Curses, Miracles and ‘Tilla Speaks’.

The launch of a new book is always a grand excuse for wandering around the internet pontificating on things, and I’m grateful to the hosts who’ve kindly let me loose on their websites. It’s been a delight writing the articles, and here’s the current publication schedule.  I’ll update it when the final details come in.

6 Marchopening chapter of MEMENTO MORI previewed on Assaph Mehr’s

15 March

A Gang of Doctors Killed Me” – medics and miracles in the ancient world on Helen Hollick’s “Discovering Diamonds” review site.

Carving of moustachioed face on temple pediment at Bath

Bathhouse Theft in Ancient Rome: Victims seek Revenge.” Crimes and curses in Roman Bath at the

Curse written on lead sheet seen by lamplight


17 March – MEMENTO MORI faces The Page 69 test – and finds Ruso rescuing a man who didn’t need to be rescued

30 March – an interview with Tilla at “The Protagonist Speaks

Date tba – I’ll be visiting Writers Read



MEMENTO MORI – the new book is out today!

I’m delighted to say that MEMENTO MORI, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Aquae Sulis (Bath) should be available on both sides of the Atlantic today! You can read the beginning here and listen to Simon Vance reading part of the story here.

This is what it looks like in the US:

Cover of Memento Mori, US edition

and here’s the British edition:

cover of Memento Mori

The small print – The UK is just ebook at the moment but paper copies should be out very soon. Someone’s just asked about Australia and I’ll be checking that later today. Meanwhile, off to celebrate!

MEMENTO MORI is almost here!

Cover of Memento Mori, US editionNot long now till Ruso and Tilla’s latest adventure goes public!  It’s the story of their fateful trip to the busy shrine at Aquae Sulis (Bath) and you can find out more here

…or listen to Simon Vance reading an excerpt from the book at Tantor Media.

On the left is Bloomsbury’s beautiful US edition. The British edition will follow soon – the cover design is still under wraps but I promise it will be worth waiting for! Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know when it’s being released – if you’d like to join them, please sign up here.


Graphic of sculpture women discussing launch date of Memento Mori
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Coping with the party season, Roman-style

The season of partying has begun! Io Saturnalia!

“No need to rush: the guests won’t be here for ages.”

…although to be honest I’ve never been terribly confident about social occasions. Nothing illustrates my lack of prowess so well as the time I turned up to a party to find the hostess still in her dressing-gown with a towel around her hair.  And that was in my home country. How much harder must it be to fit into a society where you don’t have the language?

It was certainly a problem for the highly mobile population of the Roman empire. What if you were a Greek-speaker trying to make good in the big city? Or indeed, a Latin-speaker who had moved east and now found all your neighbours chatting away in Greek?

Time to hire a language teacher and practise a little conversation.

Happily for us, some of those ancient conversations have survived. Originally written in Latin and Greek side by side, the “Colloquia” cover all sorts of situations the student is likely to face. Many are obviously for schoolchildren (there’s a lot about washing your face in the morning and saying ‘hello’ to the teacher) but amongst the others are “asking a banker for a loan,” “preparing for a lunch guest,” “afternoons at the baths,” “winning a lawsuit,” “going out to dinner,” and “getting ready for bed”. There are also handy suggestions for acceptable excuses.

The Colloquia give a fresh and delightful insight into the everyday life of the empire, and I’ve just been reading them in Eleanor Dickey’s splendid translation.* They’re full of things that newcomers might have found useful to know, including what to say when things went wrong, such as,

“I haven’t got anything to drink – I asked for wine and nobody gave me any.”

Once the wine is supplied, there’s advice on how to toast one’s fellow-guests and how to thank the host at the end.

Of course not everyone was a partygoer. Someone coping with a relative who had over-indulged might want to say,

“Is this the way to behave when you are a respectable father?”

statue of naked man on couch with cup


The following is aimed at slave-owners, but could be useful for parents too:

“Since you were slow to do your job, none of you may go out tonight. And be quiet – I’m going to punish anyone whose voice I hear.”

The passage about lunch reveals how a Roman guest could, unlike me, turn up at the right time every time – even though timekeeping relied largely on sundials and what was, in Britannia at least, an unreliable sun. The invited guest tells his host, “Just send a slave round when you want me to come. I’ll be at home.”  

If only we still did that. Admittedly few of us have servants these days, but a simple phone call would save all that hanging around clutching drinks and making polite conversation while frantic preparations go on in the background. And no hostess would need to apologize for slipping away to put her clothes on.

*”Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World – Extracts from the Ancient Colloquia” by Eleanor Dickey, Cambridge University Press, 2017   ISBN 978-1-316-62728-0  – Highly recommended!

Things that go slop in the night: a Samain warning before bedtime.

Open fire in middle of round-house floorNever mind the pumpkins and the witches’ hats: here’s a timely tale borrowed from our Irish neighbours. It wasn’t written down until about 900 years ago but may be much older. Unless a miracle happens, this sort of thing is the nearest we’re ever likely to get to the kind of story Tilla’s people might have been telling around the hearth late at night. So, here’s a snippet from:

 The Adventure of Nera

Our story begins one evening as Queen Medb, her consort King Ailill and their household are settling down to wait for dinner in their stronghold at Raith Cruachan.  Ailill decides to pass the time by setting the men a challenge.

Ailill and Medb have hung two prisoners during the day, and the victims are still outside on the gallows.  Ailill announces that the first man who can fasten a supple twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners will be granted whatever he asks for.

Simple enough? On any other night, perhaps. But this is Samain. It’s the night when demons always appear. It’s the night when the dead are no longer bound by magic to remain inside their burial-mounds – and as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s very, very dark out there. One by one, the men venture out… and come straight back. It’s beginning to look as if Ailill’s generosity won’t be tested – but then Nera stands up and insists that he’s the man for the job.

Backpedalling slightly from his offer of unlimited choice, Ailill declares that if Nera can put the twig around a hanged man’s foot, he’ll win a gold-hilted sword.

Nera, heavily armed, goes out in the dark and twists a twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners. Success! But then it falls off. Twice he tries again, but the same thing happens. Luckily before he fails a fourth time, the hanged man speaks up and not only tells him how to do it, but congratulates him when he’s got it right.

Nera, no doubt thinking of the gold-hilted sword, is very pleased with himself – but then he realises the prisoner hasn’t finished. In return for the favour, the man demands to be carried to the nearest house so they can share a drink. The man clambers onto Nera’s neck and they set off.

Unfortunately when they get to the first house there’s no drink to be had. The building is protected by a ring of flames. This, explains the hanged man, is because the people who live here always rake the hearth-fire. He needs to move on.

There’s no drink at the next house either, because it’s protected by a ring of water. This, says the hanged man, is a house where they’re always careful to throw out the leftover washing and bathing water and all the slops before bedtime.

But it’s third time lucky – at least for some. The next house is undefended. The hanged man walks in to find used washing-water and bathing-water, and takes a drink from each of them. Then he drinks from the tub of slops in the middle of the house. He spits the contents of his mouth into the faces of the people who live there, and they all die.

“Hence,” goes the story, “it is not good for there to be water left over from washing and bathing, or a hearth-fire which has not been raked, or a tub with slops in it, in a house after bedtime.”

After this Nera returns the prisoner to his torture and goes back to the stronghold only to see it burned down and all the inhabitants slaughtered – or are they? That’s another story. Meanwhile tonight is the night, friends. Rake your fires and put out your slops, or face the consequences.

You have been warned.

Skull of sheep with large horns

If you’d care to read the rest of the Adventure of Nera (which gets more heroic and dramatic but no less weird) it’s part of the Ulster Cycle of tales. The above is paraphrased from the translation in my aged edition of “The Celtic Heroic Age” edited by John Koch and John Carey.













Jersey – plus ça change…

i’ve just been enjoying a few days in Jersey, an island which turns out to have hung onto some fine traditions of the past:

1. Stashing cash:

The biggest hoard of Celtic coins in the world was found in Jersey in 2012 – and that’s the ninth hoard from the Late Iron Age that’s come to light on the island. I have to admit this doesn’t look very exciting:

Mass of old coins all stuck together

But as of last Wednesday (they’re still working on it) this is what’s been found in there:

Blackboard list of items found in hoard

You can see some of the latest finds in the museum at La Hougue Bie:

gold items in plastic finds bags

Along with the people who are working on them:

Someone working in a laboratory

The hoard was probably buried at around about the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. Here’s a list of tribes whose coins are in there, with the Coriosolitae showing a strong lead…List of tribes and how many coins they had in the hoard

… which is interesting because they lived just across the water in mainland Gaul.  Jersey, now a major centre of international finance, has clearly been seen as a safe place to store your money for at least 2000 years.

2. Building tunnels:

The Jersey War tunnels, like those on neighbouring Guernsey, are infamous.

Entrance to tunnel with red cross painted above it

They were created during the German occupation in the Second World War, largely by forced labourers working in dreadful conditions. Today they house an exhibition that doesn’t pull its punches about the trials and challenges of living under military rule. Visitors are issued with identity cards naming real Jersey residents, and you don’t find out what your character did in the war until you’ve been through the exhibition. My friends were honoured to find that they’d helped escaped tunnel-workers evade capture, despite the threat of being imprisoned or executed themselves. I was less thrilled to find out I’d been the most notorious collaborator on the island.

Sign in Jewish shop

Notice warning residents not to help escaped American POWs

A tunnel that’s less famous, but far more uplifting, is to be found at the oddly-named La Hougue Bie (It’s pronounced “La hoog bee”. I am telling you this so that should you decide to go, you can ask directions aloud instead of mumbling and pointing at the map like I did.) It’s been there for 6000 years, and nobody now alive knows why. Here’s the entrance.

Stone-lined entrance to tunnel

The  mound above it was built at the same time, but the chapel on top came much later.

Stone-built hill above tunnel entrance with round stone building on top.

This is how you get in – not great if you have a bad back.

Fortunately it opens up into a much higher chamber built of massive slabs of stone, with tall recesses leading off on each side. You’ll have to take my word for this, because the lighting is designed to aid atmosphere rather than photography. Better still, go and visit. It’s stunning.

Very dark cavern built of huge stones

At the equinox, the rising sun shines in through the passage and lights up the chamber.

Looking down stone tunnel towards the light


3. Seeing Angels:

After seeing the chamber I wasted several minutes trying – and failing – to see the ancient paintings of angels that are supposed to be still just visible on the walls of the chapel above.  Eventually I gave up and took some photos in the hope that all those splodges would resolve themselves into an angel when I got home.

Old white limewashed wall of chapel

But it turned out they never would, because the chapel is divided into TWO HALVES, and I was staring at the wrong half. Once I’d been pointed towards the other door… an angel appeared! Hallelujah!

Wall with faint angel painted on it

And here are some twentieth-century angels from the glass church of St Matthew:

Angels depicted in glass with lights behind them

4. Enjoying the good life:

Unlike Alderney, Jersey doesn’t seem to have had any Roman military installations. There’s evidence for a temple, but most of the finds from the Roman period seem to be either cash or goodies – beads, brooches, parts of flagons and this:

4th century gaming counter

Which suggests to me that any Romans who did turn up were just here to sell luxury goods or take a holiday. And who can blame them?

Turquoise sea, cliffs and beach









Never work with children or animals.

VITA BREVIS finally makes it into paperback in the UK today (hooray!) so it seems right to mark the occasion. I can hardly have a launch party for a book that’s been out in hardback and ebook for some time now, but on the other hand, unless people know it’s there, who will buy it?  In any case, who will notice my modest efforts at publicity in the plethora of “look at my book!” appeals on social media? Luckily I hit upon a cunning plan.

What people really seem to like on social media is pictures of cats. Or small children. Or both. There are no small children at Downie Towers,  but if I were to sneakily photograph a cat next to my book . . . what could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, quite a lot.

Hand holding up book, tabby cat.
Does this look a bit staged?


Not really what I had in mind.
The photographer’s knee really adds to the composition here.
Cat looking indifferent
No interest
Cat with head obscuring book
Too much interest
Cat standing over book, looking disdainful
“I read it and I didn’t like it.”
Blurred shot of cat's departing back: half book visible
Wrong in so many ways.
Cat standing over book with head blurred
Speed reading
Cat smelling book.
Always smell a book first.
Cat dozing over book
This book will send you to sleep.
Cat with head obscuring book
Too much cat, not enough book
Cat with head turned away
Too much book, not enought cat
Cat with back to book, looking elsewhere.
Strike action is under way.
Cat staring at cat treat placed on book
Finally, the secret of arousing interest: a free cat treat with every copy.

Read the start of VITA BREVIS in a cat-free zone here.


Toga Tuesday!

Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire was full of Romans last week. There were soldiers and civilians, and families ranging from toddlers to grandparents. They were wandering in and out of the houses, feeding the sheep, eating, playing, laughing, working, shopping and having their hair done.

Woman in doorway of round house


Lady with display of Roman goods

Some of them were even having their photos taken in silly poses:

Ruth sitting on couch with mirror

This splendid family day out was one of the Roman Days that Butser are running every week over the summer holidays, and last week’s theme was Wardrobe and Weapons. Costumes were on offer for anyone who wanted to dress up and the multi-talented Fiona Rashleigh was on hand to create authentic-looking hairstyles from unpromising material:

Plaited hair held in place with pins

The hairpins, the mirror (the one I’m holding in the photo) and much else were made by Fiona’s partner Steve Wagstaff, who crafts replica Roman items that jump off the display crying out, “Buy me! Buy me now!” I’m not sure who made the shoes in the picture below, but more of Steve’s work can be just about seen on the far table.

Some of the photos of visitors in costume will be used to inspire new murals on the walls of Butser’s very own Roman Villa, which is currently being renovated:

Builders' vans outside villa

Here’s what it looked like when we visited back in 2010:

Painted walls inside the Roman villa

Portrait of Peter Reynolds
Peter Reynolds, founding Director of Butser Ancient Farm

Front aisle of villa with row of tables

Olive branch painted on a wall inside the villa

Hopefully the renovated Villa will be open again later in the year. Meanwhile there was still plenty to see and try out, including felt-making (but no photos, because they all came out blurry) and this – weaving a braid from the ends into the middle. Painstaking and highly skilled work. I’m guessing you’d want to choose your partner carefully.

Two women weaving braid

One end of the woven braid

The other end of the braid

These are the farm’s Manx Loughtan sheep, an ancient breed. They’re about to be disappointed when they find out we haven’t brought any food.

Sheep running towards camera

This young chap will soon be off to charm the lady goats at a rare breed farm. Hopefully nobody’s told him that the best brushes for painting murals on Roman walls are made of… goat hair.

Close-up of young goat

And finally, a couple of useful thoughts to take home from a great day out:

Notices on gate - Archaeology is not what you find but what you find out, and Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence







Of Scotland and the price of peace

Scottish river in sunshine
A holiday snap from Dumfries and Galloway. Not Fife, where the silver was found, but it’s the nearest we got.
Just back from travelling in the Scottish borders to find that Jean, Sam and Alice have kindly sent me a link to this story of Roman silver being discovered in Scotland.
It’s interesting that the experts think the silver is a bribe rather than a stash of plunder. The historian Cassius Dio tells us that a Roman governor of Britannia, Virius Lupus, was “compelled to purchase peace… for a large sum”. The people he paid were the Maeatae, who lived somewhere around the Stirling area. The silver was found in Fife, which isn’t very far away. I’m not suggesting that it IS that ‘large sum’ – it seems to come from a later date. But there are vast gaps in the historical records, and who knows how much treasure changed hands over the years as power and allegiances shifted?
The money paid by Lupus, incidentally, didn’t bring peace for long. Maybe the Maeatae asked for too much. Maybe they carried on causing trouble. Whatever the reason, the aptly-named emperor Severus arrived in Britain not long afterwards and conducted a vicious campaign against them and their neighbours. (I happen to know all this because by a happy coincidence, it’s the background to the story Simon Turney and I put together earlier this year: The Bear and the Wolf.)
Cover of The Bear and the Wolf
Incidentally, while their name has vanished, it seems the Maeatae live on – here’s a fascinating article from The Scotsman about where today’s Scots really come from.