The Characters in the Stories

Many of the people in my books are referred to in ancient sources and therefore "really" existed: however it is very unlikely that they were anything like the characters in the novels. I have always followed what was best for the story, though I haven't trampled on known history - well, not too much.

In the ancient world, the sources give the novelist the luxury of a wide variety of interpretations: it is hugely frustrating for the historian. I cannot even give you years of birth and death for many of the characters below, but instead rely on what is generally accepted. In other words, if there is a question mark before a date, it is a sensible guess, and no more.

The Famous People

Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) was Rome’s first Emperor. After the settlement of power engineered in 27 BCE, he took the name “Augustus”, and it is usually that year that we say marks the beginning of the Roman Empire. A grade A manipulator of public opinion, a very hard worker who expected much of everyone around him, Augustus created what many Romans would have seen as a Golden Age. For one thing, he brought the untidy and costly series of civil wars to an end. He worked tirelessly to make the city and empire capable of supporting its people without corruption. But it is hard to like him. He had a ruthless streak which led him to sacrifice friends and family for the sake of the regime he was building

Gaius Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BCE) was a brilliant politician and general. Born into a family of impeccable lineage, he combined intelligence, charm and ambition. He showed everyone how to sidestep the more cumbersome expectations of tradition. and when the system could not deliver what he wanted, he was able to take the unthinkable step and provoke a Civil War when he crossed the River Rubicon in 49 BCE. He took the office of Dictator and abused its limits, thus scaring a group of committed Republicans into assassinating him in 44 BCE

Gaius Sallustius Crispus ( 87/86 – goodness knows BCE) was a Roman Senator and politician who turned to writing history when life did not turn out as he would have wished. He did govern North Africa and was severely criticised for it upon his return, but Caesar rescued him. The money he extorted went towards laying out a famous set of Gardens on the Quirinal Hill. There is a legend that he married Cicero’s ex-wife, Terentia. If only that were true… My favourite portrayal of Sallust is in the SPQR series of books by John Maddox Roberts

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was the boy from respectable obscurity whose talent pushed him to the top. Cicero was not an all-rounder: he had one outstanding skill, in oratory. As lawyer and politician he became a leading light in the Roman Senate for two decades, though he also suffered discrimination from those who looked down on his background – after all, he did not even come from Rome itself, but a town called Arpinum, about 70 miles to the south… As a writer of hundreds of works which have survived to the current day, he is the Roman we can really get to know as a human being: talented, boastful, and insecure. One has to feel sorry for his son, Marcus Tullius Cicero Junior (born in 65 BCE) who was never going to be able to live up to his father. For an excellent (fictional) account of Cicero’s political life, see Robert Harris’ Imperium trilogy

Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus were in the position of having been pardoned by Caesar at the beginning of the novel. Not everyone finds clemency easy to swallow and in addition, Caesar as Dictator acted in a way which disturbed a great many people. If you believed in the traditional Roman Republic, then what Caesar was doing was destroying it. Both Brutus and Cassius are interesting characters and resist a simple analysis: Brutus in particular merits some reading up and I enjoyed the fascinating and repulsive version of him in Colleen McCullough’s series Masters of Rome

Gaius Maecenas was at the side of Augustus form the very start. If Agrippa was Augustus’ right-hand man as far as military matters went, then Maecenas was the behind-the-scenes man: he arranged treaties and weddings and was often left at Rome when Augustus and Agrippa were aboard, to make sure the city was calm and under control. This was all unofficial as Maecenas never became a Senator so could not hold office. He is best-known today for cultivating the artistic life of Rome, resulting in what is often called a Golden Age. He was patron to Virgil, Horace and Propertius

Quintus Horatius Flaccus was one of the raft of bright young poets cultivated by the Augustan regime and occasionally employed to promote that regime in a fairly obvious manner. Born in 65 BCE, and son of a freedman, Horace fought under Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, but returned to Rome to be the client of Maecenas. Under this patronage, Horace flourished. His poetry is marked by elegance and sometimes brilliance: he is witty and thoughtful, expert in use of complex metres and comes across as genuinely likeable. He is aware of his humble beginnings but remembers his father with pride and gratitude. Horace has never dropped out of popularity, but throughout the last 2000 years there have been those who felt uncomfortable with his close adherence to the Augustan regime

Marcus Tullius Cicero the Younger is the son of a famous father who did not reach the same heights as his parent – so, we hear little that is positive about him. He fought in several civil war battles beginning with Pharsalus when he would have been just seventeen. He was in Athens when he met Brutus and was recruited to his army after the assassination of Caesar. This meant that he was safely abroad in 43 BCE when the order was given for his father, uncle and cousin to be killed. Had he been with them, there is no doubt that he too would have been killed. After fighting at Philippi, Marcus, along with many others was pardoned and allowed to return to Italy, and the next we hear he is consul in 30 BCE, overseeing the removal of Mark Antony’s statues from the city. We know he went to help govern Syria after his term of office was over, and then he disappears. There are gossipy hints in later writers that he was a notorious drinker

The Sestius family

Publius Sestius Quirinalis was a friend – well, mostly – of the orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. He married twice: firstly Albinia (probably in the mid-70s BCE), then Cornelia. We know that he had daughter and a son by Albinia. During the seventies he must have made his name in Rome for he was elected quaestor and played a part in suppressing the Catilinarian affair of 63/62. He then supported Cicero when the latter was sent into exile in 58. When Publius Sestius was charged with political violence in 56, Cicero successfully defended him, and it is in the speech for the defence that we find out about Lucius Sestius’ existence

Albinia Sestia – Publius’ eldest child, born before Lucius. I have married her off to a little-known Senator called Apuleius. She may well have written poetry in real life, but I can’t say that I have discovered any evidence for this: I just liked the idea of writing about a cultured, intelligent woman. I also thought that she would be good for Lucius

Lucius Sestius Quirinalis (?68 to some time after about 20 BCE) is first described in Cicero’s speech defending his father in 56 BCE. Lucius is next found in about 43 BCE minting coins in the East for Marcus Brutus the assassin of Caesar, as Brutus collects troops and resources to defend himself from those who seek to avenge Caesar. And yet, in 23 BCE, Lucius becomes consul of Rome under Augustus. We next find him setting up three altars to Augustus in the far-flung wilds of the new Spanish provinces, and then he disappears

Tia (62BCE – ) is the youngest in the Sestius family, and the only one not attested in a source somewhere. According to tradition she would actually have been Sestia Minor – Sestia the Younger, and Albinia would have been Sestia Major. Girls took the feminine form of their fathers’ middle names, which must have been confusing in families with lots of girls. Sources indicate that a third girl could be known by the nickname “Tertia” (“The Third One”) – just imagine the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice! Jane would have been Bennetia, but then Lizzie, Mary, Kitty and Lydia would have been Secunda, Tertia, Quarta and Quinta… I made the arbitrary decision that any sensible Roman family would make up their own nicknames for multiple girls

Decius is the only member of the Sestius household staff who is attested – in a single reference in a Cicero letter which implies that he is a secretary for the family

Paulus, Melissa, Phoebe and Mico are slaves in the Sestius household.  The relations between family and trusted slaves are based on the way in which many Roman families chose to treat their slaves. And, yes, some people were horribly cruel and inhuman to their slaves. But freeing a slave was absolutely normal, and gave many of them something to work towards, a lot of slaves received small sums of money and gifts as a matter of course, and it makes little sense for a normal person to spend a large sum of money on something which they then mistreat

Junia Tertia’s family

Servilia is possibly the most important person in the book, certainly instrumental in shaping her daughters’ lives and opinions. Highly-born, well-educated, intelligent and beautiful, she was a catch in the Roman marriage market. Born probably around 100 BCE, she lived into the thirties, and may even have seen Augustus become Rome’s first emperor. She is the centre of a web of intriguing family and friends, and certainly moved among the top political circles. There is evidence that she expected to be part of the discussion when her menfolk were making important decisions

Decius Junius Silanus is completely outclassed by his wife in our sources. Sadly, the most I can say about him is that he made it to consul at the second attempt and died not long afterwards

Junia and Junilla were married to extremely important men, but being the daughters of their mother would have been brought up to expect this. I have no doubt that Servilia made sure her daughters were educated and informed, indeed given their lives on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum, it would have been hard to escape Roman politics. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have been close to the imperial family. Junilla’s daughter was at one point engaged to Augustus, and Junia’s granddaughter was briefly betrothed to Lucius Caesar, Augustus’ grandson. If my calculations are correct, then Junia’s great-granddaughter, Aemilia Lepida was married to the future emperor Galba

Sulpicia the poet was a real person, and some have even identified her as the poet Ovid‘s mother-in-law. Born around 40 BCE, she was given a huge advantage in life as a poet by being the niece of Valerius Messalla Corvinus, a noted patron of literature. She was briefly married to Fabius Maximus, and had a daughter by him. We do not know if she married again. Her poems were, for many years, assumed to have been written by a man, and were attributed to the poet Tibullus


Cornelius Rufus, age unknown, is the freelance snoop from the Subura who turns out to be solid gold. He is a Roman citizen, but, living in the Subura, has a completely different point of view from his well-heeled lawyer clients. All manner of people would have lived in the Subura, a low-lying area north of the Roman Forum, filled with blocks of flats. It would be tempting to brand all Subura residents as just gutter-rats, as Lucius does at first. But Cornelius Rufus is more interesting than a poverty-stricken stereotype. As I grew to respect him, I gave him a stalwart girlfriend, the cloth-merchant Rubria. She would have seen the qualities in Cornelius Rufus

Quintus Caecilius, around Lucius’ age, is the son of a respectable and wealthy family from the Bay of Naples area. I freely admit that once I decided that Publius Sestius met the Caecilius family in that area, I could not resist calling them after the family in the Cambridge Latin Course which I studied in school. Engaged to Tia, Caecilius is a lot more cheerful and outgoing than Lucius, and one of those people who gets on with everyone.

Titus Fadius Gallus, (?93 BCE – unknown) who is from Publius Sestius’ generation, was discovered in another Cicero letter. He was quaestor in 63 BCE the year of Catiline’s conspiracy and was also involved in the fight to get Cicero recalled in 57 BCE. Later exiled – why, we don’t know – he receives a letter of commiseration from Cicero which I can’t see cheering him up, and later he clearly complains about how little Cicero has helped him

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