A few months back, I was chatting at supper to my partner’s old friend Hugo, a painter of gorgeous romantic canvases much in demand among New York collectors. He was telling me that when one of his paintings is sold, he has to resign himself to never knowing its fate and never seeing it again, as he rarely knows who the buyer is or gets the chance to look at the picture hanging on its destined wall. I reflected that as a writer, although there is that sense of letting go and waiting anxiously as the vulnerable bundle of words you’ve been gestating for the last year or two is cast out to fend for itself, at least I don’t actually have to say goodbye to it. Every time I go into a bookshop, I can’t help sneaking a surreptitious peek at their Ancient History shelf to see if they have a copy of my first book, The First Ladies of Rome. Whenever I find it, I give a little yelp of triumph and it’s all I can do to stop myself taking it off the shelf, waving it at whichever unsuspecting customer is standing next to me and declaring, ‘LOOK! This is ME!’
Now, or at least in a few months time, I shall be able to extend the hunt to the fiction section of my local branch of Waterstones. Much to my ill-concealed delight, my first novel, Rivals of the Republic – a historical crime mystery starring Hortensia, daughter of ancient Rome’s most famous lawyer - is being published under the aegis of Duckworth in the UK and The Overlook Press in the United States, and I shall get to experience something like the same thrill I did on the publication date of First Ladies six years ago. Back then, accompanied by long-suffering friends, I darted into every bookshop in London like a hare on steroids until I finally saw the glowing red cover with its gold lettering in the window of Hatchards. Some months later, I was invited to the Hatchards Authors of the Year party, whereupon I ruined my memory of an otherwise enjoyable evening by managing to knock a glass of wine all over the Hatchards guest book, snuffing out the signatures of many of the famous writers who had just signed it and were now staring at me as I frantically tried and failed to stop their names leaking across the page.
But that’s another story. I’m just so glad and grateful that thanks to the support of Duckworth-Overlook’s legendary CEO Peter Mayer, the characters of Hortensia, Lucrio, Caepio, Fabia, Petro and the other protagonists of Rivals of the Republic who have so far had to be content with an e-book existence are going to be given a new lease of life in glorious, smoothly tactile hardback.* I hope others love them as much as I do, and are kind to them.
And if Hatchards want to invite me back, I promise I’ll stay away from the guest book.
*An earlier draft of Rivals of the Republic appeared in late 2014 as an Amazon e-book titled Blood in the Tiber.
A Language As Dead as Dead Can Be
The other day, someone asked me the question again. I’ve learned to expect it, even when I’m in the middle of what I think is a reasonably entertaining discussion of English derivatives from the Latin ‘nihil’ (kudos to the 11 year old who came up with ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’). At least once a term, regular as clockwork, some otherwise perfectly biddable child will pipe up with the question of doom: ‘Dr. F, why do we have to do Latin?’
To which I usually sigh, and say, ‘we have been over this before, Tristan/Isobel/Deuteronomy, and I’m not saying it’s not a perfectly reasonable question, but can we discuss it another time and not right at this moment when I’ve just asked you what the person and tense of this verb is.’ And then we carry on with the lesson, and of course in my anxiety to get through the scheme of work for that week, Tristan or Isobel or Deuteronomy never do get an answer to their question.
But at some point I know we will have to find time to have the conversation because more than any other academic subject, Latin is constantly called upon to justify its prolonged survival as a subject for study in schools. All Classics teachers know the stock answers off by heart and we’ve probably all dutifully trotted them out at some point or another. ‘Because it helps you learn other European languages’. ‘Because it will improve your English vocabulary and grammar’. ‘Because it’s fun. Honest.’ And so it goes on, the reasoning - if you’re anything like me - sounding less and less convincing even to our own ears.
Which is not to say that I think any of the above claims are inaccurate. Remarkable evidence of the transformative effect that learning Latin can have on English literacy levels is provided by The Latin Programme, a charity which works in inner-city London state primary schools with children in Years 3-6. Mind you, as those such as my former director of studies Mary Beard have pointed out, it does seem a bit perverse to have to learn one language in order to improve your grammar and vocabulary in another one. Another good reason to learn Latin (and indeed Greek) as Beard points out, is of course so that we the human race don’t lose the ability to read what’s written in it, the canonical works of western literature such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, without which the likes of Chaucer, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare would have spent a lot longer chewing on their quill pens and staring at a blank page.
But for the Latin teacher trying to persuade a class of suspicious twelve year olds whose brains are short-circuiting with the effort of processing words like ‘declension’ and ‘case’ and who would much rather be learning about Greek myths today, you sometimes need something a bit more persuasive up your sleeve. I’ve tried telling them that all great musicians have to start by playing the scales, but then they wonder why they can’t just be musicians instead. I’ve tried telling them Latin is basically like coding and lots of the people who worked on breaking the Enigma code were Classicists, and hey, did you know Mark Zuckerberg read Classics at college? But then they just want to know why we can’t be in the computer room today.
Part of the problem is that children have become as vulnerable as the rest of us to the teach-to-the-test mentality that currently infects our education system from primary level right up to university. I remember once many years ago having a spare few lessons when I decided to study some stories from Homer’s Odyssey with a GCSE Classical Civilisation class, and one pupil asking ‘Is this going to be in our exam?’ and demanding why we were doing it when I told them it wasn’t. Students – and indeed their parents - increasingly want to know ‘the point’ to doing something if it doesn’t lead in a straight line to some sort of obvious remuneration, whether it’s in the form of grades or the ability to order a pizza in several world capitals. I can appreciate the point of view of those who say we’ve got enough problems with our education system without fussing about whether we keep a ‘dead’ language on life support. But if that’s going to be our attitude, why not just go the whole hog. Let’s rip up the educational curriculum and start again, dumping History, and English literature just for starters. If the ‘relevance to the modern economy’ argument is going to be used as justification for kicking the Romans out of the balloon, then it’s kind of difficult to see what kind of a leg Charlotte Bronte or Edward the Confessor have got to stand on.
So what do I usually say to children when they ask me the dreaded ‘What’s the point’ question? Of late, I’ve tried a new tack. I start by asking the children to close their eyes and then to try and recall their earliest memory of childhood. When they’ve done that, I ask them to just let as many memories as possible fill their heads, from any stage in their life. Then I ask them to try and imagine erasing most of those memories, so that they can’t remember anything that has happened to them before last week. Then I let them open their eyes, and tell them that that’s what it’s like if we decide that Latin and Greek and the language and culture of our ancient ancestors have no place in our lives. And then in the same ominous whisper that my former Cambridge supervisor Simon Goldhill used to use, I demand, ‘If you don’t know where you come from, then who do you think you are?’
And every now and then, I see a look come over the faces of one or two, that look that all teachers live for. That look that tells you that a door has opened in the child’s head, and they’re peering into a room they’ve never seen before.
Either that, or they stare back at me blankly and ask ‘When can we go to the computer room?’
A long time ago, in an Empire far, far away….
My boyfriend and I recently treated ourselves to an early Christmas present box-set of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and our evenings are now spent happily marvelling at the charisma of Steve Buscemi while wistfully regretting our own inability to write anything half as good. Last night’s episode featured a scene where racketeer Albert ‘Chalky’ White delivers a chilling monologue to a shackled Ku Klux Klan leader in prelude to torturing him for information on the murder of a black associate. White is played by the actor Michael K. Williams, but I know I won’t be alone in saying that as brilliant as his portrayal is, when I look at Williams I can’t help but see Omar Little, the deliciously amoral rip and run artist he played in The Wire (unquestionably the greatest TV show of all time).
Most novelists would surely admit to the vanity of fantasising which actors might play the characters in a film adaptation of their book. I am more than happy to proffer my casting suggestions for my forthcoming novel Rivals of the Republic: The Movie which include Jon Hamm as Crassus, Dominic West as Pompey, Tom Hiddleston as Caepio*, Benedict Cumberbatch as Cicero and Alfred Molina as Hortensius. I haven’t quite hit on the right person to play my chief protagonist Hortensia yet - it’s got to be someone with a great voice as well as the right look - but Debra Winger in her 80s heyday would have been perfect.
One of the most useful tips anyone gave me when writing the novel was to imagine the narrative as a film reel - what would the next scene be if it were a movie? Where would the director make his or her cut? If I were passing on a tip of my own, I would say that when you can’t quite decide what a character looks and sounds like, try and imagine a particular actor or public figure in the role and base your characterisation on them. I found this particularly helpful when I was writing Crassus, the obscenely wealthy and powerful consul who is at the heart of the corrupt political scene portrayed in the book. Crassus probably exists most powerfully in the modern imagination through Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of him as a sinister, self-controlled villain in the movieSpartacus, but my vision is quite different. Historical sources give us a few glimpses of Crassus’ character but it wasn’t until I had a vision of him as a Mitt Romney figure - smiling, genial, glad-handing and back-slapping his supporters but all the while keeping a calculating eye on the opinion polls - that I felt I knew who he really was.
Late in the writing of Rivals, I decided to introduce a character I hadn’t initially planned on including - the elusive master forger Petro, who as it turns out holds the key to unlocking the secret of the conspiracy that Hortensia is so desperate to discover. Petro was a joy to write - devious and charming, taking delight in sparring with Hortensia and never letting her see where his true allegiances lie - and I realised quite quickly who I had based him on. Omar Little was my favourite character in The Wire, and I think he may well also be my favourite character in my novel. Like Hortensia, he will return in future books. In the meantime, I will have to just keep that cast-list on file.
*Tom Hiddleston was a Classics undergraduate at Cambridge when I was doing my PhD. Much to my regret however, and no matter how much I have racked my brain, I can’t actually remember him. But a friend who tutored him tells me he was charming and had lovely manners. So clearly the perfect person to play Hortensia’s delightful and understanding husband.
Cooking with the Romans
My partner stares incredulously at me as I try to lever yet another new cookbook into bookshelves already buckling under the weight of hundreds of culinary bestsellers. ‘How can you need another one?’ he asks weakly. ‘Need isn’t the word, my friend’, I tell him airily as Nigel Slater is finally wedged firmly between Diana Henry and Yotam Ottolenghi. ‘And if you want to keep enjoying dishes such as Chicken from the Venetian Ghetto or Sour Cherry and Amaretti Biscuits, not to mention your favourite Salmon Ceviche with Mango and Avocado, then zip it.’
Like most recipe book obsessives however, I don’t really buy them to cook with. I buy them to read, usually while I’m eating something to counteract the gnawings of greed that creep up on me as a result. The habit began when I was at university with the purchase of my very first - and still my favourite - cookbook, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. But my appreciation of literary evocations of food began early, ever since I was a child devouring Enid Blyton’s elegies to potted meat sandwiches (with little idea of what the stuff actually was), slabs of fruit cake and of course lashings of ginger beer. From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s ‘omelette, piping hot, cold lamb and green peas’, through the image of Walter Cunningham pouring syrup over his roast lunch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Amy March crying over the loss of her salted limes in Little Women, I have always liked it when authors realise that food matters, that shared taste can conjure a powerful link of empathy between reader and character.
So there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to include a few lingering close-ups of gluttony in my forthcoming crime novel Rivals of the Republic, set in the world of ancient Rome. In one scene, a feast is being held at the home of the great general Pompey, and the guests are served a succession of courses including peppered mushrooms, peacocks’ eggs, honey-roasted thrush, and ham with figs and bay leaves, culminating in a fricassee of roses and sweet-wine cakes - a dish that I imagine tasted a bit like trifle with some Chanel no 5 poured over it.
When it came to inspiration for this culinary fantasy, there was only one place to go. Apicius De Re Coquinaria is the oldest known cookbook in existence, and though the attribution may be a misnomer given that ‘Apicius’ wasn’t so much the world’s first celebrity chef as a cognomen for Roman connoisseurs of fine gastronomy, this doesn’t stop it being as addictive as Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World (whose recipe for meatballs, just so you know, is the one to follow). So I spent a lovely hour or two, mid-chapter, leafing through Joseph Dommers Vehling’s translation of Apicius, rejecting for Pompey’s guests such delights as ‘Milk-Fed Snails’, ‘Fine Ragout of Brains and Bacon’ and ‘Another Way To Cook Lungs’, and settling in the end for a menu I thought I wouldn’t mind eating myself. It’s not easy to understand a people who liked putting fish sauce in their desserts. But everyone can feel at home with people who liked cake.
Amo, Amas, Amat or How Lucrio Got His Name
Mention that you’re a Latin teacher to a new acquaintance and you tend to get one of two responses. Some people - those who for reasons of personal politics or educational ideology cleave to the idea that Latin is a ‘Good Thing’ - beam enthusiastically and say ‘Oh well done you.’ Others recoil slightly and mutter, ‘God, I was terrible at Latin I’m afraid’, and sidle away as though afraid I’m about to ask them to conjugate something.
To those who blench at the memory of Kennedy’s Latin Primer, I always say, things have changed you know, it’s not all amo amas amat these days. Among some educationalists, I am aware, this trend is deeply to be regretted. Indeed, the textbook that pioneered this touchy-feely, grammar-lite approach to Latin - the Cambridge Latin Course - is thought by some to be at least partially responsible for the moral and political decline of the nation.
For all that I sometimes sympathise with the CLC’s critics (3rd person verb endings before 1st and 2nd? What kind of a SICK mind does something like that?), I’m basically a big fan. I think it’s probably thanks to book 1 of the course - which follows a fictional family living in Pompeii in AD 79 just as mount Vesuvius is getting ready to blow its top - that I saw Latin from the get-go not as a delivery system for reams of decontextualised grammatical rules but rather as a kind of secret code which, if I could unlock it, would take me into the world of a people both strangely familiar and fascinatingly alien.
So when I began writing my first novel, Rivals of the Republic - a historical crime adventure set in the Roman Republic which will be the first in a series called The Blood of Rome - it was perhaps inevitable that the legacy of those first Latin stories would find its way into my story through the name of one of my characters. Not Caecilius, the famous paterfamilias of the fictional Pompeian family, though that is indeed the name of a senator in the book whom history has already named for me.
Instead, it’s the character of Lucrio, the mysterious former gladiator and soldier who helps my young heroine Hortensia unravel a deadly conspiracy at the heart of Roman politics, whose name is inspired by those early lessons in Latin. As students of the CLC will know well, the original Lucrio is a doddery old man who proves frustratingly obtuse at following his slave-girl Poppaea’s hints that he should leave the house so she can have a secret assignation with her boyfriend Grumio (Caecilius’s cook). Why this name was the only one that would do for Hortensia’s emotionally distant sidekick, I have no idea. But the name took root, and I couldn’t imagine my Lucrio being called anything else.
It only remains for me to write the Roman equivalent of a Lassie Come Home series about a dog called Cerberus. Though if you’ve read the heartbreaking last chapter of CLC Book 1, I suppose Greyfriars Cerberus might be more appropriate.