Since I started researching and writing my books I've occasionally come across articles that promised great new possibilities, but that wouldn't let me access them unless I coughed up forty dollars or the like. Being on a tight budget (or a cheapskate, take your pick) I balked at paying out cash on the off-chance that I might learn how some Roman tied that loin-cloth thing that passed for underwear in the first century, or confirmation that they may not, in fact, have eaten dormice stuffed with larks tongues. There were a number of these sites, but the main one was something called JSTOR, which is an online repository of academic journals.
So there I was last week, frustrated again, when I looked at the list of institutions who actually do have access and one of them was the National Library of Scotland. Five minutes later I have a virtual library card and I'm in, feeling like a kid who's just found a fiver outside a sweety shop.
So I've spent the last couple of days with academics from Oxford and Harvard and the University of whotsit in Baaden Wurttenberg picking up the kind of nit-picking detail you can't get anywhere else on the planet and loving every dry, dusty mind-numbing minute of it. One of the most interesting things is how seldom articles on similar subjects agree with each other, which finally brings me to the point of this post.
I had an e-mail from a fellow author, James Mace, an American gentleman who writes the Soldier of Rome series, and he made the point that he always sticks as faithfully to known history as possible. Which begged the question: What do we mean by known history when we're talking about half a dozen sources who died two thousand years ago?
Reading my wordy academic works brought home that what we think of as known history is incredibly mixed up and messy. Roman historians, Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio, were writing decades, or in some cases hundreds of years after the events they're recording. Unless they tell you who was consul (and even that isn't 100 per cent reliable) they don't provide dates. Tacitus wasn't big on geography and he had a habit of missing out important detail. Suetonius lumps all the good stuff about an emperor at the start and the bad bits at the end, with no hint at when they happened. Dio pinched passages from earlier writers and added a few juicy bits. All of them will happily put words in their subjects mouths to make a political point, but I've read historians who quote Boudicca's speech before her last battle as if Dio was there taking it down in shorthand and we should believe every word. We don't know if the Boudiccan rebellion was in 59, 60 or 61AD, or if it happened over two weeks or two years. Dio's history of Claudius's invasion of Britain mentions an elephant, which gave me the foundation for my first two books. Fine, maybe there was, maybe there wasn't, but some quite highly regarded historian turned elephant into elephants, and somebody else turned elephants into a squadron of war elephants, which is just plain wrong. Yet kids will read it in their history books and believe it.
What I'm trying to say, in my long-winded way, is that when it comes to ancient Rome we don't know anything. We have sources and we have conflicting opinions about what those sources are saying and what they actually mean to say. We don't have facts, we have supposition and interpretation of tiny pieces of evidence.
So when you're writing historical fiction should you stick rigidly to the facts, or do you just go ahead and use what's there to write a good book and make it as authentic as possible?