Sino-Roman Relations

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! Recently we have traveled into the world of Marco Polo, both the real merchant and the Marco Polo Netflix series.

Because of this we stumbled across a concept that was totally new to us, Sino-Roman Relations. The Roman Empire and the ancient Han Dynasty progressively inched closer in the course of the Roman expansion into the Ancient Near East and simultaneous Chinese military incursions into Central Asia.RomanandHanEmpiresAD1

Who knew this was really something that happened, right? Hearing about this potential connection would make the expansive power of both empires huge!

Sino-Roman Relations were essentially indirect throughout the existence of both empires. However, powerful intermediate empires such as the Parthians and Kushans kept the 2 Eurasian flanking powers permanently apart and mutual awareness remained low and knowledge fuzzy.

Direct trade links between the Mediterranean lands and India had been established in the 1st Century BC. Greek navigators learned to use the regular pattern of the monsoon winds for their trade voyages in the Indian Ocean.

The lively sea trade in Roman times is confirmed by the excavation of large deposits of Roman coins along much of the coast of India. Many trading ports with links to Roman communities have been identified in India and Sri Lanka along the route used by the Roman mission.

The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, including Seres, to the original Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14 AD:

EmperorsEven the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.

Only a few attempts at direct contact are known from records. In 97 BC, the Chinese General Ban Chao unsuccessfully tried to send an envoy to Rome.

General Chao sent a Chinese envoy named Gan Ying, who made his way from the Tarim Basin to Parthia and reached the Persian Gulf. Gan Ying left a detailed account of western countries, although he apparently only reached as far as Mesopotamia.

While he intended to sail to the Roman Empire, he was dejected when told that the dangerous trip could take up to 2 years. Discouraged, he returned home to China bringing much new information on the countries to the west of Chinese-controlled territories.

Gan Ying is thought to have left an account of the Roman Empire which relied on lesser sources, likely sailors in the ports which he visited. The Hou Hanshu locates it in Haixi:

Its territory extends for several thousands of li. They have established postal relays at intervals, which are all plastered and whitewashed. There are pines and cypresses, as well as trees and plants of all kinds. It has more than four hundred walled towns. There are several tens of smaller dependent kingdoms. The walls of the towns are made of stone.Hou Hanshu

The Hou Hanshu gives a positive, if somewhat fanciful, view of Roman governance:

Their kings are not permanent. They select and appoint the most worthy man. If there are unexpected calamities in the kingdom, such as frequent extraordinary winds or rains, he is unceremoniously rejected and replaced. The one who has been dismissed quietly accepts his demotion, and is not angry. The people of this country are honest. They resemble the Chinese, and that is why the country is called Da Qin. The soil produced lots of gold, silver, and rare jewels, including the jewel which shines at night … they sew embroidered tissues with gold threads to form tapestries and damask of many colors, and make a gold-painted cloth, and a “cloth washed-in-the-fire” (asbestos).

Hou Hanshu

The report described Rome correctly as the main economic power at the western end of Eurasia:

It is from this country that all the various marvelous and rare objects of foreign states come.

Hou Hanshu

The author of the Hou Hanshu, Fan Ye, summed up:

In the ninth year [97 BC], Ban Chao sent his Senior Clerk Gan Ying, who probed as far as the Western Sea, and then returned. Former generations never reached these regions. The Shanjing gives no details on them. Undoubtedly he prepared a report on their customs and investigated their precious and unusual [products]. After this, distant kingdoms [such as] Mengqi and Doule all came to submit, and sent envoys offering tribute.

Several alleged Roman emissaries to China were recorded by ancient Chinese historians. The earliest recorded, supposedly from either the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius or the later Emperor Marcus Aurelius, arrived in 166 road

Emperor Antoninus Pius died in AD 161, leaving the Empire to his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius. The Roman mission came from the south, probably by sea, entering China by the frontier of Rinan or Tonkin.

This was the earliest group of people claiming to be an ambassadorial mission of Romans to China was recorded in 166 AD by the Hou Hanshu. The embassy came to Emperor Huan of Han China from Andun, King of Da Qin.

It brought presents of rhinoceros horns, ivory, and tortoise shell, probably acquired in Southern Asia. The text specifically states that it was the primary time there had been direct contact between the 2 countries.

The indirect exchange of goods on the land, the so-called Silk Road, and sea routes included Chinese silk and Roman glassware and high-quality cloth.

In classical sources, the problem of identifying references to ancient China is exacerbated by the interpretation of the Latin term Seres. This meaning fluctuated and could refer to a number of Asian people in a wide arc from India over Central Asia to China.Da Qin

In Chinese records, the Roman Empire came to be known as Da Qin, apparently thought to be a sort of counter-China at the other end of the world. According to Edwin G. Pulleyblank, the “point that needs to be stressed is that the Chinese conception of Da Qin was confused from the outset with ancient mythological notions about the far west”.

Maës Titianus, an ancient Roman traveler, penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world. During a lull in the sporadic Roman struggles with Parthia, end of the 1st Century or early 2nd Century AD, his party reached the famous Stone Tower.

One theory states this was Tashkurgan, in the Pamirs. According to other writers, the Stone Tower must have been located in the Alai Valley, west of Kashgar.

While the existence of China was clearly known to Roman cartographers, their understanding of it was rather murkier. Ptolemy‘s 2nd Century geography separates the Serica at the end of the overland Silk Road from the land of the Qin reached by sea.romanchina222

The Sinae are placed on the northern shore of the Great Gulf (Magnus Sinus) east of the Golden Peninsula. Their chief port of Cattigara seems to have been in the lower Mekong Delta.

The Great Gulf served as a combined Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, as Marinus and Ptolemy’s belief that the Indian Ocean was an inland sea caused them to bend the Cambodian coast south beyond the equator before turning west to join southern Libya.

The Liangshu records the arrival in 226 AD of a merchant from the Roman Empire at Jiaozhi. The Prefect of Jiaozhi sent him to Sun Quan, who asked him for a report on his native country and its people. An expedition was mounted to return the merchant along with 10 female and 10 male “blackish colored dwarfs” he had requested as a curiosity and a Chinese officer who died en route.

Roman GlasswareAn account appears about presents sent in the early 3rd Century by the Roman Emperor to Cao Rui of the Kingdom of Wei in Northern China. The presents consisted of articles of glass in a variety of colors.

While several Roman Emperors ruled during this time, the embassy may have been sent by Severus Alexander. This would be most logical since his successors reigned briefly and were busy with civil wars.

Another embassy from Da Qin is recorded in the year AD 284, as bringing presents to the Chinese empire. This embassy presumably was sent by the Emperor Carus, whose short reign was occupied by war with Persia.

Chinese annals record other contacts with merchants from Fu-lin, the new name used to designate the Byzantine Empire taking place in 643 AD during the reign of Constans II. Other contacts are reported taking place in AD 667, 701 and perhaps 719, sometimes through Central Asian intermediaries. Still other contacts are recorded by the Chinese in the 11th Century.

High-quality glass from Roman manufactures in Alexandria and Syria was exported to many parts of Asia, including Han China. Further Roman luxury items which were greatly esteemed by the Chinese were gold-embroidered rugs, gold-colored cloth, asbestos cloth and sea silk.Trades

Trade with the Roman Empire, confirmed by the Roman craze for silk, started in the 1st Century BC. Although the Romans knew of wild silk harvested on coa vestis, they did not at originally make the connection with silk which was also produced in the Pamir Sarikol kingdom.

There were few direct trade contacts between Romans and Han Chinese, as the rivaling Parthians and Kushans were each jealously protecting their lucrative role as trade intermediaries.

Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, wrote about the large value of the trade between Rome and Eastern countries:

“By the lowest reckoning, India, Seres and the Arabian peninsula take from our Empire 100 millions of sesterces every year: that is how much our luxuries and women cost us.”

—Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia 12.84.

The Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral:

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes … Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.

Seneca the Elder c. 3 BC–65 AD, Excerpta Controversiae 2.7

A maritime route opened up with the Chinese-controlled Jiaozhi and the Khmer kingdom of Funan by the 2nd Century, if not earlier. Jiaozhi was proposed by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 to have been the port known to the geographer Ptolemy and the Romans as Cattigara.Ptolemy Map

Richthofen’s view was widely accepted until archaeology at Óc Eo in the Mekong Delta suggested that site may have been its location. At the formerly coastal site of Óc Eo, Roman coins were among the vestiges of long-distance trade discovered by the French archaeologist Louis Malleret in the 1940s.

The trade connection extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea.

The historian Homer H. Dubs speculated in 1941 that Roman prisoners of war who were transferred to the Parthian eastern border might have later clashed with Han troops there.

After losing at the Battle of Carrhae in 54 BC, an estimated 10,000 Roman prisoners were displaced by the Parthians to Margiana to man the frontier. Sometime later the nomadic Xiongnu chief Zhizhi established a state further east in the Talas Valley.Battle of Carrhae

Taking up these 2 strands, Dubs points to a Chinese account by Ban Gu of about “a hundred men” under the command of Zhizhi who fought in a so-called “fish-scale formation” to defend Zhizhi’s wooden-palisade fortress against Han forces, in the Battle of Zhizhi in 36 BC.

Dubs claimed that this might have been the Roman testudo formation and that these men, who were captured by the Chinese, founded the village of Liqian.

However, Dubs’ synthesis of Roman and Chinese sources has not found acceptance among modern historians on the grounds of being highly speculative and reaching to too many conclusions. Although DNA testing in 2005 confirmed a predominantly “Caucasian origin” of a few inhabitants of Liqian, this influx of Western genes could be explained just as well by transethnic marriages with other peoples along the Silk Road.

A much more comprehensive DNA analysis of more than 200 male residents of the village in 2007 showed a close genetic relation to the Han Chinese populace and a great deviation from the Western Eurasian gene pool.Sino-Roman Descent

The researchers conclude that the people of Liqian are probably of Han Chinese origin. Moreover, the area lacks clear archaeological evidence of a Roman presence.

A new hypothesis from 2011 by Christopher Anthony Matthew from the Australian Catholic University suggests that these strange warriors were no Roman legionaries with their testudo formation, but maybe GreekMacedonian descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, that still fought as hoplites in the phalanx formation.

So there is proof of trade happening between the Roman and Chinese Empires. Whether or not emissaries actually reached the rulers of said powers is debatable.romanlegion11

What is not in question is that both Rome and China controlled a vast amount of land, various ethnic groups and dominated their respective region for thousands of years. Not too many others can say that.

We hope you enjoyed learning about Sino-Roman Relations and will come back to join us on another adventure soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Hill, John E. (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, First to Second Centuries CE. BookSurge. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.

Pulleyblank, Edwin G. The Roman Empire as Known to Han China, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 1 (1999). pp. 71–79.

Schoff, Wilfred H. The Eastern Iron Trade of the Roman Empire, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915). pp. 224–239.

Stein, Aurel M. (1907), Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan. 2 vols. pp. 44–45. M. Aurel Stein. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Londinium – Excavating London’s Past

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! At the start of the month we took a journey back to explore Londinium – The Beginnings of Britain’s Modern Capital.

Today we are going to conclude that trip. We are returning to modern-day London to see how Londinium was excavated.Aerial View of Roman London

We already know modern London was founded in 47 AD by Emperor Claudius and his Roman troops as Londinium. The Romans spotted the potential of the boggy ground on the River Thames, and the rest is history.

The 1st extensive archaeological review of the Roman city was done in the 17th Century after the Great Fire of 1666Christopher Wren‘s renovation of St Paul’s on Ludgate Hill found no evidence supporting Camden‘s contention that it had been built over a Roman temple to the goddess Diana.

The extensive rebuilding of London in the 19th Century, and following the German Blitz in World War II, allowed for large parts of old London to be recorded and preserved while modern updates were made. The construction of the London Coal Exchange led to the discovery of the Roman house at Billingsgate in 1848.Billingsgate_roman_house

In the 1860s, excavations by General Rivers uncovered a large number of human skulls and almost no other bones in the bed of the Walbrook. The discovery recalls a passage in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae where Asclepiodotus besieged the last remnants of the usurper Allectus‘s army at “Londonia”.

Having battered the town’s walls with siege engines constructed by allied Britons, Asclepiodotus accepted the commander’s surrender only to have the Venedotians rush upon them. The prisoners were then ritually decapitated with their heads thrown into the river “Gallemborne”.

Asclepiodotus’s siege was an actual event that occurred in AD 296, but further skull finds beneath the 3rd Century wall place at least some of the slaughter before its construction. This leads most modern scholars to attribute them to Boudica‘s forces.

In 1947, the city’s northwest fortress of the city garrison was discovered. In 1954, excavations of what was thought to have been an early church instead revealed the London Mithraeum, which was relocated to permit building over its original site.

Archaeologists began the 1st intensive excavation of the waterfront sites of Roman London in the 1970s. What was not found during this time has been built over making it very difficult to study or discover anything new.Ruins_of_the_Mithras_Temple

Another phase of archaeological work followed the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in 1986, which led to extensive new construction in the City’s financial district. From 1991, many excavations were undertaken by the Museum of London‘s Archaeology Service, although it was spun off into the separately-run MOLA in 2011.

Major finds from Roman London, including mosaics, wall fragments, and old buildings were formerly housed inthe London and Guildhall Museums. These merged after 1965 into the present Museum of London near the Barbican Centre.

Museum of London Docklands, a separate branch dealing with the history of London’s ports, opened on the Isle of Dogs in 2003. Other finds from Roman London continue to be held by the British Museum.

Much of the surviving wall is medieval, but Roman-era stretches are visible near Tower Hill Station, in a hotel courtyard at 8–10 Coopers Row, and in St Alphege Gardens off Wood Street. A section of the river wall is visible inside the Tower.St_alphage_church

Parts of the amphitheatre are on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery. The southwestern tower of the Roman fort northwest of town can still be seen at Noble Street.

Occasionally, Roman sites are incorporated into the foundations of new buildings for future study, but these are not generally available to the public.

Second Century roofing tiles have been found marked by the Procurator (Publican of the Province of Britain at Londinium). The remains of a Governor‘s palace and tombstones belonging to his staff have also been discovered.London_praetorium

The city was well defended and armed, with a new military camp erected at the beginning of the 2nd Century, despite being far from any frontier. Notwithstanding some corruption to the text, the list of Bishops for the 314 Council of Arles indicates that either Restitutus or Adelphius came from Londinium.

The city seems to have been the seat of the Dioecēsis Vicarius plus a Provincial Governor (Praesidem Prouinciae) following the Diocletian Reforms around the year AD 300. It had been renamed Augusta, a common epithet of provincial capitals, by AD 368.

Prior to the arrival of the Romanae Legiones, the area was almost certainly lightly rolling open countryside traversed by numerous streams which are now underground. No major Celtic settlement has been found at the site, but the city’s Latin name now seems to have derived from a Brittonic name. Artifacts have been found showing that the hills of the London were frequented if not inhabited by small villages.

CastraThe remains of a massive pier base for Londinium’s bridge were found in 1981 close by the modern London Bridge. Some Claudian-era castra have been discovered, but archaeological excavations undertaken since the 1970s by the Department of Urban Archaeology at the Museum of London have suggested the early settlement was largely the product of private enterprise.

A wooden drain by the side of the main Via excavated at No 1 Poultry has been dated by dendrochronology to AD 47. This is likely to be the actual foundation date.

A large building discovered near Cannon Street Station has had its foundation dated to this era and is assumed to have been the Praetorium. It boasted a garden, pools, and several large halls, some of which were decorated with mosaic floors.

It was located on the east bank of the now-covered River Walbrook  near its entrance to the Thames. Part of the structure, perhaps a portion of the main entrance, is speculated to be the origin of the London Stone.

Another site dating to this era is the Thermae at Huggin Hill, which remained in use prior to its demolition around the year 200 AD. Brothels were legal but taxed. Go figure, right?thermae

Expansion of the flourishing port continued into the 3rd Century. Scraps of armor, leather straps, and military stamps on building timbers suggest that the site was constructed by the city’s Legionarii. Major imports included fine pottery, jewelry, and wine.

Only 2 large warehouses are known, implying that Londinium functioned as a bustling trade center rather than a supply depot and distribution center like Ostia near Rome. The end of imperial expansion in Britain after Hadrian‘s decision to build his wall may have also damaged the city’s economy.

Although Londinium remained important for the rest of the Roman period, it appears never to have recovered fully from this slump, as archaeologists have found that much of the former city’s area was covered after this date with dark earth, which remained undisturbed for centuries.

Sometime between 190 and 225 AD, the Romans built the London Wall, a defensive ragstone wall around the landward side of the city. Along with Hadrian’s Wall and the road network, the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain.London Wall at Cooper's Row

The wall was originally about 3 mi long, 20 ft high, and 8 ft 2 in thick. Its dry moat (fossa) was about 6 ft 7 in deep and 9.8–16.4 ft wide.

In the 19th Century, London Wall’s length was estimated from the Tower west to Ludgate at about 1 mi and its breadth from the northern wall to the north to the north bank of the Thames at around half that.

In addition to small pedestrian postern gates like near Tower Hill, it had 4 main gates: Bishopsgate, Aldgate, Newgate and Ludgate.

Bishopsgate and Aldgate in the northeast were at the roads which lead to Eboracum and to Camulodunum. Newgate and Ludgate in the west were along at the road which divided for travel to Viroconium and to Calleva, and at another road which ran along the Thames to the city’s main cemetery and the old ford at Westminster.

CripplegateThe wall partially utilized the Army’s existing fort, strengthening its outer wall with a 2nd course of stone to match the rest of the course. The fort had 2 gates of its own: Cripplegate and Aldersgate.

Cripplegate was to the north, but was not along major roads. Aldersgate was eventually added, perhaps to replace the west gate of the fort.

The names of all these gates are medieval, as they continued to be occasionally refurbished and replaced until their demolition in the 17th and 18th Centuries to permit widening the roads. The wall initially left the riverbank undefended, but this was corrected in the 3rd Century.

AlbinusAlthough the exact reason for the wall’s construction is unknown, some historians have connected it with the Pictish invasion of the 180s. Others link it with Clodius Albinus, the British Governor who attempted to usurp Septimius Severus in the 190s. The wall survived another 1,600 years and still roughly defines the City of London’s perimeter.

The London Mithraeum was rediscovered in 1954 dates from around AD 240, when it was erected on the east bank at the head of navigation on the now-covered River Walbrook about 660 ft from the Thames. From about 255 onwards, raiding by Saxon pirates led to the construction of a riverside wall as well.

This wall ran roughly along the course of present-day Thames Street, which then roughly formed the shoreline. Large collapsed sections of this wall were excavated at Blackfriars and the Tower in the 1970s.Ruins

Following the revolt of Carausius, the Diocletian Reforms saw the British administration restructured. Londinium is universally supposed to have been the capital of a province.

It remains unclear where the new provinces were, whether there were initially 3 or 4 in total, and whether Valentia represented a 5th province or a renaming of an older one. In the 12th Century, Gerald of Wales listed “Londonia” as the capital of Flavia Caesariensis, having had Britannia Prima and Secunda severed from the territory of Britannia Superior.

Modern scholars more often list Londinium as the capital of Maxima Caesariensis on the assumption that the presence of the Diocesan Vicar in London would have required its Provincial Governor to outrank the others.

A list of the 16 Archbishops of London was recorded by Jocelyne of Furness in the 12th Century, claiming the city’s Christian community was founded in the 2nd Century under the legendary King Lucius and his missionary Saints Fagan, Deruvian, Elvanus and Medwin.

None of that is considered credible by modern historians but, although the surviving text is problematic, either Bishop Restitutus or Adelphius at the 314 Council of Arles seems to have come from Londinium. The location of Londinium’s original cathedral is uncertain.

The present structure of St Peter upon Cornhill was designed by Christopher Wren following the Great Fire in 1666. It stands upon the highest point in the area of old Londinium and medieval legends tied it to the city’s earliest Christian community.

In 1995, however, a large and ornate 4th Century building on Tower Hill was discovered, built sometime between 350 and 400 AD.

It seems to have mimicked St Ambrose’s Cathedral in the Imperial Capital at Milan on a still-larger scale. It was about 330 ft long by about 160 ft wide.Ambrose Cathedral

Excavations by David Sankey of MOLAS established it was constructed out of stone taken from other buildings, including a veneer of black marble. It was probably dedicated to St Paul.

Archaeologists have found evidence that a small number of wealthy families continued to maintain a Roman lifestyle until the middle of the 5th Century. They appear to have inhabited villas in the southeastern corner of the city.

Medieval accounts state that the invasions that established Anglo-Saxon England (the Adventus Saxonum) did not begin in earnest until sometime in the 440s and 450s. Bede recorded that the Britons fled to Londinium in terror after their defeat at the Battle of Crecganford, but nothing further is said.late-roman-infantry-in-battle

Many ruins remain buried beneath London, although understanding them can be difficult. Owing to London’s own geology of a deep bed of brickearth with sand and gravel over clay, Roman gravel roads can only be identified as such if they were repeatedly relayered or if the spans of gravel can be traced across several sites.

The minimal remains from wooden structures are easy to miss and stone buildings may leave foundations. As with the great forum, most structures were often dismantled for stone during the Middle Ages and early modern period.

Living in a suburb in the New World makes it hard to know, or feel, a sense of historical pride that has spanned over a millennium and a half. With the roots of an ancient empire beneath their feet, the people of London should be amazed, grateful and proud of what was accomplished so long

We hope you enjoyed the concluding adventure in London’s past. We apologize for not having a TARDIS like Doctor Who to do some proper time-traveling, but maybe in the future.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Billings, Malcolm (1994), London: a companion to its history and archaeology, ISBN 1-85626-153-0.

Brigham, Trevor. 1998. “The Port of Roman London.” In Roman London Recent Archeological Work, edited by B. Watson, 23–34.

Hall, Jenny, and Ralph Merrifield. Roman London. London: HMSO Publications, 1986.

Inwood, Stephen. A History of London (1998) ISBN 0-333-67153-8.

John Wacher: The Towns of Roman Britain, London/New York 1997, p. 88–111. ISBN 0-415-17041-9.

Milne, Gustav. The Port of Roman London. London: B.T. Batsford, 1985.

Mount, Harry. “What the Romans did for us in old Londinium”. 23 Sept 2014.

Marco Polo – Passing the Boundaries of the Roman Empire

Ahoy and welcome back to Rome Across Europe! About a week ago we previewed the Netflix original series, Marco Polo.

Today we have something special in store for you. We are starting in Italy and blowing past the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Where are we going? We are heading east into Asia, specifically the Mongolian Empire, with the help of the real Marco Polo.MP

Marco Polo was an Italian merchant traveler/explorer whose treks are recorded in Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World or The Travels of Marco Polo) c. 1300. This book introduced many Europeans to Central Asia and China.

Marco Polo was born 15 September 1254 AD in Venice, Italy. His house stood, perhaps, in the former Contrada of San Giovanni Crisostomo.

His father, Niccolò Polo, was a merchant who traded with the Near East. The patriarch Polo became wealthy and achieved great prestige for him and his family. Niccolò and his brother Maffeo set off on a trading voyage before Marco’s birth.marco polo house

In 1260, Niccolò and Maffeo, while residing in Constantinople, foresaw a political change. They liquidated their assets into jewels and moved away.polo_constantinopla

Their decision to leave Constantinople proved timely. In 1261 Michael VIII Palaiologos, ruler of the Empire of Nicaea, took Constantinople, promptly burned the Venetian quarter and re-established the Eastern Roman Empire.

Captured Venetian citizens were blinded, while many of those who managed to escape perished aboard overloaded refugee ships fleeing to other Venetian colonies in the Aegean Sea.

Marco’s mother died while his father was away, leaving an aunt and uncle to raise him. He received the usual education of a young gentleman of his time.

Marco learned much of the classical authors, understood the texts of the Bible, and knew the basic theology of the Latin Church. He had a sound knowledge of commercial French as well as Italian.

Polo also learned mercantile subjects including foreign currency, appraising and the handling of cargo ships. From his later history we can be sure of his interest in natural resources, in the ways of people, as well as strange and interesting plants and animals.

KKAccording to The Travels of Marco Polo, the Polo Brothers passed through much of Asia, and met with Kublai Khan, a Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan Dynasty.

Marco Polo was only 6 years old when his father and uncle set out eastward on their first trip to Cathay (China). In 1269, Niccolò and Maffeo returned to their families in Venice, meeting 15-year old Marco for the initial time.

Marco remained in Venice with his father and uncle for the next 2 years. At the end of year 1271, receiving letters and valuable gifts for the Great Khan from the new Pope Gregory X, the Polos once more set out from Venice on their journey to the East.

They took with them 17-year old Marco Polo and 2 friars. The 2 friars hastily turned back after reaching a war zone, but the Polos carried on.

The Polo trio passed through Armenia, Persia, and Afghanistan, over the Pamir Mountains, and all along the Silk Road to China. This began the series of adventures that Marco later documented in his book.

An authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book does not and cannot exist, for the early manuscripts differ significantly. The published editions of his book rely on single manuscripts, blend multiple versions together or add notes to clarify.

Avoiding traveling the same route the Polos did 10 years ago, they made a wide swing to the north, arriving first in southern Caucasus and the Kingdom of Georgia. Then they journeyed along the regions parallel to the western shores of the Caspian Sea, reaching Tabriz and made their way south to Hormuz on the Persian Gulf.Ship

A sea route from Hormuz to the Chinese port was intended, however, finding the ships “wretched affairs….only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut”, they decided to go overland to Cathay and continued eastwards.

From Homurz to Kerman, passing Herat and Balkh, they arrived in Badakhshan where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found themselves on “the highest place in the world, the Pamirs”, with its name appeared in the history for the initial time.

Passing through Yarkand, Hotan, Cherchen and Lop Nor, the Polos skirted around the Taklamakan Desert on the southern route. Marco’s keen eye picked out the most notable peculiarities of each.Map

At Yarkand, he described that the locals were extremely prone to goiter, which Marco blamed on the local drinking water. In the rivers of Pem province were found “stones called jasper and chalcedony in plenty” (jade). Cherchen was also a noted jade source.

It is the Gobi Desert where Marco Polo left us the feeling of awe for the vastness of desert and its effects on those hardy enough to penetrate it.

“This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.”

Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco’s account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol’s reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow, in the Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year.

Young Marco PoloMarco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja. He added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polos and presented to the Pope.

The fact that Marco was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan’s life and empire.

He described the ceremonial of a Great Khan’s funeral, and anyone unfortunate enough to encounter the funeral cortege was put to death to serve their lord in the next world.

He told of life on the steppes, of the felt-covered yurt drawn by oxen and camels, and of the household customs. What impressed Marco most was the way in which the women got on with the lion’s share of the work.Yurt

“The men do not bother themselves about anything but hunting and warfare and falconry.” In terms of marriage, Marco described that the Mongols practiced polygamy.

A Mongol man could take as many wives as he liked. On the death of the head of the house the eldest son married his father’s wives, but not his own mother. A man could also take on his brother’s wives if they were widowed.

Marco rounded off his account of Mongol’s home life by mentioning that alcoholic standby koumiss: “They drink mare‘s milk subjected to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink.”

Marco’s account of the Mongol’s life is particularly interesting when compared to the tale of many wonders of Chinese civilization which he was soon to see for himself. Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from.

It is said that Khan had had seeds of steppe grass sown in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace so that he could always be reminded of his Mongol homeland. During his long stay in Cathay, Marco had many conversations with Kublai.

Polo came to appreciate the Great Khan’s awareness of his Mongol origins. The detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways.

Finally the long journey was nearly over and the Great Khan had been told of their approach. He sent out a royal escort to bring the travelers to his presence.

In May 1275 the Polos arrived to the summer residence and original capital of Kublai Khan at Shang-tu. By then it had been almost 4 years since they left Venice and they had traveled total of 5,600 miles on the journey.Meeting KK

Marco recalled it in detail on the greatest moment when he first met the Great Khan:

“They knelt before him and made obeisance with the utmost humility. The Great Khan bade them rise and received them honorably and entertained them with good cheer. He asked many questions about their condition and how they fared after their departure. The brothers assured him that they had indeed fared well, since they found him well and flourishing. Then they presented the privileges and letters which the Pope had sent, with which he was greatly pleased, and handed over the holy oil, which he received with joy and prized very hightly. When the Great Khan saw Marco, who was then a young stripling, he asked who he was. ‘Sir’ said Messer Niccolo, ‘he is my son and your liege man.’ ‘He is heartly welcome,’ said the Khan. What need to make a long story of it? Great indeed were the mirth and merry-making with which the Great khan and all his Court welcomed the arrival of these emissaries. And they were well served and attended to in all their needs. They stayed at Court and had a place of honor above the other barons.”

Marco, a gifted linguist and master of 4 languages, became a favorite with the Khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan’s court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India.

Many places which Marco saw were not seen again by Europeans until last century. Marco went on great length to describe Kublia’s capital, ceremonies, hunting and public assistance, and they were all to be found on a much smaller scale in Europe.KK Hunting Trip

Marco Polo fell in love with the capital, then called Cambaluc or Khanbalig, meaning City of the Khan. He marveled that the palace was “the greatest palace that ever was”.

The walls were covered with gold and silver and the Hall was so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The palace was made of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved.City of the Khan

Aside from asbestos, there were 3 other phenomena which were totally new to Marco and beggared his imagination. They were paper currency, coal and the imperial post.

The idea of paper substituting gold and silver was a total surprise even to the mercantile Polos. Marco attributed the success of paper money to Kublai stature as a ruler.

“With these pieces of paper they can buy anything and pay for anything. And I can tell you that the papers that reckon as ten bezants do not weight one.”

Marco’s expressions of wonder at “stones that burn like logs” show us how ignorant even a man of a leading Mediterranean sea power could be in the 13th century. Coal was by no means unknown in Europe but was new to Marco.

Marco was equally impressed with the efficient communication system in the Mongol world. There were 3 main grades of dispatch, which may be rendered in modern terms as ‘2nd Class’, ‘1st Class’ and ‘On His Imperial Majesty’s Service: Top Priority’.mongol message relay

Second Class messages were carried by foot-runners, who had relay-stations 3 miles apart. This system enabled a message to cover the distance of a normal 10-day journey in 24 hours.

First Class business was conveyed on horseback, with relay-stages of 25 miles. The really important business of Kublai Empire was carried by non-stop dispatch-riders carrying a special tablet. At each post-house the messenger would sound his horn which would have a ready-saddled fresh horse for the messenger to transfer to and gallop straight off. Marco affirmed that those courier horsemen could travel up to 300 miles a day.

Marco traveled a great deal in China and was amazed with China’s enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. China under the Yuan Dynasty (The Mongol Empire) was a huge empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe.Fantastic Things

He reported that iron manufacture was around 125,000 tons a year (a level not reached in Europe before the 18th Century) and salt production was on a prodigious scale: 30,000 tons a year in a single province alone.

A canal-based transportation system linked China’s huge cities and markets in a vast internal communication network in which paper money and credit facilities were highly developed. The citizens could purchase paperback books with paper money, eat rice from fine porcelain bowls, wear silk garments and live in a prosperous city. This was something that no European town could match.

Kublai Khan appointed Marco Polo as an official of the Privy Council in 1277 AD. For 3 years he was a Tax Inspector in Yanzhou, a city on the Grand Canal.

Marco also visited Karakorum and part of Siberia. Meanwhile his father and uncle took part in the assault on the town of Siang Yang Fou, for which they designed and constructed siege engines.Battle

Polo frequently visited Hangzhou for it had beautiful lakes and many canals, like his hometown of Venice. How could Marco not fall in love with it?

The Polos stayed in Khan’s Court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move since they feared that if the 70-year old Kublai Khan was to die, they might not be able to get their considerable fortune out of the country.

Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escorted the Mongol Princess Kokachin to marry Persian Prince Arghun.

Marco did not provide full account of his long journey home. The sea journey took 2 years during which 600 passengers and crewed died.

Tartar CostumeMarco did not give much clue as to what went wrong on the trip, but there are many theories. This dreadful sea voyage passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, and finally docked at Hormuz.

There they learned that Arghun had died 2 years previously so instead the princess married his son, Prince Ghazan. In Persia they also learned of the death of Kublai Khan.

However his protection outlived him, for it was only by showing his golden tablet of authority that they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior. Marco admitted that the passports of golden tablets were powerful:

From Trebizond on the Black Sea coast they went by sea, by way of Constantinople, to Venice, arriving home in the winter of 1295.Travels

Twenty-four years later they returned to Venice, in 1295 AD, with many riches and treasures. The trio had travelled almost 15,000 miles.

Marco converted his fortune to gemstones when he got home to Venice. At this time, Venice was at war with the Republic of Genoa.

Polo armed a galley equipped with a trebuchet to join the war. Marco was caught by Genoans in a skirmish in 1296, off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta.

Polo related his memoirs orally to Rustichello da Pisa over the several months both were prisoners of the Genova Republic. Rustichello wrote Devisement du Monde in Langues d’Oil, a lingua franca of Crusaders and western merchants in the Orient. The idea probably was to create a handbook for merchants, essentially a text on weights, measures and distances.Marco Polo in prison

The book soon spread throughout Europe in manuscript form. It depicts the Polo’s’ journeys throughout Asia, including China, India, and Japan.

Polo was finally released from captivity in August 1299, and returned home to Venice. It was here that his father and uncle now owned a large house in the zone named contrada San Giovanni Crisostomo.

The company continued its activities and Marco soon became a wealthy merchant. Polo financed other expeditions, but never left Venice again.

MP2In 1300, he married Donata Badoer, the daughter of merchant Vitale Badoer. They had 3 daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.

In 1323, Polo was confined to bed due to illness. On 8 January 1324, despite physicians’ efforts to treat him, Polo was on his deathbed.

To write and certify the will, his family requested Giovanni Giustiniani, a priest of San Procolo. His wife and 3 daughters were appointed by him as co-executrices.

The church was entitled by law to a portion of his estate. Polo approved of this and ordered that a further sum be paid to the convent of San Lorenzo, the place where he wished to be buried.

Marco also set free a “Tartar slave” who may have accompanied him from Asia.

The rest of his assets, including several properties, were divided up among individuals, religious institutions, and every guild and fraternity to which he belonged.

He also wrote-off multiple debts including 300 lire that his sister-in-law owed him, and others for the convent of San Giovanni, San Paolo of the Order of Preachers, and a cleric named Friar Benvenuto.

He ordered 220 soldi be paid to Giovanni Giustiniani for his work as a notary and his prayers. The will, which was not signed by Polo, but was validated by the then relevant signum manus rule, by which the testator only had to touch the document to make it abide to the rule of law.Marco_Polo_portrait

The will was dated 9 January 1324 AD. Due to the Venetian law stating that the day ends at sunset, the exact date of Marco Polo’s death cannot be determined, but it was between the sunsets of January 8 and 9.

Marco Polo’s best achievement is best said with his own words in his own book:

“I believe it was God’s will that we should come back, so that men might know the things that are in the world, since, as we have said in the first chapter of this book, no other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolo Polo, great and noble citizen of the city of Venice.”

Marco Polo was not the first European to reach China, but he was the earliest to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. This book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travelers. There is a substantial literature based on Polo’s writings; he also influenced European cartography, leading to the introduction of the Fra Mauro map.

Before availability of the printing press, discrepancies were inevitably introduced during copying and translation. Approximately 150 manuscript copies in various languages are known to exist.

marco_poloThe 1938 English translation by A.C. Moule and Paul Pelliot is based on a Latin manuscript found in the library of the Cathedral of Toledo in 1932, and is 50% longer than other versions. The popular translation published by Penguin Books in 1958 by R.E. Latham works several texts together to make a readable whole.

The life of Marco Polo was filled with adventure from beginning to end. It may be hard to conceptualize the greatness of his travels in an age where world travel takes less than a day.

Experiencing all he did, Marco Polo was a pioneer in his documentation of it. Today we are able to look back and see how much happened over the duration of his journey.

We will be coming back soon to delve deeper into the narrative of Marco Polo for this article would not do it justice. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Boyle, J. A. (1971). Marco Polo and his Description of the World. History Today. Vol. 21, No. 11.

Hinds, Kathryn (2002). Venice and Its Merchant Empire. New York.

Larner John. Marco Polo and the discovery of the world. Yale University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-300-07971-0. pp. 68–87.

Polo, Marco; Latham, Ronald (translator) (1958). The Travels of Marco Polo. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044057-7.

Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013), p. xix.

Marco Polo was not a swindler – he really did go to ChinaUniversity of Tübingen (Alpha Galileo). 16 April 2012.

Marco Polo and His Travels.

Marco Polo, Il Milione. Adelphi 2001, ISBN 88-459-1032-6. Prefazione di Bertolucci Pizzorusso Valeria, pp. X-XXI.

The Travels of Marco Polo. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex; New York: Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, 1958; rpr. 1982 etc.) ISBN 0140440577.

The Supersizers Eat… Ancient Rome (Part 3)

Hello and welcome back to Rome Across Europe! Last time we viewed Part 2 and learned about some great condiments, along with how the Latin word for course and table is the same (mensa).

Today we are going to delve into the expansion of the Roman diet. This matches up perfectly with the expansion of the Imperium Rōmānum.

Hopefully you noticed Cleopatra was clever, Ptolemaic Egypt was in love with Alexander the Great (based on the dishes served), and Aegyptus was the center of the spice trade for the ancient world.

Thanks for stopping by Rome Across Europe. Next up in this series of Roman cuisine is Part 4.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

Winemaking – Do As The Romans Do

Salve and welcome back to Rome Across Europe! About a month ago we discussed how Romans loved their wine. In fact we explained how wine was The Water of Rome.

Since a new found passion has arisen (I’ve become a Fine Wine Merchandiser in Central Texas) it’s only appropriate to learn more about what was once a staple of the Roman diet. Today we are diving a little deeper into the world of wine by discovering the Roman art of winemaking.pressurage

So grab a glass of your favorite Blanco or Rosso, and let’s find out how the Romans made this delightful and refreshing drink.

From what can best be determined everybody drank, from the rich in lavish villas to soldiers and sailors in provincial inns. For some winemaking was the life’s greatest pleasure.

One tombstone in Tibur, just outside Rome, read: “Flavius Agricola [was] my name.” Friends who read this listen to my advice: Mix wine, then place the garlands around you head, drink deep. And do not deny pretty girls the sweets of love.”

The Romans are thought to have picked up winemaking from the Etruscans and ancient Greeks and it became one of the Empire’s most important trade commodities around the Mediterranean. Roman merchants sold their wine to the farthest-flung corners of the Imperium Rōmānum, from Carthage and Hispania to the lands inhabited by Germanic tribes.

Grape juice became wine quickly because there was no refrigeration or preservatives in ancient times. Roman wine tended to be sweet and highly alcoholic because late season grapes were used.

The process of making wine in Ancient Rome began immediately after the harvest with treading the grapes (often by foot), in a manner similar to the French Pigeage. The grapes were usually crushed by foot by slaves, then the mixture was crushed further by a wine press and a stone weight lowered by a tree trunk.Rome Crush Party

The juice thus expressed was the most highly prized and kept separate from what would later come from pressing the grape. This free-run juice was also believed to have the most beneficial medicinal properties.

The juices flowed down a stem to a waiting pool where it was scooped out and placed in clay pots that held about 105 US gallons. They were then packed with honey, thyme, pepper and other spices.

Workers mixed the brew with broomsticks wrapped in fennel. After 6 days to 3 weeks in a clay fermentation tub the mixture turned into a foamy red liquid with about 12% alcohol. The wine was drinkable for about 10 days before it went bad.

Cato the Elder described the process of pressing as taking place in a special room that included an elevated concrete platform containing a shallow basin with raised curbs. The basin was shaped with gentle slopes that led to a runoff point.Press Design

Horizontally across the basin were long, wooden beams whose front parts were attached by rope to a windlass. The crushed grapes were placed between the beams, with pressure applied by winding down the windlass.

The pressed juice ran down between the beams and collect in the basin. As the construction and use of a wine press was labor-intensive and expensive, its use was generally restricted to large estates, with smaller wineries relying on treading alone to obtain grape juice.

If grape pressing was used, an estate would press the skins 1 to 3 times. Since juice from later pressings would be coarser and more tannic, the 3rd pressing normally made wine of low quality called Lora. After pressing, the grape must was stored in large earthenware jars known as dolia.

With a capacity of up to several thousand liters, these jars were often partially buried into the floors of a barn or warehouse. Fermentation took place in the Dolium, lasting from 2 weeks to a month before the wine was removed and put in amphorae for storage. Small holes drilled into the top allowed the carbon dioxide gas to escape.Storage

To enhance flavor, white wine might age on its lees. Chalk or marble dust was sometimes added to reduce acidity.

Wines were often exposed to high temperatures and “baked,” a process similar to that used to make modern Madeira. To enhance a wine’s sweetness, a portion of the wine must was boiled to concentrate the sugars in the process known as defrutum and then added to the rest of the fermenting batch.

Columella‘s writings suggest that the Romans believed boiling the must acted as a preservative as well. Lead was also sometimes used as a sweetening agent.

As much as 6.6 lb of honey would be added to sufficiently sweeten 3.2 US gallons of wine to Roman tastes. Another technique was to withhold a portion of the sweeter, unfermented vinum mustum and blend it with the finished wine, a method known today as Süssreserve.

As in much of the ancient world, sweet white wine was the most highly regarded style. Pliny the Elder noting that a cup of Falernum would catch fire from a candle flame drawn too close.

Wines were often very alcoholic, and often diluted with warm water. Occasionally wine was even diluted with seawater.

The ability to age was a desirable trait in Roman wines, with mature examples from older vintages. These older vintages would fetch higher prices than that from the current vintage, regardless of its overall quality.ancient roman villa wine farm

Roman law codified the distinction between “old” and “new” as whether wine had aged for at least a year. Falernum was particularly valued for its aging ability, said to need at least 10 years to mature but being at its best between 15 and 20 years. The white wine from Sorrento was said to need at least 25 years.

In the manner of Greek wine, Roman wine was often flavored with herbs and spices similar to modern Vermouth and mulled wine. It was sometimes stored in resin-coated containers, thus giving it a flavor similar to modern Retsina.

Romans were particularly interested in the aroma of wine and experimented with various methods of enhancing a wine’s bouquet. One technique that gained some usage in southern Gallia was planting herbs such as lavender and thyme in the vineyards, believing that their flavors would pass through the ground and into the grapes.

Modern-day wines from the Rhône are often characterized by using the aroma descriptors of lavender and thyme, presumably as a reflection of the grape varieties used and the terroir. Another widespread practice was the storage of amphorae in a smoke chamber called a Fumarium to add smokiness to a wine’s flavor.Wine-Smoking Room at Glanum, near St Remy

Estate owners valued their vineyards and inscribed tributes such as “nectar-sweet juices” and “the gift of Bacchus” on their wine presses. Innkeepers inscribed wine lists and prices on the wall of their facilities.

The term wine spanned a broad spectrum of wine-based beverages. The quality of said wine depended on the amount of pure grape juice used and how diluted the wine was when served.

The finest wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was Posca, a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar.Tasting

Not quite as acidic as vinegar, Posca still retained some of the aromas and texture of wine. It was the preferred wine for the rations of Roman soldiers due to its low alcohol levels. Posca‘s use as soldiers’ rations was codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis and amounted to around a quarter US gal per day.

Still lower in quality was Lora. It was made by soaking the pomace of twice pressed grape skins in water for a day, and then pressing a 3rd time. Cato and Varro recommended Lora for their slaves.

Both Posca and Lora were the most commonly available wine for the common Roman populace. Since white wine grapes would have been reserved for the upper class, the general public probably would have been for the most part red wines.

Pliny described 5 sub-varieties of a grape that produced distinct wines, declaring it to be native to the Italian peninsula. While he claimed that only Democritus knew of every grape variety that existed, he endeavored to speak with authority on the grapes he believed were the only ones worthy of consideration.

Pliny described Nomentan as the 2nd-best wine-producing grape, followed by Apian and its 2 sub-varieties, which were the preferred grape of Etruria. The only other grapes worthy of Pliny’s consideration were Greek varieties, including the Graecula grape used to make Chian wine.grapes

He remarked that the Eugenia had promise, but only if planted in the Colli Albani region. Vine growers were encouraged to experiment with different plantings to find the best for their areas.

In Mas des Tourelles near the provence town of Beaucair in southern France, a group of archaeologists spent $20,000 to reopen the largest winery in Gallia after 1,800 years. Opening in early 1999, Mas des Tourelles sells wine for about $12 a bottle.

In the time of Julius Caesar, the facility produced the equivalent of 100,000 modern-size bottles of wine a day and each bottle sold for about 1 sesterce (about $1.60). The entire region produced well over 7 million US gal a year, enough to fill 2 million clay amphorae for shipment by oxen throughout the Mediterranean.caesar and wine

The Mas des Tourelles wine is brownish red and sweet with a taste of peach and caramel candy but it leaves a nasty hangover. Those who tried it described it as a “curiosity” and said “eat a lot of goat cheese and nuts when you drink it.

Italian historians are using tools once used by the Romans, such as a wooden cross with a lead weight on a piece of string, known colloquially as “the stork”, which was used to check that the holes dug for new vines were the correct depth.Satyrs_vine_press

Instead of using modern twine to bind young vines to poles, they are using strips of cane and twists of wood from broom bushes, as Roman farmers once did.

Without mechanization, pesticides or fertilizers, the ancient Roman wine will be similar to the organic wines that have become so popular in the last decade.

They are using 8 varieties of wine that are thought to have been cultivated by the Romans and will store it in terra cotta pots rather than the wooden barrels that vintners use today.

The varieties, 7 red and 1 white, include little known grapes such as Nerello Mascalese, Visparola, Racinedda and Muscatedda.

The scientists have established a vineyard at Mascali, near Catania in Sicily, using technical know-how gleaned from the writings of the poet Virgil. In the Georgics, Virgil describes Roman viticulture methods including advice on grafting, when to plant vines and the dangers of goats munching through vineyards.Romanwines

The researchers have also drawn on the works of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, the Roman Empire’s best known writer on agriculture.

A former soldier who served as a tribune in Syria in the 1st Century AD, Columella took up farming after leaving the army and wrote a 12-volume study of agriculture called De Re Rustica.

He recommended planting vines 2 paces apart and said they should be tied to wooden stakes about the height of a man.

Daniele Malfitana, Director of the Institute for Archaeological Heritage and Monuments, said: “Step by step, by reading and interpreting the Latin sources, we are learning how the Romans managed their vineyards.

“The scope of the project is twofold – on the one hand to check the feasibility of the Roman techniques, and on the other to understand if this knowledge can be used in modern viticulture.”

The 1st vines were planted in March and the 1st harvest is expected in 4 years. The wine has yet to be given a name and the researchers have not yet decided whether to sell it commercially.Gathering

The principal source of wine for Rome was the area around Pompeii, where vast vineyards were cultivated.

Winemaking could be either quick and dirty or slower and a bit more labor intensive. It all depended upon the quality of the product to be distributed.

Funny how the process in which wine was made long ago by the Romans is coming back into fashion among modern vineyards. As with most popular things, what’s old is new again.

We hope you enjoyed looking behind the curtain at the making of what the ancients considered to be the drink of the gods. Maybe now you’ll have a better understanding or appreciation of that vineyard you admire.vineyard

Perhaps now you may even try wine every now and again. Whatever the case, we strive to make each article enjoyable.

Rome Across Europe is always trying to find new and unique pieces to write about. If you have anything you’d like to have us discuss, please let us know.

Thanks for stopping by. Until next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Fleming, Stuart. VINUM: The Story of Roman Wine. (Glen Mills, PA, Art Flair, 2001).

Gately, Iain (2009). Drink A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Gotham Books. p. 28 – 29. ISBN 9781592404643.

Jellinek, E. M. (1976). “Drinkers and Alcoholics in Ancient Rome”. Journals of Studies on Alcohol 37 (11): 1719–1741.

Phillips A Short History of Wine pp. 35–45 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0-06-621282-0.

Robinson (ed) “The Oxford Companion to Wine” Third Edition pg 652 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0-19-860990-6.

Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 68–74. Simon and Schuster 1989. ISBN 0-671-68702-6.

Fall of The Roman Empire…in the 15th Century

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! Today we are going to take a look at how the Roman Empire lasted till the 15th Century.

Don’t worry. You read that right. You might be thinking, “I thought Rome fell in the 5th Century AD.” And you’d be right, but take a look at the video below.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire (also called Fall of the Roman Empire or Fall of Rome) was the period of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which it lost the power to enforce its rule. Because of this lack of strength its vast territory was divided into numerous successor polities.

The central feature of the decline was the progressive inability of the Roman state to enforce its rule, either through the armed forces or through its civil administration. Modern historians mention factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the Exercitus Romanorum, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, and the efficiency of the civil administration.

Increasing pressure from Barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. The reasons for the collapse were debated at the time.

By 476 AD, when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Invading Barbarians had established their own power on most of the area of the Western Empire.

While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again. But that’s not what happened in the east with the Byzantine Empire.

We hope you enjoyed this thought provoking, and fun, look at when Roman rule truly might have ended. Please stop by soon to check out what we have in store.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

Bucellarius – The Personal Army

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! With so much in the history of Rome from its creation to becoming the Imperium Rōmānum there is just so much to write about (no complaints here).

Something we’ve discovered early on is that a major factor in the inclusion of other lands, the spread of Roman culture, and simply the idea of Rome itself came on the backs of the Exercitus Romanorum. This is why today we are taking a closer look at the Bucellarii (plural of Bucellarius).harold_dead_bayeux_tapestry

Bucellarii is Latin and literally means Biscuit–Eater. This term was given to a unit of soldiers in the late Roman and Byzantine Empire that were not supported by the State.

After the Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century AD, the Roman Empire found itself with no public policing. The administration of peace and justice in the cities became a military matter for Palatinae and Imperial Guards.

On the outskirts of the cities and in the more affluent rural countryside, wealthy landowners maintained peace through specially-hired, private soldiers. Because these soldiers were under the employ of some individual, such as a General or Governor, in essence they became his “Household Troops”.Bucellarii5

Bucellarii were generally quite small, but they could grow to well over several thousand men. This was especially the case during the many civil wars.

Because there was more money dedicated to them by their employer these troops were often better trained and equipped, not to mention motivated, than the regular soldiers of the time. Bucellarii were required to take an oath not only to their private employer, but also to the Emperor, to ensure no conflicts of loyalty.

From the 5th Century on, Roman and Byzantine Armies increasingly came to rely upon Equites Romani as the elite strike force of any Field Army. The Roman Army of the time was now a far cry from that of Augustus Caesar, or even Constantine the Great.

The old Legiones of sword-and-javelin armed Infantry were long gone, or remained in name only. These types of poorly trained soldiers were now garrison troops stationed along the frontiers.

Generals were allowed, perhaps even encouraged as a cost-saving measure to the Imperial Treasury to raise Bucellarii. Since these “Biscuit-Eaters” cost nothing to the Empire the Bucellarii became well integrated into the main Roman Army.Bucellarii4

Now Romans depended upon regiments of Armored Cavalry armed either with bow or spear, or both. The term Bucellarii soon came to be applied indiscriminately to any well-equipped Cavalry.

From this point forth, wars were largely conducted by elite bodies of Cavalry, supported by relatively poor quality Infantry. The Bucellarii were the military elite of their day, fighting battles from the Euphrates to the Atlas Mountains; and from the Sahara to the Alps.

BelisariusIn AD 520 as an effort to reclaim the lost western provinces of Italy and North Africa, General Belisarius was given permission to take his experimental Bandon across the Danube River to raid the territory of the Barbarian Gepids.

This raid was so successful, that he was granted permission to greatly increase the size of this unit to 1,500 strong. Emperor Justinian, while heralding the coming age of Cavalry dominance, had Belisarius employ as many as 7,000 Bucellarii.

In the following years Belisarius was sent to the eastern frontier, where war had broken out against the Sassanid Persians. In the summer of AD 530, Belisarius led the Eastern Roman Army to a stunning victory over a much larger force in the Battle of Dara.Battle of Chalons

During the battle, he used his Bucellarii as a central reserve, counter-attacking every Sassanid attempt to breach the Roman position. Combined with savage Hunnish Foederati, these elite troops proved more than a match for the best of the Sassanid Armored Cavalry.

Unlike most Roman Cavalry of the day, who were either Lancers or Horse-Archers (Hippo-Toxotai), Belisarius trained these men in both roles. Every trooper was armored as a Heavy Cavalryman of the day with helmet, coriaceus, greaves on their shins and vambraces protecting their lower arms.Bucellarii6

All were armed with lance and sword, for use in close-quarter combat. They were also equipped with the powerful Hunnish composite bow, and could use this deadly weapon on the gallop almost as well as the Huns themselves.

Finally, they had a brace of lead-weighted throwing darts (plumbatae) attached to the front of their saddle. Plumbatae were deadly when thrown at close range, further augmenting the fire-power the Bucellarii could bring in a clash.Horseman

Discipline was strictly maintained amongst the Bucellarii and went far to instill an intense loyalty these rough soldiers showed for their commander. Men who robbed, looted, raped or otherwise abused their power over the civilian populations where they campaigned were punished severely, even with death.

A composite warrior, this experimental unit became the nucleus of Belisarius’ Household Regiment of future fame. It also became the model for Byzantine Cavalry for the next 100 years.Bucellarii

Procopius, Secretary on Belisarius’ staff through most of his campaigns, gives us some insight into the equipment and fighting-style of these elite troopers:

“(Cavalry) of the present time go into battle wearing corselets and fitted out with greaves which extend up to the knee. From the right side hang their arrows, from the other the sword. And there are some who have a spear also attached to them and, at the shoulders, a sort of small shield without a grip, such as to cover the region of the face and neck. They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight.”

During the Gothic War (535-554 AD) against the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Bucellarii time and again captured key points and towns. During the First Siege of Rome, the Romans inflicted numerous sharp defeats on Gothic detachments.

Small bands of Bucellarii and other Roman horse-archers ventured out to bait Goths into attacking. In each of these, their long-range archery capability decimated and ultimately routed much larger forces.

The Strategikon of Maurice, written at the end of this period, tells us that much attention was paid to training the horsemen in close order drill, maneuvering over all kinds of terrain. The horsemen were also trained so that individual sub-units could detach from the main body, open up their order and advance as skirmishers.

The skirmishers were trained to do this rapidly and repeatedly, returning to the main body and into close order. This kind of drill created a body of horseman who were immensely flexible tactically and capable of fighting as Light Cavalry, scouts and skirmishers, close-quarter Heavy Cavalry with lance and sword, or to switch roles as the situation dictated.Late Roman

As success followed upon success, Belisarius recruited men from the best of the Persian, Hunnic, Vandal and Gothic warriors taken prisoner in his campaigns. When asked by a Persian emissary why they served their former foe, one of their numbers replied: “We do not serve the Romans; we serve Belisarius. He will make us perfect in the arts of war; and when we return to our people we will be great men.”

During the Siege of Rome, Belisarius’ Household Troops manned a strong point at the Mausoleum of Hadrian. During the vicious street fighting that characterized the Nika Riots, Belisarius led his dismounted troopers against the rioting Blues (Vénetoi) and Greens. In the final confrontation inside the Hippodrome, the dismounted Bucellarii of his Household slaughtered thousands of rioters with bow and swordBucellarii7

Belisarius’ innovative Bucellarii was recruited from men who had multiple skills and from diverse background. Each brought something of value to the whole: Isaurian mountaineers (bold men, hardy and independent, invaluable as guides and scouts in broken terrain), ex-sailors (good with their hands and used to traveling to foreign lands and making friends with strangers), herdsmen of the plains (experienced horsemen and accustomed to skirmish fights on the open plains, as well as to the care and management of horses).

All these contributed to the mix, and could learn from each other. What he refused were old grumblers from other units who thought they knew more than their officers, and would teach the new recruits bad habits.

In the 7th Century, when the military recruitment areas formed the basis for the Theme system, one of the 1st Themata was that of the Boukellariōn, in the area of Paphlagonia and Galatia, with its capital at Ankara.

A new Bucellarian Theme was created which, along with the Optimatoi Theme, was split off from the Opsikion when their size and power was reduced for disloyalty to Emperor Constantine V. In its name Bucellarian Theme kept alive the memory of the elite household guards of Belisarius.byzantine_cavalry_6th_c__ad

What began as an experiment would become a power that the civilized world had never seen before. Since it was so successful others attempted to copy the Bucellarii, as is the case with all great ideas that turn out victorious.

We hope you enjoyed seeing what some Biscuit-Eaters could accomplish. Come back soon to see what we have in store.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!




Vinogradoff, Paul. Foundations of Society (Origins of Feudalism). 1913.

Vexillatio – An Early Special Forces

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! We are glad you decided to stop by.

Whether you are a regular follower or if this is your initial visit, you will know that we are impressed by the Exercitus Romanorum and its Legiones. The Imperium Rōmānum could not have been accomplished without soldiers to expand or protect it.

Having said that, today we are going to discuss yet another part of the Legio Romanus. Join us as we take a look into the Vexillatio!vexillatio2

Vexillatio was a detachment of a Roman Legion formed as a temporary task force created by the Roman Army of the Principate. It was named from the standard carried by a Legion detachment, the Vexillum, which bore the emblem and name of the parent Legion.

Although commonly associated with Legiones, it is likely that Vexillationes included Auxiliaries. The term is found in the singular, referring to a single detachment, but is usually used in the plural to refer to an army made up of picked detachments.

Vexillationes were assembled ad hoc to meet a crisis on Rome’s extensive frontiers, to fight in a civil war, or to undertake an offensive against Rome’s neighbors. They varied in size and composition, but usually consisted of about 1000 Infantry and/or 500 Cavalry.Cavalry

At the beginning of the 3rd Century the Roman Army was around 400,000 strong. That was not large enough to garrison the vast size of the Empire, so most of its soldiers were stationed along the frontiers.

This placed the Empire in a uncertain position when serious threats arose in the interior or along a remote frontier. There was no central reserve and it was rarely possible to take a full Legio, or even a major portion of one, to a troubled area without leaving a dangerous gap in the frontier defenses.Infantry

The only logical solution was to take detachments from different Legions and form temporary task forces to deal with the threat. As soon as the issue was handled these Vexillationes were dissolved, and the detachments returned to their parent Legiones.

Under the DominusVexillatio referred to a unit of Cavalry. From the time of Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, Vexillationes were, once again, the usual Cavalry units found on campaign.

In the 4th Century the Vexhillationes Palatinae and Vexillationes Comitatenses of the Field Armies are thought to have been either 300 or 600 men strong. The Notitia Dignitatum lists 88 Vexillationes.Altar Dedicated by Vexillatio

Other units, such as Infantry Cohortes and Centuriae and Cavalry Alae and Turmae, may have had their own Vexilla. In addition, Vexillationes with their own Vexilla would have designated companies of special troops outside the standard military structure, such as Vexillarii (re-enlisted veterans), who may have served separately from the Cohortes of their ordinary comrades.

Initially, the Vexillatio system worked due to the mobility provided by the Empire’s excellent roads and to the high levels of discipline, cohesion and Esprit de Corps of these units and the Legions from which they came.

However, during a tumultuous time from AD 235 to about 290, known as the Crisis of the Third CenturyVexillationes were shifted so rapidly around that units became hopelessly mixed up and became practically independent.

Legiones that would proclaim a Commander as Emperor could have a Vexillatio in the real Emperor’s Field Army or garrisoned on the frontier. Shockingly enough, this was a major cause of disorganization in the Roman Army.Auxillary

The result came sweeping in with military reforms under Diocletian and Constantine the Great where the basic unit became the size of a single Quingenaria (500 Soldiers) or a pair of Milliaria (1,000 Soldiers) Cohortes instead of the 5,000-man Legio.

As we have seen, the Roman Army was a complex living being that was always adapting to the new circumstances or enemies it would face. This obviously worked out since most modern armies are based on the Roman structure.

Thanks again for stopping by. We hope to see you again soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Dupuy, R.E. and T.N. Dupuy. The Encyclopedia Of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present. (2nd Revised Edition 1986), pp 147-148.

Southern, Pat and Karen Dixon. The Late Roman Army (1996), chapter 2. ISBN 0-415-22296-6.