Ancient Rome: a lifelong obsession

Trajans_marketI have been fascinated, for much of my life, with ancient peoples. Especially the Romans. Why? It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll give you the short version first. There is this funny thing about the last couple millenia of history. Many people assume it’s been a fairly steady progression in technology and civilization from the ancients to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the modern era.

But that isn’t really the case. The Roman Empire was more advanced than many people realize, and the Middle Ages were a step backwards. The Middle Ages were a decline in technology and civilization that lasted a thousand years! New technologies were discovered during the Middle Ages, but mostly toward the end as we transitioned into the Renaissance, and many of them were rediscoveries of things the Romans had known hundreds of years before.

And at the same time, the Romans, for all their engineering and technological understanding, were astonishingly primitive in other ways. They kept slaves. They were horrible misogynists. They tortured people as entertainment. It is the juxtaposition of the Romans’ barbarism and civility that fascinates me, that and the fact that they are arguably the foundation of the western world. If you speak English, just about every other word that comes out of your mouth derives from Latin. Like it or not, you are a cultural descendent of the Roman Empire.

I acquired my obsession with ancient Rome in a high school Latin class. My school had a fabulous Latin program run by an outstanding teacher. I’d taken Latin 1 and Latin 2, and was about to start Latin 3, in which we would translate The Aeneid by Virgil in preparation for the Latin AP test. But disaster struck.

The Latin teacher was so good, she’d been tapped by the district to be principal of another school. So we started Latin 3 with a brand new Latin teacher. She had big shoes to fill. On day one, she started quizzing us to see how much we knew from the last two years, and everyone in the class pretended they knew nothing. She threw up her hands and said forget Virgil, she’d have to go back to the beginning and teach us Latin 1.

Everyone in the class was thrilled except me. They loved the idea of getting Latin 3 credit for repeating Latin 1. But I actually wanted to translate The Aeneid and take the AP test. So I went to the teacher after class and told her the kids had snowed her–they knew the material just fine. She said, “No. They know nothing. I’m starting everyone over with Latin 1.” And I realized she wanted that to happen. She knew the last teacher had a great reputation, and she wanted to tarnish that reputation by telling everyone that her Latin 3 students had been unprepared and needed to be started over from scratch. By tearing down the old teacher, who wasn’t around to defend herself, she might look good by comparison. Never mind that nobody would take the AP test that year. This is how students and teachers conspire to set low bars for themselves.

I told her I knew the material and I wanted to translate The Aeneid. So could I work independently and translate The Aeneid while the rest of the class repeated Latin 1? Thank goodness, she said that was fine. So that’s what I did all year! I sat in the back of the classroom, translating away, and every day handed my translation to the teacher, who corrected it as necessary, and she didn’t make me do any of the other work.

And about halfway through the year, a miracle happened. I started to be able not just to translate Virgil’s ancient Latin, but to read it. I could pick up the goddamn Aeneid and read what a Roman had written 2000 years ago. I was beginning to “get” Latin, to understand the way Romans shaped their phrases, the nature of their metaphors. I was beginning to feel the very real differences in their thought processes. Writing and reading is a form of telepathy, transferring thoughts from one person’s head to another, and it was happening. Across two thousand years and a world of cultural differences, an ancient Roman spoke inside my head, and I understood.

That was one of the most magical experiences of my life (now you know I am the nerdiest nerd who ever nerded), and I’ve been obsessed with the Romans ever since.

My writing is influenced by this obsession. One of my series (the one beginning with Assassin’s Gambit) is set in the Kjallan Empire, which has obvious similarities to Rome–it results from a thought experiment I had: what if the Roman Empire never collapsed and instead survived into the Renaissance? How would its cultural underpinnings handle the stress of a rising middle class, increasing literacy, and the printing press? (Kjall also has magic, so it’s not an exact thought experiment.) My other series, beginning with Flood and Fire, is not inspired by Rome, but it’s set in a Bronze Age river city, which reflects my interest in other ancient civilizations.

MedicusAnd now we come to a book I discovered–Medicus, by Ruth Downie. This is a historical mystery novel set in the Roman Empire. Obviously my interest in this book (which begins a whole series) is fed by my personal obsession with Rome. It is, nonetheless, a great book! I recommend it. Great historical details and a great protagonist. He’s a Roman doctor working as an army medic, which means we get a look both at the workings of the army and at ancient medicine.

He’s a fun character. He’s divorced after a disastrous marriage, prickly, bitter, and a little bit depressed. In his internals, he keeps telling himself he wants people to just leave him alone and stop bothering him with their problems, but he’s clearly soft-hearted since he ends up helping them anyway.

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6 Responses to Ancient Rome: a lifelong obsession

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    I love your passion as you describe reading the Aeneid. I also love:
    “now you know I am the nerdiest nerd who ever nerded”
    I love your nerdiness and look forward to nerding right along with you every Friday at #cupcakecrew:)
    Thanks for sharing. And Medicus looks very cool.

  2. Steve says:

    During the last German class I took in college I made that switch, where I started thinking in German when I spoke or read it rather than translating into English. I knew I’d arrived after the night I first dreamt in German. Unfortunately, my German skills have devolved into a rusted-out hulk since college, but I can still remember the thrill of that moment.

    • Amy Raby says:

      It really is a magical thing when you finally begin to internalize a second language. Rare for most Americans, I guess, and common for so many people outside America. Dreaming in the second language–that’s very cool! Never happened for me in Latin. Unfortunately I’ve lost most of my Latin as well. I certainly can’t “read” it anymore–I’ve lost too much vocabulary after letting it atrophy in college & beyond.

  3. Megan says:

    Hi! I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am absolutely obsessed with Rome and Greece, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only “nerdiest nerd who ever nerded”. I’m currently a high schooler, but my obsession with Rome began when I went to Rome with my family in 6th grade. Later, I wanted to be ahead of my class like you, so I started reading antiquity authors, such as Homer, Plato, Livy, and Suetonius. I also like to write in my free time and have wanted to base a story off Ancient Rome. I look forward to reading your books and Medicus because I love any piece of writing that references or is based on the classical period.

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