Tag Archives: correspondence

Ancient Roman salad crispers?

The classicist Mary Beard (@wmarybeard) has a saucily titled piece, Banter about Dildoes, in the latest edition of The London Review of Books, in which she reviews Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (Amazon uk|.com).

In her review, Beard states:

The [Pompeii and Herculaneum food and drink] bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk.

I visited Pompeii in 2010. Never one to walk past a bar, I went into several, and even photographed some of the jars to which Beard refers (although I had no idea at the time that they were conundrums to anyone other than me):

Pompeii bar

A Pompeii bar in 2010.

Ever one to hypothesise, I have just emailed the following suggestion to the LRB. I'm sure I can't be the first person to suggest this solution to the conundrum:

Mary Beard (LRB, 3 January 2013) describes the conundrum of big storage jars set into Pompeii and Herculaneum shop counters, the non-glazed nature of which would make them unsuitable for food or drink storage.

In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water still inside. In a more modern, patented African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’.

Perhaps Mary Beard's enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalents of wine chillers or salad crispers.

Richard Carter

I had a great time in Pompeii, although I failed to track down the domus of the hero of my school Latin textbooks, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.

You can see some of my other photos from Pompeii here.

Postscript (19-Jan-2013): A slightly edited version of my letter appeared in the 24-Jan-2013 edition of The London Review of Books.

A new member writes

I am thrilled to know this website. I am a huge admirer of Charles Darwin, and you guys show me that i almost know nothing about him. Finding a fact that there are fellow Darwin fans all over the world, i am more than psyched. Thank you so much!

Thank you so much too! It's always nice to receive feedback like this. I am also extremely psyched that we have members in 90 countries.

There are an awful lot of us Darwin groupies out there.

Darwin's uncontrollable farting

I have just emailed the following to the London Review of Books, in response to their recent piece entitled Gutted:

Steven Shapin writes that Darwin's uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).

Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man's full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of 'rectal winds abhorrer'.

Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word 'flatulence'. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin's day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.

While I'm sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.

Richard Carter
The Friends of Charles Darwin

(As a postscript, I should perhaps add that, although Darwin's nickname at school was Gas, this had nothing to do with his alimentary system, and everything to do with his passion for manufacturing gases in his amateur chemical laboratory at home.)

(As a second postscript, I should add that the LRB published the above letter in their 28-Jul-2011 edition.)

Nice one, Yorkshire!

On this date in 1868, Charles Darwin wrote to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society:


I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter in which you announce to me that the Yorkshire Philosophical Society has done me the honour of electing me one of the Honorary Members of the Socety [sic]; and for this honour I return my most sincere acknowledgements.

I beg to remain,


Your Obedient and Obliged Servant,

Charles Darwin

Nice one, Yorkshire! I am suddenly extremely proud of my adoptive county.

See also: Darwin in Ilkley

Darwin gets grumpy

There's an amusing piece on the BBC News website about the auctioning earlier this week of a letter written by an elderly Charles Darwin, in which he complains, "I am tired to death with writing letters; half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions."

It's little insights like these which make the Darwin Correspondence Project by far the best way we have of getting inside the great man's head. If I had my way, they would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Darwin disappointed by U.S. president's address

Charles Darwin to Asa Gray, 21 July, 1861:

I was very glad of your P.S. on the state of your country; one values a private note far more than a dozen public letters. After carefully reading Olmstead's last Book I never doubted the North would conquer the South. But then what is to follow? From Olmstead & Russell's letters in Times, I cannot believe that the South would ever have fellow-feeling enough with the North to allow of government in common. Could the North endure a Southern President? The whole affair is a great misfortune in the progress of the World; but I shd not regret it so much, if I could persuade myself that Slavery would be annihilated. But your president does not even mention the word in his Address.— I sometimes wish the contest to grow so desperate that the north would be led to declare freedom as a diversion against the Enemy. In 50 or 100 years your posterity would bless the act.— But Heaven knows why I trouble you with my speculations; I ought to stick to Orchids.

The president in question was Darwin's twin, Abraham Lincoln; his address was before a special session of the United States Congress on 4 July 1861.

The North, it turned out, could indeed endure a Southern president. How much more surprised (and, I presume, pleased) would Darwin have been to learn that the South would one day accept a black president?

See also: Books review: Darwin's Sacred Cause

As Darwin so famously said...

I just sent the following email to a journalist at the Observer:


In your piece Darwin's theory turned bosses into dinosaurs in today's Observer, you re-quote the oft-quoted Darwin quote: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

I wonder if you have an original source for this quote. I have never been able to track one down. A search for the phrase 'responsive to change' yields zero hits on both the Complete Works of Darwin and Darwin Correspondence Project websites.

I suspect Darwin never said any such thing.


Richard Carter, FCD
The Friends of Charles Darwin

In fact, I'm pretty damn sure Darwin never said any such thing—even though the quote appears all over the internet (in particular, in stories about economics). If anyone out there knows the original source for the quote, please cite it in the comments.



While researching his as-yet-unpublished theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin wrote scores of letters to friends, colleagues and complete strangers, asking for their thoughts and observations. Here is a typical Darwin query, written to his second cousin, former university friend, and clergyman, William Darwin Fox, 151 years ago today:

Can you give me any thoroughily well authenticated facts on ever so little variations in nests; I do not mean such cases as the Water owzel habitually having a doomed or open nest—or difference of Sparrow's nest in tree & in hole; but rather any slight difference in degree of perfection of nest of same species in different districts or of any individuals of same species.—

At this stage, Darwin was presumably researching animal instincts. He briefly discussed location-dependent variation in birds' nests in chapter 7 of On the Origin of Species:

As some degree of variation in instincts under a state of nature, and the inheritance of such variations, are indispensable for the action of natural selection, as many instances as possible ought to have been here given; but want of space prevents me. I can only assert, that instincts certainly do vary for instance, the migratory instinct, both in extent and direction, and in its total loss. So it is with the nests of birds, which vary partly in dependence on the situations chosen, and on the nature and temperature of the country inhabited, but often from causes wholly unknown to us: Audubon has given several remarkable cases of differences in nests of the same species in the northern and southern United States.

The water ousel mentioned and misspelt by Darwin is one of my favourite birds, mentioned previously in the Red Notebook, the dipper [Cinclus cinclus].

Darwin confesses murder!

On this date in 1844:

Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker (11-Jan-1844):

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return [from the Beagle voyage] engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.

Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the first people Darwin confided in regarding his heretical evolutionary views. He chose his friends well. They had only been corresponding with each other for two months, but Hooker was to remain one of Darwin's most staunch allies for the rest of Darwin's life.

Darwin puts his foot down

Charles Darwin to his son, William, 7th July, 1859:

Mamma went up yesterday & brought down two such patterns, of the exact colour of mud, streaked with rancid oil, that we have all exclaimed against them; & I have agreed to take anything in preference & we have settled on a crimson flock-paper with golden stars, though unseen by me.—

Even the placid Darwin drew the line at streaky, brown wallpaper.