Thieves and Cheese


I began Book 2 of the series early in December and am now (12/29) over halfway through!  First draft, that is.  Once I had the main character and sort of a plot, things fell into place.

For Christmas, Thrim gave me a 7-dvd set of the History Channel’s series on Ancient Rome.  All I can say is, I’m glad my story takes place in Gaul and Britannia, far from Rome.  Not that the Roman influence isn’t there.  It is, because conquerors always try to spread their way of life.  The Romans, unlike some others, allowed the local population to continue their customs as long as they conformed to certain Roman ways, such as honoring the Roman gods.

The legal system often had elements of Roman law and local law, as shown in the New Testament during Christ’s trial.  The Jews and the Romans were at odds with one another, but finally the Roman leader gave up, saying, “Do what you want.  I’m not handling this.”

One of my new characters, Fortius, is a farmer who sells his sheep cheese [remember sheep and cheese from the last blog entry?] in Lyon.  He has a sideline of hiring thieves to steal from people who leave their belongings in the baths while they are bathing.  It was quite common to be robbed while you were at the baths.  I wonder why the rich people didn’t take more precautions.  They probably did, such as bringing a slave along to guard the goods.  But if the slave had friends among thieves who gave kickbacks for fine jewels and money, most likely he’d risk the wrath of his master by helping the robber.

Fortius is found out because one of his thieves squeals on him.  He is taken to prison where he will be whipped with the flagellum, a wicked instrument with three to twelve leather thongs studded with lead spikes and weights.  A few blows with that could tear up a guy’s back real badly.  I feel sorry for Fortius, but I’m also upset with him because to save his own hide, he’s going to snitch and get some main characters in big trouble.

It seems from the dvd that there wasn’t a lot of justice for those who were not wealthy, and Fortius is not.  He makes good cheese, though, so maybe he’ll get off.  I don’t know.  I do know that his wife, Marcia, is going to try to persuade him to do whatever it takes to get free.  I can’t blame her.  She’s got her family to think about, and he’s their breadwinner.

France, still the home of superb cheese!

Sheep and Cheese

Illustration by Natasha Simkhovitch

Researching the Roman times (especially 197 AD) is so easy on the Internet.  The two main characters, Tadpole (6) and Amara (11), find themselves on a sheep farm near Lyon, France, in Chapter 10.  What did I know about sheep farming?  Next to nothing.  Thanks to the Internet, I now know a lot more.

Long ago, a boyfriend gave me a Great Pyrenees puppy.  I knew nothing about Pyrenees puppies except that they are big, soft, white, and adorable.  I learned more.  Their traditional job is guarding sheep.  Those protective instincts work well in protecting small humans, also.  My Pyr would lie next to whatever baby was outside on a blanket in the sun, keeping watch.  As the children grew, Bear (the Pyr) stayed close.  She died young, as giant dogs do.  We still miss her.Now, I’ve found out that the puppies are put with the sheep flock so they will bond with the sheep and not with people.  Their natural protective instincts kick in when predators are around.

Bear, 8 weeks old

Weighing up to 120 lbs for male Pyrenees, they are able to ward off other dogs, wolfs and bears, saving the farmers many dollars in lost revenue.  There should be more than one Pyrenees per flock.  The dogs like it when another Pyr or two or three are also on guard.

Rottweilers and some other breeds can also be used for guarding, but how about this – donkeys and llamas, too!!!  The donkeys and llamas graze on the same stuff the sheep do, which means you don’t have to feed them.   However, there can only be one llama, because if you have more, they will bond to each other and not to the sheep.

Sheep, those wonderfully woolly creatures, not only give their warm coats to us, but also their milk.  On my trip to France in April [see blog] , my friend Mary and I fell in love with sheep cheese and goat cheese.  It turns out that cheese from sheep milk has been famous, really famous, since long before Homer’s time (12th Century BC).

Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Here’s a one paragraph synopsis: The Iliad is the tragic story of the noble Achilles, who perfectly embodies the ancient Greek ideals of heroic conduct but also suffers from the human failings of pride and anger. The Grecian army is divided by bickering, many admirable men are killed, and even the gods quarrel. The Odyssey, by contrast, contains many comic episodes, and its hero, Odysseus, triumphs over formidable adversaries through his superior intelligence, not by brute strength. The Iliad portrays a universe marred by moral disorder, but the Odyssey shows gods punishing men for their sins and granting a good man his just reward.

[The quote is from the link highlighted “synopsis”.]

That sounds pretty modern to me.  In fact, both books retain a modern feeling in dealing with human beings, our foibles and our good points.  Surely, after 1400 years or so we have improved a little?

Cheese.  Odysseus, in the Odyssey, watches the Cyclops milk his sheep and then make cheese from it.  Homer describes the process.  I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list.

Pliny the Elder, who was governor of Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France) around 70 AD is often quoted as saying that the sheep cheese from around Nimes is the best in the world, though it’s best eaten when fresh since it doesn’t keep long.

The boy in my book, Tadpole, comes from the Nimes area.  He loves sheep cheese but doesn’t know much about it, being more of a city boy.  In Chapter ten, on the farm near Lyon, he learns quickly.

He is given a bag made from a lamb’s stomach and taught how to milk a ewe.  The lamb’s stomach is used because the lamb has only eaten its mother’s milk until then, and the stomach is lined with rennett, which coagulates sheep milk so that it turns to cheese.  Think of the curds in a baby’s spit-up.

That’s not the only way to coagulate sheep milk.  Romans used a fresh stick from a fig tree to stir the milk.  Sap running from the stick worked the same as the rennett in the lamb’s stomach.  This is good for vegans to know, who don’t eat cheese because of animal rennett.

And there you have it, cheese and sheep.  With every place these characters go, everything they do, they teach me more and more of the way of life of all strata of society in this time period 196-200 AD.  Storytelling is fun!

Blame Reincarnation

Chariot race mosaic at Roman museum in Lyon, France

I can’t let you think (if you do, after reading the first entry) that Greece was the only precursor to the Fall of the United States, should that actually happen.   Long before the U.S. ever was born, there was another nation that ignored history, and that was Rome.

Rome is a city, not a nation, you say?  No, of course you don’t say that because you know that Italy had a jillion city states, or nations, only one of which was Rome, and only one of which, Rome, grew up to conquer the world.  And then have a great Fall.

This link is the source of the following list of reasons for the fall of  Rome (and perhaps the U.S.):

  • Antagonism between the Senate and the Emperor [read President]
  • Decline in Morals
  • Political Corruption
  • Fast expansion of the Empire [remember your history lessons about the 18th & 19th centuries?]
  • Constant Wars and Heavy Military Spending
  • Barbarian Knowledge of Roman Military Tactics [today’s news told of the Iranians capturing a spy drone with all sorts of high tech important stuff, and of course there’s always espionage in the scientific places]
  • Failing Economy
  • Unemployment of the Working Classes
  • The ‘Mob’ and the cost of the ‘Games’ [The politicians had to pay to keep the ordinary people entertained, as in chariot races]
  • Decline in Ethics and Values
  • Slave Labor [insert “illegals”]
  • Natural Disasters
  • Christianity [taught peace, not war; one god, not many]
  • Barbarian Invasion [So far, no Huns overrunning us, unless you can think of some.]

So there is the writing on the wall.  Doomsday 2012 as forecast (supposedly) by the Mayan calendar.  Facebook had a cartoon showing a few Mayans watching another sculpt the Calendar.  He was showing them what he put in for the year 2012, saying  something like, “Just wait until they read this!  They’ll freak!”

Being born on December 31 in an unnamed year, I am used to apocalyptic prognostications [I think that’s the first time I’ve ever written that word].  I am hardened against them by now.  I do believe in history, though.  If I believed in reincarnation, I would say that the same spirits get born over and over again and make the same mess each time.

Maybe the rest of us are also born over and over again, and make the same mistake of letting the others get away with doing what they do.

Yep, History Repeats Itself

I love having the time and resources to resurrect my college education.  “Resurrect” because there were classes like Classical Literature I glossed over, barely attending enough times to pass.  Now, thanks to researching my novels, the classics are coming to life for me!   Here are a few things gleaned from Meyer Reinhold:

1)       Greece never recovered from the loss of wealth and manpower caused by the Peloponnesian War which lasted 27 years from 431-404 BC.

2)      There was a growing gap between the large number of poor and the few rich.

3)      Disillusionment with government caused a greater concern for self and family.

4)      The rise of professional politicians let others avoid civic responsibility.

Re: 1)  The U.S. has surpassed the 27-year war by 3.  For 30 years, since 1981, there has been continual involvement in military conflicts.  Some have been huge, like the Persian Gulf war (1990-1991), and some small like “peacekeeping” operations.  Before 1981, a whole generation had been demoralized by the Vietnam War and before that, the Korean War.  [Click this link for a good website about this.]

Greece may have lost wealth in their ancient wars, but the U.S. seems to depend on wars for gaining wealth.  There is higher employment, more manufacturing, more scientific research, and more support programs when we are fighting somewhere.  I could add that there is also more graft and corruption because of the temptation to grab some of the wealth.  The current economic wreckage  is not because of war but because of financial greed by bankers and investors worldwide who followed the example of the U.S.

Re: 2)  Doesn’t the Occupy movement all over the world, pitting the 99% against the 1% , confirm that the gap exists now?  There’s not only an economic gap but an idealogical gap, a huge one.  Studies have shown that even the extremely rich don’t think they are.  There’s always someone richer, someone with more houses, more planes, more everything.  They are thus compelled to keep amassing wealth, to be at the top.

Croesus, the enormously rich king of Lydia (560-547 BC), was told by Solon that wealth was not the key to happiness.  Croesus dismissed Solon as a fool, but by the end of his reign he realized it was true.  [Told by Herodotus.]

Re: 3)  When people live together in larger numbers than families, like towns or cities or states, they usually develop a civilized way of cooperating with each other.  It is necessary for life.  Governments are set up to help people help each other by sharing resources, ideals, and working together.  When a government is run by selfish people, corruption inevitably follows.

When politicians parade their love of “family” for show, for gain, that’s selfish.  Families are the first building block of a nation because they are the smallest unit of people living and working together.  In a good nation, one that genuinely cherishes and supports the family unit, things go well.  Some of the more successful nations in this regard are the Scandinavian countries and others who tax heavily so all can benefit.

Here’s an example of non-civilized order.  It’s a Somali saying:

I and Somalia against the world.

I and my clan against Somalia.

I and my family against the clan.

I and my brother against the family.

I against my brother.

Re: 4)  Good people are often elected to office.  After a few years, surrounded by temptations of all kinds, many are corrupted and begin to think more about themselves and their cohorts than about the larger constituency who elected them.

Sometimes I think that there should be no politicians.  The responsibility for governing would be entrusted to every adult.  Each year, a certain number of names would be drawn from a hat (a large hat) and those chosen would be in charge for one year.  Each state would provide housing and per diem so these people could live in Washington D.C. and run the nation during their time in office.  No-one could repeat the same job.  The Athenians tried something like this and it was successful for a time, but eventually people lost interest and governing fell into the hands of the wealthier few.

It would also be a good idea to move the nation’s capitol to the geographic center so that the East Coasters would learn some humility.  Students near D.C. grow up with politics in their backyard.  Students west of the Mississippi rarely get a chance to see government in action or feel a part of it.

Roman gladiators, from the museum in Nimes, France.

If this blog has been too serious, don’t give up.  Humor is coming with the Greek comedies!


It Began in Boulder, Colorado

Plato wrote,  “Lying is in general wrong, but it is permissible for the ruling classes to tell ‘white lies’ when it is for the benefit of society.”  [Greek and Roman Classics, by Meyer Reinhold]

In researching my novels which take place during the Roman empire (196-198 so far), I’ve found so many captivating and unexpected “Eureka!” moments like that quote from Plato, that I thought it would be fun to share them with others who are intrigued, but not fanatical, about the stories  commonly known as “history.”

Around twenty-five years ago, in Boulder, Colorado, I started writing a novel.  Every morning I would leave the house at 5:30 a.m., so early that the raccoons were still out searching through garbage cans, and walk three miles to work, arriving two hours before my actual job began.

I worked at JILA, a scientific institute at the University of Colorado.  It’s one of the best in the world, with a governing body of Fellows that includes physicists, chemists, astrophysicists, astronomers, and variations such as physical chemists and chemical physicists, and of course theorists who collaborate with all of them.  A really counter-intuitive thing is that the arrangement is half NIST

Me and two of the grandchildren
Me with Vancouver, BC, grandchildren

(U.S. Dept. of Commerce) and half University!  Administrative duties are divvied up between the two!  It works so well that numerous prestigious awards are common – Nobel Prizes, MacArthur “Genius” awards, Gold Medals, grants, etc.

Best of all, for me, was an atmosphere that allowed me to mold my administrative assistant job to fit me, rather than the other way around.  What a concept!  It was a great place to work.

The university let employees attend classes for free.  One year, I took Latin from a graduate student named Gerald.  The hardest class I ever had, but I loved it!

That class inspired me to find out more about the Romans, and eventually to write The Amulet .  It is about a young girl from Britannia whose actions help determine who will become emperor, Albinus or Septimius (196-197 AD).

I would write for two hours, then work for six or seven.  After work, I’d take the bus home, do the family things (three children and a baby), and then write for another couple of hours or so if I could.

With family traffic swirling around, I’d sketch out the next scenes by pen and paper on the dining room table.  In the morning, I’d take the notes in to transcribe and flesh out on the computer.  It amazes me now that none of the kids suffered from this compulsion of mine.

The book grew and grew until it was finally finished.  I sent it out to a few publishers and a few agents.  In those days before the Internet, big manila envelopes held manuscript pages and SASE envelopes for the inevitable rejection letters.

Discouraged, I put The Amulet away for 25 years until last year.  Gosh, it was embarrassing to read some of the passages I’d been so proud of before.  Not just one but several rewrites later, I sent it off to Elaine, a friend and poet who had also worked at JILA.  She helped enormously by finding things that didn’t fit, by asking questions, and by making suggestions about things like the care of horses and the spinning of wool.

We went back and forth for months until finally I thought The Amulet was ready.  So far, no agent has taken it up, but I’m writing the second book now.

Whatever happens, it’s exciting to keep finding correlations between the Romans and us.    They and the Greeks whose culture and literature they adopted – and adapted – are surprisingly relevant to our time.  Half of the expressions we use every day seem to be quotes from Plato or Sophocles or one of those guys.

I promise that you will enjoy what is coming!