• 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—