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An interview with Caroline Lawrence

Caroline Lawrence is the author of a series of detective novels, set in ancient Ostia and Pompeii. The novels were written for children, but are also great fun to read for adults. The heroes in the novels are four children: Flavia Gemina, the sea captain's daughter; Nubia, the African slave-girl; Lupus, the mute beggar boy; and Jonathan, the Jewish boy.

In the summer months of 2003 Caroline was interviewed by Jan Theo Bakker.

Caroline Lawrence on the beach of Lido di Ostia.

Caroline is American. She grew up in California and came to England when she won a scholarship to Cambridge to study Classical Archaeology, which she followed with a degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of London. She lives by the river in London with her husband, a graphic designer. Her website is

"Caroline, the period you describe is - for a 21st century reader - horrendous. People died of plagues, and nobody had a clue what caused the plague. Women or children often died during birth. Many people were born to be slaves. And your hero Flavia finds it very difficult to regard her freed slave Nubia as an equal human being. Are your books a "shock therapy" for modern kids, or do you try to bridge the gap in some way?"

"Yes, I try to bridge the gap. I have to find the right balance of making the characters contemporary enough to be accessible to 21st century children but also to show the mind-set of first century Romans. One of the things that first captured my interest in the Classical world was 'What was the same and what was different about then and now?' This is still one of the driving forces in my writing and research. You mentioned two aspects of ancient Roman life which are indeed quite different from contemporary life (in western Europe in the early 21st century), i.e. short life expectancy and slavery. I present both of these without too much 'softening'. For example, I try to show that some people treated their slaves well and others badly. One thing I don't do is question the practise of slavery, which would not have been questioned in ancient Rome. It was a necessary part of life to the ancient Roman. Writers of the New Testament urge fair treatment of slaves, but they never question the institution itself.

I speak to hundreds of children a year in my many school visits to promote the books. Never has one questioned my treatment of slavery. In fact, if I ask if they themselves would like slaves, most usually raise their hand to say 'yes'. Of course some see the moral injustice and say 'no'. But it is adults who are disturbed by my portrayal of slavery. For example, I was questioned by an editor because Flavia sets her slave Nubia free for saving her life (in my third book) but another girl doesn't free her slave-girl for a similar deed. Pulchra merely gives her slave-girl Leda a new hairpin and treats her more kindly. And yet this would have been completely in character for Pulchra (a patrician girl raised in a houseful of slaves). In another instance publishers objected to a scene where a Roman refers casually to the death of a slave, as he might to the death of a pack animal. Such an objection is superimposing our modern sensibilities onto a culture where it would not have applied. My young readers have never queried this incident.

I have also been asked if kids are shocked by blood and violence. Again, no, it is not the children but the adults who are shocked. Children, who play violent computer games and watch bloody films, are quite happy with the level of violence and even want more. Girls under 12 have sent me passages they have written about gladiators which are far bloodier than anything I would ever dare include in my books.

Because these are children's books, I steer clear of sexual practises, especially the (then) quite acceptable habit of middle-aged men taking pre-pubescent boys as their lovers. In first century Rome, homosexuality per se was not frowned on: only taking the passive role. I don't address sexuality but I do portray Roman marriage customs and so far this is the one area that does shock kids. I show that girls married far younger than in our culture, and often to much older men. We know that Pliny the Younger, when he was in his fifties, took a fourteen year old wife who was besotted with him. I recently met an Iranian woman who married at age 13 and became pregnant with her first period. But apart from such 'non-Western' examples, this is an aspect of ancient Rome which is really different today. So my books seem to be more 'shock therapy' for adults than they are for kids."

"In one of your books Flavia takes a 'cab' to Rome. This scene was inspired by the Terme dei Cisiarii (Cab-Drivers Baths) in Ostia, near the Porta Romana, where a mosaic actually spells out the names of the mules pulling the wagons."

From 'The Assassins of Rome':

Something woke Flavia and it took her a moment to realise what it was: the cart had stopped. She heard voices and rubbed her eyes. Her mouth was dry and the tops of her sandalled feet, which had been in the sunshine for the last few miles, were pink with sunburn.

'Here we are,' said Feles from the front. 'The great city of Rome. They won't let me in for an hour or two because I'm wheeled traffic. If you want to get to your relatives before dark you'd better continue on foot. You can hire a litter just inside the city gates.'

'Thanks,' said Flavia, and gratefully allowed Caudex to lift her off the back of the cart. She pulled her damp tunic away from her back, then stretched and looked around. The road was lined with tombs and umbrella pines, casting long shadows in the late afternoon sunlight.

Already a queue of carts sat waiting for dusk, when they would be allowed into the city. Flavia could see a white, three-arched gate up ahead. Not far from it, among the other tombs along the road, was a white marble pyramid almost as high as the city walls.

Nubia came up, wearing Flavia's broad-brimmed sun-hat. She was smiling.

'Did you have a nice time at the front?' asked Flavia.

Nubia nodded and took off Flavia's sun-hat. 'Feles lets me hold the reins. And he tells me the names of the mules: Pudes, Podagrosus, Barosus and Potiscus.'

'Do you know what their names mean?' asked Flavia.

'She does now,' said Feles with a grin, and leaned against the cart. 'Show us how Barosus walks.'

Nubia handed Flavia the sun-hat and then minced along the road in dainty little steps. Flavia laughed.

'And this is the Podagrosus,' said Nubia, coming back along the hot road with a heavy, exaggerated limp. 'And the Potiscus.' She staggered the last few steps as if she were tipsy.

Flavia turned laughing to Feles. 'Thank you very much for taking us. Here's twenty sestercii.'

"On this trip Flavia is protected by her door-slave Caudex, but she is still not at ease. In Rome she has to find a relative to stay with, or she will be in dire straits. She must have felt very lonely, in this strange interaction between elite-children and slaves. Are comparable situations still encountered in Great Britain, known for its class-awareness? And why do many children accept or even cheer a situation like this one, as you just explained?"

"Like many British and American children, Flavia is super confident. She is a very bossy girl who automatically takes control whenever she can. She also plunges headlong into situations, often without calculating the possible consequences. Sometimes this leaves her high and dry (which is great for building tension in the books)! I have seen upper middle class children - most often girls - ordering their nannies around just as Flavia orders Caudex around. However today's nannies are less likely to stand for this, they are much more independent and confident than a Roman slave would have been. Someone who has been a slave for many years like Caudex, and who is used to following orders would be very uncomfortable to taking the initiative. Not so with a nanny.

I think all children love to be attended, to be 'waited on'. If we let our own children get away with whatever they liked soon we would be waiting on them, wouldn't we? This is human nature. In all fairness, when I ask children if they'd like slaves, most who say 'Yes', add the proviso: 'Of course, I'd be nice to them, like Flavia with Nubia.' I think the few children who say they would 'not like a slave' understand the logical outcome of slavery and have a stronger social conscience. This is almost certainly parental influence."

"When you describe a building in Ostia - such as the houses in which the four kids live - are you then presenting a reconstruction of the ruins of a particular edifice, or are you "building" something new, based on various ruins?"

"As you know, most of the surviving ruins at Ostia are 2nd or 3rd century AD, after Domitian's 'lifting' of the town. My books are set in AD 79 and 80. At first I thought I would be strictly accurate and not put in any building before 80 AD, but then I realised I wouldn't be able to put in things like the wonderful mosaics of the Forum of the Corporations, for example. Some buildings are fabricated on the basis of other Roman towns and my imagination. Some of my buildings are my 'earlier' versions of a later 2nd or 3rd century building whose remains still stand today. So I suppose you could say I am building my own version of Ostia, but one which will be clearly recognisable to young readers of my books as they explore the ruins."

"When the children are in Ostia, there seem to be three links with the Empire at large: the road to Rome, the ships entering and leaving the harbour, and the nearby villa's of the elite, where knowledge was concentrated. Let's focus on the harbour for a moment, and in particular on the lighthouse of Portus, which you describe in "The Thieves of Ostia"."

It was a beautiful blue afternoon, and as the day cooled, the port was coming to life. Venus's Breath had whipped up the sea beyond the river mouth and it was a deep sapphire colour. The sails of ships moving to and fro on the water made triangles of white and yellow against the blue.

The air was so clear that almost every brick of the distant lighthouse was visible against the afternoon sky. It was as if Lupus was seeing the structure for the first time. The tower looked like three huge red dice piled one on the other, each smaller than the one below, with a great plume of smoke furling away from the cylindrical platform at the very top.


'Wait, Grumex!' said one of the other soldiers. 'I think I just saw someone up there.'

Garlic-breath whirled round, but Avitus had disappeared again. They all squinted up at the red brick tower, looking for movement. Apart from the smoke billowing far above them and a few gliding seagulls, there was nothing. In the silence, Lupus could hear the waves slapping against the breakwater and he felt a fine spray on the side of his face.

'You're crazy!' said Grumex after a few moments, but he sounded doubtful. 'Better go check anyway...' he added after a moment. Then, noticing Lupus, he snarled,

'Go on! Get out of here!'

Lupus was backing off when suddenly, behind him, a woman carrying a fishing-net screamed. At the edge of the highest tier of the lighthouse, a figure stood silhouetted against the sky.

'A man!' the woman shrieked, dropping her net and pointing, 'There's a man on the lighthouse and I think he's going to jump!'

"I have always believed that the glare of the lighthouse must have been a forceful and daily reminder for the Ostians, that there was a huge and to some degree mysterious world out there. Things couldn't be more different in 2003, with globalization, CNN, BBC World, MTV etc. etc. What surprises me about our kids is that many, in spite of all the information they get, are utterly naive. Each year hundreds of thousands visit a dance parade in Berlin ... as if that contributes anything to solving the problem of political suppression, or of starving children."

"In my imagination I see that although the great Ostian lighthouse is impressive, it is a few miles north in Portus, so maybe not as imposing as if it were right at the Tiber mouth. But even if it were imposing, after a while we cease to really 'see' the things around us. Also, we tend to accept things that we have grown up with, that have always been there. Young children accept things because they don't know any better. Sometimes they have to be taught not to accept things. That is our job.

Flavia is above all a truth-seeker and a truth-teller. That is what a writer must be. But sometimes it is easier to tell the truth in the colourful guise of parable rather than present it bluntly in all its nakedness. Sometimes it helps us to examine our own world through the 'filter' of another world. After his father left him, my five year old son couldn't confess his fears to me directly, but he could act them out with puppets. Yes, I am trying to show ancient Rome as it would have been, but ultimately I am looking at our own world and I am talking about its problems with my own version of 'puppets'.

In my first book, 'The Thieves of Ostia', Flavia sees Nubia - a girl her own age - being led to the slave market and she buys her to save her from an unimaginable fate. That is an act of kindness which goes a small way to making the world better. I know of a man who rejected politics for Christianity because politics says 'change the world' and Christianity says 'change yourself'. I believe kids today do want to change the world for the better, but they don't know how. That is why they march in Berlin, or Berkeley, or wherever. It is up to us as adults, teachers, writers, to teach them how to change the world by changing themselves. We should encourage them to be kind, to understand people who are different, to seek out the truth. Ultimately we should encourage them to find their own moral code in a world which - like ancient Rome - is becoming increasingly more depraved."

"Readers of novels obviously fill in what they read with their own imagination. I suppose that most people reading novels about the Roman era will use movies and TV series (Ben Hur, I Claudius, etc.) to complete their mental image. How do you use the ruins of Ostia to correct this Hollywood view of the past?"

"They say a good writer should be able to suggest an entire scene with just a few well-chosen details. That's what I try to do. But the challenge is first for me to 'imagine' the ancient world accurately, and then for me to convey that 'accuracy' to the reader. Ever since I became fascinated with the Classical world aged 19 after reading Mary Renault's 'The Last of the Wine' I have longed to go back in time and see what ancient Rome would have really been like. That is what I am attempting with this series.

Yes, some films have given us distorted images of ancient Rome. The film that errs most grievously in my opinion is the 1953 version of Julius Caesar (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Everything is white and clean: white togas, white marble, white actors. OK, the film is black and white, but still... Ridley Scott made the same 'error' too in his Rome scenes from Gladiator, although I know he was trying to liken Rome to Nazi Germany and purposely 'bleached' the film. In the same film were scenes from North Africa - the bazaar, men wearing turbans, beams of dusty light piercing the chinks in the awnings - those seemed like the ancient world to me. In fact I think places like the souks of Morocco or the inner courtyards of Damascus probably are the closest we will get today to visiting ancient Rome.

One film which had a huge influence on me was Fellini's Satyricon. I remember seeing it when I was at U.C. Berkeley studying Classics. The film was a revelation. That is what ancient Rome would have looked like, I thought: full of diseased and deformed people (lack of medical care and basic hygiene); grubby and garishly colourful during the daytime; dark, smoky and dangerous at night. The scene of the tenement block crumbling during an earth tremor is seared into my memory.

So how do the ruins of Ostia help me correct people's 'mistaken' vision of the past? Firstly, I can't be sure my vision is correct. I like to think that Ostia was a red city but we can't be sure they didn't plaster over the present ubiquitous red brick. We can't even be sure there were all those lovely umbrella pines which make Ostia such an appealing site today. But here are some of the revelations I have had wandering around Ostia:

I mentioned above the detail that paints a whole scene. I love the detail in Ostia: the shape of drains in the baths, marble squares with three leaf-shaped holes; the opus reticulatum, diamond patterned brick work under the plaster; the graffiti; the grooves for shop shutters; the frescoes and mosaics...

Perhaps the best thing about visiting the ruins of Ostia is seeing what flora and fauna are around at different times of the year. I discovered that although it can be blistering hot in late April the cicadas aren't yet chirring. The umbrella pines release clouds of yellow pollen in early May. Tiny blood red spider mites crawl on the marble floor of the synagogue in June. Starlings fly in amazing clouds at dusk before they mass into the quivering trees to roost.

Many of my strongest impressions are non-visual: the spicy smell of the grasses in the necropolis, the creaking of the cicadas in the umbrella pines, the intense brilliant heat of a summer's day and the trickle of sweat down my spine, the blessed relief of a faint sea-breeze, the sound of my pistachio nut shell tossed onto the marble seat of the theatre, the barking of a dog in the distance...

Here are two passages I don't think I could have written had I not visited Ostia."

Just inside the arch of Ostia's Roman Gate was a long stone trough where the cart-drivers watered their mules. Several tall umbrella pines cast their cool shadows over the trough and the area around it. In this shady patch stood a small altar to Mercury, a folding table and several benches.

The cart-drivers had their own tavern and stables just behind the trough, and their own baths complex across the road, but after they had bathed and filled their stomachs, this was where they waited for their next fare to Rome.

It was almost noon, and only two drivers still sat at the table, playing knucklebones and watching the world pass by. Above them - in the high branches of the umbrella pines - the cicadas buzzed slowly. The heat was ferocious. Even in the shade, the men were sweating.


And a winter scene:


Nubia looked up at the sky. It was a sky unlike any she had ever seen before: very low, with swollen layers of bruised pink clouds all moving at different speeds. It was not long after noon, but already the light was fading. And it was cold. Always cold. She pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders.

As Nubia followed the dogs into the woods, she inhaled. She loved the spicy fresh scent of the umbrella pines, and she knew she would always associate that smell with Ostia.

'Ostia.' She whispered the name to herself. It was a bittersweet word. It was her new home and she loved it, but sometimes she missed the clean hot sands of the desert and its infinite sky full of burning stars.

"The kids in your books often make music, as a relief from the stress of their adventures. We know virtually nothing about Roman music of course. It may have been quite relaxing; a few years ago I visited an archaeological reconstruction park near Leiden, in Holland, where someone produced wonderful melodies using a simple instrument with only a few strings. Why is the music a recurring theme?"

"Ah, music! Music is another reason I long for a time-machine. We don't have a clue what Roman music sounded like. Many people seem to think Roman music was 'bland' like the clean togas and white marble in the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar I mentioned above. A strum, a verse, strum, verse... On the contrary, I think Roman music would have been like Roman food: exotic, layered, complex, 'highly spiced' if you will. Closer to jazz than classical. More middle eastern than western. Not just someone strumming a lyre, but several musicians: one picking a moving melody on his lyre - as you mention - others overlaying it with finger cymbals, tambourine, drums, flute, trumpets.

Music was very important in the ancient world. There were joyful songs to accompany marriage, festivals and childbirth; work songs for harvesting and rowing; dirges for funerals and lamentations. Lullabies, children's songs, lampoons... Pliny the Younger's fifteen year old wife even set his speeches to music! Cultured men - even some Emperors on occasion - composed poetry for competitions in religious festivals. As gladiators fought in the arena, bands consisting of drums, trumpets and water organs played. The musicians faced the combatants so that they could make their music dramatic or urgent as the action demanded! And of course music was played at dinner parties among the leisured class.

Over the course of my first four books each of the four main characters discovers the instrument that best 'fits' their personality. Lupus is one of those kids who can't sit still without fidgeting but he discovers he can channel that excess energy into drumming. Nubia's flute represents her family in her imagination and expresses her wonderful gentle creative spirit. Jonathan is bass lyre, because he is the steady one who holds things together. Flavia loves music, like me, but isn't very talented in this area and can only bang a tambourine. However this worked beautifully in book six when Flavia falls in love for the first time. While doing research, I learned that the Tarantella - an ancient dance done with tambourine - was originally for curing an adolescent girl's first passion!

Music is extremely important in the creative process for me personally. I often imagine whole scenes when I listen to music. A poignant piece of classical music which I heard on a writing course two years ago immediately conjured up a scene which won't occur until book 13, though I know with a total certainty it must occur because I saw this scene so vividly as the music played. In another instance a jazz song by Larry Carlton called 'Slave Song' inspired the following scene in my third book 'The Pirates of Pompeii'.

Nubia was not used to standing for so long and she was glad to sit. As she took out her flute she was aware of everyone watching her, so she closed her eyes to concentrate. After a moment a picture came into her mind.

She lifted the flute to her lips and began to play. She played a new song, a song her father had never taught her, a song her brother had never taught her. In her mind Nubia called it Slave Song.

She played the desert at sunset, with slanting purple shadows, and a line of swaying camels, moving on, always on.

Riding one of the camels was a girl whose amber eyes were full of tears. The girl had nothing. Her family was gone. Her tents were burnt. Her dog lay in the dust. The girl's back was raw from the whip, and around her neck was a cold iron collar.

But the tears on her cheek were tears of joy.

A crescent moon hung above the horizon. Beneath it were date palms, silhouetted against a violet sky. An oasis.

She knew there would be water there. And honey-sweet dates. And cool silver sand. And someone who cared for her.

And best of all, freedom.

'Slave Song' has become 'Nubia's song' and is now so integral to her character that it re-appears in books four, five and six! We are currently thinking about music for the audio books and I hope they choose something with authentic instruments, but compelling, exotic, haunting and spicy!"

"Some of your protagonists are Christians, adherents of what was at the end of the first century a new religion - or perhaps still becoming a new religion. Today many children in the western world are probably not at all familiar with Christianity, and for them it is probably as new as it was for the kids in your books. Is there a conscious attempt in your books to return to early Christianity?"

"Every author promotes their own world view, either consciously or unconsciously. I do not hide the fact that I am a Christian. Perhaps because I am also of Jewish descent, I am particularly interested in early Christianity. In the first century AD Christians were essentially members of a Jewish sect, like Essenes or Pharisees. So to answer your question, let's say my books are a conscious attempt to explore what this early type of 'Jewish Christianity' might have been like."

"We can't just skip 2000 years of Christian history, with many achievements and many failures. How do we explain to the children the failures: the hysteria of martyrs, the condemning of sexuality, the burning of heretics... ? Do the achievements make up for that?"

"My stories occur before what I call the 'Hellenization' of Christianity. The concept of body = bad, soul = good is a Greek mind-set, not a Semitic one. So I don't have to get into 'apologetics'. As I said, I'm trying to explore what first century 'Semitic' Christianity might really have been like for those who observed it, and also what it might have looked like to the Romans around them.

For example, in book two, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius', Flavia spies on an early morning gathering of Christians who have secretly met to worship in a stable. Flavia can't see the cult statue anywhere, and as she has no concept of an 'invisible' god, she assumes they are worshipping a donkey in its stall. This, of course, is a nod to the well-known graffito of a crucified donkey with the words 'Alexamenos worships his god' scratched underneath. But in a way the humble donkey is also a 'type' of Christ.

One of my challenges as a writer - especially a writer of children's books - is to have protagonists with flaws and antagonists with redeeming features; ie. goodies who aren't all good, and baddies who aren't purely evil. I am also trying to show the strengths and weaknesses of certain 'alien' customs. For example, at the moment I am writing about the inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre (the Colosseum) in AD 80, when Titus sponsored one hundred days of games in which over 2,000 gladiators fought and at least 5,000 exotic animals died. Each of my characters has a different reaction to the blood and violence displayed there. I don't automatically 'assume' that gladiatorial combats and beast fights were proof of the Romans' moral inferiority to modern man. In the same way, I try to show the strengths and weaknesses of ancient religions, Christianity included. And I hope I show that my 'Christian' characters are just as fallible as my non-Christian characters."

"In the future, will we meet the kids as grown-ups, as adult detectives perhaps?"

"Yes, but only in the first and last sections of the final book in the series, which will be written in the form of a flashback. That will also give us an idea of what happens to each of the four characters twenty years on. In fact, I've already written the provisional first paragraph. It starts when Flavia is grown up and well..."

[jthb - 3-Sep-2003]