Meg and Mog are a bedtime staple in our house – we love the bright cheerful illustrations and the slightly nonsensical stories. Since I’ve been working on so many Roman-themed projects this year, it seemed like it was finally time to get ourselves a copy of Meg and the Romans by Jan Pienkowski and David Walser! I’d umm-ed and ahh-ed over getting it as it has some pretty negative reviews online, but as long as you’re not expecting grand historical accuracy and are ready to muddle through a bit of Latin it is a lovely silly story. And just look at that chipper, carefree Julius Caesar on the cover!
The story starts with our usual characters deciding to go for a picnic on a lovely day at the spot where the Romans landed – and they immediately see a Roman ship sailing towards them. Even with the simplified illustration you can see the cute Roman eagle, little gold shields, and sail emblazoned with ‘SPQR’. This is an abbreviation for senatus populusque Romanus which means ‘the Senate and the people of Rome’. Here come Roman soldiers!
But these aren’t just any Romans – we meet the main man Julius Caesar himself! He introduces himself to Meg, Mog, and Owl in Latin by saying Julius Romanus sum. This tells us his name (Julius) and his nationality (a Roman), along with the Latin word for ‘I am’. If you’ve ever encountered the Minimus textbook you’ll know this is a nice easy way of introducing yourself in Latin: [your name] + sum. So I would say Stephanie sum (or Stephania sum, if I wanted to sound a bit more Roman!) What would you say?
He doesn’t tell us his full name though, so how do we know it is the important Roman leader Julius Caesar? We get a few clues which are good talking points when reading with littles: he is wearing purple, a colour only worn by important Roman men like generals and consuls, and later – after Julius Caesar – the emperors. He is also wearing a leafy crown (a laurel wreath), another sign of his power and importance. And the shiny gold eagle on his boat helps emphasise the point, too!
After a mishap with a crab, it turns out Julius needs some help getting to Londinium (modern day London), and Meg has just the horse for him. But did Julius Caesar really come to Britannia? Yes – twice! His first expedition across the Channel in 55BC didn’t get him far: he landed on the coast of Kent, but couldn’t make it any farther inland due to poor weather, no cavalry – and no Meg to help! He then returned in 54BC with better resources and many more soldiers, and established treaties with various Kings to bring Britannia into more direct contact with the Roman Empire. But there was no full-scale military invasion or conquering just yet – that wouldn’t happen for another 100 years.
More mishaps ensue – and Julius continues to talk to Meg in Latin as he struggles with her particularly wilful horse! His little comments about the horse (equus) are a nice way of comparing Latin with English words: equus can be found lurking in our words equestrian and equine. And rapidus is even easier to decode – our English word rapid is almost identical!
Eventually, Julius makes it to Londinium where he sits beside a very Roman-looking statue of Britannia and bids farewell (vale) to our three friends. Here Britannia isn’t the place, she is now a person – this is because she is a personification. This means she is a physical representation of the country itself. You might even recognise her from our own 50p coins:
The Romans often created national personifications, representing different provinces under their new imperial rule. The personified Britannia first appears on Roman coinage, all the way back in the 2nd century AD – something to think about next time you use a 50p!
But how has Julius Caesar found a Roman statue of Britannia in 55BC, if the Romans haven’t been to Britannia before? It must be some of Meg’s magic at work….