The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.

A Surefire Cure for the Hiccups

This week I received a note of thanks from WordPress. Apparently, I have been blogging along in this little space for nine years. In that time, I have averaged around forty-seven posts per year, once a week, except for the weeks I miss. It’s been a little higher in recent years because as my children have gotten older, they’ve become easier to ignore.

The internet actually attributes several “successful” hiccup cures to Pliny the Elder, but in my cursory attempt to chase down the references (yes, sometimes I look stuff up), I couldn’t find them. I fear this means that people believe Pliny the Elder is some kind of reliable medical authority. Clearly they have never read his work. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each post averages about eight hundred words or so, in addition to the occasionally ridiculously long picture caption. I figure I have vomited approximately 350,000 words onto this blog over the last nine years. I’m grateful to WordPress for the acknowledgement, because that seems worth acknowledging, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying encouragement to: “Keep up the good blogging.”

Or at least I am thankful for the presumption that what I have been doing for the last nine years has been good blogging worth keeping up. But if I think about it, it’s also a lot of pressure to put on a person. Because blogging regularly can occasionally be a difficult thing to do. It requires coming up with ideas again and again that readers might actually want to read about.

I’ve been pretty lucky with topics these past nine years. History is the gift that keeps on giving. Stories of individuals in history doing smart or interesting or silly or stupid things are abundant. Still, some weeks, I sit down to do some good blogging and I’ve got nothing. I encounter a hiccup.

This week has been one of those. After 350, 000 words, I have developed a case of the hiccups. I blame WordPress.

Fortunately, there are lot of cures for hiccups. I could hold my breath or suck on a lemon, or gulp water, or stand on my head. Actually, I probably couldn’t do that last one. But I might use an Ancient Chinese cure by chewing slowly on ginger and swallowing the juice, or try the old Viking remedy of grasping my tongue with a handkerchief and tugging on it while I count to 100. I could give the advice of Pliny the Elder a chance by drinking small amounts of raw cabbage mixed into vinegar with a hint of dill or chervil.

D–n this hiccup, by Henry Alken, 1837. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or maybe I should take a page out of John Mytton’s book. Born in 1796, John “Mad Jack” Mytton, wealthy British playboy who definitely earned his nickname, was most known for horseracing, gambling, naked hunting, and intentionally getting into carriage accidents. He also earned a bit of fame by attempting to cure a case of the hiccups by setting himself on fire. This according to an account written by his friend Charles James Apperley (aka Nimrod) who was present at the time.

The cure worked, though I’m not sure it was worth it. Mytton continued on, presumably hiccup-free, for another year or so of fast living before dying of alcohol poisoning in 1834, leaving behind an estranged second wife, four children, an enormous amount of debt, and a surefire hiccup cure.

Hiccups can be awfully frustrating, but they usually go away after a while. I know that after nine years, that still seems to be the case in my little corner of the blogosphere, where history continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, and there are plenty of Mad Jack Myttons out there with stories worth exploring. I don’t know if that really makes for good blogging, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Slipping in Unicorn Puke

In the early part of the fourth century BC, a historian by the name of Ctesias returned to his native Greece after traveling through India and Persia, where he served a number of years as physician to the royal court. When he got home, he set to work writing about his travels in his great works Persica, which like many of the era’s works of history is somewhat dubious in nature, and Indica, which among other things, describes India’s native unicorn.

The unicorn, he wrote, was as large as a horse, with blue eyes, a red head, a white body, and a horn on its head measuring at least a foot and a half. It was also very strong and lightning fast.

For a while rumor had it only a young virgin could successfully catch a unicorn because the creatures were attracted to purity. By Domenichino – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ctesias offers us the first written account of this elusive animal, but he certainly wasn’t the only “scholar” to write about it. Among those who mention the beast are Pliny the Elder, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Marco Polo. The unicorn even gets a nod in some translations of the Bible (I’m pretty sure the LSD translation is on the list).

Of course none of these writings seem to be eye-witness accounts, and the descriptions vary (some may more closely resemble a rhinoceros, which definitely is real), but for a good part of human history, there was little doubt of the unicorn’s existence. Its horn has been pulverized to make an antidote for poisons, it’s been used as a religious symbol of purity, and it’s even graced symbols of state.

Today’s unicorn is a little sleeker, a little sparklier, and a little more make-believe (though I hear Animal Planet is planning a show called Hunting Unicorns, which will air just as soon as they find Bigfoot). The unicorn of today also seems to have a hard time holding on to its lunch (which I have to assume is made up primarily of Skittles) because the creatures are frequently depicted puking rainbows.

Yep. This sure makes me thirsty for something with sugar and sparkles.

I have to wonder if that’s what Starbucks was hoping to call to mind when they introduced their Unicorn Frappuccino last week. The multi-colored sugar bomb lasted only five days, and was even sold out at many stores faster than that, proving as difficult to catch as the unicorn itself.

I’m certainly not complaining. As a more or less non-coffee drinker, I have one Starbucks order I’ve convinced myself I enjoy when I occasionally have to meet up there, and the Unicorn Frappuccino isn’t it. But if they were still making them, then for the purpose of thorough research I suppose I would have gotten one just to take a picture. I might even have tried a sip so as to not anger the barista who just spent the last hour making 437 of them and is starting to take on a strange pink and blue hue.

Since I didn’t get the drink you’ll just have to use your imagination. Picture this in a cup topped with whipped cream and pink and blue sprinkles.

So I didn’t catch a unicorn myself, but for a few days there I sure did hear a lot of rumors of their existence. I see from the Internet buzz that some Starbucks stores are now offering a Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea and magic and probably also a lot of sugar. I think I’ll pass on that one as well, but perhaps you’d like to try it.

If you tried the Unicorn Frappuccino, I’m curious, what did you think? Should Starbucks bring it back and make it a permanent offering, or did it make you puke rainbows like a unicorn?


Ancient Gatorade Tastes Like Ash

Around the year 78 AD, Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundas, or Pliny the Elder, published his only surviving work, Naturalis Historia (Natural History). It was kind of like an encyclopedia, meant by its author to address pretty much everything a first-century Roman might need to know about “the natural world, or life.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty bold claim, but the work is divided into ten volumes, consisting in total of thirty-seven books, and it does cover an impressive array of topics, including, among others: astronomy, mathematics, zoology, horticulture, sculpture, and Gatorade.

Pliny the Elder   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pliny the Elder
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
That last one, as my youngest son would tell you, is the most important. He’s seven and a pretty coordinated kid who I know would enjoy athletics if he weren’t so reluctant to try new things. When I occasionally push him, as I did with basketball this winter, I use an incentive. If he works hard in practice, or a game, he gets a celebratory red Gatorade, because the original yellow tastes like watered-down sweat.

It’s worked really well this basketball season. He’s made friends, had fun, and on the court he’s gone from completely clueless to a little less awkward, even scoring two baskets in his most recent game. All it took was some determination and the right recovery drink.

And if we can take Pliny the Elder at his word, that’s what it took for Rome’s gladiators as well. In Book 36 of Natural History he writes: “Your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators are helped by drinking this.”

He was quoting the recommendations of another contemporary writer, implying that this magical curative given to the gladiators was fairly common knowledge, but still it’s kind of a quick reference inside a work that covers the entire scope of “the natural world” and so serves as nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that add campaign never took off. By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that ad campaign never took off.
By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, we don’t just have to take the author’s word for it. In 1993, a team of archaeologists working near the ancient city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, found the remains of sixty-eight people who died between the second and third centuries, all young men, between the ages of twenty and thirty, and all showing evidence of having been pretty beaten up. With the remains were several grave markers depicting scenes of battle.

The discovery turned out to be the only known gladiator graveyard ever found, and the bones told researchers an interesting story. First, they confirmed that gladiators ate a mostly grain diet, similar to that of the general public at the time. Second, the gladiator bones contained significantly more strontium than did non-gladiator bone samples.

That doesn’t mean much to me, but what it means to people who know a thing or two about bones, is that gladiators must have ingested some sort of supplement designed to aid in recovery and healing. And thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know it was probably a drink made from water, vinegar, and plant ash.

Scientists claim that if made with a “good vinegar,” the gladiator recovery drink might not have tasted all that bad. I’m not so convinced. If I want my son to keep up on the basketball court, I’ll probably stick with the more modern version. With a whole lot of sugar (which is why this is only an occasional incentive at our house) and plenty of red dye 40, at least Gatorade doesn’t taste like ash.

Worth Its Weight in Emeralds

About a month ago, I irreparably broke my favorite pair of sunglasses. So that you might understand the implications of this event in my life, I should explain, I’m not really what you might call a sunglasses person.

Of course I find them useful when driving west during sunset. And if I’m going to be hanging out poolside in the summer sun for a few hours with the kiddos, I would prefer to do so while wearing a pair, but I am not the type of gal who runs out to buy the season’s hottest shades in a variety of colors to match my closetful of sundresses. I’m not really a sundress person either.

I could never pull off this look. I'm also not a sun hat person.   photo credit: via photopin cc
I could never pull off this look. I’m also not a sun hat person. photo credit: via photopin cc

Despite that, I have owned many pairs of sunglasses in my lifetime and because I inevitably lose them, I never spend much money on them. So while I may go through as many pairs as your average Hollywood starlet, they probably don’t match the lone sundress hanging in my closet.

But this broken pair was different. You see after many years of encouragement from eye care professionals, I finally had an optometrist who got through to me. Basically, he told me that if I wanted eye cancer, then by all means, I should keep wearing cheap shades, but that if I preferred to live eye cancer-free I should buy overpriced sunglasses from him.

I bought the sunglasses.

I learned a few things from the experience:

  1. Unless you need prescription lenses, never ever buy sunglasses from an optometrist. Or maybe it’s just that mine was the Darth Vader of optometry, but yikes, that’s a markup!
  2. It’s amazing how easy it is to keep track of a pair of sunglasses when it represents more than a casual $10 investment.
  3. I look much better in a sundress when I’m not squinting.
  4. A good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.

I find your lack of expensive sunglasses disturbing.  photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc
I find your lack of expensive sunglasses disturbing. photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc

This last point was even well-understood by Emperor Nero of first-century Rome who, though not described by his contemporaries as a very nice guy, was, according to Pliny the Elder, the proud owner of a nice pair of emerald shades. Or something like them anyway.

Pliny, who wrote about emeralds (in my favorite translation) that “nothing greens greener,” subscribed to the then commonly held notion that the color green was gentle on the eye and that emeralds in particular might aid in the rehabilitation of eyestrain and poor sight. So it stands to reason, then, that Nero who is known to have been nearsighted, might use emeralds, or as some have suggested, one very large emerald as a sort of looking glass to help him see better at gladiatorial contests.

photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc
And I thought my sunglasses were expensive. photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc

At this point you might be asking, how exactly did that work? Well, I’m not sure it did. First of all, though many sunglass historians (a very narrow field) have claimed Pliny’s reference to Nero’s strange behavior as a part of sunglass history, Pliny seems actually to have suggested that Nero used the emerald as a reflective surface in which to watch the gladiator battles (the first mirrored sunglasses?) rather than as a lens through which to view them.

Retro 1st-Century gladiator viewing emerald lenses. Some things never go out of style.   photo credit: The Bees Knees Daily via photopin cc
Retro 1st-Century gladiator viewing emerald lenses. Some things never go out of style. photo credit: The Bees Knees Daily via photopin cc

And then there’s Dr. David Wood, a classics professor at University College Cork in Ireland who had the audacity a few years back to suggest (fairly convincingly) that Pliny just might have misunderstood the whole bit about Nero’s amazing green goggles. The wording used by other historians of the day could have been interpreted to suggest that Nero watched the games through a slit in a curtain (the precursor of 1980’s shutter glasses) in order to hide the fact that he was too busy tweeting to pay attention.

Apparently Pliny (who didn’t seem to like Nero much) didn’t bother checking the facts. In another time, he would have made a decent practical history blogger, or, perhaps, the world’s most celebrated sunglass historian. We may never know for sure whether Nero rocked a great pair of shades, or a stylish monocle, or a weird concave green mirror type thing, because, of course, history lost them.

What I do know for sure is that over the next few weeks, spring will really be in full bloom here and after that will come summer days filled with sunshine, lazy days at the pool, and maybe even a few sundresses. With that in mind I finally ordered a new pair of sunglasses. They are coming from the same company as the broken ones, a very similar style, at about ¼ of the price I paid in Dr. Darth Vader’s office. Regardless of how much I paid for it, though, I remain convinced that a good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.

I Bet Ghost Stories are Even Scarier in Pig Latin

Sometime near the end of the first century Pliny the Younger, a magistrate of Rome, heard a scary story. Presumably he was no stranger to fear. His father died when Pliny was only eight, and just a little over ten years later he was a witness to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of the uncle who had been largely responsible for raising him.

Eruption of Vesuvius. Painting by Norwegian pa...
Eruption of Vesuvius. Much scarier, I would I think, than a little old ghost story. Painting by Norwegian painter I.C. Dahl (1826)

But he was also a relatively successful man. Well educated and known as an eloquent speaker who had served as a military tribune before entering into politics, Pliny rose well above his station. History remembers him most as a writer of letters. He wrote to his friends, to influential politicians, and likely with the intention of publication. He wrote about natural curiosities, daily life, and love. And he wrote about ghosts.

He began a letter to Licinius Sura: “I am extremely desirous to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?” Of course he didn’t write in English, but my Latin is a little rusty (though I do pretty much ockray at igpay atinlay).

English: illustration from Leech's comic latin...
Pig Latin: The language of the truly well-educated.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing I find interesting about Pliny’s letter is that 2000 years later, we are still asking the same question, especially around this time of year. Television programming which within weeks will fill with family friendly specials featuring Santa Claus and good works is right now little more than an obstacle course of blood and terror feeding some fascination with the horrible, and a curiosity about the unexplained.

I’m not exactly complaining. In general I’m fond of Halloween. I enjoy helping the kids carve Jack-o-lanterns while the lightly seasoned pumpkin seeds burn to a crisp in the oven. And I like seeing all of the adorable children turned into begging hyper zombies just as much as the next mom. But I have to admit, I don’t really like scary stories.

It's that time of year once again, Halloween u...
Terrifying, no? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I (very) occasionally see a scary movie or watch a TV special about a haunted house or hear a frightening tale around a campfire, it follows me. My mind lingers over the details of it for sometimes weeks afterwards, returning to me at the most unexpected moments and sending a shiver down my spine. And I think that’s what happened to Pliny, too.

In his letter he relates three separate stories of ghost encounters, but the longest and most detailed is the most interesting to me because it sounds so familiar. The tale begins with an old abandoned house, deemed uninhabitable because of the strange appearance of a shackled specter. Then one day the brave philosopher Athenodorus purchased the house, determined to live peacefully there.

Maybe the rumors got to him because he didn’t head to bed that first night in his new house and instead tried to occupy his time and thoughts with his writing. When at last the chained ghost approached, Athenodorus didn’t look at him, but instead motioned for him to wait a minute (because the best ghost stories have a funny moment to temporarily relieve some of the tension).

Cover of "Groundhog Day/Ghostbusters/Stri...
Athenodorus would have been able to sleep if only he’d remembered who he was supposed to call.

Obviously, the ghost didn’t like being put off and began to rattle his chains more aggressively (singing a rousing chorus of “Marley and Marley,” like a couple of grumpy old muppets) until finally the philosopher sighed and shouted “What!?” A little startled at the blunt response and frankly a little hurt at being ignored for so long, the ghost sheepishly led Athenodorus outside and disappeared.

The philosopher marked the spot where the ghost vanished and the next morning had the place excavated only to find human remains entangled in chains. He gave the remains a proper send-off. And the ghost never bothered him or anyone again.

Of the ghost stories that I haven’t managed to avoid, this is pretty much the plot of most of them. And Pliny’s may have been the first to provide a written description of ghosts as spirits in need of help to complete a task (it’s also likely that Athenodorus was the first to say “I see dead people”).

He claims in his letter that this is a story he heard about and he wants to get to the bottom of it. The concept of ghosts doesn’t fit, it seems, into his well-educated mind, and he’s trying to figure out if the story has merit, the same way we do every time we tune in to one of those ghost hunting shows, read the latest collection of stories about this or that city’s haunted past, or book the hotel room where that grisly murder allegedly took place a hundred years ago.

haunted house in illinois - HDR
I think if you willingly decide to buy a house that looks this creepy, you probably deserve to be haunted.(Photo credit: Jovan 2J)

Pliny ends his letter admitting that Sura is likely to answer with ambiguous logic, but imploring him to offer a true opinion instead. Pliny has heard the prevalent stories that are either conclusive proof of ghosts haunting the mysterious places of earth or wildly imaginative mass hallucinations. Like most of us, especially on Halloween as our thoughts dwell on the frightening, he wants to know for sure.

Unfortunately  we don’t know Sura’s answer or Pliny’s conclusion, but we do have 2000 years of stories to weigh as we puzzle out whether or not ghosts really do exist. And we may never find a conclusive answer. But the one thing I do know for sure is that I would rather watch a heartwarming Christmas special.

Iconic screen shot from the movie It's a Wonde...
Admittedly still a little scary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)