Never leave your dog alone with linen armour…

Doing the research for these books takes me to some interesting articles. The way historians and others embark on practical experiments these days is particularly useful – and sometimes hilarious. For example, here’s an article on linen armour, as widely worn in the Ancient Greek world. It was often reinforced with leather, but the cheapest option for the poorest citizen soldiers was linen on its own. How effective was it?

For our first linothorax, we glued together 15 layers of linen to form a one centimeter-thick slab, and then tried to cut out the required shape. Large shears were defeated; bolt cutters failed. The only way we were ultimately able to cut the laminated linen slab was with an electric saw equipped with a blade for cutting metal. At least this confirmed our suspicion that linen armor would have been extremely tough.

So that’s one important question answered. But wait, there’s more…

We also found out that linen stiffened with rabbit glue strikes dogs as an irresistibly tasty rabbit-flavored chew toy, and that our Labrador retriever should not be left alone with our research project.

Oh, the temptation to work that into a story somehow… or maybe Philocles could put it in a play? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. Meantime, do read the whole article.

What’s in a name? In this case, the name of a statue.

I came across this image of a statue that’s apparently known as ‘The ‘sullen’ kore’ (maiden). Even women made of stone can’t escape being told they should smile…

Since this piece is currently in the Acropolis Museum, I’ve dug out my ancient souvenir guide from a visit in 1986, to see if she was in there. She is indeed pictured, and she’s listed as the ‘The kore of Euthydikos’ from the dedication on the base of what was then presented as the feet of the same statue. Now, I have no idea if some later analysis has decided those feet don’t actually belong to the rest of this piece, prompting a name change. It’s not as if I’ll be travelling to Athens any time soon to be able to check.

Either way, the statue’s current name does come weighted with a lot of assumptions and implications. It’s definitely a reminder of just how much history is in the eye of the beholder.

Why am I looking at statues from the Acropolis? Come to that, why has it been so long since I last posted in this blog? Well, there’ll be more news coming to to explain all that very soon…

Bringing a laptop to a knife fight

As I’ve already mentioned, historical evidence about Corinth between the Persia and Peloponnesian Wars is fragmentary. One thing that does get mentioned is the city’s reputation for strife between rival political factions. Okay, that’s promising. Writing a murder mystery does require a certain amount of violence after all. Better yet, a crime novel set in the ancient world spares the author the complications of ballistics and calibres and other technical firearms stuff. As far as life in a classical Greek city goes, things become even simpler. No one’s going to cart a hoplite shield and spear around and expect to get away with a stealthy killing. This strife on the streets is going to be feet, fists and knives.

The novelist still needs to be able to write about this convincingly. How does an author do that research? Speaking for myself, I’ve studied a martial art, aikido, since 1983, and that’s proved extremely useful. No, you won’t read about Philocles or anyone else managing a faultless koshi nage or some other wholly inappropriate Japanese move. But for us to learn self-defensive techniques, and now that I am a third dan blackbelt for me to teach these things, we also learn about effective kicking and punching in our classes, to give students a realistic idea of what they might face. So that’s the first thing I have to draw on.

Secondly, occasionally, we get our movement or timing wrong. Accidents are thankfully rare, and injuries on the mat rarer still, but in the past thirty years, I have taken a couple of smacks in the face and other rather harder thumps than I was expecting. There is nothing quite like direct experience to enable a writer to realistically convey how that feels. Believe me, you don’t forget it, because you really don’t want it to happen again.

Aikido is a martial art that doesn’t meet aggression with aggression, but uses movement and an understanding of body mechanics to enable a student to avoid getting hit, and then to control an attacker with a variety of holds, pins or throws. These techniques for rendering an attacker incapable without injuring them are a major reason why over the years we have trained any number of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, paramedics, social workers and door staff. While we help them learn to stay safe, they share stories about situations they have encountered at work. Like the police inspector whose aikido skills saved his neck (not the word he used) when a violent drug dealer turned out to be immune to capsaicin, the active ingredient in the DI’s officially-issued pepper spray. So the third resource I have to draw on is that wealth of real-life experience of often inventive thuggery gleaned second-hand over post-training pints.

Lastly, those of us who study different martial arts always swap notes with each other, given half a chance. We invariably find common principles underlying our different approaches to what are the same essential challenges. I don’t only talk to blackbelts in other Japanese, Chinese and similar martial arts. Recent years have seen a great expansion of understanding and practise in HEMA – Historic European Martial Arts. I’ve had some fascinating compare-and-contrast conversations with experienced practitioners, as well as seeing some excellent displays at Living History days and in places like the Royal Amouries Museums in Leeds. All this enables me to make a fair assessment of the core skills that someone like Philocles would surely have had.

So what about a knife fight? We do also train against attacks with knives, swords and staffs in aikido. On the mat these weapons are wooden, but believe me, you still don’t want to make a mistake. We don’t only teach students how to avoid injury, but how to disarm an attacker safely as well. That’s far easier to demonstrate than it is to explain here writing, so if our paths should cross in real life, feel free to ask me about that. Meantime, you can rest assured that I know what I’m talking about when Philocles gets himself out of danger with a deft move – and I did check with an orthopaedic surgeon about the likely outcome for the person who tries to stab our hero. The stakes get increasingly high in Scorpions in Corinth.

Guides to Corinth, ancient and modern

Anyone writing a historical novel set in ancient Greece should pour grateful libations to the memory of Pausanias, a doctor from Ionia, who was an inveterate traveller in the 2nd century AD. That is to say, he lived roughly from 110 to 180 AD. The reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were (mostly) an age of peace and prosperity for the Roman world, and Pausanias took full advantage, travelling far and wide. He wrote a detailed guide for those who might follow in his footsteps, and his Description of Greece is a fascinating read.

He wasn’t in any sense a professional historian, as we would understand it, but he diligently notes down what the locals say about the origins and founders of their cities, as well as summarising more recent events. As was always the case in the classical world, he makes no distinction between what we would call myth and history. The sons of Zeus are as real as the Roman generals who later sacked Corinth as far as Pausanias is concerned. There is similarly no question about the gods’ existence, as he details the Sanctuary of Poseidon at the Isthmus. And he really goes into all the details of the temples and the statuary, the monuments and the stadium, as well as the pine trees that adorn the site. Whenever he’s learned some interesting story about a hero or goddess, he notes that in an aside, along with observations about local customs and traditions. As he walks up the road to Corinth, he tells us about the city gates, along with the stories of the people they commemorate. Then he walks on through the marketplace, describing the many shrines and fountains. His work offers us an entertaining insight into the people of the classical world, as well as a guide to its places.

Though I would have come badly unstuck, if I had relied on Pausanias alone. He was writing hundreds of years after my story is set, and pretty much the closest he gets to dating evidence is references to before or after the days of Homer. There’s no way to tell from his text when the buildings and temples he describes were actually erected. More than once I came across a place I thought I could use, only to discover it hadn’t been there when Philocles would have needed it. For that vital information, I am indebted to ASCSA, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Founded in 1881, their affiliated scholars and students have been digging in Greece for decades, most especially in Corinth and the wider Corinthia. Their work means there’s been a wealth of papers and reports available for me online, as I researched the setting for this book. Even better, with absolutely superb timing, ASCSA recently published their fully updated site guide to Ancient Corinth. If you plan on visiting Corinth’s archaeological sites, you really should buy it. Full of detail, descriptions, maps and dates, it’s been been invaluable for my purposes. All told, ASCSA has more than earned my gratitude in this novel’s acknowledgements. (I wonder if this is the first time they’ve had a mention like this?)

Lastly, but by no means least, I’ve been able to make use of something Pausanias could never have dreamed of – Google Earth. I have been to Corinth myself and it was most definitely memorable, which is one reason I wanted to set a story here, but that was decades ago, and I had no reason to fix particular views in my mind’s eye, or in our photographs. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I could (virtually) stand on the stage of the classical Greek theatre. I can turn through a full circle and see for myself the details of the landscape that Philocles and his actors saw as the backdrop to their performance.

So the sense of place in this novel has been brought to you by resources spread over nearly two millennia!

The challenge of knowing what we don’t know, when Philocles goes to Corinth.

Writing a historical mystery set in Athens takes a lot of research. There’s a great deal of material available. We have a wealth of primary sources in pots, manuscripts, statues and inscriptions. Then there are the decades of scholarly thought interpreting all those things. Finding the precise detail that a writer needs, to be certain that a vital clue or a passing reference is correct can take a whole lot of work.

Taking Philocles and his play on tour gave me pretty much the exact opposite problem. Outside Athens, and beyond its interactions with other cities, much of the history of 5th Century Greece is fragmentary, literally and metaphorically. When it comes to Corinth in particular, the focus of so much of the available research is the first century AD, thanks to the apostle Paul stopping by, and writing a couple of letters. I kept coming across things I thought I might use, until I found out they were far too late historically to be relevant for my story.

Records from earlier centuries are sparse, and physical evidence is far less readily available, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it’s said that the Corinthians posted their civic decrees engraved on gleaming plaques of a fabled alloy known as Corinthian Bronze. Very impressive – and very easily melted down in the two and a half millenia since the city’s classical heyday. All that information is lost and gone for ever. A carved stone recording some Athenian civic honour or festival victory can also be reused of course, but when that’s found as part of a later construction, the inscriptions can still be read.

This might seem like good news for the fiction writer. Doesn’t that mean you can just make things up? Yes – and no. Not unless you’re willing to risk a well-informed reader posting a link to an academic paper that you missed. If that supplies some information contradicting that vital clue, your whole plot could unravel. Take the simple fact that Athenian actors and playwrights sometimes took their plays to other cities. We know that happened from references in the primary, contemporary, written sources. So far, so good, for the premise of this second book. But who decided which plays went on tour? Who issued invitations? Who paid the bills and why?

I needed to know – or I needed to know for certain that scholars didn’t know. Believe me, it was a great day, when I finally found an authoritative paper firmly establishing there is no evidence to answer these particular questions. That meant I was finally free to weave that fact into my historically plausible scenario, along with other scraps of Corinth’s ancient reputation, mostly mentioned in passing as the Athenians recorded their dealings and battles with the city.

The ancients tell us Corinth was famous for its hero-worship cults. It was also known for outbreaks of civil strife. After the archaic kings were overthrown, Corinth was ruled by a Council of uncompromising oligarchs. It was a society where women lived very different lives to their Athenian sisters, even competing and winning prizes in musical competitions. The cosmopolitan population had links to the furthest Hellenic settlements to the east, and to the far distant west, thanks to Corinth’s twin ports on either side of the Isthmus. All this trade and bustle was overlooked by the brooding bulk of the Acrocorinth, the mountain fortress that ensured no army could ever leave or invade the Peloponnese without making allies of the Corinthians.

It’s all very different from home, as far as Philocles is concerned. It’s a risky place to make any misstep, even before he’s caught up in a murder…

Boundaries and borders and the complexity of history

There’s a great deal of talk in the media at the moment about concepts like borders and nationality. History is frequently, and highly selectively, cited as evidence for whatever political point of view is being promoted. Meantime, tangible history, by way of archaeological artefacts, keeps reminding us that the world has always been interconnected, and that people have always moved around.

It’s taken two years, but experts have now identified a glass shard found at Chedworth Villa in the Cotswolds as part of a bottle from the Black Sea region, brought all the way to Roman Britain. You can read the full story here. Now, Chedworth’s inhabitants were clearly among the wealthy elite, so I don’t suppose they bought this perfume or whatever the bottle contained, from a stall in Corinium market, but the fact remains that this valuable thing passed from hand to hand over thousands of miles to end up in an ordinary, if well-resourced, household. This is of course merely the latest such discovery to indicate that the British Isles have always had ties to the European mainland, and far beyond. See also the Vindolanda letters, the Staffordshire Hoard etc. etc. etc.

Then there’s the recent find in Greece, that may be the oldest Homo Sapiens skull found outside Africa. If so, it takes the modern human dispersal into Europe back tens of thousands of years. That raises the possibility of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal co-existing for countless generations. This catches my eye in particular because that particular narrative is one that’s changed and shifted over the past century, reflecting all sorts of often problematic things about the decade when a particular theory held sway. When I was a kid in the 70s, the story we were told was a simple one; superior Homo Sapiens drove out the inferior Neanderthals, who were always drawn as nasty, brutish and short. That theory’s since been modified, first with talk of the Neanderthals coming second in competition for resources, and more recently still, on account of their theorised inability to adapt to climate change. When it comes to whether or not Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens could interbreed, the arguments remain heated even with new genetic evidence.

How much of this is unintentional projection, based on current preoccupations? How much of this is attempting to secure history’s endorsement for what is in fact quite simply racism, when the obscuring layers of argument are peeled away? I am always very careful to pick apart the reasoning when politicians and the like start using their preferred version of history as a way of putting an end to arguments about contentious policies in the modern day.

That’s why I think it’s important for historical fiction to reflect the world as accurately it was, insofar as we can possibly tell. That’s one reason why there are characters of colour in both Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth. Not because they have to be there for some plot-related reason. Simply because they would have been there. Writers from Herodotus onward make it very clear that people have always moved around. As did a couple of nice artefacts that I spotted on that recent visit to the British Museum.

African boy, terracotta, Rhodes 460-450 BCE

What sort of pots does Zosime paint in Shadows of Athens?

Since I was in the right part of London recently, and had some time spare between meetings, I went to the British Museum to see what there was to see that might prove useful for my books. I took a few reference photos, so for those who may be interested in seeing some of the oil and wine flasks that Zosime specialises in painting, here’s a good display.

Incidentally, the reason these white-background pots don’t survive in such a pristine condition as red and black figure ones is they were painted after firing, so the pigments are vulnerable to wear and fading.

Romans, rabbits, and the shifting sands of historical accuracy.

The recent news about rabbits being a Roman import to the British Isles naturally caught my eye, though not for the reasons you might think. I was particularly interested in the range of comments between ‘but everyone already knew that’ and ‘hang on, I thought it was the Normans’. In so many cases, people were citing ‘what I learned at school…’.

I must have been on the cusp of this change in thinking, because I distinctly recall the Romans getting the credit when I was at primary school, only to be told it was the Normans when we did 1066 and all that at secondary school. In both cases, teachers I liked and respected were telling me completely different things. Hang on… So I asked my secondary school teacher to clarify who was right, who was wrong, and why. This has all stuck in my mind because it was one of those conversations that first showed me new and fascinating facets of history.

As my teacher explained, it wasn’t a case of right or wrong, but of evidence and interpretation. The Romans might well have brought rabbits over, but it was very hard to say if they became established in the wild. If they did, these small populations may well have died out well before William the Conqueror and his pals arrived. What we do have solid evidence for is the Normans establishing rabbit warrens and the little furry pests getting loose, presumably to the delight of medieval British foxes. So on balance, at the time, certainly as far as Second Form history lessons were concerned, the Normans got the credit. It’s only when you dig deeper, that you realise the foundation for that ‘fact’ isn’t as solid as it might seem.

What has this to do with writing historical fiction? Well, a writer must always bear in mind how many readers will come to a story with ‘what I learned at school’ as their yardstick for assessing how believable the historical setting might be. Depending on how long ago that was, that yardstick might be as technically outdated as feet and inches in a metric world. But a lot of people still use feet and inches. A couple of people here and there have remarked that the portrayal of the city and society in Shadows of Athens is quite markedly at odds with what they learned at school.

They’re not wrong – this view of 5th century BCE Greece isn’t what I learned at school either. I first had to rethink my ideas when I reached university, where I learned how much more evidence and interpretation was out there to be found. Over the past couple of years, since I first embarked on this project, I’ve had to rethink a whole load of ‘facts’ a second time. There’s a wealth of new evidence that’s been uncovered – literally – and these days historians and archaeologists work far more closely together than they did thirty years ago. In my undergraduate days, the classical texts came first and last, and anything chaps with trowels in trenches turned up was a secondary curiosity at best.

Attitudes to those classical texts has changed as well, which is to say, classical scholars are revisiting and interrogating who is telling us what and when about Ancient Athens. Let’s consider the social status of the likes of Thucydides and Xenophon, and discuss how that is likely to colour their world view. Are they really a reliable guide to working class women’s lives? Then there are academics taking a long hard look at what we’ve been told about those classical texts, when and by whom. The final two chapters of Professor Vincent Azoulay’s biography of Pericles make for fascinating reading, as he traces the evolution of the Golden Age of Pericles notion from the Enlightenment to the present day. So I need to write my books also bearing in mind those readers who will be familiar with these things that I’ve just encountered – and far, far more besides.

I need to strike a balance between these very different sorts of readers. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who learned about The Golden Age of Pericles decades ago at school, and those ‘facts’ about Classical Athens remain firmly fixed in their minds. At the other end are the readers who know far more about these things than I can ever hope to. Then there are all the many, many readers in between – as well as those who know nothing much at all about Ancient Greece and like finding out about something new.

I have two things to help me strike the right note to satisfy most of the people most of the time. Firstly, I’m writing fiction not a textbook. Historical detail in a novel underpins the sense of place and the plot. A light touch works best. I can pick and choose the evidence and interpretations that suit my purposes without dragging anyone too far out of their comfort zone – while satisfying the more knowledgable that yes, I have definitely done my reading. When it comes to the people in my story, I can rest assured that human nature then and now remains much the same. The tragedies and comedies that we have from this period show that is so time after time.

Secondly, I am the lucky beneficiary of the excellent TV documentaries we’ve seen in recent years, thanks to accomplished scholars and communicators like Mary Beard, Michael Woods, and Bettany Hughes. I’ve noticed so often how these programmes reference ‘what everybody knows’ about some aspect of the ancient world without rubbishing these ideas as outdated, but integrating those starting points with more recent discoveries and perspectives, to encourage a new outlook in their viewers.

I hope I can do something along the same lines with Philocles’ adventures, while always entertaining readers, whatever their starting point may be.

The fascination of history’s fluctuations

There’s always something new to learn about the past. This is something that’s sustained my lifelong interest in history. Any view of history as simply a static list of deeds and dates is woefully behind the times.

New technology is constantly bringing new information to light, and I don’t just mean the geophysical surveys and ground penetrating radar that first appeared to work their magic for Time Team. Most recently, a couple of archaeology documentaries I’ve watched have highlighted Swansea University’s isotope analysis of tree rings from timber samples that’s revealing a wealth of historical climate data. That in turn reveals pressures like famine and flood on populations and their rulers, filling out our understanding of political events. Isotope analysis of teeth from skeletal remains has been showing us how far people could travel from where they were born and raised, even as far back as prehistory. DNA analysis is showing that old assumptions about an individual’s gender based on the clothes and things they were buried with, need to be revised. We have evidence of Viking women buried like warriors, as well asScythian men buried in female clothing surrounded by domestic accoutrements. Such evidence calls into question a whole lot of assumptions that have been made about ancient societies’ views on gender.

It’s not just technology that’s offering new insights. Experimental archaeology and living history projects show us all sorts of things. When someone starts to wonder how long it actually takes to get from wool on a sheep’s back to a wearable garment, and decides to find out, a huge amount is revealed. Historians start to appreciate the practical knowledge and considerable skills involved, as well as getting an understanding of the actual time these things took. Increasingly, the idea that women (especially in the ancient world) were kept at home by the stern hand of male authority is being questioned. A wife and mother keeping her household fed, doing everything by hand, and clothed with her own spinning and weaving, wouldn’t have much spare time to go gadding about.

As for their husbands, we’ve seen projects as varied as building a medieval castle at Guedelon, to various attempts over the years to erect replica Stonehenge monoliths with period appropriate equipment. Every time, the challenges encountered show that thinking pre-modern must mean primitive, ignorant or unskilled says more about modern arrogance than it does about people in the past. When it comes to those old theories about great cities in Africa or Asia being built by long-lost pseudo-European tribes, that notion now looks as racist as insisting the great pyramids could only have been created by aliens.

New insights are coming from indirect sources as well. Oil industry exploration in the North Sea provided the original data that’s revealed Doggerland. The hot, dry weather of 2018 across the UK and Ireland offered up lost historic locations revealed by parch marks spotted by drone enthusiasts pursuing their hobby. Even things as seemingly unrelated as DVD box-sets and TV streaming can prompt rethinking. I remember reading scholarly papers as an undergraduate discussing how classical Greek drama and musical competitions might be arranged, very dubious indeed that an audience would sit through five comedies, one after the other, or an entire trilogy of tragedies plus a satyr play. These days, binge-watching and Lord of the Rings (extended version) movie marathons give whole new insights into audience endurance capacities.

I could go on. These are merely a few of the examples that occur to me this morning. So much new information offers endless possibilities for the historical fiction writer. Though of course, this also has challenges for an author. It’s all very well for a 21st century crime writer to know that a skilled individual could travel hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles in the ancient world. If they turn up as the victim in a murder mystery, whoever’s investigating still needs some plausible way to find out that doesn’t rely on modern technology. Even if isotope derives from the Greek: isos topos – same place.

Essays and Novels – Research Then and Now

A few friends and family have been curious about how long it’s taken for me to decide to write a historical mystery. They know full well that my enthusiasm for crime fiction, as well as for the ancient world, goes back decades.

It’s a good question, and I’ve realised that a lot of the answer has to do with research. I learned how to do serious research when I was writing essays as an undergraduate in the 1980s. We got a question from a tutor, along with a reading list, and headed for the Bodleian Library. We looked up those books and journals in the massive card index, flicking through the thousands of cards painstakingly written by generations of librarians. Making a note of the arcane numbers that would tell us where to find what we needed, we went searching the shelves. If we were lucky, the book was there. If we weren’t, there was a green slip with a note of a reading desk number, where the person reading it was sitting. If they’d already finished with the book, we could have it. If not, we went looking for the next one on our list. We soon grew to dread the weeks when it became obvious a whole lot of tutors had included the same book on different reading lists. I soon grew to seriously dislike those few students who would amass six or eight books at once, and insist they were using all of them simultaneously, rather than going through them one at a time, so everyone could get on with their reading.

All of that meant spending hours in the Bodleian. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it. But even living within reach of Oxford’s libraries, committing that amount of time at evenings and weekends really was a non-starter for years, when I had other work and family responsibilities. Besides, no matter how brilliant your idea for a historical mystery might be, no one’s going to give you a reading list to help you do the right research. And you really do need to do the research. Getting a seemingly insignificant detail wrong can throw a reader out of a book completely, while making a factual error can bring the central premise of a plot crashing down. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but I’ve come across too many instances in my own reading to be ready to risk it. So that doubles the research challenge, when you need to work out what you need to know, before you can even go searching for it.

So what changed? New technology arrived! Go into the Bodleian nowadays, and that great card index is long gone. Computer screens invite you to search the online catalogue, though you don’t often see people using them, because Wi-Fi means you can do that direct from your laptop. You can do it from home, before you even head for the library. More than that, you can search for the key words that help pinpoint what you need to read. Descriptions of books and papers generally indicate if they’ve got what you’re looking for, and equally usefully, if not. I’ll have my list of selected shelf references ready before I even set foot in the library these days. If the book’s not on the shelf? Increasingly, that’s no problem either, because there’s also an electronic version that I can access from my laptop or tablet.

That’s not all. Reading papers from learned journals frequently used to mean braving the Bodleian’s wheeled wooden library steps to get unwieldy volumes down from the reading room’s higher shelves. These days, so many publications, institutions and individual academics make their research available online through websites like JSTOR and Once again, I can search for key words. I can download papers and read them at my own convenience. When I check a bibliography, and spot what looks like a potentially useful book for more detailed reading, I can look that up online as well, and see if it’s got what I need.

All of this has made getting up to date with current scholarship on Classical Athens possible. It would have been far, far more difficult ten, or even five, years ago. I’ve been able to discover all sorts of fascinating things that are just crying out to be used as a motive for murder. Equally important, I’ve been able to double-check the things that it seems we don’t yet know, so I can be confident (fingers crossed) that I’m free to invent something plausible.

Though rest assured, you need not worry that Shadows in Athens is going to feel like some textbook. The generous quotes from advance readers should make that quite clear. That’s because I’m still enjoying fast-paced, inventive and absorbing crime novels, ancient and modern, from a wide range of writers. That’s equally vital reading, because those books constantly remind me that it’s the people, the place and the plot that make a good crime novel. That’s what all this research must serve, first and last, and I’m not about to forget it.