Roman Diary

Written by David Parkins Richard Platt
Review by Bruce Macbain

The subtitle of this illustrated children’s book is “The Journal of Iliona of Mytilini, Who Was Captured and Sold as a Slave in Rome, AD 107.” The intended audience is pre-teen and, considering that, the book is rather daring. Roman slavery was not pretty—in fact, Roman society was not pretty—but the author resists the temptation to entirely gloss over the unpleasant bits.

Iliona, a Greek girl of about twelve, and her little brother Apollo are purchased by a Roman senator and separated, Apollo being sent to the country villa to perform grueling farm labor, while Iliona is kept as a girl-of-all-work in the family’s townhouse. Over the next months she experiences Rome’s delights (the baths, a splendid triumphal procession) and its depravities. Taken to the arena, she is swept up by the excitement of gladiatorial combat, “but when the show ended, I felt ashamed.” Taken to see a pantomime (a kind of Roman burlesque), “When some of the women in the cast took off their clothes, I covered my eyes.” At home she is, momentarily, a victim of sexual abuse. The eldest son, a rough soldier, pinches her bottom and, when she protests, warns her, “…you are just a slave girl and I can do whatever I like.” Strong stuff for a kid’s book. Eventually, due to her pluck and good heart, Iliona wins freedom for herself and her brother—although ‘freedom’ in a Roman context means that they are still bound by duty to their former owner.

Young readers will learn a great deal about Roman daily life both from the text and from Parkins’s superb illustrations. An appendix offers additional information on the Roman army, technology, religion, and other matters.