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The early days of the Roman Empire were marked by huge naval battles. The First Punic war saw great fleets of polyremes battling for the Mediterranean and that tradition continued as Rome grew and conquered the Mediterranean and fought civil wars right up until the battle of Actium left one man in control of the entire sea. Thereafter, in the days of Empire, giant ships were no longer needed for dealing with pirates or policing sea lanes. The navy of the later Roman Empire consisted principally of liburnians (also known as liburna), small light galleys which were not so swift and giant as the monstrous oared ships of the Republic.
Liburnians were named for, um, the Liburnians an Illyrian tribe inhabiting the Adriatic coast of Greece (what is today Croatia). The Liburnians were pirates and sea raiders. When the Macedonians conquered Liburnia, the military men were impressed by the lightness, maneuverability, and deadliness of the Liburnian vessels, so they made them part of the navy. Later, in the second half of the first century BC, Rome conquered the Hellenic world and took up this naval design (as well as a huge host of other Greek concepts).
The original liburnian boat had a single bench of 25 oars on each side. The Romans refined altered this design to feature dual rows of oarsmen pulling 18 oars per side. A liburnian was probably about 31 meters (100 ft long) and 5 meters (16 feet wide) wide with a draft of a meter (3 feet). The Romans also added a prow for ramming other boats.
The liburnian served with distinction for centuries in the navies of the golden age empire and afterwards. The boats were not used only for military missions but also for cargo and passenger transport. They saw use on the great rivers as well as on the sea. For many more centuries it liburnians were the backbone of the Byzantine navy as well, until the changing ideas of warfare caused the craft to evolve into the Byzantine dromons and the war galleys of the middle ages.
People love citrus fruit! What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons? This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees. Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions! The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets. All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas. It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.
The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid). Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times). Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them. Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.
In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual. The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills. Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims. In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).
Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).
Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade. In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange. I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing. I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you. In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?
A couple of years ago I was in a sumptuous private garden outside of San Francisco. The Mediterranean style garden was filled with gorgeous silvery trees bearing strange deep purple fruit. When I earnestly praised the trees to the garden’s owner, he looked surprised and informed me that they were olive trees. I was raised thinking olives were disgusting squishy things that came in jars. Only after moving to New York did I realize how varied and delicious they can be. I ran to the nearest tree and pulled off a ripe black olive and popped it into my mouth…and promptly involuntarily spat it out. The fruit was indescribably bitter and vile. “Oh there’s a process to preparing them for eating,” said the owner nonchalantly.
That was my first experience with a living olive tree (Olea europaea), one of the plants which appears most frequently in Western literature and art. In Greek, Roman, and Biblical writings, the olive has easy primacy over all of the other plants, fruits, trees and flowers (other than the life-giving grains). It is a defining symbol of Mediterranean culture and civilization.
There is a classical Greek myth about the creation of the olive tree. Poseidon and Athena both wished to be the patron deity of Athens. The dispute was becoming heated, but before it came to outright war, Athena proposed a contest: whichever deity could provide the most useful gift (as judged by Cecrops, the snake-bodied founder-king of Athens) would be the city’s special god. Poseidon presented his gift first. He raised his trident and brought it crashing down on the acropolis and a spring of water gushed into the air on the spot where the Erechtheion was later raised. The citizens were delighted—until they tasted the water and found it to be as salty as the ocean. Then Athena struck a great boulder with her lance. The rock split open and a beautiful tree with silver leaves grew in the spot—the first olive. Not only were the olives delicious, the oil was good for illumination, perfume, and cooking. The wood was made into votive statues and other useful things. The tree was drought resistant and tolerated brackish water. As always, Athena was victorious and the city was named in her honor.
Wild olives (oleasters) were used for oil, fuel, and wood for at least 19,000 years. It is unclear when they were first domesticated, but domestication happened in many different times and places (possibly from different wild antecedents). Domesticated olives are propagated through grafting and cloning—since seeds can yield undesirable strains. As I discovered in San Francisco, ripe raw olives are so bitter as to be inedible—they must be treated with salt or lye (!) in order to become acceptable to the human palate (although goats and cattle do not object to untreated olives). The oil obtained from crushed olives was far more important than the fruit itself. Olive oil is almost pure fat and is resistant to spoilage for longer than a year. Not only was it the great preservative of classical society, it was the basis of cuisine, medicine, personal grooming, perfume, and sacred ritual.
The oldest and most revered cult objects of ancient Greece, the mysterious xoana, were constructed of olive wood (although these strange sculptures were known to ancient authors, none have survived into modern times except as stone copies of the originals). In ancient Greece and Rome, victory—in games and in actual war–was denoted by a crown of wild olive leaves (also known as kotinos). Olive oil was equally sacred in the Levant where it played a part in Jewish sacrificial offering and priestly anointment. In the Bible, the olive is the first plant which the dove brings back to Noah as the flood resides—imagery which has become synonymous with peace. Ironically olive is also a dark yellow color (or a drab green) in universal usage by the militaries of the world thanks to the fact that it is not a color readily distinguished by human eyes and thus blends in with many sorts of terrain.
In the modern world olives have spread from the Mediterranean and now live on all continents except for Antarctica. Huge orchards of commercial olives can be found not only in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel, but also in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia (and the West coast of North America, obviously). In their new homes olives can be a nuisance. They are a serious invasive hazard in Australia and certain Pacific Islands. Because of their resistance to drought, they out-compete native plants and create a weedy monoculture. Their high oil content makes them susceptible to fires which burn incredibly hot. Of course not all olive trees are commercial plants, or dangerous weeds. Olive trees can live to immense old age and some revered specimens are at least 2000 years old. Such ancient trees are remarkable for their fabulous gnarled trunks and branches which take on an otherworldly appearance appropriate to their age. Additionally it seems somehow appropriate that the olive tree—which has a reasonable claim to being humankind’s favorite tree–is capable of living through the millennia.
Luxury fiber is a strange thing. Linen comes from flax (which has some legitimate claims to being the first domesticated plant). Silk is derived from the cocoons of lepidoterans. Qiviut comes from the undercoats of musk-oxen. One of the rarest of all luxury fibers comes from an even more peculiar source. “Sea silk” is produced by collecting and spinning the long micro filaments or “byssus” secreted by several kinds of bivalve mollusks–expecially Pinna nobilis (a large saltwater clam once widespread in the Mediterranean ocean). Pinna nobilis can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in size and anchors itself to the ocean floor with an extremely fine fiber it excretes from a land in its foot.
The fiber was mentioned in various Greek, Egyptian, and Roman sources (and an analog seems to have existed in ancient China) but differentiating sea silk made from mollusk fibers from similar luxury fibers like cocoon silk, or fine linen seems to be more a matter of context rather than of terminology. Sea silk is finer than the true silk produced from silkworm cocoons. It was said that a pair of ladies’ gloves made of sea-silk could be folded into one half of a walnut shell because the fiber was so profoundly delicate. Sea silk was warm and durable but it was infamous for attracting clothing moths. A few pieces have survived in museums including the extraordinary mediaeval chasuble of St. Yves pictured below.
Unfortunately the Pinna nobilis clams which are the source of byssus fibers have declined rapidly in number thanks to overfishing, pollution, and the general decline of the Mediterranean sea-grass beds. Other fibers like seaweed based cellulose or watered silk have adopted the “sea silk” name further confusing the issue. Today the sea silk industry only barely survives in Sardinia where a handful of aging practitioners keep it alive–more for tradition’s sake than economic reward.
So much of Roman artwork is lost. Except in remarkable circumstances, Roman paintings, textiles, and drawings were too fragile to survive the long centuries of neglect. Almost all are now long gone. Fortunately the Romans were masterful mosaic artists and mosaics are durable. Many mosaics concerning all sorts of aspects of classical life have lasted through the millennia. Some of these tile artworks present the loves of gods or the wars of men but quite a few are more humble and show the aftermath of a banquet or fishermen hauling in a day’s catch . Since Romans ate a huge amount of seafood, it is no surprise that many mosaics showcase mollusks of one sort of another. Here is a gallery of Roman mosaics featuring octopuses, squids, bivalves, or snails. I have tried to add as much information as I could but some of the photos I found were poorly labeled
Modern mosaic makers were inspired by the Roman example and flamboyant cephalopods are a major theme of contemporary mosaics as well as ancient ones. Here are some modern octopus and squid mosaics for millionaires’ swimming pools, elementary schools, or even everyday bathrooms. Enjoy!
Conches are large sea snails. True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family). These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).
Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes. The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples. In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar). The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved. Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities. Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith. The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”
The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range. In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai. Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).
The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.
There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:
There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.
The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key. Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual. But enough talk about shell trumpets! Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.
Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.
Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.
Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation. These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein. Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth. The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will. What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely. The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse. Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs. In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!
A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color. The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.
I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna. But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color? A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog. According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph. While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.
Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct. Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family. Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.
Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite. To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment. Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.
Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used. In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators. By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.
The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century. The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.
As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud. Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms. It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America. Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.
The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California. Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.
Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.
Exciting news for the summer! According to the www.trireme.org (official website of non-profit company “Trireme in New York City, Inc.”), plans are in place to bring the world’s only trireme to New York harbor in 2012. The website’s homepage states:
Plans are being made to bring the Hellenic Navy vessel Olympias for its first voyage in the U.S. Scheduled for late spring through early summer of 2012, Olympias’ visit will coincide with the Tall Ships “OpSail” and July 4th events in New York Harbor. A world-class exhibition on Athenian maritime history is among the many exciting activities being organized to promote the ship’s historic visit and enhance public awareness of the significance of triremes in the development of democratic ideals.
The Olympias is a reconstruction of a 5th century Athenian trireme, the great warship of the age. Trireme determined the outcome of the Persian wars and then cemented Athenian supremacy in the Mediterranean. By the 4th century, triremes were being supplanted by larger faster quadriremes and quinqueremes which were the war galleys used by the Romans and Carthaginians.
Since the world has been noticeably trireme-free of late, the 170-oar Olympias currently qualifies as the fastest human-powered sailing vessel in the world. Classical Greek galleys were originally crewed by free citizens, but, because of the danger, tedium and hardship involved in such work, citizens were soon replaced by criminals and slaves. If you are looking for the unique opportunity to row a classical warship around New York harbor, click here. Apparently there are still plenty of openings on the Olympias’ rowing benches.