Monday, March 15, 2021

Spotlight: From the Ashes by Melissa Addey

From the Ashes
by Melissa Addey

Published February 4, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
ebook/paperback; 318 pages

Rome, 80AD. A gigantic new amphitheatre is being built. The Emperor has plans for gladiatorial Games on a scale no-one has ever seen before. But the Games don’t just happen. They must be made. And Marcus, the man in charge of creating them, has just lost everything he held dear when Pompeii disappeared under the searing wrath of Vesuvius. Now it will fall to Althea, the slave woman who serves as his scribe, to ensure the Colosseum is inaugurated on time – and that Marcus makes his way out of the darkness that calls to him. First in the Colosseum series. 


“What were you thinking?”
The triclinium of my master’s house looks as though it has been turned into a brothel. The wall panels, which usually depict classical scenes befitting a grand holiday villa, have been repainted entirely since this morning with images more befitting… well, a brothel. The tables are opulently laid for tonight’s gathering and the couches for the guests are draped with elegant throws and plumped-up cushions, but my mistress is staring at the household slaves, who have all been stripped naked. Their newly plucked private parts have been painted in gold, the better to highlight them. They stand huddled together, faces drained with shock.
“Lucius! What were you thinking?”
My mistress is appalled. She comes from one of the best patrician families, albeit a rather impoverished and distant branch. In marrying my master, a handily wealthy import-exporter from the equestrian class, she has had to put up with many failings of etiquette over the past few years, most of which she is adept at smoothing over, but this time he has gone too far. She stands in the doorway, trying to look away from the images on the walls, which leave nothing to the imagination. Men with men, women with women, men with women, women with beasts… all in fresh, bold paint, some of it significantly larger than life. Her young daughter is coming, and she puts out an unseeing hand behind her back, seeking to push the girl away.
“To your room, Lucilla,”
“But mother –”
“To your room!”
Lucilla reluctantly departs. I’d like to follow her, but my mistress is blocking the doorway and I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Although I am the only slave fully clothed, I fear that my apparel might offend her even more than if I were naked. I stay still, pressed against the wall in the corner.
“Splendid, isn’t it,” says my master, casting a lingering glance over one of the slave boys. “It’ll be a memorable evening.”
“Memorable?” My mistress’ eyes are bulging out of her head, her already pale skin drained white. “It looks like something organised by –” her voice drops to a hiss “– Nero!”
“Fit for an emperor?” he asks. Deliberately misunderstanding.
“Fit for a madman,” she spits back. “I cannot be seen at such a gathering!”
“Just as well I’ve arranged a substitute for you then, isn’t it?” he says.
My heart sinks as he gestures towards me. A look of humiliated rage grows on her face as she takes in the expensive gauzes and finely woven fabrics draped around me, my elaborately dressed hair, the gold jewellery dangling from my hair, ears, neck. A slave, dressed as though I were the rich lady of the house, about to play her part as hostess for the evening, as though it were Saturnalia when slaves become masters and masters play the fools. But this is not Saturnalia. This is an important banquet, a dinner hosted by her husband for their rich and powerful neighbours before the autumnal return to Rome, leaving their Pompeiian holiday homes behind for another year. An ingratiating attempt to be part of a class he knows secretly look down on him, and on her for marrying him, wealthy or not. And now this evening is to be staged as a debauched orgy, something from the bad old days of Nero, when anything went? 
She hovers, uncertain whether she should insist on being hostess and suffer the humiliation of knowing she is being laughed at for arranging such a vulgar event, or disappear into her rooms and pretend she knew nothing about it, dismissing it with an airy laugh if anyone mentions it, “Oh men, they can be so crude you know, but one has to indulge their needs sometimes. Best not to enquire what goes on at their ‘little dinners’!” Her face colours as she contemplates the two options and I can’t help but feel sorry for her, although I know that, ultimately, she will take this humiliation out on me, since she cannot take it out on her husband. There is a final hesitation, a welling-up of tears in her eyes and then she turns her back and leaves the room, trying to keep her head high in front of the servants, although they are humiliated enough themselves at this moment. They have never been treated like this. The women and some of the younger and more attractive men have put up with occasional wandering hands from the master, as well as some of his less refined guests, but they have never been presented like this, as though they were fruits to pluck from serving platters. 
“I hope you’re pleased with my gift?” asks my master.
I glance down at the heavy gold cuff on my wrist. It is worth a fortune, I could live humbly for years on what it cost him. I bow my head, force the words out of my mouth. “Thank you, Dominus.”
“Excellent. I must go and wash before I change, I’m sweating like a hog.” He slaps the nearest girl on the behind and leaves the room. 
“At least you get a gold bracelet,” mutters Myrtis to me. She’s the cook and my best friend. She’s seething with rage. I can smell the sour reek of it coming off her in waves. Her pendulous breasts and slack belly are past their prime, she feels the gold paint as only a mockery. 
I look down again at the bracelet, feel its weight. 
“What in Hades was Master thinking, employing that man, anyway?” asks Myrtis.
“What man?”
“The man organising all of this. Whatever his name is…”
“Marcus,” supplies Felix.
“I don’t know who you mean,” I say. 
“The man who runs the amphitheatre.”
“Runs it?”
Myrtis is losing her temper. “What are you, stupid? You think the Games happen by themselves once an editor has said what he wants? You think no-one tells the gladiators when to step out? Who to fight? Who do you think orders in the animals and advertises the shows?”
I’ve never really given it much thought. I rarely go to the Games. When I do, I am there under sufferance and I try to leave before midday when the criminals are executed, or at least arrive after that, if our master is intent on watching the gladiatorial shows in the afternoons. My only thought when I am at the amphitheatre is how quickly I can leave. But yes, of course, there must be a team who make the Games happen, just like at the theatre: there must be costume-makers, rehearsals for re-enacting bloody legends, that sort of thing.
“Master said he wanted a ‘real show’ putting on for his guests,” says Felix. “He said this man Marcus arranged Games with female gladiators and dwarfs last time he was at the amphitheatre.”
Myrtis and I exchange glances. How vulgar. Not even proper battles, not even professional fighters fighting, and sometimes dying, like men, just specialty acts, titillation for a bored crowd who’ve seen it all before. 
“But I was only out with the Master a few hours,” I object. “How has all of this happened in one afternoon? He’s repainted the walls.” 
“The walls? That’s what’s grabbing your attention in this room? Not twenty naked men and women with their tits and bits painted in gold?”
“Well, how did any of it get done?”
“The minute you and the Master went out a man arrived, with a massive team in tow. Ten painters came into this room and got to work. We were all dragged into the small baths down the road, which were empty except for us, they must have hired them out especially. There was a whole team of pluckers, and they gave us no choice about it. You should have heard Felix yell. For a big man, he’s got an awfully high-pitched squeal. And an awfully tiny – ”
“Shut your mouth, Myrtis,” grunts Felix. 
“After we’d all been plucked and washed, we were brought back to this room. And there were people waiting for us. I thought we’d be given clean robes or wear something fancier than usual, some theme, perhaps. But, oh no. Gold paint. And they had already finished the wall paintings. Though they’re still wet. I’ve half a mind to smudge them all so the guests can’t use them as instructions. Goddess Libertas, watch over us tonight, we’re to be used as nothing better than whores.”
There’s not much I can say. It’s clear that the household slaves can expect groping at the very best, or a great deal worse, tonight. I grimace. Our master, so far, has been more of a half-hearted groper than much else, and we’ve been grateful for it: we all know slaves who work in other houses and get a worse time of it. Looks like our time has come. “Where has this man gone who’s organising all of this?”
“Oh, he dismissed the painters when they’d finished their tasks and went off to the kitchen with his own cooks. Apparently, I’m not fit to make tonight’s meal, I’m just a bit of fun on the side.”
“What are they serving?”
“How would I know? I told you, I’m not fit to cook a meal for his guests. After serving Domina’s family for years, before she married this buffoon. I was expensive, you know. Price of three horses, they paid for me.” Myrtis is clearly smarting in more ways than one. 
“Should I go and see what’s happening?”
“If you’re allowed free rein of the house, why not? We were told to stay right here until the ‘honoured guests’ arrive.”
But I am stopped by the closed door of the kitchen, guarded by a little weasel of a man, who nevertheless proves quite firm. No, I may not enter. Yes, he does know who I am. No, I may not enquire what is on the menu. Yes, his master is called Marcus. No, I may not speak with him. 
“Look,” he says at last, smiling as though he has been in this same situation more than once. “If I were you, I would just go back to the triclinium and wait. Everything will be taken care of. You need not worry about anything. Marcus is very experienced at this kind of thing. He will not disappoint your master.”
“I’m not worried about my master,” I hiss, beginning to lose my temper. “Half the slaves of this household are gathered in the triclinium, about to be groped and –and worse. I don’t see you stripped naked and painted with gold.”
He grins, showing missing teeth. “Sounds like I’m missing out.” He touches my arm. “Seriously, don’t worry. And tell the other slaves not to worry either. Marcus knows what he is doing, I swear on Sancus. You’ll see.”

About the Author:

I write historical fiction and have completed two series: The Moroccan Empire, set in 11th century Morocco and Spain, and The Forbidden City, set in 18th century China. My current series focuses on the ‘backstage team’ of the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre) set in 80AD in Ancient Rome.   
I have a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey, run regular workshops at the British Library and speak at various writing festivals during the year. I was the Leverhulme Trust Writer in Residence at the British Library in 2016 and won the 2019 Novel London and Page to Podcast awards. I live in London with my husband and two children. 

For more information on me and my books, visit my website

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