Naples underground

The BBC’s series that started last week with fabulous film and virtual reconstructions of tunnels and monuments under present day Naples (#invisiblecities #italy) reminded me of my mini-excursion underground in 2012. Roman remains are built into the arteries of underground Naples and I was fascinated to see how Roman walls and arches were criss-crossed with later construction. First we visited some later tunnels where watercourses ran, then on to the Roman stuff!

Down the steps…

Underground watercourse – not sure of the contents, but it didn’t smell!















Poignant reminders from the 1940s when people sheltered from bombing and set up home underground.


A small Roman arch to gladden any heart!


A much, much bigger arch, filled in.

Recycled street archway













Decorative Roman wall to the right – note the diamond pattern and even brickwork – crossed at 90 degrees by some later jumbled bodgy construction.


Making our way out along a former Roman street


Naples today, overground


Pizza, anyone?

See much more at BBC One – Invisible Cities with Dr Michael Scott and Alexander Armstrong.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

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.

Telling Roman stories - the audio of its day

Reading – Funerary relief, Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome (Author photo)

The recent release of the first four Roma Nova audiobooks prompted me to look into ancient Roman oral storytelling traditions. Here’s what I found…

Storytelling in Roman societies covered stories (fabulae) from the classics through philosophy, politics, religion and travel to sheer entertainment. Professional storytellers would be hired to entertain after dinner parties and other special events. And a good storyteller was a valued travelling companion because travel was mostly a slow, boring process in the ancient world.

Almost nothing is easily accessible about the storyteller in the ancient Roman world and the little information that exists is incomplete and difficult to track down. We do know that during the first and second centuries AD a fairly large quantity of literature circulated widely throughout the Roman empire. Educated slaves seemed to have been available in sufficient numbers to have reproduced a significant number of books. We don’t have records of the Roman book trade but the surviving literature of the same period shows that much of it travelled weIl beyond the city of Rome and that a reasonable proportion of the inhabitants of the Roman world were literate, something necessary for a book trade to prosper.

Wall scrawling, Pompeii (Author photo)

Apart from books written for and by the ruling classes of Roman society, we know from thousands of scrawlings of wall at Pompeii and other (often remote) sites of the empire that literacy was widespread, even if the results were rude or defamatory! Graffiti from inns, restaurants, barracks and brothels suggest that slaves, legionaries, shopkeepers, mule-drivers and other members of the Roman working classes enjoyed a reasonably high level of literacy. However, many workers in country districts were thought to be illiterate according to remarks by writers such as Quintilian and Strabo. The former mentions ‘rustics’ and ‘illiterates’ as being enthusiastic listeners to Aesop’s fables and the latter makes interesting remarks about the fondness of illiterate and semi-literate people for children’s stories.

But learning and writing did not preclude the presence of itinerant professional poets or popular storytellers who could tell stories of the great and the good down to the ordinary man (or woman) in the street. Such a storyteller in antiquity was often just one member of a large group of entertainers who earned a living by practising their assorted skills in the towns and villages of the Roman empire. Canny storytellers probably made their visits coincide with local festivals and fairs when people from the countryside were looking for entertainment in the form of a public performance or spectacle.The Latin terms for storyteller, fabulator and aretalogus, do not indicate whether they were itinerant or not. Neither word conveys much more than the basic meaning ‘storyteller’.

A storytelling poet… Catullus at Lesbia’s, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)

Suetonius tells us that Augustus employed them for two distinct purposes: firstly, to entertain guests at his dinner parties along with other entertainers, secondly, to lull him to sleep on nights when his sleep was interrupted when he summoned readers or storytellers (jabulatores).  Sadly, Suetonius does not give us any information about Augustus’ successors’ use of storytellers.

Although some wealthy Romans kept storytellers, we don’t know whether they formed a permanent part of Augustus’ household, or were summoned at short notice by a palace servant from public places at Rome such as the Circus Maximus, Forum, or the hippodrome.

Pliny mentions fabulatores in a letter which opens with the catch-cry of a professional storyteller: “Pay a penny and hear a golden tale”, possibly the cry of a popular fabulator addressing bystanders prior to giving a public performance. Juvenal mentions an aretalogus who seems to have been more of a religious or temple storyteller, although there is controversy about this and about whether they were itinerant or attached to a specific temple.

Child’s first bath is depicted on one side of the marble sarcophagus for a dead child. The nurse lifts the baby who has just been born, while his mother, supported after the birth by a female servant, watches. Roman, second century CE. Agrigento, Museo Archeologico Regionale.

The many references in Greek and Latin literature to ‘old wives’ tales’ shows  clearly that nurses, who in the ancient world were usually slaves, were the main keepers and retellers of Graeco-Roman folktales.

But literary snobbery  flourished then as now. The term anilisfabula, was the ultimate insult that a literary critic could apply to a writer’s work, or that anyone could apply to another person’s speech. Any fabula  which lacked a proper message or which was not delivered in an instructive context, i.e. a tale which was told for its own sake for entertainment was relegated by the ancient world’s severest critics to the nursery. Such is the opinion of Macrobius who condemns the romances of Petronius and Apuleius, and packs them off to the nursery (in nutricum cunas).

Informal storytelling also took place while women were working at their spindles and looms. (Ah, women’s storytelling reduced to mere domestic gossip – what a surprise!) Travellers exchanged stories to help alleviate the tedium of a journey which could take weeks. (For an example of such story-telling travel, see the opening chapters of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius – The Golden Ass – a second-century comic novel.)

Romans spent a large part of their lives in the open air with an almost complete lack of privacy. The difficulty and danger of even cooking a meal at home led to the practice of eating in a variety of bars and inns where, of course, people gathered. Also, almost every Roman town had public baths which anyone could enter for a small fee, not just to bathe but to take advantage of a wide range of facilities. Such places would have provided storytellers with ample opportunity to ply their skills. No doubt there was competition from other itinerant artists in search of a paying audience. 😉

Some storytellers may have remained in one city if it was large enough and attracted large numbers of visitors. Other storytellers in the Eastern Mediterranean were attached to religious centres, especially to those of Egyptian deities, and their main task was to popularise the miraculous deeds of the god or goddess whose cult they were promoting.

It’s a pity that so little is recorded in ancient literature about professional storytellers; it could well be due to the anti-plebeian bias of most ancient literature. The hostility of ancient literary critics towards literature which did not exhibit a recognisable purpose or lesson, or which did not pay proper attention to authenticity and literary conventions is something that has endured to the 21st century.



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

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.

A very peculiar feeling – spooked and thrilled

A week before Christmas, something very strange happened to my first book. The main character, Karen, stepped out from the covers and started talking. I mean, really talking, and in a young American voice (Caitlin Thorburn).

I listened and a tingle ran across my shoulders. I was spooked. There’s no other way to describe it. But I was enthralled. Her voice was fresh, her dialogue challenging, and her actions kind and thoughtful. Who was this vibrant girl?

Then Conrad started. Juno, that almost had me in pieces. Although the same narrator spoke the words –  this time with a deeper tone and a British accent – Conrad sounded as sexy, assured, uptight and a little scary as he is at the start of the written version of INCEPTIO.

I’ll be honest. Although I listen to podcasts and radio plays, Book at Bedtime, etc. I’ve never listened to an audio book. I know the story of this one – I wrote the damn thing – but I was still welded to it. How peculiar is that?

The second one, PERFIDITAS, followed. What a relief! I stole back into that world of voices in Roma Nova…

And now I’ve listened to SUCCESSIO, heartbroken and moved almost to tears. Then AURELIA took me back to a more direct age, with Julie Teal‘s no-nonsense British voice. But with her range, she conveyed Aurelia’s tough and tender moments perfectly.

Listen to a sample of the INCEPTIO audiobook and you’ll hear what I mean!

Oh, and here’s PERFIDITAS

You can find full details, a (scary!) video and direct links to all four audiobooks produced by Audible UK here.

(My original mental ‘models’ for Karen/Carina and Conrad were young versions of Mg Ryan and Val Kilmer, but I’m not posting their images for copyright reasons.)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017.

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 audiobooks of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO and AURELIA are out!

Yes, they’re here!


Meet Carina Mitela, 21st century Praetorian in Roma Nova, as she challenges all three.
Meet Aurelia Mitela, her precursor – Praetorian, spy, mother and thief taker in the 1960s.

Transformation, deception, rebellion, vengeance, comradeship, duty and epic love stories in these adventures in a new Rome founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents, and ruled by women.


Here’s the video of a tiny part of the interview I recorded at Audible UK!  They let me witter on about Roma Nova. Fabulous!

You can download the full audio interview FREE.

And you can download the audiobooks direct here:
INCEPTIO:             Audible UK         Audible US         Audible Australia
PERFIDITAS:         Audible UK         Audible US         Audible Australia
SUCCESSIO:         Audible UK         Audible US         Audible Australia
AURELIA:              Audible UK         Audible US         Audible Australia        

Audio interview:      Audible UK         Audible US        Audible Australia
Video interview:      YouTube

I know this sounds like an Oscars’ acceptance speech, but I want to thank Louise Brice and Juliet Pickering at Blake Friedmann for arranging this and special thanks to the late Carole Blake for having faith in Roma Nova.


READER OFFER: I have a limited number of promotional codes for each book. If you’d like a complimentary copy for review, email me at hello[at]alison-morton[dot]com with PROMO CODE in the subject line. Tell me in your email which book you’d like a code for, plus a second choice. If too many of you want more of any one code than I have, then there’ll be a draw done randomly. Only one code per applicant and per household. Closing date is 31 December 2016.

Now, a review is not a condition of receiving the promo code for a free book, but an honest and balanced review would be very greatly appreciated!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017.

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.

Roma Nova hits the big time!

In September, I visited Audible who were producing the first four Roma Nova stories as audio books as arranged by my agent, Blake Friedmann.  The lovely Robin Morgan let me rattle on for a while about my favourite subject – Roma Nova.  Now he and his team have produced the interview as an ‘audio session’ which you can download for free! Click the link and you’ll get a prompt to login to Audible, then you can have a little laugh.

I tried to ignore the camera that was recording me at the same time – always a good strategy otherwise you end up simpering at it. But they’ve produced a mini interview on YouTube that makes me seem almost human. Bravo to them!

Today, I looked at the page of historical fiction authors they’ve interviewed and nearly fell over! Talk about illustrious company. I’m at the bottom left where I lurk modestly.

Historical fiction writers' interviews at Audible

More about the audio books… 


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017.

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.

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.