One of my favorite things about being a historical fiction author is the research involved. I've written several blogs previously regarding my research, but in the next few blogs that I write, I will be discussing research--what I've already done for The Antonius Trilogy, my continued research for my new project on Julia Clark, and even a piece on how to avoid research rabbit-holes!
Everybody, not just authors are faced with doing research at one time or another, so hopefully, there will be something here for almost everybody--students, career pursuers, and writers, too. This week, I'm sharing an article I wrote as a guest on another author's blog site. She specifically wanted me to address the travel research I did to "discover" my main character--Marc Antony--and his world. So here it is!
A Lost History: Searching for Antony
Research: studious inquiry or examination especially: investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.
I chose the above definition from Webster’s Online, because I thought it was a proper fit for historical fiction authors, since we must have a studious mindset to examine facts pertaining to specific subjects on which we’re writing. Second, in an excellent story, we’re called upon to interpret those facts and arrange elements in the historical record—not necessarily to change it, but to make it pleasing and logical for readers’ eyes and minds.
My research to “discover” and deliver the Marc Antony for my trilogy took place over thousands of miles, six different trips to Italy, two to Greece, and one extensive visit to Egypt. Still, I didn’t get to see everything I wish I could have. But these travels instilled into my psyche some important observations and insightful interpretations of exactly what I would write and how. And when it came to world-building, these experiences were invaluable. So please allow me to share a few of the things I discovered during these trips that helped me visualize Antony’s Roman world of the 1st century BC.
Supposedly, all roads lead there, and I’ve traveled on actual modern highways in Italy built along the same paths and in a few cases along the very foundations of Rome’s original ones.
Presenting a visual to my readers of what the ancient city looked like in Antony’s day was completely different from how the ruins appear now. Today’s jumble of rubble makes it unclear to inexperienced eyes exactly which buildings were standing at the time and which ones weren’t. I had to delineate that in my books through descriptive elements and maps. Furthermore, if there was a fire in the Senate house, how long would it take a senator to run from his domus (house) on the Palatine Hill and throw water on it? Yeah, I actually donned my sports sandals for a more authentic experience and jogged from the Palatine all the way to the present Curia Julia, dodging the crowds, to determine that length of time.
After several visits to Pompeii, I learned that the typical style of a Pompeiian domus wasn’t always the same floor plan as older Republican homes in Rome. And at one point, after having received a special pass from the Rome’s Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Tourism, I followed some security guards down a steep, dark, steel stairwell leading into the bowels of the Casa dei Griffi—House of the Griffins—the oldest Republican-period domus in Rome.
The more I delved into Antony’s tale, there were things I had to revisit whenever I returned to Rome. Issues kept arising in my plot, like, if I’m in the Forum Romanum, where’s the nearest entrance to the Cloaca Maxima (Rome’s famous sewer)? I’m talking about stuff that Google didn’t even know! By the way, the Cloaca Maxima smells exactly like it did two-thousand years ago, and while looking for it, I often caught its scent. Then there is the Mamertine Prison where Antony’s stepfather, Publius Lentulus Sura met his demise in a highly charged scene in Antonius: Son of Rome. And whenever I passed some tourist pointing to the Curia Julia, saying, “Look! That’s the Senate house where Caesar got stabbed!”, I’d have to shake my head and silently walk on. Julius actually breathed his last in a different curia inside Pompeius’s Theater, a portion of which is still visible in an area of Rome called the Largo di Torre Argentina—now a place ten-zillion cats call home.
Because of the extensive travel I had to engage in to research Antony, it became obvious that the man was highly traveled himself—especially for someone living millennia before automobiles, aircraft, or other modern transportation. Three of Antony’s more famous battles were on Greek soil. A friend and I spent a whole afternoon locating the obscure Epirus River (nothing but a muddy stream!) on the plains of Pharsalus where Antony led Caesar’s left wing next to the river’s bank.
In far northeastern Greece, I spent an entire day at the site of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius faced off against the combined armies of Antony and Octavian. It was here that I became mesmerized at the immense scale of ancient warfare. After climbing to the top of Philippi’s theater, once built by Phillip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), I gazed out over the battlefield and was so inspired, that I wrote the final scene of Second in Command there. How many clever Greeks got the idea to climb up onto the top of that theater back in 42 BC to watch the showdown? What a view they had!
I was further impressed with the magnitude and sophistication of ancient generals when I visited Actium, along the western Pelopponese. I happened to go there in the middle of Greece’s financial crisis, back in 2015. The guide I hired informed me that Octavian’s War Memorial had been closed due to lack of funds. She wound up buying a bottle of wine for the security guard at the site and he let us in! There, I saw the indentions where rams from some of Antony and Cleopatra’s ships had been mounted onto the Memorial’s walls as tithes to Apollo. The experience made me feel minute in comparison to the fight for power that took place there so long ago. My imagination sparked to life, envisioning massive warships rowing toward one another in what became one of history’s most defining battles.
Egypt was perhaps the most fabulous adventure of all, and Marc Antony would probably agree! I visited in 2008, when Hosni Mubarak was still in power. My final week was spent in Alexandria and of all of the places surrounding Antony’s story, it was the most difficult place in which to vividly imagine the romance and time he spent there with Cleopatra.
Alexandria is problematic from an archaeological standpoint for several reasons. 1) The coastline changed after a series of earthquakes and tsunamis hit during the Medieval Period, so land once visible in Ptolemaic times is now underwater, including most ruins from Cleopatra’s palace complex. 2) High-rise buildings have been haphazardly built up all over the city where scholars are certain many exciting finds remain, including the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. 3) Despite there being a portion of Antirhodos Island still remaining, where some of Cleopatra’s palace complex existed, it’s now a “classified zone”, due to an Egyptian military presence there. Still, I was able to view the base of what was once the magnificent Pharos Lighthouse.
While in “Alex”, I took a wonderful boat trip in the harbor. Despite rough seas, I was able to get a perspective of what it felt like to enter Alexandria’s Great Harbor by ship, just like my characters did. I was able to photograph what remains of Lake Mareotis, where Cleopatra took Antony fishing. It’s now mostly marsh, so once more, my imagination had to suffice. However, I paid several visits to the new Library of Alexandria, which has replaced the ancient one. Inside, the Center for Alexandrian Studies welcomed me and offered several phenomenal display models of the city so I was able to get a better grasp on its original layout.
What followed in the next seven years was the completion of my Antonius Trilogy, examining the story of how Rome’s Republic transitioned into an Empire—all from Antony’s point of view. Indeed, he’s a character who remains controversial, still spurring argument today. And because of damnatio memoriae, he’s a man history doesn’t really "know". I hope you’ll consider joining me on his adventure, because it’s truly the story of how Rome became an empire!