March: Book One and Book Two

by John LewisAndrew Aydin (Co-authors), Nate Powell (Artist)


March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Continuing with my Black History Month project, I finished Representative John Lewis’ trilogy of graphic books: March. These three books are a remarkable achievement and recommended for adults and children alike. Lewis, a true American treasure and Civil Rights icon, wrote a couple of traditional memoirs based on his role in the Civil Rights struggles. This graphic project was inspired by an early “comic” about Dr. Martin Luther King that circulated during those turbulent times and inspired many young people to join the fight. The lead up to, and march for, voting rights in Selma, Alabama is laid out in touching detail.

Book One is the shortest but covers the most time of the trilogy. It deals with Lewis’ early years, his struggle (even against his parents) to get an education and his growing sense of injustice in the segregated south. John Lewis struggled and “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” against enormous odds. This book lays the foundation for everything that is to come, everything that shaped his personality and made him the formidable man he was to become. It concludes with the successful integration of Nashville, Tennessee’s downtown drug store counters. We get a behind the scenes look at the politics and strategies employed by a dedicated group of young people working to make their world more fair: the first steps in the Civil Rights movement. I particularly liked the framing story–the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration–which gave the narrative poignancy. Continue reading

Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Other Writings


“This dramatic autobiography of the early life of an American slave was first published in 1845, when its young author had just achieved his freedom. Douglass’ eloquence gives a clear indication of the powerful principles that led him to become the first great African-American leader in the United States.”

Welcome to Black History Month!

Frederick Douglass c 1874

I always look forward to February and March because it puts the spotlight on two marginalized groups in history. As a history geek, I would prefer that we didn’t need those spotlights, but given the current political backlash against all “others,” I don’t think we’ll be reaching that point soon. So my contribution this year is a review of the venerable autobiography of Frederick Douglass, an escaped american slave, abolitionist, preacher and revered leader of the African American community. As a scholar of ancient history, I value primary sources (which are few in my chosen time of 5C Rome). This autobiography is a precious record of a troubling period in our American History from a man who experienced it first hand. This is a classic of American literature and a rebuke to all folks who insist that the Civil War was fought over “heritage.” Continue reading

“My Hair!” A Birthday Adventure

Yesterday was my birthday and I learned something new. I usually love learning something new. Yesterday’s lesson—not so much. Have you heard of 4DX? Neither had I. Until yesterday.

But let me set this up. I have a few modest birthday traditions. I try not to work on my birthday. I like to dress up, get my hair done or try new makeup, and go out to a movie or Broadway show. I always enjoy a lovely dinner at a fancy restaurant. Since I left the corporate treadmill to write novels, it’s even more fun to skip the ponytail and sweatpants, dress up a little and get out in the world.

I’ve also noticed that Monday birthdays are usually disastrous. I hate Monday birthdays. My thirtieth was a Monday and everything went wrong. I ended up passed out on the bed wearing tights, a hat and a tie and no memory of how I got there. 2016 is a leap year and my birthday should have been on a Monday, but skipped to Tuesday. I thought I was safe. Continue reading

A Day at the Pompeii Arena


gladiator mosaicIt’s a sunny day in Pompeii on April 8th in this first year of the reign of Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (AD 79). The crowds surge toward the amphitheater for the games given by D. Lucretius Stater Valens, a lifelong priest to the cult of the deified Nero Caesar Augustus. The placards pasted on the walls in the forum promise, “ten pairs of gladiators owned by his son D. Lucretius Valens and wild animal hunts, as permitted by law. The seats will be shaded with awnings.” Pompeii’s is the oldest stone amphitheater in the empire. For one hundred-fifty years it has proudly hosted games and religious festivals, but it’s looking dated next to the modern Flavian Amphitheater which will open next year in Rome. The frescoes of gladiatorial combat and beast hunts decorating the walls surrounding the sand are fading, but the patrons come for the blood sports, not the art.

The spectators pass into the open spaces surrounding the arena where merchants and food vendors hawk their wares. The scent of fresh bread, roasted meats, and sour wine waft through the crowd to mingle with the odor of sweat and hair pomade. People look at their wooden tickets and enter the appropriate gate to spread throughout the amphitheater: the front rows reserved for the leading citizens; the middle for the lesser knights and merchants; and the top for the poor, slaves, and women. Some resent the class divisions at the arena. At the chariot races in the hippodrome, it’s open seating (except for the emperor, of course!) and women mix with the men. Continue reading

Busting Gladiator Myths

Before I researched my newest novel, Sword of the Gladiatrix, I got most of my ideas and impressions of gladiators from the media: Russel Crowe in Gladiator and (for those of us of a certain age) Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. More recently Starz had a fantastic (in more ways than one) show that ran for three seasons titled Spartacus: War of the Damned. All of these shows perpetuate some myths that I hope to bust wide open in this post. They also got a couple of things right, which I’ll point out.

Myth #1: All gladiators were men.


Bronze statue of a gladiatrix

Most were, but not all. Here I’ll give Gladiator a weak thumbs up—they had women in chariots fighting against a group of men in a re-enactment of a classic battle in an arena scene, but other than that, women gladiators don’t show up in most visual media. It’s left to us lowly writers to correct the balance. If you look closely, women in the arena show up in art, literature, and law. Sword of the Gladiatrix was inspired by a particular stone carving of two female gladiators in the British Museum. More recently, archaeologists have uncovered a bronze statue of a gladiatrix holding a sica—a curved sword. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Martial, and Juvenal all write about female gladiators—usually (except for Martial) with some element of dismay or sarcasm. An organizer in Ostia brags on his tombstone that he was the first person to put women in the arena as fighters. My favorite evidence is in the law: The first Roman Emperor Augustus forbade recruiting noble and free women as gladiators. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Septimus Severus banned single combat by women in the arena. If women weren’t being recruited and fighting, why have a ban? Human nature being what it is, these prohibitions probably made the fights all the more popular because they were illegal. I’m sure female gladiatorial contests continued for some time. Continue reading

Women Gladiators? Really?

Glad I ebook cover 2500x1652Yes, really! Whenever I pitched Sword of the Gladiatrix as my “lesbian gladiator novel,” I encountered raised eyebrows and skeptical snorts. The first question everyone asked: “Were there really lesbian gladiators?” My answer: “Of course!” We know there were female gladiators fighting in arenas for several centuries. Some had to be lesbian.

What really surprised people was the fact of female gladiators. They rarely appear in popular culture. Despite the popularity of Xena Warrior Princess and the myths of the Amazons, female gladiators don’t come to mind in the media-soaked imaginings of brutal, bloody, gladiatorial games. Women warriors? Maybe. Women gladiators? No. Yet they are there in grave markers, classical literature, laws, and art. All you have to do is look. Continue reading

Foodie Time Travel to the First Century

Thank you for having me here at Prism Book Alliance. When you pitched the topic, “If your character could only eat ten foods for the rest of her life, what would they be and why?” I was initially stumped then delighted. Historical fiction writers are notorious for their collections of arcana regarding food, clothing, religious practices, architecture, social mores, herb lore, etc. Using such details in our narratives is one of the ways we transport our readers to another time and place. My most recent book, Sword of the Gladiatrix, takes place in the first century and features two women from the far ends of the Roman Empire: Afra, a huntress from the Kingdom of Kush, and Cinnia, a warrior-bard of the rebellious Iceni tribe in Roman Britain. Both have very different cultures and diets compared to the Romans who enslave them, so let’s time travel! Continue reading

How I Die a Dozen Deaths

“How do you think you would do in a battle arena?”

When I got this suggested topic, I thought to myself, “Great! Shortest blog post ever—I die!” Then I thought about it and realized there are a few—very few—situations where I might survive. After all I have my protagonist in Sword of the Gladiatrix survive a beast hunt with broken ribs and sprained ankle (more on that later). First some stipulations:

  • “Me” is me in my prime when I could play multiple games of tennis, ride my bike for hours, and did weight training three times a week; not the aging, out-of-shape, couch potato I am now.
  • I have training for whatever fighting style I’m engaging in.
  • The fight would take place at a regional Roman arena (at Pompeii or Nuceria for example), not one of the imperial extravaganzas where the object is to kill as many people and animals as possible.

A little history:

Gladiator shows or munera evolved out of a Roman religious ritual where slaves were forced to fight to the death at a funeral to honor the dead. By the first century they became part of larger multi-day religious celebrations (political theater) usually sponsored by local magistrates and might include plays, music, chariot racing, and other entertainments. By AD 354 gladiator fights declined to just 10 days out of 176 set aside for spectacles of various kinds in Rome. Continue reading

Boudica, Queen of the Iceni: Two books

Scholar with textsWe authors—especially of historical fiction—cannot get along without our research books. (We also like to visit the places we write about, explore museum exhibits, and participate in archaeology and reenactments, but this post will talk about research of the armchair variety.) We prefer primary sources: journals, diaries, letters, histories, account lists, and literature written in the period, describing the people and events we want to write about; but that’s not always possible. For cultures that didn’t have a written language (the Iron Age Celts), or it was indecipherable (Egyptian hieroglyphs until the discovery of the Rosetta stone), or it was destroyed (Mayan books burned by conquering Spaniards); we have to rely on secondary sources. Books, essays, and articles by academics and other professionals in their fields are the best we can do for written research in such cases. But we have to be careful even with those. Just as in evaluating primary sources we have to keep in mind the biases and knowledge of the writer, we have to do the same with secondary sources. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of dreck out there—particularly on the internet—and historical fiction authors usually like to get as close to the truth as possible.

In researching Sword of the Gladiatix (soon to be available), I collected several books, articles, and pamphlets on Boudica and Roman Britain, most of an academic nature, a few of the more “popular” variety. The two biographies of Boudica I review below are the best by far of both types. You can read either or both and get a well-researched, readable history of the Iceni Queen, her times, and her legacy in popular culture. Which to read depends on your needs and nature. Continue reading

Boudica, Warrior Queen

It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve exhausted my favorite topic of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. Time to move on to another fascinating woman who has been extensively mythologized: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe) in the first century AD. For those of you unfamiliar with her story, here is a brief summary.

Some Background

Boudica in stained glass.

Image of Boudica in stained glass in Colchester Town Hall.

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 56 where he had some military success against local tribes. He withdrew to Gaul and never returned to Britain. Roman influence in Britain grew over the next 80 years due to increased trade. The British tribes quarreled and Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni expanded his tribe’s territory at the expense of the Atrebates. The Atrebates chief Verica appealed to Rome and gave the Emperor Claudius an excuse to invade Britain in AD 43. General Plautius led the assault and Claudius joined him with reinforcements. They took Caratacus’ stronghold Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and established the first Roman colonia—towns founded for Roman citizens—on British soil. Eleven tribal kings surrendered. Claudius declared Britain a Roman province.

Caractacus continued to fight, leading the western tribes in Wales in guerrilla actions against Plautius’ successor Scapula, known for his brutal pacification campaign in the south. Scapula finally defeated Caractacus in 51. Caractacus fled a to the Brigantes tribe (in modern-day Yorkshire) but was betrayed by their Queen Cartimandua and handed over to the Romans. In 59 and 60, the Roman governor Caius Suetonius Paulinus (during Nero’s reign) led the successful invasion and pacification of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey, the seat of the Druids. Continue reading