A Workbench from Pompeii

Daedalus and Pasiphae discussing the pantomime cow. Wall mural from Pompeii, 1st century A.D.

The art and artifacts from Pompeii have been much on my mind since the major new excavations have been published the past couple years.  I was looking at this wall mural and noticed the very Roman workbench in the lower left, complete with bench dogs while the young carpenter whacks away with hammer and chisel.

Detail from Daedalus and Pasiphae.

At his feet lies his bow drill and what may be a small adze of some sort.  I have no idea what he’s working on here but it might be germane to the larger legend of Queen Pasiphae of Greek myth (here meeting with Daedalus the artificer who is constructing special hobby cow for her to ride in for special activities).

Of course, I wish there were more details of the carpenter but this looks very much like one of my benches or one of a million others built since Pompeii was buried; a heavy plank, four friction-fitted legs, and placed at a comfortable sitting height.  Standing all day is for suckers.

If you don’t know this story it is a Roman interpretation of a Greek literal interpretation of a Minoan myth about the daughter of the Sun and Ocean who became queen of Minos and did some very weird things.  I suggest you look for it elsewhere in order to keep this page PG-13.

Roman Loculus

Or what we might call a messenger bag.

I finally finished the commissioned bag from last month based on the beautifully proportioned Roman design.  As far as I know, this design dates back to at least the First Century C.E. and judging by it’s logic, probably much further.

Loculus1I think the true loculus (satchel) utilized an envelope design from a single small goat hide but as they survive only in art, we have to make a few guesses as to construction.  The one I made has a few more modern features including inner dividers and a cell phone pocket.

Loculus4The leather is an oiled cowhide with a slightly scotched (textured) surface.  This type of leather wears well, is weather-resistant, and comes back to life with a wipe down.

Loculus2A simple button closer secures the flap while the straps cover the seams and give it body.  The sewing is all double needle saddle stitch done by hand.

Loculus3The body is divided into three pockets with an added cell phone holder.

handleFinally, the handle.  Historic examples appear to have used this handle over the end of the staff with a cross piece through the loops, keeping it from sliding side-to-side as the one below.


To remain unencumbered, Roman Legionaries carried this bag on the furca (travel staff).

I hope Gen, it’s new owner, loves it and finds it useful.



Ultra Minimalists, Part 4 – Modern Minimalism

For the Ultra Minimalists, Part 1, click here.

Modern Minimalists 

Everything I Own: My 288 Things

By Joshua Fields Millburn

  • Life Tools & Accessories – 33 items, including my car, guitar, books, hairbrush, toothbrush, etc.
  • Consumables – 5 groups of items, including food, cleaning supplies, hygiene supplies, office supplies and paper goods
  • Kitchen Items – 19 items, including pots, pans, utensils, coffeemaker, toaster, oven mitt, etc.
  • Bathroom Items – 6 items, including my bathroom scale, rugs, trash can, shower caddy, etc.
  • Electronics – 10 items, including my BlackBerry, MacBook, Printer, iPod, etc.
  • Furniture  – 18 items, including my bed, couch, coffee table, desk, chairs, etc.
  • Decorations – 14 items, including decorative plants, artwork, digital picture frames, wall clock, etc.
  • Clothes (Miscellaneous) – 58 items, including shoes, socks, underwear, belts, gym shorts, coats, etc.
  • Casual Clothes – 79 items, including jeans, hoodies, T-shirts, button-down shirts, etc.
  • Dress Clothes – 50 items, including suits, ties, dress shirts, etc.

“That’s everything I own. 288 things. Count them if you’d like. The nicest thing about creating this list is that I actually use everything I own. There is not a kitchen item or a piece of furniture or an article of clothing that I do not use regularly. It’s an amazing feeling.”  Click here to read the full text of his excellent essay.

Next time: my move toward Minimalism and the search for balance.

Ultra Minimalists, Part 2

For the Ultra Minimalists, Part 1, click here.

Some Historic Minimalists – tried and true formulas for survival

legionarypackRoman Legionary – Let’s go back to the beginning of the modern military.  As militaries go, Rome had a pretty successful run.  After their first couple centuries being beaten up by the Celts they certainly learned a thing or two about fielding an army. More importantly, when wars were no longer fought to defend one’s home things had to change.  Expansionist politics meant a paid, professional military (i.e., a mercenary army like we have today).

Without delving into a long history of the Roman military, here’s the pertinent synopsis for our purposes.  In order to make the army fully mobile (not tied to a wagon or mule train and to rid itself of non-combatant lackeys), it was determined that the individual soldier should be responsible for more than just showing up, sword and shield in hand (for some historical references, see: Scipio Aemilianus Africanus and later, Marius’ reformations).  In order to get rid of as much support staff as possible, and remove the competition in out-gearing each other, each soldier was  issued (this was a new idea) a set of gear, including a full sarcina (marching pack) which included the essentials of daily living.  The fact that they wrote about this and portrayed it in art gives us a pretty good idea of what equipment was used in the field.

Archaeological/historical side note: this, in-turn, led to the first systematic recycling program we know of; collecting the old stuff and remaking, re-tooling, and re-issuing gear.  Metal is especially recyclable.

Roman Loculus. Personal kit bag or haversack for a deployed soldier ca. 300 B.C. – 300 A.D. and beyond. A shoulder bag or haversack like this was the common unit for an individual traveler through the Middle Ages and into the modern Colonial Period. Essentially what we call a messenger bag today.

The sarcina (marching pack) of a Legionary soldier is about as pared down as one can get yet still travel in comfort:

  • Clothes –
    • Tunic: normally made of wool.  The style changed over time, but essentially a longish, heavy shirt of wool.
    • Subucula: A simple thin wool t-shirt underneath the tunic.
    • Subligaria: underpants.
    • Focale: neck scarf, just like a cowboy or a boy scout neckerchief.
    • Balteus: sword belt.  It’s implied that other belts with hooks were employed in large numbers to secure gear, just like today.
    • Cloak: two types of cloaks were used, the sagum (regular) and the paenula (hooded, cold weather type).  Closed with a fibulae (cloak pin or broach).
  • A haversack-style satchel (loculus), see above
  • Cloak bag (a stuff sack for the spare cloak/bedding)
  • Net bag, for miscellaneous stuff, food
  • Brass cooking pot
  • Mess eating tin (patera)
  • Waterskin
  • Shovel
  • Basket – used for foraging, moving dirt for ramparts, and probably many other things.
  • Pole – (furca) with a cross staff to carry everything hobo-style.  This could be used for a tent pole, stretcher half, or combined to construct larger structures.

I created the above list from several sources and it covers a period of about 5 1/2 centuries but the essentials don’t really change.  This list of course, doesn’t include arms and armor or specialized things like saws, mattocks, hatchets, axes, etc. that were also carried.  Various contemporaries state that soldiers carried between 3 and 14 days of food when on the march in a haversack.

Overall, this isn’t a bad list of essentials and looks a bit like my packing list for a camping trip.  For a modern traveler, or someone looking to completely pare down their life, this might be a good starting point.

Curiously, there is no mention of a fire kit and they are rare archaeological finds in general.  When I was in graduate school, I recall this being noted and it has been surmised that either (a) fire was everywhere in a settled continent and easy to come by if necessary, (b) coals were carried in the luggage and simply re-lit as needed, or (c) fire making was so common that it is not even worth mentioning in ancient texts or depictions.


Next time: Wandering monks of Asia…systematic, codified minimalism we can all learn from.  On to Part 3.

Romans Loved the Celts


Image: from the Texas Coritani Iron Age Living History Group.

“Nearly all the Gauls (Celts) are of a lofty stature, fair and ruddy complexion: terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence.  A whole troupe of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance who is usually very strong, and have blue eyes; in rage her neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms.  She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.  The voices of these women are formidable, even when they are not angry but being friendly.”

Ammianus Marcellinus, 4th century Roman (of Greek origin) soldier and historian.

An open-minded scholar for his day with famous observations about both pagan and christian fanatics.  From the Res Gestae that “no wild beasts are so deadly to humans as most Christians are to each other.”  Too true today even.

“Marcellinus writes of Christianity as being a pure and simple religion that demands only what is just and mild, and when he condemns the actions of Christians, he does not do so on the basis of their Christianity as such.”

More Marcellinus in English and in Latin.