Sunday, 30 January 2011

It's all ancient history now

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?


Paul Darnell said...


Depends on whether your saying do I want to make more money by making it up, or trying to stick as best you can to the known history.

Mel Gibson make a shed load of money making bad (crap) historical films and I've read plenty of recent rubbish Roman novels which for the lack of any imagination on behalf of the authors, have just taken the easy way out and witten total pap.

Real history is powerful enough if you do your research, so no need to hype it up for sack of making a few extra easy bucks.

Not sure it that helped Doug, but a view from across the pond.

Cheers Paul

Doug said...

Thanks, Paul. What I was trying to say is that the people who study the minutiae of history for a living and write the history books tend to have different interpretations of what real history is. If somebody tells me Boudicca's rebellion started in 59 and lasted two years, but somebody else produces a good reason why it was in 61 and lasted a single season, do I choose between hem, or do I make up my own mind based on what I've read?

Bob Scotney said...

I've been frustrated by JSTOR as well. Now I'll check whether there is another way I can get access.

I haven't researched the Romans but I guess some of the points you make will apply in other areas.

Paul Darnell said...

Yes it must be hard Doug,

All the more for those like yourself who want to keep to the history side of things. Just take good old Hadrian's Wall where only yesterday a film clip was posted on youtube about it by a leading (I'm being kind) historical figure and it was all bulls--t.

So as you say lots of conflicting dates and views about history which makes it very hard to write something about it without a few heavy frowns by historians.

I'm busy writing my own Roman novel about the Wall, so I hear what your saying loud and clear.

Gabriele C. said...

Don't get me started on Tacitus. I so want to time travel back and have a few words with him. ;)

I think an author should do the best research possible but then pick what fits the story, like deciding how long Boudicca's rebellion is going to last if there are several equally valid possibilites. What peeves me is when authors go against facts that can be proven, like the age of Caesar and Brutus (I don't think I need to mention who got that one wrong ;). Historians and archaeologists need proof that 'X happened that way' (which they can't get most of the time) while an author only needs to be sure there's no proof that it could not have happened that way. Fe. we know Germanicus fought in the Pannonian war and Arminius most likely as well. Since they were both officers, they'll have met. Did they become friends? We don't know that and never will. They do in my novel because it will add so much to the later conflict and becasue I can see the possibility; they were of the same age, they both must have had a lot of charisma, they both were members of ruling families ... (the whole story sorta fell into place when that idea struck me).

Another thing authors should try to get right is the material culture (no tomatoes, no lorica segmentata in Hannibal's time no matter what Hollywood is doing *grin*, things like that) because that's something you can find out about.

Gabriele C. said...

To avoid any misunderstandings, the Hannibal example was a random one, not an actual novel.

Doug said...

Couldn't agree more Gabriele. We need to entertain and educate in equal measure if we can, but the bottom line is you have to to sell books to survive and that means writing a good story. The more I read (and I'm doing a lot at the moment) the more I understand that a vast amount of what we think of as historical fact is actually just supposition and someone's opinion.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, I need to get my hands on JSTOR, it seems. Though I live ten minutes bus ride from the second best university library in Germany, that helps with the research. ;) I've also attended a bunch of lectures and seminars about the Romans in Germany.

There are a lot of blank or unclear spots in history. Another Arminius example: it's often stated as fact that he came to Rome as child hostage and was educated with other such hostages (like Cleopatra Selene and her brother some years earlier) in Augustus' household. But there is absolutely NO proof for this. Yes, judging from the hints in Tacitus, Arminius spoke educated Latin and overall had a better education than then average tribal leader of some numerus, but there are other ways he can have gotten that education. It also always struck me as unlikely that someone who was uprooted at such an early age would still be able to see the problems from the POV of the Germans after 20 years in Rome.

One of the other explanations goes back to something Prof. G.A. Lehmann told me, about a short note that one governor, Ahenobarbus, unsuccessfully tried to reestablish an exiled Cheruscian ruler and his family. He thinks, considering the troubles among the Cheruscian nobility for which there is proof, that this man could have been Arminius' father who fled into Gallic territory and obviously gained the support of the governor. That would bring Arminius into close contact with Roman culture and the Roman army as teenager, just the age I can imagine him being fascinated by the army and maybe the culture. Ahenobarbus may have made sure Arminus and his brother got an education because that would fit with the Roman way to work with tribal leaders willing to adapt. At some point Arminius and likely his father as well also got the citizenship.

Tiberius a few years later managed to put that other Cheruscian leader - possibly Arminius later nemesis Segestes - back into place and reestablish Arminius' father, while Arminius himself became praefect of the Cheruscian auxiliry (they may have been a real auxiliary not a numerus troop) and fought with Tiberius and Germanicus in Pannonia.

It's actually a lot of fun figuring those things out and weave them into a story.

Gregory House said...

I well and truly understand the frustration with dealing with period sources and trying improve my stories with credible historical accuracy. It becomes a tad more frustrating being in the furthest Antipodes. I am very much forced to rely on 'witness reports' and while some are excellent others as you have found believe more the 'news of the world' or page three girl style of reporting. As for 'Mel Gibson'and his historical films. Well I've worked with him decades ago and his idea of accuracy wasn't pretty to see. As for Jstor down here it is an locked resource I've been trying to get access to for close on a decade. I admit to feeling just smidgen jealous of your easy access.
Anyway some good news I've just picked up from the library your Hero of Rome so good books do reach the colonies!

Wet Dark and Wild said...

With the details about so many events from Roman, or any other, history open to debate, it's more important to me as a reader if the author makes me feel so involved in his storytelling that whether it is 'fact' or not is not an issue. This gives me a lot less to argue with and a hell of a lot more to enjoy. When I feel immersed me in this fictional historical world, it makes me want to then go off and do my own reading. Reading Claudius, for example, made me want to find out what I could about Caratacus (which wasn't very much...).

I read Caligula and Claudius last week and I'm currently well into Hero of Rome. I had years as an archaeologist - including digging up a fort on the Limes in Baden-Wurttemberg - and these books have reminded me what I now miss, but in a good way. So, looking forward to many more!

Doug said...

Just for a moment I thought Jake Gyllenhaal was reading the blog! Thanks a lot for your comments WDW, it's great to hear from someone who gets as much from reading the books as I do writing them and who obviously knows the period well.

When I was writing Claudius, I found that so little is actually known about the people who populated southern Britain, as opposed to assumptions made from archaeology, coin spread, other Celtic cultures in Europe etc, that I was virtually working from a blank sheet. I looked at Caratacus from the point of view of a leader faced with enormous odds as well as the problem of uniting the disparate and disputing tribes of the south. I think he had to be part great warrior, part statesman to achieve what the Roman historians hint that he did, but probably utterly ruthless too

Wet Dark and Wild said...

Thanks so much for the reply, Doug. Ooh yes, sorry about that :D He does follow me about on blogger...

I'm about 40% of the way through Hero of Rome now, having only started it yesterday. What I really enjoy about your depiction of Celtic/Roman Britain is that it challenges my preconceptions and it shows that it was a complicated business.

I've never had much time for Iron Age Britons! And Claudius made me think again. I was truly terrified by the Wicker Man scene. I've excavated Iron Age pits that contain just a skull that, as you uncover it, stare up, right at you. Obviously offerings of heads facing the sky. Or pits with just a leg in them. And yet these were such complex people, religiously, socially and politically. That was why I came away from Claudius so interested in Caratacus. I can see why the Romans were fascinated by him.

I can see what you mean about this period being an open slate in Britain. The archaeology is extremely enigmatic. But when you see Roman temples stamped on hillforts, or roads directed past hillforts, or Roman burials by prehistoric burial sites, you realise that it must have been a hell of an ordeal.

But aside from that, what I also really like about Claudius, and Hero of Rome too, is how the characters of the emperor and Rome are always there, controlling events, but not centre stage. And Rufus and Valerius are great characters! I'm really looking forward to whatever's next.