• 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—