Kristina Killgrove
Kristina Killgrove

Teeth and Bones from Ancient Rome Hold Clues to Migration and Slavery

Kristina Killgrove
Kristina Killgrove

There’s an old saying that “all roads lead to Rome.” With good reason, too. Rome during the Empire was massive, with crowded neighborhoods boasting a population density comparable to New York, and with roads snaking throughout the Empire to help provision its capital. Along with goods came people; both immigrants looking for jobs or education and slaves brought to Rome to serve the upper classes. My new study, out today in PLOS One, uses teeth from Roman skeletons to start a conversation about migration to the capital during the Imperial period (1st–3rd century CE). 

We know from Roman history and from studies of ancient demography that the rate of migration to Rome had to be relatively high, and we know that many citizens could move freely around the Empire. But archaeologically speaking, migrants are practically invisible. Unless they were wealthy enough to leave monuments to their foreignness, these individuals are hard to see—especially among the lower classes and slaves who made the journey to Rome.

But Roman skeletons hold different information than historical records and archaeological remains like material culture. Bones and teeth can be analyzed by bioarchaeologists to reveal what someone ate, what diseases they had, and where they were born. So skeletal analysis is starting to provide new answers to longstanding questions about ancient Roman lives, including people’s origins. 

Using molars from two cemeteries in Rome that date to the 1st–3rd centuries CE, my colleague Janet Montgomery and I analyzed the isotope ratios of strontium in 105 people and of oxygen in 55 people who were likely among the lower class, judging by their simple burials with few grave goods (objects buried with them). The ratio between two isotopes, or variants of an element, reflects the environment where a person lived while their teeth were forming in childhood. By comparing the strontium and oxygen isotope ratios present in the skeletons with the ratios expected for people raised in Rome, we could identify individuals whose isotope ratios did not correspond with an origin there.

Since Imperial Rome was a very complex place—water was brought in via aqueducts from the east and wheat was brought in from as far away as North Africa—it is easiest to see immigrants whose isotopes are very far outside the norm for Rome. Out of more than 100 skeletons, we found four people—three adult males and one adolescent—who we are confident were from elsewhere. The adolescent's isotope ratios are consistent with an origin in Africa, and the males' are consistent with homelands in the Alps and Apennines.

The isotope ratios of another four people, including two older children and a male and a female teenager, are less clear-cut, but these individuals were probably also not from Rome. Isotope analysis isn't a biological GPS, though, so while we can't be sure exactly where they came from, it seems that people arrived from all compass points.

Given what we know from history, it is not surprising to find migrants among these skeletons, but it is a little surprising that we found so few. The scale of slavery and migration to Rome during the Empire means we should expect more people to be migrants. However, isotope analysis cannot distinguish among people who were born in Rome and people who were born in another, isotopically similar location. We may be missing some migrants who are hidden within the data.

The people who came to Rome as children and died in Rome as children are particularly interesting. Of the eight probable immigrants, there are three adults, three teenagers, and two older children. This number of juveniles was unexpected because both voluntary migrants and slaves mentioned in the historical records are usually men. Based on their isotope ratios, two of the juveniles came from somewhere with older geology, like northern Italy, while the other three came from someplace warmer and drier than Rome, like North Africa.

One adolescent in particular, whose eye orbit with an anemic condition is seen in the photo below, has a tooth with very different strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotope ratios compared to what we'd expect from Rome. His bones showed, though, that his carbon isotope ratio just prior to his death was in line with Rome. This indicates he changed his diet after migrating. While it makes sense that we'd see migrants adopting the diet of their new home at Rome, this is the first study to make that connection explicit through isotopes.


Based on skeletons alone, we've discovered that people of both sexes migrated, often as children, and we've demonstrated a change in diet following migration.

Why did they come to Rome? Some were motivated to migrate in antiquity for many of the reasons people are motivated today: to find a better job, to be educated, to make a better life. But many were forced to come. We know from historical records that the scale of slavery in the Roman Empire dwarfed the amount of voluntary migration. Still, slavery in ancient Rome was often a temporary legal status, and manumission of slaves was common.

There is nothing in the isotopes, the skeletons, or the graves that clearly identifies slaves or voluntary immigrants. This work, though, opens up a new way of looking at migration to Rome that may eventually yield new information on the history of slavery and the experiences of Roman slaves.

The work that I and many colleagues are doing in the bioarchaeology of ancient Rome demonstrates that physical remains can give us new information about a culture that people have been studying for millennia already. The bodies of people throughout the Empire are helping us flesh out the skeleton of Roman history with the experiences of the people whose stories have not yet been told.

My PLOS One article is freely downloadable here:

Killgrove K, Montgomery J (2016) All Roads Lead to Rome: Exploring Human Migration to the Eternal City through Biochemistry of Skeletons from Two Imperial-Era Cemeteries (1st-3rd c AD). PloS ONE 11(2): e0147585. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0147585.

All images courtesy of Kristina Killgrove

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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