Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Viking Horned Helmets

One of the history workshops that Tastes Of History offers for schools (in more normal times) is on the Vikings[1].  In doing so, we try to get our costume as accurate as possible, and it is great when the children also get dressed up.  Most, however, wear a form of fancy dress, typically bought on-line, an example of which is pictured leftIf the manufacturers are correct, then this seems to be what everyone expects a Viking warrior to look like, but there are a number of problems with this popular imageClearly the fabrics used in children's costume are of man-made fibres but, for some inexplicable reason, they are nearly always in browns or greys.  Admittedly, undyed wool or linen clothes would have been worn, but if you could afford it, then natural dyes could produce the diverse colours beloved by the fashionable of any period.

Taking a closer look at the example, I have no idea why the child model is holding what looks suspiciously like an ancient Greek xiphos, a sword with a distinctive leaf-shaped blade.  I'm equally bemused by the furry leggings which, I suppose, are trying to be leg bindings[2].  But why fur?  While it is not improbable, leg bindings of the period were typically long strips of woollen cloth (roughly 10cm wide) worn wound about the lower leg from the ankle to the knee.  Reminiscent of the puttees worn by soldiers in World War One (and later), such winingas provided support and protection for the lower leg.  Unlike the cloak shown which would offer little protection from the elements, but I digress.

The biggest complaint about such costumes, and the popular images of Viking warriors in general, are the horned helmets.  WHY!?  Practicalities aside for one moment, there is simply no evidence that Vikings wore horned helmets.  Nothing like them have ever been discovered in any archaeological dig.  Warriors who could afford them certainly wore helmets; the simplest would have been skullcaps designed to protect the head from an impact.  But sporting a pair of horns on your helmet in battle would not have been helpful if opponents were striking at you with clubs, swords or axes.  The horns themselves could act to funnel a blow straight onto the head - hardly a good idea.  Moreover, in close combat, the horns could used to grapple the opponent, pulling them off balance or snapping a neck - if the helmet was secured by a chinstrap.

So where does the modern idea of Vikings in horned helmets originate.  For that we can point to the 19th century and to the German composer Richard Wagner’s "The Ring Cycle"[3].  Opera is always a flamboyant affair and unsurprisingly costume designer Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905) created horned helmets in the 1870s for the Viking characters.  Thus the myth was born.  Slavishly followed by numerous cartoonists, filmmakers and artists, this fantasy continues its hold on popular imagination right up to the present day.

So, if there were no horns, what helmets did the stylish warrior wear?  Any helmet has the single objective of deflecting or completely withstanding a blow from a weapon.  Only a few helmet examples dateable to the Viking era have been found intact.  These have been made in a variety of ways and from several materials, although typically the core material is iron.  The group of Valsgarde and Vendel period helms are the largest group of helmets to survive the last thousand years.  Others are the Sutton Hoo helm, the Benty Grange helmet, the Morken helm from Belgium, the Jorvik helm, and the Wenceslas helm from Czechoslovakia[4].  This is not a complete list, but it does give an idea of how rare a helmet find is and how diverse the finds are.

Metal helms of several types were all fairly similar in principle being made from bands of metal forming a framework typically in-filled by riveted metal panels.  Such helmets are often referred to by the Germanic term "Spangenhelm"[5].  Sometimes a nasal would be included to protect the face, often as an extension of the framework although it could be added separately.  Older spangenhelms often include cheek flaps made from metal or leather.  Spangenhelms may incorporate mail as neck protection, thus forming a partial aventail.   A few of the earlier Anglo-Saxon and Viking spangenhelms had spectacle like eye-protection, and are thus sometimes called "spectacle helmets".  Others include a full face mask.  Both the spectacle helmets and those with a full face mask seem to have become obsolete by the eighth century in Britain.

The spangenhelm provided effective protection while being relatively easy to produce.  The weakness of the design lay in its jointed construction and its partial head protection.  The spangenhelm was replaced by similarly shaped helmets made with a one-piece, conical skull.  These forms are typically known as nasal helms to distinguish them from the earlier spangenhelm.  So, for most warriors of the period, whether Angle, Saxon, Jute, Dane, Norwegian or indeed Norman, the good ol' nasal helm (pictured bottom left) was the helmet of choice - and no horns!

For more information about the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period, then the website of the re-enactment group, Regia Anglorum, is highly recommended.  The group's Regiapædia is a comprehensive suppository of useful information on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life.

1. The term "Viking" is popularly applied to all the Scandinavian peoples of the 8th to the 11th centuries, but it is a bit of a misnomer.  For more information take a look at What's in a Name: Vikings.
2. Alternatively known as: legwraps, winingas, wickelbander or puttees.
3. A cycle of four operas by Wagner based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas.
4. Levick, B. (1991), "Helmets", Regiapædia, recovered April 23rd, 2020.
5. "Spangen" refers to the metal strips that form the framework for the helmet and could be translated as braces, and -helm simply means helmet.

Monday, April 27, 2020

What's in a Name: Vikings

Today we use the term “Viking” for anyone from the Scandinavian communities of Denmark, Norway and Sweden during the late 8th to late 11th centuries.  In Britain, therefore, the “Viking Age” is commonly understood as the period from the earliest recorded raid in AD 793[1] until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  To call all of these people “Vikings”, however, is actually a bit of a mistake as the name does not really describe the distinct tribes, groups or communities of the Early Mediæval Period.

The Old Norse feminine word víking may originally have been a sea journey characterised by the swopping of rowers.  In the days before sail, a long-distance sea journey would require the rowers to take turns at the oars to avoid exhausting their strength.  It seems, therefore, that viking relates to a tired rower moving aside when relieved by the rested rower on the thwart. Thus a víkingr (the masculine form of the word) began to mean a participant on a sea journey characterised by the shifting of rowers.  So, to be a Viking was to be one of the seafarers who raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia.

Those people living in southern and central Scandinavia who spoke Old Norse - a northern German language - are often also called “Norseman”.  It echoes terms meaning "man from the North" or "Northman" applied to Norse-speakers by the peoples they encountered during the Early Mediæval Period.  The Franks[2], for example, normally called them Northmen or Danes, while for the English they were generally known as Danes or heathen, but not vikings.  The Old Frankish word Nortmann ("Northman") was Latinised as Normannus and was widely used in Latin texts. The Latin word Normannus then entered Old French as Normands from which came the name of the Normans and of Normandy, an area settled by Norsemen in the tenth century.

Yet all is not so clear cut.  Among the Swedish runestones mentioning expeditions overseas, almost half tell of raids and travels to western Europe, and according to the Icelandic sagas, many Norsemen went to eastern Europe where they encountered the Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines.  These latter peoples called the Norsemen the Rus' or Rhōs (Ῥῶς).  It is thought the term probably derived from various uses of rōþs-, that is "related to rowing", or from the area of Roslagen in east-central Sweden, where most of the Northmen who visited the Slavic lands originated.  Archaeologists and historians today believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the Slavic lands formed the names of the countries of Russia and Belarus.

The Rus' initially appeared in Serkland in the 9th century, travelling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves, as well as luxury goods such as amber, Frankish swords, and walrus ivory.  These goods were mostly exchanged for Arabian silver coins, called dirhams. Hoards of 9th century Baghdad-minted silver coins have been found in Sweden, particularly in Gotland.

The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them "Varangians" (Old Norse: Væringjar meaning "sworn men").  As early as AD 839, Swedish emissaries are known to have first visited Byzantium.  In the late 10th century, a new unit of the imperial bodyguard was formed.  Traditionally containing large numbers of Scandinavians, it was known as the Varangian Guard.  The word Varangian may have originated in Old Norse, but in Slavic and Greek it could refer either to Scandinavians or Franks.

So, to be a Viking is to be a seafarer, Norse, a Northman, a Dane, Rus' or even a Norman.  Whatever term we use, the Viking Age had a lasting impact on Britain.  These raiders, traders and settlers left a wide-ranging legacy from the Norse words populating the English language to place names defining the countryside.  In only 250 years, they set their mark on the law and language of many countries and made many European communities[3].

For more information about the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period, then the website of the re-enactment group, Regia Anglorum, is highly recommended.  The group's Regiapædia is a comprehensive suppository of useful information on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life.

1. In England, the beginning of the Viking Age is dated to June 8th, 793 when Vikings destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne, a centre of learning on an island off the northeast coast of England in Northumberland.
2. The Franks were a group of Germanic peoples whose name was first mentioned in 3rd century Roman sources, and associated with tribes between the Lower Rhine and the Ems River, on the edge of the Roman Empire. Later the term was associated with Romanized Germanic dynasties within the collapsing Western Roman Empire, who eventually commanded the whole region between the rivers Loire and Rhein. They imposed power over many other post-Roman kingdoms and Germanic peoples.
3.  Regiopædia, Vikings!, recovered April 27th, 2020.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Democracy's Roots

Ancient Athens in the 5th century BC is often held to be the birthplace of democracy.  The idea, however, was not unique to Athens.  Other city-states (poleis, sing. polis) also adopted the principle of giving their citizens the right to decide on the issues facing them, but none are as well documented as Athens.  So, for most western democracies it is to ancient Athens that they look for inspiring modern government.  But how much would we recognise of Athenian democracy?

The ancient Greeks were particularly concerned with fundamental questions about who should rule and how?  Should sovereignty (kyrion) lie in the rule of law (nomoi), the constitution (politea), officials, or the citizens? Such questions still exercise us today.

Governance in the world of the ancient Greeks, or Ellás (Ἑλλάς; Eng: "Hellas") as they called it, took extraordinarily diverse forms and, across different city states and over many centuries, political power could rest in the hands of individuals or in a select few, or in every citizen.  Some city-states changed the kind of government from one type to another.


A monarchos (μονάρχης), from the words monos (μόνος) meaning "one", and archos (ἄρχων) meaning "leader, ruler or chief", was a single, absolute ruler - a "monarch" as we would understand the term today.

In the Greek world, monarchies were rare and were often only distinguishable from other forms of rule by a single person when the hereditary ruler was more benevolent and ruled in the genuine interest of his people.  Famous monarchies included Macedonia and Sparta. although the latter had a system of two kings.

Not absolute monarchs, the two Spartan kings did, however, hold great power when one or the other led the Spartan army in times of war.  In peacetime the kings were kept in check by the ephors (ephoroi) who were themselves elected by the assembly.  There were five ephors each of whom held office for just one year.  During that time they had power over most areas of civic life and could appoint and check on all the other public officials.


Aristokratia (ἀριστοκρατία) is formed by two Greek words: aristos (ἄριστος) meaning "excellent", and kratos (κράτος) meaning "power".  To the ancient Greeks aristokratia, from which we get the word aristocracy, meant "rule of the best" qualified citizens.  In later times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group of leading families (the aristocratic class).


Oligarkhia (ὀλιγαρχία) is rule by a select group of individuals, sometime small in number, but could include much larger groups.  The term derives from the words olígos (ὀλίγος) meaning "a few" and archo (ἄρχω) meaning "to rule or to command".  For the ancient Greeks, any system which excluded power from the whole citizen-body and did not involve a single ruler was described as an oligarchy.  Oligarchies were perhaps the most common form of city-state government.  To name but two, Megara and Thebes were states that had oligarchic governments.

Much as with an aristocracy, oligarkhia meant that power usually rested with a small, select group who thought themselves superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.  This meant that control rested with a few rich prominent families who remained in power by passing their influence from one generation to the next.


A Tyrannos (τύραννος) was originally one who illegally seized power and controlled a city-state, or polis.  Tyrants were sole rulers of a state who had taken power in an unconstitutional manner, often murdering their predecessor.  Greek tyrants, however, were not necessarily evil rulers as the word implies today, they simply looked after their own interests.

The Greek writers Plato and Aristotle defined a tyrant as "one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics - against his own people as well as others".  For Athens, the ultimate tyrants were the Persian kings Darius and Xerses. The demonising of these two “great kings” may have been the drivers for demokratia.


Finally we arrive at demokratia (δημοκρατία) or "rule of the people" where dêmos (δῆμος) means "people" and kratos (κράτος) means "strength" or "power".   Although often credited with the birth of democracy (demokratia), Athens was not the only state to establish this political system: Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai all had something similar.  Regardless, two and a half thousand years ago democracy was a pretty new idea that enabled all eligible citizens to have an equal say in the decisions that affected their lives.

The Athenian Assembly

The Assembly (ekklesia) of Athens met at least once a month on a small, rocky hill surrounded by parkland with a large flat platform of eroded stone set into its side, and by steps carved on its slope.  Known as the Pnyx, the space could accommodate 6,000 citizens.  The Athenian assembly had four main functions: it made executive pronouncements (decrees, such as deciding to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner), elected some officials, legislated, and tried political crimes.

The flat stone platform was the bema, the "stepping stone" or speakers' platform.  From the speaker’s stone any citizen had the right to address the assembly, to debate matters of policy, and have their voice heard.  As such, the Pnyx (Πνύξ, pronounced “pnyks”) embodies the principle of isēgoría (ἰσηγορία), or "equal speech", the equal right of every citizen to debate matters of policy.  The other two principles of democracy were isonomía (ἰσονομία), equality under the law, and isopoliteía (ἰσοπολιτεία), equality of vote and equal opportunity to assume political office.

The right of isēgoría (equal speech) was expressed by the presiding officer of the Pnyx assembly, who formally began each debate with the open invitation "Tís agoreúein boúletai?" ("Τίς ἀγορεύειν βούλεται;") - "Who wishes to speak?"

Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, pointed out that the demos could be too easily swayed by a good orator (public speaker) or by popular leaders (the demagogues) and get carried away with their emotions.  Even so, much as today, the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai).  Moreover, Athenian citizenship was not as all-encompassing as we would expect.

Only adult male Athenian citizens who had completed their military training as ephebes had the right to vote in Athens.  Men under 20 years of age were therefore excluded.  The percentage of the population actually participating in the government is estimated between 10% and 20% of the total number of inhabitants (it varied from the fifth to the fourth century BC).  This excluded a majority of the population: slaves, freed slaves, children, women[1] and foreigners resident in Athens (μέτοικοι / métoikoi).  Despite these restrictions, a body of 6000 citizens served as juries, meeting about half the days of the year, with each of the ten tribes of Athens providing its required share.

Attendance at the Assembly was voluntary, but not always.  In the 5th century BC public slaves, forming a cordon with a red-stained rope, herded citizens from the agora to the Pnyx.  A fine was imposed on those who got the red on their clothes.  A revised form of democracy was instituted in 403 BC after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War.  One innovation was the introduction of pay for Assembly attendance that promoted a new enthusiasm for Assembly meetings.  Only the first 6000 citizens to arrive were admitted and paid, with the red rope now used to keep latecomers at bay.


In Athens there was an expectation that the honourable citizen would play his active part in civic life.  Like any given polis, citizens were related to one another by blood and so family ties were very strong.  As boys, they grew up together in schools, and as men, they served side by side during times of war.  They debated one another in public assemblies.  They elected one another as magistrates.  They cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens.  In such a society, all citizens of the polis were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and artistic pursuits.  To shirk one's responsibilities was not only rare but reprehensible in the eyes of the citizen.  Greek citizens did not have rights, but duties and a citizen who did not fulfil his duties was socially disruptive.  In the polis of Sparta, such a citizen was called "an Inferior."  In Athens, a citizen who held no official position or who was not a habitual orator in the Assembly was branded idiotai.

And finally

For the Greeks, the state was not an interfering entity which sought to limit one’s own freedom but an apparatus through which the individual could fully express his membership of the community.  The regular turnover of elected officials, due to limited terms of office and the prohibition of re-election, meant abuse of power was kept in check and the rulers would in turn become the ruled.  Many civic positions were short term and chosen by lot to ensure bribery was kept to a minimum. At times one wonders whether the frequent turnover of elected officials (thwarting career politicians) and involving a wider selection of the citizen body in positions of power are not a way forward.

Anyway, after World War II modern ideas of democracy became dissociated from its ancient frame of reference.  It ceased to be one of the many possible ways in which political rule could be organised becoming instead the only acceptable political system for an egalitarian society.

1.  The Greeks or Hellenes (Έλληνες, Éllines) are an ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, other countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.  They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world.  This was Hellas.
2.  Women had limited rights and privileges, had restricted movement in public, and were very segregated from the men.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Thumbs Up

Most people in western culture recognise the "thumbs up" gesture as one that indicates all is well, while conversely "thumbs down" means the exact opposite.  These two thumb signals have become the established understanding of the two gestures throughout Europe, and much of the rest of the world.

More importantly for the myth, there is no doubt in the popular mind as to the thumbs up's origin.  Reinforced by movies and the media, pretty much everyone accepts that the gestures hail from the days of gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome when a decision had to be made concerning the fate of a beaten fighter.  If the defeated gladiator had fought well, he could be spared by a thumbs up.  If he had fought badly, then with a thumbs down the crowd could demand his death. What could be simpler?

The problem is that the ancient Romans did not behave in this way.  There are, in reality, no ancient references to thumbs going either up or down in the amphitheatres.  It seems we acquired our modern thumbs up and down meanings from elsewhere, and have then re-written Roman history to fit[1].

Once again the whole story of the thumbs up “approval” sign is based on misunderstanding and mistranslation.  The Latin phrase used by contemporary ancient Roman authors was “pollice verso“ (or verso pollice) meaning "with a turned thumb”.  It does not mean a down-turned thumb but one that is moved in some unspecified way; no particular direction can be assumed.

The exact gesture described by the phrase and its meaning are the subject of much scholarly debate. From historical, archaeological and literary records it is uncertain whether the thumb was turned up, turned down, held horizontally, or concealed inside the hand to indicate a defeated gladiator's fate[2].

What that fate might be was decided not by the crowd but ultimately by the editor, the man hosting, and paying for, the spectacle.  A defeated gladiator would raise the right index finger, ad digitum, in the customary appeal for mercy to the editor[3].  The crowd, however, would have loudly voiced their desires with cries of "mitte!" (let him go!) or "iugula!" (kill him!).  With potentially thousands of voice all roaring together the editor might struggle to discern the most popular decision.  So, to attract the editor's attention, and influence the outcome, hand gestures are known to have been employed.

Our notions of these signals was popularised by the 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme titled "Pollice Verso" (usually translated into English as "Thumbs Down").  The large canvas (shown below) depicts Vestal Virgins signifying to a murmillo[4] their desire for the death of the fallen gladiator, a retarius or "net-man".

Gérôme's painting was instrumental in popularising the idea that thumbs up signalled life, and thumbs down signalled death.  The makers of Gladiator (2000) are on record stating the look and feel of the film were heavily influenced by Gérôme's iconic vision and, unsurprisingly, the thumbs up/thumbs down featured prominently.

Despite the uncertainty, the posture of the thumbs of those wishing to spare the gladiator was described as pollice compresso ("compressed thumbs").  In other words, not thumbs up, but thumbs covered up or folded away out of sight.  So it seems that the spectators would extend their thumbs for a kill or hide their thumbs for an acquittal.  The reason behind this is easily explained.  The defeated gladiator sentenced to die would accept his death as he had been trained to do, bravely offering his neck to the victor's blade.  From a kneeling position the deathblow would be delivered to the jugular efficiently dispatching the loser.

This then was the act mimicked by the crowd using their hands, their extended thumbs stabbing the air in encouragement. But what of the gladiator who, although beaten, was to be granted missio ("release"). If the spectators wanted to spare the defeated fighter because he proved himself valiant in battle, they did the opposite of sticking out their thumbs and hid them away. This made sense in an arena as vast as the Amphitheatrum Flavium (the Flavian Amphitheatre or more popularly, the Colosseum) where the kill/no-kill signals needed to he strongly contrasting to be visible at all.

1. Desmond Morris, Peter Collett, Peter Marsh and Marie O'Shaughnessy, 1979 Webified by Bernd Wechner: Gestures: Their Origin and Meanings, The Thumb Up
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollice_verso
3. Shadrake, S. (2005), The World of the Gladiator, Tempus, p.122.
4. The murmillo is named after the striped bream (Latin murmuros).

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Cleopatra's Needles

Take a walk along the Victoria Embankment in the City of Westminster, London and near the Golden Jubilee Bridges you will find Cleopatra's Needle (pictured).  Unfortunately this ancient obelisk[1] has no connection with the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

In fact there are three obelisks bearing the popular misnomer of "Cleopatra's Needle"; one each in London, Paris in the Place de la Concorde., and New York City erected in Central Park, just west of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  All three needles are indeed genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks but were already over a thousand years old in the famous Queen's lifetime.

The London and New York needles are a pair originally made during the reign of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III.  The one in Paris is also part of a pair originally marking the entrance to a temple site in Luxor where its twin remains.  The Paris needle dates to the reign of the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramesses II, and was the first of the three to be moved and re-erected during the nineteenth century.  The New York needle was the first to acquire the French nickname, "L'aiguille de Cléopâtre" (Cleopatra's Needle), when it stood in Alexandria.
1.  Originally called tekhenu by their ancient Egyptian builders, an obelisk is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top.  Ancient obelisks are monolithic, i.e. they consist of a single stone.  The ancient Greeks who saw them used the Greek term obeliskos (ὀβελίσκος) to describe them (from obelos (ὀβελός) meaning "spit, nail, pointed pillar").

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Ancient Roman Burgers?

Spotted in the May 2020 edition of BBC History magazine (pg 66) is a recipe for “Ancient Roman Burgers” which prominently features Tastes Of History’s Roman “cocina”, or kitchen pictured left.

More accurately the image accompanying the recipe is of our folding frying pan sitting on an iron “craticula”, or grille/gridiron, both of which were made by Len Morgan co-founder of the Roman Military Research Society (THE RMRS). As for the burgers shown, they were being prepared for a press call ahead of a “Roman Burger Event” at Birdoswald Roman Fort back in May 2015.  As can be seen left, Jill's version of this burger recipe was very well received by Joe Jackson, English Heritage's tame Roman Centurion, and by all those who got to sample them served in a slider roll[1].  For those interested, our recipe did differ from the one given in the BBC History magazine.  Caul fat was not used to hold the patties together and we omitted the juniper berries.

After years of making these tasty snacks, however, it is slightly misleading to call them “burgers”.  As usual any naming mix-up is to do with how the original Latin text is translated and interpreted by modern scholars and subsequently chefs.  The term “isicia” for example would be most recognisable as forcemeat (derived from the French farcir, "to stuff"), which is a uniform mixture of lean meat with fat made by grinding, sieving, or puréeing the ingredients[2].

According to Apicius[3], there are many kinds of minced dishes.  Seafood minces, for example, are made of sea-onion, or sea crab-fish, lobster, cuttlefish, ink fish, spiny lobster, scallops and oysters.  These might be used in fish forcemeats, fish balls, fish cakes and similar preparations.  The author goes on to write that isicia, the forcemeat, is seasoned with lovage, pepper, cumin and “laser root”, the latter also known as silphium.

Forcemeat may either be smooth or coarse and of course could be used to make burger patties, but there is a small problem.  “Omentata” is derived from the word omentum meaning caul fat, the thin membrane that surrounds the internal organs of some animals, such as cows, sheep, and pigs[4].  It is used as a casing for sausages, roulades, pâtés, and various other meat dishes.

So, according to Bill Thayer’s excellent website Lacus Curtius, the Apician[5][6] recipe for omentata translates as:

What this seems to imply is that “isicia omentata” ought to be more akin to a sausage or a faggot than a burger.  Does this matter?  No, not really.  The internet is flooded with references and recipes for “isicia omentata” as the 1,500-year-old forerunner of today’s ubiquitous hamburger.  So, as the weather improves, perhaps these ancient Roman burgers would make an interesting addition to your barbecue.  Enjoy!
1. A slider is an American term for a steam-grilled sandwich, typically around 2 inches (5 cm) across, made with a bun.
3. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/2*.html
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caul_fat
5. Apicius, De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), Liber II (Book II), Chapter I, Sarcoptes (Minces)
6. “Sarcoptes” is the Greek word for “chopped meats”.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Union Flag or Union Jack?

In the current issue of BBC History Magazine Dominic Sandbrook highlights a significant event in the month of April, namely the adoption of a national flag in 1606. Although King James I of England, and VI of Scotland, had united the crowns in his person, the two kingdoms remained resolutely separate. Three years into his reign, after reports of altercations between Scottish and English ships, to affect some form of harmony the King contemplated the question of whether ships of the two nations should fly the same flag.

After months of discussion at court a design was agreed. So, on April 12th, 1606 the King issued a proclamation “declaring what Flags South and North Britons shall bear at Sea”. To avoid any further disputes, James ruled that “henceforth all our subjects of this Isle and Kingdom of Great Britain” shall fly “the Red Cross, commonly called St George’s Cross, and the White Cross, commonly called St Andrew’s Cross, joined together”.

Unfortunately, the exact design of this innovative flag is lost to us, but it is highly likely to have looked like the one used before 1801 (image left). In that year the cross of St Patrick was incorporated to arrive at the flag with which we are familiar. But what is it called? Should we refer to our nation’s flag as the “Union Flag” or the “Union Jack”?

I confess that, in the past, I have been guilty of deriding those who call it the “Union Jack” as misguided. For many years I believed the popular name derived from the flag flown on the "jack staff" of ships of the Royal Navy. According to the official website of The Royal Family[1], this may be derived from a proclamation by Charles II that the Union Flag should be flown only by ships of the Royal Navy as a jack, a small flag at the bowsprit; the term “jack” once meant small. Another alternative is that the term “Union Jack” possibly dates from Queen Anne's time (r. 1702-14). Sadly, the etymology of either claim is uncertain, and the theory that the flag should only be referred to as "Union Jack" when flown at sea is, quite simply, wrong[2].

In the flag’s first few years of existence, nobody called it by either name. Today “Union Flag” appears to be the official title but, whether the term "Union Jack" does derive from the jack flag or not, after three centuries, it too is now sanctioned by use. The name has appeared in official use, has been confirmed as the national flag by Parliament and remains the popular term.

1. The Royal Encyclopaedia, Union Jack, retrieved March 24th, 2020.
2. When interviewed about the “Union Jack” on a BBC Radio 4 programme (October 13th, 2013), Graham Bartram, Chief Vexillologist of the Flag Institute, stated that either name was perfectly valid whatever the purpose.