Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Caroline Lawrence, author

'The Iliad turned my life around'
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The Independent Online

Caroline Lawrence, 53, has written 14 novels about ancient Rome, which have been made into the BBC's most expensive children's TV series (currently being repeated on CBBC on Saturdays at 2pm). The second series of The Roman Mysteries will be transmitted in spring 2008. The Roman Mysteries Treasury and The Beggar of Volubilis came out last month (see

In year four at "elementary" (primary) school in Bakersfield, California, Mrs Eckhardt used to give us eucalyptus sweets and read us books such as A Wrinkle in Time, a fantasy story by Madeleine L'Engle. Bliss. It made me love school.

When I was nine, we moved to Stanford University in San Francisco so that my father could do a PhD. I went to Terman Junior High in Palo Alto. It was terrible, because my hormones were all over the place and I became an ugly adolescent full of rage and loathing. At 13, the only clique that would let me hang out with them were the hippies and I had to smoke marijuana with them in the graveyard across the road from the school. I actually got arrested at school for possession of marijuana.

At 16, when I was at Henry M Gunn High School, I had a crush on the English teacher and my grades improved dramatically. This great school had only 400 students, mostly children of Stanford professors, and it was more usual to have classes under one of the oak trees dotted around the campus than in the classroom.

Essentially, I went to the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California so I could learn to surf. It turns out that Santa Barbara is foggy a lot of the time, there's tar on the beach and surfer dudes high on grass do not make the most stimulating companions.

I took a gap year from "majoring" in English to work in Switzerland and improve my French. I signed up with a company that found work abroad for students, but they sent me to the wrong part of Switzerland, which spoke only a dialect of German.

While I was stuck in a chalet with nothing to do, my parents sent me two books that turned my life round. EV Rieu's translation of the Iliad was full of goddesses gossiping like the women in my hairdressers; and The Last of the Wine, Mary Renault's magnificent novel set in ancient Athens, transported me into the past. Now I was hooked.

I applied for a transfer to the Berkeley campus of the University of California and signed up for classical Greek. I wanted to know if the Iliad in the original was as relevant and contemporary as it was in translation. I then started Latin. I had finally found something I enjoyed and was good at: dead languages!

I loved every minute of my three years majoring in classics at Berkeley. I became one of the few undergraduates to get a paper published in an academic journal: "An Unusual Corinthian Helmet". I got a BA with Distinction.

I won a Marshall Scholarship (which pays for travel and tuition at a British university) for a place at Newnham College, Cambridge. My entire four years at an American university were considered to be equal to one year at Cambridge, so I spent two years on my Classical Archaeology degree. I loved England (I later went on to do an MA in Hebrew and Aramaic at University College London), but Cambridge was like a bucket of cold water poured over my enthusiasm. Some of the teaching was not up to Berkeley's calibre; one lecturer was a visiting German and I couldn't understand him at all.

Although I got a First, Cambridge killed my aspiration to be an academic and I see now that I'd never have been any good at all that posturing and politics.

Inspired by the collection of arms and armoury in Berkeley, I did my thesis on Roman "sling-bullets". These were made out of lead poured into moulds. My favourites were the ones made for Octavian when he was besieging Mark Antony's wife in the hill town of Perugia; they were inscribed "PETE CULUM FULVIAE" – "Seek the buttocks of Fulvia".