Eating the Roman way


A boy holding a platter of fruits and a bucket of crab(?) in a kitchen with fish and squid, on the June panel from a mosaic depicting the months (3rd century) CC Commons – creator Sailko

Food is one of the most powerful ways of conveying information about characters. It shows readers not only status and wealth (or lack of either), how time rich or poor characters are, the level of complexity in a society, what crops are grown, their traditions and expectations. A real window into the world.

Ancient Roman food varied immensely. In the beginning, dietary differences between Roman social classes were not very significant, but the political changes from kingdom to republic and empire that expanded exponentially exposed Romans to many new foodstuffs, provincial culinary habits and cooking methods.

Traditionally, a breakfast called ientaculum was served at dawn. In the late morning, Romans ate a small lunch, and in the evening they ate cena, the main meal of the day. With the increased importation of foreign foods, the cena grew larger in size and included a wider range of foods. It gradually shifted to the afternoon, while the vesperna, a light supper eaten in the evening was abandoned completely. Prandium, a second breakfast, was introduced around noon. Among the lower status classes these changes were less pronounced as the traditional routines corresponded closely to the daily rhythms of manual labour.

Roman kitchen, Museum of London

Roman kitchen, Museum of London

In the period of the kings and the early Republic, but also in later periods (for the working classes), the cena essentially consisted of a kind of porridge, the puls. The simplest kind would be made from emmer (a hulled wheat), water, salt and fat. A more sophisticated type was made with olive oil, with an accompaniment of assorted vegetables. The wealthier/higher status classes ate their puls with eggs, cheese, and honey and occasionally meat or fish.

By the end of the Republican period, the cena had developed from two courses – a main course then a dessert with fruit – to three courses: first course (gustatio) which included eggs, snails, fish and seafood, vegetables, cheese. From discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, there were also dormice, served stuffed with pork mince, dormouse meat, pepper, pine nuts and garum (fish sauce) and cooked under a clibanus, a two-part domed terracotta baking/roasting pot. The main course (primae mensae)  was meat – kid and goat, pig meat of all types, prepared meats, game and poultry. Dessert (mensae secundae) comprised fruit, nuts and pastries.

Wikipedia gives us a quick oversight into the Roman diet, but do explore the references for sources (not sauces)!  The classic Roman cookbook, Apicius: De Re Coquinaria, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD is a treasure chest of recipes. The English translation put in the public domain by the University of Chicago may inspire your own cooking! 

Food and eating in Ancient Rome were not only essential for keeping the body going, but also bound people together: family, household, friends, neighbours, political and business friends and enemies, much like any era in history and even today.


Silver dishes from Pompeii and Herculaneum, Naples Museum

The rich reclined on couches in the triclinium (the room ‘of the three couches’), while slaves served exotic food and wine with vessels of silver.The less wealthy sat at tables and used vessels of pottery and glass. Graffiti from Pompeii show monotonous diets of bread, oil, leeks, onions and cheese with fish and sausages as treats. But a drain in Herculaneum, serving both poor and rich houses, produced vegetables, including beans, olives and lentils, together with fruit and nuts such as fig, date, apple and grape and hazelnut.

Seafood included scallops, mussels and sea urchins alongside fish such as sardine, eel and anchovy. Chicken, sheep and pig bones were also found, as were seeds of dill, coriander, mint and black peppercorns (imported from India) – an echo of rich sauces.**

And in Roma Nova?
In the first three Roma Nova books set in the present, the characters eat a modern European diet with breakfast, light lunch and dinner in the early evening. When Karen meets Conrad in New York, they do what any couple does – they go out for dinner, even though they are being watched  by the opposition.


New York restaurant near 23rd Street

The taxi stopped outside a […] restaurant with a dark green awning curving over like a protective hood. Soft yellow lights shone through tinted glass. Inside, it was subdued, intimate and rich. Light music played and couples danced. I’d never been in such a place before.

One lunchtime, they eat informally:

The waitress approached. Conrad touched my hand and narrowed his eyes. After getting some beers, I ordered a salad and, like a tourist, he went for the cardiac-arrest-inducing house special burger and fries. He saw my look of disapproval and laughed.

Carina in 21st century Roma Nova eats meat, fish, pasta, olives, eggs, vegetables, fruit, honey and drinks a lot of coffee. In PERFIDITAS, her juniors in their early twenties only drink water and Carina senses they disapprove of her caffeine addiction. And she’s not averse to an alcoholic drink. On military exercise, she loves nothing better than a bacon and egg sandwich first thing in the morning. (Believe me, you need the calories when you’re running around doing soldier stuff.)

Beginning the day with a fresh egg and bacon roll – hot, salty bacon coupled with the rm liquid of a fried egg bursting in your mouth – in the quiet of a pine forest with the sun starting to shed its early light on you took some beating. The cook grinned at me, sensing an appreciative customer.

‘Like another one, ma’am?’

I swallowed the last piece and grinned back. ‘No. No, thanks. Nothing could better that.’


Honey cake!

Ancient Roman cooking used honey as a sweetener and honey cake is still a  favourite in Roma Nova, as are honey drinks. Even in the police squad room they don’t eat chocolate digestives, but honey biscuits.

In the second trilogy we see Aurelia Mitela knock back her favourite French brandy in times of stress, a glimpse of something we saw in the first three books. As a blood and bone Roma Novan, she’s at home with managing her farm and in INSURRECTIO we see her attachment to the land and its produce:

I panned around with the binoculars. The Castra Lucilla estate complex covered a large area with the pars domenica – the main house – on the south side. The farm office and dormitories for the farmworkers occupied the next section and the fructuaria – the production area where they processed butter, cheese and yoghurt, and packed and bottled everything – lay beyond that. The vinery was at the far end. Barns, milking parlour and all the poultry runs stretched out on the other side. No sign of life from the house, but it was normally closed when none of us was there. Now, shutters hung open on the front.

‘Anything?’ Callixtus asked.

‘Nothing,’ I replied. ‘Not even a vehicle outside the farm office, no barn door open.’ I glanced at my watch. ‘It’s half-seven. People should be swarming all over the place. The fructuaria should be open and running – it’s market day tomorrow in Castra Lucilla and they need to pack all the produce today. We’ve still got wheat and spelt to cut. And then prep work for winter sowing.’ I swung the binoculars round to the fields. ‘And the cows should be in for milking.’

Food also defines other characters such as Miklós, Aurelia’a companion and lover:

Here, for energy,’ he said, and pushed an oval pastry into my hand. It resembled a panis focacius that the Italians called focaccia. It burst in my mouth at the rst bite, herbs and cheese delighting my senses.

‘Gods, what’s this?’ I said, almost forgetting my anger.

‘Pogača. Easy to bake in the fire and eat on the move.’

I stared at him. I could see him hiding up in some remote wood, biting through the crusts, the crumbs irrelevant as he flung himself on his horse and galloped off to avoid border guards or police.

Hungarian pogácsa

Hungarian pogácsa


Pogača is a favourite and centuries old ‘fast food’ in Hungary, Turkey, the Balkans so this shows us something about Miklós’s “fast moving’ life style and ethnic background.





And Saturnalia?
An advance glimpse into RETALIO…

This was the first year in my entire life I’d missed Saturnalia.

Ceding my place at the head of the Mitela tribe for a day to the princeps Saturnalicius was traditional. For a few hours, Domus Mitelarum would be overrun with noise, people, stupid but fun dares, overeating, games, theatricals and stand-up of dubious taste, arguments, falling in lust, laughter and progressive drunkenness. The under-steward would make sure the children were safe out of the way when the horseplay became too raunchy.

The atrium would blaze with light. Everywhere would be covered in ferns, spruce and pine. In the centre, there would be a large square table covered with linen, silverware, glasses, candles and the best china. Smells of roast pork, lemons and spices, everybody wearing over-colourful clothes, Miklós and I toasting each other and the assembled company with champagne from the Castra Lucilla estate, celebrating life…


Roberto Bompiani “Il Parassita”, 1875

And garum, the (in)famous fish sauce of ancient Rome used as a seasoning, a condiment and a sauce? By the modern era in Roma Nova, it was available from specialist food retailers and only used for formal occasions. With modern food preservation and seasoning technology garum, unlike honey, had disappeared (without regret as far as Carina is concerned) from many modern Roma Novan tables.

Bene sapiat!  


**My thanks to Paul Roberts, curator of a major exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum’s article ‘At Home with the Romans’, published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

The Roman world in AD 395

Modern Roma Nova?

Modern Roma Nova?

In the Roma Nova story, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods trekked north out of Italy in AD 395 to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia.

Led by Apulius and his friend Mitelus at the head of twelve senatorial families, they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’s Celtic father-in-law.

By purchase, alliance and conquest, this grew into Roma Nova, as portrayed in the modern era in the Roma Nova thrillers.

But what was that crumbling Roman world of AD 395 like that prompted the two friends to escape?

Rome – a tale of two cities
The Roman empire had changed in many ways since the time of Augustus nearly four hundred years before; the East, centred on the well fortified and connected Constantinople, continued to grow in importance as a centre of trade and imperial power while Rome itself diminished greatly in political importance.

Theodosius and Ambrosius

Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck, c. 1620

Christianity was enforced as the official state religion; Theodosius had issued edicts during the 390s banning pagan religious practice, closing temples and dousing the sacred flame that had burnt for over a thousand years. Although the senatorial classes that Apulius and Mitelus belonged to held on to their traditions, across the empire the old pagan culture was disappearing.

The West outside Rome and other large cities, less urbanized with a spread-out populace, experienced economic decline throughout the Late Empire, especially in outlying provinces such as southern Italy, northern Gaul, Britain, to some extent Spain and the Danubian areas.
After emperor Gallienus banned senators from army commands in the mid-3rd century, the wealthy senatorial elite lost experience of, and interest in, military life. Sons did join the army – some senatorial families believed military experience in early adulthood made tougher men later – but they left early as the career path was blocked.

Unfortunately, as it headed towards the 5th century, the remaining landowning elite of the Roman senate not only largely barred its tenants from military service but also refused to approve sufficient funding for maintaining a sufficiently powerful mercenary army to defend the Western Empire. Not the best strategy ever. (In a future novel, my heroes Apulius and Mitelus will be arguing strongly against this!) By AD 394, 200,000 soldiers guarded the borders with a reserve force of 50,000. Many of the non-Roman soldiers who made up these forces came from Germanic tribes: Alamanni, Franks, Goths, Saxons and Vandals.


Historical Atlas, William R Shepherd, 1923

After AD 394, the new Western government installed by Theodosius I increasingly had to divert military resources from Britain and the Rhine to protect Italy. This, in turn, led to further rebellions and civil wars because the Western imperial government was not providing the military protection the northern provinces expected and needed against the barbarians.

As central power weakened, the state gradually lost control of its borders and farther-flung provinces, and with the Vandals conquering North Africa, it lost control over the Mediterranean Sea, the hallowed Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’). Basically, the imperial authorities had to cover too much ground with too few resources. In many places, Roman institutions collapsed along with economic stability. In some regions, such as Gaul and Italy, the settlement of ‘barbarians’ on former Roman lands seemed to be accepted and caused relatively little disruption.


Gold solidus of Honorius 393-423 AD

Theodosius died in AD 395 at 48 years old and with him went the strong government imposed by his will. The empire split again into two, his sons Honorius took the West, and Arcadius the East.

The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control: the declining effectiveness and numbers of the army, lower agricultural yields, thus poorer health and numbers of the Roman population, less frequent use of trading routes due to lower production of goods.

Central European peasant house

Central European peasant house

Long-distance markets disappeared thus undermining the stability of the economy and its complexity, technological and engineering knowledge faded within a few generations, the whole compounded by the decreasing competence of the emperor, the religious upheavals, and diminishing efficiency of the civil administration, not to mention increasing pressure from ‘barbarians’ outside Roman culture.

As the once powerful empire fragmented, people reverted to more of a subsistence economy, to a greater degree of local production and consumption, rather than webs of commerce and specialised production Its society was unravelling, collapsing from inside. By AD 395 the Roman Empire was firmly on its way to becoming a failed state.

And for traditional Romans like Apulius, Mitelus and friends?
The Late Antique period saw a wholesale transformation of the political and social basis of life. The Roman citizen elite in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, under the pressure of taxation and the ruinous cost of presenting spectacular public entertainments in the traditional cursus honorum, had found under the Antonines that security could only be obtained by combining their established roles in the local town with new ones as servants and representatives of a distant Emperor and his travelling court.

After Constantine centralised the government in his new capital of Constantinople in AD 330, the Late Antique upper classes were divided among those who had access to that far-away centralised administration and those who did not. Although well-born and classically educated, election by the Senate to magistracies was no longer the path to success. Room at the top of Late Antique society involved increasingly intricate channels of access to the emperor.

The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, John William Waterhouse, 1883

The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius, John William Waterhouse, 1883

Toga_(PSF)The plain toga that had identified all members of the Republican senatorial class had given way to the silk court vestments and jewellery that we associate with Byzantine imperial iconography. The imperial cabinet of advisors, the consistorium, was made up of those who were prepared to stand in courtly attendance upon their seated emperor, as distinct from the informal set of friends and advisors surrounding Augustus. Thus, Romans in the city of Rome like Apulius and Mitelus were stranded from power, yet caught by their inbred loyalty to the emperor.

In mainland Greece, the inhabitants of Sparta, Argos and Corinth abandoned their cities for fortified sites in nearby high places. In Italy, populations that had clustered within reach of Roman roads began to withdraw from them, as potential avenues of intrusion, and to rebuild in typically constricted fashion round an isolated fortified promontory, or rocca. In the Balkans, inhabited centres contracted and regrouped around a defensible acropolis, or were abandoned.

Thus, four hundred Romans trekking out of their once glorious, teeming and powerful city to a mountainous region in the north in order to preserve their way of life religion and culture was far from unusual.

The next trick was to survive.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter

INSURRECTIO awarded the BRAG Medallion!

insurrectio_bragYes, it’s official! I am delighted, no, I’m jumping up and down with elation, that my fifth Roma Nova thriller has been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion. And it’s up on the IndieBRAG website. This is a prestigious award for indie only books and is a HIGH honour.

Around 90% of books are rejected (gulp), so you can imagine the nail chewing that goes on after submitting a book.

B.R.A.G. stands for Book Reader Appreciation Group and a whole team of readers – around ten, I believe – have to read and approve your book. No pressure, then…

What’s behind the ethos and motivation of IndieBRAG?
Our mission is to discover talented self-published authors and help them give their work the attention and recognition it deserves.

According to publishing industry surveys, 8 out of 10 adults feel they have a book in them. But traditional or mainstream publishers reject all but a tiny percentage of manuscripts. Historically, this has presented a classic Catch-22, in that you had to be a published author in order to get a publisher.

The advent of self-publishing companies and print-on-demand technology has changed this. Now anyone can publish a book and the number of books being self-published is exploding, reaching into the hundreds of thousands annually. However, there is virtually no control over what is published or by whom, and industry experts believe that up to 95% of indie books are poorly written and edited.

Compounding this problem, these books are rarely reviewed in The New York Times Book Review or by other leading sources. Additionally, the reviews and ratings at online booksellers are often provided by the author’s friends and family, and are therefore unreliable.

There are professional book review services and writing competitions within the self-publishing industry that help address this problem. However, none provide an independent, broad-based and reader-centric source to advise the public which indie books merit the investment of their time and money.

This is precisely the reason that indieBRAG and the B.R.A.G. Medallion exist. We have brought together a global group of readers who are passionate about reading, and who love to help us discover talented self-published authors.”

More about IndieBRAG:  Website      Blog    Twitter @IndieBrag    Facebook    Goodreads


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up for my free monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Ruth Downie and Vita Brevis

Ruth DownieToday, I’m delighted to welcome Ruth Downie back to the Roma Nova writing world. She’s talked before about historic truth and donkey poo, and wrote a poignant account ‘from below’ at the court of Boudica as part of A Year of Ravens. Of course, Roma Novans know her as the name on the endorsement for AURELIA

In 2004 Ruth was one of the winners in a televised short story competition, and the BBC’s threat to come back and see how her writing was going spurred her to finish her abandoned crime novel about a Roman army medic. To her great surprise that book—‘Medicus’—became a New York Times bestseller and The Times recommended it as one of their  ‘Seven best thrillers for Christmas’. ‘Vita Brevis’, the seventh book in the acclaimed series, was published just recently. When she isn’t writing, Ruth’s happiest moments are spent grovelling in mud with an archaeological trowel.

Salve Ruth! Do tell us why you wrote VITA BREVIS!
Neither of my lead characters, Roman army doctor Ruso and his British partner, Tilla has ever been to Rome before (lots of ‘Roman’ citizens were born and died without ever seeing it) and I thought it would be fun to see what they made of it. Of course, there was a research trip involved, which helped… (Any excuse!)

Why do you think Ruso is like he is?
Poor old Ruso: he’s a man burdened with guilt. He’s the eldest son, but in following his own interests and becoming a doctor, he’s not only shocked his late father but landed his brother with the burden of the family farm — and the family. Perhaps he’s trying to make up for that guilt when he finds it very hard to say ‘no’ – to his patients, his woman, and to people who insist on presenting him with dead bodies and expecting him to do something about them. But if he doesn’t, who will?

Surrounded by men of ambition, he’s too honest to imagine himself as a success. The advances of modern medicine lie a long way in the future and like every other reputable doctor of his time, he’s aware that Fortune can be fickle and that there’s a huge amount he simply doesn’t know. Which is why charlatans who mislead patients with impossible promises make him very angry indeed.


Roman medical instruments, Ashmoleon Museum

What does he think he’s like?
Ruso sees himself as a man who’s doing his best in trying circumstances. He’s baffled by religion — especially his wife’s insistence on believing anything and everything — and tries to take consolation in philosophy, but people will keep interrupting.

He finds that being married to a native gives him useful insights into the minds of the Britons, which are not as clouded as his compatriots tend to assume. However, as the civilized member of the marriage he feels he has a duty to defend the superior values of Rome. This is more of a challenge than it needs to be because of Tilla’s stubborn insistence on asking awkward questions.

He’s not entirely comfortable in the company of women, having a vague suspicion they all know something he doesn’t. Being married to Tilla has helped with this, because he’s now beginning to think that whatever it is, Tilla doesn’t know it either.

Of one thing, though, he is certain. Every man has his limits. No matter what anyone else says, he is not going to make room for any more waifs, strays, unwanted slaves or other people’s unplanned babies. The Petreius household is full. (Oh, yes?)

What waits for us in Vita Brevis?
vita-brevis-coverRuso and Tilla and their new baby daughter have left Roman-occupied Britain for Rome itself. Their excitement is soon dulled by the discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements. There are also far too many doctors—some skilled, but others positively dangerous.

Ruso thinks he has been offered a reputable medical practice only to find that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep and the warning, “Be careful who you trust.”
With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family from Doctor Kleitos’s debt collectors and find allies in their new home while they track down the vanished doctor and find out the truth about the unfortunate man in the barrel.


“Masterfully draws out its suspense, painting a vivid portrait of ancient Rome that feels persuasive and authentic”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Downie’s plotting is as engaging as ever… much more than a mystery novel”
—Historical Novel Society

“Reading Vita Brevis felt like catching up with old friends”
—Italophile Book Reviews


Buying links:  Amazon UK     Book Depository     Amazon US

Connect with Ruth:   Website      Twitter @RuthSDownie      Facebook

Thank you so much for stopping by  today, Ruth and bona fortuna on the rest of your blog tour. Speaking of which, here is the onward route that Ruso and Tilla are taking…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

History? Um, we know the ending...

Insurrectio - High Res AW.inddAll writers sneak a look at their reviews – we are that human. Looking at INSURRECTIO’s, I was struck by this one:
“Although I enjoyed the first three, IV and V are disappointing; particularly this one. Because they are ‘backstory’, I already knew who did what to whom from the earlier novels.”

I appreciate them taking the time and trouble to write a review.  I really do; people are so busy these days, they don’t always get round to it, however much they enjoyed a book. I’m very sorry this reader was disappointed, but I’m pleased they enjoyed Carina’s story in the first three. But this comment set me thinking.

Roma Nova is an imaginary country (Gasp!). The people who live there are not documented historical figures. But as a storyteller I try to make it as realistic as possible; characters do heroic and stupid things, the weather isn’t always sunny – it rains and snows, traffic jams alternate with beautiful scenery.



Like any country Roma Nova has its own history. Who today doesn’t have an older relative who remembers ‘the war’? We know exactly which war they are talking about because it was such a formative experience for that generation and the following one. My father was at Dunkirk in 1940 and went to France on D-Day+4 in 1944; my mother, a teacher by day, drove ambulances during bombing raids by night. For me, the grungy 1970s and growth-spurted 1980s when I spent time in uniform were my formative years.



The older Aurelia

So when I decided to build the world of Roma Nova in an alternative timeline, I incorporated its ‘long’ history back to the end of the 4th century AD as well as its ‘short’ history of the Great Rebellion in the early 1980s. As Carina, brought up in the Eastern United States, was facing her challenges in INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, her grandmother, Aurelia, and others such as Conrad and Quintus Tellus, and Imperatrix Silvia had strong, and grim, memories of that rebellion which coloured their behaviour, values and attitudes in those three stories. And they occasionally referred back to those times in the same way our parents and grandparents refer to ‘the war’.

We know what happened in the past. We know who won, and lost.

Look back at 1066. Much as we may dream/speculate about a Saxon England beyond that date (see 1066 Turned Upside Down), it didn’t happen. So when Helen Hollick wrote Harold the King, she couldn’t alter the outcome. But I was so caught up by the writing and characters, I was as optimistic as any Saxon that they would prevail. But in my logical brain I knew the outcome – it was probably the first date I learnt in school. However, it didn’t stop me enjoying the story.

When the second Roma Nova trilogy goes back to tell the story of Aurelia in the second half of the 1960s (AURELIA) and the early 1980s (INSURRECTIO, and RETALIO, out spring 2017), we know she will survive, as will Quintus, Conrad and Silvia. The intrigue, I hope, is how and why they did what they did, whether they acted well or not, and what gains and sacrifices occurred. And what the consequences were for Carina’s generation. And I reveal some secrets from the past that only the characters themselves would know and which even puzzled me when I was writing the first trilogy.

Being inquisitive by temperament, I like to know the background to things, people, events; in short, why they are like they are. This is why I read historical fiction. I’m sorry my reader didn’t share this; perhaps they aren’t as nosy as I am. But as we edge toward the climax of the Aurelia trilogy, I hope the story will be sufficiently enticing for readers to want to know just what Aurelia had to sacrifice at the time of Roma Nova’s civil war.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

Carina, Aurelia and the Pompeii gladius

pompeii-pattern-swordTwenty-first century Roma Nova military train with state of the art weaponry; their firepower and weapon handling are undoubted. But they also train on a ‘volunteer’ basis with a modern carbon steel version of the traditional Pompeii gladius, a short sword in use from at least AD 79 and not uncommon in the 4th century AD.

Named by modern historians after the Roman town of Pompeii, where four instances of the sword type were found – they must have been made before AD 79 when Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash – they’ve been tentatively dated to around 64 AD.

The Pompeii sword had parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip and is the shortest of the gladii and not to be confused with the spatha which was a longer, slashing weapon used initially by mounted troops. Over the years, the Pompeii got longer; later versions are referred to as semi-spathas. Some surviving examples of the Pompeii style sword have reinforced points with raised ridges, possibly designed to punch through leather and thin metal armour.

Pompeii gladius vital statistics
Blade length: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). Sword length (including grip) 60-65 cm (24-26 in). Blade width: 5 cm (2.0 in). Sword weight: 700g (1.5lb)

Flavius Vegetius Renatus in De Re Militari Book I: The Selection and Training of New Levies, 390 A.D, writes:
“They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. […] A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armour. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides, in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action.”

In Roma Nova, the concept of training harder than the fight you expect is still standard procedure.


Photo courtesy of Britannia

“Still smarting, I went for a session in the gym. I found Flav there and persuaded him to do a turn in the arena.
‘Not if you’re in a bad temper.’
‘I’m perfectly under control, thank you.’
He was cautious as we circled and only made a few exploratory jabs for the first few minutes. Training with a sharp, double-edged, fifty-centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills.

In a formal session, if you were cut, you were cut; then chewed out for being careless. At this precise moment, I needed to release and ground my tension. I was the trickier fighter, but Flavius more strategic. After fifteen minutes, I was lying on the ground with a nicked arm and calf. And still jumbled nerves.”

“Flavius got it all underway, with pairs demonstrating sword skills. Not practised these days outside the professional games arena except by the military, training with a sharp, double-edged fifty centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills.

Not mandatory – we used state of the art weaponry as normal – but all members of the unit were encouraged to become proficient with a gladius, if only to get used to close physical combat with an opponent. If you got cut, you got cut, then chewed out for being careless.

Contrary to popular belief, the Roman short sword was more than fine for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting. Not much had changed in shape since the Pompeii pattern used in the fourth century which had been spectacularly successful.”

AURELIA (Aurelia)
“[Mercuria] twisted the combination lock on the grey steel cabinet and swung the door open. Inside were racks of short swords, fifty-centimetre blades modelled on the so-called Pompeii gladius pattern. While some late Roman armies used the longer spatha towards the end of the Western Empire, we’d kept the shorter gladius.

Now only the military or licensed gyms used them for training. But they were unrivalled for learning the sheer physicality of close-quarter combat. If you were careless and let your opponent cut you, then more fool you. This evening, I knew I was going to be that fool.”


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIOPERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published in April 2016.

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