08 January 2017

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Anna Lowenstein on THE STONE CITY - A CAPTIVE'S LIFE IN ROME

This week, we're pleased to welcome author ANNA LOWENSTEIN with her latest release,  THE STONE CITY. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win a FREE copy of the novel - this giveaway is open internationally, available in electronic or paperback format. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Snatched from her peaceful homestead in Celtic Britain, Bivana is transported to the legendary city of Rome. Struggling to come to terms with the loss of everyone and everything she has ever known, but determined to survive, she slowly adapts to a life of slavery and to the alien culture which surrounds her. Her relationship with another slave brings her into contact with the Nazarenes, activists in a fanatical new religious movement. She had hopes of making a fresh start, but what are her chances of surviving a clash with the authorities?

Since its first publication in 1999, The Stone City has become well known and loved in its Esperanto translation, and has been translated by fans into French and Hungarian. The revised 2016 edition includes several additional scenes.

**Q&A with Anna Lowenstein**

What made you want to write your first novel The Stone City?

Rome in the 1st century was the New York of the ancient world, a gleaming city with temples, shops, bathhouses and bars, multi-storey buildings, paved streets and public fountains. It is thought to have had a million inhabitants from all over the empire, rivalling present-day cities like Birmingham (UK) or Rotterdam. What impression would this astonishing place have made on a barbarian newly arrived from the wilds of Britain or some equally remote part of the Roman empire? That was the question I wanted to explore when I started work on The Stone City. The novel tells the story of Bivana, who is captured during the conquest of Britain in AD 43 and brought to Rome as a slave.

So what impression does Rome make on Bivana when she arrives?

Bivana has come from the chalk downs and woodlands of southern Britain, where the largest buildings were wattle-and-daub thatched huts. She has rarely encountered a face that she did not recognize. But now she finds herself in a city surrounded by not only by countless strangers but by huge stone buildings, including apartment blocks several storeys high. She has never seen windows or stairs before, and the first time she is taken inside one of those gigantic buildings, she is confused to find herself in a small room instead of the vast hall she was expecting.
   Before I could understand how Bivana might have reacted to her new life in Rome, I needed to know where she was coming from. The first part of the book describes her life in a homestead in southern Britain. Although there is always a risk of raids by neighbouring tribes, her life is happy and relatively stable, and at the time of the Roman invasion she is looking forward to her marriage. To her, Rome is a mythical place, inconceivably distant. It seems impossible that the Roman army should ever cross the sea and attack her village.

Once she arrives in Rome, Bivana spends many years as a slave on a country estate. Slavery can’t be an easy thing to write about.

My aim in this novel was not to write about misery and suffering. I wanted Bivana to be able to look about her and to compare her new life and surroundings with those she knew before. She would not be able to do that if she was in fear and depression from constant mistreatment. For this reason I gave her to a family who treat their slaves reasonably well, and at least avoid deliberate cruelty. Even so, it is not easy for Bivana to adjust to this totally new setting and culture, the loss of her freedom, and the loss of everyone she knew and loved. The uglier face of slavery is shown indirectly through her occasional encounters with people who have been far less fortunate than she has.
Anna at the remains of the temple
in the ancient town of Palestrina,
which appears in her novel
under its Latin name Praeneste.

Through her relationship with one of the other slaves, Bivana comes into contact with the members of a new religious sect, the Nazarenes. Is this a religious book?

Bivana’s ideas are the ones she grew up with, and I can add that some aspects of ancient British religious life will be startling to modern readers! When she is transported to Rome, she finds it natural to seek help from the gods who reign in her new country. Like any good Roman, she is suspicious of the Nazarene’s rejection of all gods but their own.
   The Nazarenes are members of a young, idealistic sect, but as in all new movements people have different ideas about how to achieve their aims. This leads to disagreements and quarrels; this is a normal phase that every idealistic movement goes through at some point, whether its aims are religious, political or social. The Nazarenes are not saints but ordinary people, and that is how Bivana sees them.

Immediately after writing The Stone City you began to translate it into Esperanto – in fact the first editions of the book in English and Esperanto came out in the same year, 1999. What on earth gave you the idea of translating the book into Esperanto?

I learnt the international language Esperanto at the age of 13 from a book I borrowed from the library – it was far easier than French and Latin, which I was learning at school! Since then I have been active in the Esperanto movement and it is also the language I speak at home with my husband. So although I wrote my novel in English, it was a natural decision to translate it into Esperanto. The Esperanto version of the novel has been very successful, and has been translated into French and Hungarian. Bivana’s struggle to adapt to life in a different culture is just the sort of topic which appeals to Esperanto speakers – and of course, I hope it will also interest readers of Unusual Historicals!

About the author

Anna Lowenstein became interested in the Romans when she visited Italy over thirty years ago, and was awestruck by her first view of the Pantheon. She wondered what impression it must have made on a barbarian who had never seen a stone building before, let alone architecture as magnificent as the houses and temples of Rome. That was the moment when she had the idea for her first novel The Stone City. Not long afterwards she moved to Italy and came to live in the Roman countryside close to the ancient town of Palestrina, which appears in the novel under its Latin name Praeneste. Since then she has written a second novel, Death of an Artist, also set in Ancient Rome, and is now working on a third. Since 2015 she has been living in the UK.

Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_L%C3%B6wenstein


Renato Corsetti said...

Mi komentas en Esperanto, ĉar tio estas pli facila por mi ol komenti en la angla. Temas pri elstara libro kaj multaj esperantistoj konsentas kun mi.

Renato Corsetti

Allan Fineberg said...

Now this looks interesting....especially the part about Esperanto.

Arthur Carvalho said...

Impressive! I'm a beginner in Esperanto but I already know we must give our all in order to achieve our final success. Your work means a lot to the moviment. All the best!

José Antonio Vergara said...

what an interesting story! I appreciate historical fiction as a literary genre that allows us to learn about the universal traits of the human condition. I would like to hear how the author made her research to provide an accurate setting, and how she avoided the presentism bias being herself a British lady who moved to live in Italy. I mean what about the temptation of just showing current concerns on a funny, Roman-like setting.

Ralph Dumain said...

Gratulon pro via atingo kaj pro la intervjuo.

Denie Mansell said...

A must read. It sounds absolutely fascinating. I look forward to learning how Bivana adapts to the culture of her captors and whether or not there is a happy ending for her.

Anna Lowenstein said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments, and especially to José Antonio for his question. The book involved an enormous amount of research into Celtic Britain, the Roman Conquest, slavery in Rome, the Nazarenes… Before it was possible to look up everything you needed on the Internet, I found a wonderful resource in Rome, the German Archaeological Library, which is like a university library entirely devoted to the ancient world. I also visited the area in southern Britain which Bivana came from, as well as Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where archaeologists have recreated the agricultural and building techniques of the ancient Britons.
But when you’re writing a historical novel, it’s not enough to know the details of the physical setting. You also need to try and get into the minds of the people who lived at that time, and not simply transpose modern people to a historical setting. I read letters, poetry and fiction by the Romans themselves (in English translation, not in the original Latin!), and books of early Celtic literature, particularly the ancient Irish classic Táin Bó Cúailnge (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A1in_B%C3%B3_C%C3%BAailnge).

selina moor said...

It sounds fascinating and I must read it.

John Rowe said...

Sounds interesting. Will definitely pick it up to read. Have to take time to smell the roses.

Esther Schor said...

I have heard such praise for the book in Esperanto. Looking forward to reading this edition - especially having visited Palestrina w Anna and Renato! --Esther Schor

rafaeln said...

I am currently reading "The Stone City" in Esperanto and I am really enjoying it. The author's language is so vivid that, simply by seeing through the eyes of the protagonist, I find myself longing for a peaceful and quiet country life that I myself have never experienced.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction --or, frankly, to anyone who enjoys a well-written book.

Bill Frampton said...

Tre interesa recenzo pri verŝajne tre interesa verko. Mi ĝuus legi ĝin.

Bruce Sherwood said...

I enjoyed this novel very much. I assume that the author studied the nature of slavery in Rome. I have the impression that in ancient Rome and Greece slaves typically weren't treated as though they were subhuman, as happened with African slaves in the Americas. Moreover, it was a normal affair to buy one's way out of slavery, which indicates that being a slave wasn't looked on as a fundamental characteristic of a person but potentially a temporary condition. In the southwestern US Indians and Europeans often captured people in raids, especially young people, and kept them as slaves, but very often these slaves became full citizens of the community. Perhaps the terrible nature of the enslavement of Africans was due to the perception of (and belief in) large ethnic and racial differences.

Judith said...

I really enjoyed reading the book. It is also relevant to this time, I feel, with the large groups of refugees and migrants moving around the world. Of course refugees coming to Europe from say Syria, often from large cities like Alepo are much nearer in their culture and background to it than Bivana to Rome. Still the basic human shock of losing your home and the surroundings where you lived, often the family and the friends you know all your life- these are the same. Showing how this feels id just one of the merits of The Stone City.

Lisa Yarde said...


Anna Lowenstein said...

Thanks to all of you for your further comments, and Bruce Sherwood, thanks very much for your question. There’s so much I could say about this, I’m tempted to write an entire essay in reply. I’ll try to keep it short.
Not much information survives from Roman times about the situation of slaves. Upper-class Romans wrote letters, with the result that we know an extraordinary amount about the lives and even the thoughts of people like Cicero, Seneca and Pliny the Younger. But who was writing about slaves? We have to glean what we know from indirect sources such as laws and epitaphs, and casual mentions in literature or in the letters of those same upper-class Romans.
The thing that became clear to me from my research was that being a slave in ancient Rome was a legal status: a slave was the property of another person. It tells you nothing about the way a slave actually lived. A slave’s life could cover the spectrum from total misery at the bottom end, for instance in the mines or the building trade, to relative comfort or even luxury for those lucky ones who were the slaves of wealthy and kind-hearted owners. They had the chance to receive tips (or bribes) or even to earn money, and so save up to buy their own freedom. In addition wealthy Romans often freed large numbers of slaves in their wills.
Slaves could be educated, and might work for instance as secretaries, scribes or doctors. A large part of the imperial bureaucracy consisted of slaves and freedmen (i.e. freed slaves). Upper-class Romans were always complaining about the jumped-up freedmen who had now reached the highest offices and basically were in charge of running the empire. From our modern viewpoint, Rome’s imperial administration was a meritocracy.
Since freedmen and their descendants made up a significant proportion of Rome’s population, attitudes towards the treatment of slaves gradually improved over the centuries. By Bivana’s time there began to be laws which gave slaves a little protection at least against the most extreme forms of abuse. This does not alter the fact that as the property of another person, slaves had no control over their own lives. If they were lucky enough to have a kind and well-off owner they might live more comfortably than someone who was free but poor. But if their owner was cruel, there was nothing they could do to improve their situation.
I don’t know much about the situation of black slaves in the US, but I am sure that racism must have played an important role. In Roman times slavery was accepted as a natural institution, but by the more enlightened era of the 18th and 19th centuries, how could slave-owners justify their right to own other human beings? They were able to do so by convincing themselves that black people were less than human, and so were not entitled to the same rights as other people. Slaves in Rome might come from any part of an empire which stretched from Britain to north Africa, so they could not be distinguished by their physical appearance, although no doubt they might often appear less well-fed and clothed than their free counterparts. I recently heard the historian Mary Beard explain that while the ancient Romans could be appallingly cruel by modern standards, at least they were not racists.

Anna Lowenstein said...

Thanks to everyone who sent a comment on this book. There were so many good comments that it was difficult to decide who should get the free copy - I'm sorry I don't have three or four copies to give away! I asked a member of Rome Writers' Group to read all the comments and choose who should get the giveaway. She picked Denie Mansell. So congratulations to Denie, and thanks to everyone else.
Denie, would you like to contact me through my website at http://annalowenstein.wixsite.com/home
Let me know whether you'd prefer to receive a digital copy for your e-reader, or a real book by post! In that case, you will need to send me your address.