— VOTF04 The Head of Diocletian

General Remarks

  • The narrator of this chapter is a Roman named Caius Sextus.
  • The date given is “Post AD 290”, thus about 250 years have passed since the previous chapter.
    • The exact significance of this date is unclear. 290 AD is well into the reign of Diocletian. This, incidentally, is the first mention in the book of a specific character known to history.
  • The indicated map location is off to the west of Northampton.
  • No name for Northampton is given in this chapter.

Section 1: “My teeth hurt.”

  • “a farmer’s boy… seemed bred out of a pig” – While Caius no doubt intends this as mere insult, it also involves him with the recurrent boy/pig symbols of this book.
  • “devoured by giant dogs” – Presumably shagfoals. We don’t actually know that it wasn’t shagfoals, as chapter three left the fate of the settlement quite mysterious.
  • “crosses” – Crucifixion was a standard punishment in the Roman empire for enemies of the state.
  • “coticula of basenite”; “the furnace and a white-hot shovel” – These are discussed at more length later in the chapter.
  • “tumulus” – In latin, “tumulus” means “mound” or “hill”. In english, it is usually used to indicate an artificial mound over an ancient grave. Given the local legends surrounding this hill, both meanings seem appropriate.
  • “buck’s night” – Slang for bachelor party.
  • “a bulge is raised that strains against the young man’s britches” – Erections in those executed by hanging, or even just suffering lack of oxygen, have frequently been observed.
  • “If Rome falls…” – Rome is generally considered to have fallen in 476 AD, almost two centuries after this chapter – though on the time scales of this book, that’s actually pretty soon, well before the following chapter!
  • “blue beads strung on a hair of rusted wire” – These are reminiscent of the “fancy beads” worn by Usin in chapter two.
  • “Londinium” – The Roman name for the city now known as London.
  • “jetties” – It is unclear whether these jetties are structures protruding out into waterbuildings whose upper floors project over the street,  or alleyways.
  • “Trinovante … Cantiaci” – The Trinovantes and Cantiaci were two of the Celtic tribes of pre-Roman southeast Britain.
  • “chimaera” – The chimaera was a hybrid monster of Greek mythology. Later, the term came to be applied to any monstrous creature.
  • “middle-lands” – This is the first time we become aware of Northampton as being in the middle of England, an important theme in Jerusalem.
  • “Coritani” – The Coritani were a pre-Roman British tride whose territory included modern Northampton.
  • “the coloured scars, the curls of ink that craze their brows and backs” – Roman reaction to British tattoos became embedded in the English language. The name “Pretanni“, latin for “painted ones”, was applied to the inhabitants; that name later evolved to “Britons”.
  • “some lurid passage from a drama told in verse” – Chapter one dealt with the invention of verse as a means of navigation. By now, dramatic verse is in use.
  • “Emperor Aurelian’s campaign against the Gallic Empire” – This campaign took place in 274 AD, thus more than 26 years prior to this chapter.
  • “the Blues” – One of the two most popular chariot racing teams in Rome at this time.
  • “cog-name” – This unusual presentation of the Latin (and English) word “cognomen” is probably meant to make the reader notice that it is an English word taken from Latin. It can variously mean “nickname” or “family name”.
  • “Maximian is become Augustus in the West” – Diocletian appointed Maximian his co-emperor in 286 AD. The Empire was further split among a total of four co-emperors in 293. Presumably, this chapter is before then (or at least before the news of that division reaches Caius Sextus).
  • “no one can fix this ailment with a name” – See Closing Remarks.
  • “he has fixed the price… inflation is contained. Our currency is strong.” – While Diocletian instituted many economic reforms in an attempt to stabilize the currency and curb inflation, these were ultimately unsuccessful. By 301 AD, he tried instituting a powerful and wide-reaching law, The Edict on Maximum Prices. This was unsuccessful, and has been referred to by modern economists as “an act of economic lunacy”. Moore is deploying dramatic irony again; the actions which Caius Sextus think will preserve Rome are only helping bring about its fall.
  • “The bangled, ragged kings are at our gates” – Increasing pressure from “barbarian” tribes was an increasing problem in this period, and one of the eventual causes of the fall of Rome.
  • “The dark .. would swallow us entire; the bright towns guttering, extinguished” – The period after the fall of Rome is often referred to as the Dark Ages.
  • “the quality of lamplight in my room has changed”- As will shortly become clear, this begins a dream sequence.
  • “She seems a different girl” – Presumably Nusin, from chapter two.
  • “at the centre of the labyrinth, where painted skins are hung” – Presumably Olun’s hut, from chapter two.
  • “a boy that I at first mistake” – Boy, from chapter one.
  • “a beggar, barely conscious, vomit matted in his beard and mumbling to himself” – Suggest???
  • “A crone with one foot gone.” – Boy’s mother, from chapter one.
  • “A black-faced man” – Hob, from chapter one.
  • “An awful stork-limbed creature” – Stilts, from chapter three.
  • “a fearful barking” – Presumably from shagfoals.
  • “I put it in my mouth” – As Stilts did in chapter three.
  • “bale-fires” – Bonfires.
  • “cremation fields” – The fact that they are still called this suggests that Hurna’s religious rites in chapter two have, to some extent, persisted.
  • “Christian colony” – xxx
  • “perhaps a remnant kiln or oven of some kind” – This is the remains of Garn’s forge from chapters two and three.
  • “For purposes of forgery…” – A good 0verview of ancient coin-making techniques can be found here.
  • “Severus” – There were actually two Roman Emperors named Severus; it is not clear which one is meant here. Collectively, they ruled from 193-235.
  • “A small boy dressed up as a girl walks at the head of a procession with a pig upon a leash” – This ceremony has evolved from the pig-boy ritual seen in chapter two, which is in turn founded in Boy’s sacrificein chapter one.
  • “the coticula, a touchstone made of basenite or lydian” – “Coticula” is latin for touchstone. Basenite is a form of pure basalt rock which can be used as a touchstone. Lydian stone is a type of flint touchstone.
  • “Unless we cut the coins.” – Roman currency was increasingly debased during this period.
  • “night-start” – Also known as “hypnic jerk“.
  • “cheap pyrites” – Pyrite is also known as Fool’s Gold, in keeping with this chapter’s theme of counterfeit metals.

Closing Remarks

  • “My teeth hurt” ; “teeth … loose in the blue and shrunken gums” ; “blue and receded gums, the headaches and the lethargies, the lapsing concentration, lapsing memory” — Caius and his comrades appear to be suffering from scurvy.
    • Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Gum disease and tooth loss are common symptoms as scurvy develops, and it can eventually lead to death if not corrected.
    • From ancient times until the nineteenth century, scurvy was a frequent problem for long-distance travelers; subsisting on preserved meat and bread, their diet did not contain the fresh fruits and vegetables that contain abundant vitamin C. Scurvy is not specifically attested by Roman sources, but is certainly plausible. The fact that Caius’ teeth continue to ache after several months ashore suggests that his diet is still fairly restricted. He says at one point that that he eats “cheese and fruit and bread, the only foods on offer safe to eat”; presumably the fruit he speaks of isn’t high enough in vitamin C to cure the scurvy, though the natives obviously must eat some high-vitamin-C foods that he considers “unsafe”.
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