The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Caroline Lawrence
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Strangely, my ‘comfort’ reading is Martial. The first century Roman satirist was a nasty man who produced bitingly funny, not to mention rude, epigrams. He writes the ancient equivalent of a gossip column with a big dollop of Sex in the City, the city being Rome. But although he may have been a loathsome person, he was a brilliant observer. What I love about his short poems is that they put me firmly in the tangible, tasteable, smellable world of Ancient Rome. His short poems are like portholes into the past. You meditate on the object or person described and then a scene expands around it: people moving and speaking and laughing and doing things and eating things and touching things and loving and crying and living and dying.
When did you first come across Martial?
I honestly can’t remember whether I first met Martial as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley (where I first started Latin) or later at Cambridge when I studied Classics. I have all three Loeb editions as well as T.J. Leary’s excellent commentaries, which have proved to be among my most valuable reference books for writing about ancient Rome.
Can you tell me a bit about Martial and his context?
Martial was a Roman who flourished in the late Flavian period when my Roman Mysteries books are set. He is perfect for helping me detail the concrete world of late first century Rome. His epigrams have even given me ideas for my books. His first book is an eyewitness account of the opening of the Flavian amphitheatre (AKA the Colosseum) in the spring of AD 80. That gave me tons of material for Roman Mystery #8, The Gladiators from Capua. The villain in Roman Mystery #9, The Colossus of Rhodes, was inspired by epigram 14.212 about a good-looking dwarf. And my mute beggar boy Lupus, one of the four child detectives in the series, was inspired by epigram 2.82 about a master who cuts out his slave’s tongue.
What is it about Martial that appeals to you most?
These days, thanks to social media and the Damocles sword of Corona-19, I have the attention span of a goldfish. My favourite book of epigrams is therefore the final one: Book 14, The Saturnalia Gifts. These short poems ostensibly meant to serve as gift tags epitomise everything I love about Classics: the pendulum of realisation of how similar they were to us and also how different. The gift of a back scratcher reminds me how like us they were. The gift of a dwarf as a slave reminds me of how unlike us they were.
Each of the Saturnalia epigrams consists of two lines plus a lemma or title. Martial invites the reader to just read the titles but in fact you could read the epigrams as a kind of riddle to which the answer is the title. For instance…
While I am summoned with a snap of fingers and the slave dallies
O how often has a pillow been made my rival!
Answer? A chamberpot!
(Martial 14.119, translation by T.J. Leary from The Apophoreta)
Another fun thing Martial does is to alternate the epigrams so that one gift is something a rich man might give and the next something affordable by a poor man. So an ivory box is followed by a wooden box. Or a gold hairpin is followed by a boxwood comb. Both are for the hair, but one is costly and the other cheap.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I used to go to movies, but they have deteriorated in quality recently and no longer offer solace. I also used to meet various friends for coffee in the afternoon – the time when my brain is ready for sensory input rather than creative output – but that’s been put on hold with the Corona virus. My most lasting and best solution for the blues is to go for a walk. I listen to audiobooks or music or sometimes just pray. I adore London and walking never ceases to cheer me up. Sometimes it even fills me with supernatural joy.
Award-winning author Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery stories for kids. Her passion for plotting combined with historical accuracy means her books are beloved of children and teachers alike. She has written dozens of stories set in the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. Caroline says, ‘I want to know everything about the past: all the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. And especially the exciting and surprising things. I write historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine.’ Fittingly, her most recent series, The Time Travel Diaries, is about a London schoolboy who travels back in time to Roman London, Ancient Athens and hopefully more! She has also written a book called How to Write a Great Story, based on the talk she most often does in schools. As well as mythic structure and Classical tropes, it incorporates many of her other interests such as art, imagination, cinema and psychology.
Learn more on her website: carolinelawrence.com or follow her on Twitter: @carolinelawrenc (no E)