Category: Travel


The ruins in my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig date to the same era as Pompeii, but at Paestum, Italy — an hour farther south by train (€10 or US $13.20 roundtrip) — the ancient ruins are even older, and the lizards are even bigger. 🙂

Although the town’s Greek-colonist founders named it Poseidonia after the god of the seas (“Paestum” is a Roman corruption of that), archaeological evidence shows that residents left most of their votive offerings to the goddess Hera. The mother-and-child statuettes dedicated to her intrigue me, because I’ve never otherwise seen Hera depicted in a motherly fashion, only as Zeus’ jealous consort. And the baby offering shown in the pic to the left looks like a very familiar piece from my Christmas manger (or lararium, as I like to call it).

Paestum’s big attractions are the town’s three huge Greek temples, the earliest dated to 550 BCE. At least one of them was dedicated to Hera, but it’s unclear who was worshiped at the other two — possibly Poseidon and Athena or Ceres. (Strangely, the Wikipedia entry seems to want to avoid attributing any of the temples to the god the town was named after.)

The site is in a very rural setting and a lonely 20-minute walk from the train station. Buy your return train tickets when/where you get your departure ones, because the ticket office in Paestum is often closed, and any shops that might sell tickets are way back near the ruins. When Hubby and I were there, there was also no validation box for tickets at the station, so when you board the train, get the conductor to validate your ticket (or, as a local advised us, just write “Paestum” on it, along with the date and time you left). For practical info about visiting, I recommend Rick Steves’ Italy 2012.

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The first time you visit Pompeii, it’s easy to miss the Villa of the Mysteries unless you know to look for it (and you should). One of the best preserved houses in the ancient town, it’s a little outside the city walls, beyond the Herculaneum gate. (When it looks like you’ve left the ruins, keep going — you’re almost there.)

What gives the villa its intriguing name is a series of frescoes showing an initiation ritual. No one knows what type of initiation is shown, but a depiction of Bacchus/Dionysus in the center suggests it had to do with his cult.

The story, which unfolds kind of like a comic strip, follows a young woman through a reading of text, an offering of sacrificial cakes, a scary encounter with mythological beings, and the verge of unveiling some covered object that we never get to see (after all, it’s a mystery cult). After the ordeal, the initiate is shown pulling herself back together, combing her hair. She has made it through the night.

Besides the cult room, the villa features other beautifully painted rooms and corridors. Curiously, one room is adorned with Egyptian symbols. Other cool things to see are plaster casts of window shutters and doors, still in place — you can even spot some of the original 2,000-year-old hinges and wood. The house also has an enormous kitchen. And near the back of the property are a few plaster cast of victims of the volcano eruption on display — sad.

On the beautiful spring day that Hubby and I visited, accompanied by chirping birds and shy little lizards, it was easy to envision the house in happier times. You can do the same with the help of computer-enhanced photos on this website. For speculation of what the rites might have been like, check out the reenactment scene in Chapter 15 (Quindici) of my book, The Five-Day-Dig).

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Hubby and I spent the last week in Italy (just yesterday morning we were in Ostia Antica!), so I had a chance to revisit some of the sites that inspired details in The Five-Day-Dig. For example, at one point in the book, the archaeological team comes across an ancient bath complex. On our last trip, Hubby and I visited a large bath complex at Ostia, outside of Rome. This time, we must have visited half-a-dozen of them among Ostia, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Roman public baths were pretty impressive buildings, and they seem to have been less of a target for scavengers than temples and government offices. (Makes you wonder how fabulous those buildings must once have been!) One of the most well-preserved complexes we saw was the newly reopened Stabian Baths (seen to the left) in Pompeii.

The beautifully adorned room in the pic is the entrance to a changing room (apodyterium in Latin) featuring benches and shelves with niches for storing clothing. These days, the room also houses a couple of plaster casts of unfortunate people who died there in the year 79 volcanic eruption that buried the city. Other highlights of the complex include hot and cold plunge baths and an open-air exercising area (called a palaestra) surrounded by a colonnaded portico.

The Stabian baths are located on the main drag in Pompeii, Via dell’Abbondanza, at the corner of Via Stabia. The huge complex takes up a whole block’s worth of space. For a more detailed description, including a floor plan of the site, check out the extensive AD 79 web site.

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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.

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At one point in my book The Five-Day Dig, the archaeological team stumbles onto a 2,000-year-old room decorated with erotic frescoes. Erotic art in homes was more common in ancient Rome than it is today, but in Pompeii the greatest quantity of it has been found in public buildings, like the Suburban Baths or the town’s big brothel, called the Lupanare. (Prostitutes in ancient Rome were called lupae or she-wolves.)

Hubby and I visited Pompeii in mid-March of 2009, a perfect time to go, thanks to the mild weather and lighter crowds. The one building where we did run into a lot of other tourists was the Lupanare. The place seemed to fascinate both genders, as well as the old and young alike (youngish, that is — no one actually had kiddies with them). We missed the Suburban Baths, so I can’t say whether that also was crowded, but I have a feeling it would have been.

One thing I find interesting about the erotic frescoes in Pompeii (other than the obvious titillation factor), is that the women are often depicted in dominant positions. Not sure if this is because they’re prostitutes or if it can be interpreted as a more broad cultural thing. Women in Rome definitely didn’t have much in the way of civil power — they couldn’t even be citizens, let alone hold political office — but maybe they were dominant in the bedroom. I like to think so.

For more on erotic art in this ancient town, check out Eroticism in Pompeii by Antonio Varone, or just Google “erotic frescoes” — if you dare. 😉

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