A Navy Wife’s Look At Memorial Day

Fire up the grill; it’s Memorial Day. Baseball games, beautiful weather, rippling flags, hot barbecue, and a three-day weekend; all good things. But few of us bother to think much anymore about why we get this day off.

Last year on this day, I posted my own tribute here about what Memorial Day really means and why it was created: in memory for those who have died in the nation’s wars. I’m putting that post back up today but with an addition. Memorial Day means more to me than it did even just last year. I have a husband in the Navy, and last year we got to spend Memorial Day together. We grilled steaks in the backyard, watched the Red Sox whomp the Royals, and drank a quiet toast in honor of the dead. This year, I celebrate Memorial Day alone, because my husband is very far away.

Memorial Day was originally created to honor the fallen servicemen and women of the United States, but I like to remember the fallen throughout history, whether they lived in the US or not. Greek soldiers sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy. Julius Caesar’s legions facing off against a narrow-eyed Vercingetorix at Alesia. Britons lining up in shield-walls, trying to put a halt to the Saxon invasion. English archers halting the most renowned army in all chivalry with a few showers of arrows at Agincourt. Farmboy sharpshooters hunting British soldiers through the marshes in the American Revolution. Germans and British curling up in the mud of World War I’s trenches, shielding their ears from the shells and their eyes from the mustard gas. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto flinging themselves up against Nazi tanks. Warriors today, in deserts and in jungles, on the sea and in the air.

Even more than the fallen, I think of those the fallen have left behind through history. It’s an iconic image, one that transcends time, place, or century: women waving their men off to war. Sometimes this was a chosen way of life: the Viking wives whose husbands went off cheerfully on seasonal raiding parties, and returned with longships filled with loot. Sometimes the fight in question was a desperate measure: Gauls forming last-ditch armies to keep the invading Roman legions from burning their homes and enslaving their families. And of course it isn’t always men to do the fighting. Plenty of French mothers during World War II worried for daughters who went to blow up Gestapo officers in the French resistance, and plenty of husbands today sit at home praying for wives piloting helicopters over sand dunes. Regardless of whether the left-behind were Highland wives or the mothers of knights, children of legionaries or husbands of Navy Seals, they all have one thing in common: the same sickening disbelief when prayers go unanswered and no one comes home.

That too has changed through the centuries. A medieval wife might be separated from her crusading husband for years, never getting a single scrap of news until finally some shame-faced companion brings her husband’s dried-up heart home in a box. So much easier to transport from the Holy Land, you see. Mothers of sons abroad fighting Napoleon got letters arriving weeks or months late. World War I widows sometimes didn’t even get the certainty of death, just a mumbled “Missing Presumed Dead,” which translates to “Pieces Too Small For Identification.” And anyone with a spouse in today’s military who opens the door to find two somber uniformed men on the doorstep knows that they’re in for a very bad announcement.

I’ve had a chance to think about that knock on the door every day for the past six months, when my husband left on deployment for a very dangerous part of the world. After half a year apart, we had exactly fifteen days together before he left for another three months (thankfully to a place much less dangerous). We won’t be spending Memorial Day together this year. He’ll grill steaks on his end; I’ll grill steaks on mine. Maybe we’ll watch the ball game on our respective TVs, and yell in mutual excitement down the phone at each other when David Ortiz gets a home run. And we will definitely drink our standard Memorial Day toast, even though separated by a few thousand miles:

To all the fallen–our honored dead.

Coming Soon In 2011 . . .

I used to think there was nothing better than finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before. Wrong. Even better than that is finding a terrific new book that I’ve never read before, then discovering that it is the first of a series and two more books in the series are already out and another is being released in four months with more books to follow. That is pure heaven. And one way or another, it has been a great year for fiction series. Here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2011, after being left on tenterhooks by the last installment in the series . . .

1. Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Series.”

Cornwell is just about my favorite historical fiction author out there, and the Saxon Series is his latest smash hit. Revolving around the reign of Alfred the Great in the days when Vikings were still rampaging all over England, Cornwell focuses not on the devout and humorless Alfred as he tries to put a nation together but on Alfred’s most heroic (and reluctant) ally: Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Viking-raised warlord with an unstoppable talent for killing on the battlefield, and an equally unstoppable bent for trouble off it. Cornwell’s last installment The Burning Land left Uhtred bereft of the woman he loves but burying his troubles in his favorite hobby–killing enemies. The next Uhtred book should be out sometime this fall.

2. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”

I’m usually a lukewarm fan when it comes to urban fantasy, but Jim Butcher got me hook line and sinker. His Dresden Files are expansive, complex, and always funny, a rare quality in fantasy. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard in modern-day Chicago with a gift for pissing off various forces of darkness, and a complete disability to back down from a fight. His “Have staff, will smite” attitude and steady stream of snarky one-liners has carried him through twelve books to date, and the last, Changes, was the most harrowing yet. Harry has lost everything, including his life . . . or has he? The last page of Changes is one long maddening cliffhanger, thankfully to be solved on April 5, 2011 by the next volume in the Dresden Files, titled Ghost Story.

3. Sara Poole’s “Poison” series.

Sara Poole is a new author I found this year with her novel Poison, a lush and unflinching look at the Italian Renaissance and the always fascinating Borgia family through the eyes of a very unusual heroine. Francesca is the Borgia family’s professional in-house poisoner, a young and deceptively demure-faced girl whose day job is to keep the Borgias alive and their enemies dead. Francesca had me riveted from the first page when she got her job by poisoning her predecessor and then calmly explaining how she did it; a heroine so amoral and yet so centered is a delight. I will be first in line on June 7, 2011 when The Borgia Betrayal is released–the second installment of Francesca’s adventures now that her Borgia master has become Pope.

4. Michael Grant’s “Gone” series.

Cross Stephen King’s Under The Dome with Lord of the Flies, add a dash of X-Men, and you get Gone: the disturbing tale of what happens to a small California beach town when an impenetrable barrier slams down–but traps only the fourteen-and-under crowd inside. Kids begin to mutate alarming powers and a mysterious darkness is growing, but the most interesting part of the story for me is seeing a shy teenager named Sam grow into hero and leader as his brainy girlfriend tries to re-invent a Constitution that will govern fairly and effectively over the increasingly desperate and violent band of children. The fourth book in the series, Plague, will be release April 5, 2011.

5. George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series.

Is there even the smallest chance that we will see Dance of Dragons this year, given that it is now at least two years overdue? One character has been left hanging from a tree by a noose, another rots in jail, a third is stricken suddenly blind, and others have been MIA since the previous book. Oh well, this massive fantasy series remains my favorite in the fantasy genre, about which I am usually fairly unenthusiastic. Martin keeps his work close to history, and I always have fun finding the War of the Roses in-jokes or the Stuart Kings parallels. Let’s hope we finally see the fifth installment this year.

These are only my top five series. I’ve got a lot of reading to do this year, and I look forward to it. Special thanks to the publishers of Michael Grant and Jim Butcher, who were kind enough to schedule Ghost Story and Plague to be released the same day as my second book, Daughters of Rome. It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out what to do on the day of your novel’s release. It’s not a movie, so there’s no premiere to attend in a fabulous gown. You can’t start checking your online reviews yet, since most people (even assuming they buy the book on the first day) still need to time to read it. You can’t even go down to your local bookstore just to gaze at your book on the shelf, since most bookstores don’t stock your book the minute it is released unless you are JK Rowling or at least Richelle Mead. Last year when Mistress of Rome was released I wandered around my apartment and bit my nails a lot. This year when Daughters of Rome is released, on Tuesday April 5, 2011, I will be nose deep in the adventures of either Harry Dresden or the scrappy mutant kids of the FAYZ. Thank God for distractions.

And for those of you who were kind enough to tell me you were happily anticipating Daughters of Rome as one of your 2011 reads–well, it’s still three months till publication, but I did get permission to post the first chapter. Read here if you would like a sneak peek!

“Rome” vs. “I, Claudius”

For many of us ancient history buffs, the obsession started with “I, Claudius.” This BBC miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating adventures of Rome’s earliest Emperors was the “Spartacus” of its day; the thing that made ancient Rome cool and not just boring classroom crap. I got hooked on “I, Claudius” at the age of eight, clutching a family tree drawn by my mother to explain how all these people were related to each other (that stuck with me; I could draw out the family line of the Julio-Claudians long before I could draw out my own) and loudly protesting every time I was sent out of the room to avoid a scene with incest or murder. Fortunately for the ancient Rome fanatics created by Derek Jacobi & Co, we got another fix in the form of HBO’s too-soon cancelled “Rome.” Another miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating days of the Republic’s end.

So, which one is better? Someone has to look at this logically, and it might as well be me. Let’s break this baby down like the sports analysts do. And my blog for some reason is refusing to do images, so I am not able to paste in lots of pictures of a half-naked Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as would normally be my habit. Sorry!

LINEUPS
Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” starred relatively obscure actors, and turned them into household names. “I, Claudius” featured a host of British character actors in the roles of shy stammering Claudius and his sprawling scheming royal family, most of them relatively unknown except to fans of UK stage and screen. “Rome” cast two minor players in the starring roles of buddy-legionaries Pullo and Vorenus. But “Rome” did have a few modest names like Polly Walker and Ciaran Hinds, so . . .

Edge: “Rome”

STORY
“I, Claudius” followed the politics of Rome’s first Imperial dynasty through the eyes of one shy, overeducated, overlooked lad who ended up Emperor because he was smart enough to play dumb while his relatives murdered anyone else in the family who looked like a threat. “Rome” followed the Republic’s downfall through the eyes of two legionaries, cheerful vulgar Pullo and upright honorable Vorenus, who somehow manage to be involved with Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, the young Octavian, and every historical event of note.

Slight edge: “Rome,” if just for having a broader canvas to include both the vulgar swearing plebs as well as the too-good-to-stab-my-own-victims royals.

SCRIPT
Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” abandoned the cheesy sonorous style that abounded in all those terrible fifties sword-and-sandal flicks, and went for the funny bone in a big way. “I, Claudius” offers such howlers as the Empress’s exhortation to a band of gladiators “These games are being degraded by the use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it!” and her tart appraisal of the crippled Claudius “That child should have been exposed to die at birth.” “Rome” comes right back with lines like a jealous beauty’s whispered farewell to Cleopatra, “Die screaming, you pig-spawn trollop” and Pullo upon seeing his best friend in a toga for the first time: “You look like laundry.”

Edge: Even.

BEST SCENERY AND EFFECTS
“I, Claudius” was shot on a very modest budget and takes place mostly in a soundstage mocked up like a palace. No lavish CGI, no hordes of costumed extras filling up the Colosseum, no teeming streets of Rome. “Rome” pulls out all the stops: the triumphs, the graffiti, the banquets, the palaces, the battlefields, the legionaries, the gladiators . . . it’s a feast for the eyes even with the TV on mute. Pity the bill for all that onscreen luxury ran so high that “Rome” was canceled after two seasons.

Big edge: “Rome”

OPENING CREDITS
“Rome” has a sexy, slithery tune backed up against a lot of obscene Roman graffiti–a hint right off the bat that this version of Rome is not the pristine white marble version offered by movies past. “I, Claudius” offers a sexy, slithery tune set to the motions of a live snake as it hisses and undulates over a Roman mosaic. One of the creepiest opening montages of all time.

Edge: “I, Claudius”

I, Claudius Opening credits

Rome Opening credits

BEST HERO
“Rome” offers two marvelously contrasted (and seriously hunky) heroes in the towering and humorous Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and the well-bred and honorable Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). But Derek Jacobi’s Claudius is a masterpiece: a boy born with a variety of crippling physical handicaps but gifted with brains and wit. The marvelous Jacobi takes Claudius from insecure boy to all-powerful Emperor, never losing the character behind the gimmicks of the limp, the twitch, the stammer, or the fifty years of age makeup. A masterpiece of acting that launched his career, though McKidd and Stevenson enjoyed similar luck after “Rome.” Stevenson will reprise Pullo in a “Rome” movie, McKidd is McSteamying it up on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Derek Jacobi has entered that pleasant era of a stage-trained British actor’s career where he gets cast as the villain in bad American movies like “Underworld Evolution” and receives a large paycheck in return for a ten minute scene where all he has to do is enunciate.

Edge: “I, Claudius”

BEST VILLAIN
Plenty of villains in “Rome,” including the future Emperor Augustus as an eerily self-possessed and mercurial teenager who by the age of fifteen or so has conducted a torture interrogation in the Roman sewers, committed murder, and slept with his sister. But “I, Claudius” offers two scene-stealing villains: Emperor Caligula (John Hurt), who in one arresting sequence dresses up in pink gauze and falsies and performs a dance as the goddess Dawn (see it and believe it on Youtube here) and the charming but scheming soldier Sejanus played by Patrick Stewart back in the days when he still had hair.

Edge: “I, Claudius.”

BEST VILLAINESS
Both shows serve up winners in this department–two women, both bent on advancing their beloved sons to ultimate power. “Rome’s” Atia (Polly Walker) is lucious, oversexed, corrupt, and entertaining, while “I, Claudius” offers Empress Livia (Sian Phillips), a pristine tart-tongued schemer who plots six or seven relatives into their graves, including her Imperial husband of fifty years.

Edge: “I, Claudius.” Atia redeems herself and becomes more sympathetic as the series advances, but Livia is pure unrepentent baddy from start to finish.

VIOLENCE
“Rome” is splashy and violent, and doesn’t stint on the gore. People are beheaded, tortured, scourged, killed in battle, killed in streetside knife fights, killed by poisonous soup and poisonous snakes. “I, Claudius” is less liberal with the gore but no less shocking: the scene where Caligula stabs his pregnant sister and tries to eat the unborn baby might cut away at the crucial minute, but still packs a powerful punch, and I routinely fast-forward past the moment when two innocent children are murdered by soldiers off-screen but their cries are all too audible.

Edge: Neither. Both get honorable mentions, and the prize goes to “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” which has more violence than both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” combined. (Read my review of “Spartacus” here)

SEX
It wouldn’t be a Roman epic without sex, and neither series stints on full-frontal nudity. The insatiable Atia in “Rome” has enough sex scenes with Mark Antony (James Purefoy–lucky her!) to fill a Cosmo from cover to cover. “I, Claudius” limits the nudity shots to waist-up, but covers all the bases with several orgies, plenty of naked dancers, and one unforgettable scene (true to history) where Claudius’s slutty young wife Messalina challenges Rome’s best courtesan to a contest of who can take the most lovers in one day. (This one is also available on Youtube here)

Edge: Even

BEST ENDING

“I, Claudius” ran as a multi-part miniseries, and finished strongly (if sadly). “Rome” was canceled at the end of the second season (damn you, HBO), and had to shoehorn what should have been two more seasons into the last two episodes. The result is rushed and unsatisfying, though fans have been appeased by the prospect of a “Rome” movie to tie up loose ends.

Big edge: “I, Claudius”

So in the end, who wins?

I hate to wimp out on you here, but I don’t think tallying the score gives any kind of satisfying answer. In the words of sports blogger Bill Simmons, it’s useless to ask “who was better?” of two great things, because at some point greatness cannot be surpassed, it can only be joined. So I will cop out and say that if you liked “I, Claudius” you will like “Rome,” and if you liked “Rome” you will like “I, Claudius.” Now if HBO will please hurry up and get on that “Rome” movie, because both these fantastic series are done and I need another ancient Rome fix.

The Greatest Love Story Never Told

It’s a real life fairy-tale, a love story to rival all the greats: Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet. It sounds like something conjured up by the Brothers Grimm, but it’s true–genuine historical fact.

Once upon a time, a brilliant but lonely man became Emperor of the known world. His life was filled with travel, work, friends, but never love–until he met a stunning young beauty from Greece. The beauty was poor and low-born, but the Emperor didn’t care. They fell madly in love and became inseparable, traveling the Empire side by side. Their happiness seemed perfect–until one day, the young beauty was found floating in the Nile beside their pleasure boat, drowned. Accident? Murder? Suicide? No one knew, but the Emperor was devastated. He deified his dead lover, immortalizing that beautiful faces in hundreds of marble statues . . . and he never loved again.

Sounds terribly romantic and poignant; just the sort of thing to be memorialized by the sappier sort of Victorian artist and hundreds of bad poets throughout the ages.

The Emperor of this particular love story was Hadrian, one of the greatest rulers who ever held sway over the Roman Empire . . . oh, and by the way, his low-born beauty was a man. Hence the virtually total blackout on their romance, which except for the gender of its principles would have become legend.

I’m writing my third novel about ancient Rome, and this one covers Emperor Hadrian, a complicated intellectual charmer whose twenty-one years of rule covered one of the most dynamic and prosperous periods of Rome’s history. Hadrian is one of the so-called Five Good Emperors and he achieved a great deal, but not nearly so much was written about him by scholars of ancient history than about other Emperors of Rome. His blatant passion for a Greek youth named Antinous made many scholars uncomfortable–the Victorians made a lot of hopeful noises that maybe Antinous was really Hadrian’s long lost son, but that fooled nobody. Easier not to talk about an Emperor who went so off the rails when his boyfriend died that he nearly killed himself.

Homosexuality in ancient Rome was a far more casual thing than it became in later centuries. Bisexuality was the norm rather than the exception among many Roman men; it is noted of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, written at first hand during Hadrian’s reign, that only two of the twelve Emperors discussed were universally heterosexual. Hadrian’s passion for a young man would not have raised a single eyebrow in his own day. What raised a lot of eyebrows was the depth of feeling he held for what should have been a passing fling.

We don’t know much about Antinous, except that he was Greek, low-born, and stunningly handsome. He was a generation younger than Hadrian, but that was hardly unusual, and Hadrian was still a vigorious, good-looking, and athletic man. Antinous must have had some brains besides the beauty, since Hadrian was himself a scholar and a bit of a snob who scorned stupid people. Antinous did share Hadrian’s passion for hunting; the Emperor once risked his life to bring down a lion about to pounce on his lover. The real reason why Antinous drowned in the Nile remains a mystery, but the Emperor’s grief after the fact is unmistakeable: Hadrian, a biographer and scholar who wrote voluminously his whole life, penned just one line in shaky handwriting after his beloved’s death: “He was drowned in the Nile.”

Hadrian went on to make sure no one would ever forget the youth who must have been laughingly dismissed during his life as an Emperor’s boy-toy. Antinous was immortalized in so many statues that he is one of the best-known faces of the Roman era–nearly twenty busts and statues survive from Hadrian’s private villa alone. A city was named in his honor and he was made into a god, his worshippers briefly giving Christianity a run for its money.

Did Antinous love the Emperor as deeply as Hadrian loved him? We don’t know. Maybe he was just a handsome young man putting up with a powerful older lover because he had no choice. But if he’d been a girl instead of a boy, no one would ask the question. The fairy-tale details–Emperor falling in love with young beauty, tragic early death, lifelong devotion–would have swept the story along until it had all the rosy gleam of a romantic legend. The names of the two lovers would be linked in mass pop culture just like the names of Romeo and Juliet, Bella and Edward, Brad and Angelina. There would have been countless bad romantic odes written to their memories; numberless Victorian paintings filled with tasteful nudity and marble columns and pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Verdi would have written an opera called Hadriano with starring roles for an innocent girlish soprano and a powerful manly baritone. A terrible movie would have been made in the fifties starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, and another movie would be in the works for 2013 with bigger budget and better CGI, starring Gerard Butler and Scarlett Johansson. But simply because this real-life love affair with all the romantic trimmings happened to star two men, nobody knows about it unless they are ancient history buffs.

Still, the obscurity of Hadrian and Antinous might be ending. As societal attitudes towards homosexuality change, scholarly work on Hadrian no longer shies away from examining his sex life. Anthony Everitt’s splendid Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome devotes whole chapters to the Emperor’s beloved. And anyone who studies the sculpture of the ancient world knows Antinous’s face very well indeed, as busts and portraits and fragments of statues continue to be unearthed.

I think Hadrian would have liked that.

STET, Goddamnit!*

So I have been up to my neck, these past two weeks, in reviewing the copy-edits for Daughters of Rome. Copy-editing belongs somewhere around the fourth level of hell: not as bad as doing a headstand in a Portapotty, worse than having thumb-tacks pressed under your fingernails. It takes OCD to a whole new level: a good copy-editor (and mine is superb) is essentially a paid nit-picker. All those times during the writing process when I thought to myself, “Oh, don’t bother changing that tiny detail, no one will notice if it’s wrong.” Well, the copy-editor always notices.

Daughters of Rome is the second book I’ve put through copy-editing, so at least I know the drill by now. I know that 214 comment bubbles is par for the course, not an indication of my book’s deep innate lousiness. I have more or less mastered the Track Changes program on Microsoft Word. I didn’t have to call my editor cross-country to ask what a penciled STET in the margin meant (a Latin term for “let it stand,” or put less politely, “no, damn it, don’t change that sentence, I wrote it that way for a reason!”) And I know that the tendency to come flying out of a sound sleep with a shriek of “Was velvet invented in ancient Rome?!” will wear off in about a week. (And no, it wasn’t.)

Writers, I have to say, are not much fun to be around during copy-editing. They will spend more time fact-checking on Wikipedia than talking to their long-suffering spouses. They will answer questions of “How are you?” with “Do you think anyone will notice if I move the Battle of Actium up a year?” They will slam their foreheads into tables, moaning, “How did I not realize that the Baths of Diocletian weren’t built for another 150 years?” Writers are not even terribly visible during the copy-editing process: the most you will see for a few weeks is the top of a head peeking over “Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire: A to Z,” which has been thumbed so thoroughly that the spine is now broken and the library is dunning for payment.

Another inescapable part of copy-editing is the notes. Writers are prone to these anyway–my husband is forever taking Post-Its off the fridge with such reminders as Research trident wounds or Google headless Romans York. But the notes I take during copy-editing reach a truly memorable level of lunacy thanks to a method of short-hand nobody but me can understand. Here are a few examples, verbatim, from Daughters of Rome.

Chapter 13: L’s wedding to FV; grade-B orgy. C goes to races; Reds lose; D adopted as Vit’s pet. C learns of DD’s disgrace.

Chapter 19: C and DD to Tarracina; idyll. M blue-balls Dom; meets D. L @ AP’s
house; finds out Thrax poisoned FV.

Chapter 22: M brings news of army; C is busted for fling. L helps AP move
out. D meets LL after watching Vit abdicate.

Chapter 24: Rome invaded.

So what did you do today? I invaded Rome.

Fortunately, copyediting is like childbirth: it may be painful, but it has to end sooner or later. Daughters of Rome has been poked, prodded, and patched, and is off to my editor. I have returned Tacitus: The Histories and 69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors to the library, along with a large check to cover my late fees. The last Post-It note (Review routine torture scenes) has been retrieved from the refrigerator door. My husband’s favorite brand of ale is waiting for him with a card: Thanks for researching for me whether the Romans had platinum or mirrors. (No, and yes.) My work is done, and now comes my favorite part of the copy-editing process.

The bottle of champagne when it’s all over.


My second novel: copy-edited within an inch of its life.

*I adapted the title for this post from Florence King’s collection of essays: “STET, Damn It!” She had one of the better quotes on copy-editors, going something like this: “A good copy-editor is a pearl beyond price, but I got stuck with a web-footed brachycephalic cretin who should have been confined to an institution to make brooms.” Copy-editing makes us all testy.

Let’s Hear It For The Bad Guy!

Let’s face it: everybody loves a good villain. No great book or movie is complete without one: without Lord Voldemort and the ever-rising body count of his victims, the Harry Potter books are just a cute kid series about a magical boarding school. Sometimes we end up with a sneaking liking for the villain; sometimes we read through a book with murder in our hearts and prayers on our lips that the bastard will finally get what’s coming to him. In any case, here’s my list for some of the greatest fictional villains ever to gnash their teeth.

1. Milady de Winter, The Three Musketeers (Alexander Dumas)

Dumas’s swashbuckler about a quartet of rapier-wielding French chevaliers is generously stocked with villains, including the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu and his “living blade” Rochefort. But it’s Milady de Winter we all remember, the beautiful blond assassin who schemes, seduces, plots, and murders her way through a trail of hapless victims. Her finest hour: imprisoned before she can murder her latest target and guarded by an incorruptible Puritan jailer, she takes a mere week to seduce the Puritan and wangle an escape–persuading him, on her way out the door, to assassinate her target for her, and of course take the fall.

 

2. Mordred, the King Arthur tales

The story of the semi-mythical King Arthur has been told by more authors than anyone can count, but they all hold one thing in common: Mordred. Sometimes he’s a scheming knight and sometimes a whining wheedler, but he’s always the poison apple in Arthur’s Camelot and he always brings it crashing down. His finest hour: when the sneaky little toad leads armies against his father, tries to marry his father’s queen, and ends up stabbing his father through the head in their final fight as he is killed himself with a spear.

 

3. Magua, The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper)

I admit I’m going more off the movie “Last of the Mohicans” than the book, since I find the movie splendid and the novel all but unreadable. Cooper’s villainous Huron warrior was no picnic; a vicious drunk who pursues the noble half-Indian frontiersman Hawkeye and his friends across hundreds of turgidly-written pages. But the movie’s Magua is elevated into something truly teeth-chattering: a cold and ruthless warrior who uses the the French and Indian War as a means to further his personal revenge against the English general who destroyed his life. You can’t call Magua a nice guy, not when he calmly cuts out the heart of the general while the man is still alive, telling him his daughters are next on the list . . . but Magua always wrings a certains sympathy from me. His finest hour: when he is wordlessly stared down by a quiet English girl and decides–arbitrarily, whimsically–to let her live.

 

4. Miss Minchin, A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

She may not cut anybody’s heart out with a tomahawk, but this girls’ academy headmistress from a 19th century children’s book is one of the most evil bitches in literature. From the start, Miss Minchin resents little Sara, her newest and richest pupil whose quiet manners and adult intelligence make the headmistress feel like the greedy pretentious cow she is. When Sara is orphaned and left a pauper, Miss Minchin loses no time turning her former prize pupil into a scullery maid and making her life one long living hell of hunger, cold, and abuse. Her finest hour: when she spitefully makes a point of interrupting Sara’s birthday party to tell her about her father’s death, and bundles her straight on down to the kitchen to start scrubbing floors. Every time I read it, I long for a time machine and a machete.

 

5. Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)

The classic anti-hero of literature. He’s introduced as the villain of this medieval set-piece, a dark and brutal Templar knight who hounds the heroic Ivanhoe, but he’s much more interesting with his forthright passions and his tangle of inner wounds than the hero, who doesn’t much evolve beyond loyal and blond. Ivanhoe spends most of the book lounging around on a stretcher recovering from a wound, while Bois-Guilbert stamps around swearing, scheming, sword-fighting, and swash-buckling. His finest hour: when he is trying his damndest to win the love of the proud and lovely Rebecca, not caring one whit for the fact that she is a Jew and by the standards of his day lower than pond scum. I always wish Rebecca had just gone for it, instead of pining for boring old Ivanhoe.

 

6. Courtney Massengale, Once An Eagle (Anton Myrer)

Oooh, he’s a nasty piece of work: an unnaturally charming psychopath who does his best to prolong the bloodshed of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam so that he has enough wars to vault himself up the chain of command in the US Army. He is the lifelong enemy of the book’s hero, a quietly heroic farm boy named Sam who fights through the century’s wars for all the right reasons and sees Massengale for the calculating snake he really is. His finest hour: Massengale has so many, it’s hard to pick. When he comes within a whisper of persuading McArthur to invade China, just to see what happens? When he deliberately witholds reinforcements from Sam’s men in the Pacific, ensuring the massacre of the entire division? Let’s go with the moment when Massengale, as an object lesson to his rebellious wife, tells her with quiet pleasure about the pet squirrel he starved to death as a boy because it nipped him.

 

7. Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)

I know–Voldemort is the real villain of the Potter series. Very true. But somehow I found this sugary little psychotic much scarier. There are plenty of villains who swish around in black cloaks planning to conquer the world. Villains in pastel twin-sets with kitten posters on their walls who talk sweetly about the necessity of torturing children for the greater good are much rarer and more frightening. Her finest hour: Forcing mouthy children to write I will not tell lies as punishment–in their own blood, leaving permanent scars on their hands. Anyone else think Umbridge never really got a good enough come-uppance by the end of the series?

 

8. Sheriff of Nottingham, the Robin Hood tales

Technically Robin Hood has evil King John to contend with in his fight for freedom, poor people, and the absent King Richard. But King John had enough on his plate without obsessing all the time about the misdoings of one outlaw archer, and all those medieval balladeers were smart enough to give Robin Hood a villain-on-the-scene: the Sheriff of Nottingham, heartless tax-collector and arch-nemesis who generally gets hoodwinked in the end of every story. His finest moment: he masterminds an archery contest just to capture Robin Hood, and Robin manages to win the contest and get away clean.

 

9. Obadiah Hakeswill, the Richard Sharpe novels (Bernard Cornwell)

A splendidly quirky villain to match up against Cornwell’s splendidly swash-buckling hero Richard Sharpe. Hakeswill is a frankly insane British army sergeant who manages to survive Sharpe’s enmity for several books, which is more than most villains can do. Hakeswill twitches, schemes, steals, murders, and has decidedly creepy habits of quoting inaccurate Scripture and talking tenderly into his hat where he stashes a picture of what might be his mother. His finest hour: his conviction that he can never die, born out by his adventures in India with a young Sharpe where Hakeswill is variously thrown into a tiger cage, a snake-pit, and three major battles without suffering a scratch.

 

10. Livia, I, Claudius (Robert Graves)

One of the great villainesses of all time–this Roman Empress could eat Milady de Winter alive and pick her teeth with the bones. She never personally lifts a single manicured finger in violence, but she slanders, disposes of, or outright assassinates an entire string of relatives in order to make her son the next Emperor of Rome. Her finest hour: getting rid of the current heir by recruiting a niece to stage a rape, masterminding an exile, then taking care of loose ends with an assassin. You can’t say the woman wasn’t thorough.

 

So these are my top ten villains. Honorable mentions go to the slithery Saruman from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the spiteful geisha Hatsumomo from Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, the coldly methodical Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Big Jim Rennie from Stephen King’s Under The Dome – a small-town official who doesn’t swear by gosh because it’s against Jesus, but commits murder without a qualm. All of them, in their various ways, kept me turning the pages breathless to see what they’d do next.

Let’s admit it: sometimes it’s fun to root for the bad guy.

Cosmopolitanus: The Magazine for Roman Vixens Across The Empire

Last month’s Cosmo: Senator’s sexy wife Lepida Pollia spilled all about fashion, ambition, and her outrageous sex life!

On the cover this month: THEA: The Emperor’s Mistress Spills Her Secrets. Tunic by Guccius. Earrings by Tiffanius. To get Thea’s look, try kohl in Smoky Gray, liner in Wood Ash, rouge in Masada Magic, and lip rouge in Sandstone Neutral. Hair: Thea keeps it low-key with sexy waves. Or for the look she made famous, braid hair into a crest with a ribbon (Thea likes silver!) and toss over one shoulder for girl-next-door sexy. So cute!

COSMO NEWS
35 Beauty Evolution: The Empress’s Style Progression
Commoner to queen means pastels and prints to sapphires and silk! Get this look for less than 300 sesterces
44 The Real Story: The Emperor’s Niece Takes Her Vows
Why she chose thirty years of chastity as a Vestal Virgin
56 Sexy vs. Skanky
Statues: totally naked or tastefully draped? You decide!
60 Confessions
Her parents caught her with a trident fighter–the day before her wedding!
62 Guy Confessions
He told her he’s a charioteer–but he’s just a lawyer!
64 Hot Sheet
Trends we’re buzzing about! Are gladiator sandals here to stay?

COVER STORY
69 Mistress of Rome
Thea spills to Cosmo about Emperor Domitian, her surprising friendship with his wife, and how she keeps the most powerful man in the world happy. (It’s not what you think!)

FUN FEARLESS FASHION
74 Not Your Mother’s Stola
New draping techniques put a sexy spin on this old-married-woman classic!
75 10 Steals at the Forum
Bargain-price accessories at the Forum Romanum–cheap and chic!
78 Beautiful British
In honor of our newly-conquered province, everything this season is coming up Celtic–neck torques, spiral brooches, and Brigantian jet, all plundered direct from the front!

COSMO LOOK
86 Wiggin’ Out?
Four wig styles that flatter everyone
88 His Picks
Ambergris: the new perfume guys love
92 Beauty Q&A
Use a bread-paste face mask to tighten and tone!
93 Beauty News
Get that Egyptian cat’s eye liner perfect every time

GUY WATCH
102 Stud Meter
Arius the Barbarian hits the top! We can’t get enough of this surly-but-sexy gladiator. Meet his friends in . . .
104 Gorgeous Gladiators
Abs to die for–and they do! You’ll flip for these short-lived studs
107 Bad Hair Days Around The Empire
Mustaches and beards from Ireland to Syria. With hair like that, no wonder they couldn’t withstand our legions. Clean-shaven rules–literally!

108 Today’s hottest gladiators – go ahead and fantasize!
Note: Gladiator #2 died in the arena after Cosmo went to press

LOVE AND LUST
110 He Slept With A Slave Girl–Does It Count As Cheating?
First of all, don’t sell her to a salt mine
112 Arranged Marriages: Getting It Right
Learn to love the man your parents picked for you
116 Ask Him Anything
Does he have sex with his buddies? If yes, don’t worry . . . unless he’s the one on the bottom
121 100 Sex Tips From Rome’s Most Successful Courtesans
You can’t be seen associating with these women, so we did the research for you. You won’t believe Tip #47!

YOU, EVEN BETTER
138 How To Impress the Emperor
With strategies like these, you’ll never be exiled to a desert island!
139 How To Shop For Slaves
Foolproof ways to avoid the troublemakers and bring home the pick of the market every time
142 6 Tips for A Perfect Massage
Win your husband’s heart with these tips from the masseuses at the Baths of Diocletian

HEALTH CHECK
150 The Cosmo Health Report
Unwatered wine can wreck your health (and your reputation). Read here!
154 Cosmo Gyno
The new birth control: auyt gum and acacia tips! It works for Egyptian women; now it works for you
155 Your Body
Maximize your trip to the bathhouse with a fifteen minute steam–great for the skin!

NEED TO KNOW
161 Race Ready
Our fail-safe guide to the chariot races: the horses, the drivers, and the factions. Impress your man with your racing know-how the next time he takes you to the Circus Maximus!

FUN AND FEARLESS
164 The Naughtiest Thing I’ve Ever Done
A wax plug with a little pig’s blood–my husband never knew I wasn’t a virgin!
166 Ask Atia
Our resident bad-girl columnist spills on barbarians, Vestal Virgins, and world domination Roman-style.

COSMO LIFE
170 Weekend
Lupercalia festival this week! Get in the spirit by donning leather loincloths with your man and running through the city cracking a whip!
172 You and Him
Prep a slave by the bed with a fan for the next time you have sex–you’ll enjoy the cool breeze!
178 Healthy Sexy Strong
Want to look like a lady of leisure? A muscle-free physique is key
181 At Your Place: The Perfect Dinner Party
Impress your guests with stuffed sow’s udders, sea urchins in almond milk, and roast dormice rolled in poppy seeds. Our resident chef shows you how

COSMO ASTROLOGER
188 From Nessus–the Emperor’s astrologer reads your stars. He’s never wrong!
A bad month for Scorpio (don’t fall for a sweet-talking legionary!) but a good month for Taurus (a hot new slave might spice up your nights at home!)

He may look good, but Scorpios should pass him up!

RED-HOT READ
192 Girl on girl action!
Don’t miss the new erotic poetry from Sappho

COSMO QUIZ
193 Are You Mistress Material?

Mostly A’s: First wife, arranged marriage.

Mostly B’s: Sexy wife, second marriage.

Mostly C’s: Mistress on the side!

Hope you enjoyed this special Roman edition of Cosmopolitanus!

Mistress of Rome: The Movie

Several readers have written to ask me the following question: Will my historical novel Mistress of Rome ever be made into a movie?

I have to say, probably not. Historical movies are invariably big budget: it costs a lot of money to fund the necessary CGI, the on-location shooting, the sumptuous palaces. I shudder to think what the bill would be for all my Colosseum scenes–lions and tigers and costumed extras, oh my. HBO’s superb TV show “Rome” was canceled despite rave reviews and a big following, simply because it cost too much. And it doesn’t help that Rome is one of the most expensive places on earth to shoot film in. So I don’t imagine my little historical fiction novel will make it to the big screen, not unless I somehow turn into the next J.K. Rowling or unless Ridley Scott becomes my number 1 fan. Neither of which is too bloody likely.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t fantasize, of course. I always mentally cast my books as movies–it’s a useful exercise, trying to envision your characters in terms of real people. And useful exercises aside, I can always fantasize about getting to meet Clive Owen when he plays a hero from my book. So without further ado, here’s how I would cast Mistress of Rome–given, of course, unlimited control and budget.

The Men:

ARIUS: Sean Bean, now in his fifties, is really too old to play my taciturn gladiator hero, which is a pity. He has exactly the right combination of bitterness and savagery, and as we’ve learned from his stint in “Lord of the Rings,” the man knows how to swing a sword. Dominic Purcell might be another good choice; as the convicted murderer of “Prison Break,” he keeps a nice balance of passive misery that can boil over into sudden rage. Plus–very important for Arius–Dominic Purcell is a hunk. Other suggestions from readers: Ray Stevenson (a close second! I loved him in “Rome”), Aaron Eckhart, Kevin Durant.

 

DOMITIAN: Russell Crowe would be excellent as the charming, enigmatic, semi-psychotic Emperor of Rome. I’d love to see him play a villain, wouldn’t you? But in case Russell’s tired of the sword-and-sandal genre, I’ll happily take Kenneth Branagh. Put a few pounds on him and he’s a great Domitian: anyone who’s seen him as Iago in “Othello” already knows Kenneth Branagh can be a terrifying villain. No one’s better at projecting both charm and menace. Other suggestions: Leiv Schreiber, Billy Crudup, Michael C. Hall.

 

MARCUS: Really we need Derek Jacoby for my intellectual Senator, since naturally, I based Marcus on his performance in BBC’s “I, Claudius.” But for someone else suitably graying and distinguished, I’ll take Gabriel Byrne. Other suggestions: Hugh Laurie, Rufus Sewell.

 

PAULINUS: Scott Porter has the charm and quiet leadership necessary to play Marcus’s idealistic soldier son. He stole the show in “Friday Night Lights” as the paralyzed quarterback, by turns bitter, disillusioned, and charismatic. Other suggestions: Ben McKenzie, Josh Hartnett, Rupert Friend.

 

The Ladies:

THEA: Oddly enough, the casting of my quiet slave girl heroine gives me the most trouble. Scarlett Johansson has Thea’s smoky voice but is otherwise a bit too much of a sexpot. Anna Paquin looks right, but is too sunny. I’ll go with Amy Acker for the time being–a quieter sort of beauty, and anyone who saw her in “Angel” or “Dollhouse” knows she can play desperate, funny, smart, passionate, and everything in between. Other suggestions: Emma Watson, Camilla Belle, Gemma Arterton.

 

LEPIDA: For my bitchy and beautiful villainess, look no farther than Leighton Meester. Her turn as the ruthless teen queen on “Gossip Girl” is only a hair removed; Lepida with an occasional twinge of conscience. Take that away and she has Lepida to a T: the doe-eyed beauty, the raptor-like cock of the head as an enemy’s weak spot is identified, the sweet smile as the dagger sinks into an unprotected back. Other suggestions: Natalie Dormer, Megan Fox, Emily Blunt.

 

JULIA: Samantha Morton is a bit old for my fey and fragile Vestal Virgin, which is too bad because she’s my first choice after I saw her as the shaven-headed psychic in “Minority Report.” But I’ll go with Kerry Condon, who was by turns frail, uncertain, and serene as Octavia in HBO’s “Rome.” Other choices: Emilie de Ravin, Sophia Myles.

 

Minor characters:

THE EMPRESS: Connie Nielson, if just for a “Gladiator” tribute.

 

GALLUS: Ian McNeice was oily and amusing as the Newsreader in HBO’s “Rome.” He’d be just as good as Arius’s oily and amusing owner/manager.

 

VIX: It’s hard to cast kids, even in imaginary movies. By the time they film anything, the kids are too old. But it’s my fantasy, so I’ll pick River Phoenix circa “Stand By Me”–tough, muscled, and formidable even at twelve. Perfect to play Thea’s troublemaking child-gladiator son.

 

SABINA: Marcus and Lepida’s introspective daughter would have to be played by several actresses at different ages. But as the twelve-year-old who plays a critical part in the final crisis, I’ll take Dakota Fanning. True, Dakota Fanning is sixteen. But if I can cast River Phoenix when he’s dead, I can cast Dakota Fanning at twelve.

 

So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie of Mistress of Rome. Of course, even if it did end up being made into a movie, I would likely have no say in the casting or even the script. Stephenie Meyer was able to stipulate in her movie contract that none of the vampires have exaggerated fangs, and J.K. Rowling was able to put her foot down when some producer wanted to re-set Harry Potter in the United States–but most of us writers have no power over what happens to our novels when they get turned into celluloid. So if Mistress of Rome gets made into a terrible direct-to-video flick starring Fabio in nipple rings, don’t blame me.

In the meantime, if you’ve read my book and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears.

Happy Father’s Day

I’m a daddy’s girl; always have been. I had one of those dads who read aloud to me, taught me to appreciate Miles Davis, and jogged alongside my bike holding it up as I first wobbled down the street. By the time I was in middle school we shared a mutual passion for C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, and used to bemuse onlookers with our passionate debates on naval battle tactics of the Napoleonic Era. So in honor of my dad and in honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d do a post today in honor of great historical fathers.

Unfortunately, historical dads get a bad rap. Pretty much across the board in most cultures and eras, fathers were not expected to interact much with their kids. You provided food for the kids, perhaps taught the boys to fight, but overall your wife did most of the hands-on nurturing. This was even more true of kings, who often didn’t even see their kids much since royal babies would be whisked off into their own entirely separate households within a few weeks of birth.

But there were some good dads out there, and quite a few daddy’s girls. Philip II of Spain, despised by Anglophiles because of his marriage to Mary Tudor and his failed Armada against Elizabeth I, was nevertheless a doting father to his daughter Isabella: he brought her to the study with him while he worked, allowing her to sort papers and translate documents while they chatted, and later she nursed him devotedly on his deathbed. Giangaleazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan in the fourteenth century, was a ruthless warlord who murdered his uncle and various cousins on his way up the ladder–but he doted on his daughter Valentina so much that he nearly declared war on France when he learned the French court was saying nasty things about her. Two famous daddy’s girls of a more ambiguous nature were Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Frankly, I doubt I’d be on good terms with a father who chopped my mother’s head off, or even just hounded her to death, but both girls seemed unable to resist their father’s charm when he smiled at them: Both prided themselves openly on being the daughters of Henry VIII.

Historical fiction has even more good dads and daddy’s girls. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father in the “Little House” series, who treasured Laura as the toughest and funniest of all his daughters. The scholarly father in Judith Merkle Riley’s “The Oracle Glass,” who favored his crippled intelligent daughter over all his other children, and honed her mind on Greek and Latin. Johnny Nolan from “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” a drunk and a bad provider but still a gentle man who adored and was adored by his daughter Francie. “Gone With the Wind” has two great father-daughter relationships: Scarlett and her peppery Irish father, who loves his eldest daughter because she has his fiery temper and love for the land, and Rhett Butler who nearly goes insane when his beloved Bonnie dies in a riding accident.

So happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere, of the past and the present. You don’t get nearly as much cred as mothers sometimes, but there are a lot of daddy’s girls out there who love you.

Sex With Kings

So I have to wonder: why all the fascination lately with royal mistresses?

Well, maybe I don’t wonder that much. From a historical fiction novelist’s standpoint, I can see why fellow HF writers like royal mistresses as characters for novels: they’re probably better-looking than a queen or princess who is the process of twenty-five generations of royal inbreeding, and they get better sex than queens or princesses. Also, they get great jewelry.

But still, from all the plethora of novels lately about royal mistresses, I have to wonder why modern readers have so much fascination with the women who had sex with kings. It’s not exactly a role model career, after all. It’s more like a precarious temp job which might have great perks, but which can be snatched from you at any time by middle age, your boss’s boredom, or an up-and-coming rival with tighter skin.

The perks of the job can be tempting, of course. The presents are terrific: Henri II of France gave his mistress Diane de Poitiers whole estates carved everywhere with their H&D initials. Fantastic jewelry is a matter of course, like the emeralds given to the Princess de Soubise by Louis XIV, which she wore to signal him when her husband would be out of town. If a mistress managed to have a child by the king, she could reap the benefits of rearing a royal bastard: half the dukedoms of England today were originally bestowed by Charles II on his illegitimate children. Even beyond the jewelry and property is the power. Charles II’s mistress Louise de Kerouaille advised him routinely on French policy. Henri VI of France valued his beloved Gabrielle d’Estrees as a diplomat as well as a lover, and eventually gave her a seat on his council.

The downsides of being a royal mistress, however, were considerable. Other women plotted non-stop to steal your job. The king himself might get tired of you. And however much power you had at the pinnacle of success, you usually had none when discarded. Louise de Valliere found herself in a convent after Louis XIV was done with her, shaven-headed and alone. Admiral Nelson (not royal, but far more popular than any king) begged his friends on his deathbed to look after his mistress Lady Hamilton, but she still died in miserable poverty.

Historical fiction novelists have done a lot with royal mistresses. Sighing novels have been written about Louis XIV’s Madame de Montespan, Henry II’s Alais Capet and Rosamund Clifford, Edward III’s Alice Perrers and Edward IV’s Jane Shore, to name just a few. Some of these novels are very good (Anya Seton’s Katherine is superb) and some are absolute dreck. I’ve benefited from the trend myself, writing a book about a (fictional) mistress of Roman Emperor Domitian. With the advent of feminism, perhaps we shouldn’t still be so fascinated by women whose life ambition was to have sex with a king. But it’s a guilty pleasure: these beautiful women with their pillow whispers and their great jewelry, standing in the shadows of history.

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