My novels are always rooted in daily life, so they tend to contain a lot of food and drink. If characters want to be written by me, they must have good appetites. They do other things that are often omitted from novels; they go to the lavatory, they catch colds, the women have periods. But in general much of the story takes place during meals. This is for two reasons. It’s a convenient way to get two or more people sitting down while they hold a conversation about their adventure. And I myself am interested in meals. Readers, who are mostly kind people, go along with that.
On many Roman archaeological sites one feature that survives and strikes a chord with us is the streetside eaterie. We are all very familiar with Roman bars, their marble patchwork counters, their holes for food containers (with the controversy about how these actually worked; were they for hot foods or dry storage?), and even their painted lists of wines and prices. I have shown them often, especially of course that sad establishment on the Aventine that was once called Flora’s Caupona, and is now renamed the Stargazer.
Falco was always in two minds about Flora’s because of the redhead who ran it, his roguish father’s girlfriend. Albia has no qualms about the Stargazer, where the waiters are now ancient Apollonius, the ex-geometry teacher we know from old times, and her lovely deaf cousin, Junillus, whom we are getting to know now. It was at the Stargazer that her relationship with Manlius Faustus took hold – to the point that in the new book he is organising their wedding.
Tiberius wants the full ritual, but Albia wants none of it. Whether she will consent to attend the ceremony remains to be seen. Whether she will last out to the end on the day is just as uncertain. But I have had a great deal of fun with the concept. Given that the only Roman wedding I have written up previously ended with the bride and groom being almost burned alive on the first night (Lenia and Smaractus in Time to Depart), there had to be scope for disaster, even before Faustus enlists the help of two very excitable wedding planners – Albia’s teenaged sisters. I suspect you will like Julia and Favonia. Though you might not be able to afford them for your own wedding.
That, however, is the sub-plot, for this is a story about Roman bars. We have seen them as background scenery enough times. Now we shall learn exactly why our mothers would have told us never to go there. Their takeaway food is bad enough, but their eat-in facilities are risky and their staff offer highly dubious services. At the Garden of the Hesperides, a hotspot on the Viminal that harbours many old secrets, even the dog was to be avoided. Rumours about a missing barmaid will lead Albia a tricky dance.
But it isn’t the dog who buried the bones that Faustus and his workmen turn up during a renovation. For yes, our diligent aedile has decided it is time he gets a job. He intends to fund his married life with Albia through hard work, as a building contractor. This, my readers will realise, could take him to endless places with undiscovered bodies or other festering mysteries – thereby ensuring a constant stream of plots.
Tiberius starting a new life is important for another reason. An aspect of Roman life that I want to explore is the way couples lived and worked in equal partnership. The family business. Of course, with Albia I was always determined to show that working women existed. Now she will have a working husband too, who will need her help get his new business established. Perhaps he has even chosen her with that in mind, after witnessing their ability to work as a team.
We possess all those Roman tombstones showing husband and wife together, portrayed as a unit with the symbols of their trade. We know the streets of ancient Rome were lined with shops and workshops, similar to those that still exist in Mediterranean cities today, where families lived and worked. Who served the customers? Who organised the order book? How often was it really the wife who looked after the money? How much were the children expected to pitch in?
Children? Oh for Albia and Tiberius that is a long way ahead. Anyone who holds a big family wedding, with terrible relatives flooding in from all directions may then shrink from providing more of them. And theirs will be a wedding to remember, as you would expect. It’s raining, there is unfinished business with a bunch of murderers, not to mention the secret of the missing barmaid – and, trust me, that’s only the start of it!
The latest Flavia Albia mysteryThe Graveyard of the Hesperides is out now.
Historical novelist Lindsey Davis is best known for her novels set in Ancient Rome, including the much-loved Marcus Didius Falco series, although she has also written about the English Civil War, including in 2014 A Cruel Fate, a book for the Quick Reads literacy initiative. Her examination of the paranoid reign of the roman emperor Domitian began with Master and God, a standalone novel, leading to her new series about Flavia Albia, set in that dark period.
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