Posted in History & Literature

Ides Of March

“Beware the Ides of March”.

This is one of the most famous prophecies in literature (and history). It was said by a soothsayer to the great Julius CaesarDictator Perpetuo (“dictator in perpetuity”).

The Ides of March (Idus Martiae) refer to a date, specifically March 15. The ancient Romans did not number the days of the month but instead referred to three specific dates within a month. The Ides referred to the middle of the month.

The Ides of March have become an infamous date due to an event that changed the course of Roman history – the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar became the sole leader of the Roman Republic after a great civil war. There was much dissent from the senate, who had lost much of their power through Caesar’s uprising. On March 15, 44BC, Brutus (Caesar’s adopted son) and members of the senate conspired to assassinate Caesar to end his rule.

In William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, it is said that Caesar passed the soothsayer who had warned him of this day and said to him: “The Ides of March are come”, mocking the failed prophecy. The seer simply replied: “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.
Not long after, Caesar was ambushed by 60 men led by Brutus and was stabbed multiple times to his death. With his dying breath, he uttered: “Et tu, Brute?” – meaning “You too, Brutus?”, showing his despair at the betrayal by his own son.

The Ides of March was traditionally the date when Romans would settle their debt. Perhaps Brutus, who had actually fought against his father in the civil war but then forgiven by Caesar, chose this date to symbolise settling the political tension of the time – to liberate Rome from Caesar’s monarchy.

Ironically, the assassination triggered a series of events that led to another civil war, ultimately causing the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, led by Caesar’s other adopted heir, Octavian (later known as Augustus). Augustus proceeded to round up 300 conspirators complicit in the murder of Caesar and executed them as a tribute to the now deified CaesarDivus Julius.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Although sex was devised by Mother Nature to promote procreation, humans have been trying to separate the baby-making aspect of sex from the pure carnal pleasure it gives for a very long time. The Romans are known to have used a fennel-like herb called the silphium as a form of birth control. They discovered that the leaves of this plant could be ground up and made into a resin pill, which seemed to reduce the likelihood of women becoming pregnant. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recorded that one could use the resin as a pill or pessary to promote menstrual discharge, suggesting pregnancy has not occurred.

News of this medicine spread throughout the empire and there was massive demand for it. The plant grew exclusively on a narrow coastal area in present-day Libya and was impossible to cultivate. This meant settlements in this area could trade the plant at a very high price. It is said silphium was “worth its weight in denarii (silver coins)”. Its economic importance is signified in coins from Cyrene (an ancient North African city where silphium was produced) depict the silphium plant or seed. In fact, one theory of the origin of the heart symbol is the shape of the silphium seed pod. Overharvesting of the plant, the fact that it could not be cultivated and other factors such as changing environments and overgrazing ultimately led to the extinction of this plant and scholars still debate the exact identity of the plant.

Although there are records that indicate silphium was used as a contraceptive and abortifacent (substance that induces abortion), it is unclear as to how effective it was. Related plants such as wild carrots have shown to have abortifacent properties in some studies and there certainly are a vast list of plants that could potentially harm or terminate a pregnancy. Regardless of the potency, the heavy trade of the plant and its intended use points towards the fact that the concept of contraception is not new to human civilisations. It is interesting to think that we are the only species to actively want to reduce the risk of making a baby during sex, which is the original purpose of sex.

Posted in History & Literature

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s day is the one day put aside every year, on the 14th of February, to celebrate the love between a couple. It is a rather controversial(?) holiday with many people contesting that it is the result of chocolate and flower companies conspiring to increase sales and that people should love equally on every day. The day is full of hearts and cupids and chocolate, making it the perfect day for couples to show off to the world just how much they adore each other, while single people put up a nonchalant face while desperately trying to distract themselves from the fact that they alone (there is also a statistic that states suicide rates peak during Valentine’s day).

February 14th was not always associated with romantic love. Originally it was a day honouring Saint Valentine of Rome (it is debated whether day honours him or another Saint Valentine – Valentine of Terni). In 1st century Rome, it was illegal for Christians to marry. Saint Valentine secretly performed weddings for Christians under threat of death (helping Christians was illegal too). He was eventually caught, imprisoned, tortured and killed.

As one can see, the story (and its ending) is not the most romantic one and Valentine was honoured for helping Christians rather than being involved in marrying people. It appears that the romantic association started around the 14th century in Parlement of Foules by Chaucer. Up until the 19th century, the only custom for Valentine’s Day was the giving of cards (or “valentines”) between loved ones. It was in the mid-1900’s when the practice of giving roses and chocolates arose (most likely due to advertising campaigns by companies for the commercialisation of the day), with the diamond industry promoting a custom of giving jewellery on Valentine’s Day.

Another not-so-lovely story related to Valentine’s Day is the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of Chicago in 1929. In a conflict related to gangs and bootlegging, the South Side Italian gang led by Al Capone initiated a deadly attack resulting in the death of seven deaths.

Posted in History & Literature

Pyrrhic victory

Sometimes in war, victory comes at devastating costs. Such was the case for King Pyrrhus of Epirus when he battled the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC. Although Pyrrhus was ultimately victorious, due to the sheer size of the Roman army Pyrrhus’ army suffered significant casualties (but still less than the Roman casualties). Pyrrhus’ forces had been so crippled that another assault by the Romans would have utterly crushed them and led to a massacre.

This led to Pyrrhus’ famous saying: “Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone”, implying that the cost of victory was so high that there is almost no gain. Such a victory is now called a Pyrrhic victory – a victory that is not really a victory.

Posted in History & Literature

Capuchin Crypt

In Rome, Italy, there is a small church called Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The church itself is not that different to the many beautiful churches in Rome, but it is special because of what lies beneath it. After walking down two staircases underground, one is faced by a door leading to the Capuchin Crypt.

Once inside the crypt, one can see why it is so famous – it is an ossuary, the burial place of human skeletons. The Crypt is made of six small chapels, each decorated with the skeleton of over 4000 bodies. Ribcages are organised into hearts, thigh bones are used to frame pictures and tailbones are used extensively with skulls to produce elaborate works of art. Even the bones of the fingers are used to create elaborate patterns on the wall. The chapels also have intact skeletons still dressed in brown friar habits (religious robes) from the 17th century. They also contain the remains of babies.

The reason why some skeletons are dressed as friars is that most of the bodies are those of Capuchin friars, buried by their order under a church according the regulation of the Catholic Church. In 1631, Capuchin monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars and buried them in the crypt. As monks died over time, bodies that were buried for the longest were exhumed to make room for the new bodies. This led to the accumulation of thousands of thirty-year old skeletons and so the monks decided to honour those friars by decorating the chapel with their bones. Among the buried are also bodies of poor Romans whose bodies no one cared for.

In the last chapel of the crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, the central skeleton stands out as it is enclosed in an oval of femurs (thigh bone) and holding a scythe and a scale. It is a symbol of death, reminding those that gaze upon it that all humans are mortal in the face of time. The room also contains a plaque with the following message in five different languages:

“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

Posted in History & Literature

Hannibal’s Cane

Hannibal was the greatest commander of Carthage, who threatened the Roman Empire and is considered “The Father of Strategy” after his brilliant tactics. He is most famous for the Second Punic War around 200 BC, where Carthage ultimately failed to conquer Rome. However, if it was not for a single cane, Hannibal may have destroyed Rome and Carthage may have dominated the history of Europe.

There is a scene in the epic Roman poem, Punica, where Hannibal’s forces are crossing the Alps. This was considered an impossible feat back then and in modern terms, it is as if China was to tunnel below the Pacific Ocean to reach USA soil. This kind of out-of-the-box thinking, charismatic leadership and brilliant military tactics and strategies allowed Hannibal to become one of the greatest threats in Roman history. However, the Alps still proved challenging even for him, and the journey was highly dangerous.

One day, Hannibal’s army reached a valley known as Certain Death, but the soldiers’ morale was too low for them to want to cross it. Hannibal tried to lead them through by using his cane to knock on the snow they stood on, proving that it was solid and safe. But the shock from this action triggered a massive avalanche that struck the army. It devastated the army equipped with advanced weapons and elephants, destroying almost two-thirds of his army (18,000 out of 38,000 soldiers were killed) and a quarter of his cavalry. 

This army that was destroyed so by the Alps managed to fight the war for 16 years, hassling Rome in every way, even producing great outcome such as the infamous Battle of Cannae, considered the greatest tactical feat in military history. One cannot help to wonder whether Hannibal would have completely crushed Rome with a full-size invasion force.

This shows how something as small as a cane can decide the flow of a war.