Author Archives: pjpsteed

About pjpsteed

Retired Air Force, Wife, and Mother to two boys. I graduated with my BS in History/minor in Geography in April 2012. My husband's job has all of us moving from Utah to Alaska in July. Once there, we are hoping to find a new house to buy, and then I am going to try to get my Masters in Education. Hobbies are photography and genealogy. I love traveling so I am rarely stationary for long.

Who Were the Vestal Virgins?

Roman depiction of the Virgo Vestalis Maxima Photo Courtesy of /wiki/Vestal_virgins

The earliest mention of the Vestal Virgins is associated with the Romulus and Remus myth, when their Mother was made a Vestal by her Uncle.  It was supposed to have been an honor, but in truth it was a means of depriving her from ever having children. (Livy, Book 1. 3.11)  In reality the Vestals played an important part in Roman public life.  Tradition has it that the Vestals Virgins were instituted by King Numa.  Both Livy and Plutarch write of his role in the Vestals lives and the roles that they played.  But who were these women?   With their number fixed at six, they were appointed between the ages of six and ten, and had to be daughters of respectable citizens, frequently were the daughters of Italian nobles.  When a vacancy occurred, twenty girls would present themselves to the Pontifex Maximus, head Priest over the Vestal Virgins, who would, chose one from amongst the candidates.  She would then serve for thirty years.   “During the first decade they were to learn their duties, during the second to perform their duties they had learned, and during the third to teach others these duties.” (Plutarch, 10.1-3)  After their thirty years, they were free to chose a new life, even marry if they wanted.  Most Vestals chose not to leave and seek a new life once their service was over.  During their thirty years they lived in the spacious atrium Vasae at the east end of the Forum. (See inserted photo below)  “Their duties were: to keep the sacred fire burning in the adjacent round temple of Vesta (they took turns watching it), to keep the temple clean, sprinkling it with water that they fetched themselves, to sacrifice daily at the sacred hearth, and to take part in various religious ceremonies about the city.  Wills and treaties might be entrusted to them for safe keeping.” (Cadoux)  King Numa bestowed great privledges upon the Vestals.  In exchange for remaining chaste and pure, they were assigned a stipend fro the public treasury, they had the right to own property, make a will during the lifetime of their fathers, transact and manage other affairs without a guardian.  While out performing their duties in the cities, if they happened upon a criminal on his way to his execution, she could pardon him.  But these had to chance meetings and not prearranged.   

A reconstruction of the House of the Vestals by Christian Huelsen (1905). Photo Courtesy of

             Next to the Vasae was the round temple, where the sacred fire burned.  This fire was renewed annually on 1 March, the original New Year’s Day in Rome.  “This fire was a pure fire and might not be fed with wood from dead trees, nor might any rubbish be thrown upon it, or any impious act done in its presence.  If the Vestal Virgins allowed the fire to go out, they had to make anew one by drilling a hole in a board of ‘lucky wood,’ until a flame was produced by friction. The fire was then carried into the temple in a bronze sieve and the defaulting priestesses were whipped.  Since the temple guarded the nameless ancestors upon whose power rested the power of Rome itself, along with all things related to the prosperity of Rome,” punishments for even minor infractions were swiftly dealt out. (Prowse)  For minor offenses, the virgins were punished with whippings upon her bare back.  The most grievous infraction was giving up her virginity/chastity, for this she was condemned to being buried alive in a small chamber near the Colline Gate.  “From Tarquin to 113 B.C. eleven instances of executions of unchaste Vestals were recorded, and two more again in 76.  In only a few cases were the executions of their paramours mentioned.” (Cadoux).  The Vestal Virgins remained until the Emperor Theodosius in 394, when he ordered them disbanded and the fire extinguished.



“A reconstruction of the House of the Vestals by Christian Huelsen (1905).”  (accessed: 23 Nov 2011).

 Cadoux, T.J., “Catiline and the Vestal Virgins.” Historia: Zietschrift fur Alte Geschichte 54 no. 2

      (2005). (accessed 20 Nov 2011).

Livy, Book I. 1919 Loeb translation

Livy, Book V. 1929 Loeb Translation

Plutarch Lives, Numa.  1914 Loeb translation

Prowse, K.R., “The Vestal Circle.” Greece and Rome, Second Series 14 no. 2 (Oct., 1967).

   (accessed: 20 Nov 2011).

“Roman depiction of the Virgo Vestalis Maxima.”

      (accessed: 23 Nov 2011).



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Encaustic Painting

Pliny the Elder’s, Natural History is our earliest written record of the encaustic style of painting.  As he states, no one knows who the inventor of “painting in wax” was, but it was agreed that the most famous painter of this techniques was Pausias of Sicyon. (Pliny, 35:39).  During the period of the Roman Empire there were only three types of encaustic painting, with wax and on ivory with a graver or cestrum, a small pointed graver, and on battleships.  Pliny writes of this last art form, “that of employing a brush, when wax has been melted by fire; this process of painting ships is not spoilt by the action of the sun nor by salt waters or winds.” (Pliny, 35:41)

Encaustic means “burning in” and is applied to this art form since the wax portrait is literally fixed through the aid of fire.  This painting process begins with mixing beeswax with different pigments to obtain the desired color.  The colored wax would then be prepared as either cakes or sticks.  Prior to beginning the painting process, the artist would sketch the portrait or scene on the medium.  Once the outline was finished, the artist would choose either a hot or cold painting technique.  If they chose the hot process, the wax was laid on quickly with brush strokes, using a thinner wax mixture of the background, garments, and facial features.  For this process the painter would employ the use of a heated rhabdion, which varied in shapes similar to today’s paint brushes.  Once the wax cooled, a hand tool would be used to blend in flesh tones to the face and neck.  If the artist chose a cold application, the beeswax would first have to be softened to work with by adding either eggs or oil to the wax.  This mixture is referred to as Punic Wax.  Since it took longer for the cooler wax to dry, this was a preferred method since it gave the artist more control and time to fix mistakes.  Once the painting was finished, the painter would then “burn” the wax.  It is unclear how they did this exactly.  When “painting” on ivory, the artist would use a cestrum, or viriculum to etch the design into the ivory first.  It is not thought that this form of art was detailed due to the firing process when completed.  The final painting process was called the pencillum encaustic.  Here instead of using hard wax cakes or sticks, the wax was kept in pots dissolved previous to painting, so that the painter could use an actual paint brush instead of the metal tipped rhabdion.  When the painting process was finished, the painter would then hold it over a cauteruim, a pan of hot coals or charcoal heater, until the wax was set.

Encaustic Painting Knives from Pompeii Photo Courtesy of

While the most famous painter was a male, throughout history, and even mentioned by Pliny himself, there have been many female encaustic painters.  It is through one of these females that we know exactly what types of tools they employed.  “She, an encaustic painter, had been buried with her tools: reed brushes, bronze cauteria and a bronze box to contain live coals with a rhabdion, a silver top that was used as a plalette.” (Hansen, 2)

Today the painting process has not changed much.  The wax is prepared differently, and in most cases is softer than the original recipe.  In addition to “updating” the wax recipe, the “burning in” process has changed.  Originally, the artist would use simple metal tools and then burn in the artwork through the use of a cauteruim or direct heat.  Today’s encaustic artist employs hot plates to heat their wax and propane torches to “burn in” the process.

Although we can read about the great works of art done in the encaustic method, today we are left with few examples from antiquity.  The majority of this art from can be found on mosaic tiles, or in Greek mummy portraits dating to 160-180 AD.  These Egyptian portraits give us our best views of what people looked like and dressed so long ago.

Funeral Encastic Painting Photo courtesy of


Encaustic Painting Knives, (accessed: 9

Nov 2011).

Funeral Encaustic Painting, 8541836_paint-encaustic-paint.html.  (accessed: 20 Nov 2011)

Hansen, Harold J., “The Development of New Vehicle Recipes for Encaustic Paints.” Leonardo 10

no. 1 (Winter 1977): 1-5. (accessed: 9 Nov 2011).

Pliny, Natural History. 1952 Loeb translation

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Wax Painting or Encaustic.” The Crayon 6 no. 5 (May 1859): 148-149.

Stable/25527899 (accessed: 9 Nov 2011).


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Teuta: The Pirate Queen of Illyria

Queen Teuta of Illyria Photo courtesy of

          After a successful campaign against the Aetolians in 231BC, King Agron of Illyria “took to carousals and other convivial excesses, from which he fell into a pleurisy that ended fatally in a few days.” (Pol 2.4.6)  Upon his death Teuta was appointed regent for her stepson, Pinnes.  At the time, piracy was a normal means of business against everyone in the Adriatic Sea, to include the Italian shipping trade.  For the most part, Rome ignored the activities of the Illyrians, until the Illyrians began to occupy northern Epirus.  As acting Queen, Teuta handed out letters of marquees to her captains allowing them to pillage as they saw fit.  It was not until the Roman Senate started being approached by merchants who had lost their ships and goods to the Illyrian Pirates, that they felt compelled to step in and put a stop to Teuta.  They sent two ambassadors, Gaius and Lucius Coruncanious to approach Teuta, in hopes that she would put a stop to her pirating.  Unfortunately for Rome, Teuta was quite pleased with the revenue she was receiving from her pirates.  About the same time the ambassadors arrived in Illyria, Teuta was busy putting down revolts within Illyria and besieging Issa, who refused to submit to her reign, probably not the best time for the ambassadors to seek an audience.  Being distracted, Teuta listened half-heartedly to the ambassadors’ pleas, replying that “she would see to it that Rome suffered no public wrong from Illyria, but that, as for private wrongs, it was contrary to the custom of the Illyrians kings to hinder their subjects form wining booty from the sea.” (Pol. 2.8.8)  The younger ambassador stepped forth and told her in plain language that he disagreed with her countries customs, and hoped that they would change them to suit the Romans.   Teuta’s response to this personal insult was to order the assassination of the younger ambassador.  Upon Rome hearing of this assassination, they sent armed fleets with legions over to Illyria, the beginning of the First Illyrian War.  Teuta, being forewarned of the invasion, seized all the possible landing spots for the Roman ships along the Illyrian coasts and started besieging the cities that were under Roman control.  She was very successful, and possibly could have held off and won the war, if not for Demetrius, a high ranking Illyrian with designs on the throne for himself. He communicated with the Roman consul his willingness to hand over the island Corcyra and its Illyrian garrison.  This act of treason was the turning point in the Illyrian War.  From this point on the Romans slowly began to gain ground in conquering Illyria.  Facing defeat, Teuta, along with a few of her loyal followers, escaped to an island on the Rhizon River.  The Consul placed the majority of Illyria under Demetrius, practically making him the new regent, and returned to Rome.  In early spring 228BC, Teuta sent an envoy to Rome to sign a treaty ending the war.  Through her envoy, she agreed to pay all tributes that they imposed, to relinquish most of Illyria, and finally agree to not sail more than two unarmed ships south of Lissus at a time.  Lastly she reinstated Pinnes as the rightful ruler of Illyria.  Like Teuta’s life prior to her becoming regent, her life after losing Illyria to the Romans has become one of histories mysteries.  Demetrius later broke his treaty with Rome and declared himself King of Illyria, pushing aside the child Pinnes, and initiated the Second Illyrian War.  Pinnes was finally declared King in his own right but died at the age of 15 before he was able to actually rule. 

     There is only one true image of Queen Tueta from her time still available today, which is a bust of her.  It is currently being housed in a museum in Algeria.  In 2000, Algeria published her likeness on the reverse side of one of their coins.  It is unknown where that image came from.  There have been paintings done of her throughout time, but they are either done in the Greek style of later centuries, or portraying her in Elizabethian dress, which again is wrong.


Image of Queen Teuta on Albanian currency Photo courtesy of



 Badian, E. “Notes on Roman Policy in Illyria (230-210 B.C.).” Papers of the British School at Rome

      20(1952). (accessed 6 Oct 2011).

 Eckstein, A.M. “Polybius, Demetrious of Pharus, and the Origins of the Second Illyrian War.” Classical

      Philology 89, no. 1 (Jan., 1994). (accessed 11 Oct 2011).

 Polybius. Histories: Volume I  1923 Loeb translation.

“Queen Tueta of Illyria bust.” (accessed

      12 Oct 2011).

Salisbury, Joyce E.  Encyclopedia of Women of the Ancient World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.,


Teuta of Illyria.  “Queen Teuta on the 100 Leke coin, issued in 2000.”  Wikipedia web site. (accessed: 13 Oct 2011).


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Gladiator Training

photo courtesy of the British Museum.

                When you mention Gladiator training to people today, they immediately reference the movies Spartacus and Gladiator.  Why is that?  The actors who portrayed these gladiators of ancient Rome resembled the real thing, physically, at least.  The first step in entering a Ludus was being in both fine physical shape, to withstand the training and fights, and be attractive to the masses.

                Gladiators were both slaves and freemen, who elected to renounce their social status.  Before entering training a novice first had to swear an oath agreeing to endure both humiliation and death with honor.  After signing a contract agreeing on a monetary value and the amounts of fights per year, he was then evaluated for what style of fighting he would best be suited for.

                There were five main different fighting styles; a Thraex fought with a relatively small, curved sword (sica) and a small shield (parma).  The parma was used to not only block blows but also to cover the gladiators core section.  Often times, he would also wear long leg-plates.  The Murmillones, named after net fishermen, fought with a long shield (scutum) and a narrow sword (gladius)Like the Thraex, he was also allowed leg-plates, but his could reach no higher than the shin.  The Murmillo was often paired against the Hoplomachus.   His equipment resembled that of the Thraex, but he was afforded a helmet, and instead of a parma, he fought with a round bronze shield.  He would start his fights with a lance, switching to a sica only after being disarmed.  The final gladiator style was the Retairius, he went into battle wearing a loin cloth, with his only protection being a protective wrapping around his left arm and a bronze plate from his left shoulder to his elbow.  His weapons were a circular throwing net and a trident.  While he could be paired against any of the other gladiators, he was mainly paired against the Secutor.  This gladiator resembled the Mumillo with the largest difference being his helmet.  This helmet covered his entire face leaving eye holes to see out of, but it also greatly reduced the gladiator’s field of vision. (Meijer, 2003, 90-93)

                Once the fighting style was chosen the novice would then be assigned to a weapons specialist, normally ex-gladiators who could no longer fight.  Under the care of this specialist, the novice would spend almost every waking moment in the training yard learning the fighting technique, repeating the movements over and over until they knew them automatically.  As their skill progressed, they were moved from practicing with wooden weapons against a wooden pole to blunted weapons against other trainees.  These men would practice until they literally dropped from exhaustion daily. 

                To keep their strength up they were well feed, compared to the general masses.  This was one reason why some freemen volunteered to become gladiators.  Their meals were taken in the canteen along the short edge of the training yard and consisted of barley gruel with beans, vegetables, and brews of charred wood or bone ash. (Curry 2008)  The reason for this was two-fold, the gladiator tended to burn off these calories while in training and when it was time to enter the arena, the added layer of fat acted as a an additional layer of protection.  “If he was wounded, but only in the fatty layer, he could fight on.  It didn’t hurt as much, and the blood looked great for the audience.” (Curry 2008)

                While assigned to a Ludus, the Gladiator was always well fed, and cared for by top physicians.  While most Ludus provided seating for spectators to watch the gladiators spar against each other, the gladiator remained a novice until he entered the arena for the first time.  At this point, he would be given his rating depending upon the outcome of the fight.  Although, we always hear the oath to the Emperor as, “We who are about to die salute you,” it was rare that a gladiator was killed in the arena.  “A gladiator counts it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory.” (Seneca Ess 1-17)

                Archeologists are continuously uncovering more and more information about the training camps of the gladiator.  From a gladiator cemetery, outside of Turkey, they are learning more on how they died and injuries sustained while both training and fighting.  The equipment used has been uncovered from a Ludus in Pompeii, and a new Ludus has been discovered in Austria, intact.  As we continue to learn more about these athletes of the ancient world, our desire to know more ever increases over time.   The Ludi are best compared to the NFL training camps of today, and these gladiators are best compared to our toughest football players, only our athletes do not have to face death in the arena.


 Carter, M.J. 2006/2007. Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement.  The Classical Association of the Middle West 

     and South 102, no. 2 (Dec-Jan., 2006/2007).  (accessed Sept 18, 2011).

 Curry, Andrew. 2008.  The Gladiator Diet. Archeology 61, no. 6 (Nov-Dec., 2008). (accessed Sept 18, 2011).

 Meijer, Fik.  2003.  The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport.  New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

  Seneca. Essays Volume I.  Ess 1-17

  Watson, Traci. 2011.  Huge Gladiator School Found Buried in Austria. National Geographic Daily New,

     September 13, 2011.

     ancient-walmarts-science/  (accessed Sept 18, 2011).


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