There is a truth which I have forgotten lately. With the day-to-day workings of my modern, connected life, I’ve been missing out on something essential, something that in the past has always helped me to nurture my creativity, and better my historical fiction. What is it?
Yes. That illusive modern-day grail, that has the power to slow us down, to help us think, to regroup and empower ourselves.
Now that I write that, it really does seem obvious, not ground-breaking at all. But it is, and I’ve found that without taking some calm time to contemplate the past, my fiction suffers.
Like many, I suspect, my days are pretty full. All the tasks and to dos that are swirling around me feel more numerous at times than the number of arrows raining down on the Spartans at Thermopylae, blotting out the sun.
Now, I’m sure there are a great many people who have much busier days. We all have our own threshold.
There is a distinct lack of quiet time, and by this, I mean time in which I sit away from a computer or device, not doing any sort of task, and actually think about history and historic places, the things that I love and that fascinate me.
Of course, I think about history throughout the day, but contemplation of the sand seas of Roman North Africa, or the city streets of the Forum Romanum doesn’t come as easily on a crowded subway car when one is trying to ignore some anonymous person’s flatulence. So gross.
Lately, I’ve ‘forced’ myself to set aside all computers and devices when I have some spare moments (even 5 minutes!) in favour of sitting down with one of my favourite, big, coffee table books about ancient Greece and Rome, or the Middle Ages.
I’ll look at anything from architecture to landscapes, artifacts and archaeological sites, to artistic recreations of places and everyday life in the past. It all helps, it all inspires.
If I can sit in a sunny spot with a cup of coffee and some of my favourite soundtrack music on, even better.
I’ve found, or rather, I’ve remembered, that when sit quietly and allow my mind to wander calmly through some part of history, I am more in touch with it. When I do that, I am better able to bring that world to life when I’m writing about it.
For me, historical fiction is highly dependent on setting.
You can have the most wonderful three-dimensional characters ever, but if you don’t have the historical setting to transport the reader, or place those characters firmly in the past, then your book could be taking place at any time in history.
I don’t know about you, but when I pick a work of historical fiction, I pick it largely for the period. If I’m not transported to that period in history, I’m disappointed.
I’ve had a lot of readers tell me that they loved my books because they learned a lot about the ancient world, or about the Roman Empire. That makes me very happy, as it has always been my goal to make history interesting and entertaining.
Without having taken the time to be Quiet, and to contemplate the physical world of those distant eras, I know I would not have managed to pull it off.
I’d like to share with you a very special book about the Roman Empire that has given me no end of inspiration. It is Splendours of the Roman World, by Anna Maria Liberati and Mario Bourbon.
This book was a gift from my parents who bought it at the Roman Bath museum, in Bath. Ever since I first flipped through it, I was rapt, sucked into the ancient world.
I have many other books that do this for me, but this is one that I continue to go back to again and again.
Are there any books that you like to flip through at a leisurely pace, or that inspire you and fire your view of an historic period?
Or, do have a favourite work of historical fiction that you felt really did a good job of transporting you as a reader?
Share your favourite book titles in the comments below.
While you do that, I’m going to step away from the computer, sit quietly, and immerse myself in the ancient world.
Thanks for reading…
An Abderite saw a eunuch and asked him how many kids he had. When that guy said that he didn’t have the balls, so as to be able to have children, the Abderite asked when he was going to get the balls (Philagelos, #114)
Is that funny to you? A little? Or does it make you scratch your head and wonder if I’ve gone off the deep end?
It’s not my joke, thankfully. In truth, I’m not a very funny person, but I do enjoy a good laugh, as many of us do.
The joke above is actually a Roman joke about 2000 years old. Yes, that old. It’s one of 250-odd jokes in the oldest joke book in the world known as the Philagelos, or ‘The Laughter Lover’. It is thought that this text is a compendium of jokes over several hundred years. The earliest manuscript is thought to date to the 4th or 5th centuries A.D.
Humour in the ancient world is not really something I’ve thought about in my writing and research. If there has ever been humour in my books, it has been a reflection of my own modern perceptions of what humour is, or should be. Otherwise, my modern readers would be left scratching their heads.
A colleague of mine recently shared a CBC interview with eminent classicist and historian Mary Beard on the subject of her book about humour in the Roman world entitled: Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up
The wonderful interview with Mary Beard got me to thinking about this little-thought-of aspect of life in the ancient world.
As I mentioned, I’m not funny, so until recently my idea of humour in the ancient world was partly based on the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim. The latter is not a completely inaccurate view since the story is based on the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC). Bawdiness played a large role from the theatre to the marching songs of Rome’s legionaries.
Slap stick comedy was a part of humour in the ancient world, but in the interview Mary Beard has put forth the idea that there are other aspects of ancient humour which we might not, or cannot, understand.
A professional beggar had been letting his girlfriend think that he was rich and of noble birth. Once, when he was getting a handout at the neighbor’s house, he suddenly saw her. He turned around and said: “Have my dinner-clothes sent here.” (Philagelos, #106)
When it comes to many ancient jokes, our cultural and temporal disconnect make them simply ‘not funny’.
Another reason why the humour of some ancient jokes may be lost on us is that perhaps the medieval monks copying these down simply made mistakes or interpreted them incorrectly.
Mary Beard points out that there is no real way to know how ancient people laughed either. This is a bit of a trickier concept to wrap one’s head around. What were ancients’ reactions to laughing? Did they have uncontrollable laughter?
My thought is that yes, maybe our jokes are different from what Roman jokes were, just like how some people find Monty Python funny (I know I do!), while others wonder what the big deal is. I also think that we are perhaps not so different in our physical reactions. For example, there is the quote from Cassius Dio, whom I have used as a source for much of my writing, and who Mary Beard uses as an example.
Here is a portion from the Roman History in which Cassius Dio and other senators are watching Emperor Commodus slay ostriches in the amphitheatre. As we know, Commodus was off his head, and prone to killing whomever he wanted.
This fear was shared by all, by us senators as well as by the rest. And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXIII)
What a sight that must have been! Even though it meant certain death, Dio and the other senators had to chew laurels so as not to give in to what was presumably an urge to laugh hysterically.
A young man said to his libido-driven wife: “What should we do, darling? Eat or have sex?” And she replied: “You can choose. But there’s not a crumb in the house.” (Philagelos, #244)
Bawdiness creeps in all the time in ancient humour, and why not? Everyone (well almost everyone) likes a sex joke. If you peruse the jokes in the Philagelos, you’ll see that many of them have to do with sex.
And this didn’t just apply to the Romans. The ancient Greeks found sex and humour to be comfortable bedfellows (no pun intended).
I remember going to an evening performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus one summer night. It was a beautiful setting with the mountains as a backdrop to the ancient odeon, the sun setting orange and red, and then a great canopy of silver stars in the sky above.
Lysistrata is a play about a woman’s determination to stop the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from her husband, and getting all other women to do the same. It seemed quite the political statement on the waste and futility of war, as well as ancient gender issues.
But then the men, who had not had sex for a long time, came prancing about the stage with giant, bulbous phalluses dangling between their legs, moaning with the pain of their ancient world blue balls. Some of the crowd roared with laughter, others tittered in embarrassment, and still others sat stalk still like the statues in the site museum.
Perhaps that is the point? Maybe in ancient times, just as today, some jokes were funny to some and not to others? Are we that different from our ancient Roman and Greek counterparts?
Ms. Beard points out that ancient writers like Cicero speak of the different types of humour. There is derision (laughing at others), puns (word play), incongruity (pairing of opposites), and humour as a release from tension.
An incompetent astrologer cast a boy’s horoscope and said: “He will be a lawyer, then a city-official, then a governor.” But when this child died, the mother confronted the astrologer: “He’s dead — the one you said was going to be a lawyer and an official and a governor.” “By his holy memory,” he replied, “if he had lived, he would have been all of those things!” (Philgelos, #202)
Maybe we’re not so different after all?
She also mentions tickling, and how Romans are said to have felt ticklish on their lips, a part that has been highly erotized today. Prostitutes, she says, were said to be ‘big laughers’.
I don’t frequent brothels, but perhaps that is as true today as it was 1500 years ago.
This is a much bigger topic than I had expected. It’s fascinating to think of laughter in an ancient context.
Do I find ancient jokes funnier than before? Not really, though I do find they reveal something more of Roman society.
Will I start inserting ancient jokes in my writing?
No, unless I too find it funny.
The reason for this is that when an author writes humour in historical fiction, if he or she wants his or her audience to actually find it funny, it will need to resonate with our modern-day humour and ways of laughter. The audience has to recognize it to an extent. That doesn’t mean a joke that modern readers will understand can’t be cloaked in ancient garb.
At the end of the day, perhaps it is as simple as this: there will always be crap jokes, but it is the funny ones that stand out, that will tickle you and set you to laughing.
Thank you for reading.
I’d love to hear what your thoughts are in the comments below.
Would you like to see ancient jokes transferred to your historical fiction exactly as they are? Or should humour be written in a way that a modern audience can understand it?
Lastly, if you have looked at the Philagelos (Click HERE to read it!), which joke is your favourite?
We’re finally into the month of March and Spring is in our sights.
If we were living in ancient Rome, this would have been a very exciting time. Mars’ month, or mensis Martius, was almost entirely taken up with various celebrations to honour the Roman god of War.
The festival of Mars included the Equirria, a horse-racing festival at Rome, and the Tubilustrium, the day when the sacred war trumpets were purified. The festival of Mars also coincided with the Matronalia, the festival of Juno, mother of Mars, to whom prayers were offered. During the latter, husbands gave gifts to their wives, and female slaves were feasted by their masters.
One of the fixtures of the Festival of Mars were the dancing, or leaping, priests of Mars known as the Salii.
Throughout the festival, the Salii would process through the streets of Rome wearing military dress and armour, and stop at certain places along the way to perform ritual dances and sing their ancient hymns known as the Carmen Saliare, sung at the beginning (March) and end (October) of the military campaign season. Here is a small fragment:
Sing of him, the father of the gods! Appeal to the God of gods!
When thou thunderest, O God of light, they tremble before thee!
All gods beneath thee have heard thee thunder!
but to have acquired all that is spread out
Now the good … of Ceres … or Janus
In the Roman state religion, there were no full-time, professional priests. Most were taken from the aristocracy, including the Salii who were supposed to be patricians with both parents still living.
But where did the order of Salii come from?
Legend has it that Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (715 – 673 B.C.) created them in order to protect the sacred shields of Mars, called the ancilia, which the Salii carried in their processions, and which were stored in the Temple of Mars. Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates the legend:
Among the vast number of bucklers [the ancilia] which both the Salii themselves bear and some of their servants carry suspended from rods, they say there is one that fell from heaven and was found in the palace of Numa, though no one had brought it thither and no buckler of that shape had ever before been known among the Italians; and that for both these reasons the Romans concluded that this buckler had been sent by the gods. They add that Numa, desiring that it should be honoured by being carried through the city on holy days by the most distinguished young men and that annual sacrifices should be offered to it, but at the same time being fearful both of the plot of his enemies and of its disappearance by theft, caused many other bucklers to be made resembling the one which fell from heaven, Mamurius, an artificer, having undertaken the work; so that, as a result of the perfect resemblance of the man-made imitations, the shape of the buckler sent by the gods was rendered inconspicuous and difficult to be distinguished by those who might plot to possess themselves of it.
(Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Roman Antiquities)
King Numa instituted twelve Salii to guard the sacred shields and perform the rites for Mars, and his successor, King Tullus Hostilius, is said to have instituted another twelve Salii, bringing the number to twenty-four which became the norm for generations.
It must have been quite a sight to see these patrician priests dancing through Rome’s streets, carrying the sacred shields while singing, and dancing or leaping before the crowds.
We should remember that this was not some clown-like activity. Mars, war, and the rites to honour both were extremely sacred to the Roman people. When the Salii came into a square, or stood before a temple, I can imagine a hush falling over the people of Rome as they watched the dances and listened to the ancient hymns. Or perhaps the crowd chanted and stomped their feet along with the Salii, all of them honouring the god who had helped to make Rome the superpower it had become?
This dance they perform when they carry the sacred bucklers [the ancilia] through the streets of the city in the month of March, clad in purple tunics, girt with broad belts of bronze, wearing bronze helmets on their heads, and carrying small daggers with which they strike the shields. But the dance is chiefly a matter of step; for they move gracefully, and execute with vigour and agility certain shifting convolutions, in quick and oft-recurring rhythm. (Plutarch; Numa)
I love learning about ancient religions not only for what they tell us about ancient cultures, but also for the uniqueness of the rites themselves, the origins and mythologies of the beliefs, and the glimpse they give us of what life was like in the ancient world.
Armed and dancing priests during the month of Mars? Who doesn’t like that?
Thank you for reading.
In my years of research, I’ve come across many ancient sites that have quite taken my breath away with their history and the splendour of their remains.
One of these sites is located in what is now the south-eastern part of modern Turkey. It’s called Zeugma, and it is one of those places that have left an indelible mark on my image of the ancient world.
In 2000 I saw a documentary called ‘Treasures of Ancient Zeugma’ which talked about a race against time to save the remains of this ancient city from the rising waters of a hydro-electric dam that was being built at Birecik.
In all truth, I had not heard of Zeugma before this documentary, but after watching it I would certainly never forget it.
Zeugma is located on the banks of the Euphrates River where its remains were buried beneath pistachio groves for over 2000 years.
It was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who came to control the lands from Syria to the east after the death of Alexander. Seleucus named the settlement ‘Seleucia Euphrates’, after himself, with the settlement on the opposite bank of the river called ‘Apamea’, named after his Persian wife.
In 64 B.C. Seleucia Euphrates was conquered by the Romans who then called it ‘Zeugma’, which actually means ‘bridge’ or ‘crossing’.
Zeugma was a highly important as a strategic location for crossing the Euphrates River, and one of the Scythica Legions guarded it.
But it was also valuable as a link in the future Silk Road trade route, connecting Antioch on the Mediterranean coast to China far to the east around A.D. 256. Myriad merchants and goods passed through Zeugma’s customs, and the settlement became extremely rich.
At its peak, the population of Zeugma is said to have reached 80,000!
However, like most great cities, Zeugma’s time in the Sun was not to last. The city was destroyed by the Sassanian King, Shapur I, and then later a massive earthquake finished it off.
Zeugma never really recovered its former glory.
In the fourth century A.D. Zeugma fell under Roman control again, and then came under the rule of the Byzantines during the fifth and sixth centuries. By the tenth century, it was just a small Abbassid settlement.
If history teaches us anything, it is that glory is fleeting.
For two centuries, Zeugma was the residence of high-ranking Roman officials, guarded by legions, and it was this period and circumstance that allowed the city to flourish.
Zeugma’s glory might have been short-lived, but the marks that these years of prosperity have left in the form of its artwork are truly beautiful.
While watching that first documentary on the Treasures of Ancient Zeugma, my heart was gripped with sadness for the threatened loss of these works of art. As the archaeologists uncovered mosaic after mosaic, my eyes widened at their intricacy, their detail, the lively beauty revealed as wet sponges wiped away the dust to explosions of colour. I think I may even have wept at the site.
I won’t even attempt to describe the wonders of the Zeugma mosaics – I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
In an ideal world, works on the hydro-electric dam would have been stopped, and an alternative plan set in place. But this was not to be. Thankfully the Turkish Ministry of Culture got things rolling and brought in experts to try and save what they could before Zeugma was lost beneath the waters of the Euphrates forever.
Because of the dam, Apamea has been totally submersed, as has the majority of the Zeugma settlement. However, a museum has been constructed on-site, and archaeologists continue to excavate where they can so that more of Zeugma’s past can be revealed and preserved.
Thankfully, many of Zeugma’s treasures have been rescued, rendering our image of the ancient world that much richer.
How many other magnificent settlements lie beneath the sand and seas, waiting to be discovered?
Gods only know, but it is exciting to think about.
Thank you for reading.
Sadly, I was unable to find a live link to the documentary, Treasures of Ancient Zeugma, but here is an alternative video which also goes over the rescue mission and history of Zeugma. It’s less dramatic, but will give you an idea.