Salvete readers and Romanophiles!
This week on Writing the Past, I’d like to welcome fellow author, A. David Singh, who has written a fantastic piece for us about slavery in ancient Rome.
You probably know that slavery was widespread in the Roman world, but what you might not know are the ins and outs of slaves’ lives.
Check out David’s post below for a brilliant introduction to this topic…
In the first century A.D., over a million people lived in Rome — and a third of them were slaves.
Ancient Romans considered their households to be a microcosm of the state of Rome, and slaves were an integral part of their households. Slavery was such a key foundation of their society that if an ancient Roman were to time-travel to the present day, he would be surprised to see a society function just fine without slaves.
In addition to cooking, cleaning, and carrying loads within their master’s household or country estate, slaves served another important function — that of elevating the social status of their masters. This is much the same prestige that a champion race-horse confers upon its owner.
How did one become a slave?
Being born into slavery was the commonest way. Children born to a women slave automatically became slaves to her master.
Another way was by capturing enemies. As Rome waged wars far beyond its borders — in Europe, Asia and northern Africa — a steady supply of prisoners of war poured in, who, in lieu of their lives being spared, were sold to the slave-traders. During his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar is rumored to have captured over a million prisoners of war in Gaul and sold them into slavery.
Criminals too could be enslaved, but their masters had to be careful about their violent streak. Unwanted babies who were thrown into rubbish dumps outside the city, though technically free, could be picked up by slave dealers or surrogate parents who would sell them into slavery. A similar fate awaited children kidnapped by pirates and other shady elements of society.
Finally, free Roman citizens, if deep in debt, could be forced into slavery. Some of them voluntarily chose to become slaves to repay their debt. However, Roman citizens submitting to slavery was considered illegal.
Where were slaves sold in Rome?
The slave market was commonly held behind the temple of Castor and Pollux, and also near the Pantheon. Men, women and children were displayed on raised platforms, just like fruit stands in a bazaar. They wore dejected looks, being resigned to their fates.
The slave trader adorned them with signboards around their necks with information like place of birth and other personal characteristics. It was a common spectacle to see signs like: Gaul, cook, specializes in making spicy fish and the use of Garum or Greek, ideal for teaching philosophy and reciting verses during parties.
Those who came to buy slaves found it in their interest to ensure that the slaves had no physical or mental defects. So, a thorough examination of their bodies was a common occurrence, and putting them on raised platforms helped to do just that.
A young male, 15 to 40 years old, cost 1,000 sesterces, while a female was priced at 800 sesterces. Much younger slaves or those older than 40 years went cheaper. Of course, prices would have been higher for slaves with special skills like reading and accounting.
The slave market had different days allocated for selling different types of slaves. There was a day for selling strong, muscular slaves meant for heavy labor. Another day for those specializing in trades like bakers, dancers and cooks. Boys and girls meant to work in houses and for banquets had their own day of sale, as did those with physical deformities.
What happened afterwards?
Once they started their lives of servitude, not all slaves had the same luck. The best deal that a slave could hope for was becoming a house slave to a kind master — even better, if the master was an important man in Rome. Moreover, there was also the possibility of being freed one day.
Then there was a class of slaves who worked in shops, under the command of an ex-slave. In addition to lugging heavy loads, they had to contend with the emotional baggage of their boss’ recently concluded life as a slave.
Those less fortunate were sold into miserable hovels of brothels, used pitilessly till they broke down or became useless. But a worse fate awaited those slaves who worked in country estates and mines. They lived in pathetic conditions with little food, frequent beatings, and were even locked in filthy prisons at night. It’s no wonder that they had very short life expectancies.
Wealthy Romans were not the only people to own slaves. The state of Rome had its own collection. These slaves were of another class — public slaves. They worked in public baths, food warehouses, or constructed roads and bridges, or worked in public administration offices. They helped in running the economy of Rome. Life was probably kinder to them than to their counterparts who worked in the mines and country estates.
The conditions for slaves were extreme during the Roman Republic. But it is believed that they eased later on. During the Empire, slaves could earn money, get married (informally) and have children. Killing of slaves was banned.
What were master-slave relationships like?
In rigid households, slaves were considered nothing more than objects that could talk and walk. They could be sold, rented, or replaced, just the way we do nowadays to our inanimate possessions. The master always decided the level of relationship permitted to their slaves. They could be friendly, or exploit their slaves, or in extreme circumstances even kill them.
On the other hand, if a slave killed his master, then all the other slaves in the household were slaughtered under the charge that they failed to protect their master from the rogue slave.
However, many masters considered slaves as human beings, worthy of moral behavior, and hence treated them with a degree of respect.
Each master had to balance how he treated slaves with the need to keep them working. Brutal treatments were rare because they would wear out the slaves.
Home-born slaves were most likely to remain loyal to their masters, considering him like their own father (which, in many cases he really was). However, barbarians captured from distant lands took some time to be broken into their new, reduced station in life.
Most often, masters incentivized slaves to work hard and stay loyal. Firstly, they rewarded hard work with generous rations of food and clothing. At times, even allowing them to have children, and occasionally organized sacrifices and holidays for them. Such acts of generosity went a long way in ensuring their slaves’ loyalty.
Secondly, slaves had clearly defined job roles, suitable to the their mental and physical attributes, like cooks, door-keepers, or food-servers. This division of labor generated accountability, as the slaves knew that they could be punished only for jobs that they were responsible for, and not for duties outside their job descriptions.
But the most important incentive for slaves to work honestly and with diligence was the possibility of gaining their freedom and becoming Roman citizens.
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans took a liberal view of slavery, regularly incorporating slaves into their own society. Thus slavery was viewed as a temporary state, after which, if the slave had shown the right attitude, they could be set free and become a Roman citizen.
This process of leaving the shackles of slavery and becoming free men and women was called ‘manumission’.
If a master was happy with a slave’s services and felt him worthy of being free, the slave could be set free by appearing before a magistrate. Once the magistrate had confirmed that the slave was a free man, the master would often slap the slave, as a final insult, before he started his new life.
Often, a master would bequeath his slaves’ freedom in his will. This is how most slaves got their freedom. In rare cases, slaves could also buy their freedom, if they could raise enough coin — or get another freedman to buy their freedom.
Manumission was generally practiced in urban regions, where it was possible for slaves to form meaningful relationships with their masters and be in their good books. Those working in country estates or mines did not have direct contact with their masters, and were usually worked to death.
Those slaves who gained freedom became citizens of Rome, enjoying all civil rights. But this freedom came at a cost: they were obligated to their former masters, who now became their patrons, and the slaves became their clients. As clients, the former slaves had to provide ongoing services, stipulated by their patrons before manumission.
In return for their services, the freedmen received patronage from their former masters in the form of helping them set up businesses, giving them financial assistance, and providing them with contacts, or opening doors in the Roman society.
However, freedmen, though Roman citizens, were ineligible to hold political offices. This rule did not apply to any children born to them after manumission. Such children were freeborn citizens and hence could hold political office.
Sadly, any children born before manumission were not so fortunate, because they remained as slaves in their former master’s household — but as was often the case, the parents bought their freedom once they were rich enough.
Even though freedmen moved out of their former masters’ house, they were still considered part of the household. Some patrons even allowed their former slaves — now clients — to share in their family’s tomb.
In essence, manumission was truly the lifeblood of Rome. It provided generations of new citizens hungry to make their way up in society. Since they could not hold political office, the only way to fulfill their ambitions was by acquiring wealth.
Later, it became a cultural norm that rich freedmen married into traditional, but impoverished, Roman families. This proved to be of mutual benefit — the old Roman families became richer, thanks to the nouveau riche, while the freedmen improved their social standing and circle of influence.
In today’s world, the concept of slavery is outrageous because of the prevalent traditions of civilized society. However, in ancient Rome, slavery was a well established institution. In fact, Rome would have collapsed had there not been any slaves because the Romans did not have complex machinery, like we do, to replace human muscle.
The notion of slavery in ancient Rome should, therefore, be viewed within the context of a different era, where society was entrenched in another set of values.
What practices in our current times, do you think, will be considered outrageous, even barbaric, by future generations? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
About the author:
David Singh is a neurosurgeon and author. He has written Caesar: Escapades in Rome & coauthored Ignite: Beat Burnout & Rekindle your Inner Fire. In his free time, David loves to cook, play with dogs, and explore the magical world of ancient Rome.
If you haven’t read Caesar: Escapades in Rome, pick up your FREE copy at:
This ebook will be delivered to you with its companion book — Rubicon, that contains the key to Caesar’s secret map.
I’d like to thank David for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. More often than not, writers focus on the great people of the Roman world, but just as the legions were the backbone of Rome’s military might, so were slaves that of Roman society.
Even though the thought of slavery is definitely unsavory, we can’t forget that it was a major part of the Roman world. Thanks to David for reminding us of that.
Everybody, be sure to sign-up to his mailing list and get the Free books he is offering. It’s always good to have more ‘Ancient Rome’!
As ever, thank you for reading…
We’re going to a different sort of place in this instalment of The World of Killing the Hydra.
In Part I, we explored the beauty of Leptis Magna which is where the book begins, and which was also the home of Emperor Septimius Severus.
But the Roman Empire was not all about beautiful monuments, lavish banquets, and the adoration of the people for the ruler of the time.
In fact, the Roman Empire had its own maze of back streets and alleyways where life was seedier, and more visceral. It wasn’t all polished marble, but rather slick brick and stinking cells.
WARNING: This post is not suitable for readers under 18 years of age. Also, if you are easily offended, some of the pictures of Pompeian frescoes in this post might be a bit too saucy for you. Just a word of warning for the innocent-minded.
We’re going to take a very brief look today at prostitutes and brothels in the Roman Empire.
Now, if you’re suddenly hoping that Killing the Hydra is my attempt at historical erotica, well, you’re looking in the wrong place. The book is not an orgy extravaganza. If you want that, check out the film Caligula with Malcolm McDowell in the title role.
However, you can’t really write about the Roman world without touching on the long-standing role that prostitution and brothels had to play in society.
They existed, and they most certainly flourished. People of all classes, mostly men, made it a normal practice to visit their favourite brothel from time to time.
If you liked the HBO show ROME, you might have an image of Titus Pullo whoring his way through the Subura with his jug of wine in hand. Certainly, this sort of behaviour was not uncommon, especially for troops fresh back from the wars and looking for a good time.
The flip side might be the richer, upper class nobility who may have believed visiting prostitutes was fine, as long as it was done in moderation and didn’t cause a scandal.
The prostitution scene in the Empire was as large and varied as the workers and clients who kept it running. There was something for everyone!
But let’s look at things a bit more closely.
One could say that prostitution has ties to the founding of Rome itself.
You may have read about Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome and were suckled by the She Wolf, or Lupa.
We have heard of lost children being raised by wolves before, but in the instance of Romulus and Remus, many believe that they were actually raised by a prostitute who found them on the banks of the Tiber. The slang word for prostitute in Latin was lupa.
And the word for brothel was in fact lupanar or lupanarium.
Clients were drawn in by the sexual allure of displayed ‘wares’, sometimes lined up naked on the curbside, and the various experiences to be had within. The latter were sometimes illustrated in frescoes or mosaics on the walls of the lupanar. These were intended to add to the atmosphere, or were a sort of menu of pleasures to be had.
There were of course ‘high-class’ prostitutes who catered to wealthy and powerful patrons, women who were skilled at conversation, music and poetry. These high end lupae provided an escape, or a feast with friends, in lavish surroundings coupled with a sort of blissful oblivion. Some might have been purchased by their wealthy clients to keep for themselves, and if that was the case they might have ‘enjoyed’ a relatively easy life compared to the alternative.
The truth for most, however, was that they were slaves. And slaves in ancient Rome, as we all know, were objects, property to be used and disposed of on a whim.
Prostitutes – women, men, boys, girls, eunuchs etc. – were at the bottom of the social scale, along with actors and gladiators. They could be adored by clients one moment, and shunned the next. And if a lupa was no longer profitable, the leno (pimp), or the lena (madam) might sell them off as a liability, sending them to a life that was possibly even worse.
In ancient Rome, prostitution was legal and licensed, and it was normal for men of any social rank to enjoy the range of pleasures that were on offer. Every budget and taste was catered to, and because of Rome’s conquests, and the length and breadth of the Roman Empire in the early 3rd century, there would have been slaves of every nationality and colour. Clients of the lupanar would have had their choice of Egyptians, Parthians and Numidians, Germans, Britons, slaves from the far East and anywhere else, including Italians.
However, even though prostitution was regulated, don’t kid yourselves. This was not a question of morality, or curbing venereal diseases. This was about maximizing profit – prostitution was also taxed!
In Pompeii, prostitution became a sort of tourist trade. On the street pavement you just had to follow the phalluses to find the nearest brothel! There were something like thirty-five brothels in the town, and that’s not counting the small curbside cells or niches where the cheapest lupae provided quickies to passers-by.
The biggest brothel in Pompeii however, was the ‘Great Lupanar’ located at a crossroads two blocks from the Forum. Many of the frescoes pictured here are from that building which had ten rooms, where most lupanars had just a few.
But we’ve only been looking at prostitution and brothels in Rome and Pompeii. What would they have been like on the fringes of the Empire?
In Killing the Hydra, Lucius finds himself alone and in trouble in the Numidian town of Thugga. This is where he meets one of the secondary characters of the book, Dido.
Dido is a Punic girl who has lost her family and is all alone in the world. She is beautiful, and kind-hearted. But in a world where people were desperate to survive, those who didn’t have protection had few choices. For a young beautiful Punic girl on the North Africa frontier, there would not have been many places that offered a roof, a bed, food and clothing.
Dido is a prostitute in the Thugga brothel known as the ‘House of the Cyclops’, and she spots Lucius, a young, good-looking Roman walking by – a sure bet in her eyes, and perhaps better than her usual clientele.
But she doesn’t know Lucius yet. He’s not the average man out for a good time. He has much more pressing issues on his mind as he walks the streets of Thugga.
When I was doing my research for Killing the Hydra in Thugga (in central Tunisia), Lucius and Dido’s meeting played out in my mind as if they were walking alongside me.
Without giving too much away, Lucius ends up needing this young lupa’s help because he has no one else he can trust.
Can he trust this unknown, Punic girl? Will he go into the lupanar and seek her behind the curtain of her tiny cubiculum?
You have to read the book to find that part out. It is funny how one can find help in the most unexpected places!
One might think that the subject of this particular post was rather fun to write, that the images above are titillating. And sure, they are to an extent. I don’t mind a bit of risqué material on occasion. Why not?
But then, I can’t help thinking of the lives that these female and male prostitutes had to endure. Very few enjoyed the favour of kind wealthy clients, living in luxurious surroundings.
Prostitutes were slaves and most were probably pumped and beaten for a bronze coin or two before having to receive their next tormentor. These people were objects to the rest of the world, not human beings. They were people’s daughters and sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In many cases they’d been taken from their homes on the other side of the world. Perhaps they were all that was left of their family?
For most prostitutes in the Roman Empire, life was a living Hades – just something to remember when looking at this aspect of the larger world of Killing the Hydra.
If you are interested in learning more about prostitution in the Roman Empire, the video below is an excellent documentary that will give you an inside look at the Great Lupanar of Pompeii.
Thank you for reading.
It’s been a while since I last posted in the Ancient Everyday series.
Last year we looked at the ritual of going to the public baths, the interesting experience of using a public toilet, and the use of mirrors in the ancient world.
Today, we’re going to take a very brief look at childbirth in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Now, as a man, my input and views on childbirth are somewhat limited, so I would invite my female readers out there to jump in with their comments at any time. I’m a father, and I’ve been present at the birth of my own children, but I would never presume to fully comprehend mysteries, and agonies, that women go through when it comes to bringing a tiny human into the world.
Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky today as far as obstetrics and the technologies we have to help mothers and children safely navigate the process of pregnancy and birth.
That was not the case in the ancient world. Pregnancy and birth were risky affairs, and as with many aspects of life, the ancients called on specific gods and goddesses for help when it came to childbearing and birth.
The Egyptians offered prayers to the god Bes, a god of marriage and jollity, but also a protector of women and children in childbirth. Bes was not your typical Egyptian god. He is portrayed as an ugly dwarf with a feather crown, sometimes holding a tambourine.
His consort, Tauert, was also prayed to as someone who assisted all females, regardless of station, in childbirth. Tauert was portrayed as a pregnant, female hippopotamus.
In ancient Greece the goddess two whom prayers and offerings were made was Artemis, under her two epithets Kourotrophos (nurse) and Locheia (helper in childbirth).
Now it might seem odd that people prayed to the virgin goddess for protection in childbirth, but in myth, Artemis was said to have been present when Leto, her mother, gave birth to Apollo on Delos. She was considered, in some ways, the first midwife.
It is interesting to note ancient Greeks believed that women who died suddenly in childbirth were helped to a painless death by Artemis who showed them mercy by piercing them with one of her arrows.
The ancient Greeks also prayed to Hecate as a goddess of women and nurturer of children, as well as Hera, the Queen of the Gods who sometimes served as a goddess of childbirth in her capacity as goddess of marriage.
The Romans had many gods and goddesses to whom they prayed for help, and Juno, Queen of the Gods, was first and foremost under the epithets of Lucina, and Opigena.
Another goddess with a major role to play was Carmentis, a water goddess who was also a prophetic goddess of protection in childbirth. Carmentis had her own festival, the Carmentalia, and a temple on the Capitoline Hill.
A third goddess whom the Romans prayed to for a safe and successful childbirth was Matuta, the goddess of dawn and young growth.
It must have been a comfort to have so many gods to pray to, but that may also be indicative of the high risks involved.
Because it was so dangerous to bring a child into the world, and because families could not always afford to feed or provide dowries for all their children, contraception was something that was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Most of the methods used seem to be herb and plant-based, and included things like acacia, honey, Queen Anne’s Lace, date palm, willow, Artemisia, myrrh, and the now extinct silphium plant, among others. Some of these are apparently used in spermicides today.
The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from c. 1850 B.C. actually contains a lot of information on birth control and is the oldest known gynaecological treatise.
But we are talking about having children in the ancient world. Today, most husbands (I would hope) are in the room to support their wives and be there when their child are born. It happens at the hospital or birthing centre (most of the time), and there is a doctor/obstetrician to help the delivery.
In the ancient world, births took place at home. There were no hospitals, except for those at healing centres like Kos and Epidaurus, and oftentimes, anyone who had been ‘in touch’ with childbirth was not permitted to enter sacred sanctuaries anyway for fear of contaminating the place.
In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwifes were a constant. Today, midwifery seems to have made a big comeback, but in the ancient world, the midwife was always the one who helped women through childbirth. Their skills and knowledge were considerable. The only time a doctor might have been called in ancient Greece and Rome was if there were complications.
It appears that in most cases, no men were present at the birth of a child, though there were often several people in attendance, including the midwife, the women of the household (mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc.), and any female slaves that were needed to help.
It was not considered proper for men to be present, and the only man who might have been there was the doctor if he was called.
What about the position for giving birth?
Well, in Egypt, it seems that women often knelt in a shaded spot or shelter to give birth.
With modern hospital beds, women are in more of a lying-down position, with their backs propped up to give birth.
Interestingly, in ancient Greece and Rome, and in later centuries, birthing chairs were used. This was basically a wooden chair with arms, but no seat.
The midwife would kneel on the floor before the chair and help the woman from there, her hands wrapped in linen or papyrus so that the baby did not slip when she caught it.
It may be that couches were also used for giving birth, but I do wonder if midwives in ancient Greece or Rome might have had birthing chairs as part of their professional kit.
Mortality rates for women and children in pregnancy and childbirth were high in the ancient world, and from the little that I’ve read, the risk of death was extremely high in ancient Egypt. Many women died in pregnancy and childbirth, and infants who were born often did not survive the first few months.
Once a child was born, there was usually a ceremony for the naming and blessing of the child.
I could not find information on the specifics of an Egyptian ceremony (Egyptology is not my area of expertise), but I have read that water and ritual washing may have been a part of such a ceremony for newborns since water played a large part in Egyptian religious rituals. Perhaps my Egyptologist friends out there can shed some light on this subject?
In ancient Greece, on the fifth or seventh day after a child was born, there was a purification ceremony and feast called the amphidromia, at which the child received its name. This involved a ritual and an evening feast to which guests brought presents for the child. If a boy was born, the house was decorated on the outside with olive branches. If it was a girl, the outer decoration consisted of garlands of wool.
In ancient Rome, the naming ceremony was called a lustratio, and this took place nine days after the birth of the child. At this, offerings were made to the gods, there was a feast, and the child was introduced to guests.
In chapter twenty-one of my book, Killing the Hydra, I write about a Roman lustratio.
Most people today cannot view the successful birth of a child with anything but gladness. And rightly so! It’s a beautiful thing, and most parents are happy when their child is born healthy, no matter if it is a boy or a girl.
However, in the ancient world, views of family and children could be quite different from our own.
It seems that ancient Egyptians were devoted to their families and that they loved their children. This can be seen in the many images that survive of happy families, babies in their mothers’ arms, and children playing.
In ancient Greece and Rome, children were meant to be less visible, and stayed inside with the women. At birth, a Greek father or guardian decided whether to keep a child. In Rome as well, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members, and this included newborn infants whom the father could deny the right to be reared.
Children could be exposed or killed in ancient Greece and Rome, and had no place in public life.
Practices also differed by place. For instance, in ancient Athens, if a child was kept, it was swaddled, whereas in Sparta children were not swaddled at all, presumably to start toughening them up, or cull the weak.
It certainly seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, but the truth is that if a child managed to survive birth, decisions about their usefulness and whether to keep them were more often based on the sex, the number of children the family already had, ability to provide for that child, the future need for a dowry, and general health.
It’s odd, but most of the time, I tend to think that the past was much more exciting and interesting, more beautiful than our chaotic, modern society. I think most historians feel they were born in the wrong age!
But when I read about things like pregnancy, health, childbirth, and children in the ancient world, it makes me grateful we live in the age we do.
It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as far as childbirth, I would give that part of the ancient everyday a miss.
And let’s not think that all children in ancient Greece and Rome were treated badly. It is my hope that, despite the social mores of those sometimes harsher societies, Nature instilled in the mother and father of most children a love and need to care for their offspring that is timeless and powerful.
As ever, thanks for reading!
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Do you use a bathroom?
Of course you do! Everybody does. They might vary in design or level of fanciness, sure, but every person on earth, and throughout history, has had to do their business. And they usually have done in a certain spot, be it a bush, a hole in the ground, a pot, or some form of toilet.
And people, usually, have used something to clean their bits and pieces afterwards. Ok, maybe not so much in the Middle Ages (hygiene was less of a thing then), but certainly in the ancient world.
I’m not usually one for bathroom history, but when it comes to the Romans I have to admit that they had a good system going, that is, if you weren’t shy.
So, we’re taking a brief look at the Roman toilet and accoutrements of going to the loo in the Empire.
If you’ve ever travelled to Roman archaeological sites, you will likely have seen a long or square room with stone benches. Along the benches are a series of evenly-spaced holes, and on the floor before the holes, are carved channels.
Welcome to the public toilet, or Roman military latrine!
Today we like our privacy, of course, but in the Roman age, unless you were in your privy at home, you were doing your business alongside everyone else.
That’s right! If you used a public toilet, you would be sitting cheek-to-cheek with men, women, and even children.
Not for the introverts among us, is it?
In ancient Rome, people would sit side-by-side on the benches, purging themselves and, if they weren’t having a tough time of it, would even chat things up and do business. Or they might even sit down and make notes on their tablet – the wax kind, of course. Perhaps some things haven’t changed so much!
Setting aside the awkwardness of Romans’ social toilet behaviours for a moment, you have to admit that their sewage systems were the best.
Beneath the rows of communal toilet benches in public latrines, military bases, and the homes of richer Romans, fresh flowing water brought into the city by a system of aqueducts (11 of them in Rome!) ensured that waste water did not linger to create a stink. Once people did their business, it was flushed out by the main sewer system of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima. This ‘greatest sewer’ was originally built around 600 B.C. under the orders of King Tarquinius Priscus.
Pretty impressive, and important in a city that just grew and grew over the centuries.
Not all neighbourhoods were so lucky to have running water beneath their latrines if they had them. In those cases, people would dump buckets of waste water from on high, especially from the tenement block windows. The streets had channels in the middle so this waste would eventually be washed away.
Walking down some streets in ancient Rome would have been something of an ordeal.
But what about toilet paper? Today we take that for granted, but they didn’t have such a thing in ancient Rome.
Enter the spongia.
That’s right, sea sponges. Today we go on vacation to the Mediterranean Sea and buy great sea sponges to use in our baths back home. We covet them almost as luxury items.
In ancient Rome, these were used to wipe yourself after going to the toilet.
Here’s how it worked. You had a sponge that was on the end of a stick. When you finished doing your business, you took the sponge on a stick, wet it in the fresh water that flowed in that channel we spoke of on the floor in front of the toilet, and gave yourself a few back-and-forths until you were clean. When you were finished, you rinsed it.
This is where, to my modern mind, things got really dodgy. In a public toilet, there would be communal spongia for people to use. Ew!
That’s right, if you didn’t bring your own sponge on a stick, you used one that someone else had already used.
There is some debate as to whether a new sponge was used each time or not. I’ve read that sponges on sticks were re-used after a good rinsing (one hopes!), or that one simply stuck the communal stick into a fresh sponge and then dumped it into the hole you were sitting on.
I’m not going to ponder this anymore. I’ll leave that to you. Suffice it to say that a sponge that was simply poked with a stick would not really stay on the stick, would it? Especially when wet. I think it would have to be fastened to the stick to be of any use. Just my two cents on that.
So there you have it! Roman men and women getting social in the toilet while sitting cheek-to-cheek, and sharing sponges.
I do love the ancient world!
Thank you for reading.
…from her shrine the Sibyl of Cumae sang her fearful riddling prophecies, her voice booming in the cave as she wrapped the truth in darkness, while Apollo shook the reins upon her in her frenzy and dug the spurs into her flanks. The madness passed. The wild words died upon her lips… (Aenied, Book VI)
In this series of posts on The World of Children of Apollo, we have been through the sands and cities of Roman North Africa, trod the marble-clad streets of Imperial Rome, and wandered the lush, ancient land of Etruria. We have met the imperial family and had a hint of the dangers that can come of an association with them.
In this post, we set off on a slightly different path into the realm of mystery and legend, and visit the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, Apollo’s ancient oracle on the Italian peninsula. It is in the cave of the Sibyl that Lucius Metellus Anguis learns of a cryptic prophecy concerning his future.
Legend has it that Cumae was founded by ancient Greeks as early as 1050 B.C. and was, according to Strabo, the oldest of the Greek colonies on mainland Italy or Sicily. Cumae survived many years of war and attack until, under the Empire, it was seen as a quiet, country town in contrast to the very fashionable settlement of Baiae nearby. The acropolis of Cumae is a mass of rock rising two-hundred and sixty-nine feet above the seashore which lies one hundred yards away. The acropolis contains three levels of caves with many branches, and it is within these caves that the Cumaean Sibyl had her seat.
One can approach the rock from the south-east. It is steep on all sides with remnants of the original Greek fortifications. The acropolis is an ancient place, a place where myth and legend can, if you manage to block out modernity, come alive. Within the acropolis stood the Temple of Apollo, God of Prophecy. Tradition has it that Daedalus himself built the temple. This was restored by the Romans who had great reverence for Apollo and the Sibyl who had prophesied the future of Rome to the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in the Sibylline Books.
As the story goes, Tarquinius would not pay the Sibyl her extortionate price for all nine books. The Sibyl burned three and yet he refused to pay. She burned another three and the king relented, paying the original price for the remaining three books. A lesson there, to be sure! The Sibylline Books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill until c. 80 B.C. when it burned down. The books were so valuable, having been referred to in times of great crisis for Rome, that a re-collection of Sibylline prophecies was undertaken in all corners of the Empire. Augustus finally had the prophecies moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis spends much time in Children of Apollo.
But who was the Sibyl? Her person is surrounded by the haze of legend. She was mortal, but she lived for a thousand years. In the Aeneid, it was the Sibyl who guided Aeneas to the underworld so that he could visit his dead father, Anchises, in Hades. Her story is a sad one too. When Apollo met her, the god offered her a wish in exchange for her virginity. The Sibyl then picked up a handful of sand and asked that she live as many years as the number of grains of sand she held in her palm. The old adage, ‘Careful what you wish for,’ certainly rings true in the Sibyl’s case. Tragically, she did not wish for eternal youth as well, and as a result, over the centuries, her young, once-beautiful body withered until all that remained was her prophetic voice. In Children of Apollo, this is a voice that Lucius Metellus Anguis will not soon forget.
The traditions of ancient Greece and Rome are of full of tales of tragedy, choices wrongly-made, beauty, love, hate and deception. The tales are heroic and terrifying, inspiring and thought-provoking. And oftentimes, there is a physical place associated with a particular tale, a place you can visit and hear the voices of the past. You can stand in a spot where once a Trojan hero may have stood, as well as emperors and Caesars, or common soldiers. It may be a place or tale that shook the foundations of the world, of a people, or of a solitary individual trying to find his way.
For Lucius Metellus Anguis, the Sibyl’s cave is a place that will haunt him for a long time to come.
This is the final post in this series, The World of Children of Apollo.
I hope you enjoyed them, and if your curiosity is piqued, be sure to pick up a copy at the Books tab by clicking HERE.
If you have already read Children of Apollo (and reviews are very welcome!) you can continue the adventure with Lucius Metellus Anguis in Killing the Hydra which is also available.
See you again soon, and thanks for reading!
It’s always a thrill to stumble upon a new work of historical fiction that really meets your needs and expectations as a reader.
I’ve been working on my own books so much lately that I haven’t been taking the time I should to read in my chosen genre. Time is precious, of course, but as writers we need to remember to keep reading.
So, I went in search of a new series and found Douglas Jackson’s Gaius Valerius Verrens series.
I’ve just finished the first book, Hero of Rome, and what an adventure! I couldn’t put this book down.
The reader, writer, and historian in me was greatly impressed at how Douglas Jackson melded all the elements for a great read together. I decided right away that I wanted to interview the man behind the story.
Fortunately for us, he said yes!
So, sit back and enjoy hearing from Mr. Jackson about historical fiction and writing, inspiration, Roman Britain, and much more…
What got you interested in historical fiction in the first place? Was it a particular book?
History has always fascinated me, I’m a voracious reader and I always wanted to be a writer, so I suppose it was inevitable I’d end up either reading or writing historical fiction. My first HF love was Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’, which is a fantastic boy’s own adventure with sweeping landscapes and fascinating characters set on my own turf in Scotland. Looking back, the greatest influence would be George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ novels, which not only entertain brilliantly, but taught me more history than any of my teachers ever did.
Have you travelled to all the places you have written about? How important do you think travelling is for writing historical fiction?
I’d love to have travelled to the exotic places I’ve written about, but the twin constraints of time and money mean that I’ve had to use my imagination and Google Earth to create many of them. That said, I’ve been to Rome several times, Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villa Oplontis, and it added hugely to my understanding of time and place. Likewise, a research trip to Colchester a few years ago gave me a feel for the landscape that enormously enhanced ‘Claudius” and ‘Hero of Rome’. I’ve just finished ‘Scourge of Rome’ which is set in Judaea, with the climax in Jerusalem, and it would have helped greatly if I’d been able to travel there and been able to appreciate the scale of the city, as it is I depended upon the above said Google and ancient maps and paintings I found on the internet. One place I’d really have liked to visit is the Cepha Gap, in a rather dangerous area of eastern Turkey, where I sited the entirely fictional battle that ends ‘Avenger of Rome’. It’s close to the fascinating city of Hasankeyf, home to archaeological treasures thousands of years old. The entire place is going to be drowned beneath an enormous dam that the Turkish government seems to be using to keep the local Kurds in their place.
When it comes to Roman Britain, which sites had the most influence on you, and why?
Over the years I’ve been to hundreds of Roman sites across the UK. Sometimes I can look at a town or a set of fields and tell by experience just about exactly where a Roman fort is sited because of the topography. Hadrian’s Wall, which is just down the road from the town where I grew up, is an obvious one. It has given me endless fascination, especially the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, the slivers of wood shavings that have given us a unique insight into the way Roman auxiliaries on the frontier worked and lived, even played. But my greatest influence lies beneath a field just outside Melrose, in the Borders, where I lived for a few years. It’s a Roman fort called Trimontium and was, in turn, an outpost of the Wall, a staging post between the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, and a legionary camping ground for at least two invasions of Scotland. The fort was excavated in 1911 by a local historian called James Curle. He was an amateur, but his excavations are regarded as a masterpiece of their time. He wrote a book called ‘A Roman Frontier Fort and Its People’, an astonishing record of his dig that is as intriguing as any novel. His finds were astonishing, including three cavalry parade masks (one of them iron, which is unique) and thousands of other Roman artefacts. I was fortunate enough to interview Curle’s niece and she had a host of fascinating stories about her uncle.
Your bio says you grew up in the Borders. How would you say the Borders differ from other areas in Britain? What sets them apart?
What makes the Borders different is its people. They’re a hardy breed, because history has made them that way: you have to be hardy to survive in country that was fought over by two nations for five hundred years like two dogs fighting over a bone. They also have a dry sense of humour that makes outsiders look at them strangely, but is hilarious if you take it the right way. What sets the area apart is that there’s no central focus. It’s made up of small towns set far enough apart to be completely different, but close enough to have a common purpose. They’re bitter rivals on the rugby pitch, but ask them who they are and they’ll tell you they’re proud to be a Borderer.
Boudicca is a larger-than-life character of history that many people have written about. What do you believe is the appeal of the queen of the Iceni to writers and readers alike?
Manda Scott, who wrote the Dreaming series, would be better placed to answer this one. I deliberately made Boudicca a peripheral character in ‘Hero of Rome’ because her story has been told so often and so well (see Ms Scott, above). Her obvious appeal is in the heroic myth that’s grown up around her as a great warrior queen who led men into battle and came close to pushing the Romans out of Britain. We’ll never know how much of it is truth. She probably owes her existence to a report sent to Rome by Suetonius Paulinus in the aftermath of the rebellion, which was later enhanced and embellished by a series of historians, including Cassius Dio, who’s not the most dependable record keeper. Paulinus, and the procurator Catus Decianus, brought the rebellion on themselves, and Paulinus may have painted a larger than life picture of his enemy in order to further his own reputation. The words that are supposed to have emerged from her mouth were written by Romans and I wish historians would remember that.
Where do you stand on the notion that a place has memory? Are there any experiences you would like to share about when a place really ‘spoke’ to you?
I think every place with a history has a memory if you’re patient enough to tune in to it. The first place I can remember ‘talking’ to me is Jedburgh Abbey in the town where I was born. The abbey was burned down five times by English raiding parties. It’s a magnificent 12th century building that soars above the town and I passed it on the way to school every day. You have to pay to get in now, but when I was a boy you were able to roam at will among the ruins. I can remember sitting there for hours just steeping myself in the mystique of the place and imagining what happened there. Folk must have thought I was mad.
What is your favourite historical fiction novel, and why?
‘Flashman and the Great Game’ by the above George Macdonald Fraser. Flashman is the adult version of the character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and he’s added coward, rogue, seducer and scoundrel to his original bullying repertoire. Yet Macdonald Fraser manages to make him curiously likeable as he relates tales of cutting and running his way to fame, glory and fortune with a sardonic wit. This is the story of Flashman ‘s incredible adventures during the Indian Mutiny as he blunders from heroic defence to massacre and mayhem and the final incredible climax which is as tense an ending as I’ve ever read in a book. Great stuff.
How has your experience as a reporter helped your novel writing? Has it ever hindered you in some way?
My 36 years as a reporter, sub-editor and editor have been an enormous help in my writing. I discovered I could write succinctly enough that I didn’t need a great deal of editing, that I could hold a 100,000 word story in my head as easily as I could a double page feature and that I could write fast and accurately. I’ve never missed a deadline. There’s no down side.
Most of your novels are set in the Roman Empire, but you have written some thrillers under the name of James Douglas. What made you want to change tack and write modern thrillers?
The need to make a living. I got into thrillers by mistake, but it’s refreshing to be able to kill someone with a gun for a change rather than a sword, and to live in a world where you don’t have to research every little detail as you walk down a street. I knew I had to write two books a year to make ends meet, so I pitched a second historical series to my editor. He liked it, but someone else had just sold Transworld a series set in the same period. Instead, he asked if I fancied trying a Dan Brown-type thriller. I said no, but he said ‘think about it’ and over the weekend I came up with three great ideas that I managed to turn into the first three Jamie Saintclair novels
You’ve also self-published a novel called War Games, which is the first Glen Savage Mystery. The publishing landscape has changed drastically in the last few years, and some would say there is no better time to be a writer. Tell us about the Glen Savage Mystery series and your indie-publishing experience thus far.
When I’d finished writing The Emperor’s Elephant, which became Caligula, Claudius, and through a curious metamorphosis, Hero of Rome, I knew it wasn’t good enough, but I didn’t know how to improve it. What to do? The answer was write another book. I had no idea whether I could make a success of historical fiction, so I thought I’d give a crime novel a try. Glen Savage appeared in my head one night and began speaking to me, to the extent that I got up and wrote down what he’d said. By mid-morning I had the novel mapped out and I knew it would be in the first person, with a sort of Sam Spade voiceover and the Borders countryside would be as much a character as Savage himself, in the same way James Lee Burke uses the Bayoux. War Games was actually the second Glen Savage book I wrote, the first, Brothers in Arms, focuses on his Falklands War experiences, but I haven’t had time to upload it yet. My self-publishing experience has been interesting, but ultimately disappointing. War Games got off to a reasonable start and had some great reviews, but it dropped into a black hole both in the UK and America. I always laugh when I see US writers on Twitter boasting about their hundreds of thousands of sales when they’re sitting at around the same Amazon rank I am and I know War Games is selling about four books a month. That said, excellent historical fiction writers like my pals Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty sell well enough to make a living from it, and I’d urge you to give them a try. I think the key is to have a series and build a following.
Many authors struggle for years to break out or get noticed. In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently? Do you have any advice for new historical fiction authors?
I was very fortunate, because I was picked up after just one rejection letter, so no, I wouldn’t do anything differently. One great help to me was the peer review website Youwriteon.com. You upload the first 10,000 words of your book and other writers critique it. It can be a pretty savage environment, but it teaches you to roll with the punches, which is vital further on down the line. I won a professional critique, the editor wanted to see the rest of the book, and the rest is history. My advice to any writer is to be prepared to promote yourself, because unless you’re already a name you’ll get very little help from your publisher. If you need a role model, look no further than Ben Kane of Spartacus, Hannibal and The Forgotten Legion fame. Ben works tirelessly to promote his books and those of other Roman HF writers. He’s also a great guy and deserves all the success he’s achieved.
Do you ever see your work being made into a movie? Who would play Gaius Valerius Verrens?
I think ‘Hero of Rome’ would make a great movie. It has everything. A likeable main character, an explosive start and a beautiful love story, all set around the background of the birth of Roman Britain, and of course an epic, bloody climax that makes the Alamo look like a Tupperware party. That bloke Ross, from Poldark, (UK TV star alert) who makes the ladies swoon would make a brilliant Valerius. Oddly enough I had word recently from a Hollywood film producer who’s talking to an international superstar next week about one of my Jamie Saintclair novels. It’ll make a great story when I can talk about it, and fingers crossed, but it’s like having a ticket in the lottery: just because you’ve got one doesn’t mean you’ll hit the jackpot.
Do you have any writing rituals that you would like to share? What is a typical ‘writing day’ like for you?
I get up in the morning, breakfast, sit in front of my computer and try to write 1000-1500 words in the morning, lunch, go for a walk, then the same in the afternoon. If I don’t hit my target I’ll write in the evening. I’m not much of a TV watcher and if I wasn’t writing I’d be reading anyway.
Is there a current writer whose work you are really enjoying at the moment?
I love John Le Carre’s work, because he makes it all appear so effortless. He’s managed to survive the end of the Cold War and make a new career for himself by the sheer power of his writing. I also thought CJ Sansom’s Lamentation was a brilliant return to form.
Is there a historic person in particular whose story you would like to tell in the future?
That’s actually a very difficult question. There are many stories it would be great to tell, but finding an era that no-one is writing about is almost impossible in such a crowded market. You have to find a combination of a great character and commercial appeal. I’m working on it!
What is your next project?
Jamie Saintclair is taking a rest, so I’m about 80,000 words into a Second World War crime novel called ‘Blood Roses’. It’s chock full of suspense, tension and moral dilemmas, and the hero faces a life or death decision on just about every page. It’s the first book I’ve written ‘on spec’ since The Emperor’s Elephant, which is both exciting and daunting, so if anyone in publishing thinks it sounds interesting, give me a shout. After that it’s back to Roman times. Valerius and Serpentius meet up in the dangerous gold fields of northern Spain, where Valerius is working for Pliny the Elder
I’d like to thank Douglas Jackson for taking the time to answer all of my questions.
If you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave them below.
It’s always fascinating to me to read about what inspires other authors, and hear about the places they’ve been. I’ve spent some time in the Scottish Borders myself, particularly at Trimontium, and I can tell you that it’s a wonderful site set in a beautiful landscape. If you ever get the chance to go, take it. You won’t regret it.
Luckily for those of us who love Roman historical fiction, there are many more books in the Gaius Valerius Verrens series, with more on the way.
Definitely check them out!
If you want to read about Mr. Jackson’s work, be sure to check out his website by clicking HERE or visiting Amazon. You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.
As ever, thank you for reading…
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.