Monday 28 May 2018

A Roman Query... by Lynne Benton

There is one problem peculiar to writers of historical fiction, especially ancient historical fiction, and that is the fact that nobody has first-hand knowledge of all the tiny details we might need to know.  Of course we can look things up on the internet and consult reference books, and we can ask people who have thoroughly studied the period we’re writing about, but they don’t necessarily know the precise thing we need.  When I’ve written fiction set in the present I’ve been able to contact experts who could tell me how to fly a hot air balloon, and how long goats lived, but now I need to know something I’ve not been able to find online or in any of the reference books I've consulted.  So I’m hoping that someone who reads this blog will have the answer I need before I can get any further with my new book.

I am currently writing a trilogy set in Roman Britain for Middle Grade (roughly 8 – 11 year-olds) called "The Britannia Mysteries".  The first book, “The Centurion’s Son”, came out last summer.  Set in the year 312 AD in present-day Caerleon, then called Isca, in South Wales, it is the story of two children, Felix (the eponymous centurion’s son) and his friend Catrin (a Silurian slave girl with second sight) who find themselves having to face dangerous challenges when Felix’s father disappears.  Having visited Caerleon several times I took care  to recreate the place as it might have been as accurately as I could, and I knew that the Second Augustan Legion really was stationed there, but the story is entirely fictional.  As ever my intention was to make History exciting for children. 

The second book, “Danger at Hadrian’s Wall”, is set one year later, in 313 AD and follows the same children with further adventures.  (No prizes for guessing where this one is set!)  Again Felix and Catrin face unexpected challenges during their visit to the Northern Frontier, this time to their friendship as well as to their lives.  And inevitably they also come up against great danger.  This is my latest book, which has just been published.

However, it is with the third and final one, which I am currently writing, that I have a problem.  This book is set in Bath, then called Aquae Sulis, where I live, and is set one year later again, in 314 AD.  So far, so good – I can go and see the Roman Baths for myself and ask the knowledgeable guides questions, (though as I have discovered they may not know all the answers to my very specific queries), but there is one thing nobody seems able to tell me: how did mothers transport their babies from A to B in those days?  The baby in my story is about 6 months old, so rather too big to carry around all the time, but although one website states that “Prior to the creation of the stroller, babies were carried in slings, baskets, front & back packs. The origins of baby wearing go as far back as ancient Egypt, during the time of the pharaohs.  However, it goes on that “The first official recording of baby wearing appeared in 1306 when Giotto depicted Mary carrying baby Jesus in a sling.”  But if that was the first official recording, and it wasn't until 1306, did Giotto know for sure that was how she carried the baby?  I'm sure he did his research, but I don't know how much information was around in those days.  Or was it artistic licence? 

Maybe Roman mothers also carried their babies round in slings, or strapped to their fronts or backs.  Or maybe they carried them in baskets – but in that case, did the baskets have handles for ease of carrying, or is that a modern invention?  Prams, I discovered, weren’t invented until the early 18th century, and cots/cribs/bassinets not until even later.  (Apparently until then babies slept in the same bed as their mothers.  That isn’t really pertinent to the story, but once I began researching I wanted to find out!)  Or maybe Roman mothers simply handed the baby over to a slave and told the slave to carry it, regardless of the weight of a growing infant. 

It may be a small detail, and it may not be crucial to the overall plot, but I do like to be able to see something in my head before I can write about it.  So if anyone knows, I’d be really grateful for the information. 

Thank you.
Lynne Benton

See my website:


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Roman isn't my period, I'm a medievalist. The Giotto statement from that website is just plain wrong. This url, just found on a quick google goes back to earlier than Giotto and shows slings and baskets. Not Roman I'm afraid, but I suspect you'll find something at some point. :-)

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you for this, Elizabeth - it's really interesting, even if it doesn't quite go back as far as the Romans. However, it would seem that the sling/basket idea had already been around for a long time, so it's quite possible. And swaddling, of course, was another thing to take into account - I know people used to swaddle their babies, which presumably made a difference to how much they were able to struggle (as a 6 month-old might today!) but I'm not sure until what age they were swaddled. Maybe I should have asked that too! Many thanks for your reply, anyway.

Bill C said...

Sheffield Centre for the Archaeology of Childhood may be a useful resource:

AnHe said...

I feel that much of what can be found on the web about ancient history, especially niche subjects, is not very reliable, even in 2018, although there are some great sites around, of course. Have you come across this book in your search:Maureen Carroll, Infancy and Earliest Childhood in the Roman World: 'A Fragment of Time'? These might also be relevant: Christian Laes
Outsiders within
Cambridge University Press.
978 0 521 89746 4
Véronique Dasen and Thomas Späth, editors
I hope you can find them on google books
This online: (swaddling period mentioned on p 12)
It’s also mentioned here:
If you know all these anyway, I‘m sorry for bothering you.

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you so much all of you for your valuable suggestions and links. I shall look forward to checking them all out tomorrow.