How I found out about Roman life

To find out about the details of everyday life like clothes, houses, games, birthdays, furniture and school I used ancient Roman writings, paintings, mosaics, sculptures and archaeology.  I read books, articles and museum information pages written by archaeologists and historians to learn about them, although the remains from the past are so fragmentary that sometimes my answer to Anna’s questions was “Nobody knows!” 

Ancient writings 

From Roman letters, poems, recipes and farming manuals (always checking the original Latin text!) I found out about:

  • farming and villas in the countryside, 
  • food, 
  • festivals and prayers, 
  • birthdays and presents, 
  • festivities to welcome the emperor, 
  • markets, 
  • and even the fake Egyptian magician with a snake show, used in chapter 32. 

When Anna wanted to know if a child slave could become an apprentice to a wall painter, I looked at ancient contracts and found out that a slave of the age of about 12 could be apprenticed by his master to a craft.

To plan the journey from the villa to the townhouse we used a real 4th century map.

Map from villa to Arelate
Part of a late Roman map showing roads and stopping places in Gaul. Arelate (Arelato) can be seen in the far left bottom corner. If you follow along the shoreline you can find Aquae Sextiae (Aquis Sextis) in the centre marked by a big building, and Forum Julii (Foro Iulii), the nearest town to the villa, on the right hand end. The map gives the number of Roman miles (in Roman numerals) between stopping places. Image via Wikimedia Commons

To find out what luggage they should pack for the journey, I used the list given in a fourth century document describing the travels of a Roman official.

Roman buildings

Many Roman buildings were so well built that they are still partly standing today, like the baths and amphitheatre at Arles.

The curved section of Constantine’s Bathhouse “like a fat stomach jutting towards the road” made of stone and brick, which Perry sees in Arles. This is the outside of a semi-circular hot bath. Photo Mbzt via Wikimedia Commons

Even when buildings are ruined, archaeologists can reconstruct many details of daily life from the foundations of the walls, pipes and drains, remains of toilets and rubbish pits, and the fragments of roof tiles, mosaics, wall paintings and columns which they find. 

Maximus’s town house is based on the remains of a real Roman town house found in Arles. Click here for a 3D reconstruction video.

Perry’s visit to the ruins is inspired by the remains of the real villa at Taradeau, in the grounds of the Château de Saint Martin.

Ruins of the villa of Saint Martin de Taradeau, France. Image courtesy of the Château de Saint Martin

Click here for a video of the ruins of the villa at Taradeau which we used as the model for Villa Rubia (first two minutes, French commentary).

Click here to see a video in French of a Festival held at the Chateau of Saint Martin (the model for Chateau Taradel in the story). You can glimpse the ruins of the villa and the medieval wine cellar described in the book.

Finds from the past

I read about archaeological remains of plants, animal bones, burials, jewellery, spoons and plates, furniture, and shrines to the gods, to find out about details to use in the story. The Romans used baked reddish-orange, black, white or pale brown clay to make oil lamps, cups and plates, food storage containers, cooking pots and pots (amphorae) to transport food on ships, and many of their remains have been found. The Museum of Ancient Arles has lots of objects mentioned in the story, such as a little folding knife like the one belonging to Carotus, the ivory and gold fan and emerald earrings we have given to Donata, knuckle bones made from sheep trotters, and a little statuette of a goddess from a household shrine – like the statuettes in the story.

One of the objects in the cabinet of “Roman Treasures” found in the villa, and displayed at the chateau. A tool like this would have been used in making the iron brackets for the weight stone in the story. Image courtesy of the Château de Saint Martin
A 4th century dice tower like the characters use for playing King of Saturnalia in the book. Image Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn via Wikimedia Commons

Pictures and statues

I studied mosaics of people making flower garlands, having a picnic or going to the baths. 

A 4th century mosaic of children and women working in a rose garden making garlands (hanging from the tree). Look for the citron and Carotus’s caterpillar from the story at the base! Piazza Armerina. Photo José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia Commons

Sculptures on Roman tombs, and rich, elaborate coffins displayed inside tomb buildings, sometimes show scenes of the dead person’s life. I found sculptures of a woman keeping a shop, men and women eating dinner, and a child holding a pet. 

Sculpture of a young girl holding what is probably a cat, 2nd century Gaul. Cats were more rare than dogs as pets, and were usually kept to chase mice and rats. Photo Pline via Wikimedia Commons
Sculpture of a woman selling live rabbits, hens, and snails (in the tall basket), which was used for the shopping scenes in the story and for the illustration of Arelate. The shopkeeper has two pet monkeys to attract customers! Can you spot the snail the sculptor has carved to show what is inside the basket? Photo via Roman Ports (public domain)

The wall paintings that survive in the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy are a wonderful source of information. They were preserved when the volcano Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and give us rare glimpses of everyday life. 

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