I had just written a novel set in ancient Rome when I saw Delilah Devlin’s call for submissions for an anthology on knights, Hot Highlanders and Wild Knights (yep, that was the original call). As Delilah always does, she encouraged authors to think beyond the tropes of courtly medieval English knights, and in the call mentioned Crusaders, Normans, Saxons, Vikings, Huns…
But not Romans.
Sigh. I write historical erotic romance and at the time was revising two novels, one set in Victorian England and the other set in American Revolutionary New York. And, although I love the Middle Ages, I didn’t want to pick up a yet another thread of research. My creative mind kept returning to the Romans. I had done a ton of research for my novel Hadrian and Sabina: A Love Story and a thought kept prodding me – wasn’t there a knightly order in Ancient Rome?
Why, yes, there was! In fact, the Equites were the basis for all knightly orders throughout Europe. An eques was a horse-rider, a cavalryman, the word sharing its roots with equus, Latin for horse. Even more, my research for Hadrian and Sabina had revealed the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 CE) had done immense work in restructuring the imperial civil service. Some of his reforms had their groundwork laid during the reign of his predecessor, Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE). This combined with the social mobility of slaves to freedmen under the early Roman empire, plus Trajan’s continued wars in the provinces inspired my idea for a hero. I had just written a similar hero – a Beta Hero, though, rather than an Alpha – in Hadrian and Sabina, a Dacian slave who rises through the ranks to become imperial secretary. My new hero would be a warrior who becomes a knight of the equestrian order.
(This is riveting stuff, hmmm?? Right. So let’s take a break and gaze upon the handsome visages of Hugh Dancy and Ioan Gruffudd as Galahad and Lancelot in King Arthur (2004) which sets the legend in mid-5th century Britain, and presents the Knights of the Round Table as Roman equites.)
The plot of my story was sparked by events in Trajan’s career trajectory. Nine years before he became emperor, Trajan crushed a rebellion of the Germanic Chatti. When he became emperor, one of the few times Trajan and his wife, the empress Plotina, lived at the imperial palace in Rome was in the year 100. The empress was forty years old then, still of a lustful age to require a vigorous lover, and, as history claims, not sharing the emperor’s bed. But I knew the story of Plotina, and it wasn’t a romance, so I needed another heroine. What if my heroine was a slave in the imperial household? A Chatti slave? Who is as desirous for the empress’s lover as the empress is?
And “The Promise of Memory” came to be.
When Delilah wanted the anthology authors to write about what inspired their stories, I suspect she hoped for photos of hot, muscly guys. I mean, have you seen the Pinterest Board for the anthology? Yeah, like that.
But, while I love hot, muscly dudes, I also get off on history. I’m a historian – what can I say? Little tidbits of history take hold in my mind and somehow magically spin into stories…with sex. Lots of sex.
Still, lots of people get off on hot, muscly dudes. So here’s one from one of my favorite Roman-set TV shows, Spartacus: Blood and Sand (okay, okay, set a little earlier than when my story takes place, but, need I remind, hot dude?).
[Photo credits: Hugh Dancy as Galahad; Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot. Still from the movie King Arthur, 2004. © 2007 Buena Vista Home Video. Source: http://www.hotflick.net/pictures/004/big/fhd004KGA_Hugh_Dancy_002.html Image posted as low resolution thumbnail for research purposes only. Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. Still from the Starz miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand, 2010. ©Starz. Source: http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/gayspy/gayspy/a233997/a-bit-of-an-eyeful-for-sunday-morning.html#~pbKdeFdru35GdC Image posted as low resolution thumbnail for research purposes only.]
Imperial Palace, Rome, 100 AD
Aelia guided the shuttle slowly through the fine linen warp, deftly tamping the threads to form the thin, delicate cloth. The fabric was sheer, Rome’s bright sunlight revealing the shadow of the standing loom through the finished work pulled taut by heavy stone weights.
She tensed at the sound of leather soles slapping against the terra-cotta tiles of the breezeway, echoing boldly through the atrium, the familiar foot treads of half a dozen men, one stronger, more self-assured than the others.
Him and his entourage: a knight of the equestrian order with his loyal legionaries.
As she always did, Aelia looked up as he strode by. His tanned, battle-honed arms swung at his sides in cadence to the sway of his short, striped tunic brushing his robust thighs. The leather straps of his sandals strained around the bulk of his calves. Silvered scars from short swords and spearheads marred his limbs, testaments to his prowess in the emperor’s provincial campaigns. His light-brown hair was only slightly darker than that of his blond Batavian bodyguard, distant kinsmen to Aelia’s own tribe, their coloring matching hers, reminding her with their every visit of her native Germania and of her past.
And, as the knight always did, he looked into her weaving room and nodded slightly, offering a heartfelt smile, while a faraway glint, almost nostalgic, sparkled in his eyes.
But he never came to the palace to see her.
It was no secret the empress had a lover. The emperor himself was busy with the palace pueri, boys specially trained in the imperial paedagogium to fulfill his every want and need, from curling his hair, to pouring his wine, to decorating his atrium, to satisfying him in bed. Not to be outdone by her husband, the empress had mined the ranks of the equites for her perfect lover. These knights of the Roman army strengthened their bodies in the emperor’s perpetual wars, their unmarried state ensuring their hunger for female flesh, their unique career cursus feeding their material ambitions and solidifying their loyalty to the crown. Subordinate to the senators in the ordo of Roman society, the equestrians could never harbor aspirations for the throne, but as guardians of finance and territory, they were able to procure personal wealth rivaling that of the imperial family. They were men of strength, men of ambition, men of valor. Irresistible to a woman of power still in her prime.
The empress’s knight came to her apartments in the palace three times a week, two nights and one afternoon, passing along the same passageways, passing before the open doorway of Aelia’s weaving room.
The empress’s wails of ecstasy had revealed his name. Manius—morning—his presence sweeping through the palace corridors like the rising sun, a beckoning brightness to Aelia’s otherwise tedious life. A name that evoked memories of her husband, Tagaulf—daylight—captured during the Roman onslaught along the Rhine, his final words to her, “I will find you, Austrud. Wait for me. I will find you.”
But that had been over ten years ago. She was no longer called by her Chatti name, but had been given a Roman nomen when she was bound to the imperial household. And while her heart still waited, her head knew the truth. Tagaulf was surely dead, massacred along with her countrymen in a frenzy of Roman blood thirst.
But the presence of the eques confused that certainty. With his smile, she saw Tagaulf’s grin. The twinkle in his eye teased her like her husband’s had. She reminded herself the two men were so very different. The clean-shaven cheeks and close-cropped hair of the knight, his brawny musculature, his mature confidence, all were in stark contrast to the shaggy hair and wispy beard of the lean, boyish Tagaulf. Yet both roiled her senses, and in the case of the living, breathing Manius, it was to utter distraction.
Only once had she seen the knight face-to-face and touched his masculine warmth. One afternoon, returning from the drying rooms of the dyers, she carried twisted hanks of spun linen in her arms, realizing, by the time she reached the breezeway before her studio, there were too many to hold. The uppermost hanks fell to the tiles, and she tried, vainly, to hold on to the rest as she bent down to pick up the scattered bundles. Suddenly, he appeared, unnoticed as he often was after exiting the empress’s bedchamber, his steps more languid, less demanding than when he had arrived earlier that afternoon.
He crouched to her level and reached for the hank of gray-blue at the same time she did, his strong fingers encircling hers, the heat of his palm spreading through her body like wildfire. Her face flushed, matching, she was sure, the deep crimson stripes of his tunic. She dared to look him in the eyes, the same color as the recalcitrant linen, the blue-gray of the summer sky in Germania. The color of freedom once held in her youth. The same color as her husband’s.
Surprise flitted imperceptibly across his face, turning quickly to enchantment. “Let me help you.”
His voice was gravelly, deep, conveying the serenity his body felt after having slaked his need between the empress’s legs. He reached for the unbalanced load in her arms, shifting his weight, his short tunic riding up his muscular thighs to reveal he did not wear a subligaculum wrapped around his loins. His satisfied cock lay slack against his pendulous balls, then twitched and livened under her captivated gaze.
Her breaths came quickly, excitedly at the sight. She had to look away—at his thighs, at his hands, at his scars, at anything else. Her eyes rested on his face now too close to hers, the corners of his lips curled in amusement and expectation.
And then, as he took her burden from her arms, his hands brushed against her breasts, the band of his gold signet ring tweaking a piqued nipple. He stared admiringly at the sight of the tender peaks tightening in wanton desire.
She tried in vain to control her panting breaths.
He lifted an eyebrow and wetted his lips, holding her eyes firmly with his own.
Her pulse beat furiously, pounding in her head, rushing heat to rouse her sex, wetness to pool between her thighs. And then he stood, before she could think to do the same, his erection tenting the fabric of his tunic before her face.
She licked and parted her lips.
His growl of approval returned her to her senses. She bolted upright as swiftly as her trembling legs would allow, then bowed her head. “Many thanks, my lord knight,” she mumbled timorously. “The weaving studio is just here.” She indicated her small room, the room with the vantage point of his path to the empress’s bedchamber. A room, until that moment when she stood flushed and quivering before him, he had apparently not noticed.
Every day since then he had glanced in her studio as he passed, slowing slightly, looking upon her with desirous eyes on his way to the empress; then, upon his return, with his full mouth spread in a satisfied smile. Every day she glanced back at his handsome visage, square jawed and chiseled, heat rising in her face, fantasies exciting her, wetting her, hoping he could read her mind.