The Trojans are back!

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.

Cover of A Song of War

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.

Cover of Penguin edition of The Iliad

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!H Team logo

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 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:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA



Barnes and Noble

And there’s more…

They say you should put the important information at the top of a piece, just in case nobody reads any further, so here it is –

I’ll be at Calne Library in Wiltshire this Tuesday evening with the irrepressible Ben Kane, author of Roman military fiction and owner of a pair of repro Roman boots that walked Hadrian’s Wall last summer and helped to raise thousands of pounds for charity. You won’t have to donate to come in – just pay £3 for a ticket. Phone 01249 813128  to book.

I’ll be in Bristol Library at  7 pm Wednesday with Robert Low, Mike Williams and Kylie Fitzpatrick,  This is a FREE event but you do need to book –  0117 9037200

These are the last two events for this year. It’s been an enormous pleasure to meet so many readers, writers, bookshop and library staff  on my recent travels, and to reconnect with real people beyond the desk and the computer (which is not to insult the family and friends here, but it does sometimes seem as though the entire business of writing is a fantasy world that I just make up to fill in the hours while other people are out there doing proper jobs).

We were in some splendid venues, but my plans to take lots of photos were thwarted by a failure to pack the camera.  Here, with apologies, are the best of a bad bunch from the phone.

First – on the right, the leg bones of an elephant. I can’t remember which sort of elephant, but a trip to the excellent Eton College Natural History Museum will tell you. It will tell you many other fascinating things too. On the left, me. The photo was taken by Karen Maitland, author of marvellous medieval thrillers and not at all responsible for the fuzziness around the edges. We were there talking about Ancient and Medieval medicine as part of the Thames Valley History Festival, which runs until 17 November.

Elephant leg bones at Eton Nat Hist museum

Next up – Heffers Classics Festival, held in the university Law Faculty at Cambridge. To say I was nervous beforehand would be an understatement, but it was a fantastic day with loads of good speakers – if they do it again next year, I’d very much recommend it.

Heffers Classics Festival

And finally – this is the Bamfylde Hall at Hestercombe Gardens, near Taunton – one of the venues for the Taunton Literary Festival, being run by the enterprising folk at Brendon Books until 19 November.  Luckily I was early, as the local lanes have to accommodate cows as well as cars, and cows do not move very fast.

Bamfylde Hall Hestercombe

After this… I really do plan to get some writing done.

What a weekend!

Sometimes I can’t believe the amazing places writers get to sneak into.  Next weekend I’ll be privileged to be involved in three fabulous events.  If you’re anywhere near any of them please do come and join us. I’ve mentioned the first two before, but here they are again –

Friday 1st November – at Eton Natural History Museum, talking Leeches and Prayer with Karen Maitland as part of the Thames Valley History Festival. I’m told the museum has real leeches. I hope they’re deceased.

Saturday 2nd November in Cambridge, talking Romans at the Heffers Classics Festival, an event with Seriously Impressive Lineup. And me.

And now… Sunday 3rd November at the Taunton Literary Festival  talking more Romans with Ben Kane and Anthony Riches. What a treat!  We’ll be in the Bampfylde Hall in Hestercombe Gardens:  just the place for a day devoted to historical fiction.  Some of the ticket options include lunch and of course, since it’s the West Country, there’s always the chance of a cream tea.

Events, dear boy,* events

[*or girl – Ed.]

For those of us who sit hunched over a computer all day, a chance to get out and meet real people is very exciting. I’ll be taking part in  several events over the next few weeks so if you’re able to join us, please come and say hello.

16 October – 7.00 pm at Barton Library (Barton le Clay, Bedfordshire) “Writing the Romans” with Henry Venmore-Rowland. Henry is the author of “The Last Caesar” and “The Sword and the Throne,” bringing to life the tumultuous events of AD 69 when Rome had four emperors in one year.

17 October – 7.00 pm at Putnoe Library, Bedfordshire – Crime Through Time. I’ll be discussing the appeal of the Romans and the Tudors with Rory Clements, author of the John Shakespeare series (yes, John is the brother of the more famous William, and a great character in his own right).


1 November, 7.00 pm – “Leeches and Prayer – the Medicine of the Past” part of the Thames Valley History Festival.   Join me and Karen Maitland, author of the superb “Company of Liars”, at the Natural History Museum in Eton College – a venue where we are promised real leeches.

2 November –  Heffers Classics Festival – in association with Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Such an honour to be invited! (When you see the lineup you’ll understand what I mean.) I’ll be talking about “Stories in Stones” – the tales that have slipped down the gaps of history. That will be the (relatively) easy part. I’ve also agreed to speak for Dido in a balloon debate about who was the greatest character in Classical Mythology. I’m still wondering why I said ‘yes’ to this. Unlike everyone else on the panel, I’m neither a classicist nor an Oxbridge graduate. Surely poor Dido has suffered enough? Details and tickets here.

Also in November – an eager horde from the Historical Writers’ Association will be descending on libraries to help celebrate  The Reading Agency ‘s History Month. Here’s my part in it:

7 NovemberUPDATE – the  afternoon visit to Honiton Library in Devon is now CANCELLED – sorry! But I will be doing the following visits the week after…

12 November – an evening at Calne Library with Ben Kane. Ben’s a very entertaining speaker so it should be good!

13 November – on a panel at the beautiful Bristol Central Library with the Vikings, two 19th century women, and the British Special Forces. Or at least their representatives – Robert Low, Kylie Fitzpatrick and Mike Williams.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

1-H&P BannerI  love the British Museum more every time I visit.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the same volcano AD 79, in but in different ways, so that different kinds of things survived in the buried wreckage. Now the British Museum has cleverly put items from the two together to give a vivid picture of Roman life in these towns, which were  unusual only in the horrifying way in which they died.

Husband and I have been to both sites in the past but most of what we saw yesterday was new to us, largely because the Herculaneum museum was closed when we were there and the Pompeii material is housed in Naples. Naples is not the place to venture if you have naively booked a hire car, you only have a long weekend and you have never driven in Italy before. We’ve seen photos, of course. I’ve read books. You can walk through both towns on Google Street View. So while I expected to admire and enjoy, I didn’t expect to be terribly surprised.

Well, silly me.

1-H&P Mummius Max 1

The first surprise was the social mobility. We all know that Roman slaves could be, and often were, freed. They could build up wealth of their own and their children would become freeborn Roman citizens in their own right. What I hadn’t realised was how often it happened. On the engraved list of  male citizens in Herculaneum (there would have been about 500, from a population of 4-5000), over half of them are freed slaves. On the right is one of them: Lucius Mammius Maximus. He became a wealthy benefactor of the city and this statue was put up in the theatre.

Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that the faded figures in the background of some of the frescoes (yes, there are whole walls on display!) were not faded by time and volcanic action, but because they were painted that way. They are of course the slaves, waiting in case the main subjects need assistance with whatever they’re doing, which is sometimes private in the extreme. Where slaves have to appear in the foreground (serving dinner, for example) they’re often disproportionately small.  Playing ‘spot the slave’ is a good game. And interestingly, much use of the written word in both towns is in contexts where only slaves would see it. The labelling on amphorae, for example. They might be slaves, but they were not ignorant.

While we’re on social mobility – how cheering it is to see evidence of women running businesses and owning wealth in their own right. Makers of ancient-world movies where young women are incapable even of doing their own clothes up, please take note.

Apologies for the dearth of pictures from now on. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition itself. So you’ll have to imagine what’s inside here…

1-H&P Reading Room

The second surprise was the Stuff. So much of it. So ornate. Roman society was, as curator Dr Paul Roberts pointed out, all about power, and display of wealth and status. That’s why you would have your strongbox displayed in a prominent place in the house, not cunningly hidden from burglars. Harry Enfield’s ‘look at my wad!’ character would have fitted in very nicely. That’s why you would have beautiful silverware on display, and lovely fountains playing to help you and your guests relax in the garden. Meanwhile, back in the tiny, stuffy kitchen, the slaves would be fetching water with buckets,  and the toilet, used for dumping all sorts of waste, was right next to the cooking-hearth.

The third surprise was about that well-known painting of a man selling the loaves of bread that are stacked up around him. I’ve always wondered why he seemed to be sitting cross-legged on a kind of platform, and handing the bread down, instead of moving about behind a counter like a normal shopkeeper. Apparently he isn’t a normal shopkeeper. According to the blurb, there’s an election approaching, and he is handing out bread to the citizens. It’s not an illustration of everyday life at all. It’s a campaign poster. Now it makes sense!

Beyond the surprises, there was an accumulation of cheering details. When you write historical fiction you spend many fruitless hours pondering the practical ways in which people used to live.  It’s long been obvious to me, and surely to anyone who thinks about it, that normal Romans would not be gadding off to the baths every time they needed a wash. And they weren’t. To my relief, the kind of washing-bowls that I’m sure I must have written into the books (or implied, at least) did exist. There was one on display. Ditto chamberpots (one with two natty extensions on the rim for comfort). There was a useful-looking cooking pan with six little dips in that might have held poached eggs or cakes, and the mystery of what stoppers were made of is finally solved. Amphorae could be sealed with plaster but what of bottles that had to be regularly opened and closed? Wood, fibre or cloth, apparently. Phew. It’s unlikely to appear in a book but it’s nice to know.

Oh, and dormice. I know every fictional Roman banquet has to include dormice, but they really did eat them. You could even keep them in a special pot with built-in feeding bowls while you fattened them up.

The most thought-provoking exhibits, though, were not – for me – the famous plaster casts of the dead. They are shocking, but I have seen them before. What really brought the disaster home to me were the collections of once-useful items that the victims had chosen to take with them, and which were rendered irrelevant in the face of the catastrophe. A soldier died on the beach at Herculaneum wearing his military belt, his sword and his dagger. Many people had grabbed jewellery and coins. One girl had a collection of good-luck charms. People took keys to doors that ceased to exist when they did. Most moving of all, I found, was the set of surgeon’s instruments that had been neatly stored in a protective case, so that the owner would be ready to help someone when needed.

1-H&P outside the BMSeeing for yourself:

The British Museum site has the info and there’s a promise of an iphone/Android app coming soon. Meanwhile if you’re thinking of going – do book.  It was packed. There are other events happening in conjunction with the display, so check out the events page for a chance to see Robert Harris and/or Lindsey Davis, amongst others.

1-H&P shop

For those in the UK who can’t get there, the Museum are doing a live event screening in cinemas around the country on 18 June. If you can’t get to that… well, you could drop some very large hints to your loved ones that the catalogue would make a fine present…

Stuffed thrush with rotted fish-guts, anyone?

(I’m guessing that if you’ve got past the title of this piece, you have the sort of constitution that will cope with the rest. You have been warned!)

Mosaic from Nimes  showing birds and wine amphora
Mosaic from Nimes

 “Say the word and he’ll produce a fish out of a sow’s belly, a pigeon out of the lard, a turtle dove out of the ham, and a fowl out of the knuckle.”*

In the light of Trimalchio’s boast about his cook, I’ve been consulting one or two ancient sources to see if the entrepreneurs who’ve sold us horsemeat masquerading as beef might find inspiration for some new offerings.

It’s fairly well known that a trip back to the classical world yields some unusual birds for the table –  ostrich, crane, flamingo, peacock… but there aren’t really enough of these in western  Europe to do anything on an industrial scale. The substitution of bear steaks for wild boar doesn’t work for similar reasons, even though they allegedly taste the same.

I don’t think we want to talk about eating dormice, or flower bulbs, or electric rays, even when deep-fried with chips, but snails might be a bulk option. They must be relatively easy to collect and fatten up in milk. Transport costs would be minimal because, thanks to the Romans, we already have the right variety living here. I’m not sure how they could be disguised as something with universal appeal – they certainly don’t appeal to me – but doubtless somebody out there can fix it.

Grape juice fermenting in large open jar
Fermentation, Roman-style

While we’re on the subject of reducing costs, owners of vineyards near the coast might like to add some seawater while making the wine. Lovely. And of course if it’s too dry, they can sweeten it with a little grape must, boiled up in lead pans.

Grapes on vine

Nowhere in Apicius’s famous cookbook did I find any mention of eating horses, but I did find evidence for the ongoing struggle between producers and consumers. Along with handy tips on how to restore fish sauce which is smelling even worse than usual**, how to clear cloudy wine and how to produce something that “everybody will think is Liburnican oil” is a tip for rescuing tainted honey. Apparently if you mix one part of tainted honey with two parts of good, you will make it “good for sale.” And how do you know whether you have tainted honey? Put a wick in it and light it. If it burns, all well and good. If it doesn’t… well, you know what to do.

Mosaic from Nimes showing fish,  fancy cups and flagon

All of which calls to mind the menu at one of our local restaurants, which proudly offered an exotic-sounding dish followed by the words,  “Enjoy it first – then ask how it is made.”

* The Satyricon, Book XV, 70

**Hard to imagine, as it was made from fermented fish-guts.

Mighty Preparations

This seems like a good time for a few words from Seneca (d. AD65) to his friend Lucilius:

It is the month of December, and yet the city is at this very moment in a sweat. Licence is given to the general merrymaking. Everything resounds with mighty preparations – as if the Saturnalia differed at all from the usual business day! So true is it that the difference is nil, that I regard as correct the remark of the man who said, “Once December was a month: now it is a year”.

Goodness knows what he would have thought if Roman shopkeepers had been selling tinsel and fairy lights in October.

Seneca’s ideas on how a good Stoic should respond to public merriment can be found over at


As I believe I’ve mentioned before, one of my favourite guides to the blogosphere is the Rogue Classicist.  Many of his posts are of particular interest to – surprise surprise – classicists, rather than general readers, but when the daily digest drops into the inbox there’s usually something I can’t resist following up. Today’s contains a link to an absolute delight.

Have a sip of water, take a deep breath,  and prepare to sing along.


I am the very model of a staunch Roman Republican…