A Discussion Guide for
The Life and Times
Atticus of Rome, 30 B.C.
by Barry Denenberg
TO THE DISCUSSION LEADER
Young readers showed the book world and the education world they do love historical fiction by buying over 10 million copies of the Dear America and Royal Diaries novels. Now comes a new historical fiction series from Scholastic — The Life and Times books.
Set in ancient times, these third person novels focus the spotlight on life in Greece and Rome. Middle grade readers get to step back in time to experience life through the eyes of youngsters their own age navigating a world filled with gladiators, wars, political intrigue, and adventure.
Acclaimed author Barry Denenberg's book The Life and Times of Atticus of Rome, 30 B.C. launches the series. Atticus tells a story filled with brutal contests of life and death played out in front of Roman spectators screaming for blood and death. It is also a story of the bond between fathers and sons.
Today's readers will embrace the Life and Times series with the same gusto showered on the previous Scholastic historical fiction novels. This time, readers will come away with a new understanding of ancient times and civilizations.
A terrifying recurring dream wakes 12 year old Atticus from his sleep. He is "standing naked and alone in the middle of a vast arena" surrounded by "people, hundreds, maybe thousands." He feels the "earth shaking and rumbling, as if it were about to heave up and split, revealing an abyss into which he would fall and be lost forever." It is 30 B.C. in Rome. Atticus is the newly acquired slave of Lucius Opimius, a wealthy political figure and best friend of the Emperor. Although Atticus cannot forget being torn from his family by plundering Roman soldiers who burned his village and killed his mother and sister, he finds life tolerable and even enjoyable at Lucius Opimius' home. He is "overwhelmed by the beauty and splendor he (sees) all around him" and he is treated with much favor and kindness by his master. Atticus is permitted to accompany Lucius Opimius on his daily errands. He is trusted to listen to conversations and to spy on Galerius Traculus, a corrupt, ambitious real estate developer who is suspected of plotting against the Emperor.
Lucius Opimius plans a huge, lavish banquet, inviting Galerius Traculus, along with 19 other guests so that he might discern what Galerius is up to. At the banquet, Lucius Opimius learns some valuable information, "one of the missing pieces of the puzzle." Needing to find out more, he assigns Atticus to shadow Galerius Traculus at the chariot races, and listen to his conversations with four different men. There, Atticus makes a shocking discovery: "his master had instructed him that there would be four men, clearly unaware of the secret rendezvous between Galerius Traculus and his (Lucius') wife!" Atticus is reluctant to report this indiscretion to his master, but his news is received with praise, "Good job. You did what you had to do."
Soon after, Lucius Opimius decides to leave Rome for a vacation at his villa in Capua, accompanied by his wife, his astrologer Aristide, and Atticus. On the way, Lady Claudia insists that they visit a famous gladiator school. There, she demands that a private gladiatorial contest be held only for her. It's a fight to the death and "Atticus is badly shaken by the bloody and brutal battle he had just witnessed: a battle that had no victors."
After only a day at the magnificent villa, Lucius Opimius suddenly returns to Rome, taking Atticus and Aristide with him. Once in Rome, he learns that his fears for the Emperor's safety were confirmed. "There had been a long-planned and well-concealed conspiracy. The object of the plot was to assassinate the Emperor and take over the government." Galerius Traculus was the mastermind behind the plot and when the assassination attempt failed, he fled and hid. His slaves, however, found him, attacked, and murdered him, severing his head which they presented to the Emperor. Lady Claudia, an accessory in the plot, is found guilty and banished forever.
Galerius Traculus, before his death, had planned elaborate and expensive games to be viewed by all the people of Rome. These are allowed to proceed in a "much abbreviated form." Atticus, who has never seen games, approaches them with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Before a crowd of 50,000, gladiators battle to the death. The final battle, between a swordsman and a retiarius lasts for what seems an eternity. At its climax, when the wounded swordsman, about to be killed, removes his helmet and faces the Emperor, Atticus has a sudden unbelievable moment of recognition. He calls out to the fallen swordsman, "Father." The amazed Emperor gives the thumbs up sign, "bestowing the blessing of life on Atticus' father." Atticus and his father are seen as heroes and become "welcome and vital members of Lucius Opimius' household."
Sadly, not long after, Lucius Opimius is poisoned. The grieving Emperor vows to find those responsible for the death of his dearest friend. Atticus and his father prepare to journey with Aristide to his native Greece. They feel "perhaps life would be better there."
THINKING ABOUT THE BOOK
- How did Atticus come to live with Lucius Opimius?
- How was Atticus treated differently than the other slaves owned by Lucius Opimius? Why?
- "Rich, powerful, dishonest, and corrupt" are words used to describe Galerius Traculus, the man Atticus is sent to spy on. What four adjectives would you use to describe Lucius Opimius?
- Who is Aristide? Why is he so important to Lucius Opimius?
- What is Atticus' first impression of the astrologer Aristide? How does it change over time?
- Dreams and visions pay an important role in Atticus' story. What do you think is the meaning of Atticus' recurring dream? What do you think was the meaning of Aristide's three visions mentioned in "Signs for the Gods" (p. 125)?
- On three occasions Atticus observes Aristide's eyes change to silver. When does this happen and what does it mean?
- What kind of person is Lady Claudia, Lucius Opimius' wife? Do you think her punishment fits her crime? Why or why not?
- Why do you think Lucius Opimius is killed? Who could be responsible for his death and why?
- As Atticus, his father, and Aristide prepare to leave for Greece, what two things are they unaware of that Lucius Opimius bequeathed to them? Do you think they ever find out? Why or why not?
- Look at the list of insights Atticus learns from Aristide (p. 98). What three do you think are the most important for living a satisfying life? Justify your answer.
- Part of the entertainment at Lucius Opimius' banquet was a play based on the story "Androcles and the Lion." Read this story at http://www.thefables.com/aesop.htm Compare it to the version written in Atticus' story. Design a mask that an actor might wear portraying Androcles or the Lion.
- Pick one of the following sayings and explain what it means.
"There's truth in wine." p. 71
"Time is a river." p. 154
"Vanity trumps reality." p. 61
"He seemed, like fine wine, to get better with age." p. 88
- What do the following terms mean?
Vestal virgins toga retiarius bestiarius trident marmoset
- Aristide tells Atticus the story of Spartacus, the Greek slave who led a revolt against the Roman Legion. Read more about Spartacus at http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/spartacus.html then check out the 1960 film "Spartacus" on video. What did you learn? How is the film different from the information in Atticus and on the Web site?
An Interview with Barry Denenberg
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: You have often said you write as an excuse to do research. Since so much of your work has focused on 20th century characters and concerns from Elvis Presley to Nelson Mandela to the Vietnam War, was it harder to do the research for Atticus?
Barry Denenberg: Yes, it was much harder. The difficulty is that no matter how much research I do, I don't truly understand the times. There is a cultural distance that I think is impossible to bridge unless one spends a lifetime in a given subject area. I try and compensate by forcing myself to conceptualize the time philosophically as best I can — that is not bring 21st century cultural perspectives to bear on the story.
RFA & EST: The short 3–5 page chapters work beautifully in this book. They keep you turning the pages and wanting to read on. Why did you decide to adopt this structure?
BD: I don't know — the dream came to me first and that set a sort of poetic, epigrammatic tone that I felt was appropriate to the character.
RFA & EST: Is the character of Atticus based on a real person?
BD: No, but Atticus is my homage to the main character in To Kill a Mockingbird — aided by my daughter Emma's exquisite knowledge of Latin.
RFA & EST: After Atticus, who is your favorite character in the book? Why?
BD: Well, I did like Lucius Opimius. I'm always sorting out my own father problems and he is my ideal, to put it bluntly.
RFA & EST: Atticus is filled with many vivid scenes, but the banquet at the home of Lucius Opimius is unforgettable as guests vomit so they can eat more. Would you tell us what you discovered about dining habits in 30 B.C.? Was such behavior typical?
BD: Fortunately there is a good deal of research on the times the Romans spent relaxing in the baths, viewing shows at the coliseum, and dining and drinking. The scene was fed, as it were, by many sources and I thought it was an opportunity to not only convey historical knowledge, always my first priority, but to continue the mysterious nature of the story.
RFA & EST: Severed heads, disemboweled gladiators, slashed throats, and slaves prodded with red-hot irons are all part of the Roman "games." What sources did you find most useful in learning about this popular entertainment?
BD: Robert Graves' I Claudius and Claudius the King (both the books and the movies).
RFA & EST: Lucius Opimius is described as "a master of the art of listening, an art of which most Romans were ignorant." Are those of us in the 21st century equally ignorant of this art?
BD: Let me answer the question this way. I studied traditional Japanese karate under a Japanese master for ten years (I am a first degree black belt). More than anything, more than his strength, which was powerful and frightening, two things impressed me the most: his ability to focus and his ability to listen with intense concentration. I penned Lucius Opimius as that kind of person — a transcendent person, transcendent of any time and any place. Do we have less now than then? I don't know. Could we use more, yes, and should we all cultivate the ability to listen properly, yes. I recently read the following by Max Frisch, which I think speaks to our current problems in communication: "Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it."
RFA & EST: What thoughts and ideas about the Roman Empire would you like young readers to come away with after reading The Life and Times of Atticus of Rome, 30 B.C.?
BD: During the course of my research I became deeply concerned about the way in which the heartless brutality of the Romans was depicted, mostly as just plain superficial "fun and games." Although I don't want to put current cultural judgments on the time, I thought it was imperative that I addressed myself to making clear that these hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered in cold blood were people just like ourselves. I agonized about how to do that, make them someone you would recognize, part of yourself. That's how I came up with Atticus' father being the potential victim. I hope it communicates something about grace and humility and the consequences of gross insensitivity, not then but today.