• The Dreadful Carcer

Of all the settings portrayed in Rubies of the Viper, none was more painful—and paradoxically more exciting and challenging—to envision than the Carcer Tullianus… Rome’s notorious underground death chamber. I can’t be specific about the scenes set there, because that would reveal key elements of the plot, but the place is fascinating enough on its own to be worth a post.

Located in a swampy area near the River Tiber, a spot ultimately drained by the Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) to become the Roman Forum, the two-level Carcer Tullianus was begun by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome (reigned 640-616 BC), and expanded by Servius Tullius, the sixth king (reigned 578-535 BC). Marcius built the upper chamber (the carcer) as a holding pen for state prisoners. Tullius added the lower portion (the tullianum), where prisoners were either killed outright or buried alive and left to die. Bodies of those unfortunates were usually dumped into the Cloaca.

The Carcer (pronounced kar-ker, the root of the English incarcerate) wasn’t built for long-term confinement, much less as a “penitentiary” per our modern thinking. Roman kings and emperors didn’t grant common criminals or political enemies the luxury of contemplating their sins and reforming their ways. Rather, political foes were unceremoniously stabbed or poisoned, either in public or in their homes. Mere criminals were dispatched in the arena, which served the dual purpose of ridding society of undesirables and providing public amusement.

The Carcer Tullianus was a combination holding pen and human disposal system, but seldom were both uses applied to the same individual. Captured enemies or rebel chieftains were kept there for a limited time until their day came to be paraded through the streets and strangled as part of the festivities associated with some victorious general’s “triumph.” Slaves whose testimony was required by the Roman system of justice were routinely tortured in the Carcer; many undoubtedly made their exit via the vile waters of the Cloaca Maxima. And anybody the emperor wanted to see disappear without a trace could do so in the infamous lower level of the Carcer Tullianus.

Legend says the Emperor Nero ordered Saint Peter held in the Carcer before sending him on to execution in the arena. There’s a church atop the site now, and modern-day visitors see a highly Christianized restoration of the prison (see the cutaway illustration above). But long before the rise of Christianity, the Carcer Tullianus occupied a gruesome, greatly feared role in Roman society.

In Chapter 15 of Rubies of the Viper, during a visit to Rome in A.D. 53, Theodosia’s slaves discuss the place:

“What’s that?” Stefan pointed to an oddly shaped building on the north side of the Forum.
“The Carcer Tullianus,” said Alexander.
“The famous prison? So small?”
“It’s mostly underground.”
“They say you go in alive through a hole in the floor,” Lucilla said, “and come out dead in the sewer below.”
“What happens in the meantime is anybody’s guess,” added Marcipor. “But if they want to keep you alive for a while, they stick you in some underground cave where the Cloaca Maxima enters the Tiber.”
Alexander chuckled without mirth.
“And then they allow you the luxury of dying of fever and starvation, instead of torturing you to death.”
“A place to stay away from,” Lucilla whispered. “They say it’s easy enough to wind up there without trying.”

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Daphne, Sumptuous Suburb

Daphne as envisioned in the 16th Century A.D.

The hamlet of Daphne was the place to live for wealthy Romans posted to Antioch, Syria, a far corner of their empire in the first century A.D.

A lovely place by all reports, Daphne boasted a heavily forested mountain setting, rippling streams, lush gardens, luxurious villas, a centuries-old Temple of Apollo, and a fine view of the Orontes Valley.

It was quite a logical—albeit ironical—thing for the Greeks to name the site of this temple “Daphne,” given that their mythology has the god Apollo chase the chaste virgin Daphne with lewd, lascivious intentions. She escaped by turning herself into a laurel tree, which forever after would be associated with Apollo.

I could find no first-century image of Daphne to work with, only the sixteenth-century rendition shown here, which was created by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, 15 centuries after the Romans took it as their residential paradise in Syria. While the buildings that Ortelius portrayed are not Roman or Greek, the rustic setting makes it plain what attracted the Roman masters of the world to this particular spot.

Even with little more than this anachronistic image to wrap my imagination around, I enjoyed setting a small but important part of Rubies of the Viper in Daphne. (Note: I’m hiding the identity of the character here, so as not to create a spoiler.)

It was to pray, too, that he walked once a week up to woodsy Daphne, to the temple of Apollo, Greek god of music, medicine, and prophecy. “Better be a worm and feed on the mulberries of Daphne than a king’s guest,” the locals said. [He] quickly decided they were right.

The temple—with its sacred cypress grove and the ever-flowing springs channeled around it—was a reminder that Antioch owed its founding to Seleucus, the restless Greek who had conquered Syria four hundred years before the Romans arrived.

Going “up to Daphne” was a trek on foot, but he refused to waste precious coins renting a horse from Levi. That would be too dangerous, anyway. Galloping up the mountain was for Romans; the lords of the earth ignored the trudging pedestrians, who were mostly slaves.

Besides, the walk was pleasant. Antioch sprawled along the valley like an old dog in the sun. The Orontes bent at the marketplace and split—like a sinuous dancer’s upraised arms around her head—to form an island. The wharves jutted into the river like fingers against glass. The walls and bridges and buildings constructed by Seleucus, Herod, and Tiberius gleamed… polished by the years. The governor’s gray palace lorded it over the city.

A fine metaphor for Rome’s view of the world.

It was especially fun to envision the experience of visiting a classic Greek Temple.

Behind the bloody sacrificial altar, a fire crackled in a gigantic golden urn, wafting its plume of smoke to the peak of the rotunda and filling the vast space with the aroma of roasting goat. Having brought nothing to sacrifice, [he] deposited a silver coin in the altar box and turned his attention to the temple’s divine resident… a massive figure standing directly under the gilded dome.

Apollo’s arms, legs, and head were brown-veined marble. Amethyst eyes stared out under a laurel crown of gleaming gold. His wooden torso was draped with a silver fabric that glinted in the sunlight reflected off the marble floor. In one hand, Apollo held a golden lyre. His mouth was open. Clearly, he was singing.

This fine temple was destroyed by fire in A.D. 362.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Antioch-near-Daphne

The Syrian town that Romans called “Antiochia” is now “Antakya” in Turkey

Two chapters out of thirty in Rubies of the Viper take place in the city of Antioch, which—as part of Syria (in Asia Minor) in the first century A.D.—lived under the thumb of the Roman legions. This so-called “Queen of the East” was a fascinating place to set a pivotal part of my novel. I enjoyed researching that very different culture and want to share some of my discoveries, including a few that didn’t make it into the book.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, two major cities arose on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great, while one of his generals, Seleucus, established Antioch. After Alexander’s death in B.C. 312, as Seleucus I, the general ruled Syria, built towns all across the land, and established a dynasty (called the Seleucidae) lasted until the Romans arrived in B.C. 64.

Antioch lay 20 miles from the seaport of Seleucia Pieria, between Mount Silpius and the Orontes River. As happened with start-up towns throughout history, the winding river gave Antioch both a beneficial location (fertile land with easy access to the sea) and a unique physical layout. By A.D. 54, the time of its appearance in Rubies of the Viper, Antioch was a large and impressive city. Eventually, it would grow to be the third largest city in the world, boasting a population of about 1 million people; only Rome and Alexandria were larger.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article that describes Antioch this way:

The Seleucidæ as well as the Roman rulers vied with one another in adorning and enriching the city with statues, theatres, temples, aqueducts, public baths, gardens, fountains, and cascades; a broad avenue with four rows of columns, forming covered porticoes on each side, traversed the city from east to west, to the length of several miles. Its most attractive pleasure resort was the beautiful grove of laurels and cypresses called Daphne, some four or five miles to the west of the city. It was renowned for its park-like appearance, for its magnificent temple of Apollo…

The population included a great variety of races. There were Macedonians and Greeks, native Syrians and Phænecians, Jews and Romans, besides a contingent from further Asia; many flocked there because Seleucus had given to all the right of citizenship. Nevertheless, it remained always predominantly a Greek city.

This Syrian/Greek/Roman city was known as Antioch-on-the-Orontes (its official name) and Antioch-near-Daphne (an informal moniker given to it by the Romans who had carved out their own exclusive residential enclave in nearby Daphne). I intend to follow this post with a separate one on Daphne, because that lush-and-luxurious area was quite unlike the teeming, polyglot metropolis nearby.

Here’s a portion of Rubies of the Viper’s presentation of a newcomer’s first day in the gritty underbelly of that sprawling metropolis:

It was much too early for that miraculous afternoon wind to bring relief from the Antiochian furnace. Heat radiating from the paving stones blurred the corners of buildings and tents that sprawled along the river.

Despite the torrid air, Antioch was beginning to stir. An aroma of goats and lambs grilling in street-side cook shops had begun to engulf the old city. Boys with lamps jostled with men selling camels, donkeys, tents, and other merchandise…

He turned into the warren of alleyways, elbowing his way into the throng… The market was a mass of multicolored burnooses; never in his life had he felt so out of place.

Both moved and repulsed by the open sores and empty eye socket of a beggar who plucked at his sleeve, he slipped a couple of coins into the man’s grimy, four-fingered hand.

Immediately, he saw his mistake. Out of the crowd came a dozen more—lame, blind, diseased, unwashed, and lice-infested—who clung to his arms and tugged at his tunic… a smelly cloud that pursued him down the street, pleading in loud, incomprehensible whines.

Here’s a spectacular modern-day photo of this beautiful region.

—except as credited above to The Catholic Encyclopedia, text copyright © Martha Marks—

• The Hand That Rocked the Roman Cradle

Traditionally, books about the Roman Empire have focused on men. Male characters are the stars of the show in Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, The Robe, and dozens of novels published more recently. Women play bit roles, and that’s not surprising since most ancient women played bit roles in their societies. Little was written by or about them during their lifetimes, which is why relatively little is known about them today.

In the last couple of years, however, several novels starring first-century Roman women have won great reviews and a passionate readership. My Rubies of the Viper, Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin, and Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome and Daughters of Rome all spotlight strong female protagonists who not only refuse to stay quietly in the background but aggressively step forward to control their destinies.

This is a good new phase of modern literature. Books with such characters will appeal more to today’s women (and to many men as well). And since the lives of first-century women undoubtedly were interesting in their own ways, they deserve to be told… even if we authors have to piece together details from what few archeological, literary, and historical sources we have. It’s like collecting bits of cloth to stitch into a beautiful quilt.

To see the total picture, you have to know that women living in the city of Rome during the first-century A.D. fell into three groups.

At the top of the social heap were the rich women of the patrician or equestrian classes whose names we know because they were the daughters, sisters, and/or mothers of the dictators, emperors, senators, generals, and conspirators whose names have gone down in history. They lived in mansions on the Palatine and Caelian Hills and enjoyed seaside villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. These women were socially engaged, active in religious institutions, and often influential in the lives and careers of their sons and husbands.

Those fortunate few were surrounded by, waited on, and sustained by slaves—including many females, either home-grown or imported from conquered lands—who tended to be poorly fed, worked without pity, denied medical care, and subjected to corporal punishment and sexual abuse. What we know of their existence, based mostly on satirical writings of the time, does not suggest great happiness.

In between were hordes of free plebeian and foreign women whose names, lives, and deaths passed unnoted by history. They tended to live in slums like the notorious Subura, lacking education, sanitation, law enforcement, decent housing, and medical care.

But what’s most interesting to me about women in first-century Rome is this:

Despite the obvious differences in status, influence, and quality of life between these three groups of women, other aspects of their lives didn’t differ all that much.

  • A Roman woman did not have her own unique name. Sisters received the same name, taken from the family name, and were distinguished as “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. Personal identity was almost nil.
  • A woman enjoyed no civil or legal rights. Her father, her husband, and eventually even her son(s) controlled her life from the day she was born to the day she died. Even the wealthiest patrician female could not run for office, or even vote.
  • A woman’s job in life was to marry (around age 14) a man selected by her father, manage his home, and bear him sons as often as she could before she died, which often happened before she was twenty. Men routinely went through several wives.
  • A woman could not protect her infant daughter or sickly son if her husband decided to kill the child directly or indirectly, by exposure.
  • A woman could divorce her husband but was required to leave her children with him. She had no legal claim to them.
  • Only under very unusual circumstances could a woman own property in her own right. (This nugget of historical truth forms the basis of my plot in Rubies of the Viper.)

As with some societies today, first-century Rome wasn’t woman friendly.

The thing I find most fresh and appealing in the new crop of female-centered fiction set in this particular time and place is that all three segments of society are brought vividly to life. Ancient Roman novels are not just about warriors, dictators, gladiators, and private detectives any more. They’re also about women… rich, poor, slave, free, whatever.

Female characters are not add-ons or after-thoughts in these books. Their individual activities, challenges, emotions, desires, and ambitions are central and portrayed in crisp detail. As reviewers of Quinn’s novels, Tyrpak’s novel, and my own have pointed out, nothing is held back. The reader comes into a very specific time and place and sees the entire Roman culture, including women’s lives, in ways that would be unimaginable in more traditional novels.

In Rubies of the Viper, three female characters carry much of the plot: my protagonist, Theodosia Varro; her slave, Lucilla; and her friend, Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of a famous general. Another woman, Theodosia’s Greek mother, has died before the story begins, but she hangs over it like an omnipresent ghost. Together, these four represent the entire spectrum of Roman society. During the six years it took me to write this book, I worked hard to dig out and integrate details of the lives of women into the larger societal picture I was painting with words. One of the greatest pleasures I have now is when readers let me know—through emails and reviews—that I made them feel what it was like to be a woman in first-century Rome. I hope to do the same in my sequel, The Viper Amulet—which is now in progress.

This essay was originally published on Sept. 27, 2011, as a guest post in author Suzanne Adair’s blog, called The British Are Coming, Y’all!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Where else did he live?

In my previous post, I addressed the question of where Nero lived between the Great Fire in A.D. 64 and his suicide in 68. The answer was: the (in)famous Domus Aurea (“Golden House”). Quite a place, that!

But where did he live before the Domus Aurea was built?

It’s an interesting question, and it raises yet another that I had to address in Rubies of the Viper: where was Nero living in A.D. 56?

Here’s what my research turned up and how I dealt with that residential question:

In the years immediately before the Great Fire, his residence was a palace he’d had built on the prestigious Palatine Hill. (It’s the almost-circular area in the center of the map here.) That building provided a structural link between the Palatine Hill and the Esquiline Hill and thus was known as the Domus Transitoria. It burned in 64 and later was covered over with the even-more-sumptuous Domus Aurea.

But the Domus Transitoria was built around A.D. 60, so it wouldn’t have been in existence in the previous decade, when Rubies of the Viper takes place.

There are reports that before A.D. 60 Nero lived on the Quirinal Hill, a less prestigious part of town north of the Palatine Hill. (The Quirinal is the first hill inside the wall near the top center of the map.) But that doesn’t seem to fit with his status as a member of the Julio-Claudian family, which had inhabited the Palatine for generations. As the grand-nephew and adopted son and heir of Emperor Claudius, it’s hard to imagine Nero living anywhere but on the Palatine Hill.

So, needing to place some key scenes of my book in Emperor Nero’s first palace, I created one on the Palatine, closer to where other important scenes would take place. It was fun to combine my knowledge of Roman houses of the day with my imagination of the sort of place a party-loving teenage ruler—Nero was just 17 when he became the most powerful man in the world—would call home.

Like all Roman houses of the time, Emperor Nero’s first palace would have had an atrium featuring an opening in the roof for light and a pool in the center to catch rainwater. That atrium would have been surrounded by the usual dining, sleeping, and reception rooms, with an attached garden room, or peristyle. But my creative license expanded those everyday accommodations to be more fitting for a young emperor… with a banquet hall large enough for 90 guests plus a web of service corridors leading to storage rooms, staff offices, a kitchen big enough to accommodate the many slaves needed to cook and serve the emperor’s dinner parties, and sleeping quarters for those slaves.

As for the decor… I envisioned his first palace as impressive (especially in the eyes of the beleaguered protagonist, Theodosia), but not as over-the-top ostentatious as the two he would build in future years.

Here’s how I describe Nero’s imagined first palace in Rubies of the Viper:

Theodosia followed the liveried slave through a network of passageways to the most elegant chamber she had ever seen. Frescoed walls of purple and gold soared into a gilded dome. Fine Greek statues stood guard around the perimeter, and in the center an enormous fish of hammered gold spouted purple-tinted water into a golden pond. The white marble furniture was draped and cushioned with such opulence that someone raised with ordinary wealth would feel out of place.

Theodosia shivered as Scopan led her into Nero’s private dining room. The sight of another gilded room no longer impressed her, but the ostentatious number of servants in attendance on nine people made her jaw drop. Behind the three couches stood a waiter for every diner. Others moved about the room with enormous gold salvers, bowls, and pitchers. Still others stood at attention against the side walls… as if waiting to do something that someone else might somehow have forgotten. The enormous, purple-clad figure of Nero shared the center couch with two women, one of whom Theodosia identified as the Empress Octavia. Six other guests lounged on cushions that sculpted a purple arc around the table.

The banquet hall glowed with hundreds of lamps, but the perfumed oil that fueled their flames had long since lost its duel with the aromatic dishes on their golden platters. Gigantic vases of cobalt-blue glass—overflowing with purple and gold lilies—set off the ten trios of couches where the emperor and his eighty-nine guests had been lounging for over three hours.

These descriptions are plausible and fit the needs of my story.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Where did Nero live?

This photo of the Palatine Hill is © Historylink101.com, found at Italy and Rome Picture Gallery

Almost everybody who reads or writes about first-century Rome knows of the Domus Aurea, the gigantic, super-ornate, and multi-storey “Golden House” that Nero had built after the Great Fire consumed much of the city in A.D. 64.

Rumors have lingered for 2,000 years that the emperor deliberately started the fire to clear land for his cozy new domus, which he didn’t get to enjoy for very long since he was forced to commit suicide a mere four years after the fire.

Nevertheless, his final palace—which sprawled across three of Rome’s seven hills—set a new standard of opulence in a city already well known for it. In designing this structure, Nero’s architect and engineer (who are known by name: Severus and Celer) introduced several new concepts.

First, they began lining vaulted ceilings with colorful mosaics, which formerly were just for floors, allowing for bright patterns and tasteful (or, more likely, titillating) scenes on every surface of a room.

Second, they plastered some interior walls with gold and gemstones, because ordinary painted frescoes, even with their customary golden accents, could not possibly be grand enough for the master of the world.

Third, they created dining rooms with rooftops that could be slid open, so diners could look up into the stars. One dining room was circular with a revolving roof (powered by slaves, of course), giving guests an ever-changing view of the night sky.

Fourth, they transplanted forests and installed fields, vineyards, pastures with livestock, and an artificial lake in the heart of the metropolis. (If you’ve ever been to the Colosseum, you’ve stood on the spot of Nero’s fake lake, which Emperor Vespasian later drained to build his amphitheater. Vespasian, a frugal man who rose to power a year after Nero’s death, declined to live in the Domus Aurea. Much of it was converted into the public Baths of Titus and, early in the next century, of Trajan.)

The most delicious comment made (in public at least) about the Domus Aurea is credited to Nero. Upon dedicating his new palace, he reportedly said: “Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being.”

Some archeologists believe the Domus Aurea contained no sleeping quarters, which suggests its 300 rooms were intended for heavy-duty partying, not as a real residence. However, one scholar (Sir Banister Fletcher, writing in A History of Architecture) describes it as “less a palace than a series of pavilions and a long wing comprising living and reception rooms,” which rings true to me.

If anybody reading this post has the definitive answer… or just additional information about that, please leave a comment here!

My next post (see Where else did he live?) will answer this related question: Where did Nero live before the Great Fire of A.D. 64?

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Precious Poppaea

Poppaea SabinaPoppaea Sabina lived her life as a patrician Roman woman on a top-tier stage in the middle decades of the first century A.D. For an author researching and writing about that time period, it would be hard to ignore her flamboyant rise and catastrophic fall.

Even though Poppaea’s role in Rubies of the Viper is small, I found her engrossing and wrote her into several scenes with a major impact on the larger story of my fictional heroine, Theodosia Varro.

Unlike most women of her day (see Flavia, Missing Woman), Poppaea Sabina’s life is well recorded in history, although some modern scholars believe that an anti-Nero bias may have influenced those reports.

Still, Poppaea’s life story is full of tantalizing tidbits.

She was born in Pompeii in A.D. 30, the daughter of Titus Ollius, who died the next year following a political purge, and Poppaea Sabina the Elder, who committed suicide in A.D. 47 as the result of more palace intrigue. During Nero’s reign, Poppaea Sabina the Younger’s first husband was executed, and after her death Nero drowned her son by that husband. Whew!

After the death of her first husband, the ambitious young widow set her cap for—and ultimately married—Nero’s best friend, Marcus Salvius Otho, thus winning a higher place in court and perfectly positioning herself to make a play for Nero. It’s at this point in time that Poppaea Sabina first appears in my novel.

While still very much married to Otho, Poppaea became Nero’s mistress, which must have caused friction between herself and her husband, and between the emperor and his long-time friend, Otho. Nero managed the situation by sending Otho to be governor of distant Lusitania (now Portugal), thus removing him from competition and giving Poppaea an excuse to divorce Otho and marry Nero.

In A.D. 62, Nero divorced the Empress Octavia (daughter of the late Emperor Claudius) and married Poppaea.

Poppaea soon bore Nero a daughter, named Claudia Augusta, but the child lived only a few months. She was pregnant again in 65 when she and, we must assume, her unborn child both died. There’s controversy over the manner of her death. Contemporary historians—perhaps with an ax to grind—reported that Nero kicked her to death following a quarrel. Modern scholars believe it’s possible she simply died in childbirth, a common occurrence in the first century. Poppaea was 35 years old at her death, which meant she had already outlived the average woman of her time.

Here are a few snippets from a Rubies of the Viper scene that features Poppaea as a young woman… before her relationships with either Otho or Nero. The occasion is a ladies-only dinner party in Rome; the women have taken note of Theodosia’s enormous, handsome slave, Stefan.

“Do you have only females at your villa, Theodosia?” asked a dainty young patrician in yellow.

The other guests howled in laughter.

“Poppaea Sabina is the only one who’d think that!” said Annia. …

“If it were mine, I’d love it! All those gorgeous men around, and no husband to spoil the fun!”

“And she pretends to be so modest.”

“You’re turning red, my dear. Are you ill?”

“They grow big in the country, don’t they? Got any more like him [Stefan] stashed away out there?”

“Hey, this isn’t fair!” said Poppaea Sabina, who had unwittingly introduced the topic. “I didn’t see him.”

“Bring him in then,” Livia said, “for Poppaea’s education.”

“Oh, Stefan may not be here right now,” Theodosia said, hoping it was true. “I told him he might go see a bit more of the city.”

Titters erupted around the table.

“He must be something special then,” Poppaea said. “What good is a bodyguard if he’s not around to guard your body when you need him?”

Livia snapped her fingers at the slave behind her couch.

“Go and see if the lady Theodosia’s bodyguard has returned from sightseeing in the city.” Her tone was droll. “If he has, tell him to come here at once.”

“Come here, Stefanus,” said Livia, pointing to the space between her couch and Poppaea Sabina’s. “We all want a good look at you.”

Stefan stepped warily across the room. Theodosia felt a swell of pride in him… until his eyes reached hers. They were seething.

Juno, I wish we were both anywhere but here.

Poppaea Sabina reached out and ran a single fingertip down Stefan’s arm; then she let it wander on down his leg.

“He’s magnificent! I’ve never seen a man this big so close up. Is he a gladiator?”

“Why not make a gladiator of him?” chirped Poppaea Sabina in her little-girl voice. Her yellow sleeve rippled as she poked a finger into Stefan’s abdomen. “Turn around, slave. Oh, just look at the muscles on his back! He’d be the best of the lot!”

“Tell you what,” Marcia said, “we’ll give your Otho credit for the new gladiator. He’ll surely win once the mob sees this fellow in action.”

“He’s not my Otho!” [said Theodosia.]

“Don’t be so coy. Think about it. Your fortune combined with Otho’s senatorial rank… You’ll be one of the most powerful couples in the empire. That’s not a bad swap for a single slave.”

“Maybe she wants him for something else,” Poppaea Sabina said, setting off another round of titters.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Avoiding Jabberwocky

In my first post on the subject of language (So… how would they talk?), I discussed what I consider the #1 linguistic challenge facing an author of historical fiction who attempts to bring ancient people to life while writing in modern English. I promised to post again to offer other thoughts about the choices involved.

So, okay, here goes… and please remember that I’d love to hear your opinion on this subject.

As I see it, the second most challenging linguistic decision facing a novelist who writes about the distant past is how much of the original language and how many archaic dates and place names to drop into an English book. Pile it on too heavily and the text becomes as incomprehensible as “Jabberwocky.” Include too little and some may say it lacks authentic flavor.

Consider this made-up-for-my-blog snip from a non-existent novel set in first-century Rome:

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

“Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

“Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

Anyone who has studied Latin will find that passage a quick-and-easy read, albeit a curious one. Other readers will probably roll their eyes in disgust. Much too confusing for the average English speaker to bother deciphering.

Would it help to italicize the Latin words, as shown below?

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

To my mind, those italics don’t help. Rather, they call attention to how many “foreign” words the reader faces… and quickly paging through an entire book filled with italicized Latin words would be a major turnoff.

In writing Rubies of the Viper, I decided on a few simple linguistic guidelines. I would:

  • include Latin words that have survived intact and are easily comprehensible today, such as villa, atrium, pergola, and Saturnalia.
  • include a few other Latin words that were bound to come up in my story but had no obvious translation into English, such as palla and stola (common items of women’s clothing) or quaestor and praetor (titles of specific government officials). And, of course, I would try to provide enough description and/or context at first mention for the words to make sense.
  • translate into English such Latin words as these from my snip above: ostium (entry door), senex (old man), pallium (cloak), procella (storm), vale (farewell, good-bye), pater (father), nones (seventh day of the month), Iulius (July), mater (mother), minor (younger, distinguished a girl from her mother), basium (kiss), impluvium (pool), triclinium (dining room), amici (friends), salve (hello, greetings), miles (soldier), aestas (summer), and urbs (city).
  • translate into English the names of months and major places, such as Rome, Naples, Greece, Athens, Corinth, Britain, and Antioch. I made an exception for small towns whose names carry special historic resonance, such as Reate, Caere, Pola, and Stabiae.

So, by my own guidelines, had the passage above occurred in Rubies of the Viper, I would have written it as follows:

When they reached the front door, Marcus embraced the old man, who had donned a heavy cloak in preparation for his journey in the storm.

“Good-bye, Father. We’ll meet again on the seventh of July, without fail. Please greet Mother warmly on my behalf and give my sister a kiss for me.”

After his father had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing pool, and walked into the dining room, where his friends were assembled.

“Hello, Lucius.” He slapped the soldier on the back. “How was Naples?”

“Unusually hot this summer. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant town!”

Most other contemporary authors who write about ancient Rome don’t use lots of original Latin either. Some drop in tidbits, like triclinium or impluvium, for flavor. Perhaps they opt to use Pater/Mater as terms of address instead of Father/Mother, or Salve/Vale instead of Hello/Good-bye. Some may choose to use the original place names (Roma, Neapolis) instead of modern English versions (Rome, Naples). They may italicize the non-English words, or not. But it’s a safe bet that all authors of historical fiction wander through the same minefield of choices before coming up with the linguistic scheme that suits them best. There’s no right or wrong answer… just the one that fits a given work of literature.

The biggest trick, of course, is knowing when to stop. Once you start dropping in Latin words (or Ye Olde English or any other archaic language), why use one original term and not another?

That was one benefit to my decision to use modern English almost exclusively. I didn’t have to make those choices more than once.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• So… how would they talk?

Interesting. Enlightening. Gratifying. Perplexing. All describe readers’ online reviews… from an author’s point of view.

Sometimes, readers post gratifying comments, the kind you want to feature on your website.

Other times, readers post perplexing comments, as in the case of one reviewer of Rubies of the Viper who wrote: “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives. That is new world slang and its use is really jarring in a novel set in ancient Rome.”

Another wrote: “Having someone in Rome say ‘ain’t’ and ‘he don’t’ puzzled me at first, then made me laugh. There HAVE to be better ways of showing class structure in Rome–where they spoke Latin–than using ungrammatical English.”


Those comments raise a number of linguistic issues that I’d like to begin addressing here. Other posts on the subject of language will come later (see Avoiding Jabberwocky). I would love to hear your comments on this topic.

Let’s start with three basic assumptions:

  1. First-century Romans spoke Latin, not 21st-century English.
  2. First-century Latin would have sounded just as contemporary (perhaps even slangy) to 1st-century Roman ears as 21st-century English sounds to 21st-century British, Canadian, Australian, or American ears.
  3. Illiterate 1st-century slaves and freedmen would not have spoken Latin in the same way as their well-educated patrician masters.

To those assumptions, let’s add three equally basic corollaries:

  1. A 21st-century novelist writing about 1st-century Rome will write in a contemporary language (English, Chinese, Italian, Russian, etc). He or she will not write in Latin.
  2. That novelist will have important linguistic choices to make.
  3. Most readers will understand and accept those choices; unfortunately, some will not.

It’s worth considering how authors in previous centuries dealt with these same language issues.

Reading 19th-century novels about 1st-century Rome—great works such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Ben Hur (1880), and Quo Vadis (1896)—you find characters of all classes employing Biblical- or Shakespearean-sounding constructions such as “Dost thou think ’tis time to leave?” and “Hast not thy father returned?” All three novels were hugely popular, so the linguistic choices their authors made must have sounded right to readers of the era.

Nowadays, an author who employed archaic words such as dost, hast, canst, thou, and thy would be laughed out of the bookstore. English has moved on, and so has the manner in which contemporary novelists portray the speech of ancient characters.

The question of the moment boils down to this:

How should a 21st-century author, writing a novel in modern English about 1st-century Rome, convey the speech patterns of educated patricians and illiterate slaves and freedmen?

I see a range of alternatives, each with its own downside(s).

  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and assume readers will figure out that some characters surely are speaking correct Latin and others surely are not. One might even drive home the point early in the book that “So-and-so spoke poor Latin” and say no more about it. That would be the safest approach, but to me the subsequent dialogue would lack both sparkle and verisimilitude.
  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and consistently tag each line spoken by a slave as “Stefan said in uneducated Latin” or “Lucilla asked in slangy Latin” or “Alexander remarked in proper-but-accented Latin.” In a book with several major slave characters—such as Stefan, Lucilla, and Alexander in Rubies of the Viper—tag lines of that sort would get old very fast.
  • One could attempt to create a “Br’er Rabbit” or “Uncle Remus” type of slave brogue in an effort to convey the sound of illiterate Latin. A hundred years ago, that technique was acceptable, but today it would backfire in unimaginable ways. Besides, it would be nearly impossible to read… and tiring!
  • One could use a few patterns of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) English—“I ain’t” or “He don’t” or “Nobody said nothing”—to suggest the kind of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) Latin that uneducated 1st-century slaves and freedmen must have spoken. To me, that sounded like the most reasonable approach, and it’s what I chose to do in Rubies of the Viper. The downside, of course, it that some readers will be turned off because “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives.”


It’s true that uneducated 1st-century slaves did not literally say “I ain’t” or “He don’t,” because they were speaking Latin badly, not speaking English badly. But how else can an author who does not know Latin convey the essence of bad Latin grammar to a reader who also does not know Latin? And even if an author does know Latin, would dropping in bad Latinisms really be the best way to convey the flavor of illiterate speakers of Latin to a broad, English-speaking, modern audience?

To extend that thought… educated 1st-century Romans like Theodosia, Vespasian, Flavia, and Titus—and even educated slaves like Alexander—did not use English contractions or slang either. I guess I’m lucky that, so far, nobody has objected to contraction-filled, slangy (“Father’s so tight!”), dropped-subjects, bubbly-daughter, and generally casual-but-educated dialogue like this snip from pages 18-19 of the paperback edition of Rubies of the Viper:

“Oooooh, what wonderful goblets!” Flavia turned hers around and inspected it closely. “This is the biggest ruby I’ve ever seen, and… what an amazing design!”

“Looks like a serpent eating an apple,” Titus said.

“Is that your family crest?” Flavia asked.

“I’ve never seen it before.” Theodosia turned toward Alexander. “Are these family pieces?”

“No, mistress. My lord Gaius brought them from Rome last year.”

“Oooooh, they’re exquisite!” Flavia ran her finger around the edge of her goblet and down the raised silver face of the ruby-eating snake. “Look at this… even little rubies in the eyes. You’re lucky to have such beautiful things, Theodosia.” She made a show of pouting. “Father’s just so tight. Won’t spend money on anything. Everything we use is as dull and practical as what our slaves use.”

“Soon, my girl,” her father said, “you can squander Lucius Sergius’ money. Let’s hope he’s rich enough to buy you all the things you want.”

As I said above… I welcome your comments on this subject. Please do let me know what you think!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—
photograph copyright © Generale Lee (own work)

• Flavia, Missing Woman

Well, no, Flavia Domitilla isn’t missing completely. She comes to life in the pages of Rubies of the Viper.

It’s only in history that she goes missing.

And that was the fate of the vast majority of women throughout history, including first-century Roman women. It wasn’t that they didn’t live good, satisfying lives. We have to hope they did. But they left no record that endured beyond their deaths… which unfortunately came very early to most of them. (See What Theodosia Never Learned for more on the lives of upper-class Roman women.)

The best proof is the illustration on this page. Do a Google search on any of the three emperors in the famous Flavian dynasty—Vespasian, Titus, Domitian—and you’ll turn up plenty of contemporary sculptures showing their strong, masculine faces. But search for Vespasian’s daughter/Titus and Domitian’s sister and you get what you see here: a single coin. That’s it. And we only have that because, after her death, Emperor Domitian declared her a goddess and punched out a series of coins with her image. Luckily, at least one of those coins survived.

I find the profile portrait on this coin fascinating. With her classic Roman nose and jutting chin, Flavia Domitilla looks exactly as I picture the entire clan, based on those busts of the three Flavian emperors.

Even Flavia Domitilla’s name betrays the anonymity of her life. This particular woman’s mother was named Flavia Domitilla, and her daughter was named Flavia Domitilla. Typical for the time. Women took feminine versions of their fathers’ and husbands’ names. If there was more than one daughter in the family, they were all named the same… set apart from each another only as prima (first), secunda (second), tertia (third), and so on. Emperor Vespasian’s wife and daughter were distinguished from one another as Flavia Domitilla Major (elder) and Flavia Domitilla Minor (younger).

Flavia Domitilla Minor was born around A.D. 45 and died around A.D. 66. Specific dates aren’t known. Both mother and daughter died before Vespasian became emperor in A.D. 69. The younger Flavia’s husband was a military man; her daughter, Flavia Domitilla, is revered as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. That’s just about all we know about Vespasian’s daughter.

So… I had a true tabula rasa to play with in portraying Flavia Domitilla (the middle one) in Rubies of the Viper.

As revealed in the Historical Note at the end of my novel, for story purposes I made her a few years older than she was in real life in A.D. 53-56 and invented a non-military husband for her. In the book, she’s a girl in her early teens, with an impish, vibrant personality. Here are two snippets of dialogue from Chapter Three that I believe capture the essence of such a girl and her relationship with her father, brother and new friend, Theodosia:

A year or so younger than her brother and pretty in an immature way, Flavia exuded warmth and self-assurance.

“I’ve been dying to meet you, Theodosia. Actually, everyone’s been curious, even Father.”

“But we really didn’t come just to gawk,” Vespasian said, “despite what Flavia says. So… just ignore her.”

“That’s all he ever does,” Flavia said. “Ignore me.”

“We came to invite you to dinner—”

“See? Ignoring me!”

“To meet the neighboring landowners. Important folk, all of them. Interested?”

Theodosia laughed at this example of resolute ignoring.

“Yes, but… only if you’ll stay and have lunch with me today. Eating alone is going to get old fast. I can see that already.”

* * *

Titus sat down next to Theodosia and laid his hand on her arm.

“How is it that you’re not married yet?”

“Never found anyone I wanted to marry who wanted to marry me. And at this point, I’m probably too old.”

“Not a chance!” said Vespasian.

Flavia had pulled a roll apart and was stuffing it with cheese. Now she stared into Theodosia’s face.

“That’s unbelievable. Someone as beautiful as you had no suitors?”

“Nobody I’d consider. A couple of greasy freedmen. What Roman nobleman wants an orphaned, half-Greek girl with no dowry?”

Flavia shook her head in mock sympathy, her eyes agleam.

“Oooooh, well… I guess that’s one thing you needn’t worry about any more!”

Theodosia felt a blush creep into her cheeks. Titus’ hand on her arm suddenly felt very warm; she slipped out from under it on the pretense of reaching for a roll.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—