Divided by a common language

Thanks to several readers from (I’m guessing) the US, who have got in touch to express surprise about the appearance of sweetcorn in the fields of Roman Britain.  They’re right, of course – maize wasn’t grown here until many centuries later, and is still somewhat temperamental, as our vegetable patch will testify.

The problem’s arisen because the word ‘corn’ means different things on different sides of the Atlantic. So just for the record, should  ‘corn’ pop up in any of the Ruso books, please read it as wheat, or oats, or barley, or any one of those cereal crops – definitely not the yellow stuff you smear butter on and eat off the cob, or feed to cows.

At a slight tangent, another reader was concerned to find the ‘modern Americanism’ of measuring in feet and inches. In fact, while we Britons have  gone over to metric measurements (although some of us still have to think very hard about it), the USA continues with a fine and ancient tradition. The Roman foot (‘pes’) was slightly shorter than the modern one but it certainly contained twelve inches (‘unciae’).

To anyone else who’s been wondering, I hope the books make a bit more sense now.

Ruso and the Root of All Evils

At last! Advance copies of the British edition of Ruso’s third adventure have just arrived at Downie Towers.  (It’s published as Persona non Grata in the USA.) Penguin have done a fine job with it, as ever. It’s in paperback and should hit the bookshops towards the end of April.

There’s more information and reviews on this page, but in the meantime here’s a shot of the cover, followed by the blurb from the back:

Cover of Ruso and the Root of All Evils

“Gaius Petreius Ruso, doctor to the Legions, is about to return home to Gaul after many years’ absence. Little does he realise the letter summoning him back has been forged, or that the sunny Mediterranean lifestyle conceals dark threats lurking at every corner. His family are in horrific debt to dangerous men and when the principal creditor, Severus, is poisoned in the Ruso home, they become the primary suspects in his murder.

“But the crimes go far deeper. What role did Severus play in the deliberate sinking of a cargo ship? Who are the brutal investigators sent by Rome? And how worrying is the outbreak of new religion, Christianity, in the neighbourhood?

“When Ruso takes a job stitching up gladiators in the local amphitheatre, matters come to a head. He’s literally in the lion’s den and even Tilla, his loyal servant, may not be able to save him from the clutches of a most devious murderer…”

Boudica in our time

Being the kind of slapdash worker who isn’t always at the desk by 9 a.m., I happened to catch a discussion about Boudica on Radio 4’s  ‘In Our Time’ yesterday.

How do we know what we know about her, and is what we know likely to be true? Did she exist at all? Why are we still so fascinated by her today?

Thanks to iplayer there’s a chance to hear some thoughtful answers to these questions  – and much more – via the Radio 4 website.

Alison Weir and World Book Day

Joined a packed audience at the local library last night to hear Alison Weir read from ‘Innocent Traitor’,   her bestselling novel about Lady Jane Grey.

In a sense this was two for the price of one:  we heard the Tudors brought to life with both the passion of a novelist and the understanding of a historian.

Not only are the novels closely based on the source material, but even the covers are put together using costumes and models chosen and supervised by the author herself*. As she says, novels are where a lot of people learn their history.

The trouble is, not everyone reads novels… which brings me to World Book Day . There’s a fresh batch of ‘Quick Reads’ being launched to celebrate it today – and  Alison Weir’s ‘Traitors of the Tower‘ is one of them.

Quick Reads are ‘ideal for regular readers wanting a short, fast read, and for those who have lost the reading habit or find reading tough. They are short, sharp shots of entertainment.

Looking at the selection, they seem to have something for everybody.  Anyone not wishing to shell out the very reasonable £1.99 a copy can stroll across to the Quick Reads website before the end of the week and download a Ruth Rendell story for free.


*The cover for  ‘Traitors of the Tower’ isn’t: it’s based on a painting. Not 100% historically accurate, according to the author, but  still a jolly good picture.

Africans in Roman York

Thanks to Mark for pointing out this article in the Times Online about the skeleton of a young African woman buried in York. She seems to have been wealthy, possibly a Christian, and – to judge by the state of her bones – unaccustomed to heavy work. There’s a fine photo of her reconstructed face in the article, which I daren’t reproduce here in case they sue me.

As Mark points out, ‘It makes you wonder about the level of cultural diversity that the Romans introduced when they came to Britain.’

It also makes me wonder about the accuracy of some news reporting, since  one or two articles in the ensuing media blizzard have promoted her to  ‘African Queen.’ This would be nice if it were true, but it’s completely unproven.

Unable to resist adding to the vast amount of comment that ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’  has attracted, I see from the caption on the second photo that her remains were excavated in 1901. Presumably she’s been re-examined recently in the light of new knowledge. There have been suggestions that other folk buried in Roman York were of African descent, too, although I don’t know whether they were around at the same time.  (Maybe they had some connection with the Emperor Severus, who came from North Africa and was based in York many decades before her.)

What I’d like to know is whether this is actually unusual. What you discover about a skeleton must to some extent depend on what you test it for – and what you test it for must depend on all sorts of factors, including how much time and money you have. So, do we have a unique lady from the fourth century or an especially observant and well-funded bunch of archaeologists from the twenty-first? If anyone knows, please get in touch. Meanwhile, one wonders how many other surprises are lying quietly unexamined in museum store-rooms…

Incidentally, they seem to have all sorts of interesting skeletons in York. Remember this article from 2005?