Robert Fabbri on the characters in his books

Robert Fabbri talks about the characters in his Vespasian series.

Read a full transcript of this video below:

“As the name suggests, Vespasian is the main character in the series. He came from a rural background; his father was a centurion who got invalided out of the army and acheived an equestrian rank. So Vespasian’s right in the middle of Roman society. He has a right to go to Rome and a right to try and better himself so that’s what he does.

We follow him on his journey from country boy to Emperor, (the most powerful man in the western world.) What we cannot do when writing about somebody like that is impose our western, Christianised morals on him. His morality is completely different to ours so what we get is a character who would not be considered that nice in the modern sense. There are things about him which obviously we do like, but it’s got to the point in Masters of Rome (which I’m just about to finish now) where I’m giving him attributes which are very much those of an anti-hero. We cannot keep on liking him, and thinking oh, isn’t he wonderful. No, to have been the last man standing in 69 AD, he must have been a pretty tough customer.

He has a sidekick, Magnus. I was ridiculed in certain circles for giving him a sidekick, but I like having Magnus because he gives us the oppurtunity to go where Vespasian cannot because of his rank. Magnus comes from the underbelly of Rome; he’s patronus of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood. We can do things with Magnus that we could not do with Vespasian. So we see a different side of Rome which I explore in the short stories Magnus’ Rome, The Crossroads Brotherhood and The Racing Factions. I have great fun having Magnus around; he is canny, and he is someone for Vespasian to bounce off.

Then we have Antonia. She’s a very powerful woman who drives the first three books. Ensuring that her interests are looked after, her motivation is to keep her family at the very top of Roman society. She is completely focused on the success of the Julio-Claudian family. Even though they’re pretty unsuitable to rule, it doesn’t bother her. She will keep them in power at any price. Vespasian gets caught up with her and learns much from her about the ruthlessness of Roman life.
Then we have Vespasian’s uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollio. There’s no written evidence that he ever had children so I’ve used that as an excuse to explore perceived sexual excesses in Rome. I actually based him on Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, dear boy. (So it’s a fun thing to have uncle Gaius and his house full of beautiful German slave boys with their tunics slightly too short. Couldn’t resist it, sorry.)

Then we get Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, who in the books is jealous of Vespasian. There’s an antipathy between them right from the beginning, although it’s not so much shared by Vespasian. That changes over the course of the series, though, because I thought it would be interesting to take it from that point to the historical point in 69 AD where Sabinus is executed by Vitellius for supporting Vespasian. So eventually Sabinus gives his life, if not sacrifices it, for his brother’s cause. (I enjoy the journey that we go on with the brothers, and there is also historical evidence for it. At one point Vespasian comes back from Africa bankrupt, and Sabinus gives him a loan, although not an unsecured one. Vespasian has to mortgage his estates to Sabinus which is not necessarily the action of a loving brother. So I feel justified in having a certain antipathy between them.)

Then we have Caenis who was Antonia’s secretary. She was renowned for having a photographic memory. She was a highly intelligent woman and the love of Vespasian’s life. We don’t know when they met, but I’ve chosen to have them meet in the first book because I wanted to have the relationship there for as long as possible. So they meet when Vespasian is sixteen, and Caenis is eighteen. (She was almost certainly freed in Antonia’s will. There was a law saying that you could not free a slave before the age of thirty, and when Antonia died, Caenis would have been that age so that’s when she was probably freed.)

As a freed woman, Vespasian could not marry her; a senator could not marry a freed woman. It was the law, and that was that. So Vespasian has to marry elsewhere in order to have legitimate children so he marries Flavia Domitilla. What happens to Caenis during that marriage, we don’t know; maybe she faded into the background, maybe she stayed with Vespasian in a complicated ménage à trois. We don’t know, but what we do know is that when Falvia Domitilla dies, Caenis returns to Vespasian full-time and although she cannot marry him, she becomes his wife in all but name. Actually, when he became emperor, she used to charge fortunes for access to him. So she wasn’t squeaky clean either in modern day terms, but that was good business practice in Roman terms. They must have loved each other for that relationship to have lasted, and I enjoy watching them develop as the situation gets more and more difficult for them with Vespasian having to marry to have children (which is, of course, what he wants as he needs a son and heir.)”