I was desperate to study Ancient History at university. I had in the last year of my A Levels, through the surprising gateway drug of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, become obsessed by ancient Rome. I had read every historical fiction book I could find and then moved onto the ancient sources; Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus, Livy and onwards. I could draw from memory the Julio Claudian family tree and recite all the emperors up to the 3rd century, when it all gets a bit messy.
None of this was any help with my university application. A careers advisor telling me, “I don’t want to upset you, but you have to be realistic. You’ll be up against people who’ve studied Latin since prep school, and you’ve only got a GCSE grade B in French.”
I was upset. But thinking young Octavian probably got similar speeches about being realistic after his Great Uncle Julius died and look how that turned out, I applied to university anyway. I accepted a place at the University of Reading and ended up with a first in Ancient History.
Staying on post degree I’ll admit never occurred to me, probably because I didn’t understand how academia worked (I still don’t) let alone saw myself in it. I wasn’t much good at the languages either. Instead, I went out into the world with the vague idea that I wanted to work in a museum, possibly as a curator. Exposure to the reality of that world soon revealed that I didn’t.
I sort of fell into working with data and databases. It turns out the kind of dogged persistence I’d shown trawling through texts looking for the single line that would prove my essay point was great training for the hours I now spend searching through thousands of lines of data for the set of numbers that tell a story. Being able to construct a coherent argument has got me many a database project funded.
I never left the classical world behind though and outside of data I have another life as a writer. I’ve had published a four book historical fiction series set in 68/69 CE, and two non-fiction books; How to Survive in Ancient Rome and Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, aimed at the general reader. That I get paid to be funny and informative about Romans is something 18-year-old me would never have thought possible.