To begin at the beginning…
The season of partying has begun! Io Saturnalia!
…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?”
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 http://www.Cambridge.org – Highly recommended!
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.
Some of them were even having their photos taken in silly poses:
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:
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:
Here’s what it looked like when we visited back in 2010:
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.
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.
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.
And finally, a couple of useful thoughts to take home from a great day out:
The first half of June’s looking pretty busy with a rush of events up and down the country at which I’ll be showing off my now not-so-new Roman shoes.
Heading north for the Eboracum Roman Festival in York – a spectacular event for all ages. I’ll be in the Authors’ Tent in the fine company of Alex Gough, Ben Kane, Brian Young, Harry Sidebottom, Jane Finnis, John Salter, Penny Ingham, and Simon (SJA) Turney. Quite a few of us will be in costume, although possibly some of the guys dress like that all the time.
I’ll be taking the shoes to visit the library in the pretty North Devon town of South Molton. We’ll be starting at 6 pm, it’s £2 a ticket and there will be nibbles. Hopefully we’ll all have finished eating before I start discussing Roman medical prescriptions.
The shoes head north again to Milton Keynes. While the town is only 50 years old this year, the site it’s built on has a long heritage, and I’ll be joining friends to celebrate it at their Festival of History. There’ll be loads to see, and it’s free! I’ll be somewhere in a big tent with some Roman archaeology (and some books, obviously).
The new novel from seven talented members of the H-team is published today – and as ever, they’ve been weaving old stories together in new ways.
I wasn’t involved this time (deadlines!) and I can’t wait to find out what the team have done with the story we all ‘think’ we know. Meanwhile, they’ve been kind enough to drop by and answer a few questions. The first thing I wanted to know was:
What is it about the story of Troy that’s kept drawing people back to it for thousands of years?
Stephanie: The classicists out there are going to string me up for this, but I see the story of Troy as one of the world’s first soap operas, or at least an ancient version of “Game of Thrones,” sans dragons and white walkers. There’s adultery, gory battles, death, sneaky traps, and tons of other emotional plot twists. Not only that, but the story has been added to over the ages to give it even more tragic layers. It’s also easy for everyone to find a favorite character to root for: wily Odysseus, brave Hector, misunderstood Cassandra, noble Andromache, and so many others.
Vicky: I think Stephanie nailed it. It’s chock full of great stories! But also I think it continues to fascinate because of the surprising depth and complexity of emotions it explores throughout. One the one hand, there is empathy for the defeated–particularly for Hector, who emerges as truly noble–and, at the same time, frustration and exasperation with the devastation that results from Achilles’ unchecked rage. So it ends up being not “just” a battle story, but a moving exploration of humanity and of the costs of war.
How did you share out the characters? Was there anyone everybody wanted, or nobody wanted?
Simon: As a general writer of Roman fiction and lover of all things Roman, even the mention of the Trojan war sets me off blathering about Virgil, Aeneas and the founding of Rome by their Trojan forebears. How could I refuse the opportunity to write the tale of a man that might be considered the progenitor of Rome? I think if there was one writer in this book destined for one character, that was me and Aeneas! Plus, he’s cool.
Stephanie: I think we were all in utter agreement that no one wanted to write from Paris’ perspective. He’s an utter punk that we all wanted to kick to the curb at one point or another. For me, Cassandra leapt off the page of possibilities, jumping up and down and shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” My passion is retelling the stories of misunderstood or maligned women in history, and Cassandra fits the mold perfectly.
Kate: Yeah, pretty much everyone hated Paris. I still remember Libbie cackling like crazy when she realized she’d get to kill him off. Otherwise, we all had our own obsessions in this story; everyone beelined for their own favorite and no one had to arm-wrestle over who got Achilles/Odysseus/Cassandra. A big advantage to having a huge cast of characters, when there are multiple authors involved!
Russ: I was made up to get Agamemnon because everyone hates him and I thought it’d be fun to try and write a story from his point of view (no baddie THINKS they’re a baddie). Agamemnon’s inciting incident for me doesn’t even occur in Homer’s story, it’s (mainly) in Euripides – the sacrifice of his daughter. Whatever the circumstances, that single act will have changed Agamemnon utterly… so for me, that was key to why he acts as he does. In truth, it was a pretty hard story to write in all sorts of ways, but it was fascinating to delve into the black soul of the High King (he insisted on capital letters for his title).
So, definitely ‘Nul Points’ for Paris there. Were you ever tempted to change the story because you really didn’t like the way things went in the original?
Simon: I (and the rest of the crew too, in fact) went a long way to try and rationalise all the magic and myth of the tale, to try and write a realistic, grounded and plausible version of Homer’s tale, while retaining the epic Greekness of the whole thing. Aeneas’ story, for example, is full of ghosts and visits from gods and the dead, and I tried to tweak this to fit the real world. In deciding how mythical we wanted the tale to be, we essentially walked that fine line between history and fantasy. We came down on the historical side this time.
Vicky: Right. As Simon says, we didn’t want to get too mythical or magical–because then it drifts into fantasy–but at the same time we had to make our characters believe in magic and the gods. After all, it wasn’t “myth” to them!
Kate: I really would have liked to save Hector, dammit. His death gets me every time.
Christian: I really wanted to write Achilles. Despite Achilles’ modern rep as a sort of useless lie-about or a mere sword swinger, I’ve always been fascinated by him, and more especially by his status as the ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘best of the Greeks’ among such figures as Pericles and Socrates. And, apparently alone, I’ve never really liked Hector, who seems too dense to see how he is being used by lesser men… So I was happy to get to kill him (ducks… sorry Kate).
Libbie: I would have liked to save Hector, too. I’d counter that he’s a troubled character (as is everybody in “A Song of War”) but he was one of the few men in the story who was a genuinely good person, and who cared about the outcome for others. Overall, I really liked the way we cooperated to represent our world as a diverse landscape, with characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In the West, we tend to think of heroes, or even of characters in general, as one particular type of person: white, young, and heterosexual. I really welcomed the opportunity to shake up the way people envision Troy and ancient Greece by showing a broader range of the cultural mix that existed in those places and at that time.
Russ: The thing with “The Iliad” is – so much is actually unsaid. It’s a vast tale with (literally) a cast of thousands … So you can weave stuff in that you want to without actually changing the “facts” as it were. We wanted to keep it real as Libbie and Si say above, but aside from the “no Gods” rule, there’s still massive scope in the story to look at fresh angles.
If you could ask Homer one thing, what would it be?
Kate: Why do so many names in the Iliad begin with P? Priam, Penthesilea, Polyxena, Patrocles, Phoenix, Polites, Paris, Penelope, Polydorus, Peleus, Philoctetes, Phthia . . .
Libbie: I agree! The P names have always jumped out at me. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of linguistic significance that we don’t understand as 21st-century Americans and Brits, but that would have been very clear to the original audience for these stories.
Vicky: I’d want to know all the different versions of the story that had been sung over time and why he wrote down these particular ones.
Christian: I’m with Vicky. There were dozens of versions of these stories in the Ancient World; I know at least one in which both Achilles and Hector are cowards; one of the original ‘big names’ was Memnon, Prince of Aetheiopia… an African hero at Troy! Anyway, so many questions about why Homer (s) chose this particular thread… My other question (which really burns for me!) is ‘Where did you get the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ The Ship list, in Book 2, is probably much more ancient than the rest, and may contain evidence of the actual Bronze Age world… as opposed to much of the rest, which is 8th and 7th c. Iron Age Greece..how did it survive? Please tell us, Homer 🙂
Russ: Was your wife really called Marge? It’s a question that has bothered classicists for decades and they need an answer.
If Homer (or Marge) would like to respond, or if anyone has a good word to say for Paris, there’s plenty of room for comments below. Meanwhile, big thanks to the team for taking the time to join me and since it’s publication day TODAY, I’m off to check the Kindle and get reading!
If you haven’t already, here are some of the places where you can find A SONG OF WAR:
Day 7, and the last-but-one stop on the tour today! Across the water to Detroit and Hoover Book Reviews, which is a splendid place to browse if you’re on the hunt for contemporary fiction based in the ancient world – and more. (Nip across there and scroll down to where it says ‘categories’ on the right, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Big thanks to Paul Bennett, the man behind it all, for his very kind words about Vita Brevis.
“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.