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Posts Tagged ‘Fire

Welcome to the Palladium

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Ever heard of the Palladium? No, not the theatre, nor the metal. The ancient Palladium, I mean. Well oddly it’s cropped up twice recently for me, after never previously knowing anything of it. Firstly, when I was writing the H360 book A Song of War, and then more recently in my biography of Commodus (which will be out in April – nudges you towards the pre-order button.)

So what was the Palladium? Well, let’s go back into some mythology to find it. You’ve heard of Athena, right? Greek goddess, connected with Athens and owls, worshipped in Rome as Minerva, sprouted from the head of Zeus like a pretty and rather powerful boil? Well did you know that she was raised by the sea god Triton and raised alongside Triton’s daughter like a sister. That sister-friend was called Pallas, and one day when soft play went wrong, Athena accidentally killed Pallas. In her grief, she made a divine wooden likeness of Pallas. This, then, was the Palladium. But how does it fit into my tales?


Cassandra clinging to the Palladium in the temple in Troy (a painting in Pompeii)

Well, ‘A Song of War’ was the H360 tale of the fall of Troy, and it so happened that the Palladium fell from the heavens and landed in Troy, where it was worshipped, stored in the temple of Athena. So when we wrote of the sack and the fall of Troy, it inevitably involved researching  some of the greatest treasures and sacred objects of the city. As legend would have it, the Palladium survives the fall of Troy. In our tale, the team told of Odysseus and Diomedes’ theft of the Palladium (or Palladion in Greek.) So I read of this most reverent wooden statue in the terms of Vicky Alvear Shecter’s amazing tale of Odysseus. So the Palladium leaves Troy with the great intuitive Greek and his lion-skin-clad mate. But somehow it leaves the city after the war, and not via Odysseus, since he heads back to Ithaka in order to drink some Ouzo and relax as he imports washing machines cheap from Albania.


Diomedes and Odysseus stealing the Palladium (from the Louvre)

Now here the tales seem to peter out. Somehow the Palladium leaves Troy, though it doesn’t seem to be in the hands of Odysseus. It perhaps left with Diomedes, who is recorded as ending up in Italy, or perhaps with Aeneas somehow. However it went, the next time it appears in the Historical/Mythological record is in Rome. Exactly how it stops being a Graeco-Trojan religious focus and becomes Roman is something of a mystery, but then the Romans were ever masters of claiming older valuable things as their own, a bit like Melania… I personally blame Virgil, who seems intent on making Troy Rome’s ancestor at any expense. Either way, the Palladium eventually ends up in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, where it is one of the city’s most sacred relics. There it is kept inviolable and hidden, away from the masses.

Louvre Palladium

Nike and a warrior either side of a pillar topped by the Palladium (in the Louvre)

And this is where, for me, it turns up a second time in my research. I have just finished writing Commodus, my second book for Orion, in which I re-examine that infamous emperor in a new light, and lo and behold but what should suddenly crop up in my research but the Palladium!


Commodus as Hercules (in the Capitoline Museum)

I shall try and avoid spoilers of course, but suffice it to say there is, during that story, a fire in Rome. Let’s face it, Rome burns every ten minutes. Fires in ancient Rome are more common than non-sequiturs in a Richard Ayoade monologue or failures in Anglo-American government. This particular fire threatens the forum and the Palatine, and in the process catches and incinerates the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestals. I give you my source material, the ever-entertaining Herodion:

“1.14.4 After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view – that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes. Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time.

1.14.5 For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace.”


Rome burns

So there you have it. I wrote a tale set 1600 years BC in Anatolian Greece and it involved the Palladium. Then I wrote a tale set in the late 2nd century AD, almost two millennia later and half a known world away, and lo and behold there again is the Palladium.

Interestingly, I have since found a reference that Constantine (about whom I am also writing with the indomitable Gordon Doherty), when he founded the new Rome, moved the Palladium to Constantinople where he buried it below his column (hur, hur, hur – said in a Beavis and Butthead voice).

The Palladium, then. A battered wooden image of Pallas fashioned by a god, which seems fated to crop up in what I write. Bet you’ll remember it now when next it crops up.


One day I’ll be here, receiving an award…. 😉



Written by SJAT

September 15, 2018 at 8:59 am

A Day of Fire

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What Pompeii the movie should have been.


The benefit of such a tale being told in six different stories by six different people is that it bears a certain resemblance to the good old-fashioned disaster movie. These days they tend to be released as love stories or thrillers or suchlike against the background of a disaster, but you remember the old ones? The Poseidon Adventure? Airport? The Towering Inferno? Even Volcano, I suppose. Part of the joy of those movies was that the story was not one plot but a basket of inter-weaved plot-lines set against a single series of events, often throwing disparate characters together and telling the whole tale from a variety of viewpoints. And that’s what we have in Day of Fire, with the stories cleverly interlinked to a greater or lesser extent.

Off the bat, I’ll say that the only writer of the six included here that I’ve previously read is Ben Kane, but his pedigree is such that it would hook me regardless. Happily I was pleasantly surprised. There being such a variety within I couldn’t hope to review the book as a whole without attention to the individual tales, so here’s a blow-by-blow review, interspersed with a few appropriate pics of Pompeii ripped from my collection for colour.


The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter


Pompeii - The Brothel


introduces us to the locale, the time, and the initial problems with Vesuvius, taking us through a story of young lust, betrayal and intrigues, told with an easy, familiar style that is well informed and thick with Pompeian atmosphere, dropping us into the troubled life of the nephew of the great admiral Pliny the Elder. I was initially unsure of it as an opening tale, perhaps because it is so often said that a novel will only sell if the opening scenes are crammed with blood and action (and such is my most common reading fare) and perhaps, given the fact that this is a tale of Vesuvius, I was expecting an opening scene filled with volcanic action. But very soon I settled into the tale and started to enjoy the ride. The last stages of the story were particularly well presented and the story left me with an impression of polished style and a solid understanding of human nature. All in all, it was a superb opening to the collection.


The Heiress by Sophie Perinot


Pompeii - Via Stabiana 01

I found a little more troublesome. Not for the story or the characters, which were both very well presented, and again the flavour was just right, but for the fact that the story was written from two viewpoints and one of them was presented in the first person, present tense, which I find faintly headache-inducing to read. Still, as I said, the story was well enough told that it made me persevere, and I’m glad I did, for the end result was one of enjoyment and, after all, half of the tale is told in the first person past tense. This story of a woman hurtling with unstoppable momentum towards an arranged marriage she fears has a real feel of humanity about it, and introduces us to a number of recurring characters. It also perhaps made me reconsider the importance of the arranged marriage in Rome and the effects upon those involved.


The soldier by Ben Kane


Pompeii - Amphitheatre (Interior 02)


is a Kane tale in spades. Ben is one of the leading lights in both the Roman and Military genres for a reason. Unlike many who can admirably present a battle and a tale of spilled blood and spilled brains, Kane is one of the very best for interlacing a human element that gives such stories a real depth of feeling, and that is if anything more pronounced here than in his previous novels. This tale of a broke and desperate ex-soldier pinning all his hopes of surviving his creditors on a gladiator is a real gem. Kane’s usual military action comes here in the form of the games in the arena rather than battle, but that is a small part of the whole, which is a tale of brotherhood and survival more than anything else. This is also the first tale in the collection that focuses heavily on the effects of the eruption on the city of Pompeii, which has been building in the previous two.

The Senator by Kate Quinn


Pompeii - Arch of Nero 01


was the biggest surprise of the collection for me. It was, I think, also my favourite tale in the book. I’d not read anything by Kate before, and while I may well read other books by these writers going on, I have already bookmarked Quinn’s ‘Mistress of Rome’ on the strength of this. Essentially this section, which builds beautifully on the back of characters and events that have already appeared in the earlier tales, tells the story of a disillusioned senator about ready to give up on life who finds himself, after an earlier encounter, trapped in the doomed city in the company of a feisty young woman (also following her earlier appearance.) It is the story of their journey through the destruction and terror of the disaster and their interaction, in particular the effects said interaction have upon each other. It is told with warmth, understanding, humour, love and at times a bleakness. I would rank it one of my favourite explorations of character I’ve ever read.


The Mother by E. Knight


Pompeii - House of Pacuius Proculus 01


to be quite honest I had a little trouble with again, since again the whole tale is written in first person, present tense for each point of view. I persevered, since the story once again built upon characters and events from earlier in the collection, and by the time you hit tale 3 in this book, you want to know what happens to everyone (which is a good sign.) And once again, I have to say that the story was fine and well-told, but made hard work for me by the tense in which it was written. The story of a woman about to give birth in a doomed city is a deep and troubling one.


The Whore by Stephanie Dray


Pompeii - The Brothel (Wall Painting 02)


Curiously, I’m at loggerheads with what I want to say about the the sixth and final tale in the collection. It is another (like the second) that tells two viewpoints with two different ways – one of them being First Person, present tense. Upon first realising that I almost gave up and skipped it but, having been through the other five and knowing that this tale  revolved around two characters who have been part of the series from the start, I found myself reading and soon discovered that I could not stop. I managed to overcome my aversion to the tense very easily to read this tale of two whores in the last throes of Vesuvius, confronting and overcoming their long-term issues as they try to decide whether to stay in hell and do their duty for their owner, to flee the disaster, or – in one case at least – follow the dictates of their heart. This is the tale that ends the book. This is the on that makes you think. This is the wrap up and it is beautifully done in terms of character.


So there you have it. Six tales, interlinked and telling the stories of numerous inhabitants of Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts – the Day of Fire. As is noted in the book’s introduction, while all the tales are connected, none of the connections are critical to the understanding of the others, so if one does not take your fancy, you can easily skip to the next. The interweaving is extremely well done and becomes clearer as the collection progresses, and the progress of the eruption and the destruction of the city is well-portrayed, advancing slightly with each tale. I am pleased to see a realistic approach to the eruption here, by the way. No vast lava flows snaking through the streets or fireballs or explosions. The eruption described here follows the known sequence of events and does not – as is apparently so often the case – mix up what happened to Pompeii with what happened to Herculaneum (or even in the most dreadful cases Mt Thera or Krakatoa!)


Essentially, A Day Of Fire has something for everyone, and I cannot imagine any reader of historical fiction not finding within one or more tale that suits them. I have picked up a number of new authors to follow, which is the symptom of a good read.


The book is available tomorrow and can be pre-ordered beforehand. Go get it and have a good read, folks. And to finish, a little something about the authors:


Vicky Alvear Shecter


VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the award-winning author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. The LA Times called Cleopatra’s Moon–set in Rome and Egypt–“magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” Her young adult novel of Pompeii, Curses and Smoke (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released in June 2014. She has two other upcoming books for younger readers, Anubis Speaks! and Hades Speaks! Vicky is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. Learn more at http://www.vickyalvearshecter.com/main/

Sophie Perinot
SOPHIE PERINOT is the author of the acclaimed debut, The Sister Queens, which weaves the story of medieval sisters Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence who became queens of France and England respectively. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. A long-time member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences, serving as a panelist at the most recent. When she is not visiting corners of the past, Sophie lives in Great Falls, VA. Learn more at: www.SophiePerinot.com

Ben Kane

BEN KANE worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, but his love of ancient history and historical fiction drew him to write fast-paced novels about Roman soldiers, generals and gladiators. Irish by nationality but UK-based, he is the author of seven books, the last five of which have been Sunday Times top ten bestsellers.Ben’s books have been translated into ten languages. In 2013, Ben walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall with two other authors, for charity; he did so in full Roman military kit, including hobnailed boots. He repeated the madness in 2014, over 130 miles in Italy. Over $50,000 has been raised with these two efforts. Learn more at http://www.benkane.net/



Kate Quinn

KATE QUINN is the national bestselling author of the Empress of Rome novels, which have been variously translated into thirteen different languages. She first got hooked on Roman history while watching “I, Claudius” at the age of seven, and wrote her first book during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into ancient Rome. She and her husband now live in Maryland with an imperious black dog named Caesar. Learn more at http://www.katequinnauthor.com

eliza knight
E. KNIGHT is an award-winning, indie national best-selling author historical fiction. Under the name, Eliza Knight she writes historical romance and time-travel. Her debut historical fiction novel, MY LADY VIPER, has received critical acclaim and was nominated for the Historical Novel Society 2015 Annual Indie Award. She regularly presents on writing panels and was named Romance Writer’s of America’s 2013 PRO Mentor of the Year. Eliza lives in Maryland atop a small mountain with a knight, three princesses and a very naughty puppy. For more information, visit Eliza at www.elizaknight.com.


Stephanie Dray

STEPHANIE DRAY is a multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical Nile series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Learn more at: StephanieDray.com

Written by SJAT

November 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

Vigil – A short story

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Gaius Postumus turned over in his bed, snorting and pulling the cover tight up to his throat. What a lovely dream. He knew it was a dream, for sure, but continued forcing himself to stay that little bit more sleepy, prolonging the night time images as long as possible. Half a sow turned on the spit, fat dripping down into the fire and sizzling with a delicious smell. Probably wine. Those goblets looked like wine goblets. He wondered who was holding the party, since he seemed to be the only guest. Why so many goblets and so much food just for him.

Finally, the messages from his frantic and overactive nostrils won through a passage into his gluttonous brain, and Postumus’ right eye flicked open with some difficult, the sticky sleep still trying to hold it shut.


His eye closed again and a satisfied smile crept across his face. Of course there would be smoke. You couldn’t roast a hog without there being some smoke. He would have to tell Safranius how delicious it was in the morning.


The morning.


The eye flicked open again.

In a fraction of a second, before even the left eye could join its fellow in wideness, Postumus was out of the bed and frantically panicking, spinning this way and that and waving his arms, achieving entirely nothing.

He stopped, trying to remember his training through the combined fug of sleep and panic. As one of the vigiles, the fire-fighters of Rome, Postumus had been trained well and trained hard for months in every aspect of his duties. It had been said, even by his mother, that his head was so thick that not even basic concepts could pass into it. Hurtful and untrue, but he had to sadly confirm that at this very point, standing in his room on the second floor of the insula that had been allocated as the headquarters of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles, he couldn’t even remember his name without concentrating really hard.

Safranius would kill him.

The heavy pall of roiling smoke was coming under the door to his room in puffs. That meant it must be coming up the stairwell.

Postumus slapped his hand over his face. Idiot. His had been the simplest duty of all, tonight. The rest of the century were absent. Half of them were asleep in their own homes, it being their week off-duty. Many of the others had been given special leave to go to the Lucaria festival. The rest would be out patrolling the streets, watching for signs of fire or for acts of criminal behaviour. Safranius would be leading the first patrol.

He would be less than happy to get back to the headquarters some time just before dawn to find it had been gutted by fire and all because the untrustworthy idiot he left in charge of the insula had started the stove in the kitchen to cook his fish supper and had come over ever so tired and gone to bed, leaving it burning.


His days in the vigiles would almost certainly be numbered after this. Particularly given that debacle last week with the explosion at the emporium. His wages would be halved for the next thousand years to pay for the replacement pump.

Hurriedly throwing on a cloak and grateful that he’d gone to sleep wearing his tunic and breeches and not even unlacing his boots because he was so tired, he decided on his course of action. He would have to check the extent of the fire and get down to the yard. In the central courtyard that had previously been the light well for the insula, a series of large tablets on the walls bore the instructions and rules and regulations for all trainee vigiles. He would have to read them and remind himself of what to do next.

Reaching out, he grasped the door handle and pulled.

The words ‘back draft’ rose though the levels of denseness in his head a fraction of a second before the explosion of boiling fire blew the suddenly freed door into the room, knocking him flat, but miraculously protecting him from the worst of the heat.

Struggling out from under the battered portal, he peered fearfully around the room. The blast had calmed and the fire was starting to take hold on the walls and furniture in his room. Pulling himself upright, he wandered across to the large bronze mirror next to a small glowing oil lamp that seemed almost ridiculous in the circumstances.

His eyebrows had gone and his lush, curly black hair had disappeared as far back as his ears, leaving only tiny charred stumps. His face was covered in sooty grime, pink lines extending from his eyes where he had instinctively screwed them up.

He looked idiotic. But then people told him that under normal circumstances, too.

Leaning to the side, he peered out into the corridor. The formerly painted walls, white and red, with a decorative strip of something he couldn’t remember, were black, fire ripping its way along the wooden railing that surrounded the stair well. Leaning the other way, he could see the blanket of flame that filled the corridor, blocking off any chance of reaching the other stairs. Other than trying to jump down the fifteen foot drop into the light well, these stairs would have to do.

All the vigiles had practiced the jump, of course. They were supposed to be able to manage something as easy as that. It was often required in the course of duty. Postumus, with his somewhat portly figure and his apparently severed connection between mental function and the gangling muscle-free flesh he called limbs, had never managed anything but a temporarily-crippling belly-flop onto the hard floor. He had in the past year, broken one ankle, twisted another, cracked five ribs and broken his nose during training jumps. Two months ago Safranius had given up trying.

Honestly, if it weren’t for his illustrious lineage and the sizeable donations his long-suffering father made to help the vigiles, he would probably have been thrown out long ago.

Taking a deep breath and gagging on the smoke, he stepped closer to the stairs, muttering a quick and very fervent prayer to the lares and Penates of the building.

A flickering orange glow was visible through the cracks in the wooden staircase. Downstairs was already an inferno. But there was nothing else for it. He had to brave it.

Putting one foot delicately on the top step, he applied pressure and winced as it groaned and shifted underfoot. Biting his lip, he put all his weight on that leg and moved down a step. Another charred groan.

Postumus whimpered and hoped his bladder would hold under the panicked pressure.

He was just reaching out with his first leg again when a noise caught his attention.


“Mister Socks!”

The second step cracked as he turned hurriedly and ran back up into the corridor. Mister Socks was the station cat; a mangy, fat thing with an evil temper, one ruined eye, a perforated ear and a bad case of flatulence. Of the eighty periodical occupants of the building, the only one that treated Postumus as anything other than an unfortunate piece of furniture was Mister Socks. It wasn’t that he didn’t bite and scratch the overweight vigil; he did, and frequently, but less frequently than he bit and scratched the others.

Of course, it was Postumus that fed Mister Socks, which might go a long way to explaining it. Many of the others just kicked the station cat and would happily evict the menacing, evil creature. It was Postumus that had renamed ‘That Smelly Bastard Cat’ as Mister Socks. It was so much nicer.

Running along the corridor, he spotted the four legged terror of the station crouched in a doorway, hissing at the danger all around. Beyond, the inferno had gripped the corridor, making it impassable to man and beast alike. Through the doorway, the glow of violent orange spoke volumes. A rafter fell between the two of them, roaring with dancing flames and sealing off the cat. Even the wooden frame of the balcony above the light well on remaining wall was starting to char and fall away.

“Don’t worry Mister Socks. I’m coming.”

Carefully, he edged toward the burning beam and jumped across it, just as another fell where he had been standing but a moment before. His heart lurched. A whole insula, just for the sake of a late night snack and forty winks!

Reaching out, his face turned away from the searing heat, he reached out for Mister Socks, muttering soothing noises.

The cat turned its one baleful eye on him and leapt away, momentarily touching the charring balcony to gain leverage, and dropped to the courtyard below, landing, as expected, on its feet. Postumus leaned close to the balcony and stared down to see Mister Socks give him a superior glance, turn, display its bottom in graphic detail, and then prance away to the safety of the street.

Postumus sobbed.

Standing straight and taking in ragged breaths, the vigil nodded to himself and turned. Taking two steps carefully across the burning rafters, he felt his bowels loosen a little as a third crashed down next to him, bouncing off his foot and hurting his little toe.

A moment later, he was back at the stairs.

Carefully navigating the first, he passed over the cracked second step and winced as the third almost gave under him. He could feel the hot glow beneath him and a gust of warm air blew his tunic up around his armpits.

Pushing it back down coquettishly, he stepped as lightly as possible down the stairs to the first turning. The fire on the floor below was blazing, filling the corridors. There was no way out that did not involve passing through a wall of fire.

Taking yet another deep breath and gagging and coughing on the roiling smoke, he unfastened his cloak from around his neck and wrapped it around him as thoroughly as he could, leaving a small spy-hole to see through.

Damn that cat.


Safranius was going to crucify him.


The people out in the street would be watching in amusement as the fire-watch station burned down, knowing damn well who was at the heart of the problem.


Lowering his head, Postumus charged into the sheet of roaring flame, his legs pumping as they scorched and seared while he ran, heedless of the pain, through the corridor, around the bend, past the well-room and its blessed water, through the courtyard, where he managed a couple of deep, cleansing breaths without slowing, and on into the far side of the building.

The main corridor ran from the light well and past rooms that had once been people’s residences, out past the shops that occupied the outer façade, looking onto the street.

Without pausing, he ran on along the corridor. The flames had not yet consumed the main entrance, but it was dark and solid with smoke.

Choking, wheezing, and stinging red from the heat, Postumus burst out into the street, the twin hills of the Palatine and Caelian rising before him, behind the insulae opposite. He stopped, heaving breaths, bent double with his hands on his knees, coughing up black dust and spitting soot onto the road.

Mister Socks appeared from nowhere and rubbed around his red raw ankles, purring affectionately.

It was then that Postumus straightened and looked about him.

Buildings flowered with blooms of flame. Roiling black columns rose from insulae along the street. Flames burst from windows and screaming citizens ran wildly in the thoroughfare, their panic infectious.

The city was afire.

But something Safranius had taught him had apparently stuck in his brain after all.

How to track the source of a fire.

Buildings were burning all the way along the street and up side alleys also. But the progression was clear. The insula of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles was the furthest gone and the epicentre of the spreading chaos.

“Gods, Postumus. What have you done?”

* * * * *

The great fire of 64 AD burned for five and a half days and levelled three quarters of the city, destroying thousands of homes and some of the grandest buildings that had stood for half a millennium. Rumour placed the cause in the hands of the Emperor Nero, who hurriedly, and very effectively, passed the blame on down to the burgeoning cult of Christians.

Gaius Postumus rose to the rank of tribune, commanding one of the cohorts of Vigiles, one of few survivors of the service during the conflagration.

Of the fate of his fish supper, history does not relate.

Written by SJAT

October 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm