Thursday, 24 November 2022

The Legend of Tanaquil and the auspicious flight of birds by Elisabeth Storrs


Queen Tanaquil

As can be seen from the tragic stories of Lucretia and Virginia, the women of early regal Rome gained fame when used as exemplars of Roman virtues. In each case their deaths were the catalyst for revolution against oppressive rulers.

Yet one famous woman of early Rome did hold power. Her name was Tanaquil. She was not Roman, but Etruscan. And she did not gain fame for dying but for being a prophetess and a queen.

Tanaquil was an Etruscan noblewoman from the city of Tarquinia. Her husband, Lucumo, was the son of an immigrant Greek. Tanaquil knew Lucumo would not gain power in her city because of this and so she convinced him to travel to Rome to seek his fortune. As their carriage ascended the Janiculum Hill, an eagle swooped down and snatched Lucumo’s cap carrying it aloft before once again replacing it on his head. Skilled as a seer, Tanaquil predicted that, as the bird had flown from the direction of Rome and taken the cap from the crown of Lucumo’s head, her husband was destined for greatness.

On arrival in Rome Lucumo became friend to the king, Ancus Marcius, as well as guardian to his children. When Marcius died before his children were old enough to take the throne, Lucumo was elected to be king by the Romans and changed his name to a Latin one – Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was to be the first of three Etruscan kings who ruled Rome before the third, Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled after the rape of Lucretia.

So could the myth of a prophetess such as Tanaquil be based in fact? The Etruscans were indeed skilled in the art of foretelling the future from the flight of birds. And there is evidence from funerary art and tomb inscriptions that Etruscan women may well have been priestesses of high standing. The Roman author, Livy, who tells us Tanaquil’s tale, does not question her ability. In fact he writes that her powers of prophesy proved correct again when she saw a slave boy called Servius Tullius asleep with a blue flame burning above his head. Tanaquil predicted that he would also rule Rome.  When Lucumo was murdered, Tanaquil cemented her own power by supporting Servius Tullius in being appointed the monarch.  He in turn was to become one of the greatest and most just Kings of Rome (but that is another story…)

Vel Saties

As mentioned, the Etruscans observed the flight of birds for the purposes of divination. The process of interpreting the patterns of flight was known as taking the auspices (literally ‘looking at birds’). As was the case with understanding lightning portents, the sector of the sky where a bird flew was a determining factor to interpret the will of the gods based on the quadrant in which the relevant deity resided. The type of bird was also important. Doves transmitted messages from Turan (Aphrodite/Venus) whereas the king of the gods, Tinia (Jupiter/Zeus), used an eagle.

The Romans relied heavily on the act of auspication, too. It was an essential part of the politics of Rome. Before any decision of State was made, omens were observed through the flight of birds. This sometimes involved an augur releasing a flock of birds and watching whether they flew to the right or left. The term ‘sinister’ derives from sinistra the latin word for ‘left’ as it was considered an ill omen if the birds flew in that direction. Negative connotations of being left handed have continued for centuries and may well have stemmed from this concept.

In Rome the different bird calls of ravens, crows, owls and chickens were also used to identify divine will. The flight of eagles, vultures and woodpeckers all had significance too. The eating patterns of chickens were also observed. It was considered ill luck if, once released from a cage, the hens baulked at eating the proffered bread. I presume this form of divination allowed for some human manipulation of results!

The founding of Rome itself was based on auspication. When the two feuding brothers, Romulus and Remus, could not agree on the site upon which the city was to be built, they decided to test their abilities as augurs. Romulus saw twelve vultures settle on the Palatine Hill while Remus saw only six alight upon the Aventine. An interesting way to settle an argument.

What is fascinating about Tanaquil is the fact she was, in every way, a player rather than a victim. As a queen and seer, she was instrumental in establishing and continuing the reigns of the Etruscan kings over the Romans. Her ambitions became those of the men she influenced. Unlike Lucretia and Virginia who were controlled by men and whose fate was to die for Rome, Tanaquil moulded destiny to her purpose. And strangely, whereas Etruscan women were usually criticised as wicked and corrupt by the Romans due to the freedoms afforded to them, Tanaquil was not reviled but revered. There are some who posit that she was later deified as a Roman Goddess of Fire, the Hearth, Healing and Women.

The image of Tanaquil was painted by Domenico Beccafumi, (1486 – May 18, 1551) an Italian Renaissance – Mannerist painter who was a representative of the Sienese school of painting. This is apt as Siena was one of the cities of ancient Etruria.

The image of Vel Saties is from the Francois Tomb in Vulci, Italy (circa 330BCE). It depicts the aristocratic wreathed with laurel and wrapped in a lavish purple cloak bordered with scrolls and embroidered with nude male figures holding shields. The Etruscan is observing a woodpecker in flight while his servant, Arnza, holds a female woodpecker attached by a string to attract the bird back. The woodpecker was sacred to the god of war Laran (Ares/Mars), and it is likely that Vel Saties was consulting the deity before a military encounter. Images are courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She has also written a short story based on the Lucretia legend which can be obtained at her website www.elisabethstorrs.com

Friday, 18 November 2022

Poison is in everything… by Carolyn Hughes

Paracelsus, the sixteenth century Swiss physician and alchemist, said: “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”


An engraving by Pieter Van Sompel (1600?-1643?) of Swiss physician and alchemist
Paracelsus (born Theophrastus von Hohenheim).
After Pieter Soutman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Of course, I did know that already, about dosage level making the difference between a killer and a cure, but when I was writing my latest Meonbridge Chronicle, Squire’s Hazard, set in fourteenth century southern England, I needed to know a little more about how plants might be used for good and also for ill.


I refer to plants quite extensively in my novels – gardens are an important theme. I often mention the vegetables grown in peasants’ gardens, especially those used in pottage – onions, turnips, cabbages and the like. Flowers feature too, for the most part those grown in the manor garden. Herbs were undoubtedly grown in the gardens of both rich and poor, to add flavour to food, but also, I imagine, to make remedies for common ailments. As I understand it, ordinary folk – women mostly – would have known something of this therapeutic use of herbs and wild flowers. In one of my novels, I refer to blue scabious (scabiosa) being considered good for curing itchy skin, and to the tiny white flower called eyebright (euphrasia) being used to treat sore eyes.


I’ve also mentioned often the medicinal use of plants, such as in the various salves and lotions used by the Meonbridge barber-surgeon. I’ve imagined him preparing them himself, though he might have acquired them from a different sort of healer, a “wise woman”. There was such a woman in Meonbridge, sought out mostly for her beneficial herbal cures, but also for magic charms and potions, which might be used for good or for ill.


For my most recent book, however, I needed to know more about the less beneficial properties of plants. For one of my characters was wondering how she might silence a lout’s abusive, misogynist tongue. She thought maybe some toxic plant might do the trick, but didn’t know which one, or how to use it, or what effect it might actually have. In truth, at that stage, neither she nor I were even sure how her desire for retribution might unfold, but I thought I’d help her devise a plan with a bit of investigation into the varieties and effects of toxic plants.


My reading led me first to wolfsbane – Aconitum napellus, also known as monkshood or devil’s helmet. I did know already that it was toxic, but not what symptoms it caused. I learned that long-ago hunters of wolves used to dip their spear and arrow heads into a wolfsbane brew and that it acted fast, causing the victims to die “without a struggle”, which is what the Greek word akoniton – ἀκόνιτοv – means. Apparently, it was used also on the battlefield.


Wolfsbane or monkshood (Aconitum napellus) By Walther Otto Müller,
in Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885.
Public Domain, via Wikimedia commons



But would it do the trick for an unmannerly misogynist? The symptoms of wolfsbane poisoning seemed promising, with laboured breathing and weakening heartbeat, and in particular the numbing of the mouth and tongue. Perfect!  On the other hand, if one got the “dosage” wrong, the odious tongue might well be stilled for ever…


So how much of a hazard was wolfsbane? It seems that most recorded deaths from wolfsbane poisoning have been accidental, but I found a few mentions of its use as a murder weapon. One interesting case was of a man who died after his wife combined boiled-up wolfsbane leaves and stems with crushed sleeping tablets and added the concoction to his wine. She then made his death look like a car accident, but confessed to the murder five years later (why she confessed, the article didn’t say). But, extraordinarily, traces of the aconitine were allegedly still to be found in the poor man’s body. Persistent stuff! And maybe too much of a hazard for my character to contemplate?


So, I looked at other plants that she might use. Three seemed to have potential.


Hemlock. In Atlas der officinellen Pflanzen, O.C. Berg, C.F. Schmidt.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Eating the bright red berries of the cuckoopint or lords and ladies, Arum maculatum, can apparently cause the lips, mouth, tongue and throat to burn and swell. That sounded useful. But, I read, because the unpleasant sensation begins as soon as the berries touch the lips, they would have to be very well disguised to be effective as a weapon. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) too might work, with respiratory failure and loss of speech listed as symptoms, but it tastes bitter and has an unpleasant smell, so again would need to be heavily disguised. 


Tasting the glossy black berries of Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade or devil’s cherries) can result in a dry mouth, confusion and incoherent speech. And, more usefully, the berries apparently taste sweet, so ground up in something also sweet, like cake or wine, might make their presence relatively easy to conceal…


Belladonnna. In Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, Franz Eugen Köhler.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



I read all this and shared it with my character, through the medium of Meonbridge’s wise woman. Despite the woman’s reputation (amongst some of Meonbridge’s populace) of being a witch – a common enough problem for medieval wise women – she in fact gives sound and cautious guidance about the pros and cons of using wolfsbane, belladonna and the others, essentially employing Paracelsus’s dictum (albeit that physician would not be born for another 130 years): dosage is everything.


What my character decided to do with the information given to her is not relevant to this article. But I read a little more about how some of these “poisons” can indeed also be “cures”, provided they are administered in appropriate amounts.


In herbal medicine, wolfsbane has been used as a treatment of joint and muscle pain, as a diuretic, for reducing fever and inflammation, and also as a means of slowing the heart rate in people with cardiac problems. However, it is not used today in conventional medical practice.


Deadly nightshade, on the other hand, is used in modern medicine. Apparently, its constituent compounds can help with nausea, acid reflux, controlling the heart rate and the treatment of other conditions, and is an ingredient, in tiny quantities, in many medications. It is also of course well known historically as a cosmetic. The name belladonna alludes to the “beautiful women” of sixteenth century Italy, who used an extract of it to enlarge their pupils and flush their cheeks, which was considered attractive at the time. Those ladies presumably considered their cosmetic “beneficial”, but I imagine it often led to most undesirable consequences…


In my novels, the Meonbridge barber-surgeon uses belladonna for remedial purposes in the form of “dwale”, an anaesthetic used when performing surgery. Although I’ve read elsewhere that dwale was made, not from belladonna, but from a combination (again, presumably in small quantities) of hemlock, opium (poppy, Papaver somniferum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger, another member of the nightshade family), mixed with lettuce (perhaps surprisingly!), vinegar and other substances. It was apparently mixed with a great deal of wine before being given to the patient to drink. I wonder if a surgeon would have mixed the dwale himself? With those ingredients, it sounds a risky thing to do! However, dwale was widely known about in medieval times, and I’ve read that recipes for it might have been found in domestic herbals, and could have been administered by housewives. Extraordinary, if true!


One last thing. Again, for my latest Chronicle, as the story progressed, it turned out that I needed to know how a housewife might treat her precious cows’ mastitis. I delved into the sources once again, looking for what medication medieval people might have used. I came across no specific historical reference, but did discover – and was not at all surprised to learn – that, in modern homeopathy, belladonna is yet again the answer, as a remedy for easing inflammation, including mastitis. Whether my housewife, who owns a great book of herbs, would really have known of its use, I don’t know. But I can guess that, if women like her knew of “dwale”, they would probably also know about belladonna as a treatment for inflammation. And, of course, once more I have her understanding the principle of suitable dosage when she explains to her prying servant: “It is poisonous, but only in large measures. The scant amount I put in here is curative.”


Anyway, what is the point of this post of mine? I hope it’s been of some interest, this talk of poisons, but I’m sharing it as just one of many fascinating subjects that I’ve found myself exploring over the past few years. It’s a reminder of the joy of writing fiction, and especially perhaps historical fiction, when your imagination takes you in unexpected – and unfamiliar – directions, and you then find yourself diving down a veritable warren of research rabbit holes, to bring illumination and fascination to your story, but also – in my case anyway – for the sheer pleasure of discovery. 

Friday, 11 November 2022

The Petronius Maximus Guide to Plotting Your Way to Power Without Getting Your Sandals Bloody. By L.J. Trafford


Coin of Petronius Maximus. Credit; Wikicomms/ Classical Numismatic Group,

    I’ve spent the last year writing a book entitled Ancient Rome’s Worst Emperors. It has been quite an education in how rulers can comprehensively eff up the whole ruling thing and has given me comfort that the current politically tumultuous situation of the UK could be worse, a whole lot worse. Yes, we may be on our third Prime Minister of 2022 but of the previous two incumbents of the position neither has been forced into suicide nor decapitated in Parliament square, unlike Otho and Galba who were both (briefly) emperors in 69 CE, a year that became known as the year of the four emperors. No matter how confusing and chaotic the British political scene currently is, it is positively staid and boring compared to ancient Rome.


    Of all the emperors I have spent the past year researching and writing about there is one who really stands out for me, a man whose story interested me more than any other. It’s an emperor you’ve likely never heard of, which is not surprising given he was only emperor for two months in the year 455 CE. During this short rule he displayed none of the sexual excesses, megalomania and all out bonkers behaviour that many of the other emperors I cover in my book do. Yes, Caligula and Commodus I do mean you. But his story is fascinating because it stands as a case study, nay a warning for all those that seek power. 
    Prepare yourself for one hell of a tale. Enter Pertonius Maximus



The Man Who Had Everything

    A good five years after Petronius Maximus had briefly been emperor of Rome, a man named Sidonius Apollinaris received a letter that annoyed him no end. It was from his friend Senanus, (although after Apollinaris’ reply that friendship may well be at an end) who had written a very long letter the contents of which Sidonius Apollinaris hotly disputed:

‘The consecrated words of greeting over, you give all the rest of your space, no trifling amount, to laudation of Petronius Maximus, your imperial patron. With more persistence (or shall I call it amiability?) than truth and justice, you style him 'the most fortunate', because, after holding all the most honourable offices of state, he at last attained the diadem.’

    As the youth of today would say (probably, I'm far too middle aged to know), burn! I have some sympathy for Senanus whose roasting by Sidonius has been preserved for two thousand years, but not a lot. Because like Sidonius before me I find it jaw dropping that Senanus could look at the story of Petronius Maximus and conclude he was ‘most fortunate’. As Sidonius writes back to Senanus:

 ‘Personally, I shall always refuse to call that man fortunate who is poised on the precipitous and slippery peak of office.’


Enter the Master of Plots  


    Petronius Maximus was a very successful man.

He had scaled with intrepidity the prefectorian, the patrician, the consular citadels; with an unsated appetite for office, he took for a second term posts which he had already held.’ 
Sidonius Apollinaris

He was enormously wealthy but also cultured: 
'With his conspicuous way of life, his banquets, his lavish expense, his retinues, his literary pursuits, his official rank, his estates, his extensive patronage.’ 
Sidonisus Apollinaris

He was, in short the full package of Roman manhood. 

    But for Petronius Maximus having it all was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted a dollop of caviar added to his full monty breakfast. He wanted to be emperor. ‘His head swam beneath the diadem at sight of that enormous power.’ as Sidonius puts it.

    Petronius Maximus might have been the full package of Roman manhood but there were two other Roman packages in the way of him achieving what he thought was his right, the job of emperor. The first was the emperor himself, Valentinian III who at 36 years old didn’t look like he was going to conveniently drop dead anytime soon and free up the position. The second was Flavius Aetius.

    Aetius was a man whose package was so much bigger than Petronius Maximus’ that it required an extra line of postage stamps. Aetius was Rome’s most successful general, one who had repelled no less a foe than Attila the Hun, alongside the numerous other barbarian types who were continually harassing the empire in this era. This is well and truly a time when you needed good generals and Aetius was the best there was. He was so good that Imperial favour was lavished all over him and his son was betrothed to the emperor’s daughter. He was a formidable man, one who would uncover any plot forged against the emperor quicker than you can say Gaiseric King of the Vandals (on whom more later).

    But Petronius Maximus was a clever man, and he went about removing the two impediments to his ambitions; Aetius and Valentinian III in a very clever way.



Removing the General
    First up on his hit list: Aetius. The assassination of Flavius Aetius, the most successful Roman general of his era, is unique. It’s unique because it’s not carried out by Petronius Maximus nor any henchman paid by Petronius Maximus, Flavius Aetius was killed by Emperor Valentinian III himself.

    It occurred on the 21st September 454 CE during what Aetius had assumed was a standard planning meeting and it was until the any other business section when:

 The emperor suddenly jumped up and declared that he, ‘could no longer bear being the victim of so many drunken depravities’. 
John of Antioch

    Given that immediately prior to this Aetius had been explaining the projected tax revenues, I think we can all agree Aetius was fully entitled to be stunned and just a bit terrified. However, Aetius had faced off Attila the Hun so he’s made of sterner stuff than you or I, instead his reaction was to marvel, ‘at this unexpected outburst.’
An image thought to be Flavius Aetius. Credit: Wikicomms/Tataryn


Unfortunately, Aetius didn’t have much time to marvel because, 

‘Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard, and together with Heraclius, who was carrying a cleaver under his cloak…for he was head chamberlain, fell upon him. They both rained down blows on his head and killed him, a man who had performed so many brave actions against enemies both internal and external.’John of Antioch

    Jeepers, is all I can say, and much like Flavius Aetius briefly thought before being stabbed to death by his boss, what the hell is going on? What drunken depravities? And no doubt something around the tax revenues not being that bad.

    Behind this extraordinary event there was our pal Petronius Maximus. He was in league with Heraclius, the eunuch who’d handily been standing by with that cleaver under his cloak to help the emperor in his murdering.

Impediment number 1 had been disposed of. Next up the Emperor himself.



Murdering the Boss

    Valentinian III’s murder of the very popular Flavius Aetius meant that Petronius Maximus didn’t have to try very hard to find two new people to do his dirty work for him again. Their names were Optelas and Thraustelas who, as pals to Aetius, were easily persuaded that the emperor’s brutal killing of their friend determined retribution:

‘They would reap the greatest rewards, he said, if with justice they exacted revenge when the opportunity arouse.’ John of Antioch. 

    Note again, as with Aetius’ death, that Petronius Maximus is playing no part in the gruesome bit of the plot, he’s staying well away from any blood splatter to his, no doubt expensive, sandals.

    A few days later the emperor set off on an outing to the Field of Ares accompanied by Optelas and Thraustelas.

‘When he dismounted from his horse and was walking off to practice archery, Optelas and his followers made for him and, drawing the swords at their sides, attacked him. Optelas struck Valentinian across the side of his head and, when he turned to see who struck him, felled him with a second blow to the face’
John of Antioch

    Ouch. After Valentinian was well and truly dead, ‘a swarm of bees appeared and drew up the blood flowing from his body into the earth. They sucked up all of it.
Which I’m mentioning for no other reason than it’s a bit weird.

    So that’s the empire’s greatest general and the emperor out of the way, and standing ready in the wings is the man who has engineered the entire situation, Petronius Maximus. God he’s good, isn’t he? He’s removed the two most powerful people in the empire without getting his hands bloody at all. This is genius level of plotting.

    Petronius Maximus sat in the palace that night. ‘rue-ing his own success.’as well he might. He had schemed his way to obtaining the one title missing from his CV, that of emperor.



Being Emperor

So there was Petronius Maximus, he had achieved the ultimate; he was emperor. But being emperor was a bigger step up than the endlessly successful Maximus had imagined. 

‘He soon discovered that the business of empire and a senatorial ease are inconsistent with each other’. Sidonius Apollinaris

He’d led such a charmed life, one that he’d been so effortlessly successful at that he just assumed he’d be a successful emperor. He wasn’t. 

 ‘His rule of it was from the first tempestuous, with popular tumults, tumults of soldiery, tumults of allies.’ Sidonius Apollinairs

It was pretty much on day one of Petronius Maximus’ reign as emperor that he made the decision that would bring his rule crashing down. He announced his intention to marry Valentinian III’s widow, Eudoxia. You can sort of see why he thought this was a good idea, it would link him to the previous dynasty strengthening his right to be emperor. What he hadn’t factored into this clever piece of politicking was how Eudoxia might feel about this. Very unhappy is the answer,
The Empress Eudoxia. Credit: Wikicomms/Otto Nickl


Something else that Petronius hadn’t thought about during his path to the top job was how the deaths of Aetius and Valentintian III might be seen in the rest of the empire. Why would he when he was so consumed with his own success and so sure of his own abilities?

Whilst Petronius Maximus had been living his best life, Aetius and Valentinian III had been negotiating a peace deal with Gaiseric, the ruler of the fearsome Vandals. It was a peace deal that had been cemented with an engagement between Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia to Gaiseric’s son, Huneric. The murder of Valentinian III was therefore for Gaiseric a family matter, or at the very least a useful pretext for having a go at those Romans again, as is neatly summarised by John of Antioch, 

‘Gaiseric the ruler of the Vandals learned of the murders of Aetius and Valentinian and decided it was time to attack Italy seeing the peace was void now those who had made the treaty were dead and the man coming into power did not have a noteworthy force.’ 

 Because the man coming to power had murdered the general who had created a noteworthy force to rival the Vandals.

A further incentive for rampaging was handed to Gaiseric by Euxodia who it was said begged him to invade Rome and rescue her from being forced to marry Petronius Maximus. Gaiseric set his Vandals on the road to Rome.

Facing Down the Threat 
Starting a war with an enemy of Rome that had been subdued after decades of war and careful negotiations was not a great start to the reign of Petronius Maximus. But he’s an experienced politician and as we’ve previously established, a very clever man, no doubt he has a heap of ideas and schemes and plans to deal with this unexpected turn of events.

‘When Maximus learned that Gaiseric’s army was positioned at Azestos (this was a place near Rome) he became very fearful. He mounted his horse and fled. The Imperial bodyguard and the freedmen who he used to trust the most deserted him; when they saw him riding away, they mocked and berated his cowardice. Just as he was about to leave the city, someone threw at stone at the side of his head and killed him.’ John of Antioch.

I don’t know about you but I’m proper disappointed in Petronius Maximus, as disappointed as those imperial bodyguards and freedmen were. Facing his first real test as emperor he completely loses his nerve and does a runner. It makes us look back at those assassinations he was behind with new eyes; perhaps it wasn’t him being clever getting other people doing his dirty work, perhaps Petronius Maximus’ was a cringing coward reliant on others to do what he himself did not dare to do.
Coin of Valentinian III. Credit Wikicomms/Classical Numismatic Group

 

Coward or not, Petronius Maximus quickly learnt that being emperor was very different to how he imagined it would be. ‘

The future did not deceive his sad forebodings; it was no help to him to have traversed all other offices of the court in the fairest of fair weather.’ Sidonius Apollonaris

Petronius had steered his Imperial ship straight into a tsunami as the realities of being emperor were starkly revealed to him; it was making decisions that you alone would face the consequences of.
Sidonius has a neat analogy for this discovery of Petronius Maximus:

 ‘Behold a bare sword, swinging from the ceiling right over his purple-mantled shoulders, as if every instant it must fall and pierce his throat.’

Petronius Maximus had uncovered the secret, that to be emperor did not necessarily make you happy, it was far more likely to make you unhappy. Not least because of the target it painted on your forehead for your poor decision making or because of a foolish notion that another would make a better emperor. As Sidonius put it better, that bare sword swinging from the ceiling above your head at all times (and also in your face should you be Valentinian III.)


Consequences
Petronius Maximus’ tale is one of hubris, of a man so confident of his abilities that he believed it was perfectly acceptable to murder his way to the job he felt should be his. It was that very confidence, that assurance of his own brilliance that brought Petronius Maximus crashing down and exposed him for what he truly was; a man not up to the job. Perhaps it was this crushing realisation that led to that attempted flight from the folly of his own ambition.

But his legacy is even worse than as a woeful example of misplaced confidence and pride because Geiseric didn’t turn around his Vandal army after Petronius Maximus was stoned to death by his disbelieving and disgusted subjects, no they kept going and sacked the city. 

It’s hard to think of a greater consequence for Rome of having an emperor in post who was so very not up to the job. Nor a man least worthy of the title 'most fortunate'. I think we are all likely sharing Sidonius levels of crossness with Senanus for such a misplaced description of Petronius Maximus.


L.J. Trafford is the author of two non fiction books; Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome and How to Survive in Ancient Rome. As well as the fictional Four Emperors series set in that year of the Four Emperors, 69 CE.
Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors will be released in 2023.






 




Friday, 4 November 2022

Anthem for Doomed Youth - Celia Rees



What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 


I'm sure many people reading this blog will instantly recognise Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. It was written in 1917, a year before his death on 4th November, 1918. He was twenty five years old. When he died, Owen was almost unknown - only five of his poems were published in his lifetime - but today, we are nearly as familiar with the details of his life as we are with his poetry. He was born and spent his early years in Oswestry, a Shropshire lad. The death of his grandfather marked a change in fortune. His family moved to Birkenhead for his father to take up a post as Station Master. Owen avidly read boarding school books and The Boys' Own Paper and grew up with a feeling of loss of status, having not attended boarding school, or gone up to Oxford. When he joined up, he was made an officer, thus gaining the status he so wanted. Unfortunately, the generation who were educated in the schools he had envied, were doomed. Junior officers were easily identified by German snipers, marked out by their distinctively different uniforms and their positioning on the battlefield, first over the top, leading from the front, pistol in hand. They were killed in their thousands  Rolls of Honour in every boarding school chapel attests to the numbers lost.   

Wilfred Owen 1893 - 1918


I first discovered Wilfred Owen when I was in the Sixth Form, transfixed by a classroom reading of  'Dulce et decorum est', the sensory overload of horror the poem lays on the reader line after line, conjuring those public school boys, those 'children ardent for some desperate glory', their passing soon to be recorded on chapel walls, celebrated by 'The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori'.


If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.


Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen

 

 It was the Sixties, the Vietnam War was raging, Oh, What A Lovely War! was transferring from the theatre to the big screen, anti-war sentiment was everywhere.  Owen's poems spoke to me, as they do to every generation because no generation since the 1914 - 18 has been untouched by conflict, the reality brought right into our living rooms on the TV News. Over a hundred years after his death, Owen's poetry still resonates as we see the devastation in Ukraine, villages and cities, fields and forests turned into no-man's-land, dead bodies by the sides of roads, soldiers huddled in their trenches, watching the water rise, waiting for the winter that's coming.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us..
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . 



..Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, 

SShrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp. 

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,

Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, 


Exposure - Wilfred Owen


    Wilfred Owen died 104 years ago today, a week before Armistice was declared and the war was over. There is something especially poignant being killed so close to the ending of hostilities.  My Uncle Bob was killed on 14th June, 1918, close enough for the family legend to grow that he was killed in the last days. My uncle’s experience is largely unknown and unknowable. He sent letters to his family, pencil written because he was ‘other ranks’. He also sent water colour sketches of the places, churches and castles he saw behind the lines. He pressed wildflowers he found growing in no-man’s-land, on the borders of the roads he tramped, in the trenches he manned. Poppies, yes, but also Larkspur, Scabious, Ragged Robin. He saw beauty there, as Owen did. We know nothing of his other experiences: the suffering he saw, the fear, the fighting and dying. In that Wilfred Owen speaks for him. He speaks for all of them. 


My Uncle Bob with his family
His temporary grave in Flanders



His name, Pte R. W. Goodway, on the War Memorial in Leamington Spa








 

Friday, 28 October 2022

CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY by Penny Dolan

Ever since opening Karen Cushmans’ Catherine Called Birdy novel back in 1996, I have remembered the freshness, energy and rebellious joy of that first page. Her determined character has been stuck in my mind:

12th Day of September. I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.

13th Day of September. My father must suffer from ale head this day, for he has cracked me twice before dinner instead of once. I hope his angry liver bursts.

14th Day of September. Tangled my spinning again. Corpus bones, what a torture.

15th Day of September. Today the sun shone and the villagers sowed hay, gathered apples and pulled fish from the stream. I trapped inside, spent two hours embroidering a cloth for the church and three hours picking out the stitches after my mother saw it. I wish I were a villager.

And so on. 

                                         Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

The diary begins in September 1290 but it does not focus on the intrigues of royal courts or famous historical figures, Instead, it gives us the thoughts of the writer: fourteen-year-old Catherine, nicknamed Birdy because of the number of pet birds she keeps in her chamber.

Birdy is the only daughter of Lord Rollo and Lady Aislinn, who live in a small manor house in Lincolnshire. She comments, with humour, puzzlement and rage upon her family, her friends, her everyday life and the annoying fact that her father intends to marry her to the wealthiest bidder.

Birdy does not want to be a lady, nor married. She prefers spending time with Perkin the goat-herd and her “heart’s brother”, and her other young friends in the village. She hates the needlework, restrictions and all the boring “lady-lessons” she is given by her nurse Morwenna, her mother and by various tutors.

However, her sympathetic brother Edward, a young monk in the scriptorium at the nearby abbey, has convinced their mother that Birdy should learn to read and write, even if she has to give up some of her needlework time. Reflecting on her daily life, he suggests, will help Birdy improve her character - and so the diary has begun.

Gradually, between one September and the next, Birdy’s diary shows her learning about the uses of herbs and the making of manuscripts, as well as experiencing love, jealousy and heart-break. She discovers the true story of where babies come from and drives away several suitors by tricks and bad behaviour. She sees the effects of sorrow, poverty and death and senses what her future role might be – even if early entries are laced with jokes about jakes, farts and bums, amounts of silly pranks and a quantity of curious information on odd saints. Catherine Called Birdy is an exuberant joy of a book with a character that was wonderfully “feisty” before publishers had even heard of the now overused word.

My copy of the novel had been sitting quietly on its shelf for over two decades when suddenly I heard that title again: Catherine Called Birdy has now been released as a full length film which, after a short cinema run, is streaming on Prime. 

                            Catherine Called Birdy Trailer

Written and directed by Lena Denham and starring Bella Ramsay as Birdy, the film a glorious medieval coming-of-age romp. Though there are moments of seriousness, the story is not solemnly told. I was reminded of “Will”, the film about young Shakespeare from the Horrible Histories team, and felt that Birdy might create a similar interest in that period of history for a young teen audience, in addition to much older persons.

Birdy, the film, starts with impact: before the opening credits, our heroine appears splattered in mud at a wild wattle-and-daub village cottage-raising, an incident shifted some way from its place in the original plot. In general, the film creates a picture of a close-knit medieval community, its seasonal festivities and the hard realities of life. This manor is a place where candles gutter, food runs scarce or goes rotten, where the privy is a public necessity, where parents expect to beat their children and Birdy’s bed is shared by her nurse Morwenna and any visiting females.

Although the film avoids the public hanging of the original book, Denham does focus on menstruation as the important indication of marriageability. Birdy’s first monthly flow is shown as a turning point in her life. Innocently fearing she might be dying, she is horrified by the kindly Morwenna’s practical explanation and determines to conceal her womanhood from her father. For a while Birdy’s ruse works but eventually, she is discovered. 

After she amusingly dissuades many suitors, Lord Rollo becomes determined and accepts the offer of a man she calls Shaggy Beard, a rich much older suitor from Yorkshire, who gives Birdy a purse of silver coins, By accepting the money, she is accepting her eventual marriage, although it is agreed that Birdy can stay with her mother until the newr baby is born. In the book, Birdy gives the money to Meg from the dairy so she and her husband can swain pay the death tax and live, with Perkins in his grandmothers cottage. In the film, the money is used in another way and has a different impact.

The film reshapes and slightly restructures the book, using modern multiracial casting, a modern soundtrack as well as making the ending larger and more emotional. Birdy’s father is given a stronger role and the ending is slightly adjusted (no doubt as a reflection of the star status of the actors Andrew Scott and Billie Piper) to allow for a couple of bigger scenes, which give Birdy a true insight into the complexity of adult life and relationships.

Although I enjoyed the film very much, and loved its energy, and sense of life and laughter, certain moments felt much more "unhistorical" than others. Though not enough to overpower the pleasure or fun, I had problems with film-Birdy’s attitude to religion, to books and to writing.

In the original, Birdy has a valued book of saints, a precious item that belongs to her mother, whose family was once wealthy. Her diary entries open with a reference to the saint of that day. For example, randomly I found:

27th Day of November. Feast of Saint Fergus, an Irish bishop, who condemned irregular marriages, sorcerers and priests who wear their hair long and

17th Day of December. Feast of Saint Lazarus who was raised by Jesus and afterwards went to France.

These headings were both based on facts I found elsewhere so I am assuming that many of Cushman's references might be accurate too. They are important as indicators of the strongly religious culture and mindset of the age. In the novel, although Birdy does not reveal a great devotion to the saints or religion, she does experience it as an everyday part of her life.

Yet the film, however, pushes this attitude almost too far. When Birdy goes on an errand, in her mother’s place, to her brother Edward’s monastery, she is overcome by the sight of the young monks. She stands, eyes wide, clutching at the body of a life-size crucifix in the middle of the cloister lawn. While this image was amusing enough in its way, that scene felt total at odds with what I imagine as the spiritual frame of the age. Even knowing of the wealth of almost erotic religious literature created by certain saints, for a moment, the gap in the “history” of the film felt too large. Was it simply my response to the blatant modern mix of sacred and profane? Yet the following scene, where Birdy goes to her brother’s cell amusingly concealed beneath his cloak, did not feel seriously confrontational at all. Is there a limit to how far modern historical fiction can be stretched on screen?

This leads me to my second problem: the reverence for the act of writing and the cultural value of books. In the novel, Cushman showed Birdy absorbed in the work of the scriptorium, deciding that she would like to be a monk.

“To spend the rest of my life making pictures instead of mending and weaving would be heaven indeed!”

This book-Birdy is interested in the process, noting the monks’ desire for lapis lazuli and other long-lasting colours and inks for their manuscripts. In her enthusiasm, she tries to make her own.

“I made a paste from bilberries that looks as blue as a robin’s egg but it grows sour and so sticky that I must add a task that the brothers have never dreamed of: picking bugs out of the heavenly sky or the Virgin’s veil.”

The book-Birdy would, I felt, have had a care in the way she used her diary and did her writing, even if the results were not perfect.

However, in the film version, Birdy’s pages are covered in careless scrawlings, even allowing for the difficulties of a quill pen. They look like the jottings of a modern child who believes that more sheets of paper or another exercise book will always be available. In my – yes, opinionated - opinion, her pages do not look like the work of a girl who has handled vellum and observed monks working on illuminated manuscripts or the reverence with which these books were treated. Birdy's scrawl and sketches clashed against my ideas of the respect for writing at that time - but am I wrong? Certainly, badly-done homework might be more meaningful to any of the young viewers than exquistite lettering and they will have time,ifthye choose, to form their own views on life in the medieval England.

Ignore my worries, because Catherine called Birdy is a treat, in either or in both its appearances. Do search them out, for yourself or your teens if you like history mixed with humour. 

Even better news: Karen Cushman, the original author is still alive. I do hope she is celebrating her memorable Birdy’s bright new flight

Penny Dolan

@pennydolan1

Friday, 21 October 2022

Cawdor Castle: by Sue Purkiss

 In the early summer of 2022, we were staying in the Cairngorm National Park. It was our first time in the north-west of Scotland, and we were wowed by the ancient Caledonian Forest, the gaunt hills, the sparkling rivers, and the variety of wildlife. However, on a day that was forecast to be wet and windy (in fact it was the latter but not the former), we decided to find somewhere that would offer shelter if necessary. So we went to Cawdor Castle.

All we knew about the place was that Macbeth, at the beginning of Shakespeare's play, was told by the witches that he would become Thane of Cawdor - and thereafter, of course, King of Scotland. So we were expecting somewhere dark and forbidding, probably half-ruined, and naturally haunted by ravens croaking in a doom-laden sort of way.



But the castle turned out to be none of those things. Built of grey stone, with a turreted square tower at its centre, the house is softened by the lawns, gardens and woodland that surround it. Inside, it has the feel of a comfortable home, in which you can imagine a family living happily - though reminders of a dark and bloody past do emerge. And in fact, we were told that the Dowager Countess, who manages the house, does live there in the winter, and even sleeps in the centuries-old scarlet four-poster. "Sooner her than me," commented the volunteer who told us this with a shudder. 


You enter through the drawing room, which is warm and colourful, with comfortable looking chairs and sofas and lots of lamps. There are also lots of portraits, which of course you don't tend to find in the average family home. In an alcove on a staircase there is a bold piece of wall-art, which at a second glance you see is a fan-shaped arrangement of nineteen rifles. (Why only nineteen? What happened to the twentieth?) I imagine these are a consequence of the aristocracy's strange desire to kill great quantities of wildlife, rather than earlier generations' propensity for killing their enemies, or sometimes their relations. But I could well be wrong...




The house is filled not only with interesting objects which generations of Campbells have collected on their travels - pictures, ornaments, sculptures, porcelain - but also with family photographs and some very lovely modern art. The tower is the oldest part of the castle, and was built with a view to defending the castle against enemies and marauders; but now, the top floor is a relatively small, very pleasant living room.

But go down the narrow winding staircase, and you will find this reminder of the building's long history. The castle was founded round about the end of the fourteenth century. Tradition has it that the site was chosen - bizarrely - by a donkey, which was set free and allowed to wander where it would. In the place where it stopped, there the castle would be built. And so it was.

I suppose it's just possible that this may not be entirely true - but what is certainly true is that the tower was built around a tree. The evidence is in the picture below - the tree is still there. It was said to be a hawthorn, but when samples were analysed recently, it was found to be a holly. This seems to make more sense: holly has a place in myth and legend. Certainly it has been credited with protecting the castle from destruction at various dangerous times in its history.



And dangerous times there certainly were. Cosy and comfortable as the castle seems now (apart from this basement, which has a bijou little dungeon tucked away on one side - just the place for unwelcome visitors), the family that lived there were, over the centuries, involved in some very nasty goings-on indeed. For example - in the early sixteenth century, the heiress was a child called Muriel. She was kidnapped by the Earl of Argyll, and, the guidebook tells us: 'For future recognition, she was branded on the hip by her nurse with a key. and the top joint of the little finger of her left hand was bitten off.' When she was twelve, she was married off to Argyll's younger son, Sir John Campbell. Surprisingly, the marriage was apparently a happy one. But this wasn't the end to the drama: Sir John's sister was married to one Lachlan Maclean. Wearying of his wife, he had her chained naked to a tidal skerry; she was supposed to drown, but was in fact rescued by passing fishermen. Sir John then knifed his brother-in-law to death in Edinburgh. He was pardoned, but deemed it a good moment to retreat to Muriel's far-distant ancestral home in Cawdor.

And that was only the beginning. There's far more blood-letting, feuding and killing people in hideously brutal ways - much too much to include in this post.

And talking of blood-letting, what of Macbeth? Was he really the Thane of Cawdor? We asked a guide. She sighed. One might almost have thought she'd been asked this question a million times before. "No. Macbeth was a real person - but he lived long before the castle of Cawdor was built, long before there was even a thane. What's more, there's quite a lot of evidence that he was a VERY NICE PERSON. He and his wife were very well-loved."

So there.

We certainly shouldn't leave Cawdor without a visit to the gardens, which are quite beautiful -see also the top picture. And the woodlands are lovely too, with rhododendrons and some very old trees, and a stream running through. Times have changed since the castle's founding - and in some ways - though not all - very much for the better. (I do wonder how the peasants were getting on while the aristocrats were whirling around killing each other...)





PS For anyone who's enjoying the new Netflix series, The Empress, you might be interested in this post which I wrote about her six years ago, after we'd been to an exhibition about the Empress Sisi in Vienna.