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A Knife in the Dark: the Arcani

Missorium of Emperor Valentinian I, surrounded by his bodyguards. From left to right, the second and fifth guard appear to be from the Lanciarii division. The Arcani were disbanded during the reign of Valentinian. Photo credit to MAH, photo J.- M. Yersin, inv. C1241.

The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?


A Gothic Hero

Death of emperor Valens on the battlefield near the city of Adrianople. The emperor died fighting with his own bodyguards.

Fritigern is one of the most famous Gothic rulers in history. Contrary to popular belief, Fritigern was not born into a primitive and barbarian society. On the contrary, he was part of a group of people, the Tervingi Goths, who had been in contact with the Roman world for years, as a result of trade and Roman attempts at converting the Goths to Christianity. The Romans were even partly successful, with the Goths partly embracing Arian Christianity thanks to the conversion campaign promoted by bishop Ulfilas, with Frigern being one of those converted. In the year 375 AD however, things changed drastically for the Goths as bellicose Hunnic tribes invaded from the North. In 376 AD, in response to the invasions of the Huns, the Goths began amassing on the northern banks of the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. The river served as the northern boundary of the eastern Roman empire, which at the time was led by emperor Valens. The gothic leaders, including Fritigern, did not want to invade the empire, instead they wished to settle down within its borders and be protected from the Hunnic threat. The gothic chieftains sent ambassadors to the emperor, who was based in Antioch, in modern day Syria. 

Bust of emperor Valens. Capitoline Museums. Rome, Italy.

Valens, planning to enlist the gothic male population into the army, accepted their proposal. Therefore, the Goths crossed over the Danube under Roman supervision. The Roman provincial authorities however, were not able to deal with the immigration wave and, in the city of Marcianople, they slaughtered the gothic authorities. Fritigern was the only chieftain to survive the carnage. He maintained his pro-Roman policy, facing Roman armies only when necessary. In 378 AD, near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, Fritigern tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict with the emperor. While Fritigern’s delegation (which included a priest) and Valens were discussing peace terms in the Roman camp, a battle started outside. The confrontation would end with a complete victory for the Goths and with the death of Valens on the battlefield. Fritigern however, would always remain open to negotiations with the Romans. In order to bring them to the negotiating table, Fritigern even tried to besiege Adrianople and Constantinople, failing in both attempts and saying: “I make peace with stone walls”. He then confronted the new eastern emperor, Theodosius I, in three years of guerrilla warfare. During this period, he disappeared from history, probably dead in battle or assassinated by his own men (with the aid of roman gold). Fritigern is arguably the first germanic leader to truly challenge Roman power. He did not want however to replace the Roman culture with that of the Goths, instead wanting cooperation between the two groups. Being the leader of a tribal society, he must have been a truly charismatic and competent character, demonstrating his military prowess in the battles of Marcianopolis, Ad Salices and Adrianople. After his mysterious death, Fritigern was succeeded by Athanaric, who finally managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Theodosius I.


Sexuality and Contraception in the Middle Ages

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The medieval ages were a sexually diverse time. On the one hand, the spiritual authority of the Church denounced lust and everything/everyone associated with it, especially women. On the other hand, the medieval literary conception of “Courtly Love” cherished femininity as well as the idea of “falling in love”. Marriage in medieval times was a political affair, love was often sidelined. Women always felt the pressure to produce  heirs, particularly males, and were considered men’s property. Marriage proposals were often decided when women were at the tender age of 9 or 10. Therefore, most women and men were involved in adulterous affairs. As a result of this, medieval lovers who wanted sex but not its consequences turned to medical experts who then developed exotic contraceptive techniques for women. The practice of drinking a man’s urin or of swallowing a bee were adopted by women of these times. By scrubbing cedar oil on their womb, women, according to medieval experts, would have prevented contact with the male sperm during sex. Coitus interruptus was also a popular contraceptive method used during the Middle Ages, though an ineffective one. Wrapping herbs in linen and letting them hang from a woman’s neck among her breasts was also a curious contraceptive technique of the time. Lastly, if a woman ate sage cooked for three days, she wouldn’t have been able to conceive. As you can see, medieval medics only had a very basic understanding of the human body and how it functioned during reproduction. They relied instead on Humorism, a system of medicine adopted by Ancient Greek and Roman physicians and philosophers, of balancing the vital “humors” that were present in the body. Medieval women’s main ideological adversary was the Catholic Church. In fact, priests believed that women, descending from Eve, were the carriers of the “Original Sin” and therefore the ones who were overcome by lust and sexual desire and ultimately responsible for seducing men and leading them to sin. Sex was viewed as a filthy and scandalous affair by the Church, and therefore presented as taboo. As a result, virginity was considered to be the highest virtue a woman could possess. This concept was in direct contradiction with the image of femininity and the idea of “Courtly Love” spread by the troubadours of Southern France. In fact, this tradition and the related movements which sprang up throughout Europe, portrayed women as angelic beings, pure and kind, who were pursued and worshipped by their extramarital lovers.

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