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 LIKE OTHER historical novelists before me, I am deeply indebted to those who have spent countless years interpreting, researching, and writing on the world of ancient Rome. Those scholars have allowed me to depict, to the best of my abilities, what life was like more than two thousand years ago when the children of Marc Antony and Kleopatra were taken from Egypt and raised for several years on the Palatine. If Selene and Alexander seem incredibly precocious for their ages, that is because they were the extremely well-educated children of a queen considered to be one of the most learned women of her time. Like today’s child actors, they would have been raised in an adult world with adult expectations, and clearly Selene’s education was sufficient to see her made Queen of Mauretania.

Nearly all of the characters in the book represent real people whom Alexander and Selene actually met, and I based their personalities on what was written about them and preserved in the historical record. From Augustus’s love of the theater to Agrippa’s building of the Pantheon—where you can still see his name etched into the pediment today—I tried to ensure that the characters remained true to their historical selves. The major exception to this would be my invention of the Red Eagle. While the Red Eagle did not exist, there is evidence to suggest that Juba was deeply disgusted by the culture of slavery in Rome. After his arrival in Mauretania, slavery there slowly disappeared, and it’s not surprising that he would identify with those who had been enslaved, given the fate he might have suffered had it not been for his illustrious ancestry. Both of the slave trials in the novel were based on events that supposedly took place in ancient Rome, and I believe they help to illustrate just a few of the moral issues that arose from human bondage. Such trials also serve as a reminder of how frequently fact is stranger than fiction. Take, for example, Pollio’s attempt to feed a slave to his eels, the escaped bull in the Forum Boarium that plummeted to its death from a second-story balcony, and Augustus’s obsessive note-taking: all are based on the historical record. Even Magister Verrius’s use of games in the ludus, the tribe of Telegenii who fought leopards in the arena; and Octavian’s carelessness in Alexander the Great’s mausoleum, which resulted in the corpse’s broken nose: all come from contemporary accounts. And even though we might think of some of the amenities in the novel as exclusively modern, the heated pools, elegantly shuttered windows, tourist guide books, and much else were present in Imperial Rome.

It is astounding to think of what the Romans accomplished more than two millennia ago when the average life expectancy was less than thirty years. Some of the most enduring buildings can be traced back to both Agrippa and Augustus: the famous Pantheon, the Basilica of Neptune, the Saepta Julia, the Forum Augusti, and many of the baths. Augustus and Agrippa furnished these places with their favorite statues, and just like many other Romans, they were avid collectors of antiquities, particularly anything that came from Greece. Contrary to what we see today in museums, nearly all of their marble statues were painted, many of them in garish colors such as bright red, turquoise, yellow, and orange. Though it’s strange to imagine people who lived two millennia ago collecting antiques, in many ways Roman society was startlingly similar to our own. The Romans were fond of the theater; they used handshakes for introductions; and many of the leading thinkers, such as Cicero, mocked prevalent superstitions and even belief in the gods. Children played with dice and puppets, while adults went to the races to place bets and meet friends. Everyday humor was notoriously crass. All across the city of Pompeii, graffiti preserve ancient Roman sarcasm. And when the emperor Vespasian knew he was dying, he told his sons wryly, “I think I’m becoming divine.”

There is a reason so many of us are drawn to ancient Rome, and I believe it’s because we recognize ourselves in these people who lived more than two thousand years ago. Consider the following quotes, some of which you might think were excerpts from modern-day writings:

A human body was washing ashore, tossing lightly up and down on the waves. I stood sadly waiting, gazing with wet eyes on the work of the faithless element, and soliloquized, “Somewhere or another, perhaps, a wife is looking forward to this poor fellow’s return, or a son, perhaps, or a father, all unsuspecting of storm and wreck; be sure, he has left someone behind, whom he kissed fondly at parting. This then is the end of human projects, this the accomplishment of men’s mighty schemes. Look how he now rides the waves!”

Petronius, Satyricon 115

I was happy to learn from people who had just visited you that you live on friendly terms with your slaves…. Some people say, “They’re just slaves.” But they are our fellow human beings! “They’re just slaves.” But they live with us! “They’re just slaves.” In fact, they are our fellow slaves, if you stop to consider that fate has as much control over us as it has over them…. I don’t want to engage in a lengthy discussion of the treatment of slaves, toward whom we are very arrogant, very cruel, and very abusive. However, this is my advice: “Treat those of lower social rank as you would wish to be treated by those of higher social rank.”

Seneca the Younger, in a letter to a friend

She who first began the practice of tearing out her tender progeny deserved to die in her own warfare. Can it be that, to be free of the flaw of stretchmarks, you have to scatter the tragic sands of carnage? … Why will you subject your womb to the weapons of abortion and give poisons to the unborn? … The tigress lurking in Armenia does no such thing, nor does the lioness dare to destroy her young. Yet tender girls do so—but not with impunity; often she who kills what is in her womb dies herself.

Ovid Amores

What’s come over you? Is it because I go to bed with the queen [Kleopatra]? Yes, she isn’t my wife, but it isn’t as if it’s something new, is it? Haven’t I been doing it for nine years now? And what about you? Is Livia really the only woman you go to bed with? I congratulate you, if at the time you read this letter you haven’t had Tertulla or Terentilla or Rufilla or Salvia Titisenia or the whole lot of them. Does it really matter where you insert your prick—or who the woman is?

Marc Antony, in a letter to Octavian that was preserved by the biographer Suetonius

In the Petronius quote, we recognize the very human fear of death and the sense of loss it creates for those who are left behind. In Seneca’s letter, we see that even though slavery had long been an institution, there were those who clearly felt uncomfortable with it. Ovid takes up the long-running abortion debate, while Marc Antony’s letter mocks Octavian for being a hypocrite where extramarital affairs were concerned. These sentiments now seem surprisingly modern, for we still live with the relics of their ancient world. The first newspaper is widely considered to have been Julius Caesar’s daily acta diurna, and the phrase Senatus Populusque Romanas, meaning “the Senate and the People of Rome,” is still used today. In fact, its initials, SPQR, can be seen throughout the city, on everything from billboards to manhole covers.

Yet even with such abundance before me, I did allow myself some deviations from the historical record. Because both of Octavia’s eldest daughters were named Claudia and both her youngest daughters were named Antonia, I changed two of their names for the sake of simplicity (to Marcella and Tonia). And while it was haruspices who examined the entrails of animals in order to determine favorable signs from the gods and fulguratores who interpreted lightning and thunder, I chose to call them both “augurs” so that I wouldn’t overwhelm the reader with too many foreign terms. Similarly, I have chosen to limit the use of Latin noun declensions for the sake of English reader simplicity.

Other changes I made included the invention of both Gallia and Lucius, who did not, so far as we know, exist, and a few of the dates within the novel, which were altered slightly. (Also, the month of August was known as Sextilis during the dates this novel takes place, and was only later renamed Augustus in Octavian’s honor.) I did not include the Roman habit of kicking instead of knocking on doors, and for the sake of storytelling, I had Queen Kleopatra act shocked upon hearing the news that Octavian had taken his uncle’s name, when in reality she must have known much earlier. And while I tried my best to remain anachronism-free, I admit to failure where some words, like books (which were really codices at that time), are concerned. Yet for the most part I attempted to remain as close as possible to proven history. After all, that’s why we read historical fiction—to be transported to another time, and to be astonished at ancient people’s lives and traditions, just as they would probably be astonished at ours.

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