Lucius Sestius’ coin


In 43 BC, Lucius Sestius was travelling through Asia with Marcus Junius Brutus the assassin of Julius Caesar. Brutus and his fellow assassin Cassius Longinus were busy raising troops and money for the battle they knew would come: back in Rome, Caesar’s heir Octavian had declared them to be enemies of that state. The young Lucius had the job of overseeing a travelling mint, turning out coins to pay the troops and spread Brutus’ message.

On the reverse of the coin, Brutus uses his adoptive name Q. Caepio Brutus (he was adopted as a child by his uncle Quintus Servilius Caepio). The letters PRO COS remind everyone that he had been made proconsul of Asia by the Senate before Octavian had gained office.

The head is of the deified Liberty, reminding everyone that Brutus and Cassius called themselves “Liberators” of Rome. The objects on the other face of the coin are associated with the ritual of sacrifice, an axe, a tripod, and a cup. By sacrificing Caesar, who was was acting more and more like a tyrant, Brutus and Cassius were claiming to have liberated Rome.

In the sewer

I have started to think about what a reader might like to known about the world in which Lucius lived, material which one can’t necessarily shoe-horn into a novel, and on asking around, the most popular answers were to do with food and waste disposal.

Fortunately, there is a magnificent sewer being excavated in Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples which manages to combine the two topics. Running under a row of shops and flats, the sewer yielded a mass of human waste and rubbish all of which is being analysed. While some things were thrown away because they were broken, such as items of pottery, others seem to have been lost down there: nobody would have deliberately thrown away a beautiful gold ring, would they?

But possibly the most fascinating work is being done on the waste material which was most often put down the latrines. Human waste, hardened by the impact of time and the effects of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is being gently taken apart in search of seeds and bones and shells and scales – anything which will help us to identify what those people ate. And the surprise for everyone was the variety. This sewer does not run under a particularly rich house, but as far as we can tell a pretty ordinary block of shops and flats. And instead of existing on a diet of bread and olive oil, the people of Herculaneum had a rich and varied diet, it would appear. And it’s a pretty healthy one too: lots of small fish and shellfish, fruits, nuts and vegetables, olives of course, spices and eggs. A classic Mediterranean diet, in other words.

The BBC have a very good documentary on Herculaneum, Life and Death in Herculaneum, hosted by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill who has been at the heart of excavation in the Bay of Naples area for years and knows what he is talking about. The British Museum also have a documentary from their Pompeii exhibition a few years ago in which they interview Professor Wallace-Hadrill about the contents of the Herculaneum sewer. Check about 47 minutes in –

Dawn’s page

This is the result of a suggestion of a friend who told me that I needed to give a short explanation of the historical setting; after all, Lucius Sestius lived about halfway through a more-than-thousand year story. But I am to keep it to no more than a page…! So here is “A Very Short History of Rome”.

The Romans themselves dated their city’s foundation to 753 BCE, with the legend of the twins Romulus and Remus. After a quarrel, Remus was killed and Romulus became king of a city which started on the Palatine Hill, next to the River Tiber. Successive kings then ruled Rome for about two hundred years. After the rule of a particularly unpleasant king called Tarquinius Superbus, a different political system emerged, and over the years Rome developed into a Republic, in which an advisory body called the Senate and assemblies of the citizen body produced laws. Members of the Senate were elected by the City’s male citizens. Of course, in real life, the rich and high-born still dominated: there was a wealth qualification for the Senate that excluded most people, for example, and the wealthy also dominated the voting. The result was that the Senate had far more power than the word “advisory” would imply: if the Senate recommended a law, it usually got passed. Members of the Senate also did the most important jobs, such as ruling the provinces of the ever-growing empire, and leading Rome’s armies. By the time Lucius Sestius was born, there was a clearly-defined and highly-competitive path for a well-born young man to tread which would hopefully result in him joining his father in the Senate and serving Rome by taking up any number of posts.

As Rome’s power grew however, problems also arose. Instead of working on behalf of the country, some individuals used their military career to boost their own support. This led to more and more anomalies – people bucked the system, leap-frogged over those plodding their way to the top, used bribery in elections, threatened Rome with armies which were loyal to a general rather than Rome. And a system which encouraged the upper classes to compete against each other for office risked producing a maverick, someone who was not going to be content with following the expected path.

As “Rome’s End” opens, one of those mavericks is in full flow – Julius Caesar has used immense personal popularity among the lower classes and his loyal armies to take supreme power, and is Dictator of Rome. After five hundred years of freedom from the tyranny of the kings, Rome is back to being ruled by a single man.

Many of the terms used such as “Republic” and “Empire” did not mean the same thing to Lucius as they do to us. He had no concept of modern democratic practices, but he would have completely understood the sad fact that to get to the top in a democracy such as the USA, you need a vast amount of money. It is always interesting to draw parallels between the ancient world and the modern, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of assuming that our own practices must be superior.

The fasces

One of the strangest symbols of power, and one of the longest-lasting – who would have thought that a bundle of rods with an axe would give rise to one of the most feared words of the twentieth century?

Every Roman magistrate of the Republic who was allowed to wield imperium – official authority – had physical trappings of that power. These included a bodyguard of lictors who each held the fasces, a bundle made up of several rods and an axe tied together.

By the end of the Republic, an elaborate set of rules regarding lictors and fasces had developed, including how many lictors each type of magistrate – dictator, consul or praetor – was allowed.

And, of course, the minute I wrote that, I remembered that the Vestal Virgins also were escorted by a lictor, presumably because the Vestals were so tied up with the safety of Rome that they needed protection themselves.

What surprised me was the number of examples I found of the fasces being used as symbols of power in more modern times. For example: the USA and France adopted imagery which involved the fasces in the eighteenth century, Mussolini’s Fascist party took its name from the fasces, the image of the fasces is on the 1916 “Mercury” dime issued by the US mint … The list goes on.

the insignia of the National Guard Bureau of the USA

Plague and pestilence

While researching the historical events of the year of Lucius Sestius’ consulship, 23 BCE, I found the historian Cassius Dio very informative. In Book 53 of his Histories, he tells us that this year and the next were not good for people’s health, and certainly we know of two famous people who fell seriously ill – Augustus himself, who recovered, and his nephew Marcellus, who died. In addition, in 23 BCE the wooden bridge (the Pons Sublicius) was swept away in the flooding of the Tiber and that a wolf was found in the city… an omen of course of terrible things! Immediately following this, in Book 54, Dio says that a pestilence swept through all Italy during the early part of 22 BCE, leading to food shortages. I wondered what this disease might be: plagues are reported throughout Roman history but symptoms are rarely described. One can imagine that diseases similar to typhoid and dysentery would spreading through Rome at a time of flooding, and a city with low-lying marshy areas subject to flooding would have been a breeding ground for malaria. But what sort of disease would sweep through Italy?

There were well-documented plagues later in Roman history – the Plague of Justinian ravaged the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and has been traced back through DNA analysis to the same bacterium Yersinia pestis which was responsible for the Black Death. In the second century, the Antonine Plague was observed by the great physician and writer Galen, and his description has led to some scholars suggesting smallpox.

I’m reading a very interesting article* about the diseases most likely to affect the Roman population, and the authors conclude that malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis were likely endemic in Rome’s population, and may have been epidemic at times – for example, in the summer the mosquitoes causing malaria would have been in reproducing in greater numbers in high temperatures. However, I can’t find any suggestion as to what caused an Italy-wide pestilence in 22 BCE, which got a hold on the population before the summer, causing famine in many areas. But with no symptoms listed in Cassius Dio’s account, I’m struggling. My best guess is some sort of pneumonic plague, again caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was behind Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death. With ships and soldiers constantly visiting Rome from all points of the known world, it does not seem unreasonable to theorise that a disease carried to the densely-populated centre of the empire could thrive and quickly spread. I’m now on the look-out for evidence that it spread from Italy.

As I write, coronavirus is spreading, and the fears felt all over the world are being reported avidly. The Sinophobic element of some responses is depressing: would people react differently if this disease had arisen in Rome or London or New York?

*Oerlemans, Annelieke P.A., and Laurens E. Tacoma. “THREE GREAT KILLERS INFECTIOUS DISEASES AND PATTERNS OF MORTALITY IN IMPERIAL ROME.” Ancient Society, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 213–241., Accessed 24 Feb. 2020.

Roman names

Hold onto your hats, especially if you are female…

By Lucius Sestius Quirinalis’ time, most Roman male citizens had three names-

  1. the praenomen – Lucius
  2. the nomen – Sestius
  3. the cognomen – Quirinalis

Unless, of course he had only two, such as Gaius Maecenas….

The praenomen

This was the name chosen for a baby boy by his parents, and there was little choice or opportunity for imagination. Often, the eldest son was named after father or grandfather. The pool of names available was limited too: Lucius, Publius, Marcus, Gaius, Gnaius, Quintus, Sextus and Titus were popular. Less commonly, we find Aulus, Manius, Decimus and Tiberius.

The nomen

This was the main “family” name. Girls were given the feminized form of this name.

The cognomen

At first, it seems that cognomina were given to individuals for a personal reason – maybe a head of striking red hair resulted in a cognomen of “Rufus”. The cognomen “Cicero” means “chickpea” and some people have suggested that an ancestor of the orator Cicero may have had a peculiarly-shaped nose to be awarded this cognomen! Names could also be awarded as an honour after a military victory, such as Publius Scipio Africanus. Pompey the Great was given the cognomen “Magnus” after his meteoric rise under the Dictator Sulla, and used this rather than his father’s cognomen, Strabo. This shows the fluidity and usefulness of cognomina: in a world of almost identical names between the generations, it could be very useful to have a cognomen that made one stand out. The Caecilius Metellus family were numerous and nearly all called Quintus: so we find it useful that so many of them gained cognomina – Pius, Creticus, Dalmaticus, Nepos, Celer….

Female names

A Roman girl was given the feminine form of her father’s nomen – Tullia, Sestia and so on. But where there was a need, you could add names to make it clear which of your daughters called Tullia you meant. If you had two daughters for example you could add “Major ” and “Minor”. If you had three or more, you could add “Prima” (the first one), “Secunda” (the second one) and “Tertia” (the third one). Sometimes a woman could add her father’s cognomen – Livia Drusilla, Caecilia Metella. You could always make it clear which of the Clodia sisters you were referring to by adding her husband’s name – so “Clodia Metelli” would mean “Clodia, the wife of Metellus”. We know diminutives were used, particularly within a family – Cicero often refers to his daughter Tullia as “Tulliola” (“little Tullia”), and Junia Tertia could be known as “Tertulla” (“little Tertia”). I have yet to find an example of a woman taking her mother’s name, though there are hints. When I have tracked one down, I shall add it!


On the grounds that they were human beings, I have assumed that the Romans used nicknames. Apart from anything else the lack of variety in praenomina must have made this widespread.

So why did Gaius Maecenas only have two names? He was a Roman citizen, after all, living at a time when everybody used at least three names. Some later sources have bestowed an extra name upon him, “Cilnius” but this has been questioned. In the end, as with so much about the Roman world, we don’t really know.

Winning poem

I am absolutely thrilled that I have won the English section of the Nartha poetry competition here in Qatar. The competition was run by the Qatar Poetry Centre, along with the British Council. See this post on Instagram and Twitter

The Flame Inside

Beyond the window let unsureness run.

The glossy bird hops up to the streaked glass

And peers inside. Its beak chips at the pane.

“You’re sure you know? For look – there lies your goal.”

And lights and music spin beyond the glass.

Inside is shaded warmth, a little dull,

Outside a funfair’s gleam, all glitz and shine.

The window winks with diamonds – no, just glass.

The bird’s head tilts and queries me again.

But fire on the hearth leaps into smoke-tinged heat.

Maybe that startling life will melt the glass

And I’ll step up and hold the blue flame out.

The bronze edict of El Bierzo

From the Hispania Epigraphica Online Database

This bronze tablet discovered “unofficially” around 1999 actually mentions Lucius Sestius Quirinalis, using his full name, as having been a legatus in Spain – that is, governing a province on behalf of Augustus. Interestingly the province is named as Transduriana, which I had never heard of, and to judge by the cautious comments I have so far discovered, nobody else had either! There are queries raised about the composition of the bronze this is made if, the way it was discovered, the use of the title “Imperator” and the very unusual way in which Lucius first name is recorded in full rather than the more usual single letter “L”. The edict is dated 14/15th February 15 BCE, so indicates that at some point between 23BCE – his consulship – and 15 BCE, Lucius governed a part of the newly-conquered of Spain on behalf of Augustus. Presumably this explains why many years later, there is a fleeting reference in Pliny the Elder to three altars to Augustus set up by Sestius. Maybe these altars were part of Lucius’ governor’s duties.