Monthly Archives: May 2016

I Wear My Sunglasses at the Fight? The Emperor Nero and the History of Sunglasses


Nero princeps gladiatorum pugnas spectabat in smaragdo.
The princeps Nero viewed the combats of the gladiators in a smaragdus.
— Pliny, Natural History, 37.16.


A pair of imperial Roman-era emerald and gold earrings now at the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

There are many fantastical stories to be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Part of the lure of this encyclopedic work is the (often misleading) conviction with which the statesman explored the objects, peoples, and places of the Mediterranean world. In book 37, Pliny discussed various precious stones valued by the Romans, particularly that of smaragdus (Gr. σμάραγδος). It is often translated as “emerald”, but was in fact a category of green stones that included but was not limited to emeralds. Emerald workers were in fact called Σμαραγταριοί after the stone, and ostraka indicate that Egyptian emerald workers even carried messages as they traded (cf. O Did. inv. 329).



An ostrakon from the “Longinus Archive” at Didymoi (77-92 CE) mentions an emerald worker (O. Did. 343 / inv. 329) Image via the IFAO.

As I have explored in earlier posts about the pearl trade, the notion of what is perceived as a “precious” stone is a social construction that can vary wildly from society to society. Roman jewelry tastes began to shift perceptibly after the acquisition of Egypt as a province at the end of the 1st century BCE, particularly because more emeralds could be found from the area that is modern day Ethiopia. The early medieval encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (16.7.1) notes that emeralds were third place in the hearts of mineral-loving Romans, who preferred the pearls and the unio (another type of pearl) before emeralds.

Like his predecessor Pliny, Isidore also mentions the fact that Nero used an emerald to watch fights, right after noting that the stone was soothing to the eyes of gem cutters. Although both literary mentions are a bit ambiguous (and certainly Isidore is known for simply blindly copying from sources such as Pliny), it is possible that Nero used a concave emerald in order to aid his nearsightedness and to take the glare off on a sunny day. Certainly we know that Roman men (particularly soldiers, farmers, and fishermen) and women wore hats in order to protect themselves from the sun, but sunglasses as such did not yet exist.

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A fisherman in a straw hat in a 2nd c. CE mosaic from Tunisia now in the Bardo Museum. Hats were often made either of straw or felt.

Although the citation is not definitive proof, many people have cited Nero’s “emerald” as the first sunglasses, despite the fact that it is unclear if  1. It really was a modern emerald that the emperor was using and 2. How Nero would have used it to reflect images for him. What perhaps lends some credence to the story is the fact that Nero’s tutor, Seneca, was an expert in light refraction, mirrors, and optics.

After reading earlier Greek treatises to inform his Naturales Quaestiones (‘Natural Questions’), the stoic philosopher remarked on the use of glass bowls filled with water in order to magnify small print. Certainly there was already a long history of convex lenses in the ancient world that date back to the ancient Near East (c. 2500 BCE), although arguments still abound over how they were used. Sir Arthur Evans is said to have found lenses at the palace at Knossos, and the British Museum contains the famed “Nimrud Lens” (c. 750 BCE), which is a convex lens from the area of modern-day Iraq that may or may not have been used as such.


The 8th c. BCE “Nimrud Lens” is now at the British Museum. Image via the British Museum.

Lenses in antiquity seem to have been predominantly rock-crystal lenses. Most were plano-convex ground for use in magnifying objects. One such lens was found in the “House of the Engraver” at Pompeii, and it has been proposed that such lenses helped engravers to achieve precision when carving gem stones or creating gold glass (a type of art I have discussed here).


The Lothair Crystal (London, BM) is an example of a rock crystal. It has eight intaglio-carved scenes (carved c. 855 CE) with the story of Susanna from the Vulgate, who was accused of incest. Image via Wikimedia. The Lothair Crystal is now at the British Museum.

Reflective surfaces used for concentrating rays for burning or those used as weapons were also quite known in Greco-Roman antiquity. The famed “death ray” mirror developed by Archimedes to catch the Roman fleet on fire in 212 BCE has indeed been shown as a feasible way to catch a ship on fire (with little cloud cover), according to an experiment performed at MIT. 

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Painting by Giulio Parigi in 1600, showing Archimedes’ “death ray” (Now in the Uffizi in Florence).


The “Bernward Cross” is now at the Hildesheim Cathedral. It uses a rock crystal to magnify the (now lost) splinter of the True Cross it once held. Image via the Hildesheim Cathedral Website. 

Although mirrors and magnifying glasses seem to have been common technology in antiquity, sunglasses do not appear to have been an ancient invention. Even the science behind what would become eyeglasses in the Western world was not fully understood until the 10th-11th century. The optical theory behind them was developed by the famed Islamic scientist Ibn al-Haytham, who was called Alhacen in the medieval West. His work on optics was translated into Latin by the 12th century, and his explanations of lenses would go on to influence Roger Bacon and many other Renaissance scientists.

In his exploration of the invention of the telescope, Rolf Willach points out that so-called “reading stones” were indeed used on reliquaries such as the “Big-Bernward Cross” (c. 1150 CE) in order to magnify splinters of the True Cross. Medieval monks began to increasingly place such stones on texts in order to magnify small print during the High Middle Ages, but spectacles were not invented until the 13th century (2010: 95-96). It is only then that optics are fully understood and the technology for grinding lenses to a proper fineness and clarity could be achieved (More info on medieval glasses here, via Erik Kwakkel). In other words, if Nero was watching the games through an emerald, it would have been pretty low resolution.


Image of Mark using clear eyeglasses from a 16th c. manuscript now at the British Library. Image originally found via Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr. 

So then who did invent sunglasses? Well, tinted quartz may have been used in China in the 12th or 13th centuries, but many say that the western world lagged behind and did not get sunglasses until the 18th century. It was then that London optician James Ayscough experimented with tinted lenses. What can be emphasized here is that green is indeed the suitable color for saving one’s eyes from the sun.

Into the 19th century, green spectacles were a popular and oft-referenced device found in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Clearly there may be some truth to Pliny’s story of Nero using a green stone of some sort in order to watch gladiatorial games, but I would venture to say that the emperor did not wear them as sunglasses and likely saw the games poorly through their use. Rather, Nero was more likely a nearsighted man desperate to impress and, just possibly, was trying out a secret passed onto him by his preferred jeweler or former tutor.

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A painting from the De Witt museum at Colonial Williamsburg showing a man in green sunglasses (1807). Image via the Two Nerdy History Girls Blog.

It’s On the Sillybos: The Birth of the Book Title

Anyone who has ever written a book, article, course advertisement, blogpost, or conference paper knows the mental agony that accompanies the completion of this task. It is not enough to write a great book; we must next sell our work with a clever title. We are told that “sexy” titles lure the elusive reader, student, or conference participant to our work. It is perhaps comforting to know that writers in Greco-Roman antiquity underwent the same mental anguish when attempting to title their own works.

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Late antique (300-500 CE) copper chariot mount with three men reading. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

A great deal of knowledge about titling anxiety comes from Ovid. The Augustan era poet revealed how books could visibly stand apart from others on the scroll shelf or bucket (Tr. 1.1.7): ‘nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur ‘ (“Your titulus will not be marked in red, nor your writing surface with cedar oil”). Red lettering on a label was one way to make your work stand out, as was the use of yellow parchment rubbed smooth with a pumice.

Romans sometimes called the tag that protruded from the bottom of a papyrus an ‘index’, and such a tag usually included the name of the author (Livy 38.56.6). One could also call this little tag a titulus (“small inscription”)–from which we get the word “title.” As Ovid stated in the beginning of his Remedia Amoris: ‘legerat huius Amor titulum nomenque libelli ‘ (“Love read the titulus and name of (this) little book”). Yet not all of his works had a title, it seems. The Amores of Ovid were  simply known as the Liber sine titulo (“Book without a name”) to many medieval scribes, either because the title had been lost altogether or had purposefully been omitted by the author. Ovid and other rough contemporaries such as Cicero show that the practice of titling was common by the first century BCE, but where did the practice come from?

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The beginning of a 12th c. edition of Ovid’s Amores: ‘Incipit Ovidi[us] sine titulo…’ (Ovid begins without a title…’ (Hs. 329 from the Die digitale Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich)

Titles were not common in Athens during the 5th c. BCE. They had only just come about, mainly as a part of Attic drama competitions. Every entry needed a title to be referred to. These plays were often referred to simply by their opening lines, but alternately could have their own title–as Aristophanes refers directly to his play Knights (Nub. 554). The expert on this subject, Nicholas Horsfall, notes: “The competitive element is also present, though less strongly, at Rome and here too any competition presupposes at least a substantial degree of unambiguous nomenclature” (1981: 104). Due to competitions, dramatic works almost always had to include a title, but other writers also put a great deal of thought into what to call their writing. At the end of a papyrus or parchment scroll would sometimes be placed a hanging tag called a σίλλυβος (sillybos) which transmitted this title and oftentimes the author of the work.


A parchment sillybos tag attached to a 1st or 2nd c. copy of Sophron’s Mimes on Women (P. Oxy. II 301).

As ancient historian Jocelyn Penny Small has pointed out quite deftly, books today always have a title, but the utility of this practice was not always readily apparent to those in antiquity (2015: 29). As she says, when you have 1 book in your possession, you can simply call it “The Book” (e.g., The Bible), but if you have two books, you can refer to it in a few ways:

  1. By number
  2. By author
  3. By subject
  4. By the opening words (a incipit) or the end (a colophon)
  5. Combination of one or more of these

We see numeric titling in the books of the Bible quite frequently. The names for the Hebrew books of the Bible usually uses the first significant word of each book as the title. However, the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch (Greek πεντάτευχος, Latin Pentateuchus meaning “five scrolls”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deutoronomy) is perhaps called this because it was held within 5 scroll boxes. Alternately, many New Testament books are named after the supposed author. You could even refer to a book simply by the main characters present in the story.

What it is important to see is that works oftentimes did not have just one title they were referred to with.  Plato’s Phaedo was also referred to as On the Soul, and it appears that many philosophical dialogues also came with alternative titles when catalogued by others. Consequently, the modern habit of presenting an alternative title (often following a colon) perhaps has roots in an ancient habit. Suddenly Peter George’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) makes a little more sense. With so many titles floating around, why not present a couple to your reader?


A late 2nd or early 3rd c. CE list of titles and incipits for Hyperides’ speeches (P. Oxy. 47.3360) Image via the Sackler Library, Oxford. 

Callimachus (c.310-240 BCE) was present at the Library of Alexandria and was highly influential within the Ptolemaic court in the mid 3rd century BCE when he wrote his Πίνακες (“Tables”), essentially a library catalogue of select holdings at the Library of Alexandria in 120 books (Weber 2011: 231). The full title of this work was actually ‘Πίνακες τῶνἐν πάσῃ παιδείᾳ διαλαμψάντων, καὶ ὧν συνέγραψαν'(Tables of persons eminent in every branch of learning, together with a list of their writings). Catchy title, don’t you think? Each of the works he listed had the title and also the incipit–the beginning of the text.

In addition to organizing titles at the library, Callimachus began to pare down works and to provide a kind of canon for future readers. Title lists such as his were not comprehensive, but rather an anthology or greatest hits album. These lists often inform us of what Greco-Romans called various works that are now lost to us, and even help us to amend nickname titles or those given to texts by medieval scribes.

I will follow this post up with another about how medieval and Renaissance scribes made up or renamed ancient works, but I wanted to focus today more on the classical titling of texts and how this had an effect on the construction and materiality of the text itself. For instance, much like earlier scrolls and codices, medieval manuscripts often did not include a title page at all. Because most people had only a few books, they did not need to have an extensive page dedicated to explaining its contents. Many simply relied on the incipit. It was this incipit, presented at the beginning of a text, that functioned to introduce the reader to the contents of the manuscript. It was only with the coming of the printing press in the mid 15th century and the vast multiplication of texts that people began to more frequently insert a title page for a text. However, such pages simply made little sense when reading a scroll, which would often have a tag, perhaps a title in the middle, left hand margin, and an incipit as soon as one opened it.

As this brief post has at least partially attempted to explain, titles first came about in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean as a result of Attic literary competitions. In other words, they are a product of an ἀγωνία (“a competitive struggle”)–from whence we get the word “agony”–that later became just one way of organizing information when libraries began to grow with more and more texts and to use cataloging techniques. The agony and the ecstasy of titling a work is that it is an important aspect and can indeed lure the listener, student, or reader. One thing to keep in mind when titling your own work is that, at least in antiquity, the author often lost control of what their writings would be called in the future, even if it was published on a sillybos. 


Not long ago, I made a flowchart to help those titling conference papers.





Monumental Mausolea: Building Projects and Slave Labor from Antiquity to the World Cup

When excited ticket holders enter the various sports venues erected in Qatar for the World Cup in 2022, they will likely not be told about the lives of the people who helped to build these impressive structures. In 2014 alone, a Nepalese migrant died on the average of once every two days while working on the World Cup venues—and this statistic doesn’t even take into account the death of Sri Lankans, Indians, or workers from Bangladesh.


Construction continues on the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, even though thousands have died in the process (Image via Getty Images)


Graphic from 2015, showing number of deaths of workers in Qatar as compared to other major sporting events. Image via the Washington Post.

Although knowledge of the dire working conditions in Qatar have been known for many years, the release of a new report from Amnesty International has again brought the issue to the fore. The report’s organizers interviewed 132 contractors working at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha and 102 landscapers at work on the Aspire Zone sports complex, all of whom reported human rights abuse. Migrant workers experienced withheld wages, terrible working conditions in heat that exceeds 122 °F, recruitment fees, long hours, and confiscated passports. All of this amounts to the enslavement of these workers—mostly from South Asia—in a country whose workforce makes heavy use of migrant workers. These workers are effectively banned from living in Doha and often shut out from other parts of these cities; marginalized workers in every sense of the word.

The use of contracted labor for large building projects has roots going back to antiquity. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids at Giza between 2551 and 2472 BC, and we are told by the Greek historian Herodotus, writing 2,000 years after the pyramids were built, that 100,000 slave workers were employed in shifts in order to build the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu. However, new archaeological evidence suggests that these may actually have been free, paid laborers from impoverished Egyptian families.


Photo of the excavation of the pyramid workers’ camp at Giza in Egypt. Photo credit: Mark Lehner. Image via PBS.

These voluntary workers were given clothes by the state and a little meat and bread to eat, but many likely died during the construction of the pyramids. The discovery of the graves of buried pyramid workers have uncovered that their skeletons have signs of arthritis and strain. As site archaeologist Adel Okasha noted, “Their bones tell us the story of how hard they worked.” The identities of the workers that died to build the pyramids remained largely unknown, yet the names of the pharaohs continue to be attached to these great structures.

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Roman treadmill powered crane on Haterii relief (late 1st c. CE). Rome, Vatican Museums.

In many Roman and Greek cities within the Mediterranean, slaves owned by cities—referred to as servi publici by Romans or δημόσιοι by the Greeks—were a ready source of labor for building projects and for performing city maintenance. Laborers could also be pulled from the populace when needed. In the 6th c. BCE, construction of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s massive sewer, began. The laborers were largely free Roman workers conscripted from among the urban plebs and forced to work in arduous and (it must be assumed) a rather malodorous environment. We are told by one Roman historian that the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, crucified the bodies of those workers who committed suicide rather than continue to build the massive sewer for the city. The king put their corpses on ignominious display rather than allow them a proper burial.


Domitianic-era portion of the Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer) in Rome. Image via History Blog.

During the Roman imperial period, about 12,000-20,000 workers were involved in construction at any one time within the city of Rome. Construction was a constant labor sector that used a mixture of freed slaves, slaves, and freeborn citizens likely contracted and then rotated in and out of various building projects. Historian Janet DeLaine has calculated that on average, 6,000 men worked on the Baths of Caracalla (inaugurated in 216 CE) for 12 hours a day for 6 years. It is difficult to give exact numbers on those that died during ancient building projects, but some monuments do contain infamous nicknames that hint at it. The Great Wall of China, begun in 221 BCE, is still nicknamed “the longest cemetery on earth,” a reference to the over 300,000 convicts, slaves, and free workers who died helping to create the wonder.


Workers repair a section of the Great Wall of China at the Banchangyu scenic spot, Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province on Photo via

How then should we remember the slaves of the past that built the structures we still enjoy today? This question often ran through my mind as I worked as an archaeologist excavating slave houses at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Slaves worked as carpenters and joiners in order to construct the house that Jefferson would live within. The issue is similarly prominent just down the hill in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia. Here 67 poorly-marked grave shafts for free and unfree African-Americans were found north of the University Cemetery in 2012.


Grave markers from the  gravesites discovered north of the University of Virginia Cemetery in 2012. None of the markers showed names or have inscriptions. Image attribution: Cole Geddy via UVA Magazine.


Photo from the University of Virginia Special Collections of Sally Cottrell Cole, who was free at the time this photo was taken, but was previously an enslaved worker, first at Monticello and then for a UVa Mathematics Professor. Image via UVA Magazine.

An 1898 Alumni Bulletin, referenced “servants” previously buried in the area. The term “servants” was a prevalent euphemism for slaves. From 1817 until 1865, slave workers were used alongside white workers and freed blacks to build and maintain the grounds at UVa, much as slaves were used to build and maintain other university campuses: Washington & Lee University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example. As an alumna of UVa and a former faculty member at Washington & Lee University, I have grappled with my love-hate relationship with the buildings that I admire. However, I am glad to see a heightened awareness of the need to remember the life and status of the constructor—not just the construction.

At the beginning of the ancient slavery seminar I teach every few years (Syllabus here; I will be teaching it again in the Fall with a colleague), I ask students to respond to an impromptu quiz about servitude in the modern world. One of the questions is: “Does slavery still exist?” Most respond that it was abolished in 1865. In fact, the anniversary for the pivotal 13th amendment, which abolished slavery within the United States has just passed. It initially passed through the Senate on April 8, 1864, although it was not fully ratified until December of 1865. Over the course of the semester, students work hard to explore the global history of slavery and to recognize the persistence of servitude in the world today: The trafficking of sex workers in the U.S. (particularly during the Super Bowl), the enslavement of Haitians on sugar farms in the Dominican Republic, and, yes, the abuse of migrant construction workers in foreign countries like Qatar.


The new commemorative marker at Washington & Lee University outside Robinson Hall. The plaque remembers the enslaved African Americans owned by Washington College (later Washington & Lee University) during the antebellum period. They were a bequest of “Jockey” John Robinson, a college trustee. Photo by Prof. Ted Delaney, History Department, Washington and Lee University.


New markers were unveiled in April of 2016 noting the use of convict and slave labor at Clemson University. Image via Clemson University.

Whether euphemistically called a “servant” or a “migrant worker,” a slave by any other name is still a slave. If we abstractly recognize the human rights of all, then we must put this belief into practice. There is no doubt that we must remember the hands of the enslaved men and women who built some of the world’s greatest monuments, but we can go beyond just the passive pause to read a commemorative plaque outside of Monticello. Refusing to attend the Qatar World Cup is a pledge that all of us can take, even if we can’t bring back the thousands who have already died in the name of building venues to house our bread and circuses.