“There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything.” – Author Paul Cartledge discusses Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World

“Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.”

WHAT: “In 480 B.C., the mighty Persian king Xerxes led a massive force to the narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae, anticipating no significant resistance in his bid to conquer Greece. But the Greeks, led by Leonidas and a small army of Spartan warriors, took the battle to the Persians and nearly halted their advance.

Paul Cartledge’s riveting, authoritative account of King Leonidas and the legendary 300 illuminates this valiant endeavour that changed the way future generations would think about combat, courage, and death.”

WHO: Professor Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge & Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture

MORE? Here!


Why Thermopylae?

I hate the word, usually, but it conveys the point I wish to make: ‘Thermopylae’ – just that one name – is one of the ‘iconic’ battles in world history: i.e., if you consult one of those ‘Greatest World Battles’ compilations, it invariably is featured. This is partly because it really was in its own immediate circumstances – August 480 BCE, a narrow pass in north-central Greece, at the start of a potentially world-shattering amphibious invasion of mainland Greece by the forces of the mighty Persian Empire under Great King/Emperor Xerxes – an important (but far from decisive) military confrontation), but *mainly* because of what has been made of the battle/made out of the battle subsequently – at first by the Spartans (then leading the rather shaky and feeble Greek Resistance to Persia) and then by any number of historians and/or moralists preoccupied with ‘last stand’ heroics or nostalgia therefor, and, more recently, by filmmakers (“The Three Hundred Spartans” (1962); “300”, (2006).

Sadly, a number of (right-wing) US gun clubs have taken the slogan ‘Molon labe’ (come and get ’em – allegedly Leonidas to Xerxes) as their motto.

Was there any way in which the forces led by King Leonidas might have won (militarily speaking) the battle?

Absolutely no way whatsoever. The points of sending *any* sort of Resistance force to Greece south of the kingdom of Macedonia (already a vassal province of Persia) and the region of Thessaly (where the four main cities had ‘medized’, i.e., decided they’d be better off submitting to Persia than resisting) were i. to delay the Persian advance on its main immediate target (the city of Athens) ii. to liaise with the Greek Resistance fleet based at the northern tip of the island of Euboea and iii. ‘show the flag’, i.e. demonstrate to both allies in the Resistance and to those Greeks who were wavering over whether to resist or not that it was both possible and worthwhile to resist.

The Resistance intially sent a force north of Thermopylae as far as the vale of Tempe but quickly discovered that that line of defence could easily be turned, hence the decision to focus on the Thermopylae pass (c. 1 km W-E, already fortified for earlier, local reasons). It was unfortunate for the Resistance that Thermopylae coincided with major Greek religious festivals – one of them all-Greek (the Olympics), the others local – since that reduced the numbers of available troops; although not even a 10-fold increase (from the actual 6-7,000 troops under Leonidas) would have enabled the Resistance to resist successfully! Xerxes had anything from 80-200,000 land troops (a motley crew admittedly – Herodotus our main source includes a sort of Catalogue of Xerxes’ muti-ethnic forces; we can’t be certain of ANY numbers for Persian forces on land or sea) at his disposal, so it was only a matter of time before he forced his way through. It took him 3 days.

King Xerxes I of Persia notoriously misunderstood the Spartans grooming ritual – not understanding that the warriors combed their long hair out before the battle as their way of preparing to fight to the death. What was the biggest misconception about the Persians held by the Greeks?

See above on uncertainty over the numbers on Xerxes’ side. Greeks were generally not good on big numbers at the best of times – they used the same word for ‘10,000’ to mean ‘millions’ or ‘countless’! – but Herodotus will not have been alone in thinking Xerxes had over 5 million (sic) men under him on land – so many that they drank whole rivers dry etc. They were of course therefore pretty worried about facing his troops in open pitched battle, though the victory of the Athenians (and Plataeans) at Marathon ten years earlier (490) will have been a considerable encouragement. Historians today reduce Herodotus’s figure even as low as 80,000 (George Cawkwell) but most of us would say 100,000 plus.

You shut your eyes and you picture the face of Leonidas. What springs to mind, the statue unearthed in 1926 on the Spartan Acropolis, pictured above, or the face of Gerard Butler?

Good question! For me, the former every time, but then I’m a historian and archaeologist who’s lived in (modern) Sparta for over a year and spent many many hours in the Sparta Museum, where ‘Leonidas’ normally resides!
Actually, ‘Leonidas’ (unearthed at the foot of the Acropolis, amid theatre debris, though originally he’d been on what passes for an acropolis in Sparta) cannot be an image of the real king Leonidas (reigned c. 490-480), for several reasons: i. on style he belongs in the 480s, before the battle, and Spartans didn’t then commission ‘portrait’ statues of living kings ii. he wasn’t originally a free-standing, isolated sculpture but part of a sculptural group affixed probably to the pediment of some sort of religious structure, probably a temple, and he probably represented some sort of (mythical) figure or ‘hero’.

The nicest story I know of Butler’s Leonidas comes after a recent final of the NY tennis Open won by Novak Djokavic, a friend of GB, when GB joined him in a unison cry (from the movie) of ‘This is Sparta’. Sadly, it’s on
youtube:

You illustrate how the Spartan form of education influenced the British public school from Thomas Arnold to Kurt Hahn. Is there another aspect of Spartan civilization you’d like to see given a dust off and resurrected into modern civic life?

There’s really no way in which an ancient society – possibly *especially* a very odd ancient Greek society such as Sparta’s – can teach us directly anything. I suppose one possible but by no means novel lesson would be the value, the overriding value in the time of COVID-19, of community. The Spartans, of course, took to an extreme the general ancient Greek notion that the community was far more important than any individual member (they didn’t even have a word for ‘individual’), so that they even treated individuals as dispensable in a way that we today find morally indefensible. But it’s hard to believe that without the Spartans’ taking the lead there would have been much of a defence put up against the Persians in 480, and especially not at Thermopylae. And it took a special sort of communitarian courage to take the lead in the way the Spartans did.

The modern city of Sparta has been described as the most conservative city in Greece. It’s never had a left-wing mayor and it was one of the few cities that voted in 1974 to retain the monarchy. Laconia was the region with the highest proportion of “yes” votes in the 2015 bailout referendum. Is that a coincidence?

Yes, when I was first working in Sparta in 1970, which wasn’t all that long after the end of the Civil War (1946-9) in which most – but not all (see American archaeologist-historian Kevin Andrews’s brilliant memoir, ‘The Flight of Ikaros’) – Spartans and Laconians had fought on the royalist side, my much more liberal Greek friends referred to Lakonia (the region) as ‘Vlachonia’ meaning something like ‘stupid Lakonia’ (the Vlach- bit refers to the Vlachs, or Wallachians, a non-Greekspeaking transhumant pastoralist people from NW Greece – see JK Campbell Honour Family and Patronage on the related Sarakatsani people, 1964). But there were also Spartan anti-Nazis (a friend of mine’s brother was killed resisting their occupation), and there were Spartan/Laconian Communist partisans 1946-9. And in the 2000s at last Sparta had its first woman bank manager (I think partly German-educated. The ancient Spartans were paradoxically rather more liberated on the ‘woman question’.) The current and recently elected Mayor of Sparta, Petros Doukas, is not especially rightwing but most Spartans and Laconians probably are, and sadly that includes members of the Extreme Far Right ‘Golden Dawn’ party, now thankfully in eclipse.

Why are Laconians so prone to be rightwing? Until the recent transformation of communications (when I first went 50 years ago, it took 6 hours to reach Sparta by road from Athens – now it’s 2 hours) Sparta was very cut off from ‘metropolitan’ Greece. And within Laconia itself there were some sharp divisions – e.g. the Taygetos and Parnon mountain areas vs the plains, and the whole Mani district, the central-southern prong of the Peloponnese with its separate identity and history and self-identification – none of which tended in a liberal direction. ‘King’ Constantine self-exiled and then after the overthrow of the Colonels (1967-74) was refused re-entry to Greece, which only increased the monarchist-royalist fervour of the ‘Restore Constantine and the monarchy’ lobby that had its base in … Laconia (at Gytheion in the Mani).

What’s the one thing that we don’t know about the battle that you wish we did?

Why the Phocian detachment which Leonidas had purposely placed in the Anopaea flanking back pass failed to realise they were being bypassed by a crack force of elite Persian ‘Immortals’, and so failed to alert Leonidas that he was about to be pincered? And/or why Leonidas posted this clearly incompetent detachment of locals and did not put a Spartan in command of them?

If you could possess one object associated with your narrative what would it be?

A shield – either of a Spartan or of a Perioecus. Other items of offensive or defensive equipment were worn for individual reasons, but the shield (hoplon) – as an apophthegm (witty saying) preserved by Plutarch tells us – was worn for the line as whole.

Does the battle of Thermopylae still matter?

It couldn’t matter more. Not, obviously, because it was a defeat but i. because of the sort of (heroic) defeat it was and could later be made out to be for propaganda purposes and ii. because of the context – in the Graeco-Persian Wars, which was a battle of civilisations as well as a geopolitical conflict. What if … the Persians had won either the Battle of Salamis (480) or Plataea (479)??

What are you currently working on?

Having just finished the last-minute corrections to my forthcoming (May 28) ‘Thebes’ book, I am putting the final touches to a book I am co-editing with a former PhD student, Dr Carol Atack: it is the first, ‘Antiquity’ (c.1000 BCE to 550 CE), volume in a 6-volume Cultural History of Democracy (part of a Bloomsbury series). My main (pre)occupation, as it has been since the end of 2014, is co-directing and co-editing with Prof Paul Christesen (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA) ‘The Oxford History of the Archaic Greek World’. ‘Oxford’ = O.U.P. (New York), ‘Archaic = c. 800 BCE-c.500/450 BCE. ‘Greek’ = Hellas, the Greek world of the Med and Black Seas. ‘History’ = archaeo-history, i.e. the c. 35 ‘essays’ are mainly written by archaeologists, using mainly archaeological data. Submission date, for the in toto c. 1.25 million words, is the end of 2020, publication 2021/2, at first in hard copy (6 volumes?), then online.

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Interview: seeds (postponed for the duration)

“…brace yourself, you’re in for an emotive and important ride!”

WHO: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, actor

WHAT: “On Michael Thomas’ birthday, his cake sits in his mother’s living room, its candles burning undisturbed. Jackie wants to clear her conscience, whilst Evelyn’s got a big speech to deliver on the 15th anniversary of Michael’s fatal stabbing. Are some things better left unsaid?

Shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award, seeds tells the story of two mothers united in sorrow, sharing the hardship of protecting their sons.”

WHERE: Traverse 2

DATES: Postponed for the duration

TIMES: 20:00

MORE: Click Here! (Including information about possible disruptions to the tour)


Why ‘seeds’?

When I first read the play, the writing hooked me: the measured way Mel writes means you’re constantly trying to work out what is and will happen. It’s a real thriller. I feel that it’s unique in its representation of two middle-aged women, two mothers fighting for their sons in a world where the rise in knife crime means that too many families are dealing with the aftermath of these tragedies.

What’s the one thing about this show that everyone should know BEFORE they take their seats?

This play presents two characters often underrepresented on stage and deals with subjects that feel so urgent. It might feel tense, uncomfortable at times and triggering because of the subject matter it explores but these ideas need to be explored in order to create change. So brace yourself, you’re in for an emotive and important ride!

What makes this production unique?

The fact that it looks at those left behind after a tragic incident, years after it happened, which is something that the media doesn’t often do. I feel that, as a society, we need to support those who are still dealing with the pain of loss years later and be aware of the effects it has on families and loved ones. ‘seeds’ explores real-world, important issues, it feels like something that can touch people and be a catalyst for change.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

That this production was going to work out as well as it has. At the start of working on any project, you hope and pray that you can create something of quality that resonates with people. I knew that the material was strong, so I wanted to do it justice. The feedback from audiences has been very positive so far so I really thank God for what we as a team have achieved.


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“I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible.” – Author Irving Finkel discusses The Ark Before Noah

“I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…”

WHAT: “In ‘The Ark Before Noah‘, British Museum expert Dr Irving Finkel reveals how decoding the symbols on a 4,000-year-old piece of clay enable a radical new interpretation of the Noah’s Ark myth. A world authority on the period, Dr Finkel’s enthralling real-life detective story began with a most remarkable event at the British Museum – the arrival one day in 2008 of a single, modest-sized Babylonian cuneiform tablet – the palm-sized clay rectangles on which our ancestors created the first documents. It had been brought in by a member of the public and this particular tablet proved to be of quite extraordinary importance. Not only does it date from about 1850 BC, but it is a copy of the Babylonian Story of the Flood, a myth from ancient Mesopotamia revealing among other things, instructions for building a large boat to survive a flood. But Dr Finkel’s pioneering work didn’t stop there. Through another series of enthralling discoveries he has been able to decode the story of the Flood in ways which offer unanticipated revelations to readers of ‘The Ark Before Noah‘.”

WHO: Irving Finkel is a British philologist and Assyriologist. He is currently the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum, where he specialises in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia.

MORE? Here!


Why Noah?

Well, in this case there was no possible alternative because the subject matter of this book concerns the literary narrative which existed and must have existed prior to the biblical narrative that everybody knows by heart and everybody takes for granted with Noah in the lead role.

But also if you want to give a lecture or write a book or command attention, it is always beneficial to start from a point that people know about. So, if we’d called it ‘The Ark of Utnapushtim’, no-one would have had any idea who that was and sales might have been even more modest than they are at the moment. So it wasn’t a commercial reason but simply a logical reason whereas I was taught many centuries ago that the sensible approach is to take one point and make it three times in different ways and hope that somewhere it will sink into people’s minds, so anybody who saw the cover was urged or prompted to pick it up, would know that it was something to do with Noah which isn’t a bad start.

There is a description of your illustrious Victorian predecessor at the British Museum, George Smith, discovering the first Ark tablet and going momentarily mad with excitement, stripping off his clothes and charging around the room. What would make you pull a George Smith? What discovery could you imagine would have you leaping around in your underpants?

Well I’ve made a few discoveries since I got here but this tablet with its specific – Ark Before Noah tablet – with its contents was after Smith’s accomplishment, in some ways a close second because you had the situation everybody knows, the biblical story, and there have been all sorts of theories about every single aspect of the bible and lots of discussions about what the Ark was like, whether it was like it was described in the Hebrew text, whether it was this, whether it was that but nobody to my knowledge has ever articulated the possibility that it was a circular craft like a coracle. So that was a pretty sort of head-smacking staggering discovery, it really shocked me and agitated me to the point that I loosened my tie and I rather think I might have taken my jacket off, I left it at that, you know you don’t want to excite too much attention among the younger women in the department, I always try to behave in a gentlemanly fashion.

One of the interesting comparative points about shall we say the number one big discovery George Smith, and number two, much less significant but in the same bag following 100 and so years later by me, is that when Smith discovered the flood tablet everybody knew their bible inside out, especially the beginning chapters but I mean everybody read the bible, it underpinned literature, political reference, it was just on everybody’s lips all the novels in the world refer to the bible. That was a scenario in which the discovery was of volcanic significance and when Smith made the discovery he was encouraged, or whatever, to make a public statement in front of a whole committee of worthies including the Archbishop of Canterbury who are not generally renowned for their interests in Assyriology, I think the Prime Minister was also there which is even less than easy to parallel from modern times but the fact is, it made a fantastic impact on the world.

It made a fantastic impact on Smith, who I think had an epileptic fit because the description that he jumped out, dropped the tablet on the table and held his hands and made funny noises and in fact started to disrobe himself, these separate features of behaviour are extremes of epileptic reaction, not necessarily all in a bunch, but I have a feeling that when he actually sat there reading this clay tablet, discovering what was practically speaking holy writ, appear on the surface of a piece of Weetabix, it set off in his bosom and uncontrollable explosion. So the thing is, to answer your question specifically, I thought finding this round thing was a pretty amazing discovery and went about saying you’ll never guess what I found out, but the milieu in which I operate the algae-ridden swimming pool in which one attempts to do breaststroke, is a whole different situation because familiarity with the Bible is minimal to the point that people under a certain age, I would randomly say 30, have a deep-seated and eradicable confusion between things which are in the Bible and things which come from Hollywood, they simply don’t know the difference and lots of people are not sure whether the Noah story isn’t the creation of Walt Disney and so forth and so forth.

So I was in the situation that having made what was really quite a serious discovery in the whole mass of the biblical world and Assyriological world. I had to hold people down, slap them on both cheeks and say “This is important because…” And then they would wake up and say “Oh yes, that sounds quite interesting”. So that is a major, major contrast and it underpins all Assyriology because you could find an inscription with a completely new tablet, a new king, a new this, a new date, a new word for chariot pommel or something but it doesn’t shake the world and there are relatively few things that you can find within the Assyriological world which should command a wider response but the one with this had to be coaxed and publicised and lots of interviews and lots of newspaper things and eventually people say, “Oh how marvellous, how interesting, how wonderful…” and some of them bought the book but it didn’t have a matching effect reverberating throughout the world except this modest paperback available from all good book stores is actually being translated into other languages including French and American and Russian and Polish and Japanese and Armenian and Chinese is nearly done. So the anti-gospel according to me is being disseminated on a wider scale than it might otherwise have been entirely in the English version.

Is that how you see it, the ‘anti-gospel’?

Not at all, it’s a kind of joke. I mean I’ve had a lot of unpleasant substances thrown at me in public for undermining the Bible and this kind of nonsense but my argument is that it’s nothing to do with that whatsoever because the flood story clearly originated in Mesopotamia because of the landscape, the geology the geography, the history, the riverine nature of their landscape. There is no question that it comes out of that part of the world. There’s no question that the literary structure, the literary creation went from the Babylonian forerunner into the biblical narrative in the Book of Genesis. There seems to be no doubt about it, but it’s not pinching words from God or undercutting the clergy, the simple response to people who in fact have threatened me with tar and feathers and what have you is this, have you ever tried to write a detective story? Have you ever tried to write a piece of fiction? Have you ever tried to invent a plot that no-one has invented before? It is practically speaking impossible and all literature is derivative in some measure or other and the question is whether it’s derivative in the modern world, whether it’s derivative surreptitiously, accidentally or unwittingly but it’s true, you cannot create from nothing a whole new thing and the same applies to the narratives in the bible, they were borrowed from here and there and the crucial point, intellectually and from a religious point of view is that they were used to tell different messages.

So, if you hear a really good story about a chap who has a week to save the world and the clock’s going tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, this is a deep-seated irresistible format which Hollywood has embraced like with its teeth and ever since and the Babylonian story that one bloke wakes up one morning with the responsibility for the world, what the hell are they going to do to save all the world, is a brilliant story because everybody thinks, Thank God it wasn’t me. This is it and then the philosophical writers who produce the text of Genesis took the bones of the narrative and used it for a totally different theological philosophical principle. So that obviates the charge of me underpinning the bible, it’s just a recycling of literary ideas which of course there is a finite number.

You talk in the book about how the day to day work of an Assyriologist is the mundane existence of life and getting along in the world. You’re probably the nearest thing to somebody who has actually walked the streets of ancient Babylon and encountered the people. Were they like us? Did they think like us? Could we relate to them, could they relate to us? Do we share something universal or are they – without having green heads with things sticking out of them – alien to us?

Well, this is a really deep and significant question. In fact, I’ve come to conclude at my stage of stuff, without sounding pompous, this is really one of the most important questions and it’s my conviction that the human race has never altered from the time when it really emerged and classifiable as homo sapiens that the components are there and that in the whole history of the evolution of our society, the changes, which are wrought, are so-called civilising if you like, but they are cosmetic and the entity which is the human being is unchanged. So, to be specific, the writing looks like from another planet and so when you first encounter this stuff you reinforce the idea that these people are remote from us in every single possible way, they are so far back you can’t even see them with a telescope and they are therefore behind us in evolution.

Now, the danger of this argument is the built-in conception that there is improvement as part of evolution which governs the convictions for the people who think they lead the world, that we are at the apogee of the human race, that we are more intelligent, more educated, more practical, more wise than anybody who came before. In fact, all the evidence that I can see would suggest just the opposite, that that is by no means the truth and the people in Babylonia in the second millennium were, in my estimation, the sort of thing is, a Babylonian comes in the room now wearing Babylonian clothes and probably smelling of what they had for breakfast and I don’t know what, sits down in the chair and you think – God, what zoo did this person comes from. Or maybe it was a sophisticated merchant expensive clothes and a hooker under his belt and what have you, you think, Oh how am I going to talk to this person?

A what under their belt?

A hooker, you know a sort of…

…Shisha pipe.

Yes, not a young woman. So the thing is, the person inside…

Did they have hookers?

Well actually they didn’t, it’s a good point, it’s an acronisym but for poetic purposes. They could have had hookers. But the point is if you read their literature and you read their letters and you read their so-called real documents, you find that the person, the individuals who write these tablets are familiar to us because they tell the truth and they lie and they wheedle and they’re hypocritical and they’re convinced and they’re faithful and they’re adulterers and they’re fearful and they’re brave and they’re, I don’t know, they drink, they don’t drink, they have all the contrasts which make up the complexity of a normal human being in their lies, so they are frightened of disease, they’re frightened of sterility, they’re frightened of dying, they worry about the Gods like hell when they’re ill, when they’re dying but otherwise they don’t think about them more than is absolutely necessary, they do offerings in the cult.

You know, sometimes people have a deeply religious experience, some people think this is a waste of time but I’ve got to do it. Some people do it because their fathers did it. It’s all the same in my opinion. And if you can zoom in into their houses, these things would be all the same and we can see them showing off, we can see them being clever. There are two things that make me feel this most particularly. One is sarcasm in letters, “Am I your brother or am I not your brother?” Another are all these kind of Italianate gangster sayings in letters, “I sent the material already where’s the gold, where’s the gold?” Or “Dear so and so, bless your footprints and your grandmother’s footprints too. Funny that you should have written because it was only yesterday that the messenger went off with your bag of gold so you should get it.” So, in other words, the cheque-in-the-post phenomenon that underpins industry and business in this world is not a novel thing either.

And there are many, many, many subtle points which on their own if you take one, a person might say, “yeah well you never know, it’s an accident text, you never know what they’re really thinking, you never know what they’re really thinking but when you have them all together mixed up in your mind, you kind of do know what they’re really thinking.”

I think what combats this understanding, or at least my understanding, in this direction is a conviction that we are the apogee and then before us were the Victorians who primarily thought about sexual intercourse, and then before the Victorians were the Romans who primarily thought about underfloor heating and toilets, and before them are gorillas. But you know the Victorians were like us in every way, they were stilted about this and this and this but you know in a household how they were, and it doesn’t change because there is no moment when all of a sudden all people evolve, they don’t. Now I think from a political point of view you could argue that we’re going backwards.

How are the studies of cuneiform and the ancient literature of the region being shaped in the post-Saddam era?

Well, the post-Saddam era is something whose full nature it won’t be possible to understand until more time has gone by. There was massive destruction archaeologically then Sadam Hussein, theoretically so to speak, modelled himself on the great kings of Assyria. There are posters of him in his chariot like Nebuchadnezzar or Ashurbanipal hunting lions or shooting arrows at the enemy. And he, on placards and other media, tried to give the impression in this childlike way that he stepped into or out of their own great history and stood on the shoulders of giants.

So the massive destruction and cruelty and waste to which Iraq has been subjected is obviously common knowledge. In terms of cuneiform studies, cuneiform research, the first thing is that although we have a very large collection of tablets in the British museum from the 19th century and there are many other collections like the Louvre and the Met and Berlin where there are holdings of these resources even if you put all those together, the material which is in the museums of Iraq, but more importantly still under the ground in Iraq, is of uncountable volume because when you have an ancient culture which lasted for about 3,000 years with the literature written on clay, it’s not that one city here and one city over there had a bit of writing, literacy was universal and there must be tablets under the ground everywhere in the country by their millions.

So when you take a long term view, that resource is yet to be rescued or rather excavated long before there is any question of how to deal with it. So within Iraq now the antiquities departments in universities are climbing to their feet, students are doing research learning to read, learning archaeology, we have a programme here where Iraqis come twice a year. Groups of them for the latest up-to-date training in scientific techniques of excavation and so forth. So we do what we can to nurture this but there is an upcoming number of young persons including people who can read cuneiform script who will, in due course, have their own students and hopefully when things become more peaceful, the harvesting can begin of this unimaginable richness.

This interview is being published in several parts. In the coming parts Dr Finkel will be talking about the sheer volume of ancient material written thousands of years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets still to be translated; His period as President of The Coracle Society; The time he built a half-sized replica of the Ark described in his discovery; The best source for the best bitumen; and Whether Noah had a beard.

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Interview: Harpy (20 March ’20)

“Sometimes the life beyond Edinburgh for a piece comes in a way you never imagined. It always surprises.”

WHO: Philip Meeks: Writer

WHAT: “National treasure Su Pollard gives a one-woman tour-de-force performance in this razor-sharp and bittersweet dark drama.

Birdie’s a hoarder. The neighbours call her a harridan and a harpy, although most have never even met her. They see her hoard as a hazard for house prices. But it isn’t rubbish. It’s her life’s work and it exists because years ago something deeply cherished was stolen from her; Birdie’s not been able to give up anything since.
She’ll do anything to get this priceless thing back. Anything at all.

National treasure Su Pollard gives a one-woman tour-de-force performance in this razor-sharp and bittersweet dark drama from Fringe First award-winner Philip Meeks (‘Kiss Me Honey, Honey!‘, ‘Murder, Margaret and Me’).”

WHERE: Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh

DATES: 20 March

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why Harpy?

Harpy is one of the many derogatory terms about women borrowed from mythology. I’m sure these terms were originally used in this way by men and since one of the themes of the play is that men are frightened of women, like rich people are frightened of poor people, I decided it was a good short sharp title.

The play is also partly a homage to the sub-genre of horror films often called Grand Dame Guignol. The first of these was ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane‘, which was born out of cruelty. Jack Warner wanted to see how desperate two of his aging out of work stars really were. He cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aged grotesques and then marketed the film by spinning tales of battles between the pair on set. Of course, these two fantastic women triumphed and the movie saw a revival of both their careers. So, Harpy has a sort of dark thriller feel to it.

Finally, the story is about a hoarder and in mythology Harpies hoarded precious things they often stole from their victims.

Harpy premiered at EdFringe’18. Does the Fringe still have value as an incubator of productions?

Absolutely. But you have to really work out what you’re doing when you take something there. I’ve tried taking plays that already existed and it can feel like knocking a square peg in a round hole. I think its best if you do something you create specifically for the environment. An idea you know you will be able to expand and build upon beyond the time and production constraints of Edinburgh. But first you have to have to focus on making it as complete as it can be for Edinburgh and have no expectations for a life beyond. Often you can have a huge success and the play will never see the light of day again. Sometimes the life beyond Edinburgh for a piece comes in a way you never imagined. It always surprises.

Of course you need stamina for Edinburgh. It’s a bit more brutal than it used to be. But whenever you feel you’ve got a huge disaster on your hands you don’t have to try too hard to find someone having a tougher time than you. In 2018 one of the shows at our venue was really struggling and I overheard one of the actors desperately trying to flog it to punters by saying, “you must come and see us. We share a dressing room with Su Pollard.”

Are there any differences between what was on stage in ’18 and what’s going on stage in 2020?

We have a largely new creative team and the director Abigail is bringing a wonderful energy to the proceedings – she’s really asked me why I’ve written what I’ve written. It’s great to be challenged so wonderfully and makes the writing process far less lonely. The production is bigger and we’ve now got an elaborate set full of surprises, more musical moments and far more nods to movies that inspired it. I think its sadder and funnier. I’ve also been able to build upon the fact that it is set in the corner of South London where I live and all the people Birdie encounters actually exist.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals? 

Why there are so many parakeets living in London! The reason is now in the play and it’s one of my favourite bits.


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“The absolutely primal nature of this religious idea was something I wanted to include at the very start of the saga, and have it endure all the way up to the dawn of Christianity, when Constantine decides that all amulets should be outlawed.” – Author Steven Saylor discusses his Roma trilogy

“I must confess, military history bores me.”

WHAT: “”Roma” is the story of the ancient city of Rome, from its mythic beginnings as a campsite along a trade route to its emergence as the centre of the most extensive, powerful empire in the ancient world. Beginning with the prehistory days when Roma was a way station among seven hills for traders and merchants and the founding of the city itself by Romulus and Remus, critically acclaimed historical novelist Steven Saylor tells the epic saga of a city and its people, its rise to prominence among the city-states of the area, and, ultimately, dominance over the entire ancient Western world. From the tragedy of Coriolanus, to the Punic Wars and the invasion by Hannibal, the triumph and murder of Julius Caesar, and the rise and decline of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of Imperial Rome, Saylor’s breathtaking novel brings to vivid life the most famous city of the ancient world. “Roma” is Saylor’s finest achievement, an epic in the truest sense of the word.

…AND…

In the international bestseller “Roma“, Steven Saylor told the story of the first thousand years of Rome by following the descendants of a single bloodline. Now, in “Empire”, Saylor charts the destinies of five more generations of the Pinarius family, from the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, to the glorious height of Rome’s empire under Hadrian. Through the eyes of the Pinarii, we witness the machinations of Tiberius, the madness of Caligula, the cruel escapades of Nero, and the chaos of the Year of Four Emperors in 69 A.D. The deadly paranoia of Domitian is followed by the Golden Age of Trajan and Hadrianobut even the most enlightened emperors wield the power to inflict death and destruction on a whim. “Empire” is strewn with spectacular scenes, including the Great Fire of 64 A.D. that ravaged the city, Nero’s terrifying persecution of the Christians, and the mind-blowing opening games of the Colosseum. But at the novel’s heart are the wrenching choices and seductive temptations faced by each new generation of the Pinarii. One unwittingly becomes the sexual plaything of the notorious Messalina. One enters into a clandestine affair with a Vestal virgin. One falls under the charismatic spell of Nero, while another is drawn into the strange new cult of those who deny the gods and call themselves Christians. However diverse their destinies and desires, all the Pinarii are united by one thing: the mysterious golden talisman called the fascinum handed down from a time before Rome existed. As it passes from generation to generation, the fascinum seems to exercise a power not only over those who wear it, but over the very fate of the empire.”

WHO: Steven Saylor is an American author of historical novels. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and classics.

Saylor’s best-known work is his ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ historical mystery series, set in ancient Rome. The novels’ hero is a detective named Gordianus the Finder, active during the time of Sulla, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra. Outside this crime novel series, Saylor has also written two epic-length historical novels about the city of Rome, ‘Roma‘ and ‘Empire’. His work has been published in 21 languages..

MORE? Here!


Why Roma & Empire?

The late Nick Robinson was one of the last independent publishers of the old school. He founded Robinson Books in the 1980s (which later bought Constable and then was bought by Little, Brown/Hachette). Once he brought me to London on book tour and invited me to his Mayfair flat, where I had been told by my breathless editor, “Nick has an exciting proposal for you!” Over cocktails, he said, “Steven, we’ve done quite well with your Roman mystery series, but I think it’s time for you to step it up a notch. I want you to write…a big book.” And that was it. A big book! But that no-frills invitation did call to mind an idea I’d been mulling for a while, namely one of those epic family sagas where a place is the title and also the main character, like James Michener’s Texas or Edward Rutherfurd’s London. No one had done that with Rome. Nick and also my US publisher said, “Do it!”, so I was off.

I first thought I could pack everything from Romulus and Remus to Fellini in a single volume, but there’s just too much Roman history and too many great stories. So for Roma I settled on the first thousand years, from Iron Age trading post to burgeoning world capitol under Julius Caesar. The sequel, Empire, bit off a shorter time period, because I had to fit in all those crazy emperors between Augustus and Hadrian, which brought us to the very height of Rome’s empire.

Your narratives take place entirely within the locale of the 7 hills. How easy was it to run and rerun the course of honour without recourse to a military career or three?

My first rule was that Rome would be not just the main location of the novel, but the only location. We never leave Rome. All the battles take place off-stage, as they do in a Greek drama.

I must confess, military history bores me. My friend Lindsay Powell writes biography of Roman generals and he can cite every detail about every legion and its insignia and so forth over dinner, bless him, but I start fiddling with my napkin and daydreaming about sex and politics. It’s the sex and politics that grab me, and you never have to leave Rome to find that.

But the books do have plenty of blood and gore—riots in the Forum, gladiator games, Nero burning Christians. My US editor had me trim a few passages from Empire for fear the reader would experience what he called “cruelty overload.” The Romans had an enormous appetite for violence. As do we, only ours is mostly indulged in movies and TV and sports, where people don’t actually die.

Central to each narrative is an amulet. When and where did you first encounter that device?

The great T.P. Wiseman in ‘Remus: A Roman Mythpostulates that a reported sighting of a phallus floating in a hearthfire may be the first purely Roman myth. That eerie phallus was a god named Fascinus. Little replicas of Fascinus became everyday talismans, each called a fascinum. The Vestal virgins, ironically, were in charge of a big fascinum, which they had the sacred duty to load out of sight under the chariot of a triumphing general, where it protected him from the Evil Eye of the envious. Mothers would likewise put a fascinum in baby’s cradle, to ward off the envious gaze of barren women. The absolutely primal nature of this religious idea was something I wanted to include at the very start of the saga, and have it endure all the way up to the dawn of Christianity, when Constantine decides that all amulets should be outlawed.

Can we expect a third volume without recourse to the arm twisting and threats of violence that compelled Conan Doyle to resurrect Sherlock Holmes?

Yes! The third novel will be out in 2021. It follows my fictional family from Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor, to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. It’s a critical period of world history, as paganism dies and the Christians triumph.

Along the way we meet Elagabalus, the drag-queen emperor (not around long), Zenobia of Palmyra, a real queen who challenged Rome, and many other little-known but fascinating figures including (you can’t make this up) a certain Senator Messius Extricatus.

The third volume has taken so long to write because the research was endless, and arduous. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to savour what I call “slow writing.” Rather like slow cooking. It will taste even better when it’s finally done.

Was Gibbon right about life under the Antonines being as good as it gets, or would you opt to live elsewhen in your story arc?

Gibbon got that idea from an ancient author named Aelius Aristides, who wrote a long oration praising the Roman empire of his time. If you had money and citizenship, life under the Antonines could be mighty sweet. If you were a slave in the mines, not so good. Every era can be the best or worst of times, depending on your circumstances. But overall, yes, to be young and healthy and reasonably wealthy in the time of Hadrian would offer about the best chance of happiness in the history of ancient Rome. They had peace and prosperity and a vibrant literary scene. Authors could do quite well.

Other than the amulet, what’s the one item you’d want to personally own from the stories?

I’d love to lay hands on an item from the forthcoming third volume: the scepter of the emperor Maxentius, a gilded staff topped by a glass ball, which was discovered in Rome only a few years ago. Archaeologists think it was hidden by his supporters on the very day of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Maxentius drowned in the Tiber and Constantine rode into Rome as a conqueror. That was a decisive moment in world history. That scepter is a one-of-a kind symbol of lost causes. If any pagan magic survives from ancient Rome, it would be in the scepter of Maxentius.

When you aren’t writing about Rome and the Romans, which other authors are you reading?

Lately I’ve been reading everything by Deryn Lake (who also writes as Dinah Lampitt). Her ‘Sutton Place Trilogy‘ is a remarkable feat of historical fiction, with just a touch of the supernatural. I just finished reading her latest, a ripping yarn about Bonnie Prince Charlie called ‘The Prince’s Women‘.

Who’s the one historical character you wish you could have included who didn’t make the final cut?

Not a historical character, but a fictional one: I’d love to have slipped a sly cameo into the last chapter of Roma for my sleuth of ancient Rome, Gordianus, who has 16 books of his own. But ultimately it just didn’t feel right to include a nudge and wink of that sort in Roma. The two series—Gordianus on one hand, the family saga on the other—are completely separate in my mind. It’s almost as if they take place in two different universes, both called ancient Rome.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

I would eschew the chance to experience the endless horrors of Julius Caesar’s military campaigns—too many war crimes. A day at the Library of Alexandria would be much too short a stay, unless I could check out a boatload of books and bring them back with me. (Would I have to pay the overdue fines?) So I choose to hang with Hadrian and his circle for two glorious weeks. Talk about living like the 1%! The libraries, the art galleries, the fine dining, seeing Suetonius read from his Caligula bio and then take Q&A, Hadrian getting drunk and babbling on and on about his lost love, Antinous—well, maybe not that last part. We could put Hadrian to bed early, and then have a really good orgy.

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“History is much bigger than I am.” – Author Harry Turtledove discusses Agent of Byzantium

“Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.”

WHAT: The Byzantine Empire has not only survived but flourishes. However, the Eastern Roman Empire has many jealous enemies. Enter Basil Argyros, Byzantium’s version of 007, who has his hands full thwarting subversive plots from plotters foreign and domestic. In each story, Argyros finds himself operating in the context of a newly emerging technology – including the printing press, gunpowder, and distilled alcohol – each of which has the potential to disrupt the civilisation and society he is pledged to protect.

WHO: Harry Turtledove is an author in the genres of alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. In this universe, he was born in Los Angeles, CA in June 1949. After failing out of his freshman year at Caltech, he attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. His dissertation was on ‘The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire During the Reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (A.D. 565-582).’

In 1979, Turtledove published his first two novels, ‘Wereblood’ and ‘Werenight’, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson. Turtledove later explained that his editor at Belmont Towers did not think people would believe the author’s real name was “Turtledove” and suggested that he come up with something more Nordic. He continued to use the “Iverson” name until 1985 when he published his ‘Herbig-Haro’ and ‘And So to Bed’ under his real name. Since then he has gone on to write bestselling ficition, including stories set in a world in which the Confederacy triumphed in the American Civil War, and in which aliens invaded Earth during WWII.

He is married to mystery writer Laura Frankos. They have three daughters.

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Agent of Byzantium’?

Why not?  I was someone who wanted to write science fiction.  I had a doctorate in Byzantine history.  Was I going to write about Estonians?

When one of the big streaming services comes knocking to produce ‘Agent of Byzantium’ as a miniseries, which actor would you like to play Basil Argyros?

Given how little TV and how few movies I watch, I have no idea who actors are these days.

You’ve collaborated with other writers, including Richard Dreyfuss and Judith Tarr. What are the pros and cons? Does collaboration result in better writing?

With luck, the big pro is getting someone who is strong in areas where you are less so, and at the same time shoring up that person’s weaknesses.  The weakness, of course, is that in a collaboration each partner does 100% of the work for less than 100% of the money.

Is there a historical period you haven’t yet tackled that you’d like to?

Probably.  Almost certainly.  History is much bigger than I am.

As a writer what’s the one rule you never break?

Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.

If you could turn back time and make one change to make today’s world a better place, other than smothering some would-be-tyrant in their crib, when are you going and what are you altering?

There are so many unintended consequences and the web of history is so vast and complex, you never know what changing anything would do.  Even smothering tyrants is dangerous.  There was going to be a World War II after World War I; reasonably smart people saw it as early as the end of the first war.  If you strangle Hitler in his crib, maybe the Germans get a more capable dictator in 1939.

You’ve got a PhD in Byzantine history. What drew you to this “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”?

I read L. Sprague de “Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall” when I was 14 or 15.  I got fascinated and started trying to find out what he was making up and what was real (not much and most of it, respectively).  After I flunked out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year–calculus was much tougher than I was–I looked around for something else to do.  Byzantium turned out to be it.  A colleague in grad school got drawn in the same way by Gore Vidal’s “Julian”.

What’s the one thing everyone should know about the Persian problem and of continuity and change in internal secular affairs during the reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (AD 565–582)?

Justin II and Tiberius II were trying to hold together the expanded Empire Justinian had left them with the paper clips and duct tape he’d also left them after burning through resources to expand it.  That didn’t go real well.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

None of them would do me much good, I fear.  Campaigns are apt to be unpleasant and dangerous, I’m no warrior, and I presume I’m not allowed an AK-47. 😉  I don’t speak Latin, and I’m not really enough of a paleographer to work through manuscript Greek, which was written in all caps and without spaces between the words.  So I’ll stay in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch, with antibiotics, anaesthetics, and the Net that lets me annoy people at great distances and with great speed.

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I’m writing a new straight historical, “Salamis”, which is next in the adventures of Menedemos and Sostratos, the Hellenistic traders.  It will be done by this fall.  And I’m working on an a-h novella set in a time more recent than the 4th century BC(E).  We’ll see what happens with it.

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Interview: The Lark (Bellfield, Portobello 4 – 8 June ’19)

“Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.”

WHAT: “Joan of Arc. Saint, saviour or someone who heard voices?

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s longest wars, a 17-year-old peasant girl led an army of men into battle and carved a victory that defined France. She claimed God told her to do it; the church says she’s a witch and should be burnt alive.

Jean Anouilh’s classic play tells the tale of how Joan convinced the church, the state – and her dad – to let her tackle an apparently impossible feat. And then plays witness at her trial: a nineteen-year-old uneducated woman held to account for her successes by the world’s most educated men.”

WHO: Claire Wood, Director

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Lark’?

I’ve always loved the story of Joan of Arc. I was brought up Catholic so feel as if I’ve always known the story. I didn’t realise how much of a cult comes with her story. Look up Joan of Arc tattoos on Pinterest – it’s incredible. I discovered the plays as an adult. At first I was interested in the story of a young peasant woman who claimed God was talking to her – much to the outrage of all the educated men in the church who assumed that only they had a direct line to the Lord’s intentions. Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.

One of the characters in the play, Bishop Cauchon, who has his own darkly sinister agenda, says “when a man can keep his dignity and purpose in that loneliness, in that silence of a vanished God, that is when he is truly great.” Joan’s story is relevant to activists and political prisoners, religious or not, across the world.

The real Joan lived 600 years ago but looking at people like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, the story also feels incredibly current. They’re both about the same age as Joan was, both doing incredible things in their field. This is a slice of history that has all sorts of messages about the courage and determination needed to hold your ground in the face of fierce opposition.

Do you see Joan as a revolutionary prime mover, fighting for the timeless cause; or was she simply a pawn on the familiar medieval chessboard promoting the self-interest of the real players?

She was both. Isn’t Greta Thunberg? Joan was fighting to get France out of the control of the English. Getting the rightful king crowned was a significant step towards that. At the same time – to my modern day mind! – she was fighting for the right, as a woman, to do the things she wanted to do. To wear what she wanted to – which wasn’t a skirt. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To make a difference. Rather than festering away in skirts in her sleepy little French village.

Anouilh (and translator Gill Taylor ) do a brilliant job of condensing the history but if you look at what actually happened, it looks as if Joan’s confidence did finally outstrip her ambition. She started losing battles, her soldiers started abandoning her. She first attempted to march on Paris to drive the English out of France’s capital city – without the king’s permission. And then it all started going wrong. The history doesn’t all fit in the play necessarily – or we’d be there for hours!

But back to your question, at the same time as she was trying to achieve all these things, the establishment were busy there using her for their own ends. And this comes through really neatly in the script. The king’s mother-in-law, Yolande, trying to persuade the king to see Joan as she might help give him some much-needed celebrity sparkle. The Church’s various representatives greeting her with suspicion and then conspiring to squash her when their godly status has been affirmed. The army taking pains to point out that she’s nothing but a puppet soldier – albeit a puppet who achieved more than they had in fifty years of fighting. Few of the characters in Anouilh’s play have any interest in her as a person and are interested only in what Joan can achieve for them.

What makes Gill Taylor’s new translation of the original special?

It’s easy to tell this story in a way that’s very black and white. She was certainly hearing god talking to her. The church thought she was lying and burnt her. It’s my bugbear with the Shaw version of the story. I love Anouilh’s script for acknowledging the convenience of this girl turning up at a time when the country was in a political mess and had lost its sense of self. Joan gave them an opportunity to rediscover that. Where Christopher Fry’s translation from the 1950’s feels very much like a script from the fifties, Gill Taylor’s script does a brilliant job of highlighting how current the story is. Joan’s dad swaggers about cursing his daughter for the shame she’ll bring on the family with her claims of hearing voices – then calls her a slut for sneaking about in the fields meeting someone he’s certain is an illicit boyfriend rather than the holy St Michael. Gill’s use of the sort of language we use now to diminish women – particularly topical now as gender equality is so high on the public agenda – make the story that happened six hundred years ago feel really current.

What will a band and choir add to the mix?

At one level, we’re performing the show in a church – so it seemed rude not to have a choir. The shape of what’s now the performing space was perfectly suited to locating the choir in the balcony above what used to be the altar, acting as real live angels on high!

Looking purely at the words in the script, and getting your head around all the protagonists in the story and their respective agendas, it’s easy to lose sight of contemporary resonances. The pop music we’ve woven into the story is there as a reminder that these are all issues we’re still tussling with today.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

What a big story this is! Unusually for that time in history, we’ve inherited an enormously thorough record of her story as the transcripts from her trial still survive. The trial lasted for over 80 days, Joan was on her feet for 12 hours a day being quizzed by a conveyor belt of clerics trying to catch her out, and throughout her interrogation, her story remained remarkably, impressively consistent. The one thing she refused to tell the court was what her angels looked like. She said that was between her and god.

I would love to have known at the start of rehearsals whether Joan was really hearing God talking to her. Really hearing some sort of voice in her head. Or capitalising on prophecies that had been doing the rounds for several centuries – which she would have heard from travellers visiting their house as she grew up – about a virgin girl who would come from the countryside to save France.

There’s a fabulous podcast by an Italian professor called Daniele Bolleli (‘History on Fire‘) that sees him reviewing all of the evidence and concluding that we can’t possibly tell whether she was mad, whether she’s was God’s spokesperson on earth or whether her talent was putting herself in the right place at the right time – and consequently, having a ball doing all the things that women weren’t allowed to do at the time. I’ve been boring the poor cast with the history – as most of the cast are based on known historical figures – since we started rehearsals.

So I wish I’d known the answer before we set off. But I suspect that the reason Joan’s story continues to fascinate us – is precisely because we don’t know that answer. And that’s what makes it such a brilliantly intriguing tale.

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