• 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—

• 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—

• Subura, The Slum

Among the many intriguing first-century locations where Rubies of the Viper takes place—Nero’s sumptuous palace, Theodosia’s Villa Varroniana, an Etruscan necropolis, and others—none fascinated me more as I was writing than the infamous slum known as Subura.

The area known as Subura, a notorious part of the ancient city of Rome, was originally a swamp lying between the Viminal Hill and the Esquiline Hill. Sometime around 600 B.C., the Cloaca Maxima (“Greatest Sewer”) was built through the area to serve the twin purposes of carrying human waste to the Tiber River and draining the swamp for development. As one might expect, given the technology of 600 B.C., the drainage wasn’t perfect, so Subura remained an unsanitary, mosquito-infested, disease-ridden place to live.

At first, it was the home of respectable citizens, including the family of Gaius Julius Caesar. Single-family houses were the norm, as were prosperous shops. It was also the site of an early Jewish synagogue.

Over time, as hordes of foreigners, landless former farmers (see Gigantic Estates), and impoverished ex-slaves poured into the city looking for work, Subura turned into a noisy, dirty, and wet dumping ground for the dregs of society. There was no law enforcement. No social order. No sanitation. No safety net. Prostitutes, pimps, and pickpockets flourished. Tiny shops built into the walls of houses offered fish, eggs, cabbages, bread, and other cheap provisions. Barbers, cobblers, and peddlers of tinware and fabrics cluttered the narrow streets.

In a first-century version of “white flight,” prosperous Romans literally headed for the hills, two of which—the Caelian and the Palatine—would forever after be enclaves of wealth and nobility.

Here’s how a Rubies of the Viper reader experiences Subura on Theodosia’s first visit back there after spending months in her luxurious coastal villa:

Overhead loomed the wooden firetraps where thousands of Rome’s poorest, mostly foreigners and former slaves, found crude shelter but little else. So tall and tightly packed were the buildings that the sun made its way to the streets for only a few hours a day. An open window on the top storey of one building belched the sounds of a ferocious argument. Balcony-hung laundry—flapping and snapping in the breeze—formed a counterpoint to the slaps and curses and breaking pottery.

Nor was life any more pleasant on the ground. A pack of feral dogs—nosing through the offal and creating more—snarled if anyone came too close. Four naked toddlers played unattended in the dirt. A trio of drunks quarreled in a corner bar. The streets stank of urine, sewage, and rotting garbage.

Theodosia’s house stood in a slightly better neighborhood in the heart of Subura, where people owned their single-storey homes and attached street-side shops. Buildings were lower, so there was more sunlight. At one time, the entire area had been like this, but the surrounding blocks had been razed over the years to pack in more cheap housing.

She stopped in front of the shop where Dinos—the elderly sandal maker who was her tenant—and his slave eked out a living and slept on the floor. Dinos’ meager payments had been Theodosia’s main income for years, but she had charged him no rent since Gaius died.

Dinos was sitting on a shaded stool just inside the doorway, a bright-eyed spider alert for prey in the web of sandals spread out along the edge of the street. Now he hopped down eyes agog at the sight of Theodosia.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—