In 1954, the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mithras was uncovered in the City of London. Now wonderfully restored on its original site, the Mithraeum is incorporated into the basement of the European headquarters of Bloomberg, the international multi-media company, on Walbrook. Almost 50 years later the skeleton of a young girl, dating from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD, was found in a graveyard near the Tate Modern. Together, these two archaeological discoveries gave Caroline Lawrence the launch-pad for her latest gripping children’s novel, The Time Travel Diaries. Hurtling back through the centuries from contemporary London, its young hero Alex finds himself in Roman Londinium, an intriguing city of temples, arenas, huts, shops and muddy streets, occupied by masters and slaves. There, he tries to unravel a mystery.
Lawrence has achieved singular success with her historical novels for children, most notably The Roman Mysteries series. Published between 2001 and 2009, these 17 books chronicle the adventures of four spirited and canny young detectives who live in the Roman port city of Ostia Antica. Translated into 14 languages, over a million copies of the books have been sold in the UK; they were also adapted for a CBBC television series filmed in Bulgaria.
Raised in America, Lawrence read Classics at Cambridge and went on to teach Latin, French and art in a London school, before turning to writing full-time. In 2009 she won the Classical Association Prize for making a significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics. In 2013, she was elected President of The Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT), following in the footsteps of Boris Johnson, Bettany Hughes and Paul Cartledge. She also worked on Romans Revealed, the University of Reading’s educational website, creating stories about Roman Britain that are closely based on archaeological finds.
You often spend time in Rome and other major sites in the Roman Empire – which are your favourites?
I have been lucky enough to visit Roman sites in Libya and Morocco. My husband Richard and I also have visited Egypt twice to explore the Nile. We also loved Rhodes and the Greek Islands, the Greek mainland, sites in Turkey, Spain and France. But our favourite country is Italy and my favourite ancient site is Ostia Antica. There is something numinous about it, an almost magical sense of peace and beauty with resin-scented parasol pine trees, red brick walls and black and white mosaics. And, of course, we love Rome (who wouldn’t?) – but our favourite modern Italian city is Naples. At first we would only visit the Archaeological Museum but, after being encouraged by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (University of Cambridge) not to fear Naples but to embrace it, we have done just that. We spent our 25th wedding anniversary with friends in Aversa, near Naples, and took part in their Day of the Dead celebrations.
Do many aspects of modern life bear the stamp of ancient Rome?
Rome is in the DNA of western Europe but where I really see ancient Rome is in the less-developed parts of North Africa, Turkey and even Italy. In Naples, there is a shrine at almost every crossroads. Today, the shrines are dedicated to Mary and/or Jesus (there’s even one to football ‘god’ Maradona); in Roman times they would have been shrines to the Lares or other local gods. Why do you think the Romans continue to interest us?
The fascinating aspect of ancient Rome is a paradox: they are like us in so many ways and yet also unlike us – and not always in the ways most people think. For example, ‘they liked bloody gladiator shows and we don’t’ – that’s rubbish. Our movies are much more visceral than watching tiny figures do staged battle far below, even if there were deaths. The differences are much more subtle. The Greeks and Romans had no concept of infection. Their whole notion of sickness was based on the idea that a body’s four humours were out of balance. To discount this now-accepted aspect of daily life requires a mental effort. Another aspect that we don’t pay enough attention to is their deep-seated idea of a world full of gods.
What prompted you to write fiction for children on this subject?
In 1999, I was exhausted by teaching and wanted to write a screenplay about a slave girl in Pompeii. I went to California to visit my family and was telling my sister about my idea and she said: ‘Why don’t you write a book for kids set in Pompeii?’ That was when I had my lightbulb moment and created Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome. This led to what I call a ‘cascade of ideas’, of what I could do. It turned out I was good at writing for middle-grade children who – like me – are fascinated by the concrete, tangible, smellable, tasteable aspects of the ancient world.
You have visited many schools and taken part in many events for children. How do young readers respond to Roman history and what excites them most about it?
I have an 11-year-old’s mentality, so what excites me about ancient Rome excites kids, too – not just gladiators, charioteers, mad emperors, beautiful slave girls, disgusting food and communal toilets, but the fabric of daily life. What pets they had, how they went to school, what they looked like.
Your latest book centres on the Temple of Mithras in London. What do we know about this cult and what are your sources?
Very little is known about the cult of Mithras, mainly because it was a Mystery cult and so, by definition, only initiates were supposed to know what went on. We have lots of caves of Mithras (the word ‘Mithraeum’ is modern) and each one has a statue or image of a man in Persian garb stabbing a bull, with various figures and animals around him. But we don’t really know what it means. It’s would be like having dozens of images of a man nailed to a cross but no New Testament to tell us what Christianity is all about! I spent over a year reading scholarly books and articles and visiting London’s Mithraeum (2), which is a superb resource. In the end, I found the scholar Roger Beck’s The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun (Oxford University Press, 2006) – whose ideas appealed to me so I incorporated them into the Mithraic scenes in my book.
The book is also based on the discovery of the remains of a young girl from Roman London. What do we know about her?
In 2003, excavators were digging foundations for a new block of flats on Lant Street in Southwark (about half a mile due south of Shakespeare’s Globe) when they came across a Roman graveyard from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD.
One particular skeleton, that of a girl, was notable for the grave goods. Archaeologists found two small glass perfume bottles either side of her head and the remains of a small wooden casket, decorated with bone and bronze, at her feet. By her left hip lay a small copper-alloy key along with a clasp knife. The knife was unique. An iron blade folded into a handle of ivory, carved in the shape of a leopard devouring its prey.
Because her remains and grave goods were so interesting, samples of her teeth and bones were sent to be analysed. The DNA was fairly corrupted but showed that she had blue eyes and that her mother was from Europe and stable isotopes in her ribs told us that she grew up in the southern Mediterranean, possibly even North Africa.
Scientific analysis also told us that from the time she was nine she started eating a London diet. This tells us that she made the long trip from North Africa (possibly) to Britannia (definitely) aged only nine years old. She died aged around 14, but the cause of her death is a mystery. There is no tomb or other identifying marker with the so-called ‘Lant Street Teenager’, so her real name is also a mystery.
As nobody has invented a time-machine, I thought I would combine the facts with my informed imagination and come up with a possible back story for her. That was the genesis of the Time Travel Diaries.
When you are walking around London today do you think about the layers of Londinium under your feet?
Absolutely, I especially think about it when I look out the window of our riverside flat in Battersea. I have been mudlarking with the Museum of London a few times and near the Millennium Bridge you can find continuous deposits of artefacts down on the foreshore, everything from a Neolithic scraper and Roman hairpins to Georgian clay pipes and 21st-century car keys.
I am especially aware of London’s different levels when I visit the Mithraeum and descend seven metres to reach the level of 3rd-century Londinium.
Has our knowledge of ancient Rome increased much in our own time? For you, what would be the most exciting discovery in the future?
The most exciting development is technology. We now have almost all Classical literature online and can do all sorts of data analyses. Roman Britain used to be a boring subject when I studied at Cambridge over 40 years ago, but now with DNA and isotope studies we can tell where a Roman Londoner grew up before they came here and, sometimes, even their eye and hair colour. It’s a scary thought but soon we’ll have the technology to clone Ancient Greeks, Romans and Britons.
For me, the most exciting future discovery would be a library of lost scrolls in the Egyptian sands. There is still nothing better than decoding those ancient signs and going into the head of an ancient poet, philosopher, doctor or historian. Unless, of course, someone does invent a time-machine!
If you could time-travel which particular place and time would you choose to visit?
If I could travel back in time, I’d choose an invisible bubble which would allow me to float high and low, and even through walls, but would protect me against their arrows and protect them against my germs.
My first port of call would be Alexandria rather than Rome in order to witness the interaction between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, not just their love-making but also their arguments, meals, baths, dealings with servants and so on.
I have written elsewhere about the 10 percent surprise, the things that would surprise a historian if he, or she, could really go back and witness life as it was. With Anthony and Cleopatra, I’m pretty sure the surprise factor would be far more than 10 percent.
How do you rate modern interpretations of the ancient world, especially in novels and in films?
The author who still can’t be topped is Mary Renault (1905-83). She really gets into the ancient Greek mindset in a way which is almost spooky, but more probably down to her being steeped in Plato. But I find most Classical reception hugely disappointing because the authors are really writing about today and not the past. So I’m always finding historical inaccuracies and anachronistic thought patterns.
The wacky musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is 10 times more accurate than the movie Gladiator because it is based on the musical comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus and also set around great Roman ruins in Spain. I will still never forget my huge anticipation before seeing Gladiator in 2000 and my massive disappointment afterwards. But, on the whole, I am reluctant to criticise any book, film or television adaptation that might encourage interest in Classics so I will say no more. n
• The Time Travel Diaries by Caroline Lawrence is published in paperback by Piccadilly Press at £6.99.