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Meanwhile…

October 17, 2013

WhCover of The Secrets of Life and Deathile I’m busy talking, two friends will be sending their new books out into the world this month. Good luck to Rebecca Alexander, whose debut THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH has just been launched by Del Rey. My copy hasn’t arrived yet but I’ve read some of the early chapters of the book that Rebecca’s working on at the moment, and they’re gripping.

Cover of Perfiditas

Alison Morton’s PERFIDITAS comes out today – the sequel to INCEPTIO. What would have happened if Rome had never fallen? Well, Latin homework would have been a whole lot easier. And we’d never have heard of Edward Gibbon. But that’s my take on it, not Alison’s. Hers is far more creative. Find out more – including what Simon Scarrow and Sue Cook say about PERFIDITAS – here.

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Events, dear boy,* events

October 12, 2013

[*or girl - Ed.]

For those of us who sit hunched over a computer all day, a chance to get out and meet real people is very exciting. I’ll be taking part in  several events over the next few weeks so if you’re able to join us, please come and say hello.

16 October – 7.00 pm at Barton Library (Barton le Clay, Bedfordshire) “Writing the Romans” with Henry Venmore-Rowland. Henry is the author of “The Last Caesar” and “The Sword and the Throne,” bringing to life the tumultuous events of AD 69 when Rome had four emperors in one year.

17 October – 7.00 pm at Putnoe Library, Bedfordshire – Crime Through Time. I’ll be discussing the appeal of the Romans and the Tudors with Rory Clements, author of the John Shakespeare series (yes, John is the brother of the more famous William, and a great character in his own right).

November

1 November, 7.00 pm – “Leeches and Prayer – the Medicine of the Past” part of the Thames Valley History Festival.   Join me and Karen Maitland, author of the superb “Company of Liars”, at the Natural History Museum in Eton College – a venue where we are promised real leeches.

2 NovemberHeffers Classics Festival – in association with Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Such an honour to be invited! (When you see the lineup you’ll understand what I mean.) I’ll be talking about “Stories in Stones” – the tales that have slipped down the gaps of history. That will be the (relatively) easy part. I’ve also agreed to speak for Dido in a balloon debate about who was the greatest character in Classical Mythology. I’m still wondering why I said ‘yes’ to this. Unlike everyone else on the panel, I’m neither a classicist nor an Oxbridge graduate. Surely poor Dido has suffered enough? Details and tickets here.

Also in November – an eager horde from the Historical Writers’ Association will be descending on libraries to help celebrate  The Reading Agency ‘s History Month. Here’s my part in it:

7 NovemberUPDATE – the  afternoon visit to Honiton Library in Devon is now CANCELLED – sorry! But I will be doing the following visits the week after…

12 November – an evening at Calne Library with Ben Kane. Ben’s a very entertaining speaker so it should be good!

13 November – on a panel at the beautiful Bristol Central Library with the Vikings, two 19th century women, and the British Special Forces. Or at least their representatives – Robert Low, Kylie Fitzpatrick and Mike Williams.

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The un-stately home

September 27, 2013

Not a trip into ancient history this time, but a visit to the relatively modern  Calke Abbey, It isn’t really an abbey but a house, built in 1704.

Front view of Calke Abbey stately home

The outside is deceptive. Unlike many properties in the care of the National Trust, this one has been left pretty much the way they found it in the 1980′s. Which in some places was splendid…

Room crammed with gold-framed paintings and elegant furniture

While in others…

Room with spartan furnishings and damp peeling wallpaper

The owners of the house were great collectors, and there are rooms full of things in glass cases that I’m certain didn’t want to be collected, or indeed shot in the first place. Below: this brings a whole new level of meaning to “go and tidy your bedroom!” (There is a bed under there. Honestly.)

Iron frame bed barely visible under junk including stuffed stag heads and antlers

As Dolly Parton famously remarked, “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to look this cheap.” The decay on display has been painstakingly and expensively halted in its tracks so that,  as the website explains, “With peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate.” I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the result far more interesting than the usual stately-home displays of ancestral portraits and china.

The estate was owned by one family but in its heyday would have required armies of staff to maintain it. Back stairs and tunnels were provided so that the place wasn’t cluttered up with servants going about their business. This one, leading to the brewing house, must have been a daunting prospect before the arrival of electricity in 1962 (no, that is not a typo. 1962).

Long dimly-lit brick tunnel

Staff tunnels aren’t a new concept – they’re still discovering new tunnels under Hadrian’s splendid villa at Tivoli.

But while Hadrian famously never forgot a face, Calke’s servants were so invisible to one of their masters that it’s said he was unable to recognise any of them. When, in the occasional fit of rage, he would fire one of them, the offender would merely scuttle off down the back stairs and return to work, leaving the master none the wiser and still with a full complement of staff.

I’d thoroughly recommend Calke Abbey for a day out, but if geography prevents, there’s a splendid virtual tour here.

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Ham Hill

September 17, 2013

To my shame, I knew next to nothing about Ham Hill until it appeared on the news a couple of weeks ago.  Turns out it’s by far the biggest Hill Fort in the country, and it’s day-trip distance from our house.  So last week, prompted by this link sent by a couple of kind readers, I abandoned the desk and headed over there to catch the site tour on the final day of the dig.

For proper pictures and text written by people who know what they’re talking about, I recommend the official website… but these are the photos that came back to Downie Towers last Thursday.   There is no ‘establishing shot’ of the hill because it’s too big – the ramparts are almost three miles long – but here’s one of the main digging area. The circle is the ‘drip channel’ for rainwater around an Iron Age round house.

Wide shot of cleared excavation area

Iron Age burial practices remain a mystery: it seems our ancestors’ bodies were often moved about after death – or rather, parts of them were. Although there was no mention of the ‘mass slaughter’ reported in the press (maybe that was elsewhere on the hill?), the site has no shortage of skeletons and a couple more skulls were found in a boundary ditch  (near the mechanical digger in the photo) not long before we arrived. There seemed to be very little attached to them in the way of bodies. Here’s one of them being carefully excavated:

Excavating a skull

As the old joke goes, “A large hole has appeared in the ground.  Police are looking into it”. Or in this case, visitors, who are learning that these pits were probably created for grain storage. I’ve heard of these things but never seen one before. It’s said that if you fill it with grain and seal the top with clay, the grain on the outside sprouts in the damp and the carbon dioxide thus produced preserves the grain in the middle.

That’s the theory, but by the time the archaeologists got to the pits on this site the grain was long gone: they had been back-filled with earth in antiquity and had odd items in them that appeared to be offerings. Two contained curled-up skeletons of young women.

As I said, Iron Age burial practices are a mystery.

Grain storage pit

Ham Hill has been inhabited for thousands of years, and this beautiful flint arrowhead would have been ancient even in the Iron Age.

Flint arrowhead

Modern archaeology involves a lot of paperwork. Below: another day at the office.

Digger sitting in wheelbarrow

The site is being excavated because it will soon vanish into this…

Deep quarry with heavy duty yellow truck looking very small

…which might seem a shame, but they need the Ham stone for repairing ancient buildings – presumably, ones like this in the nearby village…

Old stone house in nearby village

…so it’s all in a good cause.

Many thanks to the Ham Hill excavators for a fascinating tour, and here’s the link to the ‘proper’ website again, where you can find out lots more.

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And the winner is…

August 21, 2013

Thank you to everyone who took time to read the Blog Hop post, and especially to people who joined in and kept me entertained with some great comments and questions.

Congratulations to Russ, whose name was first out of the ‘hat’ to win a copy of the Ruso book of his choice. Russ, my email may be stuck in your spam filter, so please get in touch.

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Welcome…

August 15, 2013

…and thank you for visiting.

I’m the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso. His latest adventure, SEMPER FIDELIS is now available in ebook and print, and there’s also an audiobook, read by Simon Vance.

So, what’s it about?

Ruso, back with the 20th Legion, is doing his best to avoid all the hullaballoo surrounding the visit of the Emperor Hadrian and his unimpressed Empress, Sabina.  He slips away to the underused fortress of Eboracum (modern York), only to find that things are going seriously wrong there for the Legion’s British recruits. It’s not long before he and Tilla realise they’ve picked a dangerous place to hide.

To find out more about the books – including why the early stories all have two titles – click here. Events are listed on this page, but if we can’t meet in person, you can always contact me here. This is where you can find out that an author’s life is not as exciting as that of her characters, and below are the latest musings on the blog.

Want to hear a different voice? Meet my guests,  Vicki León , Sarah Bower,   Jane Finnis and Caroline Davies, or follow the links at the foot of the August 2013 Blog Hop article to see what fascinates other authors about the Romans.

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First, drown your ape.

August 15, 2013

Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).

As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.

There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions.  His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.

Trephined skull

Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.

I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.

(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)

The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.

At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)

Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.

Photo of Roman re-enactor in bloodstained tunic explaining medical instruments

He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?

The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with.  Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.

I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.

Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –

Reproduction cataract needle

A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.

I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)

And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:

A pair of collarbones, one broken and mended

According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.

The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles -

Photo of badly mended broken bone

Should have gone to Galen?

Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.

Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.

Photo of clay model of foot

A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.

In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding,  “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.

Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:

  • Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
  • Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
  • Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
  • Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
  • Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
  • Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.

To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them,  do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!

Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.

Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here  by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

M C (Manda) Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S J A Turney

John Henry Clay

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