The Colosseum: First Impressions and Edgar Allan Poe

We all have our memories of first impressions – of people, of feelings, of almost every activity we undertake or situation we encounter.

For me, the first impression of an historical site is always something that is seared onto the memory of my heart and mind. Some sites leave more of an impression while the memories of others linger for a short time before melting away to form part of my broader perception of a period or place.

Back in 2000, one such site that left a titanic, long-lasting impression upon me was the Colosseum in Rome.

I remember it vividly, walking along the thick paving stones of the via Sacra from the Forum Romanum, past the arch of Titus. I was busy talking with my wife when I looked up to find that most famous of Rome’s monuments staring down at me.

It literally stopped me in my tracks.

Prior to that, I had read much about Rome and the Colosseum, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you come face-to-face with such a creation.

It reached to the sky, arch upon arch, dominating the entire area. The moment I looked upon it, I could hear the cheering and jeering of the crowds, the clang of gladii, and the roar of wild beasts.

This monument of stone and bloody memory came to life, no…exploded into life!…before my very eyes.

It was at that moment that many parts in my books Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra began to take shape. In fact, my first visit to Rome to see the Colosseum, and indeed the vast ruins of the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill, helped me to truly understand the might and majesty of the Roman Empire.

I explored that ruin as much as I could from the outside to the interior corridors and sloping walls of the inside where upwards of 50,000 ancients once sat. I was ignorant of the masses of tourists, the myriad foreign languages being spoken, or the hucksters in cheap ‘Roman’ armour who charged unsuspecting tourists for a photo op while groping them.

It was the Colosseum that had us spell-bound.

It was a true wonder to me, and that first impression set me off on a journey into the past that has led me on many an adventure, both creative, cerebral and physical.

In a way, that first meeting made the world of ancient Rome my home.

Model of Ancient Rome

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of my first impression of the Colosseum when reading another work inspired by this magnificent relic of history.

I was reading from the works of that father of American Gothic poetry and literature, Edgar Allan Poe, and came across his poem The Coliseum published on October 26, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter.

I hadn’t read the poem before. In truth, I didn’t even know about it.

Of course, I read it and, well, it made me realize that the Colosseum has likely left an impression on everyone across time who has come across it since the inaugural games of A.D. 80.

I’m not going to analyze the poem here, but rather leave you to read it for yourself and experience a first impression through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe

I hope you enjoy…

The Coliseum

By Edgar Allan Poe

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length- at length- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now- I feel ye in your strength-
O spells more sure than e’er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls- these ivy-clad arcades-
These moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey stones- are they all-
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

“Not all”- the Echoes answer me- “not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone- not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown-
Not all the wonder that encircles us-
Not all the mysteries that in us lie-
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”

The Coloseum c.1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

Isn’t that wonderful?

If you have had the chance to visit the Colosseum yourself, please do tell us what your own first impressions of it were in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.



The Pyramid of Hellinikon

Greetings history-lovers!

I hope your Summer has been brilliant thus far.

For myself, I returned from Greece a couple of weeks ago and I am well into my bout of Aegean Blues.

But that’s ok, because I have a couple thousand pictures to gaze at and rich memories of historical outings to keep me inspired.

I hope you enjoyed the pictures on Instagram – if you haven’t seen them, you can do so by CLICKING HERE. I will, of course, continue to post more of them as time goes on.

Today however, I want to share with you my experience visiting a site I’ve longed to see for some time – the Pyramid of Hellinikon.

I’ve mentioned this site before, but now that I have actually been to it I want to give you my impressions before the sound of cicadas fades from my ears, and the memory of intense heat upon my skin cools into Canadian autumn.

In short, this site exceeded my expectations and fired my imagination.

It also nearly fired my physical body as we had arrived in Greece on the tail end of a heat wave that saw temperatures soar into the mid-forties Celsius!

So, after a night of wine and food beneath the stars at the southern tip of the Argolid peninsula, we set out early(ish) over the high peak of Mt. Didyma, down toward ancient Epidaurus, and across to that beautiful jewel-of-a-city, Nauplion.

Now, I know my way around the area pretty well, but let’s just say that finding the Pyramid of Hellinikon was not easy, even with Google Maps.

Our car meandered around the curve of the Argolic Gulf to Nea Keos, then to the far side where we turned northwest.

You might think that with a map, and seeing it on a screen, the place would be easy to find. However, the routes we had to follow were the shape of a Greek Key at best.

And it was HOT!

There was also very little signage, so we had to stop and ask a man who was out watering his grass. As an aside, I think he is the only man in Greece with a large patch of manicured lawn!

Anyway, the fellow simply pointed up the mountain in the direction we were already headed, so we continued on our path, climbing up, turning, climbing again in the shadow of terraces where orange and olive trees grew on the side of the mountain.

We came around a corner and there it was. A pyramid!

The site is just adjacent to a church in the village of Hellinikon. The funny thing is that it stands out like a sore thumb compared with the village houses and church, but it blends almost completely with the ancient landscape itself. By rights, we should have seen it from the road along the gulf below, it stands in such a prominent position.

I pulled the car into the shade of a single tree (hoping it could cool off in thirty-seven degrees in the shade), and got out.

I had to stop and stare at this place, for no pictures had prepared me for the sheer size and antiquity of it. I didn’t feel the sun or heat anymore. I only saw the pyramid, and at the back of my mind the words of Pausanias crept in…

On the way from Argos to Epidauria there is on the right a building made very like a pyramid, and on it in relief are wrought shields of the Argive shape. Here took place a fight for the throne between Proetus and Acrisius; the contest, they say, ended in a draw, and a reconciliation resulted afterwards, as neither could gain a decisive victory. The story is that they and their hosts were armed with shields, which were first used in this battle. For those that fell on either side was built here a common tomb, as they were fellow citizens and kinsmen. (Pausanias; Description of Greece 2.25)

If what Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D., said was true, then I was standing before a pretty well-intact monument of the Greek Heroic Age.

Even now, it sends shivers down my spine…

According to Pausanias, who wrote many hundreds of years later, this pyramid was believed to be a tomb or monument to the fallen Argive soldiers in the opposing armies of Proetus and Acrisius.

Now, Proetus and Acrisius were brothers, sons of Abas and Aglaea, and mythical kings of Argos. Proetus was king first but after many battles with Acrisius, and subsequent losses, went into exile. Acrisius became King of Argos, and this is the same Acrisius who banished his own daughter, Danae, to the sea, along with her infant son – you guessed it! – Perseus.

Acrisius putting Danae and the baby Perseus into the box before throwing them into the sea

In truth, nobody is really certain of the age of this pyramid. There is no exact date for the battle between the legendary kings of Argos, Proetus and Acrisius. Another battle mentioned in the sources, in which a large number of Argive soldiers died, apparently took place in c.669 B.C.

It seems that as far as history and sources, the evidence is pretty misty. This is when archaeology and dating can help us a little.

From what I’ve read, the dating of the Hellinikon pyramid is highly controversial. On the one side we have the legend mentioned by Pausanias. Then, in 1937, excavations were undertaken by the American School at Athens in which they found pottery ranging from the proto-Helladic period to the Roman period. This shows the site was in use for some time, but what about dating?

A look at Thermoluminescence dating

There is a method of dating called thermoluminescence dating, and this was carried out on the pyramid of Hellinikon. Without going into too much detail about this, this method of dating measures the accumulated radiation in objects or sediment.

The team that carried this out, in addition to geophysical surveys, excavations, and a study of the masonry of the pyramid, dates the Hellinikon to the period of about 2000-2500 B.C.

That’s also about contemporary with the pyramids on the Giza plateau. It also falls more or less in the broad period of the Greek Heroic Age.

But this dating method has been highly criticized as inaccurate and sloppy, with one camp of academics taking shots at the group that undertook the study of the pyramid. Other groups believe the style of masonry sets the Hellinikon pyramid in the Classical period.

When I arrived at the site, however, I wasn’t so much concerned with academic theories or arguments. I was just captivated.

In Greece, history and mythology have a way of coming to life unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the sites, the landscape that has changed little since ancient times, or the fact that sites such as this are not encased, guarded or protected (for better or worse).

As I stood before the slanted cyclopean walls of this ancient structure I wondered not about the age of the structure, but more of its use. There are a very few pyramids in this part of Greece, and this one is the best preserved.

But what was it for?

I remembered reading that it was either a tomb or monument, as Pausanias suggests, or a sort of guardhouse.

Plain of Argos toward the Argolic Gulf as seen from the Pyramid

I opened the gate of the rusty fence surrounding the pyramid and approached, scanning the rocks and shrubs for any snakes or scorpions before pressing on.

Maybe it was my overactive writer’s imagination, but this place seemed to be pervaded by a deep thrumming, as if an ancient drum were being beaten in the earth below. I wondered if the shades of the fallen Argive soldiers might still dwell in that place. Had their ashes been placed within?

I wandered around to the back which faced the plain of Argos far below and found that there was a doorway, an arched gallery leading into the pyramid, not unlike the galleria at ancient Tyrins.

First I decided to explore the outside, to get a better feel of the place before heading in.

It hit me as I turned around to see the view from the pyramid…

The entire plain of Argos was clearly visible from the pyramid! You could see every approach – from the South along the sea, from between the mountains to the southwest, from the North toward Argos itself, from the mound of ancient Tyrins to the East, and from the other side of the Argolic Gulf and Nauplio to the southeast.

Then I thought of the other use of this place as a guardhouse. It was perfect. The pyramid blended perfectly into the landscape when ‘seen’ from far below, and it provided a perfect view of the surrounding area, a place from which to spot any threat to Argos itself. Also, I wondered if the shape was better suited to that high and no doubt lonely, windswept place in Winter.

In truth, I can’t be sure either way. Was it a tomb or monument, or was it a guardhouse? Both uses have merits.

After looking around, I turned and went in.

From the rubble strewn about, and the discolouration of the stone around the entrance, it did seem like the pyramid had been sealed at one point, otherwise, one of the corners would have been flat.

I pictured a procession of priests or warriors carrying the urns containing the remains of their fallen comrades into the pyramid beneath the peaked gallery, or a soldier finishing his shift on watch outside and heading back into the pyramid to sleep or eat while another took over outside to watch the valley.

Door frame between the gallery and main chamber of the pyramid

There was a high step at the end of the gallery, and then a door frame with grooves for hinges. I stood on this and looked down into a large square room.

This inner room of the pyramid was in good condition, and free of litter left by modern visitors. There were no stone shelves upon the cyclopean walls, just cracks and the odd, occasional circle cut into the stone. Below the door, there appeared to be a sort of broken basin or drain, but it was difficult to tell.

Standing inside the main chamber of the Hellinikon Pyramid

I stood in the middle of the room and turned around, noticing that it was much cooler and quieter inside the stone walls even though the roof is gone and it’s open to the sky.

After looking around and taking more photos, I made my way back outside to look at those wonderful walls once more and take in the view from that commanding position.

I stood there beneath the full heat of Helios’ orb in the heavens, the cicadas having reached fever pitch now, and lizards skittering away at my footfalls to hide in the shadowy cracks of rubble from the pyramid.

I had never been to a place like this before, and I doubt that I will again, for the Pyramid of Hellinikon is truly unique. True, it’s nowhere near as grand as other pyramids, but it made me feel directly linked to that ancient land and the events that had (or may have) taken place there.

As I took one last look from the wall of the pyramid to the valley, the roads disappeared far below and the air was filled with the sounds of battle, of warriors in bronze and leather, the charge of horses and cry of eagles.

You can’t help but see the past through romantic lenses in a place like this, and that’s ok. It makes it exciting.

I didn’t know if the shades of dead Argives were standing beside me then, but I do know that while at the Pyramid of Hellinikon, I did not feel alone.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the Pyramid of Hellinikon. If you ever find yourself near Argos or Nauplio, you should definitely check it out.

If you want to see the rough video clips I took on the site, I’ve put them all together below in a short YouTube video…

In the comments below, be sure to share your thoughts on this pyramid. Was it a guardhouse, a tomb or war memorial, or was it something else?

Thank you for reading!


Nunney Castle: A Somerset Fortress

On my recent journey through Devon and Somerset, I had the chance to revisit two of my favourite places – the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury Castle, and Tiverton Castle which we looked at last week.

This week I want to introduce you to a castle that is new to me – Nunney Castle in Somerset.

Unlike South Cadbury and Tiverton Castle, I had never been to Nunney Castle before. In fact, I had never heard of it until I was doing a bit of research for the trip and stumbled across a short listing in an old book of castles I have.

Somerset is not really known for its castles. Manor homes, Iron Age hill forts, and monasteries, yes, but not Medieval castles as most people imagine them to be.

That’s why I was so happy to find out about Nunney, and subsequently insert it on the itinerary after a visit to the small (smallest in England!) city of Wells where I used to work.

However, before I get into the specifics of my visit to Nunney Castle, we should, as is our habit here, look at a bit of the history of the site.

Artist reconstruction of Nunney Castle (English Heritage)

Nunney Castle was first built by the knight Sir John de la Mare (1320-1383) under a royal licence granted to him in 1373 by King Edward III.

You see, Sir John, like other knights of the time, was a veteran of the English forces fighting in France during the 100 Years War, and it was with the small fortune he had amassed there that he was able to pay for the building of Nunney Castle.

The Battle of Crecy – The Hundred Years War

He did rather well for himself, and after his service in the war, he became High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1374, High Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset in 1377, and also attained the title ‘Knight of the Shire’ in both Wiltshire and Somerset. The latter was the formal title for members of parliament representing a county in the medieval Parliament of England.

The castle that Sir John built was an ideal stronghold for serious defence, in addition to being a symbol of his power in the area.

It was built on what is called a ‘four-lobed plan’ and encircled by a moat, with machicolations and battlements running around the top. On each of the four towers, there were conical rooftops. Some believe that the design of Nunney Castle was heavily influenced by French castles which Sir John would have encountered while fighting across the Channel.

It has been pointed out that the design of Nunney is similar to that of the Bastille in Paris, particularly the machicolations.

1790 drawing of the Bastille in Paris – you can certainly spot the similarities with Nunney Castle…

After 1560, Nunney Castle passed into the hands of another family when it was bought by Richard Prater, a rich Londoner and Catholic who allowed Nunney to be used as a refuge for fellow Catholics during the Civil War.

However, as with Tiverton Castle, it was besieged and ruined by the Parliamentarians during the war.

It wasn’t until about 1926 that Nunney Castle came under state guardianship and cleared of plants and rubble.

Gazing up into one of the four massive towers of Nunney Castle

I have to admit I was extremely curious about Nunney when we set out from Wells on a sunny, windswept day in Somerset.

Nunney is about fifteen miles south of Bath, and from Wells it was a fourteen mile drive, by way of Shepton Mallet.

This was a small corner of Somerset that was unfamiliar to me. The drive was lovely, the road weaving over hills, through farm and pasture land, and around clumps of forest. With puffs of white cloud racing across the blue, sunlit sky, there was a kind of odd light as we went. It was almost too bright and colourful!

When the sat nav voice told me to take a hard left and then a hard right, we found ourselves on a narrow country road. As ever, I hoped I wouldn’t meet a tractor head-on!

We continued on through the forest-flanked lane for a mile or two until we came to a tiny village. This was Nunney.

I expected to see the castle looming over the rooftops, but I saw no such thing. I drove farther into the village until we came to Castle Street and parked. Still no sign of the castle until I got out of the car, and took a few steps to the end of the short lane.

There it was, moat and all, jutting out of the village like a stone swamp monster.

The moat at the front of the castle where the drawbridge was located, now a permanent bridge for access to the ruins

Nunney Castle really is a beautiful piece of architecture, said to be ‘the most aesthetically pleasing castle in Somerset’.

And it’s true, though there aren’t that many medieval castles in Somerset. Still, I was impressed with the apparent strength of its walls and the sheer, squat size of it. It’s also quaint, though that may be due to the fact that it’s closely bordered by private homes that come almost to the edge of the moat.

Some villages have small parks or gardens in their midst, but Nunney has a castle! What a view out of your window as you have morning coffee!

Nunney Castle’s massive towers with machicolations

My eyes were drawn immediately to the moat, the black and green water a bit of a warning to those who might get too close. You certainly wouldn’t want to fall in there!

Once you cross the bridge, on the spot where the drawbridge would have been, you are even more struck by the high walls, the curve of the four large towers, and the remains of the castle’s various levels.

Ignoring the detritus of chips and candy no doubt left by bored local teens who hang out in there, I stepped into the middle of the ruins and looked up.

Remains of the large kitchen fireplace in Nunney Castle

It was as if the castle came alive then.

The fireplaces on the side walls began to crackle, and the voices of sentries upon the battlements snaked their way down the curving stairs of the towers. Somewhere above, the residents dined where pigeons now flutter back and forth from one tower to the other.

I was glad we had the place to ourselves, and I suspect that if any of you do visit Nunney Castle (did I mentioned there is no charge for entry?), you will find the same.

It’s quite special when you have an historic site to yourself.

I enjoyed exploring it slowly, taking photos and trying to imagine what it was like in its full vigour. This was a little difficult, surrounded as it was by the sleepy village homes, structures that were not there in the castle’s heyday when Sir John was bound to protect the villagers about his keep.

Now it’s as if the villagers’ homes protect the castle, huddled close about it, keeping it secret and safe.

After exploring the interior from the ground level, I went back outside and walked around the perimeter of the walls.

It was hard to imagine the Parliamentarians bombarding the castle in such a sleepy place; it’s easy to breathe calmly at Nunney Castle now.

I suspect it was not the same for Richard Prater, his family, or the Catholics who had taken refuge within when the cannon had been turned on these pale stone walls.

In all, the short visit to Nunney Castle was a real treat and I would recommend it if you are in Somerset and looking for a quiet break away from the busier tourist destinations.

It’s worth the drive to explore this little-known site in the heart of this beautiful county.

Thank you for reading.

Plan of Nunney Castle grounds (English Heritage)


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!




The Art of Greek Ceramics – A Look at ‘Ceramotechnica Xipolias’


I have a weakness for souvenirs.

Whenever I travel, I like to purchase something that reminds me of my evanescent days abroad. I don’t mean tacky, mass-produced rubbish that wasn’t even made in the country I visited.

I like to purchase something that is made locally, by local artists, with care and attention to detail.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Greece was ancient Epidaurus, home to the magnificent theatre, and the Sanctuary of Asclepios, one of the great centres of healing in the ancient world. I’ve been to this site a few times before, and never get tired of it. More on ancient Epidaurus in a later post.

It was a scorcher of a day on the archaeological site, the cicadas whirring, the smell of pine and wild thyme in the air. After a few hours, we left the site with one more stop in mind: the ceramic workshop and store, Ceramotechnica Xipolias.

Ceramotechnica Xipolias, Ancient Epidaurus

Ceramotechnica Xipolias, Ancient Epidaurus

Now, in Greece, there are many stores that sell pottery. It’s one of the tourist staples. However, there are few places where you can see the actual workshop, and speak with the artists.

I visited the Ceramotechnica Xipolias on my first visit to Epidaurus years ago, and have returned other times. Their museum replicas are some of the best around, they are generous with their time, and they don’t pressure you to buy while browsing.


Hand-painted Geometrical Period replicas

I always look forward to stopping there and picking up a new piece…or a few. This place, to me, is like a candy shop to a child. I missed it on my last visit to Greece, so it was time to go back!

Ceramotechnica Xipolias has been run by the Xipolias family since the mid-seventies, and it is a testament to the quality of their work, and the friendliness of the people that it is still going strong.

When we pulled up in our car, it was during the afternoon lull, or siesta. The place was quiet, dark even, and I worried that we had missed the opening hours.

Ceramics for everyday use!

Ceramics for everyday use!

Luckily, the door opened and the lights flickered on to reveal rows of welcoming shelves chock-full of history. Some music came on, and out came Dimitra Xipolia, the proprietor, and one of the nicest people you’ve ever met. She greeted us warmly and invited us to look around.

So we did. I felt giddy as I walked among the rows of museum replicas of the Geometric, Minoan, and Mycenaean periods. The work was fantastic, so detailed, so accurate, and very affordable. I started making my mental list right away!


Hand-painted Minoan and Mycenaean Period replicas

After a few minutes of browsing, Dimitra invited us to see how a Pythagoras cup works. I had never heard of a Pythagoras cup before, so I was thrilled to see how it worked. Dimitra told us that apparently, Pythagoras wanted his students to have equal measures of wine in class, so he invented this cup with a sort of rise in the middle and a line around the edges.

Students were to fill their cups only to the line, and so, get equal measures. But, if a student got greedy and filled it passed the line, all of the contents would leak out a hole in the bottom of the cup and onto the floor! I’m not sure of the exact science behind it, but it was fun to witness.

A variety of Pythagoras cups!

A variety of Pythagoras cups!

After that, we spoke with Dimitra about Ceramotechnica Xipolias, and she explained that all their work is made and painted in-house, by family members, and that all the paints, clay etc. are non-toxic.

After always being so careful about avoiding toxic products, I found it shocking that these lovely mugs, cups, dishes, pitchers, and so much more, were perfectly safe for everyday use, even safe for children! In addition to being non-toxic, Dimitra explained that their work is also dishwasher and microwave safe.

Ceramics ready for painting!

Ceramics ready for painting!

Once I heard that, my mental list got bigger, not just because of the beauty and quality of the work, but also because back home, it’s very difficult to find such non-toxic quality at an affordable price.

I picked out a few pieces, including what I’m calling my ‘writer’s mug’ for coffee. I love the scenes of the ancient world that are painted on their products, as they provide me with a lot of inspiration as I work. But there are also many unique pieces on display, not just historical replicas.

One of my purchases – I love my ‘Writer’s Mug’!

After I chose a few pieces, Dimitra invited me to walk around. In the pictures that are part of this post, you can see the area where the painting is done, the massive kilns where the pottery is baked, and the potter’s wheel where the clay is shaped into numerous designs reminiscent of the ancient world.

Where the ceramics are painted.

Where the ceramics are painted.

Our time at Ceramotechnica Xipolias was not just about picking up a few souvenirs. It was about learning and appreciating art and ancient ceramic making techniques. Our visit was about tradition, and with such a warm welcome, it also felt like a visit with friends.

I’m glad to say that all of our pieces made it back home without a crack, thanks to Dimitra’s expert wrapping.

The kilns - ovens where the ceramics are baked

The kilns – ovens where the ceramics are baked

When we have people over now, these works of art are also centrepieces of conversation. Our friends ask about the fantastic olive dish we have on the table, or the mythological scenes on our new cups. And that’s when I talk about the people who made them.

A potter's wheel

A potter’s wheel

In this age of mass produced-everything, it’s refreshing to hold a product that is handmade with precision, care, and artistry. It’s also of utmost importance these days to support local artists and industry, in Greece and around the world.

I asked Dimitra if they ship around the world, and they do, with a guarantee that if something breaks in transit, they’ll replace it. With the holiday season around the corner, perhaps this is something to consider when shopping for your favourite history-lover or philhellene.


You can check out Ceramotechnica Xipolias’ work on Etsy, Facebook, and on their website at On the website there are just a few examples of the fine work they do. As you can see in my photos, they have a lot more on offer. If you place an enquiry via the ‘Contact Us’ tab to let them know what you are looking for, I’m sure they’ll be more than willing to accommodate.

Giassou for now!

Thank you for reading.


End of a Summer Odyssey


Greetings readers and fellow history-lovers.

Well, I’m back from my adventures across the sea, and I had an amazing, blessed time.

I tried to keep you all up-to-date via the Instagram feed, but my Peloponnesian connectivity was a bit dodgy.

Needless to say, I’ve got a tonne of pictures and some video which I’ll be sharing with you over the coming months.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus

I didn’t get to all the sites I wanted to see, but I did manage to visit the ancient theatre and agora of Argos, which I’ve wanted to see for years. I also made return visits to the theatre of Epidaurus, as well as the Sanctuary of Asclepios there. In Athens, I made a return visit to the Acropolis, and the new museum which was amazing.

Feeling good after lunch by the sea

Feeling good after lunch by the sea

Normally, I would have taken in many more sites, but this trip was more about family and friends for me. That said, just driving across the landscape in Greece, or swimming in the turquoise sea, is not only inspiring, it’s also a form of research. This ancient landscape, especially in the Peloponnese, remains relatively unchanged, from the incredible light and colour, to the flocks of goats and sheep bounding up mountainsides, to the whirring of cicadas in the dry, pine-scented heat. You step back in time in rural Greece.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, as seen from the Acropolis

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, as seen from the Acropolis


I’ll share my experiences of the sites and more with you in future blog posts.

As for the book I had planned on finishing, well… let’s just say that the goal I had set myself was unrealistic. I managed to finish about a third of Heart of Fire, and I’m happy with that. Here’s why:

For the first half of the trip, I was getting up at about 7 am every morning to write outside for a couple of hours, but, as the ‘schedule’ began to fill with visits from dear friends and family I hadn’t seen in a long time, it became harder to squeeze in the writing time. Worse, I began to stress about getting that writing time!

Theatre and agora of ancient Argos

Theatre and agora of ancient Argos

That’s when I had an epiphany.

I realized that my vacation was slipping by, and that I was wasting my precious time worrying and not relaxing. After all, isn’t that what vacations are for?

I also remembered that, in the past, I wasn’t trying to squeeze in writing while on vacation. I was always absorbing the history, the sights, the smells, and the feel of the world around me.

The Wine-Dark Sea

The Wine-Dark Sea

The writing was always something that came afterward, when I was missing the places I had been to, reviewing my mental tapes of the entire odyssey. I forgot that I would have an acute case of the ‘Aegean Blues’ after my trip, and that this would be something I could use well after the fact.

So, about half-way through my trip, I stopped worrying and began to absorb and enjoy much more. I wrote when I could, but I just let it go if the day was not conducive to it – plenty of time to write afterward.

Detail of the Erectheion on the Acropolis of Athens

Detail of the Erectheion on the Acropolis of Athens

I’m happy with what I’ve written of Heart of Fire so far, though as often happens when writing historical fiction, there are a few research gaps I need to fill in. That’s fine, as it keeps me immersed in the period.

This was a wonderful holiday and it reminded me what a lovely country Greece is, the land, the sea, the history, the people. I miss it already, and I can’t wait to go back.

DSC_0608 (1)

Sunset in the Olive Grove

I’m struggling now, back in my cubicle. Honestly, who wouldn’t? But I’m writing full speed ahead.

On Friday, I finished the first draft of an Eagles and Dragons series prequel novel which I have kept secret till now (more on that to come!). It’s called A Dragon among the Eagles.

Now, I’m going to stay put in the year 396 B.C. and Heart of Fire, until the story is completed.

DSC_0169 (1)

That’s the update for now.

Thanks for following along, and thank you for reading!


It’s Time for Research, Writing, and History!

I’m going on vacation for the next few weeks, but you can see my daily posts here:

I’ll be taking a pause from the blog until mid-September, but I won’t be off the radar.

I’ve set myself a challenge.

As part of my vacation abroad (you’ll have to follow the Instagram photo stream above to see where I am!), I’m hoping to write a full, first draft of my next book, tentatively titled Heart of Fire.

I may be mad, but I’ve got the research done, and the story outlined. So, we’ll see. If the Muses are with me, I may feel the olive crown resting lightly on my brow. If not, well, it will have been a good experiment.

But I’m determined to get this done, and I’d like you to all follow the journey via the pictures above. If you’re on Facebook, you can ‘Like’ the Eagles and Dragons Facebook page too, since the photos will be flowing directly to that (as well as Twitter) from Instagram.

I just hope I have connectivity where I’m going! What I do know is that there will be history, and beauty, and all the things that inspire a good story.

I’ll try to post a daily picture of a site, an inspiring view, a writing spot and more. I’m also going to try and get some video footage which I’ll be using in the coming months.

I can’t wait to share the adventure with you, and get stuck into the magnificent story I’ve got banging around in my head.

So, stay tuned, and enjoy the rest of your summer.

Cheers, and thank you for reading!


Roaming the Past – Documentaries to Fire Your Passion for History

January at the Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

January at the Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

I don’t know about you, but in this post-holiday time of the year I’m feeling a bit down.

This past week, like many I suspect, I went back to my small square-of-a-cubicle at my day job to get on with ‘regular work’.

That’s always tough, and, despite hitting the weights, yoga, meditation, going to see the new Hobbit movie, and all other manner of uplifting activities, fighting those back-to-work doldrums can make you feel like a lone centurion facing down a Parthian cavalry charge.

But, as ever, there is hope and enlightenment to be found in history.

One thing that I’ve always found is that getting lost in your favourite period of history can wipe out the New Year blues and make you feel like you have some reinforcements at your back.

One way in which I do this is to watch ancient and medieval history documentaries. The combination of knowledge, travel log, archaeological discovery, and ancient innovation always fills a void and reignites my passion for history. And the human stories behind the history never fail to make that Parthian cavalry charge feel smaller and more manageable.

Today I wanted to share with you some of my very favourite documentary series to help temper your own version of cubicle-itis, and get you through the next few weeks as we step into the jaws of Winter (at least in the northern hemisphere).

As with all of these shows, much hangs on the presenter.

Remember, we’re dealing with history here, and most people don’t have very fond memories of their school history classes. Documentaries are dynamic school rooms and it all hangs on the teacher/presenter.

I can’t stand it when a television presenter is overly academic, snooty, blustery, or arrogant. The show should always be about the subject matter, not the host’s ego.

And so, the following shows are on my list not only because of the fascinating topics, but also for the quality of the hosts, their respect and passion for the subject matter.

Michael Wood

Michael Wood

Michael Wood

For me, Michael Wood has presented some of the most fascinating documentary series since the late 70s. His In Search of series covers everything from the Myths and Heroes, to the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxon England, and Shakespeare. However, the most fascinating of this series, for me, and for many archaeologists I know, is the six-part In Search of the Trojan War.

Click here for the direct link.

I highly recommend this series. It’s not just about the Trojan War itself, but the Bronze Age in general. You’ll even learn about the Trojans, the Greeks, and the Hittites!

My absolute favourite Michael Wood documentary, however, is his magnificent series entitled In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.

In this three-part series, we journey with Michael along the entire route taken by Alexander’s army all the way from Macedon and Greece, to Tyre and Egypt, through war zones controlled by the Taliban to the Hindu Kush on into India and back. There are times when Wood was in danger too, but he is intrepid and curious, and you really get a feel for what the journey might have been like, visiting landscapes which few people will ever see in person.

At the time of filming, Wood was unable to visit the battlefield of Gaugamela, but after the second Iraq war, he returned to the area to film a follow-up documentary called Alexander’s Greatest Battle which is also well worth a look.

If you watch any of these videos, and have an interest in Alexander the Great, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is the one I recommend you watch. Here is the long trailer for it:

Click here for the direct link.

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Next up we have another British historian and broadcaster whose list of documentary credits is just as astounding as Michael Wood’s, perhaps even more varied.

Bettany Hughes has done documentaries on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and she’s looked at Helen of Troy and Nefertiti, Atlantis, ancient engineering, Democracy, and sex in the ancient world.

She has that passion that is so essential to teaching history, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the past. In fact, she gets down to the nitty-gritty, dirty details, and can tear down with style the romantic images that cloud our view of the past; her documentary Athens: The Dawn of Democracy is one such show.

Bettany seems to have a truly adventurous spirit too, which is great. Just recently she was tweeting out from modern Georgia and the land of Medea and the Golden Fleece where she was shooting for a new show.

My favourite documentary series that I have seen thus far from Bettany is The Spartans. This three-part series provides a fantastic look at the nature of Spartan society, its past glories, and its downfall. You’ll definitely want to see this one!

Click here for the direct link.

Adam Hart Davis

Adam Hart Davis

Adam Hart Davis

Our next presenter is probably the jolliest character of the group. He is a scientist, a historian, a broadcaster, and much much more. If you look at the range of his work, you’ll see that he covers a wide range of topics besides history.

The reason I’ve put Adam Hard Davis on this list is because his BBC series, What the Romans did for Us, is the most interesting documentary series I’ve ever seen that looks at the practical side of the Roman world.

In this series, Adam shows us numerous inventions and innovations to come out of the Empire. And the cool thing is that these are all things that we still use in some way, shape or form today.

Did you know that a Roman invented the hamburger? Or that the Romans had invented a fire engine? There are all sorts of wonderful surprises in this fantastic series, hosted by a man who loves what he does and has a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm that is truly contagious. You’ve got to watch this!

Click here for the direct link.

John Romer

John Romer

John Romer

Our next documentarian is British Egyptologist, historian, and author, John Romer.

He has done several shows on the ancient world, but the one that introduced me to him remains, for me, his very best.

Watching Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is a wonder-full journey to these magnificent sites that have captivated the human imagination for ages.

Romer does not give us the usual academic tour of these ancient tourist attractions. Rather he gets up close and personal with the ruins, the landscape, and the people who lived in those places. He mesmerizes the viewer with his poetic admiration of everything about these places.

In this series, Romer looks at the hidden corners surrounding the Seven Wonders. He’ll admire the grand design and architecture, but also the fine details of a hidden relief that decorates a forgotten piece of history.

Some people might think of Romer as melodramatic, but I think he is more passionate than anything. He loves ancient culture, history, and the people who created these timeless monuments.

Click here for the direct link.

Michael Scott

Michael Scott

Michael Scott

This next presenter is relatively new to the history documentary scene compared with those I have mentioned above, but when I first saw one of his shows, I knew he would be an ancient history documentarian who would get a whole new generation of students interested in history.

Michael Scott’s style is cool and interested. He is very knowledgeable, and has great passion for the subject matter he is talking about. Definitely not your typical, dry academic!

His most recent series is called Roman Britain from the Air, which began airing last month. I haven’t seen that yet, but I’m looking forward to checking it out.

Most of his documentaries are about ancient Greece, however, and the one that I wanted to mention here is his three-part series Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth.

This show was a bit of an eye opener for me. Not having studied ancient Greek theatre, it came as something of a surprise that ancient Greek drama was so closely linked to the birth of Democracy, and that it played such an essential, pivotal role in ancient Greek society.

If you want to learn a lot about ancient Greece, in a fascinating and entertaining way, you should definitely watch Michael Scott’s series. After watching this, you’ll want to get yourself on a plane to Greece as soon as you can!

Click here for the direct link.

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

Wait! Richard Harris, the actor? Yes.

My last entry here is not an academic or historian, but he sure was an entertainer, and sometimes larger than life.

One of my primary refuges from the madness of the world is the Arthurian realm, and so I could not offer up this list of blues-chasing documentaries without mentioning my favourite Arthurian documentary.

Many of you may have seen Richard Harris in the first couple of Harry Potter movies as Professor Albus Dumbledore. Personally, I liked him as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator, and King Richard the Lionheart in the movie Robin and Marian. Actually, Richard Harris rarely ever disappointed in any of his film roles over the years of his magnificent career, including as King Arthur in the film version of the musical Camelot.

The latter was the reason he was chosen to host this single documentary on Britain’s most famous hero.

Arthur: King of the Britons came out not long before Richard Harris’ death in 2002. This is a wonderful documentary of this myth, history and archaeological discoveries surrounding the person of Arthur.

Rather than seeking to tear down or dismiss the theories about an historical Arthur, this documentary looks at the real possibilities and evidence for the existence of Arthur. This is not about late medieval knights in shining armour.

This documentary is about the search for the person who may have been the historical Arthur, the Romano-British warlord who held off the Saxons for a brief time in the early sixth century A.D.

What I love about this documentary are the visits to Tintagel Castle, and South Cadbury Castle, as well as the digital recreations of these and other sites. It gives a magnificent perspective of them, and the latest research at the time.

If you missed my post on South Cadbury Castle, click HERE to check it out.

As I mentioned in that post, I had been working as an archaeologist on the dig there, which happened to be during the time of the filming of Arthur: King of the Britons!

Unfortunately (well, sort of unfortunately), I was in Greece when the film crew and Richard Harris showed up at the site. So, I missed meeting the great actor himself – and my dig mates made sure to tell me! However, you can see my dig director, Richard Tabor, on the video, which is pretty cool.

Richard Harris is legend, and so what better actor than one who has played Arthur, to present this documentary. He is cool, captivating, and powerful as he tries to unravel the mythical Arthur, and bring us face-to-face with the Arthur of history.

Click here for the direct link.


So there you have it, a selection of magnificent history documentaries, presented by engaging and knowledgeable hosts, to get you through the winter months.

Let us know in the comments if you do watch some, and which ones you enjoy.

Also, if you have any of your favourite documentaries or hosts you would like to share with everyone here, please do tell us in the comments.

Cheers and thank you for reading!


The World of Children of Apollo – Part II – Roman North Africa

Temple of Peace  Thurburbo Majus

Temple of Peace
Thurburbo Maius

In this second instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we are going to take a brief tour of some of the settlements of Roman North Africa.

When I say ‘Roman’ I mean located within the Roman Empire, such as it was at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., when Children of Apollo takes place. In actuality, most of the ‘Roman’ settlements in North Africa were either of Phoenician or Greek origin, with the exception perhaps of the legionary base at Lambaesis and the nearby colonia of Thamugadi, the latter established for veterans of the III Augustan Legion.

Severan Basilica Leptis Magna

Severan Basilica
Leptis Magna

The southern Mediterranean coast was dotted with rich trading cities, settlements such as Apollonia, Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha and the once proud Punic capital of Carthage. Then there were the inland settlements of Thysdrus, Thugga, Thurburbo Maius and others. Where Egypt had long been the grain basket of Rome, the rise and wealth of these other settlements made them the new cornucopia of Empire. They were the leading producers of grain, oil, olives and garum (a highly popular fish sauce). The fact that Septimius Severus and his kinsman, the Praetorian Prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, were from Leptis Magna ensured that the city and the region received imperial favour and capital investment.

The Forum of Sabratha

The Forum of Sabratha

Children of Apollo begins in the desert of Cyrenaica province, near settlements of Apollonia and the splendid city of Cyrene, both across the water from Crete. I was not able to travel to these two sites in modern Libya, but from my research they seem splendidly sited in the fertile lands near the Mediterranean. Apollonia served as a port for Cyrene which was surrounded by olive groves and fields of wheat and barley. Cyrene itself rivalled Carthage in size and prosperity.

Arch of Trajan Colonia of Thamugadi, Numidia

Arch of Trajan
Colonia of Thamugadi, Numidia

Moving west, one comes to the great city of Leptis Magna, the home town of Emperor Septimius Severus. Lucius does not visit this city in Children of Apollo, but rather in the next book, Killing the Hydra.

Leptis Magna garnered much wealth from its fertile lands with cereal crops and olives. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian had building projects there, but under Severus the city received much favour with a large new forum, a colonnaded street, a unique four-sided triumphal arch, a basilica, added warehouses and a lighthouse. Our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis, gets his first real taste of politics in the town of Sabratha where he must make a very difficult decision that impacts later perceptions of himself.

Amphitheater of Thysdrus

Amphitheater of Thysdrus

When it comes to Tunisia, there are several Roman settlements. Lucius and his men end up attached to the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis, on the rocky, Numidian plain of what is now Algeria. A unique feature of the base was its massive, enclosed parade ground which featured a viewing platform with an equestrian statue of Emperor Hadrian in the centre, a commemoration of that emperor’s visit to the base. Lucius meets up with some old friends at the colonia of Thamugadi which was founded by Trajan and featured high walls, a library and fourteen public baths.

Cells beneath the Amphitheater floor Thysdrus ('El Jem')

Cells beneath the Amphitheater floor
Thysdrus (‘El Jem’)

In northern Tunisia, we traded our 4×4 for an aged Toyota minibus driven by a silent but mad driver we affectionately dubbed ‘Sebulba’. His driving was like pod racing in Star Wars and our ‘Sebulba’ seemed just as reckless, his chosen vehicle eating up the road with a very loud chug-chugging sound. We passed through many different villages along the way, the most disturbing one being the ‘village of butchers’, so called by us for all the cow and goat heads that hung bleeding along the very side of the road, glossy eyed and lifeless.

One of the most interesting sites I visited during our Tunisian safari was Roman Thysdrus (modern El Jem). This settlement today is pretty unassuming except for the massive, extremely well-preserved amphitheatre in the centre. It was a real treat to sit in the seats of the amphitheatre, looking down on the scene of an imagined combat. I could not visit this site and not include a tense scene of gladiatorial combat, as seen by the legionaries on leave. Walking beneath the floor, along the cells where the animals and gladiators were kept, the sounds of those bygone days of barbarism and brutality echoed in my ears. The place definitely has memory. If you ever get the chance to visit El Jem, I would highly recommend it. It must have held some spectacular games in its day.

Roman Thugga

Roman Thugga

Another settlement that bears mentioning here, though it figures more largely in Book II of the Eagles and Dragons series, is Thugga. This is a sprawling settlement surrounded by olive groves and green plains. It featured a large theatre, a massive capitol, public baths, a hippodrome and a network of paved streets that you can still walk today. This was a place where I could see my characters walking, and interacting with others. It was helped by the fact that we were the only group there the entire time. It was deserted, a Roman ghost town. The mosaics that decorated homes, baths, taverns and brothels are still there, intact and open to the sky.

The public latrine is there too, where men and women feeling nature’s call would sit cheek to cheek, literally. I wonder what odd bits of conversation happened there? Would Romans sit there and chat away while they did their business or would they stare at the ground and try not to make eye contact as they made offerings to the Roman infrastructure. Maybe the public latrine was just a place to be avoided, a place where one entered at one’s own risk for fear of robbery or worse. It was just down the street from the brothel (named ‘The House of the Cyclops’), so perhaps those patrons were regular users. The imagination ran wild in Thugga!

Public Latrine Thugga

Public Latrine

The final city we visited was Tunis, the ancient city of Carthage. Sadly, there was no sign of Dido, Aeneas, Hamilcar or Hannibal. When Rome razed Carthage to the ground after the Punic wars and salted its once-fertile earth, they built anew. And today, much of Tunis covers what the Romans built. There are however, some bits that are well worth the visit. One particular spot is the massive Antonine Bath complex which overlooks the sea. This was a quiet, sad site, surrounded by city, but it was still possible to glimpse the grandeur that it once exposited. Sadly, I was not able to see the great double harbour of ancient Carthage.

If you happen to be in Tunis, a must see is the Bardo Museum which contains much of the mosaics and statuary from all of the settlements of that part of the Roman Empire. This is a world class collection with some of the finest mosaics I have ever seen. It was there that the faces of Septimius Severus, Plautianus, Julia Domna and others stared back at me.

Antonine Baths Carthage (modern Tunis)

Antonine Baths
Carthage (modern Tunis)

Leaving Tunisia behind was bitter sweet for I knew that it may be a long while before I would be able to visit such ancient sites on a truly intimate basis again. Haggling in French in the bazaars was fun, as was the experience of seeing camel traders dressed in cloaks that looked a lot like Jawa outfits. I could have done without the bout of fever brought on by my poor choice of soup in Douz, but eating dates from a branch right off the tree was great. Such are the contrasts of travelling, but it all adds to the experiences required by research and writing.

In the next part of The World of Children of Apollo, we will meet the imperial family of the time, the Severans.

As ever, I look forward to your thoughts, questions and comments below!

Thank you for reading.