Posts Tagged ‘Death’

For whatever reason, most likely an accident of historical recording, people in the ancient world seem to have an incredible proclivity for cruelty, and probably the most famous cruelties were those inflicted by the Romans. So here are my top five worst ways to suffer like a Roman.

5. Skinned alive with your own crab

Source: http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/fishcombo2.jpg&imgrefurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/Tiberius.htm&usg=__goDcIROCgREAEF0EuCggzDR-XgA=&h=450&w=346&sz=26&hl=en&start=2&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=GSEIIC7iCyk1yM:&tbnh=127&tbnw=98&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dtiberius%2Bcrab%2Bfisherman%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26sa%3DN%26rls%3Den-us%26tbs%3Disch:1

This splendid story comes from my favourite historian Suetonius. Tiberius spent most of his reign on the island of Capri doing all sorts of naughty things. One day, a local fisherman caught a massive mullet, and, thinking that a fish of that size was worthy of the emperor alone, scampered up to the palace to present it to him. Tiberius was a terribly paranoid man, and was terrified at the thought that his palace could be so easily accessed by any local hick who knew to go round the back of the island. In reprisal, he ordered that the man’s face be rubbed raw with the fish. To make matters worse, the fisherman gave thanks that he had not also brought the massive crab he had caught, whereupon Tiberius ordered his guards to fetch the crab also, and used that as well as the fish to skin the man’s face completely. Probably apocryphal, but still very nasty.

4. The petard hoist

Seneca, tutor to Nero, had been a life-long Stoic and borderline ascetic, never eating or drinking too much, writing gory plays. Late in his life he became embroiled in a plot to kill the emperor whom he had once tutored. The plot was discovered and Seneca preferred to commit suicide than be executed. In true Roman style, he thought he would slit his wrists, but his age and the fact that he had been so frugal in his diet had restricted his veins, so he bled very slowly. Wanting to speed things up, he also cut the arteries at the back of his knees, but to no avail. He tried to do a Socrates and drink poison, but again his lean frame failed him. In the end he had to stand in a hot bath and suffocate himself with the steam. The ‘ironic’ thing is that Seneca’s Stoicism both led him to suicide and prevented him from it at the same time.

3. Can you smell roses?

Another rotten emperor was Elagabalus, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog. He devised a clever scheme for retractable ceiling panels for one of his many dinner parties, which would allow flowers to be sprinkled on his guests as they ate. However, the fatal twist was that the flowers did not stop falling, and the people below were smothered under their weight.

2. The worst tiki torches

Source: Google

The boy emperor Nero is not known for being much of a nice guy. He killed his own mother and anyone else who stood in his way, and allegedly did nothing to stop Rome from burning to a crisp. Notwithstanding all of this, Nero is possibly best known for persecuting the early Christians, blaming them for the Great Fire. Not only did he sew them up in animal skins and set dogs on them, he also dipped them in tar and straw and set them on fire for use as lights in his outdoor banqueting hall.

1. Meddling friends

Cato the Younger was a highly respected Republican senator in the closing days of the Republic before the emperors and rabidly anti-Caesar. During the Civil War, when the tide was clearly turning in Caesar’s favour, Cato decided that it would be better to die than to have Caesar pardon him and spare his life. Not wanting a big fuss, like any modest Roman, he tried to stab himself when everyone had gone out, but his hand was inflamed and he botched it. He struggled and knocked over his bedside table, bringing his friends running. They found a doctor and stitched him up while Cato was still only semi-conscious, but when he came to and saw what had happened, he ripped open his stitches and tore out his own intestines in his bid to die. Not pretty.

And, as a lovely supplement –

Not technically a death, but still… 

Source here: http://www.uoregon.edu/~klio/im/rr/laterep/crassus-death.jpgThe East had always been alluring to the grasping Romans, particularly because it seemed to be full of people who were very hard to conquer. In 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a close friend of Julius Caesar and the richest man in Rome at the time, was killed at the Battle of Carrhae (an overwhelming defeat for the Romans) and his body captured by the Parthians. To punish him in a post-mortem way for the greed which had driven him to invade them, they poured molten gold down his throat and preserved his head. Later, the Parthian court saw a performance of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’, which has as its climax a scene involving a severed head. Guess whose head was used? Yes- that of poor Crassus. As Plutarch points out, it was a fittingly tragic end to a tragic campaign.

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Three posts in three days, not bad!

Basically, I am a massive Doctor Who nerd- I love watching all the excitement and fake science whizzing by at the speed of a witticism. I’ll keep this short so as not to bore you all, but a big part of this series’ plot revolves around a persistent crack in time/space (watch out, the link has spoilers) which consumes anything in its path and does not simply destroy the object/person/race/planet, but also removes it completely from time, so that it never existed in the first place. Unfortunately, and since this has already been out on TV it won’t be a spoiler, one of the main characters in the new series dies and then is devoured by this crack. The Doctor insists that the character will continue to exist if only he can be held in memory, even if that is a sort of vicarious existence.

Since I am a nerd, I also watched the behind-the-scenes ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ for this episode, and the overwhelming impression I got from the interviews of the actors and writers is that it was bad enough for the character to die, but for him to be completely forgotten was “even worse”- as though being remembered would be a consolation for dying.

Whenever I think about death and remembrance, my thoughts go to the works of Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey. In The Iliad, Achilles tells us that he was given a choice by his divine mother that he could die young but gain eternal glory, or live a long life with no glory at all (terrible translation here). He makes his choice and dies at Troy, remaining the archetypal warrior for centuries, inspiring such leaders as Alexander the Great. We can already see here, in a poem composed sometime in the Bronze Age, that people were already thinking that being remembered after your death was a suitable replacement for continuing to live.

However, in The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles as he wanders through the Underworld, and tells him that his fame back among the living is alive and well, though Achilles himself is dead. Here we can see quite a change from the Achilles we meet in The Iliad– he says that he would rather be the lowest slave alive on Earth than be king of the whole Underworld. Quite a change!

The question of living on in the remembrance of others probably shifted emphasis even more later when the Christian idea of heaven arrived, where the afterlife was not an aimless darkness, but a glorious space where the love of God is fully present for each individual. Nevertheless, we still persist in feeling, for reasons we can’t quite explain, that to be forgotten after your death is a very sad and serious problem. It’s why we have Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, among other commemorative holidays. Philosophers through time have battled with this issue, and I’d be interested to hear your collective wisdom, O Internet.

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I was on a trip with a very dear fellow Classicist friend of mine to some Classical land a while back, and I was complaining about some aspect of the care given to some ancient structure and she said “Yes, well, you can’t hang on to everything forever.”

Blasphemy! Burn the witch! I was astounded. This, from the mouth of a Classicist! Classicists complain a lot about how such-and-such a monument is crumbling into the ground, or about how such-and-such an artifact is being neglected, blah blah blah (“How dare they leave this column base out in the rain! It might be important! Here give it to me…”). Ask me to whinge about Pompeii, and you’d better have a comfy chair and a few hours. Same with texts- we wring our hands at the thought of all those manuscripts carelessly neglected and denied to posterity. Discussions about ancient libraries usually end in long sighs and wistful staring into space.

This isn’t just a Classicist thing. I found this article on the BBC this morning, listing monuments ancient and modern which are “under threat” of slow, ignored destruction by time or human hands. Clearly society as a whole shares these concerns (yet then acts like we’re weird to be so interested in them).

Humanity in general seems fixated on not losing anything, at least not completely. Because if something isn’t lost completely, it somehow makes it okay that the majority have vanished. Think about the story of Noah’s Ark- it is somehow “okay” with us that thousands of animals suffered and died in the flood, as long as enough remained alive to continue the species. Meat-eaters use arguments against vegetarianism which use the possible extinction of consumable animals as a justification for continuing to breed them for meat. We get anxious about endangered animals, shrinking forests, dying languages, and think that as long as at least some remain, then it will somehow be okay that everything else has gone (particularly if it was our fault that it vanished in the first place). We can’t let go.

Of course, I’m generalizing. But lots of houses are saved every year in Britain by the National Trust- for what? Why do we care if little Japanese wooden houses are replaced by big metal ones? Or if 17th-Century British farming practices are replaced by new ones? Or if Seville won’t look quite the same again? Isn’t this the way of the world? We replace old things with new (and often better) things and that is how it has always happened. Why should we stop now?

And yet I feel wrong even writing that. There is something about age which makes something holy, and something about extinction which makes us cringe, but what is it?

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Sometimes I wind up reading strange things, and sometimes those things are about Romans. This is one such case. I bring you… EMPEROR OF THE VARIABLE PERIOD OF TIME AWARD, wherein I bring you one of my favourite emperors and explain what it was which made them so good/bad/bonkers (Hint: most recipients of the award will be in the latter two categories).

The first recipient of my “prestigious” award is the Emperor Elagabalus.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

Elagabalus, our favourite rose-utilising murderer.

That’s a strange name, you may be thinking. Well, yes it is. He was born with the sensible name Marcus, but changed his name to Elagabalus when he was made the priest of the eponymous Persian sun god aged 14. Once he made it to the throne aged 15, he proceeded to surprise no one who knows a 15-year-old by ruining everything. At one banquet, he drowned his guests in rose petals for no obvious reason. He never wore a garment more than once, and allegedly would wear rings only once, then throw them away. According to the Historia Augusta, he used to get his friends so drunk that they passed out, then shut them up in a room and send his tame, but very much alive, lions and bears in to wake them in the morning.

His religious fanaticism resulted in his essentially equating himself with the god- on his coins sometimes he has a strange little horn protruding from his forehead. Elagabalus CoinHe caused scandal in Rome by marrying a Vestal Virgin (women who, in case you hadn’t guessed, were really supposed to stay virgins) named Aquilia Severa. He then made it all better by having a parallel marriage ceremony where the god Elagabalus married the goddess Vesta. The marriage between both couples apparently didn’t last, and Elagabalus married off his god to another goddess, Venus, when it suited him.

According to Dio, Elagabalus was so extraordinarily effeminate that not only did he wear garments entirely of silk but actually consulted physicians about making him biologically female (please note that I am not trying to deprecate the LGBT community, but Dio certainly was). He was told by an oracle that he would die violently, so he had some velvet nooses, gold swords and jewelled bottles of poison on standby at all times. Too bad he was murdered with his mother and both their bodies were dragged to the Tiber via the Roman sewer system. I wonder why…

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