The Romans seemed to be everywhere when I was young. There was the Roman ring my dad dug up in the garden, there were scallop shells in the local fields (I didn’t find out until later that they were used as, um, lavatory scrapers) and there were bits of tiles to be picked up in the park. As if that wasn’t enough, the cathedral tower was built of Roman bricks, and a bus ride away was Verulamium, with its Roman walls, theatre, hypocaust, and rather dull museum (now, I must add, hugely improved).
The Romans were everywhere – but, to be honest, I didn’t really think that much of them. Their clothes were ridiculous, for one thing, their gods seemed full of cruelty and revenge. They spoke Latin, which could hardly have been more baffling if it had been specially designed for the purpose.
But then one day on holiday there was a downpour that lasted so long that in the end the Roman museum at Bath was the only place left to go.
And, do you know, I rather fell in love.
The museum revealed to me a dark, mysterious world of curses and magic; of the divine in everything, absolutely everything, every tree and gatepost and pool. It led me to discover Roman generosity in embracing the gods of all peoples, whether it was the goddess Sul who dwelt in the hot springs of Bath, or the Persian god Mithras. I discovered, movingly, the Roman gods of childhood: Cunina, who guarded a child’s bed; Ossipago, who made his bones grow strong; and Levana, who watched over the first time a father lifted his child in his arms.
And there in my mind, quite suddenly, was the story of the irrepressible Lucan, a Celtic boy captured by the dodgiest merchant in Britain. Luckily, as the boy Lucan tells us (repeatedly) Lucan is exceptionally brave, clever and good-looking, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t in great danger, even if it’s not exactly the danger he’s expecting. As a Celt from the edges of the Roman Britain, Lucan knows just about as much about the Romans as, well, I suppose as I did when I was his age.
Lucan’s adventures take him from the borders of Wales to Bath, and they end in the town of Silchester. He meets the weaselly slave Aphrodisius, the centurion Sabidus Maximus, and Claudia, who is possibly the bossiest girl in the entire Roman Empire.
Lucan’s journey was fascinating to research, and Lucan himself proved to be very good company. It was extraordinary to look through the eyes of a child transported in a few days from an Iron Age existence into a hub of Roman civilisation, and to see so clearly that for him the Romans truly were living in The Land of the Gods.