A see-saw of invention vs burning people at the stake

Lovers of Rome will know a square called “Campo de’ Fiori“: Today’s the day to remember it and all that it might symbolise. It’s in the dead centre of town, very quaint buildings with wonderful pastel colours, cobbled stones, a famous fresh fruit and vegetable market; and a scary statue of a hooded monk holding a book.

Fruit and veg at Campo de' Fiori square in Rome
Yummy fruit and veg at Campo de’ Fiori square
Statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome
The philosopher monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake on 17th Feb 1600.

It’s the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church: The monk was an intellectual called Giordano Bruno, and this was the place where he was burned at the stake, a victim of the inquisition.

He was also contemporary to Galileo and surprisingly, it was he who suggested that the stars were other suns like our own, not Galileo or Copernicus. Bruno embraced the Copernican system of the solar system and went further to tear down the medieval barriers of astronomy. He opened up the mind to the notion of an infinite universe. In his view, the universe had no centre: not the Sun, nor the Earth. His thinking led him to propose that all of existence must be infinite as well as made of atoms: Notions which had been forgotten since the fall of Roman hegemony. Interestingly, all these ideas came to him through logic and metaphysics, rather than maths and astronomical observation. He was a strong proponent of the scientific method.

The date was 17th February 1600. The trailing end of the Renaissance and ante-chamber to “The Enlightenment”, but not without a set of intellectual battles with evidently material effects:

  1. Biblical authority: Diverging points of view on Biblical authority and what kind of truth is to be had from it – yes there are various kinds of truth, and Einstein seems to have stretched things even further. Theological interpretations over words such as “...and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it…” (Matthew 16:18). The issue here being that “Peter” in Latin means “Rock”, hence the sentence can be read as explicitly saying that it is Peter, and hence his successor the Pope, who should be the foundation of the Church. Others might have had a more symbolic interpretation.
    • ie Power and a desire to maintain the status-quo was at play: “I am the pope, and therefore, you will do as I say!”.
  2.  Scientific method: The clash of learning based on classical thought based largely on logic and pre-established dogma vs. the growing Scientific method based on evidence, supported by the likes of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Induction and Deduction.
    • ie another angle on how to gain greater access to learning; with a ricochet hit on Biblical authority.

Ironically, the Fathers of the Church had gone to great lengths to reconcile the Old and New Testaments with (parts of) Greek Philosophy. Discovery that some of that doctrine like the earth being the centre of the universe and planets revolving around it, caused interpretative issues, if taken at face value.

The control on power, social order, and knowledge were all stirred up in one dangerous soup.

So back in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, the monk-cum-philosopher Giordano, got too close to the edge of the pot and fell into the flames of a very man-made hell. We all know that Galileo made the faux-pas of getting on the wrong side of authorities on the theme of scientific method and motion of the planets, but he steered clear of having anything to do with numero uno. Galileo repented and got away. Giordano didn’t. Both contributed to free thinking and foundational understanding of the universe we live in. Both are deservedly remembered.

Having noted the importance of today (17th Feb) we could stop here, but the ambition of this short essay is to scratch a little further to investigate the see-saw of capital punishment and scientific progress. Perhaps we may learn something of our future?

Invention vs. Divine Inspiration?

A step further in our journey of discovery could be taken by looking at the preceding Biblical phrase to the one already quoted: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven.” hmmm many will have a sense of doubt at this point. But let’s dig…

For sure we have a nice merger of the above stake-burning themes; it suggests learning coming from divine inspiration, rather than human effort (aka the scientific method). But if we remember to focus our interest on Scientific Progress & Invention, put Simon’s specific case to one side, and indeed put aside the idea that inspiration is necessarily Divine; you could play the sentence ambiguously:

  • The scientific method based on theory and experiment has brought us much progress and invention. No doubt.
  • On the other hand, invention never seems to be the result of someone stumbling on it as a result of an institutionalised path of research. This is a very generic statement, but you can collect intelligence and knowledge as they did in ancient Alexandria or communist Russia and countless other states, without it easily translating into actual results of progress and innovation.
    • It’s an ongoing, unresolved, modern political debate: Institutionalised approach <> invention and progress. Never solved.

It’s as if the true inventor sees a peak in the distance, a flash of inspiration, and then methodically works a path towards it, NOT the other way around. It’s not a random ramble, stumbling across an invention, but a definite path with an end-point in mind which no-one has mapped out before!!! Call it pre-cognition, or even Divine inspiration if you will, but something weird is happening before the scientific method actually turns that inspiration into something worthwhile. The scientific method is a powerful tool; it is not the source of invention.

Divine or not in source, at this point the conclusion would be that the key to a future of revelatory scientific discovery lies closer to the message for Simon than that for Peter and the argument contained in those two phrases and the subsequent arguments they lead to is somehow reflective of the eternal see-saw of innovation and learning vs burning people at the stake.

What about the See-Saw of stake burning and innovation throughout time?

That biblical conversation was written down in ancient Roman times. Already then, the issue of invention, new knowledge, and the impact it could have on the establishment were a major concern setting hierarchies and social orders. Irrespective of your religious views or even the Biblical example, it is easy to find other instances. Another curious example is found in a few ancient Roman texts, also including Pliny’s Natural History (NH36.66): “In the reign of Tiberius, it is said, a combination was devised which produced a flexible glass; but the manufactory of the artist was totally destroyed, we are told, in order to prevent the value of copper, silver, and gold, from becoming depreciated.” Suetonius tells a similar story in his “12 Caesars” as do other writers, also telling of how emperor Tiberius assured himself that the information of the invention’s recipe was unknown to anyone else, and then proceeded to have the inventor beheaded. I guess beheading is better than burning at a stake.

So what of today and tomorrow? Is the see-saw of invention and persecution still at play? Surely yes. Even setting aside the world of industrial espionage, hacking and space-age encryption, there are countless stories of regimes muffling the voices of those who might spread unwelcome information and learning. The debate is increasingly strong particularly in times of free-flowing boundary-less information. The reality is likely more disturbing and entering an evolutionary stage with fresh mutations.

The new set of questions seems very mixed up and confusing, perhaps getting difficult to distinguish the “good” from the “bad”:

  • There is no doubting that data, analytics and artificial intelligence is able to see your every move and predict your every need before you even know it; opening up the gates to a veritable future of Orwellian control, and yet on the flip side the need to defend ourselves from irrational radicalism seems to lead to a public demand for the authorities to know every move of hitherto non-suspectable 16 year-olds gone awry. 
    • Question: Will the see-saw reverse so-to-speak? Will the fighters of truth and liberty be fighting a battle, not for the freedom to spread new knowledge, but to contain our personal information?
  • What will happen when we instill that uniquely human or indeed Divine “inspiration” which lies at the heart of invention into Artificial Intelligence “engines”? An interview with Gary Kasparov the mighty chess-player might allay our fears: “Type A” artificial intelligence is about brute force of numbers and variables within a confined set of rules; it’s not actually able to think… It will aid us and free us to do greater and better things. But what about “Type B” or C or X for that matter? Steven Hawking might tell us to watch out and fear the future as machines surpass “us”. The jury is still out as to whether AI will be good or bad. Most say good, rather like the Industrial Revolution has had definitely positive aspects for all of us – though we should remember that the Industrial Revolution came with its upheavals and a generation of job displacement which even today would be difficult to deal with. Just like it was difficult to deal with on the 17th February 1600.
    • You can’t suddenly convert the taxi, cleaning, bricklaying, shop-attending jobs to “data scientist” degrees (though London cab drivers do seem to have the brain the size of a planet).
  • Question: Will there be a day when humans will be burning the AI machines at the proverbial stake, out of that self-same fear of our being displaced?

History has much to teach.

The column which made history, defied gravity, and warped space-time

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One of the most iconic monuments of all time was erected by emperor Trajan; it is now better known as “Trajan’s Column”. As columns go, it defines the very essence of defying gravity, transforming its purpose into a historical artifact, a vehicle of political propaganda,  a pedestal for a statue and much more (not to mention housing for pigeons).

Give it a minute’s thought and you will be in wonder as you realise that perhaps there’s more to it than just another Roman architectural monument.

Trajan’s column made history because:

  • It was a monument which commemorated Emperor Trajan and his victory over the Dacians: A region spreading across Romania, Moldovia, Hungary, and Poland. Seen nowadays this is just one facet of this Roman column’s existence.
  • Built in the Roman forum (actually it is part of the Imperial Forum)
  •  Trajan had had to employ the greatest architects and engineers of the time to flatten out a very large hill so as to achieve a useful construction area for his forum. The height of the column denoted the height of the hill which had been removed.
  • The column’s spiral architecture was inspired by the construction of a scroll narrating a story over time – the full campaign from beginning to end, not just the battles. Cool.
  • True to it’s literary inspiration it was located in the centre of Trajan’s library it’s story being roughly legible both as a spiral as well as vertically from a single vantage point.
    • Astrophysicists might consider the parallels with Erik Verlinde’s theories of gravity being a resulting phenomenon of the entropy (information) associated with the position of material bodies… hmmm. That’s the beauty of classical architecture for you!
  • It was of such a size – ~4m wide and 40m meters in height, plus the height of the statue above – that you could walk up the inside. Being placed within the surrounding library buildings you could also walk up the outside and it’s images could be read by people on the 3 floors of Greek and Latin library buildings either side of the column.
  • It’s form was a truly Roman invention. An eclectic transformation of a column into a quintessential Roman column and unique element of Roman architecture.
  • The sculpted lettering on the column’s pedestal is widely regarded by lovers and professionals of Font and Type as the true representation of ancient Roman lettering. A version of this was made into ‘Trajan’ typeface at the beginning of the 20th century, surprise surprise. 

So there we have it:

A column which surpassed the very meaning of column, located in a library, used a typeface which defined fonts for the next 2000 years and was structured to deliver a (commemorative) message irrespective of your position in space and time. Wow. A veritable time machine.

This makes us consider the extent to which the Romans used architecture to create monuments which linked both space and time at a grand scale.  Other easy examples of “Roman architectural spacetime” include

  • Augustus’s Ara Pacis with its sun dial clock
  • Hadrian’s transformation of the Pantheon


From ancient Roman roads to living on the moon

This is a map of the North Eastern part of the ancient roman world. Printed in 1789.

The title has great opportunity to be both dramatic and romantic….”All roads lead to the moon” or “A straight road from Rome to the moon”. Hmmm

An interesting article on the UK DailyMail about NASA studies into a cheap base on the moon led me to my usual consideration: Surely there are some parallels with past events in history which can help us consider this futuristic event? Surely Ancient Rome will have something to teach us about colonising the Moon and indeed Mars?

Here are a few ideas which quickly sprang to mind:

  1. The expansion of the Roman empire, it’s military with their great engineering skills and their famous Roman roads were usually preceded by Roman merchants on the search for new markets. Perhaps SpaceX is just one of many such mercantile enablers of our space future?
  2. When the Romans went about colonising a new region they’d establish military camps and build roads to enable movement of goods and troops. These engineering projects used local slaves and building materials.
  3. Logistics and strategy around getting goods and people to the new location to set up a stable site.
  4. Choosing the strategic location and indeed the design of appropriate settlements would surely have developed over time. The Romans would surely have learned much from the Greeks who had been great colonisers and founders of cities before them. A great example being Alexander the Great and Alexandria itself. Might this imply a new era of settlement planning and architecture?
  5. And of course, there must have been great savvy in ancient Rome around how to render such expansionist initiatives economically feasible… In the earliest days of the Roman Kingdom wars were only waged in certain times of the year, not only for weather reasons but also bearing in mind the need to tend the land and harvests. It was later in time that Marius thought of setting up a professional army and going against the past social etiquette.

The parallels could be that in the modern age:

  • Much like the ancient Roman merchants, modern private firms are investing heavily: Not only in space travel itself but also in the technologies which are essential for colonisation. First and foremost I think of robotics, self-driving vehicles and so on. All of this brings down the cost of the would-be colonising agency since much of the innovation is being done for them. Perhaps self-driving or remote controlled mining and tunneling machines….
  • The robots we build would then be used to go and do much of the work up there, using local materials to build the basic 2D structures like roads. I wonder whether the technique would remain the same of layering materials starting with the finest and pounding the larger blocks into them. The material used happens to be the same as the Romans are best known for: Basalt! However, as mentioned above they would have used what materials were most available locally to avoid lengthy transportation.

So at this point, we have two elements: Slaves (robots) and Roads (using local basalt), but surely we can look further….

  • Might the comparison go further? Perhaps the journey is as risky as it was back in the Roman age and the travel times are similar, especially when considering travel to Mars (9 months apparently). To this, we might add the strategy around sending out increasingly stable groups of personnel, trained and capable of differing jobs. The social relations and personal motivations at work when setting up a colony are probably similar too.
  • And last but not least, it may be worth thinking of what factors were at play when the empire began to shrink. For example, once the Romans withdrew, the cities and settlements in ancient Roman-Britain began to fall into disuse again…so again, reminding us of various factors at play, such as culture, communications, and support from home-base as fundamental necessities for a distant outpost to be functional.

All of this leads us to consider the often forgotten obvious: Simply getting out there is not sufficient and that multiple factors, many less obvious than others are necessary to the successful establishment of a distant outpost.

Etruscan Tombs

Etruscan tombs are extremely fascinating, particularly the ones dating back to around the sixth century BC due to their architectural detail and decoration. Clearly the types of tomb employed throughout Etruscan civilisation varied somewhat and included solutions such as cremation, burial in chambers or even in deep wells.
The tombs at Tarquinia and Cerveteri are particularly interesting because they are of the chamber type: a large mound would be piled on top of a circular wall with an entrance to it. The entrance would often lead downwards into a passageway and into a number of chambers, rather like a house. The one in the image below is particularly well known for the large number of relief sculptures showing the different types of implements and tools one would have had in one’s own home at the time. This tomb is also interesting for the ceiling, which has obviously been sculpted to mimic the ceiling of housing of the time.

Ancient Roman Recipes

Numerous ancient Roman recipes have made their way down to us although we cannot be absolutely certain of their accuracy given that the primary sources, such as Apicius’ De Coquinaria have made it down to us via copies made by monks and quite likely distorted by tastes and available ingredients of their own times.

It is interesting how incredibly popular ingredients or elements of Roman cookery such as the fish based sauce called “Garum” should become completely unknown to us, at least as far as its preparation is concerned.

As outlined in our page on Roman food the foods and recipes found on Roman tables varied and went in parallel with did Roman fortunes, wealth and culture both on the way up and the subsequent way down. The early Romans were austere shepherds/warriors. The Romans of the Republic were increasingly rich and in spite of the warnings of a nostalgic few such as Cato, avidly took on the habits of the populations they took over, for example the Greeks.

Conquest and riches gave access to imports from distant countries and exotic spices and ingredients with the obvious consequences this would have on traditional foods and recipes.

It seems that Roman recipes were handed from cook to cook with little information by way of quantities, presumably because it would be the cook’s on job to decide how and how much of each ingredient to add.

The philosophy behind Roman cookery (and tastes) was one of addition. This contrasts with the modern western approach whereby the various ingredients and spices are generally meant to enhance and support a major flavour which takes the principal role in the dish. This could possibly be likened to oriental cookery where the notion of opposites (ying and yang) plays a strong role and opposing flavours are often played against one another in equally powerful quantities. For example in sweet and sour!

The space that follows will be employed to add ancient Roman recipes….


Please note: these recipes are shown for information purposes only. Should you try them you are doing so at your own risk – but do let us know how you get on!

Fabam Vitellianam – Cream of broad beans à la Vitellio – Cook the broad beans and when it has frothed add leaks, coriander and mallow wild flowers.


Ancient Roman Leaders


A brief page on Roman Leaders in continuation to the broader article Ancient Roman leaders. It includes a general conclusion on the subject as well as a diagram of the important Scipio family who defined Rome’s future and included many notable leaders of all political and military camps.

Roman leaders in early Rome

A simplified genealogy of the Scipio family – great Roman leaders! – is given below.

Genealogy of the Scipio Family in Ancient Rome (gens Cornelia)

The Scipios formed a lengthy family tree which entwined itself with other great names of Roman history such as the Gracchi. The diagram above is a simplified version of the full family tree but sufficient to show the extent of Roman leadership within a single family: consuls and military leaders famous for their endeavours in the Punic wars which gave Rome supremacy of the Mediterranean, all the way through to defenders of plebeian rights (tribunes of the people) eventually assassinated for their revolutionary endeavours.

Their “revolutionary” reforms, particularly free grain for the poor, eventually became standard practice thanks to the example first given by Julius Caesar and eventually carried through by all the Emperors who followed him.

Concluding Remarks about Ancient Roman Leaders

It is interesting to note that the genealogy of the gens Cornelia shown above touches on leading figures of ancient Rome which span the entire period between the conquest of Italy, the wars with Carthage, domination of the Mediterranean almost reaching the final  crisis of the republic and the social wars of 90-80BC. Why is this interesting? Because if we consider aspects such as roman inventions, the roman economy, and even look at provincial cities such as ancient Pompeii, we will note that this period was both convulsed with civil strife yet at the same time a period of great socio-economic growth and wealth.

It is poignant to compare this group of Roman leaders with the Caesars and Julio-Claudian dynasty which ruled the Roman empire over a century later – the different, orientalising, approach to leadership exercised by emperors such as Caligula and perhaps most memorable in Nero’s model of rule and leadership. The plebeain masses came to hold less sway in daily politics and fortunes of the empire. The role of some Roman women such as Livia and Agrippina the younger played fundamental roles in establishing the rights to rule and the Roman army (increasingly full of plebeians) took an increasing role in establishing imperial nominees.

This was the period when the balance of Roman society really began to shift and even the definition of Romans was changing. With hindsight we can see there was still with some growth to come and the empire was still to reach its greatest extension but some of the aspects and symptoms of the fall of the Roman empire already beginning to manifest themselves. Few Roman leaders were truly able to reverse the ongoing process of decline.

Leaders and Caesars of Ancient Rome in chronological order: | ancient Roman kings | Tarquin | Marius | Sulla | Rome Julius Caesar | Augustus |The 12 Caesars | Emperor Tiberius |  Caligula | Emperor Claudius | Emperor Nero | Emperor Vespasian | Hadrian | Roman Emperor Trajan | Rome’s Five Good Emperors | Emperor Constantine | Emperor Justinian | Other emperors of Ancient Rome |

You might also have a look at what it was to be emperor or “imperator”. A list of Roman emperors.  A general look at famous Romans such as Scaevola “the left handed”.

Interesting external links about ancient Roman leaders

An interesting look at the value of hereditary leadership in ancient Rome

Thought-provoking essay comparing Ancient Roman leaders, the Empire, the US and Barack Obama

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"Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Ancient Rome History Designed by VSdesign Copyright © Maria Milani 2017