Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guest Post: Kate Quinn, Author of Empress of the Seven Hills

Once again I have the pleasure of hosting the extremely talented Kate Quinn here on The Muse in the Fog Book Review. Kate is the author of three mesmerizing novels set in Ancient Rome, with her newest release being Empress of the Seven Hills. Thank you, Kate, for joining us today!


"If there's a downside to democracy, it's a lack of grandeur. Most presidents nowadays leave their legacy (if any) in endless dry documents written in legalese that would put most of us into a Sleeping Beauty coma. Absolute monarchs have latitude for grand gestures when they start thinking about what they want to leave behind. Screw legal documents and legislation; the average monarch wanted to leave posterity something massive, imposing, and preferably in marble. Roman Emperors were the best at this kind of self-aggrandizement-as-city-beautification: most emperors, once they had settled any rebellious provinces, cowed any resentful senators into submission, and killed any ambitious family members, turned their thoughts to statues, theatres, temples, triumphal arches, and anything they could stick their name on to make people oooh and aaah. We're still ooohing and aaahing two thousand years later at the ruins.

Roman architecture and building programs have an important part to play in my new book “Empress of the Seven Hills,” and hopefully that's not as boring as it sounds. A scheming villain embezzles from an architectural project for campaign funds. A politician doodles arches and columns for his fantasy vacation house in between signing death warrants. A Roman girl pushes one of her suitors into a bathhouse pool, hoping it will encourage him to propose marriage. (Does it? Read to find out.) “Empress of the Seven Hills” takes place during the reign of Emperor Trajan, a hearty career soldier who spent more time on campaign trails than temple blueprints – but all his victories resulted in a hefty dose of triumphal arches, commemorative columns and other marble tokens of victory. The Column of Trajan still stands today, a massive pillar with a series of carved images that wind their way up to the top, chronologically recording the battles, marches, and eventual conquest of Dacia. A sort of carved-in-stone CNN broadcast, and marvelously useful to writers like me who are trying to untangle just what happened in that Dacian campaign so we can plunk our characters down into the middle of it. Thanks to Trajan's Column, I was able to figure out how he deployed his troops, how the enemy king died, and even such small details as the fact that normally clean-shaven Roman soldiers were being marched so fast that they had no time to shave, and thus let their beards grow on campaign. Nowadays we get our wartime news from Robin Mead's “Salute to the Troops!”; back then, you read it on a column. I think I prefer the column; far less perky to my pre-coffee morning self than Robin Mead.

Emperor Trajan also recognized the political aspects of building: he had an enormous bathhouse complex built as his personal present to Rome; a popular gift from emperors who could afford it. Public bathing was something the Romans prided themselves on. Massive monuments to leisure and cleanliness were the ultimate sign of civilization; a sort of big marble excuse note that said “See, it's ok to conquer all those other countries; they're so uncivilized they don't even bathe!” Even a lowly plebeian could pay a small fee to bask in the spa rooms and steam rooms of the Baths of Trajan, and marvel at the man who built it all. Politicians sometimes curried votes by paying a bathhouse's entrance fees for a day: “Come get a free massage and beauty treatment at the Baths of Trajan, and don't forget to vote for Mitt Romney!” Frankly I think this is an idea that needs to be revived; I have no intention of voting for Mitt Romney, but I'd be happy to let him pay for my pedicures.

Emperor Trajan's ward Hadrian is also a major character in “Empress of the Seven Hills,” and he's a man who would also become famous for the monuments he left posterity. Namely, of course, is Hadrian's Wall – that enormous crumbling structure that still stretches across the very top of England, left to us by a man who was wise enough to take one look north at a howling mass of Scotsmen, and decide “Hell no, I'm not taking them on!” Another of Hadrian's legacies is the exquisite complex of ruins still extant just outside Rome; an expanse of palaces, offices, theatres, and temples collectively known as “Hadrian's Villa.” Hadrian, an amateur architect, designed much of it himself and began building the moment he could afford it: a place where a politician who was never alone could at least be surrounded by peace and beauty.

Not all Roman monuments were about peace or beauty, of course. The Colosseum still looms over the streets of Rome, so awe-inspiring that it's easy to forget just how many gladiators, prisoners, and animals died there. And the Circus Maximus remains as a vast oval track where chariots once ran, the largest arena ever built for sporting purposes – it would take more than six Fenway Parks full of Red Sox fans to fill the Circus Maximus to full, screaming capacity. Bread and circuses; the tools Roman politicians used to sate the masses, and they needed massive marble arenas and stadiums to do it.

Maybe in the end, it's better to live in a world where there are no public executions, fights to the death for public entertainment, conquests of neighboring nations, and politicians who can buy your vote with a free massage. But I'm still glad all those arrogant, ambitious Romans existed, with their bloodlust and their wars and their desire to be immortalized in marble. If not for them, we wouldn't have so many wonderful things to gawk at."



Synopsis (From the Publisher):
"Powerful, prosperous, and expanding ever farther into the untamed world, the Roman Empire has reached its zenith under the rule of the beloved Emperor Trajan. But neither Trajan nor his reign can last forever…

Brash and headstrong, Vix is a celebrated ex-gladiator returned to Rome to make his fortune. The sinuous, elusive Sabina is a senator’s daughter who craves adventure. Sometimes lovers, sometimes enemies, Vix and Sabina are united by their devotion to Trajan. But others are already maneuvering in the shadows. Trajan’s ambitious Empress has her own plans for Sabina. And the aristocratic Hadrian—the Empress’s ruthless protégé and Vix’s mortal enemy—has ambitions he confesses to no one, ambitions rooted in a secret prophecy.

When Trajan falls, the hardened soldier, the enigmatic empress, the adventurous girl, and the scheming politician will all be caught in a deadly whirlwind of desire and death that may seal their fates, and that of the entire Roman Empire."


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