suffered from lead poisoning. However, the lead pipes used to carry water most likely did not raise the concentration of lead in the Roman water to an unsafe level. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that water was always running through the pipes. The fountains and baths were designed to overflow into sewers that carried the dirty water away. The lead would have very little time to contact the lead pipes, so not much lead would be able to dissolve. The other reason is indicated in Frontinus’ books. The water would leave deposits of calcium carbonate lining the walls of the aqueducts and more importantly the lead pipes. After enough deposits had built up, the lead would no longer be in contact with the lead anymore.1

Running water was the key to Rome’s large population. At its peak, the population of Rome is thought to have risen to one million people. One of the reasons Rome was able to have such a large population, was because waste and disease were washed away from the city by the constantly running water. Aqueducts supplied water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning to hundreds of thousands of Romans every day. It is because of the combination of their beauty and usefulness that Frontinus says the following about them.

“With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many aqueducts, compare if you please, the Pyramids, or the famous but useless works of the Greeks”

  1. Frontinus, Sextus Julius, Charles E. Bennett, Mary B. McElwain, Clemens Herschel, and Sextus Julius Frontinus. The Stratagems: and the Aqueducts of Rome. The Loeb classical library, LCL 174. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  2. Hodge, A. Trevor. Roman Aqueducts & Water Supply. London: Duckworth, 1992.
  3. “Aqueducts: Quenching Rome’s Thirst.” History Magazine, November 15, 2016.

Dating 101: The Use of Linguistic Archaeology in Relative Dating

Our [hopeful] goal by the end of four years

Despite the incredible academic achievements of MIT students, we possess an unfortunate reputation for struggling in social situations. Although my fellow students and I would unquestionably benefit from a thorough guide on romantic dating, this blog post does not deliver that necessity. Instead, I will discuss various methods of dating—in archaeology—and hone in on the use of linguistic analysis as a valuable and imperative tool for dating.

A more accurate depiction of our futures

There are two main categories of archaeological dating methods: absolute and relative. In absolute dating, we derive a standalone timeframe for an object or event. For instance, in radiocarbon dating, experts measure the presence of carbon-14 in ancient artifacts to estimate their age.1 Scientists can also date artifacts by calculating the impact of radioactive elements within the soil on buried artifacts, a method known as radiation damage. With dendrochronology, the study of analyzing tree ring counts and widths, archaeologists can create a natural calendar of historical events.2

Differing spaces between rings reveals significant historical events, such as droughts.

Relative dating, on the other hand, determines the time-sequenced order of events and evidence. In stratigraphy, archaeologists analyze soil layers to create a chronological sequence of human activity. For example, the Tell of Hazor in Israel is an artificial hill produced by 21 separate, human-created strata, each of which documents a unique societal occupation.3 Linguistic archaeology is the use of language and epigraphy—the study of ancient writing—to sequence events and artifacts. My interest was piqued by linguistical analysis, and I was curious to learn how archaeologists could determine relative dates without any physical evidence. Enraptured by the vast expanse of linguistic evidence, for my final project, I focused on the applications of linguistics in archaeological dating.

Image result for tell of hazor

Although the excavation of Hazor is in progress, many interesting layers of human activity have been uncovered.

Before delving into specific uses of linguistics, let’s first explore the study of language. There are three main categories of linguistics:

Linguistic typology studies the variation of human languages in terms of their structure. For instance, most languages of the Causcasus region have a high consonant count. In addition, some languages are tonal, such as Mandarin. Typologists can compare and group different languages by structure.4

Depiction of the tonal nature of Mandarin

Areal linguistics focuses on the geographical distribution of languages, which can be used to trace migrations. In Southern Africa, the Zulu language contains many “clicking” sounds that are traditional to the Khosian language, which is spoken on the opposite coast. 5 The similarity implies a Khosian presence in the Zulu region well before written records even began.


Zulu and Khosian are spoken on opposite coasts, yet share key similarities.

Genetic linguistics traces the ancestry and evolution of languages to infer prior societal change. 6 For example, the Romance languages stem from Latin, indicating a common structural ancestor—the Roman Empire.


Ancestry of the Romance languages, stemming from Latin.

Now that we have a grasp on the varieties of linguistics, let’s explore some case studies to see how scholars have approached the use of linguistics in dating.


Limestone ostracon with Coptic writing from Ancient Egypt

This artifact is a limestone ostracon with Coptic inscriptions on both sides.7 Coptic is an ancient Egyptian language, originating in the 2nd century AD, and was primarily used by Christians. After Muslims conquered Egypt in the 7th century, Arabic took over and Coptic fell out of fashion. With the history of Coptic, we can corroborate the estimated absolute date of this ostracon: 580 AD.8


Shared cognate percentages within word lists of Polynesian languages

Not all linguistic evidence is physical, however. This table illustrates data from various languages spoken in Polynesia, with the aim of determining the chronological settlement of the various islands. 9 The counts represent the percentages of cognates that TON (Tongan) and SAM (Samoan) share with other Polynesian languages. Viewing each pair of adjacent columns, it is evident that Tongan shares less cognates with all other Polynesian languages overall, and therefore, independently settled apart from the rest of the Polynesian islands first.


Number of word pairs with uniquely-shared, closely-related meanings in Polynesian languages

This table depicts the number of words with same or closely related meanings uniquely shared between various pairs of Polynesian languages.10 In particular, looking at the greater number of pairs Marquesan and Hawaiian share than Hawaiian and Tahitian, we can predict that the Hawaiian settlement has closer ties to Marquesan societies. This hypothesis was later proven to be true through other archaeological methodologies.

Although it is indisputable that linguistic archaeology has made valuable gains and contributions, as with any methodology, there are benefits and challenges to using linguistics for dating.

One notable benefit of analyzing languages is that they often reveal cultural information along with a time scale, a factor that absolute dating methods cannot derive. They also increase the scale of evidence available, as languages contain immense amounts of information, both in vocabulary and in grammar. In addition, language is a form of expression that is accessible by the poor and rich alike. For instance, graffiti from Pompeii, shown below, proved that Vesuvius did not erupt in the summer, due to the “Nov” included in the etched message. The eruption date was a hotly debated topic among experts, and the key evidence was provided by a nameless, common person.11


Graffiti from Pompeii proving that Vesuvius did not erupt until November

However, there are also many challenges to linguistic analysis. Understandably, it is incredibly difficult to comprehend a completely foreign language without any guidelines or rules. In addition, linguistic analysis relies on changes in language over time and area, which is impossible to analyze without significant control or comparison data. Finally, written evidence is not always readily available, especially for many oral cultures.

Personally, I support the use of linguistics as a vital supplement in archaeology, but not as a definitive dating source. Language is so intrinsic to the human experience that it seems illogical to not analyze it. To truly understand our ancestors, we must listen to their words. After all, human nature has not changed throughout history, and by listening to our forefathers, we not only discern life in the past, but also uncover reflections of ourselves.

Suggested Reading

Harden, Donald. The Phoenicians. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Inc., 1962.

Pawley, Andrew. “Roger Green, 1932–2009: Linguistic Archaeologist.” Oceanic Linguistics 49, no. 1 (2010): 288-297.

Stambaugh, John E. The Ancient Roman City. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.


1. McNeill, William H. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2nd ed., s.v. “Dating Methods, Archeological and Historical.” Great Barrington: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2016, Online.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Meyers, Eric M. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archeology in the Near East, 1st ed., s.v. “Language, Classification of.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, Online.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Bard, Kathryn A. An Introduction to the Archeology of Ancient Egypt. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, 28.

8. Ibid.

9. Green, Roger. “Linguistic subgrouping within Polynesia: the implications for prehistoric settlement.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 75, no. 1 (1966): 6-38.

10. Ibid.

11. “New Thoughts on Pompeii’s Last Day.” Archaeology, October 16, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2018. Online.

(Note: Online sources can be accessed by clicking on the citation)

Impacts of Ship-Building Advancements on the Medieval World

Early Middle Ages

During the EarlyMiddle Ages, Knar one of the most popular ships. Similar to longship,Knar was a type of cargo vessel used by the Vikings. It differed from the longship in that it was larger and relied almost entirely on its square-rigged sail for propulsion [2]. Knar was built for long voyages since it could take more cargo and be operated be smaller crew. Commercially, it was used to transport goods like walrus ivory, wool,timber, wheat, furs, and pelts [3]. It was also used in the military to supply food, drink, weapons, and armors to warriors across the Baltic and the Mediterranean.


High Middle Ages

Cogs first appeared in the 10th century and was widely used from around the 12th century. Current archaeological evidence points to the Western Jutland as the possible origin of this ship [6]. For centuries, Limfijord in northern Jutland provided stable passages for travelers between the North Sea and the Baltic. However,due to unusual geographical conditions and strong currents, the shallow sea was constantly filled with sand and became completely blocked by the 12th century [3]. As a result, large ships that could not be pulled across the sandbar had to circumnavigate the danger Cape Skagen to get to the Baltic. As a result, modifications were made from the knar to allow for more dangerous passages.

Cogs were characterized by a flat bottom at midships but shifted to overlapped strakes near the sterns. The flat bottom allows for easier settlement, which also makes loading and unloading faster for the crew. Fore and stern castles and high sides were added for defense against pirates. Additionally, cogs were heavily used during the Battle of Sluys [5].


Another type of ship used during the High Middle Ages was the hulk. The hulk was first recorded in the 10th century. Similar to cogs, hulks were clinker-built and had flat bottoms [4]. However, they are strongly curved upwards at stem and stern. Hulks were particularly associated with the Baltic and the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe [6]. Due to its widespread commercial use by the Hanseatic League, scholars agree that the hulk was predominantly a cargo vessel.


Late Middle Ages

Caravel was developed in the 14th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast. The lateen sails allowed it to travel against the wind, especially in the East Atlantic [2]. Being smaller and having a shallow keel, the caravel could sail upriver in shallow coastal waters. It was highly maneuverable and could sail much nearer the shore, allowing for more convenient loading and unloading of goods. However, one significant drawback of early caravel was its limited capacity for cargo and crew. For the commercial purposes, caravels were later replaced by larger carracks,which were more profitable for trading [5]. Carracks were usually three or four-masted. Because of its larger size relative to that of caravels, carracks were large enough to be stable in heavy sea. As a result, they were often used for trade from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.


Maritime Warfare

In the early Medieval period, ships in the context of warfare were primarily used for transporting goods and troops. During the High and Late Middle Ages, naval warfare became similar to that of the late Roman Empire. Fleets would exchange missile fires and then try to board the opponent’s deck. This mode of naval warfare remained basically the same into early modern period.

  • Battle of Nicomedia Bay (718) – Arab Siege of Constantinople; naval battles fought just outside Constantinople’s harbor; involved 760 vessels 
  • Battle of Sluys (1340) – Opening battle of the Hundreds Years War; involved at least 200 ships;
  • Battle of Zonchio (1499) – Venice went to war against the Ottoman Empire; involved dozens of galleys and warships against a Turkish fleet
Battle of Nicomedia Bay

Trade in the Mediterranean

In the centuries after the fall of Rome, trade in the Mediterranean died down gradually. This is due to the fact that oar knars and galleys sometimes required a crew of over 200 men. In addition to the limited amount of cargoes that could be carried and the tough ride in the open sea, merchants were discouraged to conduct long passages.However, new ship building techniques allowed for longer voyages,urging traders to travel further. Along with the introduction of compass from China and other naval tools such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, traders conducted and explored further areas during the 13th century. By the early 1300’s, cargo ships from Genoa and Venice were taking metals, silks, and other luxuries from the eastern Mediterranean to England and Flanders (Belgium). German and Dutch ships took iron, copper, and lead south to the Mediterranean and brought back wine, oil, and salt.

Trade Routes during Late Middle Ages


[1] Hiroshi, Niki. The city of Osaka in the medieval period: Religion and the transportation of goods in the Uemachi Plateau. Culture and Society 2012.

[2] Hyland, Ann. The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades. London: Grange Books 1994.

[3] Leighton, Albert. Transport and communication in early medieval Europe, A.D. 500-1100. David & Charles 2007. P.214-257

[4] Noe, Ilano. A study of population density of ancient, medieval and modern cities in relation to transportation. MIT 1961.

[5] Prestwich, Michael. “Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages”. New Haven: Yale University Press 1996.

[6] Scandurro, Enrico. “The Maritime Republics: Medieval and Renaissance ships in Italy”. London: Thames & Hudson 1972.

The Library of Alexandria

The library of Alexandria was a center of knowledge of the ancient world, a culmination of the science, philosophy, art, and literature of the day. By collecting works from around the world, the library attracted renown scholars, making the city of Alexandria the capital of knowledge and learning at the time.[1] However, much controversy lies in its destruction, with wildly varying theories of when and how it was destroyed.

Bust of Ptolemy II, who laid the groundwork of his father’s plans for the library

Also known as the “Great Library”, the library of Alexandria was proposed by the scholar Demetrius to Ptolemy I, but its groundwork was laid during the reign of Ptolemy II in 285 BCE[2]. It was part of a greater research institution called the Mousein in Alexandria, dedicated to the 9 Muses.[3] A number of renown scholars studied at the Great Library and Mousein, including Euclid, the father of geometry, Archimedes, the mathematician and inventor, Herophilius, the founder of the scientific method, and Hipparchus, the father of trigonometry.[4]

The library of Alexandria was intended to be a collection of all knowledge, with the goal to gather all written works of the era in the library. Collectors for the library were given large sums of money to travel around the world and collect writings of any subject. Any ship that docked in Alexandria had to turn its books over for copying to the Great Library, with the copied version returned to the owner.[5] In total, it was estimated that 100,000-400,000 scrolls were at the library at its peak, including famous works such as the Homeric poems, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the early works of Aristotle.[6]

Map of ancient Alexandria, including the library and museum

There are many theories regarding the destruction of the library, the most famous being of the burning of Alexandria by Julius Caesar. In this theory, Caesar visits Alexandria in search of his rival Pompey during the Roman Civil War. Upon learning that Pompey is dead, he abandons this search and becomes entangled in another civil war, this time between Ptolemy VIII and his sister Cleopatra VII over the throne of Egypt. Caesar sided with Cleopatra and set fire to Ptolemy’s ships. This fire spread past the docks of Alexandria to the Great Library, burning down many scrolls[7].

This theory is supported by the work Life of Caesar, which mentions a great fire.[8] However, recent historians have concluded that only part of the library was burnt down, citing mentions of the Great Library in the Life of Antony and the Deipnosophistai. In the latter, the author Athenaeus states “Why should I now have to point to the books, the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, when this is in every man’s memory?”, which supports the theory of the library existing in 200 CE, when the work was written.[9]

Artist rendition of the burning of the docks of Alexandria, initially believed to have destroyed the Great Library in its fires

Another theory blames the Christian riots of 391 CE, when Christianity was officially declared the official religion of the Roman Holy Empire. At this time, Emperor Theodosius had issued a decree to destroy all pagan temples of Alexandria. Bishop Theophilius, who had authority over Alexandria at the time, led a mob to demolish the Temple of Serapis, near the library of Alexandria.[10] However, although the books in the Temple of Serapis were recorded to be destroyed, there is no clear evidence pointing towards damage to the library of Alexandria and the Mousein.

Finally, the most recent theory historians have come to is of gradual decline. Rather than one catastrophic event leading to the destruction of the Great Library, its decline was due to a number of factors, including the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria by Ptolemy VIII in 145 BCE[11], the decreased funding of the library due to the later instability of Ptolemaic rule,and the repeated sackings of Alexandria under Roman rule.[12] In addition, as the wealth of Alexandria decreased due to these political factors, scholars began to spread across the Mediterranean to seek new places of knowledge, lowering the prestige of the library of Alexandria.[13]

Image of present day ruins of the Serapeum, where the library stored some of collections

This theory of gradual decline is supported by current historians as it is a theory based on trends over time, rather than individual events. Like the rise and fall of the Roman empire, it was not a single event or invasion which caused its destruction, but a result of many factors occurring over hundreds of years. The study of these varying theories extends further to the overall study of ancient and medieval studies. Rather than seeing events in history as direct cause and effect, they must be studied in context with the trends occurring at the time to consider the factors affecting them. In particular, primary sources should be studied carefully to avoid the biases secondary sources have in proving or disproving the author’s theories.

Regardless of the mystery behind its destruction, the library of Alexandria’s legacy lives on. Today, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is newly built in Egypt to honor the legacy of the ancient Great Library. It is built with a similar purpose as its original – to preserve and collect all knowledge for future generations and is a UNESCO World Heritage site[14]. Its existence today shows the legacy the library of Alexandria had on the area surrounding it, extending to the present day.  

Interior of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

[1] Murray, S. A., (2009). The library: An illustrated history. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, p.17

[2] Báez, Fernando. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. New York: Atlas Books, 2010.

[3] Murray, S. A., The library

[4]  “The Great Library of Alexandria”. Retrieved 2018-03-18.

[5] Phillips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria?” In Library Philosophy and Practice. July 26, 2012.

[6] Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

[7] Phillips, “The Great Library”

[8] Staikos, K., Cullen, T. and Koutras, N. (2012). The history of the library in Western civilization. New Castle: Oak Knoll.

[9] (2018). Alexandria Library – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: 11 Dec. 2018].

[10] Phillips, “The Great Library”

[11] Phillips, “The Great Library”


[13] Báez, A Universal History

[14] (2018). Overview – Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].

The Influence of Ancient Theater and Politics

As a celebrated satirist, author, and rhetorician, Seneca the Younger was positioned to influence those in power. Being one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisors, Seneca was able to engage in political discourse with little to no consequences. In 54 C.E., Seneca ridiculed the previously murdered emperor Claudius in The Apocolocyntosis by emphasizing Claudius’ mental and physical impediments.[1] Seneca made another jab at Claudius’ obsession with dice games by portraying Claudius with a bottomless dice cup.[2] Even Claudius had his carriage specifically designed so that he can play while traveling. The audience laughed at this portrayal, especially Nero because he was Claudius’ successor. Unlike other comedians, Seneca was able to mock politicians and entertain the public with immunity because Nero was his sponsor. On the other hand, Nero attempted to increase his popularity with the public by sponsoring Seneca’s plays that promoted him and derided his opponents.

For most of Ancient Greece and Rome, theater and politics influence each other, especially based on who is in power. Theater is also an important entertainment medium that portrays the different dynamics among the social classes, nature, and religion. The three types of dramas are comedy (satirical and mocked men in power), tragedy (relationships between men and gods and themes of loss, pride, and power), and satyr (mocked the tragedy’s characters).[3] Theater has always been political, and the influences of Greek dramas are observed in Broadway productions. For example, Fiddler on the Roof (a musical about the anti-Semitism in early 20th century Russia) and Les Misérables (a musical about politics and rebellion of revolutionary France) reflect on the political problems. As a result, many scholars wonder about the nature and function of theater, and how it’s affected by the different political regimes.

Some scholars prefer to analyze the political bias in plays in order to establish the relationship between theater and politics. Historian Ian C.Storey examines the transformation of Greek Comedy through the three distinct stages: Old, Middle, and New. Based on the play titles, testimonials, fragments, and hypothesis to Cratinus’ Dionysalexander, Storey concludes that Old Comedy started the trend of personal and political themes within the plot.[4] Furthermore, Storey’s analysis of Cratinus’ works as an Athenian comic poet demonstrates the use of additional actors to attack prominent people in the Athenian society.[5] In Athens, theater is a mass communication medium, especially in the recounts of dramatic competitions of tragedies and comedies in the festivals. Focusing on the written accounts of Athenian festivals, Storey discovers another prominent Athenian poet Acharnians who wrote a comedy with excessive political content and personal jokes that won him first prize at the Lenaea festival.[6] As a result, Storey connects the political freedom of speech in Old Comedy to the democracy at Athens. In additions, other historians often notice the impact of right-wing agenda in the poets’ works. One scholar, Alan H. Sommerstein investigates those characters made fun of in comedy. Unlike traditional aristocrats from “the right”, political officials from “the left” are more likely to be satirized.[7] This is significant by how poets are attracted by what would make a good entertainment material while still supporting their political bias. However, the changing political atmosphere in Athens is considered with the resurgence of romantic tragedy often ending with happy conclusions. This observation reflects on the greater legal actions and restrictions on the poets’ freedom due to the coups in the 390s B.C.E.

Theatre of Dionysos on the Athenian Acropolis
Greek comedy mask made of marble

The growth of theater also contributes to the power and status of actors. In today’s popular culture, actors have a large amount of influence to sway the public on political topics. However, it was not always like this, such that AncientRome considers performers to not be citizens. Therefore, some historians explore new evidence and critique other researches to show the growth of political interest in privatizing theater. Eric Csapo examines the personal agendas of Roman Republican elites and Hellenistic autocrats in the privatization of theater.[8]He mainly focuses on the Roman governing elite practicing privatization of theater in festivals in order woo the electorate, which would help their rise in the political career. Historian David Porter also agrees about the stage being a political demonstration advantageous to the elite pushing their propaganda in the theatrical material.[9] Csapo explains that the political strategy of privatization theater is to have the audience feel that they have some control. For instance, politicians often sponsor actors who were adored by the public. Therefore, the rise of popularity of certain actors is brought with favors, gifts, and honors from many politicians.[10] In the end, the politicians gain influence in the theatrical entertainment medium that can easily sway the public’s opinion.

[1] Lorraine Boissoneault, “When Actors Mixed Politics and Comedy in Ancient Rome,” Smithsonian, April 24, 2017,

[2] Boissoneault, “When Actors.”

[3] Arlene Allan and Ian C. Storey, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama (New Jersey, 2005), 8.

[4] Ian C. Storey, Fragments of Old Comedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), xix.

[5] Storey, Fragments, xix.

[6] Sotrey, Fragments, xx-xxi.

[7] Alan Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy, (London, Levante, 1996), 37.

[8] Eric Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater (Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 122-134.

[9] Csapo, Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater,187.

[10] Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith, Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque and Classicist Tragedy (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016), 3.

Prester John

Medieval depiction of Prester John

Many fairy tales and legends told today can trace their origins back in the Middle Ages, where fantastical stories of dragons and witches and fairies were told and often held to be true by the superstitious. The stories have lived on perhaps because of their outlandishness, and remain popular to this day. However, one of the most popular legends during a large portion of the medieval era in Europe was the legend of Prester John, a much more plausible myth than the existence of unicorns or dragons. While the legend was ultimately proven to be (mostly)untrue, millions of Europeans knew of Prester John and many believed the stories about him true. In fact, the story managed to spur entire expeditions dedicated to finding the mysterious Christian king Prester John far to the East. Some compare its popularity and importance in medieval times to that of the story of King Arthur[1].Part of what fascinates me so much about this legend that rarely appears in modern media is how it reflects what the Europeans thought of the East and the people who inhabited the East. Very little was known about the East and the Christians who lived outside of Europe, so the general opinion of Europeans on the East was shaped by the legends of Prester John.

The legend of Prester John originates during the Crusades, when Europeans came into much closer contact with the Middle East than they were used to. While searching for any possible allies against the Muslims, a rumor surfaced about an enemy that had recently defeated the Muslims in a great battle[2].This enemy was actually the Khitans, but Christians interpreted this news as evidence for a Christian kingdom in the East and a potential ally. The Pope was informed of a “Presbiter Johannes” in 1145, who later became known as Prester John. What made Prester John famous across Europe, however, was the letter delivered to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus in 1165 supposedly from Prester John himself. The letter is a remarkable piece of medieval literature,and does not fit into any of the norms at the time for diplomatic letters or most writing in general. The letter starts out wishing the emperor well, but then immediately begins boasting about the power of his kingdom and the wonders that it contains, including mythological creatures such as griffins and giants and a spring that grants immortality. He describes his essay as a utopia; “All riches, such as are upon the world, our Magnificence possesses in superabundance.With us, no one lies, for he who speaks a lie is thenceforth regarded as dead”[3].He also boasts about his own piety (somewhat ironically). Clearly, this letter was faked by a European, using European legends and ideas in order to fabricate a kingdom that sounded foreign and exotic. However, the letter essentially went viral, and hundreds of versions were published and read across Europe. It is not entirely clear how much of the letter Europeans believed during the 12th and 13th century, although scholars agree that they did believe in Prester John as a king living in the East[4],even if they did not believe in the many riches and magical beasts he brags about.


About a century after the original Prester John letter, theories about Prester John’s kingdom began to change. Originally, Prester John was believed to rule a kingdom in India, like the letter claimed. Soon, two theories began to emerge as the most popular. One of the most popular was the idea that the Mongolians came from Prester John’s kingdom. New perspectives on the East like the account of Marco Polo displayed the East as a much more sophisticated place than the Europeans originally imagined. Instead of the barbarous peoples that were assumed to lie beyond western civilization, Europeans were exposed to the rich and powerful cultures to the far East, the most important being Mongol-controlled China. Because of the widespread belief in Prester John, Marco Polo himself knew about Prester John and recalls the stories he heard about him from the Mongolians. In fact,Marco Polo does not spend any time debating whether this figure is Prester John or not; he has no doubt that the person he discusses is the same Prester John in all the legends from Europe. Instead he refers to the figure as either Prester John or his Mongolian name, Un Khan[5]. Un Khan is also known as Toghril, and ruled as the most powerful khan before Temujin united the Mongolian tribes and became Chingis Khan. Marco Polo claims that the kingdom ruled by Toghril’s descendants was a Christian one ruled over by the Mongols, who allowed every religion to exist. The Mongols were also an enemy of the Muslims during this time, so they fit into the narrative that Prester John had won victories during the Crusades. In fact, the French even tried to form an alliance with the Mongolians, ultimately to no avail. In addition to the Mongols, the other main theory was that Prester John resided in Ethiopia[6],a Christian kingdom that had been cut off from Europe for years. While Ethiopia was hardly the East, the Europeans grouped it with the rest of the“non-western” nations. After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, Ethiopia was widely considered to be the kingdom of Prester John, and gradually the legend faded until it was no longer a commonly believed myth.

Mapping out the kingdom of Prester John

Ultimately, Prester John is an interesting story because of how its popularity faded away as more knowledge of the East was available to the West. Before much was known about what was East of Persia, fantastical stories ran rampant throughout Europe about savage land sand peoples. But once more knowledge of these regions was spread, myths like Prester John became less prevalent because they were less likely to be real or important. But while the myth lasted, it shaped the European view of the East.

[1] Brewer, Keagan. 2015. Prester John: the legend and its sources, 1

[2] Brewer, 6

[3] The Letter of Prester John:

[4] Brewer, 2

[5] Polo, Marco. 2006. The travels of Marco Polo. New York: Cosimo Classics, 79

[6] Nowell, Charles E. “The Historical Prester John.” Speculum 28, no. 3 (1953): 437

Alexander the Great throughout the Ages

By Paige Vincent

            Alexander the Great was the ‘undefeated’ Greek ruler who swiftly conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and the Persian Empire. In just the short span of 11 years, from 335-324 B.C.E., he continued what his father had started and brought vast swaths of land under his control. What many people do not know is exactly how Alexander was able to achieve what he did. Scholars have been trying to answer this question out for centuries. Does Alexander deserve all the credit, is there someone else who deserves this praise or some external factor to blame? More interestingly, why have these theories about Alexander’s success changed over time and continue to do so?

            Many of the first theories regarding Alexander emphasized his military genius and honored him for his “divine” talent. An example of this type of opinion is that of Arrian in his Campaigns of Alexander[1].Although he may have written his account 400 years after Alexander’s death, he based it off of three eyewitness accounts (Ptolemy, Nearkos, and Aristoboulos).The Campaigns goes through each battle chronologically, detailing their main events and outcomes. Arrian doesn’t specifically delve into why Alexander was so successful, but in his description it is clearly implied that he succeeded because he was naturally gifted. One instance of this sort of rhetoric is in his description of Alexander: “…he was unsurpassed in his love of honor, his zest for danger… He was extremely adept at seeing immediately what had to be done when it was not yet obvious, and was exceptionally good at guessing what was likely to happen.”[2] Many modern scholars criticize Arrian and other ancient historians for idealizing Alexander and not looking at the big picture. Many still accept the military details he gives as true, but look elsewhere to see what was at the root of Alexander’s success.[3]

            Then what do today’s historians believe led to the Macedonian Empire’s rise? David J. Lonsdale uses an approach called strategic studies[4] to look at the context of Alexander’s success. Lonsdale finds that much of the technology attributed to Alexander’s army had been developing long before even his father, Phillip II’s, reign.[5] He claims that the main changes that led to Macedonian success were “political motivation,organization, and doctrine,”[6] all of which were begun by Phillip. For example, the unique structure and organization of the Macedonian army is attributed to the foundation that Phillip laid out during his rule; his army was one of the first to be practicing year round.[7] He does not forget to mention Alexander in his work, as he details the importance of the companion cavalry that Alexander led as well as his ability to decisively end battles.However, Lonsdale ultimately attributes most of the factors of Macedonian success to Phillip and processes that were occurring before the rise of Macedon.

Land conquered by Phillip II.

            Another approach was that of Frank Holt in Into the Land of Bones[8],which focuses on Alexander’s conquests in Afghanistan and finds reasons for Alexander’s success unrelated to his ‘military genius.’ He points out how effective Alexander was at rallying his army by igniting his warriors’ hatred to unite them against the enemy and push them to fight with fervor; “Alexander denounced [the Bactrian people] as lawless savages, the enemies of civilization… these resourceful criminals would continue to exploit differences of religion, language, and culture to rouse attacks.”[9] Similarly, Holt notes that Alexander found a balance between showing mercy and ruthless violence to his enemies. Showing mercy would allow Alexander to gain the favor of his conquered people while violence, like that which he used in Bactra, imposed the strength and authority of his rule.[10] Similar to Lonsdale, Holt notes the extreme dedication of Alexander’s army, who continued to fight with him as though the mission was their own, despite harsh conditions and casualties throughout the Alexandrian conquests.[11]

            By the Spear, by Ian Worthington, is focused on Alexander’s strengths as a military commander. According to Worthington, Alexander was able to my’s weaknesses in comparison to his enemy, as exemplified by the battle at Tarsus; Alexander knew that his cavalry was outmatched by the Persians’, and chose a narrow plain as the site for the battle so the cavalry could not flank his forces.[12] By the Spear also makes it clear that Alexander was not afraid to take risks, which added to his success because his enemies could not predict what he(or his army) would do. For example, during the siege of Tyre in 332 B.C.E., Alexander instructed his team of engineers to build a causeway across to the island city over which to carry his army.[13] This example and others like it make it clear that Alexander also had intelligent advisors on his team,and undoubtedly helped lead him to make good strategic decisions.

Artist depiction of siege of Tyre

            After being presented with such different arguments, many would wonder why historians have transitioned from the original idea of Alexander the ‘military genius’ to an array of external factors. First, it is clear that all sources still emphasize that Alexander must have had some talent to achieve what he did. However, the modern sources suggest that while Alexander himself took risks that ended in his favor, he was surrounded by smart engineers and a dedicated army. Additionally, modern scholars use a variety of resources, like archaeological evidence and written accounts from both sides, which allow them to make conclusions that are generally unbiased. On the other hand, Arrian was stuck in a time during which historians’ jobs were to tell tales of Greek Homeric heroes, rather than tell history how it happened. Historians have changed significantly since the 4th century B.C.E.

Suggested Reading:

Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth. “Alexander the Great.” In Science and Its Times, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, 30-35. Vol. 1,2,000 B.C. to A.D. 699. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library

“Greek Empire: Creation of the Hellenistic World, 327 B.C.E.–600 C.E.” In Global History: Cultural Encounters from Antiquity to the Present, edited by David W. Del Testa, Florence Lemoine, and John Strickland, 274-279. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. Gale Virtual Reference Library

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. University of California Press, 1980.

[1] Arrian, The Landmark Arrian: the Campaigns of Alexander; Anabasis Alexandrous, trans. by Pamela Mensch, ed. by James Romm (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

Arrian was an early 2nd century historian and military commander.

[2] Arrian, Campaigns, 313.

[3] Arrian, Campaigns, xxiii-xxiv, xxvii.

[4] David J. Lonsdale,  Alexander the Great, Killer of Men: history’s greatest conqueror and the Macedonian art of war (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 10.

[5] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 37-39.

[6] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 52.

[7] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 40-41.

[8] Frank Lee Holt, Into the Land of bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[9] Holt, Into the Land, 15.

[10] Holt, Into the Land, 26, 41.

[11] Holt, Into the Land, 37-38.

[12] Ian Worthington, By the Spear:Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the rise and fall of the Macedonian empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 164.

[13] Worthington, By the Spear, 173-178.

Virgil in the Basket: A Case Study of Latin Authors in the Middle Ages

By: Madison Sneve

While the Roman Empire may have “fallen” in a political sense, the culture and literary achievements of Rome lived on throughout the Middle Ages and to the modern day. The process of preserving and studying these ancient works is well known as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the Medieval period; however, less attention has been directed to the evolving public and scholarly perception of the authors of these works in the radically different society of the Middle Ages. Considering the legacy of Latin authors in the Middle Ages raises some interesting questions: How did scholars reconcile the pagan nature of the ancient works with their own Christianity? Which figures reached public renown and which remained in scholastic obscurity? How did Medieval peoples project their own ideals onto Latin authors? To explore these questions, let’s examine the case of Virgil, one of the most influential and well-known Roman poets of the Middle Ages and modern times.

The character of Virgil began receiving noteworthy attention by scholars and the public since the time of his death, but from the 4th through 10th centuries, fantastical legends surrounding his life and legacy began to arise.[1]Virgil was known to most Medieval people not only as a poet, but as a sorcerer,prophet, and womanizer. The legend of Virgil the sorcerer was likely the dominant viewpoint of the poet until the Renaissance, and his supposed supernatural abilities were more well known among common people than the literary achievements for which we know Virgil today.[2] In fact, we owe the Anglicized spelling of Virgil’s name to his sorcerous reputation: Vergilius first became “Vergil,”but later the spelling was changed in association with the virgo, the Latin word for “wand.”[3]

Scholars have long debated the origin of Virgil’s reputation for sorcery. Though the exact roots are unclear, the most reasonable source seems to be the Christian association with his 4th Eclogue.[4] In this poem, Virgil speaks of a child who will soon be born, destined to usher in a golden era of humanity. Beginning in the 4th century, Christian scholars interpreted these lines as a prophecy of the birth of Christ, and the Eclogues became widely distributed among most European scholarly circles. Virgil owes his rise to notoriety not to the Aeneid for which we know him today, but to this Christian interpretation. Virgil’s supposed status as a pre-Christian prophet lead to his popular association with magic and fortune-telling; from here, Virgilian legends began to arise.[5]

Scholars generally agree that the next notable progression in Virgil’s rise to infamy was driven by the sortes Vergilianae (Virgilian lots), a method of fortune telling that arose in academic circles in the 5th century.[6]The sortes involved opening a volume of Virgil to a random page and selecting a random line: that line was then interpreted as a fortune or omen. At a surface level, this practice seems to conflict with the strictly Christian mindset of the Middle Ages. However, the sortes Vergilianae likely has its roots in Virgil’s recent reputation as a Christian prophet, and hence the seemingly pagan practice has a Christian origin.[7]

There are dozens of surviving Virgilian legends,most of which were written down, and perhaps countless others that existed only by word of mouth. Some of these stories involve fantastical feats of magical ability, while others involve Virgil’s lust for women, power, and gold. The most well-known and perhaps most absurd of these is known as “Virgil in the Basket.”[8]This story recounts a time when Virgil fell madly in love with the emperor’s daughter. He asked to visit her in her tower, and she agreed to hoist him up in a basket. However, she didn’t reciprocate Virgil’s feelings, and in an effort to embarrass him for his lust, she left him halfway up the tower, stuck in his basket for the entire town to see. Virgil was mocked viciously, and in retaliation he devised a plan to humiliate her. He cursed her to constantly spew fire from her genitals, and he simultaneously extinguished every fire in the city so that the townspeople were forced to light their torches on the flames from her body. This story spread by word of mouth throughout Europe and first preserved in the literary record in the 13th century, inspiring countless later literary and artistic works.[9]

Virgil in his basket, enduring mockery from the townfolk
Virgil’s love interest, cursed to expel fire

The “Virgil in the Basket” story presents the poet as a vengeful and lustful schemer, hardly a paragon of Christian virtue.This story in particular represents the radical shift from Virgil as a prophet of Christ to Virgil as a sorcerer with devilish powers. However, these legends hardly diminished Virgil’s reputation as a Christian figure—the dual character of Virgil was able to peacefully coexist until nearly the Renaissance, when Virgil’s character in Inferno became the dominant characterization of him. This shows that superstition and the supernatural did not conflict with Christian ideals in the Middle Ages but instead fit reasonably within the beliefs of the common person. The role of Christianity in Virgil’s rise to public prominence demonstrates how the overwhelming importance of religion in the lives of scholars and common people alike.

[1]Yassif, Eli. “‘Virgil in the Basket’: Narrative as Hermeneutics in Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages,” 2. Scriptural Exegesis, 2009.

[2] Ibid., 3-14.

[3] Stok, Fabio. “Virgil between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” 15. International Journal of the Classical Tradition 1, no. 2 (1994).

[4] Ibid., 16-20.

[5] Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, 51.

[6] Comparetti, Domenico, Edward Felix Mendelssohn Benecke, and Robinson Ellis. Vergil in the Middle Ages, 239-256. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1966.

[7] Ibid., 56-59.

[8] Tunison, Joseph Salathiel. Master Virgil: The Author of the Æneid as He Seemed in the Middle Ages,64. Cincinnati: Clarke,1888.

[9] Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times, 239. London: Duckworth, 1998.