I have access to the OED and I’m not afraid to use it

The thing about writing historical novels is that you have to be really careful about your diction. Word choice matters a lot — you don’t want to choose words that are too obviously modern or that refer to concepts that would have been alien to your characters. I often find myself running into walls where medical and technological terms are concerned, even if they’re only used metaphorically.  You can’t have your Tudor-era heroine say, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” the way a modern heroine could, since the term “heart attack” doesn’t come into use until 1836. Other problems might involve geographical details. A Roman novel I read recently had Mark Antony referring to pumpkins — a squash only found in the New World. Apart from just plain being inaccurate, those slip-ups can jerk a reader out of the world of the narrative, and we never want that.

The situation’s more complicated when you’re not writing in the language your characters speak — especially when your characters speak, say, Latin. How do you translate linguistic intent out of a dead language? How to make dialogue sound colloquial without crossing that threshold of modernity? What to do about metaphors? All well and good for Shakespeare to have Cassius referring to the clock striking three, but you can’t get away with that sort of slipshod work in today’s industry of fiction. It’s particularly hard when it comes to idiomatic speech. If the word itself didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, because the language didn’t — could the concept for those words exist? Yesterday, for instance, I realized I had a character referring to needing an outlet for her energy — and it gave me pause. Did the word “outlet” pre-date electricity? Oh dear.

outletOEDThe OED is one of my best friends. I love that, since I work for an institution affiliated with a college, I retain my access to its wonderful online compendium. It means that it only takes me a few clicks to verify that, yes, the word “outlet” is older than electricity, and its original usage refers to the movement of water. (If I’d thought about it for a few minutes, I probably would’ve realized that on my own, but… this way I get to use the OED!) The word dates to the 13th century as a noun, all the way back to Old English as a verb, and comes to us via Dutch, but its concept is certainly something the Romans would’ve had familiarity with. Admittedly, the emotional sense of the word didn’t come in to English until the mid-17th century, but I think the metaphor translates reasonably well for my purposes. (Latona’s own word for it, incidentally, probably would’ve been emissarium, or else egressus, exitus, or even porta, the gate — though if she were speaking literally of a water-channel rather than figuratively of her emotions, it would’ve been effluvium).

Something I once looked up for another project was “automatic”. Initially, I thought this might date only about to the time of clockwork — but  no! Both the Greeks and Romans had the concept of the automaton! The root words refer more to plants, strangely enough, with more of a sense of “spontaneous, happening by itself” than the more mechanical connotation we give it today — though when you look at things like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s certainly plausible that, at some point in time, at least in some parts of Greece, they might’ve had the concept in the mechanical sense as well.

Words are fantastic. I’m so happy I have access to a resource that lets me in on their secrets.

Inspiration, Research

Figures in History: Hortensia the Orator

Coolest new thing I learned today: So in 42 BCE, the Second Triumvirate found itself in need of a lot of cash. They did the usual thing, proscribing their enemies. Proscribing, for those who don’t know, meant murdering them and confiscating their estates as forfeit to the state — or, for the ones they felt more tenderly towards, driving them into exile and then stealing their stuff. But they then also did something entirely unprecedented: they levied an exorbitant tax on all women who controlled their own estates in suo iure, demanding a full year’s income from them.

And this pissed off a lot of ladies.

One of them, Hortensia, was the daughter of a famous orator, and she decided to put her heritage and her education to good use. First she appealed to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia for help — but Fulvia, who had been exempted from the tax, basically laughed in her face. So, with a tribe of other aggrieved women (possibly including Caesar’s widow Calpurnia), Hortensia stormed the rostra in the Roman Forum — thus occupying a decidedly male space — and proceeded to give a pretty bad-ass speech.

Appian renders her speech thusly (translation found here):

‘As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewellery, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!’

If that was anything like her actual speech, then yeah, her rhetoric kicked ass, especially by first-century-BCE Roman standards. Romans loved them some tricolon and erotema. And here’s what Valerius Maximus has to say about her:

Hortensia vero Q. Hortensi filia, cum ordo matronarum gravi tributo a triumviris esset oneratus nec quisquam virorum patrocinium eis accommodare auderet, causam feminarum apud triumviros et constanter et feliciter egit: repraesentata enim patris facundia, impetravit ut maior pars imperatae pecuniae his remitteretur. revixit tum muliebri stirpe Q. Hortensius verbisque filiae aspiravit.

Hortensia, the only daughter of Quintus Hortensius, together with a league of matrons, felt the burden of the heavy tribute demanded by the triumvirs, but when she could dare no men to lend protection to them, she pled the case of the women against the triumvirs steadily and successfully: for exhibiting the eloquence of her father, she obtained that the greater part of the money should be remitted; thus were the words of Quintus Hortensius revived in his feminine offspring, breathing in his daughter.

(And, dude, I did that translation myself because there is no translation of Valerius Maximus’s Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is a damn shame if it’s full of gems like this. And I did it with only a little help from a dictionary — so if it’s a little wiggly, blame my out-of-practice skills; it’s been a long time since I had to remember what to do with all those ablatives).

So basically Hortensia was a badass who stood up to three guys who were blatantly murdering a few hundred people at the time and told them to stuff it. No taxation without representation, she said — and while we should not construe this as a demand for female enfranchisement, she did bring up the very good point that the citizenship of Roman women was not subject to either the same burdens or the same privileges as male citizenship. When the triumvirs tried to send in people to remove her and the other women from the forum, they flat-out refused to go. And the triumvirs blinked. They drastically reduced the number of women who were subject to the tax, and then utterly failed to enforce it.

Yeah. Definitely filing her away for future use.


The (Awesome and Fascinating) Complexities of Roman Society

I love how bewilderingly complex Roman society was. Western culture has a habit of thinking of status in a very feudalistic way, even centuries after feudalism itself failed. (I’m not sure why this is, but I’d love for some sociologist to explain why we remain cultural inheritors in this way). We think in percentages and fairly clearly delineated strata. Lower class, lower middle, middle, upper middle, upper. Social class, economic class, and political power remain tightly linked together in our mental constructs, and there’s a tendency to project that backwards onto other eras, but the reality for the Romans was a much weirder system.

Like, there are patricians and plebeians, right? The patricians were the oldest families of consequence, those who had (at least supposedly) formed the original Senate, and the plebeians were everybody else. Except by the late Republic, the distinction was not just wealthy/poor, or even aristocrat/proletariat, thanks to all the other factors in the rest of this post. Initially the groups could not intermarry, but that changed in 445 BC. And by the mid to late Republic, lots of the plebeians were fabulously wealthy — even moreso than a lot of the patricians. And a plebeian could be considered “noble” if a member of the family attained high enough rank, thus ennobling all subsequent generations of the family. All patricians were nobles, but not all nobles were patricians.

Then you have the Orders, the census ranking: senatorial, equestrian, the Five Classes, and the Head Count. Designation of senator and equestrian depended entirely on income and net worth. Technically, senators were supposed to have their wealth derive exclusively from land, not from commercial ventures; the line between the two could be very, very thin, and senators were always finding ways to get around the restriction. The Head Count down at the bottom were those with no property worth assessing. Initially they could not serve in the legions, but the Marian reforms changed that, offering the poorest citizens a substantial chance for bettering themselves. All of the Orders were fluid; loss or gain of wealth could move you from one category into another, if you had a censor willing to either hear you out or overlook debts, and a Senate willing to accept new members to the rolls.Cursus Honorum

Then you have the cursus honorum (diagram from, which I modified for Julius Caesar dramaturgy packet, at right). You had to be of senatorial rank to enter (though you weren’t automatically in the Senate just because you were of senatorial rank). If you’re a patrician, this means: military service (as tribune if you can manage it) < quaestor (the rank which conferred membership in the Senate) < aedile < praetor < consul < censor. If you’re a plebeian, you also have the option of serving as tribune of the plebs, a sacrosanct office with veto power. Each office had a minimum age, which after Sulla was two years less for patricians than for plebeians.

Then there’s the military ranking, which is another matter entirely, which can intertwine and intersect with the cursus honorum or remain entirely apart from it. Legionary < decanus < decurio < tesserarius < optio < centurion < primus pilus < junior tribune < prefect < senior tribune < legate. The legate might or might not be a senator, a praetor, a propraetor, or a proconsul. Or, you might have a legate and then also have a praetor, propraetor, consul, or proconsul placed above him, depending on the campaign and how many legions were in a province. And then there were also special ranks, like aquilifer or cornicen, and the auxilaries, who fit in sort of sideways. Philip Matyszak’s Legionary is a great source for all of this.

Then there are the religious orders. Some offices could only be held by plebs. Some offices could only be held by patricians. Some colleges had to have a half-and-half composition. Some positions were elected, some appointed, some bought.

Then there are the Tribes, to which every Roman citizen belonged and which were the basis for voting — except that the patricians and wealthy citizens were all in the more numerous but smaller “rural” Tribes (not actually dependent on where you live, though, but rather where your ancestors were supposed to have hailed from), whereas the poorer citizens and all freedmen got shunted into the few urban Tribes. Since votes went by Tribe, not by individual, that means an individual’s vote meant a lot more in a smaller rural tribe than a large urban one, and that the rural tribes could easily defeat the larger ones in a vote. RomanConstitution

Then there are the four different voting bodies: the Senate, the Century Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Plebeian Council. Certain offices or laws could only be elected by certain voting bodies, which overlapped, and a man could belong to more than one voting body simultaneously. The diagram at the right, which I found on Wikimedia Commons, is really the only thing I’ve ever seen that somewhat makes sense of that.

Then there are the relationships of patron and client; and, if you were not of the highest rank, you might be patron to some men but also client to someone more powerful than yourself.

And then there’s citizenship, the rights of which with regard to voting, taxation, and property were different for Romans, Latins, foreign-born, and provincials.

And then there are the slaves, who were considered property, who could be manumitted, who could buy their freedom, who could be beaten or killed (though it reflected poorly on the master), who could be used sexually, who could be sold away. But they were allowed to earn wages and to hold property. Some even had slaves of their own! They were recognized as people, though not under the same legal definition as Roman citizens were people; some philosophers early on debated whether or not they really had souls in the same way citizens had souls, but that sort of seems to be all pontificating, and the idea disappears by the late Republic. And there was a hierarchy among them, deriving largely from country of origin and method of being enslaved: educated Greeks who sold themselves for the chance of a better life in Rome ranked above slaves taken as prisoners in battle, but Romans didn’t scruple to make use of intelligent and capable of slaves of any ethnic background. And once manumitted, they became citizens. The men were enrolled in a Tribe (usually one of the larger urban Tribes) as clients of their former masters and could vote. Their children were natural Roman citizens like any other.

And then there are the Roman virtues, which are entirely intangible and almost untranslatable, but which were nonetheless quantifiable for the Romans and which affected a man’s ability to effect his will on others. Things like dignitas and auctoritas were so much more than their English derivates of dignity and authority, despite being nebulous and a very difficult thing for us to wrap our heads around.

So, you could be a plebeian of senatorial rank who held an augurship and had also gone through the cursus honorum, been tribune of the plebs, and eventually become consul.

You could be a patrician whose income fell out of senatorial rank because you were in too much debt or lost your sources of revenue. You wouldn’t necessarily lose your rank when this happened, but if the censors in office were sticklers for detail — or your political enemies — it was a possibility. If this troubled you, you could get yourself adopted by a plebeian family with a lot of wealth, if you had something substantial to offer in return (sufficient auctoritas, powerful allies, a daughter to marry off, etc). Or, if you were still a wealthy patrician but wanted to serve as a tribune of the plebs instead of spending all your money in an aedileship, you could pay a plebeian family to adopt you.

You could be an ordinary pleb of Head Count who nonetheless rose through the ranks of the legions enough to win a high enough military honor, or even serve as consul, thus making your family noble (but not patrician or senatorial).

You could be a woman of any class, and thus hold no office, but you were still considered a citizen, even though you couldn’t vote, and your son’s citizenship depended on your status, not the father’s. Officially you had no political power whatsoever. Unofficially you could wield quite a lot. Depending on the type of marriage you entered into, you could retain a lot of financial freedom as well. You could hold property, including land, write your will, testify in court, even deliver oratory on behalf of yourself or another. And if your husband, father, or other male responsible for you wasn’t too strict (or too observant), you could actually enjoy quite a bit of sexual freedom as well (as Roman authors were always lamenting).

You could be a slave who was manumitted, becoming your former master’s client and joining either his tribe or an urban tribe, probably still a member of the Head Count (unless he settled some property on you, not unheard-of), eligible to vote in the Tribal Assembly and Plebeian Council. And if you gained enough wealth, your sons might get to belong to a higher class and earn higher rank, or they could go into the legions and earn fame and power there.

You could be a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a praetor who was also a patrician. Or a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a proconsul who was also a plebeian.

(Or you could be Julius Caesar, a patrician from an ancient but somewhat fallen family who literally did everything. Except be tribune of the plebs, for which he had Mark Antony.)

So, seriously, how is this not great?

(Yes; I do realise that I am not normal).


Reading: WPA Slave Narratives Collection

Okay, so one of the things about The Antares Project is that, as it’s an alternate universe, there are some key changes to the world’s social and economic structures that I’m having to take some time to think through, research, and plan out. One of those is that, with the American South coming back under control of the British Empire in 1815 (as the Dominion of American States), slavery then ends with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, the same that ended slavery in the West Indies, South Africa, and Canada.

But what does that do? What does it mean for the shape of that nation? Emancipation thirty years earlier than we had it affects a lot — what are the job prospects for the ex-slaves? (Especially since I’m introducing things like automatons as a new technology taking over a lot of manual labor). Do they stay in their home counties or move elsewhere? Do any re-patriate to Africa? (By the 1860s, almost all slaves had been born in America, possibly for a couple of generations — but in 1833, with the trans-Atlantic trade having shut down only 25 years earlier, some native to Africa might well still be alive and want to return home — but then how would they be able to get there? Would the abolitionist movement have provided for them in that respect?). And then of course my story takes place in the 1870s, so we’re then two generations on from emancipation — so some ex-slaves are still alive and around, but many black Americans had no personal experience of the institution. What are they doing? What place do they occupy, economically and socially? How is it similar to or different from the way the lives of black Americans and the way race relations evolved in our own history?

To try and get a feel for it (with an awareness that, as a white girl, this is ground where I need to tread carefully and educate myself as thoroughly as possible), I’ve been reading through the WPA Slave Narratives Collection — all freely available on gutenberg. It’s fascinating stuff — narratives taken in the late 1930s from some of the last people alive who were born into Southern American slavery, and thus some of the only records of that we have from ex-slaves in their own voices. Now, as a historian, I know to still be careful — the accounts were, after all, recorded by white folks, so we cannot assume a total absence of bias, and of course these are all things being remembered 70 years later, by people who are well advanced in years (I think the youngest I’ve read was 78, the oldest something like 105) — but it’s still fascinating. For one thing, they recorded phonetically, which some linguists have recently been looking into as a source for studying the evolution of black regional dialects. It’s helping me get a feel for the grammatical cadence, which is obviously important for writing the voices of some of the characters I’ll be creating.

The narratives show a wide variety of experiences, from the truly horrific to the what-the-people-in-question-chose-to-remember-as-benign-or-even-positive. I qualify that because, while no ex-slave’s seeming-positive remembrance of slavery should be interpreted as supportive of the institution of slavery, you obviously also don’t want to erase how these people experienced their own lives — and I think it’s very human that, in any terrible situation, many people will take the psychologically defensive measures of choosing to remember kindness over atrocity (especially 70 years later) and of finding things to take pride in and even to defend. It’s a survival measure, in many ways (akin to Stockholm Syndrome, I would guess, particularly with regards to interpreting a lack of abuse as a kindness, or meager gestures as great gifts), and I think looking at it in that light illuminates quite a bit.

There are also some truly hilarious stories from their post-slavery lives. I think my favorite is the old lady who said she didn’t mind taking out a fifteen-year loan on her house, ’cause she figured she’d be dead by then, so when she went and lived past 100 and the bank tried to collect, she wrote a letter to President Roosevelt to complain about it. And he, personally, made things right for her. Reading between the lines, it seems she may have been one of the very first beneficiaries of the social insurance programs that would become Social Security. But their post-slavery experiences are also really sad in a lot of ways, because so many of the ex-slaves had trouble getting on their feet afterwards and ended up dying in poverty. Many of them talk about how their children and grandchildren essentially abandoned them. You can also see a lot of how religion influences them. Many talk about when they were finally allowed to attend church, or when they got baptized, and almost all of the narratives end with a statement about how they’re pretty sure they’ll be headed to Heaven any day now.

Anyway, my point here is that historical research is fascinating and I wish we got more of this sort of thing in school. I think my next step will be to try and do some more looking into those places where slavery did end without a civil war, and how that affected the landscape for everyone involved. The best thing about writing historical AUs is that it makes me ask so many questions, and hunting down the answers broadens my perspective as well as helping to guide my writing. Yesterday I was working on Mr. Henry Thomas, who works at the customs house on Belle Isle in Richmond, whose son Antoine wants to move to Mississippi in search of more lucrative work — but Mr. Thomas is making him learn something about machines first, so he can be in control of them rather than at their mercy. And I’m working on Anne-Marie Thackery, an elderly ex-slave from Natchez, and the one grand-daughter who has stood by her, the very practical Maya Gibbs. Inspiration and education together make, I hope, for good writing.


ORBIS: A Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World


Okay, this is seriously the coolest thing I’ve seen on the Internet in a really long time. I’ve been using it for Aven, particularly when it comes to estimating how long it would take the army to move. Not only does it calculate times and routes, it can estimate prices, adjust for seasonal variants, give you the shortest versus the cheapest versus the fastest, and (this is so cool) the little thing at the bottom shows when you’ll hit which intermediate landmarks, how long you’re at sea versus on land, etc.

orbis1 orbis2

The only impediment to its usefulness for me is that it’s all clearly done height-of-Empire — which is no surprise, that’s when you have the most places to go and the best information about how long it took. But I will still have some fudging to do since a lot of these roads didn’t exist yet at the end of the Republican and the very start of the Principate.