• 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—