Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine-Dark Sea Battles

 Today I read about the discovery of what experts believe is a Carthaginian warship ram discovered off of Sicily that is thought to date to a sea battle of 241 B.C. between the rising Roman Republic and Punic Carthage. This was the First Punic War which ended with a treaty in 241 B.C. Here is a photo of the bronze ram that was found and which is a remnant of the last great naval battle of that war:

For a writer, sea battles can provide a very different setting for engaging enemies. The sights, smells, sounds and weapons are not always those that will paint a picture of battle on land. A good example of a small scale, ancient sea battle can be found in Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novel set in ancient Greece entitled The Sun’s Bride. This book has some great sequences and while they are not the large scale battles that no doubt marked the First Punic War, they will give a good idea of what was involved.

A good resource for research on ancient war ships if you are interested is the Trireme Trust ( In 1987 this group built a full scale, working trireme and carried out numerous experiments to prove or disprove various theories related to the most common and deadliest of ancient war ships, the trireme. The ship itself, known as the Olympias, has been in movies and events in both Britain and Greece. In the summer of 2012, the trireme will be in New York City harbour as part of the tall ships exhibition and will be accompanied by an exhibition on Athenian maritime history at the South Street Seaport Museum (

So, if you want to add a little salt-sea flair to your writing, a battle scene with a twist, get your sea legs on and get your men on board ship. If your legionaries are not comfortable at sea, remember the Roman invention of the corvus, the spiked boarding plank that the Romans invented during the First Punic War that allowed infantry to fight as though they were on land when at sea. Things were likely just as bloody. If you like movies, check out The Odyssey with Armand Assante and Greta Scacchi or Jason and the Argonauts with Jason London, Natasha Henstridge and Derek Jacobi. Both of these are great fun to watch. Just remember to offer up something to Poseidon or you could find yourself adrift.

Click to view full size image
Ancient Greek Trireme

Monday, October 11, 2010

Imperial Feast

Feasting has always played an important role in the ancient and medieval worlds as well as today. Feasts were celebratory, religious and sacrificial, in honour of various gods and goddesses and other sacred occassions.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, so, for all you Canadians out there, Happy Thanksgiving. Our own table was overflowing with food last night and the wine was certainly flowing, perhaps not in Dionysian proportions but enough to bring a rosy hue to our cheeks. Our sacrifice was a large turkey that fulfilled its role admirably and will provide lunchtime sandwiches for a week.

The ancients did not have turkeys on their tables but they had countless feast days. A recommended read is the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins which has a wonderful chronological list of all of the feast days celebrated in the Greek and Roman world. But what did they eat?

The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger
Well, if you are adventurous in your culinary explorations, you may want to check out The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger. This is a wonderfully varied cookbook that contains everything from really easy dishes like chicken stuffed with olives (my favourite!) to more exotic, quirky meals like rock eel with mulberry sauce. Whatever recipe you choose will help you to feed or frighten friends and family. It will also help you writers out there with your research and will add some texture and taste to you dining scenes. The book is well researched, the writers having taken the recipes within from a range of classical texts that describe dishes from such ancient cooks as Marcus Gavius Apicius (inventor the hamburger during the reign of Tiberius).

There is a lot more food and history to be had in this book as well as others that will add a historical twist to any feast. So, if living history is the thing for you, why not step back and try out a feast ancient Greek or Roman style. Could be that your next Halloween, American Thanksgiving or Christmas feast will have people talking for quite some time. Cheers!