Sunday, June 14, 2009

The 10% Surprise

Ever since I read Homer's Iliad in translation and Mary Renault’s classic Classical historical novel The Last of the Wine, I have longed to go back in time to see what ancient Greece and Rome would have looked like.

Thanks to a wealth of written documents from that period, and the rich archaeological remains, we can make a fairly good guess at what 5th century BC Athens or 1st century AD Rome would have looked like.

Or can we?

When I go into schools to talk about my books - The Roman Mysteries - and about ancient Rome, I tell the children that my biggest wish is to have a time machine to go back for just one day. (My time machine would include an invisible transportation bubble which I could float around in to observe unseen. I would be able to hear and see through this bubble but it would protect the ancient Romans from my germs and it would protect me from their germs, stray arrows, ravening beasts in the arena, slave-dealers, pyroclastic flows, etc.)

I tell the kids my theory. That as I floated around first century Rome in my invisible time machine bubble I would see many things I was expecting. I would say to myself: ‘Yes, this is just as everyone said it would be. Classical Archaeologists got this about 90% right!’ But I think there would be some surprises, maybe 10%, where I would exclaim: ‘Great Juno’s beard! I never expected THAT!’

Caroline Lawrence in the forum set at Boyana Studios, Bulgaria in 2007
The problem is, we can’t know what that 10% is until someone invents a time machine.

The two books I read on my gap year inspired me to study Classics at U.C.Berkeley. I fell in love with the subject. The language, like a giant code; the art and archaeology, so beautiful and compelling; the primary sources by Greek and Roman authors so like us and yet so unlike us… All these things fed my addiction, my craving to know what the ancient world was like. Then – a year or two into my course – I saw a film depicting ancient Rome that blew my mind. It was like a curtain being pulled back. It was a horrible, fascinating, concept-overturning revelation. It was Fellini Satyricon and it made me think ‘THAT is what first century Rome would have looked like!’ (Be warned, kids: this film is rated X and for over 18's only!)

This was no clean, white-columned world of pristine togas and Marlon Brando enunciating ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen…’ This was a dimly-lit, colourful, sweaty, perverted place of jewel-coloured mini-tunics, smoky night-time scenes, boy-love, casual violence, cheap human life, the disabled and the disfigured. It stank of incense, sweat, lamp-smoke, open sewers and sacrificial blood. The music was strange and discordant, the language a strange babble.

I recently watched Fellini Satyricon again, and I’ve also just finished Mary Beard’s excellent Pompeii and together with my favourite witness of the Flavian period, Marcus Valerius Martialis AKA Martial, I have come up with a possible list of things that might surprise a 21st century time traveller if she went back to first century Rome around the time Vesuvius erupted.

1. The smell. One of the creators of HBO's Rome says 'You would smell Rome before you saw it.' Open sewers, dung in the street, smoke from oil-lamps, pine-pitch torches, urine from the fullers, rotting fish entrails from the garum factory, blood from hundreds of daily sacrifices, frying onions and sausage from fast-food joints, etc. People did not wear deodorant and many must have had rotting teeth. We know from the poet Martial that some Romans had such bad breath that they added perfume to their wine. Others chomped mastica, the ancient version of chewing gum.

2. Sacrificial smog. In first century Rome there were dozens of temples and most of them sacrificed animals and then roasted them. This was probably a main source of cooked meat in Roman times. There would also have been smoke from a thousand braziers, outlets from the hypocausts at the baths, daily funeral pyres, small-scale industry like pottery kilns and glass-blowers, plus pine-pitch torches burning at night. Rome probably had a permanent cloud of smoke hanging over it.

3. Animals in the forum. The best thing about HBO’s Rome was the set dressing. They put chickens in the forum, furtively scavenging dogs in the market, rats in the sewers. Romans used mules or oxen to pull the carts, rather than horses, but there was no wheeled traffic in Rome during hours of daylight. This caused too much congestion. An ox who had trampled a child wore hay on his horn as a beware sign, but was not banned from the streets. Mary Beard points out that Roman hitching posts were the holes you can still see drilled in the pavement edge.

4. Bodies on crosses and beggars in the gutter. The mouldering bodies of crucified slaves and criminals would have lined the streets in and out of Rome, along with the tombs of the dead. The area behind the tombs were probably used as shanty towns by the poor and unwanted babies were often exposed there. We know from Martial that there were beggars everywhere, many of them would have been child beggars, but you would also find the crippled, blind and otherwise disabled.

5. Low grade infections and disease. The worst diseases killed off a good percent of the population but those who survived would probably be suffering much more than we allow for in our TV and film depictions. Skin ulcers from poor nutrition for all but the richest Romans, spotty skin (Martial tells us skin patches were fashionable at this time), pink-eye would probably have been the most common affliction. Today we can easily get something over the counter to quickly stop eye-infection and a tube of Savlon for wounds. Then, the tiniest cut opened the possibility of a life-threatening infection. Also, bunions from the cold and verrucas from the unhygienic baths. And did I mention worms?

6. The cacophony of the city. Music would have sounded discordant to our ears. It was mainly banging, jingling and plucking. Maybe some strange singing, like a combination of Indian and Arabic music, alien to our Western ears. The town crier – or town criers – would constantly be patrolling the streets, shouting out the hour and the latest news. You would have heard asses braying, donkey bells, priests processing with tambourines and chanting, dogs barking, babies crying, couples arguing, roosters crowing. All in the heart of the city.

7. Gaudy Rome. Colour was everywhere. Blood red paint on walls and on the bases of every column. Mustard yellow and black were also popular colours for walls. Mosaics, frescoes, graffiti on the walls. Statues were painted. If marble in the forum wasn’t exotic green, yellow or pink, then it was coloured by hand. In the film Gladiator, Ridley Scott drains Rome of colour, to make it look almost black and white. This is just wrong. The set designers of HBO’s Rome and The Roman Mysteries did better. Fellini Satyricon probably did best. Rome would have looked more like Mexico City on fiesta day or Calcutta during Diwali. Mary Beard notes that Pompeian frescoes show us how colourful Roman’s clothes would have been. White was the colour of the candidate (the word comes from Latin candida: white) and was only achieved with much effort and use of chalk. It was a rarity.

8. Vermin. Rats in your apartment. Feral cats scavenging in rubbish tips. Possibly feral dogs, too. Flies everywhere. Lice in your tunic. Fleas on your animals. Mosquitoes in the summer. In the hotter Roman provinces they had scorpions and snakes, too. You never walked alone. Oh yes: let's not forget intestinal worms, etc...

9. Long-haired-boy love. In Rome a man was considered strange if he was sexually attracted only to women or only to adolescent boys. The norm was to desire both. There was no concept of child rights or child abuse in ancient Rome. Children were mini-adults. It was accepted that pre-pubescent boys would be openly courted by older men. Martial himself was one such man. In his mid-forties, he sulks because a beardless boy rejects his advances in favour of another middle-aged man. When a boy started his first beard, only then did he cut his hair. This is the main reason Roman boys had a paedagogus accompany them to school. To protect them from the distraction of randy adult suitors.

10. Child labour. If a boy wasn’t being accosted on the way to his school (often nothing more than a screened-off section of a colonnade in the forum) he was probably working for his father. Girls were indoors weaving, if they were lucky. Childhood officially ended at 12 for girls (when they could legally marry) and 16 for boys, (when they put on the toga virilis). But that was only in families rich enough not to have to put their kids to work, perhaps 10% of the population at most.

11. Superstition, superstition, superstition. Almost every waking action was accompanied by some ritual to avert bad luck or disaster. The Romans did not believe in an infinite and benevolent God, but in a world of peevish gods to be appeased and astrological forces to be observed. Almost every emperor had his astrologer. Shrines were like ancient cashpoints, but you made deposits there, not withdrawals. Daily offerings were made in your household shrine, apotropaic charms were worn, blood spilt on temple altars, the sign against evil performed without thinking, as regularly as we rub our nose or scratch our chin today. Step over the threshold with your right foot. Don’t even leave the house on inauspicious days. An eclipse? Disaster!

12. The crumbling city. Rome was not a 'nanny state'. There were very few regulations about building. Fires were a daily occurrence. Apartment blocks often crumbled and collapsed without warning. Chamberpots were emptied out of windows. Shop displays and tavern tables spilled out onto the pavement. Roads and sidewalks would have been obstacle courses of uneven paving stones, sleeping dogs and even human faeces. Who repaired potholes in the street? Or a dangerously leaning wall? Many buildings were probably being built or undergoing repair, covered in scaffolding and/or the ancient equivalent of the bright orange plastic netting you see all over Rome today. One of the most memorable scenes in Fellini Satyricon is of a lofty ziggurat-like apartment block crumbling away, sending men, women, children and animals screaming for safety.

In the light of all this, would I still like a time machine to go back to first century Rome?


But only if I had that floating protective bubble of invisibility!

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]


  1. Great post, Caroline (glad you enjoyed Pompeii too), Mary

  2. Thanks, Mary! I love the way you never assume anything and always take a fresh look at everything. I loved 'Pompeii'!

  3. Sounds a bit like New York City (I say this as a New Yorker). Great post.

  4. LOL. Presumably you mean this bit is like NY?

    This was a dimly-lit, colourful, sweaty, perverted place of jewel-coloured mini-tunics, smoky night-time scenes, boy-love, casual violence, cheap human life, the disabled and the disfigured. It stank of incense, sweat, lamp-smoke, open sewers and sacrificial blood. The music was strange and discordant, the language a strange babble.

  5. I like your specification for a time machine - especially the bit about being invisible and untouchable! The idea that Roman cities would have been noisier, smellier, brighter and above all livelier than some sanitised Hollywood versions simply makes them more interesting. Aside from Rome itself, where else would you head for in your time machine? I'd go for first-century Alexandria I think.

  6. I have a sister who loves Roman Mysterys and it is good to see the person who wrote them's blog.

  7. I still would go back and see any cost. The only thing I'd fear is that modern life in big cities would make Rome seem small in comparison.