The History of Italy — From “Et Tu?” To COVID-19

With Caesar’s death, the Roman Empire began. It reached its zenith with Augustus, the emperor after Caesar. The month of August is named after Augustus and Augustus ruled for four decades. His reign ushered in two centuries of Roman glory, called Pax Romana, Roman peace. The last five emperors of this time were selected for their ability to rule and they were known as “the five good emperors.” The inscription that one knows from movies like “Gladiator,” SPQR, is an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, meaning “the senate and people of Rome.” During Pax Romana, trade increased including the import of slaves, silk, and spices. 

The winds of history started changing and in 395 CE, with the death of Emperor Thodosius, the mighty Roman Empire which ruled over 70 million people, was split in two, the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Reverberating down the ages is the Sack of Rome which happened in August 410 CE. At this time, Rome was not the capital of the Roman Empire. The capital was Mediolum, modern Milan, and had been moved there in 285 CE. The significance of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 CE was that it marked the first time that Rome had been conquered in 800 years. In 455 CE, Rome was sacked again by the Vandals and that is where we get the word vandal. The sackings continued until 476 CE when a Germanic warlord declared himself King of Italy. 

At the same time as the rise and fall of Rome, the greatest story ever told happened. It was about a Jewish boy named Jesus. You may have heard it. In the Roman Empire, there were struggles between the emergent religion, Christianity, and the old religion. When the Roman Empire split, the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul. At the time, the Byzantines called themselves Romans and their empire was the Roman Empire since the peninsula around Rome had fallen to barbarians. This is the source of the name of the country of Romania. In Byzantium, Constantine I made Christianity the official religion in 324 CE and Christianity flourished. Back in Latin Rome, the Western Empire, things were looking dark. 

During the Dark Ages, Italian history is a series of wars, but the main thing to happen is the rise of the Papal State. In 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned at St. Peters in Rome, by Pope Leo III, as emperor. The term, “Holy Roman Emperor” was used later to connect to the divine with the might of the Roman Empire. The empire ruled by Charlemagne and the Franks stretched down to the middle of the Italian peninsula. Even north of Rome, there were still many independent city states that flourished from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. These included city states such as Genoa, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Amalfi, Florence, and Venice. Due to location, location, location, Venice became a hub for trade. 

One of the merchants who was from Venice was John Cabot. John Cabot, first to explore the North American shores since the Vikings, was an Italian. He was Giovanni Caboto, Zuan Chabotto in Venetian. He actually signed his name as Zuan Chabotto. Zuan is a form of John. Zuan Chabotto was a well traveled merchant who had been to Egypt in his trade of silk and spices. He may have been born in Genoa and a contemporary described him as “another Genoese like Columbus.” Genoa is one of those places I will visit as I have heard so many stories about it, mainly from my Peruvian-Italian family, when they tell their immigration story to the Americas. 

Amerigo Vespucci was a merchant, explorer, and navigator from Florence who was part of the Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, and he had two continents named after him. The earliest use of his name for the continents was on a map in 1507 when it was used for the continent of South America. Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy were his letters. In these, he described a “new world” that was not India, as Christopher Columbus said of the same place when he had bumped into it a few years earlier. There are some historians who believe that America was named after the Amerrisque Mountains in Nicaragua or Richard Amerike, supposed owner of John Cabot’s explorer ship. 

Christopher Columbus was also Italian. Cristoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristoffa Corombo in Ligurian. He was born in Genoa, son of a weaver and cheesemonger. Young Christopher helped at his father’s cheese stand. The cheese that he sold could have been “bros” cheese. Bros or “brus” is a cheese made with old cheese and grappa. Like many foods, it grew out of frugality. Old, moldy, hard, or stale cheese was mixed with homemade grappa to make an entirely different product. Grappa is the liqueur made from distilling the pomace, pulp, left after winemaking. The old, smelly, cheese was mixed with grappa, spices, and possibly butter and then left to ferment in an earthenware jar until it became creamy. This fermentation created a product that was preserved. It was served spread on bread. There are variations including using wine and “brus da ricotta” or “bruzzu” which is made without wine or grappa. Brus da ricotta is made with fermented sheep’s milk ricotta mixed with chili or black pepper. Ricotta means “re-cooked” and is the cheese made from the whey that is left over after making other cheeses. It is similar to cottage cheese. Ricotta in Italy is made from the milk of cow, sheep, goat, or water buffalo. Water buffalo were imported from Asia, perhaps as early as Roman times. 

Christopher Columbus traveled far including possibly as far north as Iceland and as far south as Ghana. Since the middle ages, the route to find spices was through the silk road and east. Christopher Columbus wanted to find a western route to the East Indies, as all of East and South Asia was called at that time. When he reached land, an island in today’s Bahamas, he called the natives “Indians” and it is assumed that he thought he had reached India.  

Then there was the Renaissance. Which means the introduction of the fork. Of course, you may recall that “renaissance” means “rebirth.” The Renaissance started in Florence in Tuscany and spread southward and then to the rest of Europe. The Renaissance was a re-awakening of culture, arts, philosophy, and literature. In 1320, Dante Alighieri wrote the Divine Comedy, a poem that he called simply “the Comedy.” This was published in his local language of Tuscan therefore cementing Tuscan as the Italian language. Modern day scholars believe that Dante was influenced by the Islamic work Kitab al Miraj which is the tale of the prophet Muhammed going to heaven. The Renaissance was a time of learning from the Islamic world, much through al-Andalus, Islamic Spain. The Divine Comedy is the journey of a man on a quest to find god. This is where we get the phrase “the ninth circle of hell” which is actually described in the story. In the ninth circle of hell, sinners are punished by being made to lie in a icy slush that is produced by never-ending frozen rain. Sounds like soup weather. The sin that sent one to the ninth circle of hell was betrayal. 

Another literary work of the Renaissance was Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” This book was dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, father of Catherine, who introduced the fork to the French court. Lorenzo’s other child, Alessandro de’ Medici, became the first Duke of Florence, and he was black, which at the time was not a hindrance to upward mobility. Alessandro was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo and an African house slave, Simonetta da Collevecchio. Female house slaves who served as handmaidens were called “ancilla.” Slavery was a common part of the ancient, medieval, and renaissance worlds. The Catholic Italians would buy slaves from the Islamic world, and the muslims would buy slaves from the heathen Catholic world. The city-states of Genoa and Venice controlled the slave routes and this included selling Slavic peoples, thus the word “slave” comes from the Slavic people of the modern day Balkans. In Roman times, slaves could easily blend in with the Roman populace so they were branded on their foreheads. 

Alessandro’s nickname was “the Moor” due to his complexion. This designation is also used with Othello, of Shakespeare fame. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare spent his “lost years” in Italy. Alessandro was assassinated by a cousin and the duchy returned to another branch of the Medici family. 

The Renaissance in Italy, along with being a time of exploration, was also a time of continued strife and battle between the city-states on the Italian peninsula. During the fifteenth century, Florence, Milan, and Venice emerged as the strongest. They signed a peace treaty in Lodi. But the wars continued. The varying Italian city-states continued to be at war with France, Spain, and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was King of Spain, Lord of the Netherlands, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and head of the House of Habsburg. As Holy Roman Emperor, he had control of the northern parts of Italy and as King of Spain, he had control of southern Italy as they controlled Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. Charles was the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, who had financed Christopher Columbus. There is a Flemish legend that Charles V preferred beer over wine and as a result there are beer brands named after him.

Emergent throughout was the power of the Papacy, the Roman Catholic Church. Since gaining traction in the fourth century, Christianity had risen from strength to strength, crusades, and had split with the Counter Reformation. In Italy, while the constant battles had ravaged the economy of the Italian peninsula, the church got richer. 

New world explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus were both Italian but in some ways their search for the alternate route to find the spice islands, source of black pepper, led to the demise of the power of mercantile powers such as Genoa and Venice. That, and the Black Death. The plagues 1630 and 1656 killed twenty-five and forty-three percent of the population. This loss of population, thus economic growth, lead to a decline of 31 percent in the GDP, gross domestic product, in two centuries. 

The next couple of centuries saw more war on the Italian peninsula and at the end of the eighteenth century, the result was that Austria won over Spain in ruling the Italian city-states. 

Then along came Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1796, he forced Austria to retreat, and he then spent the next three years conquering the Italian peninsula in the name of the French revolution. This included declaring himself King of Italy in 1805 in a region around Venice. He ruled the rest of the peninsula but mainly through his rule of France. In 1809, Napoleon made it to Rome. He had been excommunicated earlier by the Pope, but now the Pope fled. There was a lot more fighting and eventually Napoleon was exiled to Elba, escaped, and still did not succeed. 

The seed of unification was planted. Revolution and independence were popular at that time in Europe and abroad. The British colonies had declared themselves free a few decades back, and the French people had had a revolution as well. On the Italian peninsula, where the seed of unification was sprouting, the flame blew into the Italian Wars of Independence from 1848-1866. These wars were mainly against Austria, that big brute, and the Kingdom of Sardinia did most of the heavy lifting.

Part of the unification of Italy involved choosing a king. King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia was chosen as King of Italy in 1861. Italy was a kingdom until 1946 when a referendum created the modern Italian Republic. Giuseppe Garibaldi was an Italian general who is considered one of the fathers of modern Italy. Garibaldi’s life took him all around the world and he became a much admired figure in history. For the sake of a book on food, I mention him as part of history. He helped create Italy as a unified country, but there are still Italians who wish he had stayed home.  

The flag of Italy, “il Tricolore” contains three panels with equal vertical panels of green, white, and red. Green is for the evergreen scrubland of the Mediterranean, white for the snowcapped Alps, and red for the blood shed during the revolution. Garibaldi’s men were also called redshirts after their uniform. According to Catholic interpretation, the flag colors represent hope, faith, and love. The “love” part of this represents the virtue of charity and love for God and for thy neighbor. Quite appropriate for a land of neighbors. Just to prove what a patchwork of nations Italy was, here is the title of the King of Italy up until 1946: 

[Name], by the Grace of God and the will of the Nation, King of Italy, King of Sardinia, Cyprus, Jerusalem, Armenia, Duke of Savoy, count of Maurienne, Marquis (of the Holy Roman Empire) in Italy; Prince of Piedmont, Carignano, Oneglia, Poirino, Trino; Prince and Perpetual Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire; Prince of Carmagnola, Montmellian with Arbin and Francin, Prince bailiff of the Duchy of Aosta, Prince of Chieri, Dronero, Crescentino, Riva di Chieri and Banna, Busca, Bene, Bra, Duke of Genoa, Monferrat, Aosta, Duke of Chablais, Genevois, Duke of Piacenza, Marquis of Saluzzo, Ivrea, Susa, of Maro, Oristano, Cesana, Savona, Tarantasia, Borgomanero and Cureggio, Caselle, Rivola, Pianezza, Govone, Salussola, Racconigi over Tegerone, Migliabruna and Motturone, Cavellermaggiore, Marene, Modane and Lanslebourg, Livorno Ferrraris, Santhia, Aglie, Centallo and Demonte, Desana, Ghemme, Vigone, Count of Barge, Villafranca, Ginvevra, Nizza, Tenda, Romont, Asti, Alessandria, of Goceano, NOvara, Tortona, Bobbio, Soissons, Pollenzo, Roccabruna, Tricerro, Bairo, Ozegna, delle Apertole, Baron 

of Vaud and of Faucigni, Lord of Vercelli, Pinerolo, of Lomellina, of Valle Sesia, of the Marquisate of Ceva, Overlord of Monaco, Roccabruna and eleven-twelfths of Menton, Noble Patrician of Venice, Patrician of Ferrara. 

Talk about name dropping, or name-including. I think my favorite part is the “eleven-twelfths of Menton.” 

Italy was part of the Allied Powers in WWI giving them a seat at the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. In 1922, the prime minister, former journalist Benito Mussolini, head of the National Fascist Party, led a coup d’etat. His rule was a “legally organized executive dictatorship” from 1922-1943. Mussolini consolidated his power through his use of his secret police, laws, and any other means necessary. Mussolini formed a Italian East Africa by invading Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He was an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. In WWII, Mussolini entered Italy on the Axis powers siding with Hitler. He also recognized the independence of Vatican City as a country.

Italy as the Italian Republic was formed on June 2, 1946. This also gave Italian women suffrage, the right to vote. This date is celebrated as Republic Day.  Over the next few decades, Italy joined NATO, became a part of the EEC, forerunner to the European Union, and benefited from the Marshall Plan. 

In the 1990s, Italy went through terrorist attacks by the Sicilian Mafia. During the period of 1990-2011, Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister through four governments, making him the third longest lasting prime minister since Italian unification. This shows that Italy continues to be a land of neighbors. During the 2010s, Italy has been at the center of the European migrant crisis, taking in more than 700,000 refugees, most crossing from Africa. In 2020, Italy was one of the hardest hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic. 

A Short History of Italy – From Myth to 44 BCE (Caesar’s Death)

In preparation for my move to Italy, I wrote a book about food in Italy. In the book, I wrote a short history of Italy. The history of Italy as a country is short because Italy only became a nation in 1861. But, the history of the Italian peninsula is long, so here is my version of it, thanks to Wikipedia. 

First, the name, Italy. Theories abound, but the one I like is that the name, Italia, comes from the Oscan, an extinct Indo-European language from the area of the ankle of Italy, for “land of calves” because that area of Italy is the “calf,” to boot. Another theory is that Italy is named after a king named Italos, this spelling is based on Ancient Greek. Italos was king of the Oenotrians, a pastoral tribe in southern Italy. The myth says that Italos was the grandson of Odysseus. Yes, that guy. The King of Ithaca, the hero of Homer’s tale of Odysseus, and the guy who took ten years to get home, interrupted not by traffic but by the Trojan War. Odysseus is famous for his “nostos” which is the theme of “homecoming” in Ancient Greek literature. This demonstrates how rare it was for Greek men to return home after going off to sea. The island of Ithaca is a real island located off the west coast of Greece, across the water from Italy. Italos, the king of the Oenotrians, is mentioned in the fourth century BCE (so 2,400 years ago) by Aristotle. My favorite part of this namedrop by Aristotle, is that King Italos, not only converted his people from being pastoral to agricultural, but he was the first to  “institute their system of common meals.” Since this is a book about Italian food, that’s a factoid that I wish I could learn more about, but Aristotle isn’t answering my emails. 

Second, some metrics about Italy today. Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world (behind China, the United States, Spain, and France in first place), with 60 million inhabitants, and 61 million tourists each year. 

After the time of Odysseus, around 50,000 years ago, there were some homo sapiens living in modern day Rome and Verona. These homo sapiens were Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neanderthals. Modern genetics has discovered that the Neanderthals did not die out but were amalgamated into modern human beings merging with the conquering Homo sapiens sapiens, us. Neanderthals get a bad rap, but that is because history is written by the victor. In this case, the victor was Homo sapiens sapiens. Neanderthals were shorter and broader in body type and supposedly those with red hair have more Neanderthal in them than the rest of us. Homo sapiens arose in Italy around 48,000 years ago. Fast forward to Otzi the Iceman. He was found in the Alps on the border with Austria and Italy. He was a copper age hunter who lived around 3,400–3,100 BCE (imagine the candles on that cake!). 

Otzi was part of the first Indo-European migration to Italy from mainland Europe. About five hundred years later, during the bronze age, a second migration happened and these people became the famous “Beaker Culture” in areas of modern day Tuscany, Sardinia, and Sicily. Around 2,000 BCE, a third wave happened. These people, the Apenninian culture and the Terremare cultures moved in to the Po Valley in modern day Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. These people, named for the “black earth” of their settlement mounds, began to raise beans, grapes, wheat, and flax. A fourth wave of immigrants arrived around 1,000 BCE and moved in to northern and central Italy. These people were called “Proto-villanovans” by archeologists. Elsewhere, on the island of Sardinia, a native culture based around megaliths called, “nuraghe,” developed. The only reason I mention this in a book on food in Italy, is that it shows how local culture is a point of pride, and this includes food. It’s all local. Local pride before it became fashionable. 

In this quick trip through Italian history, we have now almost reached the Roman Empire. By 800 BCE, in the central part of the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans were flourishing. Their origin and much about them are a mystery, but they likely emerged from the Villanovan culture. Mitochondrial DNA shows that the modern day Tuscans, descendants of the Etruscans, originated from central Europe. The Etruscan language was not Indo-European and most of their writing is undeciphered to this day. The Etruscan kingdom engaged in territorial wars, mainly with its major contender, Magna Graecia, to the south.  

The story of Magna Graecia, great Greece, is also the story of Italy. Magna Graecia was the Roman term for the southern coastal parts of Italy and the island of Sicily. This area was a colony of Greece. These areas were Hellenistic, from Hellas, the name for Ancient Greece, in culture. Some of the best preserved Greek temples and remains are in Italy. The Roman Empire borrowed, stole, or bought, most of their art and culture from Greece. For an interesting example, listen to the “You’re Dead to Me” podcast about the original Olympics. It’s not what you thought you knew. 

One of the most successful Greek colonies was “New City,” Neopolis, modern day Naples. Neopolis was the first Greek colony absorbed into the Roman Republic, in 327 BCE. The last of the Greek colonies to fall to Rome was Sicily, capitulating in 241 BCE, during the first Punic War. The Punic Wars were fought between the two mighty naval empires of the third century BCE Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. Syracuse, on the coast of Sicily, held out for another twenty years, and to this day, there are still Greek speakers in parts of southern Italy. Syracuse was an independent state and allies with Rome, until 214 BCE, on the death of the king. Political intrigue, perhaps involving Hannibal (yes, him, the guy with the elephants walking across the Alps), caused the Carthaginians to cede at the Siege of Syracuse. The Syracusans lost despite the might of the brain of mathematician and scientist Archimedes on their side. He even invented a weapon for this battle, the Claw of Archimedes. Another weapon used during the Siege of Syracuse was the sambuca. When I read this, I got quite excited thinking that they had used the anise flavored liqueur in the battle. But, they did not. The sambuca that they are referring to is a “siege engine” as in a type of “siege boat.” This weapon got its name because it resembled a harp, a sambuca. More on the drink later. I wonder where it got its name. Maybe because Bacchus, the god of drink and merriment, played a harp? 

The Greeks who settled in Italy came from the Mani (mania in Ancient Greek) Peninsula, and claimed to be descended from the Spartans. Thinking back to Odysseus and how rare it was for men to return from sea, the Spartans had a similar safeguard system. Spartans were not allowed to go to war until they had produced a boy child, which tells you of their return rate. The Maniot Greeks were famous for their military prowess and bloody vendettas, some of which continue to this day. Another group of Maniot Greeks moved to the island of Corsica in the seventeenth century CE under the protection of the Kingdom of Genoa. Whenever I hear the word, Corsica, I’m reminded of my favorite movie, Zorro the Gay Blade, when he is showing off and says how they will, “defeat the feetless, buy corsets from Corsica…” 

Before there was a Roman Empire, there was a Roman Kingdom. The founding of Rome is a great story. Can’t rival the greatest story ever told (because then, it would be), but it’s still fantastic. The story starts in the myths of time with Latinus, son of Odysseus, he who took so long to get back to his home, and Circe, a Greek enchantress who was good with herbs. Latinus had a son, Aeneas, who became the first king of Alba Longa, modern day Tuscany. Aeneas was a Trojan hero whose mother was Aphrodite, Venus in Roman mythology. Fourteen kings later, we get to two brothers, Numitor and Amulius. The other more famous Roman brothers come next. The short of it is that Numitor was supposed to inherit the throne but Amulius prevented him, and to make sure that Numitor couldn’t gain it back, he killed Numitor’s son and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin. 

A Vestal Virgin was a virgin priestess who served in the temple of Vestus. They were betrothed as girls to serve for 30 years. They served ten year terms as student, servant, and teacher. There were only two or four Vestal Virgins at once so it was a select group. They were responsible for keeping the fire burning at the temple of Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, the home. Vestal Virgins were the keepers of the hearth for all Romans and they had duties beyond keeping the fire alive, including public ceremonies. They also had the ability to pardon a condemned man, or free a slave, due to their pureness. They prayed for the moral health of Rome. They were entrusted with precious documents, including the wills of Caesar and Mark Anthony. During the chief festival of the goddess of the hearth, in June, was the only time the Vestal Virgins would make their own “mola salsa.” Mola salsa was a holy paste of flour and salt. This paste was offered to the holy hearth, daubed between the horns of sacrificial animals, and sprinkled on the forehead. The Latin verb “immolare” means to sacrifice. From there, comes “mola” and that is where we get the word, “immolate” — the ultimate sacrifice, in modern English. 

The Vestal Virgins were celibate until they retired. Then a prestigious marriage was arranged for them. A Vestal Virgin was a good catch as she had a pension and was considered a good luck charm. People think that if a Vestal Virgin broke her vow of celibacy, she was buried alive, but it was worse than that. Burying alive was illegal. Instead, they would lock her up underground with a few days worth of food and water. Result was death. The men who had sex with Vestal Virgins were beaten to death. So when Amulius had Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, made into a Vestal Virgin, he did so thinking that she would not produce heirs to the throne. 

Enter Mars, the God, stage left. 

Mars was the god of war. He was based on Ares, the Greek god of war, brother of Athena. The sacred animals of Mars were the wolf, the woodpecker, and the bear. Roman Mars was different from Greek Ares, who was mostly about destruction. Mars was also the god of agriculture and he was the father of the people. The word “paternal” comes from the Latin pater. In particular Roman fashion, he was the god of war as good for you. Mars was seen as a god of war as a means to achieve peace. Sound familiar? Like today, we have peacekeeping troops, a phrase that seems like an oxymoron. Mars is also the root of the word “martial” as in martial law. The month of March is named after Mars as that is the month when planting begins. He is sometimes associated with October which is when the war season begins, after the harvest. Every year, a harvest and a war.

The Pantheon, originally temple to Mars was built in an area originally outside Rome, in the Field of Mars, but today it is in the historic center. The Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church in the seventh century. It stands on the Piazza della Rotonda. The temple to Mars was built in the area around the Pantheon. It was meant to be a private temple for Marcus Agrippa, Roman statesman. Pantheon means a “sacred to the gods.” In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, Marcus Agrippa helped Octavian, later Emperor Augustus, win against Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra, of Egypt. Cleo actually visited Rome several times. Marcus Agrippa was responsible for helping Emperor Augustus build the Rome that he said, “He had found the city of brick but left it of marble.” 

A hundred or so years later, after a fire, Emperor Hadrian built another temple on the original temple built by Marcus Agrippa. Yes, he, Hadrian, who built that wall in the wilds of the Roman Empire at the far reach of “Provincia Britannia” on the border of modern day England and Scotland. Hadrian’s wall was probably, not only as legend says to hold out the Caledonians, modern Scots, but because it was cheaper to build a wall than to maintain an army at the border. To this day, the inscription on the Pantheon states, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT,” which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” Hadrian kept this inscription instead of writing his own. 

The history of Rome, before the Pantheon, continues with Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin, and Mars, god of war. One day, back in those misty days of time, when Rhea Silvia, Vestal Virgin and daughter of Numitor, he-who-should-have-been-king, went to a grove near the temple to gather water. While at this grove, she saw something. It was the god, Mars. He attempted to rape her but she managed to flee to a nearby cave. Mars chased her into the cave and impregnated her. Some accounts of this myth say that Rhea Silvia claimed that she saw a woodpecker and a wolf, both symbols of Mars, and therefore it was Mars who impregnated her. Her tale is told in the Aeneid, by Ovid, and by Livy. Livy, the Roman historian, seems to be the only one who doubted the paternity of her children. Despite Livy’s opinion, most images show Mars seducing Rhea Silvia. 

Rhea Silvia became pregnant with twins, Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. So not only figuratively, but also literally, Mars was the father of the Romans. Apparently the goddess Vesta was unhappy about this turn of events so she caused the fire in her temple to go out. One of the sacred duties of a Vestal Virgin is to maintain the light in the temple. Interestingly, in Italian, and in Spanish, the term for “to give birth” is “to give to the light.” Makes me wonder if there is a connection to this pre-Latin myth. 

When bad King Amulius heard of the birth of his twin nephews, potential heirs to the throne, he ordered them to be killed. According to the myth, a servant took pity on the baby boys and set them on the banks of the River Tiber. There, the river god, Tiberinus, saved them and took them to a she-wolf, a “lupa” in Latin, who had recently lost her own pups, to suckle. A “lupa” is also the Latin word for a prostitute. Even then, women had a rough time. Some say that Tiberinus married Rhea Silvia while other stories say she thew herself in the Tiber. I think they might mean the same thing. 

The location of the wolf’s cave was unknown until 2007 when an archeologist announced that she had found it under the house of Emperor Augustus, located on the Palatine hill. This would be fitting as Emperor Augustus considered calling himself Romulus as befitting a founder of a new Rome. 

Later, Romulus and Remus were raised by a shepherd, Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia. In some versions of the story, Larentia was not a wife but a courtesan, or “she-wolf” who gave money to help the city of Rome, after giving her services to Romans.

Romulus and Remus grew up to be fine young men. As with many young men, they became involved in the hot topic of the day. The topic was a dispute about Numitor and King Amulius. In the scuffle, Remus was captured and taken to the court at Alba Longa. Both his grandfather and his granduncle suspected his true identity. Can you imagine that meeting? Meanwhile, Romulus was gathering forces to free his brother. During this struggle, Romulus also learned of his royal identity. Eventually, Romulus, Remus, and Numitor deposed the unlawful king, Amulius, and set Numitor back on his rightful throne. Speaking of thrones, the toilets in ancient Rome were communal and instead of toilet paper, they used a rag on the end of a stick. This gives us the expression, “To get a hold of the wrong end of the stick.” Yuck. 

The young men, Romulus and Remus, fresh from setting their grandfather back on his throne, set out to found a city of their own. If you are a mythical being, I guess this fits in one’s goals for life. 

What do you want to do when you grow up, little Romy? 

Found a city. 

Oh, right, go to the city. 

No, found a city. 

Eat your peas. We’ll talk later, you megalomaniac. 

Romulus and Remus arrived in the area along the Tiber River where there were seven hills (still there today) and had to pick which hill to use for their kingdom. Romulus preferred the Palatine hill above the “Lupercal” cave where he and Remus had suckled at the she-wolf’s teats. Remus preferred the look of the Aventine hill, which had the advantage of placement and could be easily fortified. Thus ensued a serious discussion as location, location, location, is at the heart of real estate, and certainly, a kingdom. As neither could convince the other of the merits of their chosen hillock, they asked for advice from higher powers. No, not their dad. He was a shepherd. No, nor their father. He was a rapist. 

But in a way, they did ask him. They sought out augury. The art of augury is the art of looking for auspicious signs from birds, guided by the divinity of the gods. The practice of augury went way back and was an old and trusted method by the time of Romulus and Remus. The twins decided to see who would see the most auspicious sign. They sat on the ground, about a foot from each other, and waited. Remus was the first to see some birds when he spotted six birds. But, Romulus saw twelve, and proclaimed himself the winner. Maybe Romulus was just a better birdwatcher than Remus. Maybe he was a typical older brother (“I was born two minutes before you!”). The brothers continued their dispute and Remus was killed, possibly by his brother. 

On April 21, 753 BCE, Romulus founded Rome. The Palatine hill overlooks the forum, which was a shopping center that grew up after the settlement on the Palatine. Romulus set up the new city on his hill of choice and went on to rule Rome, named after him, happily ever after. Oh wait. After the Rape of the Sabines. In every way reprehensible, the rape that is mentioned in the Rape of the Sabines is a translation of “rapture” or “abduct.” Not an excuse, but sadly the way of much of history. Even today, girls, fourteen year olds, even younger, are kidnapped parts of the world like central Asia. They are kidnapped until they agree to marry the kidnapper. In the case of the Sabines, Romulus, after setting up his new kingdom, with his buddies, realized that he needed women to found a dynasty. Hence the plundering of women from neighboring areas, like the Sabines, which are misty foothills northeast of Rome. 

No one really knows if the myth of Romulus and Remus is true. The earliest version of the story is recorded in the third century BCE. From the mists of myth to 509 BCE. In 509 BCE, the Romans threw out their king and established an oligarchic republic. Thus continued another period of constant warfare between the peoples of the Mediterranean, except for some unity under Magna Graecia. You might be wondering why a quick romp through Italian history seems to be focusing on Rome, but this is because the Romans conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and as you may recall, much beyond, including France, land of the Gauls. The Gauls were tribes of peoples who lived in modern day France, southern England, and mainland Europe. The Gauls imported wine from the mediterranean, so it’s not surprising that Gaul became the nation of France, famous for their love of wine.

At the beginning of the second century BCE, there were great names that you recall from history class, and the movies, like Tiberius, Spartacus, Pompey, and Caesar. Caesar is so famous that it seems hardly worth mentioning him. But, in a book about food (yes, that’s what this book is about), he’s worth a mention for various reasons. He reformed the calendar that we still use today. So when making a reservation at a restaurant, we are still in touch with Caesar. 

Then, there’s that salad. The salad was actually named after an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Cardini invented the salad in his eponymous restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 4, 1924, when a sudden rush of guests meant that he had run out of ingredients. To add flourish to this simple dish of lettuce, eggs, croutons, and parmesan, he presented it at the table and tossed it live in front of the guests. Julia Child mentioned eating this salad when she was a child. Cardini’s daughter stated in the 1970s that the original recipe was to use whole lettuce leaves to lift the coddled eggs to the mouth. I wonder if they serve caesar salad in Rome. 

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a patrician, upper class,   Alban family in Rome. Romans had three names, a first, a family, and a “cognomen” which means “together with” which is a nickname. Caesar was the nickname. According to Pliny the Elder, Caesar as a nickname came from an ancestor who had been born via caesarian. Caesar was not born via caesarian. Caesar is derived from the Latin for “to cut.” There were three other interpretations of the source of Caesar and Caesar seems to have preferred the version from “caesai” which stems from the Moorish language. “Caesai” referred to when Caesar killed an elephant in the Punic Wars, which Caesar commemorated by having coins minted with the design of an elephant. The other two meanings of his name are that he had a thick head of hair or that he had bright gray eyes. 

When Caesar was 16, his father died, making Caesar the head of his family. He was chosen as a “Flamen Dialis,” high priest, at the temple of Jupiter, also called Jove. So when people say, “By Jove” they are actually cussing. The god who was most powerful was actually Janus. New year’s celebrations grew out of the celebration of Janus. The god Janus had two faces as he was the god of new beginnings, doorways, time, and change. He was the most important god in the pantheon of gods. A prayer to him was begun before any other prayers. So really, it should be, “By Janus!”

In his job as a Flamen Dialis, Caesar had many benefits, including becoming an ex officio, which means by way of another position, a member of the senate. Being a Flamen Dialis entailed many privileges and many rules. The ones that relate to food were:

  • He might not touch flour, nor leaven, nor leavened bread,
  • He was forbidden either to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh.
  • It was unlawful to place a box containing sacrificial cakes in contact with the bedstead.
  • He was not allowed to be present at a table without food so that he never appeared wanting.

What I find interesting about these house rules is that they show how different a world he lived in. The purpose of  the rules were to keep him focused on his job as a priest and to not allow any distractions or temptations. Bread, beans, raw flesh, cake, food… all temptations.

Then, politics, and history, intervened. Due to political maneuvering, Caesar was removed from his position as a priest. This was fortuitous as it allowed him to become a warrior, as priests were not allowed to take up arms. What follows next is Caesar’s rise to power, including governorships, and much political fighting. In one of the many wars he got involved in, he even met Cleopatra, who was in a civil war in Egypt, which she ruled. While Caesar was winning battles, the Senate in Rome was conferring him with more and more accolades and honors. 

When Caesar returned to Rome, a massive celebration of games, “bread and circuses,” was thrown in his honor. Even then, the populace complained of the extravagance, rioting in the streets. The rioting only ended when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed at the temple in the Field of Mars. Over his career, Caesar had been in the position of elected dictator several times, but one month before his death, he became dictator for life. He was assassinated on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE. 

Caesar’s greatest contributions were done in a short five year period between when he crossed the Rubicon and was assassinated. The phrase “cross the Rubicon” is used to mean that the “die are cast” or that there is no going back. The previous Roman calendar was based on the moon but Caesar’s calendar, the Julian calendar, was based on the sun as was the Egyptian, and included a leap year. My guess is that he picked up the idea from his time with Cleo. The Julian calendar was more accurate than the previous calendar and it was in use from 45 BCE to 1582 CE, when Pope Gregory XIII changed it to the modern calendar that we use, the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian chant is from earlier, but Charlemagne, coronated in 800 CE, was a bit of a crusader and forced people to Christianity. The Gregorian chant was one of his weapons as he forced people to use it. Charlemagne’s name, Carolus, is the root of the word “king” in many of the slavic languages. 

More next time on the history of the Italian peninsula.

Mumbo Jumbo Italiano

That’s how it’s feeling in Italian class. The classic “Mambo Italiano” sung by Rosemary Clooney (whose nephew has a house on Lake Como in Italy), was written deliberately in incorrect Italian, so it is no help when trying to learn Italian. As I noted in my last posting about Italian for beginners, much of Italian seems to be the opposite of Spanish and English, while much is the same. I’m not sure why, but I was sort of pleased to learn that in Italian one does not “mount” one’s bicycle as one does in Spanish. One “goes on” a bike in Italian. But, then I realize that Italian has eight (8) ways to say “the” and I’m less pleased.

In order to try and study, I make flash cards by taking snapshots of my study notes, like the one shown here. This was a day when we steered our teacher into restaurant lingo as part of our cultural education. The Italians have a word for “spaghetti dinner” — una spaghettata — but it means a casual meal of pasta (keeping in mind that pasta can be a separate course). As opposed to a more formal meal. The idea is that a spaghettata is while there will only be a pasta course, there will be lots of it. Also, apparently, one should not take a bottle of wine to a dinner as wine is the host’s responsibility. As a guest, one should take flowers, or chocolate, or cake.

I also learned that restaurants will not split the bill (check in American English). You have to figure it out on your own. Apparently, they don’t do doggy bags either — as most portion sizes are small in Italy so you probably won’t have left overs.

Poo-pooing the Paw-Paw

“Have you heard of the paw paw?”

“Yes, it’s what Australians call the papaya.”

But, it’s not just that! The paw paw is also a native American fruit. Native to the eastern United States and related to the custard apple, soursop, and cherimoya, the American papaw (or paw paw, pawpaw, or paw-paw) is a fruit that looks like a mango but is slightly custardy. It supposedly tastes like a banana-mango-pineapple. The paw paw was also called the prairie banana.

Apparently, the paw paw is the largest native American fruit (0ther than gourds which are classed as vegetables). There are efforts to harvest the paw paw has no known pests. But, the fruit ripens quickly to fermentation so it is best used for jam and in other prepared foods.

Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that:

“The fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery.”

I am not a very adventurous eater, but, for the sake of my fruit-ologist friend, I was willing to try it. It didn’t taste like much.

Once I get to Italy, I wonder what fruits will be new to me? I certainly didn’t expect to find a new fruit in the United States, so I hope I will be equally surprised.