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Archive for November, 2009

Just a quick etymological post.

Did you ever wonder why we call money ‘money’? Or how the Mint got its name despite its notable lack of peppermint fragrance (or taste)? It’s all because of the Romans.

When the Romans established their Mint, they did not set it up in its own building, but in a temple. This was probably to give the roots of their economy divine protection from robbers and other problems. The temple they chose was the temple of Juno who Warns, or in Latin, Juno Moneta. The little stamped metal discs which issued from the temple were called ‘Things of the one who warns’- monetae. Gradually these “monetae” took on a life of their own and spawned their own deities, the three Monetae, one for every type of metal used in coinage: gold, silver and bronze. They are always shown together, each holding a set of scales and a horn of plenty. Here’s a nice example issued by Commodus:

I find ancient money really interesting, but I’ll try and space out the posts a bit- I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea!

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We’ve been struck lately here in the UK with postal strikes, and a friend of mine abroad asked how the Romans would have handled such a thing (thank you, R!). Thinking about the answer, I realized that I had no idea how the Romans dealt with post at all, so I got Googling ( actually mostly Wikipedia-ing) and I discovered the following:

The Romans were, of course, famous road builders. Many roads in Europe now still follow the paths of ancient roads built under the Empire- you can usually tell which ones they are because they tend to be amazingly straight. Having an Empire-wide course of well-built, well-maintained roads designed to keep them from becoming sticky mud tracks had many benefits: facilitating transport of supplies and troops to certain areas, ease of trade and, naturally, ease of communication.

Letters feature prominently in Roman history, as you would expect from a civilization without telephones. Augustus, that wonderful dictator, brought in a system called the cursus publicus, or ‘public track’, which acted as the Empire’s postal service for all its denizens. Presumably before that, post would have been handled by private firms or if you managed to find someone going to the same destination as your letter (this site┬áhas some relevant quotations to back this up from the greatest letter-writer of the Roman Republic, Cicero). Parallel to the public system was a sort of courier service, consisting of slaves available for a fee, like FedEx now (without the slaves).

So what about strikes? I don’t think it’s likely that slaves could go on strike without being severely physically punished, so it was probably rare. The public post was apparently run by citizens however, and ancient workers had guilds similar to modern unions, and they did occasionally strike. Despite this, I do not know if postal workers in ancient Rome ever went on strike, or how it was resolved if they did. Sorry to let you down, R! My guess is that there was no “standard approach”- sometimes the guilds won, sometimes they didn’t. I’m hoping that some sort of swift justice was administered, that might give us some precedent…

Edit: Just found this brilliant article from the Bath Postal Museum!

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