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Of mice, men and the Iron Age

March 15, 2008

Husband and I tackled yesterday’s minor domestic crisis with our usual weapon: a good argument. The only points we could agree on were, a) there probably was a mouse behind the television, and b) we didn’t want to give it back to the cat.

Husband finally conceded that we weren’t going to catch it with a stick and a biscuit tin. ‘Go and buy a trap,’ he suggested. ‘Don’t waste hours trying to rig something up. You’re supposed to be writing.’ (Husband is very keen to encourage writing, in the fond hope that it will one day make him rich enough to retire. I have explained that Roman medics don’t have the same wide appeal as boy wizards, but he remains hopeful.)

There is a shop just down the road that sells everything. No doubt they have humane mousetraps. But researching the Ruso books has left me faintly ashamed of my twenty-first century helplessness. We carry the genes of ancestors who were brave, ingenious and resourceful, and who couldn’t just nip out to the shops. So in honour of the spirit of the Iron Age, I turned to Google for advice.

Result, ten minutes later: husband gone to work, humane mousetrap set, me diligently writing. (Well, two of those are true.)

Ten hours later: husband back from work, interrupts diligent writing with the three little words that have sustained our marriage over many years – ‘You were right!’

Bewildered but lively mouse is returned to the far end of the garden, untouched by cat or human hand. Steve Smith, designer of the do-it-yourself humane mousetrap, I salute you. And now I really must get on with the diligent writing…

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5 comments

  1. omg.. good work, man


  2. Well I made my contribution to the Downie retirement fund — and it was money well spent. I finished “Terra Incognita” a few weeks ago. Please keep up the writing! I can’t wait to find out what happens to Ruso and Tilla next.

    I’m curious about what role religion played in the lives of Romans. I noticed that you’ve mentioned Tilla’s beliefs in the last book, but I don’t recall reading anything about Ruso’s.

    I’ve often wondered what it was like for early Christians to live in a largely pagan world though. If you stumble across anything during your research trips, please drop me a line. It’ll keep me busy while I wait for Ruso and Tilla’s next adventure. :-)


  3. Hi Mark,

    Husband says thanks for the contribution to the retirement fund! Glad you enjoyed ‘Terra Incognita’ and it’s strange you should ask that about the Christians. It’s something I’ve wondered myself, which is why there will be a few popping up in the next book.

    Most of what I know about Roman religion comes from the excellent ‘Religions of Rome’ (by Mary Beard, John North & Simon Price) so what’s below is subject to the usual caveat about errors being mine, not theirs…

    As far as I can gather, official religious practices in the Roman Empire were very much tied up with the preservation and welfare of the State and the Emperor, which is why it was important that the correct rituals and sacrifices were carried out, and why the refusal of Christians to join in was so annoying. However, individual piety doesn’t seem to have been required – in fact too much religious zeal could be seen as a Bad Thing, bordering on superstition (which was another Bad Thing), and the sort of weakness to which women were particularly prone.

    The average Roman’s relationship with his/her gods seems to have resembled a business deal with a powerful and capricious partner who might grant favours and protection if offered a suitably pleasing gift. (Writing this, similarities with the Mafia come to mind.) Of course there were plenty of more enthusiastic cults around, the acceptability of which varied over the years, and even the Christians weren’t always being burned alive or fed to the lions. In the period I’m interested in (Trajan, Hadrian) the official line seems to have been that they were best ignored if not actively causing trouble.

    I think Ruso’s take on all of this is that he doesn’t want to think about it too much. He’s aware that much religious practice won’t stand up to scrutiny – but the alternatives (chaos, mad Druids) are worse. He’s also aware that some of his patients have been healed in ways he can’t explain. (There are records of miraculous healings by Greek/Roman gods as well the Judaeo/Christian one.)

    As for what it was like to be a Christian in a pagan society… hm, that’s a subject where one’s imagination might expand well beyond the evidence and also be coloured by one’s own 21st century views. Obviously the level of bravery required would depend on the current imperial policy. However, ‘Religions of Rome’ does make the interesting observation that, ‘It was only Christians (and Jews) who practised charity towards their own members (the poor, widows, prisoners).’ (p.288 )

    If you can track down a copy, the main book has a vast bibliography and the companion sourcebook includes, amongst other goodies, the official account of a raid on a church where the Christians hand over the silver but are arrested for refusing to give away the names of the people who are looking after their sacred texts. It’s all fascinating stuff if you have the time…

    I’ve just ordered Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Pagans and Christians’ which I fear will be another 800 pages of glorious distraction from getting on with Book Three.

    Oh dear, this has turned into an essay. I bet you’re sorry you asked now!


  4. Hi Ruth,
    Thanks very much for the book recommendations. It looks like my library as “Pagans and Christians” so I think I’ll start with that one.

    The integration of politics and religion in Roman times would definitely cause them to see Christianity as a threat to the power structure. I’m listening to Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (courtesy of LibriVox.org), and getting a sense of his perspective on the whole thing.

    I read somewhere that Romans also blamed Christianity for a breakdown in family cohesion. There were apparently many cases of wives leaving husbands, son’s being disinherited, etc. after having “run off to join that strange Jewish cult”. I don’t remember if it was Pliny, or Tertullian, or just something I read in passing.

    My wife and I went to the Museum of London several years ago and saw some really interesting Roman exhibits there. And seeing references to Mithraism and Christianity started me wondering about what the lives of these Roman immigrants were like in the wilds of Britain.

    Secret religions! Threats to State and family. I’m sure there’s a murder mystery in there somewhere!

    One thing I’ve always wondered is, what does Ruso look like? When you write about him, do you have some actor in mind that you use as a model? I know that when Dan Brown wrote “The Da Vinci Code” he had Harrison Ford in mind — I think he was a bit disappointed when the movie came out.


  5. Hi Mark,

    Sorry for the delayed reply: I’ve been away from the desk. Yes, the Mary Beard book mentions something about family breakup too – with Christianity being thought to undermine the authority of the head of the household. Maybe that’s the background to St Paul’s exhortation to wives to obey their husbands.

    The Museum of London is great, isn’t it? I really like the way they’ve set up the displays with the ‘Roman Street,’ etc. If you’re ever over this way you would probably enjoy the Verulamium Museum at St Albans, too.

    As for what Ruso looks like… ah, there you have me. The truth is, I don’t have a specific face in mind (my agent fancies that he’s George Clooney, but I suspect she has George Clooney in mind for everything). I do however have a facial expression, which happens to reside on the face of British actor Robert Bathurst in a photo I have pinned by the desk – a sort of exasperated resignation.



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