Saturday, September 4, 2010

Things I learned about Ancient Rome while researching my novel

1.                  Surgery
Ancient Roman surgeons performed cosmetic surgery, including breast reductions, nose jobs and eyelifts. They were all over the blood and circulation stuff, they even knew how to reshape cartilage, but given that they were still in the dark about that whole germ thing, and they weren’t too crash hot on anaesthetic either, it was a very brave or very desperate person who went under the knife. Especially given that these are the knives:

         (From the University of Virginia collection:

2.                  Urine
How do you get that stubborn stain out of your toga? By bleaching it in urine, naturally. How do you get the smell of stale urine out of your toga? History does not relate.

There was also a group of salvage divers based at the port of Ostia called Urinatores, because the pressure of deep diving on their abdomens caused them to pee a lot. I don’t know if this lasted out of the water or not.

3.                  Engineering
I’m not talking about aqueducts here. Everyone knows how impressive they were. I’m talking about a tunnel: the Cocceius Tunnel. This tunnel was a kilometre in length, and built to connect Lake Avernus with the town of Cumae. It ran in a straight line, was wide enough to drive a chariot through, and was usable right up until the 1940s when the area was heavily bombed.

You just know that the Cocceius Tunnel is crying out for a chase scene in the dead of night. Pursued into to the murky depths of the tunnel (all the torches are out), our hero has a terrifying encounter with a bad guy. And it helps, of course, that Lake Avernus was commonly believed to be the entrance to Hades. How is that not perfect?

4.                  The Coliseum
The Coliseum, begun in the reign of the emperor Vespasian, could hold up to 50 000 people. The sailors from Misenum, when they weren’t busy fighting naval battles, used to rig massive sails over the Coliseum so that the seats were shaded. The sailors also came in useful, I’m sure, when the place was flooded for displays of naval battles. In AD 90, specially trained swimming horses and bulls were displayed in the Coliseum. Also, the place was designed so that all of those 50 000 people could leave in minutes. There is a reason the exits were called vomitoria.

Sadly, my novel is set in 58 AD, and the site where the Coliseum will one day stand is the place where Nero is building his Golden House, complete with underground grotto, lake, and three hundred rooms. I can’t use the Coliseum, but the Golden House has potential all of its own.

 (The Coliseum, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1757, from Wikipedia.)

Too Much Information
 Gladiator sweat was believed to be an aphrodisiac. And the less said about that, the better.

Things I have learned and then forgotten about Ancient Rome while researching my novel:

I once stumbled upon the name of the street where foundlings were dumped, and if you wanted a new slave and didn’t mind raising one for an infant, that’s where you went. Dammit. I will find that street name again, and I will use it! 


  1. I love these posts. Now I want to know more about what you're working on-- if you're still working on it? I'm a little bit late to the party I guess. Historical fiction? That tunnel chase scene DEFINITELY sounds like it would make a great story all its own. I love this stuff-- there's so much COOL STUFF in Ancient Rome and Greece and Egypt and we definitely do not read enough about it as a culture!

  2. Hi again Amalia! My Roman book was a whodunnit set in Nero's reign. It's shelved at the moment, waiting for me to face the task of re-editing. We both needed the space! But I'll get back to it eventually, because I didn't do all that research for nothing. (Not that I don't love research - total history nerd!)

  3. I am right there with you on the history-nerding. I have been researching the Greek Bronze Age and Mycenaean culture for what feels like an eternity (two years now?) and I am STILL learning super awesomely cool stuff. I think we are kindred research-loving spirits!

  4. I could lose myself in research, no question! If you're into the Greeks, have you checked out author Gary Corby's blog? Sorry, I'm not savvy enough to link it, but it's called "A Dead Man Fell From The Sky" and it is chock full of historical tidbits!

  5. Oh yes! Gary Corby and I have been breaking into discussion on his blog (and mine) for many a moon. He's a shining example of research awesomeness for books on Classical Greece.

  6. He is research awesomeness, isn't he? His book is actually on my beside table right now, but I haven't started it yet. I think I'm avoiding it because I know it'll be brilliant and a fun ride, and I can't be up until three in the morning reading! I have to wait until I have some days off.

  7. I read it way back-- it IS really well researched and it really does bring Athens to life in a way I have not seen many people do. He makes it so accessible and so understandable. It's wonderful.

  8. I've got Monday off, so Monday it is! I'll be in ancient Athens, and won't leave until I'm finished.

  9. I wish you the very best with this novel, it sounds very interesting indeed. At least you have a great wealth of research material to source from for your book. You have to give the Romans credit, they did seem to be ahead of the curve in so many ways, and yet...



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