3D reconstructions of boats from the ancient port of Rome

Today, Fiumicino in Italy is a busy airport, but 2,000 years ago this area was filled with boats – it was a large artificial harbour only a stone’s throw from the ancient port of Rome (Ostia). To tie in with the opening of the site’s newly refurbished museum, Giulia Boetto, a CNRS researcher at the Camille Jullian Centre (CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université), has coordinated 3D reconstructions of three of the wooden boats found at Fiumicino.

3D boats Rome
3D reconstructions of the three boat types found in Fiumicino: fishing boat (left), small sailboat (centre) and a harbour lighter (right). © D. Peloso, Ipso Facto scoop. Marseille/P. Poveda, Centre Camille Jullian, CNRS, Aix Marseille Université

These boats, in use between the 2nd and early 5th centuries AD, were abandoned in the port when they became outdated. At which time, they became waterlogged and covered with a layer of sediment. These oxygen-free conditions enabled the boats to survive until they were excavated, almost 60 years ago. Recovered and initially housed in the museum, which required major structural work, these wooden remains were documented using state-of-the-art digital survey techniques, then analysed and reconstructed in 3D, thanks to Boetto's expertise in naval archaeology.

The researcher also called on Marseille-based start-up Ipso Facto to create 3D models of the remains and on her colleague Pierre Poveda, a CNRS research engineer in the same laboratory, to restore the missing parts using archaeological comparisons and iconographic representations. By the end of the year, these 3D reconstructions will be housed at the new Roman Ship Museum in the Archaeological Park of Ancient Ostia.

This exhibition will enable visitors to discover ancient boat construction techniques and what life was like on board these Roman vessels. It will also allow them to virtually navigate in what was the most important Mediterranean port complex during the Roman Empire.

A video of the fishing boat's 3D reconstruction is available here.

Press release from CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)


Northern Barbarians in the eyes of the Romans

The ancient Greeks used the onomatopoeic term "barbarian" (in ancient Greek: βάρβαρος, bárbaros), literally "stutterer", to indicate the foreigner. The derogatory nuance, "the one who cannot speak (and think)", present from the beginning, was further accentuated after the clash with the Persians. During the Hellenistic age, when the Greek world expanded due to the conquests by Alexander the Great (thus coming to encompass vast pan-Hellenic territories and nations), the Greeks found themselves having to reconsider the Barbarian in a cosmopolitan vision and to discover moral aspects and qualities not taken into consideration until then: the educated barbarians, founders of philosophy, religion and art. From that moment, in fact, every man who spoke, read and wrote in Greek legitimately entered the world and Greek culture.

While watching Plautus' comedies, the Romans had laughed at the Greek definition, for the latter ones could also be included in the concept of barbarian. This term became part of their vocabulary, especially since, starting from the sack of Rome of 387 BC. by the Gauls Senonii led by Brenno, they began to call these new enemies from the North as barbarians. They did it with a much different meaning than the original Greek one, while at the same time these new enemies were so different from the Italic and Mediterranean peoples with which they had clashed until then. Throughout the 2nd century BC the successors of those Gauls, the Cimbri and the Teutons, continued to represent a feared threat to the Romans.

The otherness proven towards them is visible in the figurative representations (e.g. frieze of Civitalba, of Talomone) and in literary texts, in which the Romans reproduce, accentuating them, the characters of diversity of these peoples: the long unkempt hair, the build gigantic, unusual weapons, the use of breeches (bracae). This otherness together with the terror that resulted from it provoked a rather ferocious reaction from the Romans.

One remembers, for example, the ritual of burying a pair of Gauls and one of Greeks inside the Forum Boarium - burial documented for the years 228, 216 and 114 - the latter guilty once of having allied themselves with the former, or the practice of extermination, theorized as necessary for the salvation of Rome and Italy. And again, if the Barbarians had the inmanis ac barbara consuetudo of human sacrifices and cut heads, Rome reacted by adopting the same costume, as shown by some scenes depicted on the Trajan column showing Roman soldiers intent on mass beheadings, or fighting with the severed heads of the enemy held between the teeth by the hair, or to adorn the palisades of their casts with severed heads (Figs. 1-3).

barbari barbarians
Fig. 1 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan Column, with the representation of two auxiliaries intent on showing the Emperor the two severed heads of important chiefs of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture in Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

With the subsequent Romanization of Gaul and the consequent gradual change of Celtic culture, the Romans reevaluated their ancient enemies. Caesar and Cicero came to consider the Gauls "consanguineous of the Romans", while Timagene (1st century BC) linked them to a mythical Trojan origin, as was also repeated in the 4th century AD by the historian Ammiano Marcellino in his Res gestae, where he reported: “Aiunt quidam paucos post excidium Troiae fugitantes Graecos ubique dispersos loca haec occupasse tunc vacua” (Liber XIV, 1, 9, 5).

On the other hand, the populations of Gallic origin also began to boast of this fraternitas with the Romans, as some panegyrics by the Aedui seem to testify, made during the last republican and early imperial age, in which a tradition is likely to be attested originated at the same time as the first expeditions of Rome in the Gallic hinterland, when the Aedui had made use of the Roman successes to overturn the power relations with the opponents Arverni1. This tradition, proudly cultivated in literary circles (and not without a little tendentious though interested deformations), emphasized several times the bond of fraternitas with the Roman people (IV, 21, 2; V, 4, 1; VII, 22, 4; VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), even going so far as to affirm that this strong bond had been, even if not very credibly, sanctioned by the same senate that gave the Aedui in addition to the appellation of fratres, also that of consanguinitatis nomen (see VIII, 2, 4 and 3, 1), which made them stand out from other Gallic nations.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 2 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, with a soldier who fights holding the beheaded head of one of the Dacians between his teeth. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Starting from the Augustan age, therefore, the term "Barbarian" was shifted towards those who lived beyond the Rhine and who until then had only had sporadic contact with the Romans, the Germanic peoples.
The first Roman to cross the Rhine was Caesar in 55 BC, and he was responsible for the first and summary information on the Germanic peoples and on the other tribes of the same lineage, of which he described the rough and fierce customs, keeping them carefully distinguished from the Gauls, for whom a different and far-sighted political project matured.

Other information on the ancient Germanic peoples was collected in the lost work of Pliny the Elder, Bella Germaniae, of which, however, memories are kept inside the Germania of Tacitus2. Within this, the author was among the first to enhance the courage in battle of these peoples, the simplicity of their customs, the high value they gave to the hospitality and of which he also admired the consequent moral health and austerity of the their barbaric customs putting them in stark contrast to the rampant immorality and decadence of Roman customs.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 3 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, where Dacian heads impaled near the Roman settlement can be seen. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

Not even the bloody battle of Teutoburg in 9 AD, which saw the three legions commanded by Publio Quintilio Varo annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes led by Cherusco prince Arminius, served to diminish the value attributed to these peoples, indeed their combat skills were further emphasized.
Courage and bellicosity, together with personal loyalty, were the qualities that made these "Barbarians of the North" ideal mercenaries in the eyes of the Romans; and barbarian bodyguards, Germans, along with Gauls and Iberians were hired by several "warlords" of Roman origin. In the same way, many of them were used as gladiators, a use that made them popular, however confirming their reputation as dangerous barbarians. Not only that, over time many Germanic peoples became part of the auxiliary troops of the Roman army and in some loved ones they came to play the role of magister militum and consuls.

But how did the Romans see these Barbarians? Their appearance is known to us through the official Roman art that obviously related to the military and consequently to the war.

Fig. 4 - Detail of the frieze of the Trajan's Column, depicting the end of the first Dacian war, in which there are the two war trophies, made up of a pile of weapons taken from the enemy; above these you can see the pole on which an entire dace armor was rebuilt. You can recognize the typical loricate armor, the wolf-headed totems and the ogival helmets typical of the Dacians. Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus. Picture from Conrad Cichorius: "Die Reliefs der Traianssäule", Erster Tafelband: "Die Reliefs des Ersten Dakischen Krieges", Tafeln 1–57, Verlag von Georg Reimer, Berlin 1896. Public domain

We know the different propaganda policies put in place for the military triumphs of the Roman generals over the Barbarian peoples. These provided that the winner was awarded the cognomen of the defeated people (e.g. Germanic peoples, British, Dacian, Sarmatic, Gothic, etc.) and that a whole series of celebrations and titles of figured monuments took place (arches, altars, temples, statues , coins), on which the defeated barbarians tied under a trophy made up of their weapons were represented, a way of impressing on the minds of the subjects of the Empire the memory of the power of Rome (Fig. 4).

Fig. 5 - The Augustan Gem of Vienna. Picture by Gryffindor, CC BY 2.5

The figurative models on which the Romans drew in their first representations of the Barbarians came from the parchment art that he had created, on the theme of the victory of the Greeks against the Galatians (at the time of the invasion of Asia in 279 BC), the masterpieces of donations dedicated to Pergamum by the victorious kings, Attalus I and Eumenes II. The Gauls had been seen by the parchment artists without contempt, represented in a proud and wild way, pervaded by nobility.

Although descending from this tradition, deriving from the stoic idea of respect for the defeated, the Roman representations show on the contrary a more accentuated characterization of diversity and a more direct representation of the superiority of the Romans. The eburneous doors of the temple of Apollo Palatine have been lost, depicting the defeat of the Galatians in Delphi, but a series of other important monuments and artifacts (the lorica of the Augustus of Prima Porta, the Augustan Gem of Vienna, the Grand Cameo of France, etc.) (Figs. 5-6) transmit a certain codified image of the submissive barbarians, represented with flowing hair, uncultivated beards, slings, with often naked torso, sometimes bearing the torques around the neck, often in the presence of their women, in an abandoned attitude.

Fig. 6 - The Grand Cameo of France. Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, modified by Janmad, CC BY-SA 3.0

A reference to the propaganda implemented was also found in the forums of all Roman cities, in the decoration of public buildings, as shown in the trophies of arms of the Schola Armaturarum of Pompeii, but also in private monuments, as in the case of the funerary monument of an “eques pompeianus” in Porta di Nocera, where there is the representation of a stucco shield whose umbo is characterized by the presence of a barbarian head (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 - The Tomb 13 ES, the funeral monument of the “eques pompeianus”, from Porta di Nocera in Pompei. Photo by Alessandra Randazzo. It is possible to see a detail of the umbo at p. 335 in the text by M. Castiglione, Modelli urbani per forme di auto rappresentazione locale. Il monumento funerario di un eques pompeianus a Porta di Nocera, found in Arte-Potere. Forme Artistiche, Istituzioni, Paradigmi Interpretativi. Atti del convegno di studio tenuto a Pisa Scuola Normale Superiore, 25-27 Novembre 2010, a cura di M. Castiglione e A. Poggio.

From Trajan onwards, with the intensification of military operations on the borders, the representations of barbarians become more and more numerous, examples of which are famous monuments such as the Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi (109 AD) (Fig. 8), the Trajan column or the large statues of Dacians in porphyry.

In them, and especially in the Trajan column, the feeling of admiration for the Roman virtus coexists with that of respect for the unfortunate heroism of the defeated. Starting from Marcus Aurelius, with the Aurelian column, this feeling is preserved, but turns on the pathetic, moving away from that residue of Hellenistic composure still perceptible in the Trajan column. An evolution that is also observed in private moments, such as on some sarcophagi with battle scenes, such as that of Amendola, by Portonaccio or the later Ludovisi (Figs. 9-10).

Fig. 8 - The Tropaecum Traiani of Damklissi. Picture by CristianChirita, modified by Francesco Bini, CC BY-SA 3.0

This evolution in a dramatic sense would reflect the fragile balance of the Rhine-Danubian limes.
From Marcus Aurelius, onwards, within the Empire, the word Barbarian acquired an increasingly sinister value, linked to the theme of destruction. In this period, in fact, several Germanic peoples incursions crossed the border, reaching more and more frequently the claustra Italiae. These provoked the so-called Marcomannic wars, a long period of military conflicts fought between the Roman army and the German-Sarmatic populations of continental Europe (ca. 167-189), representing the prelude to the great barbarian invasions of the III-V century which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms.

barbari barbarians
Fig. 9 - Amendola sarcophagus; picture from R. Banchi Bandinelli e M. Torelli, L'arte dell'antichità classica, Etruria-Roma, Utet, Torino 1976. Public domain

Late Antiquity sources present these Barbarians through the new filter created by the controversy between paganism and Christianity and subsequently between Christianity and Arianism, so that a discordant judgment often results. Especially after the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric of the Balts and the conquest of Italy with the deposition of the young emperor Romulus Augustus of 476 by the king of Heruli, Odoacre, a certain sense of contempt prevailed in the towards these peoples. A contempt to which the Barbarians responded by overturning the insults with no less harsh tones.

Fig. 10 - Grande Ludovisi Altemps (3rd century AD). Picture © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This hatred did not seem to subside if still centuries later, the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas apostrophized with "Vos non Romani, sed Langobardi estis [You are not Romans, you are Lombards]" the bishop of Cremona Liutprando, who had been sent as ambassador to the Byzantine court by the emperor of the Holy Roman German Empire, Otto I, to combine a marriage and settle the difficult dispute between the two empires, relative to southern Italy.

Upon his return, the Lombard said he replied to the dismissive guest as follows: “Romulum fratricidam, ex quo et Romani dicti sunt, porniogenitum, hoc est ex adulterio natum, chronographia innotuit, asylumque sibi fecisse in quo alieni aeris debitores, fugitivos servos, homicidas ac pro reatibs suis morte dignos suscepit, multitudinemque quandam talium sibi ascivit, quos Romanos appellavit; ex qua nobilitate propagati sunt ipsi, quos vos kosmocratores, id est imperatores, appellatis. Quos nos, Langobardi, scilicet Saxones, Franci, Lotharingi, Bagoarii, Suevi, Burgundiones, tanto dedignamur [those who are called Romans], ut inimicos nostros commoti nil aliud contumeliarum, nisi: Romane! dicamus, hoc solo, id est Romanorum nomine quicquid ignobilitatis, quicquid timiditatis, quicquid avaritiae, quicquid luxuriae, quicquid mendacii, immo quicquid vitiorum est, comprehendentes". 'Roman!', therefore, for "nos Langobardi" [history made us to know that the fratricide Romulus, from whom the Romans draw their name, was a pomiogenite, that is, born from an adultery, we also know that he created a place of asylum and welcomed the insolvent debtors, the fugitive slaves, the murders ... From this noble descendants of what you call Cosmocrats, or emperors. We, then, namely the Lombards, Saxons, Franks, Lotharingians, Bavarians, Suebi, Burgundians, have them in so much indignation that when we are angry and we must say something offensive to a our enemy, we shout to him "you are Roman", meaning with this Roman name all that there is in the world of more ignoble, more cowardly, more greedy, more corrupt, more false, and in a word, all existing vices ...]3 for which the term "Roman" was used in a derogatory sense as it contained within itself the expression of various vices such as: ignobility, fearfulness, avarice, lust, beggar and so on.

However, precisely the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms demonstrates how the new ruling elites sought to merge the two cultures, the Germanic and the Roman. One of the first examples of this policy is reported by the Christian apologist Orosius in his Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem. Orosio referring to the Aryan king Athaulf of the Balts wrote that although thesovereign mantained a conflictual relationship with Roman culture: “Referre solitus esset: se inprimis ardenter inhiasse, ut oblitterato Romano nomine Romanum omne solum Gothorum imperium et faceret et vocaret essetque, ut vulgarites loquar, Gothia quod Romania fuisset, et fieret nune Athaulfus quod quondam Caesar Augustus, at ubi multa experiential probavisset naque Gothos ullo modo parere legibus posse propter effrenatam barbariem neque reipublicae interdici leges oportere, sine quibus respublica non est respublica, elegisse saltim, ut gloriam sibi de restituendo in integrum augendoque Romano nomine Gothorum viribus quaereret habereturque apud posteros Romanae restitutionis auctor, postquam esse non potuerat immutator" [He used to say that above all he ardently desired that, erased and forgotten the name of Rome, his whole empire would become the name and in fact empire of the Goths, and that it was Gothia, to put it in the vernacular, what had been Romania, and now that Ataulfo would be come what Cesare Augusto had once been. But since he realized from long experience that the Goths in no way bent to obey the laws for their unbridled barbarism, he had chosen at least the glory of bringing the Roman name back to its ancient prestige with the weapons of the Goths to increase it, and to be remembered by posterity as a restorer of Roman greatness, since he had not managed to be its destroyer].

From these words, it is clear that although Athaulf had wanted to convert the Roman territories into Gothic, he realized that the structure of the Gothic society could not guarantee the same governability of a state as the Roman one. So he decided, probably also thanks to the influence of his wife Galla Placidia, to change strategy: he would pursue a policy of fusion between Goths and Romans, so that the strength of the former strengthened the culture and the name of the latter.

Fig. 11 - The mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna. Picture © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

This mixture of Roman and Germanic elements is also perceptible in the choice of some barbarian sovereigns to represent themselves as heirs of the Western Roman Empire, through the adoption of symbols of power proper to the Roman area. This is the case, for example, of the Gothic king Theodoric, who grew up at the imperial court of Byzantium, chose as his last home a mausoleum which aesthetically followed the tradition of the late ancient imperial mausoleums but which however showed decorative elements "like a pincer" typical of the gota goldsmithery (Fig. 11). A further emblematic example is represented by the seal ring found in Tournai in the tomb of the king of the Franks Salii Childeric (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 - Reproduction of the seal ring of Childerico I. Picture from Gallica, public domain

On this we have the name of the sovereign and his representation. The king is represented with typical elements of the Roman tradition, such as the lorica and the paludamentum, next to these, however, there are details of the Germanic sphere, in fact the sovereign has long hair, a privilege proper to the royal Salii dynasty, and the spear, a typical symbol of power among the Germanic peoples.

From this moment the iconographic, political and religious fusion between the Northern Barbarians and the Romans began, which will lead, as already mentioned, to the formation of the Roman-Barbarian kingdoms and to a first definition of what will become the European states in the future.

Bibliography

A. Barbero, Barbari. Immigrati, profughi, deportati nell’impero romano, Roma-Bari 2007.

R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Dall’ellenismo al medioevo, Roma 1978.

R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Roma. La fine dell’arte antica, Milano 1991 (ristampa dell’edizione Milano 1970).

J.-L. Brunaux, Sacrifices humains chez les Gaulois. Realites du sacrifice,realites archeologiques, in Le sacrifice humaine en Egypte et ailleurs. Textes reunis et presentes par J.-P. Albert et B. Midant-Reynes, Paris 2005, pp. 256-273.

P. Courcelle, Histoire litteraire des grandes invasions germaniques. Troisieme edition, augmentee et illustree, Paris 1964.

Y.-A. Dauge, Le Barbare. Recherches sur la conception romaine de la barbarie et de la civilisation (Collection Latomus, 176), Bruxelles 1981.

M. Durand-Lefebvre, Art gallo-romain et sculpture romane, Paris 1937.

S. Gasparri, Prima delle nazioni. Popoli, etnie e regni fra Antichita e Medioevo, Roma 1997.

P. Heather, I Goti, Genova 2005 (traduzione italiana dall’originale inglese The Goths, Oxford UK & Cambridge USA 1996).

P. Heather, La caduta dell’impero romano. Una nuova storia, Milano 2008 (traduzione italiana a cura di S. Cerchi dall’originale inglese The Fall of the Roman Empire. A new History, London 2005).

A. Hofeneder, Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen. II. Von Cicero bis Florus, Wien 2008.

D. Lassandro, “Aedui, fratres populi Romani” (in margine ai Panegirici gallici), in Autocoscienza e rappresentazione dei popoli nell’Antichita, a cura di M. Sordi (Contributi dell’Istituto di Storia Antica dell’Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 18), Milano 1992, pp. 261-265.

B. Luiselli, Il mito dell’origine troiana dei Galli, dei Franchi e degli Scandinavi, in Romanobarbarica 3 (1978), pp. 89-121.

B. Luiselli, Storia culturale dei rapporti tra mondo romano e mondo germanico, Roma 1992.

B. Luiselli, La formazione della cultura europea occidentale, Roma 2003.

M. McCormick, Vittoria eterna. Sovranita trionfale nella Tarda Antichita, a Bisanzio e nell’Occidente altomedioevale, Milano 1993 (traduzione italiana di G. Iamartino dall’originale inglese Eternal victory. Triumphal rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West, Cambridge 1986).

S. Rinaldi Tufi, L’Occidente europeo e l’area danubiana, in Storia di Roma. III. L’eta tardoantica. 2. I luoghi e le culture, a cura di A. Schiavone, Torino 1993, pp. 899-913.

E. Sestan, Stato e nazione nell’Alto Medioevo. Ricerche sulle origini nazionali in Francia, Italia, Germania, Napoli 1952.

P. Sivonen, The Good and the Bad, the Civilised and the Barbaric: Images of the East in the Identities of Ausonius, Sidonius, and Sulpicius, in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, VIII, edited by C. Deroux (Collection Latomus, 239), Bruxelles 1997, pp. 417-440.

F. Stok, Fisiognomia e carattere delle popolazioni nordiche e germaniche nella cultura dell’eta romana, in Cultura classica e cultura germanica settentrionale. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi. Universita di Macerata, Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia. Macerata-San Severino Marche, 2-4 maggio 1985, a cura di P. Janni, D. Poli e C. Santini, (Quaderni Linguistici e Filologici III, 1985 – Universita di Macerata), Macerata 1985, pp. 65-111.

H. Wolfram, Storia dei Goti, Roma 1985 (edizione italiana rivista e ampliata dall’autore a cura di M. Cesa sull’originale tedesco Geschichte der Goten, Munchen 1979).

H. Wolfram, The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 2005 (originally published as Das Reich und die Germanen, Berlin 1990, transl. by Th. Dunlap).

1 On the origin and developments of the theme of fraternitas between Aedui and Romans and fundamental B. Luiselli, Il mito dell’origine troiana dei Galli, dei Franchi e degli Scandinavi, in Romanobarbarica 3 (1978), 1978, pp. 89-103; vd. also B. Luiselli, Storia culturale dei rapporti tra mondo romano e mondo germanico, Roma 1992, pp. 642-646; finally cf. A. Hofeneder, Die Religion der Kelten in den antiken literarischen Zeugnissen. II. Von Cicero bis Florus, Wien 2008, pp. 291-295. For the recurrence of the theme in the panegyrics cf. D. Lassandro, “Aedui, fratres populi Romani” (in margine ai Panegirici gallici), in Autocoscienza e rappresentazione dei popoli nell’Antichita, edited by M. Sordi (Contributi dell’Istituto di Storia Antica dell’Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 18), Milano 1992.

2 Tacitus never directly visited the lands and peoples he spoke of in his work and the information used for his writing was probably manifold: De Bello Gallico by Gaius Julius Caesar, the Geography of Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidio Basso and interviews to merchants and soldiers.

3 Liudprandi Cremonensis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, in ID., Antapodosis, Homelia Pascalis, Historia Ottonis, Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, cura et studio P. Chiesa, Turnholti 1998 (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis, 156), pp. 192-193, n. 12.


Infectious disease modeling study casts doubt on impact of Justinianic plague

Infectious disease modeling study casts doubt on impact of Justinianic plague

Work shows value of new examinations of old narratives of this pandemic

Justinianic Plague mathematical modeling
Costumes of All Nations (1882), by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. Picture in the public domain

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Many have claimed the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 CE) killed half of the population of Roman Empire. Now, historical research and mathematical modeling challenge the death rate and severity of this first plague pandemic.

Researchers Lauren White, PhD and Lee Mordechai, PhD, of the University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), examined the impacts of the Justinianic Plague with mathematical modeling. Using modern plague research as their basis, the two developed novel mathematical models to re-examine primary sources from the time of the Justinianic Plague outbreak. From the modeling, they found that it was unlikely that any transmission route of the plague would have had both the mortality rate and duration described in the primary sources. Their findings appear in a paper titled "Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes" in PLOS ONE.

"This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a robust mathematical modeling approach has been used to investigate the Justinianic Plague," said lead author Lauren White, PhD, a quantitative disease ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC. "Given that there is very little quantitative information in the primary sources for the Justinianic Plague, this was an exciting opportunity to think creatively about how we could combine present-day knowledge of plague's etiology with descriptions from the historical texts."

White and Mordechai focused their efforts on the city of Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, which had a comparatively well-described outbreak in 542 CE. Some primary sources claim plague killed up to 300,000 people in the city, which had a population of some 500,000 people at the time. Other sources suggest the plague killed half the empire's population. Until recently, many scholars accepted this image of mass death. By comparing bubonic, pneumonic, and combined transmission routes, the authors showed that no single transmission route precisely mimicked the outbreak dynamics described in these primary sources.

Existing literature often assumes that the Justinianic Plague affected all areas of the Mediterranean in the same way. The new findings from this paper suggest that given the variation in ecological and social patterns across the region (e.g., climate, population density), it is unlikely that a plague outbreak would have impacted all corners of the diverse empire equally.

Xenopsylla cheopis, photo by Katja ZSM, CC BY-SA 3.0

"Our results strongly suggest that the effects of the Justinianic Plague varied considerably between different urban areas in late antiquity," said co-author Lee Mordechai, an environmental historian and a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC when he wrote the paper. He is now a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and co-lead of Princeton's Climate Change and History Research Initiative (CCHRI). He said, "This paper is part of a series of publications in recent years that casts doubt on the traditional interpretation of plague using new methodologies. It's an exciting time to do this kind of interdisciplinary research!"

Using an approach called global sensitivity analysis, White and Mordechai were able to explore the importance of any given model parameter in dictating simulated disease outcomes. They found that several understudied parameters are also very important in determining model results. White explained, "One example was the transmission rate from fleas to humans. Although the analysis described this as an important parameter, there hasn't been enough research to validate a plausible range for that parameter."

These high importance variables with minimal information also point to future directions for empirical data collection. "Working with mathematical models of disease was an insightful process for me as a historian," reflected Mordechai. "It allowed us to examine traditional historical arguments with a powerful new lens."

Together, with other recent work from Mordechai, this study is another call to examine the primary sources and narratives surrounding the Justinianic Plague more critically.

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White, L.A. & Mordechai, L. (2020). Modeling the Justinianic Plague: Comparing hypothesized transmission routes. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231256

About SESYNC: The University of Maryland's National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. For more information on SESYNC and its activities, please visit http://www.sesync.org.

 

Press release from the SESYNC, University of Mariland.


timber Roman timber trade trading

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire's construction

timber Roman timber trade trading
Some of the oak planks in situ in the foundation of the portico. Credit: Bernabei at al., 2019, CC-BY

The ancient Romans relied on long-distance timber trading to construct their empire, according to a study published December 4, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Mauro Bernabei from the National Research Council, Italy, and colleagues.

The timber requirements of ancient Rome were immense and complex, with different types of trees from various locations around the Roman Empire and beyond used for many purposes, including construction, shipbuilding and firewood. Unfortunately, the timber trade in ancient Rome is poorly understood, as little wood has been found in a state adequate for analysis. In this study, Bernabei et al successfully date and determine the origin and chronology of unusually well-preserved ancient Roman timber samples.

The twenty-four oak timber planks (Quercus species) analyzed in this study were excavated during Metro construction in Rome during 2014-2016. They formed part of a Roman portico in the gardens of via Sannio (belonging to what was once a lavishly decorated and rich property). The authors measured the tree-ring widths for each plank and ran statistical tests to determine average chronology, successfully dating thirteen of the planks.

By comparing their dated planks to Mediterranean and central European oak reference chronologies, the authors found that the oaks used for the Roman portico planks were taken from the Jura mountains in eastern France, over 1700km away. Based on the sapwood present in 8 of the thirteen samples, the authors were able to narrow the date these oaks were felled to between 40 and 60 CE and determined that the planks all came from neighboring trees. Given the timber's dimensions and the vast distance it travelled, the authors suggest that ancient Romans (or their traders) likely floated the timber down the Saône and Rhône rivers in present-day France before transporting it over the Mediterranean Sea and then up the river Tiber to Rome, though this cannot be confirmed.

The authors note that the difficulty of obtaining these planks--which were not specially sourced for an aesthetic function but used in the portico's foundations--suggests that the logistical organization of ancient Rome was considerable, and that their trade network was highly advanced.

Bernabei notes: "This study shows that in Roman times, wood from the near-natural woodlands of north-eastern France was used for construction purposes in the centre of Rome. Considering the distance, calculated to be over 1700km, the timber sizes, [and] the means of transportation with all the possible obstacles along the way, our research emphasises the importance of wood for the Romans and the powerful logistic organisation of the Roman society."

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Citation: Bernabei M, Bontadi J, Rea R, Büntgen U, Tegel W (2019) Dendrochronological evidence for long-distance timber trading in the Roman Empire. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0224077. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224077

Funding: WT received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG, TE 613/3-2). UB received funding from the Czech Republic Grant Agency (17-22102s).

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

 

Press release from the Public Library of Sciences.

 


Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

Ancient DNA from Roman and medieval grape seeds reveal ancestry of wine making

wine France Roman era
A vineyard by Pic Saint Loup Mountain in southern France. Credit: S. Ivorra CNRS/ISEM

A grape variety still used in wine production in France today can be traced back 900 years to just one ancestral plant, scientists have discovered.

With the help of an extensive genetic database of modern grapevines, researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period.

Utilising similar ancient DNA methods used in tracing human ancestors, a team of researchers from the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Germany, drew genetic connections between seeds from different archaeological sites, as well as links to modern-day grape varieties.

It has long been suspected that some grape varieties grown today, particularly well-known types like Pinot Noir, have an exact genetic match with plants grown 2,000 years ago or more, but until now there has been no way of genetically testing an uninterrupted genetic lineage of that age.

Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York, said: "From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago.

"These genetic links, which included a 'sister' relationship with varieties grown in the Alpine regions today, demonstrate winemakers' proficiencies across history in managing their vineyards with modern techniques, such as asexual reproduction through taking plant cuttings."

One archaeological grape seed excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France was genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc. This means the variety has grown for at least 900 years as cuttings from just one ancestral plant.

This variety (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc), is thought to have been popular for a number of centuries, but is not as commonly consumed as a wine today outside of its local region.

The grape can still be found growing in the Jura region of France, where it is used to produce expensive bottles of Vin Jaune, as well as in parts of Central Europe, where it often goes by the name Traminer.

Although this grape is not so well known today, 900 years of a genetically identical plant suggests that this wine was special - special enough for grape-growers to stick with it across centuries of changing political regimes and agricultural advancements.

Dr Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Copenhagen, said: "We suspect the majority of these archaeological seeds come from domesticated berries that were potentially used for winemaking based on their strong genetic links to wine grapevines.

"Berries from varieties used for wine are small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas - great for making wine but not quite as good for eating straight from the vine. These ancient seeds did not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes.

"Based on writings by the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, and others, we know the Romans had advanced knowledge of winemaking and designated specific names to different grape varieties, but it has so far been impossible to link their Latin names to modern varieties.

"Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards."

Of the Roman seeds, the researchers could not find an identical genetic match with modern-day seeds, but they did find a very close relationships with two important grape families used to produce high quality wine.

These include the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family - Syrah is one of the most planted grapes in the world today - and the Mondeuse Blanche, which produces a high quality AOC (protected regional product) wine in Savoy, as well as the Pinot-Savagnin family - Pinot Noir being the "king of wine grapes".

Dr Wales said: "It is rather unconventional to trace an uninterrupted genetic lineage for hundreds of years into the past. Instead of exploring broad patterns in genetic ancestry, as in most ancient DNA projects, we had to think like forensics scientists and find a perfect match in the database.

"Large databases of genetic data from modern crops and optimized palaeogenomic methods have vastly improved our ability to analyse the history of this and other important fruits.

"For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties; even if we don't see them in popular use in wines today, they were once highly valued by past wine lovers and so are perhaps worth a closer look."

The researchers now hope to find more archaeological evidence that could send them further back in time and reveal more grape wine varieties.

Archaeological excavation of Roman farm at Mont Ferrier site in Tourbes, France. Grape seeds closely related to Pinot Noir and Savagnin Blanc were excavated from a well dating to the first century CE. Credit: M. Compan, Inrap

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Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Analysis of 8 new plague genomes from the first plague pandemic reveals previously unknown levels of plague diversity, and provides the first genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles

Justinianic Plague Yersinia pestis
Map and phylogenetic tree showing the newly published (yellow) and previously published (turquoise) genomes. Shaded areas and dots represent historically recorded outbreaks of the First Pandemic. Credit: Marcel Keller

An international team of researchers has analyzed human remains from 21 archaeological sites to learn more about the impact and evolution of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis during the first plague pandemic (541-750 AD). In a study published in PNAS, the researchers reconstructed 8 plague genomes from Britain, Germany, France and Spain and uncovered a previously unknown level of diversity in Y. pestis strains. Additionally, they found the first direct genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles.

The Justinianic Plague began in 541 in the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled at the time by the Emperor Justinian I, and recurrent outbreaks ravaged Europe and the Mediterranean basin for approximately 200 years. Contemporaneous records describe the extent of the pandemic, estimated to have wiped out up to 25% of the population of the Roman world at the time. Recent genetic studies revealed that the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the cause of the disease, but how it had spread and how the strains that appeared over the course of the pandemic were related to each other was previously unknown.

In the current study, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed human remains from 21 sites with multiple burials in Austria, Britain, Germany, France and Spain. They were able to reconstruct 8 new Y. pestis genomes, allowing them to compare these strains to previously published ancient and modern genomes. Additionally, the team found the earliest genetic evidence of plague in Britain, from the Anglo-Saxon site of Edix Hill. By using a combination of archaeological dating and the position of this strain of Y. pestis in its evolutionary tree, the researchers concluded that the genome is likely related to an ambiguously described pestilence in the British Isles in 544 AD.

High diversity of Y. pestis strains during the First Pandemic

The researchers found that there was a previously unknown diversity of strains of Y. pestis circulating in Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The 8 new genomes came from Britain, France, Germany and Spain. "The retrieval of genomes that span a wide geographic and temporal scope gives us the opportunity to assess Y. pestis' microdiversity present in Europe during the First Pandemic," explains co-first author Marcel Keller, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now working at the University of Tartu. The newly discovered genomes revealed that there were multiple, closely related strains of Y. pestis circulating during the 200 years of the First Pandemic, some possibly at the same times and in the same regions.

Despite the greatly increased number of genomes now available, the researchers were not able to clarify the onset of the Justinianic Plague. "The lineage likely emerged in Central Asia several hundred years before the First Pandemic, but we interpret the current data as insufficient to resolve the origin of the Justinianic Plague as a human epidemic, before it was first reported in Egypt in 541 AD. However, the fact that all genomes belong to the same lineage is indicative of a persistence of plague in Europe or the Mediterranean basin over this time period, instead of multiple reintroductions."

Sampling of a tooth from a suspected plague burial. Credit: Evelyn Guevara

Possible evidence of convergent evolution in strains from two independent historical pandemics

Another interesting finding of the study was that plague genomes appearing towards the end of the First Pandemic showed a big deletion in their genetic code that included two virulence factors. Plague genomes from the late stages of the Second Pandemic some 800-1000 years later show a similar deletion covering the same region of the genomes. "This is a possible example of convergent evolution, meaning that these Y. pestis strains independently evolved similar characteristics. Such changes may reflect an adaptation to a distinct ecological niche in Western Eurasia where the plague was circulating during both pandemics," explains co-first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The current study offers new insights into the first historically documented plague pandemic, and provides additional clues alongside historical, archaeological, and palaeoepidemiological evidence, helping to answer outstanding questions. "This study shows the potential of palaeogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."

Lunel-Viel (Languedoc-Southern France). Victim of the plague thrown into a demolition trench of a Gallo-Roman house; end of the 6th-early 7th century. Credit: 1990; CNRS - Claude Raynaud

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte


pollution Roman era

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

pollution Roman era
Simulations to assess the sensitivity of lead deposits in the Col du Dôme (yellow) to the geographical location of the emission. This map also indicates the location of major mines known to have existed in Roman antiquity. In the approximately 500-km region around the Alps, in blue, mines believed to have been active in the Republican period, and in red, those active later. Outside this radius, all other mines are indicated in red (all eras combined). Alpine ice is therefore representative of the high altitude atmosphere which receives emissions from France, Spain, Italy, islands in the Mediterranean Basin, and, to a lesser degree, Germany and England. Credit: Preunkert et al./CNRS Photo library

The deepest layers of carbon-14 dated ice found in the Col du Dôme of the Mont Blanc glacier in the French Alps provide a record of atmospheric conditions in the ancient Roman era. Published in Geophysical Research Letters, the study, led by an international team and coordinated by a CNRS scientist at the Institute for Geosciences and Environmental Research (IGE)(CNRS/IRD/UGA/Grenoble INP)*, reveals significant atmospheric pollution from heavy metals: the presence of lead and antimony (detected in ancient alpine ice for the first time here) is linked to mining activity and lead and silver production by the ancient Romans, well before the industrial age, in fact.

Though less well dated than in Greenland, the Alpine record traces the major periods of prosperity in Roman antiquity (see figure 1), with two very distinct peaks in lead emissions noted during the Republican period (between 350 and 100 B.C.) and Imperial period (between 0 and 200 A.D.) Romans extracted lead ore (containing silver) to produce the lead needed to make plumbing and silver for coins. The silver was extracted from the lead by heating the ore to a temperature of 1200°C, releasing significant amounts of lead into the atmosphere. While this was already documented in continental peat records, obtaining global data at the European level was difficult. This first-ever study of Ancient-era pollution using Alpine ice provides better insight into the impact of these ancient emissions on the present-day environment in Europe, as well as a comparison with more recent pollution linked to the use of lead petrol between 1950 and 1985.

pollution Roman era
(a) Lead concentrations in ice in Greenland (blue) and in the Col du Dôme (CDD, red). (b) Lead (red) and antimony (green) concentrations in ice from the CDD. On the bottom scale, age is indicated in years, from 1 A.D. onwards). Phases of increasing lead emissions were accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the presence of antimony - another toxic metal - in the alpine ice. Credit: Preunkert et al./CNRS Photo library

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This research received support from the CNRS, ADEME and the European Alpclim and Carbosol projects.

*- This laboratory is part of the Observatoire de sciences of the Université de Grenoble.

 

Bibliography

Lead and antimony in basal ice from Col du Dome (French 1 Alps) dated with radiocarbon: A record of pollution during Antiquity Susanne Preunkert, Joseph R. McConnell, Helene Hoffmann, Michel Legrand, Andrew Wilson, Sabine Eckhardt, Andreas Stoh, Nathan Chellman, Monica Arienzo and Ronny Friedrich, Geophysical Research Letters, 7 May 2019. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL082641

 

Press release from CNRS