Tiberius and his cucumbers

Tiberius CaesarThe Roman Emperor Tiberius has had a pretty bad press these last two thousand years. Even if you don’t believe everything you read in Robert Graves’ I CLAUDIUS, you can’t ignore the ancient writers who were Graves’ source material. They tell how Tiberius committed every type of crime and indulged in every sort of perversion. He murdered anyone who displeased him, sexually abused children…oh yes, and neglected the government of his Empire. Well, he was an absolute ruler and, as Lord Acton remarked, “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Modern historians, though, are asking how many of these dire reports are actually true, and how much was exaggerated or even invented by writers who were hostile to Tiberius or his family. That’s another story, and not for today. Because I’ve come across at least one good thing that Tiberius is credited with. His gardeners invented the greenhouse.

The Romans were enthusiastic gardeners, and grew a wide range of plants, especially vegetables, that we still cultivate today. Tiberius, it seems, was very partial to cucumbers, and insisted on having fresh ones for his table all year round. Even in a Mediterranean climate this posed a challenge to his gardeners in winter-time, and with the added problem of working for a master who had a short temper and powers of life and death…not surprisingly, they found a way to deliver what he wanted.

They used to grow their cucumbers in large carts that could be wheeled outdoors in sunny weather and brought inside again at night or when it was cold. Not a complete answer, because long cold spells might mean the plants were kept indoors for days on end and would fail from lack of light. So the gardeners covered the carts with translucent panes that let in light but kept out the worst of the chills, and the plants could be outdoors even in cold weather.

The covers were made of selenite, a form of gypsum which was soft enough to be easily cut into very thin sheets, yet hard enough to serve as quite large panes. Why not use glass? They didn’t have the technology to make large clear panes of glass; they did manage small opaque glass windows for richer folks’ houses, but these were expensive and perhaps more fragile than the mineral sheets. Whatever the reason, the selenite covers proved a good practical solution.

Mind you, not all Roman gardeners’ ideas about cucumbers was so sensible. They believed that soaking the seed in milk, or in honeyed wine, would make the resulting fruits extra tender. Harmless enough, but how about this? They advised that women shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the cucumber beds, as sturdy plants’ growth would be stunted. And if a woman was having her period, one writer claimed that “just her look will kill immature young ones.” What a load of…er…manure! Probably an excuse by frightened gardeners whose plants weren’t flourishing. “Sorry, master, but the mistress came by yesterday and since then…”

Never mind, the covered-cart idea was passed on by several ancient writers on gardening as a workable technique. I suppose the cucumber-houses were more cold frames than true greenhouses, but they were a start. So next time you tuck into a mixed salad or toy with a thin cucumber sandwich, spare a thought for Tiberius and his gardeners, laying the foundations for a new technique.

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Fortune-telling, Roman style

Roman temple

The old jokes are the best, aren’t they? I remember a radio spoof on Shakespeare’s famous…the one that superstitious actors call the Scottish Play. Macbeth meets the three witches and the dialogue goes:
Macbeth: “Greetings, ladies. I want to ask you a question.”
Witches, in chorus: “Yes, we can.”
Macbeth: “Can you really foretell the future?”

It’s human nature to want to know what’s going to happen next. The Romans certainly had plenty of ways of trying to find out. They took omens very often and very seriously, observing the flights of birds or the innards of sacrificial animals, to discover whether the gods would favour this or that war, journey, or building project. They consulted sacred oracles in grand temples or spooky caves. Or maybe they visited a cheaper professional fortune-teller who claimed to find glimpses of the future within the pages of a book. Such a weird and wonderful tome was the ORACLES OF ASTRAMPSYCHUS. Nobody knows who wrote it (certainly the book’s claims to having been consulted by Alexander the Great are pure marketing invention) but it was extremely popular, and was re-worked for Christian rather than pagan readers in later centuries.

Here’s how the book works. You desperately need the answer to a particular question? Then pick a query that most nearly matches your own from a list of 92 numbered questions. There’s plenty of choice: many of the topics would be familiar today, dealing with money, love, travel, family, business. “Will I sail safely?” “Am I going to marry my girlfriend?” “Will I inherit from my parents?” There are also, and more interestingly to history geeks, questions that reflect specifically Roman anxieties. “Will I be a senator?” “Am I going to be sold?”

Having chosen your question, pick a number between 1 and 10 and add this onto the question’s list number. Then, through a series of ingenious lists and cross-references, the fortune-teller (acting for the gods or the Fates of course) will guide you to one of more than a thousand possible answers. It’s very cleverly constructed. The responses are appropriate, some good and some bad, and the method looks convincingly random.

Let’s test the oracles. I’ve got a copy here (English, not Greek,) and I promise I won’t cheat. I’ll ask, “Will I have a long life?” which is number 44 on the list. Add to that, let’s say, 7, making a total of 51. Check this out in a “table of correspondences,” where each possible chosen number has another, different number alongside it. 51 = 41. (Don’t ask…) and 41 means not a single answer, but a group of ten numbered answers, called a “decade”. Each decade of answers is numbered 1 to 10 and now, finally, I can discover what I need to know in decade 41 by finding the number I first thought of, number 7.

So, “Will I have a long life?” Answer from 41.7: “After a time you’ll succeed and grow old.” That’ll do nicely. Success in the future, and also long life! What more could a writer ask for?

So the oracle must be true, mustn’t it?

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Albert Einstein was right

Albert EinsteinOf course he was. I’m certain of it.

“Oh, and you’d know, would you?” I can just hear my sceptical friends mocking. “You, a writer of historical fiction, have the nerve to applaud a genius in physics, about which subject you understand…maybe enough to fit on a very small postcard and still leave room for your signature?”

Well, no, I don’t understand the higher reaches of physics. Even the lower reaches. But scientists who do understand consider Einstein a genius, and that’s good enough for me. More than a century ago he formulated theories about space and time, matter and energy; “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” to quote a different kind of genius. Many of Einstein’s ideas seemed fantastical at the time. Yet many have been proven and are now accepted as true; resulting in (among other things) the development of nuclear power, the discovery of cosmic black holes, and the proof of gravitational waves, which three physicists in the US have just got the Nobel prize for detecting.

And anyway I’m not talking about physics. I’m talking about something even more important.


Einstein wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I was bowled over when I first read these words, coming from one of the greatest scientists of all time. As a fiction writer, I know how essential imagination is; I’d call it one of my most important tools, to be used with care but very often. My novels, set in the long-ago era of Roman Britain, need to be rooted in fact, in “all we now know and understand”, but not limited to that. Our knowledge of Roman times is patchy, ranging from pretty good in some things to virtually non-existent in others. I study what facts are known, because I want to get the historical background right when I’m trying to describe what life was like for people living two thousand years ago. Then, when the trail of facts runs out, I need imagination.

Einstein’s words brought home to me that great scientists aren’t limited to “all we now know and understand” either. These days we’re encouraged to think of scientists as being somehow different from other workers: tied to facts, they construct theories that grow logically, step by step. fact by fact, making a framework like scaffolding supporting a building. So, we conclude, probably there isn’t room for imagination?

Some scientists may conform to this stereotype, but not Einstein. Part of his genius was that he was not limited. He was prepared to think outside the box, as we’d say now. He believed we all should be. And his words should be posted on the wall above every writer’s desk. Correction: posted in every place of work, from lab bench to shop counter, from assembly line to tractor cab, from mineshaft to kitchen to tv studio.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Everywhere.

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Did the Romans make Jam?

A friend asked me this the other day, and I was delighted. I’ve been ambushed recently by that pesky nuisance, Real Life, which has kept me away from my blog and my books. Now at last, hooray, an excuse for some research.

I didn’t know off the top of my head whether the Romans made jam. But I’m a historian by training, so I gave the stock historian’s answer. “I don’t know…but I know where to look it up.”

Roman pottery

There are some excellent modern books on Roman cuisine, but the only surviving text from Ancient Roman times that deserves the name cookbook is On Cookery by Apicius. It’s fascinating, a mixed collection of recipes and notes. It’s meant rather as an aide-memoir for cooks than as a blow-by-blow “How to make…” instruction manual, because it lists ingredients and methods but very few quantities. Foods it covers range from familiar to exotic: from pork to parrot, from duck to dormouse.

But there’s no jam. At least not jam as we know it.

Of course they wanted to preserve all kinds of fruit, and Apicius lists various liquids for steeping or pickling them in. Wine, vinegar, honey, brine and even boiled rainwater are all there in his pages. But the aim was to keep the fruit fresh as fruit, so it could be enjoyed out of season. Jam-making started like that I suppose, but soon people valued the resulting sweet concoction as a delicacy in its own right. True, some of the Romans’ preserved fruits may well have turned out soft, sweet and squidgy, and could even have been used as spreads or decoration on puddings. That’s why some jam-makers claim the roots of their craft in Roman days. But they are pretty tenuous roots.

Having delved this far, of course I want to know when real jam was first made, and where. That’s what I love about research – one interesting trail leads on to another. The answer here surprised me. It hinges on when sugar became widely available and not too expensive. But when that was…I’ll do some more delving and post what I find soon, always providing that pestilential Real Life doesn’t interfere again.

Meanwhile back to the Romans. I can’t resist reflecting that everyone who’s ever endured Latin lessons probably remembers this famous – or infamous – piece of ??Latin verse on the theme of jam. And if you’ve managed to escape Latin lessons, don’t panic. Read it aloud to take in its full…er…well just read it aloud.

Caesar ad sum iam forti,
Pompey aderat.
Caesar sic in omnibus,
Pompey sic in at.

I wonder if there are any more verses?

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