Friday, December 12, 2008

New Website


For the past few months I've been working on a new website. It is now up and 'live'. One of my old pupils, Ben, is the creative genius behind the new look and his pal and partner, Cyberboy, is the technobrain.

Not that Ben isn't clever! Not that Cyberboy isn't creative!

In Wayne's World, Garth says 'We fear change.' But change can be an opportunity for improvement. My favourite thing about the new site is an icon and page called DORMOUSE, which is devoted to quizzes, fun news and other silly things. Do please give me feedback and suggestions. I know you will be sensitive and polite, as all Roman Mysteries fans are.


Email me at flaviagemina@hotmail.com

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Career in Ruins

Who’d be an archaeologist?

When Luke Lavan was a boy he discovered Asterix and The Lord of the Rings. Be careful what you read: a book can change your life. The fascination of a once-great civilzation so appealed to Luke that it eventually led him to a career in Archaeology. Luke is now a lecturer at the University of Kent, in Canterbury. As of September 2008 he is co-director of the Berlin-Kent team excavating part of Ostia, the port of Rome and setting of the Roman Mysteries.

I went to meet Luke and his team last week, and it was a fascinating visit. If you think you might want to be an archaeologist when you get older, make sure you read the rest of this.

Luke met me off the train at Canterbury West, and the first thing I asked him was ‘What first got you interested in Ancient History?’

‘Tolkein,’ said Luke, without hesitation. ‘When I was ten I read Lord of the Rings and loved it. The world of Late Antiquity gives the same sense of a great civilization crumbling into anarchy.’

By ‘Late Antiquity’ Luke means the fourth to seventh century AD, when the Roman empire became Christian and started to lose bits of its territory to invaders. Luke told me he went on to read Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he was about 12.

With Luke is Richard Sadler, a graduate student who is one of the Ostia team. He also loves Tolkein and his current topic of research is ‘death and burial in the ancient world.’ Fun. 



We catch a taxi up the hill to the University of Kent, which Luke describes as ‘Watership Down with bunkers.’ The buildings DO look a bit like bunkers, but the campus has a nice feel. It’s up on a hill with views over Canterbury. In this picture of the two of us, you can see the famous cathedral in the background.

As we walked to the department of Archaeology, Luke told me his dad is a scientist, and his mother a creative dreamer. Both qualities are needed in a good archaeologist. Much of archaeology is data analysis, so you need an ordered mind. But you also have to be able to stand on a patch of paving stones and post-holes and envisage life there centuries before. Luke’s dad often jokes that his son ‘has a career in ruins.’

At the department, I met Ellen Swift, who is the head of the Archaeology section. Ellen is especially interested in ancient decoration. The historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe first sparked her interest in the ancient world.

We go to their site room and sit around a big table. Other members of the team come in. Joe has long hair and looks as if he, too, has been influenced by Tolkein, but he says he wasn’t. Michael’s nickname is Dionysus. He has a curly black beard and a mischievous glint in his eye. Bonnie has big blue eyes, bleached hair and trendy piercings. She confesses that she was attracted to archaeology because of Indiana Jones. ‘And is any part of your experience like Indy’s?’ I ask. Bonnie regards me sadly. I can see the answer in her eyes. 


the team from left to right: Luke, Ellen, Richard, Bonnie, Michael, Joe

At the beginning of September, Luke and his team arrived in Ostia. They met some of the other members of the team: Axel Gering, from Berlin. The dig is actually a joint project between Kent and Berlin, hence the name, the Berlin-Kent Project. Also on board was their ‘professional archaeologist’ Kelly Madigan. She is English but part Maori.

The first few days of the dig did not bode well. 
Luke and his team were digging in the Forum of the Heroic Statue, near Ostia’s famous latrines. They are interested in 4th and 5th century levels, long after my fictional Flavia Gemina’s time. But as they settled in, they found they were choked by dust and thwarted by the deep-growing roots of an umbrella pine. (Those trees that give such delicious shade are no friends of the archaeologist.) By the end of the first few days, they were hot, tired and coated with dust. Work was going slowly. The soil would not cut cleanly, but crumbled into dust. This made it hard for them to see the features they were trying to uncover.

If there was one consolation, it was that the campsite they had rented, which initially had few facilities, was finally starting to look good, after a lot of work on the team's part. It had two toilets, showers, a proper water supply for the kitchen, and even a computer room. But a visit from local officials revealed that a camping permit had not been issued for this site, and that the group would have to move. This is when the nightmare really began. They needed to move, and fast. Luke found a registered campsite near Castel Fusano. It sounded nice, but it was expensive, and several miles from Ostia.

Luke and his team spent hours packing up tents and equipment, putting them into cars and moving them a few miles south. As they were settling in to the new campsite, the heavens opened, drenching people and equipment. The campsite was soon a sea of mud. 
It was awful.

‘But in another way,’ says Luke, ‘the rain was a godsend. It stopped our dig being a cloud of dust.’

Now that they had done the preliminary work, and now that the ground wasn’t so dusty, they began to find some fun objects: lots of broken glassware, some coins, precious blue tesserae of lapis lazuli and a single tiny dice (pictured), about the size of the fingernail on your pinky. They also found a very fragile inscription moulded into the mortar of a reused block, a sundial scratched into stone, a slate with Greek writing all over it, and a board game incised in marble. Luke imagines ancient Ostians hanging around the forum, tossing dice and watching life go by. You can see more about the finds HERE.

The team was up and working now, but their troubles weren’t over. Several members of the team became were injured or began suffering from exhaustion. So Luke sent out an appeal to students in Rome. Some enthusiastic Americans, along with a German and an Italian guy, came to the rescue and helped enormously. Luke was extremely pleased with them. (Yay, Americans!)

The team had settled in at the now dry campsite, but it was expensive, and soon they were running out of money. Luke had to dip into his personal savings. And his wife’s. Luckily, a few sympathetic Ostia-lovers sent money, and then the University of Kent came through with a generous donation: enough to tide them over. ‘But for a while there,’ said Luke, ‘we were living on eggs and cake.’ 



Still think you’d like to be an archaeologist?

I discussed it with members of the team and most agreed that you would make a good archaeologist if you:

• Like digging in dirt in wind, rain and baking heat.

• Can survive on little and monotonous food.

• Like camping.
• Don’t mind communal loos and showers.

• Don't value your privacy.

• Like dust in your mouth and bugs in your food.



And that’s just the fieldwork!

The surprising statistic is that 90% of an archaeologist’s life is spent processing data and cataloguing finds in rooms with little or no natural light, often fluorescent lit basements.

If you STILL think you would like to be an archaeologist, Luke’s advice is ‘get yourself to an ancient city as soon as you can and just spend lots of time exploring and imagining.’

To my mind there is no better place to start than Ostia, the port of Rome and home – once upon a time – of Flavia Gemina, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus. If you succeed, you, too can have a career in ruins.


For information about the Berlin-Kent Ostia Project, go HERE.

P.S. Archaeology isn't for me; I tried it once. But I'm hugely grateful to all those people, like Luke and his colleagues, who get out in the field and then publish their results so I can study them in the comfort of library or home! 

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Carpe Diem

A few weeks ago, Gaius the scribe from the Leg II Aug, gave me a hand-drawn papyrus scroll of Horace's most famous ode. I've been meaning to put up a picture, with the original Latin and the English translation. Here it is:

Tu ne quaesieris -- scire nefas -- quem mihi, quem tibi finem di dederunt, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios temptaris numeros. Ut melius, quidquid erit, pati, seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam, quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerat invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

"You should not inquire -- it's not ours to know -- what end the gods have in store for you or me, Leuconoe, nor should you dabble in Babylonian charts. How much better it is to take what comes, whether more winters have been allotted by Jove or this is the last, which now pounds the Tyrrhenian sea on those rocks opposite. Be wise. Decant the wine. Trim your lengthy hopes to a shorter length. Even as we speak, an unwilling eternity has slipped away. Seize the day. And trust as little as possible to the future."
Horace Ode I.XI

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

So what's with the sponge-stick?

subligaria = underpants
Recently there has been a lot of excitement (OK, a little excitement) about a new literary competition for schoolchildren all over the world: the GOLDEN SPONGE-STICK AWARD. It has appeared on prestigious BLOGS and CLASSICS SITES and even in a NEWSPAPER. So what IS a sponge-stick?

Because it was my talk that inspired the staff and students at the Royal High School in Bath to start the competition, I thought I should explain exactly what a sponge-stick is.


When I write my mysteries set in ancient Rome, I like to use artefacts as clues. To come up with ideas for these clues, I play with replica artefacts made for me by my re-enactor friends. Occasionally I use the real thing; like the 2000 year old oil-lamp I used to take around to schools with me. I once filled it with olive oil, put in a wick and lit it. You'd think a little piece of string would burn up in a few seconds. But not if it's soaking in olive oil. Then it will burn and burn. When the oil begins to fail the flame flickers and grows smaller, but all you have to do is top up the lamp with oil and the flame burns brighter. Sadly, wear and tear took their toll on my Romano-Egyptian oil-lamp so I use modern replicas when I go to schools and festivals, like this oil-lamp (from the British Museum) with a four-horse chariot design. Today, if you go to a football game you might come home with a souvenir mug. In Roman times, if you spent a day at the Circus Maximus, you would buy a souvenir oil-lamp, daubed with the colours of your team: red, white, green or blue.

Other artefacts I have used as clues in my mysteries include a wax tablet, a signet ring and a bronze bleeding-cup. But my favourite artefact is a sponge-stick. This soft sea sponge on a stick was known as a spongia. What on earth do you think the Romans used a sponge-on-a-stick for?

If you guessed that Romans used sponge-sticks for wiping their bottoms, you would be right!

Think about it: those poor Romans didn't have 'puppy-soft' Andrex or beloved-by-bears-in-the-woods Charmin.

If you lived in Roman times and wanted to give your bottom a good wipe you would have had about four options:
I. leaf from a fig tree (not very absorbent)
II. handful of moss (kinda messy)
III. sponge-stick (more on that in a moment)
IV. YOUR LEFT HAND (ewww!)

Personally I would have used the spongia without hesitation.

So when my re-enactor friend Nodge Nolan from the Leg II Aug promised to send me an historically accurate replica sponge-stick, I was excited. 'Oh goodie,' I thought. 'Roman toilet paper!' A few days later a long, padded envelope arrived in the post.

I pulled out my sponge on a stick, along with a witty compliments slip: 'Never been used.' Clever Nodge. I marvelled at his craftsmanship. Most of the bark had been peeled away, but there was a little left at the 'right end of the stick'; a nice textured surface to ensure a good grip. But one thing surprised me: its length! The thing was almost as long as my forearm. In fact, come to think of it, why have a stick at all? Why not just use a sponge like a piece of toilet paper? 'Why is the stick so long?' I mused aloud.

I phoned Nodge and asked him: 'Why is the stick so long?'

He told me.

The reason the sponge-stick is so long has to do with the design of Roman toilets. Romans were very civilized and in first century Rome, if you were caught short, you would have had a choice of 144 public latrines. Including one in the forum where the 'patrons' could sit and look out through columns at people strolling in the forum. And the people could look right back at them!

If you lived in Rome's port of Ostia, like the four young detectives in my books, you would have used the forica at the Forum Baths. You can still see them today. Now they are ruins, but try to imagine them in the first century AD: frescoes on the walls, coloured marble floor, perhaps a fountain in the middle... The seats themselves are of smooth polished marble, nice and cool on your bottom on a hot Roman day.

See the channel for running water? That's for water from the baths next door. Not too dirty, just right for the job. I don't have to tell you what the holes on the top of the bench were for. That's obvious! It's the holes at the front that often puzzle people. Before I explain those holes, notice there are no dividing walls and no doors. In Roman times, you sat next to your friend and did what you had to do!

You would enter through the revolving door (archaeological evidence tells us this) and as you came in you might see some men sitting right there, chatting, laughing, grunting... 'Salve, Marce!' you might say. 'Hello, Marcus!' 'How are you?'

'Fine! Couldn't be better.'

'Would you like to come to dinner tonight?'

'I'd love to!'

(The Roman poet Martial teases a well-known citizen for loitering in the public latrines in hope of a dinner invitation.)

Roman men and women wore tunics, like a big tee-shirt. Probably no underpants. So you could just hike up your tunic and sit down. The tunic would modestly cover your knees at the front so nobody could SEE anything. (They might have been able to HEAR and SMELL some things, however...)

Then, when you finished your business, you would take the sponge-stick, rinse it in the channel of running water at your feet, and without getting up or revealing anything, you would PUSH THE STICK THROUGH THE HOLE AT THE FRONT AND WIPE YOUR BOTTOM. That's what those holes at the front are for. And that's why the handle of the sponge-stick is so long. After a good wipe, you would rinse it again, stand up and leave it in the basin for THE NEXT PERSON TO USE. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

Now you know where we get the expression he got the 'wrong end of the stick'!

I sometimes go into schools and speak to the little Year 3 children, who are seven or eight years old. Some of them haven't yet studied the Romans and they ask my lots of funny questions like: 'Please, Miss, did it RAIN in ancient Rome?'

'Yes,' I say, 'It rained in ancient Rome.'

'Please, Miss? Were there TREES in ancient Rome?'

'Yes, there were trees in ancient Rome.' Then I ask them. 'Boys and girls, what do you think the ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick for?'

Some of their answers are what you yourself might have guessed:

'Please, Miss, is it for CLEANING COBWEBS from the ceiling?'

'Please, Miss, is it for WASHING YOURSELF in the bath?'

But some of their answers are quite disgusting if you know what its real use:

'Please, Miss, is it for BRUSHING YOUR TEETH?'

'Please, Miss, is it for CLEANING YOUR EARS?'

I never laugh at them because some of their answers are very well thought-out:

'Please, Miss? Do you soak it in olive oil and light it and USE IT AS A TORCH at night?'

'No,' I say, 'But that's a good guess. It shows me you know the Romans had no electricity. Well done!'

'Please, Miss? Do you dip it in paint and WRITE GRAFFITI on the wall?'

'No. But that's also a good guess. It shows me you know the Romans had graffiti in ancient times. Just as they still do today.'

'Please, Miss, is it for BEATING YOUR SLAVE?'

'What a good idea!' I say, when the laughter dies down. 'If your slave is just a little bit naughty, you could hit them with the soft end. But if they've been really bad you could give them a smart THWACK with the stick end.'

On one occasion a teacher suggested: 'If your slave has been really, really naughty you could hit them with the soft end AFTER YOU'VE USED IT.'

Ewww.

One of my favourite answers was from a boy who asked: 'Please, Miss? Is it for BEATING A DRUM?'

A dry sponge-stick actually makes an excellent drum stick. On several occasions, when I've been speaking to a school from the stage and there is a kettle-drum nearby, I have been able to prove this point most effectively.

In fact, I liked his suggestion so much that I stole it for the opening of the fifth Roman Mystery, The Dolphins of Laurentum. In this book, readers finally find out who cut out Lupus's tongue, why he did it and why Lupus can swim so well. (The answer to why Lupus can swim so well is NOT that he was a dolphin in a previous life.)

Here's part of the opening of The Dolphins of Laurentum (and the French cover, which gives a good idea of the flavour of the book)

Lupus picked up the new drumstick he'd found at Flavia's.

He gave the drum an experimental tap and nodded in satisfaction at the sound. Perfect. He found the beat and started to weave a new pattern, holding the drumstick in his right hand and using the palm of his left.

'Lupus!' Jonathan was staring at him in horror.

Lupus stopped drumming and gave Jonathan his bug-eyed look: What?

'What on earth are you using as a drumstick?'

Lupus held up the sponge-stick and shrugged, as if to say: It's a sponge-stick.

'Where did you get it?'

Lupus tilted his head towards Flavia's house next door.

'Lupus. Do you know what that is? I mean, what it's used for?'

Lupus shook his head.

Jonathan sighed. 'I know you used to be a half-wild beggar-boy,' he said. 'But you've been living with us for nearly four months now. You're practically a civilised Roman. You're sure you don't know what that sponge-stick is used for?'

Lupus shook his head again. And frowned.

Jonathan leaned forward and grinned. 'It's for wiping your bottom after you've been to the latrine.'


(You can order the book HERE)

the award!
Probably my favourite answer of all came from a sweet little girl in Year 3. She was about seven years old and her face was beaming with pleasure: SHE knew what my sponge on a stick was for.

'What do you think my sponge-stick is?' I asked, smiling back at her infectious delight.

'Please, Miss? Is it AN AWARD FOR YOUR BOOKS?'

Frankly, I can't think of a better prize than the GOLDEN SPONGE-STICK AWARD FOR THE BEST ROMAN MYSTERY.


Above: Caroline with two of the best things about ancient Rome: a sponge-stick and a gladiatrix.

P.S. OK, not all Romans used sponges-on-sticks, just as we don't all use the same brand of toilet paper today.  In a recent examination of material from a huge septic tank in Herculaneum, not one sponge was found. What they did find were scraps of cloth. Were these an alternate method of wiping the bottom. If so, they would have been expensive, too, and not re-usable. Have a look at my post Ten Things Romans Used for Toilet Paper.


[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2 and 3. You can watch Season One of the Roman Mysteries via iTunes. And the new Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain, launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Golden Sponge-Stick Award



Do you think you could write Roman Mysteries like mine or like those of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor? If so, you should know that the Royal High School in Bath has started a Golden Sponge-Stick competition*! It was inspired by a visit of mine a few years ago when I shared my writing tips and told the story of how a little girl in Year 3 thought my sponge-stick (Roman toilet paper) was 'an award for my books'. I joked that the Golden Sponge-stick would be a good award for the best Roman mystery... and this inspired teachers Lynda Bevan and Jeremy Pine of the Royal High School to start a competition. The prize? A prestigious golden sponge-stick! Euge!

Here are the rules:

THE STORY ITSELF

1 Your story should be a Roman story and based in Roman times. It can be set in any part of the Roman world. It can be either a Roman short story or a Roman mystery/ detective story/thriller.

2 Your story should be an individual entry and written entirely by you. Please would a parent or guardian/carer sign your entry at the end or on the back to verify this.

3 Your story should not exceed 1500 words in length. Handwritten and typed entries are both welcome but please ensure that a handwritten entry is legible. Your entry should include your full name, school or college and date of birth.

4 Knowledge of Latin is certainly not essential but you should display some historical research and/or knowledge of Roman daily life in your story. If you do study Latin then it would be excellent to use some in your story or story dialogue.

5 Your story should have a clear, logical plot, a set of characters, possibly including a hero/heroine and ideally a series of twists and a striking ending!

COMPETITION RULES AND DETAILS

1 A panel of judges will choose the winning entries for each age category.

2 The age categories will be split into four: ages 9 and below; ages 9-11; ages 11-13; ages 14 and above.

3 In each age category three prizes will be awarded; the best in each will receive the prestigious golden sponge-stick. Other classical prizes including books and vouchers will be awarded.

4 Entries are welcome now and the closing date for all entries is Friday November 21 2008.

5 The judges reserve the right to keep all entries unless a stamped addressed envelope is included for return of your entry.

6 All winners will be notified of the result by Friday December 19 2008.

Please send your entries by email or post to either :
Jerry Pine or Lynda Bevan,
The Royal High Senior School Bath,
Lansdown Road, Bath BA1 5SZ

email: j.pine@bat.gdst.net
email : l.bevan@bat.gdst.net

You can find more information HERE!

To find out exactly what a SPONGE-STICK is, go HERE.

And if you need some writing tips go to my WRITING TIPS PAGE or come hear me speak about 'How to Write a Roman Mystery'. I will be giving this talk at The Cheltenham Literary Festival, at the Sheffield Literary Festival and at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. All these festivals are in October, giving you plenty of time to write your story before 21 November. For more details of my events, go HERE.

*Please note that this competition is open to students in UK schools only.

Bona fortuna! (Good luck!)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Londinium!

The Museum of London is celebrating Roman London today with re-enactors, talks, demonstrations, competitions and drama in an event called Londinium!

Inside the main entrance, in the London before London foyer, several members of the Leg II Avg have set up a leather tent with all their Roman soldiers' equipment. They do drills with children and let us peek inside the tent. I see legionaries David and Simon (above) as well as Lyndsay and Thomas.

Gladiatrix and sometimes slave-girl Alisa shows slave chains and collars and almost makes one boy sick when she described how doctors took arrows out of wounded soldiers. Marcus Londinium Cato (AKA Cockney John) also gets to make people queasy when he brandishes a piece of nasty-looking medical equipment and is asked 'What's a hemorrhoid?'


In another part of the gallery, Roland Williamson is showing how Roman shoes are made. And dramatic interpreter Kate (above) has taken on the persona of freedwoman Martia Martina, who was taken from Caledonia aged 8. She is very funny, pretending to think people with only one name are slaves and not understanding what chips are.

It is a beautiful day so I wander outside to eat lunch and to watch parents and children happily have a go at working a Roman waterlifting machine. After my stuffed dormouse, I go back inside to admire the small but select collection of Roman objects in the museum. I've seen the collection many times but always find something new. I also have a surreal moment when I spot legionary Marcus Londinius Cato (above) also exploring the collection.

I finish my visit with a guided tour of the Roman wall outside the Museum. It was built in around AD 120, and used to be part of the fort in the north west corner. Our group gets to see part of the wall which is usually closed to the public. Appropriately enough, it's underneath the road known today as 'London Wall'.

You can see more & bigger photos on my public Facebook photo page

P.S. Watch Roman Mysteries season 2 Sundays on CBBC at 9.30am.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Day in the Sabine Hills

I've just returned from three days in Italy, researching The Man from Pomegranate Street. I wanted to see what the Sabine hills would have been like in mid-September, the time of year when Titus died. I also wanted to see Lake Alba, where Titus's brother Domitian built an imperial villa. Domitian's villa was exactly where the papal palace is now at a town called Castel Gandolfo about ten miles southeast of Rome.

Having booked an EasyJet flight on impulse I set out from home early on the morning of Tuesday 16 September. Lisa Tucci is an Italian-American audioguide producer and blogger. I first met her after I sent an email raving about her wonderful audioguide to ancient Ostia. We subsequently met in London and when I told her I hoped to explore the Sabine Hills, she generously gave up a whole day to organize it.

My flight is on time and when I arrive at Ciampino Airport at 10.30am on Tuesday morning, there she is in her red Honda Civic. Sitting patiently in the back seat is Lisa's dog Trevor, named after Trevi, where she found him. He is so quiet that she often smuggles him on planes in her carry-on luggage!

We set straight off along the Via Salaria, the old salt road which led from the salt fields of Ostia up to the centre of Italy. After ten or fifteen minutes, we stop for a coffee at Il Glicine (Hyacinth) Bar & Osteria in Settebagni. This might have been near the spot where Titus got a fever in September of AD 81. Titus died a few days later - on 13 September AD 81 - at his family's rustic villa near Reate (modern Rieti).

It is a perfect autumn day. Sunny and mild with a few friendly clouds in the blue sky. We are following the route Titus took to get from Rome to his Sabine villa. According to Suetonius, Titus died at first stopping place out of Rome. Nobody knows quite where this was, though it may have been Eretum, where the Via Salaria met the Via Nomentana. Unfortunately, nobody knows where Eretum was either. Never mind. This is good enough. The countryside here is still quite flat, with plane trees lining the road and the blue Sabine hills in the distance up ahead.

As we continue along the Via Salaria, the road begins to climb. We see vineyards and hazelnut trees and my ears pop. Soon we reach Monteleone Sabina, which has impressive remains of a Roman amphitheatre. We briefly investigate these ruins, and let Trevor have a little sniff. Then Lisa points out an old Franciscan monastery on the top of a hill. The monastery has been converted to apartments, and a friend of hers occupies one of them. Claire Nelson is a sculptress who works in bronze and bronze-look resin. An expat British woman, she is going to put us in touch with some guides to the Sabine Hills at a lunchtime meeting. The dusty track to her house leads up through silver-grey olive trees. When we arrive, we are welcomed by some of Claire's dogs. LikeLisa, she can't bear to see an abandoned canine.

Claire greets us and gets in the back seat, next to Trevor, and soon we reach the Sabine town of Poggio Moiano, about 50 km northwest of Rome. The Ristorante Maria Fontana specialises in local seasonal produce. As we enter, we see slices of courgette and of aubergine laid out on tables to dry in the sunshine. This is all part of the preparation. Then the vegetables are brushed with olive oil and grilled. Susan Micocci and her husband Bruno arrive a few minutes after we were seated. Susan is a friend of Claire's and guide of the area. This restaurant was her choice. She is an expat New Yorker who married the delightful Bruno and has been in Italy ever since. She offers cooking courses, hiking tours and culture tours of the region, all in English or Italian. (You can find out more here) below: Bruno and Claire the sculptress with the owner of the restaurant.

We order antipasti to start and enjoy big plates of prosciuttio, salami, cheese, olives and a bowl of delicious chopped liver. Our grilled vegetables include aubergine and pumpkin! Yum. For main dish we have freshly made pasta or grilled veal steak. There is fresh crusty bread and either red wine or mineral water.

Over lunch, Susan tells me lots of wonderful facts about the Sabine Hills. She says that she and Bruno will take us up to Rieti and then to the Baths of Vespasian and the Villa of Titus. I go to the ladies room to wash my hands, and am so excited that I come running out to hear more and crash into the owner of the restaurant, who is also moving fast. We embrace for a moment in tears of laughter. It is like a scene from a slapstick comedy. Luckily he isn't carrying any plates of food!

After lunch we set off for Rieti in our two cars. Susan takes me in her car, so she can explain things, while Bruno goes with Lisa and Claire. Suddenly Susan realises her brakes aren't working! We stop by the ruined marble gate of a Sabine villa and Bruno comes to have a look. He takes over driving and we make our way carefully to a service station. Bruno decides the brakes will hold a little longer, so we continued cautiously on to Rieti.

At Rieti, Susan takes us to the Roman Bridge (only a small remnant) and explains how the Romans made brick vaults as foundations for the houses here. This area was prone to flooding in Roman times. Rieti was then known as Reate, after Rea Silva, the mother of Romulus and Remus. It's mainly medieval now, so we hurry on to the Terme di Vespasiano, the Baths of Vespasian. These baths are in beautiful green hills at a place called Cotilia, which used to be Cutiliae. The nearby area is famous for chestnuts, truffles and farro, a type of grain we call 'spelt'. It's also famous for its mineral waters.

On the main road, across from the modern Terme di Cotilia, is a public fountain. We stop so that we can taste the water. It is magnificent: the coldest, fizziest, eggiest water I've ever had! I can tell by the eggy taste that it's sulphur water. right: Susan and I at Lake Paternus

On we drive, into the late afternoon sunlight to Lago Paterno, a deep, beautiful and mysterious lake. Susan tells us that the Greeks who used to live here performed human sacrifices! The Flavian villa is on the hillside overlooking this lake. There are plans to start excavating it soon. This is the villa where both Vespasian and Titus died. Suetonius: 'He died in the same farmhouse as his father, on the Ides of September... aged forty-two.'

It is getting late now, and the sun is sinking, so we say goodbye to the wonderful Susan and Bruno. Susan gives me literature about the region and two DVDs. What generosity! Lisa and I drop Claire back at her monastery in Monteleone, where we watch the sun set and have a cup of PG Tips tea. Then Lisa drives me towards Lake Alba where I have booked two nights at the lakeside Hotel Castelgandolfo. As we leave Rome we see a huge orange moon rising on the eastern horizon and when I check into my room at the Hotel Castelgandolfo (which I highly recommend) I see the same moon, now higher and cooler, floating above its reflection on Lake Alba.

(You can see more & bigger photos on my public Facebook photo page)

A Day on Lake Albano

Wednesday 17 September 2008

I am woken by a strange, soft, clanging sound and open my eyes. I am in the Hotel Castelgandolfo, on tranquil Lake Albano, about 16 miles southeast of Rome. I throw open the curtains to see a beautiful dawn over the lake. The bells have stopped. Are they from a church? Soon they start again - hesitant, almost apologetic - and I hear the sound of a train. There it is, down below. The gentle clanging is the sound of the barrier coming down. I am struck by how quiet it is here. Apart from a distant barking dog and the bell of the level crossing, I can't hear a thing. Is it something to do with the acoustics of the lake?

At about 7.20 the sun appears over Mount Albano. The light comes straight through the window and into my eyes. I dress quickly and go downstairs. Breakfast is already laid out in the little dining room. I devour some cheese and plain yogurt and wash it down with a delicious espresso made by Eddie. Lorenzo the manager is there. I explain that I want to see remains of Domitian's villa which are inside the Papal Palace. He shakes his head sadly and says that nobody is allowed in. The only way the public can see inside is if they 'make a mess'. At first I think he means you can only have access if builders are there. Then he says: 'They make a mess on Wednesday and Sunday mornings.' A-ha! He means a Mass!

I grab my camera and notebook and go outside to explore. It is a beautiful, cool morning, with a pure blue sky. Deserted cobbled streets lead me to the Piazza della Libertà with its fountain. Here is the Bernini church of St Thomas of Villanova. And there is the Papal Palace, with two colourful Swiss guards standing in the entryway. This is the Pope's summer residence, which was built in the 17th century. It is built exactly on the site of Domitian's palace, which was designed by Rabirius, who also built Domitian's palace on the Palatine Hill. Somewhere inside the Papal Palace are Roman remains, including a bust of Polyphemus which was found in the nymphaeum of the villa's gardens. But unless I attend Mass, I can't go inside. And unfortunately there is no Mass today. The Pope is off to Rome.

(On the following day I get a quick glimpse of the papal car going off to Rome again, and I leave a padded envelope with the Swiss guards. Inside is a letter addressed to 'Dear Holy Father', requesting access at some time in the future. I have included a signed copy of The Thieves of Ostia and the DVD. I have a brief mental image of important clerics coming in to see the Pope one morning, but he is deep in my book and waves them away impatiently...)

On this morning, I wander around Castel Gandolfo, admiring the view of the lake on one side and the plain and Tyrrhenian sea on the other. I walk down the hill towards the lake and see free ranging pigs and donkeys. It is the most glorious day - soft sunlight, perfect temperature, merest breeze - but with that touch of poignancy that comes in the autumn, when you know that summer is over and winter is coming. At the level crossing for the train station, a footpath called Via della Stazione zig-zags back up to the town. I check my watch and hurry back up: I am due to meet a geoarchaeologist at 10.30.

Antonia Arnoldus is a Dutch scholar who lives across the lake from Castel Gandolfo at a village called Rocca di Papa, the Pope's Rock. Antonia is a member of the Ostia website and she helped advise me when the production company of the TV series decided to set The Fugitive from Corinth in Italy rather than Greece. She told me about the sanctuary of Diana at Lake Nemi and also about grottoes and caves in this area.

When I booked my flights last week, I sent Antonia an email offering to take her to dinner. She generously offered to take me around the lake and said I could buy her lunch instead. I said Yes!

And here is Antonia, bang on the dot of 10.30. We get in her car and off we go. She points out her satellite tracking system and says she will give me a printout at the end of the day to show exactly where we have been.

As we skirt the northern edge of the Lake Albano, Antonia tells me that this is a volcanic region. Apparently there was one massive eruption 70,000 years ago and then another few eruptions roughly 40,000 years after that. The second set of eruptions created three crater lakes. Lake Albano, Lake Nemi and another lake. The third lake is now dry but Nemi is still here with ruins of a Temple of Diana and a Boat Museum commemorating Caligula's pleasure barges. We will go there for lunch.

At Palazzolo, we park near an ancient Roman tomb and walk on a green path through chestnut and oak woods. Antonia points out one small plant which is called 'pungitopo' in Italian. This means 'pricks the mouse'. You would put the leaves on top of meat to keep the mice off. As we pass through green dappled shade I notice again that the woods are absolutely silent. 'They've killed everything,' says Antonia. 'Everything except the wild boar.' 'Even the birds?' I ask. 'Yes, they love to eat little birds.' She shows me an impressive cave and later mossy rocks and ferns which betray a spring coming out of the mountain. 'When the springs get hot on Mount Vesuvius,' says Antonia, 'they get hot here, too. There is a geological connection which we don't entirely understand.' 'Plate tectonics?' I ask, trying to show off my knowledge. Antonia gives a wry smile. 'Like plate tectonics, but on a micro level.'

We come back through the silent green woods, glimpsing the blue water of the lake below us through the trees.

Back in the car, we drive a short distance to a 17th century mansion which is now a restaurant and hotel for luxurious wedding parties. A handsome Italian called Sandro shows us around. The Villa del Cardinale dates to 1629 and is called after the cardinal who built it. It is built on the site of a Roman villa belonging to a member of the Scipio family. That was his tomb we saw back in the woods.

The cool, tile-floored villa has stunning views of the lake. Sandro shows us some frescoes of the area as it would have looked four hundred years ago. We see the bridal suite and the banqueting rooms. In one dining room is a painting of Ovid writing a poem on a wax tablet. Underneath, the inscription reads:

Militat omnes amans, et habet sua castra eundo;
Attice, crede mihi, militat omnes amans...


This verse is slightly adapted from Ovid's Amores I.ix. Here is my attempt at a translation:

Every lover is a soldier, and has his camp wherever he goes;
Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier.


Near Palazzolo, where the Villa del Cardinale is located, is an area for horses. Antonia says they like the flat ground here because it has never been ploughed and is firm under their feet. She brings out a map she had brought to give me and shows me how the volcanoes occurred.

As we drive to Nemi, Antonia tells me about triple Diana. This goddess has three manifestations: the virgin huntress, the goddess of childbirth and also goddess of the moon. She has a temple down on the shore of Lake Nemi, a ‘very feminine lake’, whereas Jupiter’s temple was atop Mount Alba, overlooking the whole area as far as Rome.

When the full moon sets in the west you can sometimes see a triple moon: the moon in the sky, its reflection in the sea and its reflection in Lake Nemi. Before visiting the remains of Diana's temple, we go to lunch in the beautiful little town of Nemi at a restaurant called ‘Specchio di Diana’, which means ‘Diana’s Mirror’. The lake below us is small and round, and it does look like a mirror. We dine on antipasti and finish with the speciality of the region: vanilla ice cream with tiny wild strawberries. This leads to a discussion of ancient ice cream. Did they have it? We think so. Antonia mentions grattachecca, which is like granita but much coarser. This is grated ice with sweet fruit syrup drizzled on top. I have something like lemon grattachecca in my eleventh book, The Sirens of Surrentum.

After lunch we drive down to the site of Diana's Temple. Antonia actually excavated this site. Today there is very little to see, but devotees have erected a modern altar, with sticks of incense and dried flowers and other little offerings. There is even a notebook for you to write down your prayers or praise of the goddess. I make an entry of my own. Near the temple site is a fountain, of course. We stop to try the water. 'Yes,' says Antonia with satisfaction, 'That has the slightly sharp taste of volcanic water.'

Two pleasure barges belonging to Caligula were found at the bottom of Lake Nemi. They were exposed in the 1920's, when the lake was partially drained, and their remains are now housed in the MVSEO DELLE NAVI ROMANE not far from the Temple of Diana. You can see the reproduction keel of one, to give you an idea of how massive they were.

Julius Caesar had a lakeside villa at Nemi, and part of the modern road here has been stripped away to reveal the Roman road beneath. The Sacred Way or Via Sacra, led up from the Via Appia and all the way to the top of Mount Albano, now called Monte Cavo. Here, at the Temple of Jupiter, were yearly rites called the Feriae Latinae. These pagan rites continued well into the Christian era. We stop to admire the ancient road, parts of it in the dappled woods. Antonia says: 'Chestnut woods have a special kind of shade I would recognize anywhere.'

We drive up to the top of Monte Cavo. Only a few stones from great Jupiter's temple still remain. Most of the summit is given over to telecom discs and ugly aerials.

As we drive back to Lake Albano, Antonia shares her one rule of driving in Italy: 'Don't bump into anyone.'

On the way back into Castel Gandolfo - coming from the south this time - we stop to admire the amphitheatre. According to my sources, Domitian built one here along with a circus for chariot races. He loved his races, and tried to introduce two new factions, the golds and the purples. But they never caught on.

Our final mission is to see the 'emissario' of Lake Albano. Here is another fascinating story, told by Livy . Around 400 BC, the Romans were beseiging a town called Veii in Etruria, about 30 miles northwest of here, on the other side of Rome. An old man prophesied that the Romans would never conquer Veii unless Lake Albano was drained. The soldiers laughed. But back at Lake Albano, the water level began to rise. And rise. And rise. It was mid-summer and elsewhere rivers and creeks were drying out. Desperate to know what they had done wrong, the Romans sent an embassy to Delphi to enquire of the Sybil. And what was her answer? Sacrifice a dozen virgins on midsummer's eve? Sent a white bull into the sea? No. The Pythia's advice was very practical. 'Cut a channel in the mountain and drain off the water.' The old prophet and the Delphic oracle were in agreement. A channel was duly cut. The excess water drained away and the Romans conquered Veii. And here is the very channel - or 'emissario' as it is known - behind a little metal door in a stone wall. A huge arch with a tunnel carved into the living rock. 'Just like the engraving of Piranesi!' cries Antonia, who has never seen this before.

With dangling vine tendrils and strange glowing dragonflies, this is an atmospheric place. But there is no time to linger. The sun is low in the west and I have promised Antonia a well-deserved beer by the lakeside.



P.S. You can read the exciting and romantic results of my research in Roman Mystery XVII, The Man from Pomegranate Street...

[My Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Greeks & Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The glossy BBC Roman Mysteries TV series did adaptations of some of these books. They are available in the UK and Europe on DVD.] 

Friday, September 19, 2008

An Afternoon in Rome

by Caroline Lawrence
Thursday 18 September 2008

Today is the last day of my three-day flying visit to Italy, to gather sensory detail and fun facts for the last book in the Roman Mysteries series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, about the mysterious death of the emperor Titus and the succession of his younger brother Domitian.

After an event-packed day in the Sabine Hills and yesterday around Lake Alba, I decide to spend my last few hours in Castel Gandolfo just wandering around and soaking up atmosphere.

After a brief sighting of the Pope's car leaving the Papal Palace, and a nice espresso in Piazza della Libertà, I walk down to the lake for lunch at a waterside trattoria. At around 2.30, I catch the little train from the Castel Gandolfo station.


The train runs parallel to the old Appian Way, and there are several stops with romantic names. One of them is Acqua Acetosa, which means something like 'Vinegary Water'. Antonia later tells me that water with a slightly sharp taste, often naturally carbonated, is associated with volcanic activity, like the water we tasted below Nemi the day before. Antonia says that the Appian Way follows an ancient lava stream and is marvellously straight with a gentle and constant slope which must have amazed the Romans.

The train also stops at Capannelle ('Little Sheds'). This last name is particularly appropriate as there are lots of stables here. I wonder if there were stables here in Roman times, too. After the train pulls out of Capannelle, I see one of the best-preserved aqueducts from the right hand window, to the north. This is the Aqua Marcia, built in 144 BC. It is still impressive today.

We arrive in Rome 45 minutes out of Castel Gandolfo, and I set out from Termini on foot. It's another glorious day, the warmest so far, but not too hot. I take snaps of a colourful news kiosk, building works (Rome is not looking her best) and in a pasticerria window, some cookies called 'Brutti ma Buoni'. (That means 'ugly but good') A sign tempts me off my planned route to investigate the 'Citta dell'Acqua', some underground remains of another aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo. This little museum is near the Trevi fountain and, as usual, you go down to go back in time. It is cool down here and I can hear the splash of running water.

Presently I emerge again and try to find the Piazza Navona, where my artist friend Dennis Cigler lives. Dennis is another expat American, living in Rome. I first met him a few years ago when I did an author event at Marymount International School. He is art teacher there. Dennis is very creative and bohemian, and 'when we were young and beautiful' he used to run with a crowd of Italian celebrities like Antonioni and Fellini. I look for someone to ask directions from, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON I meet is also clutching a map and looking lost. In stark contrast to peaceful Castel Gandolfo, Rome is packed with tourists.

The Trevi Fountain is twenty people deep. No chance of tossing a coin in there today.

The Pantheon is heaving with sightseers.

The Piazza Navona, when I finally find it, is clogged with plebs.

Worse, the beautiful Bernini fountain of the Four Seasons in the Piazza Navona is boarded up for renovation. At last I find the little cobbled backstreet where Dennis lives. I press the button and he buzzes me in. As I step out of the lift and into his apartment, I enter another world. He has covered the walls with Graeco-Roman or Egyptian type frescoes. Books line the walls and in his bedroom is an enormous sphinx head from the Cinecittà set of Cleopatra. There are glowing Turkish carpets, jewel-coloured cushions and indoor plants lit emerald by the late afternoon sun. 


The windows let in a cool breeze that causes the curtains to swell and subside, as if the whole afternoon was asleep and breathing deeply. In Dennis' studio, there are objets d'art everywhere, and some of Dennis' dreamlike paintings. He also does etchings, like this one of the Bernini fountain in the Piazza Navona. 

I don't have long - I have to make my way back to the train station at 5.00pm - but an hour is long enough for us to catch up a little on what is happening. By serendipity, a friend of Dennis' happens to be in Rome and he calls her to encourage her to drop by. Kristin has just been to see a collection of medieval tapestries. The subject? The Emperor Titus!

Dennis is something of a pagan. His nickname for himself is 'Dionysus', he has a Facebook application for 'what were you in your previous life' and he freely admits to being a sun-worshipper. When I mention the magnificent moon I saw rising over Lake Alba on my first night here, he says casually, 'Oh yes. The moon is in Pisces at the moment.' My jaw drops. That is exactly the kind of thing Domitian's astrologer Ascletario would have said two thousand years ago when the Romans were obsessed with omens, portents and horoscopes. As the French say: Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose. 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.'

And really, that's what my books are all about.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Roman World Day

The British Museum is one of the best resources in the world. Today was Roman World Day, with storytelling, workshops, demonstrations, films and talks, many linking with the current Hadrian Exhibition.

I arrived just after noon, to find some of the legionaries from the Leg II Aug already outside and chatting to tourists. They had pitched a leather tent in front of a beautiful mural of Hadrian's wall and they looked great with their armour gleaming in the sunshine. All the re-enactors put in very long days but they are always cheerful, enthusiastic and helpful. Inside I found more re-enactor friends in the atmospheric Great Court. There was Nodge, who made my first sponge-on-a-stick, his wife Janet (with a wonderful Roman rag doll) and their daughter Helen, too. Gus the auxiliary was on duty, with his Phrygian cap and later with his bow and arrows. There was a Roman food lady and a Roman tempura painter and Helen the seamstress. Chris the potter and his lovely daughter Rebecca were present, too. Plus some 'exotic dancers from North Africa'.

Gaius the scribe was there, too. He presented me with a beautiful papyrus scroll of Horace's ode, the one with my favourite Latin motto: Carpe diem or 'Seize the day'.

While I was going around the stalls of the re-enactors, I met several young fans... just by chance. One of them, Xavier, actually had a battered copy of The Secrets of Vesuvius with him. I also met Sam, who has read all my books, and his sister Matilda. Sorry if you were there and I didn't see you!

Later, I dropped in on some of the readings and lectures. I listened to David Stuttard telling about Roman love poetry in the late Republic and early Empire. He had an actor with him to read some of my favourite poetry, including 'Odi et amo' by Catullus. I also heard Sally Pomme Clayton give an enthusiastic reading of Ovid near the base of a column from the famous Temple of Ephesus. The Emperor Hadrian was there, too, fielding questions from fans young and old. These talks took place all over the museum - in places I don't always go - so I discovered and re-discovered some of the wonderful artifacts and works of art in the BM.

After an hour or two, I went outside to enjoy the sunshine with dozens of other tourists. It was a perfect English day, sunny with fluffy clouds and a cool breeze. I resisted going to my favourite Starbucks across the street from the British Museum, and nibbled on a piece of cheese washed down with diet Coke. Yum.

After my lunch I went back inside for a talk on Roman cooking by Valentina Daprile from Carluccio's. She didn't know as much about Roman food as expert Sally Granger, but the food she prepared was good Italian food and might have been like something known to Flavia and her friends. Valentina made a gustatio (starter) of porcini mushrooms with truffle and olive oil; a mensa prima (main dish) of pork with herbs, apples and honey; and a mensa secunda of sheep's-milk cheese with honey and nuts. Yes, the Romans loved their honey.