Thursday, November 17, 2011

We are the XCIX percent

Past Horizons is showcasing a project to study the DNA of ancient Romans.  The article is titled "Roman DNA project gives voice to the silent majority:"

A new project to carry out DNA analysis on a group of skeletons who were immigrants to Rome, has been created by Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist from Vanderbilt University.

Kristina has been raising money by Crowd-Funding in order to carry the project out and she has now exceeded the $6000 required to carry out the basic analysis of at least 20 individuals (the immigrants to Rome that she found through Sr/O isotope analysis). However, every additional contribution above the original target amount will help to test more samples.

This project will be the first to study the DNA of  immigrants to Rome and will help rewrite the history of everyday life there.

At the simplest level, each skeleton reveals key information about the person  – male or female, height, age of death, and long-term diseases, and these can all be found through observation of the bones.
Bones and teeth hold additional information about diet and place of origin and this has to be obtained through chemical analysis of isotopes and DNA. Each one of our physical bodies is formed by the food we consume, the activities we engage in, the geographies we have passed through, and the important milestones in our lives.
The Roman Empire has been studied for centuries through the histories of Livy and poetry of Virgil, through tombstones that proclaim a person’s name and age at death, through mausoleums full of artefacts.

However, it is only recently that study has been carried out on the actual skeletons of ancient Romans in order to learn about the people who were never mentioned in the written record and could not afford to commemorate their relatives’ deaths by placing jewellery and fancy pottery into their graves.

Up until now, most information known about the Romans comes from studying the lives of the wealthy upper classes – the small minority of the population that controlled the Empire. However, Kristina wants to know more about the silent majority – the lower classes and slaves who lived at subsistence level. She wants to change our approach to Roman history and by using skeletal data concerning age, sex, height, disease and diet, added  to the study of historical records, art, and artefacts it will help to build up a better picture of the ordinary people of Rome.
This should be a very interesting project. 

One thing I have noticed in my ongoing (and ongoing ... and ongoing ... and ongoing ... and ...) research into the Adrianople campaign is the Romans' extreme interest in relocating people they have defeated.  For instance, when attempting to suppress the Gothic revolt that opened the Adrianople campaign, the count of Illyricum Frigeridus led a small detachment of auxiliaries to Beroea in Thrace to block the border with Illyricum.  A group of Taifali and Greuthungi under the chieftain Farnobius began massing there and Frigeridus retreated westwards.  Farnobius saw an opportunity to destroy this small force and gave pursuit.  Frigeridus, an older and rather lethargic but able commander, saw that he was being chased and set up an ambush in the Succi Pass.  The ambush was perfectly executed and Farnobius was killed.  His surviving Taifali and Greuthungi were resettled in the Po valley of northern Italy.

To me, that has always sounded kinda like defeating the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and resettling them in North Dakota.  Why would the Romans do that?

The answer may lie in census figures for the Empire that are now lost.  Beginning in the 2nd Century AD, the Empire was plagued with ... plague.  The Empire was hammered by epidemics of an unknown nature on multiple occasions, particularly during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  If these epidemics were anything like the Black Death that would later sweep through Europe, by the 4th Century the Empire may have been badly underpopulated.

This project will in all probability not answer that.  But we can dream, can't we?

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