Finally – as a reward for all that marching, people will remember you and your Emperor with parades through the streets of Eboracum.
The first half of June’s looking pretty busy with a rush of events up and down the country at which I’ll be showing off my now not-so-new Roman shoes.
Heading north for the Eboracum Roman Festival in York – a spectacular event for all ages. I’ll be in the Authors’ Tent in the fine company of Alex Gough, Ben Kane, Brian Young, Harry Sidebottom, Jane Finnis, John Salter, Penny Ingham, and Simon (SJA) Turney. Quite a few of us will be in costume, although possibly some of the guys dress like that all the time.
I’ll be taking the shoes to visit the library in the pretty North Devon town of South Molton. We’ll be starting at 6 pm, it’s £2 a ticket and there will be nibbles. Hopefully we’ll all have finished eating before I start discussing Roman medical prescriptions.
The shoes head north again to Milton Keynes. While the town is only 50 years old this year, the site it’s built on has a long heritage, and I’ll be joining friends to celebrate it at their Festival of History. There’ll be loads to see, and it’s free! I’ll be somewhere in a big tent with some Roman archaeology (and some books, obviously).
Two trips to London since Christmas! Back in February I meant to do a blog post about seeing some of the Roman writing tablets found on the Bloomberg HQ site, but never quite got around to it. Besides, there were no pictures: perhaps to avoid fisticuffs around the display tables, it was a no-photography event. So I came home with a splendid book instead.
It’s OK to take photos at the exhibition of the archaeology from the Crossrail line at the Museum of London in Docklands, and some of them are below. Of course they don’t exactly tie up with the writing-tablets, as the Crossrail project runs from one side of London to the other, so purists may want to look away now. Photographers likewise.
Here’s a selection of writing styli (styluses?) from Roman London. This is what scribes would have used to scrape letters in the black wax coating of wooden writing-tablets. The wax from the Bloomberg tablets has gone, but enough of the scrapes remain for Roger Tomlin to be able to decipher some of the script, including the very earliest mention of the name of London itself, shown on the book cover above. (After a chat with the archaeologist at one of the display tables at the Bloomberg event, my notes include a very enthusiastic, “There is a typology for styli! Over the years the weight shifted towards the writing end.” Immediately followed by, “or was it the other end?“) Anyway, the sharp end is for writing and the blunt end is for rubbing out mistakes in the wax. In my experience, never very successfully.
It’s likely that the wood for the tablets themselves came from recycled wine barrels. Waste not, want not.
The Bloomberg documents show that London was a centre of commerce from its earliest days. On 8 January AD57, Tibullus promised to repay Gratus 105 denarii for goods supplied. This was no small sum: it would have taken an ordinary soldier several months to earn that much. The records of loans and payments range from a handful of denarii to several hundred being handed over as a deposit for a larger contract. The coins below, found by the Crossrail excavators, definitely weren’t used by Tibullus and Gratus – these were issued by later emperors, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.
Security for large amounts of cash is always a headache. In a reversal of the usual problem, we’ve found the keys and lost the locks.
One of the surprises of the writing tablets has been the discovery of how quickly the province got back on its feet after the disaster of Boudica’s rebellion. In AD60 or 61, London was burned to the ground and 70,000 people were said to have been killed. Whatever the precise date and casualty figures, the burning was real enough: the evidence is still there in a thick black layer of soot. But as early as 21 October AD62, Marcus Rennius Venustus was arranging with Gaius Valerius Proculus to have twenty loads of provisions brought from Verulamium – another town that had fallen victim to Boudica’s forces.
Transporting those supplies down the main road that’s now the A5 would have depended on draft animals, so no wonder Taurus was annoyed when Catarrius turned up and removed his ‘beasts of burden’ unexpectedly. Unfortunately much of his letter of complaint to ‘Macrinus his dearest lord’ is lost, so we shall never know exactly what happened. But here are a couple of the 17 hipposandals (overshoes for horses) that turned up during the Crossrail excavations, and in the middle, an ox goad, in case the stick it was fitted onto wasn’t enough to get the heavy transport moving.
One of the tablets is an account of payments for beer, although it’s not clear whether Crispus was supplying the beer, or buying it to sell to customers in his tavern. Tertius, however, is pretty certain to have been a brewer of some sort, assuming that’s what “bracea…” means (there’s a discussion about this in the book). He turns up again some years later, mentioned in a tablet found in Carlisle: “Domitius Tertius the brewer.”
I’m not sure that really is a cup, but it’s the nearest picture I could find that relates to beer… and while we’re relaxing in the bar, why not pass the time with a board game?
Perhaps the masters were busy networking in the bar while the slaves got on with the practical tasks… There’s mixed evidence for slavery in Roman London. Alongside letters that show freedmen were involved in high-value transactions, and documents that show trusted slaves carrying out business on behalf of their masters, there’s also archaeological evidence that for some, things were very different:
That’s a manacle. The archaeologists weren’t entirely sure what to call this (and you, gentle reader, will have even more trouble, since the picture below is out of focus), but it was found around the wrist of a skeleton and would have been very heavy and uncomfortable.
One of the things that struck me on perusing the tablets – and which we’d never have known about from artefacts alone – is the high number of non-Romans transacting business in Londinium. Not always happily. I’d love to know what Litugenus and Magunus fell out about, and what the result of their court case was, but frustratingly that particular tablet ends with the cliffhanger, “…my preliminary judgement is…” Maybe Luguseluus, Ambiccus or Mogontius, who also had Celtic-sounding names, could have told us. (As I’m always on the lookout for character names for books, these have been duly noted. Don’t expect Namatobogius to be popping up any time soon, though. His name may have meant “breaker of enemies” but its glamour hasn’t really stood the test of time. Deuillus is out as well. Too hard to pronounce.)
Something else I hadn’t considered before was a point made Dr John Pearce when he was talking about the context of the tablets. Although the young city of Londinium was more resilient than we’d realised, its existence was still precarious. It was constantly at risk from fire, flood, plague, and political violence. It depended on extended networks of contacts, many of whom (visiting traders, the Governor’s staff) would have been transient. Even in death, Londoners were not secure – parts of the burial grounds were very low-lying and an odd row of skulls that turned up below Liverpool Street station may have been washed away from their original resting-places by the waters of the now-vanished Walbrook.
Below is the face of Silenus, companion of the god of wine. He’s thought to have been part of a pot placed in someone’s grave. I’d like to imagine that whoever lay beside him is somewhere in an afterlife, feasting in the company of the other Roman Londoners whose snatches of conversation we’ve been privileged to overhear.
Note: The Crossrail exhibition runs until 3 September 2017 and much, much better photos and video of it can be found here. (Thanks to historian Lindsay Powell for the link!) There’s lots more to see in the permanent Roman London gallery in the main Museum of London. I understand some of the writing tablets will be on display when the new London Mithraeum museum opens in Bloomberg’s London HQ later this year – there’s a good video about the history of the site and the plans for the museum if you scroll down here.
A short story of love and danger on the Roman Empire’s most hostile frontier.
It’s always a delight to work with Simon Turney. He and I took opposite sides in the “Romans versus Britons” debate at the Alderney Literary Festival, (there are photos here) but we both knew it was much more complicated than that – and so we put together this story of a small family in the midst of a big crisis.
Senna, a native Briton married to a Roman auxiliary, accidentally uncovers a dreadful plan by the rebellious northern Maeatae tribe. Her husband Brigius, a Briton who now serves Rome, is torn when the imperial prince Caracalla arrives in northern Britannia with his unit of vicious, dangerous Numidian cavalry, causing trouble and endangering the couple’s once peaceful life. Heedless of the danger to both them and their world, the pair see only one way to ensure the continuation of peace in the north, and it carries a horrifying risk.
Simon is not only a great storyteller: he’s also far more technologically adept than I am. That’s how The Bear and the Wolf is now available as a short ebook from:
A visit to the island of Alderney has been on my bucket list ever since we saw our friends’ holiday photos, so there was dancing and singing here at Downie Towers when an invitation to the Alderney Literary Festival arrived. Below are a few photos of my own, along with some random thoughts about the festival – which was fabulous.
Alderney is a small island, so obviously the ‘new, big’ plane was never going to be terribly big. It’s super-comfortable, though, and nearly everybody gets a window seat.
Here’s the Island Hall, where most of the festival happened – one of many beautiful buildings in the town of St Anne. Something I sadly failed to photograph was the modern finale to the Bayeux Tapestry, created by islanders and on display in the Library around the corner. It’s so good that it’s been displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, where they’ve kept a replica.
Most of my photos of the festival itself are blurry shots of speakers in the distance and lots of backs of heads in between. However… please welcome some of Joyce Meader‘s highly entertaining display of military knitting through the ages. Here’s Joyce demonstrating an adjustable knitted dressing-cover for keeping bandages clean. The lady next to me is examining what I think was a knitted eye-patch.
The picture of the WW2 WAAF knitted knickers (3-stitch rib, with gusset and proper elastic) has been removed by the censor and I failed to get a decent shot of the green woolly long-johns or the one-size, shrink-to-fit socks, so here is a pair of military knee-warmers instead.
Obviously not every festival speaker offered handcrafted goods, but all offered memorable moments. These included:
Imogen Robertson‘s description of the process of creating a novel as making lots of very small decisions – very cheering to those of us who are strangers to the “flash of inspiration”.
Jason Monaghan‘s account of the battle of Cambrai: the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry suffered terrible losses and the news reached home during Christmas week.
Rachel Abbott, the 14th most successful ebook author on Kindle, revealing part of the secret of her success: working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for months.
Simon Turney illustrating a creature described by Julius Caesar, which appeared to have the head of a cow, the horn of a unicorn and the antlers of a reindeer.
Simon Scarrow describing the complicated mess of World War Two that led to mass starvation in Greece.
I have a feeling the display of a Roman cataract needle in my own talk may have been memorable for some, though possibly they’re now wishing they could forget. Anyway, here’s the moment when, having delivered the ‘author talk’, the author tries to remember what her own name is to sign the book.
I bet TH White never had that problem. Readers of “The Once and Future King” – or “H is for Hawk” – might like to know that this was his house:
Just like the UK, only… not.
There are people on the island, honestly.
Lovely to look at, terrifying to sail around.
One of many defences left behind by previous occupiers, and an unlikely location for a Countryside Interpretation Centre.
Looking even less likely now:
But yes, it really is! A modern photo of the view the German defenders would have enjoyed on a sunny day.
Speaking of occupying forces, here’s Simon Turney (left) defending Rome in the Saturday night dinner debate: “Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here: what did the Romans do for us?” while Simon Scarrow weighs up the evidence…
…and a nervous Briton keeps smiling while she tries to think what to say in return. (And yes, that torc is completely fake. The instructions for how to make something similar are here. If that link doesn’t work, try Googling “dtorc_obj11236”)
Alderney’s tumultuous history (it lies on a strategic cross-channel route) has left it crammed with interesting sites to visit. This is The Nunnery, a Roman fortlet which has seen many different uses over the years, although none of them appears to have involved nuns. Real Romans built the wall on the right, but not on the left. Don’t ask me how you tell.
The chaps discuss defence tactics while Simon tries out the Roman wall walk. We felt very privileged to be given a tour by Jason as the interior of the Nunnery isn’t currently open to the public.
I think we can all agree this isn’t Roman. It’s next door to the Nunnery…
…and this is the landing-point they were both built to defend.
Peace has now returned to Alderney…
…and I can vouch for the fact that the islanders are incredibly welcoming and hospitable. It was an honour and a delight to spend time with many of them last weekend, and my thanks go to the Alderney Literary Trust and everyone else who helped to make the Festival such a success.
A while back I was honoured to be asked to join the H-Team, a group of writers who combine their skills to produce gripping and original versions of famous tales from the ancient world. The team’s three books are usually sold separately, but for a short while they’re on offer as an ebook bundle called SONGS OF BLOOD AND GOLD for a mere $3.10/£2.49 – less than the cost of buying one alone!
Here’s what you get:
A DAY OF FIRE
(by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter)
Pompeii: a lively resort flourishing in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius at the height of Rome’s glory. When Vesuvius erupts in an explosion of flame and ash, the entire town struggles to flee the mountain’s wrath: soldiers and politicians, villains and heroes, young and old. But who will escape, and who will be buried for eternity?
A YEAR OF RAVENS
(by Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, SJA Turney, Russell Whitfield)
Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica leads her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume warriors and peacemakers, slaves and queens, Roman and Celt. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?
A SONG OF WAR
(by Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Thornton, SJA Turney, Russell Whitfield)
Troy: city of gold, gatekeeper of the east, a haven destined to last a thousand years. But the Fates have other plans–the Fates, and a woman named Helen. In the shadow of Troy’s gates, all must be reborn in the greatest war of the ancient world: heroes and cowards, seers and kings, innocent and guilty. But who will lie forgotten in the embers, and who will rise to shape the dawn of a new age?
I don’t know how long the offer will last, so if you’re interested, grab it now!
I’ve been musing on Parkinson’s Law. Not the famous one (“work expands to fill the time available”) but another from the same book: Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. “The time spent on any item on the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” (If you’re wondering what this has to do with high heels, fear not: we’ll get there in a moment.)
Here it is in action, in a chapter called “High Finance”. A group of men – this was 1957, remember – meet to approve spending plans. The items on the agenda are:
2. A bicycle shed. Cost: £350. Several members who kept silent because they knew nothing about atomic reactors now feel that they should start pulling their weight. “A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50.”
3. Refreshments at meetings. Cost: £21 a year. “Now begins an even more acrimonious debate… every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter…”
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality was a great comfort to me when I had a job recording the minutes of committee meetings, but only recently did I see its application in a wider sphere. And this is where the high heels come in.
I have to admit to being something of a Facebook addict, and as anyone else on Facebook will know, the political storms over recent months have resulted in furious postings from all sides. Sensible questions, valid warnings and the sharing of genuine news have often been drowned out by the sound of name-calling, and discussions have frequently descended into bitter squabbles involving CAPITAL LETTERS and ‘unfriending’. Sometimes I feel there are crowds of people shouting at each other in my living room.
Have I backed away? Of course not. It’s gripping stuff, and it affects all of us. Many of the fundamental assumptions of Western society have been called into question. People are passionate because this matters. I have enormous respect for my articulate, clear-sighted, committed friends and am grateful to them for keeping me up to date. But have I contributed much to the debate? Er… no. Even though Downie Towers has rung to the sound of my ranting in the kitchen, and the number of comments I have started to type and then deleted would fill a small book.
I feel as though I should contribute. One should do one’s bit. So I click ‘like’ on things that I, er, like, and occasionally manage to get the end of a comment and press ‘post’. In the real world, I vote. Sometimes I sign petitions. I write to my MP. I have even been known to march through the streets in support of a good cause. But I tend not to engage in debate with strangers on the Internet. Like the atomic reactor, I feel the cut and thrust of “live” political debate is beyond me. Some people may feel I should speak up. More people may feel there are plenty of opinions on the Internet already.
And yet I feel I should do… something. Say something about something. So when this came up on the BBC website, I found myself latching onto it like a drowning sailor with a lifebelt. At last, a subject I fully understood. I am, after all, the woman who once broke a bone in her foot by falling off her own shoes. I am the woman who tottered around in agony at her son’s wedding because she had found the perfect pair of shoes but didn’t have the perfect pair of feet. Don’t get into an argument with me about the merits of forcing women to wear high heels, because you will lose. Yes! At last, something I could post on Facebook!
Until I did. And then I looked at it, and thought, dear lord. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and you’re posting about shoes. I deleted it, and wondered what was the matter with me. Then I realised. It was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in action.
Friends, please feel free to comment. But anything political will be deleted. Apparently I can’t cope.
I’m delighted to welcome a guest writer to the blog on this special day – G Petrieus Ruso, Medicus.
When I first asked him to say a few words about Saturnalia, he was characteristically reticent and referred me to his friend Valens, claiming that “He knows more about parties than I do.”
Indeed, Valens thought the article was a splendid idea. Unfortunately he was on his way out to dinner and didn’t have time to write anything, but he assured me Ruso would be secretly pleased to help. I have to say the good doctor managed to hide his pleasure very successfully, but I’m grateful to him for taking the time to write this piece. It’s reproduced in full below.
Ruso: I’ll do my best here, but I don’t think it’s really what the editor was hoping for. Readers might like to know that I offered to write her a piece on “Interesting injuries sustained by drunks,” or “the consequences of persistent overeating,” or “how one celebration can be stretched out for seven days despite official attempts to curb it.” I also offered “deciding how much cash to give your dependants so that they can buy presents”. All to be followed by the usual warning from the Vigiles about the dangers of unsupervised candles.
She wasn’t keen on any of them. Apparently twenty-first century people can work this sort of thing out for themselves. What people want to know, she said, is what the Romans did that was different. Perhaps I would like to write about the relief of flinging off the toga for casual dress? The cries of “Io Saturnalia”? The brief exchange of status, whereby slaves are waited upon by their masters? The sharing of candles and cheap pottery gifts?
The problem, as I tried to explain to her, is that no sensible person wears a toga anyway if it can possibly be avoided. It’s hot, cumbersome, and prone to sliding off in all directions. So in that respect it’s Saturnalia almost all year round in the Petreius household.
The cries of “Io Saturnalia!” can indeed be heard throughout our streets, although during the late watches of the night the response can vary from a cheerful echo to suggestions about where the revelers can go and what they should do when they get there.
As for the exchange of status: my wife, who as friends may know was once a slave herself, insists that this an important tradition to maintain. Unfortunately neither of us has the skills required to prepare a suitable feast. Obviously I’ve always had more important things to do than study the art of cooking. Curiously, it seems so has my wife. In this respect I fear we’re a sad disappointment to the few staff we’ve managed to acquire over the years. Still, it does allow them to take full advantage of the other freedom on offer: that of being rude to one’s master.
With regard to the candles and the pottery gifts – I suspect most readers already know about the last-day-of-Saturnalia rush to the shops in the hope of finding bargains. And it’s clear from the above picture that the editor herself is no stranger to cheap pottery gifts. This offering was found in a charity shop by friends who had heard her complaints about the local badgers wrecking her garden vegetable patch. See how they’ve thoughtfully given the bears’ faces a personal touch with tipp-ex and black pen?
Apologies for the blog silence. I’ve been travelling beyond the farthest reaches of the Empire. At least, that’s what I thought, but one of the displays in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (which is well worth a visit if you’re passing that way) was eerily familiar.
“That,” I cried to Longsuffering Husband, who thought he’d got away from all that stuff for a while, “is Roman glass!” And indeed it was. Over 5,700 miles from home.
According to the caption, “between the second and ninth centuries, some of these containers were either imported to Xi’an, or transported via the maritime silk route to China. Objects from other cultural contexts were adopted for domestic use. For example, Roman glass containers were used to hold rosewater as part of Buddhist ritual practices.”
It’s only fair to point out that the rest of the displays are distinctively Chinese, and even a dolt like me who knows nothing about ships couldn’t fail to be impressed. Here’s one of the models I managed to get in focus:
This isn’t going to turn into a catalogue of holiday snaps. There are plenty of much better photos of Hong Kong on the net, none of which have my relatives grinning in the foreground. But here are just a couple, to prove we didn’t spend the whole trip wandering around museums.The first one’s taken from the Peak overlooking the city:
And here’s Lo So Shing beach on Lamma island, accessible only on foot:
I didn’t find anything else Roman to foist upon Longsuffering Husband. But last Wednesday night as we joined the crowds at Happy Valley racecourse, set in the middle of the city, I couldn’t help thinking this was probably the nearest thing to the Circus Maximus* that I’m ever likely to experience.
(*clicking this link will get you to an article called “Brothels, bars and betting shops”. As far as I’m aware, anyone going to Happy Valley in search of brothels is going to be disappointed.)
So, with apologies for the dire video quality (I’m a writer, not a film-maker) here’s a very quick glimpse of the race on which Longsuffering Husband won 70 Hong Kong dollars – enough to buy us both a coffee. Wild times!
The new novel from seven talented members of the H-team is published today – and as ever, they’ve been weaving old stories together in new ways.
I wasn’t involved this time (deadlines!) and I can’t wait to find out what the team have done with the story we all ‘think’ we know. Meanwhile, they’ve been kind enough to drop by and answer a few questions. The first thing I wanted to know was:
What is it about the story of Troy that’s kept drawing people back to it for thousands of years?
Stephanie: The classicists out there are going to string me up for this, but I see the story of Troy as one of the world’s first soap operas, or at least an ancient version of “Game of Thrones,” sans dragons and white walkers. There’s adultery, gory battles, death, sneaky traps, and tons of other emotional plot twists. Not only that, but the story has been added to over the ages to give it even more tragic layers. It’s also easy for everyone to find a favorite character to root for: wily Odysseus, brave Hector, misunderstood Cassandra, noble Andromache, and so many others.
Vicky: I think Stephanie nailed it. It’s chock full of great stories! But also I think it continues to fascinate because of the surprising depth and complexity of emotions it explores throughout. One the one hand, there is empathy for the defeated–particularly for Hector, who emerges as truly noble–and, at the same time, frustration and exasperation with the devastation that results from Achilles’ unchecked rage. So it ends up being not “just” a battle story, but a moving exploration of humanity and of the costs of war.
How did you share out the characters? Was there anyone everybody wanted, or nobody wanted?
Simon: As a general writer of Roman fiction and lover of all things Roman, even the mention of the Trojan war sets me off blathering about Virgil, Aeneas and the founding of Rome by their Trojan forebears. How could I refuse the opportunity to write the tale of a man that might be considered the progenitor of Rome? I think if there was one writer in this book destined for one character, that was me and Aeneas! Plus, he’s cool.
Stephanie: I think we were all in utter agreement that no one wanted to write from Paris’ perspective. He’s an utter punk that we all wanted to kick to the curb at one point or another. For me, Cassandra leapt off the page of possibilities, jumping up and down and shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” My passion is retelling the stories of misunderstood or maligned women in history, and Cassandra fits the mold perfectly.
Kate: Yeah, pretty much everyone hated Paris. I still remember Libbie cackling like crazy when she realized she’d get to kill him off. Otherwise, we all had our own obsessions in this story; everyone beelined for their own favorite and no one had to arm-wrestle over who got Achilles/Odysseus/Cassandra. A big advantage to having a huge cast of characters, when there are multiple authors involved!
Russ: I was made up to get Agamemnon because everyone hates him and I thought it’d be fun to try and write a story from his point of view (no baddie THINKS they’re a baddie). Agamemnon’s inciting incident for me doesn’t even occur in Homer’s story, it’s (mainly) in Euripides – the sacrifice of his daughter. Whatever the circumstances, that single act will have changed Agamemnon utterly… so for me, that was key to why he acts as he does. In truth, it was a pretty hard story to write in all sorts of ways, but it was fascinating to delve into the black soul of the High King (he insisted on capital letters for his title).
So, definitely ‘Nul Points’ for Paris there. Were you ever tempted to change the story because you really didn’t like the way things went in the original?
Simon: I (and the rest of the crew too, in fact) went a long way to try and rationalise all the magic and myth of the tale, to try and write a realistic, grounded and plausible version of Homer’s tale, while retaining the epic Greekness of the whole thing. Aeneas’ story, for example, is full of ghosts and visits from gods and the dead, and I tried to tweak this to fit the real world. In deciding how mythical we wanted the tale to be, we essentially walked that fine line between history and fantasy. We came down on the historical side this time.
Vicky: Right. As Simon says, we didn’t want to get too mythical or magical–because then it drifts into fantasy–but at the same time we had to make our characters believe in magic and the gods. After all, it wasn’t “myth” to them!
Kate: I really would have liked to save Hector, dammit. His death gets me every time.
Christian: I really wanted to write Achilles. Despite Achilles’ modern rep as a sort of useless lie-about or a mere sword swinger, I’ve always been fascinated by him, and more especially by his status as the ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘best of the Greeks’ among such figures as Pericles and Socrates. And, apparently alone, I’ve never really liked Hector, who seems too dense to see how he is being used by lesser men… So I was happy to get to kill him (ducks… sorry Kate).
Libbie: I would have liked to save Hector, too. I’d counter that he’s a troubled character (as is everybody in “A Song of War”) but he was one of the few men in the story who was a genuinely good person, and who cared about the outcome for others. Overall, I really liked the way we cooperated to represent our world as a diverse landscape, with characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In the West, we tend to think of heroes, or even of characters in general, as one particular type of person: white, young, and heterosexual. I really welcomed the opportunity to shake up the way people envision Troy and ancient Greece by showing a broader range of the cultural mix that existed in those places and at that time.
Russ: The thing with “The Iliad” is – so much is actually unsaid. It’s a vast tale with (literally) a cast of thousands … So you can weave stuff in that you want to without actually changing the “facts” as it were. We wanted to keep it real as Libbie and Si say above, but aside from the “no Gods” rule, there’s still massive scope in the story to look at fresh angles.
If you could ask Homer one thing, what would it be?
Kate: Why do so many names in the Iliad begin with P? Priam, Penthesilea, Polyxena, Patrocles, Phoenix, Polites, Paris, Penelope, Polydorus, Peleus, Philoctetes, Phthia . . .
Libbie: I agree! The P names have always jumped out at me. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of linguistic significance that we don’t understand as 21st-century Americans and Brits, but that would have been very clear to the original audience for these stories.
Vicky: I’d want to know all the different versions of the story that had been sung over time and why he wrote down these particular ones.
Christian: I’m with Vicky. There were dozens of versions of these stories in the Ancient World; I know at least one in which both Achilles and Hector are cowards; one of the original ‘big names’ was Memnon, Prince of Aetheiopia… an African hero at Troy! Anyway, so many questions about why Homer (s) chose this particular thread… My other question (which really burns for me!) is ‘Where did you get the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ The Ship list, in Book 2, is probably much more ancient than the rest, and may contain evidence of the actual Bronze Age world… as opposed to much of the rest, which is 8th and 7th c. Iron Age Greece..how did it survive? Please tell us, Homer 🙂
Russ: Was your wife really called Marge? It’s a question that has bothered classicists for decades and they need an answer.
If Homer (or Marge) would like to respond, or if anyone has a good word to say for Paris, there’s plenty of room for comments below. Meanwhile, big thanks to the team for taking the time to join me and since it’s publication day TODAY, I’m off to check the Kindle and get reading!
If you haven’t already, here are some of the places where you can find A SONG OF WAR: