Why Do You Hate Ancient Romans So Much? (And Other Frequently Asked Questions)

February 23, 2012

A few years ago, I was enraptured by the life story of a nine year old Egyptian princess who was taken prisoner by the Romans, dragged through the streets in chains, and yet went on to be the most powerful queen in Augustus’ empire. I decided to write some books about her, the most recent of which is Song of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter.

Because I’ve spent so long studying Cleopatra Selene, I get asked a lot of strange questions ranging from whether or not the Egyptians really had turquoise (they did) to the true location of Cleopatra’s tomb (nobody knows). But one thing that keeps cropping up again and again: why do you hate the ancient Romans so much?

Now, the heroine of my novels doesn’t think much of the Romans. She wouldn’t. She was a Hellenized princess who–although half-Roman by blood–spent her young life in Egypt. An Egypt she was almost certainly raised to believe that she would rule as queen. In writing my novels, I assumed that even the most mature teenager, no matter how nuanced to the vagaries of power, would be resentful of having her kingdom taken away from her. Perhaps she would be even more resentful of having been dragged through the streets as a chained captive. Knowing that her life and her future was at the mercy of the very man who forced her parents to suicide can’t have endeared them to her. And she was bound to have had culture shock.

So, I made Cleopatra Selene hate the Romans. That doesn’t mean I do.

As I say in the beginning of Lily of the Nile in a note to my readers, the anti-Roman bias belongs to my heroine. I’m quite an admirer of ancient Romans, from whom we’ve inherited almost all our best and worst qualities. The Romans had gladiator games. They kept slaves. They were a colonial power who conquered the lands around them and stole their wealth. They practiced infanticide and had very creative ways of executing prisoners.

But the Romans also had a genius for organization and order; with the Romans came roads, water, concrete that hardened under water, magnificent architecture, and law. In fact, even though they are primarily known for the excesses of mad emperors–the Romans believed in, and often achieved, good governance. To someone like me, whose primary focus of study in school was Government, that’s reason enough to admire them.

They were not the ancient world equivalent of the Nazis. Many of the wars they fought, they were drawn into by virtue of being a super power, in an effort to restore peace. (Not that they didn’t take advantage of such situations, but then again, when has any super power not taken advantage of it?) And even though they went around conquering people, they really wanted to bring new cultures into the fold. Slaves could achieve their freedom and their children could be citizens with full rights. There was, in fact, an astonishing amount of social mobility.

In short, I love the Romans and I love writing about them. While some of the Roman characters in my novels seem irredeemable (like the emperor’s wife, Livia), I lavished a lot of loving attention on Octavia, Agrippa, Marcella, and the Antonias…people who Selene initially loathed, but came to love. I treat Virgil with affectionate kid gloves, and Julia–the emperor’s daughter–may have been my favorite character in the book next to Selene!

So, in short, I don’t hate the Romans. I just love looking at them through Selene’s eyes and I hope my readers will too!

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