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ancient societies human life was cheap. Mortality was everywhere and warfare predominated. We think we’ve got it bad, but some aspects of ancient life sucked eggs.

Against such a stark reality, the stoic philosopher Epictetus took the view that death was death, it didn’t matter what took you, the outcome was the same:

“… that which destroys is either a sword, or a wheel, or the sea, or a tile, or a tyrant. Why do you care about the way of going down to Hades? All ways are equal.”

Epictetus, Discourses 2.6

It’s a fair point. When you were confronted with mortality at every turn, there was no value in worrying about just how you might die in such a dangerous world.

It’s interesting though that Epictetus mentions a ‘tile’ as an existential risk. Yes, even this unlikely object could kill or maim. They often did.

Roof tiles were used in times of war by desperate defenders.

In 431BCE an advance force of 300 Thebans snuck into their regional rival Plataea at night. They attempted to seize that city. All the Thebans had to do was hold out until the main Theban army arrived in the morning. They got far more than they had reckoned with:

“… while there was tremendous uproar from the men attacking them, [there was] shouting and yelling from the women and slaves on the roofs, who hurled down stones and tiles …“

Thucydides, Peloponesean War, 2.42

This was the desperate defence of a city facing existential obliteration. Roof tiles made for deadly missiles. Few of the 300 Theban storming party made it out alive.

When women and even slaves defended their homes from the roofs, conflict approached something akin to total war — millennia before that modern term was conceived.

A humble roof tile felled one of the ancient world’s most illustrious warriors.

Have you ever heard of Pyrrhus?

A Hellenistic general in the mould of Alexander the Great who even defeated Rome. Styling himself on the famed Achillies, Pyrrhus was every inch the warrior. He led charges in person, challenged opponents to single combat and generally out macho’d every other warrior of his age.

He was seriously estimated to be one of the greatest commanders of the ancient world: up there with Alexander, Caesar and Hannibal.

Yet in 272 BCE, fighting within the streets of Argos, mighty Pyrrhus was felled by a lowly roof tile. It was thrown by an old woman who was keen to save her son, an Argive soldier.

“[The tile] fell upon his head below his helmet and crushed the vertebrae at the base of his neck, so that his sight was blurred and his hands dropped the reins. Then he sank down from his horse and fell near the tomb of Licymnius,​unrecognised by most who saw him.” [Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, 34]

Plutarch, Life of pyrrhus, 34

The great commander did not regain consciousness as a common soldier took advantage of his predicament and severed his head from his body. It was not a noble act and it was deemed a terrible end to so great a figure.

Yet we each have our fate, and tiles figure in the demise of some.

Roof tiles were used in civil disorders.

In 100BCE the politically ailing Roman Republic went through yet another incident of bitter factional violence.

The populist tribune Saturninus and his confederate Glaucia hired a gang to club to death their Consular rival Memmius. This was done blatantly in broad daylight in the middle of a voting assembly (comitia).

The Senate issued a Final Decree; a legal call to arms empowering magistrates to defend the state, similar to martial law. The famous general Marius was ordered to restore order.

After a brief stand-off, Saturninus, Glaucia and their supporters were apprehended:

“As everybody demanded that they should be put to death, Marius shut them up in the senate-house as though he intended to deal with them in a more legal manner.”

Appian, civil wars, 1.4.32

This was not nearly enough to appease Rome’s famously volatile mob. They wanted blood and it was with roof tiles that they would exact it:

‘The crowd considered this a pretext. They tore the tiles off the roof and stoned them to death, including a quæstor, a tribune, and a prætor, who were still wearing their insignia of office.”

Appian, civil wars, 1.4.32

Bit of an irony for those that sought to subvert the power of state. The very tiles of Rome’s Senate were used to bludgeon Saturninus and Glaucia to a pulp.

Roof tiles were even a domestic hazard.

In 198 BCE the Romans sent an embassy to Bithynia. It included an envoy Aulus Mancinus:

“… who, from a tile falling on his head, had so many and such great scars on it, that it was a matter of wonder that he escaped with his life …“

Polybius, History 37.6

Aulus was lucky to survive, but he was obviously was panned for his looks ever after.

A fallen roof tile underpinned the epic story of Ben Hur.

Here’s a bonus tile. If you ever watch the original movie epic, Ben Hur 1959, with Charlton Heston, you will know that a fallen tile onto Roman soldiers plays a profound role in the tribulations of the title character. An innocent roofing accident, leads to the terrible persecution of Judah Ben Hur and his entire family.

What seems like a random detail in a fictional story, is not at all far fetched when you consider the wider historical context.

Ben Hur 1959 – The ‘Unfortunate Roof Tile’ Scene

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