Two obsessions have fueled most of my stories: the English Regency and Roman archaeology. They seem to be unrelated subjects, so it surprised me to stumble on the image shown here. This caricature by James Gillray, dated to 1801 (technically, a little before the Regency), shows Sir William Hamilton studying his collection of antiquities. The wall behind him features paintings of Cleopatra, Mark Antony, the emperor Claudius and an erupting Vesuvius.
I’m not sure what the vampire-like statue in the background represents, but the Wikimedia description page for the image explains that the joke behind it is that the paintings of Cleopatra and Mark Antony are actually portraits of Hamilton’s wife Emma and her lover Vice Admiral Nelson (renowned for fighting against Napoleon and dying at the Battle of Trafalgar). I imagine the volcano symbolizes something else, too. 🙂
It turns out that William and Emma Hamilton have bios as fascinating as Nelson’s. His Wiki describes him as a “Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and volcanologist.” Hers tells of her evolution from maid to actress/model (a favorite of painter George Romney) to titled lady. William reportedly encouraged her relationship with the war hero Nelson, and the three of them lived together in London.
The truth is stranger than fiction, so it’s hard to follow up a tale like that, but one of my books also touches on both of my obsessions: Lord St Leger’s Find is about an aspiring female archaeologist during the English Regency whose family thinks it’s more important for her to find a husband than to find antiquities. For a complete description and sample chapters, please check out the book page here.
I love coming across unexpectedly modern (seeming) things that the Romans had or did. That’s why I included details about ancient central heating in my Regency romance Lord St Leger’s Find and about 2,000-year-old flush toilets in my contemporary, The Five-Day-Dig.
Recently, I stumbled across this cute depiction on the left of cherubs playing hide-and-seek. This scene is from a fresco found in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. It’s so reminiscent of kids playing the game today.
In the carved relief seen below of slaves helping a wealthy Roman woman with her toilette, I was surprised to notice that the woman is sitting in a wicker chair. Fortunately, we no longer have slaves, but the wicker chair looks just like one you could still buy new.
And shown in this last photo are ancient Roman pots and pans on display in the Museo Archeologico in Naples, Italy. I have almost all of these in my own kitchen.
For more intriguing examples like these, check out the collection of photos posted in the discussion here.
As I mentioned in my last post, to me, learning about the everyday lives of our ancestors is the most fascinating part of studying the past. That’s why I love this example of a fast-food joint among the ruins of Pompeii.
A wood fire burned in the hearth (obviously), but the really clever thing is that the marble-topped brick counter is hollowed out and connected to the fireplace so heated air flowed through it. The proprietors kept hot food in the large ceramic pots set into the counter, while the shelves above the fireplace held room-temperature offerings like wine, olives, fruits and nuts.
Beyond the area in view here, dine-in customers could eat in a small seating area, but most people would have grabbed something at the counter from the sidewalk, then continued on their way. The place appears to have run so much like a modern pizzeria that it’s a little scary.
Dozens of places like this line the main drag in Pompeii, while relatively few domestic kitchens have been found, leading some archaeologists to believe that most Pompeian meals were take-out. My guess is that in the fairly warm climate, a lot of home-cooking took place outdoors (grilling on the patio, as it were). But Romans did buy their bread from large public bakeries, so they were definitely accustomed to industrialized food.
It’s stuff like this that makes me feel we “Westerners” basically just are the Romans a couple thousand years later. Our government, our creature comforts, our industriousness, and our concept of hygiene all seem to have passed down from them. Not to mention that we celebrate the same holidays, only with different names. : D If mulling over the ancients floats your boat, please consider my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day Dig.
All right, I know the Romans invented pretty much everything — or poached it from the people they conquered — but even the Franklin stove? The “brazier” shown here, probably used just like Ben Franklin would have used one, is part of a collection of Pompeian domestic items on display in “Pompeii: An Art of Living,” an exhibition recently featured at the Musée Maillol in Paris.
Not sure if it’s because I’m a “girl” or what, but evidence of everyday life in the past is so much more interesting to me than history, which mostly tells about wars. It’s fascinating to see how people 2,000 years ago warmed their rooms, supplied running water to their houses, or cooked their food. As this article on the exhibition mentioned above points out, life in a Roman town would have been much more recognizable and comfortable to us than life a thousand years later in medieval times.
I wonder if Franklin, famous both for his inventions and for establishing social institutions like a hospital, a library, and fire company, did a little poaching of his own from the ancients. Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid-1700s. He definitely would have read about it — maybe even visited.
Aha! A little Googling brings up an excerpt from Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today revealing that Ben Franklin “went to much trouble” to acquire for the Philadelphia Library a copy of the expensive book A Collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan Antiquities — and that it became one of only a few reference books, not allowed to be borrowed.
It just goes to show that those who know the past also repeat it, only they can choose to repeat the smart parts instead of the stupid stuff.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy writes, “Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years.”
When I read those lines back in college, it hit home to me for the first time that Rome actually had pervaded Britain. Hardy grew up in the south of England near Dorchester, once the Roman town of Durnovaria, and he based the fictional Casterbridge on his home town. In real life, the amphitheater described later in the chapter excerpted above is an earthwork now called Maumbury Rings.
The idea of finding Roman bones — and grave goods — in one’s backyard intrigued me. My husband and I even visited Dorchester and loved the town, with its impressive museum and welcoming atmosphere. The intrigue the Hardy excerpt evoked in me eventually grew into the idea for my Regency romance novel, Lord St. Leger’s Find. The estate where the heroine in my book lives (near Dorchester) encompasses the ruins of a Roman villa. She’s an amateur but dedicated archaeologist struggling to be taken seriously by her nineteenth-century male colleagues.
St. Leger won a Golden Heart for Best Regency from Romance Writers of America way back in the 1990s but remained unpublished until Zebra released it in 2002. (By that time, I’d sold two other manuscripts written after it.)
To read more of Hardy’s description of “The Ring” at Casterbridge, click here. To sample the first couple of chapters of St. Leger, go to this page.