Thursday, March 26, 2020

Historical Fiction for Kids

Historical fiction can do much more than bring dull names and dates alive; it can spark a lifelong passion. What got me into history and Classics was a book I read aged 18. It literally changed my life. 

My fave historical novels are those which combine historical accuracy with a great story and compelling characters. 

Here is a list of ten of the best, all suitable for kids or YA readers.

1. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault 
Classical Athens (c. 430 - 400 BC) ages 14+
A gripping tale of a boy growing up in Classical Athens during the time of the philosopher Socrates and with the Peloponnesian War as a backdrop. This book changed my life because it made me realise how fascinating history could be. Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction. She is my idol.

2. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian 
Nelson’s Navy (early 1800’s) ages 14+
If Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction, then Patrick O’Brian is the King. Almost as fluent in Greek as he was in Latin and most fluent in the language of ships and sailing, O’Brian is another one of my idols. My husband and I knew we were ‘meant to be’ on our first date nearly thirty years ago when we both named his Aubrey/Maturin series as our favourite books of the moment. My husband often says, ‘In Patrick O’Brian, a storm is more exciting than a battle, and a dinner party can be more entertaining than either of those.’ Master and Commander is the first of a 20-book series.

3. True Grit by Charles Portis 
Wild West (late 1800s in America) ages 10+
Mattie Ross – deadpan, devout and determined – is one of the great heroines of any period, and she’s only 14. Both movie versions were good, but this better than both rolled up together.  This is one of my top books of all time: ‘Fill your hands’ with it! The audiobook read by Donna Tartt is perfection. 

4. The Once and Future King by T.H. White 
Arthurian England (c. 500 AD) ages 8+
There are lots of fab books about King Arthur (like those of Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Reeve) but this one will always have a very special place in my heart. It is the closest to fantasy of any of the books on this list, and it is pure magic.

5. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe 
Roman Britain (c. 100 AD) ages 10+
Densely-written evocative depiction of Britain in the Roman period. Colder, grittier and with much more blue woad than my Roman Quests series, also set in Roman Britain. 

6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder 
American Pioneer West (late 1800s) ages 10+
The covers make them look babyish but they are most definitely not. Adults will love them, too. This is a vividly-told, clear-eyed reminiscence of a pioneer girl. Moving, quietly dramatic and humbling. Best of all, there are seven more books in the series.  

7. The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer 
Europe during Peninsular Wars (early 1800s) ages 14+
Based on the true story of a Spanish girl during the Napoleonic wars who sought refuge with British troops. She marries a British soldier, impresses everyone with her beauty and bravery, learns English in London and finally accompanies her husband on the Waterloo campaign for the story’s climax. My husband loves this book so much that he reads it yearly. 

8. Blitzcat by Robert Westall 
England during WWII (1940s) ages 8+
Great story about a cat during the Second World War by the same author who gave us The Machine Gunners. This is a story that has stayed with me, as all great stories do. Animal lovers will love it because he really gets into the head of a cat. 

9. My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Greek isle of Corfu (1930s) ages 8+

Supposedly this is a biographical account of the childhood of the conservationist Gerald Durrell and therefore not strictly fiction, but much of it is embellished and I love it so much that I’m going to include it on this list. It bears very little resemblance to the 2016 ITV series which is more about his mother. This one is about the joy of nature, life and family. Try the first few chapters. You’ll be hooked. 

10. I am David by Ann Holm 
Europe (late 1920s) ages 10+
A boy escapes from a concentration camp in a nameless country. With nothing but a map and a compass he crosses Europe in search of the mother he has never known. He is wary, distrustful, older than his years. And yet in many ways he is a baby, with his journey across Europe a kind of rebirth. Full of sensory detail and tiny joys as well as tragedies, this is the perfect story to put our current problems in perspective! 

Happy Reading! 

Caroline Lawrence is the author of over 35 historical novels for kids aged 7-14. Start with her first, The Thieves of Ostia, or her most recent, The Time Travel Diaries. Check out her website HERE

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mule vs Volcano

When I go into schools and stay on to do a writing workshop, I almost always set a task of writing a story called ‘Escape from Vesuvius’. There were at least 20,000 people living around the volcano in the first century AD and I reckon each one of them had their own story. We always start by listing the seven plot beats which I have adapted from Hollywood script guru John Truby. Sometimes we start with the hero’s weakness – or Achilles Heel – which will give us the lesson learned AKA step 6, The Knowledge. At St Lawrence Junior School yesterday we were running short on time so we started with his problem: volcano! Acting as the show-runner in a TV writers’ room I got the kids to brainstorm ideas for our hero’s gender, age, name and skills. We voted on them and quickly mapped out the basic plot. If possible I try to get them to come up with a subtitle and in this case we voted for Mule vs Volcano. We had just enough time for a few of the children to read their first paragraphs and they were great. 

But this morning I took a few hours to write my own version. Here’s what I came up with. 

Escape from Vesuvius: Mule vs Volcano 
by Caroline Lawrence 
(with the help of year 4 from St Lawrence Junior School)

It started like any other day. But that was the day I learned an apple can save your life. 

I woke at dawn, slipped on my tunic and splashed water on my face from the jug beside my bed. Then I let myself out of the front door and ran to the baker’s shop. Although our baker makes deliveries, I like to run whenever I can. Most afternoons I train in the palaestra of the Stabian Baths but I like to run first thing in the morning too, when the world is still cool and fresh and the sun is just rising. I run barefoot along the smooth pavements of my town, Pompeii. The soles of my feet are hard as leather. I usually take the long way round to the baker’s, then come back with three warm round loaves under my arm.  

My name is Maximus and I am sixteen years old. My household is small. Just me and my aged parents. We used to have a slave but never got around to replacing him. Our needs are few. My mother can only walk a few steps at a time but she weaves happily in her high-backed wicker chair while my father teaches me to speak eloquently in Greek as well as Latin. 

In the evenings I read passages of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey to my parents. My favourite story is the one at the end of the Iliad where Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. I always hope that somehow this time Hector will escape, but of course he never does. The words of the poem are etched into my brain like letters in a wax tablet. That story is like one of Plato’s forms: it exists somewhere outside our world, on a higher level. 

Sometimes when I run, I recite that passage. It is as if I am Hector, running from Achilles. 

On that fateful day, I was having a lesson with my father in the garden. My mother sat nearby, in the shade of our apple tree. She was making thread from a drop spindle, turning a clump of wool into fine strong yarn.  

It was almost noon when we heard shouts coming from outside. I hurried out into the street. My neighbours were pointing north, and I saw something like a fat white thread of wool rising up on the horizon.

My father came out a moment later, leaning on his walking stick. 

The smell of rotten eggs filled the air and soon ash was falling. The sky was getting darker, as when clouds gather. 

That was when I remembered the dream I’d had the previous night. The white-hot ghost of Achilles had been chasing me. 

I knew it was a warning, sent by the gods.  

‘We must go!’ I told Pater about my dream. ‘We must get away as fast as we can.’ 

‘But how?’ he replied. ‘I can only walk with the help of a stick and your mother can barely walk at all.’ Then he grasped my shoulders. ‘Son, you are fast. Save yourself. Run! Your mother and I have lived a good life. If it is the will of the gods, we will die a good death.’ 

‘No!’ I cried. ‘I will not leave you.’ 

If had been strong I might have carried my parents, one under each arm. But despite my name I am not powerful. I am fast, yes, but also skinny. 

Then I had an idea. ‘Your old chariot!’ I cried. ‘I can pull you in the chariot!’ 

When my father was young, he had raced chariots and he still kept his favourite in our storeroom. It was made of wicker, leather and beechwood and was very light: like a basket on wheels. 

‘Put on all your jewellery!’ I cried to my mother. ‘Pater, get anything valuable that we can easily carry! And bring some food!’ 

A moment later my aged parents stood in the small chariot as I pulled them out the front door of our house. 

Ash covered the pavement and street. People were already fleeing, carrying their belongings on their backs, holding children by the hand. Some had cushions tied to their heads to keep off the falling embers. Others wore napkins over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

I hurried back inside and soaked two cushions in water from the fountain, then tied them to my parents’ heads. For myself I soaked my hooded woollen cloak in water and put that on. 

Then I grasped the two side beams of the chariot and pulled. 

At first it was easy enough, but soon I was coughing and wheezing. I was not used to pulling the weight of two people, even old ones who are not very heavy. 

As we reached the town gate, I had an idea. 

At the stables we could hire a horse to pull us. 

But as we reached the stables, I saw others had the same idea. 

The only animal left was a stubborn looking mule with a badly swollen front left hoof. 

‘That one’s Podagrosus,’ said the stable owner. ‘I’ll let you have him for a thousand sesterces. But I doubt you’ll get him to move.’ 

One thousand sesterces was a huge amount to pay for a lame mule, but I had no choice. I reached into my belt pouch and pulled out ten gold coins, almost all our savings. The stable owner greedily took them, then bit one to make sure it was pure. A moment later he was hurrying out of the stable. 

Left alone, pulled the chariot over to the mule, hitched him to it with a wooden yoke lying nearby, then grasped his bristly mane and tugged. 

‘Come on, Podagrosus,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’ 

The mule gave me a sideways look but did not budge.  

I took my father’s walking stick and beat his rear. 

It was like beating a marble statue of a mule. The creature did not even twitch. 

‘Stop, Maximus!’ called my mother, who has a soft heart. ‘Here!’ She reached down the front of her stola and pulled out a red apple. 

‘Look, Podagrosus,’ I said, holding it up. ‘A nice juicy apple, fresh from the tree in our garden.’ 

Podagrosus took a step forward. 

Holding out the apple, I backed through the open doors of the stable and onto the street. 

Podagrosus followed. 

I had done it! 

Suddenly the mule lunged forward and closed his teeth on the apple.

‘Ow!’ I cried. ‘He almost bit my hand off!’ 

‘I have one more,’ said my mother. ‘Use it wisely.’

‘Think, Maximus!’ I told myself. ‘Think!’ 

Then I had an idea. ‘Mater,’ I said. ‘Do you have any thread?’ 

‘Always!’ She pulled her spindle from down the front of her tunic and I took two arms’ lengths of strong woollen thread. I tied one end to the stem of the apple and the other to the end of my father’s walking stick. Then I stuck the other end of the stick into the yoke of the mule so that the apple hung about half an arm’s length before his nose. 

Podagrosus limped forward, always going for the apple but never quite able to reach it. 

By the time his swollen foot prevented him from going any further we had made it beyond a spur of the Milky Mountains near Stabiae, and I knew we would be safe. 

‘Well done, Podagrosus!’ I said and gave the tired mule the apple he had been straining after for three hours. ‘I promise we will take good care of you for the rest of your life. And all the apples you can eat.’ 

The End

Friday, January 24, 2020

Tabula Rasa

The lower leaf is a 'tabula rasa' or blank tablet
The Latin Programme has just announced a competition for kids to write a story or poem under 500 words. You have until 24 April 2020 and the pieces can tackle any theme and take any form as long as they use the Latin phrase ‘tabula rasa’ as a starting point. First prize is £100 in book tokens with two £25 runners up. And I am one of the two judges! 

But what is a TABVLA RASA? 

In Roman times, a ‘tabula rasa’ was a clean writing tablet. 

The word ‘rasa’ is a participle from the verb ‘rado’, I shave or smooth. We get the word razor from it. 

The word ‘tabula’ means a board or plank. We get the word tablet from it. 

Romans often made writing tablets from small, thin wooden planks coated with beeswax. They would then inscribe letters in the wax, using a the sharp end of a stylus made of metal, bone or wood. By the way, we get the word stylus from Latin ‘stilus’, which means stick, stake or pointed instrument

When Romans wanted to erase the words they had written on a tablet, they would use the flat end of the stylus to smooth the wax. Some frescoes show a triangular-shaped spatula that could be warmed and then pulled across the wax to smooth it and make it blank. 

Spatula (far left) on a fresco from Pompeii via @LiberalDespot

So the most literal meaning of ‘tabula rasa’ is a smoothed or ‘shaved’ wax tablet. 

Lupus with wax tablet holder (2007)
In my Roman Mysteries, one of my characters can’t speak so he uses a wax tablet to communicate vital messages. 

Maybe your hero needs a tablet to communicate like Lupus.

The phrase ‘tabula rasa’ has a metaphorical meaning as used by philosophers such as Aristotle and John Locke: a blank mind. Locke believed babies were born with a totally blank mind and that the things that happened after their birth were etched into their brains forever. 

So ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean blank mind

Maybe your hero has amnesia.

stylus and scraper via Peter Lorimer
‘Tabula rasa’ can be applied to the type of slate on which Victorian schoolchildren wrote with chalk, like a mini blackboard. For this reason ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean a clean slate like when all your debts (the money you owe) or sins (things you’ve done wrone) are cancelled and you can ‘start fresh’. 

Maybe your hero has a chance to start fresh. 

Finally, a fun idea for a mystery or spy story based on the phrase ‘tabula rasa’ is an ancient method of delivering a secret message where you write a message on the wood tablet, then put the wax on top to hide it. That way the writing tablet looks blank but actually contains a hidden message. 

re-enactor writing on a replica tablet of beeswax coloured with soot
Maybe your hero must get a message to a rescuer. Or intercept a message from a spy. 

So there are lots of meanings of ‘tabula rasa’. You might even think of a new one. 

Just make sure you put that phrase somewhere in your entry! 

HERE is the link to the competition. And HERE is a link to some ideas for how to start your story... Good luck! I cant wait to read your entries. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Fun with First Lines

illustration by Linzie Hunter
Some people collect stamps, Star Wars action figures or ceramic pigs. 

I collect first lines. 

I love to go into a bookshop or library and pick a book off the shelf and open it up to check the first line. 

Here is one of my favourites: 

In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the word was God. 

You might think it is from John’s Gospel in the New Testament portion of the Bible, but it’s also the first line of Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose, now being televised on the BBC. 

Here’s another of my best first lines. One of the oldest, too. 

Sing goddess, the wrath of Achilles... 

It’s the first line of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Iliad

I also love Virgil’s riff on it, the first line of his Aeneid, an epic poem in Latin. 

I sing of arms and the man... 

How about this one?

Call me Ishmael. 

That is one of the most fa
mous first lines in the world. It’s from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. But did you know that Kurt Vonnegut begins his book Cat’s Cradle with this first line? 

Call me Jonah.

Can you see the point I’m making? Good first lines can be begged, borrowed and adapted. 

Another of my fave first lines is from the Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning it’s never good news. 

That first line inspired the opening of my book Escape from Rome. 

The Emperor’s men came at midnight. 

But I don’t think Anthony Horowitz will sue me. All writers gain inspiration from one another and in fact it’s a kind of tribute when you use a famous first line as inspiration. 

I’m a writer-in-residence at the junior division of Kings College School Wimbledon this week. Hopefully we’ll have time to play a fun game I call Dr Frankenstein’s First Lines.

This is one of over a hundred tricks and tips I include in my new book How to Write a Great Story. The principle is pretty obvious. You take a fave first line (or two) chop them up and stitch them together, a bit like Dr Frankenstein does with his monster. 

I’ve used it in schools and it’s proved really fun and inspirational. Here are a few great first lines we have played with. 

Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.

(from The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani)

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. 

(from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. 

(from The Iron Man by Ted Hughes)

And finally, here is a first line I actually didn’t nick from anybody else but am proud of because I use it to tell you the hero, the genre and the setting. And I did all that in the first line! 

Flavia Gemina solved her first mystery on the Ides of June in the tenth year of the emperor Vespasian.

(from The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence)

Feel free to play with it and have fun. 

Happy Writing! (And chopping…)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ideas 4 Teachers

Ideas for Teachers based on the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence


Romans used a sponge-stick instead of toilet paper. Discuss what was the same and what was different about Roman times.

Take a real object or a replica artefact. Study it in silence for a full minute. Touch it. Sniff it. Listen to it. Taste it. Now write a story or poem about it.

In Ancient Rome educated people signed documents with a signet ring, which could be recognised even by those who couldn't read. If you had been a well-educated and rich Roman, what design would you have on your signet ring? A god, like Mars or Venus? A hero, like Hercules or Atalanta? An animal, like a cricket or dolphin? Or a mythological creature, like the hydra, which had the body of a dog and nine snake heads? Design your ring.

Read the passage in The Thieves of Ostia where Flavia buys Nubia. Now put yourself in Nubia's position and write in the first person about how Nubia feels.

Read the passage in The Thieves of Ostia where Jonathan's father discovers that someone has cut out Lupus's tongue. Put yourself in Lupus's position and write in the first person about Lupus.

Find a passage that triggers a memory of something that happened in your own life. You might have felt sad, happy, jealous, excited, etc. Compare the scene in the book with the incident from your life. How were they similar? How were they different? Detail how you felt during that experience. 

What is a book cover designed to do? Do you think the covers of the Roman Mysteries are good? What aspects do you like about them? What don't you like? Choose a title of a Roman Mystery that you've read and design a cover for this book that would appeal to boys. Design a cover that would appeal to girls. Now design a cover that would appeal to everybody!

The author of the Roman Mysteries uses primary sources like letters by Pliny the Younger, history by Suetonius, poems by Catullus. Read part of a letter, speech or poem by a real historical character. Write a story around it or about it.

Think about some movies or TV shows that use Greek myths (e.g. My Fair Lady is based on the myth of Pygmalion). Star Wars, The Matrix, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings all use elements of Greek mythology. Choose a famous or obscure Greek myth and make it into a modern story. Or make it into a science fiction story. Or set the story in medieval times. You get the idea...

For more ideas related to specific books in the series, check out the THEMES and TOPICS blog post. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Roman Mysteries Themes and Topics

In each of the 17 books in my Roman Mysteries series, I have consciously embedded a Greek Myth. This short guide tells which ones and also highlights the themes, topics and artefacts featured in each book. I hope teachers will find it useful. 

Book 1: The Thieves of Ostia 
SETTING - Ostia, the port of Rome (ITALY) 
June 79 AD
Roman topic: introduction to a Roman town and social structure
Real historical characters: Cartilius Poplicola (resident of Ostia)
Sources: The Aeneid, the Bible, Ostian inscriptions
Greek myths: Aeneas, Cerberus, Perseus and Medusa
featured food: fruit, snails, stuffed dormice (ironically)
artefacts: signet ring, wax tablet, stylus, oil lamp, amphoras, dice
Related posts: How to Make a Stola, A Day in Ostia

Book 2: The Secrets of Vesuvius (theme: parentage and adoption)
SETTING - Ostia, Laurentum, Pompeii, Stabia (ITALY) 
August 79 AD
Roman topic: the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii and surrounding towns
Real historical characters: Pliny the Elder, Titus Tascius Pomponianus, Rectina
Sources: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Ostian graffiti
Greek myths: the return of Vulcan, Thetis, Achilles
Roman festivals: Vinalia, Vulcanalia
featured food: Pliny's simple fare: cheese, fruit, eggs; Tascius' rich fare: turbot in dill sauce
key artefacts and objects: scrolls, portable inkpot and pen, flute, pan-pipes, parasol, cushions, wooden false teeth
Related posts: Children in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Book 3: The Pirates of Pompeii (theme: slavery and freedom) Nubia's book
SETTING - Stabia, Vico Equense, Sorrento (ITALY) 
August/Sept 79 AD
Roman topic: Patrons and clients, slaves and freedmen
Real historical characters: The Emperor Titus, Pollius Felix (attested in a poem of Statius)
Historical site: the villa of Pollius Felix on the Cape of Sorrento, Scraio (spa town near Sorrento)
Sources: Pompeian graffiti, Statius's 'Silvae' (poems)
Greek myths: Dionysus and the pirates, Ariadne & Theseus
featured food: lemons (recently introduced); goat stew, flat bread, chickpeas, mineral water, sage tea
key artefacts and objects: earrings, hairpins, theatrical masks, lyre, flute, kylix (Greek drinking cup)
Related posts: Serendipity in Surrentum

Book 4: The Assassins of Rome (theme: guilt) 
Jonathan's book
SETTING - Ostia & Rome (ITALY) 
September 79 AD
Roman topic: Nero's golden house, the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish slave labour, chariot races
Real historical characters: Emperor Titus, Berenice, Domitian, Josephus
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Homer, Josephus, the Bible
Greek myths: Odysseus, Polyphemus the cyclops, Penelope the faithful wife
Jewish festivals: Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Succot
featured food: exotic oranges; buttermilk; honey dipped apples for Rosh Hashanna
key artefacts and objects: wax tablet and stylus, alabastron, loom and weights, bass lyre, tambourine

Book 5: The Dolphins of Laurentum (revenge and forgiveness) Lupus's book
SETTING - Ostia and Laurentum (ITALY) 
October 79 AD
Roman topic: a real maritime villa, sponge-diving on the Greek islands
Real historical characters: Pliny the Younger
Sources: Pliny the Younger's letter about his Laurentum villa (letter II.xvii)
Greek myths: Medusa, Arion and the dolphins, Neptune & Amphitrite
Roman festival: Meditrinalia
featured food: honey glazed prawns, chicken soup
key artefacts and objects: sponge-stick, sea-sponges, dolphin earrings, anchors, ball games

Book 6: The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina (love and marriage) 
Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia (ITALY) December 
79 AD
Roman topic: Love, betrothal and marriage in first century Rome
Historical site: notable buildings in and around Ostia
Sources: Ostian inscriptions, Ovid, Martial, Apollodorus
Greek myths: Twelve Tasks of Hercules, Pygmalion, Cerberus, Atalanta
Roman festival: Saturnalia
featured food: lentil stew, omelettes, plums, oysters, mushrooms, quail pie, boar, ostrich, love potion!
key artefacts and objects: sigilla (figurines), dice, objects in the household shrine, strigil and bath set

Book 7: The Enemies of Jupiter (theme: hubris) 
Jonathan's book
SETTING: Ostia and Rome (ITALY) 
February 80 AD
Roman topic: medicine and doctors in first century Rome
Real historical sites: Tiber Island, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Galen, Pliny the Elder, Hippocrates
Greek myths: Prometheus and Pandora, Aesculapius, Niobe and her children
featured food: food for medicinal properties, light, medium & heavy foods, etc
key artefacts and objects: bleeding cup, votive parts of the body, medical instruments

Book 8: The Gladiators from Capua (theme: blood and sacrifice) Nubia's book
March 80 AD
Roman topic: gladiators, beast-fights and the opening of the Colosseum in spring of AD 80
Real historical sites: the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum), Domus Aurea, Mons Testaccio
Real historical figures: Titus, Domitian, Carpophorus the beast-fighter, Martial
Sources: Martial, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Ovid, Statius, Seneca, Pliny
Greek myths: Orpheus, Ganymede, Prometheus, and more
Jewish festival: Passover
featured food: barley porridge for gladiators, snacks sold at games, etc.
key artefacts and objects: gladiatorial arms and armour, ancient souvenirs, raffle balls thrown to crowds

Book 9: The Colossus of Rhodes (theme: vows and promises) Lupus's book
SETTING - Ostia, Greek islands including Patmos, Symi & Rhodes (ITALY and GREECE) 
April 80 AD
Roman topics: the seven wonders of the world, ancient 'tourism'
Historical sites: Rhodes, Symi , Kalymnos
Sources: Pliny the Elder, Apollonius of Rhodes, Homer
Greek myths: Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes
GREEKS #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: The Colossus of Rhodes, Ancient Gum, Hylas

Book 10: The Fugitive from Corinth (theme: jealousy) 
Nubia's book
SETTING - Corinth, Delphi, Athens (GREECE) 
May 80 CE
Roman topics: Greeks in the Roman world
Historical sites: Corinth, Delphi, Athens
Sources: Pausanias, Apollodorus, Herodotus, Aeschylus
Greek myths: Theseus's Athenian adventures, Eumenides

Book 11: The Sirens of Surrentum (theme: sex and decadence) Flavia's book
SETTING - Sorrento (ITALY) 
June 80 AD
Roman topics: Roman philosophy and the failed plot to kill Nero
Historical characters: Nero, Seneca, Lucan, Polla Argentaria, Flaccus
Sources: Seneca, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, Statius, Propertius
Greek myths: Dido and Aeneas, Odysseus and the Sirens
Related posts: Villa LimonaPoison in the Garden 

Book 12: The Charioteer of Delphi (theme: faithfulness) 
Nubia's book
SETTING - Ostia & Rome (ITALY) 
September 80 AD
Roman topics: chariot races and factions
Historical site: the Circus Maximus
Historical characters: real charioteers like Scopas, Hierax and Crescens
Sources: Ovid, Juvenal, Martial
Greek myths: Pelops and Oenomaus
Roman festivals: Ludi Romani
ROMANS #KS2 and #KS3
Related posts: Fun Chariot Facts, Names of Roman Horses

Book 13: The Slave-girl from Jerusalem (theme: death and birth) Jonathan's book
December 80 AD
Roman topics: childbirth, funerals, wills, Roman law courts, gestures of a rhetor
Historical backstory: destruction of Jerusalem and siege of Masada
Sources: Josephus, Quintilian, Cicero, Juvenal, Seneca, Roman legal documents
Greek myths: Cassandra and the Sack of Troy
featured food: pea and leek soup, mastic chewing resin, sage tea, chestnut flour
key artefacts and objects: birthing chair, funeral pyre, bier, tombs, seal-box for wills
ROMANS #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: Roman Law Courts

Book 14: The Beggar of Volubilis (theme: piety) 
Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia, Sabratha (LIBYA), Volubilis (MOROCCO) 
March 81 AD
Roman topics: Roman theatre, Cleopatra's descendants, sightings of Nero
Historical sites: Sabratha, Tripolis, Volubilis, Ghadames
Sources: Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch
Greek myths: Diana and Actaeon
featured food: millet porridge, roast locusts, lizard meat, camel-milk pancakes, senna tea, cola nuts
key artefacts and objects: bow, arrows, quiver, betrothal ring, bath-set, Nero's emerald, lens
Egypt #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: Ugly Cleopatra, Volubilis

Book 15: The Scribes from Alexandria (theme: going home) Nubia's book
SETTING - Alexandria, stops along the Nile to Nubia (EGYPT)
May 81 AD
Roman topics: Roman Egypt especially Alexandria, eunuchs, the Great Library, the Nile
Historical sites: Canopus, Alexandria, Giza, Edfu, Aswan, Nubia
Sources: Strabo, Martial, Juvenal
Egyptian myths and legends, including story of Isis, Osiris and Seth
featured food: sun-bread, bean porridge, palm wine, onions, leaf-cups, dom-fruit
key artefacts and objects: hieroglyphs, graffiti, riddles, codes, treasure map
Egypt #KS2 and #KS3 
Related posts: The Seth Animal, Upside Down Egypt

Book 16: The Prophet from Ephesus (theme: redemption) Jonathan's book
SETTING - Halicarnassus, Heracleia, Ephesus (TURKEY) 
August 81 AD
Roman topics: early church in Asia Minor
Historical sites: Halicarnassus, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Laodicea
Historical characters: St John the Apostle, Tychichus
Sources: Strabo, the New Testament
Greek myths: Pluto and Persephone, Endymion and Selene
featured food: grapes from the vine, cucumber, sour cherry juice, sheep entrail kebabs, pomegranates
key artefacts and objects: dolls, travel baskets, reed flute, lyre, carpets, looms

Book 17: The Man from Pomegranate Street (theme: resolution) Flavia's book
SETTING - Ostia, Rome, Sabina, Castelgandolfo (ITALY) 
Sept 81 AD
Roman topics: mysterious death of Titus in September AD 81
Historical sites: Rome, the Sabine Hills, Palace of Domitian and the Emissario on Lake Albanus
Historical characters: Titus, Domitian, Ascletario, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Sources: Suetonius, Babylonian Talmud, Apollonius of Tyana
Greek myths: Romulus and Remus, Rape of the Sabine Women, Death of Odysseus
featured food: Sabine olive oil, brown bread, honey, grapes, imported oysters
key artefacts and objects: needle-sharp stylus, graffiti, wedding veil and the spear to part the bride's hair

[The 17 books in The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests is a four-book series set in Roman Britain. You can watch The Roman Mysteries on Amazon Prime.]

Thursday, June 27, 2019

ADORN: Protective Roman Jewellery

Many people who lived in ancient times believed that when you looked at something your eyes would emit little particles of fire, (a bit like Superman with his laser vision.) That meant that an angry, jealous or envious person could actually hurt the person they were looking at. The anger or envy in their heart, transmitted by the beams, could make someone sick and even cause their death. This was called the ‘evil eye’ and children were considered particularly vulnerable. People also believed in a world full of gods, demigods and spirits, not all of them friendly. For this reason, people often wore magic amulets to avert the evil eye or distract demons. Borders, patches and knots in clothing often served this purpose. but it is most clearly seen in jewellery. 

At a new exhibition of jewellery dating from the Bronze Age to the 21st century, I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at some of the objects and spotted five different types of protective Roman jewellery. 

The first object I spotted is this marvellous little medallion showing the gorgon Medusa. Any face shown looking back will reflect back the ‘evil eye’ but Medusa is doubly powerful, her gaze can turn you to stone! In addition, the amulet is made of jet which was considered a special substance in Roman times because it warms quickly in your hand and if you rub it, then it can move things like dust and hair, seemingly by magic (but really by static electricity.) Jet was very popular with women, so I imagine the British wife of a retired Roman soldier wearing this around her neck for protection. If you look carefully you will see this Medusa also has snakes at her throat as well as in her hair, probably because demons and evil spirits dislike snakes. 

Speaking of snakes, these charming little bracelets are stylised serpents. They are made of copper-alloy and come from the later Roman period in Colchester. I think they are a bit sad because they are quite small and may have been worn by a little girl after she died. Perhaps she wore them when she was alive to scare away evil spirits. Snakes were associated with death and rebirth in the Roman world and so these might also protect her in the afterlife. We have found other serpent bracelets from the Roman world. Girls and women seemed to like snakes more than men, but that may just be because men didn’t wear bracelets. 

In Roman times baby boys were often given a gold bulla (the word means ‘ball’) to hang around their neck. This was a protective amulet and when the boy reached manhood he would offer it to a god in thanks for protecting him. I have never seen a girl wearing a bulla medallion, but these earrings would have provided twice the protection of a single bulla. They are exactly the same style as some found in Pompeii and might have come all the way from Italy. 

If boys often wore amulets that resembled the sun (gold balls), girls often wore amulets in silver that looked like a crescent moon. The goddess of the moon was Diana and the moon is often associated with females. The lunate or moon-shaped pendant can be seen on many of the so-called Fayum portraits, paintings of Romans living in Egypt in the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The protective qualities of the silver moon on this bracelet are enhanced by the beads which are made of jet, amber and glass, all ‘magical’ substances. See the coin with the hole? That was another good-luck token. This was literally a ‘charm’ bracelet in that it has protective properties. 

You might have trouble finding these gemstones in the exhibition because they are TEENY tiny, about the size of your little fingernail! They are called intaglios which means they have something engraved into them. These stones would probably have been put in a ring and then used as the owner’s seal or signet. In Roman times a person’s ring was their ‘signature’! In the case of both these semi-precious blue-black gemstones we think the figures are satyrs. Satyrs were mythical creatures – half goat and half man – sacred to the god of wine, Dionysus. Also known as Bacchus, Dionysus was another god who could protect you, and after death he often led worthy souls down to the underworld. So, like all the other objects in my list they served an additional protective function in addition to their decorative use.

The exhibition is called ADORN but they could also have called it ADORN & PROTECT! It is on from 27 July 2019 until 16 February 2020 at Colchester Museums. The show is included in the price of entry to the Castle. For more information, go HERE.

Thanks to curators Glynn Davis and Pippa Pickles for showing me around! The superb photos were taken by Douglas Atfield and are all copyright Colchester Museums. I have used them with permission.