Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Why Do "Research"?

Why do I travel to foreign countries to do research?

My books are set in Italy and Greece, but they're also set in the past - in the Roman world - and things have changed. Haven't they?


In many ways, things haven't changed at all. For example, Italian farmers around the site of Pompeii still use a type of hoe exactly like the ones the ancient Romans used. Athenians still love talking and arguing about politics. They still hang good luck charms from their car(t)s to ward off bad luck. In monasteries and churches built on the site of temples, saints are worshipped instead of gods, but the votive plaques are almost identical. Where once there were roadside shrines to gods, now there are roadside shrines to Mary and Jesus.


Some geography hasn't changed either. I imagine the Doric temple to Poseidon on Cape Sounion is just as breath-taking as it ever was, and the hills of Sorrento just as beautiful, covered as they still are with vines, olives and lemon groves.

But some things most definitely have changed.

Ancient Greeks would never sit down to dinner at 10.00 or 11.00, as they do today. They would dine at dusk, and they'd be up with the dawn. Electricity is something which really has changed social patterns. Women would hardly be seen about, only at the well and heavily veiled. Old people would be a rarity, white hair and beard something to cause stares. Athens would have been a city peopled by men and boys and mules.

The geographical terrain has changed in some places. For example, Ostia Antica is no longer on the coast and the twin hills of Megara are hardly visible under modern buildings and landfill.

Old watercolours on the wall of our hotel in Athens remind me that in ancient times the acropolis would have seemed even higher because the land around was much lower. In the past 2000 years the ground level has steadily risen. Visit the church of San Clemente in Rome and it is strikingly apparent that the deeper you go into the crypt, the further back in time you travel.

Here is another reason to travel: to get a sense of space and relationship. To make a flat mental map three-dimensional.

For example, even though the acropolis does not seem as high today as it used to be, the distance between acropolis, areopagus and agora would have remained proportionally the same: three deep steps. This is one of the things that struck me last week. I was surprised by how the acropolis looked down in the areopagus, which in turn provided a birds' eye view of the Athenian agora. And yet these three important sites are within a few hundred yards of each other.

I was surprised by how steeply the sanctuary of Delphi rises up its green mountain, even though I had read about it many times.

I was surprised by the cave-riddled boulders on the areopagus.

And it was only while chatting with our taxi driver I suddenly realised Athens lack what most other major cities have: a river. Athens has a citadel and springs, but there is hardly enough water here to supply four and a half million people.

Wandering the museums of Athens I am reminded that the statues and temples would have been painted bright colours: red, blue, yellow. I can clearly see traces of paint on almost every marble statue. The bronze statues have eyes of inlaid stone: black, brown, blue, green. One statue of a boy has traces of bright yellow paint on his hair. Some of the kouroi were painted red, to show their ruddy tan. Inscriptions in stone were filled in with red paint to make them easily legible. Smooth funerary vases of marble would have been painted with meanders, palmettos, acanthus and bands of colour.
The trick is to look around with an imaginative and informed eye.

Today, the Parthenon and the other buildings on the acropolis have been cleaned and lit so that they shine like pearls in the night. But they would not have been white in Greek and Roman times. Even the Parthenon would have been brightly coloured. Red tile roof, gold trim, the figures in the pediments coloured as brightly as the pages of a Marvel comic book. The buildings of the ancient world would have been colourful, vibrant, striking. More like Mexico at festival time than the white marble edifices depicted in films such as Julius Caesar and Gladiator.

Another reason to travel is to capture the mood of a place.

I have never been to the site of Lechaeum, the western harbour of Corinth or to Cenchrea, the eastern site. But somehow I felt that Lechaeum should be more industrial and Cenchrea more luxurious. I'm not sure why. Perhaps facts I've read and then forgotten, perhaps intuition. Perhaps a combination of the two. But when I visited Lechaeum yesterday, I was surprised by how much it resembled my mental picture of it. Rather bleak, flat, scrubby ground covered with dried grasses and gorse. Further down by the water a shingle beach.

Waves hiss up in short little gasps. The Acrocorinth looms behind. I can imagine slaves unloading the ships and their cries as they pull the empty hull up onto its cart to transport it across diolkos and the four miles of dry barren stony land. Here in Lechaeum the water is a flat pewter colour, lit by shafts of silver light from a cool sun.

But less than half an hour later, at the eastern harbour of Cenchrea, we find sapphire blue sea and a golden sun. This part of the coast is lush and luxurious, just as I imagined it might be, with dramatic mountains ending in blue water. Olive groves, vines, the scented bushy pine trees that are bright green rather than dark green.

I even find the warm spring which pours from the coast into the sea and terracotta flues that prove the Romans had indeed built a baths complex here. This is the site of the opening of my tenth book and a more idyllic spot would be hard to find.

Today there is almost nothing to mark the two great harbours of Corinth in her heyday, when she was the riches city in Greece. There are just a few columns, some clay roof tiles and maybe a partially preserved mosaic. Nobody comes here. Our Athenian taxi driver had never been to either site and had a job finding them.

But once long ago these places were teeming with activity, colour, noise... If I can just look with my writer's eye and see the ships docked in the harbour, the quayside, the sailors in their one-sleeved tunics, the patrons in their togas or mantles, slaves, beggars, buskers, priests, even the occasional veiled woman... If I can just see the colours they wore, the jewellery, the faces... If I can just try to imagine the scent of incense, fermenting wine, open sewers, donkey dung, sea water, pine resin, roasting meat... If I could hear the cries of stall holders, children, the bray of donkeys, cocks crowing, the clank and baaing of sheep, the clatter iron-shod hooves on packed earth or stone road... The taste of resinated wine, coarse bread, olives, nuts, dried figs, mastic gum, honey cakes, fresh fish, meat roasted after the sacrifice...

There. An innkeeper drawing wine from a barrel into a copper beaker. Or there. A fishmonger's stall. Put the fisherman in a tunic and the inneeper in a mantle and you are back in Roman times. That man driving a truck with three big chunks of Pentilic marble; just make it a mule cart...

Sometimes my instinct or research fail me. From all the guide books, I imagined Theseus's journey round the isthmus would be one of terrifying drops down to waves crashing on razor sharp rocks. Instead, the old coast road winds sedately along at sea level almost the whole way. The part of the region between Megara and Eleusis called Kaka Skala (Evil Stairs) is hardly frightening today.

My guide book says the ancient road was high up on the cliff, but I need to be here to see where. At least I find a dramatic rock which could well be Sciron's Rock. And a shrine on the cliff above which is already in my first draft...

Another surprise: I have only ever seen pictures of Delphi baking in the dazzling sunshine. However, on the day we arrive it is swathed in cloud, cool and green and misty. At first I am disappointed. Then I have an idea. It occurs to me that maybe Nubia, the girl from the desert, has never been in the clouds before. For her, Delphi could be a cloud city, mysterious, numinous, magical...

So that's why I travel. To get a sense of mood, and place. To bring a 2-D image into 3-D. And once again I am reminded why I write historical novels. Until someone invents a time-machine, carefully researched and creatively imagined books are the best way for us to visit the past.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

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