Romans in Africa, Africans in Rome

Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

We first meet my character Druisius in the last third of Empire’s Exile, when he’s assigned to guard the party of travellers from the lost West who have unexpectedly arrived in Casil. (If you’re new to my series or this blog, Casil is an analogue of Rome, in most ways.) Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

“I am different.” He was, of course, his dark skin making him stand out in Linrathe and Sorham. In Ésparias, where men from the southern coast and Leste served on the Wall, his appearance wasn’t remarkable, a matter of degree rather than sharp contrast.

Empire’s Reckoning

The Phoenicians, Greece and then Rome had traded with north and northwest Africa from about 900 BCE (Carthage was founded about 800 BCE) and among the trade goods were grain and salt, olive oil, gold and pottery. Rome controlled north Africa for about 500 years.

https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?705-Roman-Africa

But goods from further south were also brought to Carthage and other trading centres, and Rome, always looking for efficiencies, sent perhaps up to five expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa. (They also wanted, at one point, to circumnavigate the continent, but that appears to not have happened.)

In 21 BC, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Proconsul of Africa, sent troops as far south as the Niger River (Manding: Jeliba or Joliba “great river”; Igbo: Orimiri or Orimili “great water”;  Tuareg: Egerew n-Igerewen “river of rivers“) in part to subdue the Garamantes people who had a nasty habit of disrupting trade caravans passing through their territories. Sixty or so years later, Suetonius Paulinus led an army across the Atlas range and possibly to the borders of modern-day Senegal. Two expeditions to Lake Chad occurred in the first century CE, and possibly one that travelled into modern-day Nigeria.

Roman military leaders kept detailed records (ok, Rome kept records of everything, pretty well) and much of what we know of these explorations comes from Pliny the Elder. But archaeological evidence also suggests that trade continued well after Rome declined as a world power. Analysis of copper-based objects in Burkina Faso shows the origin of the ore to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and dating from the 3rd to 7th C of the common era.

So – back to Druisius. Rome was a cosmopolitan city; its colonies were, too, in part because one of its strategies was to send legions of young men far away from home, where they couldn’t lead rebellions against their land’s Roman rulers. Historian and archaeologist Anthony Birley, in his book Septimius Severus: The African Emperor notes that between 193 and 211 CE eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north. Severus himself was of Libyan origin, and is portrayed in contemporary portraits as dark-skinned.  So there is nothing unusual about Druisius in my city of Casil.

Septimus Severus and his family. Tempera on wood. Acquired from Egypt in 1932 CE. from Roman Egypt c. 200 CE. It is on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

But as my readers know, I build my world on detailed research. And in the work-in-progress (really, a work-in-planning) my characters return to Casil, and Druisius and his family will have a larger role. I know very little about early-medieval cultures of north Africa, and less about those further south. They may be Casilani traders now, but Druisius’s family would have mementos and traditions from their own culture, and I want those to be as reflective of reality as I can make them. So it’s time for a good chunk of research, made harder by the COVID-driven closure of my university’s library…but not too hard to work around that in this electronic age. I’m looking forward to learning something new.

The featured image is a bust of the Emperor Caracalla, Septimus Severus’s son. His mother, Julia Domna, was Syrian.

The Procurator & The Governor

How does an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrate its practices with those of another country?

Two new characters are introduced into my ‘Empire on the edge of history’ in the novella Oraiáphon and the novel Empire’s Reckoning:  Decanius, the Procurator from Casil, and Livius, the Governor. Who are these characters, and what exactly do they do?

A Procurator in the Roman Empire was the man in charge of the finances of a Roman province. He worked beside the Governor but was not subordinate to him, and his responsibilities included tax collection, rents on land belonging to imperial estates, pay to the military and other public servants, and the management of mines. You can see how this might be a position that allowed for enriching yourself, and your friends, and also could make the office-holder extremely unpopular among the residents of the province. Are tax-collectors ever admired?

Decanius arrives first, because the army must be paid, and tariffs and taxes are going to be collected as soon as possible. He’s an accountant through and through, counting and measuring everything, and he has no interest in the people of Lena’s land, or their laws and traditions. His name derives from Cato (or Catus) Decianus, the Procurator of Britannia at the time of Boudicca’s fight for freedom from Roman rule. Dio, writing a hundred years and more later, suggests that heavy taxation was behind the rebellion, and it would have been Decianus who was responsible for that. So with a little tweaking, the historic, hated Decianus becomes the fictional, hated Decanius.

File:Boudicca Statue.png
Statue of Boudicca at Westminster

Livius is the new Governor. (I just liked the name, in his case.) A Roman governor was responsible for the civil administration of the province; he was also the judge in capital crimes (smaller crimes often being left in the hands of the people he was governing) and was the commander-in-chief of all military units deployed in the province. Unlike the Procurator, who was a civilian, the Governor was a military officer. So almost the first thing Livius asks to do when he arrives from Casil is inspect the troops. An experienced official, Livius governs with affability, but he’s also adamant about what has to happen. “There’s iron behind his smile,” Sorley says of him.

Domitius Corbulo, the Roman governor of Germania Inferior

There were differences in how Imperial provinces (under the control of the Emperor) and Senatorial provinces (under the control of the Senate) were governed, but to say more about that might reveal too much of what happens in Oraiáphon. The roles and responsibilities changed over the years Rome had an Empire, and I chose the pieces that work. I’m not tied to a specific timeline: I borrow concepts, not exact history, in creating my alternate world. What I was interested in was how an Empire, sure of its institutions and its laws and traditions, integrates its practices with those of another country; not a conquered one, but one that has agreed to become a client province. Do they integrate, or do they impose? “We might have been a province of the Eastern Empire once before,” Lena says, “but we kept almost none of its laws and traditions, except in the army.” Peace has a price.

Oraiáphon Amazon

Empires’s Reckoning Amazon

E-pub

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Statue of Domitius Corbulo: photo by Carole Raddato, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Statue of Boudicca:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boudicca.jpg Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Statue of Julius Caesar (Featured Image): By Skitterphoto –  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political.

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?

Antonius, Son of Rome, by Brook Allen: A Review

Say ‘ancient Rome’ and you have my attention immediately.

Say ‘ancient Rome’ and you have my attention immediately. So I had to read Brook Allen’s debut novel, and I also invited her to contribute a guest post to this blog. So, here’s my review, and her piece, and some of her photos, too!

My Review

Marc Antony is a familiar historical figure. Whether it’s from Shakespeare, film, video games or history class, his basic story as Julius Caesar’s right-hand man, Cleopatra’s lover, and a key figure in the transformation of Rome from a republic to an imperial state is known to many. But how did he become this man? What drove him?

Brook Allen’s Antonius, Son of Rome, the first book in a planned trilogy about Marc Antony’s life. Beginning when Marcus is in early adolescence, the story intertwines known information with imaginative situations. Impeccably researched and richly described, Allen brings the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic to life. Her characterization of the young Antonius gives insight into and motivation for later actions.

Last year, in research for my own books, I took a course on the fall of the Roman republic. I rather wish I hadn’t bothered: reading Allen’s series will be a far more entertaining way of reminding myself of the history!  But even though the personalities and actions of this period are fresh in my mind, I wasn’t the least bit bored by Son of Rome. Creating suspense when the outcome is known is a difficult task, and one well-managed in this novel. When an author can vitalize known history and familiar characters as well as Allen has in this book, I know I’m onto a writer I’m going to want to follow.

Highly recommended for readers interested in the period, or who would like to know more about this tumultuous, influential time in the history of Rome and its empire. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!

Antonius: Son of Rome is available from Amazon.

Just Like Us

I’ll never forget the first time I visited Pompeii.


I entered through the Marina Gate and as I walked slowly toward the Forum, it was as though I was going back into time with each and every step. And the place still possesses its very human story through its various buildings—some of which still stand complete—and it’s wall frescoes and plaster-cast molds of victims. The site is a world treasure. Though people and animals tragically died here, it’s a veritable time-capsule of information on just how ancient Romans lived and died. And perhaps the most surprising thing that a visitor takes with them upon leaving is the thought that, “They were just like us!”


In Rome itself, apartment buildings called insulae (islands) were often up

Insulae at Ostia Antica: A typical insula (apartment building).

to seven or even eight stories high. Plutarch, an ancient biographer who liked to tell the stories of famous Greeks and Romans, told about Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar. Crassus became rich through vast purchases of properties in Rome—specifically insulae. Since Rome had no fire brigade at the time, Crassus trained a band of his own slaves to be firemen. If there was a fire in an insula, which occurred regularly, due to people trying to cook in their apartments, Crassus would show up with his firemen. He’d offer to buy the insula for a ridiculously low price and the poor, panicked owner would either have to sell his enflamed property or watch it burn, as Crassus would only order his firemen into action if he sealed a deal.


And—hey! McDonald’s anyone? Common plebians typically ate their meals at fast food stalls, located on the streets and sometimes even built into insulae. Americans might think they invented fast-food, but these tiny eateries would serve up steaming veggies and meats onto husks of bread for a filling meal two-thousand years ago. It was only the upper middle classes and families of noble descent who could really afford to recline in their painted triclinia, served by slaves.

Ancient fast food restaurant: 
This little taverna is in Pompeii. It’s very typical of the sorts of fast food establishments that existed in the ancient world.


Lastly, I have to mention the Roman passion for games. Now their tastes were different than ours—bloody beast and gladiator shows were the norm. But this enormous public park easily lends to our imaginations what mighty structure once stood there. The Circus Maximus was the place to go for gladiator shows, public executions of criminals, and the favorite Roman pastime—chariot racing!

Circus Maximus Painting: As it may have been.


The Circus Maximus is HUGE and worth a visit. Visitors can still walk where the original track was laid out and see where the spina—the “spine” of the complex—once was. By Julius Caesar’s day, this enormous arena seated over one-hundred-fifty THOUSAND people! As the Republic morphed into Empire, several Emperors renovated and improved the mighty Circus Maximus, and other hippodromes similar to it were added in notable cities throughout the Roman Empire.


I am of the opinion that there’s NOTHING boring about history. People who poo-poo the study of other cultures from the past simply haven’t gotten INTO the spirits of the people who once lived so long ago. Tourists who visit Pompeii and experience the many similarities between ancient Roman culture and ours are right. In many regards, they were “just like us.”

Brook Allen (Click on Brook’s name to go to her blog, full of more information about Rome and its inhabitants.)

What may still lie between the mountains and the sea….

Interested in reading? Send me a message.

 

“…will you face east with me, and bow to that memory, and to what may still lie between the mountains and the sea?” 

Those enigmatic words seal a truce called in the fifteen-month war between the Empire and Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, binding the Emperor Callan, the Teannasach Donnalch, and their people. But in additional surety of peace, the truce requires hostages, children of the leaders. 

Lena is a Guardswoman on the Wall when this peace is negotiated, one of many women who rode north to defend their land. When the General Casyn asks her to take the place of one of his daughters as a hostage, Lena agrees, to learn that she will be sent to a Ti’ach, a house of learning, for the duration of the truce. Here, perhaps, she can learn more about the east, and what its place is in the history of the Empire.

 But not every student welcomes her, and Lena soon learns that the history of both the countries beyond the Wall and her own Empire are more complex, and more intertwined, than she imagines.  When circumstances take her even farther north, into lands of a people unknown to the Empire, all her skills of leadership and self-defense are needed to avert danger to herself, the Empire, and its fragile allegiance with Linrathe…at an ultimate cost beyond her imagining.

Empire’s Hostage, book II in the Empire’s Legacy series, is fast approaching release. It follows Lena, the protagonist of Empire’s Daughterinto a larger world and into greater danger, testing her loyalties once again.

ARCs will be available soon in either e-pub or mobi format.  Interested in reading, rating, and/or reviewing?  Send me a message.

Lena’s World: Sexuality in the Empire. Empire’s Daughter Backgrounder IV

Like most of the cultural structures in Empire’s Daughter, the sexuality is rooted in historical fact, although I do not pretend it is historically accurate.

This is the fourth in an occasional series on the history and geography that lies behind and informs my historical fantasy series, Empire’s Legacy.  Book I, Empire’s Daughter, is available on Amazon: Book II, Empire’s Hostage, will be released around June of 2017.

 

In Lena’s world, the world of the Empire, sexuality is varied and fluid.  This is, I hope, presented simply as part of the background and the culture of this world, but to some extent it is also based on history.

Sexuality is both innate, sexual preferences and gender identity something we are born with (and that do not necessarily conform to the gender identity we are assigned at birth) but the strength of sexuality as a basic human need can also mean that sexuality can be situational.  Men or women deprived of the company of their preferred sexual partners for long periods will seek and find sexual release and comfort where they can.  In the Empire, the structure of the society, where men and women live separately for all but a couple of weeks per year makes situational sexuality a normal and accepted practice in the lives of both men and women.

But of course, there is a wide range of sexual preference within this society, as there is in any, so the partnerships range from the men and women who prefer their own sex: Finn, the young officer; Siane and Dessa, at Tirvan; those who prefer the opposite sex: Tali, whose love for Mar keeps her living alone throughout her life; and those who are more fluid: Lena, the protagonist;  many of the women of the villages, many of the men of the army.  One or two characters may be construed as transgendered: Halle would be one.  My intent was not to define the characters by their sexuality, but let them be whatever they are, incidental, for the most part, to the story.

Where did this come from?  Greek and Roman societies were well known for accepting sexual love among athletes and soldiers of the same sex.  The Oxford Classical Dictionary, paraphrased on Wikipedia, states:

The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier as modern Western societies have done. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behavior by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each participant played in the sex act. (Oxford Classical Dictionary entry by David M. Halperin, pp.720–723)

The Sacred Band of Thebes was a 4th Century BCE troop of elite soldiers, comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers from the city of Thebes in Greece.  The troop, whose historical existence is accepted by most scholars, given its mention by classical writers such as Plutarch, was destroyed by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) in 338 BCE. Indeed, some military commanders of the classical era believed troops of lovers fought the hardest, because they were defending those whom they loved, not just the state.

Less is known about female same-sex relationships.  The Greek poet Sappho was head of a thiasos, an educational community for girls and young women, where same-sex relationships were part of life. The same may have occurred in Sparta.

Moving forward to the Roman era, many of the same attitudes regarding male to male sex continue, with the exception being within the military. In the Republican period (4th to 1st centuries BCE) soldiers were forbidden, by penalty of death, to have sex with each other, although sex with male slaves appears to have been acceptable. In the Imperial period, this prohibition may have been lifted, as marriage was forbidden to soldiers.

Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from 117 – 138 CE, whose British wall is the model for the

Wall in Empire’s Daughter (and the upcoming sequel Empire’s Hostage) had a lover named Antinous, one, likely, of Hadrian’s ‘harem’ of both male and female lovers.  But when Antinous drowned, Hadrian mourned him publicly, founding the Egyptian city of Antinopolis in the boy’s memory and having him deified, suggesting (strongly) that his attachment to him was deep and serious. In the British Museum’s exhibition marking fifty years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales, the heads of Hadrian and Antinous stand side by side, honoring their relationship. (Hadrian’s the one with the beard.)

So, like most of the cultural structures in Empire’s Daughter, the sexuality is rooted in historical fact, although I do not pretend it is historically accurate. I write alternative history, or historical fantasy, (choose your category), not historical fiction!  But I also chose to honor the existence of these relationships in history, because so many books of this type seem to gloss over or totally ignore love that is not heterosexual, and that’s just not the way it was, or is.

For the previous installments in this series, click the links below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Shadow Magus, by Rob Steiner: A Review

I reviewed the previous book in the series, Citizen Magus, about a year ago, giving the light-hearted and fast-paced fantasy five stars. The sequel continues the mood and quality of the first book.

shadow_magusShadow Magus continues the adventures of Remington Blakes, aka Natto Magus, a 21st-century American magus transported to 1st century Rome.  (It’s not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one, but I’d recommend it.) Steiner continues to blend good writing, likeable characters, fast action and sense of humour in a well-paced and well-plotted story.

I reviewed the previous book in the series, Citizen Magus, about a year ago, giving the light-hearted and fast-paced fantasy five stars. The sequel continues the mood and quality of the first book.

Another magus, with a type of magic that Natto Magus can’t identify, appears in Rome…and apparently bent on destruction. Caesar Augustus needs Natto’s help to save Rome. From the Circus Maximus to the underworld of Egyptian mythology, Remington pursues the magus in a desperate quest, while not losing his own life to this new power.  Even Remington’s household god Lares gets involved in the crusade.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.  But as in the first book, Steiner captures Ancient Rome in all its crowded, smelly reality, without ponderous archaeology weighing the book down.  The magic remains internally consistent and very well described, even the new type of magic the intruder brings, and the historic backstory to the conflict is accurate.  And Natto Magus’s character continues to develop; the next in the series should prove quite interesting!

Five stars to the second installment of a fun series.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Lena’s World: The Social Structure of Empire’s Daughter

As to why there is this tiny, isolated Empire at the edge of the world, underpopulated and ring-fenced by the Wall, the mountains and the sea….well, to say more would need a big SPOILERS alert!

In Empire’s Daughter, men and women lead very separate lives, the women living together, primarily in farming and fishing villages, the men in mandatory military service.  Male children are taken at age 7 to begin military training; girls are educated in their own villages, and then apprentice to a trade.  Where did these ideas come from?

There isn’t one source, one society that I borrowed from.  The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened.  Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.

The Roman Empire’s military structure also influenced how I envisioned the lives of menroman_soldiers_at_rest2 in the Empire. Roman soldiers served 25 years in the military, and could not (officially) marry unless they were of officer class, although they often formed permanent relationships with local women.  But again, it was that sense of a primarily masculine life that influenced how the men live in Empire’s Daughter.

The lives of women were influenced by a number of sources: Icelandic and Viking women, for one, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work woman_blacksmith_-_eng-_i-e-_england_loc_24225694456while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings).  The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world, for both boys and girls: even my own grandfather was apprenticed at age twelve to a coal merchant in England, in about 1896. (The photo is from England, c 1915-1920)

Now, as to why there is this tiny, isolated Empire at the edge of the world, underpopulated and ring-fenced by the Wall, the mountains and the sea….well, to say more would need a big SPOILERS alert.  You’ll have to read the books to find out!

Empire’s Daughter, book one of the Empire’s Legacy series, is currently available from Amazon in e-book format or paperback.  Look for book 2, Empire’s Hostage, around June of 2017!

Roman soldier picture: By Pablo Dodda (Flickr: Roman Soldiers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Woman blacksmith picture:  Bain News Service; taken in England c 1915-20; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  No known copyright restrictions.