Category Archives: Science
Armillary Spheres: Following Celestial Objects in the Ancient World
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins Astronomy is often considered to be one of the oldest branches of science. InRead more.
The Eastern Roman Empire’s Legacy to Astronomy
By Monica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Decades ago, the word “Byzantine” was used as a synonym for corruption andRead more.
Do All Roads ACTUALLY Lead to Rome?
We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to meanRead more.
By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins 2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet thatRead more.
The Only Library Ever Recovered from Antiquity
By Wu Mingren, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins The Villa of the Papyri is the name given to a private houseRead more.
The Mystery of the Roman Tunnels of Baiae
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins There are certain places on Earth in which nature is imbued with the supernatural.Read more.
A Discovery That Shook the Archaeological World
By Ryan Stone, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins “A gentleman and a scholar.” There are few such men who fit thisRead more.
The Lovers’ Coin
by Brittany Marie Garcia The story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra is a love story of seduction, exotic locations, love-triangles,Read more.
Built to Last: The Secret that Enabled Roman Roads to Withstand the Passage of Time
By Wu Mingren, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins The Romans were renowned as great engineers and this is evident in theRead more.
It’s Pi Time!
The history of pie is both storied and interesting in and of itself. Did you know, for instance, that theRead more.
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Astronomy is often considered to be one of the oldest branches of science. In many ancient societies, astronomical observations were used not only for the practical job of determine the rhythm of life, (e.g. the various seasons of the year, the celebration of festivals, etc.) but also for the philosophical exploration of the nature of the universe as well as that of human existence. Therefore, various instruments were invented to aid the important science of astronomy. One of these instruments was called the armillary sphere.
The Function of Armillary Spheres
An armillary sphere is an astronomical device made up of a number of rings linked to a pole. These rings represent the circles of the celestial sphere, such as the equator, the ecliptic and the meridians. Incidentally, it is from these rings that the name of this device is derived from (the word armilla is Latin for “bracelet, armlet, arm ring”).
Armillary spheres may be divided into two main categories based on their function – demonstrational armillary spheres and observational armillary spheres. The former is used to demonstrate and explain the movement of celestial objects, whilst the latter is used to observe the celestial objects themselves. Therefore, observational armillary spheres are generally larger in size when compared to their demonstrational counterparts. The observational armillary spheres also had fewer rings, which made them more accurate and easier to use.
The Ancient Greeks and the Armillary Sphere
The armillary sphere is believed to have originated from the ancient Greek world. The inventor of this device, however, is less than certain. Some, for instance, claim that the armillary sphere was invented sometime during the 6th century BC by the Greek philosopher Anaximander of Miletus. Others credit the 2nd century BC astronomer, Hipparchus, with the invention of this device.
The earliest reference to the armillary sphere, however, is said to have come from a treatise known today as the Almagest (known also as the Syntaxis), written by the 2nd century AD Greco-Egyptian geographer, Claudius Ptolemy. In this treatise, Ptolemy describes the construction and use of a zodiacal armillary sphere, an instrument used to determine the locations of celestial bodies in ecliptic co-ordinates. Furthermore, Ptolemy also gives examples of his use of this device for the observation of stars and planets.
The Armillary Sphere in Ancient China
Interestingly, the armillary sphere was also being developed independently in another civilization – China (albeit possibly at a later date.) The armillary sphere is said to have appeared in China during the Han dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD.)
The use of such a device may be traced to the astronomer Zhang Heng, who lived during the second half of the Han Dynasty, i.e. the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD– 220 AD). Originally, the structure of these spheres was very simple, consisting of three rings and a metal axis that was orientated towards the North and South Poles.
However, over the centuries, more rings were added to the spheres so that different measurements could be taken. In the courtyard of the Ancient Observatory in Beijing, for example, one can see a full sized replica of an elaborate armillary sphere produced during the reign of a 15th century Ming emperor, Zhengtong.
Armillary Spheres in the Islamic World and Christian Europe
During the Middle Ages, knowledge for the production and use of armillary spheres passed into the Islamic world. The first known treaty on this device is known as Dhat al-halaq (translated as ‘The Instrument with the Rings,’) written by the 8th century astronomer, al-Fazari.
Many Muslim astronomers wrote about the armillary sphere, though with reference to Ptolemy’s work. It may be mentioned that clear references to demonstrational armillary spheres are absent from documents of the Islamic world, whilst there is a considerable amount of evidence for the use of the observational armillary sphere.
The armillary sphere is said to have been introduced into Christian Europe by Gerbert d’Aurillac (later Pope Slyvester II.) It is assumed that d’Aurillac acquired such knowledge from Islamic Spain. It has been suggested that by the Late Medieval period, the demonstrative armillary sphere became quite a common device in European universities, as treatises on the geometry of the celestial sphere was taught in many such institutions, thus making the armillary sphere an indispensable teaching tool.
By Monica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Decades ago, the word “Byzantine” was used as a synonym for corruption and decadence, however, the period between 395 and 1453 was also one of great scientific progress.
Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople in honor of its founder, Constantine, was a land where Latin, Greek, Islamic and Jewish traditions mixed to create a new way to study Math, History, Science and Astronomy. Consequently, there were great discoveries by dedicated scholars, such as Claudius Ptolemy, Gregory Chioniades and Nicephoros Gregoras. The scholars of this period were committed to preserve and transmit the traditions and scientific knowledge of the ancient world.
According to some research done in the last two decades, Byzantine astronomers focused in three main topics:
1. Equinoxes and Eclipses
During the Byzantine era, the Astronomic model was geocentric, meaning the consensus view was that the earth was at the center of the solar system; however, most scholars were aware of some existing errors with regards to measuring the stars and planets.
A gradual improvement of methods, such as better use of the astrolabe, culminated centuries later with the introduction of the heliocentric system, which correctly placed the sun at the center of our solar system. Gregoras, who lived between 1295 and 1360, understood the mechanism of eclipses, and he calculated all the solar eclipses of the millennium up to the 13th century. He also predicted future eclipses of both the sun and the moon, constructed a prototype astrolabe, and proposed reforms to the calendar, all of which led to great progress for human kind.
2. The shape of the earth
In the text The Schemata of the Stars, Chionades draws some diagrams for solar and lunar eclipses where the earth is spherical. This provides further evidence that the Byzantines (as well as several other cultures around the world at that time) considered the earth to be spherical.
Some years later, when Gregoras refers to the Earth in his famous work Roman History, he uses the phrase ‘below the sun’. There, indirectly he accepts its spherical shape, and he also refers to its subdivision into parallel circles and continents.
3. Models for the sun, the moon and the five (known) planets
As mentioned previously, Byzantine models for the sun and the planets are geocentric. Essentially this means: for each celestial body it is necessary to introduce a system of spheres whose axes and rates of rotation are exclusive for them.
For Chionades, Mercury and Venus are inner planets and, as seen from the earth, appear to follow the sun because they are sometimes ahead and at other times trailing the sun.
Also, regarding Mercury, Chioniades makes an interesting remark concerning latitude. In his writings, he explains that among the five planets, four of them have their apogees (highest point) in the northern hemisphere of the globe, except for Mercury whose apogee is in the southern hemisphere. Was this the result of observations, or was he echoing an ancient tradition? We may never know, but this description of the latitudes survived after the introduction of the heliocentric system, with both Rheticus and Copernicus making similar observations.
Years later, a mixed model with Venus and Mercury rotating around the Sun, and all of them together rotating around the earth, was introduced by Heraklides of Pontus.
The legacy that lasts until today: Our Calendar
The writings of Gregoras are especially important; today we know Byzantine astronomy owes much of its progress to him. Aware of the mistakes made by his predecessors, in 1324 Nicephoros Gregoras proposed a correction to the calculation of the date of Easter, and to the Julian calendar itself.
At that time, his beliefs conflicted with his work, so he retired from public life and his work was discredited by the church.
The calendar as we know it today was implemented by the Italian, Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Though the so-called Gregorian calendar was named in the Pope’s honor, it was not his invention.
Established on October 4, 1582, the new calendar solved the problem that the Julian year had 11 minutes and 14 seconds more than the solar year, which had a cumulative effect to the date of the spring equinox.
Despite the fact that Gregoras didn’t live to see it implemented, it’s one of the main contributions that Byzantine Empire bequeathed to us.
We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The Power of Pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 BC, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 BC, the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The Center of the World
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the center of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
‘There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.’
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century BC, but from the first century AD, emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances.
The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century AD, he built an arch called the Milion at its center, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century AD, even helpfully includes shortcuts for travelers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very center of the known world.
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:
‘A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.’
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
‘right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.’
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – did all roads actually lead there?’ by Caillan Davenport and Shushma Malik on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.
By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet that became a key to the language of this remarkable civilization. This unique bronze artifact is known as the Tabula Cortonensis and, apart from its role in deciphering a lost language, it also contains untold secrets of the Etruscan civilization if you read between the lines of its text.
The Etruscan civilization is a mysterious one. They created their own language, religion, architecture, and other cultural aspects. Their culture has been separated as one of the treasures of ancient times due to their amazing achievements before Romanization. However, there are still more questions than answers about the enigmatic people. Therefore, a discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis is priceless because it brings us one step closer to the Etruscans.
A Curious Tablet
The tablet was discovered near the city of Curtun, which was known as Corito in the Roman Empire, and is now called Cortona. It lies in Arezzo Provincia in Tuscany. The site is well-known for the discovery of a 4th-century tomb that may have belonged to the famous mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras.
The tablet was unearthed in 1992, however it wasn’t exhibited for many years. This artifact is made of bronze and, for unknown reasons, it had been cut into eight fragments. Unfortunately, one of the pieces is lost. The tablet is 2-3 millimeters (.08-0.12 inches) thick and measures about 50 by 30 cm (19.69 x 11.81 inches). Researchers discovered that the tablet was made using the lost wax process. It has been suggested that the sheet may have been cut so it could be used for different purposes.
Some researchers believe the tablet was created in this way to be hung. However, there is no place for a ring or hook, so this seems unlikely. It is also uncertain if the Etruscans had specific measurements for different documents created on bronze tablets. There are some suggestions that the tablets for religious purposes had a specific size, but it is possible that contracts like the Tabula Cortonensis were also created with a precise pattern.
The Transfer Agreement
The text on the Tabula Cortonensis is a common record of a land transfer agreement between two parties. The text itself was written with skill, but its content is not unique. Although it is relatively wordy, the document isn’t the longest Etruscan writing discovered either – the Capua Tablet and the Liber Linetus from Zagreb are both longer.
The tablet was carefully studied by Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia. They found that the inscription was clear in its content, but also full of specific information for the situation. For example, the names of the people who agreed to the contract are provided. The text also provides information about the Etruscan style and language used for this kind of agreement – a language which was thought to be the same in every region of Etruria.
Keys to a Forgotten Language
The lengthy text makes this artifact a useful tool in research on the Etruscan language. However, the researchers were surprised by the differences between the language they thought they knew and the text which had been written on the tablet. According to Agostiniani and Nicosia:
The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds of B, G or D. Their neighbors, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The “paragraph” sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard (vina), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno (celtineitiss tarsminass), between the Cusu family (Cusuthur), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren (clan, “son”, and papals, “grandson”).
The ancient inscription is full of mistakes, or, it provides evidence of gaps in modern knowledge about the Etruscan language. Agostiniani explains this by saying that the tablet contains a unique language used by the people who lived specifically in Cortona. That would mean people could have used different language in various parts of Etruria.
Searching for the Lost Civilization
Researchers need to complete additional excavations and analysis of previously discovered Etruscan artifacts to reveal more fascinating information about this unique civilization. But every discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis provides new information that allows us to create a clearer picture of their daily life and language, something that looks to be more complicated than once believed.
By Wu Mingren, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
The Villa of the Papyri is the name given to a private house that was uncovered in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. This city, along with nearby Pompeii, is perhaps best remembered for its destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Because of this natural disaster, the buildings of these cities were preserved under a thick layer of volcanic ash.
The Villa’s Elaborate Presence
One of these buildings was the Villa of the Papyri, named as such due to the discovery of a library in the house that contained about 1800 scrolls of papyri (known today as the ‘Herculaneum Papyri’), which were carbonized due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Researchers believe the Villa of the Papyri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. This villa is located in the northwestern part of Herculaneum, on a slope of the volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples. Built in terraces down to the sea, the villa was a grand structure, covering an area of 30,000 square feet (2787 sq. meters). The front of the villa stretched for more than 820 ft. (250 meters), and offered its inhabitants an unobstructed view of the bay. The villa included two peristyles, a swimming pool, gardens, living and reception quarters.
Rediscovering the Villa
It was only during the 18th century that the villa was rediscovered. In 1709, the city of Herculaneum was rediscovered when workmen digging a well in the town of Resina stumbled upon the upper level of the ancient town’s theatre. Excavations began to be carried out and were funded by the House of Bourbon. In 1750, the Villa of the Papyri was uncovered, and an excavation was soon undertaken under the direction of Karl Weber, a Swiss architect and engineer.
A Very Special Library
Two years later, in October 1752, the villa’s library was discovered, and with it, the first cache of papyri was brought to light. Containing about 1800 scrolls, the collection of this library is relatively small. Yet, it is the only known library to have survived from the Classical world.
Hence, the library has a great importance in the eyes of both archaeologists and classicists. Exposure to the volcanic gas and ash meant the scrolls were carbonized – they were turned into charred cylindrical lumps. In fact, the papyri were initially mistaken for lumps of charcoal or burnt logs, and their value was only recognized later. The carbonization of the scrolls effectively preserved them, though at the same time, it made them extremely difficult to unroll.
A Difficult Process Begins
Attempts have been made to read the contents of these scrolls. Some were unceremoniously hacked open with a butcher’s knife, whilst others were simply unrolled. Needless to say, damage was done to the fragile artifacts. An ‘unrolling device’ was even invented by Antonio Piaggio, a Piarist monk, specifically for the unravelling of these papyri. Though the scrolls were unrolled with this device, they remained fragile, and the process took a very long time. The first scroll took four years to unravel.
Nevertheless, progress was being made, and by 1790, reports on the contents of the library were being published. Over the next two centuries, various techniques have been developed in the hope that the contents of the papyri may be accessed. Some of the most recent attempts involve digital, rather than physical, unravelling of the scrolls. In order to do so, methods such as X-rays, digital photography, and microscopy have been utilized.
However, it is still very difficult to view the writings on the papyri. The main problem is that the ink and the papyri are physically similar, as the Romans used a carbon-based ink made from smoke residues. In other words, it is not easy to differentiate the writings from the carbonized papyri.
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
There are certain places on Earth in which nature is imbued with the supernatural. Over the ages, human beings attach mythological stories to these places of mystery; one such place is located at the ancient Roman resort of Baiae.
Baiae is located in the Southern Italian region of Campania. Situated on the Bay of Naples, Baiae was a seaside resort for the wealthy inhabitants of Rome. Consequently, Baiae became notorious for the hedonistic lifestyle of its patrons. Over the centuries, however, local volcanic activity has caused much of the ancient resort to be submerged underwater. Although one could view the Roman ruins in the Baiae Archaeological Park, one would be required to take an underwater tour to fully comprehend the splendour of Baiae. Yet, Baiae was not merely a getaway for Rome’s super-rich. The hot springs that attracted Baiae’s patrons also gave it a mythical attachment.
In 1932, the entrance to a hitherto unknown antrum (chamber) was discovered by an Italian archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri. As Maiuri and his team did not continue with their exploration after penetrating the tunnel for a couple of feet, the mystery of the antrum was left alone. It was only in the 1960s that the antrum gained attention again. This time, it was a British amateur archaeologist, Robert Paget, who explored the antrum. Along with an American colleague, Keith Jones, and a small group of volunteers, Paget began a decade-long excavation of the antrum. What he discovered was a complex system of tunnels.
Based on his findings, Paget speculated that this was the legendary ‘Cave of the Sibyl’ that was described by ancient authors. The Cumaean Sibyl, meaning the prophetess, is said to be a woman named Amalthaea who lived in a cave in the Phlegraean Fields, the area where the tunnel was found. According to legend, she had the power of prophesy, and scribbled the future on oak leaves scattered at the entrance of her cave.
During the reign of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the mythic kings of Rome, the Sibyl is said to have offered the king nine books/scrolls of prophesy for an extremely steep price. The king refused her offer, and the Sibyl left. When she returned, the Sibyl had six books/scrolls left, as she had three burnt. She offered the king the remaining books/scrolls for the same price, but Tarquin again refused. The Sibyl appeared for a third time with only three books/scrolls left, and the king finally accepted her offer. The books/scrolls were safely stored away in a stone chest in a vault beneath the Temple of Jupiter for hundreds of years after Tarquin’s reign.
These books/scrolls were only consulted when Rome was facing a crisis. The books/scrolls, however, were used as a ‘how-to’ guide for the performance of rituals that were believed to be able to avert the looming catastrophe.
According to Paget, the features of the tunnel system suggest that it was constructed to mimic the visit to the mythical Underworld of the Greeks. For instance, the underground stream of sulphurous water may have represented the River Styx, which the newly dead had to traverse in order to enter Hades. As there was a ‘landing stage’ on one end of the stream, Paget speculated that a boat would have been waiting to ferry visitors across. At the end of the stream was a flight of stairs that led to a hidden sanctuary. Paget reckoned that the sanctuary would have housed someone posing as the Cumaean Sibyl.
Along with other observations, Paget supposes that the tunnel system served a ritual purpose for the ancient Romans. Nevertheless, this interpretation is debatable.
Furthermore, there are numerous questions yet to be answered. For instance, no one knows for certain the builder(s) of these tunnels, and the time when they were built. What is certain is that the tunnels will continue to be a mystery until further evidence is found.