walk like a roman


When the ancient geographer Strabo described the native inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, he listed – with a predictable combination of relish, horror and exaggeration – all kinds of aspects of their weird barbarity. Some of the Spanish tribesmen, he insisted, stored vintage urine in cisterns and then bathed in it, or used it to clean their teeth. Others dressed their women up with iron rods around their necks rather than jewellery. Others, still stranger, appeared to have no gods. No less remarkable, for Strabo, was the bafflement some of these poor Spaniards felt at the day-to-day habits of their new Roman allies or conquerors. One group of tribesmen, he explained, visiting a Roman camp and seeing some generals taking a stroll, “walking up and down the road”, thought they were “mad and tried to take them back into their tents”, either to sit down and rest, or get up and fight. Despite Strabo’s patronizing tone, it’s one of those rare occasions where we can catch a glimpse of the barbarian point of view on the Romans. The Spaniards presumably thought that walking was something that got a person from A to B (or from tent to battleground). What on earth then were these Roman generals doing as they ambled around, chatting, but not actually going anywhere?

more from Mary Beard at the TLS here.