In 2011, researchers discovered the remains of a large Roman gladiatorial school near the former settlement of Carnuntum, now in Lower Austria. ForbiddenFiction had posted a call for submissions for a ‘sword and sandals’ type of story set in ancient Greece or Rome, I believe. I’ve always been fascinated by gladiators, as well as the frontier areas of the Roman Empire, so I saw this as an interesting setting.
While not trying to write a tightly accurate historical piece, I did try to include as much accuracy as possible without interfering with the kind of story I wanted to write. I’m not a scholar of ancient Roman history, but one of the frustrating things about researching the topic is that many sources will present an example without clarifying whether it is representative of the Republic or the Empire or both, or whether it is characteristic of what took place within all provinces, or just within Rome proper. Many of the sources weigh heavily towards discussing what came to be known as the Coliseum.
One of the two main characters, Faustina*, is a gladiatrix, which I learned was rare but not unknown in the Empire. I wrote her as a Persian who was brought west to Carnuntum, where she encounters the other protagonist, Avitus, a gladiator. What I read of gladiators indicated distinct and popular styles. Faustina fights as a retiarius. The retiarii were the ones fighting with tridents, daggers, and nets. The lightly-armored style seemed to favor speed and agility. The retiarii were typically pitted against a heavier style, as represented by Avitus, a secutor. Avitus, as a secutor, wearing a heavy helmet and using sword and shield, relies more on power than finesse.
I wanted to write a real Roman decadence story, and so the pair of fighters are coerced into being “guests” of Gratianus and Paula, a cruel aristocratic couple. I also wanted to explore the psychology of someone who has always known servitude. Avitus has never known freedom, and it remains a somewhat alien concept for him. When Paula uses him for breeding stock, his role as human livestock deepens. It’s hard for him to even conceive of himself as a free-willed being, as only the depths of abuse spur him to rebellion. But while Avitus was born into the Empire, Faustina comes as one who was not always a slave.
Looking back on it now, I see that much of the story involves an insider/outsider conflict. While Avitus and Faustina fight in specific, formal styles, neither one of them is really a Roman. They remain outsiders within the Empire. Carnuntum itself is on the verge of being outside of the Empire. The Empire shapes its subjects, but in turn must struggle against the entropy of independent beings.
*Trivia: I originally named her Fausta, but then saw that Fausta was the Nazi version of Wonder Woman on the episode called, well, “Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman.”