Thursday, December 17, 2009

One More Thing About York (Or, "Where shall I seek some food and the other half of my pants?")

Back in the day, York was a Roman fort called Eboracum. When I say "the day," I am referring to sometime between 43 AD, when the Romans invaded Britain, and about 410 AD, when the Romans left Britain to its fate (which was to be invaded three more times in the next 600 years). To be fair, the Romans had valid concerns about other, perhaps more vital areas of the empire, but I still hold their abandonment of Britain against them, as the native Britons were left in a rather vulnerable position and that must have been distressing.

But I digress. Back in the day, on the site where York now stands, Eboracum existed and it was full of representatives of the Roman empire who brought with them certain customs. These customs included bathing. Bathing in a ritualized way, not simply bathing, surely the natives already did that. I mean, what were they, barbarians? Oh wait. They sort of were. Well, anyway, the Romans bathed. Where?

Why, in the basement of the Roman Bath Inn in St. Sampson's Square, of course. Except at the time, there was no St. Sampson, no square, and no inn, and presumably it wasn't the basement. It was a nice, normal, above-ground bath house.

Nowadays it isn't looking so hot, but that will happen when you bury something for several centuries. This, I believe, is the caldarium.

Those square things are stacks of pilae tiles, which would have held up the floor, leaving a space for hot steam to heat it. The caldarium was the hot bath. The name suggests that it should be a cold bath, but in fact, the root word is related to scald in modern English.

That is the only picture I have that really gives an idea of how it used to look. Most of the rest of the site is covered up by the modern building. However, there was this highly professional display on personal hygiene.

We were told this was the origin of the saying about getting the wrong end of the stick, but I am highly skeptical about that, as getting the wrong end of this stick would seem to have less to do with misunderstanding a situation than with inadvertently getting dirty. However, the fellow who told us this was right about the strawberries in the market being perfectly ripe, so who knows.

ANYWAY. We are now coming to the ENTIRE reason that I am bothering to post about this at all: Apollonius of Tyre.

Long ago when I was taking Latin in college, we read approximately four pages of this gem of a story called APOLLONIUS, KING OF TYRE. It has everything: a beautiful puella, a fairly horrifying interlude of incest, a rigged contest between suitors, bizarre riddles, a faithful steward, travel by ship, the transportation of a lot of extra food and innumerable changes of clothing on said ship, the rescue of a starving city, a storm at sea, and a shipwreck. I'm not exaggerating, that really is only four pages or so. It goes on.

The best part of this melodramatic and poorly-written story is the scene in which Apollonius, whom I picture as a kind of Disney prince (big chin, small brain), goes into a gymnasium in the city where he's been shipwrecked, and lays the smackdown on everyone in a brief game of Naked Oily Ball. This game was so named by my Latin professor after describing it to us as a sport played as exercise after one has been nicely oiled after a bath and happens also to be naked.

We all had a good laugh over this, especially as the professor went on to intuit Apollonius's thinking here as: "I have lost my ship of clothes but I am still one hot king." Honestly, it was one of the most entertaining classes I ever took, and it is the reason that I burst out laughing when I saw this in the display by the baths:

This is a strigil, used to scrape the oil and dirt off your skin after you've been bathing . . . or playing Naked Oily Ball. I think I'm holding it backwards here (shh, I'm left-handed, it's not my fault), but you get the idea. Anyway, now when I think of that truly strange scene, I picture it happening not in a Roman gymnasium but in the streets of modern York.

And THAT is the largely unsatisfying conclusion to this basically pointless post about Romans in York. I leave you with this moving and meaningful quote concerning the activities of the brave king Apollonius while in exile: "For he is on the high seas, eating wheat and changing clothes."

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