Blogging from A to Z: W is for Wine

Andante Travels archaeological guide Daniela Mantice discussing early Pompeiian vinoculture outside the on-site vineyard.

Hi, everyone. We’re in the proverbial home stretch on this year’s A-to-Z challenge. Can you believe it?

Pompeii was famous for its wines. The volcanic soil was good for the grapevines, and the resulting beverage was widely renowned. Wine wasn’t the same in the early 1st century CE as what we drink today. It was nearly as thick as honey, and was usually diluted with wine or vinegar (think sweet balsamic, not the tart kind). Some people put spices and peppercorns in the wine as well, much the way it is mulled at the holidays.

Archaeobotanists have used plaster casts of grapevine roots found during excavations to figure out, as nearly as possible, what grape varietals were used in Pompeii to make the wine. There is a vineyard on-site, under high security, to grow those grapes and make wine from them. Whether or not it’s drinkable, per the modern palate, is a matter for debate … but it’s been done. You can learn more about it here.

Modern Pompei also has its vineyards, and the local wines are quite lovely. If you ever get a chance to visit (and you like wine), you might give them a try.

(Photo by the author.)

Blogging from A to Z: V is for Villa of Mysteries

Just outside the city walls of Pompeii, if you exit via what is now called the Herculaneum gate, lies a construction that archaeologists have deemed the Villa of Mysteries. While it was buried in ash, the villa sustained very little damage when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. The owner of the sprawling suburban villa is unknown, but a statue of Livia (the wife of Augustus, the first emperor) has led to speculation that it belonged to her.

The house is made of stucco-faced concrete, as evidenced by the curved vaulting and opus reticulatum construction; in some places you can see where the stucco has fallen away and the regularly formed bricks inserted into concrete are visible. The house has a barrel vault that goes all the way around the bottom, and lifts it up for what would have been spectacular views of the sea. (The original name of the Herculaneum gate was Porta Saliensis, which meant it was the gateway to the sea.) The shoreline was much closer in 79 CE than it is today.

The house gets its moniker from a series of paintings in what was either a triclinium (dining room) or a very large bedroom; they appear to depict the complete cycle o a woman being initiated into a Dionysian mystery cult.

(Photos by the author.)


Blogging from A to Z: U is for Umbrella Pines

Sunset over the walls of Pompeii, with umbrella pines. Photo by the author.

Hi, everyone. We’re almost at the end of this year’s A to Z challenge. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

If you visit pretty much any part of Italy, you will see umbrella pines, also known as stone pines. They are native to the region, but have also been cultivated for their edible seeds since prehistoric times. That’s right; these trees are the source for those pine nuts you enjoy nibbling or using in your cookery.

Umbrella pines can grow quite tall (up to 82 feet) in maturity, but they start out as shrubs. They go through some foliage changes in the process of maturing as well, changing from single- to double-leaf needles. If the tree sustains an injury, such as a branch breaking off, the new needles will be the juvenile single-leaf variety until the growth matures.

The umbrella pine is one of the symbols of Rome, and is planted along many of its streets.

Blogging from A to Z: T is for Thraex

The thraex, or Thracian, was another kind of gladiator. He typically fought against the murmillo. The thraex carried a small, rectangular or circular shield called a parmula. He had a short, curved sword called a sica, intended to thrust around his opponent to get to their unarmored back. He also wore greaves (shin guards), a helmet with a crest ending in a griffin’s head (oftentimes plumed), and sometimes a guard on the sword arm.

A reader mentioned he was interested in how this all tied into my fiction, and I told him I’d share something today. In my current work-in-progress, one of the characters is a gladiator named Suetonius. He fights as a thraex.

There are many organizations which do gladiatorial reenactments. I found a group from France, ACTA, that has put some of their bouts on video. Here is a battle between a thraex and a murmillo.

Blogging from A to Z: S is for Secutor

Statuette of a secutor, Roman Museum, Andesina, France. Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany / CC BY-SA (

The secutor was another class of gladiator. He was specially trained to combat the retiarius. He carried similar arms to the murmillo, with a gladius and heavy shield, as well as a scaled manica (arm covering) on his right arm and ocrea (greave) on his left leg.

The secutor also wore a distinctive helmet. It had only two small eyeholes, to prevent the retiarius’ trident from being pushed through to his face, and a rounded top so that it wouldn’t be caught in the net. The neck flanges on the helmet were rounded for the same purpose. The thing is, these features made the helmet very heavy, and limited visibility. The secutor had to win his bouts quickly, lest he succumb to exhaustion.

Bouts between the retiarius and the secutor were meant to emulate battles between a fisherman and a fish. The secutor’s arms and armor were designed accordingly.

Portrait bust of Commodus. Capitoline Museums / Public domain

The Roman emperor Commodus fought as a secutor, entering the gladiatorial ring 735 times. Although the fights were likely rigged, his opponents bore any scars they received with honor because they had come from the emperor. Commodus always accepted his opponents’ surrender. However, Commodus’ participation in the ring was not popular with the majority of the Roman public; they considered it beneath his dignity as emperor and felt that he should have been leading actual battles instead.