Time travel secrets

The stylus 

The stylus which Felix finds in the bottle would have been used to write on a wax tablet. A stylus could be made of bronze like the one Felix finds, or sometimes silver or iron.

Roman wall painting of a woman holding a stylus and wax tablets. Photo Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons

2 ½ minutes is a Roman day

Felix first uses the stylus to go back in time at 2 pm on 2nd September. Petronia enters the present a few seconds after 2 pm, and they all return to Roman times at exactly 3.50 by his watch (110 minutes later in modern times, which is 44 Roman days). 110 minutes divided by 44 = 2.5 modern minutes to a Roman day. It is 25th March 315 CE when they first go back in time, and 8th May 315 CE when they take Petronia back. Lemuria is May 13, and the festival of Mercury is May 15. 

For readers of The Boy Who Stepped Through Time, Perry returned to Arles from the past at 8 pm on 1st Sept, which was mid January in 314 CE. Felix finds the stylus and the message in the bottle the next day – 18 modern hours, or 432 Roman days (1 year and 67 days) later. The slave Carotus has served an apprenticeship (Roman apprenticeships were usually one to three years long) and been freed by his master, although as a young boy he is not yet a full citizen.

In Chapter 14, when Felix works out that one Roman day is two and a half minutes in modern time, there doesn’t seem to be a Latin way to say ‘minute’ because the Romans didn’t count time in minutes or seconds. They used sundials, and hours (a different length from ours) were their smallest division of time. 

Past and future

We had to think of all sorts of things that would change when the children went back and forward in time. Ancient buildings are usually found well below modern street level, because over the centuries rubbish, earth and new floors build up the surface to a higher level.

This is what the building would look like when Felix and Zoe are transported back in time. Photo Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons


Roman people would probably have been a bit shorter than we are today, but we decided that the magic would make all the children the appropriate size for whichever time they found themselves in. 

Petronia thinks the cola in Chapter 8 is wine, because wine (mostly white wine) mixed with two or three parts of water was the usual drink for almost everyone in the Roman Empire, including children. Water was dirty, so it was mixed with wine to avoid illness, as alcohol kills germs and parasites. Petronia fetches the can of cola in Chapter 9 because wine offered to the gods was not mixed with water. She thinks the toilet brush is for wiping your bottom because Romans used a sponge on a stick, which was washed off in a bucket or drain between each user! 

Reconstruction of a Roman toilet sponge stick. Photo D. Herdemerten via Wikimedia Commons

Romans had no electricity, wrist watches, or electronic devices, so Petronia would be amazed by these in Chapters 6 and 7. Children didn’t play with plastic toys or electronic games, but often used natural objects such as stones, nuts or shells to play games, like the slave boys in Chapter 45.

Here are the rules for their game:

A player hides nuts or stones in his hand. The other has to guess whether an odd or an even number is hidden. The winner takes his opponent’s nuts or stones.

In a different game, players piled up four nuts. Each tried to topple each other’s piles with another nut. This is the game shown in the sculpture below, and perhaps the one the children are playing “with nuts and stones between the shoppers’ legs” in Chapter 13.

A sculpture of girls (on the left) and boys (on the right) playing a game with nuts. Photo Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons

The time travellers

We tried to think how Felix and Zoe could blend into a Roman crowd: Zoe would have to wear a long dress, and Felix could wear her short dress as a Roman tunic. Roman men didn’t usually wear trousers, but they were worn in some places outside the Empire, so he wouldn’t look too strange in his track pants. Respectable men and women also wore some sort of cloak or mantle draped around their body, when outside their home.  Togas were only worn on very special occasions, and slaves wore the same clothes as other people.

4th century mosaic showing men wearing tunics making an offering of incense to the goddess Diana. Photo Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikimedia Commons

Zoe and Felix are ancient names which would have been used by people in the Roman Empire, and all the names in the story are real names of the period, known from ancient writings, inscriptions or stamped on pottery. Zoe – and Eugenia and Sebastianus – are all Greek names, which were popular for high status people in the region at this time.

In Chapter 45 Felix uses the word “dinosaur” and in Chapter 24, Zoe mentions “hypothermia”: these “new Latin” words were created in the 19th century by putting together ancient words. We decided that Felix and Zoe could use these terms when speaking Latin, even though the Romans wouldn’t have done so.

Click here to find out more about Roman clothes, games, school, the Latin language, travel, and Roman Gaul (France in Roman times).

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