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

With a month to go before Shadows of Athens hits the bookshops, 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 Academia.edu. 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.

Mystery fiction in the ancient world, so much easier to write? Think again…

This hasn’t been said to me (yet), but I’ve heard variations on this opinion from panels and in questions at literary festivals and in interviews. It often crops up when someone writing contemporary crime fiction has discussed the undeniable challenges of incorporating accurate forensic science without getting bogged down in pages of technical detail. It’s tempting to think that life would be so much simpler without fingerprints, DNA and the like.

Whose life? The murderer’s maybe, but not the writer’s. Whatever the investigative tools to hand, the same questions must be answered to solve a crime in any period: means, motive and opportunity. How, why and who? There’s a reason the ‘how’ comes first. As Lord Peter Wimsey says in ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, when you know how, you know who.

Motive matters, of course it does, and we can thank Cicero for coining the phrase “cui bono?” ‒ who benefits? That hasn’t changed since antiquity and our historical detective can make good progress in narrowing the field of suspects by asking intelligent questions, making connections, and finding out who had good reason to want the victim dead.

The next step is checking for opportunity, by ruling potential killers in or out, by checking who’s got an alibi – more Latin! Though that has its challenges in days of whatever yore, without today’s CCTV and mobile phones, without Golden Age crime fiction’s useful train tickets and telegrams, and everything else in between. There are only so many convenient beggars or passers-by that a history mystery writer can expect to get away with as witnesses, whether they’re proving where the killer was, or if some hapless suspect needs to prove that’s where they weren’t. That’s before we get on to the problems of exactly when the killer or innocent suspect was seen. Sundials may be ancient technology which still works today, but they’re not exactly precise.

But unless a mystery novel’s protagonist can demonstrate how a murder was committed, and that the prime suspect must be the one who did it, all they have got is suspicion. Without fingerprints, who can tell who was the last to hold a knife or a sword? Without modern medicine, who’s to say whether someone died of appendicitis or poison? With no lab to offer chemical analysis of those peculiar smears on the corpse’s clothes, how to locate a crucial crime scene? What’s the history mystery writer to do?

The answer’s the same as it is for the contemporary crime writer. Research. We need to remember that pre-modern doesn’t mean the same as primitive. Start researching ancient medicine, arts, crafts, weapons and transport, and you soon learn that experts in their field had a detailed and sophisticated understanding of a whole lot of things. Things that can be used to pinpoint whodunnit, because the killer needed to know something specific to do whatever it was. Some crucial art or craft may lead to a physical characteristic or occupational injury of the sort we rarely see today, that condemns the guilty man – or woman. The more reading you do, the more possible plots and twists and turns appear.

At this point, the history mystery author faces the same challenge as the diligent contemporary crime writer. How not to bore your readers rigid with all the fascinating stuff you’ve just discovered. The temptation is the same, whether it’s the intricacies of modern mass spectrometry, or the multiple processes involved in tanning animal hides in a pre-industrial world.

Well, I can assure you that, while Philocles’ family business is indeed leather working, the amount of detail about that has been pared down in each successive draft of Shadows of Athens. As for anything else – no spoilers!