Tag Archives: Rome

rome empire map

What the Roman Empire looked like at its prime in one glorious map

Click or Tap for a full-size view of the map. Credit: Sardisverlag.

Stretch above is one of the most interesting maps of the Roman Empire ever made, all carted in detail using modern computational techniques. It shows what the great empire used to look like during its period of maximum expansion under the reign of  Septimius Severus, about 211 CE. As you can notice, the Romans’ domain covered much of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and from modern day Scotland to the Sahara or the Arabian Gulf.

At the height of imperial power, Rome had 55 to 60 million subjects — that’s if you count the women, slaves, and other classes of people under Roman rule who weren’t technically considered citizens. Overall, that’s 15% of the world’s population at the time.

Most of the population of the Roman Empire lived within easy reach of the Mediterranean, and the imperial government promoted and protected sea-trade and naval communications between the various parts of the empire. The map made by Sardis Verlag, a publishing house in Germany, elegantly illustrates some of the most used sea trade routes. Not incidentally, they all join at some point with Rome. The phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome’ was definitely rooted in history.

Although it could be relatively dangerous, sea-transport was much faster than over-land carriage. There had been sea-borne commercial empires in the Mediterranean Sea for well over two thousand years before Roman domination but the Romans worked to keep the sea clear of pirates and built lighthouses, as well as large and sheltered harbors for the great commercial cities maintained by that trade. One might go so far as to say that the existence of the Roman Empire depended on the unity of the Mediterranean or, as the Romans called it, Mare nostrum, “Our Sea.”

After Septimius Severus died, all four emperors that followed were assassinated in short succession. Rome at the time became a monster too big for its own good. Corruption had eroded the empire and it would culminate with the Crisis of the Third Century, which saw the empire almost obliterated at the hand of civil war and foreign invaders.

Here are some more tidbits from the map below.

  • Legend in English, German, French and Italian,
  • All nations and provinces with accurate borders and their respective capitals,
  • Independent non-urban tribes and peoples in the vicinity of the Roman Empire,
  • In addition to the capitals, the map contains the locations of over 870 Roman cities and settlements within the Roman Empire and more than 90 cities and settlements outside of the Empire,
  • The headquarters of all 33 active legions,
  • Linear barriers, such as Hadrian’s Wall and the Limes Germanicus,
  • The 28 main and auxiliary bases of the praetorian and provincial fleets,
  • Roman road network totaling more than 120.000 km,
  • Caravan and trade routes,
  • Major sea routes, including traveling times in the Mediterranean Basin,
  • 90 exporting quarries and 130+ mines,
Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Why Roman concrete is stronger than it ever was, while modern concrete decays

Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Samples from this Ancient Roman pier, Portus Cosanus in Orbetello, Italy, were studied with X-rays at Berkeley Lab. Credit: J.P. Oleson.

Almost 2,000 years ago, famed Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the concrete poured in harbors that “as soon as it comes into contact with the waves of the sea and is submerged, becomes a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger.”

This insight is surprisingly spot on, according to a 2017 study that found seawater is the secret ingredient that makes Roman concrete extremely durable by encouraging the growth of rare minerals.

Concrete in some Roman piers is not only still viable today but stronger than it ever was, whereas modern marine concrete structures made from Portland cement crumble within decades.

The ancient Romans used concrete everywhere, particularly in their mega-structures like the Pantheon and Trajan’s Markets in Rome. They would make the concrete by first mixing volcanic ash with lime and seawater to make mortar, which is later incorporated into chunks of volcanic rock, the ‘aggregate’. The combination produces a so-called pozzolanic reaction, so named after the city of Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples. Another common naturally reactive volcanic sand used for manufacturing concrete is called harena fossicia. It’s thought that Romans might have first gotten the idea for this mixture after observing naturally cemented volcanic ash deposits called tuff.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the recipe for making concrete was lost and a concrete of equal worth wasn’t re-invented until 1824 when an Englishman named Joseph Aspdin discovered Portland cement by burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed. It was named “Portland” cement because it resembled the high-quality building stones found in Portland, England.

The ancient Roman recipe is very different than the modern one for concrete, though. Most modern concrete is a mix of Portland cement — limestone, sandstone, ash, chalk, iron, and clay, among other ingredients, heated to form a glassy material that is finely ground — with so-called “aggregates.” These aggregates, usually sand or crushed stone, are not intended to chemically react because if they do, they can cause unwanted expansions in the concrete.

Outliving empires: Roman concrete

University of Utah geologist Marie Jackson’s interest in Roman concrete was sparked by a sabbatical year in Rome where she studied tuffs and volcanic ash deposits. One by one, she approached the factors that made architectural concrete in Rome so resilient. One such factor, she says, is that the mineral intergrowths between the aggregate and the mortar which prevent cracks from lengthening, while the surfaces of nonreactive aggregates in Portland cement only help cracks propagate farther.

While studying drilled cores of Roman harbor concrete, Jackson and colleagues found an exceptionally rare mineral, aluminous tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) in the marine mortar. The mineral’s presence surprised everyone because it is very difficult to make. For Al-tobermorite to form, you need very high temperature. “No one has produced tobermorite at 20 degrees Celsius,” she says. “Oh — except the Romans!”

Seeing how Jackon is a geologist, though, she immediately realized that the mineral must have appeared later. The team concluded with experiments backing them up that seawater percolated through the concrete in breakwaters and in piers, dissolving components of the volcanic ash and allowing new minerals to grow from the highly alkaline leached fluids, particularly Al-tobermorite and phillipsite, the latter being a related zeolite mineral formed in pumice particles and pores in the cementing matrix.  In rare instances, underwater volcanoes, such as the Surtsey Volcano in Iceland, produce the same minerals found in Roman concrete.

“We’re looking at a system that’s contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete,” she says. “We’re looking at a system that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater.”

The Roman concrete samples were studied using a technique called X-ray microdiffraction at UC Berkeley Lab’s ALS. The machine produces beams focused to about 1 micron or about a hundred times smaller than what can be found in a conventional laboratory.

 “We can go into the tiny natural laboratories in the concrete, map the minerals that are present, the succession of the crystals that occur, and their crystallographic properties. It’s been astounding what we’ve been able to find,” Jackson said.

This microscopic image shows the lumpy calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) binder material that forms when volcanic ash, lime, and seawater mix. Platy crystals of Al-tobermorite have grown amongst the C-A-S-H cementing matrix. Credit: Marie Jackson.

This microscopic image shows the lumpy calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) binder material that forms when volcanic ash, lime, and seawater mix. Platy crystals of Al-tobermorite have grown amongst the C-A-S-H cementing matrix. Credit: Marie Jackson.

The concrete industry was valued at $50 billion in 2015 in the United States alone. That year, 80 million tons of Portland cement were made or roughly the weight of about 90 Golden Gate Bridges or 12 Hoover Dams. Given the durability of Roman concrete and the substantial carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Portland cement manufacturing, why aren’t we doing it more like the Romans?

It’s not that easy at all, says Jackson. The Romans were quite fortunate to find volcanic ash in their vicinity. Also, the ingredients for their concrete recipe can’t be adapted anywhere in the world. “They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don’t have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made,” Jackson said.

Additionally, Roman concrete takes time to develop strength from seawater and has less compressive strength than typical Portland cement.

Nevertheless, Jackson is closely working with colleagues to make an alternative recipe based on local materials from the western U.S., including seawater from Berkeley, California. Jackson is also leading a scientific drilling project to study the production of tobermorite and other related minerals at the Surtsey volcano in Iceland.

This kind of cement could be very useful for some niche applications. For instance, the Roman cement could be employed in a tidal lagoon project meant to harness tidal power, currently planned in Swansea, United Kingdom. To recuperate the cost incurred from building it, the lagoon would have to operate for 120 years.

“You can imagine that, with the way we build now, it would be a mass of corroding steel by that time,” Jackson said.

Unless it’s made of Roman concrete.

Meanwhile, more tests are being carried out to evaluate the long-term properties of marine structures built from volcanic rock and how these fair against steel-reinforced concrete.

“I think people don’t really know how to think about a material that doesn’t have steel reinforcement,” Jackson said.

Rome, the eternal city – of trash

When visiting Rome, any of the 20 million tourists that arrive every year is probably expecting monumental sites, breathtaking artwork and tasty food, among many other things. But, the Eternal City also welcomes visitors with some more unexpected sights.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome. Credit: Chris Yunker (Flickr)


Dumpsters overflowing with trash, rats and seagulls foraging through garbage bags and wild boars attracted by trash are now a common scene on the streets of Rome, as part of its never-ending garbage crisis that has turned the city into what many describe as an open-air dump.

But, the problem isn’t actually new, despite only now reaching the media.

Rome’s difficult relationship with trash is decades-long and starts with “a big black hole,” which is what locals used to call the Malagrotta landfill. It was once the largest in Europe and the only site devoted to the city’s garbage disposal for about 30 years, until it was closed in 2013.

Since then, the city has been left with no major site to dump or treat the 1.7 million metric tons of trash it produces every year, and no real strategy for recycling, as successive mayors from different parties all proved incapable of solving the waste emergency.

And money isn’t the problem. The city spent more than 597 euros (US$670) per inhabitant on household waste treatment in 2017 — by far the highest in the country, ahead of Venice (US$353 euros) and Florence (US$266 euros), according to a report by the Openpolis Foundation.

Now, most of Rome’s garbage is shipped to other Italian regions or even abroad. Only 40% gets collected separately and recycled. The capital exports 1.2 million tons of its garbage every year, at a cost of 180 million euros (US$206 million). The remaining half-million tons sits uncollected for weeks.

Virgina Raggi, a 30-year old lawyer, was elected as mayor in 2016, vowing to solve the crisis. After almost three years in office, her promises are far from being fulfilled, leading to frequent protests by both citizens and tourists that can’t simply stand the smell.

Raggi’s plan contemplated the gradual expansion of door-to-door waste collection from a few neighborhoods to the whole city, with the target of 70% of waste collected separately for recycling by 2021. But the ambition felt through, with separate collection now stuck at 44%

The sites that were supposed to replace the Malagrotta landfill never became operational, as they faced staunch opposition by local residents and mayors. AMA, the city-owned company in charge of collecting Rome’s garbage, recently proposed to build 13 new facilities, which would help quite a lot.

But there’s a catch. AMA has about 600 million euros in debt and some of its former managers are being investigated, along with dozens of local officials, for allegedly teaming up to rig bids for city contracts. So moving forward with the new facilities isn’t as easy as it seems.

This means that despite money, politics and complaints, the smelly trash is here so stay, at least for the short term.

Pizza Slice.

A look at how the world invented pizza

Thin, inviting, and delicious, pizza has a unique place in many people’s hearts (and bellies). Pizza today is considered the quintessential Italian dish, but many other cultures around the world have also created pizza-like dishes. So grab a slice and let’s take a look at the history of pizza.

Pizza Slice.

Image via Pixabay.

There’s some debate as to where the term “pizza” comes from. One of the prevailing theories, however, is that it comes from the Latin pitta, a type of flatbread. And, to the best of our knowledge, that is exactly how pizza started out: flatbread with extra toppings meant to give it flavor.

Flavor up!

But this idea didn’t originate in Italy. Or, more to the point, it didn’t only originate in Italy.

The fact is that ancient peoples loved bread. For many reasons. Grain kept relatively well in a world bereft of refrigerators, and bread is one of the more enjoyable ways to eat it. It was also among the cheaper foodstuffs, generally, as grain is easy to produce, ship, and process in large quantities. Finally, bread is also quite dense in protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and calories — especially whole-grain bread, which our ancestors ate. Bread doesn’t particularly shine in the taste department, however. Sure, it’s easy to carry and it will get you full, but it’s not very exciting on the palate.

This is perhaps why, as Genevieve Thiers writes in the History of Pizza, soldiers of the Persian King Darius I “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates” as early as the 6th century B.C. The Greeks (they used to fight the Persians a lot) seem to have later adopted and adapted this dish for their own tables.

Naan bread.

Naan bread, apart from being delicious, can be seen as far-flung relative of pizza.
Image credits Jason Goh.

It was pretty common for ancient Greeks to mix olive oil, cheese, and various herbs into their bread — again, all in the name of flavor. But it seems that contact with Persian soldiers added a twist or two to the tradition, according to Thiers, and Greece started baking “round, flat” bread with a variety of toppings such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.

One interesting bit evidence of this culinary development comes from the Aeneid, an epic poem written around 30 or 20 B.C. In the work, Aeneas and his men (who were running away from Greek-obliterated Troy) receive a prophecy/curse from Celaeno (queen of the harpies). Caleano told him that his group will “have reached [their] promised land” when they “arrive at a place so tired and hungry that [they] eat [their] tables”. When the party came ashore mainland Italy they gathered some “fruits of the field” and placed them on top of the only food they had left — stale round loaves of bread.

The use of hardened bread or crusts of bread in lieu of bowls was quite common in antiquity and the middle ages. So the group’s actions can be seen as them putting the food — the fruits of the field — on a plate, or a table, rather than being used as a topping. Still, famished, the adventurers quickly ate the plants, and then moved on to the ‘plates’ of bread. Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, then remarks that the group has “even eaten the tables” (“etiam mensas consumimus!” Aeniad Book IV), fulfilling the prophecy.

Aeneas fleeing Troy.

Painting by Pompeo Batoni, “Aeneas fleeing from Troy”, 1753. He’s carrying his father, Anchises. Also shown are his first wife, Creusa, and their child, Ascanius.
Image credits Galleria Sabauda.

Italian cuisine

The ‘pizzas’ we’ve talked about up to now are far from unique. Cultures around the world have developed their own brand of goodie-laden bread. Flatbreads, naan, and plakountas are all early preparations that could be considered cousins to the modern pizza, and they sprung up from ancient Greece to India, from Persia to Egypt. However, it would be kind of a stretch to call them pizza; they’re certainly not what you’d expect to see inside a pizza box today.

One Greek settlement would become the forefront of pizza as we know it: Naples. The city was founded by Greek colonists in the shadow of Vesuvius around 600 B.C. Writing in Pizza: A Global History, Carol Helstosky explains that by the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a thriving waterfront city — and, technically at least, an independent kingdom.


Painted lithography showing a group of lazzaroni. Author: Silvestro Bossi.
Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

The city was famous for its many lazzaroni, or working poor. They needed inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, for the lazzaroni had neither the time nor the money to invest in their meals. Many street vendors and other informal “restaurants” catered to their need, primarily offering flatbreads with various toppings (as per the area’s Greek heritage). By this time, Naples’ flatbreads featured all the hallmarks of today’s pizzas: tomatoes (which were brought over from the Americas), cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.

Still, the dish wasn’t enjoying widespread appeal or recognition at this time. Pizza was considered a poor man’s dish, partially due to the lazzaroni, partly due to the fact that tomatoes were considered poisonous at the time. Wealthy people, you see, used to dine from pewter (a lead alloy) plates at the time. Tomatoes, being somewhat acidic, would leach lead out of the plates into food — which would eventually kill these wealthy people. The tomatoes were blamed, and that made them cheap. The lazzaroni were poor and hungry, so the tomato was right up their alley. Luckily for the lazzaroni, pewter plates were expensive, so they weren’t poisoned.

“Judgmental Italian authors often called [the lazzaroni’s] eating habits ‘disgusting,'” Helstosky notes.

Pizza got its big break around 1889. After the kingdom of Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples, Thiers writes. It’s not exactly known how but they ended up being served ‘pies’ made by Raffaele Esposito, often hailed as the father of modern pizza. Legend has it that the royal pair was bored with the French cuisine they were being offered, although Europeans love bad-mouthing their neighbors and especially their neighbors’ foods, so that may not be completely factual.

“He first experimented with adding only cheese to bread, then added sauce underneath it and let the dough take the shape of a large round pie,” Theirs explains.

Esposito is said to have made three of his pies/pizzas. The story goes that the one the Queen favored most showcased the three colors on Italy’s flag — green basil, white mozzarella, and red tomatoes. Whether this was a coincidence or by design, we’ll never know. But you can pick the story you like most. Esposito named his pizza “Margherita” in honor of the Queen, although today it’s more commonly referred to as ‘cheese pizza’.

From there, pizza has only reached greater heights. It established itself as an iconic Italian dish, first in Italy and later within Europe. America’s love of pizza began with Italian immigrants and was later propelled by soldiers who fought — and ate — in Italy during the Second World War.

Today, it’s a staple in both fast-food and fancy restaurants, can be bought frozen, or can be prepared at home (it’s quite good fun with the right mates). I think it’s fair to say that although Persia’s soldiers couldn’t conquer the world, their food certainly did.

In ancient Rome, political discourse was sometimes like an internet fight

You think today’s political discourse is bad — you should have been in ancient Rome.

Politics in ancient Rome were not for the faint of heart. Not only were things volatile and often risky, but insults were commonplace.

“The attacks, also known as invectives, were an integral part of public life for senators of the Roman Republic,” explains ancient historian Prof. Dr. Martin Jehne of Technische Universität Dresden.

Jehne documents such abuses from antiquity to the present day. An interesting finding that Jehne reports is just how low Rome’s politicians would stoop, insulting each other for public support and, sometimes, for entertainment.

“Severe devaluations of the political opponent welded the support group together and provided attention, entertainment and indignation – similar to insults, threats and hate speech on the Internet today,” Jehne explains.

The insults and slander really had no limits — things would often get personal and very, very dirty.

“The famous speaker and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), for instance, when he defended his supporter Sestius, did not shrink from publicly accusing the enemy Clodius of incest with brothers and sisters,” says Prof. Jehne — a sexual practice that was not only profoundly immoral, but also illegal in Rome. “Clodius, in turn, accused Cicero of acting like a king when holding the position of consul. A serious accusation, since royalty in the Roman Republic was frowned upon.”

Interestingly, there were few legal consequences to these insults. There was no authority to establish limits on what is permitted in debates, and although they theoretically had a crime similar to slander, it was almost never enforced and the Romans didn’t seem to care much.

In fact, being able to withstand verbal abuse was seen as a sign of power — and not just from their peers, but also from the general public.

“Politicians ruthlessly insulted each other. At the same time, in the popular assembly, they had to let the people insult them without being allowed to abuse the people in turn — an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotence fantasies of the elite,” Jehne continued.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just the taking — Romans also prized the ability to dish out insults. Basically, if you wanted to be a true Roman — a citizen of the “Eternal City” and not a village pleb — you always needed to have your wits about you.

“They considered this an important part of urbanitas, the forms of communication of the metropolitans, in contrast to the rusticitas of the country bumpkins.” They made a downright boast of the slander flourishing in the city in particular. “When you were abused, you stood it, and if possible, you took revenge.”

Jehne will present these findings and many others at the 52nd Meeting of German Historians in Münster in September, in a section focused on abuses from antiquity to the present day.



The Antonine Wall was adorned with brightly-colored, grisly propaganda to keep Scottish tribes at bay

Ancient Romans didn’t have any qualms about using some propaganda to keep Scottish tribes in line (and far away).

Bridgeness Slab.

The original Bridgeness Slab, currently at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Image via Wikimedia / user Barnimg.

What’s the best way to keep roving, rampaging Scottish tribesmen from pillaging your forum? To be honest, it’s probably a heavily-armed legion — but dazzling red, yellow, and white paints come a close second, according to Louisa Campbell, an archaeologist at the University of Glasgow.

A great, big, physical, painted wall

Known as the Antonine Wall, the fortification was built in the mid-second century AD right on the edge of Rome’s holdings in England. Like The Wall in Game of Thrones — for which it likely served as inspiration — the Antonine Wall was meant to keep dangerous northerners away. To make sure it worked, the Romans made sure this wall was scary — stone slabs placed along the wall were adorned with bloody-beaked Roman eagles, and images of victorious legionnaires with decapitated enemies. Just for good measure, the stones also sported carved-in Latin inscriptions alongside these graphic warnings.


The inscription on the Bridgeness slab is a dedication to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. It reads (often with abbreviations):
Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius / Hadrianus Antoninus / Augustus Pius, Father of his Country, The Second Legion / Augusta, made (built) four thousand six-hundred and fifty-two paces (of the wall).
Image via Wikimedia / user dun_deagh.

According to Louisa Campbell, an archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, the stone slabs were “Roman propaganda” used to scare off local tribespeople living north of the Antonine Wall (basically, today’s Scotland). The stones are now their natural plain grey, but Campbell’s research shows they were once painted in bright colors. She reports finding residues of natural red and yellow ochre pigments, of matter and realgar (a plant used to make red dye and a red mineral respectively), white lead, and orpiment (a bright yellow mineral).

Campbell studied 19 such slabs (or “distance stones”) found along the wall, including the two most famous of these stones: the Summerston and the Bridgeness Slab. Both depicted scenes of Roman cavalry mowing through northern warriors or guarding bound captives. The Bridgeness Slab also showed a decapitated warrior in the midst of a battle, and Campbell found residue of red paint on both ends of the severed neck. The Summerston Slab might have featured a blood-red painted Roman eagle.

Red seems to have been primarily used to paint details, such as the cloaks of Roman soldiers and spatters of blood on the enemies of said soldiers. It seems to me like a subtle, quite smart use of the color. On one hand, it makes the legionnaires clearly distinguishable, capitalizing on Rome’s iconic red uniforms. On the other hand, it made it clear that invaders would be met with a bloodbath. Perhaps less immediately apparent, but no less intimidating, is that the only red on the legionnaires was on the cloaks — ‘Rome will defeat you’, this symbolizes, ‘and you won’t even be able to scratch our soldiers’.

Summerston slab.

The Summerston slab.
Image credits George MacDonald.

These propaganda stones were placed at intervals along the Antonine Wall to mark Roman superiority in the region, and discourage any thoughts of invasion. It’s also possible that the stones were as much a show of force for Roman subjects as they for invaders, there to make the people feel safe and keep them content.

[Read More] Safe, content, and probably writing dirty things on the city walls — like any respectable Roman would.

Modern advertisers would probably applaud the design ideas behind these slabs.

“I would suggest the red on the beak of the eagle (the symbol of Rome and her legions) symbolizes Rome feasting off the flesh of her enemies,” Campbell wrote in an email for Live Science.

Rome didn’t hang on to the wall for very long, despite its propaganda efforts; maybe northern warriors thought the legions were overcompensating? Whatever the case, the Antonine Wall (whose construction was commissioned in 142 A.D.) was abandoned sometime in 161 A.D. for unknown reasons. The Empire briefly re-captured it between 208 to 211 A.D., but they never succeeded in establishing the wall as Rome’s permanent northernmost border.

“The public are accustomed to seeing these sculptures in bland greys, creams, white (for marble) and don’t get the full impact that they would have had on the Roman and indigenous audiences 2,000 years ago,” Campbell told the Bailiwick Express.

“Knowing how colour was used by the Romans to tell stories and create impact is a huge leap forward in understanding these sculptures,” added Patricia Weeks, Antonine Wall coordinator at Historic Environment Scotland. 

Long stretches of the wall’s stone ruins are still visible today, although the earth-and-wood sections haven’t fared as well.

Archaeologists discover stunning Greco-Roman temple in the Egyptian desert

It took scientists a while before they realized the enormity of their discovery. Aside from the temple itself, archaeologists have also discovered a trove of artifacts, including statues, coins, and pottery.

Image Credits: Egypt Ministry of Antiquities.

The discovery was made in Egypt’s Western Desert, some 348 miles west of Cairo and 200 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Siwa Oasis. As archaeologist Sarah Parcak explained, it’s not every day that you find this kind of temple.

“What’s amazing is you don’t tend to hear every day of new temples found in Egypt,” space archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who isn’t involved in the dig, told Elaina Zachos at National Geographic. “It’s going to shed more light on the history of Siwa Oasis.”

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Panel title” footer=””]Some 2,200 years ago, Egypt already had a rich history, but was in a state of decline. Ramesses III, widely considered the last “great” pharaoh from the New Kingdom, who ruled between 1279–1213 BC, was struggling with dwindling finances and wars with the Sea People, who invaded Egypt by land and sea.[/panel]

Image Credits: Egypt Ministry of Antiquities.

The historical timeline of the oasis isn’t clear, but it seems that it has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. However, it’s been one of the most isolated Egyptian settlements, deep in the desert — but not isolated from the influence of other cultures. The newly found temple dates from between 200 BCE and 300 CE, a period when Egypt was under Hellenistic and then Roman rule, thus explaining the nature of the temple. During this period, the influence of Ancient Greek and Roman people was felt in all layers of Egyptian life, including architecture, but not many buildings remain from that time, making this finding extra special.

Within the temple, archaeologists have uncovered a sculpture of a man’s head and two limestone lion statues, as well as impressive pottery and lots of coins. The total extent of the temple is not yet known, and the temple hasn’t been dated, but archaeologists believe that the it may offer valuable information about the Greco-Roman period in Egypt.

“I’m hopeful that this excavation team is going to uncover the settlements or the houses of the priests,” Parcak says.

Interestingly, the oasis is most known as the location where the Greek king Alexander the Great consulted the oracle of Ammon. Unfortunately, history didn’t record what Alexander asked and what the oracle answered.

The archaeological dig is still a work in progress, and researchers expect more findings in the future. Ayman Ashmawi, the head of the ministry’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities department, says several other digs are planned for this year.

fate of rome book

Book review: ‘The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire’

fate of rome book

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
By Kyle Harper
Princeton University Press, 440pp | Buy on Amazon

From its founding in 625 BC to its fall in AD 476, the Roman Empire conquered and integrated dozens of cultures. Much has been said about what’s perhaps the most influential state in history. Modern countries owe their language, civil codes, laws, and heritage to the Romans. But although every empire has an apex, it also has a breaking point from which it spirals-down into insignificance.

Animated map showing the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Credit: Roke, Wikimedia Commons.

Animated map showing the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Legend: red (Roman Republic), purple (Imperial Rome), green (Eastern Roman Empire), blue (Western Roman Empire). Credit: Roke, Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written about the downfall of the Roman Empire. Many have argued that rampant corruption and too much pressure, due to its phenomenal expanse for an Iron Age state eventually destroyed Rome.

In an impressive scholarly work, Kyle Harper, a professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, offers a new and refreshing perspective on this topic of major importance. In The Fate of RomeClimate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, Harper puts nature at the center of Rome’s undoing.

The author argues that the empire’s very strengths — travel, trade, migration — which raised it to such great height also accelerated its demise. All roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes, but along with merchants and provincials from all corners of the empire, they also brought tuberculosis, leprosy, smallpox, plague, and other diseases. Not just once was the empire crippled by pandemics like The Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) which decimated legions and up to 15 percent of the population.

Supported by modern studies which cleverly infer the ancient climate from proxies like sediment cores or tree rings, Harper also makes a solid case that a drier climate during the empire’s later period also contributed significantly to its downfall. Unlike the anomalously favorable climate during the Roman Climate Optimum — some 350 years of unusually warm and moist climate between around 200 BC and AD 150 which helped the empire rise to power — the following centuries came as a wakeup call.

In the third century AD, Rome was struck by drought in the southern Mediterranean, especially Rome’s breadbasket, Egypt. Political upheaval was inevitable, runaway inflation was rampant as coins were debased, and, yet again, plagues ran amok (perhaps even from Ebola, the author argues). For instance, the Justinian plague of AD 541 halved the Eastern Roman Empire’s population.

Pressured by an unkind environment and climate, Rome grew feeble and vulnerable in the face of invaders like Goths, Persians, and Franks, who seized the opportunity and overrun Rome’s weakened borders.

Of course, Harper’s thesis isn’t that the climate and disease are what brought down Rome. The human factor played a role that was at the very least as important but this book offers a context for an incredibly complex system. In some instances, nature’s force was just enough to tip the scales either in Rome’s favor or to its disadvantage during its history.

And if all of this sounds strikingly familiar, it’s because we’re also living at crossroads. In only 150 years, the globe has warmed by nearly 1 degree Celsius, an unheard of rate in millions of years. If there’s anything we have to learn from Rome, it’s that we should never underestimate nature. But unlike the Romans who were largely ignorant, at the mercy of the gods if you will, we have science. It’s time to act before the downfall of Rome mirrors that of modern civilization.

It has to be mentioned that Harper spared no expense, presenting his thesis in exhaustive detail. Some uninitiated readers might find this daunting but it is my impression that his extremely compelling writing, which is rather rare for a scholarly work, makes up for it. This is certainly not a book you can go through on a rainy afternoon but neither is it boring, to say the least.

Neapolis Tunisia

Over 20 hectares of Roman ruins discovered submerged off Tunisian coast

On July 21, 365 AD the pearl-city of Alexandria, Egypt was devastated by a massive tsunami which was triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Greece. Though the ancients couldn’t measure earthquakes at the time, contemporary scientists estimated from the historical records that the largest of the two tremors had a magnitude of 8.0.

In Alexandria, approximately 5,000 people lost their lives and 50,000 homes were destroyed. Of course, the great port city was not alone with surrounding villages and towns suffering even worse damage. Some were wiped off the map. What’s more, the resulting tsunami traveled far and wide around the Mediterranian.

Now, we have evidence of just how far the tremor’s devastation traveled.

According to a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission, the ancient Roman city of Neapolis located in northeastern Tunisia was also hit by the tsunami, confirming a long-held assumption.

Neapolis Tunisia

The archaeologists found over 20 hectares of Roman ruins submerged off the coast of the modern-day Tunisian town of Nabeul. Among the most interesting findings, the researchers reported streets, monuments, and at least 100 tanks used to produce garum.

Colatura di alici, or garum, is one of the basic ingredients in the cuisine of Roman antiquity. It is a fish sauce that was used to salt dishes, seen pictured in this Roman mural. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Colatura di alici, or garum, is one of the basic ingredients in the cuisine of Roman antiquity. It is a fish sauce that was used to salt dishes, seen pictured in this Roman mural. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Garum is fermented fish-based condiment which the Romans adored and imported from Neapolis.

“This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major centre for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest centre in the Roman world,” Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission told AFP.

“Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum.”

The expedition first started searching for Neapolis artifacts and ruins in 2010 but it was only recently that they struck gold. The fact that the Tunisian authorities thought very little of the historical value of Neapolis didn’t help at all, though. Nabuel is a popular tourist attraction and all sorts of buildings, particularly hotels, have popped up like mushrooms in the past decades. Some have been erected atop Neapolis ruins, much to the disdain of archaeologists.

Submerged for more than 2,000 years, this section was spared, revealing a rich history.

Roman Republican Coins, Second Punic War, The Denarius 214-195BC. Credit: Andrew McCabe.

Ancient coins reveal when Rome became an empire

Chips collected from ancient Roman coins were enough German researchers at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt to draw the line when Rome became an empire.

Roman Republican Coins, Second Punic War, The Denarius 214-195BC. Credit: Andrew McCabe.

Roman Republican Coins, Second Punic War, The Denarius 214-195BC. Credit: Andrew McCabe.

Follow the money

During the reign of Septimius Severus in 211 AD, Rome was at the height of its imperial power. Their domain extended over much of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and from modern day Scotland to the Sahara or the Arabian Golf. Up to 60 million subjects, including slaves, lived inside its borders — roughly 15% of the entire world’s population. That’s totally impressive considering the Empire’s level of culture and political might wasn’t matched for another 1,000 years after it crumbled.

But every mighty empire has to start off from humble beginnings. The story of the Roman empire can be traced to the founding of the ‘eternal city’ itself in the year 753 BC, though some speculate the real year is 625 BC. After a brief period as a monarchy under seven kings, Rome turned into a republic that was ruled by a senate which appointed a consul. The consul theoretically ruled like a king, but only for one year. This was a very clever trick by the senate because the consul knew that if he behaved unjustly (mainly towards the senate), he would be punished by the next consul. It was also a very successful arrangement seeing how Rome stayed a republic for almost 500 years — until an ambitious fellow named Julius Caeser came along.

In any event, although the early Roman republic grew exponentially in both size and power, it was only in 264 BC under the leadership of the military hero Camillus that the entire Italian peninsula came under its control. But Rome didn’t truly become an empire until it annexed territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which happened in 209 BC during the Second Punic War against Carthage, according to historical records.

But even absent these historical records, it is possible to infer the approximate period when Rome turn into an empire. The German researchers elegantly demonstrated this by studying 55 Roman coins minted between circa 225 and 101 BCE.

Roman Empire borders following the 2nd Punic War in 209 BC.

Roman Empire borders following the 2nd Punic War in 201 BC.

Before the war with Carthage, Roman silver coins contained lead isotopes that suggest these were sourced from Magna Graecia, likely from silver ores from the Aegean and Rhodope region. From 209 BC onward, though, a different isotopic pattern emerged.

“These form a mixing line extending between the Tertiary mineralisations of southeastern Spain and the Variscan deposits in the southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Carthaginian silver coinage (n=2) from the 4th century BCE as well shows Pb isotope data being indicative of mixed metal sources from the Iberian Peninsula. The Brettii, a tribe in southern Italy, were allies of Carthage in the 2nd Punic War (218-201 BCE) and thus apparently also had access to silver originally won from Iberian resources, as reflected by Pb isotope signatures of their coinage (n=3; dating between c. 218 and 211 BCE). Silver fineness of the Roman coinage dating after 209 BCE in contrast to earlier minted coins generally is in excess of 96 wt % and further strengthens the hypothesis of a secured supply of metal bullion deriving from former Carthaginian riches,” the researchers reported  at the Goldschmidt Conference.

Now that it had secured the south of Spain from Hannibal’s Carthage, Rome used the province’s riches to mint its new coins — and scientists were able to know this simply from studying led isotopes. That’s strikingly simple but elegant, doncha think?

Rome metro workers accidentally find 2,300 year-old aqueduct

Few parts of the world can boast a history as rich as Rome, but even for Rome, this is a spectacular find. A 2,300-year-old aqueduct (or rather, a stretch of it) was discovered by metro workers. This is the oldest aqueduct in the city.

The aqueduct. Image credits: Archaeological Superintendency Rome.

The impressive finding was actually made in 2016 but was not reported to the public until now. Simona Morretta, who led the team of archaeologists, said that the aqueduct lies 17-18 meters below Rome’s Piazza Celimontana, in close proximity to the Colosseum. It’s hidden so deep beneath the ground that without subway works, it would have likely never been found.

“It was thanks to the concrete bulkheads used for work on the metro that we could get down to that level,” explained Morretta.

“The opportunity to safely reach this depth allowed us to uncover and document an exception sequence of stratigraphy and structures from the Iron Age (tombs and grave objects from the tenth century BC) to the modern age (foundations of 19th-century housing”.

The aqueduct is made up of equally-sized blocks arranged in five rows and was likely part of the Aqua Appia — the first Roman aqueduct, constructed in 312 BC. Aqua Appia flowed for 16.4 km to Rome from the east and fed the city with an estimated 73,000 cubic meters of water per day. The aqueduct has been partially dismantled and rebuilt and is set for display, although the location hasn’t been revealed yet.

But the aqueduct isn’t the only thing they found. A closer investigation also revealed remains of food leftovers, showing what ancient Romans ate and what animals they kept around the house. So far, researchers found evidence of wild boars, swans, pheasants, and large seawater fish. When finished, the new metro line will host a museum exhibiting all these findings.

Work on the new metro line has been greatly delayed, both due to lack of money and numerous archaeological findings. Previously, a second-century imperial barracks was found, containing 39 rooms, preserved with original mosaics and frescoes. So far, the 18km of the line in operation has reportedly cost the city over $20 billion.

Rome: the unsurpassed supercity of the ancient world


According to Roman Mythology, the ancient city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC by the half-god twins Romulus and Remus. Romulus killed Remus, thus becoming the first King of Rome and the fair city was named after him. The city started out small, atop one of the seven hills overlooking Rome called the Palatine Hill. Slowly, but surely, the city of Rome grew into a behemoth — the capital of an empire that at its prime stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Euphrates river, and from Scottland’s highlands to the Sahara desert.

It’s thought that during Rome’s heyday, the city numbered more than a million residents who lived in a sparkling metropolis fitted with infrastructure, public services, and grand buildings the likes of which we wouldn’t see again for more than 1,500 years. This infographic beautifully illustrates the sophistication of the ancient city of Rome — a place of innovation, the Silicon Valley of antiquity.

White line: Aqua Augusta aqueduct that supplied water to the cities in the Bay of Naples. Credit: PNAS

Ancient Rome’s water supply tracked by lead isotopes

The Romans were very diligent in how they handled bookkeeping from cash to grain stocks. Most of these records, however, have been lost and it’s a mighty shame too because they can be used to track how the Roman infrastructure — the most impressive in the ancient world — changed and adapted with time. That’s where modern science comes in, though. By analyzing telltale chemical signs which marked the environment, like led isotopes, a team of researchers tracked the water quality following the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Artist impression of Roman aqueduct. Credit: esf.edu

Artist impression of Roman aqueduct. Credit: esf.edu

Ever since it was established as an empire, Rome had a huge demand for water, especially for its eponymous capital city. The average Roman required 200 gallons of water per day, and it’s pretty clear the Tiber River alone could not quench this thirst. As the population of Rome increased, architects solved this water demand problem by bringing in water from the surrounding areas via aqueduct.

The aqueduct is very simple, but elegant solution to the water problem. These consisted of canals and pipes that carried water from a higher elevation and gradually decreased elevation until the water destination was reached. These systems were made from concrete, but occasionally the Romans would use lead pipes.

Roman Aqueducts

Credit: romanaqueducts.info

Hugo Delile at the University of Lyon in France and colleagues showed for the first time in 2014 that lead poisoning wasn’t an issue in the empire at the time. Back then, they used ratios of the isotopes lead-204 and lead-206 to calculate lead pollution in the Italian river the Tiber that would have come from the pipes in Roman cities.

White line: Aqua Augusta aqueduct that supplied water to the cities in the Bay of Naples. Credit: PNAS

White line: Aqua Augusta aqueduct that supplied water to the cities in the Bay of Naples. Credit: PNAS

Now, like then, the same team used isotopic analysis on ancient excavated sediments, this time from the ancient harbour in Naples. The end goal was to investigate what effects the the eruption of Vesuvius had on the water supply in the empire.

The analysis suggests a dramatic shift of lead composition pre and post-eruption. Delile and colleagues say this suggests the Roman water pipe network was severely damaged following the eruption and repairs took 15 years. The analysis also revealed that the pipe system continued to expand in the Naples region despite the Roman Empire was well past its heyday.

“The Pb isotopic signatures of the sediments further reveal that the previously steady growth of Neapolis’ water distribution system ceased during the collapse of the fifth century AD, although vital repairs to this critical infrastructure were still carried out in the aftermath of invasions and volcanic eruptions,” the study’s abstract reads.

Illegal waste dumping turns Roman catacomb into a lake of acrid oil

Italian police have discovered an illegal garbage dump hidden in the remains of Rome’s ancient catacomb network. Authorities sealed off the area and are now investigating possible environmental pollution from the underground lake of acrid oil.

A fresco in the restored Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. Part of a separate labyrinth of Roman tombs has been damaged by illegal dumping. Image via theguardian

A fresco in the restored Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. Part of a separate labyrinth of Roman tombs has been damaged by illegal dumping.
Image via theguardian

The ancient Romans started using underground caverns and tunnels to inter their dead since the second century BC. Lately, their descendants have restarted using this space for a much less noble task: as a trash dump.

The site lies on the Appian Way, a beautifully preserved example of the way the Romans laid stones over beds of gravel to built their roads. Over the years the catacombs have been filled with trash and food waste, forming a puddle of acrid oil, Italian media reported. Officials confirmed that police officers seized the area on Monday, until the level of oil infiltration in the soil can be determined.

Italy is home to some of Europe’s largest landfill sites and has been fined millions of euros by the European court of justice for failing to clean up its illegal dumping grounds.

The waste management business has also provided fertile ground for organized crime in the country’s poorer south, most notoriously in the “Land of Fires” north of Naples, where large amounts of trash has been dumped and burned, poisoning the environment, The Guardian reports.

Milan and Rome introduce car bans as pollution levels rise

The two largest cities in Italy have taken drastic measures as pollution levels continue to rise and smog builds up. The new regulations target cars, but also … pizza ovens.

Image via BFTV

Milan is banning all cars, motorcycles and scooters for 6 hours a day over the next three days, while in Rome, cars with odd-numbered plates have been banned for 9 hours on Monday, and even-numbered plates have the same ban on Tuesday. In Rome, hybrid and electric cars are exempt from the ban.

“In these days of major emergency, we cannot remain indifferent,” Milan mayor Giuliano Pisapia said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the smaller city of San Vitaliano, just outside Naples, took another interesting measure, banning the use of wood-fired pizza stoves. The stoves will need to be fitted with anti-pollution filters before being allowed to function again.

Milan is one of Europe’s most polluted large cities and Rome is not far behind, but many are accusing authorities of ignoring the real problems and taking an ineffective approach. However, a similar measure was taken in Beijing and yielded very good results following a red pollution alert – the most severe of its kind.

Meanwhile, other cities in Europe plan to become completely car free. For example, Hamburg in Germany wants to eliminate cars completely in 20 years.


Roman emperor and pharaoh: new ancient carving tells the story



Right on the western exterior wall of the Temple of Isis at Shanhur, located just 12 miles north of the famous Luxor, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient stone carving depicting the Roman emperor Claudius dressed as a pharaoh. The scene is the most preserved out of the other 36 original scenes discovered during the 2000-2001 excavation season, after a layer of dirt kept it safe for millenia.

The scene was recorded only in 2010 after a lot of painstaking work from behalf of the team of researchers who had to decipher and put back together the eroded pieces. The stone carving speaks an elaborate tale, one of divinity both on earth in the form of the emperor/pharaoh and the heavens. More specific, Emperor Claudius, who ruled the Roman Empire between A.D. 41 to 54,  is shown erecting a giant pole with a lunar crescent at the top. The emperor is depicted wearing an elaborate crown consisting of three rushes (plants) set on ram horns with three falcons sitting on top, while the god Min is shown wearing his own crown and has an erect penis, because Min was a god of fertility.

In the same scene, eight men, each wearing two feathers, are shown climbing the supporting poles, with their legs dangling in midair.  Egyptian rulers are shown wearing crowns like this relatively late in ancient Egyptian history, mainly after 332 B.C., and they were worn only in Egypt. After the ancient civilization was conquered by the Romans in 30 B.C., Roman Emperors were also depicted as pharaohs, Egyptologists have noted.

In ancient Egyptian culture, the pharaoh was man, ruler and god.  The hieroglyphs Claudius is named the “Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns,” and say he is “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands.” The writings also explain how the pole, various little people engraved on the stone and the penis flashing god all come together. Apparently, Claudius is raising the pole  of the tent (or cult chapel) of Min (an ancient Egyptian god of fertility and power) and notes a date indicating a ritual like this took place around the summertime researchers say.  The hieroglyphs describe Min as “the one who brings into control the warhorses, whose fear is in the Two Lands.” Min tells Claudius, “I give you the (southern) foreign lands.” This is possibly a very important piece of historical information since the lands surrounding the Nile river are comprised of mineral-rich desserts.

Interestingly enough, Emperor Claudius never visited Egypt, but like ancient rulers he need not be present in his lands to be worshiped and honored. News like this travel all the way to Rome, and it must have surely pleased him. The findings were documented in a paper published in the journal Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde. The team was comprised of researchers from Swansea University and KU Leuven University in Belgium.

A corridor of one of the famous catacombs of Rome.

‘Archaeologist’ stray cat finds ancient catacomb in Rome

A corridor of one of the famous catacombs of Rome.

A corridor of one of the famous catacombs of Rome.

Fusing ancient, medieval, renascent and modern influences, the city of Rome is truly relic of time. It’s actually so old, that many construction projects in Rome have to go through a tiresome process before they can even start work, since there’s always the chance some forgotten tomb or catacomb of some sort might lie  underneath.  If you’re wondering what are the chances of finding a new catacomb, well consider if a stray cat found one, then there’s yet a hefty amount to be unearthed.

The stray cat, suddenly turned Indiana Jones, entered a  a grotto near a tufa rock cliff in a residential area of the city. Mirko Curti, a resident of the respective neighborhood, was startled by the cat’s meowing and decided to investigate. He found the cat, after entering through a small opening of the cave, which was guarded by rocks until earlier that week, but which fell away after heavy rainstorms. Besides the cat, though, Curti also found ancient human bones.  The archaeologists believe that the bones likely fell into the cave from a chamber higher up in the cliff.

Upon alerting the authorities, archaeologists estimated that the catacomb likely dated back to sometime between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. In Rome, there are hundreds of kilometers of catacombs running beneath the city and its outskirts. Some have been refurbished a bit and opened to tourists, while most have been reinforced and kept off limits in order to prevent landfalls or other accidents. Archaeologists believe there are still more sections left for discovery beneath Rome – signore Curti and the stray-cay found one such catacomb.

“The Jewish community in Rome built them as cemeteries. Christian catacombs came a century later. They were not secret meeting places to survive persecutions, as historians thought in the past, but burial tunnels, like the Jewish ones,” Mr. Morabito adds. “They used to grow larger and larger around the tombs of saints because people asked to be buried near their religious leaders.”