For children as well as adults, a book can be a time machine, opening a door to faraway places and letting you take part in a thousand different adventures. My life was changed forever when, at the age of nineteen, I read Mary Renault’s masterpiece The Last of the Wine. This book sparked my lifelong obsession with history in general and the Classical world in particular.
Because I grew up in the ‘Mediterranean’ climate of California and had seen plenty of sword and sandal movies, I could easily visualise ancient Greece and Rome. But what if a book is set in a time which is simply too remote? Or what if your child has trouble conjuring up the pictures painted by words?
One way to give your child a frame of reference is to take them to a good documentary or historical film, but these aren’t always suitable for children. And a film can’t show you what the world smelled or tasted like. What can satisfy the five senses and more?
Take your children to the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech and you’ll give them a taste of life of a Roman forum: they’ll see metal smiths, snake charmers, acrobats and pavement dentists, just as they might have done in Roman times. Beggars, pushy shopkeepers, unwanted guides, unscrupulous innkeepers and overpriced food are also totally authentic to ancient Rome. If you are brave enough, you might even glimpse the biblical sight of a ram being slaughtered in front of a thorn bush as we did several years ago.
Passing the open door of a hamam (public bath house) in a Fes souk, I saw a boy shovelling sawdust into the furnace just as Roma bath-slaves would have fed a hypocaust. And a visit to the Cağaloğlu Hamam in Istanbul was the closest I’ll ever get to a day at the Roman Baths.
Attend a bullfight in Spain, and you will find all the ingredients of a day at a Roman amphitheatre. You have an opening procession, musicians playing in the stands, people waving of handkerchiefs to show approval, menials raking bloody sand between bouts, celebrity beast-fighters and merchants selling cushions, drinks and nuts. The Spanish bullring is a mini replicas of the ancient Roman amphitheatres, sometimes even down to the garlands they draped from awnings. Yes, it’s barbaric, but it’s a form of time-travel.
If these overseas options seem too exotic, expensive or extreme, you can find something just as good right here in Britain. Take your children to a re-enactment event. Encourage them to watch the shows, visit the stalls, handle the artefacts, buy a souvenir, try on gear, test equipment, taste the food. Best of all, encourage your children to chat with these living historians. They know far more than academics about the past because they come the closest to living it. They are almost always enthusiastic, accessible and generous with their knowledge. I have learned so much from re-enactors. Without their devotion my understanding of my history-mystery books would be much thinner and drier.
Many re-enactments are held around the country, but one of the best is the Chalke Valley History Festival. I’m going this summer and I hope to see you and your children there for a few days of holiday time travel.
Caroline Lawrence is the author of The Roman Mysteries, the children’s adventure stories set in Ancient Rome. They combine Caroline’s love of art history, ancient languages and travel and were made into a BBC children’s TV series. In 2009, she won the Classical Association Prize for ‘a significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics’. Caroline will be speaking at CVHF 2014 on Friday, 27th June about The Roman Mysteries.