(Graham's observations on some everyday items)

Notebook - 2000

The Romans had PDA's too (personal digital assistants) - they called them tabellae, cerae or pugillares. I decided to make one. A trip to a model shop and I found a suitable piece of plywood and a 30cm length of brass rod (couldn't find bronze). I cut the wood to size (13x15cm) and glued eight strips of spruce on to it to create a kind of frame inside. While the glue dried I ordered 2 oz. of beeswax from Ebay. I drilled the holes for the hinge (leather shoelace) and melted the wax. It melts about 70C so can be melted in a disposable container floating in a saucepan of boiling water (au bain marie). I poured the melted wax into the frames. Beeswax smells I must say, so the duplice smells too, a whole stack of them would smell really badly.

See, they used a stylus with their PDA's too

The PDA stylus was easily accomplished too. I put the end of a 13cm length of brass rod into a gas flame till red hot and flattened the end with a hammer; this is the eraser end. The other end I filed to a point with a rasp. I tried to put some decoration on it too, I attacked it with the file. The writing in the yellow beeswax proves difficult to read; I understand the Romans sometimes added soot or red ochre to the beeswax to colour and darken it. For security, a duplice like this was tied and sealed with wax seal no doubt from a gold or carnelian intaglio ring.

Not quite a lava lamp but smelly

Talking of smells and soot, did you ever spend an evening with just one Roman lamp (lucerna) burning olive oil with extra virgins? No? Well it smells, not quite like a chip shop but it does smell. Surprisingly, it also warms the room. The downside is that the flame also carries a nice plume of black soot with it. There's one other thing too, olive oil seeps through unglazed terracotta and makes its surface, and surfaces it comes into contact with, slimy with oil. Two, three or more lamps in a room would have spoiled those wall paintings in no time. Thank Jupiter for slaves. [Those wine and oil amphorae must have been half empty by the time they reached their destination; methinks the wine must have oxidised too unless the amphora insides were glazed or lined with pitch or resin, and then the best Falernian would have tasted like Greek Retsina!]

Genuine Roman Bronze rings

Bronze rings were available to those of no rank while gold rings were restricted to the top people in society. In fact, it wasn't until Justinian became Imperator that us plebs were allowed to wear gold rings. Masses of them been found, bronze ones, most of them small sizes for some reason. These two are simple versions but even these things have a drawback - wearing one for just a short time makes one's finger go green as the sweat of one's hand reacts with the copper in the bronze.

Compact tripod for small spaces

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - this is frankincense More on smells I'm afraid. You've seen those Roman Epic Hollywood films, just what do they burn in those tripods? A lot of this stuff I reckon, it's frankincense, the resin from a Middle East tree. It was used to create a scented room we imagine or as an offering to the gods. Tripod burners smell too.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh - this is myrrh There's more, this is myrrh another resin from the Middle East and a constituent of incense. The Romans didn't burn these substances on their own but added anything and everything to them to make incense, awful as it seems - sandalwood, cedar, opium, wine, honey, raisins, pine resin, herbs (cannabis?) and more, you name it... everyone must have had a very thick head by the end of the evening!

Gold, frankincense and myrrh - this is gold

Frankincense, myrrh and now gold to complete the three gifts from the east. This is a gold solidus from the time of Gratian AD367-383. It weighs in at 4.5gm or 1/72 of a Roman pound (~0.325kg). A solidus was sub-divided into 180 folles. There were 40 nummi to a follis, so there. Three folles would have bought a large loaf. This coin might have paid a labourer for a month or bought a cloak. Four solidi would have bought a donkey! Everyone loves gold, the Romans did too, quite a lot.

Place mat at the tricilinum?

Did you ever try making a mosaic? I did, this is small 20x20cm trivet and it took me ages to do. The image is not the usual guilloche twisted rope but a stylised flower copied from a Roman design in Canterbury. All the tesserae had to be cut by me from larger squares (pieces flew everywhere). It's not so easy as it looks. Now I'm off to design one for the bathroom floor, or shall I start on the patio?


An everyday item for many Romans, Mulsum, a spiced wine, but not form a bottle like this. It could be either red or white but not necessarily wine of the best quality. The wine was sweetened with honey at about half a cup to a bottle and had spices added to it and it's still available today. It tastes rather like mead. These spices may have included cinnamon, star anise, pepper, thyme, fennel and so on. Mulsum was freely dispensed to the plebs at the public baths and at political events to get their support (and get them merry). The wine was served as an aperitif and may even have been diluted with snow by the wealthy to cool it to its optimum temperature of 14C. The Romans did other things to their wine as well like adding sea water - Turriculae was a wine with sea water and grape juice added to it while another wine, Carenum, had quince and concentrated grape juice (defrutum) added. They all had a sweet tooth it seems.


A wooden sword or rudis was used for practice among gladiators. The successful gladiator's goal, apart from staying alive of course, was to be awarded one and given his freedom from the arena. The Latin term Victori (to the winner) was often carved on the side of the blade. This one is 22" long and fun to 'play' with.

Click any thumbnail for a larger image.