Coming soon – meet Sarah Bower

A bit of a change from the Roman Empire coming up, although still very much in the same area – we’ll be taking a brief trip forward in time to visit the Borgias.

My first brush with them came in the 1980’s, courtesy of the BBC.  I was making Christmas decorations at the time and I wouldn’t say the programmes had a malign influence, but never before nor since have our Yuletide decorations consisted of black paper lanterns with red inserts for the ‘light’…

American viewers will have a chance to reassess the Borgias in a day or two, when the very English Jeremy Irons will be portraying the Pope in a new series. Meanwhile my latest encounter with the combination of power, religion, scheming and sex came from Sarah Bower’s excellent second novel ‘Sins of the House of Borgia’ (published here with a spookier cover as ‘The Book of Love’).

Sarah and I began corresponding  when we were both hopeful scribblers with a manuscript but no publisher. This seemed like a good time to catch up, so drop by in a few days to see how she’s survived the famous family. I promise there will be no black paper lanterns.

Sources for Roman Britain, anyone?

Thank you to Kristen, who got me thinking by asking about sources for info. on Roman Britain.

I’m not going to duck out by saying ‘Google it’ because I’ve just tried that, and some of the results are… well, they aren’t as credible as they look. So here are one or two suggestions for starters. I know I’ve missed lots out, so if anyone thinks something else should be there, please get typing and send it in, and I’ll add whatever it is and your name. AND the first name is… Gary Corby, whose very sensible suggestions are posted below as a comment, and summarised in here in claret type.  Gary very modestly fails to mention that he is also the author of ‘The Pericles Commission,’ so he knows a thing or two about research.

Avoid Wikipedia at all costs… but membership of most British libraries will get you free online access to Encyclopaedia Britannica – check out your local library website. Virtually every library on the planet has a good selection of classics… and try Google Books.  Even with snippet view only, you can quickly search out the book you want, then head to the library.

Bill Thayer’s splendid Lacus Curtiusnot about Britain but full of classical texts and a mine of information, tho’ of necessity some of it’s quite old. He only reproduces material that isn’t in copyright.  Bill has kindly dropped by and pointed out that there are secondary resources on Roman Britain here.   Gary points out the importance of going back to original texts, which can also be found in the Perseus Digital Library. For Roman Britain try searching under Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius (also called Cassius Dio) – and Julius Caesar, who came and saw but didn’t really conquer very much. Then check out the Vindolanda tablets – Roman Army correspondence found at Vindolanda . To see the actual letters try Vindolanda Tablets online.

Thanks to Robert Greaves, who recommends, ‘if you want to know what’s been found where – it has lots of maps, descriptions of sites, and details of inscriptions’.

Time Team, obviously, and BBC History .

Sadly the Museum of London’s lovely Roman microsite seems to have vanished, but Britain has some of the best museums in the world. They are your friend. (R- Oh yes! Sorry I forgot to mention this as the original question came from Japan.)

Guy de la Bedoyere’s website

Hadrian’s Wall website

A bit heavier:

Pliny the Elder’s* ‘Natural History’ is not much about Britain but is an entertaining read  He seems to have written down everything he was told, credible or not. Penguin do a paperback selection. (Incidentally, Pliny = two writers with one name, hence ‘Elder’ and ‘Younger’ . ‘Younger’ is chiefly famous for his letters. While we’re on this subject, Octavian and Augustus = one person with two names. I wish someone had told me this many years ago.)

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Barry Cunliffe and Peter Berresford Ellis write about the Celts (or Ancient Britons, or whatever you wish to call them). NB – Modern Druids are not the same as ancient ones.

Peter Salway and Ian Richmond have both written histories of Roman Britain. Pepper Smith recommends the Peter Salway book as an interesting read. David Mattingley’s ‘An Imperial Possession’ is more recent but takes a different approach (and questions previous attitudes). Guy de la Bedoyere’s ‘Companion to Roman Britain’ (1999) is different again: intended as a summary of the evidence rather than an interpretation.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary is expensive and not really about Britain either, but full of fascinating things you didn’t know you wanted to know. I think there’s a concise (and cheaper) version.

What else?*

*October 2011- agh, how could I not have known about this?! “Roman Britain, A sourcebook”  – edited by Stanley Ireland. Contains all the texts I’ve spent ages hunting out (and losing again) plus a whole lot more. The third edition only came out in 2008 so is pretty up to date. When I think of the wasted hours this book might have saved… I think I’ll give it a new post all on its own. 










“Doctor in the Castra”

I’ve always been impressed – overawed, indeed – by writers who can talk. Margaret Atwood. Ian Rankin. The sort of person they invite onto Radio Four. Numerous other authors with whom I’ve shared panels. Good grief, if they can all talk that well, why do they go to the bother of sitting down and typing things?

I, on the other hand,  find it is sometimes  possible to speak fluently and sometimes possible to make sense, but not both at the same time.  My writing is driven less by a burning urge to create, than by a burning urge to go back over the conversations I messed up in real life and re-write them the way I wish they’d gone.   So heaven knows what Ian Williams of the Catskill Review of Books actually recorded earlier this week for WJFF radio. I haven’t dared to listen.

Nevertheless, it was a real pleasure to talk with a man who, despite being descended from the rebellious Welsh, really does know his Romans. The title above is his, stolen from his blog.

The Eagle is about to land…

…and as a result, Manda Scott has been reflecting on Rosemary Sutcliff’s legacy. Click here for her thoughtful article in today’s Independent, which includes not only a link to the movie trailer but also (oh dear, this must be what my mother used to call ‘blowing your own trumpet’) a mention of one Roman Army medic called Ruso.

‘The Eagle’, directed by Kevin Macdonald and based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’, is released in the UK on 25 March. If the trailer link from the Independent site doesn’t work, there’s another one here.

“Can libraries survive in a digital world?”

Once upon a time in the town of my birth,  you could hop on the train and travel to practically anywhere in the country. Then the rail system was ‘modernised’. Why did we need to spend money running all these little stations, when people could use their own cars? Door-to-door! So much more convenient!

Forty years later, the roads in and out of that little town are crowded with weary commuters who really, really wish they didn’t have to drive ten miles to catch the train every morning. And before you ask – yes there are buses, but most of them don’t connect with the train services.  Any suggestion that the local train line might be re-opened are greeted with a hollow laugh and a sentence using the word  ‘millions’ several times over.

I know it’s not a perfect analogy. I know I have a tendency to rant about this. But in forty years’ time are our grandchildren going to be looking back at the wondrous golden age of public libraries and wondering how we could have been so short-sighted?

Anyway, here’s a link to good article on the BBC Click website about how digitisation (as opposed to funding cuts)  is changing libraries.

(Maybe I should have cut all of the above, just typed the word ‘YES’ and put the link?)

Historical Writers Association

Congratulations to the Historical Writers Association, who’ve just launched what is clearly going to be a gorgeous website full of goodies. It’s early days yet and they’re still gathering info from their members to fill the pages – I can say this very smugly, as I’ve sent mine – but I love the idea of the choose-your-era timeline. HWA members include people who write ‘real’ history, as opposed to the rest of us who enjoy dancing round it.

…not to be confused with the Historical Novel Society, which brings together readers and writers and is THE place to find out what’s what in historical fiction.