Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why I Love Psychotic Emperors

I was eighteen years old, and I had decided to write a book set in ancient Rome. Not my first book by any means – I’d had novel projects since the age of ten – but my first foray into the ancient world. Thanks to a lifelong love for Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, I knew my hero would be a gladiator; my heroine, by contrast, a slave girl. But beyond that I was stuck. Rome’s history spans everything from enlightened republic to despotic tyranny; frontier wars to private assassinations; religious persecution to casual idolatry. Where to begin?

“Start with a psychotic Emperor,” my mother said when I moaned about my plotting problems. “You can do a lot with a psychotic Emperor.”

“So who were the worst Emperors in Roman history?” I asked. “The ones who stayed in power long enough to do some real damage?”

“Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla . . .” my mother began reeling off effortlessly from her ancient history degree. A trip to the library later, I had my Emperor and the beginnings of a book. Domitian was a piece of work: The man was in love with his niece, threw all-black dinner parties, stabbed flies out of the air on a pen, and liked to personally wax the body hair of his concubines. This was someone who could provide a lot of grist for fiction. Six months later I had a finished novel, Mistress of Rome.

Domitian was a lot of fun, but I could have written a novel around any of the other Emperors on my mother’s list. Rome was ruled by many good men, but the bad ones achieved a truly memorable level of lunacy. Caligula thought he was a reincarnated god, married his sister, and made his favorite horse a Senator. Nero wrote the world’s worst poetry and murdered his mother. Commodus was strangled in his bath by a wrestler (not by Russell Crowe, as the movie would have it). Caracalla slaughtered his bride and wedding guests at the reception. There is material there for a hundred books – just give me a historical psychotic with a crown, and I’m in business. Of course, I have to remember to include a disclaimer at the end reassuring readers that I didn’t make up the more outrageous details. I would not have dared make up many of the details about Emperor Domitian, such as the fact that this affable paranoid took time out of his busy schedule of persecuting rivals and executing Vestal Virgins to write a manual on hair care.

See, that’s why I have such a fondness for psychotic Emperors: in their unparalleled flashy weirdness, they’ve been good to me, and to many novelists before me. I never have to make up flamboyant villains to chew the scenery in my novels. All I have to do is create decent people struggling against these madmen, and that is always a struggle worth writing about – because every one of those bad Emperors my mother listed off died violently, when some brave person in ancient Rome finally said “Enough.” Sometimes it was a group of brave people and sometimes only one; sometimes their identities are known to history and sometimes (as is the case with Domitian’s assassin) history clouds their names and leaves me to draw my own conclusions. But it’s always a fight worth a story.

I’m currently writing a sequel to Mistress of Rome, and I have to say it’s hard going. After Domitian, Rome enjoyed a relatively stable period with five sane and intelligent Emperors. Their achievements included a steady economy, a building boom, a reliable coinage, the conquering of several new provinces, and historically low execution rates.

How am I supposed to get anything good out of that?

Mistress of Rome is Kate Quinn's first novel. It was released on April 6, 2010. According to her website, and the post above, Quinn is currently working on both a sequel and a prequel. She is also a blogger and you can visit her blog here. You can also visit her website to learn more about her, her books, and read an excerpt from Mistress of Rome.


  1. I think what your mom said is my quote of the week..."Start with a Psychotic Emperor...there's a lot you can do with a Psychotic Emperor." Was better advice ever given? Mistress of Rome looks like a must read...

  2. Thanks so much for your guest post Kate! I definitely want to read more about this psychotic emperor!

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed my post! And thanks for having me on "Historical Tapestry."