It is known that the greatest influence on our knowledge of Rome does not come from Edward Gibbon, Theodor Mommsen, Pierre Grimal or Adrian Goldsworthy, but from the Monty Python: from the anonymous Jewish Zealot terrorist who lists what the Romans have done for us in the joker Brian’s life (1979) and what has become, you will and will not, in the decalogue of Romanization. There is, however, a lot to add to the list of aqueducts, roads, language, law … And some other surprising things that we owe to the Romans, such as fish farms, non-returnable containers, firefighters, pedestrian islands, fast food or a bikini, not to mention the striptease (nude actress), the historian Isabel Rodà, emeritus professor of Archeology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), renowned epigraphist and former director of the Catalan Institute of Classical Archeology ( ICAC), of which it continues to be a part.
Rodà (Barcelona, 73 years old), considered the Catalan Mary Beard for her long effort in studying and disseminating Roman history and heritage, and for the height and breadth of her knowledge (she is able to determine from which ancient quarry a single marble came out with seeing it), collects a whole series of very interesting and entertaining questions in Yesterday Rome, today we, recently published by Destino (currently only available in Catalan). “I had never made a popular book, without notes or bibliography, and I feel a bit strange,” says Rodà over an aperitif (let’s say a lunch) in his house where only the garum, stuffed dormice and peacock tongues. There are also no oysters or snails and when I tell him that it is a detail so as not to make the diner choose, he laughs heartily.
The scholar explains that in order to find out if the things she tells were interesting, she has previously mentioned them to her daughters, who are called, and this is not surprising, Claudia and Lavinia. “If they, who at home have lived, as you can imagine, a quite Roman environment, they were surprised I thought I was on the right track.”
The non-returnable packaging of the Romans was, of course, he explains, disposable amphoras (it was cheaper to use others) that arrived in thousands in Rome and for which a landfill was created that today makes up Mount Testaccio, that is, a true mountain fifty meter tall artificial remains. From the evidence of the bikini he points out the images of girls wearing a very similar two-piece garment in the mosaics of the imperial villa in Piazza Armerina, in Sicily, and also the happy finding in an excavation in London (Londinium) of the lower part (subligaculum) of a kind of leather bikini, “of such small dimensions that it looks more like a thong”, and which is exhibited, and never better said, in the Museum of London (it probably belonged to an acrobat).
Rodà recalls that in the forums of Roman cities, animal-drawn carriages could not circulate, and that the obstacles to the movement of vehicles that seem so novel in the tactical urban planning of Ada Colau, mayor, had already been invented – they are seen in Pompeii. from Barcelona. Rome had a fire department, the vigiles (firefighters are still called in Italy fire fighters), created by Augusto and that had some ingenious mechanisms to throw water on the flames. The Romans also had pool for use as nurseries for both freshwater and marine fish, and raised many species for consumption. They knew prefabricated architecture and custom-made columns and capitals were sent from the quarry workshops, almost finished. They were experts in the use and management of water, and if aqueducts are surprising, no less does the fact that they had taps that mixed hot and cold water.
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There is much more to the Romans than surprising. “For example, they had a certain ecological and environmental awareness, as evidenced by Marco Terencio Varrón or Lucio Junio Columela”, explains Rodà. “They knew the risks of overexploitation, pollution and overcrowding. Pliny the Elder echoes the danger of deforestation and Emperor Hadrian pointed out that of the disappearance of the cedar and delimited areas of prohibition of its felling. ” Like us, the Romans suffered from pandemics. “The most deadly was the Antonine plague, a plague that spread in the days of Marcus Aurelius, with outbreaks, and which seems to have been a smallpox of the hemorrhagic type. 2,000 people a day died in Rome alone. And in total in the Empire maybe ten million ”. The scholar points out that Marco Aurelio himself died of the pandemic, despite the fact that both Anthony Mann and Ridley Scott had him assassinated in their films. Speaking of the fall of the Roman Empire, Rodà points out three causes: corruption, demographic pressure (from outside the empire) and climate change. A very cold time made the rivers freeze and it was easier to cross them. “People tried to enter the Roman world as now in ours. Everyone wanted to be Roman, even Attila. “
In sex and religion we are not very Roman, right? “Unfortunately in religion because polytheism is much more open. Monotheisms are very dangerous and exclusive. Regarding sex, they did not have our sense of Judeo-Christian guilt which is criminal. Generalizing, for them the bad thing was to be below, that is, to be the passive party in a sexual relationship regardless of who it was with. Bisexuality was tolerated, in men. Although in the orgies there was everything “, finishes the scholar with a smile and holding a glass of wine. “By the way, any wine today is much better than the ones the Romans drank and to which you had to add water and additives.”
The Romans would be the ruler in many things, but they had slavery and the position of women left much to be desired. “It is true, not everything is flowers. His is a fundamental inheritance, but one that we have had to polish. Somehow we are Romans without the worst, although cruelty, selfishness, corruption are not Roman, but human traits. There is much to say about slavery, you cannot directly transpose what that world was like and you have to think that human rights were not legislated until the 20th century. The situation of the woman was better than that of the Greek woman, but even so, she was very subordinate to the man, and we know that there were terrible abuses ”. It even seems that it was not unusual to throw the wife into the Tiber.
The conversation with Rodà, like his book, is full of illuminating points, such as seeing Arminius, the Cheruscan leader who was the architect of the annihilation of the three legions of Varus in Teutoburg, as Osama Bin Laden, someone who attacks and defeats the powerful enemy from within — he served in the Army of Rome — with his own methods.
From the comparison with Mary Beard, Isabel Rodà is half happy. “We are not going to detract from it, it is a phenomenon, its SPQR (Criticism, 2015) is an excellent book, but in some works it falls a bit into demagoguery. It holds as facts things that are not. For example, the presence of black soldiers in the legions. Actually, it seems that there were none, they were mauri, Moors. I have spoken with Yann Le Bohec, the great specialist in the Roman military subject (The Roman army, Ariel, 2004), to get me out of doubt, and he told me that there is not even a reference in the sources to black soldiers. In the historical field you have to be careful and always leave what we call in Catalan a forat gatoner, a cat flap, to get out. If you want to speculate, make a historical novel ”.
Rodà is a great defender of the dissemination – she says that she has already read twice with great pleasure Infinity in a reed (Siruela, 2019), by Irene Vallejo—, the historical narrative and even the peplum. Even save the movie Troy, despite those licenses with the Atrids that would have made Aeschylus bald even more. “It has very good things, like the scene of Priam at the feet of Achilles, pure Homer, although it is true that Brad Pitt should have been dyed red: we are told that when Achilles disguised himself as a woman so as not to go to war , took the name of Pirra, redhead, from purrhos, flame color, as Ovidio and Horacio point out. Anyway, better see Troy that Pirates of the Caribbean”.
What is very Roman that we do not realize? “The roads,” Rodà says immediately in the tone of a member of the Popular Front of Judea, and we burst out laughing. “No, seriously, our roads pass over the Roman road network, which was 300,000 kilometers long and was not exceeded in length until the Second World War, and with maintenance service!”
Claudio and the mushrooms
Isabel Rodà’s book has a section aimed especially at the Catalan reader, in which she points out how things from the country such as the barretina, the calçots o go mushrooms they have their roots in Rome. The barretina comes from the Phrygian cap, the consumption of porrus capitatus or tender onion is already credited in Pannonia in the third century and in the same joyously cumbersome way as in the calçotades of Valls; and for bad boletaire, who did not know how to distinguish good from bad mushrooms, Emperor Claudius …