An essay I wrote for a Finnish publication:
Are you still looking for a Christmas gift for someone? How about the gift of literature?
My American publisher Stairway Press is running a promotion where you can buy a book and get a personalised Christmas card from the author (that would be me). Now is your chance to make that special someone puzzle over strange Finnish or Swedish language Christmas cards. Hyvää Joulua! God Jul!
If you want to know why you should buy one of my books as a Christmas gift, I’ve compiled some compelling reasons here: Why Dead Romans makes the perfect Christmas gift.
You can make your purchases here: Stairway Press.
Note this is for purchases straight from the American publisher, and not through other retail channels or other publishers. Also, please be aware that I’m on one side of the Atlantic and the books are on the other. With the holiday mail rush, it would be prudent to do this quickly so you get them in time. The Finnish postal system recommends cards should be sent by 5 December to be sure they make it to North America before Christmas. If you are buying a book in Europe, probably the same time frame would apply so you receive the book before Christmas.
Tired of wandering apathetically through malls trying to find the perfect gift? Here are ten reasons why you should buy Dead Romans for anyone and everyone this Christmas.
10) Hot female celebrities love it.
I would totally do anyone who buys Dead Romans.
-Rihanna, hot female celebrity
9) Hot male celebrities love it.
I would totally do Rihanna. I mean, I would totally do anyone who buys Dead Romans.
-Justin Timberlake, hot male celebrity
8) It is endorsed by the best writers.
What the hell do you want me to say? ‘Dead Romans is great?’ Fine. Dead Romans is great. Now get off my lawn before I release the hounds.
-Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
7) My publisher doesn’t charge for shipping.
I’ve made a terrible mistake.
-Ken Coffman, Stairway Press
6) That kid you went to school with actually wrote a book.
You’re shitting me. That kid that used to eat glue wrote a book? I always expected he would end up in one of those institutions that don’t allow metal cutlery.
-My best friend in third grade.
5) There is a lot of sex in it.
Wow. This thing is R-rated.
-My first editor.
4) It is historically accurate in every conceivable way.
I decided to drink a bottle of vodka and retire after reading Dead Romans. After this perfect book there’s nothing left to learn about the Roman Empire.
-Dr. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge
3) It was almost nominated for the top literary awards.
I was going to nominate it, but then decided that wouldn’t be fair to all the other writers because they wouldn’t stand a chance.
-Paul C. Tash, Chairman of the Board of the Pultizer Prize
2) The Finnish Santa Claus thinks it is the perfect gift.
Perkele saatana vittu Dead Romans koskenkorva!
-Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa Claus
1) It is being studied in the best schools.
We ran out of colouring books.
-Judy Smith, kindergarten teacher
Note: All quotes are fabricated, except for my first editor, who really did call it ‘R-rated.’ The Finnish Santa Claus quote might be fairly accurate, too.
Although Dead Romans is fiction, one of the main characters was a real person. We only have a couple of sources that describe Panthea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. All of these sources influenced The Mistress’ Story, the second part of my book.
The Historia Augusta, while discussing Lucius Verus, says:
It is said, furthermore, that he shaved off his beard while in Syria to humour the whim of a low-born mistress, and because of this many things were said against him by the Syrians.
Historia Augusta, Lucius Verus, 7,10.
We have to be careful with the Historia Augusta, because its portrayal of Lucius Verus seems to be an attempt to place him in juxtaposition to Marcus Aurelius. Where Marcus is described as almost a perfect emperor, Lucius Verus is disparaged.
Still, while the writer tries to show Lucius Verus as a whipped weakling who obeys his low-class mistress, there is no reason to think the beard-cutting episode is untrue. I incorporated it into the story, but moved it to their first meeting in Smyrna for dramatic reasons.
The best description we have of Panthea comes from two works of Lucian. The first, Essays in Portraiture – sometimes called Images – is a panegyric. He praises her looks, her intelligence and her character. Thanks to Lucian, Panthea was considered as ‘the woman of perfect beauty,’ or ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ She very well might have been.
An interesting part of the work is how he compares her beauty with some of the most famous sculptures of antiquity. Historians believe we may have some found later reproductions of these statues Lucian talks about, so I have included images of them and what features he applied to Panthea.
Apparently Panthea read Lucian’s first work, complained that he was too generous with his admiration and asked him to re-write it. Unfortunately, Essays in Portraiture was already in circulation, so his only option was to have a sequel, Essays in Portraiture Defended. Not only does he defend his earlier praise, he increases it.
This sequel is interesting in that Lucian quotes Panthea, our only possible glimpse of her actual words. As an example:
In general, I do not care for people whose disposition inclines to flattery, but consider such persons deceivers and not at all generous in their natures. Above all, in the matter of compliments, when anyone in praising me employs vulgar and immoderate extravagances I blush and almost stop my ears, and the thing seems to me more like abuse than praise. For praise is endurable only as long as the person who is being praised recognises that everything which is said is appropriate to him. Whatever goes beyond that is alien and outright flattery.
Lucian, Essays in Portraiture Defended, 1.
Her reply is filled with metaphors and clever phrases and allusions to mythology. She appears to be intelligent, well-educated, and quite witty. I have no reason to believe she was anything other than that.
Lucian was a funny, biting satirist, so historians have often wondered if he was being serious or not. Think of him as an ancient Jon Stewart.
For the record, I think Lucian was entirely serious in his praise. The fact that it is so different from his normal ridicule gives credence to it. Also, simple logic comes into play. Generally speaking, I think the emperor of Rome would not pick a mistress that was not praiseworthy. Finally, Panthea is also praised by someone whose opinion is heavily valued: Marcus Aurelius himself.
I included the uncertainty about Lucian’s sincerity into the story, and it fits very well with how I portrayed Panthea as being extremely unsure of herself. I also use different bits that could be picked up from Essays in Portraiture, such as where she was born, how she looked, and how clever she could be.
My favourite source about Panthea comes from Lucius’ co-emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Are Panthea or Pergamos still keeping watch at the tomb of Verus?
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.37.
We can infer several things from this quote. He probably wrote it between 170 and 180, up to 11 years after Lucius Verus died in 169. The implication is that Panthea was extremely loyal to her paramour, and often visited his grave. Yet this loyalty only lasts for so long and does no good for either the deceased or the mourner. Marcus makes it sound absurd that she is still going to his tomb.
This quote has long fascinated me. Panthea is known to history only as the mistress of the emperor. Yet she was her own individual, her own person, and she had her own story. After her lover died she went on with her life. But what was her life? What was her story? In Dead Romans I gave her a story, one beyond simply being the emperor’s mistress.
In the era of Facebook and Instagram many people tend to document everything they do, including what they are reading. This can be pretty cool when you discover people are sharing pictures of your book. Here are a couple I have seen popping up here and there:
If you are curious about some of the inspiration for Dead Romans, here is an article I wrote for my publisher Stairway Press about pastoralism: Back to Nature.
In another article, I talk a bit about accuracy in historical fiction and what Aristotle might think of it for the Reading the Past website: Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction.
If you happen to be on Good Reads, look me up: David J. Cord.
Here is a nice review from Maggie McKeating:
Cord caught me off guard with this work. I expected it to be much more about this history and the events of the times but it was very much about the figures and their more personal stories. The three stories were expertly inter-twinned, interdependent, and wrapped up in each other. From clandestine relationships and rendezvous, to greed and lust, this work continues to reveal snippets as it winds through the streets and houses of Ephesus. There were parts of this work that were in my opinion graphic or overly sexual. I was surprised at the number of sexual relations that were described. While this was not in line with my personal taste, they did help to further the story a bit and reveal more about the characters, their struggles, and lives.
Overall, Dead Romans by David Cord is a well written work that testifies to Cord’s creativity and knowledge of this chapter of ancient history. It makes a good read for any reader who enjoys the life and trials of ancient times.
Finally, here is a Dead Romans review where the reviewer even took the time to find images of different people and places in my novel. I thought it was pretty cool: Dead Romans on Bettie’s Books.
Early in 2012, after Mohamed 2.0 was complete but before it was published, the literary director of my Finnish publisher suggested a new book. It would be another nonfiction book about business.
I was hesitant. Business was the only thing I had ever published professionally and I had been looking forward to something different. But unless you are J.K. Rowling or Michael Chabon and have the clout to dictate to publishers, you don’t say no if they ask you for a book.
We started work on the new book and had meetings with the concerned parties. I began, somewhat reluctantly, to research. Abruptly and unexpectedly, the third party changed their minds and dropped out. The book couldn’t be written without their participation, so the project was off. Immediately my literary director suggested yet another topic for a nonfiction business book. This time, though, I said no.
It wasn’t because my literary director’s new idea was bad. On the contrary: it was and remains an extremely good idea. But I had started to rebel against writing what other people wanted me to write.
Up to that point in my professional writing career, practically the only things I had ever written were what I had been told to write. (An important exception to this is my column in the Helsinki Times newspaper, where the editors always gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted.)
These attempts to control my writing reached a climax with a bizarre email. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently a company conspired with others to place a fake news story. This fake news story would actually be propaganda about how wonderful this company was and how everyone should immediately run out to buy their products and services. Someone, perhaps with a periodical, suggested I could write it. I knew nothing about any of this, by the way.
So out of nowhere I received a rude email informing me of the things I would write in this article I didn’t know anything about. I gave a polite reply saying they must be mistaken and that I wasn’t involved. The next email I received was more insolent and said there had been no mistake. I would interview their sleazy president for the ‘news’ story. I was told what questions to ask and was given advice on how to make the propaganda look like a real news story to trick the unsuspecting readers. I became extremely pissed off, as you might imagine. After my next response, which was much less polite than the first, they left me alone.
This was my state of mind when I turned down my literary director’s idea. At that time my heart hadn’t been in the new project, and I viewed the third party dropping out as a sign that I should do what I wanted to do. And what I wanted to do was to tell a story that had been bouncing around in my head about a few colourful characters during the height of the Roman Empire.
This was my opportunity to finally tell my own story, and not a story from someone else. Liberated, I pounded away on it. The working title was Corruption and I was completely obsessed with it. I turned off my internet and phone while I was working so I couldn’t be disturbed, much to the annoyance of my editors and, occasionally, my wife. I followed Jonathan Franzen’s lead and bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could concentrate. I came to a block which I thought was insurmountable, but a weekend reading Vladimir Nabokov brought the Muses back and I wrote in one of those extremely rare cases of intense lucidity.
This was my book, all mine, but I wasn’t so stupid as to ignore professional help. I got advice from a famous author. I talked to editors and readers and people in the publishing industry. A helpful literary agent gave me detailed and invaluable advice for changes, all of which I followed. I went through twelve full drafts and innumerable rewrites.
During the writing of my book my Finnish literary director got in touch with me periodically to gently persuade me to write his book. I told him I had to create Dead Romans first, which was its name by this point. He understands writers and so understood my need.
He also sympathised with my desire to get a publisher in a larger market, and even offered to talk to his contacts in the wider world to help me find a publisher. Luckily I didn’t need his help, because a fellow named Ken Coffman at an American West Coast publisher, Stairway Press, snapped up Dead Romans right away.
I’ve published stuff in the past. Lots of stuff. You’d think another book would be no big deal. But it is. In some ways, Dead Romans is the first thing I’ve ever published. I’m more excited about this than the very first thing of mine an editor accepted. I am eternally grateful for Ken and Stacey at Stairway for publishing this book, the first thing I can truly call mine. I hope you read it, and I hope you enjoy it.