Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pee-you! B'kak! P'tooey!

by Caroline Lawrence

Hey, KIDS! If you went back in a TIME MACHINE to ANCIENT ROME, what do you think would surprise you most?

I'm thinking THREE THINGS.

Roman funeral pyre
1. PEE-YOU! (the smell)
They washed clothes in urine (PEE) and then smoked them with sulphur (smells like ROTTEN EGGS). But those little MUREX sea-snails they used to dye cloth scarlet smelled even worse! Steaming piles of HORSE, OXEN and DONKEY MANURE sat right there in the streets. People had BAD BREATH caused by rotten teeth. (We know this because they DRANK PERFUME to make their breath smell better.) Daily sacrifices would have made a RANCID BAR-B-QUE smell. And smoke from a thousand braziers would have caused terrible SMOG. Also, they BURNED DEAD BODIES (cremated) in the graveyard just outside the town walls. Market-stall-keepers probably left FRUIT and scraps of MEAT to ROT! You wouldn't want to be downwind of the garum factories; there would be an awful FISHY smell from the blood and fermented fish GUTS. There would have been lots of SWEATY MEN and PERSPIRING LADIES because there was no deodorant! Have you ever smelled the sickly sweet smell of OPEN SEWERS in the heat? Urgh. Not to mention the PUBLIC TOILETS with multiple seats but no doors (see picture below). And some famous graffiti from Pompeii asks people not to POO in the street. Ew. At night they carried PINE-PITCH torches. But those might have smelled nice because they sometimes burned PINECONES as AIR FRESHENER.

Can you think of any other yukky smells?

soothsayer and sacred chicken
2. B'KAK! (free range animals)
I think there would have been ANIMALS everywhere in ANCIENT ROME. Walking through the Roman Forum, you would have to be careful not to trip over GUARD DOGS, LAP DOGS, SCAVENGING DOGS, Mangy half-wild CATS & RATS feeding on rotting food. You might see a goat herd driving his GOATS to the Forum Boarium, a cow herder driving his CATTLE to the Forum Boarium, a shepherd driving his SHEEP to the Forum Boarium. A priest leading an OX to the altar would be a common sight. So would a priest leading a RAM to the altar.  SACRED CHICKENS, FREE-RANGE CHICKENS, CHICKENS IN A MARKET PEN. SACRED GEESE on the Capitoline Hill were fierce enough to act as guards. Also, what about BUGS? There would have been NITS, LICE, COCKROACHES, FLEAS, FLIES, MOSQUITOES, WEEVILS and DUNG BEETLES. Guess what? Near Ostia's port of Rome there was an ELEPHANT farm to supply the GAMES. Maybe sometimes other WILD ANIMALS destined for BEAST HUNTS in the Colosseum got loose, too.

Can you think of any other animals you might have seen in Ancient Rome?

2. P'TOOEY! (superstition)
whistling in the latrines by Helen Forte 
Romans were INCREDIBLY superstitious and probably SPAT on the ground, KNOCKED ON WOOD, made RUDE GESTURES and grabbed their WILLIES to fend off EVIL. A non-rude SIGN AGAINST EVIL is to hold out your left hand palm first. Here were some NO-NOs that might bring BAD LUCK crashing down on you: Stepping over the threshold with your LEFT FOOT. SNEEZING on board a ship. CUTTING YOUR HAIR on board ship. Doing ANYTHING on the anniversary of a terrible DEFEAT. Romans wore good luck AMULETS shaped like MEDUSA's FACE, EYEBALLS and WILLIES. They feared the EVIL EYE and were wary of people with BLUE EYES. They studied BIRD PATTERNS to see what the gods were saying. Also LIGHTNING, THUNDER and WIND. It was bad luck to get MARRIED in JUNE! Any animal born with a DEFECT was a monstrum or PORTENT. Romans thought DEMONS lived in the SEWERS. To stop them POPPING UP you could WHISTLE. That's why they painted SNAKES & FORTUNA (good luck) on bathroom walls. A HARUSPEX was a man who looked at animal guts to see what the gods were saying. An AUGUR studied BIRDS and WEATHER. A SOOTHSAYER used any methods he could to foresee the future so you could stay safe. Also, most Romans had an altar called a LARARIUM in their house so they could make DAILY OFFERINGS to their special gods. And what do you find hundreds of in museums and at Roman sites? ALTARS. These were stone slabs dedicated to the god in fulfilment of a vow. You could make little offerings on them, too, sometimes even slaughter an animal, which was called a SACRIFICE.

Can you think of any other strange superstitious beliefs they held?

Threptus the beggar by Helen Forte
One of the things I try to do in my books is make them a bit like a TIME MACHINE to take you back to Ancient Rome. I start with an interesting character, put him in an exciting story and then mix in some of the SURPRISING and UNUSUAL ingredients of life in ANCIENT ROME.

My newest series is about a BEGGAR BOY turned SOOTHSAYER's APPRENTICE who lives in OSTIA the PORT of ROME. His name is THREPTUS and he is 8 years old.

We first meet THREPTUS in The Man from Pomegranate Street, when he is bidding four young detectives farewell. The youngest detective, LUPUS, tells Threptus to CARRY ON MY GOOD WORK and gives him a wax tablet.

THREPTUS then pops up in a short story called "Threptus and the Sacred Chickens" in The Legionary from Londinium and other Mini-Mysteries. Ingredients include a KITTEN, a SOOTHSAYER and of course some SACRED CHICKENS. 

Threptus the Roman beggar boy gets a mystery all to himself in The Sewer Demon. In that book, poor THREPTUS has to GO DOWN THE SEWER to look for CLUES!

Pee-you! (illustration from The Sewer Demon by Helen Forte)

Next comes The Poisoned Honey Cake. In that book poor THREPTUS is so hungry that he steals a honey-cake dedicated to a demigod and LOSES HIS VOICE. He has to solve the MYSTERY of how to get his voice back. This book includes ALTARS, SACRIFICIAL HONEY CAKES and SACRED CHICKENS.

I hope you will enjoy all the SMELLY, ANIMAL-FILLED and SPOOKY bits of my stories about THREPTUS, the Roman beggar turned soothsayer's apprentice. www.carolinelawrence.com

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