In the past, we have examined a few aspects of ancient Greece that still puzzle historians, scholars, and scientists. We don’t have very far to travel, as today we go back to the time of the Romans and take a look at some of the mysterious wares that they have to offer.
10. The “Burrito” Sarcophagus
The first entry on our list shows us that there are still plenty of mysteries left to uncover from the ancient world. Back in 2010, archaeologists excavating the site of the Roman city of Gabii found a very unusual sarcophagus. It was around 1,700 years old, weighed close to 1,000 pounds, and was made out of lead.
In of itself, this was strange enough – we only know of a couple of hundred Roman lead coffins, but this one was unique. Instead of having the sides molded in a rectangular shape, with a lid on top, the sides had been folded over each other, making the sarcophagus look like a giant lead “burrito.”
This begs the question – who is buried inside it? Lead was a valuable commodity back in Roman times; not just anyone could afford a thousand pounds to make their coffin. Maybe he was a priest, a dignitary, or a renowned gladiator. Unfortunately, the sides are an inch thick each and have proven resistant to traditional methods of non-invasive analysis such as x-rays and CT scans. But using force to pry it open would, most likely, damage the remains so, for the moment, the sarcophagus stays closed, and we are left to wonder.
9. The Roman Dodecahedron
Back in 1739, people made a curious discovery in the English countryside of Hertfordshire. It was a metal dodecahedron – a 3D geometrical shape with 12 faces. The strange object also had tiny knobs on each outer edge and circular holes of various sizes in the middle of each face. It was clearly a carefully crafted item that became even more intriguing after it turned out to be Roman. Since then, over a hundred other Roman dodecahedrons have been found all over Europe, but primarily in the Rhine basin, in what used to be Gaul. There’s just one problem, though – we have no idea what they were used for.
Rather unusual for the Romans, they stayed quiet on the purpose of these little metal objects. Scholars have been unable to find any written mentions of the dodecahedrons in the extensive historical record, be it Roman, Greek, or any other. Of course, this has given way to dozens of ideas on their possible uses, ranging all the way from innocuous ornaments or toys, to useful measuring tools or astronomical devices, to mystical items with ceremonial value, and even weapons such as the head of a mace or some kind of projectile. But unless we find some ancient text to set us straight, it is probable that the Roman dodecahedrons will remain a mystery.
8. The Lost Legion
As we said, the Romans were pretty good when it came to keeping a written history, so whenever we stumble upon something that simply vanishes from the historical record, scholars tend to raise their eyebrows. Case in point – Legio IX Hispana, a legion from the Imperial Roman Army that disappeared from the written record sometime during the 2nd century AD, leaving historians to speculate on its ultimate fate.
Although its origins are unclear, the legion dated back to the Roman Republic and took part in Caesar’s Gallic Wars. From then, we have a pretty good idea of its activities, with its last documented assignment coming in 109 AD, when it was sent to the northern border of Britain to guard it against the Scottish tribes.
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius over half a century later, an inscription with all the Roman legions made no mention of Legio IX Hispana, so it is safe to assume that something happened to it during that timeframe. For a long time, it was presumed that the legion was destroyed while fighting the Picts in Scotland around 117 AD, but more recent research turned up traces of it in Germania Inferior after 121 AD. A new idea suggests the legion could have met its end in Judea, during the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132, but without solid evidence, this remains only a hypothesis.
7. The Mithraic Mysteries
There were some practices in ancient times that were kept a secret even from their own populations, so we have basically no chance of ever fully understanding them. Mystery cults were particularly popular in the Greco-Roman world and the true extent of their rituals and habits were only revealed to their own initiates. Nothing was ever written down, so they took their secrets to their graves a long, long time ago.
The most popular example is the Eleusinian Mysteries, held in ancient Greece to honor Demeter. Rome, however, had its own secretive religion centered around the god Mithras, who appeared to be inspired by the much-older Zoroastrian god Mithra, although the extent of the connection, beyond the obvious similarity of the name, is itself a matter of debate.
Mithraism seems to have appeared in Rome during the 1st century AD and quickly spread to the far reaches of the empire. Followers of the cult met in underground temples called mithraea. The ruins of over 400 such structures can still be found, showing us just how pervasive this pagan religion had become in the Roman Empire. However, with no surviving texts regarding the rites and traditions of the cult, the Mithraic Mysteries are destined to remain just that – a mystery.
6. Livy’s Lost History
There’s probably no ancient culture on which we are better informed than Rome, and that is thanks mainly to the civilization having a tradition of extensive recordkeeping, as well as possessing some of ancient history’s most diligent historians who wrote down what happened for future generations.
Take, for example, Titus Livius, better known simply as Livy. He was responsible for possibly the most ambitious work on Roman history – Ab Urbe Condita, or “From the Founding of the City” – a gargantuan 142-volume chronicle written over almost four decades. As the name implies, Livy’s work covered the history of Rome from its founding through its obscure time as a kingdom and then the 500 years or so it spent as a republic, right up until it became an empire, which happened during Livy’s own lifetime.
Crucially, Livy wrote about a time period that is not as well known as the imperial era, especially the Roman Kingdom, but, unfortunately, most of his knowledge has been lost. Out of 142 volumes, only 35 have been recovered so far in their complete form. It seems that Livy was a victim of his own zeal. His work was so extensive that others made abridged epitomes of his books. The most famous of all is called The Periochae and, ultimately, it became more popular than Livy’s original work since it was more accessible.
5. The Siege of Dura-Europos
Back in 256 BC, the Romans fought the Sasanians at the Siege of Dura-Europos, a border town between their two empires located in modern-day Syria. At the time, the settlement was in Roman hands, who were garrisoned inside it during the siege. The Sasanians decided to bypass the outer wall by tunneling underneath it, thus prompting the Romans to work on their own countermines to intercept them.
When the two sides inevitably met, the Sasanians had a nasty surprise in store for their enemies. They had prepared braziers of pitch and sulfur and lit them as the Romans approached. This created a toxic cloud of sulfur dioxide which, in a confined space, caused coughing, burning sensations, shortness of breath, pulmonary edema, and, ultimately, death.
Panic, darkness, and claustrophobia prevented an orderly retreat and 20 soldiers lost their lives in this attack, which might represent the first-known case of chemical warfare in history. There are earlier written mentions of poison arrows or toxic smoke, but this might be the earliest instance where there is conclusive archaeological evidence to suggest it happened.
4. The Baiae Tunnels
During ancient times, the resort town of Baiae was a popular holiday spot with the wealthy Roman elite who went there to enjoy the soothing thermal baths provided by hot springs located underneath the settlement. The resort experienced a gradual decline, quite literally, as it slowly began submerging in the sea due to underground volcanic activity. Nowadays, Baiae lies in ruins, half above ground and half underwater, and while most of it has been thoroughly explored and explained by archaeologists, the ancient town still contains one feature that puzzles scholars – the Baiae Tunnels.
The tunnels were certainly not inviting. The entrance itself was very hard to spot – just a small, dark sliver carved into a hillside. If you poked your head inside, there was nothing to suggest this was a place worth exploring. It was just a smelly, hot, narrow passageway that was bathed in complete darkness.
During the 1960s, two amateur archaeologists named Robert Paget and Keith Jones became the first to explore those dark depths, hoping that they would uncover the “cave of the sibyl,” a mysterious and mystical location where the oracle made her divine prophecies. The duo uncovered a network of tunnels that Paget dubbed the Great Antrum, which included several flooded passages as well as dead-ends that had been completely buried.
Paget came to believe that the Baiae tunnels had been built to symbolize a descent into the underworld, similar to what the poet Virgil described in the Aeneid. In fact, Paget believed that Virgil was an initiate into this secretive cult and had made the journey through the tunnels for himself. Most scholars aren’t on board with this idea. Although it’s highly likely there was some kind of ceremonial or religious shenanigans that happened in these tunnels, their true extent eludes us.
3. The Mystery Herb
What would you do if you lived in Ancient Rome and suffered from indigestion, fever, a sore throat, or countless other maladies? That’s easy. You would use the miracle herb known as silphium. If you could afford it, of course. Silphium was so popular among Romans that, at one point, it was worth its weight in gold. It was used to treat numerous maladies, but it was also used as an aphrodisiac and birth control, as well as in cooking and making perfumes. Even sheep fed on silphium was said to have the most tender and delicious meat. Every part of the plant was useful in its own way, from the roots to the stem to the leaves, and even the sap. Yes, silphium could truly do it all, but that begs the question – what exactly is silphium?
Unfortunately, we cannot answer that with any degree of certainty for a simple reason – it doesn’t exist anymore. It is generally believed that the Romans harvested silphium to extinction and we only know of its many miraculous properties from their writings. In fact, even Pliny wrote that, in his own lifetime, he had only heard of a single stalk of silphium being found which was harvested and sent to Emperor Nero as a gift.
That was during the 1st century AD, so it seems that silphium went extinct almost 2,000 years ago. Or maybe not. Some believe that silphium could still be around and hiding in plain sight under a different name. Others think that the mysterious herb could have been a hybrid, and both groups are still holding out hope that silphium could make a comeback.
2. The Villa of Mysteries
Nestled outside the walls of Pompeii, on a hill that once overlooked the city, lies the ruins of several villas, including one that’s still in pretty good shape considering that it’s over 2,000 years old, not to mention the eruption that destroyed the entire city. Not only is the structure mostly still standing, but the true surprise is inside, where many of the walls are still decorated with intricate and stunning frescoes.
The centerpiece of the ancient house is one particular room, that’s roughly 15-by-15 feet in length and was likely used as a dining room. Three of its walls share one giant, continuous fresco, with dozens of figures engaged in various activities against a vivid red background. This room gave the structure its name – the Villa of Mysteries.
Why is it called that? Well, because we’re not really sure what they are supposed to represent. Generally, it is believed that the frescoes could show a rare initiation into yet another one of Rome’s mystery cults which we know so little about…possibly that of Dionysus. However, some scholars believe that the scenes could show a bride on her wedding day, or even simply scenes from a play.
1. The Walbrook Skulls
Back in 2013, British workers excavating a tunnel on Liverpool Street for London’s Crossrail project unearthed more than they bargained for when they uncovered 20 human skulls. Despite the gruesomeness of the find, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Engineers knew that they were digging up an old, 17th-century burial ground, but they then got a second surprise when it was revealed that the skulls were far older than that, dating back to the Roman period.
But even with this new revelation, the find wasn’t entirely unique – back in the 1980s, archaeologists had found another 39 Roman skulls in the same area of London known as Walbrook Valley. It is believed the remains were all embedded in sediment by the Walbrook River, a tributary of the Thames, but that doesn’t really explain where all these skulls are coming from, and why exactly they had all been disarticulated from the rest of the body.
This is a question that archaeologists have been asking for decades, and it still doesn’t have a definitive answer. One popular notion said that they were all the victims of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, who sacked Londinium back in 60 AD. Another far more trivial suggestion says that, just like during the 17th century, the site served as a cemetery during ancient times, as well, which slowly eroded and caused the remains to get washed downstream. Or, perhaps, it was a sign that Roman Londoners continued the “cult of the head” of the Iron Age, and used decapitated heads for rituals and sacrifices. They’re all plausible ideas that, for the time being, remain unproven.