Ashes Books I, II, and III

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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.

SYNOPSES

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.

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Lady Grace’s Revels

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Lady Grace’s Revels came to me in a dream. I seldom remember dreams, but this one persisted, uncanny, clear, and haunting. Almost a nightmare. I have no idea what caused it. I was not reading Shakespeare at the time, nor watching swordfight movies. I may have been angry at bullies. But I usually am. The idea of dueling viewpoints came while I was writing it. One just wasn’t enough. I intended no Rashomon, however. I am too stolid, too literal, to believe that, like Athena from Zeus’s, the entirety of existence exudes from one’s sweaty little forehead. Each re-telling in this case simply lifts another veil.

I am in fact such a literalist, I have this obsession with diction. I always find it disconcerting when some ancient Babylonian talks modern American slang. My obsession is, of course, absurd. If I wrote dialogue in ancient Babylonian, no-one could or would read it. Un-modern English is a little more plausible, but not much. I once attempted and never finished a short story about Geoffrey Chaucer serving lunch to his friends John Gower and Ralph Strode, in his mansion in the walls of London above the Aldgate, a story in which the dialogue is in Middle English. In the climax they bore each other to sleep. I guess it was just as well I never finished it. It uses phrases like suppositio materialis.

Did I learn my lesson? Do you teach the leopard to learn new tricks? Can an old dog change his spots? I just couldn’t write Lady Grace’s Revels without trying my darndest to Elizabethanize the dialogue. Obsessions don’t break easy. (Naturally, the theme of obsession had to worm its way into the story.) I spent a long, hot summer typing away at my ancient, huge, white plastic computer on its wobbly table in the corner of my garret, with its DOS screen and where you had to hit the space bar three times and back-space once to get a regular space. All through that summer, to the echoing tarantara of gun-club fire echoing off the green mountain framed so picturesquely by my little window, I checked and re-checked and triple-checked every word and phrase and usage of the dialogue, and, as far as I can tell, the result is stringently idiomatic Elizabethan. Early Modern English, as they call it in the schoolroom.

It may sound a difficult task, but I had a great time of it. It was sort of like putting together a puzzle. And patience will reward the assiduous reader with a whole raft of jokes I stuck in amongst the orotund pronunciamenti and the rolling periods.

I have also added one other little piece of rigor to the dialogue of one particular character, which rigor I invite the kind reader to suss out, if the spirit so moves.

The poem, by the way, is supposed to be funny. I look at the thing now and I just shake my head in amazement. What is that? Where did that come from? Yikes.

SYNOPSIS

“One of Lady Grace’s guests describes the play he is writing as, ‘a thing completely new, a thing never seen before, at once comedy, tragedy, history, romance,’ and this captures the tongue-in-cheek approach of Lady Grace’s Revels. The ‘period’ language in which the disastrous events are narrated is extravagant and frequently very funny. An entertaining winner.”
—Ruth Downie, Acclaimed New York Times Bestseller List Author of Vita Brevis, the latest installment in the Medicus series of novels about a reluctant detective in ancient Roman Britain.

It is Michaelmas in rural Renaissance England, and Thomas Smith and William Philpott, scriveners, cannot believe their luck. They have been invited to revels at the manor house of Lady Grace Atwater, Countess of Burnham. There will be food, drink, dancing, and gracious company culled from a diverse assortment of county society. Thomas has even written a poem for the occasion. All goes well until a certain Sir John, a master swordsman out to better himself by whatever means, makes an entrance. Soon, all is not well, and a cascade of revelations lays open the decadent underside of the glamourous aristocratic life.

Five Moral Tales

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The inspiration for the title to this collection of tales was Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. (I recommend it.) Any other similarities between the two books are purely fortuitous.

Ruth Downie, author of the ancient Roman Medicus detective series, wrote this about Five Moral Tales. “A fine collection of tales: shrewdly observed, witty, eloquent, dark, and different.” I never thought myself “shrewd,” exactly, but, when they insist, how can one demur?

I am not sure exactly why I chose to call them “moral” tales. Each tale poses moral questions. But most tales do. I suspect morality plays figure in there somewhere. In retrospect, the unifying thread seems to be less about morality per se, and more about the warping of morality, its misdirection, its misapplication, its being turned inside-out.

“Cena with Tata”

The title of this tale, “Cena with Tata”, means “Dinner with Daddy” in Latin. This was my first ancient Roman tale. It is set in a time, some historians suggest, on the brink of the change from the ancient system of “mores,” when to do right was simply to correctly propitiate the gods, to the subsequent system of a personal morality governed by conscience. I think Julius Caesar’s notorious and unconventional penchant for clemency reflects this transition, although some have argued the opposite—that all it reflects is an ingeniously nefarious way of protracting the humiliation of enemies.

Although most descriptions of Roman villas say that dining facilities were downstairs, I imagine a separate upstairs dining room for the children of the household. Urban villas needed to be more compact than rural villas, and so it seems likely that, as in any congested city, advantage was taken of vertical real estate. The meanings usually given for the Latin word “cenaculum” (a word derived from the Latin word for dinner, “cena”)—”dining room,” “attic,” “apartment”—reinforce the idea of the existence of upstairs dining rooms, and they are not un-attested in the literature. The jury is out as to whether or not children ate separately. Suggesting to me that some children did and some didn’t, and I surmise that, the higher the class, the less promiscuous (in the sense of “indiscriminately mingling”) the dining. Despite the evidence of movies, it is generally held that most ancient Roman meals were not taken lying down, but seated at a table, as in modern European culture. Couches were for formal dinners, parties, banquets, feasts. Children in particular did not lie down. There is an argument, however, about the size of dining tables. Relics from Pompeii suggest that, when sitting up, people ate from small, individual “TV tables.” On the other hand, the Romans are known to have used tables much more often than other contemporaneous cultures, and there is plentiful evidence for Roman tables of all sizes, shapes, and materials. And so I don’t think my depiction of children eating dinner seated around one big table in an upstairs room in an urban domus too far a leap beyond likelihood.

Ancient Roman slaves, women, children, and clients did not, it seems, despite the evidence of movies, directly address masters and mistresses of households as “Dominus,” and “Domina.” “Dominus” and “Domina,” I understand, were legalistic terms, much more common in writing than in speaking. Master and mistress were called (in the vocative case) “Ere” and “Era.” I have used the latter terms in “Cena with Tata”. Too much Plautus, I guess. Makes you want to use the idioms.

Alright. I surrender. This class in “What Writers Obsess About and Readers Seldom Notice 101” is dismissed.

“Cena with Tata” is about a strong daughter and a weak father, civil war and its aftermath, downward and upward mobility, conformity and individualism, submission and domination, severity and clemency. And dessert for dinner!

“Hunger and Thirst”

I once attended a lecture by the prolific and thoughtful author, John Barth. He spent much of his allotted hour fulminating over censorship (no doubt because his works are signally obscene). I raised my hand in the question-and-answer session.

“Do you really mean completely free freedom of speech?” I asked. “Because I’ve seen some things . . .” and I shook my head lugubriously.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said, conceding the truth of my question.

I once went to see an independent film. I don’t want to dignify it by mentioning its name. It was very successful, though, and is still influential, frighteningly so. At that time so long ago, I had a positive view of independent films. They meant Francois Truffaut, John Cassavetes. Interesting. Different. Ground-breaking. Counter-cultural. This one was different alright. Vile exploitation by the cartload, lowest-common-denominator chain-yanking, sneering, adolescent nihilism, disgusting, manipulative obscenity. Worse yet, I wanted to leave, but at that time in my life, I had this attitude, a poor man’s attitude: whatever it is, if I paid for it, I’m eating it, using it up till it’s gone, staying to the bitter end. That movie disabused me of that attitude. Now I’ll walk out the first minute if I don’t like the credits. Admission charge notwithstanding.

I don’t think the framers of the Constitution meant to protect pictures of people eating people’s brains when they framed the First Amendment. People say things like “just turn it off if you don’t like it.” But it gets sprung on you when you least expect it, and you better be a quickdraw on the remote or else there you are, looking at brain-eating again.

So let this my tale be my free-speech revenge.

“The Worst Day of My Life”

There was torture in the air at the time of this tale’s writing. All my life, torture was what enemies did. My people did not go in for such things. Light unto the world, city on the hill, as it were, and all that. Suddenly, torture was alright. Good, in fact. Moral. Heroic.

So I took that ball and chain and ran with it.

I have always been enamored of Renaissance France, or the idea of it: The Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, François Villon. It seems so cheerily depraved.

To my Renaissance France, as to many others’, vestiges of the pre-moral cling, Christian as may be the milieu. That concentration on form. That personal insularity. I am reminded of that film, La Reine Margot, with its atmosphere of almost Stone-Age, almost child-like visceralness, of regal, sanctified formality enveloped in conscience-less animal impulse.

“The Worst Day of My Life” is not only about torture, though. It is also about how people, because it is normal, conventional, accepted, become inured and then blind to what is right in front of their noses, and then scream bloody murder over trifles.

“Misericord”

The word “misericord” is derived from the Latin word, misericordia, “mercy.” It has a number of meanings in English.

Mercy killing is not an unalloyed good. The commonsensical believe it is. Most people believe it is. When I was young, under the sway of that down-to-earth, face-the-facts, let’s-be-realistic persona young people are apt to try on before the real facts, like how tenuous facts can be, sink in, when I was young, I say (Oh, Belvedere!), I believed mercy killing an unalloyed good. Now I don’t. The thing about mercy killing is, just like torture, just like capital punishment, people imagine a scenario. One scenario, and only one. For torture it’s the ticking time-bomb. For capital punishment, punishing the guilty. For mercy killing, a coma and tubes. What people don’t realize is, there are other scenarii. There are never ticking time-bombs. Sometimes the innocent get punished. And sometimes people who thought, when healthy, that, in dire straits, they would want to die, change their minds. Or they acquiesce to save loved ones money. Or they get railroaded. Or worse.

Mercy killing is not the only theme in “Misericord”, though. It is also about how, as Proust laments, “It is always thus, impelled by a state of mind which is destined not to last, that we make our irrevocable decisions.”

“Found in a Cave”

When I lived in San Francisco, every once in a while there would be these massive Bay-wide rush-hour traffic tie-ups whenever there was a chemical spill or something of that ilk on one of the several bridges. Clog one bridge and clog them all. I think my memory of this and other such calamities was the initial spark for the post-apocalypticism of “Found in a Cave.”

I changed the eating establishment from Original Joe’s to John’s Grill because Original Joe’s burned down and then they rebuilt it far from the Tenderloin. John’s is more classic, of course. Dashiell Hammett and whatnot. But Original Joe’s was its own kind of sui generis. Oh, how I do miss bellying up to the counter with the other cab drivers at one in the morning (to get dinner before the last-call two-o’clock rush), watching the mustachioed Mexican grill chef in his Chef Boyardee hat (nobody but the owner was Italian in this Italian restaurant) as he spatulaed chopped onions into a three-quarter pound cuboid of choice ground beef and levered it into the mouth of a roaring charcoal grill, or the Chinese sauté chef as he tossed a mess of chicken liver and mushrooms or a Joe’s Special (what appeared to be several pounds of spinach, onions, beef, mushrooms and scrambled eggs) halfway to the ceiling. Oh, to have lived in the Tenderloin before the bridges were built. They say the city changed thereafter. The isolation gave it some kind of aura I would that I knew. My Tenderloin was the kind of place where some madman would pull out a gun on the street and a mob of criminals would chase him down and beat him to a pulp. I think that part is maybe endemic.

I had to stifle my urge to put paper mills in Eureka. To be up-to-date, Eureka-style, de rigeur are ruins, not mills. As with everywhere else in the United States.

I also know summat of the High Sierra. Way back in the wilderness up there abides an idyllic sylvan redoubt much like the one our survivalist Swiss Family Robinson appropriates. Unless it’s a bank now. Or a pharmacy. Maybe I should have stuck in there somewhere the time when, blithely bounding about, I almost stomped on a rattlesnake. A natural-born woodsman I would that I were.

Never Explain

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William S. Burroughs says “Never Explain.” But William S. Burroughs had a publisher to do his explaining for him. I am my own publisher. I must, perforce, do my own explaining. Moreover, William S. Burroughs was an heir to the Burroughs Corporation fortune. He could afford to make up artsy rules. I am heir of nothin’. So I explain. Or chat. Or maunder. Call it as you see it, herewith: explanation.

Links for purchasing books I am maundering about can be found by scrolling down the right sidebar.