As this slow and painful edit goes on – and on – I had a piece of good luck! My sister, Siobhan Elliot, volunteered to read this passage from Chapter One. It felt appropriate that this description of a shared childhood should be read by one of my sisters, but I should emphasise that neither of my siblings resemble Junia or Nilla in the slightest!
Siobhan is a life coach, reflexologist and fond owner of Freddie the dog, among many other things, and her website can be found at:
I’m now at the reading-out-loud rewrite stage (I shall think of a better name for this process someday). I came across this idea last time around and it was a revelation how interesting it was to listen to the sentences rolling out. The effect on the eventual published book, The Emperor’s Servant, surprised me and made me wonder about getting an audio version of my novels. One day when I have the money!
In the meantime, here is the prologue to The Third Daughter. Hope you enjoy it and listen out for more readings over the next few weeks.
At the moment, I am toying with the idea of including the poet Sulpicia in The Third Daughter. A female poet who made it in the world of literature – given that like so many aspects of life, it was overwhelmingly male – is an intriguing thought. It is not completely surprising that in the Lucius Sestius books, I decided that Lucius’ elder sister Albinia would be a poet. I have no idea of course whether the real Albinia would have enjoyed poetry, but given that all we know about her is her name, I hope she doesn’t mind. I always felt that in those heady days of the late Republic and early Empire, when so many poets were making their mark in the literary salons, some Roman women would have been inspired. After all, many upper class women were extremely well-educated, and some displayed alarmingly independent thought and behaviour. Poetry would not have been a closed book to all of them, surely?
Sulpicia’s poems were at first thought to be the work of a male poet writing in the persona of a young Roman noblewoman, and some people still think this. Many scholars ascribe them to Sulpicia though, the niece of Valerius Messalla Corvinus, one of the most influential people in the Augustan regime. She would have been born round about 40 BCE, and her uncle’s literary salons would have given her an introduction to the poets Tibullus and Horace, and maybe others from the literary world surrounding the upper echelons of Augustan society. How her poems came to be included in the works of Tibullus, we don’t know, though we can have fun speculating. In an article in Ancient World by Anne-Marie Lewis it is suggested that she may be the mother-in-law of Ovid, putting her firmly in the midst of the glitterati of Augustan literature, even if Ovid was in exile for most of the time Sulpicia was related to him.
And yes, as usual, the evidence is not the best, but nobody in the ancient world ever makes things clear for the aspiring novelist. I’m happy to go with these ideas and imagine a Sulpicia who spends her life in the midst of some of the most interesting people of her time, and certainly is one of most interesting among them! Too interesting for me to resist anyway.
A very free translation of Sulpicia’s first poem
Love has come at last! I’m not going to be shy – yell it out! My Muses begged the goddess and she dropped him into my lap. Venus kept her promise. She tells my joy to anyone who doesn’t believe. No messenger for this poem – the boy will be the first to read it. Being a bad girl is fun! Reputation? Hah! I’m his, he’s mine, all I need anyone to know.
One of the saddest stories I’ve come across in my research for The Third Daughter is that of Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar. Born in 47 BCE, and killed in 30 BCE, this young man had no time at all to make a mark on life: there are few references to him in the sources and fewer images in coins and reliefs. Why the victorious Octavian, having defeated Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Cleopatra, and taken the city of Alexandria, felt the need to pursue and kill a seventeen-year-old is incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. It makes complete sense when you look at how Octavian rose to power: some very nasty stories of his ruthlessness are recorded. And when you look at the situation, then was Octavian really going to allow a son of Julius Caesar to live? Caesarion’s real name was Ptolemy in line with the family tradition: the people of Alexandria nicknamed him Caesarion, which means “Little Caesar”. The Romans themselves accepted that Julius Caesar was Caesarion’s father, for he never denied it, and contemporaries took it to be true. Cleopatra brought the young Caesarion with her when she visited Rome in 44 BCE (and also probably in 46 BCE), so I am sure that there would have been mention in the sources if Julius denied paternity. Of course, as the bastard son of a non-Roman mother, even if she was a Queen, there was never any possibility of Caesarion having any meaningful connection with his father or Rome. Julius was married to a woman from a good Roman family and Cleopatra was technically married to her own brother, as was the custom in her family. Caesarion’s destiny was always going to be Egyptian. When his uncle, Ptolemy XIV, died in 44 BCE, the young Ptolemy Caesarion was declared Pharaoh, joint ruler with his mother.
This photograph of a relief of Caesarion was taken in 1850 by the French photographer Maxime du Camp. It is traditional, with no hint of his Roman parentage, portraying him as an Egyptian ruler.
Throughout Caesarion’s childhood, Cleopatra juggled her country’s political relationship with Rome carefully, managing to stay in line with those in power, until she started her relationship with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). She had three children by Antonius, but Caesarion’s position was confirmed when he was declared “King of Kings” in a ceremony we call the Donations of Alexandria. This had serious outcomes: Antonius made himself very unpopular in Rome by appearing to give Roman territory to his children by Cleopatra. Worse, he declared that Cleopatra had been Caesar’s wife and that Caesarion was indeed Caesar’s son, thus making the boy a threat to the man who was Caesar’s Roman heir, Octavian. Poor Caesarion did not have a chance after this.
Before she committed suicide, Cleopatra did try to save her son, by sending him and his tutor south to find a Red Sea port to take him to a place of safety, probably on the western coast of India. The exact circumstances are unclear: but Octavian sent troops after Caesarion, and he was killed.
Nothing Caesarion said has been recorded: what we know about him, we know through the actions of those who controlled him. It seems likely that he died because of those people, without the chance to make his own imprint on history.
You may also like my earlier post about Cleopatra.
Now that the first draft of The Third Daughter has been – more or less – hammered out, I’m experimenting a little. I look for images from the ancient world which depict everyday activities and use them to improve my descriptions of Julia Tertia’s childhood and upbringing. I am indebted here to websites like the wonderful VRoma, which I started using as a teacher. Many of the contributors are also teachers, uploading their work purely to help other educators, students and interested people. It is one of those sites which remind you how the Internet is supposed to be.
Above is a relief sculpture showing a cushion shop in action – on the left, the owner is watching as his assistants display what I think is a pattern-book to his clients. Above is a display of fringed cushions along with swathes of material. All I have to do is put Junia and her mother Servilia into that shop, and imagine the colors and materials.
This arose out of another Qatar National Library Writing Circle challenge: to write a story about an object.
For a long time, I have wanted to write about the silver denarius minted by Lucius Sestius Quirinalis in Asia, and last year we were fortunate enough to track down a beautiful example of this coin.
Minted spring-early summer 42 BC, from a military travelling mint in Asia Minor
Obverse: head of Liberty, L SESTI PRO Q. Reverse: tripod, axe and ritual ladle, Q CAEPIO BRVTVS PROCOS.
Myrina, coast of Asia Minor, Aprilis 42 BCE
Lucius leaves the damp cool dawn and ducks into a leather tent which is, since yesterday evening, the mint. Inside it is dark and just a bit too warm.
“What do you expect?” says Faber. “The boys next door have been making flans all night.”
The tent is rigged alongside the forge which Lucius commandeered the day before. The small seaside town of Myrina will be without nails and cooking utensils for the next month, but it also has the honour of seeing a brand-new coin minted. Lucius knows that none of his new denarii will stay in Myrina: every single sliver of precious silver will make its way out on the southward march to Smyrna, safe in the legionary strong-boxes, or jingling in kitbags and money-pouches along the coast road. Lucius daren’t let his thoughts stray beyond Smyrna, or he will start thinking about Rome and the two years he has been away.
Faber is looking at him, so Lucius quickly says, “Flans?”
“Coin blanks,” says Faber. “One of the squaddies knows how to make the moulds, so he and his mates have been busy.”
“Any accidents?” asks Lucius. The squaddies are all volunteers and while they are willing none have any experience in metal working. Faber has had to take them through the basics very quickly.
Faber smiles. “Not a single burn as yet,” he says smugly. “That optio has got them all sorted. You chose a good man there.”
Lucius can’t remember the optio’s name, but he agrees. The man made it clear that this should be a good point against his name when there is a promotion going, and Lucius has already secured him his own century – once this coin has been made. They have a month at Myrina to make as many denarii as they can, or until the silver runs out.
“Anyway, never mind them,” says Faber. “How do you fancy seeing the first of your coins made then?”
“You’re ready?” Lucius looks at the table more closely and yes, there is a difference. Yesterday, there was the block of wood at the end, which Faber was going to use as the base when the hammering started: today, the wood has a short, thick, iron rod set firmly in the middle and Lucius moves across to peer at the top of the iron. Sure enough, there is a circle set into the iron, a bronze circle with a female head clearly engraved upon it. Next to the wooden block a row of metal tools lines up: hammer, tongs, and another iron rod. Lucius picks this up and peers at the picture which he knows so well: the instruments of sacrifice. The two sides of his coin are ready, carved by Faber and set into dies which will be hammered until they impart the design onto clean silver faces.
A rhythmic metallic sound alerts him to the entry of a young soldier carrying a basket full of shifting, clinking silver flans, the coin blanks fresh from the forge. The boy looks tired, and he and his tunic are both in need of a good wash.
“Just put them down here,” says Faber, and points at the ground next to the table. And as the soldier obeys, Faber says, “Stay a moment and watch.”
The soldier darts a quick surprised look at Lucius and says, “Sir?”
“As the master coiner says, soldier.”
Lucius is aware of the young man breathing a little too heavily and smelling of sweat and hot metal at his shoulder as they move forward to the table and wait, while Faber draws up a stool and checks that everything is in precisely the right place. He takes up a small pair of tongs and a hammer, winks at Lucius and in a moment has picked up a blank and laid it on the lower die. The upper die goes over the blank, the hammer swings down. In a moment it is done. Faber picks up a brand-new denarius, examines it back and front and passes it to Lucius.
“Congratulations, Quaestor,” he says, the words formal but the face smiling broadly.
And Lucius sees his own name and rank inscribed over the head of the goddess of Liberty. He stands and gazes, while somewhere in the distance he hears Faber telling him that he can keep that one. In the periphery of his vision there is a blur of hands and hammer while Faber makes another coin.
Lucius knows that this name, this title – is him. It is official, and there it is on a coin, so it must be true. Amazing and true. Then he realises that the soldier is asking him something. The question is asked against the background of clinks and taps from Faber.
“May I see the coin, sir?”
Lucius stares then laughs. This is not just his coin after all. He passes over the precious denarius before he has even studied the other side, and watches huge dirty hands turn it over while young soldier peers at it. It is so small, Lucius marvels, and tells himself to start thinking a little more coolly. He sounds like a grandmother cooing over a baby.
“The lady is the goddess Liberty, right sir?” the soldier is asking. “And I can see there is a tripod on the other side…” His voice trails away. He is frowning as he deciphers the picture. There is indeed a tripod, and an axe and a ritual ladle, and around the edge is engraved the name of the world’s most famous assassin.
“Liberty on one side and sacrifice on the other, soldier,” said Lucius and leaves the young man to work out the symbolism for himself.
He watches as the soldier mutters the letters on both sides. The young face brightens, and Lucius is impressed: not all soldiers are literate.
“So, your name is on this side with the goddess and the general is on the other,” says the soldier pleased with himself. “He is with the sacrificial things because he sacrificed Caesar and you are on the side of Liberty.”
Lucius hears the rhythm of Faber’s tapping falter and stop, and Faber whistles out a breath rather too noisily; the soldier looks up. His young face flushes and he holds out the coin.
“Sorry sir, I didn’t mean anything.”
“Nothing to worry about, soldier,” says Lucius. “That is exactly what the coin is saying.” He turns back to Faber.
“Is everything up to standard?”
Faber goes back to his usual brisk self.
“I’ll do a batch of fifty and then go through them, checking. Then we get into production properly.”
Faber looks at the soldier. “Fancy getting trained to make these, lad?”
The soldier shakes his head. “I’ll stick with making the flans if that’s all right with you sir. Nice and straightforward.”
Faber laughs, and shakes his head. Lucius dismisses the soldier, and turns back to Faber, turning his denarius over and over in his fingers, marvelling at its newness. Faber looks at him, grins and keeps on hammering, coin after coin slipping out from between the dies, tumbling to join the slowly growing heap. Lucius watches, the rhythm of manufacture lulling him until all he sees is a silver stream. It is Faber who breaks the spell by saying, “That’s funny.”
He points at the heap of coins, shuffling through them gently until Lucius sees what he is being shown. Every coin has landed the same way up, a picture of sacrificial implements and a name inscribed accusingly above them – BRUTUS.
The Qatar National Library writing group has been busy again!
This week, the course leader set us the task of writing a spoof of one of those “Day in the Life” columns which usually end up in Sunday newspapers. You know the sort of thing – celebrities treat us to a description of their breakfast smoothie, their work-out routines, their love of a chocolate which comes from a small Andean village and is made with beans which have passed through baboons…
The first thing I do every morning as soon as I wake is to grab my special pen for writing down dreams and then I write down my dreams. I believe that, as a writer, my dreams are a kind of meta-life, and thus a veritable treasure trove of ideas.
Next I stand in front of the mirror and do my affirmations: “You are going to be published by Penguin. You will win the Booker prize. You will reveal to the world the true use of the semi-colon.” I find punctuation extraordinarily emotive. A well-placed exclamation mark can make me weep.
I feel that eating my “writer’s” breakfast is terribly important: I only eat meals which are described in the novels I am currently reading. It does limit me a little and I didn’t enjoy reading “Trainspotting” at all. But to get into the mind of a character one must know every detail, and for me character begins with breakfast.
After breakfast, the next stage of my preparation is to check Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, where I am currently following 8451 of my favorite authors. They are so dedicated in their relentless pursuit of their goal (appearing human and approachable so that people will like them and buy their books). I am currently researching the purchase of a pet: I have noticed that many writers post pictures of animals, claiming to own them. I am a little apprehensive about this as I don’t know when I will manage to find the time to feed an animal, and killing one through neglect may not look good on Twitter. I make copious notes of course, in my special Social Media notebook from Paperchase.
I grab a slice of toast (Jane Austen’s heroines all eat toast, I have noticed) for lunch and then finish up my trawl of social media. It leaves me feeling energized, my mind full of pictures and ideas to be manipulated into my next poem or short story. This is the point at which I open my laptop and start to research the various writer’s tools available online. I am drawing up a list of the ones I’m going to try with my special list-making pencil, which is one of the sleek silver ones from Muji.
I usually go around to my mother’s for my supper, and we spend the meal with me telling her about my latest progress. She is a wonderful person, my mother, and when I was six years old she was my first inspiration: I had torn a page of my library book, and I watched in admiration as my mother told the librarian that the book was like that when we borrowed it. In this one act of imaginative realism lies my origin as a creator. It reminds me that life itself is our richest source of material.
I let her make me a cup of tea after supper because I know how much she loves listening to my ideas, then it is time to head home and watch the television – “Line of Duty” is currently my go-to for convoluted plot lines and humorous catchwords. But as always I am jotting down things in my special Television notebook: a writer’s life is never restful!
I go to bed with a mind full of wonderful energy (usually of a greenish-yellow colour), knowing that even while I sleep I am maturing as a writer.
I do find it slightly irritating that once a week I have to go to my writers’ group, but I know that it is vital to listen to the concerns of ordinary people once in a while. After all, my books will be read by people just like them!
New from the Qatar National Library’s creative writing group – the first episode of our podcast, “Desert Tracks”. In particular I recommend the story about the lift singer by Greig Parker – it is about 13 minutes in.
Having decided that I must include a meeting between the protagonist of the new novel and the infamous Queen of the Nile, I am really enjoying this. Cleopatra is so loaded with our preconceptions that peeling away the layers is proving fascinating – and what we really know about her is so little it is shocking. We have built her up into a monster.
Why have people decided that Cleopatra must be impossibly beautiful? From our sources we know that she had relationships with two men, had four children, could speak many languages and committed suicide. Nearly everything else is up for debate!
Looking at this quotation from Plutarch’s Life of Antony written a century after Cleopatra was alive, I am struck by how very different are modern interpretations of Egypt’s last Pharoah:
“For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…”
Plutarch, Life of Antony (XXVII.2-3)
Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (1916) translated by B. Perrin (Loeb Classical Library