Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest post by Roger Hudson, author of Death Comes by Amphora

Today Roger Hudson is stopping by to talk about his research with ancient artifacts and what they can teach us about society and behavior. His novel Death Comes by Amphora is a historical mystery set in ancient Athens. Welcome, Roger, and thanks for contributing an excellent post!


As an historical fiction writer, I want to understand what the society I am depicting (in my case ancient Athens in mid-5th century BC) was really like, not just for accuracy but because it affects the attitudes and behaviour of my characters, maybe even what characters I create.

We have a fairly clear idea from written sources, for instance, of what the Athenian family was like. These tell us that married women stayed in the home in the women’s quarters, running the household, raising the children, overseeing the slaves, while the husband kept to his own rooms, was out all day when not away at war (a frequent occurrence), dined out often with friends, and visited his wife’s bed only enough to procreate a few kids, preferably male. No real family life at all.

Yet several carvings on tombs show just that – happy domestic scenes with husband and wife sitting together, children nearby, baby being dandled by husband. How does that fit in? If one set of evidence contradicts the other, which way do we go?

The received wisdom is that women didn’t go out or, when they did, they were heavily veiled and accompanied by watchful and protective slaves. Yet here is an image of a coy young woman with no veil being greeted politely by a young man. On that count, on what occasion could this have happened? And there is a carving showing a woman who has bought a rooster in the market taking it home in what appears to be a cab (a two-wheeled chariot) sitting on the cabby’s knee as he holds the reins. Could she be a slave? Well, just maybe.

There again is a clean-shaven man with a woman looking very like a married couple going shopping together – he is carrying the basket and they look as though they may be having a row. How does that fit in? Her calves are exposed too. Maybe they are from a lower class? But then, almost by definition, such people would be more numerous than the upper class. So why don’t we regard that as the norm?

And all those women dancing with men at parties or religious festivals, are they all slaves or prostitutes? Some of them look extremely well dressed but none of them are wearing veils.

So who do we believe? The word of the few upper class male writers whose work has survived, possibly describing the world as they would like it to be, or the artists and sculptors portraying life as it was actually lived? More important – which makes for the more interesting fiction? Perhaps these people weren’t quite as different from us as the historians make out. Or maybe there was an inner struggle going on in some individuals between the social rules and their natural human inclinations. Now there’s something I can make use of!

As a writer, I look at fragments of evidence and ask myself what they imply for ordinary people. That painting of a merchant ship on a piece of a vase (the only such representation we have), that would probably carry passengers as well as cargo. On a voyage across the Aegean or to the Black Sea coast, those passengers could get mighty thirsty in the summer sun, even if they found a harbour every night. So where would they get water? A photo of a giant earthenware amphora-shaped vessel gave me the answer. It had handles all over it implying, to me, that it was intended to hang in a leather or rope harness on a ship, so that any liquid inside wouldn’t be spilled by the tossing and swaying of the ship. Yet it would be possible to lower a dipper into it to remove water for drinking. Deduction from human necessity. That water-holding vessel actually went on to become the murder weapon in Death Comes by Amphora (the photo had shown the cracks where it had been stuck together again). Fragments have their uses.

I’m sure other writers have similar experiences, so I’d appreciate any comments or anecdotes.

My thanks to Sarah for inviting me to guest here today.

Roger Hudson is the author of Death Comes by Amphora, of which more on


  1. Fabulous points, all! I love comparing written history with other forms of history--a richer, more textured historical world emerges so often. I spend a lot of time on the eighteenth century, and a very similar contradiction emerged there regarding military camps--we've been led to believe by written accounts and edicts that the "distaff" or "baggage" (women and children) were kept separate from the main military camp, but excavation turns up the opposite. Children's toys found amidst what ought to be a strictly military camp and whatnot. Sketches from the period often show the same thing. So the life in these camps takes on a whole new nuance.

    Just a tiny example--thanks for letting me geek out a bit and share :)

  2. Glad you found it interesting, Rowenna, and glad to hear that others find similar discrepancies in other periods. I often feel that, besides being biassed as wealthy males, the writers we have relied on for our information about Ancient Athens had an axe to grind in impressing their views on their peers. Thanks again to Sarah for giving me the opportunity.

  3. Annette1:46 PM

    Fascinating post.

    I've been working on a novel set in ancient Sparta for the last couple of years, and it's so fun to have a certain amount of 'wiggle room', making plausible inferences from the information at hand. As long as it's plausible and believable and doesn't directly contradict information we have, I'm going to serve my story.

    Hmmm...I'm thinking those pictures Mr. Hudson described on the pottery are actually of Sparta, collected by envious Athenian women who wanted to wear revealing tunics, choose their own husbands, make their opinions known, and freely leave the house for all sorts of reasons. Brutal as Sparta was in some ways, women certainly seem to have enjoyed a level of freedom and societal respect not seen in Athens. Writing my story from the perspective of a young woman there gave me many more opportunities to play with. I'm having a blast.

    Good luck with Death Comes by Amphora.

  4. Annette3:40 PM

    Whoops - I just realized my post referred to pictures on pottery, when the author was referring to tomb carvings. That might shoot my 'oh so serious' theory all to Hades. :) This is what happens when trying to post something quickly before running off to work. And this shows how writers of historical fiction must treat their research findings with careful consideration.

  5. A nice idea, Annette, and some of the pictures were on pottery (though Sparta wasn't notd for its pottery). I do think the women would have had an eye out for how women were treated in other places (Sparta wasn't the only place at the time where they had considerable freedom). And I think Herodotos reading from his book will have opened a few eyes with his tales of women ruling whole countries. Yes, I agree, it's very exciting extrapolating from little bits of evbidenc e how it might have actually worked for ordinary people.