Sarah Bond - Death By Roof Tile or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Twitter

By Sarah Bond

In preparation for a talk on the catacombs in the fourth century, I have been rereading many sources concerning the ascent of that rascally Bishop of Rome, Damasus (r. 366-384). One of these is the Collectio Avellana, a collection of documents covering the years  366 to 553, part of which recounts the tumult that erupted upon the death of the Bishop of Rome Liberius. Damasus allegedly hired charioteers and other mercenaries to assist him in securing the office--eventually beating out his rival, Ursinus. Seven days later, he entered the Lateran Basilica and was ordained. Ursinus and two of his
Santa Maria Maggiore today, once called
the Basilica Liberiana. 
deacons were sent into exile, but Damasus' fight wasn't over. The new bishop had shut up priests who rebelled against him, but the populace escorted them to the Basilica of Liberius (Santa Maria Maggiore). Damasus redoubled his efforts and gathered charioteers, gladiators, and gravediggers. By the end of the skirmish, 137-160 were dead, and S. Maria was greatly damaged. His mob set fire to the basilica and threw roof tiles onto the congregants below.

Okay, at this point in my day I just rested my book on the table. "Huh! That is exactly how Saturninus died!" I remarked in my head. In 100 BCE, one of Marius' previous supporters, Saturninus, went rogue and took the Capitoline hill with his partner Glaucia and their supporters. Marius formed a militia after the Senate passed an SCU--senatus consultum ultimum--a grave measure passed only once before. Saturninus and Glaucia
Roof tiles: for weather-proofing and weapons
surrendered and were imprisoned in the Curia, the Roman Senate house, but many men climbed on top, tore up the roof, and rained tiles down on the captives. Many died within the Curia (which was also a temple), including the two ringleaders, all without a trial and against the will of the consul. A complicating factor was that Saturninus was tribune, a position that enjoyed inviolability. Only years later would Rabirius stand trial for the murder, mostly on trumped up charges that played into the wishes of Julius Caesar. 

Finally, I had also vaguely remembered that a woman had been accused (in one story) of throwing a roof tile and hitting Pyrrhus of Epirus. At this point in my thought process, I did as I tend to and took to Twitter. The response was  swift and on point. 

Duncan MacRae from U. of Cincinnati chimed in with an additional citation, this one concerning Antiochus IV. Aha! 2 Maccabees (1.16)  notes that when Antiochus and his temple-raider posse show up at the Temple of the Mesopotamian goddess Nanea, the temple was closed up, the roof opened, and either roof tiles or rocks thrown down on the regals bandits. 

Now: how should we interpret these acts? I had jotted some notes on this being the "people's weapon" and luckily, another Twitterstorian piped
up and added her two cents, Aven McMaster from Thorneloe University. She also added yet another example, this one found in Plutarch (Sulla, 9.6), that roof tiles had been use by the people during the siege of Rome. A number of these roof tile deaths have two things in common: the people taking power into their own hands and (as Duncan pointed to) temple transgression. This makes for the beginnings of an interesting blog post, for sure, but also shows you what engaged, insightful feedback Twitter can offer. 

I enjoy sending my work out and getting responses from colleagues regarding chapters or whole articles, but as it has recently been shown, Twitter is a valuable tool for academics to utilize while the work is in progress. In this age of increasingly open access, Twitter is a great way to crowd source, to float ideas, and to get immediate feedback. 

It was over two years ago that my good friend Kristina Killgrove (@DrKillgrove) introduced me to Twitter. One of my first tweets was to speak to Mary Beard, and well let's face it, how many opportunities does one get to speak to Mary Beard? Not to mention I would not have met Dorothy. Twitter is something I encourage all academics to engage in. I love talking to academics, but am equally fond of speaking to people just interested in classics. Yes, it can be time consuming waste if you let it be, but ultimately, it is about creating a digital community where critique is allowed, for sure, but is also valued. Thanks to all who chimed in on my roof tile idea....oh, and one last note about the very real danger of the roof tile, this one exemplified by the accidental drop of a roof tile in Ben Hur...   


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