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14 June 2016

How to Clothe a Character

... Concubines, matrons and prostitutes in Rome
By Elisabeth Storrs

Creating a character in an historical novel can lead to unexpected quandaries. Dressing them in appropriate clothes would seem a simple matter. However, introducing a Roman tomb whore into the Tales of Rome Saga opened an unexpected can of worms when determining what she would wear.
Pinna is the daughter of a Roman soldier who was reduced to bondage resulting in her being forced into prostitution. Lack of funds means she starts her life as an unregistered whore (worse still as a tomb whore - the lowest in the pecking order). As a result, she permanently surrenders her rights to citizenship. By the time of the events in my most recent book, Call to Juno, she has clawed her way through coercion to become the concubine of a general but harbours dreams of gaining citizenship again as a Roman matron and wife.

As the saga is set in the very early days of the Republic it was difficult to find reliable primary sources to provide a definitive view of this period. I was forced to depend on non-contemporaneous sources. Much of what is understood about Roman women in early classical times is often deduced from legislation that was enacted centuries later in the Augustan period. Rome valued monogamy, and the concepts of culpability for adultery and “stuprum” (extramarital sex) were applied when classifying a woman’s status. The propriety expected of a Roman matron was the standard by which women were judged. The two ends of the spectrum were the respectable wife versus the dissolute whore. One was lauded as a virtuous citizen who must be faithful to her husband; the other was so corrupted that she lost all claim to moral or legal rights. The greater the degree of promiscuity, reward for sex and lack of emotional attachment, the more tainted the woman became. However, given a prostitute was irrevocably stained, she could not be punished for committing adultery. That crime was reserved for a wife alone.

Prostitution was heavily regulated in Rome in the late Republic and imperial times. There is considerable commentary about this period but, alas, no certainty as to the rules relating to the “oldest profession” at the time I set my books. Nevertheless, I based Pinna’s circumstances on the assumption that imperial laws enshrined what had been customary practice throughout Republican times.

There were many different categories of prostitutes, all of whom were known by colorful names. The “lupae” (she wolves), who serviced clients in “lupanariae”, were reputedly called this because they were as rapacious as wolves. The inspiration for Pinna came from reading about the unregistered “noctiluae” (night walkers), who were colloquially known as “night moths”, including the “busturiae” who doubled as hired mourners and plied their trade amid the tombs.

A concubine was seen as a mixture between a matron and a harlot. Her status was ambiguous and has been described as “safe and schizophrenic”. These de facto wives were denied the status of a matron because they had committed stuprum (and, it appears, were not subject to the laws of adultery either), yet they were considered respectable enough to be accepted by society. They were usually slaves or freedwomen, although there is evidence that lower class freeborn citizens also chose to enter into such relationships. Often widowers chose de facto wives to avoid complications with the inheritances of their legitimate children when remarrying. Concubines were also commonly taken by young noblemen before the men reached an age to enter political life and were expected to officially wed.

Status was signified through a dress code. Matrons were entitled to wear a stola overdress, palla shawl, and fillets in their hair as a symbol of both their married standing and their citizenship. In comparison, a prostitute was marked out by wearing a toga and was denied the privilege of covering her head in modesty and wearing outdoor shoes.

So then, what was I to do about Pinna when she became a concubine who hides her secret life as a whore and is believed by those around her to retain her freeborn status?  Alas, I was unable to ascertain whether a freeborn or freedwoman concubine could wear a stola. I assumed the taint of stuprum precluded such a right. Accordingly I also deprived Pinna of the opportunity – a decision that provides an example of the challenge of writing historical fiction. The smallest of details can lead to the deepest research!

 Call to Juno
“Elisabeth Storrs brings Ancient Rome vividly to life; her skill as a writer is equivalent to a time machine – we are there amid the history and the drama, immersed so deep that in calling to Juno we expect her to answer back…” Helen Hollick

Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.

Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?

Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?

Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?

Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?

Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?

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Elisabth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Elisabeth lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, Australia, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant.
She is one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia 
Feel free to connect with her through 
her website:  
or Triclinium blog:  .
You can find her on Facebook: 
Twitter: @elisabethstorrs 
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  1. In bygone reading days, we read a book, thought about it, hopefully loved it - all by having to combine our imagination with the writer's skill. Seldom-if ever-did we get the backstory, learn about the painstaking and often conflicting research about period pieces.

    Blogs changed all this. I love to learn about authors' journeys, their relationship with the times and people they write about.

    Thank you, Helen, for adding another piece to the historic fiction puzzle; and thanks, Elisabeth, for affording us a glimpse into your prude and lusty Rome.

  2. Inge - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I live in Australia so it's great that I can sit at my desk and connect with readers and other authors across the world. Many thanks to Helen for hosting me on this wonderful blog!


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