• 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—

• City of the Dead

An Etruscan necropolis outside the ancient Italian town of Caere (modern-day Cerveteri) serves as a “sleeper” location in Rubies of the Viper. I say “sleeper” because at first the necropolis seems merely to provide local color, but it turns out to play a critical role in the story.

I had already written Rubies of the Viper, including those scenes in the necropolis, before I actually set foot in that real-life city of the dead… at which point I was delighted to discover how spot-on my descriptions (based on extensive research) were—both on the outside and within a specific tomb. Walking those ancient, rutted streets gave me goose bumps… not only because of the Etruscan presence on that spot thousands of years earlier, but also because several very-real-to-me characters had also “been there.” I kept saying to my husband: “Alexander did such-and-such right here!” and “That’s where Theodosia met so-and-so!”

The necropolis near Caere/Cerveteri was almost a millennium old by the first century A.D. It had been established circa 900-800 B.C. by the Etruscans, a local tribe that ultimately colonized a large area that included all of modern Tuscany. The etymological root of “Tuscany” is, of course, “Etruscan.” (Similarly, the body of water to the west of the Italian peninsula was called the Etruscan Sea in Roman times; it’s still known as the Tyrrhenian Sea… “Tyrrhenian” being another word for “Etruscan.”)

The Etruscan culture is fascinating for many reasons. Unlike most other ancient civilizations (and many modern ones), they enjoyed equality of the sexes. They were the first tribe in Italy to develop writing, using an alphabet they created based on the Greek one. Their language was spoken for well over a thousand years… continuing in use for several hundred years A.D. Rivals to the Greeks, they developed impressive agricultural and shipping enterprises as well as finely crafted works of art.

By the time Theodosia, Alexander, and Stefan paid their first visit there in A.D. 53, the necropolis at Caere had already been plundered for treasures (coins, jewels, pottery, funeral urns, etc)… the best of which ended up in homes of the uber-wealthy… such as Theodosia’s Villa Varroniana.

From the outside, the necropolis at Caere/Cerveteri is a mass of grass-covered, beehive-shaped mounds, plus a few rectangular structures, all connected by a series of unpaved streets with deep ruts carved over the centuries by wagons bearing bodies to the tombs. This web page offers two exterior photos, a map, and additional information.

On the inside, the tombs were set up like the Etruscans’ homes: with benches, rooms, doors, colorful frescoes on the walls, etc. They were mostly subterranean, so they had stairs—in some cases quite long ones—leading down from the street.

For somebody else’s photos of the tombs, click here and be sure to click “next” to see many more great images.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—