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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 40 - Toilet Paper of the Ancients (Discovery Week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The Bona Dea scandal – or how one man nearly bought down the Ceasar by cross dressing and sneaking into a sleepover.

This was an ancient sex-scandal that rocked the Roman Republic, Tom. A story of seduction, disguises, secret societies, and man's desperate urge to “discover” what women get up to when left on their own for the night.

So, what, or who, is the Bona Dea? Well the Latin phrase means 'Good Goddess', and that's pretty much all we know about her. She was the goddess of fertility – and a virgin so pure and chaste that men weren't even allowed to know her name. And since men did most of the writing and oratory, that means that we actually don't know who this goddess was. We don't know where she came from, we don't know her origin story, or her relationship to the other gods. Writers at the time thought she might either be a version of Terra, the Earth Goddess, Ceres, goddess of crops and fertility, or Fauna, wife and or sister of Faunus, the Roman version of pan, because hey, if you're already half man half goat, you might as well go full Alabama and marry your sister, right?

So we know literally nothing about her, but this is despite the fact her cult was a state sanctioned and funded religion with temples and festivals – but men were completely banned from both.

Now, there were two festivals to the Bona Dea held in Rome every year. One was held on May 1st at her temple on the Aventine Hill, and was for Plebians, the public. We really don't know very much about that at all as it was completely secret to men and, since it was for the lower classes, no one really cared to find out and write about it.

The second was far more interesting though. It was held in December and was for the Patrician or aristocratic class, and was held in the mansion of the leading Magistrate at the time, Rome's most senior elected official. And it was a big deal. The magesterial villa was cleared of anything that could be considered male, under the watchful eye of the Vestal Virgins, the all-female keepers of Rome's eternal flame. Obviously, the men were the first to go, then statues of men, portraits of any men, male animals, the list goes on. The house was then decorated with flowers, and a sow was sacrificed. A portrait of the Bona Dea was carried from her temple to the mansion where she was fed a delicious meal of sow entrails, whilst the women got very, very drunk. In fact, getting smashed and playing silly games were part of the official rites, and it was the only time in the year when Roman women were allowed to do it. Even then they had to claim they were drinking milk to avoid the blushes of their husbands. So clearly they had a lot of interest in keeping it a secret.

Which meant that, men being men, they wanted in on the action. Roman aristocrats were, as we know, just as petty and let by their dicks as any teenage boy today, and one in particular, an ambitious but overly horny young senator called Publius Clodius Pulcher, wanted in on the action. So much so that he nearly bought down the Government, he was so keen to firstly discover what went on at these all women parties, and secondly, to try and use is as an excuse to shag the wife of one Gaius Julius Ceasar. Who you may have heard of.

So it's December 62BC. Julius Ceasar is Rome's Senior Magistrate and chief priest, an elected position, so it falls on him and his wife Pompeia to organise the festival at the official residence of the Pontifex Maximus, one of the grandest and most conspicuous hosues in Rome. Caesar pisses off to do what priests do, probably a lad's weekend, whilst Pompeia gets on with the festival. But there's a new noblewoman in town who rocks up. She's dressed like a woman, but uh-oh, she has a beard. That's ok, maybe she's from Hispania. She's got a very deep voice as well. Oh well, maybe she's a former Olympic shot-putter from East Germania.

No, it's a bloke in a woman's toga. Clodius had broken in to the festival in drag, either (or both) out of curiosity, or to try and seduce the likely very drunk Pompeia. Though how that chat up line would have worked I'm not quite sure. Hey, Pompeia, you looka beautiful, wanna take a ride on my Vespa?

You're a strange lady, aren't you. What was your name again?

It'sa me, Clodius-ina. I'ma beauuutiful woman. Witha greata moustache. Now, letsa go upstairs and do what drunken noblewomen do when left alone with no men, whadaya saya?

Unsurprisingly, Clodiusina was very quickly discovered and nearly torn to shreds by the women, in fact he had to be bundled out into the streets by slaves.

And this caused HAVOC in ancient Rome. Literally all Government functions ceased for around six months whilst the scandal and associated court cases dragged out. Poor Pompeia was divorced by Ceasar, who declared that the wife of Caesar must be above suspicion – though it's at least partly likely that he was just furious that some dick in a dress had caused a major political and religious scandal under his watch and in his house – although he obviously wasn't at the festival, as the elected head of Roman religion and head of the household, it looked pretty bad.

Meanwhile Clodius was charged with desecrating the ancient rites, which carried the death sentence. It also provided a great opportunity for his rivals to swoop down on him. His brother-in-law, a military commander named Lucullus, launched a prosecution against him for incest, claiming he'd been sleeping with Lucullus' wife, Clodius' own sister. This was partly in revenge for Clodius' having earlier sparked a mutiny among Lucullus' men for political reasons I won't go into. Very interesting but we don't really have time and it's complicated. Meanwhile Cicero, who hated Clodius, piled in for the prosecution on both court cases – providing witnesses and oratory.

There's a great quote from Cicero about the affair: Publius Clodius, out from his saffron dress, from his headdress, from his Cinderella slippers and his purple ribbons, from his breast band, from his dereliction, from his lust, is suddenly rendered a democrat.

So under all the dresses and the slippers, you'll find a politician.

Caesar actually stayed out of all of this, aside from the divorce, and refused to comment; presumably to protect himself against any more scandal, and because Clodius was a personal friend and ally., despite having tried to shag his wife.

He was only acquitted after two years and an awful lot of bribery thanks to the generosity of one Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome and who we've talked about before. But it completely destroyed his career. For years, even decades later after his death, his name was mud among the aristocracy.

It does seem though that Pulcher learned his lesson, at least in love. After the scandal he seems to have settled down and mended his ways, marrying, rebuilding his relationship with Caesar, and actually having a reasonably successful career, being elected Tribune having won over the public by setting up the first grain doles or monthly guaranteed food supplies to the poor.

He was still a bit of a dick, though, using the Roman workers' guilds as his own personal gangs and terrorising the streets and rival politicians, including Pompey and Caesar - for several years.

He never gave up bickering with Cicero either, bringing several court cases against him to get him exiled, and having his property and houses seized and destroyed. Throughout all of which, Cicero never let him forget the Bona Dia scandal. Saying once that “If the Republic must be destroyed by someone, let it at least be destroyed by a real man”. IE, not one in a dress.

In the end, the rivalry ended in mass street brawls between rival gangs, including a lot of gladiators.

Pulcher was eventually murdered on the Appian way by Cicero's bodyguards, among other conspirators, in 52BC.

Tom's notes:

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Oxi-rinkus Pa-pie-rye)

It’s a town with a very long history.

· Ancient Egyptian town named after the medjed fish; a type of Elephant fish that in Egyptian mythology gobbled up Osiris’s penis after he was chopped up by Seth, the god of chaos.

o Osiris was the god of fertility and the afterlife. He wanders around with a crook and flail; presumably to grab people by the neck and tickle their face; “ooh you like that don’t ya, naughty boy”

o Seth doesn’t sound too nice, “I’m the god of chaos! Watch me throw my socks in the draw without pairing them up! I’m going to start two loaves of bread at the same time! 4 jars of peanut butter, all opened! You see this DVD? Watch me put it on the shelf not in alphabetical order!”

· During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, so we’re talking a good 900 years from the death of Alexander the Great to the conquest of the Muslims, Oxyrynchus was a banging place to be. Very important, lots of cool places to visit; one of the largest theatres in North Africa, baths, temples, hippodromes

o Is it worth explaining what a hippodrome was?

§ The Romans were the first people to attach helicopter propellers to hippopotamuses, controlled via mobile devices. These were called hippodrones and were races around hippodromes.

· When the Arabs conquered the area, the site rapidly became deserted and only a much smaller town occupied part of the site of the old city.

o For about 1000 years these people dumped their rubbish at various sites outside of the town.

o Fortunately for archaeologists, Oxyrhynchus was supplied with water from the Nile via a canal, instead of being right on the banks of the Nile. Subsequently it was in very dry and not flood-prone land. Particularly after the canal dried up.

o This meant that at the end of the 19th Century, when two British amateur archaeologists visited the area looking for archaeological significant finds relating to early Christianity, they found unparalleled treasure troves of ancient texts on papyri in the dumps!

These two chaps were Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, fellows of Oxford University. One a Brummy, one for Essex.

· “Aright Arthur, I think I’ve found some papyri in this dump”

o “Looks like it might be Sophocles”

o “Or maybe be Thermistocles”

o Oh no, it’s Euripedes”

· “Nah ya wrong there mate, what you got there, is a bit of the old Pindar, a bit of fancy poetry from Pindar, or maybe if you’re lucky, the Gospel of Thomas”

· These two chaps set to work and rapidly realised that they’d struck oil. Classical oil. The oil of antiquity.

o At the time, Oxyrhynchus wasn’t much to look at. Archaeologically there was very little left above ground because Egyptian archaeological sites were pillaged during the 19th century for building materials, often burnt for lime. Not unusual.

So, Oxyrhynchus is just an incredible archaeological site. Let’s be serious for a moment and describe what has been excavated so far from these dumps:

· Only about 10% of the papyri are literary; i.e. Classical and biblical literature

o Too many to names, but here are some snippets:

o Fragments of Homer

o A lost play from Sophocles

o Pindar’s poetry

o The oldest diagrams of Euclid’s Elements (Euclid was a mathematician)

o Menander’s comedies

o Lost works from Aristotle

o Early copies of books from the Old and New Testament

o Apocryphal New Testament documents

§ i.e. documents that were circulated during early Christianity but did not make the Orthodox bible;

§ Notably the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary

· The majority of the papyri are more mundane and every-day in nature; which provides an incredible, if mostly rather dull, insight into everyday life; which it would appear was incredibly corrupt!

o Wills

o Letters

o Tax returns

o Accounts

o Bills

o Court records etc

I’ve had a look at some of the sillier documents

o “I was today instructed… to inspect the body of a man who had been found hanged… and to report my opinion on it. I therefore inspected the body… and found it hanged by a noose, which fact I accordingly report”.

o “I hereby agree on the august, divine oath by our lords Emperors and Ceasars to offer my eggs in the market place publically, for sale and for the supply of the said city, everyday without intermission and I acknowledge that it shall be unlawful for me in the future to sell secretly or in my house”.

o From a school text: “Adrastus, king or Argos, married one of his own rank and had two daughters, who thought not ugly, were unlucky as to marriage, for not suitors offered themselves”

o The Decurion invites you to his party of the sixth day before the Calends at eight o-clock

o I am at a loss where to go. My ship is shattered. I weep for my sweet bird. Come, let me take the chick he nurtures, he, my warrior, my beauty, my Greek cock. For his sake was I called great in my life, and deemed happy, comrades, in my breeding cares. I am distraught, for my cock as failed me, he fell in love and deserted me

o Heat and equal quantity of beaver husk and poppy juice upon a potsherd, if possible one of attic make, but failing that of …, soften by diluting with raisin wine, warm and drop in. Another, dilute some gum and balsalm of lillies, and add honey and rose-extract. Twist some wool with the oil in it rough a probe, warm and drop in.

o For earache, you can rinse with onion juice or warm bile from a bull, goat or sheep

Since 1898, only about 1 to 2% of the Papryi have been sorted and translated. Every year a volume of year’s translated texts is published. Currently, the majority (as far as I could work out) are still kept in the original cardboard boxes in which they were stored by Grenfell and Hunt, just waiting to be sorted. They look like oversized sultana bran.

· Now, to extend this cereal analogy, if the papyri fragments are the bran, the sultanas could be, well, erm, poo.

· Let me quote academic AnneMarie Luijendijk

· “Only in rare instances, we can detect the fi nal use of a papyrus fragment. Th is happened with a Homer manuscript from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. LXVII 4633). In order to understand its last use, I should mention that when dug up from trash heaps, papyri consist of crumpledup, dry lumps. Before they can be deciphered, they have to be straightened out. Th is is done by applying moisture to make the papyrus supple again and then pulling and rubbing it in shape.100 Hunt even advised that this was best done with one’s fi ngers.101 Whether it was the vapors let loose when this Homer piece was dampened or more substantial organic remains stuck to it, the conservation of that papyrus must have been a surprisingly unpleasant task, for its editor, J. Spooner, notes that this text was last used as toilet paper—or what I would call ‘toilet papyrus.”

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