A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

Greetings ancient history fans! We hope you enjoyed last week’s blog post on the origins of gladiatorial combat and the different types of gladiators. If you didn’t read it, you can check it out by CLICKING HERE.

This week we’re venturing farther into the world of gladiators with a special guest post by archaeologist Raven Todd Da Silva.

Everyone who is familiar with popular representations of gladiators and gladiatorial combat will be familiar with the ‘turn of the thumb’ gesture, but do you know how that expression came about? Is it historically correct? Why was the thumb so important to Romans?

Well, Raven is going to demystify that for us. Take it away, Raven!


A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

By: Raven Todd Da Silva

‘Pollice Verso’, painted in 1872 by Jean-Léon Jérôme

The notion of signaling life or death for a defeated gladiator by a thumbs up or thumbs down has been made popular by famous pieces of artwork and the 2000 film Gladiator.

But what is the real importance of our thumbs (digitus pollex), and how did it really function in the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome?

The Romans were unique in comparison to other civilizations in referring to the thumb as its own digit on the hand, and it’s suggested that they believed it to have power or hold sway (polleat) over the rest of the fingers. The Latin word for thumb, pollex, is also said to have derived from the word for power, pollet. So we can see here just how much influence a gesture with the thumb had.

In the days of the gladiatorial games, the audience could have their say in deciding the fate of the fallen combatants with a hand gesture – what we think of as thumbs up or thumbs down in today’s misconstrued pop culture-reliant society. The decision to kill the fallen gladiator was decided with what is know as the pollice verso – which translates only as “turned thumb”. If we look at Juvenal, he says:

to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay. (Juvenal; Satire III 36)

The Christian poet Prudentius also backs this up when talking about a Vestal Virgin watching the games:

The modest virgin with a turn of her thumb bids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe (Prudentius; Against Symmachus II)

The Médaillon de Cavillargues

We aren’t sure what this exactly means though, and there are no other proper surviving texts to give us specific insight. Contrary to popular belief, the “thumbs up” we all know today as a sign of a good job or to show that everything is A-OK did not always have this meaning. A study by Desmod Morris shows that Italians did not consider this action as a positive one until American pilots, who used it to signal to the grounds crew that they were ready to take off, imported it in WWII.

So we don’t really know which way the audience’s thumbs were pointing to indicate if they wanted the gladiator to die.

But if an extended, turned thumb indicated the kill, what did the audience do if they wanted to spare the gladiator’s life? Martial stated that the crowd appealed for mercy by waving their handkerchiefs (XII) or by shouting (Spectacles, X).

It seems the gesture was possibly to hide your thumb inside of your fist known as the pollice compresso or “compressed thumb”. Anthony Corbeill, the leading expert on ancient Roman gestures has translated Pliny’s pollices premere to mean that a thumb pressed down on the index finger of a closed fist signified mercy.

There’s some speculation with the reasoning behind these two gestures. Firstly, it’s a lot easier to tell the difference from the crowd. Second, it could indicate the state of the gladiator’s sword. Extended thumb indicating that the audience wanted the gladiator to give the conquered one final stab or blow, and the compressed thumb telling the victor to sheath his weapon and grant mercy on the defeated.

The Zliten Mosaic

Archaeologically speaking, the The Médaillon de Cavillargues, located in the Nîmes Musée Archéologique supports Corbeill’s conclusions. Also interesting to note, the gladiator may have had to wait for a judgment call from the producer of the games to know the true outcome from the audience vote – waiting for an audible cue in the form of a horn or some music, which is suggested in the Zliten mosaic.

One of the most famous paintings depicting gladiatorial combat is called the Pollice Verso, painted in 1872 by famous historical painter Jean-Léon Jérôme. It displays a victorious gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, showing off to a crowd enthusiastically thrusting their thumbs down. Jérôme was a highly respected historical painter, known for his extensive research and accuracy, which is why this misrepresentation lead to so many misunderstandings from the general public and fellow academics.

Raven Todd DaSilva is working on her Master’s in art conservation at the University of Amsterdam. Having studied archaeology and ancient history, she started Dig it With Raven to make archaeology, history and conservation exciting and freely accessible to everyone. You can follow all her adventures on Facebook and Instagram @digitwithraven


The Gladiator and the Thumb

“Thumbs in Ancient Rome: pollex as Index.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997) 61-81 Anthony Corbeill

Juvenal Satire Book 3

Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (2004) by Anthony Corbeill

Zliten Mosaic

Pollice Verso

I’d like to thank Raven for taking the time to share this fascinating research with us. To be honest, I had no idea the Romans thought of the thumb as a digit that held sway over the other fingers!

You can read more by checking out the list of resources above.

If you have any questions for Raven about the ‘turn of the thumb’, you can ask them in the comments below.

Also, be sure to check out her website Dig It With Raven where she has a wealth of information on archaeology, history and art restoration.

Raven also posts regular VLOGS about archaeology and art restoration that are fascinating and highly informative. She’s also really funny! For anyone wanting to get their feet wet in these subject areas, I can’t recommend the videos enough. Make sure you subscribe to her YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of her awesome and educational videos.

We’ll definitely have Raven back on the blog!

Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for reading!


The World of Heart of Fire – Part X – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics

World of Heart of Fire - banner

This is the final post in The World of Heart of Fire blog series.

I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it.

Writing Heart of Fire has been a tremendous journey into the world of Ancient Greece. Yes, I am an historian and I already knew much of the material, but I still learned a great deal.

The intense, and in-depth, research, some of which you have read about in this ten-part blog series, made me excited to get stuck in every day. A lot of people, after an intensive struggle to write a paper or book, are fed up with their subject afterward, but that is not the case for me.

In writing this story, and meeting the historical characters of Kyniska, Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Plato, in closely studying their world, I have fallen even more in love with the ancient world. I developed an even deeper appreciation of it than I had before.

Altis sunlight

In creating the character of Stefanos of Argos, and watching him develop of his own accord as the story progressed (yes, that does happen!), I felt that I was able to understand the nuances of Ancient Greece, and to feel a deeper connection to the past that goes beyond the cerebral or academic.

I’ve come to realized that in some ways we are very different from the ancient Greeks. However, it seems to me that there are more ways in which we have a lot in common.

Sport and the ancient Olympics are the perfect example of this.

We all toil at something, every day of our lives. Few of us achieve glory in our chosen pursuits, but those who do, those who dedicate themselves to a skill, who sacrifice everything else in order to reach such heights of glory, it is they who are set apart.

Athens 2004 runners 2

Hoplite runners

In writing, and finishing, Heart of Fire, I certainly feel that I have toiled as hard as I could in this endeavour. My ponos has indeed been great.

There is another Ancient Greek idea that applies here, that comes after the great effort that effects victory. It is called Mochthos.

Mochthos is the ancient word for ‘relief from exertion’.

Athens 2004 - Mochthos

Athens 2004 – Mochthos

My moment of mochthos will come when I return soon to ancient Olympia. I have been there many times before, but this time will be different, for I will see it in a new light – the stadium, the ruins of the palaestra and gymnasium, the Altis, and the temples of Zeus and Hera… all of it.

For me, Olympia has exploded with life.

When I next walk the sacred grounds of the Altis, I’ll be thinking about the Olympians who competed this summer and in the years to come.

They deserve our thoughts, for to reach the heights of prowess that they do to get to the Games, they have indeed sacrificed.

Athens 2004

Athens 2004

I always feel a thrill when I see modern Olympians on the podium, see them experience the fruit of their toils, their many sacrifices.

It is possible that they may have been shunned by loved ones or friends for their intense dedication and focus. It can be a supremely lonely experience to pursue your dreams.

Whatever their situation, Olympic competitors deserve our respect, and just as in Ancient Greece, their country of origin should matter little to us.

Yes, we count the medals for our respective countries, but what really matters is that each man and woman at the Games has likely been to hell and back to get there.

Athens 2004 proud winner

Athens 2004 proud winner

When I see the victors on the podium, when I witness the agony and the ecstasy of Olympic competition, I can honestly say that I have tears in my eyes.

Perhaps you do too? Perhaps the ancient Greeks did as well, for in each individual victor, they knew they were witnessing the Gods’ grace.

It’s been so for thousands of years, and it all started with a single footrace.

It is humbling and inspiring to think about.

Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is out now, and I hope that I have done justice to the ancient Games and the athletes whose images graced the Altis in ages past.

Heart of Fire

A Mercenary… A Spartan Princess… And Olympic Glory…

When Stefanos, an Argive mercenary, returns home from the wars raging across the Greek world, his life’s path is changed by his dying father’s last wish – that he win in the Olympic Games.

As Stefanos sets out on a road to redemption to atone for the life of violence he has led, his life is turned upside down by Kyniska, a Spartan princess destined to make Olympic history.

In a world of prejudice and hate, can the two lovers from enemy city-states gain the Gods’ favour and claim Olympic immortality? Or are they destined for humiliation and defeat?

Remember… There can be no victory without sacrifice.


Be sure to keep an eye out for some short videos I will be shooting at ancient Olympia in the places where Heart of Fire takes place. I’m excited to share this wonderful story with you!

Thank you for reading, and whatever your own noble toils, may the Gods smile on you!


 If you missed any of the posts on the ancient Olympic Games, CLICK HERE to read the full, ten-part blog series of The World of Heart of Fire!


If Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics sounds like a story you enjoy, you can download the e-book or get the paperback from Amazon, Kobo, Create Space and Apple iBooks/iTunes. Just CLICK HERE.


Top 10 Ways to get excited about History

Excited about History - Top 10

It’s no secret that I love history, and I suspect that if you are reading this blog or my books, you love history too.

This morning I was on my usual commute, herded into the cattle car, surrounded by myriad long faces, when I started to day dream. This time of year, I day dream a lot more, my mind clawing at the distant past, trying to find a way to immerse myself in the comfort of history.

What can I say? I’m a history geek through and through.

The truth is that when this hectic, modern world gets me down, I do indeed find solace in the past. I need to grasp at that thread in the labyrinth to get back to my place of balance.

So, I thought I would share some of the ways in which I connect with and get excited about history. I will do these things not only to immerse myself in history, but also to fire my creativity and imagination so that I am ready to get stuck into the next story.

Here are my Top 10:


#10 – Listen to Period Music

I always write to soundtrack music, but listening to music or interpretations of music from the ancient or medieval worlds is a different sort of experience.

While the music is playing, I may flip through a book, have a glass of wine, or just close my eyes and let my mind wander, imagining myself in an ancient agora, or walking the lonely halls of a castle.

There are a lot of great period music groups out there, one of my favourite medieval ones being the Ensemble Claude Gervaise, their album, Douce Dame Jolie in particular.

There are fewer ancient music groups, but lately I did come across a wonderful album called Musical Instruments of Ancient Greece by the Petros Tabouris Ensemble. I played this during a dinner in which we made some ancient dishes and it really added to the atmosphere. If you have access to Hoopla through your public library system, that is where I found it.

Musical Instruments of Ancient Greece - Petros Tabouris Ensemble

Musical Instruments of Ancient Greece – Petros Tabouris Ensemble

#9 – Maps

I love maps, and I use them frequently in my research and writing as they help me to better visualize the world and period in which I am working.

My favourite maps are the Ordnance Survey maps from Britain. This are military grade maps that give a wonderful level of detail, and the series of historical Ordnance Survey maps are the best for writing historical fiction, or simply exploring the past.

My go-to historical map is the Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain. I used this a great deal in research in past years, but also when writing the upcoming Warriors of Epona (Eagles and Dragons Book III).

Some of my favourite Ordnance Survey Maps

Some of my favourite Ordnance Survey Maps

#8 – Primary Sources

When getting stuck into the past, you can only get so far on secondary sources, sources written by modern or later scholars about past ages.

If you really want to get a feel for a certain period in history, to hear things from the ‘horse’s mouth’ so to speak, then primary sources are key.

Most people are not able to read ancient Greek or Latin, so it’s lucky that almost everything is available in translation. Two series I like are the Loeb Classical Library, which is now available on-line, and the much more affordable Penguin classics range which you can find in most bookstores.

Both of these are fine and can really immerse you in the ancient and medieval worlds.

The problem with some classical or medieval texts is that they can go on sometimes, depending on the author.

I remember reading Froissart’s Chronicles on the Hundred Years War a while ago and being bored by the never-ending lists of nobles. So, for a modern reader, some of these sources can be a bit tedious. But not all of them are boring and, in fact, a great many are quite entertaining.

If you don’t want to pay for some of these primary sources, you can find a lot of them on the Project Gutenberg website, and the Perseus Digital Library.

Loeb Classical Library On-line

Loeb Classical Library On-line

#7 – Documentaries

I’ve written before about how I love to watch documentaries in a previous post called ‘Roaming the Past’.

There are so many great documentaries available on YouTube that with the touch of a couple buttons, you can be off on a grand adventure with some of the leading historians of the day.

The thing I like about documentaries is that they are the next best thing to actually going to a site. The presenters often go to places that are not accessible to the average person.

If they are well-done, documentaries are a wonderful way to unwind, to learn, and to escape into the past from the comfort of your own home.

I always get pumped about history after watching a good documentary!

Click here to watch one of my favourites from Michael Wood.

#6 – Big Non-Fiction Books

When it comes historical landscapes, ancient ruins, or castles, a picture definitely speaks a thousand words.

That’s why I love to sit down on a quiet Sunday morning, or after a stressful day at work, and peruse the large, full-colour pages of some of my favourite coffee table books.

I have several of these mighty tomes at home and they can always be relied upon to help me escape into history.

From a book on the Parthenon and ancient Athens, to ancient Rome, the castles of Britain, world archaeology, Egypt, and the travels of Alexander the Great, every time I heft one of these titans I’m guaranteed to get lost for a while in the best possible sense.

Some of my BIG BOOKS!

Some of my BIG BOOKS!

#5 – Visiting Museums

What better place to get in touch with different periods of history than in your local house of the Muses.

If you live in a big city, chances are you have access to a museum with a decent collection. Two of my favourites are the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, and the British Museum, entry to the latter being free!

You may also have a small, local history museum near you that could be of interest, so be sure to check it out.

Museums are a great way of connecting with people of the past, of getting close to the normal everyday objects that our ancestors used. These can add the texture to the greater historical picture we are imagining.

Having fun at the Trimontium Roman Legionary Museum. So much fun!

Having fun at the Trimontium Roman Legionary Museum. So much fun!

#4 – Living History Displays

When it comes to people dressed up in historical costume and swinging swords around, most of you may think of mad Renaissance festival goers with bad accents, and supremely laughable movies like The Knights of Badassdom or All’s Faire in Love (both are on Netflix).

These sorts of flicks can be fun, but they are not the living history displays I’m referring to.

If you want to really get into history, you should go and attend a display of one of the many living history, or re-enactor groups near you.

The people who take part in living history displays are not only die-hard history fans, but also serious researchers who have helped to further our knowledge of the past alongside our academic brethren.

Living history re-enactors use ancient and medieval methods and tools to create weapons and utensils, fabrics, horse-harness and all the other everyday implements of the past. They bring famous battles to life, and put on displays that show us how, for instance, Roman siege engines work.

A display by the Ermine Street Guard re-enactment group

A display by the Ermine Street Guard re-enactment group

For many people who have been bored by history through textbooks in school, living history re-enactments can be a welcome breath of fresh air that awakens a love of the past.

No matter what historical period you’re interested in, there is certainly a group of re-enactors that fits the bill. Ask around and see what is going on in your area, especially during the summer months.

Many of these groups put on displays at historic sites like Hadrian’s Wall. You can ask some questions, swing a sword, and maybe even try on some armour!

#3 – Watch Movies

Whenever any historical movie comes out, there is never any shortage of complaints on-line about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of the film.

And it is true that most historical movies do not depict the history exactly as it was. Of course not! They are telling a story and they have to work within the confines of their medium, and of their particular budget.

But I love watching movies that take place in an historical setting, even if it is rife with errors. It gets me excited about history. Period.

Robin Hood movie poster

I loved this movie!

I’ve said before that Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was the movie that really turned me on to studying history. People laugh at me for that (and that’s ok!), but I say that that movie started me reading everything I could get my hands on about the 12th century, warfare, and the Middle Ages. And in reading further, I found out how things really were. The movie made me want to learn more about history.

Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not!

So, if watching movies is something that you love and enjoy, ignore the critics and just go for it, whether you’re watching 300, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, Pompeii, Gladiator, or any other period flick. It doesn’t matter, so long as the setting is historical, you are bound to get switched on.

Great scene from Ridley Scott's epic, Gladiator

Great scene from Ridley Scott’s epic, Gladiator

#2 – Read Historical Fiction

Now I may be biased here, but I read a lot of historical fiction, almost exclusively.

Setting my bias aside, however, I truly believe that historical fiction, if done well, can both entertain and educate. It can move people’s hearts and minds, and give them an in-depth look at the past, the people, places, ways of thinking, and ways of living.

I really do believe that historical fiction should be on the curriculum for history classes at every level. It brings history to life in a more accessible way than non-fiction text-books, and in a deeper way than any film.

The reader is put smack dab into the history of the period the book is about. The reader can get lost, immersed in the history for as long as they want to read, or until the book ends.

Historical fiction, in a way, paints a more complete picture of the past, and is not constrained by any budget, or medium.

In writing historical fiction, or historical fantasy, anything goes, and there are no limits to the places a reader can be taken.

My current read! Stay tuned for a big surprise related to this book!

My current read!
Stay tuned for a big surprise related to this book!

Finally, my number one activity for getting excited about history…

#1 – Site Visits and Travel

I think I fell in love absolutely with history the first time I set foot inside a real castle. I believe it was Warwick Castle in England.

I can remember walking around, not only impressed by the sheer scale of the place, but mesmerized by the battlements, the towers, the rooms filled with armour.

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle

Most of all I was amazed by the lives people actually led in the past.

Visiting an archaeological site, a castle, a ruin, or an ancient landscape, however big or small, is unlike any other experience.

I’m a firm believer that travel is the best education, and site visits are the perfect way to put you in touch with history and the people of the past.

I’ve written about the sites I’ve visited a lot on this blog, most recently ancient Argos, Epidaurus, and Nemea, but I remember every time I have visited an historic site. The experiences are burned in my memory.

Every time, I felt like I connected with the people who inhabited that place and age, that I gained a fuller understanding of them. I touched the altars where they worshiped their gods, smelled the air they smelled, heard the way the wind caressed the wall about their dwellings or as it rushed through their forests.

To stand on the top of Hadrian’s Wall I had an inkling of what it was like for a Roman soldier on the edge of the Empire. I’ve walked beneath the Lion Gate of Mycenae on my way to an audience with King Agamemnon, heard the battle cries of 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and gazed across African olive groves to the Sahara from the arches of a remote desert amphitheatre.

Desert light at the theatre of Thysdrus (El Jem)

Desert light at the theatre of Thysdrus (El Jem)

Until virtual or augmented reality are perfected, there is no better way to connect with the past than standing where ancient people stood, seeing what they say, touching what they touched.

The problem with this is the cost of travel. I don’t travel nearly as much as I would like. But, if you can manage to save to go to a place of history that you’ve always wanted to visit, the memories of that journey will sustain you for a long time and give you a much greater understanding of the past.

Ipogeo Etrusco de Montecalvario (6th century B.C.)

Ipogeo Etrusco de Montecalvario (6th century B.C.)

I hope that you’ve found this interesting, and that it had perhaps given you some new ideas about how to connect and get excited about history in the chaos of modern life.

How do you like to connect with and get excited about history?

Is it something on the list above, or do you have your own preferred activity?

Let us know in the comments below. There are always new adventures waiting for us!

Thank you for reading.


Living Abroad – A Guest Post by Author Caterina Novelliere

I meet a lot of people on-line as an author, historian, and blogger. The great thing about it is that sometimes you get to meet people with whom you click right away, people who have the same interests, similar experiences, and the same hunger to learn more about the world, and about history.

Today, I’m pleased to post a guest blog by just such a person.

Caterina and I met on-line (was it Twitter?) when I was posting about Tunisia and the Roman sites there which are part of the setting for Children of Apollo, and Killing the Hydra.

When she told me that she used to live in Tunisia, as well as in Italy, I asked her if she could write a post about her experiences that I could share with all of you.

So, without further ado, over to Caterina to talk about what it was like to live abroad, and how that shaped her imagination, art, and interests as a young child.

Living Abroad picture

Adam was kind enough to invite me to share how living abroad at a young age influenced my writing and shaped my life over the years. As a child, I lived in Tunisia for two and a half years. My family frequently traveled around the country. I also had the pleasure of visiting Algeria. My time in North Africa significantly shaped my academic and personal interests. Tunisia is the place where I fell in love with Antiquity, North African history, and Middle Eastern culture. I study all three in my academic pursuits.

One of the first places my parents took me in Tunisia was Carthage. The ruins, especially the large columns of carved stone, fascinated me. At the time, I wondered who exactly were these people living in stone houses? Seeing elaborate mosaics in the remains of the baths and villas, I concluded they all had to be amazing artists. Each new twist and turn through the site prompted more questions. What was life like for the Carthaginians and Romans? What would the children who once lived there say if I could speak to them? What games did they play? The adults seemed so focused on banqueting and bathing, which were totally boring subjects to a young child.


Statue and Mosaics at the Bardo Museum, Tunis

I met my first archaeologist at Carthage. He took a few minutes out of his day to show me what he was doing, explain the finds, and answer some of the crazy questions that my five year old self had in addition to those of my parents and a few others who went with us. I can still vividly recall his face and the patient way he’d smile and elaborate on life in Antiquity. I thought he had the coolest job. At that point I was hooked by the past and longed to explore it further. Who wouldn’t like a job that allowed you to play outside in the dirt and discover such wondrous things? It was like recess all of the time! Little did I know how hard that work is nor how meticulous an archaeologist or historian needs to be when excavating or developing the narrative of a people that lived long ago. I passed Roman ruins in the city every day on the bus ride to school and swimming lessons afterwards. We frequently took field trips to the remains of Roman sites and El Djem (a Roman amphitheater in the area). I would stare out the bus window daydreaming about what it would be like to sit in the stands watching men fight lions and each other. Would the crowd be loud? Would the men all wear decorated armor and carry swords on their sides? Did the women faint or cry from the gore or their favorite fighter dying? Needless to say, I had a very Hollywood vision of Roman life. The thirst to learn more about Roman North Africa and the mighty empire began in those years spent in Tunisia. It has been unquenchable since. After hitting my early thirties, I decided I needed to formalize my education in the fields I enjoyed so much and began the journey of becoming a trained historian and cultural heritage professional.

The Amphitheatre of El Djem (Roman Thusdrus)

The Amphitheatre of El Djem (Roman Thusdrus)

An important piece of culture frequently taken for granted or overlooked by the average joe is food. Food history fascinates me. Studying food from both a commodities and cultural perspective gives us unique insight into a region, the development of trade, and social practices of various civilizations. Food is a fantastic historical subject if one is searching to form connections between the past and today. There are many dishes and drinks like wine, coffee, or tea that significantly shape a region economically, socially, and from an identity perspective. I subtly sprinkle traditional meals and beverages in any novel of mine you pick up. As my characters dine and move on their various adventures, dinners and drinks frequently reflect the location they are in. In my travels, you can routinely find me eating local dishes off the beaten path. My passion for food arose out of childhood trips to Tunisian vineyards, markets and cafes. My mother emphasized it was important that I tried everything on my plate anytime an invite came to go to someone’s house or we went somewhere new. I remember watching her learn to cook local meals along with a wide variety of Middle Eastern and French dishes due to the many nationalities that made up our circle of friends abroad. I am guilty of being drawn to any restaurant offering tagines, couscous, shwarema, and other North African delicacies. One of the first dishes I learned to cook as a child was a lamb, vegetable and couscous stew. It is definitely one of my go to comfort foods when I am feeling down. Fresh mint tea is a treat anytime of the year. Pomegranates, blood oranges, figs, almonds, and tangerines are some of my favorite snacks after discovering them in Tunisia.

Troglodyte Dwelling - Matmata

Troglodyte Dwelling – Matmata

My fiction writing contains more than just the gastronomical flavorings of North Africa. Locations like Dougga, Carthage, and Hippo appear in storylines. There is something incredibly romantic about the places bordering the Mediterranean that fuels my imagination. One particular event I attended stands out in my mind as the most captivating culturally in all of my Tunisian and Algeria adventures, The Douz Festival. The races, celebrations, and traditions one witnesses traveling to the Saharan extravaganza further reeled me into the world of the Bedouin and Berber. The Douz Festival is an annual celebration of the harvesting of the dates and the nomadic way of life. Many Arab, Bedouin, and Berber clans come together to compete in horse and camel racing, trick riding, and overall merriment. The festival was so different from any circus or fair I attended in the states. The excitement in the air each day was contagious. Camels moved faster than I thought they could in intense matches. My pulse raced watching Arabians decked out in traditional saddles and bridles fly down the desert track. My heart was stolen by one of the trick riders one night. He rode a black horse whose saddle and bridle were decorated in red, green, white and black plumes. I was transfixed in place watching him stand in the saddle as his horse cantered past along with performing other amazing feats. If there was such a thing as a knight or fearsome desert warrior, it certainly had to be him. When he finished his act, he rode over to my family and spoke with us. Allowing me to pet his horse and the smile he offered before riding off had me completely smitten with my first crush on a stranger. No doubt my parents would laugh if I told them for a few years afterward, I wanted to marry a desert prince with a black stallion. From that day forward, I wanted to learn to ride like him and the others we saw at the festival. My parents knew a riding instructor in the US and three years later I learned to ride and vault. Needless to say time reshapes our perspective on romance, but I have never forgotten my Tunisian Horseman. Phantoms of him, a love for horses, and the euphoria of desert life intermingle in a few of the tales I craft. All three of these left their lasting mark on me.

Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

Perhaps the two most precious gifts North Africa bestowed on me consist of language and a willingness to be open to new things. In school, it was mandatory we study French, Arabic and English. Not many American children receive the opportunity to start working with three languages in elementary school. By the time we left Tunisia, I had a fluency and working level well above my age in all three. It was strange to come stateside and not use the French or Arabic any longer. I periodically revive my French and Arabic as they do fade without use. My studies with them provided a foundation to learn Italian and Latin later on in college. One day I hope to add Greek, Berber (Tuareg or Tamazight), and Turkish to my list of languages.

Learning to interact with an international community, sampling a variety of cuisines, and seeing the various lifestyles from living in modern cities, Bedouin tents, or underground homes in Matmata (think Luke Skywalker’s house in Star Wars) helped me start to appreciate and embrace diversity at a young age. This exposure continues to help me approach topics and people from a more curious and open perspective versus a judgmental one. Undoubtedly, North Africa firmly rooted my willingness to try just about anything once.
Caterina Novelliere author photoCaterina is passionate about history, music, romance, old languages, and travel. She regularly intertwines these subjects in her writing. She holds a degree in Music Management with a minor in Vocal Performance from Old Dominion University in Virginia and a second B.A. in History with a minor in Italian from the University of Texas San Antonio. Ever a glutton for punishment and a believer in life long learning, Caterina is completing a M.A. in Public History from Texas State University. She was fortunate enough to receive awards that enabled her to study abroad in Urbino, Italy and Chester, England. She took full advantage of these opportunities to explore Italy, Jersey, England, Scotland, and Wales; conducting boots on the ground research for her coursework and literary works. While she is a fan of all history, her heart resides in Antiquity. She enjoys studying time periods up through the Renaissance. Modern history is just not as fun as gladiators, emperors, caliphs, queens, knights and kings. An obsession with cappuccino and Greek coffee started her down a path of researching commodities and gastronomy history in her free time.

When not traveling or studying, Caterina finds time to sing classical music, act, write, paint and fence. She is always up for trying something new so the list of hobbies is ever expanding.

Caterina is a social media junkie who enjoys meeting new folks. If you would like to contact her or learn more about her and future works, you can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and on her Blog.

A big ‘Thank You’ to Caterina for taking the time to write this wonderful post for us and, for myself, digging up all the great memories I have of my own visit to Tunisia and the Sahara. Don’t forget to connect with her so you can stay apprised of her historical research, and future travels.

Also, be sure to check out her novel, Mark of the Night, to see how her experiences have affected her fantastic storytelling!

Mark of the Night cover

Cheers, and thank you for reading!




Preserving the Past – Some Thoughts on the Importance of Historic Places

I’m talking about something a bit more personal for this post.

Recently, I went back to my home town with my family. We were in the area and so we thought it might be fun to take a drive through the old neighbourhood.

It’s kind of weird passing by primary and secondary schools where you spent so much time, and then happily pushed them from your mind. All that feel like another life.

Our last stop was the last house my family owned. It was the oldest house in the area (over 100 years old), and belonged to the original landowner who had settled the area. This is a picture of the house:

windsor house

As we were driving along the street, beneath the tall trees, we watched the modern monstrosities as we passed by, those huge, thinly-walled modern mansions that people seem to be so eager to throw up.

I found myself thinking, ‘Man, oh, man, we were so lucky to live in that solidly-built, old house. So many memories –graduation parties, Christmases, dinner parties, engagement parties, etc. etc. It was a place that had seen the area grow up and mature all around it.

This is what we saw when we pulled up in front of the house:


That left us winded and wondering simply, ‘Why?’

So that another monster home could be built? I guess. And yes, I know, the house was no longer ours. It was really none of our business any more.

But this shocking experience got me to thinking beyond this personal experience…

If the destruction of one small house, lived in by only a handful of families over the last hundred-plus years, can deliver such a blow, how much greater the loss when other historical monuments around the world are wiped out?

The Bamiyan Buddhas -destroyed by the Taliban

The Bamiyan Buddhas -destroyed by the Taliban

It happens every day, everywhere, from small towns and villages, to cities, to world heritage sites that represent pinnacles of human achievement.

The period doesn’t matter. What matters is that history, and more importantly, the voices of history, are being silenced when these cultural atrocities are carried out.

Archaeologists at Nimrud 2001

Archaeologists at Nimrud 2001 – excavation and preservation

I’ve worked in the area of heritage preservation, and in my office there are a lot of people who are passionate about the subject. But they’re facing an uphill battle, as are preservationists around the world, historians, archaeologists, restorers and more. All of them.

The thing is, I do believe in the memory of place. History is about the human stories of everything around us, and those voices of the past need to be listened to, deserve to be listened to. They have much to teach us.

If we allow the destruction of an historic temple, farmstead, theatre, or market, even a house, we are losing yet another piece of our collective history. We lose yet another potential lesson and opportunity to better ourselves.

The Recent Destruction of Nimrud

The Recent Destruction of Nimrud

There has been a lot in the press recently about the destruction of historic sites in the Middle East, namely the ancient sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra (about which I wrote HERE). And now the ancient city of Palmyra is hanging over the precipice…

These are just a few examples of the destruction that has been wrought of late. If you go the UNESCO World Heritage website, you can look at the list of endangered world heritage sites. It’s sad, it’s upsetting, and it’s happening all the time.

We are so eager to move into the future that we often forget the past, opting to tear down a sturdy brick building that has been there for one or two hundred years, in favour of putting up yet another glass condominium that won’t even make it to sixty years without falling apart.

Think about it, people pay thousands of dollars to travel across the ocean to visit places like England, or France, Greece and other countries so that they can, in most cases, visit ‘old’ places, historical sites.

Check out this abandoned English manor house - should it be levelled or restored?

Check out this abandoned English manor house – should it be levelled or restored?

If those physical, historic spaces and places were not there, the voices of the people who had inhabited them would be more or less silent to us. We can read someone’s words, but to walk in their footsteps with their thoughts and words echoing in your mind is an entirely different experience.

There are varying degrees of importance and different perspectives, true, but all the voices of the past matter, as do the things they created.

When I look at that picture of the patch of mud where our one-time house used to be, I’m sad, not just for me, but for the neighbourhood which has lost a small chunk of its history.

To most people, the house was neither here, nor there. But just because a place is meaningless to some, doesn’t been it isn’t of import to others or the community as a whole, be it down the street in your own neighbourhood, or on the other side of the world.

The Destruction of Hatra

The Destruction of Hatra

When the physical places are treated with disregard, it’s the beginning of the process of forgetting… which goes on… until… nothing… is… left……..

What do you think of this topic?

Next time you walk or drive around your neighbourhood, check to see if there are any historic or ‘old’ places that catch your attention? Imagine how the neighbourhood would change if that place were completely wiped out.

Tell us in the comments about an historic or ‘old’ place that is close you, a place that means something to you.

Thank you for reading.


Quiet and Contemplative – Essentials for Writing Historical Fiction

Olive Branch

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.

Greece 2006 091

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.

Nemea countryside

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.

Splendours of the Roman World

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…