It is books like these that make it possible for unscholars like me to write historical fiction.*
My Eye of Isis novels are set in the time of Cleopatra and the research for this book comes from papyrus records buried beneath millenia of sand referring to the title subject, Egypt when it ceased to be a client state of Rome’s and became just another province under a Roman prefect. Two hundred pages long, divided into 10 chapters, superb indices, and translations of passages from individual papyri lend color and life to the narrative and a real feeling for Pax Romana on the south side of the Mediterranean. I especially enjoyed this letter from a student in Alexandria writing home about the inadequacy of his tutor.
I have rejected Theon. Yes, I too have formed a low opinion of him because he is so irresponsible by nature…realizing that there is no benefit to be had from [any available] tutor just paying steep fees for nothing, I am relying upon my own devices. Write me quickly what you think…I’m sure I’ll do just fine, the gods willing, just listening to the public lectures…
I think the gods were willing and he did do just fine.
There’s a farmer’s almanac and a list of tolls for travelers (a road toll for a ship’s captain was 8 drachma, where the toll for a prostitute was 108 drachma, which says something about how the toll keepers judged their different incomes) and spells for restraining hostile spirits. An artaba was a measure of grain equal to about 1 1/6 bushels. An aroura was a measure of land equal to about half an acre or a third of a hectare. Interestingly, there is no mention of fees paid doctors and lawyers although both are very much present in people’s lives as demonstrated in the records. At this rate I’m never going to figure out what Keren charges for a consultation, but everything else is manna from heaven for a writer who likes to get the details right.
Fun for the reader and infinitely useful to the writer. Bravo!
*See also Adrienne Mayor’s Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Unconventional Warfare in the Ancient World and Laurence Bergreen’s Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu.
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