• 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—

• 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—

• Titus, Mankind’s Darling

Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Younger (A.D. 39-81)—known simply as Titus—was the elder son of the general who in A.D. 69 emerged victorious after a year-long civil war and became Emperor Vespasian. A decade later, following Vespasian’s death in A.D. 79, Titus assumed the throne… establishing the first family dynasty other than the Julio-Claudian.

Vespasian and Titus were men of generally good character who stand out to this day for their leadership and the stability they brought to the empire.

They also happen to play important supporting roles in Rubies of the Viper.

Researching the historical Titus for my novel was an enjoyable experience. While Vespasian and others fretted over his immature foolishness—including numerous sexual escapades—history also remembers him as a handsome young man with an engaging personality and a drive to achieve military greatness that fully matched his father’s. I worked hard to capture the essence of his character and feel confident that I succeeded.

The first major challenge of Titus’ life came in A.D. 70, when he was thirty. His father—a former general now in his first year as emperor—was dealing at once with the after effects of civil war and with an uprising in Judea that had preoccupied him as a professional soldier since A.D. 67. Titus had been at his father’s side in Judea throughout that time, commanding one of his legions. Once Vespasian returned to Rome to claim the throne that his loyal legions had won for him, Titus assumed full responsibility for suppressing the Jewish revolt.

And suppress it he did. Under Titus, the Roman legions not only defeated the rebellions Jews, they crushed them and destroyed their city (Jerusalem) and temple. Reprisals were brutal. Clearly, Titus and his emperor-father wanted to make an example that would deter other would-be rebels. Vespasian was so pleased with the results and proud of his son that he erected the Arch of Titus—which still stands in Rome—to commemorate his great victory.

During his father’s reign, Titus occupied several major positions in the imperial government… becoming virtually co-emperor. Vespasian groomed his son to be his successor, and when the emperor died in June 79, Titus was prepared.

Good thing, too, because the second great challenge of his life came quickly… just two months later in August 79. When the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the coastal towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the villages of Stabiae and Oplontis, Titus was just getting a handle on his new job. Still, his efforts on multiple fronts—ranging from appointing skilled leaders to direct the recovery to giving large amounts of his personal funds to aid the survivors—won him widespread praise. First-century historian Suetonius dubbed him “Mankind’s Darling.”

Titus is also remembered for his aggressive building program. His most lasting legacy was the completion of the Flavian Amphitheater (aka Colosseum), which his father had begun a decade earlier.

It’s interesting to contemplate how great Titus might have become had he enjoyed as long a time as emperor as his father did. But he died suddenly in 81, a mere two years into his reign… possibly by poison administered by his brother. His cryptic last words— “I have made but one mistake.” —were widely taken to mean that he should have executed Domitian when he had the chance.

Domitian subsequently ruled the empire for fifteen years until he too was murdered.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Vespasian, Paterfamilias

In ancient Rome, the father of a family was the all-powerful paterfamilias. He owned the family property and ruled the roost in every way. And the lord of this domestic castle didn’t just command his wife, slaves, and underage children. Even his grown male children were legally under the control of their father to a great extent until his death.

Of all the characters in Rubies of the Viper, General (and later Emperor) Vespasian is the only paterfamilias who plays an important role. He played an important role in first-century Roman history too, not just in my novel.

Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Elder (as Vespasian was known in the first century) was born in A.D. 9 into a family of ambiguous social position. His father was a plebeian tax collector; his mother was the sister of a patrician senator. Their son rose in society through his military accomplishments and came to be revered as the conqueror of Britain by commanding the victorious Second Augustan Legion during the invasion in A.D. 43.

In A.D. 53, when Rubies of the Viper begins, General Vespasian is lying low, hoping not to call attention to himself. In a world ruled by paranoid emperors like Claudius and Nero, a too-visible military hero might well find himself murdered… simply for raising his head high enough to look like a potential rival. So Vespasian is hanging out in Caere—a tiny town most noted for its proximity to a thousand-year-old Etruscan necropolis—happily enjoying a quiet life with his children, Titus, Flavia Domitilla, and Domitian, when he first gets to know Theodosia Varro.

But still, in his real life, the Flavian paterfamilias harbored an ambition for power, and in A.D. 69 he made his move. In that “Year of Four Emperors” —following the murder of Emperor Galba and the suicide of Galba’s murderous successor, Emperor Otho—troops loyal to Vespasian defeated the third short-termer, Emperor Vitellius. Vespasian emerged as an emperor with the smarts and popular support to survive.

His proudest accomplishment as emperor—from a Roman perspective, not a Jewish one—came in A.D. 70, when, under the leadership of his eldest son, General Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Younger (aka simply “Titus”), Roman forces crushed the rebellious Jews, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed their Temple.

Despite the terrible destruction that his policies wrought on those peoples (Britains, Jews, and others) who resisted the might of Rome, Vespasian’s character was almost exactly as it’s portrayed in Rubies of the Viper. He was widely respected as a frugal, honest, earthy man with a sense of humor and a great love of the Sabine land of his ancestors.

After the terrors of Nero and a Civil War, Vespasian’s reign gave the empire a decade of welcome relief. He ruled the Roman Empire with unaccustomed wisdom and frugality until his death in 79, when Titus succeeded him on the throne… becoming the first father-son dynasty in Rome’s history.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• A Rare Breed

First-century Roman emperors have a bad reputation. Cruel. Demented. Lascivious. Spendthrift. That stereotype holds true for some (Caligula, Nero, Domitian), but it’s not fair to them all. A few first-century emperors used their power quite well.

Two who most definitely did not fit the stereotype were Emperor Vespasian and his son, Emperor Titus… dubbed “mankind’s darling” by his contemporaries.

Some time back, the members of Amazon’s Ancient Rome discussion forum conducted an in-house poll on this question: Who were the best Roman emperors? Opinions differed, but two men showed up at the top of all the lists: “The Flavians” Vespasian and Titus.

That was no surprise to me. Years ago, when I started work on Rubies of the Viper, my story really began taking shape after I discovered the Flavians. They were just what I was looking for: a true-life family of down-to-earth, first-century Romans living quietly in the country north of Rome, where much of my story would take place. They were the right people in the right time and place who added tremendous historical texture to the story I was building around my fictional co-protagonists, Theodosia and Alexander. As an extra bonus, three members of the family went on to become emperors, which gives them more than passing interest for history buffs. (They also offered great potential for a sequel should I ever decide to write one, as I now am.) I spent a great deal of time researching the Flavian family, was impressed with what I learned, and went to great lengths to portray them accurately.

The Flavians weren’t old-guard, moneyed aristocrats. Vespasian’s father was a tax collector… not high-status work. His wife, Flavia Domitilla, died young (as the majority of women did), leaving Vespasian to raise his children alone. He did have a freedwoman mistress to whom he was devoted for many years and whom he tried—bucking fierce social opposition—to move into the palace as his consort when he became emperor.

In addition to Titus, Vespasian had a second son, Domitian (Emperor Domitian), and a daughter named, like her mother, Flavia Domitilla. (And that daughter would go on to have her own daughter named—guess what?—Flavia Domitilla. Such was the fate of Roman women… virtually no personal identification.)

The Flavian men’s actual Latin names are confusing, too, though not quite so much as their women’s. Vespasian, the father, was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Elder; his first son (the future Emperor Titus) was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus the Younger; and his second son (the future Emperor Domitian) was Titus Flavius Domitianius. Got that straight, gentle reader?

Of the male members of this family’s two generations who became emperors, Vespasian and Titus went down in history as great leaders. Ultimately, Domitian would tarnish the family name, but neither his father, nor his brother, nor his sister lived to see it. And even his vile actions—Domitian was a big-time persecutor of early Christians, earning himself the moniker of “Second Nero” —could not destroy their own fine reputations.

Since all four Flavians—Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Flavia Domitilla—play roles in Rubies of the Viper, I’ll add separate posts about each of them, exploring who they were and why they earned the historical reputations that they have.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Nasty or Nice?

Emperor Otho

Emperor Otho

Of all the characters in Rubies of the Viper, I probably had the most fun with Otho and Nizzo. Neither one of them is a nice man. Could it be that’s the reason they were such rollicking pleasures to create and, I hope, read about?


Marcus Salvius Otho was a real man who played an interesting role in first-century history, so in my novel I had to make him as true-to-life as possible. And I think I did… as regards his overbearing personality, his foppish physical traits, his driving ambition, and his willingness to claw and crawl all over anybody who got in his way.

History has not been kind to Otho. He’s generally remembered as a bully who—with the unique exception of his time as governor of Lusitania (now Portugal)—squandered most of the golden opportunities that fate put into his hands. Equally loaded with ambition and personality flaws, he rose to become emperor of the Roman Empire only to commit suicide three months later.

A nasty man for sure, with very little nice about him.

Aulus Terentius Nizzo, on the other hand, is purely a figment of my imagination… a complete tabla rasa for my creative juices. Even his name was fun to concoct. His slave name (Nizzo)—carried over as his cognomen—is what most people in the novel call him. His praenomen (Aulus) and nomen (Terentius) came from his master, Aulus Terentius Varro (Theodosia’s father), the man who liberated him and with his name gave him a legal identity.

Nizzo first appears in Chapter 9 of Rubies of the Viper as a former farm slave—now a freedman—who runs the vast agricultural estate that Theodosia Varro has inherited from Gaius, her morally corrupt and recently murdered half-brother. And his role grows increasingly important as the story builds toward its conclusion.

From a physical point of view, Nizzo is exactly what one might expect of a former slave now in charge of an immense plantation: dirty, brutish, and foul-mouthed. He doesn’t hesitate to exercise the power he has over powerless people who don’t belong to him but are completely under his control.

He’s definitely not the kind of guy a young lady like Theodosia Varro would care to hang out with.

But his deep-down personal qualities are less easy to characterize. Before Theodosia meets Nizzo, Alexander assures her that the farm manager is worthy of respect:

“There’s a reason why your father lifted that one man above a thousand others who started exactly where he did and placed him in charge of them, even while he was still a slave. Nizzo isn’t polished, but he’s smart and tough and honest and ambitious.”

Those sterling traits aren’t easy for Theodosia to recognize, however. It takes three years and a lot of suffering on her part before she finally comes to see Nizzo for what he really is. And that’s as much as I’m going to say on that subject, because to delve further into it would spoil the story.

Suffice it to say that, while “nice” isn’t a word that anybody would credibly pin on Nizzo, “nasty” isn’t exactly the right word for him either.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• A Genuinely Rotten Guy

Marcus Salvius Otho

Marcus Salvius Otho

How common is it in historical mysteries that one of the bad guys also happens to have been a genuinely rotten guy in history? Not too common, I suspect.

Marcus Salvius Otho (A.D. 32-69) is another character who, like Alexander, evolved and grew as Rubies of the Viper progressed. Otho started out as just one of many in my mind, but he almost literally leaped off the pages as I learned more about his fascinating real-life story and began writing him into my fictional one.

It would be hard to invent a fictional character quite like the real Otho… whose patrician father repeatedly flogged him for juvenile delinquency… who hung out with Nero both before and after Nero became emperor… who coveted, won, and lost the same woman Nero coveted, won, and lost… who was so ambitious (and hapless) that he achieved his ultimate goal—to become emperor—only to die by his own hand three months later.

Imagine a Roman military officer who “wore a wig, put scent on his feet and on the march to Rome it was suspected that he studied his appearance in a mirror, like an actor in his dressing room.” —author Kenneth Wellesley

I had fun with Otho.

It was fun to play him off against Theodosia… who first falls for him, then sees him for the rat he is, then battles it out with him in a game of wits, guts, and strength.

It was also fun to play him off against Alexander… who sees through him from the beginning and ultimately—while risking everything—manages to pull a fast one on him despite overwhelming odds.

It was even fun to play him off against Nero… who has the world at his feet but is on track to lose it all through sheer, bull-headed stupidity.

If you’ve read Rubies of the Viper, I’d love to see what you thought of my characterization of Otho. Just remember… no spoilers, please!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—