The Charms of Cartography

I love maps. I don’t know why, but cartography fascinates me. I find maps so beautiful. I particularly love historical maps — either maps that are, themselves, old, or just maps of earlier versions of our world. I’ve got a delightful book of maps of the Middle Ages, which shows changes to all of the inhabited continents from the 7th through 15th centuries. This year, I’ve even got a calendar of historical maps (June’s feature is a 1647 map of Iceland). The Game of Thrones opening credits utterly delight me. My favorite part of playing Civilization is typically exploring the map, figuring out where all the other civs are, locating the resources, and figuring out the best trade routes. In the fifth grade, when we were instructed to invent a state and make a map of it, I got marked down a few points for going utterly overboard and filling in damn near every available space on the poor little salt-dough construction with some item of interest.

I mention all of this because, when you’re writing a fantasy historical epic, having maps is rather crucial to keeping one’s head in place and places in one’s head.

I was bemoaning to my gentleman the difficulty in finding a decent map of late Republic Rome that I could mark up for my own purposes. Pretty well everything available is from much later on — Hadrian-era, sometimes, but often even later, 4th century. It makes sense — the archaeology is more reliable from that period, since things got knocked down and built on top of each other. But, though my story is an AU, it’s an AU based on the mid-first-century BCE, so using a map from so many centuries later would be an awful lot for me to have to un-see and work around, to recover what the city would’ve been like before all those baths and basilicas and palaces that the emperors built.

So, my gentleman asked me if there were any maps close to what I did like, and yes — my favorites have always been those in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Those books are meticulously researched, and even though the maps have some question marks on them (This was the… Temple of Feronia? Or Juno Curitis? Pompey’s house was… probably here?), when it comes to the overall shape of the city, they’re wonderfully detailed. The books also include a map of the *whole* city, not just the famous bit around the Forum.

They’re also, y’know, only the size of a trade paperback page, so while a good reference, it’s not something I can really scribble on to add in the things I need. I want to keep track of who’s on which hill, how far between them, who can oversee the river from their house and who’s got a view of the aqueduct. I added or moved some temples, but — damn, where did I put them? I’d made my own map of the entire Mediterranean with the provinces , but the minutiae of the city itself was just too overwhelming a project to consider starting from scratch.

So, hearing this lament, what did my beau do? Scanned those pages in and had them printed up as full-size posters!


I’m so thoroughly delighted and grateful that he went to the time and effort! Now I’ve got a Wall of Rome to draw my Aven all over! (It’s underneath the map of Roman Spain given to me by my BFF last Christmas). Twelve square feet of fun.

I won’t start marking it up properly til I’ve finished this round of revisions, but I’ve begun by plotting out the epicenter of the story:


Oh my goodness, I’ve found the holy grail of describing things

Majnouna’s Tutorials.

People. Hands. Feet. Posture. Faces. Horses. Cats. Birds. Dragons. It’s meant to be a drawing guide, but the way Majnouna breaks down all the anatomical components of what make a living creature — it’s wonderful.

Thousands of Years of Moon Phases

Moon Phase Calculator

Ever-so-useful for setting the scene. 😉 I’ve used this for years. Heavens help me if the site ever goes down.

On Writing Historical Fiction

Tips for Aspiring Historical Fiction Writers, by Stephanie Dray (author of Lily of the Nile and its sequels)


I knew gladiatrices — female gladiators — were a thing.

I didn’t realize how big a thing they apparently were.

I’ve been reading a book called Working IX to V (because who doesn’t love a Roman numeral -based pun?), which examines a lot of odd professions in the Roman world. The tagline for the gladiatrix is “flirting with death but not going steady.” The book points out that male gladiators were generally slaves or freedmen, whether born to slavery or captives of war, or else volunteers who, by signing up as gladiators, lost their civil rights and were declared infamous under Roman law. “Women, however, had few civil rights to lose” — and as such, many if not most gladiatrices were not slaves, but rather freeborn women who took the job for reasons of their own. Some might have been in it for the money. Some may simply have wanted to test and to prove themselves, as men did, but without the military route available to them.

Halicarnassus-reliefWhat’s particularly fascinating is that this seems to have caught on as a fad among the upper classes. Daughters of the nobility, bored to tears with their lives and seeking a bit of risk and scandal, trained as gladiatrices and performed in public. It was evidently enough of a problem that several emperors felt the need to legislate against it. That, for me, is a powerful indication of just how prevalent the practice must have been — not so much as male gladiators, to be sure, but more than an occasional novelty.

The 19 CE Tabula Larinas placed penalties on anyone of the senatorial or equestrian class who performed publicly, in addition to the counts of infamia that would already be laid against them. It also prohibited the recruitment of any daughters, grand-daughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or equestrians who were under the age of 20. In 200 CE, Septimius Severus banned all female gladiatorial matches, citing “a recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience” as the reason for his edict. Considering that later inscriptions at arenas continued to advertise women competing, the ban seems to have been totally ineffective. Female participation in gladiatorial matches seems only to have ended entirely with the end of the games at the start of the 5th century.

Other emperors, of course, decided they’d rather support the scandal than challenge it. Nero and Domitian, ever the classy ones, defied the laws of their own empire by sponsoring games and late-night torchlit matches between well-known gladiatrices. (The term, incidentally, is modern; the Romans referred to such women as ludiae, or by using mulier or femina to modify the usual terms for gladiators).

Outside of these laws, written records of gladiatrices are somewhat sparse and generally critical. The satirist Juvenal lambasts women of the upper classes who performed as gladiators, decrying them as unwomanly and unattractive. Historians like Cassius Dio and Tacitus called the practice shocking and disgraceful. (Cassio Dio also noted women of the upper classes as performing in dramas, playing music, participating in beast hunts, and driving horses in the races). The archaeological record fills in some gaps. This article provides a good look at some of the material evidence. Inscriptions on tombs provide some glimpses into their lives as well as their deaths. Many studied privately, though a few attended gladiatorial schools. Like their male counterparts, most were teenagers, and most died young. Gladiatorial battles were not always or even often to the death, as modern media would have it — gladiators were expensive, and you got better investment by keeping them alive. Still, death and serious injury were very real possibilities, and so it makes sense that gladiatrices would have short careers, ended either by death or, in the case of those noble  ladies, by means of their relatives pulling them out of the games.

I’m finding this whole notion terribly interesting. It’s interesting to think outside the bonds of the condemnations given by the ancient writers, to think about what circumstances might have compelled women of varying classes to enter the arena. Something to keep in mind for future books, certainly.

Podcast Recommendation: The History of Rome

The History of Rome

This podcast, apart from being a wonderfully entertaining and comprehensive documentation of the Roman Republic and Empire, was also a major source of inspiration for me before I began writing Aven. In that October before NaNo 2011, I discovered this podcast and listened up through what had been posted at the time. With that percolating in the back of my brain, Sempronius Tarren and his schemes were born. The world took shape, the alliances and rivalries grew, and the echoes of the ages resounded in my mind.

Pinterest Inspiration Board for Aven

Aven Inspiration Board — Also a great way to catalog bits of research to keep in mind.

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.