Writing Women in My Ancient History Novels

In Rhea Silvia, Maker of Kings, my current Work-in-Progress novel, I have expanded the role of Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome, so that she becomes the Kingmaker for Numa Pompilius, successor as King of Rome to Romulus.

In Hersilia, Queen of Rome, my current WiP novel, I expand the role of Hersilia, wife of Romulus, to be ruling partner and instigator of certain events reported during his reign.

In Redemption’s Choice, my completely fictional character Saphina becomes embroiled in a government coup in the ancient city of Caere and then an integral participant in the overthrow of Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome.

In Valeria’s Honor, my MC Valeria Publicola (quasi-historical) learns the meaning of Honor, and holds to integrity even while believing it costs her heart.

In Nisba’s Revenge, my fictional character, the woman Nisba, commits murder after murder while seeking to kill the one man she holds responsible for the loss of everyone and everything she held dear.

I write historical fiction set in the ancient world of Italy. Two novels are set in the time of Rome’s founding, c 750-720 BC. Two are set in the years Rome’s Republic was born, c 510-500 BC. One is set in the years Sardinia was lost to Carthage and became a Roman province. Three are set during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy after Cannae, c 218-211 BC.

In each of these the Main Character, the protagonist, is a Woman.

She may be mentioned in historical texts, she may be completely fictional.

She may not be strong when she first appears, but spurred by people and circumstances she discovers and embraces and acts with her inner emotional and intellectual (and yes physical) strength.

I don’t write female characters out of some feminist bent. I do absolutely fervently believe that women are too often underestimated, both by men and by themselves; that women are sadly and badly often underrepresented in politics, in business, in society (see earlier comment about women underestimating themselves).

I don’t write female characters to “even up” any score within fiction to-date.

I write female characters where I think a fictional history may benefit from their presence. I write female characters because they are a complex concoction of emotion and dispassion. I write female characters because they provide such a rich mirror of behavior and insight and intuition and action.

I write female characters because they are so much fun.

My name in Footnotes

I am a wordsmith. I respect the power of my words and the words of others. I strive for conciseness, sometimes failing, but I don’t mind terseness or verbosity in others. What I expect and demand from myself and others is that words are carefully presented.

I have and do write both fiction and non-fiction.  My historical fiction short story “The Speech of Hortensia was published in 2013. In 1994 I had a handful of short “science-fiction” stories published. Around 1999 I wrote at least two dozen articles on the history of ancient Egypt, for TourEgypt.net. That site still exists today as do the articles that I (and other contributors) wrote. My topics-carefully researched, with bibliography, while intended for a general readership- included an overview of the Early Pharaohs, Childbirth and Childhood, Tomb-robbers, Abu Simbel, and more. 

About fifteen or so years ago, as I embarked on a research project into the history of Sardinia, I came across an academic website where students and scholars and researchers can upload their work. A feature of that website is that one can receive notifications if one’s name appears in other articles. So I learned that a few of my Egypt articles have become footnotes in academic papers.

That makes me happy, albeit bemused. I hold no degree beyond a Baccalaureate. I always describe myself as an independent researcher. I have never participated in any archaeological or historical projects, never assisted any experts in the field. The history I write is always offered as a synthesis of the work of others, properly attributed thereto.

Just today, while crafting a brief bio for myself in preparation to submit my Sardinia history manuscript for publication, I came across more recent evidence of my work being a footnote. In a book about the culture of Ancient Egypt, published by Oxford University Press, one author of which is Eric Cline, whose name is familiar to me as a well-published scholar of the Near East and ancient Egypt, my name appears as footnotes in a chapter on Childhood.

This discovery fills me with some humility but pride at the same time. I am reminded that our words -casually meant or not- are liable to always echo round and round in the universe.

More specifically, I am energized to polish my Sardinia history manuscript. Who knows where my next footnote might appear!


History and Fiction: Weaving both into a Tapestry of Storytelling 2

Fictional History: Two Novels set during the birth of the Roman Republic.

Redemption and Honor in Rome.

The story opens in the year 511 BC. Saphina Ramuth and her father Pharon live in the city of Caere. Pharon and Tefarie Velianas, Caere’s ruler, have arranged for Saphina’s betrothal and marriage to the young nobleman Avle Venthi.  Although not in love with Avle, Saphina seems content. She is also worried about Pharon’s increasingly violent bouts of madness, wherein he addresses Avle by the name Drubal, and he seems not to know Saphina. He rants about revenge. Finally, on the day before her wedding Pharon in a fit of madness kills Avle and then himself. Devastated, Saphina needs answers, but most importantly wants to purify Pharon’s memory from his terrible deed. His friend King Velianas is oddly unhelpful. The priests at the Healing Sanctuary tell Saphina she must travel to Sardinia, but that she will be changed by what she learns there and after. Astarte’s Priestess particularly tells her that Honor alone will save. Saphina dismisses both the cryptic and the warning words. During her voyage she meets a man named Gaius Sergius, a simple merchant, who offers to accompany her after they arrive. They travel together to the Carthaginian fortress of Monte Sirai in southern Sardinia, where Pharon had been a mercenary.

What Saphina learns there sends her next to the city of Rome. Gaius immediately offers to accompany her further. She agrees as she has grown fond of and attracted to him. When they arrive in Rome, its King Tarquinius has been exiled. Nonetheless Saphina visits with Poplicola Valerius, one of the new consuls, and befriends his daughter Valeria and another girl named Cloelia.  Over time Saphina senses that Gaius is not in fact what he has claimed to be; he has been disappearing without a word to Saphina except she has seen him meet with strangers in secret. She confides in her friends that she feels torn between her fierce love for Gaius, and distrust of his motives. The three women, joined by Cloelia’s friend Mucius Cordus, are determined to learn more about Pharon’s past.

But Rome is about to be invaded and as Rome’s consuls and senate flounder in response, the city falls to Lars Porsenna.  Saphina brokenheartedly is convinced that she cannot trust Gaius and she sends him away. She, Valeria, and Cloelia, along with some other daughters and sons of Rome’s nobility, become hostages to the conqueror. Saphina already felt changed, as the priests had warned. Now she had to decide what was honorable and what was not. She couldn’t sleep. Thoughts of her father’s actions haunted her. Thoughts of her own confusion over Gaius kept her awake. She spent long hours talking with Valeria late into the night, whispering together with no answers forthcoming.

Saphina and Valeria learn that the consuls and Senate have a dishonorable plan to get rid of Porsenna-but Mucius Cordus, the instrument of Rome’s decision, chooses to instead follow his conscience. Saphina sees Gaius in the Etruscan camp and thinking him a traitor she is shocked that she would consider killing him. To her surprise he manages to embolden the hostages to attempt an escape back to Rome.

Will they escape? How will that benefit Rome? Can Saphina find her happiness with Gaius? What is true honor? What is its cost?

Novel Two:

Valeria’s Choice

The novel opens toward the end of the year 510 BC. Valeria Publicola was born in Rome. Her father Poplicola Valerius had been a friend to Rome’s previous King Servius Tullius. When the king’s son-in-law Lucius Tarquinius overthrew him and beat him up in the street, Popolicola had kept his silence, as did Tarquinius’ cousins Lucius Brutus and Lucius Collatinus. They kept silent as Tarquinius threatened senators, confiscated properties, and used his war booty to beautify and strengthen Rome. It never occurred to Valeria to question why her otherwise righteous father could express his sadness and regret in the privacy of their home. She decided he must feel too old to make any difference. But Poplicola and the others were simply biding their time, waiting for an opportunity, and when it came, they evicted Tarquinius and his sons, and Rome felt safer and happier.

All was not so well however. Rome’s new rulers could not seem to agree on many things. Poplicola’s humble behavior was viewed with distrust, and mutterings grew that he wanted to be a king himself. Then again rumors spread that Lucius Brutus wanted the same power for himself. When Brutus arranged to exile Collatinus, the rumors grew louder. Valeria had no reason to heed any of that. She had her friends Cloelia, Gegania, and a new friend named Saphina who had come to Rome from the faraway island of Sardinia.  Saphina needed help uncovering a mystery about her father, and Valeria was very good at discovering secrets.  She also had a very strong self-confidence, something she decided Saphina lacked. So Valeria and Cloelia took Saphina under their wing and close into their circle.

When news came that an army marched on Rome set to invade, Valeria never expected Rome to be conquered. She never expected that the invader would remain, and also demand hostages. When Rome’s army was victorious, she simply plundered the conquered city, perhaps executed a handful of leading men there, then returned home. Valeria was absolutely shocked when Poplicola sadly informed her that he, Brutus, and the Senators had agreed to turn over their own children, including Cloelia, Valeria, and even Saphina, who had become like a sister to Valeria, to the invader as those hostages.

If their fathers had agreed to this, did that mean Valeria, Cloelia, and Saphina had to endure captivity? Was captivity dishonorable, for the loser of battle? Was the pledge Rome made more honorable or less than their captivity? If they escaped, would that dishonor their pledge to Porsenna? Honor aside, if they escaped, would Porsenna take revenge on Rome and plunder it or even raze it to the ground?

Valeria became unable to sleep, talking with Saphina long into the night. Even after they arrived as hostages into the camp of Lars Porsenna, Valeria’s thoughts churned. She felt as if she stood on the edge of something-but terrible or wonderful she could not yet tell.

Will the hostages escape? If they do, how will that benefit Rome? If they remain, what would be their fate? Should it matter that Valeria felt drawn to one of Porsenna’s own officers? What would she choose, when Saphina says there is a way to escape if they can take it.

Tefarie Velianas, Tarquinius Superbus, Poplicola Valerius, Valeria, Cloelia, Mucius Cordus, and Lars Porsenna, are all historical figures in the accounts of the Roman Livy, and the Greeks Dionysius Halikarnassus and Plutarch (and additional references by the Roman Tacitus.) The treaty between Rome’s consuls and Carthage is reported by Polybius. Livy does report that Lars Porsenna marches on Rome and hold it for a while. He does demand and receive hostages. Mucius Cordus tries to assassinate Lars Porsenna. Cloelia and Valeria spur the other hostages to attempt an escape. Porsenna frees them and marches away, leaving Rome free. All that is history.

It must be said that Valeria does not appear in Livy’s account of Porsenna and the hostages. Of course, nearly all the hostages are left unnamed and undescribed. Does that make any of them or Valeria herself less historical or simply somewhat overlooked?

Saphina, Pharon, and Gaius are fictional characters. They embody people that may have, could have, lived and acted similarly as depicted in the novel. Recent scholars have speculated that both Velianas and perhaps even Tarquinius received some outside assistance to win their thrones. There is also some speculation, spurred on by a brief account by Greek Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, that Rome or one of its Latin allies attempted a colony in eastern Sardinia in the year 378 BC, about 150 years after Tarquinius was overthrown and Lars Porsenna camped before the walls of Rome. Perhaps Rome knew more about Sardinia than the “histories” record.

History itself is only, after all, a story of events played out by people.

History and Fiction: Weaving both into a Tapestry of Storytelling

Part ONE

The year is 537 BC.  In Rome, Lucius Tarquinius has overthrown his father-in-law King Servius Tullius and taken the throne.  The city of Carthage has taken control of the island of Sardinia from the Phoenicians. Greeks from Asia Minor live on Corsica.  The Etruscan city of Caere, 30 miles from Rome, has a new ruler named Tefarie Velianas.

For at least a century, the indigenous Sardinian cities and Carthage had enjoyed a friendly trading relationship with Caere and many other Etruscan cities along Italy’s western coast.

The Phocaean Greeks were not so fortunate. Instead of allies, they were seen by both the Etruscans and Carthage as rivals for control of trade in the Mediterranean.

In 535 BC that rivalry will end.

Three fleets of warships meet in battle in the seas between Sardinia, and the Italian peninsula. On one side are the allied fleets of Carthage and Caere. On the other side are the ships of Phocaean Greeks from Corsica.

While ships are lost to all three combatants, the Greeks leave Corsica for a new colony on the Italian peninsula. Greek prisoners are taken to Caere, but not to be enslaved. Instead they are stoned to death on the beach.  When plague breaks out soon thereafter, the Delphi Oracle tells Caere it must hold games and make sacrifices to the dead, to cleanse and purify the city and its people.

Thus far these events are history, recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus and the Roman historian Livy.

Tefarie Velianas may have become ruler in Caere, Fiction can claim, with help from Carthage, no doubt eager to expand its presence in the peninsula as well as Sardinia. Sixteen years later, in 509 BC, Velianas built and dedicated a temple to Carthage’s gods at the port of Pyrgi in Caere. This much is known through archaeology.

Fiction also claims that mercenaries from Sardinia and other Etruscan cities may have also helped Lucius Tarquinius take the throne in Rome.

That same year of 509 BC, emissaries from Carthage journeyed to Rome to discuss a trade treaty with Tarquinius Superbus. In the 18 years since the Battle of Alalia in the Sardinian Sea, Carthage had successfully signed such treaties with many Etruscan cities like Caere. What they arrived in Rome however, they were met with chaos.

As the Carthaginians sat quietly and watched, relatives of King Tarquinius found an excuse to overthrow him, sending him into exile rather than kill him. Claiming proudly only that they had ended the monarchy, they called their new two-man rule a consulship. Eager for validation of their new government, the consuls then signed the trade treaty with the Carthaginian emissaries. This treaty is recorded in history, not however by the historian Livy, but by another Greek historian named Polybius.

Tarquinius meanwhile fled to Caere and sent out calls for aid to other cities. Livy records that aid was given by Lars Porsenna, King in the Etruscan city of Clusium, who marched his army to Rome. The consuls-bickering over the organization of their government-were unprepared to meet an invader.  Porsenna did not return Tarquinius to the Roman throne. Instead he ruled over Rome as its conqueror, even demanding sons and daughters of the consuls and other leading nobles as hostages to demonstrate his authority and control.

The Roman historian Tacitus described Porsenna as a conqueror. Livy only recorded that Rome fought against him. Livy and the Greek historical biographer Plutarch both agree however that Porsenna’s conquest is ended only when the hostages and other brave young Romans take matters into their own hands.


Fictional History: Two Novels set during the birth of the Roman Republic.

Research+ Epiphany = enriched Historical Fiction

Rome was founded, according to traditional history, in 753 BC (before Common Era, aka 750 years before the birth of Jesus.) From 753 -509 BC, so it has been said, Rome was ruled by seven kings.

In 509 BC, give or take a year or two, an aristocratic uprising in Rome resulted in the overthrow of the last king of Rome. Rome’s Republic was born then, with its own final result around 27 BC when the adopted son of Julius Caesar became its first Emperor as Augustus Caesar.

Those final years of Rome’s ancient monarchy have long fascinated me. The ancient sources providing the general story don’t agree on all points.  It is not a period that tends to appear in historical fiction, perhaps in part for that reason. I have long had a dream of writing a novel centered in that time.

Where to begin? That question, coupled with a need to make that story resonate for readers today, haunted me.

The story of the overthrow of Rome’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, can be summarized thus. Tarquinius was a horror, who had murdered his father-in-law and predecessor in public. He then ruled over Rome with all cruelty. The spark which ignited the revolt and his exile was the assault of his son against Lucretia, the very dignified wife of his cousin. When she committed suicide for the shame, her father and other Roman nobles swore to rid Rome of the tyrant and so they did. They did not kill him outright but sent him away, more or less ensuring a year or two more of chaos before Rome settled into its new form of rule by a pair of consuls. As part of that chaos, Tarquinius raced to a neighboring city to implore its king, Lars Porsenna, to attack Rome on his behalf and return him to its throne. Porsenna conquers Rome, only to be humbled into freeing Rome through the brave actions of some Roman youths. Eventually Tarquinius dies and the chaos ends.

Therein lies the skeleton of the story.

A formidable tyrant, a foreign conqueror, a proud Roman matron badly used, political bribery and chicanery, the bravery of Roman hostages: all this already provides several good story lines.

I was not quite satisfied, but I set aside the idea of this tale to immerse in a research of the history of Sardinia, particularly when the island fell under the control of the city of Carthage, across the straits from Sicily.

While Sardinia had its own indigenous culture since at least the Neolithic (New Stone Age) era, the island was visited during the Bronze Age by Minoans, Cypriots, Myceneans-and perhaps Sardinians even sailed away to the East with some of those visitors. None of them settled on the island, until Phoenician traders arrived in the Iron Age c 900 BC. They built posts and forts in Sardinia. About four centuries later, c 540 BC, an army from Carthage came to Sardinia and conquered it. While the source for that story comes rather late (it is noted that none of these sources are contemporary to events), Herodotus tells of a great naval battle that took place, c 540 BC, in the Sea around Sardinia, with Greeks who had colonized Marseille and Corsica on one side, and on the other side, Carthaginians and their allies some Etruscan cities from the Italian mainland. One of those cities was Caere, very near Rome.

When I noted this coincidence of dates, and how close the dates were to the first reigning years of the last Roman king, a tiny light started to flash in my brain. That naval battle resulted in the Greeks fleeing Corsica and settling elsewhere. Greeks who were captured were taken to Caere and stoned to death. A plague which then broke out at Caere caused them to seek help from the Delphi Oracle, as Caere believed the gods were angered by their violent behavior. The ruler of Caere at that time was a Tefarie Velanias. During my research I came across a theory that perhaps Caere allied their fleet to the Carthaginians in return for their helping to put Velanias on the throne of Caere. Caere is also mentioned in one Roman source as a place the last king fled in exile when he left Rome.

The little light began to stay on longer than off.

Finally, the first treaty between Rome and Carthage (nearly 200 years before the first of three wars between the two city-states,) is given as 509 BC.

So, a naval battle: allied Carthage + and Etruscan navies on one side, Greek fleet on the other, the conquest of Sardinia by Carthage, and the start of the rule of Tarquinius Superbus in Rome, take place all nearly at the same time.

The first of several treaties between Carthage and Rome, and the overthrow of Tarquinius Superbus, take place at the same time.

I had my epiphany.

My story, Redemption and Honor in Rome, thus will begin, not in Rome, but in Caere. My central character is a young woman named Saphina, who lives with her father in Caere. She has watched him sink deeper into fits of madness, without knowing the cause, until he finally dies in violent circumstances. Hints that he had been drawn into and used in some conspiracy which led to his participation in the stoning of the captives at Caere years before, impels Saphina into a journey to redeem his honor. She travels first to Sardinia, meeting Gaius Tarchin, who offers to accompany her out of concern, he claims, for her safety. As Saphina’s desire to trust Gaius grows, she also realizes he carries secrets of his own. Is he really the trustworthy ally she so wants him to be? Or will his mission require him to kill her. The danger erupts in Rome when Saphina must consider that everyone is lying. Perhaps the only honor on which she can truly rely is her own.