Sunday, November 03, 2013

Andromache's Plea

On Saturday 2 November 2013, Heffers bookshop sponsored the Second Classics Fact, Fiction and Children's Literary Festival, featuring luminaries like Mary Beard, Simon Scarrow and Lindsey Davis. One of the events was a balloon debate. Five of us were asked to plead the case of a character from Classical mythology and all but one of us would be chucked out of the balloon. I spent several hours crafting a moving plea for my chosen heroine, Andromache. I even brought a black scarf to throw over my head à la Leighton's moving painting.

Andromache in exile by Frederick Lord Leighton

I am Andromache. My name means Battle of Men
Though perhaps it should be battle of brothers
I had seven of them: a quiver full.
I had to be strong, growing up with that lot.
I heard them plan hunting trips as I sat at my loom
And my shuttle became a hunting spear 
in the thickets of warp and weft.

I heard them plan raiding expeditions as I sat at my spindle
And my winding skein was a file of men on a mountain path.

I saw them slaughtered by Achilles in one afternoon
Along with my father
While my hands were red up to the elbows
In a simmering cauldron of dying beetles 
with its floating strands of yarn. 

My life unraveled; the woe unwove me.
And when Artemis slew my mother
Nothing was left but an empty loom
A bare frame of my life… A taut spare web of grief.

Then you came, Hector. 
You became not just my husband,
But my father, my mother, my brothers.
You let me weave my unraveling weft 
into your strong warp.
And we became a new tapestry together. 
You took me away a place of happy memories
Made hateful by the son of Peleus
And you brought me to high-towered Troy.

We had a son, a little lord of the citadel.
I called him Astyanax, you called him Scamandrius
After the river where we once picnicked
A buzzing, honey-scented afternoon, among the asphodel.

My brothers taught me about the hunt
But you taught me about war.
You, and your house of strong women:
Hecuba, the matriarch
Cassandra, never afraid to speak her mind
Helen, the sister-in-law from Hades
Sparta, rather… Same thing.
And at the end Polyxena, who boldly went to her sacrifice.

The last time I saw you Hector, the time
you frightened our son with you horsehair plume
I begged you not to seek the thick of battle 
making me a widow and our son an orphan
But to guard the part of the wall by the wild fig tree
Where three attempts had previously been made
By the crafty Greeks. But did you listen to my strategy? 
No. You went out
And got yourself killed by Achilles.

Not long after that, they took our little boy up
the last remaining tower to throw him off.
But before they could lay hands on him,
he stepped into air of his own volition.
Lord of the citadel to the very end.
More courageous than a thousand Greeks.

And now the son of the man who killed my husband
My father and my seven brothers
Has taken me as his prize.
The psychopath son of Achilles, Neoptolemus: 
Red-haired, hot-headed, cold-blooded Pyrrhus. 

Hector foretold my future: 
To ply the loom for another woman
And carry a heavy water jug to and from the fountain.
Jostled by laughing children and happy families.
To remain childless 
or worse yet, bear children 
to a man whose house murdered my house.

I am a “paragon of misery”. 
I do not fear death. I pray for it.
Like my brave little boy, 
I would throw myself from the ramparts of Troy
Or even from your balloon. 
That would be true bravery.
But if you judge me worthy, 
I will do something even braver: 
I will live. 

props did not help me!
How did I do? Well, Prof Paul Cartledge cannily chose the Odysseus' faithful dog, Argos. How many British would vote to save a poor pooch being tossed from the balloon? A goodly number. Ruth Downie chose Dido and won the vote of all women who've ever been lied to and abandoned by a cad like Aeneas. (Quite a few, as it turned out.) Rugby-loving, football-referencing Harry Sidebottom plumped for Hector: thick but noble, (and doomed). He got a robust number of masculine votes. But the deserved winner was witty, Diet-Coke-fuelled Natalie Haynes, who moonlights as a stand up comic and Booker Prize Judge. She made a moving and impassioned plea for Odysseus.

As for me, Andromache, I got tossed out first. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Roman Roads and Modern Bandits

It’s not every day you come to the rescue of Robin Hood’s mum… especially not on the Appian Way.

It all started with a tweet.

Agnes Crawford runs a bespoke tour company – – that takes people to the places she herself would like to see. Agnes grew up in London and studied Architectural History in Edinburgh. After university she travelled to Rome to teach English as a foreign language. She found a room in the fascinating part of Rome called Trastevere. One day she went to a friend’s birthday party and met an attractive Roman physicist. They married and she has now been in Rome for a dozen years.

Agnes first heard of me when some clever British children on one of her tours told her about my Roman Mysteries books.

She tweeted me and we became Twitter pals.

Ristorante Flavio al Velavevodetto
I’ve been to Rome at least half a dozen times before in order to research my books. This time I’d been flown over courtesy of the American University of Rome to be their Writer in Residence for a week. I wanted to do something I’d never done before, so I tweeted Agnes and asked if she could give me a sample tour in return for lunch and a review. She replied with an enthusiastic yes.

We decided on the Appian Way and the Aqua Claudia. She calls this tour Roads and Water and it is one of her most popular itineraries.

Agnes usually gets a driver with a luxurious Mercedes but for our unofficial tour she picks me up in her sturdy range rover.

We go for lunch at a restaurant at the foot of Mons Testaccio, a mountain of broken potsherds located by the ancient docks of Rome. Amphoras which contained oil and wine could not be reused as the clay goes rancid. So they broke them up and made a big pile of them here. A BIG pile: Mons Testaccio means Potsherd Mountain.

Along the back wall of the Ristorante Flavio (what a good name!) are half a dozen glassed-over arches that let you look at a section cut into the mountain of shards. How fun is that?

After lunch of uniquely Roman food, we’re off to the Appian Way past the baths of Caracalla and the first milestone out of Rome. There’s a slight traffic jam here, for the ancient road is still in use, so Agnes takes a shortcut above (not through) the catacombs.

Finally we get away from the crowds to the part you always see on telly: the dove grey paving stones polished smooth by age, the flame-shaped cypress trees that always speak of graves and the lofty umbrella pines which host the creaking cicadas. Agnes is full of interesting facts and has all the dates at the front of her brain. She tells me the Appian Way first laid out by a guy called Appius Claudius (who should be far more famous than he is) and that it’s famous for being the route along which thousands of runaway slaves were crucified in the time of Spartacus.

Agnes is also an excellent source of fun gossipy facts, describing what the garden in an ambassador’s house looks like or revealing that another fabulous mansion was the setting for a scene of a recent movie. Someone who knows lots of Roman facts plus movie trivia is my kind of guide.

Agnes shows me the tomb of Metella, ruins of the bath house of Maxentius and the vast grounds of the Villa of the Quintilli which was so fabulous that Commodus confiscated it (Remember him? He was the evil Emperor from the movie Gladiator.) At one point we stop for photo op where you can see original Roman paving stones and cartwheel ruts.

We are back in the car and going slowly on account of the ancient and uneven nature of the road, when someone taps on the car window.

Agnes stops the car. It is a distraught German family consisting of a middle-aged father and mother in normal clothes, and their grown up son dressed as Robin Hood!

‘Scusi. Do you speak English?’ asks the mother. A car came and took my handbag with my money in it.

‘Was it just now?' asks Agnes.

‘Five minutes ago. They were in a small silver car.

‘I saw him! cries Agnes. We were driving and he came very fast. I thought: hes going to have an accident. They were going towards Rome. The driver had very short hair.

‘Thats right, says the father, who is on the phone to the police. Is there a police station nearby?

‘Yes, says Agnes. Hop in and well take you to Carabinieri at Capannelle, where my mother-in-law lives.

Gratefully, the three Germans pile in the back. I turn to the son.

‘Why are you dressed up? I ask.

‘Just for fun.

I nod sympathetically. Some of my best friends are re-enactors and I have been known to put on a stola and palla myself.

Agnes drives Robin Hood and his parents to the Carabinieri and points them in the right direction.

Our good deed for the day accomplished, we drive on to the Aqua Claudia – a stunning stretch of aqueduct famous for appearing in the first scene of the most famous Italian film ever made: La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) by Federico Fellini.

What used to be fields of wildflowers at the foot of the aqueduct is now a golf course. Fellini appreciated the surreal aspects of Roman life,’ says Agnes. He would approve.

I am content. Agnes’ tour Roads and Water was all I hoped it would be: peaceful, atmospheric and fun. 

Even if you dont usually do guided tours, this one is worth it because you will visit places difficult to get to without a car.
And in Agnes you will have the perfect guide: one not only versed in fun facts and gossipy trivia, but a Good Samaritan as well.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Last Chance for Pompeii Exhibition!

9.10 on a Sunday morning!
You've been meaning to go to the British Museum Pompeii Exhibition all summer but it finishes at the end of September. At time of posting this, pre-booked tickets are almost sold out – just a few left for September weekends – so you might have to show up early to get one of 500 tickets released first thing each morning (not necessarily for immediate entry) OR find a friend who is a Member (i.e. a Friend) with guest privileges to take you OR become a Member yourself. If you become a Member, you can go whenever you like, breeze past the queue and go straight in. Then you can check your emails over coffee or tea in the brand new Members' Room.

The exhibition has had rave reviews but one problem is that it is almost always too crowded to enjoy. My best tip is to get yourself a Membership, show up on Saturday or Sunday just before opening at 9am, join the orderly queue outside the gates, go straight in to the exhibition (no need to queue at that point), ignore the filmstrip (you can come back to that later) and go straight into the exhibition which you can then enjoy in blissful emptiness (above right). But don't blithely take my word for it: always check the latest on opening times.

I have already blogged about TWELVE FUN THINGS TO SEE but here are TEN MORE THINGS to look out for.

1. ET TU, PHOENIX? One of the first things you see past the inscriptions and graffiti is this jolly fresco of a Phoenix above two peacocks. Peacocks are real, but the Phoenix is a mythical bird of fiery resurrection. Curator Paul Roberts calls this a "pub sign". It was found on a wall of a fast food joint in Pompeii. The slogan says "The Phoenix is happy (or 'lucky'), and you!" What interests me is the expression "Et tu" which is used elsewhere in Roman contexts as an apotropaic slogan. Apotropaic is Greek for "turns away evil" and it refers to anything that averts bad luck. Apotropaic images include the raised palm of the left hand, erect phalluses, eyes and the unflinching gaze of a full frontal face. All these things "turn back evil". The words "et tu" (and you) seem to have a similar meaning. Our modern equivalent might be "back at you!" In Roman times, if a person approached you with good intentions, saying "et tu" would be a blessing. But if they came at you with evil intent, then the phrase is a curse. This puts Julius Caesar's last words, Et tu, Brute*, in a whole new light!

2. COMIC RELIEF? Next to the famous fresco of Dionysus and Vesuvius in the atrium room is a small marble relief showing the earthquake of AD 62 or 63. If you look closely you will see it is quite comical. For example, the two men depicting equestrian statues look silly and are staring straight out (an apotropaic device) and their horses are actual long-eared donkeys.  Humour is another apotropaic device so I think this sculpture may be saying something like, "We laugh in the face of earthquakes!"

first time seen by public
3. PANTHER TABLE - Curator Paul Roberts said if he could take home one item when the exhibition finishes, it would be this one. That's probably because it languished in a storeroom for many years and he was the first to show it to the public. Like the goat, snake and dolphin, the panther is associated with Dionysus, the patron god of the region. This wonderful table probably would have been painted.

4. BALL 'O' PIGMENT - In a bowl just on the left as you enter the triclinium (dining room) you will see a bowl with two greyish balls. This is how fresco paint came. You would chip off some pigment, grind it in a mortarium, then add egg and water and perhaps a few other ingredients. Finally, the paint was applied to the still-damp plaster. The plaster sucked up the colour and when it dried the painting became part of the wall. That's why these paintings have survived so well. These are the less exciting "white" and "grey" pigments.

5. The NAVEL OF THE WORLD or omphalos is shown on a fresco in the far end of the triclinium room on the right. This fresco screams Apollo. Cupids (the lolcats of the Roman world) frisk around with his bow, his quiver, his lyre, his tripod and possibly a runaway patera. The tripod is especially linked with Apollo because the Delphic oracle sat on one to prophesy. And Delphi was the site of the navel of the world. If you want to know what the navel of the world looked like, there it is underneath the tripod, looking like a fat bollard.

2000 year old loaf of bread
6. Still in the triclinium room is a glass case full of Roman-type "samovars" and portable hearths. Look out for a BRONZE KRATER WITH ARGONAUTS. A krater was for mixing large batches of water and wine. I only noticed the argonauts on my fifth visit, mainly because this room is usually so crowded!

7. ANCIENT PIZZA - OK, it's not pizza because they had no tomatoes in Roman times, but this round loaf of bread looks like puffy pizza. But what's that strange dent around its perimeter? London-based Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli recreated the loaf and came up with a possible cause: a piece of string was tied around the dough, baked in and then used to carry the loaf home.

8. In the culina (kitchen), look out for a PESTLE SHAPED LIKE A THUMB. It is made of white marble and is found below the hare mould for terrine and next to the beautiful sieve with the maker's signature punched in holes. The mortarium containing the thumb pestle has a fun panther face for draining liquid and on the bottom a crude apotropaic Medusa face for turning away evil when it's hung up on the kitchen wall. (You can't see this in the current display mode).

9. Also in the culina you will see a giggle-inducing FRESCO OF MAN DOING A POO (right). This is often cited as an example of Roman belief that demons or other nasty things lived in the sewers. The naked youth is being protected by two lucky snakes and the goddess Fortuna. The curators have placed this fresco in the culina room, because that is where most private Roman latrines were found: in the kitchen, usually right next to the hearth. Paul Roberts says this was because Romans classed wet and smelly things together. (For more about this, see my post on Demon in the Toilet!)

10. Near the end of the exhibition – in the same case as a soldier's sword – is a collection of treasures found on a little girl's charm bracelet. Ironically, considering the cataclysmic bad luck she experienced, most of the objects had an apotropaic sense... but what's with the shrimp? I have heard of apotropaic farting, but never an APOTROPAIC SHRIMP! Answers and suggestions below, please.

*Clever clogs among you might know that what Julius Caesar really said was the Greek version, kai su, teknon, but it makes no difference: the Greek phrase has exactly the same sense as the Latin, maybe even more so! Also teknon can mean "child" or "son", but also more derogative "kid" or even "punk". So Julius Caesar's last words to his final murderer Brutus had a meaning of "You'll get yours, too, punk!"

For more apotropaic images including two "kai su" mosaics, visit my PG-rated Apotropaic Pinterest page.

Caroline Lawrence writes history mystery books for kids aged 8 to 80. No. Really! All the pictures in this post are © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Roman Museum Canterbury

Too bad the Roman Museum in Canterbury is set back from the road. This fabulous resource needs to be more visible to kids, grown-ups, families and tourists.

The Museum came into existence thanks to the notorious Baedeker Bombers of World War II. These were Germans flyers who used the Baedeker Guide Book to inspire their hit list. By some miracle they missed the world-famous Cathedral that was the goal of so many pilgrims from the time of Thomas à Becket onwards. Instead, they devastated the surrounding area. But in so doing they exposed the remains of a Romano-British Villa with impressive mosaics and hypocausts.

I was invited to Canterbury by Ray Laurence, a professor of Classics at the University of Kent. He is famous for his animated TED talk on Roman teenagers. He is also passionate about the Museums of Canterbury and wanted to show me what was special about them. During a packed day, I visited this museum, the fabulously quirky Beaney Museum and watched Paul Burnett dig an Iron Age Site. I also had lunch with enthusiastic members of the Classics faculty.

Because of my interest in all things Roman, we went to the Roman Museum first. A colourful mosaic (above) welcomes you in and a suitably imposing looking Roman soldier encourages you to "Descend through two millennia of Canterbury's history" to Durovernum Cantiacorum. Apparently, each step down represents 100 years' worth of archaeological layers finally ending with the 300 AD layer. This is already a great lesson for kids that when you go down into the earth, you are almost always going back in time!

Where once you saw the back of a museum clerk beavering away at accounts, you now see a horse and cavalry rider, which is much more exciting. In fact for a while it was too exciting. This entry area used to be so dimly that the looming figure scared younger children, so they have bumped up the lights enough to show that horse and rider have "been in the wars". For those little kids who are easily scared, there is a mouse (reminiscent of Minimus from the Latin course) to show the way. (right)

This is my kind of museum. In other words, good for someone with a short attention span. A choice selection of real finds are protected by glass but many of the authentic replicas are touchable. Mannequins show what Canterbury's Roman market might have looked like, with suitable artefacts nearby.

A useful touchscreen computer (kids love these) tells us that although we know where the Temple was, we don't have a clue which god or goddess was worshipped there! Was it dea nutrix, the goddess who suckles two babes at the breast? Excavators found more than one of these little votive figures in Canterbury. They come from Gaul (France) and that is also where we find other examples of a temple right next to a theatre and with a water trough attached. Maybe a young visitor to the museum will grow up to be the historian who solves this mystery! In the meantime, here is an informative audio clip of Prof. Laurence talking about dea nutrix figurines.

Interactive is the key word here at Canterbury's Roman Museum. In one of the first rooms I found a couple of grown-ups playing a Roman board game (below). They were definitely not posed (though by this time Ray and I had been joined by Allison Coles from the University of Kent and a reporter from the Canterbury news.) I could overhear some more interactivity drifting in from a room up ahead: "Put down that sword, Max! Put it down. Let someone else have a go..." It was only a replica of the wooden rudis given to a freed gladiator. The interactive room has some brilliant tasks for kids. In addition to dress-up, there are colourful plastic trays with real artefacts, shapes to place them and information about them. There are some great replica artefacts, including bronze strigil, wood wax tablet and a sponge-stick! Children are encouraged to handle these and guess their function.

Other highlights of the Museum include:

a digital reconstruction of a Roman town house
cavalry horse-harness fittings (look behind the model horse)
rare tools: a spade, carpenter's square and mason's trowel
mosaics and hypocausts in situ
roof tiles with the paw prints of a Roman dog
painted fragments of frescoed walls
finds from Canterbury's Roman baths including gaming counters (or were these bottom wipers?)
votive figurines, including a horse goddess and the dea nutrix
a silver treasure with Christian symbolism
glass vessels, some with cremated remains inside

One of the best interactive features was a magnetic mosaic wall. This could have been cheesy, but it's great. The pattern and tesserae are authentic-looking. It's both clever and fun. Kudos to whoever thought this up. (Or borrowed the idea!) 

It is not until you reach the end of the museum that you see the original remains of the Roman villa and learn about how the German bombing brought this site and museum to light. You realise that the museum is situated exaclty where the Roman villa and bath house stood. Those who are keen to learn more can read the old newspaper accounts and even see photographs of the Sheppard Frere and the other archaeologists who dug in the early 1950's, but this is an optional bonus for budding aficionados, and cleverly placed at the end not the beginning.

The Roman Museum was due to close in 2009, but was saved by the simple argument that Canterbury is remarkable not just for its cathedral and archbishop, nor for having the oldest parish church and oldest school in the UK, but also for its Roman past. The case was put by my new friends Dr Paul Bennett, Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and also Prof. Laurence. Thankfully the council listened to them, and invested. The result is a delightfully vibrant gem of a museum, one that deserves to be visited by adults and children alike.

P.S. To see more pictures from this museum and the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, go to my Pinterest page.

P.P.S. In a recent Canterbury Times article, Professor Laurence shares some tips on how to help kids get the most out of a museum visit. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Top Eleven Westerns 2003-2013

A recent article in The Atlantic (How the Western was Lost and Why it Matters) suggests that Gore Verbinski's poorly-received The Lone Ranger might be the final nail in the coffin of a dying genre, the Western.

But what is a "Western"? Can it even be encompassed by the term "genre"? Is it not bigger than that?

The American Film Institute defines a Western film as one "set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier."

The above-mentioned article talks about the "timeless pleasures" Westerns provide: "tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes, good triumphing over evil..."

For me, a Western is any movie, TV show or book which depicts an individual or small group battling to survive in some kind of frontier. Ideally, it will include two or more of the following ingredients:
a) horses
b) revolvers
c) Native Americans
d) deserts
e) outlaws

Is the Western really dying? Using the above as my criteria I have chosen my top eleven Westerns films or TV shows from the past decade, viz: 2003 - 2013. I have listed them from oldest to newest.

montage of my fave Westerns 2003-2013 by Richard Russell Lawrence

1. Firefly (TV 2002-2003)
This short-lived, much-loved Joss Whedon television show was a great example of a Western set in space, the "new frontier" in the tradition of Star Wars. It has all five of my ingredients (though Native Americans are only glimpsed in a crowd scene in episode one.) Probably the wittiest of my eleven choices. Certainly the most fun.

2. Open Range (2003)
This is the only Western on my list that involves cattle or cowboys, which are absolutely NOT necessary for a Western. Open Range was laudable in its attempts to go for realism (e.g. a horse is killed in a shootout) and for the sublime Robert Duvall, but was bleached to bones by the blazing brilliance of the Deadwood sets, costumes and characters.

3. Deadwood (TV 2004-2006) 
The best of the lot. The first few scenes of this magnificent, misguided HBO TV series made me jump to my feet and yell "THAT's what it would have been like!" Deadwood is probably responsible for the past decade's mini-revival (or death throes!) of the Western genre. It is the quintessential Western, pitting loner misfits against the wilderness, greedy men and their own fatal flaws. Why "misguided"? It could have run for years but creator Milch sank it with expletives in an attempt to make it feel authentic. This goes to show what a minefield of political incorrectness the Western genre can be. 

4. The Proposition (2005)
Here's a great example of a Western set in Australia, but it totally works. Brutal, mysterious and with Ray Winstone. What's not to like? The opening gun battle is like nothing I've seen on film before and the story has more twists and turns than The Sixth Sense.

5. Seraphim Falls (2006)
With nods to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, this is an overlooked gem. The action ranges across mountains and deserts and features a surreal cameo by Angelica Huston as a Snake-oil Saleswoman. I don't care if the critics panned it. I loved it.

6. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy's book faithfully transported to screen by the Coen Brothers. A "modern" Western with sagebrush dry humour and a world-view as bleak as the West Texas desert.

7. Breaking Bad (TV 2008-2013)
The best TV show of the decade, I'm calling this a Western on account of its stunning desert landscapes and (New) Mexican cartel drug lords scarier than any Comanche Indians. As with many later Westerns, the protagonists are the outlaws. Plenty of desert sunsets, shootouts and showdowns. And did I mention the New Mexico desert?

8. Meek's Cutoff (2010)
I found this film infuriating when I first saw it on account of its "lack of ending". I stomped home to look up the background history of the real pioneers it's based on. That was when I realised the genius of Kelly Reichardt's approach. The life of an American settler was in constant limbo with no knowledge of what the next day or even hour might bring. Reichardt's constrained screen aspect mimics the blinkered viewpoint of seeing the world through the tunnel of a "poke bonnet" and the muffled dialogue of the men frustratingly conveys how much women were sidelined. An encounter with a Native American is fraught with misunderstanding and confusion. Haunting, unforgettable and stripped of all romance, Meek's Cutoff is probably the most realistic "taste" of the West the way it was.

9. True Grit (2010)
No film could do justice to Charles Portis' masterpiece, but the Coen Brothers give it their best shot. My perfect True Grit would have John Wayne as Rooster with the 1969 screenplay, including its better-for-film upbeat ending (written by Portis) but with Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie and the set dressing of the 2010 version.

10. Justified (TV 2010 - still going!)
This barely squeaks by on my criteria, having very few horses, no desert and no Native Americans, but Raylan Givens – a beautiful US Marshall in cowboy boots and hat and with an itchy trigger-finger – is a fabulous Western hero. Although Elmore Leonard's story is supposed to be set in Eastern Kentucky, it's actually filmed in and around Santa Clarita, Hollywood's iconic Western backlot.

11. Rango (2011)
Not really for kids, this decidedly creepy animation is packed with references to other Westerns and popular movies. I have listed nearly two dozen on my Rango Cheat Sheet. By making the characters animals rather than ethnic groups, Gore Verbinski neatly avoids many of the "hot buttons" that weigh down The Lone Ranger... and threaten the entire Western genre.

So my thought is: No, the Western is not dying. We are certainly not in the right Zeitgeist, but if well-written and conceived, a story of men or women on the frontier with six-shooters and horses can still be hugely satisfying.

Finally, there are some great Western books being produced. A few of my recent favourites are St. Agnes Stand by Thomas Eidson, Boone's Lick by the great Larry McMurtry and Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (much better than the film). I myself am trying to revive the genre among children with my tales of a half-Sioux, half-white 12-year-old Detective in Virginia City, Nevada Territory: The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Just out is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Messalina's Story by Mia Forbes

(detail from Death of Messalina by Georges Rochegrosse)
So here I am, my back pressed up against a cold, dark corner. It seems strange that something so utterly horrible could happen in such an entrancing place such as this, the Gardens of Lucullus. The walls resplendent with glittering mosaics and plants of exquisite colours drooping lazily over every surface: this is a place of life and nature and beauty, not of death. Many will say I have brought this upon myself...

Being married off to your ugly, fifty-year-old second cousin when you're fifteen is not fun. There were a few perks to marrying Claudius, mainly becoming Empress of the Roman Empire when I was twenty one, but really! It was ridiculous for everyone to expect me to stay with that stammering, cowardly, ancient idiot. Even though the senate offered me the title of Augusta, Claudius turned it down and Messalina Augusta has such a lovely ring to it! I've been so good to him, providing him with an heir, our son Britannicus, and yet he never did anything to quash the salacious rumours, although not entirely unfounded, that made me the subject public mockery.

Luckily for me though, I've always been able to sway him easily to exile or execute people who might pose a threat to the succession to the throne of our little Britannicus when Claudius finally packs it in. However, during last year's Secular Games, Agrippina decides to show up. Of course she just has to bring little Nero, who is very mean to my son, barging into his horse during the boys' Troy Game (I hate to think what he'll be like when he grows up) and they stole all of my – I, I mean Britannicus' spotlight. Although I do have an impressive line-up of Imperial ancestors, I am not descended directly from Augustus and although her pedigree is definitely not obvious (you should see her: crudely slurping mulsum like a common plebeian!) Agrippina is. This meant she could have been competition. Naturally, I did what any ambitious mother would do, I sent assassins to poison Nero, but that didn't work.

Whilst my situation with Agrippina was getting worse and worse something happened that forced all my problems out of my besotted mind. I met Silius (cue dreamy sigh). Good-looking, dignified, smart: he was perfect. Oh, apart from his wife, but I soon sorted that out (cue forced divorce). Desperate for his love, I showered him with every gift known to man or God. Slaves, canonizing him emotionally and officially, magnificent statues! I can see know that I bought his 'love' and that no one would ever love me, not even my mother, who is now trying to persuade me to kill myself. How nice.

Claudius had to go to Ostia for one boring function or another a few days ago and after comparing him, a feeble, slimy (quite literally; he has the disgusting habit of drooling) old fool, to Silius, a prestigious and highly attractive man, I had to escape. I got married. It was absolutely crazy, but I did. Just like that! Boom! Married! To Silius, which in effect meant I was divorcing Claudius, a dangerous move, I should have had the foresight to realise. I got too caught up. In the impassioned-red flammeum, Silius' crooked grin, in the rude songs sang jauntily by complete strangers who thankfully but unbelievably didn't recognise me as they walked beside us and in the desire I felt to get away from Claudius permanently. But the thrill was disastrously ephemeral.

I found out during my wedding that my own men, my friends and my assistants in the schemes to make Britannicus' accession smooth and simple, had betrayed me. They ran off to Claudius and told him everything. When I heard I panicked, realising the danger I had selfishly put my family in and, taking my children with me, I travelled to Ostia on the back of wagon. It was hardly fit for a slave, let alone an Empress and the young future Emperor and crowds gathered along the Via Ostiense to vulgarly jeer at us. I expected and wanted Silius to follow me, declaring that he'd protect me and that we could run away to a distant province. But he didn't...

I caught sight of Claudius' returning company. By the angry blaze in his usually dull, watery eyes I knew that all my efforts to persuade him that I was innocent in any apparent crimes were to be in vain, but I had to try. I reiterated over and over that I was the mother of his children, whom I knew he would never harm, and at first I thought I had succeeded in influencing him into forgiveness because instead of flying into a rage as I thought he would, he remained calm, sitting in his lectica. He should have been riding a horse like any dignified, powerful Emperor would instead of reclining in a gilded litter, being carried by slaves. He posed an unthreatening sight, if it wasn't for the fury in his eyes, the like of which I had never seen in the usually insipid, impervious man. He didn't bellow at me; he didn't order a guard to strike me down; he just ordered me, in a measure voice, to await a hearing with him at the Gardens of Lucullus.

He probably sent me here as a reminder of all the allegedly punishable things I've done in my all too short life. I couldn't resist these magical pleasure gardens -1 had to have them for my own. Silius helped me force t|ieir owner, Asiaticus, an ex-consul and friend of Claudius, to commit suicide. I suppose that may have been a little extreme, but this vast oasis of serenity was so appealing to me: a place of excitement, beauty and happiness in a life that was full of shameful scandals and empty of love and compassion. Flowers bloom with the thought of adoration and devotion, fountains pour hope and dazzling, brightly painted frescos were bursting with the buzz of wonder encircling the natural universe, full of so many creatures that my problems seemed insignificant.

Before, as I walked in the gardens, its beauty reflected onto all the surroundings and occupants, making them too angelically radiant. Today it is still a beautiful place, but in contrast everything looks dull and dismal, especially now that I know my audience with Claudius will never come. In the atrium I can hear my mother, who has returned to be with me after many years apart, meeting two officials sent from my husband. She warned me that executioners would come. I will die with dignity. I will not give Claudius the pleasure of hearing that I begged to for his mercy. My mother's advice was that I kill myself, but I can't... I can't bring myself to tear open my delicate porcelain skin and watch the issuing blood stain my life until there is none left.

The two men have come in now. The youngest, shortest one is shouting at me, screaming that when I die no one will remember or miss me and that I will be subjected to damnatio memoriae. He is throwing disgusting names at me, but there is no use in crying or retaliating. All I can do is stare blankly at him as a shrink slowly down the wall, hoping to fall into nothingness. The large officer grabs me and drags me to the centre of the atrium by my long obsidian hair so my head is hovering over the impluvium. In the reflection of the water I can see my dappled face, my beauty distorted with my fear, for my children and for Silius, although I know deep down that he won't care about my fate. My mother is quietly chanting a prayer in a choked voice whilst the man standing beside me draws his gladius. The smell of flowers permeates the room, but the sweet fragrance is masked by the cruel occasion. The stone floor is cold beneath my knees and my mouth is dry. I close my eyes and bow my head, in preparation, not in prayer, for no God could save me now. My mother's chanting stops. I hear the swing of a sword.

This sophisticated short story by Mia Forbes of Nonsuch High School took second place in the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012 in the 14+ category. Mia has chosen to tell the story of the Emperor Claudius' third wife: Messalina. Bene fecisti, Mia! Well done! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Last Pythia by Ruby Osman

die regi; tecta pulchra misera domus cecidit
"Tell the king: the fair-wrought house has fallen."

She sits on the stool.

Below her lies a chasm. A thin, hissing crack, which darts to and fro beneath her feet and off into the dark corners of the room.

She sits on the stool.

The stool itself is a sturdy affair. Knarled and knotted, but it supports its burden with pride. Its embellished feet encircle the chasm.

She sits on the stool.

In a hand she holds a simple dish, filled to the brim with clear spring water from some far off or sacred land. She doesn't understand why. She doesn't have to. The other hand clutches at a laurel branch. The force she grasps it with leaves imprints in her hand.

She wears the clothing of a virgin. It is of no importance whether she is or not. She may be young, old, rich, poor. She may be a worthy counterpart of Galen, or she may not even be able to write her own name. It is of no importance. She is a wolf in sheep's clothing, if you may.

Her dress is cut from a deep red fabric, the kind normally reserved for that of nobility. It is not a light fabric and its weight guides her spine into a gentle curve. An unkempt forest of hair frames her face, casting dark shadows onto her features. Her air is not one of grace or elegance, but of omen and myth. She bathes rarely – once a month at the Castilian Spring – and years in the darkness has given her skin a deathly pale hue.

And yet why then, do so many flock to see this single woman? From all corners of the Empire, people rush to consult with this one village girl. Generals, farmers, writers, they are all the same under her gaze. And even then, it is not her they really seek. They are wishing to talk to the rocks deep in the chasm, they are wishing to consult with the sacred Kassotis water she holds in her hand, or they await a reply from Apollo's spirit, which flows through her veins. They have all come to see the Oracle.

For nine months of the year, the doors of her shrine are thrown open to the world. Pilgrims wind their way up her path, sporting laurel branches and sacrifices. To them, she is but a middle-man to the gods. Yet still, in her honour, they slaughter their animals and climb the harsh slope.

She is not aware of what goes on outside; of the waiting, weary queues. She holds no concept of how these people arrive at her stool. She may've done, years ago, as a child, watching exotic men and women traipse their way through her village, drinking from their fountains, sleeping in their inns. She may have watched them give a sigh, or a resigned smile, as their eye was drawn to the looming hill, the final step of their journey. But now, years of being that final step, have erased her childhood memories. Her days are now rigorous, exhausting, but still a strictly followed routine - for she is in contact with Apollo, and it is through her prophecies that the world's decisions are made.

Apollo non habet asylum, nec corona laurorum. 
"No shelter has Apollo; nor do the sacred laurel leaves."

She is asked the question. It isn't repeated. It is not expanded upon.

The lucky pilgrim waits.

Sometimes the answer comes quick, for others it is an eternity of suspense. She takes a heavy breath and begins:

The chasm's smoke seeps through her, through any opening, nestling in any crevice of the body. Its wisps soar down her throat, into her chest, then down into her arms and legs, teasing her fingertips. She feels it dancing throughout her body, diving and sweeping, settling finally in her lungs. The voice she speaks in is not her own, nor does anyone recognise it as any mortal's, but is rasping, yet melodic, barely intelligible to the questioner, but crystal clear to the girl herself. When she finishes, though, she will not remember what words she has just given, what sound or destructive advice she muttered; she will retreat, exhausted, until the next visitor. She doesn't know how this happens to her - what divine or spiritual influences are at play. All she knows is that, when that question is asked, she is taken over. Words tumble from her mouth, confused yet powerful, they rush for air, they rush to be noticed. Warmth and content spreads through her body. Any famine, death or plague can be forgotten whilst she's in this state. For her, the words flow out like warm honey, and each one is individual and enunciated, each is a story in its own.

Of course the mere pilgrim cannot be expected to decipher these cryptic rants. This task is divulged upon two male priests. It is their job to translate. To twist this heap of mismatched words into sense, a sense that will keep people coming back. Because, although this woman may be a messenger from the heavens, she is still but a village girl. In some ways they are jealous, their potential overshadowed by a virgin on a hill, their work left unappreciated.

None of this occurs to the girl. As she sits upon her stool, she never wonders who might come next or what stories the priests are spinning. She never wonders what choices are being made under her name, or who has died or felt pain from her prophecies. Her days are filled with constant questions, so she fills her nights with silence. No questions. No answers. It works.

fontes nunc tacuerunt, vox quoque.
"The fountains are now silent, the voice is stilled"

But now even she is starting to notice the change. The visitors seem just a little less frequent, their sacrifices not quite as plentiful. The priests seem cautious, they slip from the Empire's Latin to their mother tongue from time to time. Her role remains the same though.

She is staring at the wall. She has stared at this wall thousands, if not millions of times before. There are only a few bricks without chips or cracks. The mural is fading, taking its legends with it too. She wonders whether it used to be like this. Today there have been four visitors, and it is nearly the eighth hour. Two came together. And one was a pregnant woman from the village. The final one had come from Dacia though. That was something at least.

She hears a clunking from outside. Once, twice. Another time. Getting slightly louder with each 'chink'.

She recognises the sound, she thinks, but without knowing what it is. Now her ignorance begins to vex her.

The memory begins to creep back in. Cautiously tip-toeing its way back into her mind. Its still wrapped in a blanket of haze though. So are all her memories.

She remembers it being magnified. It was magnified, and uniformed. The chink of the metal of a thousand men, the sound weaving its way up her path to taunt her ears, its creators marching on. The chink of the metal of a thousand men went on to rape, pillage and plunder all she held beloved, just so they could call the ravaged land their own – but this is not her memory. For these events are of long ago – centuries maybe. They are from an oracle before her. It was that woman, not her, who heard the chink of the metal of a thousand men, who, whilst shrouded in her temple-blindfold, had slowly, over months or years, learned of her homeland's 'joyful' addition to the Empire, to Rome's sprawling, all-consuming territory.

So now the girl sits in the dim silence, with the daylight fading and the 'clinks' working their way to the summit of the hill. Past the priests. Into the shrine. Down the stairs. Into her room.

In their hands, the soldiers hold a decree. Whether the decree is real or not is of no importance, because they also hold the swords. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of all pagan temples. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of her home, of her livelihood; he has ordered the closure of all she can remember, and all she is known for.

For a last time, the power spreads through her. She allows the fumes to envelope her. A deep final breath. This time her words are clear. She speaks them in the soldiers' tongue – not consciously, she only speaks what flows. She doesn't remember her last prophecy, she only remembers those ending words, as the soldiers begin to drag her away.

est finis
"It is finished."

She no longer sits on the stool.

Ruby's atmospheric story about the final days of the Delphic oracle won first prize in the 14+ age category of the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012. 14-year-old Ruby is a pupil at Sancton Wood School, Cambridge. Bene fecisti, Ruby!