Excerpt-Revised-from The Speech of Hortensia

[[This is a slightly revised excerpt of the first 650 or so words of my short story, “The Speech of Hortensia” published in HerStory in 2013. It is set after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, about 16 years before Octavian becomes Augustus, considered the first Emperor of Rome.]]

“We want you with us, Hortensia.”  Marcia Aemilia’s voice suddenly belied her age, as she stared with grave certainty at the younger woman. “We want you to speak for us.”

Speak out to spare the women of Rome from paying this tax this tax?  The Triumvirs – Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus – had created a new order, after Julius Caesar had been slain in the Senate House more than two years. His murderers claimed they acted in the name of Liberty, but Hortensia didn’t feel free. The Rome her father loved and served did not feel free.

Marcus Antonius had turned the city against the assassins, but then the Triumvirs turned Rome into a den of murder for advantage. They had proscribed nearly a thousand names as enemies of the state and many of those men had already died. A few had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time; others had been mistaken for one who was in fact proscribed. If kissed by Fortune, some escaped to the safety of the countryside. Their properties however were always confiscated.

At night now, the streets of Rome were too quiet. No one wanted to be out – not even to stroll in the evening breezes.  Friends no longer visited friends—nobody could be certain any longer whether or not their “friends” would decide to turn them in for personal gain.

For all their efforts, it seemed the Triumvirs had not yet acquired enough wealth for their needs. Their latest scheme had impelled the elderly Marcia Aemilia to pay a call on Hortensia. The Triumvirs demanded each of the 1,400 richest women in Rome pay a specified tax, based on the valuation of their property.

The women intended to object.

Marcia Aemilia’s family was one of the oldest and noblest of Rome. One of Hortensia’s servants had led her into the atrium, where Hortensia invited her to sit and rest. The older woman must have rushed to meet Hortensia, breathing heavily while she sipped a cup of well-watered wine. Patting her grey hairs into place as she eyed Hortensia, Marcia finally said, “They never asked us about our husbands, or sons, or fathers, Hortensia. They never asked us if our men were lost to us, suffering from wounds or illness. They just listed the women they planned to tax. I am listed. So are Caecilia Metella and Cassia Trebonia—so are you.”

Hortensia sat silently, lost in thought.

Marcia spluttered. “Do you intend to stay quiet and simply pay the tax?”

As soon as she had learned of the list’s existence, Hortensia knew her name would appear on it.  Her father, Quintus Hortensius, a great orator and advocate, had been shrewd with money. His caution had ensured that Hortensia lived comfortably and well.

Hortensia had buried her father two years before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. She could still remember listening to his conversations with Cicero, on his occasional visits to her father’s home on the Palatine. Encouraged by her father to participate now and then in those discussions, Hortensia had learned much about rhetoric and logical argument. She used both, acquiring some fame writing speeches about the Republic’s history.

When Cicero was proscribed last year, Hortensia had thanked her ancestors and household gods that her father had not lived to see these days. But then, Quintus’ name had appeared in posthumous absentia on the proscription list. Rumor had it that Octavian had long wanted a house on the Palatine; thus, the Hortenius property had been confiscated.

Hortensia had wept with sorrow when her father died. She had wept again with bitterness when her father’s property had been confiscated. She had been angry too, for the changes in Rome. But a woman of Rome never spoke up, except perhaps in private.  Roman women were not Spartans—they lived in a world dictated solely by the men of their household and government.

When news of the list of 1,400 women had been announced, Hortensia was shocked, and angry. She was also afraid.

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Redemption and Honor in Rome

First Chapters Rough Working Outline:

The year is 511 BC. Saphina Ramuth lives with her father Pharon in the city of Cisra, or Caere. It is an Etruscan city, very near to Rome. At this time Caere is ruled by Tefarie Velianias, and Rome is ruled by King Tarquinius Superbus.

Chapter 1:
Saphina is betrothed, by arrangement, to a wealthy aristocrat of Caere named Aule Venthi. The betrothal was agreed upon by Aule’s family, the ruler of Caere, and her father Pharon. Saphina believes Aule cares for her and believes the attaction she feels toward him is mutual. She is aware however of a certain tension between her father and her betrothed which confuses her. After all, her father had always seemed pleased with, even encouraged, the betrothal.
The tension is exacerbated by Pharon’s increasing tendency toward fits of madness. Occasionally in those fits, Pharon speaks and acts as if he is somewhere else, with other people, including some man he names Drubal. As the madness grows, Saphina begins to believe that her father and Drubal had become enemies, at least in Pharon’s mind.
One evening when Aule is dining at their home, Pharon is struck by a madness fit. He raves about broken bodies, dying men, and calls on revenge. Saphina attempts to calm her father, but he breaks out of her embrace, grabs Aule, and holding a dagger to his throat, demands to know how he can be there, since he died many years ago.

End of Chapter 1.

Chapter 2:
Aule visits Saphina the next morning (they had managed to calm Pharon out of his fit) and assures Saphina he is not angry and that their betrothal is still strong. Aule does suggest that she may no longer be able to care for Pharon on her own. Saphina is unwilling to do that, as her father is all she has. Aule is displeased by that and they argue for a while. Aule manages to allay her distress somewhat, and they part affectionately. The next day, Pharon is busy carving. Saphina visits with a neighbor, Aris, and she and Saphina discuss Pharon and his past. Aris agrees with Pharon spending time at the healing sanctuary and reminds Saphina she will soon be married and Pharon would be on his own. Saphina returns home to find her father singing happily and they share a lovely mid-day meal. Pharon teases her to go buy herself a new tunic-something lovely-to wear. In the market Saphina learns of upheavals in nearby Rome which may have impact on Caere and neighboring cities. She also learns that the city of Carthage has been sending ambassadors to many coastal cities to arrange trade agreements. Not all these embassies have been successful. When a tumult occurs in the market, as some merchants from the northwestern island of Sardu engage in a brawl with Italian merchants, Saphina speaks up to resolve the confrontation. Later that evening she has a visit from Velianas, the ruler of Caere and, she has always believed, a good friend to her father. Velianas discloses something about her father’s past that she refuses to believe, but when she remembers something Aule had also said, Saphina senses that Velianias is in fact hiding something from her father’s past more terrible than he has said. Saphina finds it difficult to sleep that on, her mind churning.

End of Chapter 2.

Chapter 3:
The wife of Velianas has arranged a dinner to celebrate the coming wedding between Saphina and Aule. While visiting the healing sanctuary near the port to discuss her father’s illness, Saphina meets an old soldier who tells her a story of war captives stoned in vengeance and anger, and a curse from the gods. Saphina learns that her father had been part of the army in that war, something of which he had never told her. Now believing simply that Pharon’s old nightmares and his recent madness may have been caused simply by memories of that time, Saphina feels confident that his peace of mind can be quickly returned to him. Seeing one of Aule’s servants, Saphina asks if he is nearby so she can speak with him. She learns Aule has gone to her home to speak with Pharon. She is delighted, hoping the two men will have a good chance to get to know each other better, she hurries home. Unfortunately, tragedy has struck. An accident caused a neighbor to be buried under rocks. Seeing the man’s broken body has driven Pharon so deeply into madness that he stabs Aule, killing him, then turns the knife on himself and he dies just as Saphina reaches him.

End of Chapter 3.

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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.

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Last One Out – original flash fiction

Last One Out, Turn off the Lights by Marie A Parsons

The launches were slowing down now, as she knew they would. Exciting as the prospect of colonizing a new world was, surely leaving Earth was bittersweet. The human race had done it, contrary to myth, superstition, esoteric texts, odd certainties, and ancient sages. It had taken more than a millennium to achieve. But after several “armageddons” and “ends-of-world” that never happened, and after the ‘Net had strengthened and deepened human connection, human beings realized their next great stride was out to the stars. Collectively, with one voice, humanity decided it was time to head out into the stars. All those earth-like planets to start anew…

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