Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About London’s Mithraeum

by author Caroline Lawrence

Sophie Jackson, Catharine Edwards, Fiona Haarer & Michael Marshall
A few days ago I went to see London’s Mithraeum, recently reopened in the basement of Bloomberg’s new building. I’m fairly jaded by museums and wasn’t expecting anything special, but it was great. Coming up out of the ‘experience’ I ran into Sophie Jackson and Michael Marshall of MOLA – two of the archaeologists responsible for the display – along with Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History from Birkbeck College and lecturer Fiona Haarer of the Roman Society. Although I am one of MOLAs archaeology ambassadors, I had booked the normal way and our meeting was totally serendipitous. Chatting with them, I learned a couple of facts which I share below, along with a few other things you might not know. 

I do urge you to go and I hope this short list enhances your experience!

1. Exit 8. It’s easiest to reach London’s Mithraeum via Bank station exit 8. If you’re coming from Waterloo just get the Waterloo & City line. One stop is all it takes. Exit via the travelator and when it ends make a sharp left to reach Exit 8 which now has London Mithraeum added at the bottom of a list of landmarks. Go up the stairs to street level and continue straight ahead for less than 200 meters, passing the Starbucks on your left. You’ll see entrance to the Mithraeum on your right. It’s on the ground floor of Bloombergs brand new European headquarters. It doesn’t look like a Mithraeum from here; it looks like a modern art gallery because it is a modern art gallery called SPACE. N.B. As of 2019, you can take the brand new Walbrook Exit and emerge literally next door to the entrance!

2. Dead Time. Entry to London’s Mithraeum is free but you have to book a visit. They won’t just let you roll up. But sometimes if you roll up at their ‘dead time’ of 3pm they might let you in. N.B. Never show up on Monday, when the exhibition is closed. 

3. Three Parts. Like Gaul, the London Mithraeum is divided into three parts. The first part is in the art gallery reception where a guide will give you a Samsung tablet and point you at a modular wall displaying around six hundred roman artefacts all found within a few metres of where you are standing. Tap the outline of an object on your tablet and up comes a superb hi-res image of the artefact. Swipe right and find a line or two about what it is in a nice big, easy-to-read font. Why do you need a tablet when you can just look? Because some of the pieces are quite high up and/or small, and the imagery is superb. 

4. Special Glass. The piece of glass in front of the modular display of Roman objects is state-of-the-art. According to Sophie Jackson, Director and Archaeologist at MOLA, (Museum of London Archaeology), it is the biggest piece of glass you can get of that thickness and with the non-reflective properties. Hidden hinges on the left allow the slab of glass to swing open so that the modular displays can be regularly updated. 

5. Lucky Amulet. The tiniest object in the modular display wall is an amulet of amber shaped like a gladiator’s helmet. It is minuscule, about the size of your little fingernail. According to Michael Marshall, Senior Finds Specialist at MOLA, it was put in a day before we were there, replacing a less sexy pair of tweezers. Michael also told us that this tiny object was spotted by an archaeologist the old-fashioned way, with the naked eye. (Near the amulet is the famous LONDINIO tablet, also recently added by popular demand.) 

6. Go Down to Go Back. Someone at MOLA or Bloomberg had the very clever idea of showing how you have to descend to go back in time. As you go down the black marble stairs you see what the ground level would have been for important moments in Londons history such as the WWII bombing level and the Great Fire of 1666. There is a similar graphic on the back of the elevator. The Temple of Mithras dates from about 240 AD, almost 200 years after Londinium was first established. 

7. Famous Actress Joanna Lumley narrates some of the commentary on the mezzanine level, which is the second part of the experience where ‘clues to what form the cult took are explored in light and sound.’ Listen to the commentary as you watch a ghostly light show on the walls. 

8. Please Touch. You are allowed to touch the three resin casts: the head of Mithras, a tondo with inscription and a 3-D plan of the temple. As a cheerful guide named May explained to me: The exhibition is meant to be touchy-feely!’ The head of the mysterious god Mithras with its distinctive Persian cap was found in 1954 on what was intended to be the last day of excavation of just one of hundreds of bomb-exposed sites in London. Planned building on the site was halted so that the Mithraeum could be excavated and eventually removed to another site. Bloomberg and MOLA have brought it back to exactly the place it was originally found. 

Get Well card by Roman glassmaker David Hill
9. Just Theories. Don’t swallow the written explanations or spoken commentaries whole. Our understanding of this mysterious cult is changing all the time. We don’t really know what they did at these ceremonies. We don’t even know if Mithras was actually killing the bull or just wounding it. In a recent article, scholar Christopher Faraone claims the word ‘tauroctony (i.e. bull-slaying scene) is a nice-sounding Greek noun that appears nowhere in Mithraic inscriptions or literary testimonia and in fact nowhere in ancient Greek. JRS 103, pp 1-21 

10. The Experience. The third and final part of London’s Mithraeum is an ‘experience’ on the site of the ruins themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you but it involves sound, light and mist. And although it was one of the coldest days of the year this underground space was comfortably warm.
There is a superb free guide to the history of London as revealed in the Archaeology at Bloomberg co-produced by MOLA. You can download it HERE. (Spoiler alert: There are some images in the final pages of the brochure which might spoil the third part of the experience.) 

You can also get an interactive guide to the wall of artefacts on your smartphone or tablet by going to

Bravo to Bloomberg, MOLA and Foster + Partners Architects! You did a great job. 

Book your FREE tickets to the Mithraeum HERE

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ten Myths About Pompeii

Fun poster for the movie Pompeii (2014)
The poster on the right is huge fun, but if you’ve studied Pompeii at school or read my book The Secrets of Vesuvius, you know its wrong.
There was plenty of warning. 
There was a chance to escape.
There were no flaming rocks.
There were no rivers of lava. 
And there were almost certainly no passionately kissing couples!
You know it was a Plinian eruption, named after the two Plinys, Pliny the Elder, the naturalist who died in the eruption, and Pliny the Younger, the one who wrote about it. You know all about the ash and the pyroclastic surge. 

staged reconstruction of making the casts at Pompeii
You know that the so-called frozen bodies are not frozen bodies at all, but plaster casts made when Italian archaeologists filled the body-shaped cavities in the tufa (hardened ash) with plaster of Paris. When the plaster hardened they chipped away the tufa to reveal shockingly accurate moulds of the vanished dead, sometimes showing folds of cloth and facial expressions. This was a kind of death-mask, but for the whole body, not just the face. And they didnt just take moulds of people but animals, too, such as mules, pigs and a dog. 

Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013
I thought I knew all the facts, too. Then I went to the Bay of Naples with Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and my world was rocked. He showed me that many of my beliefs were actually myths. Wallace-Hadrill was director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project for fifteen years, from 2001 until 2016. Some people call him Professor Herculaneum, because few people know Pompeii’s smaller, richer sister-city better than he does. I call him Myth-Buster’!

Caroline at Pompeii in January 2013
A few years ago, Cambridge Alumni Travel in conjunction with Andante Travels proposed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit ruins on the Bay of Naples with Wallace-Hadrill. I jumped at the chance. I had visions of him telling us things no book would reveal and taking us places no tour guide would have access to. I was right. He did get us into places the other tours didn’t reach. But he also demolished some long-accepted facts about the famous eruption of Vesuvius and the cities it destroyed.

By the end of our first hour with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill I realised he was a Myth-Buster extraordinaire. Like all great historians and archaeologists, he does not accept facts just because they’ve been repeated in print a bazillion times. He has a knack for looking at things with fresh eyes and reinterpreting the evidence if necessary.

Here are ten of my most cherished beliefs: BUSTED!

Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013
Myth #1 – Vesuvius Did Not Erupt on 24 August AD 79. Everybody confidently quotes this as the date of the eruption, but everybody is probably wrong! At the turn of the 20th century, everybody claimed the eruption occurred in November. But Wallace-Hadrill thinks late September or early October is a likelier date. His clue is a lot of ripe pomegranates found near a buried villa at a place called Oplontis between Pompeii and Herculaneum. (This villa is known as the Villa Poppea or Villa Poppaea because it was owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea.) In Italy, pomegranates ripen in late September/early October. The problem is not with Pliny the Younger, whose famous letters tell us the date of the disaster, but with the monks who interpreted his dates as they copied his manuscripts.

Myth #2 – Villa Poppea Not Owned by Nero’s Wife. The Villa at Oplontis probably wasn’t called the Villa Poppea and it probably wasn’t owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea. (Though both things might be possible.) Furthermore, the town where it’s located wasn’t called Oplontis. Or maybe it was. We just don’t know. 

Myth #3 – Population of Herculaneum. Guide books often say the population of Herculaneum was 4,000 people. We simple do not know! Those who hung around were possibly vaporised by the first pyroclastic surge. This explains why so few bodies have been found in the town at the foot of Vesuvius. The only bodies we’ve found at Herculaneum were those sheltering deep underground or in the vaulted boat-houses facing the waterfront. But wait…

Myth #4 – Not Boat-houses. The famous bone-filled “boat-houses in Herculaneum probably weren’t boat houses. Yes, they were by the sea but they probably had a double function as foundations for the Suburban Baths and storehouses for various goods, (but probably not for boats.) Wallace-Hadrill thinks the dozens of skeletons found there were those of people sheltering from what they believed was just another earthquake. He believes there were dozens of earthquakes in the run-up to the eruption, starting with the big one in 62 CE. But wait…

Myth #5 – The Earthquake of 62. The famous earthquake of 62 CE was almost certainly in 63 CE. Scholars got the dating wrong. Seneca tells us who the consuls were and this allows us to date it precisely.

Myth #6 – Buried Under Hot Mud! Herculaneum was NOT buried by hot mud as all the guidebooks tell you. It was buried under alternating layers of tufa (hardened ash) and lapilli (light aerated pebbles of volcanic matter). You can see it before your very eyes, if you just look!

Myth #6 – Don’t Call it a thermopolium. The Romans called those fast-food places popinae or tabernae. The word thermopolium only occurs once in Plautus (a 3rd century BC Roman comic playwright). It was probably a joke word. Wallace-Hadrill, the Myth-Buster, called this a dubious term.

Myth #7 – Don’t Call it the Decumanus Maximus. Romans did not call the main road through town the Decumanus Maximus. That is a term invented by modern scholars. They probably called it Venus Street. Or Street of the Fishmarket, or similar.

Myth #8 – Don’t Call it a lararium. Romans might have worshipped Hercules or Diana there, rather than the Lares of the household. Call it a shrine, an aediculum in Latin.

Myth #9 – So-called Discovery of Pompeii. Pompeii was not really “discovered in the 18th century. They knew it was there but just weren’t interested or were discouraged by the church from investigating too deeply.

Myth #10 –  The Phallus is Not Always Apotropaic. In Pompeii, guides will tell you that the male member points the way to brothels. Experts tell you it was a symbol of good luck, used against the evil eye. They are correct, but to bust a busted myth: sometimes the phallus did point the way to a brothel. (See picture above of a phallus on a paving stone of the Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main drag.)

Wallace-Hadrill at Herculaneum, 2013
The main thing I learned from our time with Professor Herculaneum was this: There’s a lot we don’t know. Don’t believe things just because you’ve read them or heard them. Always check the primary sources in conjunction with the archaeological evidence and make up your own mind.

For those of you not lucky enough to travel to the Bay of Naples with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill as a tour guide, don’t despair. His lavishly-illustrated and clearly-written book, Herculaneum Past and Future, is now out in paperback. It is a wonderful resource.

I have written over thirty history-mystery books for children set in Roman times. Three of my Roman Mysteries are set on the Bay of Naples during and after the eruption of Vesuvius: The Secrets of Vesuvius, The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum. Find out more at my website:

P.S. A version of this post was first published on Wonders & Marvels in February 2013, a month after our trip to the Bay of Naples. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naples Tunnel

So-called crypta Neapolitana of Seneca
by Caroline Lawrence

Traveling from the Roman resort of Baiae to Naples one day nearly 2000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca decided to take the land route instead of the short but choppy sea voyage. Part of the road took a shortcut through a mountain by means of the famous Naples Tunnel. But the Crypta Neapolitana turned out to be almost worse than a sea voyage, a virtual visit to death. In one of his famous Letters to Lucilius, Seneca describes his harrowing journey.

bronze portrait thought by some to depict Seneca
When I had to return from Baiae to Naples, I convinced myself there might be a storm so I wouldn't have to endure another sea voyage. But the road was so waterlogged that I might as well have gone by ship. Anointed with the mud of the road and then dusted in the Naples Tunnel, I felt like a wrestler. Nothing could be longer than that prison, nothing gloomier than the torches that enabled us to see not through the darkness but rather the darkness itself. Had the place any other light sources it would still be clouded by dust which even in the open air is heavy and annoying. How much more so in that tunnel where the dust swirls back on itself. Shut up without any ventilation, it blows into the faces of those who stir it up. In this way we simultaneously endured two opposing inconveniences: on the same road, on the same day we battled both mud and dust. (Letter to Lucilius 57.1-2)

Emerging from the gloom into daylight restored Seneca to his usual good spirits, but thinking about the claustrophobic darkness of the tunnel afterwards prompted him to write about the nature of death and the immortality of the soul

Mergellina station seen from Tomb of Virgil
Seneca’s tunnel was in constant use up until about a century ago, when the middle of the tunnel collapsed, but you can still see both ends. The eastern (Neapolitan) entrance is found near the so-called Tomb of Virgil in the Parco Vergiliano a Piedgrotta. Located near Mergellina train station (only a half hour’s walk from Castel dell’Ovo) this Parco Vergiliano (with an e) is not to be confused with the large Parco Virgiliano (with an i) four miles southwest. In 2013 it barely appeared on Google maps but now you can easily locate it by typing in the words Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta. It is behind the Church of the Madonna of Piedigrotta and easily reached by taxi or by train to Mergellina. 

Hand-made tile plaque about myrtle at Virgil's Tomb
Virgil, of course, was the great Roman poet who wrote the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, my favourite Latin poem. I was lucky enough to visit the Parco Vergiliano in September 2013 with Andante Travels. In this densely populated city without many public gardens the so-called site of Virgils tomb offers a cool, green oasis. Flanking the paths are plants and herbs mentioned in the works of Virgil, all beautifully labelled with tile plaques giving descriptions and the Latin names.

Another plaque tells about Virgil and you can see a modern bust of him in a niche, done in 1930 on the 2000th anniversary of his birth. Although the poet was born in Mantua and studied in Rome, he called Naples his home.

The plaque reads:

A modern bust of the ancient poet Virgil
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces...

Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now Naples holds me. I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders...

The steep hill is formed of honey-coloured tufa cloaked in ivy and dripping with vines. Like honeycomb, the soft rock is perfect for tombs, niches and tunnels, which the Neapolitans call galleria. The biggest of these tunnels is the dramatic Crypta Neapolitana – Seneca’s tunnel. Next to it is one contender for Virgil’s tomb, a cave carved into the hill with a bust of Virgil in a niche nearby. Nearby is another tomb, that of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) a hunchback poet who was a great worshipper of Virgil. Sometimes this area is called the Hill of the Poets. 

Medieval fresco of Santa Maria dell’Idria above the tunnel
Undaunted by the background noise of the Mergellina train and police sirens, our Andante guide proclaimed Tennyson’s Ode to Virgil. Then he told us there is another possible tomb to Virgil on a higher level. 
Climbing the brick stairs with the aid of a sturdy wooden handrail we found a small Roman aqueduct that ran above Seneca’s tunnel. From up here you can get a closer look at a niche with a faded fresco of Madonna and Child. Mounting more stairs takes you to a beehive-shaped tomb that also might be Virgil’s. This atmospheric freestanding cylindrical tomb is of the columbarium type, with niches for ash-filled urns. There is a convenient tripod where you can burn fragrant bay leaves in memory of the great poet. The view from up here is breathtaking; you can see right across the bay to Vesuvius. 

Caroline Lawrence in Virgil's tomb
Although Virgil’s real burial place is probably lost in antiquity, this site became a popular place of pilgrimage. During the Middle Ages the poet became known as a magician. This belief might have started because of one of his poems, the so-called Messianic Fourth Eclogue, in which Virgil seems to have miraculously prophesied the birth of Christ. (The poet died in 19 BC.) Other legends grew up around him and by the mid-14th century a book called the Cronaca di Partenope or Chronicle of Parthenope (Parthenopeis another name for Naples) recounts some amusing achievements of Virgil the Magician. For example, he made a metal horse that cured all sick horses, a golden fly that kept away all flies, and a magic leech that, thrown into a well, rid all Naples of her leeches. 

Virgil the Magician also placed a magic hen
s egg somewhere in the eponymous Castel dell’Ovo. As long as the egg remains, goes the legend, the castle will stand strong. 

painting of the Naples Tunnel by Gaspar Vanvitelli c 1700

My favourite legend is that Virgil himself drilled the Naples Tunnel merely by turning his intensely poetic gaze on the hill, not unlike Superman with his laser vision. According to one eighteenth century travel writer, the grosso popolo of Naples revered Virgil more for his magical creation of this tunnel than for the Aeneid. So it is fitting that you will find Virgil’s Tunnel near one of his possible tombs in the vibrant city he loved so much. 

My two retellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid are The Night Raid, about Nisus and Euryalus from book 9, and Queen of the Silver Arrow, about Camilla from books 7 and 11. The reading level is easy but the content is dark.

A version of this post was originally published on the Wonders and Marvels blog

Monday, September 18, 2017

Roman Londoners from the Bloomberg Tablets

by Caroline Lawrence

It is a cool grey Saturday morning in mid-September I am on my way to a London square near St Paul’s cathedral. A writer in search of inspiration, I am hoping to meet some ancient residents of Roman London or Londinium, as it was called. 

fragment of Samian ware with archer now at MOLA
For many centuries it was believed that St Paul’s cathedral was built on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana. After the great fire in 1666 when the architect Christopher Wren was digging the foundations for his new St Paul’s, he kept a sharp lookout for evidence of Roman occupation. Although he found no trace of a Temple of Diana, he did find other Roman artefacts including fragments of popular Samian ware, a type of imported, glossy orange pottery beloved by rich Romans in Britain. 

Over three hundred years after the new St Pauls rose from ashes, the multi-national company Bloomberg were digging the foundations for their new European headquarters in the City of London. Like Wren they also found Roman artefacts; not just a few, but over fifteen thousand. These were preserved in the waterlogged soil of the Walbrook, one of several streams that feeds into the Thames. The Roman goodies included leather shoes, pottery, brooches, hairpins, rings and – most exciting of all – over four hundred writing tablets. 

Unlike the famous Vindolanda tablets, most of the so-called Bloomberg tablets are not postcard-thin wafers of limewood designed to be inscribed with ink, but stylus tablets made of silver fir reclaimed from imported wine barrels. Also known as wax tablets, these were slim tiles of wood with a shallow depression for a layer of wax. This wax was scratched away with a sharp stylus to reveal the wood underneath. The London tablets were mainly covered with soot-blackened wax, which contrasted with the pale wood underneath. 

As a Classicist, Londoner and writer of historical fiction for kids, I was thrilled when MOLA, the Museum of London Archaeology department, invited me to be one of their ambassadors of archaeologyI jumped at the chance and was rewarded with a copy of the first of several volumes about the Bloomberg finds and also a private tour of the MOLA repository in Hackney. At Mortimer Wheeler House I saw some of the tablets and artefacts up close. The ancient combs, shoes and brooches were fun, but Ive seen plenty of those before in museums. 

What I hadnt seen were items like the wonderful iron stylus from Rome (left) with an inscription on its hexagonal sides declaring: I have come from the City. I bring you a welcome gift with a sharp point so that you may remember me. I hope I bring you good fortune when the way is long and the money sack is empty. As archaeologist Michael Marshall (above) remarked, this is the ancient equivalent of My Parents Went to Rome and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. 

And then there were the famous tablets. Most would have about the size of a small paperback book (140 cm x 110 cm), but with with the thickness of a smartphone. A few are the size of an iPad and a few are tags. Some have a central depression for the impression of signet rings. Roman wills had to be witnessed by no fewer than seven men and they were always recorded on sturdy wax tablets. 

When you look at the tablets you are amazed that anyone can make sense of the faint chicken scratchings left by the stylus as it pushed through the wax nearly two thousand years ago. But a combination of ultra-modern technology and old-fashioned genius makes this possible. 

Genius photographer Andy Chopping records the traces of scratches left by the stylus and gives them to genius epigraphist Roger Tomlin (above). A kind of code-breaker of ancient Latin cursive, Tomlin has been able to decipher parts of 80 of these tablets. (See how they do it HERE.)

From the archaeological context and a few dates on some of the tablets, we know these documents go right back to the very first years of London’s existence as a Roman town and cover a period of about twenty years, from roughly AD 60 to about AD 80. They give us an extraordinary glimpse into the life of Roman Londoners, naming merchants, craftsmen, soldiers and politicians who lived in the new outpost of the Roman Empire. 

Fittingly for London, almost all the legible tablets have something to do with business and commerce. Each tablet is given a label with a code including the letters WT which stands for Writing Tablet

One thrilling tablet, WT44, was written when Nero was emperor and is dated to 8 Jan AD 57. In it, a freedman named Tibullus notes that he owes another freedman named Gratus 105 denarii for some merchandise which was sold and delivered. 

This tablet sent a chill down my spine when I remembered that Boudica burnt Colchester, St Albans and London only three years later during her brief but violent rebellion. It is claimed that she killed over 70,000 people. Did Tibullus and Gratus survive? 

Tablet WT45 shows how quickly London rose from the ashes and St Albans, too. It is business as usual as Marcus Rennius Venustus agrees to bring twenty loads of provisions from Verulamium to London. It is dated 21 October AD 62, within two years of Boudica’s rebellion.

Another extraordinary label, WT6,  gives us the first historical mention of London. Dated between AD 65 – 70, it is addressed to a certain Mogontius. We don’t know who he was but the name is a Celtic one, linked to the god Mogons who was worshipped in Britain and Gaul and might have been extra-popular with soldiers. 

The tablets are written according to certain conventions. Although the messages themselves are often scrawled in a hard-to-decipher type of writing called cursive, the addresses are usually written in easy to read capital letters. They are either in the dative case or have the Latin word dabis – the verb to give in the second person singular future tense – ‘you will give’ . This was considered more polite than the imperative da! Give! And might be translated ‘Please give...

So we have tablets addressed thus:

Please give this to Bassus

To Atticus, son of [name lost]

To Sabinus, son of Pirinus

Please give this to Junius the cooper, opposite Catullus’ place

One tablet is addressed to Tertius the Brewer, who might be Domitius Tertius, a brewer mentioned in a tablet from Carlisle. Maybe he sourced his barrels from Junius the Cooper.  

Other Romans named include Julius, Florus, Jucundus son of Flavius and the merchant Optatus. 

My favourite name is Namatobogius; I hope to meet him and find out who he was. 

When I finally arrive at Paternoster Square I am greeted by MOLA development and community project officer Magnus Copps (his real name) who introduces me to four members of The Vicus re-enactment group: Matt the baker, Simon the saddler, Chris the merchant and a lady scribe who wants to remain anonymous. When I ask them which Bloomberg Roman Londoners they are, they say they aren’t specific Londoners mentioned in the Bloomberg tablets, just generic Roman Britons. 

After a flash of disappointment, I take the initiative and assign them possible roles. 

Simon is wearing a fetching Celtic style tunic so I provisionally give him the name Namatobogius. When he does other events with The Vicus – for example at Fishbourne Roman villa or Caerleon legionary fortress – he plays the part of an auxiliary with the Hamian archers, co-incidentally the cohort that appears in my second Roman Quest bookHe tells me you can use hair from a horse’s tail as a bowstring, and how the Romans used tannin-rich oak, apple or chestnut to dye leather.

With his bright blue eyes, long yellow hair and torque, Chris from Cambridge is obviously Belgic. But hes wearing a Roman style toga. This fits his persona of an injured auxiliary from Germania who took early retirement and set up as a merchant. At first I dub him Optatus, a merchant mentioned in the tablets. But when he mentions that he is a micro-brewer, I give him a new persona: Tertius the Brewer. Appropriately, he is holding a beaker. His handmade socks and new shoes are totally authentic. He also confirms what I have always suspected, that it is impossible to run in a toga. 

Matt Hoskins, a cub scout leader from Poplar, a district of Southeast London, is a genial baker in his mid-twenties. With his pale skin, dark hair and tattooed arms he could be Celtic, so I might dub him Mogontius. He is a font of information about sourdough mixture, different types of flour and bugs in honey. He shows me a libum, a type of honey cake made with cheese and decorated with bay leaves. He also demonstrates Locatellis theory of how Roman bakers wrapped twine around their round loaves before baking so the customers could easily carry them away when hot. And possibly to keep them out of reach of vermin. 

But what about women?

Vindolanda gave us the famous birthday invitation sent by Sulpicia Lepidina to her friend Claudia Severa, but of all 92 persons named in the 80 legible Bloomberg tablets, not one is female. So I can make the elegant lady scribe anybody I want her to be. But it would be nice to have an authentic name, so I hop over to the online site of RIB, Roman Inscriptions in Britain, and immediately find two possible candidates.

She could be Tullia Numidia, commemorated in the epitaph of a now lost tombstone from London. Or how about Tretia Maria, named in a curse tablet (right) found near Moorgate? The author of the tablet (a lead one in this case, not from Bloomberg) is afraid of Tretia blurting out a secret. He or she writesI curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts, and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed...

Liver and lungs mixed up together? That’s a bit nasty. But wait! Writers have to be nasty. We have to give our characters interesting opponents and force them to undergo tests and trials. Otherwise the reader will be bored. So Tretia Maria it is. And even as I write it I wonder: Could Tretia be a misspelling of Tertia? In which case, she could be related to Tertius the Brewer: his beautiful daughter perhaps or younger sister. Perhaps Mogontius the baker and Namatobogius the cobbler are both vying for her affections. But what is the secret she knows and who wants to stop her blurting it out?

I feel a story coming on… 

To learn more about the tablets, and the ancient stories they reveal, check out Voices from Roman London. And you can follow MOLA on Twitter: @MOLArchaeology

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Did Aeneas Invent Pizza?

When most people think of Italy, they also think of pizza.

The residents of Naples claim to have invented it and they boast that theirs is the best in the world. Although you can put everything from pepperoni to pineapple on a pizza these days, purists maintain that there are only two types of pizza, the two original ones: Marinara and Margherita.

Neapolitan fishermen with Mount Vesuvius at dawn
The first and most basic kind of pizza is simply a thin circle of hand-kneaded dough covered with garlic-infused tomato sauce, garnished with a little oregano and put in a very hot oven for about a minute. Legend has it that Neapolitan fisherman ate this for breakfast. Thats why its called Marinara which means fisherman (or boatman) in Italian. 

The second type of pizza for purists is the so-called Margherita. Buffalo mozzarella is added to the simplest version to create a pizza the same three colours as the Italian flag: red tomato sauce, green basil and white cheese. Guide books will tell you this tricolore (three-coloured) version was created in honour of Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples in the late 1800s, but that story may be apocryphal.

The Petrella mozzarella factory in Aversa near Naples
One of the centres of production of buffalo mozzarella is the town of Aversa near Naples. In 2015, my husband and I were visiting friends and took a tour of the spotless Petrella factory to see how this creamy white cheese is made. Their fresh mozzarella was like ambrosia. That’s another reason Naples claims to have the best pizza: they have the best mozzarella. 

Once, while reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I came across a passage that made me wonder if the concept of the pizza might not go back much further than the 19th century. According to the Latin poet Virgil, after the Greeks sacked Troy and ended the Trojan War the hero Aeneas sailed off to look for a new home. When he and his fellow refugees finally arrived in Italy at the place they were meant to settle, they found they were almost out of food. They only had some stale round loaves of bread to eat. In order to stretch this fare, they collected some fruits of the field’, perhaps berries and herbs, put them on top and devoured the result. 

Tweaked fresco of Aeneas from Pompeii
Because the bread was so stale Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, joked, ‘Hey! We’re actually eating our tables! 
(Aeneid VII.116)

At that moment, Aeneas remembered a prophecy given earlier in their adventures: When you arrive at a place so tired and hungry that you eat your tables, you will know you have reached your promised land. (Aeneid VII. 124-127)

The berries certainly werent tomatoes, which come from the New World, and the herbs probably didnt include oregano, garlic or basil, but this passage from a two-thousand year old epic is a lovely link between modern Italian cuisine and its ancient legends.

Caroline Lawrence has written over thirty books for kids set in Ancient Roman times. Two of these, The Night Raid and Queen of the Silver Arrow, are re-tellings of stories from Virgil’s Aeneid.