Weekend Reads: “A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”

Hi, everyone. This week, I thought I’d give you all a peek into my research for Pompeii Fire. This is one of the best books I’ve read about life and death in ancient Rome.

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient RomeA Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t think I would laugh so hard while reading a book about gruesome murders, but I did.

Author Emma Southon’s clever turns of phrase throughout the book help provide some relief from the absolutely horrific Roman way of death across history. Looking at everything from poisonings to crucifixions in disturbing detail, Southon shows us the various ways in which murder or homicide (the terms are not interchangeable) might or might not have been legal in the ancient empire.

It’s obvious that the author has done plenty of homework; there is a lengthy *partial* bibliography in the back. It’s so extensive that I can only imagine what might have been left out. Southon has used both primary and secondary sources to make sure her facts are right, not only based on what one contemporary might have said, but for verifications from other correspondents as well.

And here’s the thing: you will learn a ton of stuff about Roman law, social mores, and daily life by reading this book. This is is a warts-and-all examination of the Roman judicial system, the imperial government, and who was deemed worth of justice under the law (hint: not everyone). I learned things from this book that I had never come across in a year-long study of ancient Rome as I did research for a novel set in that time period.

Highly recommended … and not just for the laughs.

View all my reviews

Sample Saturday, with a Bonus Track: “It Happened in Memphis”

It Happened in MemphisHi, everyone. Today’s sample is from the eponymous tale in Volume 7 of my Pocketful of Stories series. It Happened in Memphis is a collection of short stories about the earliest days of rock and roll. The selection was inspired by PowerPop Blog’s article about Wanda Jackson. There’s a bonus track at the end. Enjoy!

“Wow! You look like Wanda Jackson or somebody. Gorgeous!” Harvard Chastain actually wolf-whistled when Evie came out of the hotel room.

She’d really gotten into the spirit for their visit to Sun Records; Tante Julie made a fit-and-flare dress, complete with stiff crinolines, in a turquoise print for the occasion. Evie wore it with matching flats and a short white cardigan. Her dark hair was tied up with a white ribbon in a high ponytail that reached to the middle of her back; she’d even found a white and turquoise purse in one of Diana’s favorite vintage shops to finish off the outfit. Her cousin Jimmy’s girlfriend, Cindy, helped her with black eyeliner winged out in doe eyes and red lipstick that made her look like she’d stepped right out of a 1950s fashion magazine.

“Keep your hair on, couillon,” Jimmy teased. “I know for a fact that her daddy knows how to use a shotgun.”
Evie’s cheeks were beet red with embarrassment.

“Lay off, you guys,” Diana said.

To their credit, everyone had behaved themselves after that. Harv had to remind himself that his classmate was just fifteen. He’d been surprised when Evie’s parents invited him along to Memphis; like Evie, he loved old music.

Amos maneuvered the van down a narrow alley into the parking lot behind Sun Studio. The energy in the car was palpable; everyone was looking forward to the tour.

“I think you look pretty as a basket of flowers, baby girl,” Amos said as they got out of the car and Evie smoothed her skirt.

“Thank you, Daddy. Can you take my picture in front of Jerry Lee?” A big image of the piano player hung next to the studio’s back door.

Here’s a bonus track by Wanda Jackson, “Let’s Have a Party.”

Want your own copy of It Happened in Memphis? Back cover copy and purchase links:

Evie Boudreaux has a knack for seeing history in action. Why? Because she sees ghosts. Come along on a visit to Tupelo and Memphis, and see the earliest days of rock music through Evie’s eyes! Buy It Happened in Memphis, Pocketful of Stories No. 7, today!

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Stabbing, crucifixion, eaten by eels: Learn all about murder the Roman way | Ars Technica

The sources are always kind of dicey for the Romans. It’s so rare that you get to know what actually happened, because if you’ve got two versions of a source, then you’ve got two different versions of a story, even if they’re written by two people sitting next to one another. Romans didn’t write history like we want to write history. They didn’t write what really happened. They wrote history as literature, and what they were writing was closer to Robert Graves than it was to what we would consider to be academic history.

Once you acknowledge that, then you can see what story they’re trying to tell. What are they responding to? What’s the context in which this was written? What are they trying to do? Who is their reader? Who is their audience?” That’s how you have to approach a Roman source. If you’ve got some set of events that appear in each one, then you can be fairly sure that they’re all working from the same song book, but they are all writing their own narrative about it. Acknowledge that, and you can let go of the idea of trying to find out what really happened, and you can also accept common myths as the stories that people wanted to tell about the Romans.

Stabbing, crucifixion, eaten by eels: Learn all about murder the Roman way | Ars Technica

I can’t wait to read this book! Click through to learn more about a source I’ll definitely be consulting for Pompeii Fire.

Gladiator Weapons – Archaeology Magazine

While some ancient written sources describe these various types of gladiator, mosaics and frescoes capture their appearance. One such fresco was recently unearthed in a tavern in Pompeii. The vivid scene depicts two gladiators—a murmillo (“fish-man”) and a Traex (“Thracian”). The murmillo is recognizable by his visored helmet, right arm guard, left shin guard, large rectangular shield, and short sword. The Traex wore a similar wide-brimmed crested helmet, but carried a smaller shield and a short curved sword. He is portrayed wearing a characteristic protective belt and thigh-high greaves. In the Pompeian fresco, at least, the murmillo clearly has the edge—he is depicted triumphantly holding up his shield while blood gushes from wounds to his opponent’s wrist and chest.

Gladiator Weapons – Archaeology Magazine

My gladiator character in Pompeii Fire, Suetonius, is a thraex, or Thracian. Click through to see an interesting introduction to gladiatorial weapons.

Gladiator Diets Were Carb-Heavy, Fattening, and Mostly Vegetarian – Gastro Obscura

Interestingly, according to the researchers, gladiators’ primarily vegetarian diet was not a consequence of their poverty or slave status. While it is popularly believed that the ranks of men and women who fought as gladiators were comprised entirely of slaves, that’s only partly true. Though the majority of gladiators were prisoners of war and convicts, some rejoined voluntarily to earn wages after their initial term of conscription had ended. Nonetheless, given this lowly status, one might assume that a carb-heavy, mostly meat-free diet was a cost-cutting measure. After all, why feed prisoners extravagant fare?

Well, you might do it to improve their battlefield performance. The Vienna team posits that the fighters ate weight-gaining foods because extra fat created a layer of bodily protection. Nerve endings would have been less exposed, and bleeding cuts would have been less perilous. As an added benefit, the extra, protective layer of fat would have created a more satisfying spectacle: The gladiators could sustain wounds and gush blood, but, because the wounds were shallow, they could keep on fighting.

Gladiator Diets Were Carb-Heavy, Fattening, and Mostly Vegetarian – Gastro Obscura

This is a fascinating look at archaeological/anthropological evidence that, alongside contemporary writings, helps us better understand the gladiators’ diet. I make reference to it in Pompeii Fire, when Stephanus sneeringly refers to Suetonius as a “barley boy.” Check it out!