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.