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What We Keep

First boil your ostrich

 

In the course of researching any past culture and its ways one occasionally comes on something that begs for experimentation. Cooking for instance, which tends to be largely experimentation anyway when I get my hands on it.

 

Wanting to get the menu of various fictional dinners right, and to know what one would eat for breakfast, I acquired a translation of the classic work on Roman food, the first-century recipes of Apicius, by two mid-twentieth century kitchen scholars who actually made most of the dishes before publishing their text.

 

Billed as "A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius for Use in the Study and the Kitchen," like many ancient texts this one derives only from copies of copies, preserved in two ninth-century versions of a fifth-century manuscript. Large chunks of it seem to be additions by the fifth-century editor, so there are the inevitable difficulties. One term, for instance, can mean either artichokes or mussels, which is going to make a difference in your recipe right there.

 

And there is the issue of measurement, because there isn't any, mainly. A sauce for boiled ostrich (should you be serving one) lists only the ingredients for the sauce but no quantities or instructions, other than to boil that too and pour it over the ostrich.

 

Naturally I want to make something out of this book, and am fortunate enough to have two mad friends who want to do so as well. When we can cook together again, I'm thinking of Chicken in the Numidian Way with the Spiced Wine Surprise.          

 

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The devil is in the details

Not a dog

 

Ever since I inadvertently put honeybees in the pre-Columbian southwest (they were a European import) and didn't realize my error until well after the book was in print, I have been an obsessive researcher of the kind of minutiae that, pre-internet, used to make authors throw up their hands and say "I don't care, it sounds logical and I'm putting it in," or scrap that lovely scene that relied on the presence of a piece of honeycomb. Did the Romans have window glass? (yes) Bound books? (only beginning with the late first century) Are marigolds a New World flower? (yes) Fly fishing in the Roman Empire? (only in the late second century)

 

I have never done anything as truly awful as the guy who thought prairie dogs were dogs and went on for pages about their big feet and floppy ears, but I have nightmares all the same. Even with the wonders of search engines you can spend hours when you are supposed to be writing chasing one fact for a two-sentence appearance in a 400 page book. This is known as verisimilitude, sense of place, and Some Kind of Disorder.

 

And then there's provenance. Not everyone on the Internet knows what they are talking about, believe it or not. If you are not willing to take the word of the first site you stumble on that Senator Mushrat is actually an alien lizard, then by all means apply that filter to your historical research. There's a lovely Facebook group where I glean a lot of interesting information, but the comments section inevitably bogs down in international squabbles over whose culture was better and thus who built whatever it was, not to mention the ongoing arguments about why Augustus could not have had blond hair (he probably did) and why an iron collar just the right size for a human neck, that says "I belong to Marcus Ginantonicus of the Sixth Legion, I have run away, please return," isn't a slave collar and must have been for a dog.

 

So much of what is accurate is counterintuitive, and so much that sounds right isn't. And there are so many fascinating things to investigate that aren't critical to your novel and actually fall into the category of Things That Are Interesting But Do Not Belong Here No Matter How Much You Like Them. It's so easy to spend a blissful two hours learning how sewage was disposed of and then realize that you have no place to put it that isn't utterly contrived, and the details are revolting anyway and emphatically not the ambience you are looking for. I have a little folder of these. One of these days someone is going to be appointed Aedile in charge of drains and I will be ready.

 

 

Photo credit: Joe Ravi

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Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

 

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

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By any other name

The rumors that Elvis is still alive have a little extra fascination for me currently, since I've been working on a book that includes the Nero Redivivus cult. Gullibility being nothing new, it was as dismayingly easy then as now to convince a group of people not adept at critical thought that a man who has been seen to die and be buried by several people has not actually died at all, and has been hiding in disguise all this time. The plebeians loved Nero since he was openhanded with them, and they strewed flowers on his tomb for years, so it isn't surprising that there were at least three manifestations of opportunists claiming to be Nero, tenuously based on resemblance to the late emperor and ability to play the lyre, in the twenty years after his suicide had forestalled an outright assassination.

     This book, a project I never expected, has reminded me once again why I love the Romans—they are so appallingly like us. Writing is a weird business, but since it's all I know how to do, I have made my living thereby all my life, in one way or another, either the doing or the teaching. Now, unexpectedly, the Romans have showed up again.

     My first novel, The Legions of the Mist, was set in Roman Britain, and my next three, The Centurions series, in Britain and Germany and Rome. Those were written for a book packager under the pseudonym of Damion Hunter, since the packager had been burned once by a writer who wrote a million-selling series under his own name and then got bored and quit. Any future series, it was decreed, went under pseudonyms so that other writers could be assigned. Alas, my series never even went to the contracted four books since the publisher was swallowed up by a different house which promptly killed all its current projects.

     Now a UK publisher, Canelo, has contacted me out of the blue and, hot damn, has republished those old Roman books, and even suggested I write new ones. I had got so tired of explaining, while I was writing things for the book packager, that all those names were really me, that I had sworn I wouldn't use a pseudonym again. Maddeningly, but fortuitously, we discovered that the old pseudonym has a small cult following among Roman reenactors and some recognition among Roman history buffs, and you don't want to waste that sort of thing. So we have compromised, and all my old Roman novels are out again as "Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter," which seems reasonable.

     Better yet, I have written a sequel to Legions, called The Wall at the End of the World, which is out now, and am writing that long-delayed fourth book in the Centurions series. I feel rather like Nero, except that I am actually me and definitely not dead.

 

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