Monday, January 31, 2011

Themes & Topics

Themes and Topics in the Roman Mysteries
compiled by the author herself: Caroline Lawrence

These are the various themes and topics I had in mind while writing the Roman Mysteries. But writing is as much an intuitive right-brain exercise as a logical left-brain one. In other words, even the author doesn't always know everything he/she is doing. So if you think you've seen something new or different, you are probably right!

Book 1: The Thieves of Ostia (theme: fear of the unknown)
Roman topic: introduction to a Roman town (Ostia port of Rome) & Roman social structure.
Real historical characters: Cartilius Poplicola (resident of Ostia attested in inscriptions)
Sources: The Aeneid, the Bible, Ostian inscriptions
Greek myths: Aeneas, Cerberus, Perseus and Medusa
featured food: snails, stuffed dormice, dates, fruit
key artefacts and objects: signet ring, wax tablet & stylus, oil lamp, tombs, amphoras, quartz dice
ROMANS Key Stages 2 & 3 - relevant blogs: How to Make a Stola, A Day in Ostia

Book 2: The Secrets of Vesuvius (theme: parentage & adoption)
Roman topic: the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii & surrounding towns
Real historical characters: Pliny the Elder, Titus Tascius Pomponianus, Rectina
Sources: Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Ostian graffito
Greek myths: the return of Vulcan, Thetis, Achilles
Roman festivals: Vinalia, Vulcanalia
Pliny's simple fare: cheese, fruit, eggs; Tascius's rich fare: turbot in dill sauce
key artefacts: scrolls, portable inkpot & pen, flute, pan-pipes, parasol, cushions

Book 3: The Pirates of Pompeii (theme: slavery & freedom)
Nubia's book
Roman topic: Patrons and clients, slaves and freedmen
Real historical characters: The Emperor Titus, Pollius Felix (attested in a poem of Statius)
Historical site: the villa of Pollius Felix on the Cape of Sorrento, Scraio (spa town near Sorrento)
Sources: Pompeian graffiti, Statius's 'Silvae' (poems)
Greek myths: Dionysus and the pirates, Ariadne & Theseus
food: lemons (recently introduced); goat stew, flat bread, chickpeas, mineral water, sage tea
key artefacts: earrings, hairpins, theatrical masks, lyre, flute, kylix (Greek drinking cup)

Book 4: The Assassins of Rome (theme: guilt)
Jonathan's book
Roman topic: Nero's golden house, the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish slave labour, chariot races
Real historical characters: Emperor Titus, Berenice, Domitian, Josephus
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Homer, Josephus, the Bible
Greek myths: Odysseus, Polyphemus the cyclops, Penelope the faithful wife
Jewish festivals: Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Succot
featured food: exotic oranges; buttermilk; honey dipped apples for Rosh Hashanna
key artefacts: wax tablet & stylus, alabastron, loom & weights, bass lyre, tambourine

Book 5: The Dolphins of Laurentum (revenge & forgiveness)
Lupus's book
Roman topic: a real maritime villa, sponge-diving on the Greek islands
Real historical characters: Pliny the Younger
Sources: Pliny the Younger's letter about his Laurentum villa (letter II.xvii)
Greek myths: Medusa, Arion & the dolphins, Neptune & Amphitrite
Roman festival: Meditrinalia
featured food: honey glazed prawns, chicken soup
key artefacts: sponge-stick, sea-sponges, dolphin earrings, anchors, ball games

Book 6: The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina (love & marriage)
Flavia's book
Roman topic: Love, betrothal and marriage in first century Rome
Historical site: notable buildings in and around Ostia
Sources: Ostian inscriptions, Ovid, Martial, Apollodorus
Greek myths: Twelve Tasks of Hercules, Pygmalion, Cerberus, Atalanta
Roman festival: Saturnalia
food: lentil stew, eggs, plums, oysters, mushrooms, quail pie, boar, ostrich, love potion!
key artefacts: sigilla (figurines), dice, objects in household shrine, strigil & bath set

Book 7: The Enemies of Jupiter (theme: hubris)
Jonathan's book
Roman topic: medicine and doctors in first century Rome
Real historical sites: Tiber Island, Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter
Sources: Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Galen, Pliny the Elder, Hippocrates
Greek myths: Prometheus & Pandora, Aesculapius, Niobe and her children
featured food: food for medicinal properties, light, medium & heavy foods, etc
key artefacts: bleeding cup, votive parts of the body, medical instruments

Book 8: The Gladiator from Capua (theme: blood & sacrifice)
Nubia's book
Roman topic: gladiators, beast-fights and the opening of the Colosseum in spring of AD 80
Real historical sites: the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum), Domus Aurea, Mons Testaccio
Real historical figures: Titus, Domitian, Carpophorus the beast-fighter, Martial
Sources: Martial, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Ovid, Statius, Seneca, Pliny
Greek myths: Orpheus, Ganymede, Prometheus, and more
Jewish festival: Passover
featured food: barley porridge for gladiators, snacks sold at games, etc.
key artefacts: gladiatorial arms & armour, ancient souvenirs, lottery balls thrown to crowds

Book 9: The Colossus of Rhodes (theme: vows & promises)
Lupus's book
Roman topics: the seven wonders of the world, ancient 'tourism'
Historical sites: Rhodes, Symi , Kalymnos
Sources: Pliny the Elder, Apollonius of Rhodes, Homer
Greek myths: Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes
GREEKS KS2 & 3 - relevant blogs: Colossus of Rhodes, Ancient Gum, Hylas

Book 10: The Fugitive from Corinth (theme: jealousy)
Nubia's book
Roman topics: Greeks in the Roman world
Historical sites: Corinth, Delphi, Athens
Sources: Pausanias, Apollodorus, Herodotus, Aeschylus
Greek myths: Theseus's Athenian adventures, Eumenides

Book 11: The Sirens of Surrentum (theme: sex & decadence)
Flavia's book
Roman topics: Roman philosophy and the failed plot to kill Nero
Historical characters: Nero, Seneca, Lucan, Polla Argentaria, Flaccus
Sources: Seneca, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, Statius, Propertius
Greek myths: Dido and Aeneas, Odysseus and the Sirens
ROMANS KS3 - relevant blogs: Villa Limona, Serendipity in Surrentum, Poison

Book 12: The Charioteer of Delphi (theme: faithfulness)
Nubia's book
Roman topics: chariot races and factions
Historical site: the Circus Maximus
Historical characters: real charioteers like Scopas, Hierax and Crescens
Sources: Ovid, Juvenal, Martial
Greek myths: Pelops and Oenomaus
Roman festivals: Ludi Romani
ROMANS KS2 & KS3 - relevant blogs: Fun Chariot Facts, Roman Horse Names

Book 13: The Slave-girl from Jerusalem (theme: death & birth)
Jonathan's book
Roman topics: childbirth, funerals, wills, Roman law courts, gestures of a rhetor
Historical backstory: destruction of Jerusalem and siege of Masada
Sources: Josephus, Quintilian, Cicero, Juvenal, Seneca, Roman legal documents
Greek myths: Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes
featured food: pea and leek soup, mastic chewing resin, sage tea, chestnut flour
key artefacts and objects: birthing chair, funeral pyre, bier, tombs, seal-box for wills

Book 14: The Beggar of Volubilis (theme: piety)
Flavia's book
Roman topics: Roman theatre, Cleopatra's descendants, sightings of Nero
Historical sites: Sabratha, Tripolis, Volubilis, Ghadames
Sources: Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch
Greek myths: Diana and Actaeon
featured food: millet porridge, roast locusts, lizard meat, camel-milk pancakes, senna tea, cola nuts
key artefacts and objects: bow, arrows, quiver, betrothal ring, bath-set, Nero's emerald, lens
EGYPT KS2 & KS3 - relevant blogs: Volubilis, Ugly Cleopatra

Book 15: The Scribes from Alexandria (theme: going home)
Nubia's book
Roman topics: Roman Egypt especially Alexandria, eunuchs, the Great Library, the Nile
Historical sites: Canopus, Alexandria, Giza, Edfu, Aswan, Nubia
Sources: Strabo, Martial, Juvenal
Egyptian myths and legends, including story of Isis, Osiris and Seth
featured food: sun-bread, bean porridge, palm wine, onions, leaf-cups, dom-fruit
key artefacts and objects: hieroglyphs, graffiti, riddles, codes, treasure map

Book 16: The Prophet from Ephesus (theme: redemption)
Jonathan's book
Roman topics: early church in Asia Minor
Historical sites: Halicarnassus, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Laodicea, Heracleia
Historical characters: St John the Evangelist, Tychichus
Sources: Strabo, the New Testament
Greek myths: Pluto and Persephone, Endymion and Selene
featured food: grapes from the vine, cucumber, sour cherry juice, sheep entrail kebabs, pomegranates
key artefacts and objects: dolls, travel baskets, reed flute, lyre, carpets, looms

Book 17: The Man from Pomegranate Street (theme: resolution)
Flavia's book
Roman topics: mysterious death of Titus in September AD 81
Historical sites: Rome, the Sabine Hills, Palace of Domitian and the 'Emissario' on Lake Albanus
Historical characters: Titus, Domitian, Ascletario, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Sources: Suetonius, Babylonian Talmud, Apollonius of Tyana
Greek myths: Romulus and Remus, Rape of the Sabine Women, Death of Odysseus
featured food: Sabine olive oil, brown bread, honey, grapes, imported oysters
key artefacts and objects: needle-sharp stylus, graffiti, wedding veil and the spear to part the bride's hair

[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. You can watch a television adaptation of some of them on Amazon Prime. For more information about Caroline's other books, go to]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Day in Ostia

A Day in Ostia Antica: the ancient port of Rome
NB: The site of Ostia Antica is open almost every day of the year, EXCEPT Mondays

I first visited the site of Rome's ancient sea port one summer afternoon when I was a sixteen-year-old high school student on a study-tour from California. Like almost everyone I know who has visited Ostia, I fell in love with it. I wanted to go back in time so that I could wander its streets, watch a play in the theatre, visit one of its many baths complexes. That afternoon in Ostia was one of the experiences that prompted me to study Classics and become a Latin teacher. A few decades later, when I began planning my series of children's mystery stories set in ancient Roman times, I decided to have my main characters live in Ostia.

In Roman times Ostia would have been a busy port town, exotic and lively, brimming with people from all over the Roman empire: Greeks, Egyptians, Nubians, Jews, Syrians and Gauls. In the first century AD, Ostia's main function was to receive grain from Egypt and Sicily and to ship it on to Rome and its one million inhabitants. This grain was stored in Ostia's many warehouses and sometimes made into bread before being transported by barge along the winding Tiber to the capital city, fourteen miles away. In addition to the usual residents of a first century Roman town there would have been sailors, stevedores, ship-owners, storehouse managers, customs officers, rope-makers, sail-makers, and plenty of unsavoury types. When I asked one Classical scholar what ancient Ostia would have been like, he replied 'nowhere to bring up my child if I could avoid it!'

Today, Ostia is no longer bustling and dangerous, but quiet and peaceful. Over the past two thousand years the mouth of the Tiber has silted up, pushing the coastline away from Ostia. The site is landlocked and long deserted. Wandering around its ruins, you will find the remains of baths, temples, houses, shops, taverns, latrines and even a theatre. You can see traces of frescoes on the walls, half standing columns, marble thresholds and millstones from bakeries. One of the most distinctive features of Ostia are its black-and-white mosaics. They are everywhere.

Although Ostia is not as well-preserved as Pompeii, it's much more accessible (a single one way ticket will take you all the way from Rome) and much less crowded. If you are based in Rome, an excursion to Ostia is the perfect day trip. Wear a sunhat and trainers, and dress in layers. Ostia can be cool and foggy in the morning and blazing hot by the afternoon. From Rome, take the metro's Linea B to the stop called Piramide, then change by going up the escalator and down the steps into Porta San Paolo station for the 'light railway' to Ostia Antica. The last station on the Rome-Ostia line is Cristoforo Colombo. (Ostia Antica is the stop after Acilia and before Ostia Nord.) Get off at Ostia Antica and go out of the station and over the blue footbridge. Continue straight along a residential street and carefully cross the busy road on a blind curve opposite the restaurant called Allo Sbarco di Enea. Go past the restaurant (which will be on your right) and follow the road to the parking lot and ticket kiosk. For more detailed instructions go HERE.

Parents travelling with children might enjoy THIS ARTICLE by Nick Trend, a dad who took his children to Ostia.
Allo Sbarco Di Enea - The first thing you notice on your right, after crossing the main road, is a restaurant with chariots parked in its vine-shaded courtyard. Peer through the fence and you'll also notice statues, frescoes and a fountain. This is a touristy but fun place where all the waiters wear tunics. It's called Allo Sbarco Di Enea, which means 'Where Aeneas Got Off'. Aeneas was the Trojan hero who fled his burning city and eventually settled in Italy to become the father of the Roman people. The food is mediocre and the place only comes alive after 9.00pm - Italians eat late - but it can be a fun experience if you go with a big group.

The Thieves of Ostia, first in the Roman Mysteries series

Umbrella pines - Something else you notice about Ostia even before you enter the site are the pines. With their rough textured bark in shades of caramel, nutmeg and honey, their lofty fragrant canopies provide homes to chittering birds in winter and spring, chirring cicadas in summer and autumn. These trees offer cool shade in the summer and shelter from rain in the winter. Today, there are thousands of these beautiful trees in and around Ostia, making it one of the greenest suburbs of Rome.

The umbrella pine - pinus pinea - was a striking feature of the Italian coast even in Roman times. Pliny the Younger says the cloud emerging from Vesuvius looked like an umbrella pine, ie. a trunk-like column of smoke rising up and then flattening out at the top. Of course there are other trees in Ostia: cypress, poplar, oak, mimosa, myrtle, oleander and other species of pine, but for me the umbrella pine is Ostia's trademark. In my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, Flavia, Jonathan and Nubia catch their first glimpse of Lupus when he is trapped up one of these Ostian pines by some wild dogs. Today you can still see (tame) dogs lolling in the dappled shade among the tombs.

The Tombs - Romans were not allowed to bury their dead within the city but to made sure their departed relatives and friends were as close as possible, they placed tombs along main roads right up to the town walls. So tombs are the first thing you'll see when you enter the site of Ostia. They are fascinating, but leave them for later. Lupus, the youngest member of Flavia's gang, lived wild among the tombs of Ostia for two years after he escaped the clutches of Venalicius the slave-dealer.

The Roman Gate - There's not much left of the Porta Romana. In Flavia's time it would have been an impressive arch, faced with marble and flanked with statues of Victory and Minerva. Once you are 'inside' the town walls, look ahead and to the left. Beneath some umbrella pines, you can still see a long water trough for the thirsty mules that pulled carts to and from Rome. It is under the shade of those very trees that Flavia approaches two gaming cartdrivers to arrange transport from Ostia to Rome in The Assassins of Rome.

The Baths - The Romans loved their baths. In Flavia's time Ostia had a population of about 20,000 making it a relatively small town. But it was served by no less than 18 public baths complexes. Before you carry on down the main road, have a look at my favourite baths in Ostia: the Cartdrivers' Baths. You'll find them on your right, opposite the mule trough. Walk behind the remains of storehouses until you reach the modern tree-lined road giving access to archaeologists and site workers. Also known as the Termii Cisarii, the Cartdrivers' Baths were exclusively for the muleteers who drove carts to and from Rome. Look for the delightful black-and-white mosaic of four mules with their names written beside them. If you've read The Assassins of Rome, you'll know what their names mean: Pudes (Modest), Podagrosus (Lame), Barosus (Dainty) and Potiscus (Tipsy).

The Decumanus Maximus - Go back to the main road and carry on past the ancient shopping arcade towards the Baths of Neptune with their impressive black-and-white mosaics of tritons and sea-nymphs. A platform here gives a wonderful view not only of the mosaics but of the whole site. This road is the main road of Ostia and it's called the Decumanus Maximus. As at Pompeii, you can see the ruts made by a hundred thousand carts which carried grain and other goods to and from the port. (The round wishing-well in the centre of this road is medieval. Ignore it.) The Decumanus Maximus will take you past brick granaries and the marble theatre to Ostia's forum. Lupus runs down the Decumanus Maximus in The Assassins of Rome when he is trying to catch a cart and he almost knocks over a slave carrying a jar of urine. This liquid was very useful in the cleaning and bleaching of cloth, so ancient laundries (known as the fullers') would not have smelled very pleasant.

The Theatre - This was the one of the first buildings in Ostia to be excavated, over a hundred years ago, because its ruins were visible, poking up above ground. It has been heavily but accurately restored. As you enter beneath a cool arch, look up to see the elegant stucco decorations on the ceiling. In Flavia's time, the theatre held 2,500 people. Today it attracts cats, doves, wood pigeons and tourists of all nationalities. 

I was sitting here in May of 2000 eating pistachio nuts and an apple when I saw a party of Italian schoolgirls skipping rope on the grassy disused stage. One of the girls reminded me of Flavia. The mosaic portrait of Flavia on the front of the British editions is based on a drawing I made from my photo of Francesca. Sometimes, plays are still put on here in the summer months. Information and tickets can be obtained from the Ostia ticket kiosk at the entrance to the site. For more information check the Official Ostia website.

This elephant marks the office of beast importers of Sabratha
The Forum of the Corporations - located directly behind the theatre, this large complex was built on several storeys around a temple of Ceres. This is where guilds (or 'corporations') of ship-owners, marine-suppliers, importers and grain-traders had their offices and did business. Shaded by ancient umbrella pines, the delightful black-and-white mosaics illustrate the different offices. Elephants, boar, tigers marked the offices of wild beast importers, ships and images of Ostia's famous lighthouse indicated ship owners, and baskets with their leveling rods were for the grain-traders. Flavia and her friends come here in search of clues and interview a wild beast importer in The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

The Forum - Go back to the Decumanus Maximus and into the forum, the main business centre of ancient Ostia. Here the dominating landmark is a big brick building atop a stepped platform. This temple to the Capitoline triad - Jupiter, Juno and Minerva - would have been faced with marble to cover the brick. Called the Capitoleum, this temple would have had a treasury in its basement. It is in the shadow of this temple that the evil slave-dealer Venalicius parades his slaves -- including the beautiful young Nubia -- in The Thieves of Ostia.

The Basilica - to the right of the Capitoleum - if you are standing on its steps looking out - is the Basilica of Ostia. Every Roman town had a basilica to house law-courts and magistrates' offices. Ostia's junior magistrate Marcus Artorius Bato works here. Flavia first meets him in The Thieves of Ostia but he appears again in later books to help the four with their investigations.

The Temple of Rome and Augustus - opposite the lofty red-brick temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva you will see the remains of the temple of Rome and Augustus. Flavia and Nubia come here in The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina and find a clue in the face of the cult statue of Rome, personified as a beautiful Amazon with her foot on the globe of the world.

Roman Toilets - while you're in the Forum, don't miss Ostia's most amusing landmark, the twenty-four seater forica or public toilets, near the Temple of Rome and Augustus by the Forum Baths. Ancient Romans did their business right next to each other, with no doors or dividing walls. They sat chatting, gossiping, even extending dinner invitations. The holes on top of the cool marble bench are for the obvious thing. The holes at the front are for the sponge-stick, ancient Roman toilet paper. When you finished wiping your bottom with it, you put it in a basin of water for the next person to use! Lupus has obviously never been here, or he'd know a sponge-stick is not for beating a drum as he thinks in The Dolphins of Laurentum.

Shrine of the Crossroads - just past the Forum, the Decumanus Maximus ends in a fork. Crossroads were sacred places in Roman times and there was a temple here, where two lofty cypress trees stand today. Lupus comes here one cold December dusk during the festival of Saturnalia, and he makes some exciting discoveries.

The Museum - Ostia's museum only opens in the morning but doesn't take long to explore, so make sure you have a quick look before lunch. Ostia's finest statues have been brought here to keep them safe from robbers and from the elements.

The Bakeries - near the museum you can find a relatively well-preserved bakery. Ostia was the bread-basket of Rome. Huge shipload of grain from Egypt and Sicily were stored in beautiful red-brick warehouses before being towed on mule-powered barges up to Rome. Sometimes the grain was made into bread before it was transported, hence the many bakeries in Ostia. Notice the distinctive hourglass mills (grain grinders.) These would have been operated by blindfolded donkeys going round and round for hours. You can still see the circular trace of their hoofprints in the herringbone pattern of the brick floor. The Code of Romulus is a Roman Mystery short story partly set in an Ostian bakery.

The Synagogue - Built in the middle of the first century AD, this one of the oldest in the world. You will find it at the edge of the site, near perimeter fence. See the modern highway? That's where the ancient shoreline would have been. In fact, as you pass Ostia in a car, the synagogue is the building you can see most clearly. All that's left of it today are a few pillars and blocks of marble, but you can see Latin inscriptions in some of the marble paving stones. In spring swifts and swallows swoop in the warm air feasting on tiny bugs, and you can see butterflies fluttering among the columns and minuscule red spider mites on the coloured marble floor. Jonathan and his friends seek refuge in the synagogue when they are being chased by slave-dealers in The Thieves of Ostia. Later, in The Gladiators from Capua, the friends 'borrow' a disused cube of marble from beside the synagogue to make a tomb.

Flavia's house - Use your map to find your way through the long grasses from the synagogue towards the Laurentum Gate. Here in a quieter residential area of Ostia (these houses date from the time of Julius Caesar) you'll find the residence of Cartilia Poplicola, a young Roman widow who fancies Flavia's father. Moving back towards the entrance of the site, parallel with the Decumanus Maximus, you'll find a fullers', a mithraeum and more storehouses. What you won't find is Flavia's house, or Jonathan's, or even Green Fountain Street. I made a conscious decision to have my characters live in an unexcavated part of the town. One day I hope they'll build a life-sized reconstruction of their houses - complete with Roman frescoes, fountains, mosaics, furniture and fittings. Until then, you can sit in the shade of an umbrella pine munching olives, cheese and bread. Imagine that you are sitting in the tablinum (study) of Flavia's father, looking into the inner garden. (Another route to the site of Flavia's house is the little side road leading off the Decumanus Maximus just before the theatre.)

If you haven't brought a picnic lunch you can go back to the new snack-bar near the Museum. Here you can eat a delicious pasta or salad at parasol-shaded table on a pleasant terrace only a stone's throw from the Tiber River. Just the other side of this sunny courtyard is a bookshop where you can buy guide books and souvenirs, including a kit to make your own black-and-white mosaic of a dolphin. Oh, and the (modern) toilets are here! After lunch, explore the site. Let your feet guide you. Lose yourself in Flavia's world. Look out for landmarks from The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina: inscriptions mentioning Cartilius Poplicola, a covered fountain, a many-spouted fountain, baths, stables and - near the Capitoleum - the wonderful Inn of Diana, just like the one where Lupus games with some men in a little courtyard.

Ostia Lido - After a day exploring Ostia, treat yourself to an ice cream and orangina down by the sea. Lido Centro (Central Beach) is only one more stop on the train line. Walk from the train station down to the seafront where you'll find dozens of beachside caf├ęs with roofs of slatted bamboo and further north a marina with shopping. In the summer months its very lively here in Lido Centro, this is where modern Romans come to cool off. Off-season it's deserted, but you can still find somewhere to sit and wonder at how brave Roman sailors were. On blustery spring days the wind marches whitecaps across the brown water and makes the canvas awnings flap and crack. It was on this beach, or its ancient equivalent, that Flavia and her friends rescued Pliny the Elder, and received a Latin riddle that would set in motion an exciting adventure in The Secrets of Vesuvius. And of course the port plays an important part at the end of the last book of the series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, when the friends sail away for new adventures.

Caroline Lawrence on the beach at Ostia Lido (a few miles from Ostia Antica)

Some of the photos on this site are from The Roman Mysteries TV series. The rest are mine!

[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Viewers in some regions can watch season one of the Roman Mysteries on iTunes. For more fun things to do in Ostia, Rome and Pompeii, download the Roman Mysteries Travel Guide to your Kindle or tablet. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.] 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Roman Beauty Tips

Pulchra's Beauty Tips [by Caroline Lawrence]

Millie Binks as Pulchra
I am very beautiful. That's why they call me Pulchra. Here are some of my beauty tips:

1. Every Roman girl would like pale skin like mine. The best way to keep your skin fair is to stay out of the sun or use a parasol. Some ladies use chalk powder but that is terribly obvious.

2. To give a natural blush to your cheeks, take a wine-cup with some dried wine in the bottom. Rub your finger gently in the powdered dregs, then brush lightly across your cheekbone. Use red-currant juice to stain your lips an attractive pink.

3. For mysterious eyes, use a little kohl. This is a very exotic, charcoal grey powder from far-away lands. On your make-up palette, mix the kohl with a little water and use a tiny brush to outline your eyes. Then smudge gently for a natural look.

4. For luminous eyes, brush some powdered stibium across the upper lid of your eye. Be careful! The skin is very delicate here.

5. Want to keep your hair glossy and clean? If your hair is oily, use egg mixed with vinegar, then rinse well. If your hair is dry, get your slave-girl to work the best quality olive oil into it, then rinse well with warm water and dry with a linen towel. Some people use a decoction of honey in warm water for the final rinse to give extra shine.

6. To tint your hair red, dye it with a mixture of henna and red wine. To lighten dark hair, use a mixture of vinegar and lye. Of course if the gods have blessed you with golden hair like mine, don't tamper with it!

7. Use pumice to smooth the rough skin on your heels. The best time is at the baths, between the massage and hairdresser.

8. You can also use pumice to keep your legs smooth and hair-free. Rub the stone briskly over your legs while your skin is dry. Some people suggest smearing your legs with rabbit blood to keep the hair from growing back but I think that's repulsive.

On the set of Roman Mysteries
After your bath, when you've scraped off the oily dead skin, towel yourself briskly and re-apply a lightly scented oil to your face and body. Your skin will look dewy fresh and you'll smell nice, too.

Oil of lemon is a very delicious fragrance and quite subtle. Use it on those special occasions when you really want to impress someone; a dark-eyed boy with curly hair, for example...

P.S. If you feel you simply must lose weight, you can find Celsus and Pliny's diet tips HERE.

See more of Pulchra and the "dark-eyed boy with curly hair" in the Roman Mysteries TV series! And peep behind the scenes of the filming of both seasons 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. The BBC made a TV series in 2007 and you can watch episodes via iTunes. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

Monday, January 24, 2011

How to Make a Stola

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries

Girl fans often ask me 'How can I make myself a toga so I can go to World Book Day dressed as Flavia Gemina or Nubia?'

First I set them straight. Only naughty women wore togas.

Roman men and boys wore togas, and they heartily disliked them. The toga was essentially a large blanket that had to be draped just so. You needed a slave to help put it on, so by the very act of wearing a toga you showed you were rich. If you are a boy and want to make a toga, you can use a big sheet. Good luck putting it on.

By the first century AD, when my books are set, the only women who wore togas were disreputable ones; and they had to wear them to show they had been (or still were) naughty. Respectable women wore stolas and good girls wore tunics, usually long-sleeved for modesty. (Technically the stola was a kind of apron-like garment that went on over the female tunic, with a strap over each shoulder, but I'm using the umbrella term stola here for a girl's or woman's tunic.)

If you are a boy and want to make a tunic, just wear a big tee-shirt, belted.

If you are a girl or woman and want to make a stola or girl's tunic, here is a simple way to do it. (below) I actually had to put this into practice once. I was on my way to an event in Newcastle and realised I'd left my costume in London. Luckily, a kind librarian donated a single sheet from her airing cupboard. I found one of those sewing kits you get free in hotels and frantically stitched it up in the back seat of the car as we drove to the event. When we arrived, my publicity manager Rowan loaned me her blue scarf and I used another scarf to tie up my hair. I added chunky ethnic jewellery and sandals and voila! I was a Roman lady...

Remember: the tunic is the tee-shirt thing, the toga or palla is what you wear over it. Of course you must always carry your sponge-stick (ancient Roman toilet paper) and your copy of a Roman Mystery with you!

For more information on Roman clothing, go to the article on ROMAN CLOTHING at

And check out my blog over at The History Girls to see some of my other Roman wardrobe malfunctions.
lovely "extras" in The Slave-girl from Jerusalem

P. S. These two extras from the TV series based on my books are wearing lovely stolas, with pallas draped over their heads. 

[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.]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

1860s Minstrel Shows

I've been prospecting for primary source accounts of Minstrel Shows in the early 1860's... Here are a couple accounts lifted from Alf Doten's journals.

Sept 18, 1861- [San Francisco] Stephen & I went to Tuckers Academy of Music this evening - a sort of free and easy place - no ladies there - pretty good house - about 500 present - women waiters carrying round drinks cigars, &c that were ordered, among the audience - a long, varied and amusing performance - commenced with the male & female minstrels - 16 of them in all - Only 2 of them blacked, the tambourine (Walter Bray) and bones - ladies all in short skirts and tights - guitars, flutes, banjos, violins, &c - songs & grand chorus - jokes, conundrums &c - curtain fell - then followed lots of dancing, and songs, by single performers - pas de deux &c - whole wound up with a very laughable burlesque, entitled Norton the 1st or the Emperor of a day...

May 21, 1863 [San Francisco] evening I went to Gilbert's Melodeon - male and female minstrels &c ... songs, music, choruses, jokes &c  - Johnny De Angelis & Joe Murphy were blacked up - Grand medley walk around - best I ever saw - overtures, ballads, solos &c - Farce of the "Two Gregories" - whole concluded with the comic ballet of "the Vivandiere" - between pieces Md'lle Fleury, a French lady of fine operatic talents, appeared and sung, in all four ballads - "Napolitaine," "Don't let the Roses Listen" in English and two others in French - sings splendidly but speaks very poor English - The dancing was best I ever saw - Miss Lotta [Crabtree] is an A No 1 jig dancer but the comic little capering rogue of the evening was Jennie Worrell - She beats all I ever saw in her line - she danced some very comic, dashing, rattling, capering jigs and sung several comic and Irish songs - The whole performance was highly satisfactory and all the fun one could ask for one evening - No vulgarity...

Dec 26, 1863 [Como, Nevada] Evening performance Bryant & Case's minstrels - our troupe - doors open at 7 1/2 oclock - Martin & I played big drum, cymbals & fife in front of door half an hour - full house - 50 cts a ticket - lots of ladies present - at 8 oclock curtain rose - 8 of us on the stage - Cross's hall - Overture - sang several songs - plenty of gags, jokes, conundrums &c - Walk around by the company - I led the whole performance with violin - Lindsay played 2nd violin - Andrews did banjo a little - bones & tambourine - part 2nd, I & Lindsay were in the orchestra - solos, overtures, songs & dances, & little funny acts - were much applauded throughout the entire performance - Martin the Wizard followed with his trick  of the "magic rings" - then ventriloquism - & wound up with his dancing figures - the benches were then cleared away & we had a few quadrilles &c - I played - Lindsay helped some - we got nothing for it - The whole performance was a perfect success and a decided hit ... had terrible time washing black off tonight -

above: Martin the Wizard and his "magic rings" circa 1863

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Mark Twain at work

I love these two glimpses into Sam Clemens' relaxed way of working. Both are taken from notes to the online collection of letters at the Mark Twain Project.

Mr. Clemens was a believer in personal comfort while at work. On hot days in particular he cast aside formalities—and a considerable portion of his clothing as well. At the outset he bought a comfortable lounging chair with a writing board hinged on to the arm, and it was no infrequent sight during the summer to find him nestled cosily in that chair, a pipe in his mouth and only a negligee shirt, trousers and socks in evidence as costume. His collar and shoes would most likely be in a waste basket and his hat, coat and waistcoat wherever they chanced to land when he cast them off. 
(Earl D. Berry, 1869)

Mark Twain relaxing
And there was Mark Twain in a little back room, with a sheet-iron stove, a dirty, musty carpet of the cheapest description, a bed, and two or three common chairs. The little drum stove was full of ashes, running over on the zinc sheet; the bed seemed to be unmade for a week, the slops had not been carried out for a fortnight, the room was foul with tobacco smoke, the floor, dirty enough to begin with, was littered with newspapers, from which Twain had cut his letters. Then there were hundreds of pieces of torn manuscripts which had been written and then rejected by the author. A dozen pipes were about the apartment—on the wash-stand, on the mantel, on the writing table, on the chairs—everywhere that room could be found. And there was tobacco, and tobacco everywhere. One thing, there were no flies. The smoke killed them, and I am now surprised the smoke did not kill me too. Twain would not let a servant come into his room. He would strip down his suspenders (his coat and vest, of course, being off) and walk back and forward in slippers in his little room and swear and smoke the whole day long. Of course, at times he would work, and when he did work it was like a steam engine at full head...
(from “How ‘Innocents Abroad’ Was Written,” New York Evening Post, 20 Jan 1883)

[The Case of the Deadly Desperados features the 26-year-old reporter Sam Clemens who will soon take the nom de plume Mark Twain. This Western Mystery for kids aged 9 - 90 is available in hardbackKindle and audio download. It will be published by Putnam & Sons in the USA in February.]