Sunday, May 27, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part V - Etruria


In the previous installment we visited Rome, the centre of the world when the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent. We will now leave that ancient city for an even more ancient landscape. What we know today as Tuscany, the central and western region of Italy, was then part of the larger central Italian kingdom of Etruria. This region plays a large role in Children of Apollo, as it is the ancestral land of Lucius Metellus Anguis’ family. For them, the family estate is a place of childhood memory, of escape and of mystery. Their roots run deep in that ancient land.

The Chimera of Arezzo
I won’t go into detail about the history of the Etruscans here, suffice it to say that Etruscan culture was the dominant and more advanced culture in the Italian peninsula around 650 B.C and their realm included not only modern Tuscany but also Umbria, Latium and Emilia-Romagna. Indeed Etruscan kings ruled Rome itself until about 509 B.C. when the last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled from Rome by Lucius Junius Brutus, who led the uprising. With the rape of Lucretia by the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, Etruscan kingship in Rome ended.

Etruscan Tomb Interior
However, the Etruscans left a legacy and influence over the Roman people, other than a hatred of kingship. The Etruscan kings were also responsible for much of Rome’s architecture and religious practices. Etruscan artwork too is stunning and, though it had a great deal of Hellenic influence due to trade with Greece, it has a style all its own, be it the massive, bronze burial urns, the elaborately painted tombs or the magnificent Chimera of Arezzo. To see a magnificent collection of Etruscan artefacts, the archaeological museum in Bologna is a definite must.

Tuscan Landscape
History aside for a moment, the thing that inspired me most about Tuscany (I’ll use the modern name now) was the countryside. I am deeply influenced in my writing by physical surroundings and Tuscany, particularly the Chianti Classico region where I spent some time and where part of the book is set, left a definite mark. Not to dissuade anyone from visiting Florence or Siena, those two medieval adversaries. I thoroughly enjoyed walking the streets of booth, eating bruschetta and gelato between museum and market stops. It is a magnificent region to visit.

Radda in Chianti
Heading into the countryside between Florence and Siena, leaving the world of the Medicis and tourist throngs behind, was a very special experience. I had expected a drier landscape my first time there, rocky and hot, similar to the Peloponnese or southern Italy. It was anything but. Tuscany was lush, quite hilly and tree-clad. The weather went from sun to storm quickly and then back to sun. Amid acres of vineyards where my favourite wine is made (Chianti, of course!), are castles and medieval towns where they still take siesta and where you can enter a cellar (there is a great one in Radda) to purchase bottles of magnificent wine, cheese and the best wild boar sausage you have ever had. And the bread, did I mention the bread? For those of you who are interested, you can rent a villa in Tuscany for a very good price, and it is well worth it.

Vineyards and Olive Groves
in Chianti Classico Region
After having driven around Chianti, I knew I had to set part of the book there. The Metellus family villa is, of course, fictional. However, the look and feel are real. The villa itself is a typical villa rustica, an open air villa in the countryside, usually at the centre of an agricultural estate, as it is in the book. It was not uncommon for many noble Roman families to have countryside estates outside of Rome to which they could escape for leisure or in times of crisis. These were often handed down generation to generation.

Interior Corridor of Etruscan Tomb
Castelina in Chianti
Up the mountain from the Metellus villa and outbuildings, is another tie to the family, something linking them to their Etruscan roots. In a part of the book, Lucius’ younger brother Quintus finds out a terrible family secret when he overhears a conversation in the tomb at the top of the mountain. Without giving too much away, this turns the young boy’s life upside down. The setting for the tomb of the Metellus family ancestors was inspired by the Etruscan tomb just outside of Castelina in Chianti. The tomb is quite unassuming on the outside, a large green mound topped by cypress trees which were often associated with the necropolis and rites for the dead in ancient times. The tomb is entered via stone-lined corridors with small chambers to either side. If you do go in, look out for snakes! It is nice and cool inside.

Etruscan Tomb Mound
Castelina in Chianti
There is more I could say about this beautiful landscape but really, there is no substitute for actually going there. For a great price, you can rent a refurbished medieval stone villa in amongst the vineyards and eat at a different restaurant in a different village every night. Enjoy wine and food (try the Trattoria Grotta della Rana in San Sano) and afterward walk along a small road flanked by olive groves on one side and grape vines on the other. Watch snakes and lizards skitter across dusty, sun-soaked lanes lined by sleek cypresses and listen to all manner of birdsong in the hills. Most of all, enjoy the history of the land on which you are walking and savour the fact that it has not changed all that much since the Etruscan chariots thundered across the valleys.

In the next instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we will head south, along the coast, to ancient Cumae and the cave of the Sybil. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ancient Nemea and the 2012 Games


Stadium
Ancient Nemea

2012 is an Olympic year and like many people around the world, I’ll be tuning in to view the games in London. I’m not an avid television sports viewer but when it comes to the Olympics, every event is interesting to me. One of the reasons I find the games so compelling is that it is a time when people from all over the world are coming together, in peace, to compete, to achieve the ultimate in feats of physical and mental prowess.

The other reason I love the games is, of course, for the history. When I watch the summer Olympics, I am coming into touch with history itself, watching people make history but also re-enact it. The games no longer involve pankration, the hoplite race or the chariot race, but you can still see boxing and wrestling, the marathon, the javelin, various footraces, the discuss, long jump, equestrian events and other sports that began long ago in 776 B.C. with the first Olympiad.

But, what many people might not know is that the Olympics were not the only sacred games in ancient Greece. There were also the Pythian Games at Delphi that honoured Apollo, the Isthmian Games at Isthmia (near Corinth) in honour of Poseidon, and the Nemean Games at ancient Nemea (between Argos and Corinth) which, as the Olympics did, honoured Zeus.

Temple of Zeus, Nemea
People may also not know that the Nemean games are still being held every four years, since 1996 that is, by The Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. Back in 2004 I was able to visit the archaeological site of ancient Nemea and was totally blown away by the beauty and preservation of the place, from the Temple of Zeus and the inordinately long altar where athletes made their offerings, to the well-preserved change rooms and barrel-vaulted tunnel leading into the ancient stadium itself. If you are ever able to visit this archaeological site, it is a real delight.

The revived Nemean games are aimed at educating people about the ancient games, about enjoying and participating in ancient traditions. Two footraces of these modern games are open to runners from age 10 to age 80, men and women, and in 2008 the modern Nemean Games saw some six hundred participants clad in white tunics. The stadium itself is in great shape with remnants of the starting line and mechanism for a sort of starting ‘gate’ called a hysplex. There is also a channel running around the stadium that (fed by a spring 500 meters away) held water so that participants and spectators could stay hydrated in this very hot place.

Herakles and the Nemean Lion
Like the other Peloponnesian sanctuaries such as Olympia, Nemea is one of those special places where history and legend meet and, for this writer, come to life. While walking through the site, careful not to surprise any large snakes, I could not help hearing the cheering of the crowd or, going farther back, the sound of battle between Herakles and the Nemean lion. This was the spot where the hero is said to have defeated the lion and taken the pelt that he would be known for in all his representations. If you are a wine lover, try some of the Nemean varietals, sometimes named "the Blood of Herakles" for the blood the hero shed in his battle and which seeped into the soil of Nemea. If you get there and want to take something with you, stop at one of the many roadside stands in Nemean wine country around the archaeological site and pick up a few bottles of red agiorgitiko. You won't be disappointed.

Nemea Wine Country
If you would like to read more about Nemea or the revived Nemean Games, visit the new website at: http://nemeangames.org/ Who knows, some day, we may meet at the starting line and if not, there is likely a good taverna down the way.

Cheers and may winged Victory crown the winners at the Olympic and Nemean Games in 2012!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part IV - Rome: Caput Mundi


The second half of Children of Apollo leaves behind the dunes and swaying palms of Roman North Africa for Italy, particularly Rome as well as Cumae and Etruria. For this fourth instalment of The World of Children of Apollo we will focus on Rome itself.

Rome was indeed the centre of the world during this period, the omphalos to which all roads led and from which all decisions flowed. It was the ultimate goal in Severus’ civil war with Niger and Albinus and, despite his favouritism of Leptis Magna, the jewel the Emperor knew he must hold with his massive, loyal Praetorian Guard and the legion he had stationed at Albanum, outside of Rome.

Arch of Septimius Severus
It would take a whole book to scratch the surface of Rome so this will only be a very brief look at some of the sites that are a focus of Children of Apollo. Rome is one of my favourite cities, if not for the food then for the history that awaits you around every corner, that towers over you and lies beneath your feet. Before my first trip to Rome, the glory of Rome, the Empire, had only been something I had read about. It was only when I walked those streets and set foot in the Forum that the idea came fully to life. Even among the ruins of the Forum Romanum, the glory of this ancient capital is keenly felt, whether it is the paving slabs of the Via Sacra, the Arch of Septimius Severus or the temple of the Divine Julius where people still lay flowers.

Artist Reconstruction of
the Forum Romanum
When Lucius and Argus leave North Africa, they put in at Ostia, the Port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. It was here, at Rome’s port where most of the seaborne traffic headed for Rome came. The hexagonal port of Trajan was surrounded by warehouses where grain and goods from all over the Empire would be held. Beyond the warehouses, Ostia was full of well-decorated homes, and tabernae to serve residents and visitors in the prosperous port. Brothels, gambling establishments and fine dining all made for anything but a boring night out!

Temple of Hercules,
Forum Boarium
Those going on to Rome could have taken a barge up the Tiber, or travelled by land. When Lucius and Argus finally arrive in Rome, they find themselves in the Forum Boarium, the cattle market where a Temple of Hercules still stands. In the story, for various reasons, Lucius’ family’s home is now near this smaller forum where, in generations past, they used to live on the Palatine Hill.

In the early 3rd century A.D. the Palatine Hill was virtually one big sprawling Imperial palace complex, with various additions having been made by successive emperors. Severus was no different and built a massive new addition that jutted out from the southern edge of the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Front row seats for the chariot races! Looking down on the faint outline of the great circus, I could not resist writing an exciting chariot race scene in the book. The Circus could hold up to 250,000 spectators and their roar must have been deafening.

Severan Palace from
the Circus Maximus
When walking about on the Palatine Hill, it felt peaceful, a world away from the busy fora of Rome. I imagine it was the same for members of the imperial family who could stroll about the gardens and palaces in peace to the cawing of peacocks and play of water in fountains. One of the main locations of Children of Apollo is the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where a crucial event of Lucius’ youth takes place. This temple, built by Augustus beside his palace, was only the second in the city dedicated to that god. If ever you get the chance to visit the Palatine Hill and the museum there, it is a definite treat, a world away from the busy streets below.

Forum Romanum
Septimius Severus left his mark in many ways on Rome and not only with his massive palace complex. Flanking the palace was a massive, decorative fa├žade that was unveiled during the celebrations of his triumph. This structure, dubbed the 'Septizodium', was a huge wall ornamented with elaborate statuary where water flitted from section to section to dazzle spectators. Not much of it remains today but when it was unveiled, the populace must have been well pleased. The arch of Septimius Severus is one of the more impressive sites in the Forum and this can be seen directly in front of the Curia (Senate House) where he had it built as a reminder to the senators of Rome who the real power was. The artwork on the arch differs in style to others, the period heralding a gradual shift to what we recognize more as a Byzantine perspective.

Ruins of the Temple
of Venus and Rome
All over Rome, there is so much to see and when there, I walked for days, never tiring of the sights that met my eyes, imagining what Lucius would have seen. From the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus, to the Colosseum, the Ludus Magnus and the Temple of Venus and Rome where Lucius has an important rendezvous, Rome is a city where life, past and present, is meant to be felt and enjoyed. One of the great joys of writing Children of Apollo was being able to visit Rome again, indeed over and over.

Palatine Hill and the
Circus Maximus
So, I do hope that one day, your road will take you to Rome where, with gelato in hand, you can experience the majesty of this wondrous city. If you are interested in experiencing ancient Rome with Lucius Anguis Metellus, Children of Apollo is now available in paperback and e-book. Just follow the links at the top right of this page. And be sure to catch Part V of the world of Children of Apollo when we will visit one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Etruria (Tuscany!).