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)

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.'


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.

P.P.S. Sadly, the Golden Sponge Stick Award is defunct (from Latin defunctus = 'dead') but you can order a fun Sponge Stick mosaic kit from Roman Mosaic Workshop. Perfect for schools or home fun. And it's educational!

[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 four-book Roman Quests series, set in Roman Britain, starts 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:


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!


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 :

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!)