• 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—

• 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—

• 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—

• What Theodosia Never Learned

Only by understanding the normal expectations and restrictions placed on patrician women in Roman society can one see how profoundly different is the situation in which Theodosia Varro, the protagonist of Rubies of the Viper, finds herself at the beginning of the novel.

A Roman lady of the upper classes was trained from childhood for her primary tasks in life: to run a household, manage slaves, entertain her husband’s friends and political allies, and raise her children.

But… Theodosia Varro was given no training for any of this. (See Not Your Garden-Variety Roman Lady and Is Theodosia stupid?)

The life of a typical Roman lady of the upper classes was restricted from start to finish. She had minimal education, little encouragement to understand politics, and few opportunities for meaningful engagement with the world outside her home. While a free Roman woman was considered a citizen, she had no right to vote, hold office, or engage in any political activities.

Legally, both a woman and any property she inherited were under the control of a male member of the family: her father, husband, or son. She didn’t have the right to select her own husband, say no to her father’s choice, or wait until she was older than the customary marriage age of 12-14.

A Roman lady didn’t have a legal right to her children. She couldn’t even protect a newborn baby girl (or, on occasion, a sickly baby boy) if the father chose to allow the baby to die of starvation or exposure. If the lady divorced her husband, she had to leave her children behind.

It was common for a girl at puberty to be married off to a considerably older man… becoming perhaps his third or fourth wife. Wives were expected to bear children as often as possible, because few survived and because sons were so desirable. Women wore out fast; twenty to thirty years was the expected life span of a female who survived past childhood.

While adulterous relationships were common, only a woman could be put to death for adultery.

Unlike Greek woman, who were confined almost all the time to their homes, Roman women regularly went out in public, especially to the public baths (which were social occasions as well as opportunities for hygiene); to parties, races and gladiatorial events; and to religious celebrations. They enjoyed friends of their own class, both male and female.

A good book on this subject is Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—