Thursday 26 May 2022

Roman Honour Killings - Lucretia and Verginia by Elisabeth Storrs

The women of very early Rome were definitely second-class citizens with no rights to vote or hold property. They were known only by one name, that of their father’s in feminine form. As I mentioned in my previous post, The Legend of Tarpeia – A Roman Morality Tale, it’s interesting the Roman foundation stories chronicle the deaths of the matron, Lucretia, and the virgin, Verginia, as catalysts for significant political upheaval.

The fables of the doomed women have been handed down to us through Roman and Greek historians such as Livy, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, however, it should be noted that these scholars wrote their accounts centuries after the events described, and without access to primary sources. Accordingly, readers should recognize the exploits of the characters do not reflect the actual history of that city. Nevertheless, while the existence of these women is debatable, their legends have been passed down through the ages as examples of the Roman virtues of chastity, modesty and fidelity.

Tarqinio e Lucrezia by Jan Massys ca 1550

In telling their stories, it’s important to understand the concept of a ‘blood taint’ in Roman customary laws. A woman was expected to be chaste if she was a maiden, and faithful if she was a wife. A husband or father was entitled to kill their wife or daughter if she had an affair. They could also kill them if they deemed a woman’s honour had been sullied regardless of whether she was innocent or guilty of the act that may have constituted her ‘corruption’. This covered the spectrum from a girl being discovered alone with a man without a chaperone to the commission of a rape. Once a woman’s sexual purity had been compromised her blood became ‘tainted’. A woman was also expected to value her own honour as can be seen from the story of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was married to the Roman nobleman, Collatinus, during the reign of the tyrannical Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus. When Collatinus boasted his wife was more virtuous than Etruscan wives, the king’s son, Prince Sextus Tarquinius, visited Lucretia to test this claim. Holding a sword to her throat, he demanded she sleep with him.  When she refused, he threatened to not only kill her but also leave the corpse of a naked slave beside her so that Collatinus (and all Rome) would think she had committed adultery with a servant.  To avoid bringing such shame upon her husband, the matron yielded to Sextus. The next day Collatinus discovered the rape and was prepared to forgive Lucretia for her blood taint. Despite his pleas, though, she took her own life rather than live with dishonour.  Her defilement and self-sacrifice incited the Romans to rise up and rid Rome of their oppressive and depraved Etruscan rulers. After this, the Romans vowed never again to be governed by a monarch and the Republic of Rome was born.

Verginia’s story is similarly tragic. She was a pawn whose death stirred the men of Rome to rise up and depose the corrupt government of the Decemvirs, ‘ten men’ elected to rule Rome after King Tarquinius had been expelled.

Verginia was the daughter of a centurion, Lucius Verginius.  The plebeian maiden was known for her exceptional beauty. She caught the eye of the patrician judge, Appius Claudius, who was one of the Decemvirs. Whilst Verginius was away, Claudius organized for a client to bring a thinly veiled court case claiming Verginia was his slave on the basis he would then hand the girl over for Claudius to use.  The fact the girl was deprived of her liberty by a wrongful assertion of slavery outraged the populace as it was clear Claudius was abusing his power to enable him to debauch the girl. Even though Verginius returned in time to discover the scheme, Claudius ruled Verginia should be removed from her father’s house anyway.  Not wishing his daughter to be subjected to the shame of being a rich man’s whore and a slave, the centurion took a butcher’s knife and slew her.  The outcry that followed led to the downfall of the Decemvirs. Verginius himself was not condemned as a murderer, though, because he had power of life and death over his daughter.

The Death of Verginia by Heinrich Frierich Fuger

The paternalism of these stories jars because we see these women only as victims of the ‘system’ rather than active champions of rebellion. As such, the ravaged and self-sacrificing Lucretia is not depicted as being an instigator of reform in her own right by the ancient historians. Nevertheless, on my reading of Livy’s From the Founding of the City, I like to interpret Lucretia as exhorting both insurrection as well as personal vengeance based on her challenge to her father and husband: “He [Sextus] . . . came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure will be my death—and his, too, if you are men”. Those four words, “if you are men”, are telling. Rape was a capital crime. As such, her father and husband had the right to lawfully take retribution against Sextus. Killing a prince of the Tarquinian royal house, however, was far more problematic, and required considerable courage. Given no Roman man had been valiant enough to rebel against the Etruscan tyrants, Lucretia’s taunt was powerful and defiant. It was only after her shocking suicide the men of Rome were finally spurred to rebellion. As such I like to see her as a woman with a passion for justice. And it gives me satisfaction to know her name is perhaps more famous than the men who avenged her. The tragic matron has not been forgotten. Her name lives on in literature, poetry and art.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Jan Massys – Tarquino e Lucrezia,  ca 1550

Heinrich Friedrich Fuger – The Death of Virginia ca 1800

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the co-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

Friday 20 May 2022

Topiarist elves (and a bit of garden history) by Carolyn Hughes

I was prompted to write this post by a moth. A box moth, to be precise, like this…

Photo © David Hughes 2016

If you have box hedges and you live in a place where they have become invasive, you will probably know about the box moth. And, pretty as it is, it will definitely not be a welcome visitor to your garden. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, and the caterpillar was found in gardens in 2011. Since then, it has become widespread, and last year it arrived in our garden.

The moth is difficult to control, and it can ruin your lovingly clipped hedges, so, at the weekend, we made the decision to remove most of ours. I was sad but resigned and, as I watched them go, I was reminded both of other box hedges we have known, and of what I knew about the history of topiary.

You might not much care for topiary – clipped box, but also yew and suchlike – but I really rather like it. We have maintained a few little box hedges and balls in our garden for many years. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we have been going for our summer holidays for nearly thirty years (and where, in a few weeks, we are going again for the first time in over two years), there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, and balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads.

It seems almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

The first time we saw them, very many years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. We still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this. Is he/she alone or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though some of the clippings had clearly been quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves.

Photo © Author 2016

Photo © Author 2016

Photo © Author 2016

Anyway, seeing those mountain sculptures set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times.

In Europe, apparently, the Romans did practise the art of topiary. Both Pliny and Martial mentioned it, and Roman shrub sculpture included animals and obelisks, as well as more straightforward clipped hedges and cones.

It seems that topiary might then have died out, in Europe anyway, for several centuries. Disappointingly, I think it is probably true that there was no topiary in mediaeval gardens, or at least not in gardens of the fourteenth century, for I have not so far tracked down any helpful images from before 1400. (Although if anyone does know of some, I would love to see them.) However, illustrations certainly do exist of clipped shrubs, in tubs and in garden beds, from later in the fifteenth century, although the topiary does generally seem to be quite simple, mostly clipped balls or pyramids and a characteristically mediaeval form called “estrade”, which was a sort of “layered cake” design – something like this…

Illustration taken from The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg. Source unspecified

A much later picture, of the eighteenth-century gardens of Powis Castle in Wales, shows similar “layered” clipped trees planted in the ground.

A view of Powis Castle with formal gardens, c.1780. Image in the public domain

In the sixteenth century, though, topiary was revived with much greater enthusiasm and expression, on a grand scale in the gardens of wealthy Europeans, but also in the more domestic setting of cottage gardens. Yet, despite the grand scale of their settings, some parterres in the gardens of castles and great houses were often again quite simple in their overall design, with low clipped hedges punctuated by the occasional pyramid, and trees in tubs, clipped generally into balls.

The glorious gardens at Château de Villandry in France illustrate how this relatively simple style might have looked, though of course on an astonishing scale.

Photo © David Hughes

The fashion for more complicated “shrub sculpture” came from Holland, and spread to England in the late seventeenth century. However, it apparently fell out of fashion in the following century, amongst the gentry at least, when, as I understand it, some landscape gardeners must have gone a bit over the top with the complexity or, perhaps, sheer silliness of their designs and drew howls of ridicule.

But, in the nineteenth century, the art underwent yet another revival with, first, architectural topiary – essentially garden “rooms” enclosed by trimmed hedges – becoming popular, and, eventually, the more sculptural clipping returned as well.

Nowadays, it seems that topiary is more popular than ever, with wonderful examples of “grand designs”, such as those at Château de Villandry, and many other astonishing great gardens around the world, and a myriad different and sometimes extremely quirky designs of all shapes and sizes.

Beckley Park, Oxfordshire. Photograph by Vivian Garrido, via Wikimedia Commons

Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire (National Trust). Photograph by Mike Peel (

The extraordinary yew hedge, trimmed into abstract, cloud-like forms,
planted at Powis Castle, Wales (National Trust) in the 18th century or earlier.
Photograph by Sjwells53, via Wikimedia Commons

I was amused, years ago, to see this example of shrub sculpture at the National Trust house Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, though I did not take a photo of it myself.

Photograph © Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

And it so reminded me of one of those photographs I had taken on my holiday in France that I wondered if perhaps the Vercors elves had taken a trip to Dorset for inspiration before they set to with their shears along the mountain roads…

Friday 13 May 2022

Don't you Dare Forget About Me By L.J. Trafford

An example of a Roman Emperor

Being a Roman Emperor is hard; what with a daily inbox brimming with problems that desperately require solutions; barbarian incursions, military mutinies, revolting provinces, troublesome new religions, failed harvests, plague, inflation, riots - not to mention your own officials plotting behind your back to replace you.

On top of those energy sapping problems an emperor was also expected to do stuff for their people. Easy, I hear you cry, Bread and Circuses! Oh if only it were that easy. Let’s take the circus part of that duo of people pleasers.

The emperor builds a shiny new amphitheatre. If it’s the colosseum it’s taken 10 whole years to complete, a whopping big hugely complex building project that took hundreds of people and oodles of money. This structure is not for the emperor, it’s not a palace where he can kick off his sandals at the end of hard day of emperoring and sink into a comfy couch with a glass of vino and some honey roasted dormice to snack on, it is purely for his people.

You’d think they’d be at least a bit grateful for the effort or at the least the thought. But no! They require more. They want to be entertained and they want the emperor to pay for and stage this entertainment in their shiny new amphitheatre he’s taken 10 years to build for them. And it was not enough to throw a load of gladiators in the arena and tell them to get on with it. Oh no, the people want to see something new from their emperor, something novel, something that nobody had ever seen before, and they want to see it now or else they might riot out their displeasure at your ever so ordinary games.

Even if they are enjoying watching two blind men fight, elephants walking the tightrope and freaking leopards doing kick boxing (that last one is invented, as far as we know, frankly I’m not ruling it out) they will probably make use of being in the same space as the man who makes all the decisions by yelling out why they think those decisions you made stink. This being ancient Rome, a time when poets put pen to papyri to threaten people they didn’t like with the insertion of a radish and a mullet fish in an orifice of their choice and the noble citizen of a seaside down one day paused on his evening walk to scrawl the immortal line ‘I’ve buggered men’ on a wall*, you can bet that such political commentary is likely not going to be terribly polite.

And just to top it off not only did you have to pay for the entertainment of others, provide a suitable level of spectacle and take abuse from the crowd, you also had to look like you were enjoying the thing! Because if you for one small moment look away to sign some official form or the gods forbid take a quick nap you could find yourself publicly scorned or possibly even assassinated!. Witness here Augustus trying to avoid the bloody fate of his adopted father, Julius Caesar.

He gave his entire attention to the performance, either to avoid the censure to which he realized that his father Caesar had been generally exposed, because he spent his time in reading or answering letters and petitions. Suetonius Life of Augustus.

Oh and did I mention the prizes? Yes, aside from the free novel entertainment and the opportunity to abuse the man at the top, a good emperor tossed prizes into the crowd.

These demands of perfection are applied to every task that an emperor undertakes. Woe betide any that fall a cm short, because they can expect to find themselves in one of the pithier passages in Suetonius’ highly entertaining biographies of the first eleven emperors (and Julius Caesar) or in the case of Claudius here who grievously failed with the Bread part, actual physical danger:

When there was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he was once stopped in the middle of the Forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the Palace by a back door.
Suetonius Life of Claudius

The Emperor Claudius having possibly lost his clothes in that mob attack

Is it any surprise that Emperors dive at the perks of the role, grasping them in both hands and shed a grateful tear as their name is slapped on a building, a month renamed in their honour and an enormous dish of flamingo tongues and eel spunk* is placed in front of them? Frankly they deserve that eel spunk, let them have it. 

However, one Emperor decided he wanted proper appreciation for the job that he’d done and he found a way that ensured that the generally ungrateful Roman public could never forget all the good stuff he had done for them. The route he took to do this was not subtle, but subtlety gets you nowhere in a society where lucky penises are scrawled onto every available surface. His name was Augustus and you’ll have heard of him because he made damn sure he was unforgettable by writing a list of everything he’d done that was marvellous, having it inscribed in massive letters and shipping copies to be put on display throughout the empire.

The man himself, Augustus looking damn Imperial


The Res Gestae Divi Augustus or the deeds of the divine Augustus as it translates, is a list of all the achievements that Rome’s first emperor wanted to be recorded for posterity. It consists of 35 paragraphs, every single one of which translates as ‘I’m brilliant, marvel at it.’

Reading the Res Gestae for the first time is an interesting experience, the boastful tone is at odds with our modern sensibilities where achievements must be downplayed, and we must act humble and grateful when rightfully rewarded. Or at least you do when you’re British. Probably the nearest analogy I can find to the Res Gestae is a job application and that box that asks you to, ‘explain why we should appoint you to the position of xxxx using examples.’ Which you fill in with an account of how you have made a glorious success of every job you've ever held and how much everyone loved you for that, even if you didn’t and they didn’t. But nobody ever got offered a job interview by downplaying their successes or referencing the time they completely cocked up a project.

Amongst Augustus' many talents was directing people to the facilities

The Res Gestae is similar in tone. There is no mention of any cock ups in those 35 paragraphs but rather a hugely long list of things he, Augustus, has personally done during his forty odd years in power. He uses ‘I’ 122 times in a text that is only 3861 words long, so he would have been useless at the teamwork question on a job application. But being proactive and working on one’s own initiative Augustus has examples of in spades, as it evident from the opening line of the Res Gestae

“At the age of nineteen [44 BC] on my own responsibility and at my own expense I raised an army, with which I successfully championed the liberty of the republic when it was oppressed by the tyranny of a faction.”

A singular sentence that is capable of rendering every reader over 20 feeling instantly inadequate and pondering quite why they spent so much time downing £1 pints of cider in the student union bar when they could have been off championing the liberty of the republic instead.

On keeping the ungrateful people of Rome grateful Augustus is at pains to mention how many times he dipped into his pockets for them:

To each member of the Roman plebs I paid under my father's will 300 sesterces and in my own name I gave them 400 each from the booty of war in my fifth consulship, and once again in my tenth consulship I paid out 400 sesterces as a largesse to each man from my own patrimony, and in my eleventh consulship I bought grain with my own money and distributed twelve rations apiece, and in the twelfth year of my tribunician power I gave every man 400 sesterces for the third time. These largesses of mine never reached fewer than 250,000 persons.

Now I could work out for you what 300 sesterces times 250,000 people is and then do the same for the subsequent amounts mentioned and then translate this into how many loaves of bread/soldiers/pints of eel spunk that would purchase in total. But I don’t need to, the fact that Augustus mentions it and the number of 0’s that feature demonstrates on its own that Augustus gave away sh*t loads of money to the Roman public. Although it might be handy for you to know that the annual salary of a soldier in this time was around 1200 sesterces per year and soldiers were considered suitably recompensed. Because if they weren’t there tended to be trouble of the pointy sword variety.

Yet another thing Augustus was brilliant at - obedience training wild boars

In a paragraph dedicated to the Games he staged, Augustus is keen to have noted the efforts he went to in providing entertainments.

I gave beast-hunts of African beasts in my own name or in that of my sons and grandsons in the circus or forum or amphitheater on twenty-six occasions, on which about 3,500 beasts were destroyed. I produced a naval battle as a show for the people at the place across the Tiber now occupied by the grove of the Caesars, where a site 1,800 feet long and 1,200 broad was excavated. There thirty beaked triremes or biremes and still more smaller vessels were joined in battle. About 3,000 men, besides the rowers, fought in these fleets

I can almost feel him hovering over my shoulder like the ghost of Obi wan Kenobi in Star Wars saying in Alec Guiness' deep voice ‘Be impressed, my child.’ Impressed am I' (accidental Yoda voice).

Augustus with that far more succinct first draft of the Res Gestae

Other impressive things Augustus is keen to impress upon us include .

I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy.
Bless you, Imperial Majesty

I restored the Capitol and the theatre of Pompey, both works at great expense without inscribing my own name on either.
 Unexpectantly restrained of you, Imperial Majesty

The door-posts of my house were publicly wreathed with bay leaves and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a golden shield was set in the Curia Julia, which, as attested by the inscription thereon, was given me by the senate and people of Rome on account of my courage, clemency, justice and piety.
Humble much, Imperial Majesty?

I made the sea peaceful and freed it of pirates. 
 Ooo ahhh, Imperial Majesty

And my all time favourite:  After this time I excelled all in influence, although I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies. 
Of course you didn’t Imperial Majesty whom I am calling Imperial Majesty because I want to of my own free will.

The Res Gestae as well as being a document to big up one man (and by the gods it does that!) also acts as a blueprint for what a good emperor should be; they should be generous to the people, build a ton of stuff, secure Rome’s frontiers & conquer new lands, be mindful of religion and paying respect to the gods, take care to reward the army and put on fabulous entertainments.

All of which sounds bloody exhausting, someone pass the roasted dormice please!

* The poet here is Catullus who has the reputation for writing an opening line to a poem so filthy it wasn't translated into English until the 20th century, 2000 years after it was written.
* A favourite dish of the Emperor Vitellius, it is referred to in our sources by the far nicer sounding milt of lampreys.

L.J. Trafford is the author of many books about Ancient Rome, she just can't stop writing them. Amongst her titles are How to Survive in Ancient Rome a guide for the would be time traveller to the year 95 CE and Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome a guide for people interested in that sort of thing.

Friday 6 May 2022

Local History - Celia Rees

Publisher: Amberley Books
 (Images Jamie  Robinson)

I was very excited recently to be able to go to a real, live event hosted by wonderful Warwick Books, my closest Indie bookshop. I went to hear Warwick writer, S. C. Skillman, talking about her latest book: Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. This was the first live event I'd attended since before the pandemic, so it was nice to see the author in person talking about her book, answering questions and engaging with an audience. Zoom is a poor substitute, especially as the event took place in the Visitors' Centre of Hill Close Gardens, a rare survival of original Victorian gardens once used by Warwick townsfolk to escape from the crowded town. Once under serious threat from development, these gardens have been lovingly restored and still present a haven of birdsong, peace and quiet. If you are ever in or around Warwick, they are well worth a visit. 

Author - S. C. Skillman (Celia Rees)

I'm Warwickshire born and bred and I love local history and local stories, especially of the spooky kind. S. C. Skillman's previous book was entitled Paranormal Warwickshire, so it is not difficult to locate where her interest also lies. I have used local stories in my writing. The notorious St Valentine's Day murder of agricultural labourer, Charles Walton, on Meon Hill in 1945 was inspiration for my third novel, Colour Her Dead. The crime is unsolved to this day. Surrounded by a wall of silence, accompanied by whispers of witchcraft, carried out in a place with its own strange and sinister legends, the story has a prominent place in modern Warwickshire folk lore. I blogged about it here in 2012 and it is well covered in Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire in chapters, Tales of Warwickshire Witchcraft and Rural Crimes, with accompanying photographs of Lower Quinton, Charles Walton's home village hard by Meon Hill, and the hill itself.  

Meon Hill (Celia Rees)

S. K. Skillman covers many of my own favourite places and stories. Some I already knew, others I didn't know at all. I had no idea, for example, that J.R.R. Tolkien had an association with Warwick town and may have referenced Warwick Castle in his work. Neither did I know that the Old Coffee Tavern in Warwick was haunted and I've never noticed the carving of Old Tom in the Market Square. I'll look out for it and other apotropaic carvings next time I'm in Warwick. 

Old Tom, Swan Street, Warwick (S.C. Skillman)

Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire ranges across the whole county and covers all sorts of fascinating local stories and legends, some from the deep past but others happening as recently as 2018 with a big cat sighting on the golf course of the Ardencote Manor Hotel.  The author covers Warwickshire notables, from William Shakespeare to Larry Grayson. Some famous, like Daisy, Countess of Warwick, others not so famous like traditional toymaker, Cyril Hobbins. 

I'd like to thank Warwick Books and Sheila Skillman for a fascinating evening in a magical place. I'm from Warwickshire, so I'm biased, but it was good to be reminded of the rich and varied history of this ancient county. The evening ended with a performance from a local Morris Side, Plum Jerkum. My family come from Warwickshire and this was what my brother called slivovitz, or any plum based schnapps,  Sheila explains that it was the name for a plum cider - something I've never tried. The cider was made from a local plum, the Warwickshire Drooper. My dad had a tree on his allotment and they are still dotted all over local allotments. I've never tried plum cider but they do make the most delicious jam!

Warwickshire Droopers
Plum Jerkum Morris Side (Terence Rees)

Celia Rees
Insta: celiarees1
Twitter: @CeliaRees