When Pen & Sword Books approached historian and novelist LJ Trafford about writing a book they described as ‘Horrible Histories for Grownups’, set in Ancient Rome, she accepted with pleasure. As readers of her books – and her Historia pieces – know, she’s an expert in the bizarre, ridiculous and downright disgusting details of Roman life. So read on for a taste of flamingo, crocodile dung, gladiator sweat and leech hair dye; all necessary for getting by in the time of the ruthless emperor Domitian.
My new book, How to Survive in Ancient Rome, is written for the discerning tourist visiting in the year 95 CE and is full of handy tips on what is worth seeing in that great city, where the best shopping is to be found and what they should be wearing to fit in with the fashionable set.
But you don’t want practical, helpful tips, do you? You want the weird stuff: the eyebrow raising recipes, the curious contraceptives, the barmy remedies, all the strangest and most peculiar things about ancient Rome. Happily, I found plenty of examples of these whilst researching How to Survive in Ancient Rome. So, sit back, relax and definitely do not try any of the following at home!
Ancient Rome was lacking in many of the foods we take for granted today, potatoes, tomatoes, pasta, chocolate and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Which begs the question, given the absence of the staples of my entire diet, what did the Romans eat?
We are fortunate that we have an actual recipe book from the first century CE written by top Roman foodie, Marcus Gavius Apicius. The temptation with Apicius is to pull out the most extravagant and jaw-dropping recipes and have a good marvel. Let’s give into that temptation and pull out a few of Apicius’ more unusual suggestions.
If splayed sow’s womb and asparagus custard for some strange reason don’t appeal, then there is always flamingo. Yes, that pink feathered friend of many a regional zoo can be roasted with pepper, parsley, mint, dates, honey, wine, vinegar and oil. Or boiled with a smattering of leeks and coriander. Apicius helpfully adds that if you can’t get hold of a flamingo then both recipes work equally as well with a parrot.
And if you thought that flamingo was hard work to dismember, it’s nothing compared to the ostrich recommended for another of Apicius’ recipes. Also needed to make ostrich palatable are pepper, mint, cumin, leeks,celery seed, dates, honey, vinegar, raisin wine, broth, a little oil. And a bloody big pot to boil it all in.
The ancient Romans had a variety of methods for limiting the size of their families. Some were relatively simple, such as squatting, sneezing and then partaking of a cold drink after intercourse – which one suspects rather killed any sexy mood that had just been created.
Others were more complicated and involved equipment. Wool pessaries are suggested dipped in a variety of ingredients, olive oil and honey were likely easily found, crocodile dung, however, raises all manner of questions, principally: why?!? It’s not just crocodile poo though, vulture dung is also touted as a baby preventative.
Shockingly, shoving animal poo up you is not the oddest form of contraceptive device mentioned in our sources. That honour goes to Pliny the Elder: “There is a type of hairy spider that has a very large head. If you cut this open you will find inside two small worms. If these are tied onto women, wrapped in a strip of deer hide, she will not conceive.” Possibly the effectiveness of this contraceptive is due to no man wanting to have sex with a woman who has spider extracted worms tied to her person.
For men, juniper juice rubbed over the penis prior to sex is suggested. Although given that juniper juice is also recommended for both dandruff and a nasty infection of the eyelashes you might want to think about that one carefully.
A great number of treatments advised by Roman doctors veer towards the pleasant and practical side: cutting out the booze, massage, outings in the fresh air and a nice hot bath (or cold bath if suffering from a fever). But obviously we are not interested in neither the pleasant nor the practical, we want the weird stuff!
Suffering from sore gums? Never fear, this is easily cured by scraping them with the tooth of a man who has met a violent end. Caught rabies off your pet dog? You need to head down to the forum to purchase the ground down skull of a hanged man and that’ll sort you out in no time. Lost a bit of that sexual oomph? You need gladiator sweat to pep up that pecker.
There were numerous beauty treatments available for both men and women. Skin could be made softer by an application of moist bread, wrinkles retarded by bathing in asses milk and complexions made fashionably paler by a foundation of (toxic) white lead.
Hair dyes were made from a variety of ingredients, including henna but the ickiest award goes to a potion of leeches fermented in vinegar for several months before being applied to the hair. After which you will have lovely black hair, but presumably not many friends due to the smell.
For men, baldness could be cured by an ointment of bear grease, laudanum and maidenhair. Really, though, you might prefer just to cover your bald spot with a toupee as the Emperor Otho did.
Perfume in this era is not only applied about the person but also the richer elements of society have it squirted from the walls of their ample villas onto their visitors.
Although you might want to avoid the latest fad, which is drinking perfume so that your inside may smell as sweet as your outside.
Really, what with all that animal dung, hairy spiders, asparagus custard and knocking back of perfume, it’s a marvel that any Roman lived beyond 30.
If I can leave you with one final tip for surviving your trip to Ancient Rome – find a temple and make as many offerings, sacrifices and prayers to the gods as you can. You’re going to need all the help you can get!
LJ Trafford talks to Historia about her fascination with Ancient Rome – especially the bizarre bits – and her writing in an interview linked to her short story, The Wedding, also published in Historia.
Woman having her hair and makeup done by two attendants: Dennis Jarvis via Flickr
Reconstructed Roman kitchen: Carole Raddato via Flickr
European wolf spider: via Wikimedia
Detail of a gladiator mosaic, a thraex fighting a murmillo: Carole Raddato via Flickr
Blue perfume flask and two-part eye makeup container: Dave and Margie Hill via Flickr