The theme in a book - what in Mercury's name is that?

Mercury (or Hermes in the Greek pantheon of gods) is said to be the inventor of the written alphabet, god of writing/literature, speech, travellers, treaties and dreams amongst other things but is best know as the gods’ messenger. He’s also is the one invoked by thieves and tricksters…

I invoke him on the subject of themes in a book as it’s difficult to talk about the theme in your own book without sounding pretentious. He’s the messenger with a tricky mission. His dual nature brings me back to earth.

What is a ‘theme’ in a book sense?

A theme gives meaning to the story and is seen through the plot and the character’s journey. It’s the essence of what the story is about. Generally not mentioned as such, it bubbles along like an underground river, giving life to the story, but unconsciously. Whether stories are about space adventures, historical conflicts, shoes and shopping, a road trip or an alternative history thriller they are really about human dilemmas.

I don’t always see the theme when I start writing a book, but often it emerges as I go along. At first, when I was drafting INCEPTIO, I didn’t even consider themes – that was for high literature, I thought. I was writing genre thrillers. But I came to realise that every story had an underlying theme, however simple or complex. Some have several. Now, I have a better idea of the possible themes of the Roma Nova thrillers, but I’m still a little hesitant. Here are my thoughts…

INCEPTIO is a thriller featuring Karen who flees to Roma Nova and finds a lover, a family and a role, but the bad guy pursues her. She toughens up in order to confront him. Plenty of excitement, a love story, history, undercover operations, toughness and a bit of humour. But INCEPTIO is really about a ‘stranger in a strange’ land and female empowerment.

CARINA is a shorter adventure, a mission abroad for a relatively inexperienced Praetorian officer to reinstate herself after a silly stunt. But underneath is the urge to bring the ungodly to justice, whoever they may be, and acceptance of the realities of political life.

PERFIDITAS is a caper story, good guys vs. bad guys, ‘good’ criminals and ‘bad’ law officers, rescues, undercover and off-piste actions and big shocks. But its theme is betrayal – personal, professional and political – and loyalty. Who is the betrayer and who the betrayed?

SUCCESSIO is darker with threats of blackmail, mental breakdown, family betrayals with of course plenty of action and excitement. But its themes are about unresolved problems rooted in childhood and their fallout, and the roles of love and courage

AURELIA investigates silver smugglers in Berlin, then Roma Nova. She is framed for murder, and horrified when her child is threatened. An assassin tries to terminate her, she experiences family sadness and a new love. But AURELIA is really about the conflict of duty and mother love, personal doubt and a bitter personal rivalry.

In INSURRECTIO, Aurelia tries to stop Caius Tells and his political thugs taking over the country. Plenty of confrontations pile on each other, revolution, escapes, chases, betrayals, etc. But intrinsically, INSURRECTIO is about rational vs. irrational, tyranny vs. consensus, weakness vs. strength and loyalty under immense stress.

RETALIO is the story of a group of Roma Novan exiles struggling to mount a credible and effective force to take back their occupied country. There’s plenty of personal conflict, undercover operations, planning for liberation and courageous acts as well as betrayals. But running through RETALIO are the themes of resilience, resistance and  the struggle for liberation and retribution.

Well, these are my thoughts. Do you agree?

 

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Happy New Year? Um...

Cheers! Drinking contest of Herakles and Dionysos, early 3rd century AD Antioch

Felix sanusque sit novus annus!

In the modern Western calendar, it’s the beginning of the year, a time for renewals and resolutions.I wish you every luck in your health, goals and prosperity.

It was a much more confused picture for the Romans, but then, their civilisation did last for 1229 years and evolved a fair bit over that time.

The early Roman calendar designated 1 March as the first day of the year – the awakening earth, renewed virility, the longer day, etc. Then, the calendar had ten months, beginning with March and some of the names of the months today reflects this. September to December, our ninth to twelfth months, were originally the seventh to tenth months (septem is Latin for seven; octo, eight; novem, nine; and decem, ten.)

Roman legend usually credits the second king, Numa Pompilius, with the establishment of the ‘new’ months of January and February which were first placed at the end of the year in the ’empty period’.

Fasti - list of consuls, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Author photo)

Fasti – list of consuls, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Author photo)

All change!
The January kalends (first of January) evolved as the start of the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BCE. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.

Still, private and religious celebrations around the March new year continued for some time and there is no consensus on the question of the timing for 1 January 1’s new status. Many other religions and many people more in alignment with the natural world still see the spring equinox as the start of the year. Nowadays, we assign Easter as the festival when new things begin.

Once I January became the start of the new year, it became a time for family gatherings and celebrations. A series of disasters, notably including the failed rebellion of M. Aemilius Lepidus in 78 BCE, established a superstition against allowing Rome’s market days to fall on the kalends of January and the pontiffs employed intercalation to avoid its occurrence.

If you think was was confusing…
In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished 1 January as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on 25 December in honour of the birth of Jesus; 1 March in the old Roman style; 25 March in honour of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, 25 March had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice.

I think that now in the 21st century, we’ve come to a workable accepted date, so I hope your new year start is a good one!

© Steve Morton

© Steve Morton

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Saturnalia - serious Roman festival or free for all?

Imperial forums - 60_Saturn_sm

Temple of Saturn, Rome

Saturnalia was THE most important Roman festival. Heavy on feasting, fun and gifts, it was originally celebrated in Ancient Rome for only a day around 17 December, but it was so popular it expanded into a week or even longer, despite Augustus’ efforts to reduce it to three days, and Caligula’s, to five.

Like today’s Christmas, this holy day (feriae publicae) had a serious origin: to honour the god of sowing, Saturn. And Romans were a superstitious lot; like many ancient cultures, religious ceremonies and observances held an important place in their lives.

But also like modern Christmas, it was a festival day (dies festus). After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. Afterwards, according to the poet Macrobius, the celebrants shouted ‘Io, Saturnalia‘ at a riotous feast in the temple.

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD - sigillaria?

Pottery and bronze figurines 3rd century BC and 1st century AD – sigillaria? (British Museum)

Modern mid-winter habits echo Roman ones – increased, often extravagant shopping, conspicuous and over-indulgent eating and drinking, visiting friends, receiving visits from not-particular-friends who are only after a drink, and exchanging gifts, particularly of wax candles (cerei), and earthenware figurines (sigillaria).

Everybody dressed in bright clothes, masters served meals to their slaves who were permitted the unaccustomed freedoms of leisure and gambling. A member of the familia (household) was appointed Saturnalicius princeps, roughly equivalent to the Lord of Misrule. Of course, it often got completely out of hand…

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

Terracotta sheep, Greek, 4th century BC. (British Museum) Would make a lovely sigillarium!

The poet Catullus describes Saturnalia as ‘the best of days’ while Seneca complains that the ‘whole mob has let itself go in pleasures’. Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated. Sound familiar?

Macrobius described a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome which classicists date to between 383 and 430 AD. So  Saturnalia was alive and well under Christian emperors, but no longer as an official religious holiday.

But alongside ran the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the ‘unconquerable sun’), a festival celebrating the renewal of light and the coming of the new year and which took place on 25 December. By the middle of the fourth century AD,  the dominant Christian religion had integrated the Dies Natalis into their celebration of Christmas.

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet

Ever since the end of the Roman Empire, but especially when Roman texts were rediscovered and all things Roman became fashionable again from the Renaissance onwards, people have speculated about what Saturnalia really looked like.

Just how wild was it? This painting by Callet is one of the less explicit images, but while the party-goers are having a good time, it seems more in line with what it could have been like than the bacchanalian depictions by some painters then and  film-makers now.

Or were the paintings and stories just a reflection of the artists’ vivid imaginations of the  in their own time?

Io Saturnalia!

 

You can read the short story ‘Saturnalia Surprise‘ about how the Mitelae were surprised one year in ROMA NOVA EXTRA.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.

Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, FREE as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.