Friday, December 25, 2009

A Western Xmas - 1864

Alf Doten was 19 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California. He sailed from Plymoth to California to seek his fortune. He spent the next two decades trying to strike gold (or silver) in California and Nevada. Finally in 1864 he went to join the staff of a newspaper in Virginia City Nevada. He overlapped another prospector-turned-Virginia-City-newspaperman by only a few months. That man was Sam Clemens, who had just started to write under the pen name, Mark Twain.

Alf Doten was not as witty or successful as Mark Twain, but he kept detailed journals of his experiences from the day he stepped onto the ship bound for San Francisco until the day he died, in 1909. He left 79 leather-bound journals, with entries in pencil. In 1973, the respected scholar and author of The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter van Tilburg Clark, published The Journals of Alfred Doten in three huge volumes. They offer fascinating glimpses in to the daily life in the American West in the second half of the 19th century.

Here for example, are some of his entries from December 1864, his first Christmas in Virginia City.

above: Alf Doten in 1866, two years after he wrote the entry below

Dec 22 - Clear and pleasant - Went up to Morton's to Forefather's dinner - some 10 or 12 sat at table - chicken roasted, succotash, pies, cakes etc, cider, wine &c - I took a bottle of that champagne along that I stole from the office - jolly time... at 6 1/2 ocl'k went to Consolidation meeting & reported it... in the evening I attended the Ladies Fair for the benefit of the Sisters of Charity...

Dec 24 - Stormy - blustery with light sprinkles of rain occasionally - Christmas eve - after got through work about 11 oclock our boys all pitched into the egg-nog, two pitchers full of which were sent into us by the saloons - sang songs & had a jolly time - drank it all up & then started out - got all the Enterprise boys out - some 15 or 20 of us in all - Dan De Quille also along - visited all the saloons - free drink with all of them - printers on the rampage - went down to Chinatown and kicked up thunder - came back - at 4 oclock Dan & I made out to get clear from the crowd & home to our beds. -

Sunday, Dec 25 - The same - blew like the devil all day - stripped several roofs of tin - blew down buildings and did much damage - Light rain most of the day - rose at 11 - turkey, pudding etc at Mrs Dill's - went up to Morton's dined there also - chicken, pudding, succotash, etc - Evening we attended Sabbath school Festival at St Pauls Church - went from there to Music Hall - then to Great Republic - I slept with Sutterly [sic] at his room -

Clem Sutterley (pictured) was a photographer and friend of Alf Doten

Dec 27 ... Was down with Higbee to visit Jessie Lester who was shot last Sunday night - had to have her right arm amputated at the shoulder joint this afternoon - poor creature, she was just recovering from the taking of chloroform during the operation, and was shrieking with pain - and in her delirium, calling on her mother...

Dec 31 ... I got through about 1 o'clock - run about town couple of hours longer, with Higbee & other policemen - lots of pistols, guns, &c being fired off to welcome in the new year. All over the City - bed at 3 or 4 - So ends 1864


Monday, December 14, 2009

Stagecoach #2

In the 1860's there were at least half a dozen stage coaches in and out of Virginia City every day.

In a book called Resources of the Pacific Slope, J. Ross Browne gives details of the routes of a dozen stages in the 1860's. For example, Route #1 went to Sacramento California via the Donner Pass and North Lake Tahoe. It cost $20 to Sacramento but $25 back because that was the most popular direction of travel in the 60's. Another stage went down to Dayton and from there to Como across the Carson Valley. Some stagecoaches went up to an area called Humboldt and from there to Salt Lake City and the east.

As our time in Virginia City is now over, we decide to follow Stagecoach Route #2 to California. J. Ross Brown tells us exactly which towns it passed through: Gold Hill, Silver City, Empire, Carson City, Genoa, Van Sickles Station, then up the Kingsway Grade to Dagget Pass at the summit and down into California via Strawberry, Placerville and Shingle Springs, all the way to Sacramento.

It's a beautiful September morning as we get in our convertible 'stagecoach' and set out from Virginia City to follow this route. We leave at 10.00am, and five minutes later we go over the hump called 'The Divide' which marks the boundary between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The Civil War re-enactors staged a mock battle here in a quarry beside the train tracks. Of course the Civil War never got this far west, and the V&T train wasn't here in 1862, when my first book will be set. However, the Gold Hill Hotel was. It's the oldest hotel in Nevada. Sam Clemens, Dan De Quille and Alf Doten all ate there.

Down the hot, winding road through a pair of dramatic rocks (above) called Devil's Gate. This was a popular place for bandits to lie in wait to rob the stage. An old illustration exaggerates the size of the rocks by putting tiny people between them. Exaggeration was rife in the 1860's... We breathe a sigh of relief as we pass through Devil's Gate into Silver City without incident.

As we pass an abandoned mine just out of Silver City we wave to our friend 'Irish'. He runs the Comstock Gold Mine and Stamp Mill and we met him when he demonstrated how the ore stamps worked and sounded. He is a colourful character who first came to Virginia City as a 16 year old in 1958. LIke many others, the popular TV show Bonanza was what brought this region to his attention. He went back to California to be a roadie for The Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson, but now he has ended up back here in a fabulous 'boys' fort' type of dwelling on the golden, sage-dotted hills.

After Silver City, the road flattens out into the wide flat Carson River Valley. We join Highway 50 here. If we were to go left we would reach Dayton, which might be Nevada's oldest town. My great-grandmother Corinne Prince grew up there. Her father was a teamster, one of those men who drove eight to twelve-mule carriages with loads of ore going out and timber coming back. Corinne probably went to school in the Dayton School house, which was built in 1863 and is now a museum.

But our 'stagecoach' doesn't go left to Dayton. It goes right, west, to Empire. We can't really see any signs of old Empire; New Empire is a suburb of Carson City. But in Carson City we see the old mint, where my great-grandmother worked for a while, and the governor's mansion. Stages might have changed teams here in Carson, as it's about 20 miles from Virginia City.

A road west takes you towards the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are barren and rounded and steep on this side. Then the flat road curves south to Genoa. Originally known as Mormon Station, Genoa is a pleasant surprise. It's green and shady with excellent information about the pioneers and local characters like Snowshoe Joe, who was a mail carrier. Genoa and Dayton have a little rivalry going on as to which of them is the oldest town. Let's just say they are both old, founded in 1851. Richard and I stop for an espresso on the rocks at the delightful Genoa Coffee & Candy Company. We go to see the famous hanging tree before setting out south with a 'fresh team of horses.'

There are hot springs south of Genoa and today David Walley's Hot Springs is a popular place to get married. Half a mile south, on the right of the road, is Van Sickles Station Ranch, now a private residence. Van Sickles was a commissioner and in the early 60's his hotel was the first port of call once you crossed the mountains. With hot water and good food, it must have been a joy for the weary traveller. In winter you could sledge down the eastern Sierras. Van Sickles was famous for shooting a desperado called Sam Brown who had killed half a dozen men. After Sam fired on Van Sickles, the hotel owner went after him with a shotbun. He was later tried and a jury passed a verdict of 'self-defense'.

The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains come straight down and stop dramatically at the flat plain of the Carson Valley. One minute you're on the flat, the next you're climbing the Kingsbury Grade. This wagon road was built by two men named Kingsbury and MacDonald in 1860, it shortened the distance between Virginia City and Sacramento by 15 miles. The road cost $585,000 to build and the builders charged a toll to pay for the road. A wagon and four horses had to pay $17.50 for a round trip from Shingle Springs to Van Sickles Station. The Pony Express used this road, too, for the short period of its existence between 1860 and 1861.

The four-horse team strains as it pulls our stagecoach and up over sparsely wooded eastern slopes with dizzy views down to the flat Carson Valley. Once over Dagget Pass, tall pines and smooth grey granite boulders take over. The summit is over 7400 feet, then down to Lake Tahoe, blue and peaceful in the warm September sun. When we were in Virginia City, we took a ten minute stagecoach ride with Gary. What you don't realise until you try riding as a passenger in one is how claustrophobic it can be. You can't see what's coming and the scenery whizzes by. If you were sitting facing backwards it might have been quite disconcerting. Not good for people who are easily travel-sick. The idea of taking a bone-rattling stagecoach all this way is almost inconceivable. Especially knowing that they sometimes travelled at night around the precipitous bends. Eeek!

After the pass, Richard and I stop at South Lake Tahoe for lunch. In the 1860's people were often malnourished because fresh fruit and veg were almost impossible to find apart from the autumn. We know from J. Ross Browne and others that staple foods were corn-meal, lard, bacon, eggs, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, sugar and coffee, When Sam Clemens arrived in Virginia City in 1862, a man called Rollin M. Daggett remarked that he 'had been living on alkali water and whang leather...' This is an exaggeration, of course, but gives you an idea of the monotony of food back then.

Strawberry was one of the most famous stopping places on the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no strawberries there, but according to some reports, a man called Berry owned the inn and he had straw for the horses. Another article by J. Ross Browne, first published in Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1860 documents the first wave of prospectors coming over the Sierra Nevadas to mine gold and silver on the Comstock. Some of his most hilarious anecdotes take place at Strawberry.

The illustration above right shows 'Dinner at Strawberry', an illustration from 'A Peep at Washoe'. A light at length glimmered through the pines, first faint and flickering, then a full blaze, then half a dozen brilliant lights, which proved to be camp fires under the tree, and soon we stood in front of a large and substantial log-house. This was the famous Strawberry', known throughout the length and breadth of the land as the best stopping-place on the route to Washoe...

Soon the road shows glimpses of the American River on the left. Further down in Coloma gold was discovered for the first time in 1848 with the cry: 'Gold. Gold in the American River!' The road down the western Sierra Nevadas is a much gentler grade. It takes us into the hot valley and Placerville, which was once known as Hangtown. Placerville was named after 'placer' mining, the method where you pan for gold in an open stream or creek. Placerville's Main Street still has buildings dating back to the 1850's and you can see Stage Coach Alley. You can also get a hot dog at Hangville Hot Dogs. This was another staging place for horses. After Placerville it is on to Shingle Springs.

We tried to find the old train station at Shingle Springs but only founded traces of the old track in a cutting of earth red with iron. The train arrived here in 1865, but until then you would carry on in your stagecoach to Sacramento, another 30 miles on. At last you could emerge and take a different method of transport: boats plied daily from here to San Francisco. I'll bet plenty of travellers vowed never to sit in a stage coach again!


The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver. Even if you have a tendency to sea-sickness when riding backwards - you'll get over it and will get less jolts and jostling. Don't let "sly elph" trade you his mid-seat>

In cold weather, don't ride with tight-fitting boots, shoes or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling, he won't request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away - sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine out of ten times you will get hurt.

In very cold weather abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence.

Don't growl at the food received at the station - stage companies generally provide the best they can get.

Don't keep the stage waiting. Don't smoke a strong pipe inside the coach. Spit on the leeward side... Don't lean or lop over neighbours when sleeping. Take small change to pay expenses. Never shoot on the road as the noise might frighten the horses. Don't discuss politics or religion.

Don't point out where murders have been committed, especially if there are women passengers.

Don't lag at the wash basin. Don't grease your hair, because travel is dusty. Don't imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort and some hardships. (Omaha Herald 1877)

P.S. Listen to a fun audio account of a young Englishman's stage journey across America in 1859 on the Wells Fargo History site.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Slippery Gulch

In September 2009, I spent four days in Virginia City, Nevada, researching a new series of books.

Virginia City was a wealthy and rowdy mining town in the 1860's and 1870's. On the famous Comstock Lode, it produced billions of dollars of gold and especially silver ore. Mark Twain was a reporter there from Sept 1862 until May 1864. The town had gunmen, prostitutes, native Americans, miners, con-artists, saloon-keepers as well as bankers, lawyers, mine managers, journalists and speculators. There were even a few respectable women and children. Mark Twain once remarked that his days there 'were full to the brim of the wine of life.'

By the early 20th century, however, Virginia City was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Then in the late 1950's, something happened to revive interest in it. A hugely successful television show called Bonanza made Virginia City popular again. However, the show got several things wrong about Virginia City. Because it was filmed in Los Angeles, Virginia is shown as a flat town. But one of the most distinctive things about Virginia City is that it is built on a steep hillside. This is something you have to experience to believe.

No photo really shows you how radical the steep streets are. Imagine a city built on the slope of a pitched roof. Or a city built on stairs. The stairs are the north-south running streets, named after the letters of the alphabet. 'A' street is high up Mount Davidson, 'B' Street is further down, then the famous 'C' Street, with all the saloons and shops. In the olden days 'D' street was where the 'soiled doves' had their 'cribs' and 'F' Street was Chinatown, etc. But the east west running streets are ramps on almost a 45ยบ angle! Now they are paved, but in the olden days they were just dirt. Imagine trying to walk on a muddy, icy street, or worse yet, trying to drive a carriage!

My great-grandmother grew up near Virginia City and remembers how a man and his wife were riding in a carriage when the horses lost their grip. Down they went, down and down and right over a cliff. The horses and the husband died. The wife was in a coma for several days and when she came out of it she discovered her broken and reset left arm was two inches shorter than her right. Apparently runaway carriages were almost daily occurrences in the 1860's. One of the many nicknames for Virginia City is 'Slippery Gulch'...

Another thing they never tell you about Virginia City is the physical effect it has on you. It is over 6000 feet high and the air is thin and dry. The first time I went I felt slightly sick and dizzy and had heart palpitations. This time I noticed the extreme dryness. My eyes felt scratchy and my nose prickled. You get used to it after a while but it really has an effect on you physically.

From the time of the late 1950's, Virginia City has attracted bikers. They love the scenic roads up to Virginia City and the saloons once they get there. Sometimes the streets throb with the sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles. In one bar you get leather-clad patrons and heavy metal music, in the saloon next door cowboys and Country Western music. Mostly everyone gets on with everyone else.

It was fun that Labor Day Weekend to see equal parts bikers and Civil War re-enactors. And sometimes both combined.

There really is nowhere in the world like Virginia City.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Western Mysteries

I've been visiting Nevada and California to research a series of history mystery stories I hope to write. They will be set in the Comstock region of Nevada in the autumn of 1862, the beginning of the big silver boom there and the time of Mark Twain's arrival at the Territorial Enterprise Newspaper.

left: Sam Clemens - not yet Mark Twain - when he arrived in Virginia City in 1862 aged 27

I don't want to say too much because it is a fantastic idea - and nobody else has done it - but here are a few clues.

1. The series will be for children aged 8 - 14+
2. The detective will be a loner: the western hero is always a loner.
3. The detective will be a kid.
4. The detective will own a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter.
5. Real historical figures will appear in the books.
6. The bad-guys will be gunfighters, tricksters & newspapermen.
7. The mysteries will be based around real historical events.
8. The books will be told in the first person.
9. My detective will love black coffee and layer cake.
10. I am going to have a lot of fun writing these books.

So watch this space!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Roman Christmas

[This is a version of a lecture I gave at the British Museum in December of 2009]

Q. What do Christmas crackers, mulled wine, Santa hats, office parties, mistletoe, greenery, presents and candles have to do with ancient Rome?
A. Everything!

English "Christmas crackers"
The Saturnalia was one of the most popular festivals in Roman times, possibly going back to Etruscan times. A sacrifice of piglets was made to the god Saturn along with other rites, and there followed several days of feasting and fun. It was the custom to greet one another with the phrase YO SATURNALIA! One of my books takes place in Ostia, Rome's port, during the festival of Saturnalia. It is called The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

Here are 12 THINGS about the SATURNALIA which might seem familiar:

I. WINTER SOLSTICE - The Saturnalia began on December 17, a few days before the WINTER SOLSTICE. That’s when the days are shortest. It was essentially a pagan festival to bring back the sun. And some Romans celebrated the birth of a god at this time, a god of light called…

Mithras in the British Museum
II. BIRTH OF A GOD - Some scholars believe that the Persian god Mithras and/or the Roman god Sol Invictus had birthday celebrations on the winter solstice, which fell on 25 December in the Roman calendar. It wasn’t until about AD 400 that church leaders decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on this day, possibly in an attempt to overlay and obliterate these ‘pagan’ holidays. We don’t really know when Jesus was born. It may have been in December. Or it may have been in the spring or autumn. That doesn’t mean we still can’t celebrate it.

III. GREENERY - Romans decorated their houses with greenery. One of my favourite TV shows is Big Bang Theory. Sheldon says ‘In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.’ That’s certainly where the custom of Christmas wreaths and mistletoe come from.

Flavia & Nubia by lamplight
IV. HOUSE DECORATED WITH LIGHTS - Romans also decorated their houses with extra lights at this darkest time of the year. Again, this was a pagan attempt to bring back the sun. Torches, tapers, candleabra and oil-lamps flickered throughout the houses of the rich. Because of this Rome was a particular fire hazard in the winter. One historian estimates that a hundred fires broke out daily in the Eternal City, which had its own entire corps of firemen – they were called Vigiles and we get the word ‘vigilent’ from them. Ostia, the port of Rome, had its own vigiles.

V. FEASTING! In mid-winter instinct tells us to build up a nice layer of fat, to feast in preparation for lean times ahead. A bit like a bear before hibernation. But we must take a moment to pity the Romans. Sadly, they did not have chocolate.

Flavia Gemina with a wreath
VI. DRINKING! It has been medically proven that a small amount of wine added to water will kill off most known bacteria. For most of the year Romans drank diluted wine, but during the Saturnalia they often drank neat wine, heated and spiced. Go easy this year or you might need the VOMITORIUM! (NB a 'vomitorium' is an exit, NOT a room where you go to be sick!) When your mum has her Bailey’s Irish Cream after Christmas dinner, just think, that custom goes back to the Saturnalia.

VII. PARTYING AND HIJINKS - and Role Reversal, too. For the five days of the Saturnalia, slaves didn't have to work. They could eat, drink and be merry, and some even switched places with their masters, especially in more relaxed homes. In theory the masters could wait on reclining slaves and the slaves could tell the masters what they thought of them. Most masters probably just left the slaves to themselves, like Pliny the Younger, who retreated to an annex of his seaside Laurentum Villa.: ‘during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the licence of the holiday and festive cries. This way,’ he says, ‘I don't hamper the games of my people and they don't hinder my work or studies.’ (I don't think HE was the life of the party.) DID I MENTION THAT KIDS DIDN’T HAVE TO GO TO SCHOOL? During the Saturnalia, children were allowed into the amphitheatre. There was also lots of music and dancing. Today in the twenty first century, office employees find Christmas the time when they are tempted to take the most liberty. Be careful. Once the Saturnalia is over, you have to go back to being a slave again

a bone die
VIII. GAMBLING! In first century Rome, gambling was illegal... EXCEPT for the Saturnalia. For those few days in mid-winter, anyone could gamble: children and slaves included. Children usually gambled with nuts. In Italy and some other Mediterranean countries this practice lives on in the seasonal Tombola and Bingo games, only held at this time of year. When you get out the Monopoly board or the Wii, take a moment to consider that the Romans played games during the Saturnalia.

XI. KING OF THE SATURNALIA. On the first night of the festival in some families, the paterfamilias threw dice to determine who in the household would be the King of the Saturnalia. The 'King' could then command people to do things, eg prepare a banquet, sing a song, run an errand. During his reign, the depraved Emperor Nero used shaved dice to ensure that he would be chosen King of the Saturnalia, even though he was already the most powerful man in the known world. In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, Flavia is grounded by her father, so she uses one of Lupus’s shaved dice to make sure she becomes King of the Saturnalia. I believe the paper crown in our Christmas cracker reminds us of this charming custom. Kids, why don’t you ask your parents if you can throw dice on one day to be King of the Saturnalia? But if you are chosen use your power wisely, next year someone else might be King!

X. SANTA HATS! During the festival the toga was discarded in favour of the more comfortable synthesis, the dinner suit, and on their heads men - and sometimes women - wore the felt cap, pileum (or pileus), the mark of freedom. These hats were traditionally worn by slaves who had been set free. This showed that they were "free" from the usual restrictions and laws. "Freedom has loosed the bonds for all..." said one Roman author about the Saturnalia. These "freedmen's hats" were conical in shape and made of colourful felt, perhaps fur-trimmed in the winter. In The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, Lupus wears a red felt pilleum, trimmed with white fur! Remind you of anything?

XI. GIFTS! Some people think the best part of Christmas are the presents. The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia: traditionally candles, silver objects, preserved fruit and especially sigilla, small clay or wooden figures, often with moveable joints. Action figures from Barbie to Spiderman are the modern equivalent. And all the other gifts we give. The Saturnalia was a time of great SHOPPING. The first century philosopher Seneca sounds very modern when he grumbled about the shopping season: "Decembris used to be a month; now it's a whole year."

Roman writing materials
XII. EPIGRAMS! In Roman times they didn’t stick a little elf tag on their presents. They often composed two-line poems called EPIGRAMS to accompany their Saturnalia gift. The epigrams didn’t have to rhyme; they were in meter. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes in the form of a riddle, sometimes just descriptive. In Holland, people still compose poems to go with their presents. That’s another SATURNALIA CUSTOM you might like to start in your house.

What are some of the gifts people gave and some of the epigrams Romans wrote?

Marcus Valerius Martialis, AKA Martial is one of my favourite Roman poets. He lived during Flavia’s time and he wrote hundreds of epigrams. From these we know what kinds of gifts people gave each other. For example, they gave each other

FOOD like pepper, beans, lentils, flour, barley, lettuces, asparagus, grapes, figs, pine cones, jar of figs, jar of plums, smoked cheese, onions, sausages, box of olives, eggs, sucking pig, pomegranates, sow’s udder, chickens, early peaches, mushrooms, truffles, a hoop of little birds, ducks, ham, goose liver, Rhodian hardbake and the famous dormice. Here is Martial's poem about the gift of dormice:

DORMICE - The winter is for sleeping so I feed on sleep and grow fat for you. XIII.59

silver memento mori cup
CONDIMENTS and CUTLERY People also gave each other condiments, wine, cutlery and cups: garum, (fish sauce), honey, mulsum (honeyed wine), raisin wine, retsina, Falernian wine, Surrentine wine, vinegar, antique cups, golden bowl, arretine ware, a basket, mushroom pots, a strainer for snow, a flagon for snow, jewelled cups, a drinking flask, crystal cups, murrhine cups (a semi precious stone that gives flavour to wine), small table jugs, an earthenware jug, glass cups, silver spoons, snail spoons, etc

STATIONERY and FURNITURE were also popular gifts. Martial mentions wax tablets, ivory tablets, three leaved wax tablets, parchment tablets, small Vitellian tablets for love letters, ivory cashbox, dice, dice box, nuts (for gambling), gaming board, gaming pieces, case for writing materials, stylus case, bookcase, bundle of reed pens, oil lamp for the bedroom, candle, multi wicked lamp, wax taper, candelabrum, horn lantern, lantern made of a bladder, incense, smokeless wood, peacock-feather fly whisk, ox-tail fly-swat, place-keeper for scroll (like a bookmark), palm leaf broom, peacock couch, semicircular couch, citrus wood table, maple table, tablecloth, feather stuffing for a mattress, marsh reed stuffing for a mattress & hay for a mattress if you are really strapped for sesterces.

Roman bathing accessories
OBJECTS FOR GROOMING and BEAUTY - Martial mentions such gifts as a toothpick, an ear scoop, a hair pin of gold, combs, hair, wigs, hair dye, a parasol, a hair-cutting kit, a bath-set, a strigil, dentifrice (dentifricium) for polishing teeth, bean meal for folds in your stomach, opobalsam (a balsam type perfume for men), a breast band, a sponge, wool lined slippers, a horn oil flask, a medicine chest of ivory, an ivory back scratcher in the shape of a hand, unguent, a garland of roses, an earthenware chamberpot, rings, a ring case, a toga, a wrapper for after a workout, a broad-brimmed hat, a hooded cloak, a leather overcoat, a pilleum (freedman's hat), a girdle, an apron, a bath wrap, white wool, purple wool, amethyst wool, etc. Here's a poem about the gift of a red cloak:

SCARLET CLOAK Careful if you support the Blues or Greens at the races, this cloak might make you a traitor! XIV.131

sigillum from the BM
THINGS FOR BOYS and GIRLS - a hunting knife, hunting spears, a belt and sword, a dagger, a small shield, a small hatchet, a feather-stuffed ball, a ball for trigon, dumbbells, a leather wrestling cap, a rattle, a parrot that says ‘Ave Caesar’, a ‘talking’ crow, a nightingale, an ivory cage, a lyre, a plectrum, a hoop, jewellery and of course SIGILLA or little clay or wood figures.

SIGILLUM of a HUNCHBACK – I think Prometheus was drunk when he made hunchbacks from the earth, he was fooling around with Saturnalian clay. XIV.182

LUXURY GOODS - If you were really rich, you could give opulent gifts of silver, gold, jewels, animals and - in an age of slavery - even people! Martial composes epigrams for a gold statue of Victory, various figures in Corinthian bronze, paintings of different mythological characters, a clay theatrical mask, Minerva in silver, Homer in parchment notebooks, Virgil, Livy or Cicero on parchment, works by poets such as Propertius, Ovid, Lucan and Catullus – (books were luxury items in those days) - a hawk, dwarf mules, a Gallic lapdog, a greyhound, a monkey, a wrestler, a dancing girl, a scribe, an idiot, a cook, a confectioner, and a dwarf!

Caroline in a Saturnalia cap
DWARF - If you only saw his head, you would think he was Hector; if you saw him standing up, you’d think he was Astyanax. XIV.212

(That epigram was the inspiration for the baddie in my tenth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes)

The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
So as you celebrate Christmas this year, think about the ancient Romans and how many customs they passed down to us. And try this easy Saturnalia Quiz.


The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, and book 6, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, is even set during the Roman Saturnalia. That episode is also in the DVDs of the BBC TV series. Grown-ups might enjoy The Xenia and The Apophoreta, two commentaries on Martial's Saturnalia poems by T.J. Leary. A book for younger kids is The Thunder Omen, which features an ex-beggar-boy, a silly soothsayer and dancing Saturnalia chickens. 

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Saturnalia Quiz

Saturnalia in The Roman Mysteries TV series
Would it surprise you to learn that many of the customs we observe at Christmas go back to Roman times and have nothing to do with the birth of baby Jesus?

Here is a quiz for you to test your knowledge of the Roman SATURNALIA and its influence on modern Christmas.

1. The followers of which deity celebrated his birth on 25 December?
a) Sol Invictus
b) Mithras
c) Jesus Christ
d) all of the above

2. Three days before 25 December, what event occurs?
a) Summer Solstice
b) Summer Equinox
c) Winter Solstice
d) Winter Equinox
e) Easter

3. The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia. Which of the following did they NOT give?
a) chocolate
b) silver objects
c) preserved fruit
d) small clay or wooden figures
4. Mottoes and riddles in Christmas crackers might go back to the Roman practice of
a) hiring comic actors to deliver gifts
b) writing epigrams for Saturnalia gifts
c) Roman singing telegrams (in dactylic pentameter)
d) memorizing and reciting lines from Virgils Aeneid as a Saturnalia party trick

5. Which ONE of the following Christmas customs did NOT orignate in the Saturnalia:
a) feasting
b) drinking
c) putting up lights
d) putting up greenery
e) Santa and his reindeer
f) giving gifts
g) taking time off work

6. In first century Rome, which illegal practice was permitted only during the Saturnalia?
a) murder
b) theft
c) witchcraft
d) gambling

7. The paper crown in British Christmas crackers reminds us of the Roman custom of:
a) choosing a King of the Saturnalia
b) Caesar wearing a wreath
c) the Etruscan king Tarquin
d) It has nothing to do with any Roman custom

8. Santa's red conical hat might well be traced back to hats worn during Saturnalia by:
a) Trojans
b) Greeks
c) Persians
d) Smurfs
e) freedmen

9. Here are some more Christmas customs which might go back to the Saturnalia. Which one is bogus?
a) mulled wine
b) Christmas stockings
c) singing songs
d) pantomime

10. Which of the following foods was certainly NOT part of the Saturnalia feast?
a) hot chestnuts
b) honey-glazed ham
c) turkey and mashed potato
d) roast peacock
To find out more about the Saturnalia, check out my blog about A Roman Christmas!

Some fun kids
 book set in first century Rome during the Saturnalia are The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina in my Roman Mysteries series and The Thunder Omen in my Roman Mystery Scrolls series; it features dancing Saturnalia chickens and illustrations by Minimus Latin Course artist Helen Forte.  The episode of the BBC TV series based on The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina shows what the Saturnalia might have looked like.  

Answers: 1 = d; 2 = c; 3 = a; 4 = b; 5 = e; 6 = d; 7 = a; 8 = e; 9 = b; 10 = c

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fan Fiction

I don't usually read FAN FICTION, but I just got a load of stories from Class 3 at Collingbourne C.E. Primary School.

The titles are fun and I detect a theme. Their teacher, Miss Dainty, obviously suggested they use the word 'Celts' in the title, and that they set their stories in Roman Britain.

The Attack of the Celts by Sam
The Celts Revenge by James
The Stolen Ring by Jaydear
The Curse of the Coins by Rebecca H.
The Curse of the Celtic Snake by Eleana
The Celt's Revenge by Luke P
The Curse of the Gladiator by Maddie
The Stolen Ring by Callum
The Celt's Revenge by Andrew
The Curse of the Gladiators by Anna
The Stolen Ring by Amber
The Curse of the Celts by Kelsey
The Legendary Sword by Harry
The Celts Revenge by Samuel
The Curse of the Legendary Sword by Daniel
The Curse of the Celtic Snake by Callam
The Stolen Ring by Alex
The Curse of the Roman Coin by Wesley

All the stories involve Flavia and Jonathan, and all are full of excitement and danger. Some stories even have the brilliant word 'unhypnotized'. But I felt one story had to be reproduced in full. Molly E. has got my formula down pat!

The Curse of the Celts by Molly E.

One morning Jonathan went to Flavia's house.
Flavia's dad was going out.
But she asked if she was allowed to go to England.
But he said no.
But she still did it.
Her dad went to Italy to fight the Romans.
She got his boat and sailed off to England.
Jonathan and Flavia were at England.
At first she went for a walk around.
Then she went to the shops.
Then she went to the castles.
Then she went for a walk in the forest.
Just then she got kidnapped.
Jonathan was looking for Flavia.
He found Flavia with the Celts.
Jonathan went to get the Romans.
The Romans arrived.
At England they fought the Celts.
The Romans won and Flavia was saved!
Jonathan kissed Flavia on the cheek.
Flavia went home with Jonathan.
Then they had some tea.

I love the very British ending, but my favourite part is the line: 'But she still did it.' That is SO Flavia.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Mysterious Roman Vase

Back in April of 2009, I blogged about the Riddle of the Portland Vase: who are the figures depicted on it?

Yesterday Bonhams, the London-based antiquities dealers, announced they have another Roman cameo vase on loan from a mysterious owner. You can read about it HERE. This is very exciting news to all Roman historians, archaeologists and glass experts. If the vase is genuine, and not a clever fake, it could rival or even surpass the Portland Vase in fame. This vase is so 'new' that experts aren't even sure what to call it. I will call it the Bonhams Newby Vase**.

So far the pictures of it are so small that it is hard to see any detail, but it is possible to get a rough idea of what is happening.

On one side is an heroically nude beardless youth trying to calm a horse bull (see comments below). Beneath the horse bull a woman rises up out of the ground: maybe a personification of a river? On the hero's left is a woman with lots of babies or Cupids. There are more figures to her left, including a struggling pair?

On the other side of the vase is a bearded man on a throne holding what might be a trident: Neptune? He is turning his head to look at a man in a tunic on his right. The man is turned away. A woman is clinging to the man's leg as if asking for mercy. To the right of the seated god are three other figures, one of whom seems to be dancing, like a maenad. In front of her a boy may be clapping his hands.

Underneath the two main scenes is a battle between figures on horseback and foot soldiers. We might expect Greeks v. Amazons or Centaurs v. Heroes but the battle depicted on the vase is not either of these.

Experts will be poring over this vase during the next few weeks, trying to determine whether it is real. One of the tests they might perform is on the chemical content of the glass, which will contain amounts of lead. If the lead content of the white glass on the vase matches the percentage of lead content of the Portland Vase then it is almost certainly genuine.*

Despite the handicap of not being able to examine the vase in close detail, my detectrix Flavia Gemina might try to determine whether it was real or not by making a list of clues.

Clues that the Bonhams Newby Vase might be real.

1. The owner does not want to sell at the moment and if it was a fake, the main motive would be getting rich by selling it.
2. Though bigger, the Bonhams Newby Vase is similar in shape to the Portland Vase.
3. The figures on the vase are just as mysterious as those on the Portland Vase, a forger might go for a well-known scene.
4. The hair and drapery of the figures is so close to those on the Portland Vase that they might be from the same workshop.
5. The handles are almost identical to those on the Portland Vase.

Clues that it might be a fake.

1. Perhaps the shape and style is too similar to the Portland Vase!
2. At first glance, it seems coarser than the Portland Vase, but it might just need a good clean.
3. The scenes are much more crowded and not as 'artistically' composed.

On balance, Flavia would conclude that the Bonhams Newby Vase is genuine. (Or by a very skilled and diabolically clever forger!)

Want to know more about Roman cameo glass? A new book called Roman Cameo Glass in the British Museum will be out in March. It is written by a team of experts: Paul Roberts, William Gudenrath, Veronica Tatton-Brown and David Whitehouse.
*P.S. My friend Mark Taylor, a Roman glass expert, says this:
The white glass will have lead in it, but it will not necessarily be similar in amount to that of the Portland Vase, though it would be nice if it was. Glass batches in the ancient world, although all based on a soda-lime composition, were different for virtually every potfull that was melted - due to the impurities in the raw materials and to the recycled glass that was added to the melt. They were also dependent on the required colour. If the compositions are very similar, then it is possible that the blanks were made within a day or so of each other.

**P.P.S. I have since decided that The Newby Vase is a better name than the Bonhams Vase. Martine Newby of the Ashmolean Museum is the clever scholar who first realised the worth of this big Roman cameo vase.

[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. A new series set in Roman Britain follows characters from the Roman Mysteries a dozen years later...]

Friday, October 02, 2009

Odysseus in Portus?

There is great excitement among Classicists and archaeologists about the University of Southampton's find of what may or may not be a luxury mini-amphitheatre in Portus, the imperial harbour fourteen miles west of Rome. I've just been looking at the pictures on the BBC photo gallery and saw this wonderful head of a bearded man (left) wearing what might be a pileus. The pileus was a felt skullcap, rounded or pointed. It could be the hat of a freedman, but also of a craftsman.

The bearded head from Portus made me think of a marvellous collection of oil-lamps I saw in Lipari (one of the Aeolian Islands in Sicily) in May. One of the oil-lamps depicts a bearded man wearing a pileus. His hammer and tongs show he is a blacksmith. His heroic nudity hints that he might be Vulcan, god of fire and the forge (and fish), and husband of Venus. I wonder if the bearded head from Portus could be Vulcan? According to Smith's Dictionary, Vulcan (AKA Hephaistos) was one of the few mythological figures who wore a felt skullcap. Also, Vulcan had a strong presence in Ostia, a few miles south of Portus.

But another famous character from Greek and Roman mythology often shown in a skullcap is Odysseus. The bearded head from Portus is very similar to the head of the Odysseus from Sperlonga , where the emperor Tiberius had a monumental sculpture of Odysseus blinding the cyclops in a grotto of his summer retreat. (The name Sperlonga comes from Latin speluncae i.e. "grottoes"). (below: bearded head from Portus & Odysseus from Sperlonga)

The monumental sculptural group of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus was a popular one. The emperor Domitian had a similar sculpture in a grotto of his imperial retreat on Lake Albano, fourteen miles southeast of Rome. I saw fragments of it last April when I toured the ruins of Domitian's Alban Citadel at the Pope's summer retreat in Castelgandolfo. Sadly, Polyphemus is all that survives of Domitian's monumental group. (below)

Other figures from Greek mythology who wore the felt skullcap were Charon the ferryman and Daedalus the craftsman and father of Icarus.

You can read all the reports about the 'luxurious mini-amphitheatre' at Portus on the official Portus Project site, but do also read Mary Beard's caveat!

[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. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game. Teachers, check out the SCHOOLS page.]