Friday, June 21, 2013

My Life Stories by Caroline Lawrence

Mark Wallace and Helen Cleaves
This evening I gave a speech at the Kingston Grammar School prize-giving. Librarian Helen Cleaves invited me. Principal Deputy Head Mark Wallace gave me a great brief: "Just tell them what led you to where you are today."

The moment he uttered those words, I realised how much stories have determined the course of my life thus far. Here are twelve of the most important.

1. Nancy Drew Mysteries
The first books I devoured as a child. Not great literature but a girl with a brain who is empowered and independent despite her youth. I know now that I loved these books because Life is Mystery and we are all Detectives trying to solve it!

2. Star Trek
I loved the idea of space travel and going to exotic places and studying aliens. I also liked the idea of wearing a red mini-skirt while carrying a clipboard and working for Captain Kirk. Unfortunately I was rubbish at maths and had to abandon the idea of becoming an astronette.

Elsa Martinelli and baby elephants in Hatari!
3. Hatari!
This unlikely John Wayne film totally captured my imagination. I realize now it was the chic camaraderie of the khaki-clad game hunters, Henry Mancini song and elegant Italian photographer Dallas that captured my imagination as much as the East African landscape and animals. I dreamt of giving my bedroom a safari-theme and of studying baboons when I got older. (Jane Goodall had chimps and Diane Fossey had gorillas so that left baboons!). In my imagination my grown-up self would resemble Elsa Martinelli (right) and marry a blond gamekeeper who looked like Hardy Kruger. Unfortunately I was rubbish at biology and had to abandon that idea.

4. The Last of the Wine
I was on my gap year, working in Switzerland but it was too expensive for me to do any skiing and I was trapped in a winter chalet room. I was toying with the idea of travelling around Europe, Morocco and Greece. My parents sent me two books to prepare me for Greece, should I make it there: The Iliad in translation and Mary Renault's historical novel The Last of the Wine. That glimpse of Ancient Greece was like a bolt from Zeus's hand. I became totally fascinated by people like us yet not like us in a richly-painted, sensory world. The ancient Greeks were even more fascinating than aliens or baboons! I signed up to study Classics at U.C. Berkeley and finally found something I wasn't rubbish at.

Marrying a second time in 1992
5. The Bible
A scholarship took me to Cambridge but I found academia too dry. It was taking me away from the sensory world of ancient Rome. So I abandoned the idea of Classics as a career and looked for other work. A friend suggested getting a part time job in a London stockbroking firm. If you could design a job to be antithetical to my skills and interests, that would be it. But they hired me! A whirlwind romance with one of the partners ended in marriage and a baby. A chance conversation at a dinner party spurred me to try an experiment and see if God would answer a prayer, the first one I had ever made. He did. When I woke up the next morning, the whole world looked fresh and new. It really was like a "veil had been taken from my eyes." When my husband left me and our young son a few years later, my faith and my Christian friends were a huge consolation. They still are.

6. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Visiting my family in Stanford when my son was about four, I was wandering the campus bookshop when Betty Edwards' brilliant book caught my eye. Sometimes you have to travel halfway around the world to find a book you could have bought at your corner bookstore. This literally eye-opening guide helped me teach children at my son's school how to draw. This led to a position for me teaching Latin as well as art. And teaching Latin to kids aged 8-11 revived my love for the Roman world.

Caroline and Richard 20 years on
7. Back to the Future
I loved this movie, but the thing I'll never forget is the pang of envy I had when Marty's dad gets delivery of a box of his latest book. I was jealous! Then I realised. Jealousy tells you the desires of your heart! Don't be green. Be grateful and befriend your rivals. They can be your best allies.

8. Master and Commander
My first marriage had broken up and when I met Richard Lawrence (above and right) on a church holiday. We immediately clicked. On our first date we discovered we were both reading and loving the fairly obscure (at that time) Aubrey-Maturin historical novels of Patrick O'Brian. That's when I knew it was "meant to be". Richard studied art and history at Cambridge so that was good too. Plus he was blondish and looked like Hardy Kruger if you squinted.

9. Becoming a Writer
Teaching was fun, but exhausting. I thought if I ever wanted to see if I could be a writer, I'd better make a start. Searching for books on how to write, I found this classic by Dorothea Brande. Written way back in 1934, Becoming a Writer taught me the most valuable lesson: it's all about self-discipline. But I still needed a method.

10. John Truby Story Structure
Sometimes God (or the Universe or Serendipity) puts things in your path right when you need them. A friend from church told me about John Truby's story structure audio course back when it was still on plastic cassettes. It was exactly what I needed, providing a structure upon which I could hang my ideas about ancient Rome and four children who might have lived there. My lightbulb concept was "Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome", and Truby's structure helped me write the first book of my Roman Mysteries series in the last two weeks of the summer holiday of 1999.

11. The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
I got a five-book publishing deal! But I still needed to work until royalties started coming in. This book by Oliver Sacks about anomalies of the brain helped me tutor kids as I phased out teaching and started writing full-time. It also also prepared me for the day when in 1996 - four years after we married - Richard had a massive stroke. I understood exactly what he was going through and my knowledge kept everything slightly removed, as if Richard was one of Sacks' case studies. Richard has since made an extraordinary recovery. He now illustrates my books, helps me with research and is the cook of the house.

Assistant head Graham Yates and KGS head Sarah Fletcher
12. True Grit
A librarian friend gave me this book. "You'll like it," she said. I didn't like it. I adored it! It was partly responsible for my latest series set in the American West. I dedicated The Case of the Deadly Desperados "to my friend Penny, who started me on this dusty trail when she gave me a copy of True Grit by Charles Portis."

During tonight's prize-giving at Kingston Grammar, head teacher Sarah Fletcher finished her speech with the words "Work hard and have fun." That's a rough translation of the Latin motto of the school bene agere ac laetari. I couldn't think of any better advice to give. Except maybe this:

Be careful what you read; a book could change your life!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Children in Pompeii & Herculaneum

Recently I gave a family-friendly talk at the British Museum about Children in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This was part of the halfterm events accompanying Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum Exhibition. Fans of my Roman Mysteries books who couldn't come asked if I could write a report... so here is a summary of my talk.

Flavia Gemina, detectrix
I started out with an illustrated reading from The Roman Mysteries Treasury called A Day in My Life, about a day in the life of a Roman girl, Flavia Gemina. Flavia is the main character of my Roman Mysteries books. Although she leads an unusually eventful life and lives in Ostia, rather than the Bay of Naples, many aspects of her life and the the lives of children in Pompeii and Herculaneum would have been similar: rising at dawn, washing in the garden by the fountain, a light breakfast, household prayers with paterfamilias in atrium, lessons in the morning, a light lunch, siesta or the baths after lunch, dinner at around four in the afternoon and bed at sunset. In a reversal of today, poor people would eat out, buying their food from "fast food joints" and only people rich enough for cook slave and kitchen would eat in. 

When a baby was born, it would be wrapped tightly in strips of cloth called swaddling to keep it safe, then placed at the feet of the seated father. If he took the baby onto his knee (Latin genu) that meant he acknowledged the child as his, i.e. the baby was genuine! If not, the baby might be "exposed", i.e. left to die outside the town wall! (The Secrets of Vesuvius tells a story of this happening). Babies were not usually named for the first week or two as so many did not survive. Nor did many children survive past infancy. In ancient Roman times you could die of something that is easily treatable today.

Romans did not have our concept of childhood as an idyllic time to have fun and be innocent. Children were essentially mini-adults, working as soon as they were able and, if you were a girl, marrying as young as 12!

sewing with a bone needle
Working-class girls, i.e. those from the plebs, would probably help with the family business as soon as they were able, until they got married and started having children. Some girls might learn enough reading and maths to make lists and do basic accounts. The wife of the baker Terentius Neo is famously holding a stylus and writing tablet in a fresco from Pompeii. She is obviously proud of the fact that she is a pleb who knows how to read and write. 

The proper occupation for unwed, upper-class girls (in the equestrian or patrician classes) was weaving. You would spin wool into yarn, then weave that yarn into cloth on a loom then stitch it into garments with a bone needle. 

Girls would marry at 14 or 15, then have a baby and very often die, as childbirth was the biggest killer of young women in Roman times. At my talk, I showed a picture of a birthing chair from Cairo such as pregnant Roman women might have used when they gave birth. When I asked the audience what they thought this was for, one cute little girl wondered if it was "a baby's cot"? But I think you will agree: there are a few flaws in that suggestion!

Working class boys would probably go to school until they knew the basics of reading, writing and maths. "School" was often just a screened-off part of a columned walkway in the forum, so it would have been quite noisy. Richer boys and occasionally girls might have enjoyed a private tutor. Greek-born or Greek-speaking tutors were highly sought after as Greek was the language every educated boy or girl needed to learn. In my books, Flavia and her friends are tutored at home by a handsome young Greek named Aristo. Most children would not be this fortunate.

gestures of an orator
The Roman version of University for boys would be the study of rhetoric. Many went abroad. Two popular destinations were Athens and Rhodes. That was the ancient equivalent of studying at Oxbridge in the UK or Stanford in America. Here they would learn how to be an orator so they could practise law and climb the ladder of honours to political office. This is the course that Flavia's patrician boyfriend Flaccus pursues. (For more about this, read The Slave-girl from Jeruslaem)
mosaic of a Roman ball!

How did Roman kids have fun? We have found a few toys, but not many. Essentially Roman children had fun the same way adults did: a trip to the chariot races, arena, playing with dice, watching cockfights, hunting, etc. Even the Roman mosaic from Ostia of a startlingly modern-looking football (right) was probably for adults to throw around in the palaestra, the exercise area of the public baths.

As I prepared this talk, it struck me yet again that our lives would have seemed unimaginably luxurious and safe to ancient Romans. Even the most basic bathroom with its porcelain fixtures, cold and hot running water, scented soaps and clean towels would have been a luxury undreamt of by Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar! 

To illustrate how blessed we are, I showed objects that we have easy access to now which they did not have in Roman times. "Which one of these objects (below) on its own would have been worth an Emperor's ransom?" I asked.

Which of these on its own would have been worth an emperor's ransom?

One person suggested the tomato, because you could plant the seeds and grow more of this exotic fruit. Another suggested chocolate though Romans might have to acquire the taste. The electric plug reminds us they had no electricity so of course it would have been useless. The clock reminds us they had no batteries so that would have been useless, too. Glasses might be useful, but what if they didn't match your prescription? And who could you call with a telephone but no providers? For me, the object beyond price would be the Savlon. Although they didn't have a clear concept of infection, they did know about balms and ointments. In a time and place where the smallest scratch could become infected and kill you, that tube of antiseptic cream would certainly have saved many lives.

so-called "boat houses" Herculaneum
Assuming you lived to be 10 or 11, how would you have survived the eruption of Vesuvius? That was my next question. I described the not-too-scary beginnings of the eruption of Vesuvius – a lot of ash shooting up but no lava or flaming rocks – and I gave children in the BP lecture theatre a choice of sheltering in sturdy vaulted "boat houses" forming the foundations of the Herculaneum baths, or running away with nothing but pillows to cover their heads. Anyone who has grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area or Japan would know the safest place to shlelter during an earth tremor would be under a sturdy vault. But in this case the correct answer is "pillows" as death overtook those who sheltered in the vaulted storehouses of Herculaneum when the superheated air collapsed in a pyroclastic surge!

eruption of Vesuvius as depicted in CBBC Roman Mysteries TV show

They should have run away!
I didn't show the children in my audience any of the pictures of plaster casts made from the bodies of children who died in the eruption, but I did talk about the famous "dog of Pompeii" and I reassured them that he gained eternal fame through his few moments of suffering. And of course he inspired my first book: The Thieves of Ostia! This brought me to my four characters, based on the four elements of which Romans believed the world was composed. 

And that brought me to perhaps the biggest differences in Roman times and modern: the concept of the four humours. Romans believed people were full of four basic juices which they called humours: blood, mucus, yellow bile and black bile. I quickly determined through raising of hands, if members of my audience were cheerful sanguine "otters", stoically melancholic "cats", faithfully relaxed phlegmatic "golden retrievers", or hot-tempered choleric leader-type "lions". You can take the Four Humours Quiz HERE.
sponge-stick and an "as" of the Emperor Domitian to show scale

And finally no talk about daily life in Ancient Rome would be complete without my discussion of What Romans Used for Toilet Paper! I showed images of various options to wipe, not forgetting my Roman "as" for scale. (It's the size of a 50p but much more fun to say than "50p"). I finished with my pièce de résistance: a demonstration of how the sponge-stick was used. And that was it!

If you liked some the things I talked about in this post and want to know more about life in first century Italy, you will love the Roman Mysteries books. For more info, go to my author page or my website

Saturday, June 01, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Roman Girl

Flavia Gemina, 10, is an amateur detective. She lives in the Roman port of Ostia with her father Marcus Flavius Geminus, her ex-slave-girl Nubia, her tutor Aristo, two slaves and two dogs. (This interview was given in November AD 79)

My dog Scuto wakes me at sunrise. He presses his cold nose into my face and I open my eyes to see his face looming in a big, panting grin. If I've been up late the night before, I roll over and go back to sleep. Scuto knows it's no good trying to wake me if I'm tired, so he goes downstairs to help our cook Alma prepare breakfast. She goes out to buy bread at cockcrow and is usually back by dawn.

a lyre
Presently I hear music - the sound of flute and lyre. Nubia usually practises with my tutor Aristo first thing in the morning. Nubia's about 11 - a little older than I am. She used to be my slave-girl but she saved my life so many times that finally I set her free. She still lives with us though. Now she's like my dark-skinned sister. If Scuto doesn't get me up, the music does.

Nubia coifs Flavia
Nubia likes clothes and jewellery but I'm not too bothered about all that. I lace up my sandals and slip on any old tunic, a short one in summer and a long one in winter. Then I go downstairs. Our house has a secret garden inside: nobody on the street can see it. In the center is a fountain. I splash some water on my face and have a drink. Then I use the latrine. This month it's my job to empty the latrine bucket every morning - but that's another story.

We all eat breakfast whenever we come downstairs: usually a warm poppy-seed roll and a piece of cheese in summer and a hot poculum made of spiced wine mixed with milk in winter.

a lararium or shrine
By the time I appear, pater is usually up and at work in his study, preparing for the day ahead. He calls the whole household together into the atrium and we watch him make the daily offering at the household shrine. It might be a honey-cake, or a piece of fruit, or a hyacinth-scented candle. Just something to keep the household gods happy. My father didn't used to be so pious... but that's another story.

After morning prayers, pater goes out: to the barber first and then to call on his patron. Then he goes to the harbour to work on his ship and do whatever a captain does when he's not on a voyage. Of course he's home at the moment because the sailing season is over; it won't begin again until late April.

Jonathan and his sister Miriam
After pater leaves, about an hour past dawn, Jonathan and Lupus come over for lessons. Jonathan is my next-door-neighbour. He's Jewish. We became friends after he saved me from some wild dogs... But that's another story. I like Jonathan because he makes me laugh.

Lupus is a boy we discovered once in the necropolis outside the town walls. He has no tongue and can't speak. He's a bit wild but very clever. He learned to read in less than a month and now he can write, too. We think he's about eight or nine years old.

Lupus' name means "wolf" in Latin
Lupus lives with Jonathan at the moment and they have lessons with me and Nubia. Jonathan's father Mordecai and my father came to some arrangement. I think Mordecai gives us free medical care in return: he's an excellent doctor.  Jonathan's older sister Miriam used to attend lessons with us, but now she's preparing to get married. She's fourteen and the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

Aristo the Greek tutor
Aristo is a brilliant tutor. He's young and Greek and very handsome. (When I was younger I wanted to marry him, but now I'm too mature for such childish ideas.) He teaches us Latin literature, Greek language, mythology, philosophy and maths. Ugh! I hate maths. I hate it almost as much as I hate emptying the latrine bucket.

Lessons last until noon, when the gongs announce the opening of the public baths. Then we have a light lunch of bread and cheese and olives. Afterwards the adults take a siesta or go to the baths. That's usually when we conduct our investigations. But during the winter months - like now - Nubia likes to go to the baths, too. She says the only time she feels warm is in the hot, dry laconicum or the steamy sudatorium.

dining Roman style
Pater usually goes out to dinner about four hours past noon. He dines with his patron or one of his friends. In that case, Nubia and I have something light with Alma and Caudex. (Caudex is our door-slave and sometimes my bodyguard.) Occasionally pater entertains at home and sometimes we are invited. We never recline - well, only at the Saturnalia. We sit at a table in the middle of the triclinium while pater and his friends recline on the three couches around us.

reading by lamplight
We go to bed at sunset, or shortly after, which is nice in the summer but very frustrating in the winter. Alma says it's bad for my eyes, but sometimes I smuggle a scroll up to my bedroom and read by the light of my little clay oil-lamp. My favourite scroll at the moment is one by Apollodorus. He tells lots of Greek myths. I finally fall asleep and dream that I'm going on a quest with Jason or helping Hercules complete his tasks. My dreams are always in colour and they are very exciting. But they are never as exciting as my real life!

This interview is an excerpt from The Roman Mysteries Treasury, a glossy book based on the TV series based on my 17 book series The Roman Mysteries, which covers almost every imaginable aspect of life in Italy at the time of Mount Vesuvius's eruption. The Treasury is now out of print but you can still get the books and the TV series on DVD
Please mention The Roman Mysteries if quoting and acknowledge photos © LEG Ltd 2007. Thanks!