GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Martin Berman-Gorvine: A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

By: Emma Southon
Publisher: Abrams Press
Publication Date: 3.9.2021
Genre: History, Ancient Rome
Pages: 352

An entertaining and informative look at the unique culture of crime, punishment, and killing in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, all the best stories have one thing in common—murder. Romulus killed Remus to found the city, Caesar was assassinated to save the Republic. Caligula was butchered in the theater, Claudius was poisoned at dinner, and Galba was beheaded in the Forum. In one 50-year period, 26 emperors were murdered.

But what did killing mean in a city where gladiators fought to the death to sate a crowd? In A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon examines a trove of real-life homicides from Roman history to explore Roman culture, including how perpetrator, victim, and the act itself were regarded by ordinary people. Inside Ancient Rome’s darkly fascinating history, we see how the Romans viewed life, death, and what it means to be human.

For Halloween, Read Up on the Gorefest That Was Rome

Looking for horror? Look no further than the pages of ancient history.

However bad you thought the Romans were, after reading Emma Southon’s A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, you will realize they were much, much worse.

Let’s start with Sulla, a dictator who ruled Rome during its so-called Republic, after winning a decisive bloody victory in one of his country’s endless civil wars on November 1, 82 B.C.E. The Sulla Victory Games were held in commemoration of this glorious event from then on, around Halloween week, which is our seasonal tie-in for this tiptoe around the Gorefest That Was Rome. Noble Sulla decreed the first Roman law to criminalize murder, but only of very specific types, such as “presiding over a criminal trial with the intent of executing someone.” So the intent of his Cornelian Law was primarily to bring his fellow elites, such as Roman Senators, who were running around murdering each other in the aftermath of the civil war, under some sort of control. (Dictator was an official, legal title in the Roman Republic, by the way.)

If you were an ordinary Roman citizen, much less an enslaved person, you could not resort to the law for protection against or punishment of a homicide at all. The Roman state did not recognize that any of its citizens or subjects had an intrinsic right to life, nor that their murders, however foul and horrible, posed any threat to it. Therefore, most murders were not prosecuted, nor were they even investigated, because there was no such thing as police. (Assassinating a Senator or an emperor was a different matter, of course, not that this stopped half the Roman emperors from being assassinated.)

If you were an ordinary Roman citizen and someone stabbed a member of your family to death, it was up to you and your family to avenge it, if you could. If you were a slave, you had no rights whatsoever, and your master could legally beat you to death if you were too slow fetching him the salt, or for no reason at all. He could feed you to his pet man-eating lamprey, a nightmarish sharp-toothed giant eel. A Roman nobleman named Vedius Pollio was about to do just that to a slave who broke a crystal goblet by mistake. The slave begged his master’s dinner guest, who was none other than the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar himself, to kill him quickly, but the emperor was bored with his host and instead had his slaves break every single one of Vedius Pollio’s goblets instead. Of course, Augustus hadn’t gotten where he was in the first place without shedding oceans of blood.

Then there were Roman methods of execution. Trust me, you don’t want to know. Oh, you do? Well, they didn’t dream up the slow, torturous method of killing known as crucifixion just for poor Jesus. They nailed up men, women and children without distinction or remorse all the time (the Jewish Mishnah claims that the Romans crucified women facing the cross for modesty’s sake). Archeologists can’t find any of the nails, though, because everybody collected the damn things as good luck charms. Oh, and the Romans also crucified dogs once a year in an appalling ceremony meant to commemorate a dumb legend they had that when the Gauls attacked the city of Rome hundreds of years before, the town’s dogs failed to bark out a warning.

Ms. Southon also has a great deal to say about those gladiators you’ve heard so much about (the fights weren’t always to the death, but there was still plenty of gore, don’t you worry), and the Romans’ many, many other highly creative ways of publicly torturing and killing supposed criminals who had done unspeakable things such as trying to escape slavery, or practicing Christianity before that became the state religion. And yet, while reading about this thousand-year spree of human cruelty and bloodlust, you’ll also be laughing yourself silly because on every page, Ms. Southon launches very English barbed quips and comparisons to present-day pop cultural horrors such as reality TV.

Us horror novelists have nothing on sober history, friends. Believe me—or better still, believe Emma Southon’s A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome.

Martin Berman-Gorvine is the author of the four-book the Days of Ascension horror novel series: All Souls Day (2016), Day of Vengeance (2017), Day of Atonement (2018), and Judgment Day (2020), all published by Silver Leaf Books, as well as the standalone horror novels Vengeance Is Golden (2019) and The Hunter’s Sister (2021), the paranormal romance Haunted Island: A Love Story (2019), and a satirical screwball caper about American expatriates in Israel in the 1990s, Wanted in the Promised Land (2020).

He is also the author of seven science fiction novels, many with an alternate history theme, including the Sidewise Award-winning The Severed Wing (as Martin Gidron) (Livingston Press, 2002); 36 (Livingston Press, 2012); Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013); Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the Prometheus Award; Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History (as Marty Armon), an expansion of the short story “Palestina,” published in Interzone magazine, May/June 2006 (Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014); Heroes of Earth (Wildside Press, 2015); and Monsters of Venus (Wildside Press, 2017). 

He’s currently enamored of his latest pen name, Sam Haines (geddit?), so find him at one of the following websites: Sam Haines, Martin Berman-Gorvine, Varmints Cartoon, Days of Ascension, Emanuel Goldstein (that’s where he writes about political horror) or via his author page on Amazon.

Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Martin Berman-Gorvine

Meghan: Hi, Martin. It’s always fantastic to have you on the blog, so thank you for agreeing to come back another year. We’re going to do things a little different in this one. What are your go-to horror films?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: The first two Scream movies and I Know What You Did Last Summer for their casts. It Follows, although the title reminds me of a mathematical theorem. The Babysitter, because of Samara Weaving, though the movie is a turkey otherwise.

Meghan: What makes the horror genre so special?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Well, my therapist says the emotions it evokes are “primitive.” That’s true, but all you have to do is look around at what’s going on in the world to see that almost everyone is ruled by the primitive, including those who think they are most sophisticated. Horror admits these truths, primarily the fear of death and pain and that it’s all meaningless, that most people like to look away from.

Meghan: Have any new authors grasped your interest recently?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Shout-out to K Chess’s amazing alternate history novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, a wonderfully imaginative and empathetic exploration of what it feels like to be the ultimate refugee, a “Universally Displaced Person.”

Meghan: How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”? What do you listen to while writing?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Regina Spektor inspire me, but I can’t listen to any music with lyrics while I’m actually writing because it’s too distracting. If I have any music playing at those times, it’s instrumental pieces by J.S. Bach.

Meghan: How active are you on social media? How do you think it affects the way you write?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Way too much! The feelings of rage I get from arguing with everyone who is Wrong On The Internet, especially about politics, combined with the utter futility of it all, may help fuel the sadistic impulses I channel in my horror fiction.

Meghan: What is your writing Kryptonite?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: See previous question. Facebook and Twitter are black holes of the writer’s time.

Meghan: If you were making a movie of your latest story/book, who would you cast?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Oh jeez, well this is kind of embarrassing because it can give people a very wrong idea of what I was up to, but in my Days of Ascension horror/dark fantasy series I always saw in my head the character of Suzie played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar, her best friend and romantic rival Vickie played by Alyson Hannigan, who of course was the Gellar character’s best friend Willow on the show, and even a more minor character, Deena the “medicine woman,” played by Michelle Trachtenberg, who was Gellar’s sister Dawn on the show. The characters of Suzie and Vickie may have originally been very loosely inspired by Buffy and Willow, but they went off in their own directions very early on.

Meghan: If you had the choice to rewrite any of your books, which one would it be and why?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: It’s a temptation that should be resisted, in my opinion, to rewrite books once they’re out there in the world. I wrote The Severed Wing, which became my first published novel, almost twenty years ago, and there’s no question I am a different person now and could not write that novel now. This may be the one area of my life where I have zero temptation to look back.

Meghan: What would the main character in your latest story/book have to say about you?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: “Lucky bastard!”

Meghan: Did you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: I name-checked my great-grandfather Dr. Nathaniel Greenwood in my first published novel, The Severed Wing, and my maternal grandparents Dr. Samuel and Mrs. Miriam Lieberman in my only self-published novel to date, Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History.

Meghan: How much of yourself do you put in your books?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: A lot! For instance, the story of how I came to write the Days of Ascension series begins a long time ago, when I was in my early teens. It’s a miserable time of life for a lot of people and I was certainly no exception, though like every other kid I thought I was the only one. I did have an extra layer because I was a nerd, which had no positive connotations back then, in the early eighties in America. For a boy there was an inevitable inference of sissyhood, and I was bullied. Around this time I wrote a satirical mini-sociological study of the different “types” of kids I saw around me, which you can find here on an old blog post I wrote. Of course I saw myself and my friends as Brainy Weirdos. Mutatis mutandis, these groupings became the Castes of All Souls Day.

Meghan: Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Oh, all the friggin’ time. I hate Mark Twain’s stricture about writing only what you know, but it does seem to happen quite a lot in my novels. My ninth grade history teacher, for example, was a major asshole and antisemite who put a trash can over my head while the class howled with laughter. I rewarded him by making him the villain of my YA science fiction novel Monsters of Venus. I’m not sure the real waste of space is dead, so I added one syllable to his last name. Still, I hope he somehow stumbles on the book, recognizes himself, and has a stroke!

Meghan: Are your characters based off real people, or did they all come entirely from your imagination?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Many are the real people I revenge myself on in my novels. I probably had the most fun in the first two books of the Days of Ascension series torturing and killing a character based on a psycho teacher I had in junior high (a different person from the trash can bully). Since my brother was kind enough to send me the real guy’s obituary many years ago, I knew I was safe in calling the character based on him by the guy’s REAL NAME, with only one letter changed! Man, it is sick what I did to that dude! You have to buy my novel Day of Vengeance to find out!

Meghan: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Bolder tortures in my horror novels. Also, I am now perpetrating a romance novel.

Meghan: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Killing my darlings, as the saying goes. That is, having to cut beautifully written bits I’m fond of that just don’t fit in the larger work for one reason or another.

Meghan: Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: The actual writing is energizing and inspiring, when it’s humming along. It’s all the time killing to avoid writing that’s exhausting.

Meghan: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones? Have you ever learned something from a negative review and incorporated it into your writing?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Do I read all my reviews? As Leonard Cohen sang in one of his last albums, “There’s torture and there’s killing and there’s all my bad reviews/The war, the children missing, Lord, it’s almost like the blues.” I just had to restrain myself from arguing with the lone Amazon reviewer who trashed a satire I published under a pseudonym because he clearly hadn’t read the thing. I made a video of myself once burning a bunch of publishers’ rejection letters and pretending that act was a “sacrifice to the Muse,” does that count? No, I just tend to get annoyed by bad reviews, honestly. I haven’t read one yet where I didn’t think the numbskull just didn’t get what I was trying to do. On the other hand, I happily follow most suggestions from editors and beta readers, so it’s not like I’m a writer-diva.

Meghan: What are your ambitions for your writing career? What does “literary success” look like to you?

Martin Berman-Gorvine: Groupies! I won’t know I’ve arrived until I have groupies following me around like Neil Gaiman does. I need quality groupies, mind you, the kind who can discuss details of the Whedonverse and Albert Camus’ philosophy in the same breath.

Martin Berman-Gorvine is the perpetrator of the four-book Days of Ascension horror novel series, of which Judgment Day is mercifully the last. All Souls Day (2016), Day of Vengeance (2017), and Day of Atonement (2018) were also published by Silver Leaf Books, in an inexplicable lapse of literary judgment and good taste.

Martin is also the author of seven science fiction novels, including the Sidewise Award-winning The Severed Wing (as Martin Gidron) (Livingston Press, 2002); 36 (Livingston Press, 2012); Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013); Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the Prometheus Award; Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History (as Marty Armon), an expansion of the short story “Palestina,” published in Interzone magazine, May/June 2006 (Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014); Heroes of Earth (Wildside Press, 2015); and Monsters of Venus (Wildside Press, 2017).

Martin lives in Maryland with his wife and the younger two of his three sons, four cats, and two Muppet-like dogs.

Days of Ascension 1: All Soul’s Day

If a demon and its servants ruled your ordinary town, demanding an annual virgin sacrifice, would you have the courage to stop them? And at what price? This question confronts Amos Ross, Suzie Mitchell, and Vickie Riordan, high school seniors in the new horror novel, All Souls Day. 

In an alternate reality of the 1980’s, twenty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis triggered World War III and left the United States a devastated wasteland, the ancient, demonic god Moloch, whose worship was forbidden by the Old Testament, exercises absolute control over the Philadelphia suburb of Chatham’s Forge. The town is an oasis of prosperity that the nuclear war hardly touched, but its comfort comes at a fearful cost: at the high school prom every year, the prettiest and most popular senior girl is chosen by Moloch and his servant, the evil Pastor Justin Bello, to be spirited away to a former National Guard armory known as the Castle, where she is imprisoned alone for five months only to be beheaded and eaten alive by the demon on All Souls Day, the second of November, the anniversary of the war. And this year, 1985, it’s Suzie’s turn…

Days of Ascension 2: Day of Vengeance

What if you escaped being sacrificed to the evil god Moloch and banished him from your town at a terrible price in blood and destruction… only to become prey to gods more powerful and ruthless still?

Teenage friends Suzie Mitchell, Amos Ross, and Vickie Riordan are plunged into this terrifying dilemma in the ruins of their hometown, Chatham’s Forge, in a world devastated by nuclear war. Stumbling through the wreckage, they must confront the physically living but soul-dead remains of their friends and family, the vengeful victims of the old order in the Forge, the ascent of the powerful and seductive goddess Asherah, and worst of all… the deeds they themselves are tempted to commit in their rage and grief.

Days of Ascension 3: Day of Atonement

When human rebels overthrow a god of human sacrifice, only to bring about the rise of a goddess even more cruel and perverse, is there any chance human dignity and freedom can survive?

High school sweethearts Amos and Suzie have been surviving in the woods with their two little children and a small band of the like-minded for seven years, ever since they destroyed the bloodthirsty god Moloch. Their friend Vickie is with them, but she lives under a curse because she fell under the spell of the goddess Asherah, murdered dozens of people in her name, and then turned against her. Can Vickie overcome her overwhelming guilt and the curse that exiles her from human society—and can she and her friends bring Asherah down? And if they do, what new bloodthirsty gods lie in waiting? Find out, in Day of Atonement! 

Days of Ascension 4: Judgment Day

Twenty-five years ago, high school friends and lovers Amos, Suzie and Vickie destroyed Moloch, the evil god who reigned over their hometown of Chatham’s Forge, taking the Prom Queen in sacrifice each year. Together they have set up their own alternative society far from the Forge, which is now ruled over by an even more powerful and evil god, Ba’al. God Himself is hiding from this new threat in an abandoned 7-Eleven in Cape May, New Jersey. Can our heroes survive?

Release Day: To Be Announced