• 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—