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A book I found in a thrift shop, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome, by Michael Parenti, inspired Ashes. Parenti’s thesis is that historians tend to favor the optimates of ancient Rome, the rich, the powerful, the ones we know from the history books, and denigrate the anonymous, “panem e circenses” rabble, the lowly mob. In like manner, they also denigrate those who would better the lives of this lowly mob, the Gracchi, Saturninus, and especially Julius Caesar. These men are all “demagogues,” consensus historical opinion would have it, according to Parenti. And Julius Caesar fares worse: he is a “dictator,” horror of horrors. Parenti’s book is a necessary corrective to this consensus opinion. In short, it denigrates the optimates, favors the rabble, and lauds Julius Caesar’s efforts to better their lot. When I read criticism of Parenti’s work, I am reminded of criticism of Oliver Stone’s JFK. There are hundreds, even thousands of allegations made and implied in these two works. Critics pull rank (“Parenti is not a professional classicist and I am”), draw two or three allegations into question, dust off their hands, and declare all refuted.
Most fiction set in ancient Rome takes a similar tack to that of the consensus historians. It tends to be about historical personages of the upper classes and their hangers-on. Unsurprisingly, in view of the fact that ancient Roman historians, Suetonius, Tacitus, et al, only wrote about the upper classes. For information about the lower classes, we are stuck with hints excavated from ancient Roman literature, from satirists like Juvenal and Martial especially, and from archeology. A much harder row to hoe.
There are exceptions. Ruth Downie’s Medicus series took five books to introduce the emperor into its primarily lower-class milieu of physicians, soldiers, provincials, and barbarians. The Coin of Carthage, a novel written, surprisingly, by a very aristocratic Lost Generation Englishwoman, Winifred Bryher, tells of the Second Punic War from the viewpoint of commoners: farmers, merchant seamen, soldiers.
Taking a cue from Parenti, I resolved to go further. To write a book about slaves and proletarii in ancient Rome. A book about people who are so busy living their lives that they don’t even know what the upper classes are doing. Julius Caesar does make an appearance in one of the books. But our characters do not know who he is, they have more important things to do, anyway, and the reader will have to stay alert to catch him. This scene of insouciance was in fact the very first scene I imagined, and could be said to be the scene around which Ashes is built.
I use a lot of Latinate words. A certain Latinity of language is traditional in historical fiction about ancient Rome. Not surprisingly, given that the language of Rome was Latin. Thus, the diction of novels like Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Wilder’s The Ides of March, Williams’s Augustus, and Graves’s I, Claudius is quite formal, Latinate, literary. A relatively recent one, Burton’s Caesar’s Daughter, is, I think, to my surprise even more formal and Latinate than these older books. Or consider Ben Hur—the book unquestionably (Jesus’s words are direct quotations from the King James Bible), but the 1959 movie, too, goes in for this traditional elevation of language.
You would expect the language of a relatively modern TV series like Rome to be colloquial as all get out. But, no, depending on the episode, the dialogue can be as formal as Ben Hur and then some. Illiterate soldiers can sound like perorating Ciceros. Since the screen-writers themselves are not, as a rule, all that, uh, scholarly, let us say, the results can be quite, uh, grammatically delightful, as when Caesar asserts, “It is only I that offers mercy,” or when Atia refers to a single “congery” (hard g) of party-goers (like some movie reviewer rating movies according to the formula one kudo, two kudos, etc.)
The problem with all this Latinate English, of course, is that, in English, the Latinate words tend to be the formal words, thanks to two historical convulsions: the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Conquest. In Latin, on the other hand, all the words are already in Latin! (Not precisely true: there is a stratum of formal and literary Greek in Latin almost comparable to the stratum of Latin in English, though not as extensive.) It is an insoluble conundrum. Write in modern colloquial English and risk making your ancient Romans sound like street-corner hipsters. Write in a Latinate, literary style and risk making soldiers sound like Cicero. I have opted for the Latinate path. Not the moderate, modulated path of the aforementioned books, however. I have chosen the path of excess. I have tried to infuse Latin into everything. Not only do I use Latinate English. I also eschew contractions. Which in itself creates a literary tone. Moreover, rather than throw in the odd “per di” here and there for local color, as is the practice in most ancient Roman fictions, I use untranslated Latin words and translated Latin idioms by the plaustrum-load. I trust that their meaning will be clear enough in context. If not, there is an extensive glossary. And if this barrage of strange words adds to the strangeness of the reading experience, this is exactly what I intend. I want to emphasize difference. I want to take the reader into strange, overwhelming, intensely alien territory—which is the way in the final analysis I see ancient Rome, despite its many affinities with the now.
I use a particularly literary English for the dialogue in the first section of Book I, set in the Umbrian mountains, because I mean it to have the effect of an idyll, a dream-world of perfect freedom and self-sufficiency. I have been up that winding road beyond Fons Clitumni, seen that sun-drenched, south-facing mountainside field, eaten the mountain fare, quaffed the country wine, heard those night-roosting birds, and can attest it is just the place for an idyll.
As the story moves on, from idyllic mountainside to mean streets, I start to add colloquial Romanisms. For instance, the Latin cognate for “to scold” would be ‘”objurgate” in English. Investigations into Vulgar Latin, however, have revealed to me that ancient Romans used the idiom “to howl” in the same way modern English speakers use “to bitch.” (Surprised at examples like this of how similar ancient Roman and modern concepts can be, no sooner do I turn the page than I am confronted with the abject terror with which Roman writers, usually so unexpurgated, approach the concept of the landica, then I read Catullus 63, and I know I am still in a very strange land.) By Book III, dialogue has devolved to incoherent monosyllables.
I also eschewed fancy plotting. A story of down-to-earth, everyday people, it seemed to me, called for a down-to-earth, everyday plot. The long arc of the life of a family, through the years, lived day by day, in chronological order. Irony and surprise must needs arise naturally out of the train of events.
That is, the plot stays simple up until the second part of Book III, where beginneth my own version of an “embolium,” a short, comic play or performance inserted between acts of a longer play in ancient Roman theater. There is little concrete known about embolia. No descriptions of or scenarios for embolia survive. Apparently, a single performer danced and sang and acted out a lewd, comic story. Embolia were famously lewd. Unlike other drama, no masks were worn, and the performers were often women. My embolium follows almost none of these conventions except that it is comic and lewd. It erupted directly out of too much reading of Plautus and Terence. It owes little to Plautus and Terence, either, except for the comedy and the lewdness.
But in keeping with the idea of embolia as a kind of musical comedy, my embolium does incorporate two poems, poems written in meters that English-speaking poets have decided approximates the feel of the Roman originals (although of course, ancient Roman poetry doesn’t rhyme much, and mine rhymes up a storm). I seem to have a demon in me that compels me to insert mad, excessive, absurd poems into the flow of my narrative. Ah, well. Ita vita.
I plan to write three more books in the series. I will eventually do it on my own. But encouragement from my readers will greatly speed the plow.
Ashes Book I
It is ancient, late-Republican Rome, and, denied the freedom he was promised, successful merchant-slave, Ariston, sets fire to his master’s Palatine villa, rescues a slave-girl, Felicia, from crucifixion, and both escape to the distant Umbrian mountains where they marry and raise a family, setting in play an odyssey that spans generations, an odyssey that leads from the cruel streets of the slums of Rome to chariot races in the Circus Maximus, from bloody, no-holds-barred street boxing to the pursuit of fugitive slaves across the length and breadth of Italia, from the great landed estates of the Roman countryside to the law courts of the Roman Forum.
Ashes Book II
P. Silvius Priscus Niger, the most gentle of slave-owners, hires slave-catchers Aries and Syriaticus to return to him his beloved escaped Carthaginian slaves, Endymion (Carthaginian name, Melqart), Adonis (Carthaginian name, Aqbar), and Narcissus (Carthaginian name, Adonibaal). The chase leads from the Carthaginian quarter of Surrentum to the luxuries of Pompeii, south, down the Roman road, the Via Popilia, to the Valley of Diana, to mountainous Bruttium, to the wheat fields and olive groves of Sicilia, to volcanic Mt. Aetna, in the course of which, the slave-catchers ignite a war between Roman legionary settlers and native Lucanian farmers, are outwitted by back-country outlaws, attacked by mobs of angry slaves, and nearly clubbed to death by an angry gladiator. But Aries and Syriaticus are relentless. They anticipate a rich reward.
Ashes Book III
Ancient Roman slave-catcher, Aries, returns from a long pursuit to find that his anticipated reward has disappeared, his father, Titus Pomponius Basso, successful chariot-horse trainer in the Circus Maximus, has been falsely convicted of witchcraft and sold into slavery on a landed Etrurian estate, and his grandmother, Felicia, has gone into hiding in an attic deep in the slums of Rome, vowing to devote her life to the cause of the liberation of all who languish in chains. Rescue and vengeance, however, Aries finds, carry a price—learning the truth about his family’s origins.
In a comic interlude, an obsessed physician causes himself immense trouble trying to raise the money to buy and ravish a slave-girl. The slave-girl’s beloved, a female gladiator, struggles mightily to thwart him.