Tip #44: Criticism, Feedback and Commentary

 

I am in a state of immense gratitude as I write this post. Why? Today I read an excellent review of one of my novels by Marian L. Thorpe (excellently reviewed, not reviewed as excellent). It led to an Alice In Wonderland rabbit-hole of surprises for me.

Surprise #1: the novel tried to hold its own, but came away with injuries.

Surprise #2: I did not break anything after reading it.

The latter was unexpected and, if you are a writer, you surely understand why. When you read the first uncomplimentary reviews of your writing, like me prior to the review in question, you probably turned crimson with rage.

A freshly-penned piece of writing feels precious (if not quite like the writer’s own child). The initial attitude of its creator is of the protective mother or father lion defending her/his cub.

Angry lion
“Who called Autobiography of a Lonely Lion ‘amateurish’?”

This is why you need to seek out as much criticism or feedback as possible, from any available source. Better to have the critique of a hundred amateurs than one expert’s opinion. Accustom yourself to the negative in order to remove its sting and enable you to accept it as valid.

I’m not saying a poor review will one day breeze past like the scent of fresh roses on the morning breeze. It still packs a punch, but you are less likely to react with a few shots of your own.

For me, it was an unintentional progression. I found myself looking at a negative review and not seeing red. Instead I saw an opportunity. Here was feedback which could be used to my advantage!

‘Negative’ is an interesting word. It means the opposite of something, an inversion like the colours on a film negative. If you turn your criticism around it becomes a roadmap of how to improve your writing.

Here is something you do not expect to hear from a writer. The critic is always right.

Your reviewer tells you your scenery is bland. You might have created a detailed, vibrant and unique backdrop for your story, but is it perfect? In this sense, your reviewer is absolutely right to point out that you have not yet achieved perfection. If something can be improved, why not do so?

I had long suspected my writing was falling flat somewhere. Now I have a few ideas about where to make improvements.

I could tell you to approach criticism in a calm and detached manner, but how likely is that? Better still, go hunting for reviews in the hope that negative feedback will appear. Without it a writer is groping blindly for ways to improve, without knowing where things went wrong.

Thanks again to Marian L. Thorpe! Honesty is a most appreciated gift.

Past Inspiration: A Walk Through Medieval London

IMG_0407

Welcome to London, 1450 A.D. The city has recovered from the sack of Boudicca’s rebellion, the post-Roman abandonment and the scourge of the Black Death in more recent times. It is a thriving metropolis, by medieval standards.

We enter the city from the north and are welcomed by an image of fortified piety. A series of priories and monasteries stand just beyond and within London’s curtain wall.

IMG_0389

The wall itself is a relic of times past, built under the Romans. It has been damaged by fire and left to dereliction by the first Saxon settlers.

IMG_0400

If you approach the walls with dark intentions, do not be surprised if you are met with iron. Watchmen stand sentry at the gates and armoured men can be called from the Tower.

IMG_0408

We pass St Martin’s Le Grand and Greyfriars, priory of the Franciscans, and see something spectacular emerge through the trees, buildings and towers. It is the bastion of Londoners’ faith, playing as important a role in defending them from the forces of evil as the Tower.

IMG_0410

St Paul’s Cathedral rose above the rest of London, visible from all quarters of the city. But the above view is quite different from what we see walking through medieval London. The city has always been vulnerable to the ravages of fires which spread from house to house to become vast infernos. One such fire destroyed the old cathedral.

IMG_0399

Here is the St Paul’s of our journey. It is a masterpiece of Early English Gothic architecture, with an incredibly long nave and tall spire. In later times, Protestant ministers would harangue the London crowd from an open-air pulpit in the cathedral precinct.

IMG_0413

We carry on walking down Watling Street. Our first impression of the Thames is the stench of sewage running on its surface. The bleak channel draws out the city’s refuse and carries it out towards the sea.

IMG_0414

London Bridge, where the fire which destroyed St Paul’s began. It is hard to imagine a blaze erupting on the bare, sweeping concrete bridge today. This monument looked much different in the Middle Ages.

London Bridge

For pedestrians and traders driving their wares on carts into London from the south, the bridge would have appeared to be more of a tunnel. Even where the houses and shops did not span the bridge’s width on wide arches, they leaned in towards the middle (their roofs almost touching overhead). We leave the city in darkness.

IMG_0415

But London is not quite finished. A small enclave of the city rests on the southern bank, at the end of London Bridge.

IMG_0417

Southwark Priory is a testament to the faith of those who dwelt on the southern bank, but not every inhabitant of Southwark was pious. Inns lined the high street along which tradesmen would pass. They offered drink, prostitution and a chance to have your purse lifted in a dark alleyway.

IMG_0404

We should be wary, unless our journey ends on the point of a cutthroat’s dagger. This is not the only threat to be found in the shadows of Southwark. The year is 1450 A.D. and a rebel army marches north from Kent. They are led by a man with two names: John Mortimer, Jack Cade.

 

Have An Infamous Christmas

Ragnarok

As an early Christmas gift to you, here is the latest chapter from my current work-in-progress, Servants of Infamy!

After stewing in their disease-ridden camp, the marshland their idle feet had made of the Kent Downs, John Mortimer’s rebels marched northwards. He rode along their scattered column and harangued his truculent followers, reminding them of how the king’s officers stole bread from the mouths of their children, how his court grew fat through the betrayal of Kent’s honest landowners and labourers.

His tongue whipped them into a fast march and the head of the column arrived outside the market town of Dartford at sunset on the second day. Their spirits set to soaring heights as the common men caught sight of the wide channel of the River Thames.

Mansford’s expression grew dark and webbed scars twitched at the corners of his eyes. It became real in that moment. Until then the men around him had been no more than a disorganised rabble, stumbling through a waking dream with their gaze fixed on the distant fantasy of marching into London.

But there the rebels were, close enough to throw a stone into the same river which fed Mansford’s home city. The thought of Kentish boots tramping over its sluggish channel and into his city brought another spasm tugging at his jaw.

Jack spared the Thames a brief glance and turned his gaze back to the road. The river had never held any significance for him. He had seen the bounty of the Scottish lochs, the raw power of the Irish Sea in storm and the terrifying size of the endless expanse of waves which lay beyond the Channel’s western mouth. They had only been glimpsed as his grandfather hurried him south to France, but they lay as glittering pools of a hundred shades of green and grey in his mind’s eye.

The men of Kent could drink the Thames dry and piss it back out for all he cared. It was half a sewer already. Moreover, it was a great wall of water standing between him and the chance of battle. English soldiers waited for them across that river of filth. With John Mortimer’s help, he would see them drown in it.

A shout went up from the front and the column halted its advance. Jack cursed Mansford’s slow gait for bringing them away from the foremost ranks. All around them men were dropping their packs and sitting on the grassy verge to strip away their mud-soaked wool hose. The sickly caseic odour of feet wedged into hard leather shoes and marched raw over broken roads for two days hung damp in the air.

“If half these men ain’t got the rot, I’ll be an archbishop.” Mansford said, clamping forefinger and thumb over his nose.

Jack wondered at the man who could spill blood without thought, but who flinched at the smell of stricken flesh. His mind groped for a clever rebuke to throw at Mansford. Before one came to mind, Jack heard a frantic rush of feet coming towards them.

A young lad raced past, sprinting between the discarded packs and wailing in terror as he bolted for the rear of the rebel column. His waving red hair was already some way into the distance before Jack could make sense of his cries, now being repeated in low mutters by the men around him.

“The king’s come! He’s come to hang us! The king’s come with an army!”

Jack once more cursed Mansford’s reluctance to be at the front and wished John Mortimer had taken the time to bring order to the men who followed him. The rebels were scattered back along the road for over a mile, with some still marching in ignorance of the halt. If it were not for the terrified lad’s warning, those in the middle and rear would never have known an army blocked their path.

Just in front of Jack there was a low hillock around which the road snaked. It cut of all sight of John Mortimer’s vanguard. For all they knew, the battle could have been fought and lost with them being none the wiser.

They would know either way soon enough, Jack thought, when the king’s knights rode down over the hillock and hacked them apart where they stood.

“What are you waiting for? Get up there and see if it’s true, Jock.” Mansford said. He had a tremble of panic in his voice and Jack saw the cutthroat’s hands were still, keeping well clear of his dagger. It would be of no use against armoured knights on horseback and Mansford was ready to run at the first hoofbeat he heard.

Jack jogged up to the crest of the mound. Every step felt like an ordeal, as if fear had taken hold of him by the midriff and was hauling him back towards the safety of the Kentish rebels.

His knees were weak and he was bone weary by the time the slope evened out. Jack settled into a crouch to stop his legs from shaking, and to make himself a smaller target. As he crept towards the summit, he cranked back the string of his crossbow.

Why not run? Jack knew he could survive if he made it back among the crowd lining the road. Many of them were still barefoot. They would be too slow to avoid a charging horseman, but he, on the other hand, might get away free if he could get down off the hillock.

Mansford came up beside him, crawled ahead a few paces to peer over the top of the rise and stood upright.

There was a cold slackness in Jack’s gut, threatening to loosen his bowels, but he clamped his jaw shut and rose behind the cutthroat. A long breath hissed out between his clenched teeth.

Three hundred yards from where they stood, a stream cut a straight path across the bare meadow. The steep ditch through which it ran was spanned by a narrow bridge of dark, uneven stone.

Beyond the meadow, Jack could see a cluster of dwellings. There was Dartford. It seemed so near over the expanse of green that Jack almost overlooked the enemy.

Several hundred footmen stood in untidy ranks on the far side of the bridge, armed with billhooks and pikes wavering in the breeze. A solitary banner hung limp on its pole at the centre of their line. The thousand or more men of John Mortimer’s vanguard faced them across the meadow.

“Bloody Christ.” Mansford swore. He turned to call back to the men waiting behind them. “That ain’t the king. It’s the Sheriff of Kent and whatever bullyboys he could cobble together on short notice. They’re stamping their feet like frightened hens.”

Jack could see the sheriff’s men shifting in their ranks, irregular ripples of movement passing to and fro along their line. Ten trained men-at-arms might have held the bridge against an army, but even a fool could see the sheriff’s men lacked the stomach for what was to come.

“Aye, looks like the sheriff is even more of a coward than his men.” Jack said, pointing towards a shadow of movement in the distance.

His eyes followed a lone rider as he spurred his mount away from the sheriff’s levies. The king’s officer rode hard across the meadow, leaving the rebel army and the town he had sworn to protect behind in a trail of dust which scattered in the wake of his horse’s hooves. The host of hired footmen seemed to shudder as heads turned to watch his flight.

Mortimer trotted his own mount in front of his vanguard, five other landowners of Kent riding behind him. The traitor’s fat body wobbled as he stood in the saddle, his loud bellow carrying clear to Jack’s ears on the quiet breeze.

“That town you see yonder is Dartford.” he began, heaving his thick torso around to gesture over the stream. “It is a hallowed place for we men of Kent. Wat Tyler, a goodly man who led the honest people of our county in revolt not seventy years ago, was born in that place.” A furious cheer went up from men whose grandfathers had marched behind Wat Tyler and knew how the king’s officers had betrayed him. “Brave King Henry, whose son now wears the crown, walked this road on his way to Agincourt.” Another deafening cry met the name of the place where the Kentish men’s fathers had bent bows and sent death raining down on the flower of French nobility. “He, too, has been betrayed. Those men you see before us, barring our path, are loyal to the Sheriff of Kent.”

“And I’m the Duchess of York.” Mansford said in a soft, bitter murmur. “They’re loyal to the two silver groats the sheriff paid them.”

“The sheriff,” Mortimer continued, wheeling his horse to face the bridge. “Is abed with Queen Margaret who seeks to poison our king’s mind against his honest subjects. Those soldiers trample our livelihoods and rob our babes of food to keep them well through the winter. Let us show them justice, Kentish justice, and sharpened steel!”

Mortimer’s thick legs kicked back at his horse’s flanks and the animal plunged forwards onto the uneven stones of the bridge. His companions galloped after him, drawing their swords and thrusting the bright points into the air above their heads.

The vanguard gave a shout which seemed to shake the earth beneath Jack’s feet and they were flowing like a surging tide into the steep ditch.

Air whipped past his face and Jack was hurtling down the slope. His feet scarcely touched the grass as the meadow drew nearer. He lifted his gaze and saw the footmen close ranks at the head of the bridge. Their pikes stuck up towards the clouded sky like upright reeds on the edge of a river.

Had the Devil taken their senses from them? Their only chance of holding against horsemen was to lower pikes and stand their ground. Even as Jack sprinted the last hundred feet to where the rebels were struggling up the far side of the ditch, he saw the sheriff’s hired army take a faltering step back.

These were not knights or soldiers blooded in the wars with France. Mansford had been right. They were farmers and apprentices called to the sheriff’s banner and offered a silver groat or two to carry a hook or pike.

Mortimer’s horse hit the first rank like a hammer striking glass. Men reeled away and were kicked to the ground by thrashing hooves. Wickedly sharp steel sliced through the air at unguarded heads and necks.

The rebels rose out of the ditch to find their enemies towering over them, but not one man in the meadow owned a shield to defend against a cut from below. Scythes, axes and clubs lashed out at the legs of the men above and the footmen dropped, shrieking in agony.

Jack could not see the sheriff’s banner any more. It was like watching a forest being hacked to kindling. Pikes trembled in the air before toppling down onto the heads of those nearby, dropped as the footmen sprinted away from the howling terrors clambering up the stream’s steep bank.

He was too late. Jack was panting and gasping for air as he watched the rebel vanguard set off towards Dartford in pursuit of the two groat army.

His foot lashed out and kicked the bloodstained stones of the bridge, sending a flash of white hot pain up his leg. Jack bent double and moaned in agony. Then he straightened his back and let the fire wash through him, burning away his frustration.

Only one thing mattered to him now. The road to London was clear. Its streets would soon run with fresh-spilled blood, or his name was not Jack Cade.

He turned and saw Mansford walking with a slow, measured tread towards him. His eyes were narrowed and his mouth was set in a grimace of unease. Scarred flesh bunched into deep grooves across his brow.

“By the Virgin, I never thought they’d get this far.” he said, his voice a hollow whisper.

More extracts:

The Embassy #2

Kuiper belt Object, Planetoid 2003 UB313 & Moon ("Xena" and "Gabrielle", respectively) shown for January 1, 2006 Painting by A.Schaller for STScI

Jess climbed down the shuttle’s exit chute and followed the hermetically sealed corridor which snaked across the flat dirt plain. It led to Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s containment centre.

There she was escorted into a claustraphobic frosted glass capsule by shuttleport security officers in radiation suits. A sound like rushing water and grinding gears assaulted her on all sides, a hiss of escaping air and five suffocating seconds without sound or breath. Then clean air rushed back inside, accompanied by a damp spray of evaporated chemical mist.

“Welcome to Bagra, we hope you enjoy your stay.” a cheerful woman in a baby blue uniform said as Jess left the chamber.

It was not Jess’ first time flying, so she had known what to expect. Her family was comfortably middle-class, taking vacations to all the better known space station resorts in West-One Galaxy.

She still carried vivid memories of the year of her father’s big promotion. He had taken them all to West-Seven for walks along the unending coastlines of Tarin and skiing through the frozen continents of Arctia. The sight of West-Seven’s two suns throwing out a kaleidoscope of red and purple light over the vast, curving expanse of ice was what inspired her to join the ministry.

There were darker memories from those trips as well. Radiation was the greatest risk in all inter-planetary travel, requiring extensive de-contamination on arrival. Jess could also picture in her mind the burning poverty in the overflow colonies on Mars. It was a part of her childhood she struggled not to revisit.

Her luggage was waiting for her outside the containment centre. Bhagra Inter-planetary Shuttleport’s terminal looked like a massive greenhouse. A glass wall faced the runway, the other three sides were open to the elements and a sloping roof of corrugated chrome rested high overhead.

A stream of taxi aircraft made their sluggish way out from loading bay, carrying passengers from earlier flights. They waited until a kilometre stood between them and the terminal before cracking away at supersonic speed towards the distant haze of Bhagra’s capital, Danask.

“Are you Jess Matison?” a local man asked.

He was wearing the grubby grey overalls of a ricker-jet pilot, dark sweat stains visible under his arms. Jess stared at the sign he was holding. It was a crude attempt to spell her name in Romanised script, Jez Metson.

“I am. Are you from the embassy?” she asked.

“Please come.”

Without waiting for her, he set off across the terminal and started up the ricker-jet. No take-off checks or last-minute inspections, she saw. The pilot just climbed right in and began hitting buttons.

It was an old machine, out-dated by a few decades. The gaudy red and yellow paint used to decorate it in swirling patterns had been cracked and flaked by supersonic travel. It produced a ripple effect across the vehicle’s body, as if it had buckled in a head-on collision.

If the embassy expected her to travel in that thing, she might as well get back on the shuttle now and go home. Jess’ life still had some value over her career.

“I’m sorry.” she called up to the pilot. “I think I’ll take my own transportation.”

“No, you must come with me.” he shouted, jumping down from the ricker-jet and narrowing his dark eyes.

Jess took a step back. Was that how embassy staff were treated on Bhagra? It was beginning to look like she had made a mistake in applying for this posting. She thought about offering the pilot money to leave without her.

His eyes suddenly became glazed, staring out across the terminal. Turning to see what was distracting him, Jess saw a glimmering light hovering just above the skyline. It was like sunlight reflecting on a mirror, almost blinding.

A rough hand grabbed her arm and she stumbled as the pilot dragged her towards the ricker-jet. Was he mad? Jess screamed for help and people turned to gawp at them. Three security officers jogged across the terminal.

It was an abduction. She should have known. The CPO at the ministry had briefed her on embassy staff being targeted in other galaxies.

An ear-splitting eruption of sound tore through the terminal. Jess turned from fighting her abductor and saw a thousand footlong shards of razor-sharp glass shower down at the far end of the terminal. Automatic rifle fire chattered through the air.

“We must go.” the pilot said, pulling her towards the vehicle.

Jess was dead weight. Her mind turned in dizzying circles as it tried to comprehend what was happening around them.

People were dying. They were tripping over each other, falling down and being thrown off their feet by an invisible force. What was going on? There was no sign of attackers, even the security officers had vanished from sight.

A few hundred feet from where she stood, a taxi tried to take off. Its jets roared into action and the vehicle lifted up from the ground. It kicked forwards, the power of its engines sending passengers flying into the air behind it as the pilot rammed the throttle to full blast.

Jess saw a blur of shining chrome whip past the taxi and, for a second, the image of two long wings and a pair of black rifle muzzles spouting fire flashed in her eyes. Then the taxi was tearing away, a ball of flames ripping into the grey landscape in a plume of black smoke.

The Embassy

Kuiper belt Object, Planetoid 2003 UB313 & Moon ("Xena" and "Gabrielle", respectively) shown for January 1, 2006 Painting by A.Schaller for STScI

“We are now entering orbit. If you look left you will see sunrise over Bhagra.”

Jess glanced up from her reading and out of the shuttle window. A pale crescent of gold was cresting over the ash grey planet below. As the weak and distant sun crept up over the horizon, it spread a red glow which seemed to ignite a wildfire on Bhagra’s surface. The land was swept up in the crimson tide.

It should have warmed Jess’ heart. The sight was magnificent, far more inspiring than her last sight of Earth had been. But there were too many worries weighing down her spirits. What would life be like down there on the planet’s surface?

This was her first overseas posting with the Ministry of Diplomacy. She had excelled as a trainee and junior advisor on inter-planetary policy, which was why she had drawn Bhagra. It was a dream posting. A civil servant could make their career in a place like this.

The shuttle’s navigation system spoke again, delivering a roundup of yesterday’s world news in its soothing automated tones.

“Tensions have flared up again between rival tribes in the mineral-rich southern hemisphere. It is claimed by sources on the ground that as many as two hundred were killed yesterday by Shearer attacks around the mining colony of Mozlin.”

Jess racked her mind trying to recall what a Shearer was. It was the sort of thing she would be expected to know when she arrived at the United Coalition embassy. The chief policy officer for Middle-Six Galaxy at the ministry had briefed her on a hundred different aspects of Bhagra life before she left.

Days locked in a musty office with an old, droning minister and Jess still could not remember one simple fact. Or was that it? The memories of his dull monotone flooded back. Shearers were unmanned sub-orbit combat vehicles. Their purpose was to carry out lightning, precision attacks in urban areas.

“Did you hear the latest? What they aren’t saying on the news…”

The couple in the row of seats in front of hers had dropped their voices to a whisper. Jess leaned forward, pretending to stow her antique novel away in her bag, and cocked her head to listen. Nobody would question how long it was taking her to put the book away. It was real paper, extremely rare and all too easily damaged. She had spent half a month’s salary on it.

“What are they saying?” the man asked.

“My mother says the planetary government is losing its grip. She says the isurgents aren’t just hitting the southern hemisphere mineral colonies, they’re pushing the peacekeepers back over the equator.”

“You’re kidding!”

Jess stopped listening to the couple and settled back in her seat, shifting into a more comfortable position for landing.

It was nonsense. Bhagra was a small planet, with only a quarter of Earth’s circumference and about the same size as the moon. Even so, for the insurgents to have crossed the equator without the Defence Assembly hearing about it was lunacy. Less than that, it was nothing more than idle gossip.

Her stomach rumbled, matching the hum of the shuttle as it tore into the upper atmosphere. Jess hoped the food was good on Bhagra. Shuttle meals were too dry for her palate and they tasted like cardboard.

Hundreds of kilometres below, a white shape flitted through the sheer valleys which wrinkled the planet’s surface in a thick band around the equatorial line. A warning flashed through its control matrix as it detected the shuttle diving into the stratosphere. The Shearer tracked the shuttle’s flight path and dismissed the threat.

Chrome microlattice flaps dropped on its wings, leaving two thin trails of vapour as it banked north. The Shearer dropped out through the narrow mouth of a valley, into the northern hemisphere.

Bad Samaritan #3

Mind

Where will we be two millennia from now? Will we be looking at the world through our own eyes or staring into the minds of others?

-A sequel to The Visitor-

Streaming from consciousness to subconscious, breaking down the mental barriers of countless millennia of evolution. It was a lot like hiking in the mountains.

When I dropped into the tank of nano-enhanced fluid, my mind was set to a closed frequency. It was like moving along an avenue of trees. My consciousness set a gentle, easy pace. There was time to stop and inspect each flower. I could have counted every stone on the gravel path if I had wanted to.

Then the sub-atomic pincers clamped onto my spinal column and I was flying.

I shot out into a broad valley, racing forwards with the world passing by as little more than a blur. Grass, rocks, streams. A constant deluge of information flooded my senses.

Things slowed down and I was creeping towards the summit. Everything was laid out below me and on all sides. I could see for miles. Valleys, mountains, forests.

My mind was open, turned inside out. It could reach down and touch a tree twenty miles away. I could see every creeping tectonic shift in the landscape.

But I was blind. My mind groped through the tangled strands and broken webs of human thought which reached out through the derelict city.

Something snagged. It was a stray idea, a thought which spelled danger, secrecy and mistrust. I followed the spider’s trailing silk and took care not to pull too hard.

“We have to do it tonight.” she said.

Her mind was rigid with certainty and I could follow her thoughts like the flight of an arrow. Their conclusion was vivid in her imagination, giving the speaker a thrill of satisfaction. Explosion, fire, destruction.

“Are you sure it has to be tonight?” a man asked.

“I’m certain. It’s now or never.”

A cracking sound rose sharp to her ears, but did not startle her. She had primed the weapon in her hands. It was a long chrome tube with a trigger at one end. I felt the heavy rectangular stock in her hands, the mechanism which would send a precision bolt of radioactive energy shooting out faster than the speed of light.

I felt a lurch in my gut. Something was wrong. The barrier between our thoughts was crumbling away and I could feel her consciousness probing mine.

“We’re not alone.” she said. “They’re listening to us. It has to be now.”

My body lurched out over the side of the thought tank and the connection was broken. I was shaking from head to toe. The urge to vomit was overpowering.

Was that how it felt? Did they know the same sickening sense of violation every time we crept inside their minds?

If you enjoyed this short story, you might like The Visitor and Lights Out.

Past Inspiration: When In Rome

Which culture offers more inspiration than Rome, empire of the ancients? In this post we will take a trip through the streets of ancient Rome. How should we behave when we arrive?

“Do as the Romans do.”

You may imagine yourself marching under the eagle, debating philosophy or giving a great speech in the forum. This would be like equating our lives today with those of a soldier, academic or politician. Most of us are none of these.

We can start from the bottom and work our way up.

Barbarians

You, 50 B.C.
You, 50 B.C.

You probably were not born in Rome itself. The inhabitants of the British Isles, Scandinavia, Central Europe, North Africa and the Near East would have been known to the Romans as “barbarians”. This was a term they borrowed from the classical Greeks.

It conveyed the idea of “not us”, “different”, “uncivilised”. There were a number of Scythians, Iberians, Gauls and Jews living in the city of Rome who would have described themselves as Roman. To an extent, they were. But if you lived beyond the borders of the empire, you were something unimaginable.

You had two heads, antlers and six arms. Children would cry when their mothers told them stories about you. Even if you lived in present-day Italy, you were probably just an “ally”. This gave you some benefits, but you were still not Roman.

Slaves

Shackles

So you are living in the dark forests of Germania or the windswept shores of Britannia. Not so much in the shadow of Rome’s empire as adjacent to it, with your own rich culture. The legions arrive, kill your warriors and take you captive. What happens next?

Do not think of slaves as being set aside from the population of the Roman Empire. They were mingled among free citizens of all standings. Slaves were like the living foundation of the empire, permeating it and feeding it with the energy of their labours.

For many, the existence was miserable. They lived and worked their entire lives on vast farming estates in Sicily or down bleak mine shafts. These slaves were tools for their owners, human cattle.

Others had happier existences. You might be born into slavery in a wealthy household or sell yourself into one to pay a debt. This would allow you some measure of comfort and status. One day you might buy or be granted your freedom.

But you still had no freedom or free will. What did it mean to have no “free will”? Your dominus could make any decision on your behalf. He was free to use you for whatever purpose suited his wants.

Poor

Welcome home
Welcome home

Every city has its poor and Rome was no different. Above is where you would live if you arrived in the city freeborn, seeking out streets paved with gold. It is an insula, but an image of crumbling ruins does not tell you very much.

Tenement inside

This cramped tenement from New York in the early 1900s gives a better impression. You would live in a six or seven storey building, on the top floor. Here there was no ventilation, not even natural light, and no sanitation. You shared the small room with five others.

Home was the ancient wooden equivalent of a skyscraper. It was built to produce fast income from tenants, not withstand the rigours of time. Tenements in ancient Rome burned down or collapsed, often with the tenants still inside.

Pompeii
Pompeii

Suffocating alleyways, utter darkness at night, no police force and grinding poverty all around. You might be robbed, your throat cut by a roaming gang, and nobody would raise a hand to help. Call for the night watchman and expect a beating. He may take your purse as well.

Citizens

Roman family

Why would anyone risk all of the above slavery, poverty and violence? Why not steer away from its borders or escape its grasp?

Citizenship is what you aspire to. As a citizen you gain the protection of Rome’s laws. You cannot be enslaved or killed except in limited circumstances. You can participate in the system of elections. Most importantly, citizenship will be inherited by your children.

One day, a descendant of yours might climb the ladder of Roman politics to become consul. They will look back and proudly state that you were the first of their family to gain the citizenship.

Otherwise, it was an ordinary life. The image immortalised in stone above does not appear alien. It is a family. Roman citizens worked and lived much like you do today. They lived in a modest house on one of Rome’s hills and might have owned a slave or two.

Senators

Senate

The fates seem to favour you. By a combination of birth, wit, work and luck you have found yourself among the most esteemed inhabitants of ancient Rome. You are a senator, with the right to sit in the curia in the forum and run for public office.

Daily life treats you well and yours is a luxurious existence. You have a house on the Palatine Hill, far from the stench of the slums and markets below. Hired thugs patrol the streets around your villa to ward away thieves. Mosaics decorate you floors. Heated private baths, slaves to meet your every whim and magnificent sculptures adorning your atrium.

This all comes with a price and you are in a constant state of war. You may be called upon to lead Rome’s armies against barbarians or rebellious allies. When unrest flares up among the plebs on the city streets, you must step into the fray with shield and sword.

Each year two men are chosen to fill the highest office. But there can only be two consuls out of nine hundred senators. Competition is fierce, often bloody. Your fellow patricians will send a mob to club you to death on the steps of the curia, your wife will slip poison in your wine and your slaves will slit your throat while you sleep.

Even when all of your ambitions are fulfilled and you surpass any Roman who has come before, you must remain vigilant. Beware the Ides of March.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
Death of Caesar

Second thoughts?

Like me, you might have always fancied taking a trip to ancient Rome. Perhaps you are reconsidering making the journey now.

Farm

Rural life in the ancient world was hard work. It was a tough existence, but rewarding. You gained some security through the anonymous nature of your existence. So why did people travel to the grimy, violent city in search of their fortunes?

In the countryside you inherited land from your father, worked the earth to provide for your family and divided it up between your children when you died. Things remained much the same from one generation to the next, for as long as no armies appeared on the horizon.

In Rome, there was some kind of magic in the air which allowed a man to change his fortunes in one lifetime. With such a vast number of people crushed into a city, the hierarchy could become blurred from time to time.

This was your moment. With enough hard work and a great deal of luck even a slave, Spaniard or slum-dweller could become emperor. Ambition drove Rome’s success and ambition drove people to Rome.

But there were no women…

Livia Drusilla

Something is missing from this post. Where are all the women?

If written history is to be believed, there were only two types of ancient Roman women: prostitutes and empresses (sometimes both). But the ordinary woman would have been there, silent in history but certainly heard at the time.

Toiling as a household slave, washing clothes in the slums, caring for her citizen children, whispering in the ear of her senator husband.