What do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Happy Easter to you all!

I thought I'd talk about that very important subject: what do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Actually, bunnies have everything to do with Easter.  Bunnies are very fertile little creatures, as we all know, and Easter began life as a Germanic fertility celebration.

The first mention of pagan Easter was in a book written in 703AD by the famous English mediaeval monk The Venerable Bede.  Bede mentions that in Eostre's Month the people celebrated with feasts in honour of the Goddess Eostre.

Eostre was a Germanic goddess, (definitely not classical), possibly also known as Ostara.  It's slightly odd that she doesn't get a mention anywhere else other than Bede, but it's not a huge problem.  Early Germans weren't exactly literate, early Christians weren't exactly fond of pagans (and in any case were very busy expropriating their festivals), and the fact that Easter got taken over complete with original symbolism demonstrates the existence of the original festival.

It didn't take long for Eostre / Ostara to morph into Easter.  Eggs are also a fertility symbol (obviously).  Somewhere along the line the two got mixed together and the Easter Bunny ended up dealing out eggs.

And so here we are, painting eggs and eating chocolate bunnies.  There are worse fates for a goddess.


Death Ex Machina: Publisher's Weekly starred review!

I woke this morning to find congratulations emails in my inbox, because this lovely review has just appeared in Publishers Weekly.  Here it is:


In Australian author Corby’s superior fifth whodunit set in ancient Greece (after 2014’s The Marathon Conspiracy), the city of Athens is preparing to host the Great Dionysia, “the largest and most important arts festival in the world.” 

But the success of the event is in doubt after a series of accidents on the set of Sophocles’s play Sisyphus. The cast members believe this is the work of a ghost. Pericles, the city’s most powerful man, asks Nicolaos, his inquiry agent, to get rid of the ghost. 

Unfortunately, not long after Nico arranges for an exorcism ritual, one of the actors is murdered, suspended from the machine designed to hold the character of Thanatos, the god of death, in midair during the performance. 


Under pressure to find the killer quickly as the festival start date looms, Nico resorts to a clever and amusing ploy to buy more time. 


Corby again manages to effortlessly integrate laugh-out-loud humor into a fairly clued puzzle.




The Silk Road, and the earliest silk out of China

The Silk Road officially opened some time around 200BC, when ambassadors from China turned up in Bactria and Parthia.  They were looking for allies in a war, but they returned to China with tales of strange lands further to the West.  Shortly after that Chinese merchant caravans started arriving in Persia, and the most fascinating trade route in history was well and truly in business.

Two things made the Silk Road possible.  The first was the highway system that the Persians built.  I've previously written about the King's Messengers.  They could get a message from one end of the Empire to the other in an incredible three days.  The main east-west arterial was called the Royal Road, but it wasn't long before it turned into the Middle East section of the Silk Road.  The other building block was that the Han Dynasty took over in China.  The Han assigned troops to keep the roads safe, so that traders had a chance to cross the steppes without being hit by nomad bandits.

By far the biggest trading item was the Chinese wonder-material, an astounding item called silk.  Persians, Greeks, and later on, Romans, were willing to spend very large amounts of gold to get silk.  (Or more accurately, the wives were willing to spend very large amounts of their husbands' money.)

My heroine Diotima acquires some silk in The Ionia Sanction, which she later uses to make a dress.  I made a comment at the time that this made her the first woman in Europe to wear a silk dress.  But my stories are set in the fifth century BC, and the Silk Road didn't open until the second century.   Can Diotima possibly get silk 300 years before the Silk Road exists?

Yes she can.  There was informal trading before the famous road opened.  The reason we know this is rather interesting.

Wherever you find silk in an ancient site, you know for sure there's been contact with China, one way or another.  Because China was the only source of silk.

The earliest known silk outside China occurs in the grave goods of four people in Uzbekistan (Bactria, as it was back then).  The date on those graves is an incredible 1200BC.  That's a minimum, they might be a few hundred years older.

Now Uzbekistan is not far from China, but it's definitely not a silk-producing region, so the silk only got there by trade.  Whoever got that silk to Bactria was a serious adventurer, but it's certain someone did it.  From about 500BC onwards, once the silk makes it to Bactria it can get onto the Persian road system.

The next appearance of silk comes in 1070 BC.  In 1993, a team reported that they had found traces of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy.  That's an Egyptian mummy, with silk in 1070BC!

I personally rate the abilities of ancient people highly, but even I found this hard to believe.  I traced the claim.  It appears in correspondence to the science journal Nature.  It's correspondence, not a refereed paper, but as far as I know the claim was never refuted, but nor was the test confirmed.  Nevertheless that makes the idea highly credible.  That's good enough if you're a writer of historical fiction.

So it seems possible if not likely that Chinese goods were trickling into Persia and Egypt starting five hundred years before the time of Nico and Diotima.

The Marathon Conspiracy on sale for $1.99

The Marathon Conspiracy ebook version is on sale at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon for a mere $1.99.

Believe it or not, I didn't know this was happening until people mentioned it on twitter.  It's part of a promotion of detective stories, that ends on 23 March 2015.

Hurry now while stocks last!


A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.



The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!


A quiz about Sacred Games

Someone on GoodReads created a quiz about my book Sacred Games.  Incredibly, I managed to get a question wrong about my own book.

I scored 9/10!  See if you can beat me.

Here's the quiz.


Death Ex Machina, and a giveaway!


A theatrical murder sends classical Athens into uproar!




This is the fifth adventure for Nico and Diotima.  I'm afraid life isn't getting any easier for the only private agent in ancient Athens, but at least he has a chance to get into show biz.

In bookstores on May 19, 2015
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My astoundingly excellent publisher Soho Press is doing a giveaway on GoodReads.  Click here to enter the giveaway!


Are things getting worse?

With the depressing news of yet another atrocity, this time against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I thought I'd take a moment to ask whether the world is becoming a worse place, at least in terms of mass murder.  Note this is different to serial murder.  A serial killer kills one person, then waits a long time before killing another.  Mass murder is killing many in a short space of time.

I think it is getting worse.  The solo mass murderer, or death delivered by a handful of deranged people, is a modern phenomenon.

I can't recall from the ancient world, or even the mediaeval, or the Renaissance, or even in Elizabethan times, a single instance of mass murder being conducted by one man acting on his own.

The reason is easy to see.  In the time of my hero Nicolaos, the most powerful individual weapon available was a bronze sword.  A nutter could kill at most a few people in the street before being taken down.

And a mass murderer would be taken down quickly.  In a world without a police force, citizens were naturally inclined to intervene when they saw a crime being committed.  Surviving court cases from classical Athens that involve violence in public always mention passers-by running into the action.   Not something you see much these days.

But a modern mass murderer can do a whole lot better than a bronze sword.  The growth in power of lethal force that can be carried by a single individual is incredibly important.

The same nutter today would have a couple of automatic weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammo, a pouch of grenades, and maybe a few bombs to plant. He could kill hundreds.

Then there's the unfortunate fact that there are more people inclined to mass murder.

The population today is 7 billion.   In Nico’s time it was roughly 200 million. The percentage of the population inclined to mass murder is small and probably hasn't changed, but population growth means there are thirty-five times more dangerous maniacs walking the planet today than in the ancient world.

Never mind that there are also thirty-five times more good guys.  Good guys don't commit crimes, good news never moves, and bad news spreads like wild fire.

When you add that many potential mass murderers to the extra lethal technology they can carry, it doesn't look good.


Sacred Games for $1.99 on Nook

Barnes & Noble has price-matched the Amazon offer for Sacred Games.  So if you're a Nook reader then don't feel left out!

You can get Sacred Games for $1.99 here.



Sacred Games for $1.99 on Kindle

Sacred Games is a kindle monthly deal this month.  That means if you're a kindle reader then you can buy it for the grand total of $1.99.



If political shenanigans and a sports murder at the ancient Olympics are your thing then this is the book for you.

"Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled."

—Publishers Weekly, starred review