As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I tend to avoid historical novels set in ancient Rome. The problem is that I read with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, marking items of text 'problematical', 'anachronistic' and 'totally wrong'. Some writers seem not to have grasped the fact that the Romans had a radically different society to our own, and believe that putting twentieth-century folk in togas pretty much sorts out the 'historical' aspect of it all.
This is certainly the attitude of Hollywood screen-writers (with a few honourable exceptions). It's the reason why, in this household, I'm ejected from the room when everyone wants to watch a sword-and-sandal epic. Otherwise I keep jumping up and down, shouting at the TV and rushing off to grab books from the shelf that prove what is happening on-screen is total nonsense.
However, even more insidious are the historical novels that get it right – almost. Even these writers might occasionally enliven the story with a bit of creative inaccuracy or anachronism because it's 'just fiction'. However, my gullible mind absorbs facts and factiods alike. Then when challenged on something I have spouted in a paper or a lecture, I might check back and discover with horror that it came from fiction. So abstinence is the only thing that works for me.
Nevertheless, in a sporting attempt to keep in the spirit of things I offer this extract from 'Flowers from Washington: a novel of ancient America' written in the year AD 4000 and set in 2017.
'By Gad!' said Hiawatha to Marilyn Monroe, 'The Confederacy council must hear of this at once.' He jammed on his top hat, holstered his trusty six-shooter, and rushed out. As ever, the hover-train from Broadway was packed with commuters, so he took a short cut on foot past the Lincoln Memorial, pausing only to admire the outline of the Apple Plaza which dominated the skyline. ...
The 45, 47, 50 minute hour
As part of a book I'm currently finishing ('24 Hours in Ancient Rome' for Michael o'Mara Books), I've had to get to grips with the Roman hour. To understand the Roman hour is to understand something of the Roman approach to life.
For the Romans, as for us, there were 24 hours in the day. Fair enough – twenty-four is a useful number. We can divide the day into two-hour watches for a sentry, three or four hours for a split shift, six hours for a quarter day, eight hours for a working day, and twelve hours for a half-day. It's a good number. However, the half-day is the problem.
In the Roman mind, half the day is in darkness, and half is daylight. Ergo, you need twelve hours for the day, and twelve for the night. Res ipsi loquitur. Therefore, since midsummer days are half again as long as midwinter days, 'hours' in midsummer are 75 minutes long, and the winter versions last a mere 45 minutes. (If the Romans had bothered with minutes – thanks to their diabolical concept of time, it was hard enough even to keep track of the hours.) At night the hours mirror the day, with long hours in winter and short hours in summer – and I'm not talking metaphorically here.
The only accurate method of timekeeping at night was the water clock, and all sorts of ingenious contrivances kept the hours of a water-clock synchronized with the lengthening and shortening hours of the day. Remember that the days don't get uniformly longer as we approach midsummer – thanks to the Earth's slightly oval orbit, winter days lengthen slowly and then rush forward in late spring. Given that devices to accurately measure the standard hour only developed in the modern era, you can imagine the challenges that Roman timepiece makers faced in the variable-rate Roman hour.
All this timekeeping chaos would have been sorted out in an eyeblink if the Romans had adopted an hour of standard length. But who are we to sneer, with our oddball calendar, seven day weeks that don't fit in anywhere, and daylight saving time added (or not) more or less randomly every spring by different nations?
On a different note, one of last year's projects has just seen the light of day – or more accurately - the lights of your local bookstore. 'Sparta, Rise of a Warrior Nation' is out now (in the UK – with North America, the Spartans only hit your shores in another month or so.) I'm already working on the sequel - 'Sparta, Fall of a Warrior Nation', and having a great time doing so.
Hooray for Hellenistics!
Lately I've been spending quite a bit of time hanging around the Hellenistic era. For those who don't know, the Hellenistic era is that period beginning with the birth of Alexander the Great (or his death, depending which historian you consult) and finishing with the death of Cleopatra VI of Egypt. (Who is the only Cleopatra that most people have heard of.)
It's interesting how even those who are reasonably well up on the Greeks of the Athenian era or the Rome of Scipio Africanus have little idea of who Antiochus III was, or what happened in the Syrian Wars. Among non-history buffs, the average citizen has little idea that the Greeks once ruled Bactria (an area on the south-west of Afghan border) or that Iran was once part of the Seleucid Greek-ruled empire.
Yet the more I get into this Cinderella of ancient eras, the more fascinating I find it. There's huge battles, complex multi-level politics and obscure kingdoms and city-states. And elephants, and pirates, mercenary armies and beautiful princesses. Really, if you like your history gung-ho and over-the-top, you can't go wrong with the Hellenistics.
The only problem is that there is something of a barrier to entry for the newcomer. Just jumping in produces more bewilderment than fascination. It takes a while before you sort out your Ecbatana from your Attalus, but once the various dynasties and diverse geography have been roughly sorted out, you can relax and enjoy a very fun ride.
'It would have been so great to live in ancient Rome', history enthusiasts sometimes tell me. To which I reassuringly reply 'No, it wouldn't.' The reason is that, as denizens of the 21st century we take for granted a level of existence that even the most decadent of Roman emperors would have considered pampered.
The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett had one of his characters remark that the three greatest things in life were 'hot water, good dentistry and soft toilet paper' – things you only notice when they aren't there. How long would you spend in ancient Rome before you missed taking a hot shower?
It takes an advanced civilization to use as complex and precious a material as paper for the trivial task of wiping backsides. As a potential immigrant to ancient Rome, you would have to get used to using a sponge on a stick – and not your personal sponge either. It appears there was one per communal latrine, kept in a bucket of water, rather like the sponge on a stick found in petrol stations for cleaning car windscreens today.
True, dentistry in Rome was better than you would find anywhere but in the modern era. It might take a while before you get used to brushing your teeth with urine, but console yourself that the ammonia in the urine works like modern tooth-whitening strips. The Romans were also pretty good at removing decayed teeth, and had opium as a pain-killer. Furthermore, a society without sugar and tobacco has far fewer decayed teeth to start with. However, gum disease could kill you, and the only treatment for a bad tooth was removal.
On a personal note, I've spent the past few years living with a degenerative hip disease. This being 2017, I started the year by going to Vancouver and having the damaged hip replaced with a sturdy titanium prosthetic. Come spring I plan on leaping around the mountains like a young gazelle. No ancient Roman, millionaire or emperor had the same benefit.
As the winter approached I spent a lot of time loafing around the house. This is because the workmen doing the embankment outside were in a hurry to finish (temperatures of -20c and howling blizzards have that effect). In their rush they left no access to our house but a climb up the rockery to the road higher up the mountainside. This was accomplished by my considerably more able-bodied wife in expeditions to get milk and fresh vegetables.
Since bread is bulky and hard to stuff into a rucksack, I started baking it at home. Now, even with a new embankment out front, this has become a minor hobby. The joy of bread-making is that the yeast does nearly all the work. The job takes around three hours, but most of this is letting the yeast do its thing – preparing ingredients and kneading them together is all the human element has to do, and that takes a few minutes.
Of course, once I had mastered the basic loaf the next challenge was to make sourdough for the type of bread which survived 2000 years in an oven in Pompeii, baked more comprehensively than intended by Vesuvius. I even contrived a marking of my own, since Roman loaves had a manufacturer's stamp so that sub-standard products could easily be traced to source.
Another interesting fact I discovered along the way is that the Romans never made yeast separately. Instead this magic ingredient was preserved from loaf to loaf by setting aside a part of each batch of dough and then adding this to the next. This bit of dough is called in English 'leaven' (a past participle of 'leave' – 'drive/driven', 'leave/leaven'). So now I know why bread baked without yeast is called 'unleavened bread'.