A Day at the Pompeii Arena
It’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: Russell 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 gladiator myths that I hope to bust wide open in this post. They also got a couple of things right, which I’ll point out.
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?
Yes, 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
Food in the First Century Roman Empire
Prism Book Alliance pitched me the guest post 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:
We 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, 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.
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
Book Review and Giveaway:
“Hand of Fire” by Judith Starkston
I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.
About the book:
The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.
I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. Continue reading
Writing Process Blog Tour!
I see these things going around the internet all the time: “Name ten things that no one else knows about you.” “Name five books that changed your life.” AND “Tap ten of your nearest and dearest to answer the same question.” Shades of chain letters past. Although some are fun and others are silly, all are time sucks. I have to choose carefully or I’d never get anything done. But every now and again one comes along that I’m glad to participate in. The Writing Process Blog Tour is one, because it asks the questions that most readers are interested in knowing about their favorite authors.
Thanks to Judith Starkston for asking me to join in. Judith shares my love of ancient history, penchant for visiting archaeology sites, and mission to highlight forgotten women. She has a wonderful novel coming out this month titled Hand of Fire: “The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as the future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.” You can see Judith’s contribution to the blog tour here and contact her through her website, Facebook, or twitter. So here goes:
What am I working on?
Several projects in various stages. My most complete projects are two collections of short stories that are currently out as ebooks: Time Again and Other Fantastic Stories and Slow Death and Other Dark Tales. I’m proofing the print versions and recording the audio books.
I’m in the final editing process of a historical novel Sword of the Gladiatrix which I’m very excited about. Here’s the back cover blurb: “Two women from the far reaches of the Empire, enslaved and forced to fight for their lives on the hot sands of the Roman amphitheater. They seek to replace lost friendship, love, and family in each other’s arms. But the Roman arena offers only two futures: the Gate of Life for the victors or the Gate of Death for the losers.” I hope it’s out by the end of the year.
I’m also doing a final rewrite on another novel Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome (#1 of the Theodosian Women series) and a novella prequel which I hope to get out next year. I’m working on the second draft of book #2 in the series (Dawn Empress).
As far as new writing goes, I’m in the very earliest stages of writing the first drafts of book #3 in the series (The Athenian Maid) and a sequel to Sword (Song of the Gladiatrix)—both of which, unfortunately, have been taking a back seat to all these other projects. Continue reading
The Other Lady Philosophers
Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael
It’s Women’s History Month and I’m back with the latest installment on my favorite Lady Philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. This year I’m tackling Hypatia’s sister philosophers. Hypatia didn’t spring from her father’s forehead fully girded and ready for combat in the primarily male world of Late Antiquity. There is a long history of lady philosophers—”lovers of wisdom”— down through the ages, and Hypatia is just one link in that chain. More than thirty-five women are attested to in the records leading up to, and contemporary with, Hypatia—and those are just the women whose heads (and intellect) rose above the crowd enough to be noticed by the decidedly biased ancient historians. One, ARETE of Cyrene (c 400/300 BCE ) ran a school of philosophy seven hundred years before Hypatia. Nine of those women studied (what early nineteenth century scholars later called) Neoplatonism. Two (that we know of) taught both men and women.
Since thirty-five is far too many women to profile, I’ll concentrate on the Neoplatonists and leave the rest for another post. (Please go to Women-philosophers.com, maintained by Kate Lindemann Ph.D., professor emerita at Mount Saint Mary College – Newburgh, New York, for overviews on more than 110 remarkable women philosophers.) When telling the stories of women scholars in history, it is impossible to separate them from their male relatives and teachers. A little context: the vast majority of people—men and women—until recent times, were illiterate, uneducated, and labored in agriculture and resource extraction. Only a small elite could afford education and that generally was reserved for the sons.
But not always.
History is filled with fathers who educated their daughters (including Theon and Hypatia). Because of genuine affection, they had no sons, or the girls were too brilliant to ignore—it didn’t matter. It happened. (Even today, research shows that a father’s encouragement distinctly improves the chances a girl will do well, and chose a career, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math.) Because the educated elite was such a small circle, these women tended to marry inside it (if they married) and have children that followed in their footsteps. If they didn’t teach directly, they educated their children, who did teach. So let’s take a look at the Neoplatonists and the extraordinary women who contributed to this philosophy’s development and dissemination.