Today I’m delighted to welcome Faith L Justice to the blog with a post about the way she researched in order to write Dawn Empress.
Q. How Far Could a Roman Army March in a Day and Did They Wear Socks with Their Sandals?
A: 37 miles and “Yes”—Details in the post!
My mission is to tell interesting stories about little-known, but important women, while entertaining the reader. Because I write biographical historical fiction, historical accuracy is extremely important to me. For every novel, I must answer hundreds of questions like those posed in the title, so I do a tremendous amount of research beyond the facts of births, deaths, wars, etc. The sights, smells, sounds, and descriptions of clothes, food, housing, and transportation helps the reader experience a kind of time travel as they immerse themselves in a past culture. Personally, I find research the most fun part of writing my books. I get to learn new stuff, visit interesting places, and share my passions with readers.
I ran across the empresses who are the subjects of my three-book series The Theodosian Women when I researched my first novel set in the early fifth century. Pulcheria (Dawn Empress) took over the Eastern Roman court at the tender age of fifteen and ruled as regent for her under-age brother Theodosius II. Placidia (Twilight Empress) ruled over the fading Western Empire for her under-age son Valentinian III. Athenais (work in progress), a pagan philosopher/poet married the “Most Christian Emperor” Theodosius II. These women fascinated me. I wanted to tell their stories, but I had a lot of research work to do.
This was hampered by the times. The fifth century experienced great turmoil as barbarians invaded the Roman Empire sacking cities, disrupting education and culture, and destroying records. This left only fragments of primary sources for future historians to ponder. Archaeology filled in some of the blanks, but there was lots of room for my imagination. My print resources consisted of translated copies of primary sources, general histories by well-respected historians, and a couple of obscure biographies. I still remember the unmitigated joy I felt when I found a used copy of Galla Placidia Augusta: A Biographical Essay by Stewart Irvin Oost and plunked down my money. I wrote Pulcheria’s story later when Kenneth G. Holum’s Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity was generally available. I’ve provided research bibliographies for each of my novels on my website but here’s a visual sample of my research book shelves.
My first drafts are usually “white room” versions concentrating on the plot derived from the histories. I spend my second draft answering pesky questions about food, clothing, health, religion, architecture, art, technology, trade, and natural disasters—anything that adds color and context to my character’s lives. These details mostly come from specialized books and academic articles. The Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (part of the Oxford Facts on File series) is a good place to start, but I couldn’t write with confidence without the academic articles I find at JSTOR (free with a library card) and Academia.edu.
Research has changed enormously in the past twenty-five years, making it much easier for the casual scholar. For my first two novels, I had to haunt the research branch of the New York Public Library looking up academic articles in dusty indices. About half of the journals seemed to be missing when I searched for them in the stacks. Now with a library card and a computer, anyone can access thousands of academic journals and presentations. I have over 300 titles in my miscellaneous research file alone.
The coolest new tool I’ve found is an interactive website called Orbis the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Created and maintained by Stanford University, Orbis provides travel data in the Roman Empire. I fill in the details and it tells me how long it would take an army to march from Constantinople to Aquileia in January: 26.5 days, covering 1588 km (987 miles) at 60 km (37 miles) per day. Do I have a post rider carrying an important message from Rome to Toulouse in October? How about a trader moving exotic animals from Alexandria to Rome during the summer? No more looking up obscure modes of transportation, determining distance on Google Maps, and hand calculating. Magic!
My all-time favorite research technique is the site visit. I have a dozen books on Constantinople and Ravenna with gorgeous pictures and incredible diagrams, but nothing beats walking the famed walls that lasted a thousand years, feeling the weather change when a storm blows in across the Black Sea, or seeing surviving frescoes and mosaics in fifth century buildings. I took the picture of this stunning mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy.
I also do hands-on history by volunteering at archaeological digs. While working on Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, I got to visit the Vindolanda Roman Fort and see rare correspondence of a young Roman soldier asking his mother to send him knitted socks for the winter, among many other everyday artifacts, such as a doll, grocery lists, and a birthday party invitation written by the wife of the commander. In Tuscany, I helped uncover and preserve a mosaic of Medusa (pictured below) at a dig of a first century Roman villa. All this fuels a sense of awe and respect for these ordinary people who are long gone, but still very human in their needs, which I hope comes through in my writing.
Museums come in a close second for favorite personal research. We have world-class ones here in New York. I studied 5C Roman clothing, coins, art, and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, giving me a motherlode of detail to enrich my stories. If this pandemic we’re living through has any upside, it’s that museums around the world have made their collections available online. We can now virtually visit special exhibitions, search collections, and order previously inaccessible images and books. But I’m looking forward to going back in person.
So that’s my research process—lots of reading and note taking, punctuated with museum trips, site visits, and archaeology digs (a.k.a. vacations). After living vicariously in the fifth century for twenty-five years, I have an extensive personal library, but I want to give a hearty shout out to all the research librarians who helped me over the years. For accuracy, I trust “Ask A Librarian” over a chat room on the internet any day. Support your local libraries. They are national treasures!
On a final note, my sincere thanks to MJ Porter for hosting me on this blog tour. It’s always a privilege to meet new readers. If any of you have questions about my research process or my books, feel free to get in touch through my website or other social media. I love to hear from people. Stay safe out there!
© Faith L. Justice 2021
Thank you so much for sharing. A pleasure to have you on the blog. Note for UK readers, JSTOR offers some free articles, and others can be purchased with a subscription package:)
Here’s the blurb;
As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up.
After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse. Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?
Dawn Empress tells the little-known and remarkable story of Pulcheria Augusta, 5th century Empress of Eastern Rome. Her accomplishments rival those of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great as she sets the stage for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. Don’t miss this “gripping tale” (Kirkus Reviews); a “deftly written and impressively entertaining historical novel” (Midwest Book Reviews). Historical Novel Reviews calls Dawn Empress an “outstanding novel…highly recommended” and awarded it the coveted Editor’s Choice.
Meet the Author
Faith L. Justice writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.