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?
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.