Honoria's Battle – A Roma Novan at the Battle of Vienna


A new Roma Nova short story set in the 17th century. What was Roma Nova’s role in the Battle of Vienna, the desperate fight to stop the last Ottoman advance into Europe? And who led the Roma Novan legionaries? Read on…

Midnight, 12 September 1683, at the gates of Vienna

‘How many dead, senior centurion?’ she asked.

‘Eighteen, domina. Plus the tribune, plus wounded.’

Honoria Mitela didn’t flinch. She knew better than to show it in front of the troops – she was their prefect, commander of this detachment – but an iron fist clamped her heart. Although she’d led small campaigns at home in the borderlands, this was her first overseas. And the last that almost twenty daughters and sons of Roma Nova would ever fight.

The damp air swirled round them. Not the storms of the journey here, or honest rain, but a miasmic clinging damp that spread the smell of dead warriors’ blood and rotting horseflesh. She pulled her cloak tighter.

‘Detail the remaining company find the bodies,’ she ordered. ‘All of them.’

The senior centurion glanced at her. He looked bone tired. His leather cuirass was spattered in blood and part of his chain shirt had ripped, but he drew himself up, saluted and strode down the hill, barking orders.


The previous day, 11 September 1683, command post Kahlenburg Heights, north of Vienna

Portrait of John Sobieski, King of Poland

John Sobieski, King of Poland

‘What’s the worst?’ Honora asked.

‘A gap over thirty feet wide.’ A collective murmur ran round the tent from the assembled imperial Austrian and Polish commanders. Scattered among them were officers from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia.

‘Starhemberg’s Viennese garrison have been trying to counter this by digging their own tunnels to intercept the damned Turks, to stop them placing large amounts of gunpowder there,’ Sobieski continued.


‘Unfortunately, the Ottomans have succeeded occupying the Burg ravelin and the low wall in that area. But the Viennese have reinforced the defences as best they can.’  He looked at Honoria. ‘They are prepared to fight for every inch in the inner city.’

Honoria’s heart sank. Mining and blasting were Roman skills and she knew too well how effective they were for eventually breaching the most formidable ramparts. Thirty feet was a huge gap to defend with the best will and most courageous hearts in the world. And her intelligence gatherers had told her that the Viennese were not only starving but weakened by months of plague. She rubbed her forehead.

‘Is there no way of honourable settlement?’ She shivered as she remembered reading accounts of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans last century. It, too, had been weakened, but unlike Vienna, Constantinople then was underpopulated and dilapidated; by the 1450s outside the city itself and in parts within it, it had been little more than a cluster of villages separated by fields. Vienna, on the other hand, was the capital of the Austrian empire, a great city of the West.

‘No. The Ottomans started the siege on back in July. Kara Mustafa Pasha sent the traditional demand that the city surrender, but Count von Starhemberg refused to capitulate.’ Sobieski took a deep draught from the silver cup his servant handed him.

‘Could he not secure terms?’ Honoria asked.

‘Terms? From the Turks? Ha!’ Sobieski’s tone of voice was a mix of contempt and anger. ‘Just before he closed the gates to Vienna, Starhemberg received news of the mass slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, south of here. The townspeople had handed over the keys of the city after being given a similar choice, but they were slaughtered anyway. Apart from the children who were taken into slavery, that is.’ Sobieski looked directly at Honoria. ‘Starhemberg shouted over the walls at Kara Mustafa Pasha that they’d fight to the last drop of blood.’

‘Very well,’ she replied. ‘Then we make our stand here. We are only a company, but it will be Roma Nova’s honour drive back the enemy sappers and destroy them. Then we will repair and defend the walls.’

‘But, Excellenz, you cannot send women to confront the janissaries guarding the sappers.’ The Polish king, sturdy and imposing in his luxurious blue robes, had stared at her. She was dressed more simply with tunic and light cuirass over a chain mail shirt; long boots over breeches, a maroon cloak and the legionary’s scarf at her neck. Around her waist, a belt held her gladius and pugio dagger. She crossed her arms and raised her head.

‘My soldiers are legionaries first and women and men afterwards. Be assured, John Sobieski, you will not find them lacking.’ She relaxed her frown. ‘And Romans have much experience in siege warfare and mine science.’

‘Not that it helped your cousins in Byzantium two hundred years ago,’ one of the Imperial Austrians muttered and sniggered. Honoria turned her stare on him.

‘That, Herr Graf, was betrayal by a religious. I will not bore you with my opinion upon that subject.’

After a few heartbeats, the Austrian looked away, his cheeks tinged pink. Honoria bought her attention back to Sobieski.

‘Are we agreed? My tribune Tellus will lead them. I will retain a small Praetorian detail with me.’

‘We will be in your debt, of course,’ the Polish king said. But from the tone of his voice he didn’t sound convinced. Nevertheless, Honoria nodded to Tribune Tellus and they left the command tent together.

As they walked back to the Roma Nova camp in the light of the bonfires flaring over the heights, Honoria drew Tellus to one side.

‘I’ll leave tactics to you, Tellus, but after an initial wedge to smash through, I suggest  you re-form into a crescent to contain and eliminate the troops guarding the enemy sappers. Sobieski has given us some of his Poles as backup to the initial assault.  Put them in three lines. Keep our best cavalry on the flanks of the curve. We don’t want the Turks breaking back in to stop our work.’ He nodded, his eyes already unfocused while his brain worked out his orders to the troops. ‘A word of warning…’ Honoria lowered her voice. ‘When you get down by the wall, don’t explain anything about any of your engineering methods to the Christians. Try to hide any complex mechanics or materials, otherwise you risk being called an alchemist at best or a wizard at worst. If proven – and their priests may well try hard – they’ll try to burn you alive as a demonic blasphemer.’

He turned pale and looked as if he would vomit up this food.

‘Caution the troops to be equally careful. Perform your tasks, then withdraw your specialist engineers. The remaining troops and the Poles will stay to guard the area. Hopefully, the Christians will be too thankful to remember much of what they’ve seen.’

Tellus called the centurion and with four hundred troops set off on his way to the south of Vienna. She knew the Roma Novans would travel quickly unhindered by a baggage train; they carried all their equipment and weapons on them.

She brought her hand up to shade her eyes as she observed the Turkish encampment. A dim haze of smoke rose from the constant artillery barrage, exploding mines, and campfires as the siege below continued.

She couldn’t help speculating whether her earlier, more subtle play that she hadn’t mentioned to John Sobieski, was also performing. If the allied troops were to win the battle and save Vienna then it must needs work.


Two months earlier, July 1683, Praetorian compound, Roma Nova

A knock at her door.

‘Come,’ she said as she sanded her letter and sealed it. She looked up to see Tellus, the young ingeniarius tribune who had joined them only three months ago. The XX Victis legion had endured enough of his inventions and ‘controlled’ experiments that went awry, his previous prefect’s report said, but Honoria welcomed such an addition to her intelligencer group. Now, he stood nervously in front of her.


‘I wasn’t sure whether to bring this to you, prefect…’

‘Well, you did, so what is it, young man?’

He shuffled his feet.

‘One of the patrols was called in by Antonia – the daughter of the woman who runs the mansio on Via Nova. I was, er, fixing something for her.’ He flushed. Honoria smiled. ‘Anyway,’ Tellus continued, ‘she said a man, a foreigner, was asking too many questions about too many things.’

‘Be specific.’

‘My apologies, domina. About our military, our horses, how we guarded our frontiers.’

‘Where is this man now?”

‘Chained up in the castle dungeon.’

‘Where he should be.’

‘But the strange thing was that he knew your name, domina.’

‘Then it seems I should be the one to question him.’


Honoria handed her horse over to a guard and made her way down the stone steps to the castle dungeons. The candle flame flickered inside her lamp as she entered the questioning room. The man hung attached to a chain suspended from a high beam. His feet just touched the beaten earth. Even in the half-light of the torches on the walls she could see his face was bruised, an eye almost closed. A guard punched him in the back. The man grunted and but merely looked ahead. As the punishment officer raised his whip, Honoria stepped in.

‘Enough, optio, you may withdraw.’

He hesitated.

‘Hard nut, this one, prefect. Can’t even get his name out of him.’

‘Did it occur to you to simply ask?’

‘Yes,’ the optio admitted and grunted. ‘But all he said was your name and nothin’ else.’

‘Cut him down and find him a chair,’ Honoria snapped. ‘Bring another lamp and some water.’

As he gulped his beaker of water, Honoria examined the prisoner. He was well-made, muscular, his dark hair not quite black even in this poor light. She estimated him to be in his thirties. When he looked up, his eyes were blue-grey like the northern sea at the end of the amber route. She blinked. The light flickered on his skin. Her heart pulsed harder than usual. Despite the chill of the stone walls, warmth crept up from her middle to her heart and up her neck.  She swallowed. But the warmth fled the instant she saw the mark on the inside skin of his upper arm – a stylised T. She pulled herself up straight, crossed her arms and forced her voice to be as hard as she could make it.

‘Now why is a Tatar spying in Roma Nova?’ she asked in her best Ottoman Turkish.

He stared at her but said nothing. He kept his gaze fixed on her face.

‘Please do not pretend you do not understand me,’ she continued. The lamps flickered, casting shadows on the man’s angular face. Yet he still said nothing. Honoria bent closer. ‘Since a large number of Tatars under Khan Giray have arrived east of Vienna to reinforce the siege, I must assume that you have come to assess our strength here.’ The man’s face tightened around his eyes. ‘We have our informers, too.’ She stood up straight and took a deep breath. ‘Your life is forfeit,’ she said. He blinked. ‘But if you tell me what I want to know, it is in my gift to spare you.’

‘You are truly Mitela? The chief of the intelligencers?’ His voice was hard, but she heard the fear in it.

‘I am.’ She touched the myrtle leaf badge of her family which pinned her cloak. She could hardly take her next breath.

He brought his manacled hands up to his face and gave a deep sigh.


‘His name is Aydar, legate, and he is a bastard son of Khan Giray.’

Honoria stood stiffly in front of the senior legate in the praetorium at the centre of the camp compound.

‘And?’ The legate lent back, her gold edged cloak falling away from her shoulders to rest in crimson folds on the chair back. She frowned at Honoria. ‘Then execute him.’

‘If it pleases you, domina,’ Honoria continued, ‘I think we may use this to our advantage.’ The legate raised one eyebrow. ‘You remember the letters from Sobieski asking for our aid in relieving the Vienna siege?’

‘Of course, but the damned imperial council is still trying to convince the imperatrix that the Ottomans wouldn’t dare attack us.’ She snorted. ‘We lie on the edge of their territory, admittedly the other side of a mountain barrier, but nevertheless only fifteen miles away, for the gods’ sake!’ The legate’s face threatened to take on the red of her cloak.

‘Just so, domina,’ Honoria replied. ‘In my humble estimation, although the mountains have protected us in past ages, if the Ottomans prevail in taking Vienna, we are in peril of destruction. We must stand with the Poles and Austrians.’

‘I fully agree with you, Mitela. Try getting your mother to convince the rest of the council to sanction our expedition.’

‘Be assured, legate, Comes Mitela is bringing every drop of eloquence to the matter to so persuade her peers.’ Honoria closed her lips tight. In truth, her mother was fighting the rest of the council’s over-caution tooth and nail and using every political  stratagem she knew. ‘Nonetheless,’ Honoria continued, ‘my scouts report all is not well between Tatar and Ottoman. The former owe allegiance to the latter and must perforce march with them. I estimate twenty thousand Tatars east of Vienna. This Aydar was sent to Roma Nova to spy, but under duress. He is hardly recognised in his family as his mother was ‘harvested from the steppes’ as they euphemistically call their slave-raiding. So he has little love for his father and clan, especially as they branded him with their tamga when he ran away at eight.’

‘Then why in Hades did they send him now?’

‘Because he can pass as a European. And they still hold his mother. He saw it as a way to escape. Somehow, he knew I led the intelligencer group.’

‘Hm. But how does this help us?’

‘Sobieski’s latest dispatch again asks us for our help. I volunteer herewith to lead such a vexillatio. Sobieski says the southern walls are in peril. We cannot offer thousands of troops without our council’s approval, but we can provide engineering skills discreetly. But I think we could also attack in a different way, on their minds, their fears.’

‘How? No, first, tell me how you gained this Tatar spy’s confidence.’

‘I offered him his life.’

‘And how do you know he won’t turn his coat again?’

‘I assured him of lifelong sanctuary. I also promised I would hunt him down personally to the end of days if he betrayed us.’

But Honoria had not told the legate the whole truth. She had had Aydar escorted under guard to the Domus Mitelarum. He might be more forthcoming in a softer atmosphere of a home than in the castle dungeon, she told herself. And he was now their ally.

Honoria, you are attempting to deceive yourself.

As she stood on the parade ground outside the legate’s office she kicked a stone on the path. It was for a much stronger reason than mere statecraft.

At the end of July, Aydar the Tatar set out from courtyard of Domus Mitelarum with two pack-horses, their saddlebags full of Tellus’s latest ‘inventions’. Aydar had twisted round with the assurance of a horseman almost born in the saddle. His sea-grey eyes haddn’t left Honoria’s face until the porter had closed the gate behind him.


Dawn, 12 September Kahlenberg Heights, Vienna

Now, in the sharp chill of a late summer morning, Honoria led her remaining contingent of Roma Novan Praetorians in a sacrifice to Mars. As they solemnly ate the roast pork after the ceremony, while the fire still smoked, Honoria wondered if Mars knew where the troops had ‘acquired’ the pig. She merely hoped the farmer had been compensated but decided not to ask.

Their camp was shielded by a stand of trees from the nearest Christian troops who might have taken exception to the Roma Novans’ ‘paganism’. But since the Aquileia incident, the Christians had grudgingly left Roma Nova alone on the matter of religion. Once she had given the troops the god’s blessing, they quietly gathered their arms – spatha, arm shield and lances – and in silence prepared their screw-barrelled pistols, three for each of them.

Riding from the southwest through dense woods and the day’s warmth, and fending off a Turkish scouting party, they caught up with Sobieski on the Michelerberg.

Salve,’ Sobieski greeted her, insisting on speaking his accented Latin to her instead of Germanic. He pointed down to the plain. ‘The damned Ottomans continue in their efforts to force their way into the city. They should concentrate on fighting us!’

Honoria gave permission for her small band to join with the hussars in harrying actions, battering the Ottoman lines and pushing forward. By the end of the afternoon, they had hemmed in the enemy from three sides. And the embattled city of Vienna lay plainly before them.

‘Now we take them,’ Sobieski shouted his hand waving his marshal’s baton in a circular motion high above his head. Honoria tightened her helmet, grasped her lance and whispered a quick prayer to Mars. She thrust her knees into the side of her mount and launched herself at the side of the Polish king.

With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj” the whole Polish line rode down upon the Turks. Armed with kopia lances, sabres, pistols and battle hammers, and mounted on a powerful chargers, the hussars thundered down the hill. Encased in glittering steel that covered head to thighs, with their tiger and leopard pelts fluttering in the wind and wings of eagle feathers affixed to their backs, the leading units fell on the Ottomans like an unearthly force of avenging Furies.

Ten days later, 1683, Praetorian compound, Roma Nova

‘Very good,’ the legate said, laying down her eyeglasses on top of Honoria’s report on her great desk. ‘But you didn’t stay after Sobieski’s triumphal march into Vienna?’

‘No, domina. Our work was done.’ Honoria looked straight at the far wall.

‘Now tell me the true reason.’

‘It wasn’t the pillaging of the Ottomans’ treasures – that’s the natural outcome of war – but summary killing of every wounded or sick enemy soldier disgusted me. It wasn’t merciful dispatching of dying men – it was murder. Pure bloodlust. I know the Turks had slain many of their Christian captives and even carried some away with them in their retreat, so I suppose the Viennese wanted their revenge and the Poles didn’t hold back.’ Honoria ran her hand down her cheek. ‘I admire Sobieski as a general and was honoured to participate in the charge, but when he turned and said Veni, vidi, Deus vicit while drinking out of the Ottoman vizier’s looted cup shortly afterwards, I knew it was time to depart.’

‘You’re becoming soft, Honoria.’ The legate’s voice was firm, but Honoria saw some sympathy in her eyes. ‘But your ruse to attack their minds, their morale. Did it work? More importantly, did it have any effect?’

‘I believe it did,’ Honoria replied. ‘Although Sobieski’s reputation as hammer of the Tatars probably dispirited them generally, Aydar’s rumours of Roma Novan djinns as evidenced by Tellus’s chemical bombs would have done the rest. My scouts reported that the Tatar khan refused to pass through the Greek fire to attack the imperial relief force as it crossed the Danube on the pontoon bridges. And refused again when the Austrian imperials emerged in a blaze of fire from the Wienerwald.’

‘And your Tatar spy?  What has become of him?’

‘I have no report of him, domina,’ Honoria replied in a dull tone of voice.

‘We must perforce make unusual alliances and personal sacrifices to protect Roma Nova, Mitela.’

‘Agreed, domina.‘ Honoria took a long breath to calm herself and recapture her soldier’s detachment. ‘I believe we will no longer see the Ottomans so far west or north again.  But I feel it will not be many decades before they break apart and their empire sinks, Jupiter willing.’

‘Go and rest. Go and look to your farm at Castra Lucilla and return when your heart and spirit are healed.’


Saturnalia, 17 December 1683

Refreshed from her weeks at her farm and back into a calmer routine at the Praetorian camp, Honoria Mitela passed through the vestibule in Domus Mitelarum on the first day of the holiday. The new house built round the original settlers’ villa still reeked of masons’ marble dust and plaster; not the smells of a usual Saturnalia. A servant took her cloak helmet, gladius and belt and handed her a cup of wine. She dropped onto the silk cushions on the settle and stared into the fire.

‘If you please, domina.’

A young servant held out a silver tray with a grubby folded letter. It was bound with string and sealed with a red wax circle. Inside the seal was a stylised T, the tamga. Honoria sat upright and unfolded the letter, almost tearing it in her haste.

Greeting, honoured and valorous lady.

I am in the Free City of Trieste.
My mother is sadly dead, a victim to Kara Mustafa Pasha’s revenge but he is to be executed in Belgrade by strangulation on the Christians’ holy day, the 25th day of December – an irony you will appreciate.

Will you grant me safe conduct to come to Roma Nova?
I anticipate our renewed encounter very soon.

Aydar the Tatar


A longer version of the story originally posted as part of the StorySong festival in December 2019 with the accompanying music ‘Sarabande’ by Handel (also used in films Black Hawk Down and Barry Lyndon)


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 four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, 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.

Taking the plunge - Roman baths

The Baths at Caracalla, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

Baths were such an intrinsic part of the Roman world that we can’t think of one without the other. Everybody went to the baths – everybody.

Today we see bathing as something we do privately in the home, but bathing in Rome was a communal, social activity. While wealthy Romans could afford to build bathing facilities in their homes or country villas, and bathhouses were provided for Roman legionaries at their forts throughout the empire, most people went to the communal baths which in some ways, resembled modern-day spas.

A catalogue of buildings in Rome from 354 AD documented 952 baths of varying sizes in the city alone (Boëthius, Axel; Ward-Perkins, J. B. (1970). Etruscan and Roman architecture). Large baths called thermae were owned by the state and often covered several city blocks;  the Baths of Diocletian could hold up to 3,000 bathers.

Generally open from lunchtime until dusk, baths were accessible to all, both rich and poor. In the reign of Diocletian, for example, the entrance fee was a mere two denarii. On occasions such as public holidays, the public baths were even free to enter. Small bathhouses, called balnea, often privately owned, but open to all for a fee.

Public baths were a feature of ancient Greek towns but were usually limited to a series of hip-baths. Characteristically, the Romans took the idea and scaled it up to an art form. Baths became common in even the smaller towns of the Roman world – part of the process for ‘civilising the barbarians’ – and were often located centrally near the forum. However, in the large cities these complexes took on monumental proportions, literally, with vast colonnades, wide-spanning arches and domes, millions of fireproof terracotta bricks, fine mosaic floors, marble-covered walls, and decorative statues.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome today (Author photo)

Because wealthy Romans brought slaves to attend to their bathing needs, the bathhouse usually had three entrances: one for men, one for women, and one for slaves; the women’s area was usually smaller than the men’s because of fewer numbers of patrons. (Hm, same old excuse) Republican bathhouses often had separate bathing facilities for women and men, but by the 1st century AD mixed bathing was common and is a practice frequently referred to in Martial and Juvenal, as well as in Pliny and Quintilian. However, gender separation might have been restored by Emperor Hadrian (Women In Roman Baths, Roy Bowen Ward) but there is also evidence it wasn’t. The jury is out. For many Roman moralists, baths were the perfect sign of how far the Rome of their own day had fallen into decline; Cato the Elder publicly attacked Scipio Africanus for his frequent use of bathhouses.

Model reconstruction of Londinium baths, Museum of London (Author photo)

What’s in a Roman bath?

They varied from simple to exceedingly elaborate structures, and by size, arrangement and decoration.Typical features were:

  • apodyterium – changing rooms.
  • palaestrae – exercise rooms.
  • natatio – open-air swimming pool.
  • laconica and sudatoria – superheated dry and wet sweating-rooms.
  • calidarium – hot room, heated and with a hot-water pool and a separate basin on a stand (labrum)
  • tepidarium – warm room, indirectly heated and with a tepid pool.
  • frigidarium – cool room, unheated and with a cold-water basin, often monumental in size and domed, it was the heart of the baths complex.
  • rooms for massage and other health treatments.

Additional facilities could include gymnasium, private baths, toilets, libraries, lecture halls, fountains, and outdoor gardens, not to mention food and perfume-selling booths, libraries, and reading rooms. Stages accommodated theatrical and musical performances. Plus, there was plenty of scope for “personal services”, paid, voluntary or provided as an inclusive service by private bathhouse owners.

Roman bathhouses often contained a courtyard, or palaestra, an open-air garden used for exercise. Adjacent stadia provided spaces for (serious) exercise and athletic competitions.

Reconstructed floor plan: 1=Caldarium 2=Tepidarium 3=Frigidarium 4=Natatio 5=Palaestra 6=main entrance 7=Exedra (seating area)

The bathing process

From the changing rooms, bathers would go to the gymnasium and exercise in the palaestra and from there to a sauna to induce an even greater sweat. Then the bather passed to the caldarium, after which the skin was scraped clean with a strigil, and to the tepidarium to cool off in the warm air and, finally, to the frigidarium for a bracing plunge in a cold bath – which was the regimen recommended by Galen himself. You could admire the sculpture, swim in the natatio, read at the libraries, walk the grounds, or as Trimalchio does in the Satyricon, be carried off in a litter to a dinner party.

The big heat
Early baths – a bit ramshackle in the very earliest of days – were heated using braziers, but from the 1st century BCE more sophisticated heating systems were used such as underfloor (hypocaustum) heating fuelled by wood-burning furnaces (prafurniae). Greek baths had employed such a system but, typical of the Romans, they took an idea and improved upon it for maximum efficiency. Huge fires from the furnaces sent warm air under the raised floor (suspensurae) which stood on narrow pillars (pilae) of solid stone, hollow cylinders, or polygonal or circular bricks. The floors were paved over with square tiles (bipedales) then covered in decorative mosaics.(Pity the poor slaves sweating away keeping the fires burning…)

Hypocaustum, Bath, UK (Author photo)

Water (indispensable!)

The vast amount of water needed for the larger baths was supplied by purpose built aqueducts and regulated by huge reservoirs in the bath complex. The Baths of Diocletian reservoir in Rome, for example, could hold 20,000 m³ of water. Water was heated in large lead boilers fitted over the furnaces and could be added (via lead pipes) to the heated pools using a bronze half-cylinder connected to the boilers. Once released into the pool the hot water circulated by convection.

Natatio (swimming pool), Roman barracks, Isca (Caerleon) (Author photo)

But were the baths completely good for you?

There’s not mistaking that Romans enjoyed their baths.


Not even considering the large amount of lead involved in heating and pipework, we should bear in mind that the water was not always renewed as often as we might like it to be in the 21st century; remains of oil, sweat, dirt or even excrement were kept warm, providing a fabulous breeding ground for bacteria. Emperor Marcus Aurelius complained about the dirtiness. (Meditations, 8.24). Celsus, who wrote one of the best sources concerning medical knowledge in the Roman world, while commending bathing’s therapeutic virtues, warns not to go to the baths with a fresh wound, because of the risk of gangrene.The objections of the philosopher Seneca were more about the associated noise that interrupted his work when he lived above a bath (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium 56.1, 2).

However, I would think that like modern consumers, Romans would not have returned to the baths daily if those baths were that distasteful. Given the wide variety and sheer numbers of thermae and balnae available to them, they could always have taken their denarii elsewhere.

Tepidarium, forum baths, Pompeii (author photo)

An extra note in reply to a couple of comments here and social media about slaves using the baths…
(You do keep me working…;-) )

Epigraphic testimony for slaves at baths as customers is direct if sparse so it’s not always easy to work out determine how common and widespread the practice was.“(G. Fagan, ‘Interpreting the Evidence: Did Slaves Bathe at the Baths?,’ in D. E. Johnston and J. DeLaine (eds.), (1992))

The consensus among academics is that slaves could use public baths as customers rather than just attendants. For example, this from a blog from the University of Kent (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/lucius-romans/2016/03/15/visiting-the-baths-in-ancient-rome/“The rich, who had no time constraints, could choose to bathe at the optimum time and therefore temperature, but labourers or slaves — who were not in control of their time — had to settle for a tepid bathing experience once their work was done.”

For primary sources, Fagan cites an inscription from Puteoli which prohibits the slaves who removed corpses in the town from using the baths before the first hour of night… (Garrett G. Fagan, ‘Bathing in Public in the Roman World’ (2002))

In the same book, Fagan also cites the lex Metalli Vipascensis which stipulates that “slaves and freedmen who were in the employ of the procurator in charge of the mine or who enjoyed other privileges could use the baths free of charge….the wording can be read to imply that slaves not in the employ of the imperial service would be charged, which in turn implies that slaves of any kind…had access to the baths as customers.” Also, an inscription in Coela, Thrace “…records the building of baths for ‘the people and the familia of our Caesar,’ that is, for the local inhabitants and the emperor’s slaves who served his estates in the region.”

Less reliable but probably worth mentioning is some literary evidence from works of fiction. For example, the anonymous Latin comedy Querolus: “Even if we are tempted to go by day, it is at night that we go to the baths. We bathe with the slave-girls and boys.” (Kyle Harper, ‘Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425’ (2011))

Another literary work, the Roman novel The Golden Ass or The Metamorphoses of Apuleius has characters who use the baths: two cooks who bathe every evening.

Anybody know any other sources?


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 four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, 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.

Surprise and pleasure at a woman leading the action

Recently, I attended a fair near where I live in southwest France. I chatted with local English friends, met real ones who had only been Facebook friends until then and made new ones. I had a fascinating discussion about Romans in France with a French philosophy teacher who also talked about the different English and French approaches to history. The hilarious thing was that he’d caught me with half a mince pie in my mouth. I was humbled when French mothers and grandmothers said they were buying a real English book signed by the author for their family members; I always feel so responsible.

Regulars who had bought a Roma Nova book each year knew how it all worked, and we were soon into discussing the exact nature of Aurelia’s relationship with Caius, Carina still feeling a stranger sometimes in Roma Nova and wondered together where Allegra was going with her life. And, of course, how those three generations (and the ghost of Marina) interconnected throughout the (two) series.

New readers were intrigued by the idea of a remnant of the Roman Empire surviving. Women mostly looked surprised and then delighted when I explained that the gender balance was tipped in favour of women; the men were slightly sceptical but interested at the idea of a 21st century Rome, then thoughtful. I’m used to these reactions so I’m ready with the answers. 😉

Then I started thinking about it…

Why is it automatically assumed that in a thriller/adventure story that the woman is usually the assistant, subordinate, girlfriend or sidekick? These days, she’s often the scientist, historian, forensic expert, or even the boss of the team, but rarely the chief mover and shaker of the action in the story. It’s mostly still James Bond rather than Jamie Bond.

I expect at this stage you might quote me an amphora-load of examples. Women running the show in police and crime fiction and their television versions such Scott & Bailey (Sally Wainwright), Vera (Ann Cleeves) and Rizzoli & Isles (Tess Gerritsen) seems to be increasingly common (Hooray!), and taken as pretty normal in the general reader’s or viewer’s mind. But in the thriller/adventure/spy  genres women in the lead role are still seen as the exception. Remember the enormous controversy when Doctor Who became a woman?

Why? I believe this perception goes quite deep.

In Real Life, surgeons, motor mechanics and firefighters are automatically visualised as men; midwives, childminders and personal assistants/secretaries as women. Female police are everywhere, even on patrol with weapons at, for instance, railway stations, but it would be interesting to know how many lead armed response or tactical units.

Women first became eligible to pilot Royal Air Force combat aircraft in 1989. The following year, they were permitted to serve on Royal Navy warships.The 1991 Gulf War marked the first general deployment of British women in combat operations since 1945.

The seizure of Royal Navy sailor Faye Turney in 2007 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard led to some media comments on the role of women and mothers  in the armed forces (not as persons in their own right!) which is a perfect illustration of the traditional views still prevailing in today’s society.

In 2016 a ban on women serving in close combat roles was lifted and in 2017 the Royal Air Force’s ground-fighting force became open to women for the first time. In 2018, women became eligible to apply for all roles in the British forces, although it should be noted that specialist units, particularly in the corps like medics and signals and in regiments like the UDR, had deployed women along with men for many years.

None of this equality on paper stops rude comments or sexual harassment. Women are often left out of office activities or squad bondings. sessions down the pub or after work drinks with other managers. This makes it difficult to make a connection with those they are trying to work and communicate with, especially in a team structure. For military and police this can also be very dangerous when they are out in the field since acceptance and trust has not always been built to a high degree.

Of course, it is always a matter of choice. Women are free to pursue their own career, to train for it and practise it without gender hindrance. But of course, they have to accept they must meet the required standards and qualifications without any allowance for their gender. It used to be said that a woman had to be twice as effective in order to be considered ‘as good as the blokes’. I hope that isn’t still true.

Back to fiction where in science fiction, fantasy or alternative time lines where women can be heroes (or sheroes)…

Kylara Vatta from Trading in Danger, Elizabeth Moon Eowyn, Lord of the Rings,  JRR Tolkien Carina Mitela, PERFIDITAS, Alison Morton

I write the Roma Nova books to highlight how things could be; the characters live their lives naturally in their world and there is no room for these inbuilt unequal attitudes; neither men nor women are disadvantaged.

But, of course, it’s fiction. Moreover, it’s speculative fiction.

Until everybody in our own timeline loses stereotypes around what people – real or fictional, men as well as women – can do, we will always cause surprise whether selling fiction at a fair or in Real Life.


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 four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

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