Simon Sebag Montefiore on Ancient Star Wars, Pierced Penises, and Steam Baths ‹ Literary Hub


Trajan looked the part of the bluff, old-fashioned Roman soldier—tough, clean-shaven, severe grey hair worn in a classic Caesar and usually portrayed wearing a gleaming engraved breastplate—and played it well.

Trajan was never happier than when sharing the rations and camps with “my excellent and most loyal fellow soldiers.” His only indulgences were wine and boys, actors and dancers mainly. Trajan was plainspoken and sociable: when he travelled in a carriage, he always invited three friends to chat along the way and he had the rare confidence to have talented men around him.

“I like what I hear,” he gruffly told a philosopher, “but I don’t understand a word of what you’re talking about.” Yet he had an instinct for power.

Born in Italica, Spain, the emperor had no sons with his wife Pompeia Plotina, but he lived at the centre of a female household consisting of her sister, niece and two great-nieces, who all now moved to Rome. When Empress Pompeia arrived at the palace, she told the spectators, “I enter here as the same kind of woman I’ll be when I depart.”

Trajan liked to tease his entourage about the succession, once asking them to name the ten best candidates for emperor: it is a strange feature of successful epochs that there are many men gifted enough to rule while in meagre times there appears to be almost none. Hadrian was always the frontrunner. Like Trajan, he hailed from Hispania: Trajan had been Hadrian’s guardian when the boy’s father died young and he curated his protégé’s rise, but there was something about Hadrian that irritated Trajan.

Hadrian had charmed Trajan’s wife and sister-in-law, who orchestrated his marriage to Sabina, the emperor’s beloved great-niece, positioning him perfectly. But it is always dangerous to be the prime candidate: maybe Trajan’s wife protected him by not over-promoting him.

But at one point Trajan disapproved of his extravagant partying, and then Hadrian was caught hitting on Trajan’s male lovers. Older autocrats are likely be touchy on such matters. “Everything depended,” wrote Trajan’s scholarly friend Pliny the Younger, “on the whims of a single man,” but the emperor’s decisions were usually sensible.*

The rich, served by droves of slaves, enjoyed luxury and ease, but the realities of urban life, imperial power and Roman society remained gritty and messy, corrupt and brutal.

No epoch realizes at the time quite how lucky it is until it is gone. But the spirit of this epoch was a lucky one of clement weather, lush harvests and plentiful revenues from an imperial population of between fifty and seventy million. Trajan possessed the three essentials of greatness—acumen, vision and resources. Between wars to annihilate the Dacians (Romania), he embarked on a massive building program in Rome, boasting of his grandeur and victories with new temples, his triumphal column and the new stadium called Circus Maximus.

The rich, served by droves of slaves, enjoyed luxury and ease—“Red Sea pearls and polished Indian ivory” in the words of the poet Martial—but the realities of urban life, imperial power and Roman society remained gritty and messy, corrupt and brutal.

Rome was now a seething mega-city of a million people, with the emperors enjoying vast palaces, the rich in sumptuous villas and the poor piled high in insulae, ten-story blocks of flats. “I live in a little cell, with a window that won’t even close,” wrote Martial, “in which Boreas [god of dark winter] himself wouldn’t want to live.” Martial, another well-born Spaniard doing well in Rome, had been in and out of imperial favor but chronicled the hypocritical lubricity of high and low with irrepressible mischief. “With your giant nose and cock /,” he wrote, “I bet you can with ease / When you get excited / Check the end for cheese.”

He hated the cruelty of sadistic slave masters: “You say that the hare isn’t cooked, and ask for the whip; / Rufus, you prefer to carve up your cook than your hare.” Yet he had a heart too. His most touching poem was in praise of a beloved enslaved female who died young: “A child with a voice as sweet as the fabled swan’s.”*

Yet even the poor could enjoy what Juvenal called “bread and circuses”—the bloody spectacles at the Colosseum and the Circus with 50,000 and 200,000 seats***—and the baths. Trajan was just the latest potentate to build his own thermae. Sixty thousand Romans could bathe at any one time – ideal for what Ovid had called “furtive sport.”

Nothing so defined urbane luxury as the baths that became the mark of Romanness: “To bathe is to live,” a Roman scrawled on a wall, while the gravestone of a jolly bon vivant declared, “Baths, sex and wine ruin our bodies but make life worth living.” A timeless truth.

Yet it is ironic that the baths define Roman civilization since they also probably spread the waterborne diseases that killed so many. In the baths, Martial chronicled naked Rome: he noticed that men tried to cover circumcised penises (the mark of Jewish slaves and therefore very unfashionable) and recorded the hilarity as thousands of bathers applauded when a spectacularly well-endowed man disrobed. He mocked the virtuous wife who was so excited by mixed bathing that she eloped with a youth, and the macho man who went to ogle young penises.

A graffi to from this time reads: “Apelles and Dexter had lunch here most pleasantly and fucked at the same time,” adding, “We Apelles the Mouse and his brother Dexter lovingly fucked two women twice.” The Roman city was replicated across the empire from Mauritania to Britannia: the word civilization derives from civis, town, and civilization comes from urbis, city. But cities were flourishing not only in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Across the Atlantic, in a world cut off from Afro-Eurasia for millennia, Trajan’s Mesoamerican contemporary First Step Shark—Yax Ehb Xook—the ajaw or lord of a thriving city state Tikal (Guatemala), one of many Mayan-speaking cities, was founding one of the great dynasties that would rule for eight centuries. Founded around 300 B. C., Tikal—known by the Maya as Yax Mutal—had 100,000 inhabitants, much smaller than Rome, Luoyang, Chang’an and Seleucia, the biggest cities of Eurasia, each with a million.

But Tikal was just one of many Mesoamerican city states that boasted sophisticated urban life. They developed glyphic writing (using logograms to represent words), charted the stars and created a calendar, celebrating their festivals according to their knowledge of the heavens. They lived on maize, tomatoes, beans, and drank chocolate.

In their workshops, they crafted obsidian, volcanic glass, into weapons, tools, jewels and mirrors, and they spun cotton, which they traded, along with slaves, to their neighbors. They were skilled dentists, inserting turquoise and quartz into their front teeth so firmly that they remain in Maya skeletons. They knew of the wheel, but they did not use it for travel, only for children’s toys, yet they built straight, raised roads, known as white roads, to reflect the Milky Way.

The games represented the wars fought against rival cities in which they deployed blow darts and obsidian spears. Major conflicts they called “star wars,” represented by a glyph of a star scattering the earth.

In their monumental pyramidal temples, they worshipped an array of gods who demanded blood: their rulers had to draw stingray spines through their penises, a painful ritual that demonstrated the need for divine approval to rule. At the temples, they made human sacrifices, by beheading, scalping, skinning, disemboweling their offerings, cutting out their hearts and burying them with wild animals. The best victims were high-born prisoners.

The cities featured ballcourts where the Maya played sacred games with rubber balls, which had even higher prizes than our football. Their gods were said to have clashed with mortals on the ballcourts; some gods were top ballplayers and mortals became gods by beating them. Their rulers played to demonstrate their power. Sometimes they used balls containing human heads.

The games represented the wars fought against rival cities in which they deployed blow darts and obsidian spears. Major conflicts they called “star wars,” represented by a glyph of a star scattering the earth. The Maya traded their jewels, obsidian crafts and slaves with other American peoples****, including the biggest city on the continent, Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, City of the Sun. Teotihuacan’s apogee coincided with Trajan’s reign.

It had a multi-ethnic population of 150,000—Maya and others, and a hinterland containing a million people—and boasted a central avenue, the Avenue of the Dead, lined with monumental pyramids and temples. The Pyramid of the Sun, site of mass sacrifices, was the third highest edifice on earth.

Teotihuacan was the center of obsidian craftsmanship, its people mining the glass from an old volcano, and many of them worked in obsidian laboratories, making weapons, mirrors and jewelery. Yet the city was built with no wheeled vehicles, no animal power and, unlike the many Maya cities, few inscriptions and no ballcourt. Lacking portraits or tombs, it may have been a sort of republic.

After a revolution around 200, the Teotihuacans stopped building temples and palaces and start-ed building comfortable apartment buildings decorated with colorful psychedelic murals, their inhabitants praying at communal altars where the heads of sacrificed victims were displayed. This was perhaps the first social housing and urban-renewal scheme.*****

Back in Rome, Trajan, granted the agnomen Optimus Princeps—Best Emperor—decided to conquer Parthia, which had been weakened by the feuds of House Arsak. Rome was gradually swallowing up the kingdoms that controlled Eurasian trade. In 106, when the Nabataean king died, Trajan annexed Arabia, giving Rome another border with Parthia and control of most trade routes except the Parthian ports on the Persian Gulf. The Best Emperor could not fail…


*When Pliny, governor of Bithynia, encountered the growing sect of Christians, he executed those who refused to sacrifice to the gods in honor of the emperor and in the spirit of enquiry he tortured two Christian slaves yet “discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” So he consulted Trajan. “You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny,” replied Trajan. “They’re not to be sought out; if denounced and proved guilty, they’re to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he’s a Christian and really proves it—by worshipping our gods—shall be pardoned . . . Anonymous denunciations have no place . . . They’re out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

**Martial reveled in the sexual freedoms of well-off Roman women such as his wanton friend Caelia, who was spoiled for choice by the diversity of the slaves that flooded into Rome with each victory: “you grant your favors to Parthians… Germans… Dacians, and for you from his Egyptian city comes the gallant of Memphis, and the black Indian from the Red Sea; nor do you shun the lecheries of circumcised Jews.” His contemporary the poet Juvenal agreed that an honest wife was a “rare bird” in a world where the slaves who were meant to guard her virtue could so easily collude in her pleasures. “Who guards the guardians?” he asked in an often misunderstood line. “Who now keep silent the sins of the promiscuous girl when paid in the same coin?”

***Champion charioteers became rich—even though they were slaves. Most famous was Scorpus who won 2,048 races until he was killed, probably in a chariot crash. Martial wrote his epitaph: “Here I lie, Scorpus, pride of the noisy circus, darling of Rome. Spiteful fate snatched me aged twenty-six. She must have counted my victories, not my years, and decided I was old.”

****The Maya were in contact with the Caribbean where invaders and traders from the main-land were slowly conquering the islands. New DNA analysis shows that for millennia the Caribbean had been home to archaic foraging peoples, but now invaders in canoes from America, makers of ceramic goods, were occupying the islands, wiping out the existing peoples, who vanish in most places, through either intermarriage or killing. These occupiers were the ancestors of the Taíno, who inhabited the islands until the Spanish conquest.

*****Teotihuacan’s connections extended not only to the south: there is evidence of links to north America too. This was the time of a system of settlements around Hopewell in Ohio where after 100 bc people built burial mounds and large earthworks based on complex astronomical measurements, created beautiful artefacts—ranging from copper breastplates to pipes adorned with animal carvings that evoked shamanic rituals—and buried their dead with ritual costumes made up of ornaments that originated from Mexico to the Great Lakes. This culture broke up around A. D. 500.


The World: A Family History of Humanity by Simon Sebag Montefiore is available via Knopf.

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