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The Boy Who Stepped Through Time

Did Ancient Romans really do that?

When I decided to write a novel about a boy who goes back to Roman Gaul in 313 CE (The Boy Who Stepped Through Time), I thought I knew a fair bit already about Ancient Roman times. I’d seen images of gladiators fighting, and people in togas with wreaths on their heads lounging around eating on couches… But when I actually sat down to write I realised that I actually knew nothing at all about the lives of children in Roman times. What did children wear? Did they lie on couches to eat?

So… one and half years later, with the help of a wonderful researcher who had read one thousand (yes, 1000!) texts and peered at hundreds of ancient Roman sculptures, mosaics and letters (luckily she can read Latin!), I finally knew enough to actually start writing! Here are some of the fun facts I learnt for the story.

How to dress without zips or buttons!

Togas were only worn by high-up men, and, in the period I was writing about, only on very special occasions. They needed trained slaves to help them get into their togas, which were metres long and had no zips, buttons or pins to hold them up. In 313 CE boys and men in Gaul wore tunics, which looked like dresses that came down to their knees, and a girl or woman would wear a long robe.

Wreaths were also for special occasions, but they could be worn by women and children too. In The Boy Who Stepped Through Time, Valentia, the master’s daughter, puts on a wreath for her birthday. I had fun including the fact that the wreath had parsley in it!

Dormice and other delicacies...

Roman children didn’t get to lie down to eat. In fact, lying on couches was reserved for special feasts, and it was only for adults. Meals could be eaten in any room. The slaves would bring you the food and a small, low table, and set it out wherever you wanted to eat.

And what did they eat? Well, everyone drank wine mixed with warm water, including children. Most people ate mostly vegetarian food – bread, lentils, nuts, chickpeas, barley porridge, and cheese made from sheep’s milk. (They didn’t drink cows’ milk.) Richer people ate pork, seafood, and, on special occasions, dormice, peacocks, and wild boar (like in the books about Asterix the Gaul). Cheaper meats available to poor people were small birds like sparrows and pigeons. And everyone loved a smelly fermented fish sauce called ‘garum’.

Table manners were a bit different from ours. You ate with your fingers from a shared dish and threw your bones and pips on the floor for the slaves to clean up. But well-brought up children would be taught not to eat in a greedy way, and to wait for their turn to dip into the dish.

One of the jobs for a slave was to carry round a bowl, water jug and towel so you could wash your hands when they got too sticky. And when guests arrived for a meal, the slave would wash their smelly feet for them too!

A bathhouse is not just for washing...

Having a bath was the social event of the day. Masters, slaves and children went to the bathhouse together and all hopped naked in the huge baths together. When you met someone you knew there, instead of saying, ‘Hello!’ you said ‘Wash well!’ And you didn’t wash with soap. You rubbed yourself all over with olive oil! (Or your slaves did it for you.) The bathhouse was heated by a system of fires that fed hot air under the floor and into the walls. In the hottest room, you needed to wear wooden shoes so you wouldn’t burn your feet on the hot floor. Oh, and the bathhouse was not just for washing. It might have a library, entertainers such as jugglers, food for sale, barbers, saunas, and an exercise yard where you could lift weights, run, or throw balls. The Romans didn’t kick balls so my modern character Perry taught his Roman friends how to play football!

A bathhouse was grandly decorated with statues, marble floors, columns and mosaics.


In books, authors don’t usually write about their characters going to the toilet, but when I found out about Roman toilets, I couldn’t leave it out! In The Boy Who Stepped Through Time the first time Perry needs to go, he opens the door and sees there are three toilet holes all in a row on a wooden bench, and a woman is sitting using one of the holes already. Even worse, instead of toilet paper they all share a sponge on the end of a stick.

Hard to survive!

In Roman times, it was hard to survive the first year of life, and even if you did, most people died by the time they were thirty. That meant, about a third of the population would have been under 15 years of age. The Romans didn’t have antibiotics or analgesics and all the medical cures we take for granted today. Their remedies for a cough included horse saliva drunk with hot water, pigeon dung gargled with raisin wine, or ground millipedes mixed in vinegar and honey!

The Boy Who Stepped Through Time by Anna Ciddor is published by Allen and Unwin. (r.r.p £7.99)


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