16 August 2014

Good Pies

A good pie is hard to find. Today's world is plagued by the sorts of pies that you get from the grocery store bakery or the type you get by using pre-made crust and canned filling. And yet, a truly well made pie is a thing of terrible and awesome beauty. Obviously one way to guarantee that you get a homemade pie is to, well, make it yourself at home. However, sometimes you want to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor, and so I've decided to share some great places to get good pie near Lynchburg, VA.

Montana Plains Bakery
in Lynchburg, VA
First, we'll start with a place in Lynchburg. Montana Plains bakery has been open for years and serving great baked goods. If you go there for breakfast you can get a sweet, yeasty brioche roll stuffed with your choice of ham and gouda, spinach and swiss, or cinnamon and cream cheese. A few years ago, though, Montana Plains opened a new location in another part of town with the atmosphere geared more toward being a place where you would sit down to eat; the original location is just a walk up bakery with no seating. And with the change of atmosphere also came a change of menu. Montana Plains started offering pies! You can buy them whole or by the slice. If you're in Lynchburg, this is the place you want to stop and get a pie!

The pies of Montana Plains
All right, let's move on to a different place with a slightly different type of pie. Mountain Fruit and Produce is in Bedford, VA, about a 30 minute drive from Lynchburg. For those familiar with the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is located off the parkway, just down the mountain from the Peaks of Otter. At Mountain Fruit and Produce, you can, as the name suggests, buy fresh fruit and produce from farms nearby, as well as a host of other homemade items like jams, jellies, preserves, and sauces. But there is a sweet alchemy going on in the bakery at Mountain Fruit and Produce every day that eclipses the rest: fried apple pies. Now before you say, "Meh. I can get a fried apple pie cold at the truck stop or for 50 cents in McDonald's drive thru..." Oh, reader! Could you only know the blasphemy you speak! At Mountain Fruit and Produce, the crusts are made by hand each day, the apples are cooked and sliced right there, and if you're lucky you can get them hot from the fryer. For the pie-lover on the go, there is nothing to beat it.

Mountain Fruit and Produce

Crossroad Store
An unassuming gas station
harboring a delicious secret!
Okay, leaving Bedford, let's head north from Lynchburg on Rt. 29 toward Charlottesville. Many Lynchburgians (Lynchburgers?) make regular trips to Charlottesville and drive right past the old gas station called Crossroad Store about 10 minutes past the little town of Lovingston. I always had previously. However, on a recent trip down Rt. 29, I was driven by the need for a bathroom to stop there and go inside. It's a fairly large place with all the novelty stuff and convenience items you would find in a gas station. Also, like many gas stations there was a place to sit and eat and a cooking area. But as I approached the counter, my breath caught in my throat. Surely this is not the sort of thing one would find at a gas station! And yet, there it was, a case of fresh baked goods, calling to me in their plaintive little doughy voices, begging me to take them home. So, of course, I had to buy a pie and take it home to share with the family. And wow, was it good! The crust was dense, but flaky, and the filling was perfectly set, not goopy and syrupy like store bought filling and not disjointed and loose like many homemade attempts. If you're ever driving to Charlottesville on Rt. 29, don't forget this most unlikely of places to find an amazing pie.

Inside Crossroad Store

Finally, we come to the end of our pie journey. I've saved this one for last because it is, without question, the best pie on the list. But also it is the farthest flung location from Lynchburg. If you're driving north on Interstate 81 through Virginia, you will go past the town of Staunton. Now Staunton isn't a huge place, but it's got some neat things there. You'll find the American Shakespeare Center (which is the world's only replica of Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse), you'll see the Frontier Culture Museum, and, if you're interested, you can also visit Edelweiss, the best German Restaurant ever. But none of these places are the reason for your visit, oh no. You are stopping in Staunton for one reason and one reason only. Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant.

Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant
Open since 1947, Mrs. Rowe's sells good country food cooked the old fashioned way. It's kind of like what Cracker Barrel restaurants would be if they got rid of all the kitsch, and if they actually lived up to expectations, and if they were a lot cheaper. Mrs. Rowe's is a quiet, unassuming place just off the interstate, but once inside you feel like you're in Mayberry. The food is good, you can feed a family for less than you could at many sit-down places travelers frequent (like the aforementioned Cracker Barrel), and the people there are invariably friendly. But this isn't a blog post about restaurants, so let's get back to our main subject.

Pie Heaven at Mrs. Rowe's
Mildred Craft Rowe was known in her day as "the pie lady," and her restaurant has kept up that reputation admirably. Their pies are, really, the best you're going to find anywhere. Imagine a cherry pie, but rather than the oversweet, runny filling that cherry pies often have, you get the piquant taste of fresh dark cherries cooked in a homemade sauce and poured into a rich, buttery crust. Your taste buds will think they've died and gone to heaven.

Of course you could buy
Mrs. Rowe's Little Book ofSouthern Pies and make
your own. But it's not going
to be the same.
So there you go, four places within an hour or so drive from Lynchburg where you can get good pie. Enjoy!

15 August 2014

Good Eats Gospel Grains

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle of Jesus (aside from the Resurrection) related in all four gospels. It's one of those stories that you hear again and again in Sunday school. But have you ever wondered, "Hey, just what are barley loaves anyway, and how did first century people make them?"

Okay, I'll admit, I'd never wondered that before... But I am a big fan of Alton Brown on the Food Network! And a few years ago Alton Brown put together this little segment on barley loaves for his pastor as an introduction to a sermon. It's in the style of his hit show Good Eats. Enjoy!

Gospel Grains - Sermon Intro from Johnson Ferry on Vimeo.

12 August 2014

How to Smoke a Pipe

“…[the state of Virginia is] so great and honorable that, no matter into what part of the world you go, when you say, 'I am a Virginian,' you are expected to be an honorable, brave gentleman or lady; and I hope that you will all try to keep up the reputation which the sons and daughters of the Old Dominion have always had.” – Mary Tucker Magill
I am a Virginian, and very proud of my heritage. As such, I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually come to appreciate that wonderful weed successfully commercialized for the first time in 1609 by John Rolfe in Virginia; that weed that built Virginia’s economy, and was even used as currency for many years by early settlers; that weed that is today so demonized by politicians and the press. That’s right; I’m talking about tobacco.

Fun Fact: The world's first
ever anti-smoking campaign
was perpetrated by the Nazis
in Germany. Make of that
what you will...
When it comes to enjoying tobacco, there are two basic methods that can be employed. First, you can put it in your mouth as chewing tobacco or snuff. This is just nasty. Trust me, you don’t want to try it. Second, you can smoke it. Now I don’t know who was the first person to look at tobacco and say, “Hey, let me start a fire with this and put it in my mouth.” Certainly it was a brave, and perhaps somewhat stupid, individual. Some would say that those who try it today are likewise stupid. But whether brave or stupid, that prehistoric North American managed to hit upon a way to enjoy the flavor and aroma of tobacco without having to stuff one's mouth with the leaves and chew on them.

Now in the realm of tobacco smoking, there are three main options: cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Among these big three, which should we choose? Let me give you my opinion of each from experience.

Most people I know who smoke cigarettes don’t do it because they love the taste of tobacco; you can barely taste the tobacco in most cigarettes. Those who smoke cigarettes generally do so because the cigarette is a convenient vehicle to get as much nicotine as possible in a short amount of time. It’s sort of like people who drink Bud Light; I know they don’t do it for the taste.

Moving on to the next option, cigars are certainly a good smoke on special occasions. However, I’ve found them to be an intense, and sometimes overpowering, experience. They require a long amount of time, and leave you with sticky hands and a sour stomach. Also, if quality matters to you, they are fairly expensive. No, I understand the appeal of cigars, but they aren’t for me.

That's me. Quiet.
Intellectual. Manly.
But the third option, the classic pipe, is the best of all worlds. Pipe smoking is inexpensive, clean and pleasant. You don’t have to worry about sticky fingers like with a cigar, or the outer leaf turning to mush in your mouth while you smoke. Unlike cigarettes, pipes are for people who enjoy the taste of tobacco but don’t necessarily want to become a chain smoker or an addict. And in addition, pipes fairly exude an aura of quiet, intellectual manliness.

The problem I often see with pipe-smokers, however, is that while they’re smoking, they're constantly fiddling with their pipes: tamping, stirring, and relighting. It often appears to be such a fussy ordeal that I wonder why they want to smoke a pipe at all. Surely they don’t enjoy the constant and careful tending of their tobacco bowl.

Pipe smoking should be about enjoying the taste of the tobacco, and enjoying good conversation with friends while you do it. It shouldn’t be fussy or complicated. Now, the real secret to having a good smoke with a pipe is all about what happens before you light up. If your pipe is packed correctly, you can smoke it all the way through smoothly without relighting or constant tamping. So allow me to walk you through the steps of packing a pipe so that you can enjoy your pipe without the fidgeting.

Step 1: Start with a clean pipe.


If your pipe hasn’t been cleaned, do so. Make sure the bowl is clear of buildup, run a pipe cleaner through the step several times, put it to your mouth and suck in to make sure plenty of air is drawing through.

Step 2: Fill your pipe loosely with tobacco to the top. 


I usually keep my tobacco in a plastic bag, and just stick my pipe in the bag and scoop up the tobacco in the bowl. You can sprinkle to tobacco into your pipe, but I find I waste tobacco that way because some inevitably falls on the ground.

Step 3: Pack that tobacco down so that the pipe is now half full. 


You can buy one of the pipe tools with a tamper to do this, but I usually just use my thumb to do the job. The tobacco should still be springy after you tamp it, but it should be packed tight enough that it doesn’t spring up and fill the whole bowl again. If your tobacco is too tightly packed, your pipe won’t draw correctly and will go out. If the tobacco is too loosely packed, then it will burn too quickly and the bowl of your pipe will get hot. This can damage the pipe and burn your fingers as well.

Step 4: At this point, fill the pipe again with loose tobacco, and tamp it down once more. 


This time you’re aiming to have the pipe ¾ full of tobacco. It should still be springy to the touch however and not rock-hard. Perhaps you should take a draw on the stem to make sure you’re still getting good air flow through the packed tobacco.

Step 5: Now fill the bowl to overflowing once more, and this time just gently press it down so that some of the tobacco is still sticking up from the bowl. At this point we’re ready to light it.


Step 6: Hold the stem of the pipe in your mouth and draw slowly while you hold your match or lighter to the tobacco. Move the flame in a circle around the tobacco until it begins to smoke and you see the edges burn and crinkle. Then take it out of your mouth. We’re not quite ready to smoke yet.

Step 7: Now tamp down the tobacco flat with the top of the bowl.


You should have a pretty even bed of ash covering the top of the rest of the tobacco. This will ensure that you get a nice even burn.

Step 8: Okay, now we light it for real. Put the pipe in your mouth again, and using the same method as before move the flame evenly around the bowl of the pipe. This time, however, draw deeply on the pipe so that the flame is pulled down into the tobacco and the pipe begins smoking in earnest.

That’s it! Your pipe is lit. If you’ve followed all the above steps correctly, then you should be able to smoke through your entire pipe without a relight. Once the tobacco burns down a bit, you may want to give the ashes at the very top a little stir to break them down, but don’t tamp the tobacco again once you’ve lit it! That will only put out your pipe and make you have to relight it again!

And there you have it, folks!
Doing a Sherlock Holmes impression at this point is optional.

01 August 2014

The Passionate Observer and The Life of the Spider

In the flower bed next to our front stoop, between a boxwood and a hooked pole with a bird feeder, is a perfectly-woven, silky orb web. The web is horizontal to the ground, and describes a logarithmic spiral. Clinging to the bottom of it with her four long front legs and her four shorter back legs is a beautiful spider. She is vivid green with little black bands along her legs. Her pill-shaped abdomen is streaked on top with silver blotches, and, as she has grown, bright yellow-gold markings on the underside of her abdomen have become visible as well. I saw a gentleman caller on her web one day, a smaller, darker fellow: brown with red markings. I didn't see him later that day, which makes me think that he mated successfully and hit the road. That means an egg sac is probably on the way filled with little baby spiders. Had the  male been unsuccessful, he probably would have still been hanging around as a snack. The internet tells me that the spider's name is Leucauge Venusta, which is an ugly name for such a pretty spider, or the "orchard orbweaver" which seems to fit better.


Jean-Henri Fabre
If I had seen her there last summer, I most likely would have taken a broom to her web and smashed her underfoot, rather than carefully checking in on her every morning as I water the garden. Ah but that was before Jean-Henri Fabre. For science each year my wife reads through books of nature study with our kids. They've enjoyed Ernest Thomas Seton and Edwin Way Teale in the past. This year, my wife discovered Fabre. Jean-Henri Fabre was a French entomologist (and physicist and professor) who lived from 1823-1915. He was a admired by Charles Darwin who called him "an inimitable observer", and is considered to be the father of modern entomology. He was known mainly for his studies in and experiments with instinct behavior in insects. He amassed an enormous collection of notes and observations which were published under the title Souvenirs Entomologiques, which have been divided up and translated into numerous books in English.

The book that my wife read to the children, The Passionate Observer,  is a selection of Fabre's writings accompanied by lavish watercolor illustrations by artist Marlene McLoughlin. Fabre is perfectly suited for reading out loud to children because, while being imminently scientific and detailed, he eschewed scientific jargon that obscured rather than revealed meaning. He wrote, "My conviction is that we can say things without using a barbarous vocabulary: lucidity is the sovereign politeness of the visitor. I do my best to achieve it." Based on the strong recommendation of my kids, I sat down and read The Passionate Observer and loved it. It is only a smattering of Fabre's writings, covering such creatures as Halicti (a type of bee) Grasshoppers, and Cicadas. He lovingly describes the appearance and behavior of each creature and presents his observations, freely drawing on autobiographical material to keep the reader's interest. It's a great introduction to Fabre and a short book, only 133 pages, so it's a quick read.

After that brief foray into Fabre, I was left wanting more, and so I turned to a longer book with a specific focus: The Life of the Spider. In this book, Fabre primarily explores two types of spiders, Lycosa spiders or "wolf spiders" and Epeira spiders. The book begins with Fabre's experiences with one type of Lycosa, the black-bellied tarantula. I learned that this spider Lycosa Tarantula is the true bearer of the name " tarantula". The spider Americans call a tarantula is actually a member of the family Theraphosidae. After discussing the tarantula, Fabre introduces the Epeira, a family that includes many garden spiders and orbweavers. He then spends five chapters going into more detail about the life and instincts of the Lycosa and then six chapters on the life of the Epeira. Along the way he gives nods to a few other types of spiders as well: the crab spider, the labyrinth spider and the clotho spider.

The book ends with an appendix about the geometry of the Epeira's web, which is a bit more theoretical than the other parts of the book. You see, even though Darwin was a great admirer of Fabre, and the two carried on a correspondence with one another, Fabre was never convinced by Darwin's theories of random mutation and natural selection. In the appendix, Fabre details the amazing geometrical features of the Epeira's web and how the same features are found in other parts of nature. He discusses how though evolution may explain the logarithmic spiral of a snail's shell, it does not explain the logarithmic spiral of an Epeira web, which requires a particular action by the spider that is not tied to any particular physical characteristic. Clearly this instinct is not based on physical mutation but is a special kind of knowledge implanted in the spider which is only activated at a certain point in its life cycle.

After reading these two books, I've been spending a lot more time looking at the ground and at bushes. Fabre sparked a wonder in the natural world that I haven't felt since I was a kid, and that's something we can all use more of. Many of his books are available for free on the internet, so go and learn about the world of insects with the inimitable observer himself! Meanwhile I'll keep observing my Leucauge Venusta and the Pisaurina Mira family living in the bush near our mailbox.

27 July 2014

Clyde G. Sarver:
Here was a man.

“A man who says he’s not afraid of anything is either lying or he’s a fool. A brave man is a man who’s afraid, but does what he needs to do anyway.” This statement is more or less the definition of bravery I’ve carried with me my entire life. I didn’t have to wait for it until I was an adult and read almost the exact same thing in Aristotle’s Ethics. I heard this statement over and over again from the bravest man I’ve ever known: my granddad, Clyde Sarver.

Clyde Sarver
October 2, 1935 - July 17, 2014
Last Thursday, Granddad, passed away at the age of 78 after a year of increasingly deteriorating health. He wasn’t afraid of death at all; he was ready to go whenever it was his time. But he was afraid about what would happen to all the people he left behind. You see, Granddad was a worker, and even up to the last few months he did everything he could for other people. I held his hand in the hospital three weeks before he died and told him not to be afraid for us. If he needed to go, if God was calling him home, we would be okay. And so he did go, when it was time; and so those of us who were touched by him during his life are trying our best to be okay.

Granddad had an interesting life. He was, at various times, a farmhand, a cook, a prison guard, and a security officer. He was a helicopter mechanic in the Army, and flew to Camp David and other presidential places under Eisenhower. He was stationed in Germany and then in Korea. He left the service just before deployment to Vietnam, giving up a big promotion in the process, in order to care for his two children, my uncle and my mom, in the wake of his wife’s death.

Granddad toasting
my lovey bride and
me at our wedding.
For me, he was one of the best friends a kid could have. I remember shooting my first gun at his house, picking beans in his huge garden, going with him and my great-uncles to cut wood up in the mountains, and fishing with him in the creek. I remember riding with him to pick up his paycheck at the prison every month and stopping on the way to buy some horehound candy for the receptionist at the payroll office there, because they were her favorite. I remember the lowback Pointer brand bibs he wore, and the smell of his truck: freshly cut wood and tobacco. I remember how he made the best sausage gravy ever, and how he would always cook something for my sister when she was being a picky eater. I remember all the times I spent the night at his house; we would play poker and checkers at the kitchen table (I never in my life beat him at checkers), and then at night he would make shadow puppets on the wall and tell stories. He had the gift of storytelling, one of the best gifts a human being can give another. I was endlessly fascinated by stories of his time in the Army and the jobs he did here and there, of the pranks he and his friend Lloyd pulled when they were kids (dropping dynamite in an outhouse among other things), and of the countless ghost stories and local legends he knew. He was always there with good lessons and good advice. He was also the best man at my wedding.

But of course, these are just the things he was to me. To everyone, he was a courageous person who would stick his neck out for others even when there was no benefit for him. I saw him going and doing for anyone who needed anything, even if it was a person he didn’t particularly get along with. He was a hard worker by disposition, and disliked nothing so much as laziness. He was an avid reader, a lifetime learner, and was always ready to try new things. He loved to tell and hear jokes. He was young at heart even when many younger people around him grew old. And in the end, he was an amazing example of faith, holding firm to Jesus in his dying hours when he was in the most pain and suffering.

Granddad with a new toy.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long to learn from all of his lessons. I wish I had been a harder worker when I was younger, had been a braver person sooner. But I can’t deny that who I am now and who I continue to become will forever be shaped by Granddad’s example; he’s still my hero. In a thousand little ways every day, it feels like something is missing, like the world is impoverished somehow now that Granddad is no longer in it. But what he left behind for those who knew him is a legacy that will continue to be felt for generations. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Here was a man! When comes such another?”

Life Lesson Number 37:
Who needs teeth, anyway?

09 July 2014

Commonplace Wednesday 7

From The Passionate Observer by Jean-Henri Fabre

The real, which is perfectly simple, and supremely beautiful, too often escapes us, giving way before the imaginary, which is less troublesome to acquire. Instead of going back to the facts and seeing for ourselves, we blindly follow tradition.
He lives twice who watches the life of others.
From The Life of the Spider by Jean-Henri Fabre
Formerly, to describe this group, people said 'articulate animals,' an expression which possessed the drawback of not jarring on the ear and of being understood by all. This is out of date. Nowadays, they use the euphonious term 'Arthropoda.' And to think that there are men who question the existence of progress! Infidels! Say,'articulate,' first; then roll out, 'Arthropoda,' and you shall see whether zoological science is no progressing.
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien
...the eager applause with which Beowulf's desire to go away on an adventure [was greeted] is very likely derived from a fairy-tale situation in which men were glad to be rid of the strong loutish youth.
...when Anglo-Saxons made Sceaf the son of Noah born in the ark, it was not mere genealogical fantasy...It was rather a process, due to a line of thought closely related to the ideas of the Beowulf-poet. It gave the northern kings a place in an unwritten chapter (as it were) of the Old Testament.
The English language has changed--but not necessarily improved!--in a thousand years.

02 July 2014

Hobby Lobby

I was going to make a long post about the ridiculous backlash about Hobby Lobby in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, but, thankfully, Liberty.me has it covered, and thus I save some time.

No, Hobby Lobby is Not Violating Your Rights by Britney Logan

For the record, the company I work for pays me on a 1099. That means that I am officially a contract worker; by a free transaction, I sign a contract with the company to do x, y and z for them, and they agree to pay me x, y and z for my services. Which is, you know, how all employment should work anyway. That contract does not include health care, so I buy my own health insurance. Is the company somehow stealing my freedom to have health insurance? Not at all. I'm still totally free to have health insurance. In fact, I do have health insurance. That I buy. With the money I've earned. Because that's how you get things in a free market.

Likewise, if Hobby Lobby says, "We don't agree with these 4 forms of birth control and don't want to buy them for you," does that mean that they are denying their female employees any freedom? No. Those employees can go out and buy those forms of birth control. With money. Because, once again, that's how you get things you want...you earn money and then buy them. But of course, I'm just one of those crazy people that think the government shouldn't be passing laws that regulate the free agreements made between employees and employers to begin with, so what do I know?

Well, I said this wasn't going to turn into a long blog post, so before I make myself a liar, you'd better just click on the link above and read the article.

Commonplace Wednesday 6

From The Passionate Observer by Jean-Henri Fabre
My conviction is that we can say things without using a barbarous vocabulary: lucidity is the sovereign politeness of the visitor. I do my best to achieve it.
Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obsure.
You rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture-chamber and dissecting-room, I make my observations under the blue sky to the song of the Cicadas; you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death, I pry into life.
…the insect interests me much more when engaged in its work than when stuck on a pin in a cabinet.

27 June 2014

I, Claudius and Quo Vadis

Ah, it’s summertime and time for the proverbial summer reading. So what do I, a teacher of ancient history and literature, do in the summertime? Well, this year I decided to read two historical fiction novels about the early Roman Empire simultaneously: I, Claudius by Robert Graves and Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz.


The premise for I, Claudius is that it is the long-lost autobiography of Emperor Claudius. In writing this book in the 1930s, Robert Graves was attempting to represent the latest scholarly data on Claudius. Claudius was a weak-legged man whose head shook and who spoke with a stammer. Because of this, his nephew Caligula never viewed him as a threat, and he survived Caligula’s reign while every other member of the royal family was killed. However, as emperor, his symptoms improved and he claimed to have exaggerated his malady in order to survive. Most ancient historians held a low view of Claudius and didn’t seem to buy this excuse. However, writings of Claudius, discovered in the early 1900s, show that he was an erudite and scholarly man with extensive knowledge of history. By telling the story from Claudius’s perspective we get to see both this private Claudius and the public Claudius of the ancient historians.

Claudius begins his book by telling of how Augustus became emperor, and of his grandparents and parents in that time period. The book continues through his childhood during the reign of Augustus, his life under Tiberius and Caligula, and finally through Caligula’s assassination and Claudius’s accession to the throne. This covers the period from 31 BC to AD 41. The characters were all well crafted, in addition to being real historic figures, and I really came to sympathize with Claudius despite his numerous faults. Of course, the novel is being written from Claudius’s perspective, so one must always wonder if Claudius’s perspective is completely accurate in every situation.

Along the way Robert Graves takes numerous opportunities to show the “true story” behind the commonly accepted history through various conspiracies and plots. Part of my joy in reading the story was seeing these little excursions. For example, when Augustus died, his nephew, Postumus, who was in exile, was put to death. A few years later, a slave named Clemens appeared in Rome claiming to be Postumus and causing quite a stir until he was captured. In I, Claudius, before he dies Augustus decides to pardon Postumus, and, to keep his actions hidden from his wife Livia, he secretly goes to the island where Postumus is in exile and switches him for the slave Clemens. Thus when Augustus dies it is Clemens who is executed and the man who pops up in Rome a few years later is the real Postumus. Because of these things, it is best not to get your history from I, Claudius (one should never get one’s history from historical fiction), but more importantly, I would suggest reading Tactius’s Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars before reading I, Claudius to get the maximum enjoyment out of all the inside jokes.

Near the end of I, Claudius, we meet Marcus Vinicius, one of the conspirators who join in the assassination of Caligula. The novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz opens under the reign of Nero around AD 64, about 23 years after I, Claudius ends, and features the fictitious son of the real Marcus Vinicius. This son, also named Marcus Vinicius, may be fictional, but almost all of the other main characters in the story are real people who were nobles in Rome in the time of Nero.

Returning from the wars, Vinicius meets Ligia, the daughter of a foreign king who was taken as a hostage when she was very young and has been raised in the house of Aulis Plautius and his wife Pomponia. Vinicius immediately falls in love with Ligia and decides he must have her. His friend Petronius pulls some strings with the emperor and has her removed from Aulis’s house and brought to the palace from which Vinicius plans to take her to his house as a slave/lover. However, Ligia is a Christian, like her adoptive mother Pomponia, and when she is on her way to Vinicius’s house a group of Christians from the city surround the litter and carry her off to a secret and safe place. Vinicius is enraged to be cheated of his woman and hires a Greek spy to find out where she is so that he can get her back. This inevitably brings him into contact with Rome’s Christian community and even into contact with the apostles Peter and Paul.

I don’t want to say much more about the book for fear of spoiling the plot. However, while this private drama is playing out, politics are moving forward as well, and for those who know their history, this can only lead to one thing: the burning of Rome and the persecution and mass slaughter of Christians in the aftermath. And though, like Vinicius, Ligia is a fictional character, the Christian Pomponia as well as most of the other major characters are real. By the last quarter of the book, there are some heart-wrenching and gruesome scenes to slog through, made all the more difficult to read by the fact that similar things really did happen in Nero’s Rome.


The two books, I, Claudius and Quo Vadis are both superb examples of historical fiction. (Quo Vadis even won Sienkiewicz the Noble Prize for literature.) I, Claudius is a more sweeping story about the family of the emperor over the course of about 70 years, whereas Quo Vadis is a more intimate story centered on the relationship between Vinicius, Ligia and the Christians in Rome. It takes place all in the course of about a year with an epilogue that briefly narrates the last few years of Nero’s reign. I, Claudius is plot-oriented and fast-paced; Quo Vadis is more slow-moving and focused on characters instead of events. I highly recommend both for those interested in a snapshot of Roman culture in the first century.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves 5/5 stars
Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz 4/5 stars

25 June 2014

Commonplace Wednesday 5

From Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Vinicius did not think now that there was nothing new in the words of the old man, but with amazement he asked himself: "What kind of God is this, what kind of religion is this, and what kind of people are these?" All that he had just heard could not find place in his head simply. For him all was an unheard-of medley of ideas. He felt that if he wished, for example, to follow that teaching, he would have to place on a burning pile all his thoughts, habits, and character, his whole nature up to that moment, burn them into ashes, and then fill himself with a life altogether different, and an entirely new soul. To him the science or the religion which commanded a Roman to love Parthians, Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians, Gauls, and Britons, to forgive enemies, to return them good for evil, and to love them, seemed madness. At the same time he had a feeling that in that madness itself there was something mightier than all philosophies so far. He thought that because of its madness it was impracticable, but because of its impracticability it was divine.
From Symposium by Xenophon
Without friendship, as we full well know, there is no society of any worth.
From On the Art of Reading by Arthur Quiller-Couch
You will never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.
All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself.
The man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that something reconisable for a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse
From I, Claudius by Robert Graves
"So, I'm Emperor am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now."