Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pheasant

The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is native to Asia but has been widely introduced elsewhere as a game bird. Their original range extended from Taiwan and mainland China through Korea, Siberia, Manchuria to the Caspian and Black Seas. It was most likely on the Black Sea coast and along the Rioni River in what is the western part of modern-day Georgia that the ancient Greeks first encountered these distinctive birds.

The bird’s scientific name translates from Latin as "pheasant from Colchis" where colchicus is a further reference to the area on the Rioni River. This major Georgian river was called Phasis by the ancient Greeks and their term corresponding to the English "pheasant" is Phasianos ornis (Φασιανὸς ὂρνις) means exactly that: "bird of the river Phasis".

The birds are found in woodland, farmland, scrub, and wetlands. In its natural habitat the common pheasant lives in grassland near water with small copses of trees.

The pheasant was certainly known to the Romans and the bird was extensively introduced in many places across the Empire eventually becoming a naturalised member of the European fauna. As far as we can determine the bird was not known in the Roman province of Britannia having not been introduced that far West. Pheasants may have been naturalised in Great Britain around the 10th century AD, perhaps earlier, but seemingly disappeared from most of the isles in the early 17th century. It was rediscovered as a game bird in the 1830s having been ignored for many years.


Today the pheasant is a common sight in Britain's fields, woodland and, sadly for those struck by vehicles, its roads.  If the risk of becoming roadkill is not enough, then the open season for pheasant shooting begins on October 1st...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Romans in China?

Every so often, over the last decade at least, our modern-day bards, the media, regurgitate a story about “European-looking” people in north-west China claiming ancient Roman descent. This tale of a “lost legion”, spawning generations of Chinese villagers with fair hair and green eyes, has an appeal in itself that perpetuates its stranglehold on popular imagination. Most recently the author encountered the story posted on social media and, unsurprisingly, it once again grabbed the attention of various commentators whose belief in its "obvious truth" seem unquestioning.

At first the stories were interesting and in their telling seemed, well, plausible. Yet on closer inspection can we be so certain that the evidence presented holds up to scrutiny? Ever the sceptic, could there be a much simpler explanation?

The Daily Mail (29 Nov 10), in the footsteps of a Daily Telegraph article from February 2007, reported that DNA tests have shown the residents in a windswept village in Gansu are the blond-haired, blue-eyed descendants of Roman mercenaries who allegedly fought the Han Chinese 2,000 years ago. While no one in the modern town of Lou Zhuangzi is fair, and there is no proof that the Romans ever set foot in Gansu before the Christian era, there has been frequent debate on whether a group of Romans offered their services to the Huns against the Chinese in the battle of ZhiZhi in 36 BC before settling in the Gansu village of Liqian. Before Marco Polo's travels to China in the 13th century, the only known contact between the two Empires was a visit by Roman diplomats in AD 166. Yet the story persists that 145 Romans, taken captive, had wandered the region for years before becoming mercenaries. Indeed, the idea has spawned various theories, TV documentaries, novels and, perhaps significantly, commercial opportunities for the impoverished area.

It was back in 1955 that Homer Hasenpflug Dubs, an Oxford University professor of Chinese history, first proposed the theory in a paper entitled “A Roman City in Ancient China”. In it Dubs stated that some of the 10,000 Roman prisoners reported by Plutarch as taken by the Parthians after the defeat in 53 BC of Marcus Licinius Crassus’ army at Carrhae in southeastern Turkey made their way to ZhiZhi in Uzbekistan to enlist with Huns against the army of the Chinese Han Dynasty commanded by General Chen Tang. Prof Dubs theorised that this group of legionaries made their way eastwards and thus how a mercenary troop "with a fish-scale formation" came to be captured by the Chinese 17 years later. Interestingly, Chinese accounts of their victory at the battle of ZhiZhi note facing a unit of soldiers numbering more than 100 who used an unusual “fish scale formation” - now popularly associated with a testudo - and the use of wooden fortifications foreign to the nomadic Huns.

Dubs postulated that after the battle the Chinese employed the Roman mercenaries as border guards, settling them in Liqian, a short form of Alexandria used by the Chinese to denote Rome. The professor's hypothesis took almost 40 years to reach China. During Chairman Mao's rule, ideas of foreign ancestry were not ideologically welcome and the story was suppressed, and the issue has divided experts ever since. While some Chinese scholars have been critical of Dubs' theory, others went so far as to identify Lou Zhuangzi, a settlement in north-western China on the fringes of the Gobi desert, more than 200 miles from the nearest city, as the probable location of Liqian in the late 1980s.


In the 1990s Chinese archaeologists were surprised to find the remains of an ancient fortification in Liqian that appeared strikingly similar to Roman defensive structures. Yet by 1999, no academic papers had been published on the subject, and no archaeological investigation had been conducted.  Despite this the media, residents and local government have remained unfazed. County officials, sensing potential tourist revenue, erected a Doric pavilion in Lou Zhuangzi (pictured opposite), while the county capital of Yongchang decorated its main thoroughfare with statues of a Roman legionary standing next to a Confucian scholar and a Muslim woman, as a symbol of racial harmony. Even entrepreneurs have caught on: in "Imperial City Entertainment Street" there is a “Caesar Karaoke” bar.

In 2005, after local authorities loosened control over genetic research, scientists and historians took blood samples from 93 people living in and around Liqian in the hope of that DNA tests would explain the unusual number of local people with western characteristics - green eyes, big noses, and even blonde hair - mixed with traditional Chinese features. Typical of these residents is Song Guorong who, with his wavy hair, six-foot frame and strikingly long, hooked nose, stands out from his short, round-faced office colleagues. He epitomises local sentiment: "I really think we are descended from the Romans. There are the residents with these special features, and then there are also historical records about the existence of these people long ago."

Another resident, Cai Junnian, pictured opposite, said his ruddy skin and green eyes meant he was now nicknamed Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, by friends. He become a local celebrity, and was flown to the Italian consulate in Shanghai to meet his supposed relatives. Mr Cai said his great-grandfather told him that there were Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half's walk away, but he had never connected them to the unusual appearance he inherited from his father.

The 2005 DNA test results confirmed some of the villagers were indeed of Caucasian origin, leading many to conclude their descent from an ancient Roman army, although others remained less certain. As Yang Gongle, of the Beijing Normal University said: "[Yongchang] county is on the Silk Road, so there were many chances for trans-national marriages…The 'foreign' origin of the Yongchang villagers, as proven by the DNA tests, does not necessarily mean they are of ancient Roman origin…Even if they are descendants of the Roman Empire, it does not mean they are necessarily from the Roman army. The empire covered a large area. Many soldiers were recruited locally, so anything is possible." Prof Wang Shaokuan has gone further pouring scorn on Prof Dubs's thesis, saying the Huns themselves included Caucasians, Asians and Mongols thus explaining the unusual characteristics of Liqian/Lou Zhuangzi’s residents.

Even so, on 21 November 2010, Newstrack India reported that experts at the newly established Italian Studies Centre at Lanzhou University in China’s Gansu province are looking into the possibility that some European-looking Chinese in Northwest China are the descendants of a lost army from the Roman Empire. Excavations are to be conducted on a section of the Silk Road, the 7,000-kilometre trade route that linked Asia and Europe, to see if a legion of Roman soldiers settled in China. Yuan Honggeng, head of the Centre, hopes to prove the legend by digging and discovering more evidence of China's early contact with the Roman Empire.

The Daily Mail story of 29 November 2010 is interesting for the misleading connections it makes to provide substance to the original Dubs theory and to perpetuate the myth. According to the story’s author, Niall Firth: “DNA testing of the villagers has shown that almost two thirds of them are of Caucasian origin. The results lend weight to the theory that the founding of Liqian may be linked to the legend of the missing army of Roman general Marcus Crassus.” Mr. Firth fails to mention, however, whether the DNA testing he refers to is more recent than the 2005 study. One can only assume that this is the earlier story regurgitated and thus not new evidence of proof.

Of interest, the article concludes with the bold statement that: “As part of their strategy Romans also hired troops wherever they had conquered and so many Roman legions were made up not of native Romans, but of conquered men from the local area who were then given training.” The implication is for evidence of some form of Chinese legion, but actually provides readers with a confused view of Roman history and more specifically the nature of military recruitment in the late Republic. In 110 BC the Roman army was composed of propertied men mostly of moderate means, but means nonetheless. They fought for the Republic because it was their duty as citizens. They were the Republic. By 107 BC a series of reforms, often attributed to seven time Consul Gaius Marius, had led to men with no means, who had to be equipped by the state, joining the Army. While the reforms were probably gradual to meet the circumstances faced by an expanding fledgling empire, they were the first steps towards a professional Roman army. In turn this resulted in a greater loyalty of these men to their leaders and their unit than the Republic. Leap forward in time to 
AD 400 and the legions were predominantly Germanic in origin, and supplemented with “foederati”, barbarian allies from beyond the Empire’s borders. But in 53 BC, the start point for the myth, this had yet to happen. The legionaries who marched with Crassus would have been Roman citizens, albeit with newly enfranchised Italian allies after the Social War. A century after Crassus and the legions of the Julio-Claudians were probably still mostly Italian. Clearly not an admixture of ethnic Chinese and Romano-Italians.

The recruiting of “foreigners” was not the exclusive purview of Rome. Pliny, for example, implies that the Parthians actively recruited prisoners for military service and the Roman historian Horace claims that the survivors of Carrhae were integrated into the Parthian army and married to local women. If this is accepted, then it is entirely plausible that the legionaries’ fate was to be moved to the far eastern fringes of the Parthian empire in Turkmenistan for use as border guards against the Huns - a practice familiar to many Auxiliary soldiers serving Rome on its imperial frontiers. There is, however, a problem with timing.

In 20 BC, during negotiations for the recovery of the standards lost at Carrhae between Augustus and the Parthians, it was stated that there were no prisoners to be returned. Various theorists have used this to substantiate the idea that the Romans must have migrated eastward to China as they were obviously no longer in Parthian hands. Unfortunately the negotiations were 33 years after Carrhae at a time when the life expectancy of a male soldier in the late Republic was between 45 and 50 years (excluding the risk of death in battle or other such mortal hazards). If we assume that most soldiers were aged between 17 and 30 years old during Crassus’ ill-fated expedition, then this would place them in the age bracket of between 50 and 63 years old which, when subject to scrutiny, seems highly unlikely and somewhat undermines the theory.

So, how to explain the Caucasian appearance of the Gansu villagers without the Roman hypothesis. Actually there is relatively straightforward explanation for the so-called “Chinese Romans” as explained in more much detail by Razib Khan in his blog entry “No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes”. Based on gene studies, Mr Khan contests that they “are from the same population mix, roughly, of the Uyghurs”: a hybrid population with about a 50/50 West/East Eurasian mix that is the ultimate genetic result of the migrations and assimilations of peoples throughout the Eurasian region between AD 500 and AD 1000. Like many European populations, the Uyghurs have a West Asian and Northern European aspect, but critically they lack the South European ancestry. This is important, because it is dominant in both the Tuscans and North Italians. If the “Roman Chinese” are genuinely Roman, they will have this specific southwest European ancestry, but even the earlier 2005 DNA tests have yet to definitively prove the genetic link. For now, the Gansu villagers “are simply part of the normal range of variation on the Western borders of China, which was inhabited by European looking peoples like the Tocharians until relatively recently.” The people of Liqian are essentially a Chinese speaking group whose ancestry, with its equal portions of West and East Eurasian influence, creates the illusion necessary for this story’s persistent survival.

Friday, August 21, 2015

More Tea?

As costumed re-enactors know only too well there are occasions, especially in the height of yet another glorious British summer, when a warming cuppa would be most welcome.  If, however, your chosen period pre-dates the reformation, then you have a bit of a problem.  Imports of tea into Britain began in the 1660s with the marriage of King Charles II to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza who brought the tea drinking habit to court.  So, while in "character" as, say, a Roman, some people never tire of pointing out that tea was unknown to them.  Thus the simple pleasure of enjoying a warming brew would be anachronistic and inappropriate.   Yet this got me thinking...we know from the writings of Pliny the Elder (Natural History Book VI) that the Romans were trading with China, so why was it that tea was never mentioned?

To find the origin of the refreshing cuppa, it is necessary to travel back to the year 2737 BC.   According to Chinese legend, the Emperor Shen Nung only ever drank boiled water until one day, while sitting beneath a wild tea tree, a breeze caused some of the leaves to fall into his pot of boiling water.  He found the resulting taste so stimulating that the practice of tea drinking was begun there and then.   Sadly it is not known whether the Emperor actually existed, or if the story is simply a convenient myth.  It is generally accepted, however, that drinking tea was popular in China long before it was ever exported to the West.

The first written reference to tea does not appear until the 3rd century BC when a renowned Chinese surgeon said it improved concentration and alertness.  There is still some debate whether the surgeon was actually recommending tea or sow thistles, however.  The confusion has been created by use in the record of the Chinese word tu, which is used interchangeable for both tea and sow thistles!  The eventual distinction between the two plants was made sometime between 206 BC and AD 220 when an emperor of the Han Dynasty ruled that tea should be pronounced “cha” - from where, until quite recently, we British get the slang term for a cup of tea.

Until the 3rd century AD, tea was only ever used as a medicine derived from the leaves gathered from wild trees.  But as demand increased, Chinese farmers began to cultivate the plant.  Tea’s popularity continued to grow during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, with plantations established along the Yangtze River valley.  Tea began to appear everywhere - taverns, wine stores, noodle houses; in fact, it was held in such high regard it was even presented as a gift to the Emperors.  By this time, of course, the Roman Empire was beginning its steady and irretrievable decline.  Sadly, therefore, the Romans never had chance to enjoy a good ol’ cuppa Cha an’ a slice a cake!


Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: Salt

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
Salt is a chemical compound of sodium and chloride (NaCl) and is an essential nutrient, the amount of which in the diet has a direct influence on health. Today, it is almost universally accessible and relatively cheap. Most of us probably take salt for granted, but it was not always the case. It has been central part of human history for thousands of years largely due to salt's ability to preserve food. It was this property that effectively removed man’s dependence on the seasonal availability of food and increased the opportunities to travel long distances.

Some of the earliest evidence of salt processing dates to around 6,000 years ago, when people living in Romania were boiling spring water to extract the salts; a salt-works in China has been found which dates to approximately the same period. Salt was prized by the ancient Israelites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Hittites and the Egyptians
[1]. As such salt became a highly prized article of trade and was transported by boat across the Mediterranean Sea, along specially built salt roads - some of the earliest dating to the Bronze Age, and across the Sahara in camel caravans. The scarcity and universal need for salt has led nations to go to war over salt and use it to raise tax revenues. Salt is also used in religious ceremonies and its cultural significance has led some commentators to argue that it was a contributing factor in the development of civilisation.

In the early years of the Roman Republic, with the growth of the city of Rome, roads were built to make transportation of salt to the capital city easier. The most obvious example is the via Salaria , literally the “salt road”, that leads from Rome to the Adriatic Sea. The Adriatic, having a higher salinity due to its shallow depth, had more productive solar ponds compared with those of the Tyrrhenian Sea, much closer to Rome. It is commonly believed that, at certain times, Roman soldiers were paid with salt, hence the word “salary”, but this is unlikely. The Latin word salarium does seemingly link employment, salt and soldiers, but the precise link is far from clear. This misunderstanding probably stems from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who stated as an aside in his Natural History's discussion of sea water, that "[I]n Rome...the soldier's pay was originally salt and the word salary derives from it...".[2] Today it is more generally accepted that, although Roman soldiers were typically paid in coin, the word salarium is derived from the word sal (salt) because at some point a soldier's salary may have been an allowance for the purchase of salt[3] or the price of having soldiers conquer salt supplies and guard the salt roads, i.e. via Salaria, leading to Rome.

During the late Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages salt was a precious commodity carried along the salt roads into the heartland of the Germanic tribes. Caravans consisting of as many as forty thousand camels traversed four hundred miles of the Sahara bearing salt to inland markets in the Sahel, the semi-arid zone that stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. Such markets traded salt for slaves: Timbuktu, for example, was a huge salt and slave market. Elsewhere, in China for example, salt was both a driver of technological development and a stable source of revenue for the imperial government.
Salt pan in Death Valley National Park, USA


There have been two main sources for salt: sea water and rock salt. Rock salt occurs when water in enclosed lakes, playas (or salt pans) and seas evaporates leaving behind vast beds of the mineral, some of which can be up to 350 metres thick. In the United States and Canada, for example, extensive underground salt beds extend from the Appalachian basin of western New York through parts of Ontario and under much of the Michigan basin. While in the United Kingdom underground beds are found in Cheshire and around Droitwich in Worcestershire.

On an industrial scale, salt is produced in one of two principal ways: the evaporation of salt water (brine) or by mining from underground beds. Evaporation can either be solar evaporation or using some heating device to produce salt crystals.

In the correct climate it is possible to use solar evaporation of sea water to produce salt. Brine is evaporated in a linked set of ponds until the solution is sufficiently concentrated by the final pond so that the salt crystallises on the pond's floor. This is the method recorded by the Roman authors where, in order to aid natural evaporation, shallow rectangular ponds (multifidi lacus) were dug, divided from one another by earthen walls. The opening and closing of sluices (cataracta) allowed sea-water into these pools through canals. The water was more and more strongly impregnated with salt as it flowed from one pond to another. According to Pliny the Elder, when reduced to brine (coacto umore) it was called by the Greeks ἅλμη, by Latin speakers salsugo or salsilago, and by the Spaniards muria. In this state it was used by the Egyptians to pickle fish[4], and likewise by the Romans to preserve olives, cheese, and meat[5]. As the brine left in the ponds crystallised, a salinator had the job of raking out the salt and laying it in heaps (tumuli) upon the ground to drain.

Solar evaporation salt works

Throughout the Roman Empire salt-works were commonly public property, but were leased by the government to the highest bidder. The first salt-works are said to have been established by Ancus Marcius at Ostia.  The important point, however, is that energy is required to evaporate the water or mine the salt. In these cases, the costs of fuel and labour have an impact on the cost of the end product of salt. The cost meant that, in the classical Mediterranean world at least, there was greater reliance on the use of fish sauce, or garum, as a cheaper more accessible substitute for salt.


As for the solution mining of salt, the earliest examples of pans date back to prehistoric times where the pans made of a course ceramic known as briquetage. Later examples were small pans about one metre square (3 ft square) made from lead and using wood as a fuel. After the Middle Ages pans started to be made from iron, firstly in pans measuring about 2.1 m (7 ft) by 2.4 m (8 ft). Over time pans have gradually increased in size until they are typically 6.1 m (20 ft) wide by 9.1 m (30 ft) long. Regardless of their size, brine would be pumped into the pans and concentrated by the heat of the fire burning underneath. The change from lead to iron pans coincided with using coal instead of wood to heat the brine. As crystals of salt formed these would be raked out and more brine added.

In the second half of the 19th century, industrial mining and new drilling techniques made the discovery of more and deeper deposits possible, increasing mined salt's share of the market. Although mining salt was generally more expensive than extracting it from brine via solar evaporation of seawater, the introduction of this new source on an industrial scale had the overall effect of reducing the price of salt.
Bread and Salt: a traditional eastern European welcome


Today one of the largest salt mining operations in the world is at the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan. The mine has nineteen storeys, eleven of which are underground, and 400 km (250 miles) of passages. The salt is dug out by the room and pillar method, where about half the material is left in place to support the upper levels. Extraction of Himalayan salt is expected to last 350 years at the present rate of extraction of around 385,000 tons per annum.[6] In 2002, total world production (of sodium chloride in general, not just table salt) was estimated at 210 million tonnes[7].  Five years later global production had increased by 12% proving salt continued inestimable value to us all.
References

1. Bloch, D. "Economics of NaCl: Salt made the world go round", Mr Block Archive. Retrieved 2006-12-19.
2. Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories XXXI
3. Ibid.
4. Herodotus, The Histories, II.77
5. Cato the Elder, on Agriculture, 7, 88, 105

6. Pennington, M. (25 January 2005), "Pakistan salt mined old-fashioned way mine", The Seattle Times.
7. Feldman, S. R. (2005). "Sodium Chloride". Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: Broccoli

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.

Broccoli (Brassica oleracea italic) is a cultivar of wild cabbage, which originated along the northern and western coasts of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.  Wild cabbage may have been domesticated by the Etruscans, who first settled in the northern and central portion of Italy in about 1100 BC.  That domestication eventually produced wildly different cultivars, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts, all of the mustard family (Brassicaceae).

The Italian word “brocco” means sprout, bud, or shoot, and derived from the Latin brachium meaning an arm or branch.  However, Roman references to a cabbage-family vegetable that may have been broccoli are not entirely clear.  The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder writes of a vegetable fitting well with the description of broccoli and most classical food historians recognise broccoli in the cookbook of Apicius.

As its name suggests, broccoli was eaten in Italy long before anywhere else.  It is first mentioned in France in 1560, but broccoli was still so unfamiliar in Britain that Philip Miller's Gardener's Dictionary of 1724 referred to it as a stranger in England and explained it as "sprout colli-flower" or "Italian asparagus”.  So, although the Roman cultivated and ate broccoli, it was not until the 1700s that this particular vegetable was widely introduced to Britain and America.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Strawberries

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.

With the first week of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club's 2015 Championship in Wimbledon all but over, it got me thinking about strawberries (and cream) and where this iconic summer treat originated.  As usual, not all is as clear cut as you might think.  To give you a flavour of what I mean, back in 2010 Heather Driscoll-Woodford, writing for BBC Surrey[1], suggested Wimbledon's strawberries and cream had Tudor roots.  It is to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and King Henry VIII's right-hand man, that the credit is first given to combining berries with diary.

Although, as we shall see, strawberries had been around in England and elsewhere since the Ice Age, the idea of teaming them with a dollop of cream had not occurred to anyone.  Yet someone in Wolsey's Hampton Court Palace was apparently inspired to do so.  History, however, fails to name which of the many cooks it was, toiled for hours in the hellishly hot kitchens to produce the food needed to feed 600 people twice a day, who first created the dish.  So, rather unfairly, Cardinal Wolsey is given the credit for this simple combination enjoyed as a treat by millions worldwide.

Commonly known as strawberries for their edible fruits, the generic term for these flowering plants is actually Fragaria. Surprisingly, strawberries are part of the rose family, Rosaceae, and there are more than 20 described species, with many hybrids and cultivars[2]. Strawberries are not true berries[3]. The fleshy and edible part of the fruit is a receptacle, and the parts that are sometimes mistakenly called "seeds" are known as achenes[4]. Such achenes contain a single seed that nearly fills the edible outer layer of the fruit (known as the pericarp), but does not stick to it. The seed-like appearance comes from the hardening of the wall of the seed-vessel that encloses the solitary seed so closely as to seem like an outer coat.
Home growing wild strawberries

The first garden strawberry was grown in Brittany during the late 18th century[5].  Before this, wild strawberries and cultivated selections from wild strawberry species were the common source of the fruit.  Indeed, man’s consumption of wild strawberries has been dated to the Neolithic based on the evidence from La Marmotta, a Neolithic site on the shores of a volcanic lake, Lago di Bracciano, 32 km (20 miles) northwest of Rome.  Similarly, we have evidence for strawberries being gathered from the wild before 6,000 BC at Grotto dell’Uzzo in Sicily.

Although a huge leap forward in historical terms, by the classical period Roman authors were mentioning strawberries for their medicinal uses.  And that’s where the story seems to stall until the 1300s when the French are credited with first bringing the wild strawberry from the forest to their gardens where they would be propagated asexually by cutting off the runners.   The French King Charles V (r. 1364 to 1380), for example, is said to have had 1200 strawberry plants in his royal garden.

In the early 1400s western European monks were using the wild strawberry in their illuminated manuscripts and, echoing the ancient Roman literature, the entire strawberry plant was being used medicinally to treat depressive illnesses.

By the 1500s references to the cultivation of the strawberry become more common.  People were still using it for its supposed medicinal properties, but now botanists began naming the different species.  In England the demand for regular strawberry farming had increased by the mid-1500s.  Written instructions for growing and harvesting strawberries appeared in 1578 and by the end of the century three European species had been cited; Fragaria vesca, Fragaria moschata, and Fragaria viridis.

The cultivation of the modern strawberry, however, had to wait until the 1600s when Fragaria virginiana was introduced from eastern seaboard of North America to Europe.  The new species gradually spread through the continent, but it was still essentially a wild strawberry very different from the modern hybrid.  It was a French expedition to Chile, in 1712, that led to introduction of a plant with female flowers, Fragaria chiloensis or the Chilean strawberry.  Once again, although these new plants grew vigorously in Europe, they still produced no fruit.  Until that is, in 1766, when it was discovered that female plants could only be pollinated by those plants that produced large fruit, such as Fragaria moschata, Fragaria virginiana, and Fragaria ananassa.  European growers finally understood that strawberry plants produced either male-only or female-only flowers, and it was this realisation that paved the way for the cultivation of the common strawberry hybrid that we have today.

References:
[1] 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/surrey/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8756000/8756132.stm
[2]  A cultivar is an assemblage of plants that (a) has been selected for a particular character or combination of characters, (b) is distinct, uniform and stable in those characters, and (c) when propagated by appropriate means, retains those characters.
[3] Esau, K. (1977), Anatomy of seed plants, John Wiley and Sons, New York.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Welsh, M. (2008) "Strawberries", Nvsuk.org.uk.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: Pepper

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
Long pepper (Piper longum), sometimes called Indian long pepper, is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae.  It is cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning.  Long pepper has a similar, but hotter, taste to its close relative Piper nigrum from which black, green and white pepper are obtained; the latter is actually just a ripened form of black pepper.  The word “pepper” itself is derived from the Prakrit word for long pepper, pipali.

The fruit of the pepper consists of many minuscule fruits - each about the size of a poppy seed - embedded in the surface of a flower spike that closely resembles a hazel tree catkin.  Like Piper nigrum, the fruits contain the alkaloid piperine, which contributes to their pungency.  Another species of long pepper, Piper retrofractum, is native to Java, Indonesia.  The fruits of this plant are often confused with chilli peppers, which belong to the genus Capsicum and were originally from the Americas.

The first reference to long pepper is found in the ancient Indian textbooks of Ayurveda where its medicinal and dietary uses are described in detail.  It became known in classical Greece around 400 BC where it was mentioned by the playwrights Antiphanes, Eubulus, Alexis and in a Hippocratic text, although Hippocrates discussed it as a medicament rather than a spice.  Among the Greeks and Romans, and before the European rediscovery of the Americas, long pepper was an important and well-known spice being imported from northeastern India.  In fact, pepper was the quintessential spice of the Indian Ocean trade whereby large quantities of Roman gold and silver coins made their way into the markets of India.  So important was this trade that the Roman treasury stockpiled pepper, especially in the horrea piperatoria ("pepper warehouses") built by Emperor Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus (Domitian), as an alternative form of currency.  For those who could afford "exotic" pepper, Apicius mentions it over 400 times.

The ancient history of black pepper is often interlinked with (and confused with) that of long pepper even though Theophrastus distinguished the two in the first work of botany.  The Romans clearly knew of both but, confusingly, often referred to either as just piper; Pliny erroneously believed dried black pepper and long pepper came from the same plant.  Long pepper (piper longum) is the hotter of the two, however, with Galen comparing its heat to that of ginger.  It fetched twice the price of black pepper in Roman times.

Round, or black pepper, began to compete with long pepper in Europe from the 12th century and had largely displaced it by the fourteenth.  The quest for cheaper and more dependable sources of black pepper fuelled the Age of Discoveries; only after the discovery of the American Continents and of chilli pepper, called by the Spanish “pimiento”, employing their word for long pepper, did the popularity of long pepper fade away.  Chilli peppers, some of which, when dried, are similar in shape and taste to long pepper, were easier to grow in a variety of locations more convenient to Europe.

Today, long pepper is quite a rarity, but it still can be bought through more specialised food outlets.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: The Chilli Pepper

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
The chilli pepper (from Nahuatl chīlli /ˈt͡ʃiːli/) is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.

Chilli peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC.  The most recent research shows that chilli peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago in Mexico, and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central and parts of South America.

Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them during his second voyage to the West Indies in 1493.  He called them "peppers" because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs.  On their introduction into Europe, chillies were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries.  Later the monks experimented with the chilli's culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.

The spread of chilli peppers to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders.  Today chilli peppers are an integral part of South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: Chocolate

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
Cacao seeds (Theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is derived, has been cultivated by many cultures in Mesoamerica for at least three millennia.  For nearly all of its history chocolate has been prepared as a drink.  For example, one vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico, dates chocolate's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC.  On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC.  In fact, the majority of Mesoamerican people made chocolate beverages, including the Maya and Aztec, who called it xocolātl /ʃoˈkolaːt͡ɬ/, a Nahuatl word meaning "bitter water".  Very apt as the seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste and must be fermented to develop the flavour.

In contrast to the Maya, who liked their chocolate warm, the Aztec drank it cold using a broad variety of seasoning, including the petals of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum tree, chilli pepper, allspice, vanilla, and honey.  The residues and the kind of vessel in which they were found indicate the early use of cacao was not simply as a beverage, but that the white pulp around the cacao beans was likely used as a source of fermentable sugars for an alcoholic drink.

Until the 16th century, no European had ever heard of this drink.  Christopher Columbus and his son Ferdinand encountered the cacao bean on Columbus's fourth mission to the Americas.  Apparently, on 15th August 1502, he and his crew seized a large native canoe that proved to contain cacao beans among many other goods for trade.  Yet, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter the frothy chocolate drink as it was part of the after-dinner routine of the Aztec king, Montezuma.

Although cocoa originated in the Americas, today Western Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world's cocoa, with Côte d'Ivoire growing almost half of it.  As a consequence chocolate has become one of the most popular food types and flavours in the world.  Health benefits or concerns aside, a vast number of foodstuffs involving chocolate have been created all of which fuel a billion dollar-a-year worldwide business.  So much so, that today boxes of individual chocolates, moulded into many assorted shapes, with or without additional filings, have become traditional gifts on certain holidays and, echoing its origin, chocolate is still used in cold and hot beverages.

Enjoy...responsibly.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Roman Burgers on the Wall

An interesting, and somewhat challenging, day.  After a 5 am start, we drove North through squally showers to spend the day at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall.  Arriving in good time, we set about pitching a tent and setting up our cooking equipment to rustle up iscia omentata - Roman burgers to you and I - for a press call on behalf of English Heritage.

Why you might ask?  Well, on Saturday May 23rd if you visit Birdoswald Roman Fort between 11 am and 3 pm then, courtesy of English Heritage, you can sample a Roman burger cooked for you by Tastes Of History.  You could even add Roman mustard for an extra zing or perhaps, If you're feeling brave, go for the cheese burger with our much loved moretum, or garlic cheese!

Today, however, was Jill's chance to educate and entertain in an interview for BBC Radio Cumbria and a filmed sequence for ITV Borders (as pictured).  Hats off to Joe Jackson of Cumbria Heritage, pictured on the left, who had to eat several burgers at various locations for the assembled newspaper photographers.  If you're interested, the recipe is relatively simple to reproduce and can be found on our website www.tastesofhistory.co.uk.  For us, it was telling that all who tried the burgers came to the same conclusion: the Roman version is definitely tastier than the ones you get in today's fast food outlets.  But would you agree?  Why not come and find out.


For more information on the events taking place at Birdoswald from May 23rd until May 31st, why not visit http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/birdoswald-roman-fort-hadrians-wall/


Monday, May 18, 2015

Roman Cooking al Fresco

The Latin term "craticula" is a diminutive form of "crates" used to mean a gridiron (Martial, 14.221)[1], the bars of which give it the appearance of wickerwork. The model reproduced below right, found at Pompeii, is of iron with a suspension ring (some have a handle) and parallel bars only, i.e. no crossbars; others have crossbars as well.  Early examples were found in Pompeii and now reside the Naples Museum.  The term "craticula" could equally refer to a griddle or grill, but should the term be applied to the combination of boiler and stove shown below left.  Also found in Pompeii, the roughness of the surface of this object has been caused by corrosion and volcanic ash adhering to its metal frame. For those interested the original can be seen in the National Museum Naples.


Applying the term “craticula” to this object somehow does not seem appropriate even though the rods that slide on the curved side-rails are reminiscent of a gridiron.  So, what should we call it and, perhaps more importantly, what was it used for?


While we cannot be absolutely certain that it is indeed a cooker, it is certainly more than a simple gridiron.  Reproductions based on the original can provide useful insights as to how such an object from antiquity may have functioned. Tastes Of History’s bespoke version, shown opposite, is a case in point.

The design is actually rather ingenious.  The firebox is supported on braced metal legs.  Above the firebox are two curved side-rails to which horizontal sliding rods are fitted.  These rods can be adjusted along the length of the rails such that different pots and pans can be used.  Variously sized frying pans or cooking pots can be set on equally spaced rods, while separating two rods allows a pot to be lowered closer to the fire’s heat.  Indeed, the raising or lowering of pots in this manner moderates cooking temperature and time.

In the rear there are two openings to hold a caccabus, or stewpot, of which there are four different surviving illustrations.  Heat from the fire is drawn and funnelled beneath such pots to warm, simmer or boil the content.  A fire, or sometimes more than one, set in the firebox can be manipulated to control the available heat.  By placing the fire further back into the recess beneath the funnel(s) the cooking temperature can be raised.  Conversely, drawing a fire away from the openings quickly lowers the temperature. Simple.

With a lack of space, and in the absence of an alternative, for several years we used the cooker with it placed on the floor.  Apart from the back ache caused by tending to such a low-level fire, this position severely hampered airflow and required almost continual attention to keep the fire burning.  Yet it is believed that
 such cookers usually rested on top of a brick oven or range.  So, having constructed a plinth for this purpose, the effect on the fire’s draw was almost immediate.  Improved airflow led to a significantly better burn and the need to continually monitor the fire was much reduced.

Being a movable object suggests that this cooker may have been equally at home on a kitchen range or perhaps it could have been moved to and used in an outdoor triclinium (dining area).  Indeed it is thought that the original example was found in the garden of a Pompeian house.  As such it is tempting to speculate on how it might have been used.  Perhaps it was used to showcase and cook certain dishes before they were served to watching diners.  May be it was simply employed to warm drinks, or could it have been just an outdoor brazier - the Roman equivalent of a space heater.  The balance of probability, however, allied to the experience of several years, provides very strong 
evidence for such objects being innovative and versatile cookers.  Barbecue anyone?


[1] A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin, Ed. The term is used as the base for the term graticule, passing through French.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Edible Dormouse anyone?

All Romans ate dormice didn't they?  You may have been told that in school, and it's still a popular and persistent belief, but it's simply not true.  Although wealthy Romans might have dined on them - as a culinary delicacy - edible Dormice were not widely eaten by ordinary Romans who simply could not afford such expensive luxuries.
Moreover, Edible, or Fat, Dormice (Glis Glis) were certainly not native to Britain, and the evidence for their introduction to these shores by the Romans is sadly lacking.  As for Romano-Britons eating them, there is even less proof!
Edible Dormice were, however, farmed and eaten (as a snack), even though they were expensive to breed and raise.  According to the Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), dormice were kept in pens enclosed by walls that were polished to prevent them from escaping and filled with trees whose fruit they like: beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts. When the trees were not bearing fruit, acorns and chestnuts would be thrown inside the walls for the dormice to glut themselves on.  Only a small amount of water was provided since Dormice use little and prefer to live in a dry place.  Roomy hollows or burrows would have been available where they might give birth.
It was noted that dormice get fat in winter as they sleep in the hollows of trees.  Consequently, in less spacious urban surroundings, such as the villas or town houses of the wealthy, potters made distinctive terracotta jars or containers known as "gliraria".   The fine example shown opposite was made for Tastes Of History by Graham Taylor of Potted History.

The inner sides of these gliraria had ribs for the dormice to walk on and holes for them to deposit their food. Jars of this kind can be seen in the museum in Naples where the examples have ribs forming three to five stories and little openings traversing the walls.  Such jars were stocked with sufficient supplies of acorns, walnuts or chestnuts before the dormice were placed inside.  With the jars covered, the dormice would eat, sleep and grow fat in the dark.   The fatter the dormice were, the more they were esteemed.

Edible Dormice are less like mice and more like squirrels, being silver grey in colour, with white or yellow undersides.  They have large round ears, black areas around small eyes and long bushy tails.  Typical examples are between 14 to 19 cm long, with a tail a further 11 to 13 cm long.  They are found throughout much of mainland western Europe and on a number of Mediterranean and Baltic islands, including Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and Crete.

Although not native to the United Kingdom, dormice were accidentally introduced to the town of Tring in Hertfordshire after escaping from the private collection of Lionel Walter Rothschild (the second Baron Rothschild) in 1902.  As a result, the edible dormouse population in Britain, now 30,000 strong, is concentrated in a 200 square mile (520 km2) triangle between Beaconsfield, Aylesbury and Luton, around the south east side of the Chiltern Hills.

They have adapted well to the presence of man and will now frequently hibernate in insulated attics and even dark shelves in cupboards, particularly if there are soft materials to make a nest.  Dormice can be regarded as a pest in such circumstances, however, due to faecal fouling and the fire risk resulting from their gnawing of electrical cables.  Despite this the UK's Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits certain methods of killing them, and the removing of dormice may require a licence.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

George the "Saintly" pork salesman?

Cry "God for Harry! England and Saint George!"
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.
April 23rd: St George's Day.  Depending on who you choose to believe, George is variously thought to be a martyr who defied the Emperor Diocletian’s “persecution” of the Christians, an early Christian Bishop, or a disgraced supplier of dodgy pork to the Roman Army.  Yet, very little, if anything, is known about the real “St George”.  His links with England are decidedly tenuous and there is no evidence at all of him being the slayer of any dragon.  Yet, as the patron saint of England, George is popularly identified with English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry - even if he was not actually English at all.  So, being unhappy to unquestioningly accept popular beliefs as fact, perhaps we should ask: “What, if any, is the historical truth behind this well known character?”



Evidence for George?  Working backwards through centuries of popular myth, we find the “knightly” George was brought to England by returning crusaders in the 12th/13th centuries and was subsequently popularised in print by William Caxton.  Even earlier, in the 8th century, it was believed that George had visited Caerleon and Glastonbury while serving as a member of Emperor Constantine's staff.  Yet in the 5th century we find that neither the Syrian list of saints nor the so-called Hieronymian Martyrologium commemorate a St George at all.  About this time, however, Pope Gelasius records that St George was among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men but whose actions are only known to God”.

Despite a dearth of facts, the spirit of the times ensured a great many “apocryphal acts” of St George were in circulation.  These presented, at great length, not a dragon-slayer but an early Christian martyr.  The supposed passion of St George involved an endless variety of tortures which the saint had endured and miraculously survived.  These legendary “acts” echo an earlier blend of Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic tradition, all derived from an unknown Greek original.  The 4th or 5th century Coptic texts managed at one and the same time to relate George to the Governor of Cappadocia, to the Count of Lydda in Palestine and to Joseph of Arimathea!  Incongruously, these tales were not condemned by the Catholic church for their implausibility but because they were the work of “heretical” Arians who controlled these early churches and who challenged the Catholic contention of the divinity of Jesus.  This “civil war” between Arianism and Catholicism catalysed Pope Gelasius to outlaw the Acta Sancti Georgii in AD 496.


As the years passed Catholic attitudes softened and an approved legend rescued George from the heretics and placed him in the reign of Diocletian, a favourite villain of the early Christian authors.  George was given a noble birth in Cappadocia (in today's Turkey) in the 3rd century AD to parents with a tenacious commitment to the Christian faith.  When his father died, George's mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her.  George reportedly enlisted in the Roman army rising to the rank of Tribunus.  In about AD 303, however, George is said to have objected to Emperor Diocletian’s campaign against the Christians (see opposite), resigning his military post in protest of this “persecution”.  George allegedly tore up the Imperial order against the Christians, infuriating Diocletian, and was duly imprisoned.  Under torture George is said to have refused to deny his faith.  Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lydda) in Palestine and beheaded.  Later Christian authors wrote that Diocletian's wife was so impressed by George's resilience that she converted to the faith and was later executed for her beliefs.

A brief episode recorded in the early 4th century history of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and propagandist for Emperor Constantine, may have seeded this yarn of George.  Eusebius wrote of "numerous martyrdoms" from shortly before his own time, although rather conveniently for later apologists, most of the faithful were unnamed.  One in particular, a martyr of "greatest distinction", may have influenced the later "history" of George:

"Immediately on the publication of the decree against the churches in Nicomedia, a certain man, not obscure but very highly honoured with distinguished temporal dignities, moved with zeal toward God, and incited with ardent faith, seized the edict as it was posted openly and publicly, and tore it to pieces as a profane and impious thing; and this was done while two of the sovereigns were in the same city - the oldest of all, and the one who held the fourth place in the government after him.  But this man, first in that place, after distinguishing himself in such a manner suffered those things which are likely to follow such daring, and kept his spirit cheerful and undisturbed till death."
– Eusebius, History of the Church, 8.5.

Eusebius avoided naming this "high placed martyr" but he did identify the two sovereigns: Diocletian and Galerius.  Thus, when the legend of St George began to take shape, sometime in the late 4th or early 5th century AD, the most consistent refrain in a story otherwise notable for its variations, was that George had "stood up to" the dastardly Diocletian.  The earliest extant evidence we have for the legend (not George himself!) are fragments from a reused parchment (or "palimpsest") dated to the 5th century - the so-called Decretum Gelasianum.

A Glorious Death.  Much of the passion ascribed to George was actually modelled on that of Christ himself, and it was for that reason that the Feast of St George was celebrated near to Easter (18 and 23 April).  In the legend, George does not go quietly to meet his maker.  In fact, he is brutally tortured to death being, for example, forced to swallow poison, crushed between two spiked wheels and boiled in a cauldron of molten lead.  Amazingly, none of these tortures killed him as his wounds were healed overnight by Christ himself.  To save himself George was told his life would be spared if he would offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.  As the story goes, the people assembled to see him do so but the wilful George instead prayed to the Christian God.  Immediately, fire shot from heaven, an earthquake shook the ground, and priests, idols, and the temple buildings were destroyed.  In an ironic twist of fate that George clearly did not see coming, God then willed that the "Saint" should die for his faith - George was beheaded without further trouble!

Stories of this nature abounded about pagan and Christian figures in the early Middle Ages.  People would have expected their heroes to have undergone such experiences and in an age when many things seemed mystical, few were sceptical about such tales.  According to one of the innumerable tales, St George endured no less than seven years of torture!


In the late 4th century AD the political value of “saint’s bones” had been pioneered by Bishop Ambrose of Milan as a weapon in his power struggle with the Empress Justina.  The exploitation of “religious relics” may explain how it was that by the 8th century at least five different “heads of St George” were being venerated.  One such trophy was produced by Pope Zacharias (AD 741-52), last of the Greek popes.  Zacharias amazed and delighted the credulous denizens of Rome by "finding" a head of St George in the decaying Lateran palace.  The head was carried ceremoniously through what was left of the city and placed in triumph in the suitably renamed San Sebastiano, San Giorgio in Velabro.  Perhaps it is more than just coincidence that, at the time of Zacharias' “find”, the Pope was locked in bitter conflict with the Byzantine Emperors Leo III (AD 717-41) and Constantine V (AD 741-75) over their fierce iconoclastic policy.  As rapidly as cultic imagery was being destroyed in the East, it was being created in the West.
The Real George.  If the mention of an unnamed martyr of Nicomedia by Eusebius seeded the idea of a martial saint battling the forces of paganism, the reference was all too brief for a full blown legend.  Inspiration had to come from elsewhere.  Fortuitously, there was just such a character.

The “real” George was a rather different character from the paragon of Christian tradition.  As Edward Gibbon and others made clear, “St. George” was a legendary accretion around a notorious 4th century bishop, George of Cappadocia.  Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that it is “not improbable that the apocryphal Acts have borrowed some incidents from the story of the Arian bishop.”

George, the future archbishop of Alexandria, began his career as a humble cloth worker in Cilicia (now southern Turkey).  By “assiduous flattery” or other means he acquired the contract to supply the Roman army with bacon.  As Gibbon says:

"His employment was mean; he rendered it infamous. He accumulated wealth by the basest arts of fraud and corruption; but his malversations were so notorious, that George was compelled to escape from the pursuits of justice."

Making his way to Palestine, George set himself up in the religion business at Diospolis (Lydda), where he became a profane grandee of the ruling Arian Christians.  As a wealthy and influential opponent of the Catholic Athanasius he was well-placed to take the bishop’s chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile.
In his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging the ancient temples.  "The tyrant…oppressed with an impartial hand the various inhabitants of his extensive diocese," notes Gibbon.  So incensed were the inhabitants that on at least one occasion George was expelled from Alexandria by a mob and troops had to be deployed to get him back into the bishop’s palace.
His end came with the elevation of Emperor Julian to the purple.  The angry “pagans” of Alexandria (possibly aided by Catholics) took their revenge on George by throttling him and dumping his body in the sea.  It seems highly probable that some supporters of the murdered bishop recovered what they claimed to be his erstwhile remains and made off with them to the nearest centre of Arianism, Lydda in Palestine.  Emperor Julian himself sequestered the extensive library which George had acquired.
Post-Mortem Success.  Yet the notorious prelate was to achieve a nobility in death which had been denied to him in life.  George’s family built him a tomb and a church to house it at Lydda, which as a shrine soon attracted a profitable traffic in pilgrims.  At the same time, in the middle years of the 4th century AD, the hierarchy of the church had been seriously alarmed by the apostasy of Emperor Julian (AD 360-363) and a resurgent paganism.  His brief reign had threatened their recently gained temporal power and the hierarchs desired every possible device to prevent such a calamity again.
The Catholic Church was more than prepared to overlook George's heretical and criminal past.  The “official” legend of St George would symbolise the complete and irreversible victory of Christianity over paganism.  Hence the image of St. George as a fearless warrior, defeating enemies of the faith by Christian forbearance, no matter what trials were to be overcome.  In many of the “traditions” the climax of the story actually has George smashing pagan idols.
Evidently the George cult spread outwards from Palestine.  In the late 19th century two churches were identified in Syria with inscriptions indicating the veneration of a martyr called "Georgios".  One was the ruins of a church at Shaqr (Shakka, Maximianopolis) dedicated by a Bishop Tiberinus; the other was an erstwhile pagan temple at Ezra (Azra/Zorava), where a re-dedication plaque had been found.  The inscriptions are dated to the early-6th century AD.
St George, a Dragon and England.  The familiar image of “the saint dressed in a white tunic bedecked with a red cross, astride his stallion, and skewering a dragon as he rescues a fair maiden, depends more on a late medieval and Renaissance ideal of this miles Christi (knight of Christ) than on his legend in its earlier forms”[1].
The earliest known British reference to St George, however, occurs in an account by St. Adamnan, the 7th century AD Abbot of lona.  He is believed to have heard the story from Arcuif, a French bishop who had travelled to Jerusalem and other holy places in Palestine.  The saint is also mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede.  As already mentioned, George's reputation grew with the returning crusaders.  A miracle appearance, when it was claimed that he appeared to lead crusaders into battle, is recorded in stone over the South door of a church at Fordington in Dorset.  This still exists and is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to St George.  It was not until AD 1222 that the Council of Oxford named April 23rd as St George's Day.
His story only achieved mass circulation when it was first printed in 1483 by William Caxton in The Golden Legend.  This book was a translation of a work by Jacques de Voragine, a French bishop, which incorporated fantastic details of Saints' lives.  St George was adopted in England because the story in the Golden Legend was identifiable with a similar, popular Anglo-Saxon legend.  He was quickly incorporated into miracle plays adapted from pagan sources and is a prime figure in Spenser's famous epic poem The Fairie Queen.  George's popularity faded, however, as religious beliefs changed with the Reformation.  He also lost ground as gunpowder became the primary weapon of war and protection, making the lance and sword less significant.  In 1778 St George's Day was demoted to a simple day of devotion for Catholics in England for whom the venality of George's real life had either been forgotten or merely white-washed.
Thanks to successive creative writers, George’s name as  been attached to a colourful story of piety, fortitude, divine deliverance and - ultimately - a princess and a dragon.  As Gibbon famously records:
"This odious stranger disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero, and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter."
Quite a success story for an unmitigated rogue - and a dodgy bacon salesman!

1.  The Martyrdom of St. George in The South English Legendary, ed. E. Gordon Whatley