How to Mellify a Corpse

Gentle reader, I’m pleased to announce that we’ve been celebrating the Bank Holiday here with an event that’s not susceptible to the weather. Kindly join me in welcoming the first ever guest to the blog, Vicki León!

Vicki trying on shoes

Vicki is the author of the popular Uppity Women series and most recently of the wondrously-entitled ‘How to Mellify a Corpse’, in which she lifts the lid on the classical world’s weird and wonderful, ranging from solar fountains and surround-sound to lethal lipstick.

This week she took a break from wearing out her shoe-leather exploring the ancient world to tell me some of the things I’ve been wanting to know ever since I discovered her work. I learned that behind the light-hearted approach of Vicki’s books,  there’s some serious thinking going on.

Cover shot of How to Mellify a Corpse

Your books combine a humorous approach with an obvious  passion for your subject. How and why did your fascination with the ancient world begin?


I was always drawn to it, even when ignorant of it. As a child/teen, I adored all things Egyptian, later going mad for Greek and Roman as well. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t until I went to live in Spain and I got a whiff of Mediterranean culture that I said, “Ok, now I’m home!” I have an ancient Med soul; not sure why but guess I got left on a doorstep in Oregon by mistake.

Eventually I was fortunate enough to live for months at a time in Greece, Israel, and other Mediterranean countries. And to pursue archaeology as a volunteer. When as a distinctly older student I went to college, I made a beeline for the Western Civ and languages departments—again lucky enough to draw really brilliant teachers, who gave me the necessary grounding in the rudiments of historical research and primary sources. I do think, however, that through my serendipitous “field work” and “soaking up the ambiance” years I gained a priceless sense of deep time and ancient settings.

If you had to live in one of the countries and eras you write about in ‘How to Mellify a Corpse’, which would it be and why?

There are three places/eras I would give anything to experience firsthand:  (a) to be a student of philosopher Empedocles on his native island of Sicily —noted for its gourmet cookery, its marvelous Greek theatre performances, and the divine Mt Etna.

(b) to live in Athens (where I used to in 1970, just below the Acropolis) and to experience the city and the citadel as it once was; and

(c) to hang out with Pliny the Elder as he wrote Natural Histories, his encyclopedic work–and then get to see the eruption of Mt Vesuvius with Pliny’s nephew, who survived it!

What would you do for a living?

(a) I’d be a disciple, and steep myself in Empedocles’ belief system—a gentle mix of early ecology, reincarnation beliefs, and farsighted insights into science and  medicine.

(b) I’d run an early Greek ‘taverna,’ get to hear the music of the time, and get to see firsthand the antics of cynic philosopher Hipparchia and other Athenian characters;

(c) I’d be one of Pliny’s scribes, and a ‘fly on the wall’ among his circle of Roman and Greek friends; or another sort of fly on the wall as the foodtaster among the paranoid Roman nobility.

What’s the thing you would miss most about 21st century life?

Chocolate, definitely. Birth control pills (if I were time-traveling as a woman–and didn’t feel confident of the silphium and other strategies they used).

What has surprised you most about the ancient world?

How unquenchably alive and curious the ancients were; how men and women took childish delight (and fear and astonishment) in the smallest things, like magnets and portents, dinner parties and griffins, the dawn sky and the night sky.  How very human they were, and aware of their flaws and defects; how very much they longed to be remembered and how accepting/unflinching they were in the face of hardship, tragedy, and death.

Maybe I am romanticizing but I do base part of my belief on the Greeks and Romans and Mediterranean folks with whom I’ve mingled over the years; and the Zorba spirit of the ones who currently live there.

Have you ever been tempted to try any of the skills or cures you’ve discovered?

I’d love to see one of the Great Comets that appeared over the skies of Italy, such as the one in 44 BC, and have a sage interpret it for me; or to hear a prophecy from the lips of the Pythia of Delphi, or to see an entrail reading up close.

I’d love to be on the wharf and see one of the great superships of antiquity pull in, or spend a week with an alchemist like Mary Profetissa of Alexandria. And of course I’d adore seeing just how Alexander the Great got embalmed in honey!

In what ways do you think we’ve made progress over the years? (Or have we?) What have we lost?

What we’ve gained is of course an awareness of individual dignity and liberty; being born a slave or a woman would have been a chancy, often heartbreaking life, two millennia ago.

One of the things we’ve lost: the Greeks really understood the art of creating communities of an almost-perfect Goldilocks size—intimate yet vibrant.

Another thing we’ve lost: the knowledge of what we don’t know about them.
We continue to stumble across heretofore enigmatic things from ancient life that prove to be astonishing technological achievements. Examples:  the Antikythera mechanism, the first analog computer; the secrets of Roman concrete;  the acoustic abilities of the Greeks; the still-puzzling accomplishments of artisans who worked in micro- environments and the use they made of rock crystal and other aids.

All too frequently, people in the media make a fuss about “new” pronouncements and theories about headliners such as Cleopatra. As you and I and other writers and researchers and historians know, there are thousands of Greco-Roman items from ancient times still unidentified or miscategorized in museums around the world.

I’m in awe of your ability to garner huge amounts of information and not lose it down the back of the desk/in a computer crash/in the recesses of a busy mind. Are you very organised?

I don’t think of myself that way. My home office is a study in chaos but visitors are awed (or perhaps just confused) by my colossal numbers of files and file cabinets.

Three different summers in the 1990s, when I went to the Stanford Professional Publishing course, I was told we would ‘soon’ live in a paperless society. Now, eighteen years later, I find that I have Mt Etnas of paper documents along with a frightening virtual Etna of electronic files. What happened?

What’s the question you wish somebody would ask in an interview but nobody ever does?

‘What is the most moving story you’ve encountered, one that has significant resonance for us today?’

And what’s the answer?

It’s on pages 72 – 76 of Mellify, the story of the valiant citizens of the island of Rhodes who fought off a great bully and his vicious siege—then turned the enemy’s abandoned war weapons into something beautiful for the ages. Instead of swords into plowshares, they created the Colossus of Rhodes, a shimmering 120 foot statue of their patron, Helios the sungod.

It became one of the seven World Wonders; even after an earthquake broke it off at the knees, the Colossus remained a global attraction. The French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, who was grounded in the classical tradition, used many aspects of the Colossus of Rhodes in our own welcoming beacon.

Today, others are emulating the Rhodians by turning some of the world’s most deadly weapons into something peaceful and beautiful. How grand if we could all be inspired by their example.

That’s a great place to close. Thanks, Vicki.

[Vicki’s website and her blog, called Vicki Leon, historical detective, are found at: She also has a lively facebook presence, where her blog and website are posted as well. Her newest book, How to Mellify a Corpse (from Walker Books, July 2010) and its companion volume, Working IX to V (Walker Books, summer 2007) can be purchased online at her website and blog, and direct from online and offline book and gift retailers.]

Not a happy anniversary

Cover of AD410, The Year That Shook Rome

As BBC Radio 4 reminded us all this morning, this is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome.

I fear that in the past I may have failed to mention the excellent  ‘AD410: The Year that Shook Rome’, by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard. So I’m mentioning it today. It’s the useful sort of history book : the kind that’s written in an engaging manner, that actually explains what happened, and that doesn’t assume vast amounts of prior knowledge. It also has some great pictures.

If only I could remember who I lent mine to…

Digging for Britain

One of the ways to judge a television programme – in our house, at least – is to see whether you find yourself still watching at the end despite having more important things to do. ‘Digging For Britain’, the much-trailed archaeology series presented by Alice Roberts, finally aired last night – and passed the test.

Covering a year’s worth of Roman archaeology in one programme meant there was plenty of material, and no need to resort to either padding or sensationalism. Blurry footage of re-enactors in the dark, overdramatic music and saying the same thing several different ways were all mercifully absent.

What we DID get was a trip around Roman Britain that included the huge Somerset hoard, the biggest archaeological site in the country or possibly the universe (it’s the course of a new road in Kent), a beautiful lamp from Suffolk with its finely-worked chain still in place, and yes, those babies’ skeletons from Hambledon Roman Villa that we’ve discussed here before. The ones that might or might not be evidence for a brothel.

Two favourite moments: first, the way a rusted lump of metal at Vindolanda suddenly made sense when we were told it was the neck-guard from an army helmet. Second, the way the remains of the lost babies of Hambledon had been carefully stored in shotgun cartridge cases, waiting to be rediscovered almost a hundred years later in the store-rooms of Aylesbury museum.

Gentle reader, should you need a break from all those important things that need
to be done, here’s where you can catch it on iplayer over the next 28 days.

How to do a book signing – apparently

Just read this BBC article about book signings. For all the relation it bears to the sort of event normal authors are used to, Tony Blair might as well be signing on the moon.

I’m very impressed by Stuart McBride’s offering to draw cartoons in books. Clearly that would be worth queuing up for, but I fear nobody would be grateful if I tried it.

On the bright side,  at least nobody’s ever turned violent. Yet.

It’s in the post, honestly…

I suspect that somewhere in Bloomsbury’s New York offices this afternoon, a hard-pressed production editor could have been seen banging his head on his desk. If we’d had a video link, he and I could have done it in unison.

I’d promised to get my corrected proofs of Ruso 4 to said Editor by last Friday, so he could get everything parcelled up and sent off to the elves who magically make words into books. Having posted them well in advance, I was feeling rather smug – until Friday came, and instead of a note of thanks came a polite reminder.

Monday arrived, but still no proofs. The elves, who have a schedule to meet, must have been getting twitchy. I was still feeling smug. Always one to look on the bleak side, I’d allowed for the possibility of the parcel vanishing over the Atlantic. Before posting, I’d fought a pitched battle with Staples’ photocopier and emerged clutching a duplicate set. Yes, all 340 pages.

‘Never mind,’ I assured the nice Editor. ‘I can type out the changes and email them.’

Now in 340 pages there are bound to be a few typos, but these are as nothing compared to the writer’s urge to pencil in last-minute changes. It’s the final chance to try and make your novel the wondrous thing it was when you dreamed it up in the middle of the night, instead of the battered reality that emerged several months later. There were a LOT of changes.

Still, I boldly set to, checking and collating and scrawling in pink and scattering pages across duvet and sleeping husband until 1 am, then up at the keyboard bright and early, spurred on by a combination of coffee and guilt. (When you post something as ‘printed materials’ aren’t you supposed to leave it accessible so the customs folk can check it? Coating the entire package in Sellotape may have been a mistake.)

Still, while the corrected proofs were lying in a corner somewhere waiting to be sniffed by a drugs dog, I’d discovered the creative inspiration that comes from a second ‘last chance’ to make amendments.

Finally, triumphantly, I tapped out an email to hard-pressed Editor announcing that a full typed list of even better amendments was attached. As the little envelope emptied itself in the corner of the screen an ominous yellow ‘unopened’ one appeared.

It was from hard-pressed Editor. All was well! The elves were happy! The parcel had just arrived.