“We have to hope that our characters will forgive us…”

“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.

Sign out conference hall HNS OXFORD 16

I’ve never been to the Historical Novel Society conference before, but after last weekend I’m wondering why. It was splendid. If you want to read a well thought-out blog piece about it, there’s one in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want a few photos, some scrappy notes and some Anglo-Saxons banging their shields and yelling, then, dear reader, you are in the right place.

The problem with reporting on writing events is that my photos are often – quite frankly – a bit boring. They’re mostly:Tracey Chevalier giving a talk

Panels – a row of people behind a row of tables.

Discussions – two or three people looking at each other across a low table.

Talks – one person behind a lectern. Or standing beside a table. Could be anybody, because they’re too far away to tell. On the right: Tracey Chevalier, Richard Lee of the HNS, an illegible screen and the backs of two heads.  Luckily the talk was much better than my photography.

The Dinner – lots of people leaning against each other and looking cheerful around a big table.

After the dinner–  people standing around clutching drinks and looking very cheerful, despite the absence of tables.

Whilst these sort of pictures are fine if you know the people involved, or if you have always wondered what the person who wrote that hideous torture scene might look like, they aren’t exciting. So, I have vowed to take (or at least show) no more of them.

In future, any panel that can’t come up to the standard of Paula Lofting and Regia Anglorum‘s “How to Build a Shield Wall” isn’t going to get a look-in.

Photo of re-enactors with shields and javelins

Although they might get a quote, because some things are too good not to pass on.

For instance, Jo Baker‘s contention that “Books start to be historical when the clothes start to be vintage.”

Melvyn Bragg‘s “History and fiction have been intermingled for ever. Herodotus made up the speeches for his Histories.”

Gillian Bagwell‘s hints on “Giving your writing the reading it deserves” including, Memorize the first line so you can look at the audience. (I’d never thought of that.)

Rory Clements on “Writing the Historical Thriller” – “If you find it easy, you are not putting enough effort in. You could do more.”

Hazel Gaynor on reclusive writers engaging with booksellers – “I’m putting my Brave Trousers on, and I’m going out!”

Carole Blake‘s sage advice to aspiring writers – “Ask around – don’t be so grateful that you accept an offer regardless.”

But where, you may be asking by now, are the Anglo-Saxons beating their shields? Was that them, above? No, there’s more. We’ll get there in a minute. First, I’d like to celebrate the glorious Battle of Fulford tapestry. (Not, as I inadvertently called it on Twitter, “the Battle of Fulford Tapestry,” an otherwise unknown medieval skirmish over needlework). It’s six metres long, it was displayed at the conference by its designer, Chas Jones, and you can find out all about it on this website. You may recognise the style.

Work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry



And this is how they got those lovely colours for the wool. I tried to turn all the labels around the right way before taking the photo, so with luck you can zoom in and read most of them.

Skeins of wool dyed with natural materials

There was, of course, a very fine Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.The guests included Queen Boudica, an elf, a witch, a monk, Tilla (or rather me, wearing her clothes), a gondolier, and Mrs Lincoln. On looking at the photos it’s clear that Tilla enjoyed the evening a little too much and all the photos she took were a bit blurry. This is her best effort at Mary Todd Lincoln, whose splendid outfit won first prize in the costume pageant.

Photo of lady dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln

So that, gentle reader, was a very brief roundup of some of the highlights of the HNS conference. In the year that marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we will leave the final word to Harold Godwinson’s men. Some of whom are women. But as they say about historical fiction, it’s all lies anyway.



VITA BREVIS, published today – and a caption competition.

Vita Brevis HB coverI’m delighted to announce that Ruso and Tilla’s seventh adventure, set in the great city of Rome itself, is now available on an e-reader near you! Find out more about it here.

If you live in the USA, Canada or Cambridge*, VITA BREVIS should also be available in a bookshop.  (*The fine folk at Heffers Bookshop have arranged a few sneaky imports in time for their Summer 2016 Crime Party on Thursday.)

Paper copies will set sail across the Atlantic before long and, with a fair wind and strong rowers, should arrive in September.

To apologise for the delay, here’s a caption competition! The best caption sent in from the UK or Ireland for the photo below by the end of July wins a signed copy of VITA BREVIS. Friends from elsewhere are very welcome to enter but sadly you will win only the honour of keeping us all amused.

Mosaic of woman (?) confronting naked man

What’s going on here? We need to know!

From Eboracum to Ipplepen

It’s been a busy few days – first, a long weekend in York, a city crammed with Roman activity past and present. Then down south to spend five days in search of the far more elusive Roman Devon.  Finally, with all photos downloaded and all mud washed off, there’s time to update the blog…

The Eboracum Roman Festival was a resounding success and will hopefully be back again next year.


Roman soldiers march in Museum Gardens York
Setting off to march around the city.
The centurion of the LEG XX leads his men
Don’t argue with the centurion. He’s got a big stick and some very scary headgear.
More Roman soldiers march through the park
Best not to argue with this lot, either.
Children dressed as Roman soldiers
Hidden around the corner – the Roman Army’s secret weapon.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome's smallest soldiers.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome’s smallest soldiers.
Children vs parents, armed with foam pipe insulation
Into battle!
Parents are defeated by small Romans
Small Romans 1, Barbarians 0
Not all Roman games are violent.
Not all Roman games are violent.
Display of Roman food on stall
Time for some feasting
Traditional Arabic dancers with red skirts
And dancing, with Ya Raqs traditional Arabic Dancers


Display of reproduction Roman pots
And of course shopping – beautiful repro Roman vessels made by Andrew MacDonald of The Pot Shop in Lincoln.
Repro indented pottery beaker
This one came home with me.
Picture of dish with gritted surface, woolen braid and spindle
And so did this. It’s a mortarium, used for grinding up food (or medicines, presumably). The delicately-woven braid also came home…
Woolen crafts on stall
Made by the talented Catherine Stallybrass of Curious Works. (The spinning in the last pic is mine. Catherine’s is much finer.)
Beads on display
Terrible photo, lovely jewellery – a mini-display from Tillerman Beads. The blue ‘melon’ beads at the front are usually found in military contexts (I’m told) and would probably have been worn by men.
Bookstall with Simon Turney and Ruth
Oh look, some more people selling things! The Roman soldier, who removes his writerly specs when on parade, is Simon (SJA) Turney. The Romano-British woman clutching her phone is me. The Writers’ Tent also held Jane Finnis (whose books are set in Roman Yorkshire) and Brian Young, and we were delighted when Caroline Lawrence dropped by, too, but I can prove very little of this because I was so busy chatting I forgot to take photos of us all. Big thanks to Sandra Garside-Neville for this pic.
Display of repro Roman items
The spiky thing at the front is a caltrop, the Roman equivalent of barbed wire. Very nasty to tread on, both for people and animals.
The Multiangular tower in York museum gardens
Some parts of Roman York are still standing. This corner of the fort is now in the Museum gardens (the lower part is Roman, the top was built later).
Pic of screen with digital image of the tower
It was being surveyed by AOC Archaeology over the weekend – you can just about see it on the screen.
Picture of an urban privet hedge.
Archaeology is what makes all this possible. And often there’s very little to see. So hats off to John Oxley, City Archaeologist, who managed to make even this hedge interesting when he explained that the grave of the woman who’s now known as “ivory bangle lady” was found just behind it.  (There’s more about her in the Museum.) After his “Waking the Dead” tour (part of a great programme of Festival talks) I shall never walk through York Railway station again without thinking of the vast Roman cemetery that once covered the same land – and the burials that may still lie undisturbed beneath it.
Roman soldiers walking away
It was over too soon.  The tents are folded, the men have marched away (hopefully to return next year) and it only remains to thank the organisers for such a brilliant event – especially Sandra Garside-Neville and Kurt Hunter-Mann for their kind hospitality.
And then… it was the long drive down to Devon for some nuts-and-bolts archaeology.
Buttercups in flower
It may look like an innocent field of buttercups, but beneath it lies a Roman road. This is Ipplepen in South Devon, site of a Romano-British settlement that was only found in 2007. Not as spectacular as York, but hugely significant in the history of Devon, where evidence for the Roman occupation can be very hard to pin down.   Students from Exeter University are exploring the field next door this year, and it was a privilege and an education to spend a few days as a volunteer with them. This is the sort of thing we found under the buttercups:
Section through a ditch
Yes, I know it’s an empty hole in the ground. And yes, people are standing around staring into it. But this is MY hole in the ground – or at least, the left half is. The right-hand side was dug by someone else. It’s that shape not because we disagreed, but because of the way the original digger, many hundreds of years ago, worked with the angle of the rock. It’s just a part of the picture that will emerge over the coming weeks as the team dig and record and make sense of what they find. I promise there will be far more interesting things to see on the Open Day on 25 June – here are some pics from Open Day 2014.


Visitors gathered round table under marquee
Sam Moorhead from the British Museum explains the coin finds to visitors. (2014)
Small bracelet made of twisted metal
Imagine the story this little bracelet could tell. (2014)
Roman soldiers talk to visitors
Winning the hearts and minds of the natives. (2014)

And now, it’s back to the thing that makes all this gallivanting possible – writing the next book.





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.

First, drown your ape.

Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).

As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.

There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions.  His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.

Trephined skull
Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.

I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.

(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)

The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.

At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)

Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.

Photo of Roman re-enactor in bloodstained tunic explaining medical instruments
He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?

The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with.  Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.

I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.

Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –

Reproduction cataract needle
A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.

I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)

And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:

A pair of collarbones, one broken and mended
According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.

The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles –

Photo of badly mended broken bone
Should have gone to Galen?

Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.

Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.

Photo of clay model of foot
A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.

In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding,  “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.

Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:

  • Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
  • Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
  • Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
  • Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
  • Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
  • Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.

To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them,  do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013
Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!

Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.

Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here  by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

M C (Manda) Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S J A Turney

John Henry Clay

Last month I didn’t know what a Blog Hop was…

…and now I’m about to be in one. Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, this coming Thursday a varied group of writers will be presenting a round of blog posts entitled:

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

Goodness knows what will be on offer as to the best of my knowledge, hardly anyone knows what anyone else has chosen to write about, However, rumour has it that there will be book giveaways. My piece will be posted here on Thursday along with links to all the others, and  I’m looking forward to some good reading.

Murder in the Library

Illuminated graphic with shadow of hand clutching dagger on library shelves

I’ve been saving this one for now because it wouldn’t do to post two exhibitions at once, even though we did rush from one to the other on the same day. The British Library isn’t far from the British Museum, so we hurried up there to have a look at their Murder in the Library display, an A-Z of crime fiction which runs until 12 May. Below are some heavily-edited highlights.

S is for Sherlock Holmes.

This manuscript of a Holmes story suggests that Conan Doyle was a much neater and more decisive writer than some of us. To be fair it wasn’t clear whether this was the only draft or a final fair copy, but it does raise the question of whether our patterns of thinking have been changed by working with endlessly-tweakable text on screen.

4 Conan Doyle ms
MS of “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” published in 1927

Incidentally, I’ve just finished reading Peter Guttridge’s “The Belgian and the Beekeeper,” where a detective not unlike Hercule Poirot meets Sherlock Holmes, now a retired recluse who keeps bees. The newcomer suggests the Great Detective may have been somewhat naive about Doctor Watson’s intentions – why is Holmes now living in poverty while Watson is wealthy?  Exactly how many wives DID Watson have, and what happened to them? Peter Guttridge exploits some of the inconsistencies in the Holmes stories to joyous effect.

T is for True Crime

These are a couple of early books about the Road Hill House Murder, which continues to fascinate modern readers in  Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.”

Books about the  Road Hill House murder showing a plan of the house

The penny pamphlet on the left is written by “A disciple of Edgar Poe”, who clearly had a keen sense of marketing. I’m considering issuing my next book as “a disciple of J K Rowling.”

G is for the Golden Age

The time where everyone looked like this, or wanted to:

3 Golden Age

J is for jigsaw mysteries

Do the jigsaw, solve the mystery. These aren’t unknown today, or at least they weren’t when a friend bought me something similar in a charity shop.

5 Jigsaw puzzles

N is for Nordic Noir

…which goes back further than some of us realise: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wallöö were publishing their Martin Beck novels in the 1960’s.

8 Nordic Noir

O is for Oxford

…where  M is for Morse, who gets a whole display cabinet to himself. Here are three famous faces. Not shown is Colin Dexter, but I’m told he appears somewhere in every episode, which means I can no longer do the ironing during repeats as I have to see where.

7 Morse

Z is not for Aurelio Zen, but for Zodiac mysteries, but let’s end with this:

1 Intro

The quote from Raymond Chandler sounds much like an essay question. I will add one word. “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Discuss.

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…