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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?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Not really what I had in mind.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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

 

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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.

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VITA BREVIS now in paperback in the USA!

Vita Brevis HB coverVITA BREVIS, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Rome, is published in paperback in America today!

Ask at your local bookshop, or find it at Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Meanwhile, also in the USA, MEDICUS – the first book in the series – is still a July Deal on Kindle.

Apologies to friends here in the UK – the paperback IS on the way, and will appear on 7 September.  Hive (which supports your local bookshop), Amazon and The Book Depository already have it listed and will be very happy to receive pre-orders.

 

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MEDICUS – Kindle deal in N America

I’m delighted to say that MEDICUS, Ruso and Tilla’s first adventure, is a Kindle bargain deal for the month of July in the US and Canada.  Thanks to Camilla for sending this link to Amazon.com.

Cover of Medicus with review quote

It isn’t available electronically in the UK at the moment I’m afraid… it WILL be back, and believe me, there will be major celebrations at Downie Towers when it is.

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Eboracum 2017 – join the Roman army!

Hoarding advertising Roman Festival

Soldiers address children
Right. Line up, you lot. And get that hair cut! Half of you look like a bunch of girls!
Display of writing materials
Write and tell your Mum you’ll be home in twenty years.

 

Souvenir stall, Roman-style
You’ll travel to distant places and collect exotic souvenirs.
Display of food
The Legion will feed you.

 

Weaver working at loom
The Legion will clothe you.
Centurion with microphone
Our friendly centurions…

 

Soldiers marching
…will teach you how to march.

 

Soldiers marching around arena
and march…
Soldiers marching
and march…
Legionaries in armour
(did we mention the marching?)
Soliders with drawn swords
…and fight.
Soliders surround civilians
And how to round up civilians who make trouble.
Man explaining display of medical instruments
If anything goes wrong, our highly-trained doctors will look after you.

 

Another display of medical instruments with bloodstains
Using the very latest equipment.
Centurion in straw hat. Soldiers
In time, you too may become a Centurion.
Soldier without armour (Graham Harris)
Or a festival organiser
Smartly dressed Tribune and lady
But without the right connections, you will never become a tribune and wear this splendid helmet.

 

Display of archaeology in tent
In the distant future, people like this will dig up your rubbish and display it to the public. Yes, really.

 

Writers talking to people over book displays.
And people like these will write books about you. (L to R – Ben Kane, Sandra G-Neville, ? , Harry Sidebottom, Penny Ingham)
Alex Gough and Simon Turney
Alex Gough and Simon (SJA) Turney
Jane Finnis
Jane Finnis
John Salter and Brian Young in Roman military kit
John Salter and Brian Young
Ruth with books
and another one.

Finally – as a reward for all that marching, people will remember you and your Emperor with parades through the streets of Eboracum.

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Have shoes, will travel

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.

Reproduction Roman shoes

1-4 June

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.

Centurion soldiers and the Emperor marching

13 June

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.

17-18 June

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).

Milton Keynes Festival of History poster

 

 

 

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Wide-eyed in the Big City – visiting Roman London

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.

Cover of book about writing tablets from Bloomberg excavations

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.

Writing styli from Roman London

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.

Roman coins

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.

Two keys

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.

Two metal hipposandals and a spiky ox goad

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.”

Pottery cup

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?

Gaming counters

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:

Manacle

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.

Rusted iron ring

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.

Face from pot

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bear and the Wolf

The Bear and the Wolf

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.

The Bear and the Wolf (002)

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:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Smashwords

Kobo

 

Small Island

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.

Logo for Alderney Literary Festival

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.

Aurigny Air plane

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.

Pic of Alderney Island Hall

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.

Joyce Meader demonstrating knitted dressing cover

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.

Grey knitted knee-warmers

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.

Andrew Lownie stressing the importance of a good title – Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, does indeed sound a lot more enticing as Henry VIII’s Last Victim.

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:

TH White's house

Just like the UK, only…  not.

Yellow phone box Blue post box

There are people on the island, honestly.

Cobbled street

Geranium envy.

large geranium framing front door.

Lovely to look at, terrifying to sail around.

View of rocky coastline

One of many defences left behind by previous occupiers, and an unlikely location for a Countryside Interpretation Centre.

Concrete bunker set into hillside

Looking even less likely now:

Metal door at entrance to bunker

But yes, it really is! A modern photo of the view the German defenders would have enjoyed on a sunny day.

View over hill and sea from bunker

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…

Simon Turney and Simon Scarrow

…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”)

Me in pseudo-Iron Age clothing

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.

Stone wall with gateway

With the man who knows: standing on a Roman rampart with Jason Monaghan, writer and archaeologist, and Simon (SJA) Turney: part-time Roman, full-time writer.

Ruth, Jason Monaghan and Simon Turney

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.

Simon and Jason discussing the Roman wall walk

I think we can all agree this isn’t Roman. It’s next door to the Nunnery…

Concrete bunker

…and this is the landing-point they were both built to defend.

Sandy bay with blue sea and sky

Peace has now returned to Alderney…

Cattle grazing

…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.

 

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