The times they are a-changin’

There are many works of Roman political and military fiction, but few set in the late era like SONS OF ROME, and none with such a unique dual viewpoint as the story is told in turn by two different protagonists each voiced by a different author. Sons Of Rome, which releases today, is the creation of  Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, who have more than 50 novels between them. I’m delighted to have Simon on the blog today.

So, in writing historical fiction, one of the prime requirements is trying to get our heads into the era. The further back our milieu, the harder it can be to connect with the people about whom we’re writing. Or can it? Can you imagine how different the world was at the end of the Third century? A world of pagan gods, of savagery and superstition, of autocracy and monsters? Let’s look a little deeper at it all.

The world into which our protagonists Maxentius and Constantine are thrown at the closing days of the third century is one in which religious strife is common. Christians might still have been persecuted under recent regimes, but they were also increasingly numerous and a strong sector of society even in the capital. Already, even before the Catholic Church exists (thank you, Mr Constantine), there are divisions and schisms arising. The Christian Church was still in flux at this stage, and there was no central set of tenets for an organised worship as there were once Constantine delineated them at Nicaea. As such there were many differing beliefs even within the Church, which often came into conflict with one another. Add to this the Lapsi (those Christians who had recanted their Faith during the persecutions and who now wanted to re-enter the Church) and you have something of a mess, with frequent conflict and persecution. I wonder what a Roman from 205 AD might think of our modern world with its settled religious state and lack of conflict?

With the era of Constantine and Maxentius, we are looking at a time when a once-great empire ruled by a strong and individual leader has all-but broken up due to internal pressures, both political and economic. The Rome of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian is but a distant memory. Just a couple of decades ago, a huge chunk of the western empire had enjoyed many years as a separate and breakaway empire until brought back into the fold by the sword, and during that time the powerful city of Palmyra had done much the same with a large swathe of the East. There have been secessions, usurpers and civil wars for a century. Recently, the powerful emperor Diocletian tried to devolve the nation into more than one piece, a system called the Tetrarchy, each with their own rulers within a grand system, all in an attempt to try and halt the decay. At least nothing like that happens now, eh? Devolution and local governments, and independence sought by constituent parts of larger conglomerates… And certainly I’m sure we don’t have to worry about the rise of autocrats unsatisfied with being part of a larger machine and forging brutally conservative nations. *Coughs nervously*

Sarcophagus

Perhaps one of the most distinct differences between the empire of the late Third century and the modern world is our modern individuality, yes? Rome sought to enfold all within its grasp, whether by peaceful annexation or by conquest. Its religious policy was inclusive. Skin colour was no issue. Cultures may be disparate, but once part of the empire they were all Roman, subject to the usual low-level grumbles of the mentally myopic. This inclusiveness, added to military conquest and political machinations led to an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara and the Atlantic to the Red Sea, all with Latin as the Lingua Franca, the Roman system of coinage, and the same military, political, social, architectural and engineering systems. Imagine if you could take your cash from the west coast of Portugal, cross every national border without worry, reach the east coast of Bulgaria, and still be able to spend that money? Wow, eh? But that was what it was like to be part of the empire in the third century. And if the common use of Latin empire-wide cannot be mirrored today, that’s only because Zamenhof’s language of hope – Esperanto – never gained sufficient popularity. Could the EU be the last descendent of Rome?

But at least we can content ourselves that now we are multicultural and widely-travelled. Because the third century was a land of Romans versus Barbarians, in which only the army travelled widely, surely? Perhaps not. After all, perhaps you could tell that to Barates the Syrian merchant, who married a Briton and lived in what is now Newcastle. And even to the occupants of the fort of Arbeia (‘Place of the Arabs’) there, who in the Third century were a unit of Boatmen from the Middle East. The simple fact was that traders and individuals travelled widely, and since military units were always posted far from their homeland, different accents and skin tones would be perfectly normal all across the empire. Heck, there were even tourists on Holiday. The emperor Hadrian toured his provinces and his wife visited sites of interest, including the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt, where she went so far as to leave graffiti. So you see once again, Rome in the imperial age was in a number of ways analogous to our modern world.

Barates’ Wife

At least we don’t have gladiatorial combat today. Mind you, we have cage fighting, ultimate fighting championships and the like. And I don’t think we have to look too hard to find a sport where vehicles hurtle around a track at dangerous speeds. And horse racing? Wrestling? Ok, maybe we’re not so different in that respect. And perhaps, then, we’ll go and see a comedy or a tragedy at the theatre? Perhaps we can watch some Frankie Howerd, whose monologues in Up Pompeii were derived from the works of Apuleius?

Were there differences between then and now? Of course there were. The world of Rome was a brutal one, and we have moved away from concepts such as slavery, divine leaders, organised torture and the like (for the most part). But despite the many differences you can identify, the simple truth is that we share more with our ancient counterparts than we hold as differences with them.

Remember that as you read Roman Historical Fiction and try to get your head into the mindset.

Many thanks for taking us back to the present, Simon.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and Indiebound.

Sons Of Rome by Simon Turney, Gordon Doherty ~~ Four Emperors. Two Friends. One Destiny.
As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon… 

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Insurrection – Paris 1870

While watching the shocking events unfold at the Capitol on Wednesday, I was struck by the parallels to another time and place – Paris in 1870 and 1871. Citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but if history is any guide, the insurrection may not be over.

At the beginning of September 1870, Prussia defeated Napoleon III’s French army. A few weeks later the Prussian army completely encircled Paris and laid siege to the city. Most Parisian believed Paris was impregnable. They were certain that the army and the National Guard would defeat the Prussians and rejected any suggestions to the contrary. Elihu Washburne was at that time America’s Minister to France and a resident of Paris.

Michael Hill, author of Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France during the Siege and Commune of Paris, writes: “On the 28th [October], in an effort to break through the Prussian lines, the French launched a sortie at the village of Le Bourget, just outside Paris. It was a success at first, but two days later the Prussians reclaimed the town. On October 31, word reach the city [Paris] that Metz, for months considered the strongest fortress of France, had fallen to the Germans and 170,000 more French soldiers had been taken prisoner. When word of these defeats reached Paris, the city broke into chaos. Radical ‘Red’ leaders stormed the Hotel de Ville and temporarily seized control of the government and its leaders.

Radical ‘red’ leaders refers to leaders of the working class who objected to the composition of the French government saying it was too monarchist in allegiance, too elite and wealthy, too influenced by the church, and unrepresentative of the real people of France.

On November 1, 1870, Elihu Washburne writes in his diary:

44th day of the siege. First, as to the events of yesterday. Voila! Another revolution … The Reds, up to this time, cowed by the force of public opinion, now saw their opportunity … I went to the Foreign Office at half past five, and on my arrival, for the first time, learned of the gravity of the situation … Trochu [President of the government of National Defense] had been dismissed, and that Favre [vice-president and Minister of Foreign Affairs] and all the members of the government of the National Defense had resigned.

Hotel de Ville – destroyed during the Commune

When within two or three squares of the Hotel [refers to the Hotel de Ville where the government presided] we found the way on foot through the dense crowd of people and soldiers and entered the building. There we found mostly soldiers, who were roaming around with their muskets reversed.

Washburne proceeds to the Hall of the Municipality [within the Hotel de Ville] where a public meeting was going on.

It was dimly lit by two oil lamps. The room was literally packed with soldiers yelling, singing, disputing and speechmaking. The side rooms were also filled with soldiers, who sat around the tables, copying lists of the new government, as they called it — the Government of the Commune. They all seemed to regard the revolution as an accomplished fact, which was only to be formally ratified at noon today by a vote of the people of Paris.

Ruins of the Ministry of Finance

Washburne was convinced that a revolution had taken place. Later that evening he received word:

that the government of the National Defense had not resigned; but that the Reds headed by Flourens, Blanqui, and others had undertaken a coup d’état, had seized all the members of the government and held them all prisoners in a room in the Hotel de Ville. Some of the people demanded that the members of the government should be sent to the prison of Vincennes; others demanded that they should be shot …

Meanwhile, members of the National Guard faithful to the government, got into the building and effected the release of Trochu and Jules Ferry [secretary of the government], who immediately took steps to release their associates.

In the late evening, Washburne finds the streets deserted and the stillness of death everywhere. What a city! One moment revolution and violence, the next the most profound calm.

On November 2nd, Washburne learns that:

The members of the government of the National Defense were outrageously abused when they were under arrest. They were most grossly insulted and loaded pistols placed at their heads with threats of instant death if they dared to stir

What happened in the months that followed? France surrendered to Prussia at the end of January. A new government formed. However, those leaders calling for the establishment of a commune continued to agitate and foster revolutionary sentiments. Author Michael Hill writes that “by the middle of March, political and social discontent among the lower classes and radical political clubs — which had simmered ominously beneath the surface since October — broke out in an orgie [sic] of crime, incendiarism, ruin, cruelty, desolation … and blood. For the next two months the streets of Paris would be filled with the most horrible events and consequences ever recorded in history.”

Soldiers firing on insurgents

By March 19th, Paris was in full revolt. The government retreated to Versailles. The insurgents were emboldened by their victory. On March 25th, Washburne wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish:

It would be difficult to convey to you an adequate idea of the condition of things existing in Paris. In some portions of the city all is quiet and orderly; but in other parts we see nothing but ‘grim-visaged war,’ barricades, regiments marching and counter marching, the beating of the rappel [call to arms], the mounting guard, the display of cannon and mitrailleuse [rapid fire rifles], and the interdiction of circulation in the streets. Then there are the numerous arrests, the mock trials, and the executions … Anarchy, assassination, and massacre hold high carnival …

Tuileries Palace destroyed during the Commune

The Commune of Paris has absolute power over the entire city and countless acts of violence stoke the terror of its citizens. Citizen pitted against citizen as the French army attacks the Communards and its National Guard. Artillery once more attack Paris. The Commune formed a bureau of denunciation “to which anyone could simply denounce another as a Versailles sympathizer resulting in the accused being immediately arrested or, in some cases, executed.

April 19th: All is one great shipwreck in Paris. Fortune, business, public and private credit, industry, labor are all in the ‘deep bosom of the ocean buried.’ The physiognomy of the city becomes every day more sad. All the upper part of the Champs-Elysees is completely deserted in fear of the shells. Immense barricades are going up at the Place de la Concorde. The great manufacturies and workshops are closed ..

May 2, 1871: Fighting going on all the time all about the city, but without perceptible results … there is a great fury among the insurgents now, and last night they formed a fearful committee–the Committee of Public Safety–which in the first revolution was a committee simply to legalize butchery. This new committee has full powers and the reign of terror may now commence in earnest any day.

May 11, 1871: The worse things grow, the more desperate the Commune becomes.

Government troops continued to bombard the city.

Rue de Rivoli during Paris Commune

May 19, 1871: The Commune gets every day more furious and outrageous. Today they threaten to destroy Paris and bury everybody in the ruins before they surrender.

When the army ultimately breaks into Paris, the communards adopt a “scorched earth policy”, intent on burning the city to the ground. “The Tuileries, part of the Palais-Royal, the Palais de Justice, and finally, the Hotel de Ville were all set ablaze.” Other buildings were also torched.

By May 28th, the insurrection was destroyed.

On May 31st, with fires still smouldering, Washburne writes: The reign of the Commune for ten weeks, pursuing its career of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, finally expired in blood and flame … The incredible enormities of the Commune, their massacre of the Archbishop of Paris and the other hostages, their countless murders of other persons who refused to join them in their fiendish work, their horrid and well organized plans of incendiarism intended to destroy almost the entire city and which resulted in the destruction of so many of the great monuments of Paris, are crimes which will never die.

As I said at the beginning, citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but there seem to be parallels here, and the insurrection may not be over.

By the way, my soon-to-release Paris in Ruins is set during the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The People of Our Past by George Dovel

George Dovel was one of the writers I met at the Historical Novel Society conference last June. He’s the author of The Geometry of Vengeance, a novel that according to E.M. Powell “brings the violence and superstitions of the medieval world vividly to life.” Welcome, George.

~~~

The People of Our Past

Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”

If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.

After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history is compelled to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?

And this was a problem?

Moving most of a millennium even further back in time, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.

And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.

In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.

Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.

Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?

It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.

They are in us; we are of them

The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.

There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to today. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.

Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction

The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.

What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?

And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.

The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling is surely one of the reasons historical fiction is endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.

The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp; the quotation from Barry Unsworth is from a speech given at the Key West Literary Seminar.

Many thanks for this illuminating post, George. Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction is why so many readers love the genre.

The Geometry of Vengeance by George Dovel ~~ Vital Moysett has spent half his life burying the tragic mistakes and deadly secrets of his youth, but in an instant he learns that even being the most celebrated cathedral architect in 13th-century France and a favorite of Louis IX is not enough to protect him from his enemies’ rage.

When his latest design suffers an inexplicable collapse, the terrified locals believe the devil himself pulled the daring vaults down. But Vital sees evil of a very human kind—and the threat of even greater destruction to come.

His frantic search to identify the next target turns into a maddening series of philosophical riddles and strangely personal attacks motivated by knowledge of his childhood that no one still alive could possibly have. With the help of his unusual wife and the famed encylopedist Vincent of Beauvais, he follows his tormentors to the glorious cathedral at Chartres, knowing he is stepping right into their trap.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.