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.  These writings or remains from the past are called “primary sources”. I read books, articles and museum information pages written by archaeologists and historians to learn about them. These modern works are called “secondary sources”. Sometimes the remains from the past were so fragmentary that my answer to Anna’s questions was “Nobody knows!” 

Ancient writings 

From Roman letters, poems, novels, 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.

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.

The description of a fake Egyptian magician and snake charmer at the market and the horrible remedies in chapter 24 come from Roman medical writers and a scene in a Roman novel.

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. Click here to see images of the kind of wall paintings with fake painted marble like Anna describes in the room used for lessons at Villa Rubia. The mosaics in these photos are similar to many found in southern Gaul.

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.

Sometimes, even when few traces of the buildings remain, we can use old pictures to reconstruct them: the arch on the cover of The Boy Who Stepped Through Time is based on a drawing made of a grand arch in Arles before it was demolished in 1684. It may have been built by Emperor Constantine.

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

We have changed some details of the villa for the sake of the story, and we have imagined that a building with an oven excavated near the front gate is the bakery, where Poppillus and Carotus sleep.

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

Click here to see images of the kind of finds we used in the story, including wine and water jugs like Perry and Carotus would have used at dinner, spoons like those used in Maximus’s  town house, knives like the cook would use in chapter 27, statuettes of gods and goddesses that would have stood on household shrines, and amphorae like Perry sees in the villa kitchen. The reconstruction of a carpenter at work shows a strap drill, like Oxittus would have used to make the holes in the oil press stone, on the floor beside him.

Images and sculptures

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. 

Click here to see the sculpture of painters working on a wall painting which inspired the scenes of Tadius and his apprentices, and a reconstruction, from the Centre for the Study of Roman Wall Painting in Soissons.

Experiments and science

Researchers sometimes use special ways to find out more. Archaeologists have painted a fake Roman wall to find out about the methods used for wall painting, and have tried making coins using a mallet to see how quickly they can be minted that way. 

Click here to view a video of experimental minting of coins using Roman methods. See the sparks and flames, and a sample gold coin – the head of Emperor Constantine!

Click here to see an archaeologist and a baker making Roman style bread like Perry eats, in an authentic oven.

By using special light and chemical analysis, we know that the ancient stone statues which now look white were once painted brilliant colours – as Perry notices in Constantine’s Bathhouse.

Colour reconstruction of a Roman period statue, based on the use of infrared light and examination of tiny traces of paint. Photo Carole Raddato via flickr.com/photos/carolemage

Click here to view a digital tutorial on the science of rediscovering paint on ancient statues. Many of these are much earlier Greek statues, but if you search for “Small Herculaneum Woman” you will find out more about the statue above.

Archaeologists can also examine bones to find out about ancient diet and health, or to calculate average height. People in Roman times were probably a few centimetres shorter than today, but we decided that Perry would shrink to Roman size when he went back into the past.

Computer experts and archaeologists work together to create accurate reconstructions from the remains of buildings and objects. Click here to view a digital reconstruction video of the luxurious early 4th century bath house of the Emperor Diocletian in Rome, produced by the National Roman Museum. 

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