Saturday 9 December 2017

Saturnalia Chickens by Caroline Lawrence

Saturnalia chickens by Dr Helen Forte
My first post for this blog was back in July 2011, over five years ago. It was called History Chickens because one of my obsessions is trying to visualise the ancient world and not leave out any detail. I maintain there would have been far more chickens in Ancient Rome than historians usually allow for. 

Although I have never kept chickens, I will always remember something the late A.A. Gill once wrote: It is virtually impossible to hold a hen and not smile.’ 

A white 'Silkie' hen via Wikimedia Commons
Recently at the Roman Society’s conference celebrating 50 years of the journal Britannia, I heard a couple of scholarly talks including one by Dr Naomi Sykes, claiming that in Roman Britain, chickens were so rare that they were cherished as pets rather than used as food (although the eggs were eaten). I didn't understand all the technical stuff, but it seemed plausible. That’s why we find some early and exotic chicken remains at Fishbourne Roman palace near Chichester, the opulent Roman villa that first brought fallow deer to Britain.  

Westbourne House School, Chichester
Yesterday I came out of ‘wribernation to speak to children in years 3 & 4 at Westbourne House School in Chichester, near where the first chickens landed, as it were. Year 3 are reading my book The Sewer Demon, for their Romans topic. Year 4 studied Romans last year.

Sewer Demon display at Westbourne House School
The Sewer Demon is the first of my four Roman Mysteries spinoffs, The Roman Mystery Scrolls.  This short series features a beggar boy by the name of Threptus who lives in the Roman port of Ostia. I told the children how I came up with the characters and their world. I explained how, after writing The Roman Mysteries, I thought it would be fun to write a spin off series with ‘less blood and more poo’ for younger kids. Artefacts like my famous sponge-on-a-stick would feature heavily. And of course the famous multi-seater toilets at Ostia. 

Roman tombstone of 13-year-old Threptus
The hero would be a beggar boy with a heart of honey. I got the idea for his name from a Roman tombstone at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The tombstone was erected for a boy named Tiberius Claudius Threptus who sadly lived only 13 years, 6 months and 22 days. 

I was also inspired by a fan of Italian ancestry with a sweet face named Marco. 

Mark Benton as Floridius in The Roman Mysteries
The beggar boys mentor and sidekick would be the soothsayer, created for the Roman Mysteries TV series by screenwriter Dom Shaw and actor Mark Benton. Floridius is a character I never even thought of, but immediately loved. Because Floridius has a fondness for spiced wine and gambling on the chariot races he is not a particularly good mentor. Luckily, Threptus will help Floridius as much as Floridius helps Threptus. 

One of the best things about Floridius is that he keeps sacred chickens, which gave me an excuse to put lots of history chickens in these books. 

Not knowing the least thing about domestic fowl, I read some books, watched some YouTube clips and called on the services of one of my former pupils, a boy named Ben Udy who kept exotic hens. Working with Ben, we came up with a lexicon of chicken-speak. It would make them fun for parents, kids and teachers to read aloud.

a) Brk-brk, brrrrk (very soft)
b) Wrr, wrrk, brrr (very soft)
c) Wrrroooww (very soft)

a) Buuuuurk! (frog-like croak)
b) Buuurk, buurk-buurk (whiny)

Body language: loosely feathered, ambling inquisitively but not purposefully, stop to preen, cluck gently. 

a) Brp, brp! (when not moving)
b) Bweerp, bweerp, bweerp (when moving)
c) Beweerp!

Bk-bk-bk... (varying repetitions)

a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK!  
b) Bk-bk-bk, b’kak!  
c) Bk-bk-bk, bkaaaah! [sometimes forget final K]
d) Bock-bock-bock-bock-bock, begowwwwk! [big ]

a) Bk-bk-bk, BKAK!
nb) BK-BK-BK, BKAK! [small hens]

Ben also told me about Silkie chickens, which have feathers that are as silky as hair. Thus was Aphrodite born, the hen who is like a pet for Threptus along with Felix the kitten. 

Threptus first meets Floridius and his  sacred chickens in the final story in my volume of Mini-Mysteries, The Legionary from Londinium

The sacred chickens go on to feature in all four Threptus books, which we’ve called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, but they really come into their own in the third book of the series, The Thunder Omen, set during Saturnalia. It starts out like this: 

It was early morning on the first day of the Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter festival of gift-giving, feasting and dancing. It was a topsy-turvy holiday when anything could happen. In the port of Ostia, in a one-room shack behind a temple, eight sacred chickens were dancing on a table. 

Threptus has made each chicken a small conical hat called a pileus. Minimus illustrator and Latin teacher Dr Helen Forte made me a special colour plate showing seven of the sacred chickens plus Felix the kitten. They are all wearing the pileus, the freedman’s cap, to show that normal rules don’t apply.
Dancing sacred chickens by Dr Helen Forte

Long live the sacred chickens... 

... and Yo, Saturnalia! 


Ann Turnbull said...

I love the chicken-speak! It's exactly how they sound.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thank you, Ann. Very gracious of you to say so!

Lesley Downer said...

Lovely chicken post. I started smiling from the second I started reading it and had to carry on.