Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Riddle of the Roman Vase

The next time you are in central London, you should visit the Portland Vase in Room 70 of the British Museum.

The ‘Portland Vase’ is the modern name for one of the most famous pieces of Roman art in the world. It is a beautiful blue and white glass amphora made in the extremely difficult ‘cameo technique’. In this method of manufacture, opaque white glass covers darker glass (watch a demo HERE) and is then painstakingly carved away to show a scene in relief (i.e. ‘bumpy'). We know from chemical analysis that this beautiful vase was made in Roman times. We know from the glass technique used that it was probably produced around the time of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian Augustus (between about 30 BC and AD 20). We know that the vase used to have a pointy bottom, like all amphoras, but that this was broken during its many adventures (check out Wikipedia or the excellent Mystery of the Portland Vase) and a new flat bottom was fitted.

Everybody agrees that the Portland Vase is a masterpiece, but not everybody agrees about what it was used for or who commissioned it. (A vase this finely-crafted and expensive must have been ordered by a very rich person.) And the biggest mystery is: who are the seven figures on the vase?

Only one of the figures is easy to identify. It is found on the side which scholars call the ‘A-side’. It is the flying baby with the torch and bow: the Roman god of love, Cupid. His presence means that the couple below him are about to fall in love.

But who are the two lovers? Who is the lady with wet or dishevelled hair and a snake in her lap? Who is the young man she is holding on to? And who is that pensive bearded guy over to the right?

On the other side – the ‘B-side’ - are some more mysterious seated figures: a naked youth, a woman with a hairdo datable to around 30 BC, and a woman holding a downturned torch and tearing her hair. Who could they be? And what are they all sitting on?

We can identify Cupid on the A-side by his wings and bow, but none of the others are obvious. This may be because they are real people, rather than Greek heroes or Roman gods. Another interesting aspect is that women are the central figures on both sides. But that still doesn’t help us.

Who are they? Scholars have put forward more than 50 different theories.

Susan Walker, Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, presents an exciting theory in her book The Portland Vase (Objects in Focus). She believes the woman with the snake is Cleopatra and that Octavia is on the other side. Those of you who have read The Beggar of Volubilis know that Octavia (sister of the emperor Augustus) lost her husband Antonius to Cleopatra, but after their deaths she nobly raised their surviving children as her own. Susan Walker's theory is quite persuasive, but it was an asp that killed Cleopatra, not a sea-snake, and her identification of the bearded man as Mark Anthony's father is also unconvincing.

Other scholars believe the woman with the snake is Thetis, the beautiful sea-nymph and mother of Achilles. It was prophesied that her son would be more powerful than his father. All the gods of Olympus desired her, but Jupiter knew it would be fatal if one of them sired her child: that child would be more powerful than any of them. So he told a mortal, Peleus, the secret of winning Thetis. ‘She can change into any creature,’ warned Jupiter, ‘but if you hang on tight then she will be yours.’ Is the handsome young hero Peleus? And is the man watching Jupiter?

The only problem with that theory is that she’s holding onto the handsome man, not the other way round. And Jupiter does not have any of his trademark identifying symbols. No thunderbolt, staff or crown. And who would have commissioned a fabulously expensive amphora showing the origins of a Greek hero? The Romans believed they were descended from the Trojans, mortal enemies of the Greeks.

Stephen Pollock-Hill is a modern glassmaker. He owns one of the few glass factories in Britain where glass is still blown in the ancient way. His firm – Nazeing Glass – has produced specialty items such as railway signal lenses, glass wall-blocks and laboratory beakers and tubes. (right: Stephen with engraver Lesley Pyke © Lesley Pyke)

One of Stephen’s passions is the Portland Vase. Over the next year, Nazeing Glass is going to produce ten interpretations of the vase. Skilled glass-makers will blow cobalt blue glass and then coat it with opaque white glass at just the right temperature so that the coating sticks and doesn’t make the glass underneath crack. Then ten engravers from all over the world will each carve their version of the figures on the Portland Vase. (You can watch a fascinating clip of one of them, Lesley Pyke, on her website This project will cost over £100,000!

One beautiful spring evening, on Tuesday 22 April 2009, I went to the Art Workers Guild near Great Ormond Street in London to hear Stephen give a talk about the vase. Speaking in a beautiful lecture hall full of portraits of famous craftsmen and artists, Stephen presented his theory about the identity of the seven figures on the vase. Members of The Glass Circle were there, and also Dr Paul Roberts, the Curator of Greek & Roman Antiquities at the British Museum and an expert on Roman cameo glass.

Stephen Pollock-Hill believes the woman with the snake is Atia, mother of Octavian and Octavia. She claimed to have been visited by a snake at the sanctuary of Apollo nine months before the birth of Octavian. (In Roman times a snake was good luck, not bad luck, and Apollo is often associated with a snake.) The man she is clutching is Gaius Octavian, her husband and the man with the beard could be the Trojan hero Aeneas – ancestor of Romulus and Remus. What about the B-side? Stephen believes the woman in the centre is Octavian Augustus’s second wife Scribonia, who was rejected in favour of Livia. The downturned torch could show her failure. The handsome man on the left is Octavian himself, the future emperor, gazing into the eyes of Livia, who would become his empress and mother of Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius.

Who do YOU think the figures are? Can you find other examples of a woman with a snake or a woman with a downturned torch? (Is it a torch of 'love' or a torch of 'life'?) The two handsome men and the bearded man don’t have any special attributes, so they might well be real people. Any ideas about what the woman with the torch is sitting on? Could it be a funeral pyre? Or something else? You should also think about who would commission such a fabulous piece of art. 

I can’t wait to hear your theories.

In the meantime, Stephen and his glassmakers will soon be firing up the furnaces to make modern versions of this mysterious and beautiful Roman masterpiece, the Portland Vase.

P.S. Since I wrote this blog, another magnificent cameo-glass vase has appeared: the Bonham Vase or Newby Vase as it's also called. Read about it HERE.

[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. You can watch season one of a BBC adaptation of the Roman Mysteries on iTunes.]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Flaccus Fever!

Over half the readers of the Roman Mysteries want Flavia to marry the young orator and poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus, whom Flavia calls Floppy. But who is he? (right: Francesca Isherwood as Flavia, Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Flaccus)

For those who have only seen the TV series - or haven't yet read books 8 to 16 - here are a few excerpts to get you up to speed.

Flavia meets Flaccus

Flavia studied the young man as he came towards them across the moving deck. She remembered seeing him and his slave-boy come on board, but she had been too busy saying goodbye to Scuto and Alma to take much notice.

He was tall and muscular, with dark eyes and floppy dark hair. The two broad stripes on his short-sleeved tunic told Flavia he was a patrician, like Bato. She guessed he was a little younger than her tutor Aristo, about eighteen or nineteen years old. He was very good-looking, so she gave him her prettiest smile.

The young man ignored her smile and went straight up to Bato. 'Hello,' he said in a deep cultured voice. 'My name is Gaius Valerius Flaccus.'

'Marcus Artorius Bato,' said the other. 'Let me introduce you to Flavia Gemina, the captain's daughter, and her friends Jonathan, Nubia and – '

'How long do you think it will take us to reach Corinth?' said the passenger, not even looking at Flavia. He was chewing some kind of gum or resin.

'Four or five days,' said Aristo, stepping up to join them on the crowded platform. 'That's if the wind is favourable. It will take a week to ten days if not.'

Flaccus nodded and moved to the rail. As he did so, he jostled Flavia. She fought back an urge to thump him hard. 'Big oaf,' she muttered under her breath, and gave him a withering look.

But Flaccus was oblivious. He rested his forearms on the polished stern rail and chomped his gum. 'My father left me a nice legacy,' he remarked, 'and I thought I'd see the Seven Sights before I begin to practise law in Rome.'

'Oh, I know the Seven Sights!' cried Flavia, her desire to show off overcoming her irritation. 'They're the famous monuments which everybody says you must see before you die. Some people call them the Seven Wonders of the world.'

'From Delos I plan to go on to Rhodes or Alexandria,' said Flaccus to Bato and Aristo, with barely a glance at Flavia, who had begun to count on her fingers. 'There's the statue of Zeus at Olympia,' she began, 'the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of – '

'Let's go down to the main deck,' said Flaccus abruptly to Aristo and Bato. 'We can talk more easily there.'

'How rude!' hissed Flavia when the three men had left the stern platform.

Lupus nodded.

'I didn't tell him there would be four children on board,' said Captain Geminus. He glanced over his shoulder at them. 'Flaccus is very rich and he's paying me well, so keep out of his way.'

'Happily,' muttered Flavia and then made her voice deep and cultured: 'My father left me a nice legacy,' she said, mimicking Flaccus and pretending to chomp. 'I thought I'd see the Seven Sights before I become a pompous lawyer up in Rome . . . '

Lupus laughed and Jonathan grinned.

Flavia snorted. 'Look at him, chewing like a cow. And Flaccus is a stupid name. It means big-eared or flabby.'

'Well, he doesn't have big ears and he certainly isn't flabby,' said Jonathan. 'He's got more muscles than most gladiators I know.'

'Then it must refer to his floppy hair.' Flavia clenched her fists to make her biceps big and flipped an imaginary fringe out of her eyes: 'I'm Gaius Vapidius Floppy,' she breathed huskily. 'But you can just call me Floppy.'

(from Roman Mystery VIII, The Colossus of Rhodes)

Flavia gets advice from Flaccus

Flavia twirled the blue parasol Pulchra had loaned her, and she tried swinging her hips a little, the way Leucosia the slave-girl did. But it made her stagger and she almost fell off her cork-heeled shoes. Suddenly a muscular arm blocked her way and she looked up to see Flaccus glaring down at her.

'Where do you think you're going?' he said, his hand pressing the plaster wall beside her. He looked very handsome in a dark-blue tunic bordered with gold thread.

'To the beach banquet,' she said.

'Looking like that?'

'Looking like what?'

'Looking so grown up. As if you're sixteen years old, with all that dark stuff around your eyes – '

'Thank you,' she said, twirling her parasol. 'It's kohl – '

' – and the colour on your mouth and cheeks… Take it off.'

'What do you mean?'

'Go back to your room and take it off.'

'Who do you think you are?' she cried. 'You're not my pater!'

He leaned closer, his face still grim. 'And if your pater were here? What would he say?'

(from Roman Mystery XI, The Sirens of Surrentum)

Flavia encourages Flaccus

‘If there is any immortality to be had in this world,’ said Flaccus quietly, ‘it is through the things we write. Cicero made the right decision.’ He paused and looked up at her with his dark eyes. ‘You know, the anniversary of his death is the day after tomorrow.’

‘The day of the trial!’ breathed Flavia. ‘Do you think it’s an omen?’

‘I hope not,’ he said with a shrug, but she thought she saw him shiver.

‘Drink your wine while it’s hot,’ she said. ‘It will warm you.’

He dutifully took a sip from the steaming beaker.

A breeze from the garden brought a scent of winter jasmine and ruffled his glossy dark hair. Flavia tucked her feet under her and studied him. She always forgot how handsome he was, with his long, thick eyelashes and straight nose and sensitive mouth. She remembered that once she had imagined kissing those lips.

He looked up at her and she felt her cheeks grow warm.

‘Flavia,’ he said. ‘May I tell you something?’

‘Of course,’ she said brightly.

‘Something very personal?’

‘Yes.’ Her heart beat faster.

‘You won't laugh?’

‘I promise.’

He looked down at the scroll. ‘I’m terrified.’

‘Terrified? Of what?’

‘Of the trial.’ His voice was very low.

‘But why?’

‘I've never pleaded a case before.’

‘But you studied rhetoric, didn’t you?’

‘Yes. At the academy in Athens.’

‘And didn’t you say you were going to practise law in Rome?’

‘I’ve been so busy searching for a master criminal that I haven’t had a chance.’

‘Oh. But didn’t you plead cases when you were studying in Athens?’

‘Only practice cases, like the one about Cicero. This is real. Someone’s freedom is at stake. Maybe their life.’ He suddenly seemed very young and vulnerable, and she remembered he was not yet twenty.

‘Oh, Gaius!’ The leather armchair creaked as she sat forward. ‘You’ll be marvellous. You have the most marvellous voice, and you look marvellous in a toga and you know lots of Greek and... you’ll be marvellous!’ She felt herself flushing and wondered if she had gone too far.

‘You repeated the word marvellous too many times,’ he said.

But then he smiled at her, and she knew she had said exactly the right thing.

(from Roman Mystery XIII, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem)

Flavia gets a proposal from Flaccus

‘Flavia,’ he said, his voice deep with emotion. ‘Flavia, will you marry me?’

Flavia closed her mouth.

Flaccus smiled and moved out from behind her father’s desk. ‘We won’t have the betrothal ceremony until June,’ he said, ‘when you come of age. And we don’t have to have the actual wedding until you’re fifteen or sixteen.’ He took another step towards her and now he was so close that she could feel the heat radiating from his muscular body.

‘I just want to know that one day you’ll be mine,’ he said softly, and added, ‘I know you have feelings for me. I can see it in your eyes.’

Flavia’s heart was pounding and she could feel her resolve wavering. Floppy loved her. He loved her!

...From the house next door came the sudden thin cry of a baby...

Flavia swallowed and shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Gaius Valerius Flaccus,’ she said. ‘But I have just this morning taken a vow of chastity. I made a vow to Diana. Nubia and I have renounced men forever.’

(from Roman Mystery XIV, The Beggar of Volubilis)

Flavia gets a shock

‘Floppy!’ She dropped the hat and ran across the marble floor and threw her arms around him. ‘Oh, Floppy! I can’t believe you’re here!’

For a wonderful moment she was hugging his slim warm waist and smelling his musky cinnamon body oil and hearing his heart thudding against her ear. But instead of greeting her in return, he took her gently by the shoulders and pushed her away. His hands were trembling and his face was very pale. ‘Flavia Gemina,’ he stammered. ‘Is it really you? We all thought you were… That is…’ He gestured stiffly towards two young women standing in the shadows behind him. ‘Flavia, I’d like you to meet Prudentilla. My sponsa.’

(from Roman Mystery XVI, The Prophet from Ephesus)

Eheu! Floppy is engaged to a woman called Prudentilla! What do you think? Is he the One? Or should Flavia forget Floppy and go for someone else? All will be revealed in the final book of the series: The Man from Pomegranate Street... In the meantime, vote for your choice in the poll at the top of this page on the left.

P.S. Gaius Valerius Flaccus was a real person. Not much is known of him, only that he started an epic poem called the Argonautica in about AD 79 and... but I wouldn't want to spoil anything.

[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. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Serendipity in Surrentum

'How I discovered the Villa Limona' by Caroline Lawrence

Villa of Pollius Felix from the Roman Mysteries Treasury
'Let's go on a holiday to Rome and Naples,' said my sister one day, on the phone. It was 2000. I was living in London with my husband Richard, she was raising two boys in California.

'OK,' I said. 'You book the hotel in Rome, and I'll try to find a villa near Pompeii.'

This would fit perfectly with my research. My next books - The Secrets of Vesuvius & The Pirates of Pompeii - would be set before, during and after the eruption of Vesuvius. I had decided that the uncle of Flavia, my main character, owned a farm in Stabia. I chose Stabia because it's near Pompeii, but not too near.
I phoned a travel firm that specialized in Italian villas.

'I'd like a villa big enough for six people near Stabia,' I said.

Silence. Then 'Do you mean Castellammare di Stabia?' she said. 'We don't have villas there.'

'Or anywhere near Pompeii,' I said. 'I want to be in the plain near Pompeii.'

Another pause. 'Most people stay in Sorrento if they want to visit Pompeii.'

'Do you have villas in Sorrento?'

'Of course.' She went on to describe a big house called the Villa Citrona. Not only was it luxurious, with stunning views, but it had lemon groves and an outdoor swimming pool. And was available for mid-October. The only drawback was that it was up in the hills and we would need to rent a car in Naples. But apart from that, it sounded blissful. The lady asked if I would like to book it. (above: not the swimming pool of the Villa Citrona, but a set from The Roman Mysteries TV series)

'Yes,' I said excitedly. 'But I have to ring my sister and confirm it with her. I'll phone you straight back.' I phoned my sister and told her about the Villa Citrona.

'Sure. Book it,' she said.

Villa of Pollius Felix today
I phoned the travel agent. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'Someone else has just reserved the Villa Citrona. But I can give you the Villa Magnolia, on the Capo di Sorrento.'

'All right,' I sighed, dejected. 'I suppose I'll take that.'

As soon as we arrived in Naples and took the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, I realised several things.

First, the area around Pompeii is flat, industrial and ugly. It may have been lush and beautiful in Roman times, but today it's covered with factories and a pall of smog. I'm glad we didn't book a villa in Stabia.

Secondly, it's suicide to rent a car and drive in that part of Italy. Here is a joke the Italians tell: In Milan, traffic lights are the law. In Rome, traffic lights are a suggestion. In Naples, traffic lights are Christmas decoration. I'm glad we didn't get the Villa Citrona after all; we would have had to drive everywhere.

Third, being shunted to the Villa Magnolia was one of the best things that could have happened.

The first day we arrived I wandered down to the coast road to explore. I saw a yellow sign: Ruderi Villa Romana di Pollio Felice 1sec d.C. (The first century ruins of the Roman Villa of Pollius Felix) I had never heard of any Roman ruins here on the Capo di Sorrento. I followed it down and soon I caught glimpses of the blue sea through the olive trees on my right. Then I came to the end of the road. Before me lay the headland and the clear remains of an ancient building. When I saw the secret cove, I knew this had to be the setting for the pirates’ base in The Pirates of Pompeii.

Pollius Felix from The Roman Mysteries TV series
Back in England I discovered that Pollius Felix had been a powerful patron – probably of Greek origin – who lived exactly during the time of Flavia and her friends. Even more exciting, his wife may have been Polla Argentaria, the widow of Lucan, a poet who was implicated in a plot against Nero and forced to kill himself. A poem by a Roman called Statius describes Felix's villa and a shrine to Hercules on the Cape of Surrentum.

Millie Binks as Pulchra
Pollius Felix and his wife Polla and their eldest daughter Pulchra (right: from The Roman Mysteries TV series) became some of the most important characters in my books, and two of my favourites in the series - The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum - are set at the Villa of Pollius Felix. There are still people in the area with the name Pollio and the beach next to this headland is called Puolo.
If we hadn't been shunted to the Villa Magnolia, I might never have learnt of the Villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento.

By the way, SERENDIPITY is when you make an unexpected, lucky discovery.

P.S. Two of my Roman Mystery books are set at the Villa of Pollius Felix: The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum. And don't forget the Roman Mysteries Travel Guide

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Vivat Minimus!

A dozen years ago, I was a Latin teacher at a small independent primary school in London. I used the Cambridge Latin Course, supplemented by my own worksheets. The Cambridge Latin Course was excellent, but suited to children older than those eight to ten, the ages of my pupils. I wish now that I'd had a course like the popular Minimus. But by the time Minimus series came out, I had left teaching to become an author. I finally got around to reading the first Minimus textbook last week... and I loved it! I emailed Barbara Bell - the creator - to compliment her, and as a result we agreed to meet for lunch in the Court Restaurant of the British Museum.

It is a lovely fluffy spring day in London. I am a little early for my appointment with Barbara so I make our reservations and then go for a walk up to Waterstones on Gower Street. In the children's book section I notice a man looking at one of my books. 'I wrote those books,' I say, 'and if you'll buy one of them, I'll sign it!'

'Thank you,' he says, smiling, 'but I think my children already have them all.'

I notice he is with a girl and a boy. Although I am not a natural saleswoman, my retail instincts kick in. 'Do you have the Roman Mysteries Travel Guide?' I ask, pulling that book off the shelf and holding it up. 'Or Trimalchio's Feast and other Mini-mysteries?' I hold up this book, too.

The girl and the boy shake their heads. In the end I sign Trimalchio's Feast to 'Tim' and Travels with Flavia Gemina to 'Alice'. That makes me very happy.

I walk to the British Museum and wait under the statue of the naked guy on the horse. I am reading Percy Jackson and The Sword of Hades, a world book day book. It's OK, but I'm not a huge fan of fantasy... I like the Groovy Greeks on the back though!

Barbara arrives exactly on time. She looks very elegant with stylishly cut hair and lavender outfit. She has to look nice; she is going to City Hall to meet the mayor Boris Johnson, and other Classicists, to talk about bringing the classics to inner city schools. Everybody knows our mayor is a Classicist. Yay! I hand her a signed first edition of The Slave-girl from Jerusalem to give to him. Why that particular book? Because it has lots about Roman oratory, and Boris loves oratory.

I give Barbara a signed first-edition of The Sirens of Surrentum because it is the most 'grown-up' and romantic. It turns out she loves Sorrento as much as I do and is going there in a few days! Here are some other things we have in common.

1. We both adore Italy and especially Sorrento
2. We both have a character named Flavia
3. We have both been to the Villa of Pollius Felix more than once
4. We both love the Latin language, and especially Virgil
5. We both have books set in Vindolanda...
(or at any rate she does now and I soon will!)

As we wait for our tuna steak to come, Barbara gives me some adorable Minimus Mini Stories, and then tells me some exciting news: the sales of Minimus textbooks have just passed 100,000!

We almost order champagne to celebrate, but then don't. Barbara needs a clear head for the mayor's important meeting!

Go Barbara! Go Boris! Go Classics in inner city schools! And Vivat Minimus! (Long live Minimus!)

For more info about the mouse that made Latin cool, go to

And you might like to know that Minimus - I mean Barbara - always stays at the beautiful Hotel del Mare in Marina Grande. It has stunning views across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius and is close to the Villa of Pollius Felix. I'm certainly going to stay there next time I visit Sorrento. Maybe I'll see you there!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Classical Association Award

On Sunday 5 April something wonderful happened. I received the Classical Association Award for 2009. This award is given every year to a person (or team of people) who help make the Classics more accessible and popular to the public.

I was very honoured because – apart from my sponge-stick (ancient Roman toilet paper) – it is the first award I have ever won for my books. It means a lot to me that the award was chosen by Classics-lovers and experts in their fields. The four previous winners are all brilliant and it’s a huge honour for me to be in their company: Barbara Bell of the Minimus Latin Course; Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden for their War with Troy project; Tom Holland, who writes wonderfully readable historical best-sellers like Rubicon; and Peter Parsons, author of the fascinating City of the Sharp-nosed Fish (which I used a lot in my research for The Scribes from Alexandria).

I fly up to Glasgow on Saturday and arrive at the luxurious Crowne Plaza Hotel, close to some of Glasgow’s funkiest architecture. I explore Glasgow on Saturday evening and on Sunday I hear some fascinating talks, including one about the Villa of Pollius Felix (the speaker doesn’t suspect it plays a major part in two of my books) and one about about how teachers can use Latin poems as mnemonics to help you remember different meters. One of my favourite talks is given by Andrew Reinhard. It is about how to use Mobile Phones in Latin Class. (Only the title is longer) It’s great to meet Andrew. He is very enthusiastic and imaginative and has an exciting website, which is ‘more wired than a Roman internet cafĂ©’. I think I’ll be hanging out there a lot.

Some of the talks are so full of information that they make my brain hurt. Classicists are fiercely intelligent. You want to be careful not to get your brain snapped in two by their trap-like minds. Someone with a very trap-like mind is Richard Seaford, who gives a 50 minute speech without notes to all the delegates. They call this a ‘keynote’ speech. Sometimes they also call it ‘plenary’, which just means that everybody goes. (To see what he said, read Mary Beard’s great synopsis on her blog, A Don's Life.)

After the speech there is a drinks party. I see Classics celebrity Mary Beard. She was at Newnham College the same time I was, many years ago. I am really enjoying her new book on Pompeii and I tell her so. The drinks party soon becomes a bit of a scrum so I nip up to my room to do a quick ‘tweet’. (Hmmm. I hope you don't misunderstand this...) When I come back down, 400 people have disappeared! Finally some of the hotel staff see me wandering around. ‘There she is,’ one says. They show me to a massive banqueting room which has magically appeared, like Brigadoon. A man with a walkie-talkie shows me to the top table. Gulp! I find myself sitting up there like one of the gods on Mount Olympus, with lots of luminaries of the Classical world. I try not to get my brain pinched by their trap-like minds. Luckily I make it through to dessert.

After dessert and over coffee, Emma Stafford, the publicity officer for the Classical Association, gives a wonderful synopsis of my books and then presents me with the Classics Association Prize. It is an envelope with a cheque for £5000 inside. Euge!

I try to make my acceptance speech short and sweet. Thanks to my trusty sponge-on-a-stick, it gets a laugh. I then promise to give away some free copies of The Pirates of Pompeii at the end. When the banquet is officially over, there is a little rush to the top table, but like all good British, they form an orderly queue. However, one delegate gets wine spilled on her beautiful dress in her hurry not to lose a place in the queue. Luckily I have one book left. (BTW, if you were at the conference and didn’t get your free copy, email me at flaviagemina AT with your name and address, and I’ll send you a copy for free.)

After I have given away the last book and said thanks to the organizers, I go up to my room, buzzing with happiness and gratitude.

On Monday, the morning after the banquet, there are some more tempting talks, designed to discourage delegates from leaving early. I hear two different talks on Erotic Greek Pottery (which always makes me think of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and one about ‘Dr Who in Pompeii’! (only the title is longer) See? Classicists can have fun sometimes.

The best bit is when a stunningly beautiful Classicist named Joanna Paul gives a talk on Pompeii in the Modern Novel (only the title is longer) and I get a mention between Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Robert Harris. My joy is complete. I am laetissima.

Gratias maximas ago, Classical Association and Classical Association of Scotland!