• 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—

• 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—