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Did the Romans Ever Conduct Archaeological Expeditions In Search of Ancient Artifacts?

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Did the Romans ever conduct archaeological expeditions (in Egypt or Mesopotamia, for example) in search of ancient artifacts? Many of the civilizations in the Levant and the Middle East predated the Romans by as much as the Romans predated us. Did they ever try to dig up ancient ruins and catalogue them, the way we do?

Steve Theodore:

Not in the modern sense; the idea of systematically looking around for the unknown wasn’t really on their radar.

They were certainly interested in the past in a general sort of way—the famous image of emperor Trajan, wandering alone through the ruins of Babylon, comes to mind—but they didn’t have the notion of a sustained, deliberate effort to reconstruct the past from its physical remains.

Like many ancient cultures, they did have a lively interest in their own history (and, as their empire expanded, they patronized the antiquarian interests of their clients and subjects as well). A public-spirited Roman—or, later on, an emperor looking for good press—could always sponsor the renovation of an ancient shrine or the revival of a forgotten religious observance as an act of both piety and heritage preservation. Augustus, for example, was particularly fond of these kinds of projects because they fit in neatly with the conservative, patriotic gloss he put on his reign—he revived old rites (like the Lupercalia), refurbished sacred sites (one of the proudest boasts of his autobiography was the renewal of 82 different temples), and sponsored antiquarian research focused on the preservation of old traditions (like the works of Varro).

One of the most famous examples of this kind of antiquarian reverence is the Lapis Niger, one of the oldest surviving Latin inscriptions. It was part of a ritual complex of some kind built in the earliest days of the Republic, but the site was destroyed—probably during the Gallic sack of Rome around 390 BCE. The site seems not to have been rebuilt, but at some point in the first century BCE, it was protected with a pavement cover and a wall which protected it from the elements and from trespass. Later people weren’t certain what the site was—the majority opinion was that it was the tomb of Romulus, but there were many conflicting stories—but they clearly took care that the site be preserved and memorialized.


The site of the Lapis Niger. The “roof” is a carefully constructed covering from the 1st century BCE; underneath is the original monument from 500 years earlier.


The same site with the roof peeled away, showing the very ancient site under the Augustan pavements.

Plenty of other Romans undertook investigations of the mysteries of the past—from the emperor Claudius, who wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, to obscure bureaucrat John Lydus, who wrote treatises on obscure Roman rituals in Christian Byzantium five centuries later. But the big difference between this interest in antiquities—what the Greeks called archaiologia—and the modern practice is that descriptive accuracy was a secondary concern at best. For example, no ancient source records or tries to make sense of the actual inscription on the Lapis Niger itself, even though it must have been visible when the site was rehabilitated. No modern archaeologist would document the existence of such an artifact without recopying the text.

The “revival” of an ancient rite or the rebuilding of an old site was a very public, political affair with an agenda that had little to do with anything we’d recognize as science. Debating the sources of an obscure custom or the meaning of a cryptic text was a fascinating hobby. But the people footing the bills for such enterprises always had the present, and not the past, foremost in their minds.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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