Like many work-for-hire writers, I usually find out when my book’s cover is done by checking Amazon.com. The other day I was thrilled to see the cover for my upcoming nonfiction release Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt. I absolutely love it! Just like I absolutely loved writing the book – ancient history is the jam in my jelly roll! I believe it’s coming out in August.
When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.
We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.
A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.
Earth has been miraculously created out of earth Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing Earth has fixed all his thoughts On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth
Earth wants to be an earthly king But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell
Remember, o man, that you are ashes And into ashes you will return
Earth conquers castles and towers on earth Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us” When earth has built up his defences on earth That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth
Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold As though earth won’t really have to return to earth Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it
I really wonder why earth loves earth Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven
In Middle English:
Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte
Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting
Memento, homo, quad cinis es Et in cenerem reverteris
Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres” When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres
Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde
Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke
You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.
We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.
Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.
No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.
One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.
Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.
Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.
In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.
Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.
But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.
Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.
Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.
This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.
Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.
When writing parts of my fantasy novel Necropolis, I cheated. I took my inspiration from already published works. Did I plagiarize? No, nothing like that. Yet, something about this seems shady. Just what are these published works?
Primary sources. They are firsthand accounts of history by people who lived through the events they are writing about. These could be letters, or photographs, or other items or documents, even something such as a Viking broadsword etched with runes. There’s nothing like a primary source to give you the essence of the time period or event you’re studying, the vibrancy and power of it. I referenced many primary sources when writing the short descriptive pieces that preceded each of Necropolis’s 22 chapters. These largely come from ancient history, since the world I created is sort of an amalgamation of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and Mesopotamia. For instance, here is the stele inscription that appears at the start of Chapter 1:
Under the searing gaze of the sun god Rumda did I march my army my army of ten thousand
Before me fled the people of the land The harvest lay withered on the threshing floor Figs shriveled unpicked on the trees Dust piled high in the homes Homes where only jackals and foxes now live Even these fled before me before my army’s might
I crossed the harsh wasteland to the edge of the world to Eretria by the sea That nest of vipers Home to the Dwellers — the Old Ones Defilers of the land
With the might of my sword I slew the young men With the point of my javelin I made rivers of blood flow to the thirsty soil I took the young women I made widows of all They heaped dust upon their heads The air was filled with their weeping Sweet music to my army to the weary travelers with the bloody sandals
O Eretria Your walls are crumbled Your temples are burning Your city is no more I am Kar the Mighty Conqueror of Nations I will clear away the old and make a new land A new city, strong and fast A new people that no one shall conquer
In this vow I stand firm as a yew My arms held wide as a god to my people As king of Eretria King of the World
‘The Founding of Eretria’ Stele inscription Year 1, Eretrian Calendar
This inscription was based primarily on boastful words from 3,000-odd years ago. Tiglath Pileaser I ruled the Assyrian Empire from 1115-1077 BC.
Tiglath-pileser, the powerful king, king of hosts, who has no rival, king of the four quarters (of the world), king of all rulers, lord of lords, king of kings; the lofty prince . . . who rules over the nations, the legitimate shepherd whose name is exalted above all rulers; the lofty judge, whose weapons Ashur has sharpened, and whose name, as ruler over the four quarters (of the world), he has proclaimed forever; the conqueror of distant lands, which form the boundaries on north and south; the brilliant day, whose splendor overthrows the world’s regions; the terrible, destroying flame, which like the rush of the storm sweeps over the enemy’s country; who . . . has no adversary, and overthrows the foes of Ashur.
Ashur and the great gods who have enlarged my kingdom, who have given me strength and power as my portion, commanded me to extend the territory of their (the gods’) country, putting into my hand their powerful weapons, the cyclone of battle. I subjugated lands and mountains, cities and their rulers, enemies of Ashur, and conquered their territories. With sixty kings I fought, spreading terror (among them), and achieved a glorious victory over them. A rival in combat, or an adversary in battle, I did not have. To Assyria I added more land, to its people I added more people, enlarging the boundaries of my land and conquering all (neighboring?) territories.
In the beginning of my government, five kings . . . with an army of twenty thousand men . . .–and whose power no king had ever broken and overcome in battle–trusting to their strength rushed down and conquered the land of Qummuh (Commagene). With the help of Ashur, my lord, I gathered my war chariots and assembled my warriors; I made no delay, but traversed Kashiari, an almost impassable region. I waged battle in Qummuh with these five kings and their twenty thousand soldiers and accomplished their defeat. Like the Thunderer (the storm god Adad) I crushed the corpses of their warriors in the battle that caused their overthrow. I made their blood to flow over all the ravines and high places of mountains. I cut off their heads and piled them up at the walls of their cities like heaps of grain. I carried off their booty, their goods, and their property beyond reckoning. Six thousand, the rest of their troops, who had fled before my weapons and had thrown themselves at my feet, I took away as prisoners and added to the people of my country.
At that time I marched also against the people of Qummuh, who had become unsubmissive, withholding the tax and tribute due to Ashur, my lord. I conquered Qummuh to its whole extent, and carried off their booty, their goods, and their property; I burned their cities with fire, destroyed, and devastated.*
I tried to keep the spirit of Tiglath Pileser I alive when I created the poem that opens my fantasy novel. After reading inscriptions similar to this one, it was much easier to write the poem. I think I succeeded in conveying a haughty ruler who has no qualms about laying the countryside to waste. What do you think? Did I succeed?
I always tell people that I studied history in school because it is nothing more than stories – human stories from thousands of years. What could be more interesting and vital than such stories? Very little, I contend.
Source: R. F. Harper, Assyrian and Babylonian Literature (New York; D. Appleton, 1904) pp. 12-14. Reprinted in Marvin Peryy, Joseph R. Peden and Theodore H. Von Laue, eds.,Sources of the Western Tradition, Vol. I: From Ancient Times to the Enlightenment, 2nd ed., (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1991) pp. 20-21.