The Ara Pacis

I’m thinking of how to end the Lucius Sestius trilogy at the moment, and I’ve decided to make him one of the sculptures on the Ara Pacis which has always been one of my favourites. I first saw it before it had its facelist and transferral to the lovely museum created for it which you will find on the banks of the Tiber, near the Mausoleum of Augustus. The Museum gives you a quick overall view of the structure in this video:

The altar itself lies inside four beautifully carved walls, and I am sure that everyone’s favourites are the two long processions on the north and south walls. Augustus himself is depicted at the head of his Senate and his family have come along in support: maybe it is an imaginative reconstruction of the day the altar was dedicated.

North wall, from the excellent MIT website on the Ara Pacis:

Under the processions, a riot of plants and animals emerge from lush acanthus leaves, and one good game is to see how many small creatures you can find hiding in the leaves.

Today you can find Lucius Sestius Quirinalis on the altar of Augustan Peace in Rome, but don’t tell anyone, because the guide books will get upset. Go to the north side, and head to the front of the procession of those of Rome’s great and good who were invited to be part of this celebration.

Two beak-nosed lictors with their rod bundles on their shoulders lead the way, but third in the procession and looking straight out at you, is Lucius. Unlike the beautiful smooth-faced Augustan family on the south wall, Lucius looks middle-aged, tired and, let’s face it, cross. He wants this ceremony to just be over so he can take off his toga and enjoy a decent wine. 

And, yes, I don’t suppose for a moment the Emperor Augustus really decided to put Lucius on this carving, but as far as I am concerned, this is him.

PS: on the day I last visited the Ara Pacis I also had the best drink ever – a prosecco with lemon sorbet:

The Pearl of Catara

Day 3 of NaNoWriMo and we need to celebrate!

Here is a story I wrote in response to a challenge from Qatar National Library – to write something celebrating Qatar’s milestones. In this story, I imagine something making it all the way from Qatar to Rome for the first time, and ending up being bought by Julius Caesar himself.

The Pearl of Catara1

The boy had been working this section of the bank all morning and he was tired. He hoped the midday break would be declared soon, and so he was mainly thinking of food and rest when he prised the oyster from its bed and slipped it into his net. Mechanically he tugged on the rope and closed his eyes preparing for the whirling, nauseous rush as he was pulled back into the sunlight.

The two pullers saw his unfocused eyes and laid him gently on the deck, under the awning, one of them staying to talk him back into full consciousness, while the other took the net full of oysters to the captain.

The captain took the net and flipped it inside out with a practised twist of the wrists. He reached for the first shell, knife at the ready to stab and twist. The oyster was the fourth he picked, and he had not finished opening it before the feeling came over him, the feeling his father had told him about: this was the pearl, the pearl that would make sense of his life. His worries about how he was going to pay for his share of the boat, the grief he still felt over the sailor who had died last year in a storm – suddenly these things were atoned for, settled.

The merchant fainted when the captain showed him the find: but once the shock had died down, he joined a caravan that crossed the Arabian desert at the end of every pearl summer. On the coast of the Red Sea, he sold the pearl to a very rich Greek from Alexandria, returning home dizzy with his newfound wealth, dreaming of a fleet of new boats sailing up and down the coast of the peninsula.

The Alexandrian carefully stowed the pearl from Catara in a soft cotton bag which he hung around his neck. Mentally he went through the different markets he could try and decided on Rome: he had a contact in that city who had told him that pearls were all the rage among the wealthy classes. He would get his favourite craftsman to put this pearl on a delicate chain of gold, and in time it would be around the neck of a fine Roman lady, a teardrop of silver and cream lustre. He smiled as he traced out the pearl’s journey in his mind.

The jeweller in the Porticus Margaritaria in Rome looked up from his contemplation of the pearl, to find that Julius Caesar had just entered his shop. The jeweller could hardly contain his elation and hurried to greet his illustrious client. Caesar was just about to marry – surely a pearl necklace would be just the thing for a young and well-born bride? But Caesar was on a more delicate errand: he needed a farewell gift for his love of many years, Servilia. She was already in her forties, although still beautiful, and while he could not marry her, he could fend off her disappointment with a special pearl.2

Servilia accepted the pearl in a philosophical manner and made sure that every one of her wide acquaintance saw it. She kept it for fifteen years, but on the day that Julius Caesar’s body was burned on a makeshift pyre in the middle of Rome, she threw the pearl into the heart of the fire, praying fiercely for something she knew was impossible. Sputters of rain made tears on her cheeks as she made her sacrifice, but her gods did not answer.

And far away from Rome, the boy who had discovered the pearl was now a free man, captaining a ship in the biggest fleet in the peninsula. He stood and watched his men as they worked on the latest hull, making it ready for its first summer of pearl harvesting: and his heart was full of hope and dreams.

  1. Catara is the spelling used on the earliest maps to feature Qatar.
  2. According to the Roman hisorian Suetonius, Juius Caesar did indeed buy Servilia a pearl, worth six million sesterces. Suetonius reckons that she was JC’s favourite mistress…


And who wouldn’t want this lovely mug to help hydration and caffeination during NaNoWriMo?

Commissioned by my fellow writer, Nicole Rodovsky, this is based on the Milk Wood warcry as we start a writing sprint, “Happy wording!”. I cannot remember who started it, but it is now obligatory. See you tonight at 8am Second Life time, everyone!

The Third Daughter

With a special guest reader!

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:

The Third Daughter – prologue

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.


This post is available as a podcast

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.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005

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.

The Cushion Shop

Credit: Ann Raia, 1999. Museo dela Civilta Romana.

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.

The Coin

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.

The Coin

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.